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Bitter Honey Sugar Sweet

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                Being employed as a HoneyBee escort was, and wasn’t, what it appeared. As the HoneyBee Inn’s front, guests were welcomed into the hotel by provocatively dressed hostesses in the HoneyBee Bust costume. It was only when guests signed into the register and had a membership card as a HoneyBee Client that treatment differed from an ordinary stay in a hotel.

                Once listed as a Honey Client, guests could request a Service Bee from the catalog that night listing who was available. The Honey Comb showed pictures of the Service Bees and their working profile. The Honey Comb even came with several pages of different costumes and the client could request which one they came dressed in. Once done selecting a Service Bee, that Service Bee was to perform the client’s commands until they were done and exited the hotel – be it later that night or when they signed out in the morning.

                If the client signed out early the Service Bee was expected to shower and clean properly, then go back on duty for the rest of their shift.

                The other kind of workers available to HoneyBee Clients were Queen Bees. Don’t let the name fool you, both could be considered exchangeable titles by the time the end of the night rolled around. One became considered a Queen Bee when they were considered more popular than the others, or exotic to some extent that fascinated the clients who saw them. They would perform the same as Service Bees except with a higher price attached.

                The only other difference between a Service Bee and a Queen Bee were that Queen Bee were date requests. Sometimes clients came who didn’t desire a simple one one-night stand, but wished for romance. Queen Bees were to be taken willingly from the hotel to expensive restaurants to publically fawn over them and inspire how desirable their client was.

                Maybe that’s seems a little confusing, but it was actually rather simple. Rich men did it more often than any poor man does. Some people are unable to bare the loneliness of one-night stands, some simply enjoy the company of attractive companions, others desire a date to be focused solely on them all night regardless of how they act, and some are in desperation bred from hateful spouses who cheat to feel that ‘spark’ again, even with someone else.

                This is what were required of HoneyBee escorts, and failure to perform as expected could mean anything from a severely docked pay or a fine from the HoneyBee Inn, to losing clients which meant popularity – lose too much popularity and you’ll be fired.

                In the cutthroat city of Midgar, especially in The Slums where the HoneyBee Inn was located, you either performed to your highest or risked losing all of your stakes on the board.

                Cloud, having started in the business at sixteen and worked for two years as an escort, knew the ins and outs of surviving in the industry. That’s why when the changing room was lit up with a buzzing energy around him, he knew it meant only one thing. There was a fresh client tonight who had signed in. On nights like these despite who he got along with and who he didn’t, they were all rivals.

                Fierce looks were exchanged all throughout the room as girls adjusted their busts and reapplied their makeup. Cloud tried to relax. His azure eyes glanced toward the doorway hearing the slightest of raps. A man in a suit was standing in the shadows.

                Carefully, Cloud got up disappeared into the hallway.

                “Reno?”

                “Yo. Just came by to let you know the client who stopped by tonight is a SOLDIER. I know how SOLDIERs interest you and all.”

                “…you came by just to say that?”

                Chuckling, he admitted, “I guess I have a little more. Don’t get your hopes up is what I should say.”

                “He isn’t interested in men?”

                “Oh no, he certainly is… But I meant he came here by necessity. Was visitin’ a friend in The Slums and lost track of time – he’s stayin’ here for the night because he missed the shuttle. I doubt he’ll use that membership card of his to get anyone in bed with him... Though maybe knowing him, he might like to see a strip tease, since he’s here and all.”

                “You have a lot of information on him…”

                “Do I? I think I just try to look after you good, doll.”

                “So if he does request someone… What do you think my chances are?”

                “Well if I had to guess his type, I’d say he’d want someone strong.”

                “Strong?”

                “Strong and femme, since that’ll be what he finds here. It’ll definitely be someone with big ole titties, or someone like you.”

                “You think?”

                “He’s a sucker for blue eyes too – and if he sees you in that catalog I’m sure he’ll want a strip tease after all.”

                “Just a ‘strip tease?’”

                “He’s in a pretty air tight relationship, doll. I’d be amazed if he even attempted anything more than play.”

                “Thanks for the information… I’ll pass it along.”

                “No need to go and do that doll… I know you’re a little behind on payments this month.”

                Cloud gave him a frothy glare, and Reno held up his hands.

                “Don’t look at me like that… You know I’m just watchin’ out for you. I put in a good word is all.”

                “…thanks.”

                “Don’t mention it.”

                Walking back into the changing room, Cloud said, “Then I won’t.”

                He was still close enough he could still hear Reno mumble, “…the hell, mention it a little bit yo…”

                After taking his seat and removing some of his makeup for a more natural color, Cloud wasn’t surprised when one of the main hostesses at the entrance of the Inn came in. She stopped before Cloud and while the other girls sent him scornful looks, she crossed her arms over her amble breast and said, “Room 5. Requests for a tease show – only request for clothing is for lingerie. Got it?”

                When she got a nod as answer, she turned and left the room. Cloud went over to the hanging racks of clothing and costumes and stripped off his Bumble Bee bust costume behind one of the changing curtains after selecting what he felt like wearing. From outside the curtain he heard a girl’s voice.

                “Looks like you got lucky again, Cloud.”

                “Elena?”

                “Yep. Tell me what he’s like afterward.”

                “What for?”

                “I’ve always wondered what SOLDIERs are like in bed.”

                “I doubt it’ll progress that far.”

                “You think? Well, you normally seem to know what’s up. Anyway, good luck… And remember, if he gets too rough you can-”

                “I really don’t need your support.”

                “O-oh… Well! Good luck anyway!”

                Glancing at himself in one of the many full lengths mirrors Cloud selected one of the shorter blonde wigs, full of tight curls. As he headed for the door at the front of the room reserved only for HoneyBee escorts, he picked up his honey and cinnamon scented perfume and sprayed his wrists and neck.

                The price of perfumes have risen again… I’ll have to use this more sparingly from now on.

                Setting it down, he exited the changing room ignoring the withering looks from the only other two male escorts. He knew both were in tight spots, but chose to ignore thinking of them.

                Room 5, huh… A SOLDIER is in here.

                Cloud forced away any wistful thoughts before they could rise and knocked politely two times before entering. Inside the octagon room, sitting on the honeycomb shaped bed was the SOLDIER. He was dressed in dark blue fatigues, signaling he was a Second Class SOLDIER, and grinned broadly upon seeing him.

                Cloud admired his dark tanned skin and bright eyes, and the way his grin was wide and instinctive – traits of someone who would not normally be a difficult client.

                Shutting the door behind him and leaning back against it, Cloud could tell the man liked the way he arched his leg against it.

                “I’m Claudia… I’m here to entertain you.”

                Running a hand through dark black raven locks, the grin stretched further.

                “Oh, I’m certainly entertained already now that you’re here.”

                Seems red was a good choice after all.

                The tight but soft black material against his chest was a bra that unhooked in the front – put on for nothing more than show, as he certainly didn’t have any cleavage or breast – and the matching panties were to the same extent. The glimmering see-through red lingerie was what was really eye-catching. It wrapped around his neck and trailed down, splitting open at the hook of the bra and trailing down the sides. The skirt was of the same material and flowed down and around his left leg – hiding nothing, only there for appearance.

                Cloud had thought of wearing jewelry, but had kept it simple with two thin golden bangles on his left wrist. Jewelry was only a distraction during a stripping, and not at all what the clients would be focusing on once it started.

                The small stage, also as octagon-themed as everything else in the room including the hot tub, was already set up but curiously without a pole of any sort. He stepped up onto it slowly, already enticing the SOLDIER with his slim legs and toned stomach. Sitting at the edge of the bed and now leaning forward, curious and appreciating eyes scanned him head to toe.

                “You’re incredibly beautiful… Like damn.”

                “Would you like to see more of me?”

                It was a practiced line, one that wasn’t even original to him – but nevertheless it delighted the client. Cloud was certain he could say the most clichéd of lines and this man would still welcome them.

                “Well I definitely wouldn’t want to be rude would I?”

                Cloud was used to if not performing on the pole, then skirting around it and up against it. Without it there he had to improvise – spreading his feet apart to the ends of the small stand and bringing his hands up his stomach muscles one by one toward the clasp, but then continuing up over it to his neck and into his hair, where he pushed it off his shoulders and then brought it back.

                He was hoping by this time the man would fling his Gil at him, but wasn’t very surprised when he didn’t. The man hadn’t even set up any sort of music with the controls in the rooms besides a soft and sweetly tempting melody. He was here for the enjoyment of the full show.

                Bringing one hand down his side and using the other to rake one thumb up the middle of his abs, he flawlessly brought it up and undid the clasp. There was no great reveal, but he’d learned simply doing the act without mishap often got the reaction as if he’d just unveiled giant jugs.

                True to these thoughts, the man sat eagerly forward again, raising a beer to his lips from the bed mini bars at either side of him.

                Cloud, bringing his leg forward bent over and wrapped his hands around his ankle and slowly brought them back up and over to his thigh, where he teasingly pulled on the strings holding his black panties in place. Having the man’s full attention he pulled the string and let them drop. A shift of his hips made the red see-through material he’d wound into a skirt fall just right – covering and hiding the last part of him to a maddeningly tease-reveal and nothing more.

                “Aww…”

                Enjoying the fact his client seemed to find this appealing and annoying all at once, Cloud stepped off the stage and approached him. Standing just in front of him, almost in between his legs, his client sat up straight with widened eyes as he sat his drink down.

                Careful not to touch yet, Cloud did a slow turn as he brought his arms against his body. Only after did he reach out and entice the man to reach his hand out to feel the lingerie.

                “Want to see what’s underneath…?”

                With a slight gulp – he was oddly adorable in some way – the man nodded. Guiding his hand to the knot where he’d bound the material at his hip, he urged him silently to pull it away. As the man pulled the knot Cloud moved with it – stepping onto the bed and settling in the surprised man’s lap. The material moved just right in between them that it revealed the triangle of blonde pelvic hairs he had, while covering his half-massed erection.

                With his arms were on the man’s shoulders, he could tell his client was entirely aroused by the movement – could feel the proof of that straining up against his pants underneath – but gave him no reprieve. Bringing his left hand up so that the bangles jingled along his ear lope, he buried his fingers in the man’s hair and looked right in his eyes.

                “Don’t…you want to see?”

                The tease was near silent, a way to urge his client forward subconsciously so they could hear him. It worked and they were now nose to nose. He could tell the SOLDIER wasn’t entirely comfortable this close, but the flushed expression on their face was a clear sign they were enjoying this.

                This wasn’t supposed to be more than a strip tease, with very minimal touching – and normally only the client doing the touching as they placed money in the bands of their escort’s clothing, but Cloud was acting more free spirited than his normal self.

                Maybe it was the intrigue of being in another SOLDIER’s arms, wondering if this one would get lost in a frenzy like the last one – that drew him out from the boundaries he normally firmly placed: not willing to give an inch unless they literally paid for it.

                Cloud didn’t even like kissing other men – no matter how passionate some enjoyed it – unless it was forced on him for a few moments. But he got closer, putting their lips to an almost touch. Hands settled on his hips, warm strong SOLDIER hands – and Cloud could tell by the slight greenish haze in the indigo eyes before him that he was about to have him completely.

                “Don’t…you want to touch?”

                Another gulp and those hands tightened on him little by little, becoming firmer… Lips pressed and then opened, and he could see a storm of emotions going through indigo eyes and just as Cloud was certain he could press forward and claim his reward, those very eyes opened in shock and the SOLDIER’s head jerked away from his.

                “Wh-whoa!”

                Displeased, he opened his mouth but a hand moved to cover his.

                “Oh no, please no more of your erotic voice… You’ll do me in at this rate. Wow, you’re really, really good at this whole entertainment thing aren’t you?”

                Cloud cocked a fine eyebrow, not liking having his atmosphere shifted without his consent. He’d never had that particular trick fail him before – especially by such new blood.

                When the hand moved from his mouth he immediately asked, “Did I do something wrong…?”

                “Wrong? Pssh, haha… No, it’s just you’re a little too intense for me right now.”

                “Too intense?”

                “If you keep going any longer I’m going to want to take you right here and now – and that’ll be bad for the both of us.”

                “Would it…?”

                “Yep, unfortunately… I’m in a very happy relationship right now. A tease show is one thing, but I’ll get into trouble at this rate. Besides, I think they’d cut my arm off if I couldn’t pay or something right?” Cloud wasn’t used to a client who rambled and laughed and was unsure of how to proceed.

                When they tilted his chin up he felt further fluxed.

                “Gaia be whole… You’ve got one of the most amazing pair of eyes I’ve ever seen… If these things were ever enhanced they’d blind me.”

                “I’ve been told they’re very bright.”

                Cloud could definitely still feel the raging hard-on under him. He wondered what was so different about this man – he was certain he hadn’t made any mistakes…

                “If I was a single man I think I might fall in love with you.”

                The way he said it sounded so honest – and even stranger confused – and Cloud watched as he seemed to shake himself a little.

                “I haven’t…”

                “Huh?”

                “…had anyone stop me before.”

                The man stared at him uncertainly for a moment before resting his forehead against Cloud’s with closed eyes.

                “I’m not even sure if you’re doing it purposefully anymore… Damn, you’re really too cute… But because of that you’ve got me worried. If we go any further I’m definitely going to cause trouble for myself. I- I think I need a minute to chill out, so… Thank you for keeping me entertained sweetheart.”

                Cloud watched on silently as the man reached down and grabbed the material between them and began to tie it back around Cloud’s slim waist. His indigo eyes were making no attempt to stop staring at what was temptingly half-revealed underneath the thin material, but again he made no attempt to reach out and feel it.

                What’s wrong with me? Am I actually disappointed?

                At a gentle nudge, Cloud slowly moved to get off the man’s lap and stand before him. He watched curiously as the man took one of his hands and kissed the back of it.

                “I didn’t know femme dudes could be so damn hot. Um, what’s an expensive tip for places like this? Will this do?”

                Cloud, lost, watched as the man placed a good sum of Gil into his palms of all places.

                “….”

                “Hm? Is something wrong?”

                Glancing down at the Gil, Cloud decided to stop being so mystified and shook his head. His eyes glanced down again. He had gotten tips of this same amount before, and definitely some larger ones from filthy rich clients, but never had he received such a generous donation from such a small act before. These weren’t just a collection of one Gils.

                “No, but did you count your Gil well?”

                Cloud panicked at his own response, wondering what had gotten into him.

                “Huh? Oh, yeah I did. You deserved every Gil.” Then of all things the man winked.

                “Are you sure…this is everything you wanted?”

                “Like I said if we progress any further I’ll end up getting in over my head, so I’m afraid so. Thanks for the show!”

                This is the weirdest man I’ll ever know.

                Shaking off his uncertainty, Cloud nodded.

                “I’m glad you enjoyed it… If you ever come back to this hotel, remember my name’s Claudia.”

                “I’m certain,” he had that large wolfish grin again, “I won’t forget it.”

                Picking up the garments he’d removed and slipping them back on, Cloud glanced back at the smiling man one last time as he headed for the door.

                I doubt I will either.

                He closed the door behind him, frowning down at the floor. After several moments he made his way for the escort hallway again to go back to the changing room.

                SOLDIERs really must be different from normal people after all. They aren’t human. They certainly aren’t sane either.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

                To his left was a skinny girl with tired eyes. Her yellow dress was pale, and her brown skin seemed slightly ashen. Even despite this, there was something beautiful about her. It was why she’d been allowed this far in – but she apparently didn’t make the Don’s approval because at first glance he shook his head and a man came inside and escorted her out.

                She didn’t even cry. Her shoulders slumped and she turned away – and then she was gone, leaving only the two of them left. The woman at his right was beautiful. She had long brown hair and big blue eyes, a shapely form, and she was even managing a smile. Cloud knew just by looking at her in her revealing dress he didn’t stand a chance.

                So the fact Don, minutes later after reviewing the both of them personally, told her to get lost and selected Cloud in his prudish dress as his bride, they both stood there like fools. She gaped, stared, tried to speak – then failed. Cloud watched as tears came to her eyes – he couldn’t believe she’d cry especially since the “prize” was the portly man in front of them – but then thought of his own situation for being here. He had to stop thinking about it as a bouncer all but dragged her from the room.

                As the Don came nearer and reached out his chubby hand to caress Cloud’s face, he felt his stomach drop and the genuine terror he’d been suppressing rise. He couldn’t do this – he couldn’t do this – not this with someone like this – and then Don Corneo was calling him “bride” and Cloud felt dizzy. The room was spinning.

                It wasn’t a matter of want – he had to do this. He knew this – but he couldn’t move forward. His feet wouldn’t work anymore. His legs had locked up. Thankfully, horrifically – his mouth worked then and he said the lines he hated hated to say, but said them all the while. It was because of those words – that made that deal that he…

 

..x..

 

                Cloud jolted awake from a cold sweat, covered in chills. His eyes sought out the clock on the stand next to the bed and saw it was just past three in the morning. He hadn’t been asleep for long – and at this rate, he wouldn’t go back to sleep either.

                “Another bad dream?”

                Looking toward the doorway, Cloud saw Reno slink in with a glass of water.

                “…didn’t I tell you to stop letting yourself in?”

                “We haven’t seen each other in around a month, yo.”

                If that was some form of a Reno answer, Cloud just chose to shake his head at it. Accepting the drink, he swallowed it down. The inside of his mouth was still hot, which meant…

                Reno’s hand moved to feel his forehead.

                “You’re flushed and warm… Did somebody slip ya something again tonight?”

                Setting the drink down on the night stand, he laid back down and slung his arm over his eyes.

                “Go away, Reno.”

                “I will, I will… But don’t you want me to take care of you first?”

                “….”

                “Is your silence a sign of acceptance, or… are you gonna hit me if I touch ya?”

                Apparently even after saying that, he ventured a guess and ran his fingers lightly over Cloud’s arm. Cloud felt the sensation – uncertain if he still had the chills and Reno was warm, or if he was the warm one now. Either way, his body was still trembling from the memories he wished he could bury away and forget about.

                Reno moved to lay above him – keeping his weight off, for now.

                “What stuff do you want me to use? The sweet stuff…or the warm one?”

                “….”

                “No preference? Then let’s…”

                When Reno moved to reach into the nightstand, Cloud grabbed his wrist and shook his head.

                “What’s up?”

                Rolling over slowly to lay on his stomach underneath, Cloud quietly said, “It doesn’t matter.”

                “I’ll pick one then.”

                Still shaking his head, Cloud restated, “It doesn’t matter, Reno.”

                “…? Oh, you still feelin’ the drug effects? Even so-”

                “Just do it Reno, or get lost.”

                “….”

                “….”

                A sigh above him, and then he felt Reno’s hands moving to push down his pants. Cloud calmly watched the moments tick by as the redhead got into place and then started pushing inside.

                “Just don’t complain in the mornin’ if it hurts, yo.”

                “….”

                “So,” buried to the hilt and waiting, “who slipped ya a tanked drink? A new client – an old one?”

                “….”

                “I can help ya, you know…”

                “You can’t help anyone. Least of all yourself.”

                Another sigh.

                “You’re so mean and grouchy when you’re horny and tired, yo… Sheesh.”

                Reno’s hands were on his hips, and Cloud felt himself raised slightly and closed his eyes against the pillow. The motions were how they always were – deep inside, shallow thrusts – as if sex should be taken slow and mean something. The only thing it meant was Cloud was getting more frustrated.

                “You aren’t movin’ at all. Are you even hard yet?” When he didn’t get an answer, Cloud felt him reach under to feel for himself. Several moments later he removed his hand and instead of commenting on it, he moved to kiss the back of Cloud’s shoulders. “I never did get to check in with ya… But now that I’m here doin’ ya I might as well… How’d you like that SOLDIER boy?”

                Cloud didn’t need attentional prompting. He remembered him quickly enough. The hot young man with indigo tinted eyes, strong muscles… He could still remember the press of his confined erection.

                “Oh, you got tighter right then…? Did ya like him that much? If you want, you can imagine him puttin’ it to ya if you wanna. I’d rather do ya when you’re sobered up a bit anyway, so I promise I won’t get mad.”

                I don’t give a damn if you get mad.

                Disgruntled, Cloud closed his eyes again but that only made it easier to take the suggestion. The man had been built as a SOLDIER should be – with muscles and contours… Cloud wondered what he looked like shirtless. How many abs did he have? Cloud was fit and exercised often, but if he became too bulky Don got angry with him and sometimes even a client complained. Not that Cloud was ever “bulky” in his life – but if his abdomen showed too much muscle…

                “Ya ever wonder what it would feel like if he fucked you then?”

                Just like that, he was brought back into the fantasy again. He still remembered wondering how big the SOLDIER had been – if Mako enhanced his sex drive like it supposedly enhanced everything else. Would he last longer than a normal man, or would he be able to keep getting hard after he came? The suggestive thoughts had started to make his face flush. 

                Would he fuck hard, or fuck slow… Deep, or glide and piston?

                “I overheard him talkin’ about ya once… Said how gorgeous you were… You made an impression on him.”

                “..nmgh..”

                “Mmm, just like that Cloud… So tight… I bet he’d tell ya that too.”

                Cloud felt a shudder go down his spine and arched slightly, tightening his hands against the sheets and then relaxing until it built back up again. Reno was still fucking him slowly, but had picked up the pace some. You'd think Reno would get mad - that anyone would get mad - if you were thinking of someone else in bed with them and they knew about it - but the redheaded nuisance never ceased to surprise him. 

                “Can ya come like this, or do you need me to jerk ya off?”

                The way Reno was doing him was starting to feel really good now. He raised up on his knees a little more, now allowing Reno to slip one hand off his hip underneath.

                “Mn…! Ah…”

                “Ya know… I bet if he did do ya… He’d fuck ya all the way through your sweet orgasm.”

                How could someone sound so teasing in a situation like this?

                Arching as Reno thrusted hard finally, Cloud grunted as his vision went white – turning it into a moan as the constant pressure inside him drew out a low and breathy moan.

                “Nmph…! Mnngh…! Ah…”

                “You can scream, ya know…” Reno was panting slightly against his ear. “Just me and you here…”

                Ignoring him, Cloud let his head rest comfortably against the pillow. His eyelids were heavy and now he felt drained. He really wanted to fall asleep, and almost didn’t notice Reno pulling out of him moments later and sitting up. From the sounds of it, he was lighting a cigarette.

                “How about ya just let me take you on a date finally?”

                If you want a date… pay the price.

                He was too tired to say as much and instead rolled onto his side to sleep.

                “Yo, are you ignoring me or have ya fallen asleep…? Yo? Haah, forget it… I’ll ask again some other time.”

               

..x.. ~The Next Night~

               

                Cloud, having been in the business for two years now, had been both a Service Bee and a Queen Bee. This night in particular he was a Queen Bee with an old client. They were in the romantic restaurant of Golden Square, a huge complex of luxury dining corners on a rotating building. Cloud’s client, an older gentleman by the name of Mr. Sigfreid, normally requested Cloud out once a month if not twice.

                In the dimed atmosphere lit by glowing candle light, Mr. Sigfreid had his hand stretched out over Cloud’s satin glove on top of the tablecloth. His dreary eyes were staring dreamily into Cloud’s azure eyes…and Cloud was looking back at him wondering what color his combed back hair and beard had once been, before they’d become gray from a stressed marriage.

                “Oh, Claudia… My dearest Claudia… I was so happy to have you out this Saturday night…”

                I hope they bring the menus before much longer… This place has amazing food and I’m starving.

                “Tell me Claudia…”

                He really adores that name, as always.

                “Who gave you your beauty? Was it the goddess Aphrodite, or Venus?”

                Why, it was the Goddess Genes, heralded from my mother… Fully known as genetics.

                Resting his chin on his free palm, he asked, “Who do you think gave them to me…?”

                “Woe…how could I decide on but one? Must I decide one? Perhaps you are their lovechild.”

                “Perhaps.”

                Taking Cloud’s hand with both of his he sighed contently.

                “Miss Claudia… There is something I must… You see, Claudia I wish to… It would make me happiest if…”

                Not saying what he wished was a normal occurrence on their date nights. Mr. Sigfreid wasn’t a very assertive person and for this reason, his wife often wore the pants in their relationship and made all the decisions. Seeing as they agreed on nothing throughout their marriage besides forsaken amenity against each other, these date nights were Sigfreid’s most sacred and most shameful secrets.

                Before he could answer, Mr. Sigfreid’s phone rang. With extremely expressed regret, Mr. Sigfreid pulled his PHS from his pocket and his expression became crestfallen at once.

                “Oh no… That blasted woman…”

                He looked at Cloud as if he expected Cloud to somehow become inconsolable. Because Mr. Sigfreid truly wasn’t a bad man, and because Cloud truly was mournful this meant he wasn’t going to be getting a delicious meal tonight, his feigned expression of displeasure wasn’t wholly faked.

                “My Claudia, I must…”

                Waving his hand, Cloud took his back from Mr. Sigfreid and reached for his wine glass. He sipped as Mr. Sigfreid glowered like a deeply wounded soul at the ceiling, then answered the call. Cloud zoned it out immediately, knowing how it would go.

                Mrs. Sigfreid will demand he come home from this date, he’ll protest, they’ll squabble for a few minutes before he yields and gives in. He’ll go rushing home right afterwards.

                Cloud eyed a steamy course as it went by on a platter. It smelt like his favorite beef broth soup. His stomach began to loudly protest – mimicking the sound of a dying whale. He elbowed it warningly as Mr. Sigfreid ended his call moments later.

                Grasping Cloud’s hands with his own, Mr. Sigfreid looked desolate.

                “Miss Claudia – I must… You see…”

                “I understand, Mr. Sigfreid.”

                “But I-”

                “I understand.”

                He softened his voice some the second time. He’d meant it when he said Mr. Sigfreid wasn’t a bad man – and neither was his wife – they just weren’t meant for each other.

                Within five more minutes of condolences, Mr. Sigfreid finally said his last goodbye after Cloud assured him multiple times he’d be fine going back to the HoneyBee by himself. After the man left, Cloud drained the last of his wine before standing. As he headed for the doors, planning to loiter there for a few minutes to guarantee he didn’t run back into the man, he was surprised when he heard his name called.

                Glancing over to the exclusive table on his right, Cloud was surprised when he recognized the man. His thoughts went back to the hazy memories of the night before – before the actual memory of meeting him arose.

                “You’re… Claudia, right?”

                “You’re… I mean, I never got your name…”

                It wasn’t uncommon when he was dressed up for him to recognize someone he’d been with before, but this was the first time someone who’d recognized him had acknowledged it. Cloud was used to the whole ‘having no clue who you are’ spiel. This was awkward.

                “Oh… Zack. My name’s Zack. Uhh, what are you doing here? On a fancy date or something?”

                Glancing around self-consciously, wow, he filled out that white dress shirt and vest nicely, Cloud shook his head.

                “No, it was cancelled… I was just leaving – going to grab a bite to eat somewhere else… What about you?”

                Why am I small-talking? What’s going on?

                “Oh, my dates got caught up with something, so I went ahead to hold our table so that, uh, they didn’t give it to someone else or anything?”

                He sounded pretty awkward now too, which Cloud knew was his que to leave.

                “I…see. Goodbye then.”

                “W-wait!”

                Cloud paused, wondering why the man didn’t just let him go – it would be much less uncomfortable that way.

                “My party… Uh, they’re not gonna be here for at least half-an-hour and I don’t cope well with boredom… Would you mind keeping me company so I don’t start squatting and disturbing the other diners?”

                Cloud looked at him as if he had sprouted wings.

                “Um… You mentioned something about a date right? Do you really think it’s a good idea…to invite an escort…to eat with you when you’re expecting them to come here? It sounds like a…really bad idea.”

                He seemed to realize that and grinned sheepishly for a moment, but then shook his head.

                “Nah, I’m sure it’ll be fine. I mean, I mentioned you already and…it’ll just be dinner, right? Besides, you’ve been eyeing that beef soup for some time now.”

                Flushing, Cloud looked away, but noticed the man’s grin all the same.

                “I had them take back everyone’s food or it would have been cold, but the nice serving lady has to come back around for this one – why not eat it? You said you were going to go get something to eat and your date was cancelled wasn’t it? I bet you’re hungry. Sit!”

                He patted the place next to him, but not wanting to make a scene and embarrassed – an emotion he wasn’t used to feeling – he sat across from Zack and in front of the soup. When the service lady came back around – and it seemed like she’d only just been a step or two behind Cloud – Zack waved her off.

                “Nah, we’ll keep this one.”

                “Oh? Well, would you like your other dishes brought back out, or something for you?”

                “No, I’m good. I’m going to wait.” He winked at her. “Sorry for the trouble.”

                Focusing back on Cloud and ignoring the woman’s blush as she walked away, Zack passed him a spoon.

                “You sure I can just eat this?”

                “Go riiight ahead. Trust me, the man whose coming won’t eat it if it has to be warmed up. He’s finicky like that.”

                “Alright then…”

                Just what am I doing? This is weird, isn’t it?

                “So, who were you on a date with?”

                Okay it’s definitely weird now.

                “A client.”

                “Client? You mean like… OH.”

                Realization dawned.

                “Ahh, I see. So it was just a…client thing?”

                Not seeing a reason to lie about it, he nodded. Carefully he scooped up some broth and blew on it.

                “Hey, can I ask what you want me to call you?”

                Cloud looked at him in confusion before the man clarified.

                “I just mean, uh – is your name actually Claudia? Is that how – if we ever meet each other again – I should address you…?”

                Cloud wasn’t sure how to answer. Claudia was Claudia and Cloud was Cloud. He adjusted his dark green cocktail dress subconsciously.

                “You can call me Claudia in public, that’s what I go by when I’m dressed like this.”

                Zack, representing the word of curiousness, leaned forward with his chin on his palm and stared.

                Does he even…realize how obvious he’s being? I strangely doubt it.

                With a sigh, uncertain as to why he was doing this, he said, “Cloud.” Then so he wouldn’t have to explain immediately he swallowed down the spoonful of soup before scooping up another.

                “Cloud. That’s my name…when I’m not Claudia.”

                “Huh. Really?”

                Feeling offended, he glowered at the napkins.

                “I didn’t mean it like that, sorry. I just haven’t heard anyone be called the name Cloud before. It’s really pretty – I think – it suits you. Yeah, I’m sure it does. How’d you get such a cool name anyway?”

                Chewing thoughtfully on a piece of meat, Cloud decided on how to answer. Chit-chatting was a forgotten art to him – it was different than flattery. He was used to lying about his name and telling a false story, so he was actually surprised that for a few moments he forgot his real history.

                “My…mother gave it to me.”

                “She did?”

                “Mm. I grew up in a backwater village, and my mom’s family… They always named their children after the weather they had the day they gave birth. For me, it was sunny bright blue skies, with one white cloud. After I was born my mom noticed a lot of other clouds, still all white, had flocked to the one she’d seen. After that she decided she liked the name ‘Cloud,’ and that’s the story.”

                “Aww, that’s cute.”

                “Personally I’m just glad those other clouds showed up.”

                “Why’s that?”

                “Because she was going to name me ‘Sunny’ beforehand. Do I look like a ‘Sunny?’”

                Zack laughed at that.

                “My name isn’t that rare, but my Mom actually named me ‘Zax.’ That’s how it’s spelt and said in Gongaga – the place where I’m from. Once I got to Midgar they changed the spelling to ‘Zack’ and that’s how everyone says my name.”

                “Isn’t that annoying?”

                “Not at all. I like it better that way. Someone I know likes to make puppy references at me, or some people I should say, and Zax sounds more like a dog name than Zack does.”

                Grinning, Cloud went to take a bite but burnt his lip.

                “Owch.”

                “Oops, careful there, haha. Here.”

                Zack handed over his ice water and Cloud gratefully set it against his lip.

                “You know, Zack, Gongaga sounds like a really backwater place.”

                “Hey, that’s rude. What’s the place you’re from called?”

                “Nibelheim.”

                “And you call my place weird? I’m not even sure on how to repeat what you just said. Gongaga is easy to say.”

                “Yeah, that’s why a baby named it I bet.”

                “Hey, give me my water back – you’re a rude little shit.”

                With a start, Cloud realized he was laughing and covered his mouth back up with the glass of water.

                What’s with me…? I’ve been on countless dates before, but now that I’m not on one…I feel as if I am?

                His thoughts were as confused as he was.

                “So, Cloud – how long have you been here in Midgar?”

                “Two years now… I came when I was sixteen.”

                “Oh, did you? That’s cool. I arrived when I was fifteen. What’d you’d come here for?”

                Just like that the happy atmosphere got doused and Cloud looked away. Zack seemed to notice something was wrong at once, but instead of asking like expected and giving Cloud a chance to deflect – he moved right over the speed bump.

                “So you’re eighteen now, huh? Wow. You’re only a year younger than I am!”

                “Really…?”

                Cloud had thought the man was at least into his early twenties already.

                “Oh, hey – there’s my guests. About time they arrived.”

                As Zack waved to someone over Cloud’s shoulder, he checked the time.

                It’s only been about fifteen minutes – they must have gotten here early. I’ll politely excuse myself to prevent any following awkwardness, and then-

                “Hey Cloud, don’t leave. Let me introduce you to my friends. They’ll love you.”

                Cloud turned to glance back at the coming people to judge how much time he had till he needed to excuse himself, already preparing a route for his departure – when his thoughts derailed. His eyes skipped over the first two people and landed squarely on the third – the silver hair and the jade eyes.

                Sephiroth…?

                The taste of blood on his lips and the cold hard press of metal against his skin gave him chills. He hadn’t expected to see the man ever again – and now he was about to be led right over to him so suddenly. Cloud started feeling dizzy.

 

Chapter Text

 

                As an escort, Cloud had been in more weird situations than he could ever explain. He’d had dates that went according to the client’s plans perfectly – dates where things got cancelled – things went horribly wrong – dates where a spouse showed up in the middle of it and made a scene. Cloud had been doused in alcohol on two occasions – and both simply by being in the splash zone.

                So after eyeing Sephiroth and the other two men – knowing one of them was Zack’s date because there were only four chairs and he and Zack occupied two of them – Cloud felt very on edge at having the steaming beef broth right before him and scooted it away before the others arrived. The last thing he wanted was to leave tonight with a new scalding scar. Despite not wanting to be burned, it also wouldn't be good for business.

                He wanted to eye them but lost his bravery and stared down into his lap, face flushed and thoughts going a mile per second. Seeing Sephiroth conjured up numerous memories and images in his mind, and he wasn’t sure of how to deal with them. Each thought made his hands dig further into his knees. 

                “Bout time you guys made it! Geez, this was supposed to be a special night!”

                There was a warm chuckle, and Cloud glanced up to see the broadest of the group – why am I not surprised – kiss Zack’s cheek and put an arm around his waist. Zack was already a tall and handsome man by himself, but this man seemed carved out of the manual of how to build a man. He even had a well-groomed soul patch that lean men either missed or pulled off. But on him, it made him look like a righteous angel. 

                “We came as quickly as we could, Pup. Thanks for waiting for us. So, who’s your friend?”

                His smile was warm and welcoming – not nearly as beaming bright as Zack’s – but more of a gentle reassurance.

                Cloud got up from his seat and dusted off his dress, acting as if that were the reason he wouldn’t look up.

                “Oh, this is my friend-”

                Instead of saying anything, Zack trailed off.

                Did he forget my name?

                Cloud glanced up and saw Zack was looking at him curiously, a question on his lips. It then became apparent why he was hesitating. Cloud just shrugged as an answer. He was still having trouble recovering his voice. 

                “This is Claudia. Do you remember?”

                Cloud – having known this was going to happen from the get-go, watched the exact moment realization dawned on the larger man. The way the eyes widened slightly and the smile grew strained little by little. He was apparently a very polite man, but Cloud knew the look all the same.

                “By Claudia, you mean that hooker, right?”

                Zack looked abashed, and Cloud glanced at who’d spoken. It was the man in a red dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up neatly to his elbows. He wore a black vest, and left the top of his dress shirt unbuttoned along his collar bone. His charm was probably undeniable to most, but Cloud could sense strife coming off this man just as clearly as he could read his own last name. 

                They were all thinking it, someone might as well have said it.

                Before Zack could answer – no doubt apologize or try to cover over the wound, Cloud looked at the unknown man and nodded.

                “Yes. That’s me.”

                The man sniffed, looking him over once before glancing down at the chair he’d just been sitting in with distaste. It had been awhile since someone had looked down on him so scornfully before – it was a refreshing reminder that he was less of a person. To think Zack had almost made him forget that…

                “Thank you, Zack… For keeping me company,” Cloud realized he meant the words as he said them. It had started as a plea from Zack for some companionship, but Cloud had had a great time of his own. In fact, he'd actually really enjoyed himself for those fifteen minutes. “I should be going now.”

                It was a nice clean exit, and he was in the clear – already several feet away by the time a hand settled around his wrist. He didn’t look back because he knew who it was, even though he wished he’d just make this easier and stay away. The fact that he sounded so heartbroken and guilty only made Cloud resolve to not look back no matter what.

                “Geez, shit – I’m sorry. Please don’t take that as insulting as it sounds – that’s just Genesis. I swear he’s only so pissy because he got delayed getting here, and because he’s foulmouthed when he’s hungry – so please you don’t need to go anywhere.”

                Steeling himself, Cloud looked back at him – even attempting a smile.

                “Zack, you’re even sweeter than I thought you were but you need to listen to me closely, okay?”

                Looking slightly relieved – he has no idea – Cloud went for brute honesty.

                “I’m an escort. A hooker. A prostitute. A slut. Do you understand?”

                Zack opened his mouth but Cloud hurried on.

                “No matter what word I use – the others have become synonyms to it. Because of what I do, that is what I am – no matter what I do at work or away from it, those are my labels. We – me and you – can not be friends. Because being friends with someone like me means you’re sleeping with me. We are ‘friends with benefits,’ or you’re ‘cheating.’ There is no in between – no peace zone – no area without conflict. That’s why I said it was better I just left. Simply being near you upset everyone when you introduced me. So,”

                Cloud carefully removed Zack’s hand and let it go.

                “Don’t feel bad. Really. This is normal. We’re strangers – we really are – so I’m just going to leave now, okay? Go and enjoy your night. I was happy enough being kept company for a while – the same as you – but now your real company is here, and I’m going to go back to mine.”

                Cloud was proud of himself – the speech came naturally and he knew he hit all the points he was supposed to make. It was thoroughly explained and now he could leave.

                Only Zack took his hand instead of disengaging again.

                “Hey… Don’t…say that. That’s awful. Look, its true we met under circumstances, and it was just a coincidence meeting here…but I really don’t want you to go. Tonight’s my celebration for a promotion I got – I’d be really happy if you’d stay?

                Lots of arguments went through his head. Like, this will make your boyfriend uncomfortable. Your friends want to celebrate with you. Zack, you’re being really unreasonable.

                For the sake of not having to sit through another awkward dinner, Cloud was prepared to argue all of these things until his bitter death – but Zack had an expression that was guilt-comfort me-please? and Cloud did not know what to call it or how to handle it.

                “…are you sure?”

                Those words came out without his permission. 

                Lighting up, Zack nodded.

                “Of course! Come on.”

                Zack led him back to the table and Cloud approached uneasily. The others had taken their seats during the commotion – the broad man sitting next to where Zack would be, and Sephiroth had brought over another chair and sat at the end. The auburn haired man – Genesis – was in the remaining seat, which meant Cloud would sit next to him – across from Zack, how’d they’d been before they’d left.

                Great, there’s no way this could go horribly wrong.

                Zack guided Cloud into his seat and of all things even pushed his chair in before taking his seat as well, where the large man put an arm around his shoulders. Since being uncomfortable made him hot – and having the attention of the whole table was doing that – Cloud stripped off his gloves.

                “Now, everyone,” Zack’s face was all kindness but he was using an ‘I’m-angry-but-trying-not-to-show-it’ voice Cloud had thought only mothers could do, “this is my friend and I want them here. So let’s get introductions out of the way and get this dinner underway, okay? This big buff man here is Angeal.”

                Cloud decided he liked Angeal when the man didn’t just nod at him but reached out to shake his hand. He could tell the moment Angeal registered his callouses and felt the slight slickness of lotion. He frowned slightly, but his expression was still a kind one, sort of sorry-for-the-trouble. Cloud decided then and there that Angeal was probably this group's peacekeeper, and wished him all the luck in the world. 

                “Sorry if we come off as a bit rude and manner-less. We’re all starving.”

                Angeal said it as if that still wasn't an excuse, but he didn't have another explanation at hand. Still, knowing it was meant as an apology – also knowing he was getting a collective group one because the person who called him out wasn’t going to apologize – he accepted it with the grace he’d grown to be burdened with.

                “This here is Sephiroth.”

                Cloud still couldn’t look at the man and nodded, hoping the man didn’t have his hand out and waiting. By the way Zack went on it sounded like he didn’t.

                “Lastly, that’s Genesis.”

                Cloud decided to meet his gaze, if only to judge how the rest of the evening was going to go. If he seemed even slightly remorseful, things might go well. If he didn’t, Cloud knew this was all a horrible idea.

                His face was neutral, but his eyes were watchful. Not a horrible sign, but not a blessing. Of course there was no handshake of any kind. Too early for olive branches apparently.

                Soon after the serving lady showed up with glasses of water and asked everybody what they’d be having. It was only after she’d left that Genesis broke the temporary silence.

                “Beef broth soup in potato dipped cider, hm…? I suppose this used to belong to me?”

                Zack still had that pleasant face, but the way his fingers drummed on the table spoke differently.

                “You weren’t here and Cloud was hungry.”

                “Cloud?”             

                Frowning, Genesis eyed him once more.

                “I see. That’s your pseudonym? Theatrical, I’ll give you that.”

                “Actually, Cloud is my real name. It’s the name I go by when I’m not dressed up like this.”

                “Oh,” all teeth when he smiled, “you were out and about with a client? Where is he now? In the bathroom still?”

                Just as many teeth, “He’s on his way home to his wife currently.”

                “Then it really is just as they say, HoneyBee Inn escorts are all shameless home-wrecking who-”

                “Genesis.” All three of the others spoke up, with different levels of volume and intensity.

                Their rebukes, while not aimed at him, slammed into him either way. Cloud had no idea why he was being so catty. This wasn’t like him at all – he was cold, frigid even. He was not fiery like this – it was as if the intensity of this man was rubbing off on him. He tried to collect himself by taking a small drink before glancing up.

                Zack looked like he wanted to smack his head against the table, Sephiroth was still in his pointedly blind spot – but Angeal seemed displeased at both of them. In fact, what he said next startled Cloud.

                “His wife?”         

                Oh man, that was a really horrible thing to say…

                Still, Cloud wasn’t one to not own up to a situation just because it was bad.

                “Yes. He’s a client who comes and goes on dates… Only dates, though. If he and his wife ever had a spark, it died a long time ago. Now he’s just trying to find it with someone else instead of getting a divorce. His wife knows about it too – she calls him when she knows he’s on a date just to antagonize him and make him come home.”

                He said it all calmly, carelessly even – he wasn’t mentioning names and none of them had seen the man so he wasn’t breaking escort-client contract. Still, he wasn’t expecting such alarmed faces when he looked up.

                “Even so,” Angeal still had his arm around Zack, but was leaning forward on his free elbow. “a marriage is a serious commitment that shouldn’t be toyed with in such a way…”

                “I agree. Nevertheless, he’s the one who comes back every time.”

                Sensing the uncomfortable air settling, Zack suddenly asked, “Did I tell you what I was being promoted to Cloud?”

                Before he could even say no he hadn’t, Zack went on to exclaim, “A First Class SOLDIER!”

                Cloud stared at him in shock while Angeal grinned and it even seemed like Genesis forgot all hostility for several moments as everyone openly praised him. Cloud was in astonishment. It quickly turned to awe and he leaned forward.

                “A First Class SOLDIER? Seriously?”

                Grinning ear to ear, Zack winked.

                “Yep! I got delayed there for a while because of circumstances, but I made it! Yes!”

                “I never doubted you would make it.”

                “Aw, shucks, you’re making me blush Ange.”

                “Oh, I had my doubts.”

                “Shut it Gen – no more speaking until you eat something. That is my official decree.”

                “What, because you went up a status you think you’re on par with me little man? I’ll Fira you straight to the face by the end of the night.”

                Cloud was worried about the threat but in moments the two broke down in laughter with everyone else – including Sephiroth – openly bemused. He could tell he had missed some sort of inside joke, but was more relieved the fire was off of him. 

                “Now that you’re a First Class, do you feel as if you’ve become a hero Zack?”

                “Hm? Nah, not yet.”

                “Oh?”

                These questions were from Sephiroth, but Cloud could still only just glance in his general direction and was moving his wig’s hair over to his shoulder to give him a good excuse for not looking at Genesis or Sephiroth.

                “I think,” Zack wagered, “being First Class doesn’t just make you a hero… I don’t know what does yet, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out!”

                “Do tell if you learn it,” This wistful statement was from Genesis.

                Right after, their food was delivered and everyone once again expressed how hungry they were. Cloud took the beef broth he’d been nibbling back before the service lady could even think he was through with it, and after she left Cloud toyed with his food for a bit.

                “Cloud,” that timbre made him freeze up. “if I may ask…are you a girl, or a boy? I’m not certain from the angles you’ve presented me with.”

                That was rich coming from him, but the question was outright confusing so he looked at the man. Jade eyes looked him over – and Cloud, in disbelief – watched as no recognition lit his eyes. Sephiroth had completely forgotten who he was.

                “I- I’m-”

                He’s nothing like how he was then – he obviously mustn’t have been in his right mind… Don’t bring it up if he isn’t going to.

                “I’m a boy.”

                Angeal started at that, and Genesis went back to being miffed again.

                “A- a boy?”

                Angeal – who’d already felt his palms and must have at least had some notion – seemed stupefied. He looked at Zack with raised brows.

                “You said…”

                “Ange?”

                “You said your escorts name was Claudia… All this time I thought Claudia was a woman – you never said any different until now.”

                “I hadn’t?”

                “Very much not.”

                The testiness was back in Genesis’ voice, and as he stirred his ice water around – he had to wait until someone made him a new bowl of broth – and his eyes cut to Cloud’s. By now, Cloud knew an attack was imminent.

                “If you dress like a woman, you aren’t a man.”

                “Claudia is Claudia, Cloud is Cloud.”

                Genesis snorted.

                “You have no pride.”

                “Pride, huh… Pride is a funny thing.”

                “No it isn’t. You either have it, or you don’t.”

                Cloud had heard things a thousand times worse than anything Genesis was throwing at him. He’d been spit on, slapped, attacked - called things so horrible he’d never forget them – but a small cord was struck then and there. Cloud knew this Genesis was Genesis Rhapsodos, First Class SOLDIER – the same with the man named Angeal, certainly Angeal Hewley. Sephiroth was recognizable on a scale all his own – and these three men had been the dream. Sephiroth was a SOLDIER at fourteen, the other two became ones at fifteen the following year – when Cloud was able to he’d gone to become SOLDIER and follow after them. He’d prided everything on that dream.

                So these insults struck something inside Cloud he had thought died the moment he’d become Don Corneo’s bride. It struck hard and fast and swift, and before Cloud could contain the icy hiss of his voice he spoke up.

                “Do you know how long I’ve been an escort?”

                The question seemed to throw everyone.

                “Two years.”

                Zack choked on his water and about had it come out of his nose. He remembered then he’d told Zack how old he was and decided why not? He went on.

                “I came to Midgar at sixteen to join SOLDIER. But I didn’t make the cut. Then I became scared because the Sector One Fire happened – everyone hated Shinra because of it and I didn’t want to become part of the army afterward. It was disgraceful to go home a failure, but I was going to suck it up and do it anyway – but then I got a letter that changed everything. My mom got sick, and to this day still needs heart medicine just to survive.

                We have no other family, no support from anyone – not even our town because my mom didn’t marry. No matter what I tried I couldn’t make the Gil that would get her the medicine she’d need to survive – no one was hiring for the amount I needed, my own business fell through – and so I did the only course available to me when I had nothing left to lose. Yes, I sold myself to a whore house and yes I’m a whore now – but let me make something perfectly clear to you. I may be a coward who became afraid, I may be nothing but a HoneyBee escort, but I have my damn pride.”

                Cloud stood up so he could look down on Genesis.

                “Some of us aren’t gifted with the strength of gods, able to solve our own problems. Some of us get dreams and those dreams die. We don’t get the happy childhood ending we wanted as children – we only get reality. My story is sad and bitter, but guess what? Ones just like mine happen every single day in The Slums. You know what my consolation is though? My mom gets to survive by me sending her what she needs, but because we live so far apart she has no idea how I make the Gil I need and she thinks I’ve become a SOLDIER. Even if it’s all fake, that’s my pride. Don’t. Trample. It.”

                With a last scornful look, because really, what was he going to do? Cloud turned and stalked off from the area and made his leave. Out in the hallway he cursed ugly nasty vile Nibelheim tongue curse words under his breath because of the situation he’d been in, before coming to the end of the hall and sighing. He let his forehead thunk against the glass with a last muttered curse.

                He had known it would be a horrible idea to stay – had known it, but yet he’d tried to stay and be normal again. Had tried to live his past dream simply by hanging around those who’d accomplished theirs… But he really should have known better…because escorts don’t get a happy ending.

                After all, Don Corneo had said it himself that despite the title of Service Bee or Queen Bee, he was the only one who was considered royalty out of the ‘colony’, and that meant just one absolute.

               No matter how much the worker bee tirelessly works, they never get the honey.

               They just slave over it.

 

Chapter Text

 

                The smell of expensive luxury cigars, lemon, and artificially sweetened pastes were so intoxicating in Don Corneo’s room that Cloud was developing an instant headache and queasy stomach. Coupled with bad memories here in this room and the disgustingly familiar hands touching his face, Cloud was growing increasingly sickened.

                “Ohukukuku, you’ve been a very popular boy of late, haven’t you…?”

                Saying nothing, Cloud eyed the table to the Don’s right. It was full of half-filled beverages, a collection of powder, and several colored tablets.

                “We’ve gotten a VIP request tonight, Claudia… I’m sure you’ll be more than willing for the work?”

                He couldn’t look away from the table. That instinctive dread was settling in his stomach again – telling him to get out now. With trained practice, he straightened and fought it down. 

                “Only…one?”

                Grinning, the Don moved one of his hands to tweak his mustache ends. His big bulging eyes were filled with a secret mirth – the greedy kind. He looked like the toad that had found the fly within its tongue’s range.

                “Oh, a few… Very big customers. They’ll only pay for my best commodities.”

                Large pay… I could do this now, use the Gil to pay off the most pressing loans… Have a few days’ rest. I’m so…tired. My eyes are heavy.

                “Are the clients here?”

                “They’ll be here within the hour. Ohukuuku, I’m throwing a party! My clients will be here for all the thrills! All of my little honeybees need to be buzzing with excitement for them, from beginning to end. Do you understand, Claudia?”

                Cloud knew the words that were coming next.

                “You’re a cold one, Claudia… But that’s what my clients like about you… But tonight, you need to loosen up. Everyone needs to be loose – to buzz all night long.”

                Cloud nodded.

                “Good, good, ohuku…”

                Cloud moved back to stand with the other five. The aromas in the room from the lit cigars were burning his eyes and he wasn’t entirely sure which of the honeybees were with him. He could only recognize the other crossdresser at his side.

                Don picked up one of the pills on the table at random before holding it up. “Now then, if everyone understands… Who’s going first?” With a wide grin on his face he sat it on his tongue. What he was really saying was loud and clear.

                Pick your poison… This one, or the next? Don’t you wanna know what they’ll do?

                One girl – he couldn’t recall her name, as she changed it every other week – moved forward at once to stand before the Don. Their following kiss was wet enough that Cloud could hear their slurping over his pounding headache.

                At his other side, he felt movement and glanced over. Another girl he didn’t know – a new girl who’d gained popularity unbelievably quickly by being double jointed throughout her body –  though Cloud couldn’t remember where at exactly – was tugging urgently on the girl next to her.

                “I don’t want to take any strange pills…!”

                She was hissing to the girl at her right, but the other girl only shrugged.

                “It’ll make the night go by in a blur… Trust me – it’s for the best.”

                Like Cloud, she looked sick – the smells were getting to her as well. It was no surprise she went next and swallowed down the Don’s pill right into the kiss. When they were done the frightened girl at her side made a distressed sound, but went forward. As if sensing her hesitation and punishing her for it – he made her work for the pill.

                Cloud, feeling further nauseated, turned away and rubbed at his eyes. His limbs were heavy – and he felt bone-dead weary. He hadn’t had a decent client except for Mr. Sigfreid – lately everyone had been content watching him perform and taking off with another available hostess. He was losing popularity – losing funds – and it was almost time to pay his loans… He needed this job desperately.

                When it was his turn, the Don clucked his tongue.

                “That listless expression won’t do, Claudia… Here, this pretty pink one here will make you far more peppy.”

                As the Don placed it on his tongue, Cloud was again reminded of the toad and the fly. When pulled in close, he more fell into the kiss than anything. As always, Don tried to swallow him and with a few experimental thrusts of his tongue, Cloud felt Don Corneo push the pill down his throat.

                Cloud swallowed…

                …and remembered very little of what happened when it kicked in minutes later.

 

..x..

 

                Cloud didn’t remember meeting the VIPs, but there was supposedly eight of them. Apparently, Cloud and the selected honeybees had kept them very entertained up in the loft. He didn’t remember what other pills he took, were slipped – or what he drank that caused his memory to black out – but if only one thing he knew from the aftermath was true – he was glad he didn’t remember.

                He was covered in bruises – along his face, his neck – bruised sides and wrists – thighs and ankles… Some looked like they were caused from fist and feet, others from rope burn.

                That wasn’t entirely a signal to a horrific night – for all he knew whatever drug he’d taken had made pain a high for him. He’d known beforehand the drug would make him willing and playful to whoever was around – and only having the reminder of bruises from the night before would have been acceptable to him nowadays over another drunken gangbang memory, but things didn’t turn out that way.

                When he heard, “She died last night.” Cloud didn’t understand what Elena was telling him. Even when she repeated it several times, Cloud still felt like he was hearing her speak from underwater.

                “The new girl. She took too much too fast, or something didn’t mix with the alcohol… She O.D.”

                Cloud remembered – thought he remembered her from last night – thought she’d said something in Don’s room – but even those were hazy and unclear at best. The only thing he could recall from the ‘party’ had been the shifting lights, and being shifted every so often. There was a barrage of costumes, from honeybees, bunnies – a cat – Cloud didn’t remember what he’d worn. It had been a mess of clothing in the morning – so messy and disorganized with people still passed out on sofas and tables that no one had even noticed that – apparently – one of the girls in the room had been dead.

                “When did they…?”

                “Find out? Half an hour after you and Lolipop woke up, left, and passed out again. It’s been about two hours since then – ah, are you okay? Should you be walking around yet?”

                “I’ll be fine… I need to take a shower, get dressed…figure out what’s going on…”

                He started to leave but paused and looked back.

                “Elena?”

                “Yes?”

                “What was the Don’s reaction…when he heard about…?”

                Cloud still didn’t know her name – her fake one or her “real one.” By the way Elena looked, she probably only knew her stage name and didn’t want to say it.

                “…it wasn’t pr…good. He was…so mad and grossed out… I think he even mentioned he was happy she hadn’t died during the party.”

                “Oh.”

                Cloud shouldn’t have expected any less. The Don had always seen them as commodities over people. Her death just meant he’d lost an asset, not an employee.

                “Clo- Claudia…? Pretty.”

                “Huh?”

                “Pretty. ‘Pretty’ was her name. ‘Pretty Belle.’”

                “….”

                Not sure how to answer that, Cloud nodded and turned away. It sounded like Elena was crying back in the changing room. He wanted to tell her to go home – but it wasn’t his call. If she was still here, just like him, it was because she had to be.

                They all did.

 

..x..

 

                Only a week ago I was back in this restaurant with Mr. Sigfreid… We were on a short date before he had to leave… I met that gorgeous SOLDIER boy again… Then I had to leave. I never would have thought I’d be back here again so soon, and with a new client at that…

                Adjusting his leather jacket self-consciously as he looked around, his eyes scanned the dim room. Tonight’s theme was a “starry” dinner, and all the candles had been removed and replaced by hanging bulbs along the ceiling. That or he was in another square all together - he never really paid attention. Until now he'd always come here with a date and had been too busy fawning at them to really take in which square they went into.

                I guess it really isn’t the same at all. This client wanted a date with me in boy clothes – without wig or makeup. It makes me…uncomfortable. I feel exposed. Are the other diners staring at me?

                Fidgeting, he placed his hands along his glass. Whoever his client was, they were already ten minutes late… but the table had been kept reserved, which meant it hadn’t suddenly been cancelled…

                I didn’t want to come here after what happened last night… But the Don was in a mood and wouldn’t let me turn down the date. I bet…It’s because he knows he’ll only be able to suppress the news for a little while. After it gets out one of his escorts died, business is going to be affected… Things are going to get rougher real fast.

                These were horrible thoughts to be having, thinking of business over the life of the girl who’d died – but Cloud couldn’t focus on her at all. Every time his mind started to drift toward her – walls came up and his thoughts shifted away. He had no doubt it was a mental wall he had erected – a means of keeping himself safe...

                I’m such a horrible person.

                He was startled out of his depressing thoughts when someone sat down across from him. Hurriedly he tried to compose himself – unsure how to sit for several moments before settling with his hands on his knees under the table. When he looked up he tried for charming – but it failed him utterly when he recognized the man laying a napkin across his lap across from him.

                “You…! What – are you doing here?”

                “Close your mouth. This is a date, not a cumshot.”

                Raking a hand through auburn hair and giving it a shake to settle it seemingly how he wanted it, cerulean eyes regarded him in annoyance.

                “You better already know what you want to eat. I won’t wait on you to decide.”

                Completely baffled, Cloud glanced around – thinking maybe he was being pranked. This wasn’t really happening, was it…?”

                “Yes, I’ll have this Wutai sushi with all three sauces as sides. Don’t you dare put them on my sushi. Then – well, that looks lovely. Yes, I’ll have tonight’s sushi special as well. For a drink I want all six of these colorful concoctions – yes, all at once. That’ll be everything for me – Cloud. Order.”

                Cloud said whatever food came off the top of his head.

                The server nodded and said something about thanking them for dining here – or some welcoming – but Cloud wasn't focusing on him at all. He was too busy watching the SOLDIER in front of him. Just what the hell was going on? He didn't get the choice to ask, because once the server departed, Genesis got straight to the point.

                “Now here’s what’s happening. I’ve been told I was extremely rude to you. I’m always rude so I don’t see why this is a special occasion for pointing it out – but I digress. You see, my youngest lover has a great big heart and my actions and your departure have upset him to the point our intimacy has been impaired. Now, if you knew me at all you’d know that when my sex life – my love life – is in jeopardy, it might as well be a declaration of war. From this you should know I am now a man on a warpath – and who won the last official war he was in? Yes that’s right, I did.”

                Cloud unconsciously started sitting back in his seat as the man’s tirade went on, ending with a dangerous flare in the SOLDIER’s eyes. He was suddenly thinking of his own tirade at their last dinner, and gulped slightly as the realization he had completely told this man off settled into his gut again. It was a challenge to keep his gaze when he was feeling intimidated, but he persevered. This was a matter of pride.

                “So here is the plan laid out: we are going to have a nice civil dinner, and I’m going to apologize. After that we’re going to part ways, I’m going to go home and make hot fiery passion to my youngest lover, and you’re going to go back and do what escorts do. Right?”

                Cloud anxiously wondered if the man knew his pointer finger was on fire as he nodded. He felt it was best to simply agree so he could hurry up and get this night over with - especially without being burned by the clearly megalomaniac fire mage. 

                “Right.”

                “Wrong.”

                Baffled, Cloud opened his mouth but Genesis didn’t give him an inch.

                “Here’s my plan. We are going to have dinner, and you’re going to tell me all about yourself – spare no plot detail, no horrible encounter – and after you’re done saying scandalous things, I’m going to apologize for my comment on saying you have no pride – because surely if you’ve survived as a Slum escort since you were sixteen you are made of far more meddle than I gave you credit for. Afterward, I’m going to pay you for your story – and maybe also because I’ve noticed you’ve gotten some bruises poorly covered in this lighting – and then we’re going to part ways. After that I’m going to go home and continue on with the original plan. Was any of this lost in translation?”

                For the second time, Cloud felt like he was hearing someone speak from underwater. Shaking himself slightly, Cloud willed up his courage to finally speak up. The man’s hand might no longer be on fire and causing everyone to stare, but his Mako eyes were still blazing.

                “Why the hell would I tell you anything about myself?”

                “Because,” drawled the frightening man, “you must hate me after our last encounter, and I still bare a deep resentment toward you for bringing ruin to my lover’s limbo. Because of this, you can tell me every depraving secret you’ve always wanted to say – a free confessional, if you will. Say whatever you want – as apology I’ll listen to every detail of it without missing a blink. Then we’ll part ways and never ever have to see each other again.”

                It was a horrible plan – crass and assuming – dangerous, even.

                “As if I’d just start talking about myself in a crowded restaurant for lovers.”

                “I’m certain they won’t mind. After all they can just leave and go on a date on a different square of this place, can’t they?”

                The way he opened his palm and fire erupted outwards lit up the dark dining atmosphere – giving the illusion the “starry night dinner” was now being ruined by a massive meteor of fire.

                “Love will endure…or won’t it?

                His voice was pleasant enough, but louder than it needed to be – and the fire was only growing in his hand. Mortified, Cloud watched as the closest diners near them hurried from their seats and departed – not long after followed by the last few diners as the flames refused to extinguish. Only after everyone had gone did Genesis let the fire go out and focus on him again.

                Back in the shadows of the restaurant, Cloud wondered if to a SOLDIER’s eyes his face was aflame like the bulbs hanging throughout the restaurant. He could even feel her ears burning.

                "You're actually insane."

                 He worried his blunt response would set the SOLDIER off again, but Genesis' expression didn't do much besides shift slightly toward a wistful boredom. 

                "I was technically, once. But nowadays my... minders simply scrawl 'expressive' and 'pyromaniac' on those files of mine."

                Cloud didn't know how to take in any of that at all.

                “Now then… Please, talk away.”

                Hands clenched white-knuckled under the table, Cloud couldn’t help but blurt, “Why like this…?”

                “Why like what?”

                “Why did you – did you want me out dressed…like this?”

                 This whole situation was maddening, so he tried to steer it toward what he hoped would be a neutral ground where he could finally get some answers out from the SOLDIER. 

                “Isn’t it obvious?”

                The man snorted, as if Cloud’s question was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard. When Cloud didn’t go on and the silence stretched, Genesis rolled his eyes.

                “Because, I don’t want to hear Claudia – some escort from The Slums who was created because of dire circumstances. I want to hear Cloud. You said it yourself didn’t you: ‘Cloud is Cloud, and Claudia is Claudia.’ I know that half of you will be fine – you surely created it for someone to stand in your place when you were scared, didn’t you? That’s why I want to hear all about Cloud, that sixteen year old boy who sold his innocence away for his mother’s sake. He sounds like someone I’d throw away my entire Saturday night for.”

                Wordless, Cloud wasn’t sure how to take Genesis – he was near unsuspectingly sweet one moment, but then mixed it in with something haughty and spicy the next. Salt and pepper in a shot glass. And his reasoning of Cloud & Claudia made him feel slightly dizzy, as if it were hard to think about what he had just said. 

                “I still don’t understand your reasoning.”

                “I don’t just say ‘I’m sorry.’ That is not the way I am – I’m arrogant… So this is my way of apologizing – as twisted and warped as it is. It should be easy to confess to a stranger you don’t even like in the darkness, shouldn’t it? Go ahead – lay it all out, here and now.”

                Genesis leant back in his chair, throwing one leg over the other.

                “Tell me everything about yourself since coming to Midgar… Tell me about how it felt to want to be SOLDIER, to have your dreams squashed… Tell me about your thoughts on the Sector One Fire – about this ‘business’ of yours that fell through. Tell me all about your mother’s sickness and why the HoneyBee Inn became your only salvation. Tell me everything about who you were before you became Claudia… Tell me so that you don’t forget who you were. Tell me everything there is to say about…Cloud.”

 

Chapter Text

 

               As the server delivered their food and the manager had harsh words with Genesis, Cloud looked down into his lap. He didn’t know what it was about SOLDIERs – maybe a past dead dream of becoming one – but they got under his skin like no one else could. First Sephiroth – then Zack…who’d he’d willingly approached and enticed – wanting to be touched – something he never wanted… Now here with Genesis, who in the face of being scolded by an unfitting large man in short-shorts was unamusedly writing a check to cover the expense of the costumers he’d frightened off from his over-the-top showboating.

                Cloud watched him write the check with mixed emotions. This man surely had the sort of Gil that could change a person’s future – but so did a majority of the HoneyBee clients who came in. It was not wrong to want that sort of wealth – the wealth that would make someone love you – but it had never been that way for Cloud.

                Gil was evil in his eyes. It was because he hadn’t had enough he’d had to become a prostitute – had had so many disgusting people touch and violate him endlessly to the point he became numb. It was no longer a concern of who would touch him next – how many – the pain or the pleasure – but instead the fact of what he would want.

                Would he want the memory of being defiled, or would he just want to black it out and forget?

                Would he take this pill or that one, would he image someone else – image he was somewhere else…?

                …maybe on a nice date with a handsome guy? Someone who actually…

                They were nothing but mere fantasies. Nothing but paper wishes, like the ones he clung to stubbornly. The ones hidden away, locked in a laboratory maze no one else could reach. The parts of Cloud he considered to still be precious.

                Talking about Cloud was something he didn’t know how to do anymore – he was so used to Claudia’s lines, her performances – her desires… Her livelihood that he, that Cloud, wasn’t exactly sure if “Cloud” was a person or a fake persona attached to the sixteen year old kid he used to be. It felt like they were just fake memories that belonged to someone else.

                Cloud only existed as those memories – and in the letters he wrote to his mother back home. There was no other Cloud – just those…threadbare reasons for existing. Those…remnants of the past and the future he wanted.

                Did he dare speak about Cloud? Did someone… Did anyone really want to know about him? Did anyone deserve to know about him? If he spoke – would he become real again – or would speaking of him make him disappear forever?

                A large shot glass was pushed his way, full of a dark colorful red liquid.

                When he glanced up, Genesis was sipping on his own concoction and they were apparently all alone again – he didn’t even know when the server and manager had left, or how long the food had been cooling.

                “Drink up. You can blame anything you want to say on the alcohol later.”

                Perhaps because he was used to accepting drinks from strangers and being told to drink them, or half because maybe he wanted to follow Genesis’ advice, he swallowed down half the shot before setting it down. As always, the frozen margaritas here were amazing.

                “So, tell me about why you came to Midgar. Was it to join SOLDIER like everyone else?”

                Uncertainly, Cloud closed his eyes and took a deep breath. In the darkness of the restaurant, where only they seemed to exit under a night sky, it truly did feel as if he could say anything he wanted – and it was a freedom he wasn’t used to. He felt like he might abuse this privilege, and that scared him more than anything. 

                “You’ll really just…listen?”

                “I may add in a snarky comment here and there in my head, because as you may have noticed, I am quite the asshole after all.”

                Drumming his fingers on the table, Cloud was beginning to wonder differently. Assholes rarely announced what they were – they often left that up to others… Only redeemable ones acknowledged their actions. But for the sake of this conversation, Cloud didn’t say that. Instead he let out the breath he’d been unconsciously holding.

                 I can't believe I'm really about to do this...

                 He still hated getting nerves as much as he always had, but relished he wasn't so numb that he couldn't feel them anymore. 

                “I came to Midgar at sixteen to join SOLDIER… It wasn’t anything special – or different. Se…Sephiroth fascinated me. I - I idolized him. Whenever he was on our busted makovision, or we received a newspaper story about him… I always wanted to meet him – be just like him… My mom knew I was fascinated with becoming a SOLDIER and sent me off with what little she had so I could accomplish my dreams…”

                He trailed off, surprised by how hard it had become to speak. He took the drink and swallowed the rest of it before giving himself a little shake. He only absently noticed when Genesis pushed a blue shot in his direction.

                “She really, really, didn’t like Shinra… My dad he – he died in the army and I didn’t get to know him. She was so worried I’d be killed too, but eventually she gave me her blessing to leave.”

                “If she was so worried, and with good reason on her part, why would she send you off?”

                “Because my mom…she told me I was a strong boy. I grew up with just her in my life, and wasn’t liked by the villagers – and often even the children – but instead of being sheltered she told me I was always so independent. She knew if I left, I’d never go and get myself killed. She believed in me.”

                Another long drink.

                “Ended up at Midgar after a long journey…found out I got seasick… I tried for SOLDIER – believing since I was a country kid from the mountains I could handle myself… But I failed.”

                “How come?”

                “I… I don’t know. They just told me I failed the exam and that was that.”

                “Hm.”

                Another long drink. His alcohol tolerance had always been high, apparently according to what others had told him, but ever since being exposed to it daily it bordered on an immunity. It wouldn’t be until he’d finished this drink that his fingers would even begin to start to tingle.

                “I was discouraged and angry… But I had no plans on giving up. I was – I was going to join the army and work my way up but then… Then the Sector One Fire happened. Everyone was so angry, and people were rioting – I wasn’t sure what to do or how to feel. People were blaming each other left and right for it – attacking like pack animals.”

                “If you had made SOLDIER at that time, would you have quit because of what happened?”

                “…I’ve thought of that before. The ‘what if’s… I think if I’d made it into the program, I would have stayed. It was my dream – my reason for leaving home… I would have stayed until I knew everything – and even then I might have remained if I felt like that was where I belonged.”

                “Then let me ask this, what were your feelings regarding what happened in Sector One? Do you know what happened and occurred there?”

                “…terrorists were in the area. They damaged a reactor… When the President found out where they were, he ordered the entire sector to be burned. Thousands of innocent people died, and people say not even all the terrorists were in the area.”

                “That’s a common description of what happened, but how did you feel because of it? What precisely made you change your mind from joining the army? At the time it happened and for months afterward, no one was certain what had happened – so how did that affect you?”

                Something about Genesis was uncannily perceptive. Cloud wasn't telling lies, and barely even telling half-truths, but the SOLDIER seemed to pick up on any and every little space left unsaid in his words. It was a little disconcerting. 

                “I was going to join the army, but… It became hard. One person would shout it was the President’s doing – the next would cry it was the terrorist themselves… I heard an entire platoon was attacked by a mob of angry people and most of them were killed… Another platoon of infantrymen opened fire somewhere else on civilians… Somebody who openly supported Shinra was likely to be bombed or stabbed, just as likely as someone who openly condemned them. It was too chaotic to even try to…join the army at that time. I decided to get out of there and start up a business with the funds I had until things at least settled down.”

                “So you were scared.”

                “Of course I was scared. Everything I had believed to be awesome and amazing since I was a kid suddenly gave out under my feet. I was just a village kid – I had never seen a mob before, or riots… I was terrified and just wanted to lie low and wait things out until people became sane again.”

                 Surprisingly, despite his emotionless marks, there weren't actually any traces of judgement or hostility in Genesis' voice or expressions. Just a blase air about his telling of the events.

                “That’s understandable. It was a horrific time for everyone. Especially mere infantrymen. More soldiers and cadets were attacked than what was ever released to the public, and many did not get prompt enough treatment to survive their wounds. It was a war without ever having the name of one itself…”

                For a few moments Genesis seemed lost in his thoughts, but he blinked his way back into focus. A little bemused despite himself, when Genesis offered him his plate of sushi Cloud accepted a piece and dipped it into the rich honey-mustard sauce.

               Weird. He had scorned the very chair I sat in last time we met, but here he is offering to share food. I really can’t figure this man out. Is he complex, or just whimsical?

               As he ate, Genesis got the ball rolling again.

               “So this is when your business idea came to life.”

                “…yes. At first I wasn’t sure what to do, but during all the commotion and bustling that followed the Sector One Fire, I got an idea of a delivery service. People wanted things delivered constantly, and after simply helping people on my way back to my motel I got the idea and tried to set up a business… Only I didn’t know what I was doing – what to charge, what limits I needed in place… I didn’t know the area either back then – got a bad reputation from the get go and lost some kindhearted clients who put their faith in me… I lost a lot of Gil trying to keep myself afloat during the chaos of both events, and knew I needed to get my business’s name out there and learn more about Midgar.”

                Cloud finished his drink and accepted the next one. He ate a few bites of what he ordered – some kind of shredded chicken and cheese dish before going on. As hungry as he was, he knew the more he progressed into his story the more he’d lose his appetite.

                “I hired people from The Slums to show me around – got…suckered out of my Gil. I didn’t have the common sense back then to look for the right people. Got mugged once – fought back but still lost more Gil in the scuffle. Near broke I didn’t know what to do, but I was so stubborn I didn’t just want to throw in the towel. My mother had believed in me – and I believed in myself… So I made stupid decisions, thinking everything would be alright. I took a loan to get my business going again, and be able to advertise it properly…at the worst possible time.”

                Cloud sighed at the memory.

                “Urban Development was finally put to use – infantrymen were everywhere with care packages, relief, and support for all the sectors that could afford to pay my fees. I cut them in half and for a while managed business okay, but soon the Urban Development reached even poorer places in The Slums and I lost everything. I ended up collecting debt.”

                Depressed, Cloud went on.

                “I did what anyone would think to do in that situation where they didn’t have anyone to rely on… I took another loan to pay off the old one – tried several odd jobs at once to make the Gil I’d need to pay back the loans… But I wasn’t able to make the full payments as I’d promised and the people I promised to pay got angry – reasonably so, and unreasonably so… I worked myself to the bone, tirelessly, but interest was tripling – I even lost the Gil I’d held back in reserve to eat. I was hungry and in a day would be homeless…with what Gil I had left – as tiny as it was – I was going to leave Midgar and run away. Even hanging my head in shame going home… It had to be better than what I had – and I… I knew I was in over my head.”

                “So you were going to split without paying back your debts, just return home with your tail between your legs?”

                “Yes.”

                 The lie was so practiced it came naturally to him. Well, to call it a lie wasn't and was true. He had planned to leave and then come back to one day pay off all his debts, but the fact remained he had still planned to run away from his problems. 

                “Hm. I can’t say I blame you. Your situation sounded like a series of horrible consequences strung together, like a bad comedy set-up.”

                “Nothing was funny about it.”

                “I am inclined to believe you… So, what happened? Why did you end up remaining?”

                Taking a moment to recall the events that took place next, Cloud felt the pain of them as clearly as he did when it all first happened.

                “I guess someone believed I’d run… They ransacked my place when I was out – found a picture of my mom and a friend of mine who’d been in the shot at the time… She’s beautiful, and I look like my mom so… Yeah. They threatened to go to my home and take their expenses out on my mom and my friend if I didn’t come up with the Gil they needed by the end of the week…and almost to mock me, they added five times the interest of what I already owed them…”

                The next part still hurt to think about – the disapproving faces, untrusting of him.

                “I would never let anyone hurt my mom or my friend… I tried to take loans, but either word got around I was in bad debt or had tried to run out on paying back a loan… No one would – would…take my word I’d pay them back anymore. I became an unwanted outcast – lost my place – gave all my Gil to the loan sharks… I had nothing left and even stole – something so lowly… But yet I had no other choices – and even still the looming deadline got closer and closer and the threats increased. In the end,” Cloud’s knuckles popped with how tightly he was squeezing his fists.

                “In the end, I knew my mom and my friend… They were going to get threatened – get hurt because of me… They’d done absolutely nothing wrong, and it was a problem that I just couldn’t do anything about. But I refused to let something like that happen... Then – then,” Cloud licked his dry lips and pressed them harshly together before going on.

                “I found out about the HoneyBee Inn and what it really was…even how much it would pay to be – to be his 'bride.' It was sickening and revolting, but I decided from the very beginning if I could somehow manage to protect someone important to me – I would. I would do anything to keep what I treasured safe. So, forsaking everything, I went to the HoneyBee Inn and out of everyone… I became the Don’s 'bride.' The Gil wasn’t enough to pay back everything, but by dividing it up carefully I managed to get the loan sharks to back off and stop with the threats – for now. It was only a temporary solution but I knew, I knew I could still manage somehow… Somehow I’d find more odd jobs – or even a stable one, and I’d slowly pay back everything. I was…even planning to join the army again.”

                “Only something else went wrong… What happened?”

                “I got a letter from my mother. She was congratulating me on making SOLDIER – in my last letter I must have written something misleading on accident, and she got the wrong impression… I was going to write her back the truth – but on the back of the letter in my friend’s handwriting, she told me…my mother had been diagnosed with a heart complication and was very ill. She- she told me if I was making any Gil I needed to send it home to my mom, or at least pick up the medicine she needed and ship it back… She told if I couldn’t do that, then I needed to come home and be with my mom because…”

                Cloud drank the entire shot down. He didn't feel the need to go any further into detail.

                “…I think I understand.”

                Cloud could only nod.

                “The jobs I had…they weren’t paying enough to try to get my mom’s medicine – it was way too expensive, since it involved the heart… I couldn’t get loans anymore and eventually the loan sharks would come around again – and I couldn’t go home because if I went home…”

                “…trouble would follow you back. I see.”

                “So… So, I went back to the Don’s. I asked to be his escort. It made more than any of the jobs I had – combined. It was the only logical choice. With the Gil I was making, I managed to afford the medicine my mom needed and shipped it home and managed to make new payment plans with the loan sharks. Whenever I couldn’t make one because my mom would need medicine again, or because job expenses, I’d pay servicing with my body. It happened often in the beginning when my debts were still too high. Now…rarely.”

                “So for two years you’ve continued this way? Excuse me for being a skeptic, but wouldn't your debts be paid off by now? Certainly so.”

                “Originally the loans were small, but they came with triple interest in most places. Whenever I had missed a deadline and didn’t contact them or make a payment after a certain time, they’d double in most cases every day. It was a horrible realization and one of the reasons I had wanted to run away. Even so, eventually the debts did start dying down around me. But other ones would take their place – little ones… My mom would always need her medicine, regardless. She only gets thirty – thirty to last her until the next batch, and some places won’t give me anymore because they’ve never seen my mom… So I made deals with shady people, a shady organization – they give me the pills I need.”

                Genesis had eaten most of his sushi and was examining a piece of eel. His expression was neutral, but his tone sounded a bit leading.

                “…there’s something you aren’t saying. It’s on the tip of your tongue – but yet you hesitate. What else is there?”

                Cloud nursed his drink against his forehead for a few moments before setting it back down. It was hard to speak, no matter how emotionless he wanted his voice to be. It always was, talking about past problems that he still hadn’t been able to solve – problems that weren’t able to be fixed. He didn't want to say it - wanted to keep it locked down tight inside of him... But simply being able to speak so bluntly with someone, already having been able to say so much... It became impossible to keep the rest of it inside.

                “I can’t go home.”

                “Pardon?”

                “Beside my mom not being able to have her medicine if I went home… And even if I used my nest egg to pay every last thing off… I still can’t go home. My mom is always so proud in her letters – so happy for me… She’s been waiting for her SOLDIER son to come home to her. She’s certainly told everyone about how proud she is of me – no doubt she’s been able to spit in the face of every person who had mocked us and disrespected her… She’s so prideful of her SOLDIER son… That’s why, that’s why I can’t go home. I can’t ever go back and let her know the son she sent away will never ever again return.”

                Cloud looked at Genesis now, eyes burning but with no tears. He hadn’t cried in a long time and wouldn’t now – he’d already cried his lifetime supply out two years ago.

                “That’s why I’m still an escort.”

                Genesis said nothing for a time.

                “Isn’t that…pathetic in some way? Can’t you just start your business up again and support your mother that way? You could even try for SOLDIER again – or the army.”         

                Cloud gave a sarcastic laugh.

                “Oh sure, because my business idea worked out the first time… Besides, Shinra would never accept me into SOLDIER or army, even if I passed the tests the moment they looked into my background and previous employment… If anything they’d hire me for their SOLDIERs if they thought me pretty enough – infantry if I didn’t make their qualifications.”

                It was a harsh thing to say, but Cloud didn’t live in some ‘promised land’ full of boundless dreams anymore. He’d fallen from that heaven and crashed down to the planet’s core a long time ago.

                Cloud watched Genesis open his mouth but he shook his head to stop him.

                “You just wanted to hear Cloud’s story, right? Well, that’s it. There isn’t any more. This conversation was nothing more than a stress reliever for me, an apology for you… Don’t concern yourself with my issues. It was never a history made with a ready solution.”

                “So that’s it? Cloud is just going to keep working as an escort until he no longer can?”

                “Of course not. Cloud died a long time ago. He exists only in that story, and in the letters he writes… besides that Cloud is only Cloud in name…and between us, he really isn’t even that. It’s Claudia now after all.”

                He stood up. Like he’d imagined, he wasn’t hungry any longer. That was okay – the drinks had filled him up and this night hadn’t gone horribly. In fact, he felt resolved by it. It was a refresher as to why Claudia was important – of why she needed to keep doing what she’d done for years now.

                Lately he’d been slipping away – falling into old dreams and past wishes – listlessness in his colorless life – but he had his head on straight again. What mattered was popularity – was clients and their Gil – and always having enough for Mom. Pointless wishes for romance – simple pointless wishes – they didn’t belong in his head. They only cluttered it and made him foolish, like the time he’d met Zack and dared tried to push his hopes onto someone.

                No more.

                Cloud accepted the Gil Genesis gave him, counted it, and then put it away.

                “I accept your apology. In fact, I should thank you for it. It helped put my priorities in place again – reminded me of why I was doing this in the first place.”

                “Zack wants to see you again.”

                Cloud froze.

                That’s…not what I was expecting to hear.

                “What?”

                Genesis was leaned back in his chair, slowly tapping one finger on the table as he stared out at the glowing lights of the sector plates.

                “He wants to see you again. Would you like that?”

                Cloud hesitated, for one moment caught on two sides of a giant crater. Then, he gave himself a little shake and put resolve in his voice.

                “Sure! He can see me – he knows my price.”     

                “What about Cloud? What if he wants to talk with him?”

                “If he finds him, go right ahead. If that’s all, I’m going now. I need to be back before eleven.”

                “Answer one last thing, then I swear I’ll let you go.”

                Cloud glanced back at him, starting to get miffed. He’d told Cloud’s story already – had already given his answers and been paid – what more could he demand?

                “What is it?”

                “…who gave you those bruises?”

                Another bizarre question. Uncomfortable, Cloud turned away and headed for the doors. He'd thought he had figured Genesis out, but there he went again, taking him by surprise. He shook the question off like water before answering.

                “I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you even if I knew.”

                Out into the hallway, he shifted restlessly in his leather jacket. He still didn’t know what were with SOLDIERs – every time he thought he had them figured out they did something else that was weird and confusing. They were hard to read – hard to please – and they still…still managed to get under his skin.

                He hoped he wouldn’t have to ever meet them again – they were too distracting…

                …and far too dazzling to be around. They made him – the Cloud he used to be – want things that he knew he couldn’t have anymore. It only made it harder for Claudia to tuck him back away inside the shattered test tube that his dreams and heart had become.

 

Chapter Text

 

               After the dinner date with Genesis, Cloud wasn’t as observant as he could have been traveling through The Slums. In fact, he was pretty oblivious to the bad streets he was taking. He was subconsciously used to minding where he walked and rarely used the same streets every night to avoid predators, but dressed as Cloud would be, he wasn’t being so mindful of his surroundings. His thoughts were on his new resolution to have nothing to do with SOLDIERs from now on.

                So when pain came suddenly bursting from the back of his head and he slammed into the ground, he instinctively knew what had happened and despite being dazed had numerous thoughts at once. Besides the obvious pained ones, his first thoughts regarded his own foolishness, and the realization this wouldn’t have happened if he’d been dressed as Claudia – whenever she was mugged or cornered, random thugs always made the assessment she wouldn’t need to be knocked out.

                It wasn’t often, but in that moment, he envied that side of himself.

                To try and recover and avoid another hit, he played unconscious on the ground – wondering if he was being mugged or about to be extorted. If his head stopped spinning and there weren’t more than three of them, he knew he could take them in a fight – if there were more or his head didn’t stop throbbing, he’d easily give himself over to their demands to prevent a stabbing or brass knuckled beating.

                In this point in his life, some non-consensual grouping was more preferable than an injury that would get him laid up without pay. Besides, he wasn't below working someone over to make them drop their guard if he really had to.

                If it came down to it, Cloud was prepared to do anything to make sure his Gil wasn't taken from him. It was too close to the time he’d need to order and ship out another package of medicine to his mom, and pay off the next installment to his loan sharks.

                Hands felt along his body – searching for a wallet. Cloud had a dummy one in his pocket and if they took it and left everything would be fine. He could tell the moment they pulled it from his back pocket and searched it. Their complaints might have amused him if he wasn’t certain his head was bleeding.

                “Shit, he’s poorer than a sewer whore.”

                “Dammit, he’s dressed in leather not some holy one either – he’s got to have Gil on him.”

                “Then check him yourself! He doesn’t have anything else.”

                “Take his shoes then – and make sure nothing is in them!”

                Cloud wanted to protest but held back. His head was still spinning, and if he just lost some boots big deal. That wasn't where he hid his Gil anyway - he was smarter than that.

                When his shoes were pulled off and checked the mugger's grumbling only got worse.

                “Damn poor bastard didn’t have nothing to give us. Gah, I hate when they’re poor.”

                “Tch. Let’s go – he ain’t got nothing and I’m not putting my hand down his pants to check for coins.”

                “Yeah yeah, let’s go. Tonight’s been too damn slow.”

                Cloud counted to a hundred after he couldn’t hear their footsteps any longer before he achingly pushed himself to his knees with a grimace. He felt the back of his head and – no surprise to him – he was bleeding.

                Dammit… This is not what I need tonight.

                With a sigh he got to his socked feet, wobbly. It took him a few moments to orientate himself and figure out which direction he had been going in. He kept a hand along the buildings he passed as he walked by. Try as he might, he couldn’t recall the last time he’d been jumped. Not vividly from the one before that anyway – no one ever forgot what it felt like to be cornered by people who wanted them – it was something that never went away.

                This is what I get for being distracted. I know better – I should be thankful it wasn’t some deranged psycho with a butcher knife.

                No matter who you were or how old, or what gender you appeared – deranged psychos were always a worry.

                My thoughts are getting loopy. I need to head back. They should have potions by the esunas downstairs at the Inn. By the metal table, if he was recalling correctly.

                They were there for obvious reasons.

                It felt like he hadn’t been walking for long, but every now and again he was certain he’d blacked out on his feet because every once in a while he had the feeling of deja-vu. It was probably because he was so out of it he didn’t notice someone coming up to him until they put a hand against his arm.

                “Cloud…? That is you, isn’t it?”  

                The voice was familiar and after staring at the worried face for a few moments the name dawned on him.

                “Angeal?”

                Looking relieved and yet still concerned at the same time – a remarkable facial expression – Cloud let himself be toed under a street light by the larger man. He wasn’t really certain what the bigger man wanted – but he hoped it wasn’t some sort of service because at this point Cloud wasn’t up for anything.

                “What are you doing out here…? Where are your shoes?” A hand touched the back of his head gingerly. “Why are you bleeding? Hey, look at me.”

                Cloud tried to focus – it was hard – but the man’s glowing cobalt eyes were fascinating. SOLDIERs really did have the best eyes.

                “Cloud. Hey. Hey.

                The strong deep voice and the following shake he received helped Cloud clear his vision again. He took a deep breath – steadying breath – and then let it out slowly. When he looked around, he wasn’t entirely sure where he was.

                “What am I doing here?”

                “I’m not certain of that… I was doing some late night patrolling when a civilian said someone was walking in a circle around this sector. Can you remember what happened?”

                Feeling his head, he slowly said, “I was…mugged?”

                Alarmed, Angeal asked, “When? How long ago? Can you remember who they were?”

                Shaking his head – which was wow, a really bad idea – he refocused before going on.

                “No, I never got to see them… It was dark.”

                “Did they make off with anything valuable?”

                “…no. Just a useless wallet and my shoes.”

                “This?”

                Angeal was gingerly touching his head wound again.

                “Superficial… I’m just dazed.”

                “I normally always carry around potions with me; I can’t believe I didn’t tonight.”

                “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be fine – there are potions at the HoneyBee Inn.”

                “There are?”

                “Yes.”

                Cloud hoped he’d leave at that, and thankfully wasn’t disappointed. When his arm was lifted and Angeal’s arm came around him he was fluxed, however.

                “What are you…?”

                “I can’t just let you try and get there yourself. You’re in no condition for it. No arguing.”

                When his legs were lifted up next, Cloud felt like dead weight in the man’s arms. Even when the larger man propped his head up against his shoulder, Cloud felt like a rag doll.

                “You’re lighter than I was expecting – sorry for the jostling.”

                “I’m fine.”          

                I guess I forgot how strong SOLDIERs are… Their muscles are comfortable too – I’m surprised. I thought it would feel like I was laying against a wall…but he’s really warm. He smells good too – a little sweaty with a nice aftershave.

                “Genesis said he was going to go and see you tonight… Did he not drop by?”

                A little confused, Cloud said, “Genesis took me on a date…at the Golden Square.”

                “Oh?”

                Sensing curiousness, and maybe a little confusion, Cloud decided to clarify.

                “He wanted to talk.”

                “To talk? Haah, he can’t just apologize can he? I bet he did something dramatic and flashy right from the start, and did something drawn out instead of just apologizing. Don’t tell me – I know I’m right… I also don’t want to know what he did this time.”

                Hearing both the amusement and resignation in the man’s voice made Cloud oddly curious to know what the “normal” setting for Genesis was. Did he always just flare off and on, or did certain things trigger him?

                Don’t – don’t think that. Don’t get curious.

                “I won’t ask you to say anything about the “date,” but please let me say something. With Genesis… Ah, what’s a good way to explain it…? Well you see, Genesis will say something awful and he’ll mean something entirely different. He’s the kind of guy that when he can’t explain something simply, he’ll quote poetry to explain it in a way no one else could – because more than likely no one else knows what he’s talking about. He’s strange – an enigma… But despite the harshness he showed you when you first met, I ask you to forgive him. He is not a horrible man.”

                Angeal’s voice was pained and proud – soothing to hear somehow. Cloud blinked his eyes as he realized he was starting to get lulled to sleep hearing it while he was carried. It was such a serene novelty – all of it.

                “Unless he genuinely hates somebody, you eventually figure out his insults are more facts said harshly than anything else. A lot of what he says only sounds like an insult. That’s just how he is – he tries to rile people up because he doesn’t believe in just words, no matter how much he loves them. He wants to see people react to things – it’s his way of getting to know a person. To judge them even – though it isn’t always pretty or kind, it is Genesis.”

                When they’d first met, Cloud hadn’t liked Genesis at all. Hadn’t blamed him for what he said – and now looking back it was like Angeal claimed – Genesis had said nasty things, but they had all been true. When they’d met again tonight Genesis had been crass, showy – dramatic and snarky even – at first. But then he’d toned it down, relaxed – even listened. He’d thrown in a snide comment or two, but had also seemed oddly empathetic at times when Cloud would explain himself. For this reason Cloud couldn’t say he liked Genesis… He couldn’t – but he kind of did like the fact the man had never walked on eggshells regarding him. It was another novelty experience he wasn’t used to.

                Still, something bothered him even with his panging headache distracting him.

                “Why was he so…offended when we met?”

                Angeal scoffed, the hint of laughter in his chest.

                “Offended? No, no he wasn’t offended – he was borderline outraged.”

                “Why?”

                “Because terror does that to him. You were this gorgeous thing out of his boyfriend’s wet fantasies come to life, having dinner with him in a romantic restaurant when we should have been, and Genesis feared you.”

                The term boyfriend and we stuck in his mind, but the more pressing question was obvious.

                “Feared me? I didn’t get that impression at all.”

                “Genesis says one thing does another… Remember? It was painful to watch that train wreck.”

                Angeal apparently thought the memory was worse than Cloud did because he winced and shook his head.

                “I still don’t understand. I’m an escort who wasn’t even on a date with Zack, and he acted more violently than most spouses have toward me.”

                Angeal seemed to find that amusing enough to bark a laugh at it, but collected himself moments later with an apologetic smile.

                “It’s because you’re so damn…lovely, and like I said before – a fantasy for Zack brought to life. Knowing you had been in the nude” he said it so funny – rushing the words with an embarrassed flush “with Zack… Knowing what you did for a living – he feared you, but in a difficult way. It wasn’t even the comment about a married man that set him off – it was the fact Zack was obviously crushing on you.”

                “He thought I’d make him cheat or something?”

                “No, he feared you’d break Zack’s heart.”

                Those weren’t the words he was expecting to hear and looked up from Angeal’s shoulder in confusion. The man was grimacing slightly, obviously conflicted about what was on his mind.

                “Zack has always fallen in love hard… Every time, despite having a few real heartbreaks for someone so young…”

                Angeal made it sound like he was a hundred years older than Zack, and Cloud – despite the heavy and sad air of the conversation – became slightly mystified. He blamed it on the head wound.

                “He didn’t know you – just knew Zack was seeing hearts around you and the fact you were an escort – knowing Genesis as I do he was as fierce and reprimanding as he was because he was trying to frighten you away. He didn’t want to give you time to lead his boyfriend on if you were just going to take him for his Gil and hurt him in the end.”

                Boyfriend stuck again, but Cloud couldn’t quite make the connection – wondering if Angeal was simply talking about himself now or if Cloud was more confused than he thought.

                “Genesis is a loving man, but he’s territorial and impulsive because...he has very little left. If you insult the things he considers precious – threaten them – try to take them away – some will claim he’s too willful, but Genesis will fight for them with endless fury to protect them. So I can’t apologize for how he reacted, but I will ask for you to forgive him. I’m sure that tonight he was trying to intimidate you and scope you out – to see if he judged you wrong. If it is any consolation to you, what you said when you left really struck a chord in him. He’s been moody and miserable for days now. Near impossible to live with.”

                He has…? That isn’t what he showed me – he sounded as if he’d been forced to come see me because…

                Shifting slightly and clutching the SOLDIER’s shirt, Cloud pondered out loud, “…so nothing’s been wrong with Zack?”

                “What do you mean by that?”

                Angeal’s voice sounded nothing but genuinely confused and maybe even a little suspicious of the question – leaving Cloud further baffled.

                “Nothing… I guess it isn’t important now anyway.”

                -“He wants to see you again. Would you like that?”-

                Genesis’ question kept repeating in his mind. At the time, he’d chalked it up to some sort of mind game the man had been playing with him. Despite wanting to answer sincerely, he’d believed nothing would come from it.

                -“Sure! He can see me – he knows my price.”-

                Cloud closed his eyes in annoyance at the memory.

                If he really had been testing me, I failed his standards unbelievably. That callous remark made it undoubtedly clear Zack was nothing to me without his Gil. If Genesis hadn’t been toying with me and really had been asking me such a thing…I completely destroyed the chances of whatever he had mind regarding Zack and I.

                He tried to console himself by saying it wasn’t important anyway – he wasn’t ever going to see the man again. He wasn’t even supposed to see this one again. It was hard not to take Angeal’s words to heart though, all the possible implications he left behind… But, perhaps the most boggling thing were the last words Genesis had spoken to him after Cloud had said such a horrible thing.

                 -“…where did you get those bruises?”-

                 If he had been scoping Cloud out – weighing him, antagonizing him with a purpose – then after everything he’d said and done, after all the damage he’d clearly been through and dished out back at the man – why would he still poise such a question? The question hadn’t been concerned – in fact Genesis hadn’t even looked at him when he asked, voice neutral… He’d also even said something about his bruises when the night first started, so why would he feel the need to say something else…?

                What had he meant by it? Angeal would have him believe he couldn’t trust Genesis’ actions – but did that mean he merely couldn’t trust what Genesis said, or…how he had said it? Both meant entirely different things.

                Cloud still didn’t understand what Genesis could have had in mind during their talk – even now, so unsure of if Genesis was deliberately prodding his wounds for some sort of reaction, or if maybe he’d held some authentic concern hidden in his words. Either way, it was making his headache twice as worse to try and decipher. He just really wanted this horrible night to be over, and unconsciously curled up more into Angeal’s sweatered chest.

                “Are you cold? It isn’t much further from here.”

                Not bothering to open his eyes, he nodded.

                The silence stretched as he was carried, but Cloud was good with them. Silence was something he was used to – even comfortable ones like this – but he felt oddly anxious. He wanted to say more – about promises that didn’t have any meaning. They were all pointless now. Still… He wanted to say them.

                “I…really liked Zack.”

                It was barely a whisper, but he felt Angeal slow down his walking speed slightly. Cloud was yelling at himself that saying something like that was a really stupid thing to do. Zack was dating this guy. But still, something about Angeal's openness to speak so freely with him, even if they'd only spoken for a few minutes just one other time - it felt as contagious as the fierceness he'd received from Genesis when they'd first met. 

                “…there’s no good reason. At least, I don’t know why, but I really liked him. I – I tried to sleep with him even though he’d requested just a strip tease… I’d never done that before – ever. He was the first person to…say he didn’t want more – not because he was grossed out or done, but because…he was really into it and worried he’d do something stupid if I stayed… He was the only person who ever stopped.”

                When Angeal didn’t say anything, Cloud didn’t know what to think, so he just kept talking – wondering why he didn’t just shut up. It was as if saying everything to Genesis wasn’t enough now. The dam walls felt like they were cracking from the building pressure, and it was becoming apparent the walls wouldn’t hold much longer at this rate without releasing some water.

                “When I saw him again… I was really surprised. He called out to me – people don’t…just do that. They don’t know who you are after they sleep with you, no matter how they enjoyed it when it happened… Even people who just get strip teases don’t know you unless they want another, or something more… You meet everyone and absolutely no one all at once. But yet here he was – inviting me to keep him company, talking about himself – about me, and even wanting me to stay and celebrate his big moment with him even though we were just strangers…”

                He took a deep breath and let it out when he felt Angeal stop. His next words came out thoughtlessly – more him rambling than planning anything – but he didn’t try to hold them back.

                “I think Genesis is right to be the way he is… Zack will definitely get his heart broken like that – it’s almost frightening how willing he was to accept someone like me so quickly… Even after saying I’d been on a date with a married man he was still holding out his hand. That’s…scary.”

                “No, that’s Zack.”

                His voice was firm enough it made Cloud open his eyes and look up. This time Cloud wasn’t sure what emotions were playing on the broad man’s features, but they were confusing – sad and proud, baffled and understanding – he hadn’t known just how expressive the man could be until he really paid attention.

                It seems SOLDIERs still leave me so uncertain.

                Gesturing with his chin, Angeal said, “The HoneyBee Inn is across the street. I stopped here because the bouncers look wary – I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to get any closer. I'd hate to, uh, cause a scene.”

                The man sat him on his feet gingerly when Cloud motioned to be put down. It felt strangely hard to let go of the man’s shirt, but he managed to pry his fingers away.

                “Yeah, they’ll rough you up if they think you’re bringing trouble to the Don’s place. Hell, they’ll rough you up if you even look like trouble here. Thugs, thieves, badasses – they know to watch out for the bouncers here especially at night when they don’t hold back…but I’m sure a SOLDIER like you could take them, no contest.”

                A tiny bit bemused, Angeal smiled as he looked him over.

                “Are you sure…you’ll be alright?”

                “Yeah. I’m dizzy and hurt like a bitch, but I’ve taken worse than this and come out just fine. A potion will fix me right up.”

                “Alright then… Hm… Cloud?”

                “Yes?”

                “You have a PHS – or cell phone, don’t you?”

                “Uh-huh… Though I don’t have it on me.”

                Pulling out his phone, Angeal got it to the contact screen. Cloud stared up at him in confusion – surely the man didn’t want to…

                As if sensing Cloud’s disquiet, Angeal’s eyes opened in alarm and he quickly put Cloud’s unease to rest.

                “What, no! I would just like to be able to reach you… I’d like to say for Zack’s happiness, but that’s stretching the truth a bit. You’ve been good company to have around. I wouldn’t mind learning more about you and the life you live in The Slums. There's not a lot of outreach down here... – and I definitely…”

                He trailed off uncertainly for a moment, before he collected himself and became resolute again.

                “If you get into trouble like you did tonight, I want you to call me if you need help.”

                Half kidding, he asked, “What…like…a bodyguard or something?”

                Angeal seemed to share his half-humor as he said, “If I’m needed that way, sure. The Slums are dangerous at night in these lower sectors, but I should know full well you’d be aware of that… Still, I feel like this isn’t the last time we’ll see each other again, and I don’t want anything awful to happen to you before…Zack can speak with you again. I don’t really understand it so well myself, but I think I partially get why he’s grown so fond of you even if you’ve only just met. There’s something…forthright and yet elusive about you all at once.”

                Both of them seemed at a loss of what to say after the statement, feeling as if they were walking on foreign ground somehow. Cloud didn't like breaking the ice and naturally held his silence, so he was thankful when Angeal got the ball rolling again with another soft-spoken joke in only a matter of seconds. 

                "Besides, it is always an asset to have a direct link to what's happening the The Slums, hm? Not everyone likes to come up to the large stone-faced SOLDIER patrolling the night. Heck, no one likes to come up to this SOLDIER during the day."   

                A little touched by the sentiment, and a little uneasy at it because it was such a foreign concept to him, he nodded and put in his number. Though a second glance as the man pulled the phone away told him he’d probably put one digit too many in there on accident. He was weirdly embarrassed by it – enough to not say anything as Angeal put his cell phone away.

                It’s probably a sign this is for the best anyway.

                “Thank you for taking me back.”

                “It’s only what anybody would do.”

                No, it really isn’t.

                Cloud wanted to explain how this wasn’t how people did things – at least not at night, when villains truly came out – and definitely not how Cloud’s night would have gone if someone else had stumbled upon him… Especially if he’d been dressed like Claudia, more so if recognized… He could have explained all of these things, but didn’t. Holding his tongue, he felt the dam walls reinforcing now that some of the pressure had been relieved.

                So instead of saying anything else, he gave a small unsure wave before limping his way toward the HoneyBee Inn. Before he got to the entrance the bouncer started to threaten him away before he recognized him. As Cloud shoed him off as one would a mutt, he glanced back at the SOLDIER.

                Angeal was still standing at the corner, arms crossed and frowning. What he was thinking was anybody’s guess. It definitely wasn’t Cloud’s though – once inside with the door shut he dizzily leaned against the wall wondering just what was wrong with him. He wasn’t acting like himself at all – not since meeting Zack and being told no. ‘No’ to anything he did was an insult – but with Zack…it felt like a miracle. Genesis had made him genuinely angry – that was a miracle itself, as he had started to believe the only emotion he was capable nowadays was a deep numbness…and then Genesis had…given him resolve once more to continue down this path. When he’d left he was sure of who Claudia was supposed to be again, and how she would go on – but now… Now Cloud was back, if only temporarily, and he was thinking of a lot of things he shouldn’t be – and had said stuff he really had needed to suppress.

                Leaning off the door, Cloud headed for the basement with his hand against his aching head.

                Angeal had reminded him of Zack’s kindness in a way – but almost a more upfront version. He’d spoken easily about Genesis and Zack, putting one if not both in new perspectives for him… Ones that made Cloud eager and restless as well as uneasy and tired. His ‘Claudia’ persona was being shaken from ‘Cloud’s’ thoughts and feelings, which was a horrible thing.

                Cloud was Cloud and Claudia was Claudia for a reason. The lines couldn’t blur – they couldn’t because Cloud couldn’t handle Claudia’s job, and Claudia was built on logical decisions – a persona made for the things Cloud couldn’t handle. She in turn didn’t handle strong emotions – she existed to tune the world to black and white. They were the same, but very literally could not cope without each other playing their parts.

                At this rate, the walls are going to break – the dam will be demolished.

                Cloud was afraid of what was on the other side – it genuinely terrified him – years of suppressed emotions and memories, terrors he’d blacked out… Even trying to imagine what his mental walls shielded him from made his heart beat erratically and his breath short. Claudia herself was the dam walls separating what ‘Cloud’ was from what this job had made him into. If that side of himself broke down… If the black and white kept turning colors of gray…

                I can’t see them anymore. ‘Cloud’ can’t see them anymore. It’ll destroy everything.

                Cloud’s thoughts were so intense and overwhelming that he didn’t even notice when his foot slipped on the stair. He was too caught up thinking about how to numb himself again, to suppress ‘Cloud’ – to keep him safe – to focus on anything else.

                His blackout came suddenly.

 

Chapter Text

 

                “How long was I out?”

                “Can’t say for sure. I found you in the morning and got you patched up. Since then you’ve been moved into here and have slept most of the day away. How’s your head?”

                Still holding the ice pack to his forehead, Cloud shrugged.

                “Potion took care of any damages and bruises… I just have a throbbing headache left.”

                “You looked pretty beat up… It was a good thing I found you before anyone else.”         

                “Why’s that?”

                Brushing her hair out, Elena shrugged helplessly.

                “With everything that’s going on right now… The Don’s been ill-tempered. With the news stories released around noon, Splitz going splitzvile…”

                “What are you talking about?”

                “Oh. That’s right, you’ve been unconscious all day… We knew it was going to happen, but apparently the leak got out faster than expected. Two different channels were discussing it at noon. About Pretty Belle, I mean.”

                “What did they say?”

                “One station said one of Don’s ‘employees’ died after a severe beating from a client who stayed here… Another said one of his girls committed suicide. It’s supposed to be aired again tonight, and the Don’s been rushing like mad to change what they’ll be saying. It’s making him…foul tempered to put it lightly.”

                “What is he trying to change the story to?”

                He can’t say one of his escorts died, so he’ll definitely stick with the label ‘employee’ or ‘hostess.’ He’d never say she died from an overdose – it would be too bad for his business.

                “He’s… He told everyone we aren’t supposed to talk about Pretty Belle to anyone – reporters, or even…among ourselves…” She took a deep breath before going on. “The only people allowed to mention her are the two main hostesses who greet and welcome everyone…and they can only refer to her as ‘Belle’ when they talk about her.”

                Elena wasn’t answering his question, and Cloud felt a tight coiling in his stomach. He watched as she turned away from him on the stool.

                “What’s he changing it to, Elena?”

                She still didn’t answer for several moments. When she finally did, her voice was quiet.

                “ ‘Belle was a distraught woman from The Slums who couldn’t get over her divorce… Feeling bad for her, the Don gave her a job as one of his hostesses… But she turned to alcoholism, and she drank herself to death outside of his hotel.’ That’s the story – he’s running with something that can make the suicide story not seem fabricated out of thin air, but something of a hyperbole for anyone who already saw the story at noon... It'll make the news stations look bad for getting the story wrong, not him.”

                There were so many things wrong with what Elena just said, and he tried to focus on the first thing that had stuck out in his mind. 

                “But she wasn’t ever a married wom…”

                Cloud trailed off as realization hit. The plan came into focus for him. Sighing, he moved to lay back down on the sofa and put the ice pack over his eyes. Really, he shouldn't have been surprised the Don would try to spin her story like that. 

                “…I see.”

                “…she was my friend you know. She was my rival, but she was my friend too. I – I don’t know what to do. I can’t accept this…”

                “What…is her family saying?”

                “She didn’t have one… No one can defend her but us – but… But if we try to defend her – the Don will fire us…”

                Taking a deep breath, he was surprised by how calm he was. Not just his voice, but how... detached he felt from the situation. 

                “Just let it go, Elena… Would you rather tell about how she overdosed after a gangbang? That’s not any better, and you’d only up getting yourself jobless and out on the streets again.”

                “It isn’t any better!”

                Elena had risen – he could tell by the loudness of her voice as she came to stand in front of the sofa.

                “It isn’t any better, but…! But it’s what happened – what is always happening here…! If more people knew what really went on, they’d…!”

                “Drop it, Elena.”

                He hated being so cold – so uncaring – but Elena couldn’t afford to act like this. She definitely shouldn’t have been trying to speak the way she was here, in a lounge where anyone could walk by. One word of this from one of the Don’s spies – someone who wanted to gain his favor – and Elena would be out of a job in a matter of seconds. He might too, just by association.

                She’s dead. There is no use agonizing over it. Her troubles are over now.

                His thoughts were as frigid as the cubes over his eyelids.

                For a long time afterward the room was silent as Elena sat back down. Twenty minutes must have gone by until Cloud decided to break it. As much as he would have liked things to remain like this, there were still answers he needed. He'd given her enough time to collect herself again.

                “What were you talking about when you mentioned Splitz?”

                With a quiet and remorseful voice, Elena chose to answer him.

                “…she apparently paid off the people who forced her to take this job, and even got herself a nice place to stay. She told the Don off in front of everyone, words better left unmentioned, and quit… Then she walked out. The Don acted like nothing had happened at first, but then he threw a shot glass and nearly hit several of the girls with it. Ever since announcing about Pr- Belle and dismissing us, everyone’s been trying to avoid him… You know, except for the girls who want his favor – they’ve been all over him in his room all day long.”

                Elena shuddered at her own tidbit of information, and he agreed. No matter how desperate Cloud had been at times, he'd never tried to win the Don's favor by purposefully trying to stay close to him. Like everything else, Claudia liked to keep his relationships impersonal. 

                Cloud almost asked her why she wasn’t one of them – she wasn’t a popular escort and could use the added income – before he caught himself. It was a horrible thing to ask, even in this business… Especially knowing she and Pretty – she and the girl had been friends. Elena might be desperate like him, but neither of them were that far gone.

                He needed to focus on something else for a while. Elena’s voice spoke too strongly of an open wound – he didn’t want the unwanted nostalgia of such things to reach him.

                “…anything else?”

                “…yeah. He briefly mentioned an event he was thinking about hosting… Wasn’t really clear about it – but now with his reputation tarnished, I’m sure he’ll have something to say by tonight.”

                ‘Tonight’ stuck him but he didn’t remember why. Sitting up and letting the ice pack fall away, he got up and went over to his vanity and opened his drawer. Inside was his little green notebook – he flipped it open to the date and dragged his finger across.

                “Sunday… That’s right.” Cloud glanced at the time. He still had time – a few hours before his shift started. He sat it down and went to the changing rack, changing into a loose zipper crop-top and some sensible black pants.

                “If I don’t make it back by the time the Don announces his speech, tell me what I missed.”

                Her only reply was a half-shrug as she stared curling her hair.

                Going back to his vanity, he put his notebook back where it belonged and pulled his cell phone out and placed it in his pocket. Heading to the door he paused, caught up and distracted by Elena’s quiet sigh. She still looked so miserable staring in the mirror.

                He opened his mouth to say something – anything – but words failed him. Comforts and condolences were never his thing to begin with – and he’d lost so much it had become a common occurrence to say nothing at all and just move on.

                There’s nothing that can be done…so forget about it. We all have our own demons to face – and I know more than anybody that sometimes those demons win. This is her battle, not mine.

                What he was thinking was the truth, but he couldn’t understand why his chest was tight thinking it. Shaking his head he refocused on what he needed to do and headed out wordlessly.

 

..x..

 

                Reno had his head reclined backward, elbows comfortably placed on the stall behind him. This was a public place just outside of Wall Market, but with some monster warning out in the area the market square had been evacuated until it was taken care of.

                “Fuuck, Cloud… That feels good.”

                On his knees, Cloud kept a tight grip on the redhead’s belt-loops. Despite the verbal praise, he wondered what the man was up to. Every now and again Reno had shown an exhibitionist side of himself, but he’d been working the man over for near ten minutes already and he hadn’t climaxed yet.

                Pulling away and wiping his mouth, he said, “If you aren’t into it just say so. Don’t waste my time.”

               “Yo, as harsh as always. No, I was definitely into it – just enjoyin’ the feelin’ for all it was worth is all.”

               Glancing around, Cloud said, “This isn’t exactly the time or place for a long one. I’m indulging your kink in the face of discovery and real danger… Isn’t that enough to get you off?”

               “Heh, analyzin’ me now…? It feels good but if you want my honest opinion, it ain’t me who isn’t into it. You’re all distracted. Is it because monsters are in the area?” Reno wagged his eyebrows, half flirtation, half mockery. "Because you don't need to worry. Me and my mag rod will keep you safe, doll."

               Disgruntled, Cloud didn’t answer. He'd learned it was just better to go along with the redhead's delusions. 

               “Or is the thought someone might come back before the all clear is given…? Heh no – not that either… I know, it’s because your anxious you’re gonna get spotted by that SOLDIER boy you like, ain’t it?”

               Glowering, Cloud went to stand but Reno moved to place a hand on his shoulder.

               “Cool your jets, doll. I’m just messin’ around a little. SOLDIERs aren’t on call for this – infantry and cadets are the ones who’ve been tasked with this gig. We Turks are here just to make no one gets killed for stupidity reasons.”

                “Then you should be doing your job.”

                “My partner is out and about. Don’t worry about nothin’. Now that you’re not distracted, why don’t you work me over like you’re really into this. I mean, here we are, out in the open…danger all around…”

                “That’s your fantasy sex, not mine.”

                Leaning forward again, Cloud took Reno back into his mouth and felt a hand descend into his hair. He tried to ignore the thoughts Reno had of him – thinking he was distracted because of a ‘crush’ of all things – but they kept circling in the back of his mind.

                If at least one thing was right, he needed to focus. Reno was pointedly doing nothing, wanting Cloud to do all the work. He’d never finish if Cloud wasn’t into it and was admittedly doing a half-assed job. Putting his hand around the base of Reno’s cock, he started working him over the way he should have been – rough, like the man liked it.

                “Mm hell, yes, that’s much better… Just like that.”

                Shifting on his knees for a different height, he slid his free hand up under Reno’s shirt to grab his side. He'd learned that some kind of contact around the man’s sides or thighs was often a good call. He squeezed there, roughly – and if the hissed sigh was any sign, it was enjoyed.

                “Look up at me when you’re workin’ me over, doll. You’ve got too – ah, – too good of eyes to be lookin’ anywhere else but up here. Fuck, yes – just like that.”

                Reno’s hand tightened in his hair and he started guiding him with some urgency. Not wanting to make anything easy for him, Cloud sucked harder – making it painful.

                “Aw, ya little…”

                He knew exactly what the redhead had wanted to say and bit almost warningly – but it all served a purpose. Moments later he pulled out and Cloud was treated to the feeling of cum landing across his cheek and his squinted eyelids. He stayed where he was until Reno was done before sitting back on his heels. The ground was rough even through his pant legs, and his legs had gone numb and tingly.

                “Phew… That felt… Mm.”

                As Reno slowly came off his high and put himself away, Cloud wished he’d brought some sort of towel with him or something – he should have been prepared at this point. Glancing up at the stall the redhead was against, he saw there were no cloth items – just perfumes and oils.

                Hands reached down and Reno hauled him up to his shaken legs – another kink the man had – and turned them so Cloud could lean back against the stall. His hands moved to Cloud’s exposed sides and back before slipping lower over his belt, cupping his ass and pulling him away so Cloud had to lay reclined back if he didn’t want to fall.

                Reno’s tongue darted up across his cheek and his nose, and with a sigh Cloud said, “You don’t have to do that…”

                “I want to, doll.”

                Not arguing the point – this wasn’t the first time – Cloud closed his eyes as Reno’s tongue swirled just under his right eyebrow. He wondered if Reno would fuck him across the stall next – imagined the perfume bottles shaking and falling over – but the firm hands along his backside weren’t trying to move to undo his belt.

                “So, how about that date? A nice place just opened up…they have great food.”

                Crossly, he said, “Reno…”

                “What? I know I’m supposed to buy you dinner first and all that jazz…but our setup ain’t the normal kind, is it? Come on now… One date?”

                “Can I have it now or not?”

                A long drawn out sigh.

                “Geez baby, ya have fun with me but have no fun with me at the same time… Breakin’ my heart here.”

                He wasn’t certain what expression he was making, but it had to have been dark because the man finally stopped licking across his face and kissed him instead. The kiss was rough – bruising even with the way one of Reno’s hands moved up to pull his head closer. 

                Once he’d thoroughly enjoyed himself, Reno pulled away and reached into his suit. Instead of handing the small canister to Cloud, he slid it into his back pocket. When he reached to try and retrieve it, Reno caught his hand.

                “They’re all there, but Cloud… I told ya before, didn’t I?”

                “I don’t care what you have to do. Just keep doing it.”

                “The pill is goin’ to be discontinued. They’ll stop makin’ them real soon.”

                “I said I don’t care. Buy as many as possible – buy them all if you have to – I’ll do whatever you want however you want me to. Whenever – wherever. Whatever price they are – I’ll pay it in Gil and debt, or just like this. Just do what it takes to get them.”

                “It ain’t that simple, doll.”

                “Yes it is. You get the pills. Take my Gil – take my body as payment – do as you please with me. I don’t give a damn anyway – but you keep getting those pills. You’re the only one who can.”

                “Look, even if you gave me all the Gil you had and I went through all the black market channels… The pill is still goin’ to be kaputz. Whatever amount ya get, that’s it. There aren’t… There won’t be anymore.”

                Angry, he hissed, “Then find me someone who will keep making the damn things. I’ll do whatever they ask in return. Just find me someone!”

                Reno looked at him for a time before stepping away and rubbing the back of his neck. He sighed in irritation for a time before saying, “You don’t want to get involved in something like that, doll. Pill makers – they don’t just ask for Gil. They’ll ask for your body – and not in the ways you’re willing to pay.” He spoke so seriously that none of accent came through and it momentarily gave Cloud pause, but Reno continued before he could question it.

                “They’ll want something horrific like your organs, or maybe even worse – they’ll want you to test their illegal pills.”

                “I’ll test pills. I’ve had every sex-centric pop around the block, and then some.”

                “But those are drugs that you know about. That are tested. Pill makers will make you try crazy shit that I wouldn’t ever even try with a gun held to my head, and that’s coming from me yo.”

                Leaning off the stall Cloud got in his face.

                “What point of I don’t care do you not understand? You know how serious I am about this. You know what I want, Reno.” He grabbed his arm.

                “I’ll do anything for however many you can possibly get… After that, just…find me someone who’ll make the damn things. I don’t care who, or what they ask… Just do it. Leave everything after that up to me. Do this and I’ll even go on those dates you want – as Cloud, as Claudia – whoever the hell you want.”

                Closing his eyes and rubbing his forehead, Reno didn’t speak for a time. When he opened his eyes and looked at Cloud, he seemed pissed but he finally nodded.

                “Alright… Fine. Fine! I’ll do it.”

                Reaching into his wallet, Cloud pulled out his card and handed it over.

                “Take everything if you have to. You’re a Turk, so I know you already know my pin.”

                Accepting the card, Reno shook his head as he grumbled, “Ya makin’ a mistake, I’m tellin’ ya.”

                “My actions aren’t your concern. Those-”

                “Yeah yeah, I know. I heard ya… But will you be alright without this?”

                “I withdrew what I’d need for this week already.”

                “I see you remember what I taught ya. ‘Never keep your Gil all together.’”

                Turning, Cloud said, “…If we’re finished here now, I’m going to go. There’s somewhere I need to be.”

                “Yeah, I know that too…”

                Without a goodbye they parted ways. Cloud rubbed his head in frustration once he cleared the area. His anger was ebbing away into despair.

                What am I going to do…? What if he can’t find someone? Mom…

                Needing reassurance, he reached into his back pocket to pull out the pills and found something else tucked in there beside it.

                “What the…?”

                A red and amber cylinder looked back at him innocently besides the capsule holding the pills. It was a perfume – an expensive one by the tag, although he didn’t recognize it. He recalled the man’s actions – pulling him away from the stall and cupping him.

                He must have slipped it to me when he had me distracted.

                He was mildly offended he didn’t notice, and absently worried about the man who would find one of his precious inventory items gone when he returned…but didn’t go take it back. He was nearly out after all. Instead he wondered why Reno had chosen this one.

                Unscrewing the cap, he sprayed some on his wrist and brought it up to his nose to sniff. It took him a few moments before he recognized the scents.

                “Honey…and sugar water?”

                Well, that was The Slum perfumes for you… Something cheaply made expensively sold.

                “What are you trying to tell me with this…? Or was it just a random gift…?”

                One could never tell with Reno.

                Putting it away for now, he held up the capsule of pills and looked at them. They weren’t large, but yet they carried the weight of a life… It was mind boggling.

                For that reason, as skilled as he was for detecting pick pockets and stopping them, Cloud didn’t risk it. As always, he kept them held securely in his hand as he walked to the mail terminal at the end of this sector. If he moseyed, he’d still make it in time to ship them off before they closed for the evening…

 

..x..

 

                When he got back to the HoneyBee Inn that night, there was a new buzzing in the air. Even the hostesses barely acknowledged him, too busy whispering to each other as he walked pass. The changing room was the same – instead of simply sitting in their vanities getting ready, they were huddled in groups of twos and threes around one vanity as they got ready and gossiped. It took him some time, but eventually he spotted Elena coming out from behind the changing curtains in her Bumble Bee Bust uniform. She looked troubled, as always.

                “I’m guessing the Don already spoke… What was it about?”

                “Oh… Well… He’s holding an event to dispel the bad reputation that’s buzzing around his Inn.”

                “What kind of event?”

                “Some weird sort of…like auction, I guess. He made it sound like one thing, but we all know it won’t be like he says.”

                “What sort of auction?”

                Adjusting her hanging collar, she didn’t sound so sure herself.

                “It just sounded like he was going to auction us off to a full house of clients… Like, hold biddings for us – working his way up the popularity scale… Maybe make us all seem more popular, more desirable…”

                Crossing his arms, Cloud tried to figure out the Don’s angle.

                Alright…so one of his escorts died… His clients would know about it now – some might even know they caused her death, or at the very least, they might fear they’d be blamed for it… Don’s underhanded. He’d blackmail everyone who’d been there – and he’d want…Gil in exchange for his silence.

                It was becoming clear to him.

                He’s holding a staged auction. The prices will start higher than they realistically should for his escorts that aren’t very popular… By the time he gets to his popular commodities, he’ll already be making a fortune.

                It was despicable, but what Cloud worried about more so than the news of the event was the fact that he figured out the Don’s angle so easily. Did he truly understand the man that well…? It made him feel ill.

                “Did he say when he’d hold the event, or how we’d be…put out?” It shouldn’t have been weird to say auctioned, but it was. It felt like labeling himself as cattle, a herd animal ready for the slaughter.

                “He didn’t, but everyone knows it’ll be least popular girl to the most popular. He’ll base it on who brings him the most Gil and who doesn’t, I’m sure. He didn’t announce the date, but he said around 'a month’s time.' Other words, any week he could hold it. I guess our only heads up will be when he has us all working a shift and the place starts getting set up for us.”

                “…I see. Thanks.”

                “Ah, wait…”

                “What?”

                “He mentioned something about a ‘special commodity.’ No one seems to know what he’s talking about – do you have any idea?”

                Special…commodity?

                “No.”

                “Oh… I see. Alright then.”

                She headed for the door, and Cloud looked over the changing racks. The Don’s plans normally always made him feel uneasy, but he wondered about the pit settling in his stomach. Even the hair along his body was tingling – standing on end after hearing the news.

                Chalking it up to his concern about his Mother’s pills, he shook himself. Reaching out he picked up his uniform and headed for the changing curtain.

                There’s no use dreading the future… I just have to take it night by night, as I’ve always done. I can’t focus on anything else – I need a narrow mindset… The night, the client, the Gil, and refresh… That’s all I need.

                “I don’t need anything else.”

                He hoped saying it would make him keep believing it.

 

Chapter Text

 

                After the day he’d had, it was a blessing to have great sex. ‘Sex’ itself was not a good thing. His whole job was about pleasing the other person, adoring their every move even if they sucked, and in a lot of situations forgoing any orgasms he could possibly receive in need of making certain his client got theirs as many times as they could manage.

                Sometimes it was simply because he was performing on the pole, giving a strip tease, a lap dance even, or because he was giving head to a client or engaging in some strange fetish of theirs. Those were situations he could understand – they were meant to please the client, not him.

                Other times Cloud judged them.

                When it came down to penetration, if they came within just a few minutes he judged them as inferior. Anyone who couldn’t last three minutes was a sad creature in his eyes, and there had been a lot of sad creatures in his life. Anyone who couldn’t go a second time even after fifteen minutes of assuring they could was someone he loathed. He loathed them because for fifteen minutes he had to keep them entertained and their ego stroked while they tried not to be embarrassed about flagging.

                Then there were the sadists and the assholes. Believe it not, Cloud would take a sadist any day over an asshole. Sadist liked inflicting pain and giving pleasure as they deemed fit, but unless they were a complete novice there was some good sex to be had with it. At the very least, some good pleasure if he managed to get in the right mindset before it started and he basically just wasn’t attacked by someone with a whip calling themselves a ‘sadist.’

                Assholes on the other hand were at the very top of the list of people he disliked. Only with assholes did he like having a partner who couldn’t last. An asshole was someone who took without the slightest preparation, no moment to relax, no lube, no condom – just harsh sex where they didn’t focus on trying to hit anything pleasure worthy. They just thrusted without talent for their own satisfaction.

                True, they were here for their pleasure, but a grain of consideration was always appreciated. After all if they came here to screw something, they needed to realize it wasn’t some fleshlight but a person who could in fact feel each and every painful tactless thrust.

                That’s why after long nights pleasing clients and just clients, and tiring nights not getting an orgasm unless he managed the energy to give himself one after he was done servicing for the night, it was wonderful getting a partner who wanted him to enjoy how great they could make sex.

                He was towel drying off from his shower after having had such a man. For such a short guy, he’d fucked hard, but with a really good rhythm. He’d also taken the initiative of jerking Cloud off throughout the whole thing. After several near listless nights of bad sex with few orgasms, hitting two amazing ones by the same client felt like a miracle.

                It was an actual shame he wouldn’t see the guy again – seemingly the client only did a person here just once before moving onto the next hostess. The girls who’d already had them had claimed how good he was in bed and gushed about how much they’d come with him.

                Cloud now shared the sentiment that, yes, he really was a good fuck.

                But now he also shared the sadness that it would probably be bad sex afterwards for a time.

                His aimless thoughts were interrupted when he saw one of the main hostess girls walk into the showers and start stripping out of her nurse uniform. Misti, if he remembered correctly. She and her self-proclaimed sister looked just a like.

                “One of the little traitors wanted me to pass you a message. Said a client just walked in asking for you – and he seems quite distressed. You might want to hurry up and get out there.”

                ‘One of the little traitors’ caught his attention more than anything else in her sentence. Thinking for a moment, he realized both she and the other main hostess were working clients tonight and not greeting anyone.

                “Why the exchange?”

                Crossly, but with a smile, she spat, “Damn brats buttered up the Don and got our shifts changed. Now me and Berri have to do this low class work.”

                ‘Low class work’ was a bit of term, coming from one prostitute to the next, but Cloud understood what she meant. There were only ever two main hostesses, and they spent the whole night welcoming quests and clients alike. Their pay was the same every night regardless of how many people came in. This was a blessing on slow nights when there was only a trickle of clientele.

                It sounded like the most luxurious employment here, but it was extremely hard to achieve – let alone maintain. A main hostess escort had to remember the names and faces of all visitors, constantly know which ones were guests here and which ones were the real ‘paying customers’ – had to retrieve test papers every time a client came in to make certain they were clean and turn them away if they didn’t have one – a messy business if the client was the hitting type.

                They also kept track of who had which client, who asked for who – how they enjoyed their stay, account for all the Gil and not make a single mistake in its handling. Even a slight slip-up regarding the exchange of Gil or information could result in them being fined by the Don – downgraded back to a normal escort – and even fired.

                Cloud had originally tried for the position, but the accounting was too hard for him and he hadn’t been able to remember client faces for the life of him. He’d gotten fined his first night trying and had immediately gone back to being an escort when he saw how unbelievably high Don Corneo taxed even slight mishaps.

                As the hostess stripped and entered into the shower, he saw past her smiling expression she had a lot of dark thoughts brewing underneath. Wisely he chose to leave her alone. He was about to head down the escort hallway to get to the changing room when she surprised him by speaking up.

                “If I were you I’d hurry. The man is a SOLDIER, and the girls are skittish around those types of violent guys.”

                A SOLDIER…? You have to be kidding me.

                His day had been hard enough getting over a concussion and convincing Reno to get him those pills… Biting back a curse he hurried down the hallway into the changing room wondering who had come to see him. Slipping on his Bumble Bee Bust costume and yanking his boots on, he hurried to the door zipping them up as he went. He didn’t bother with a wig – he rarely ever did in his hostess uniform.

                Before he even reached the front desk he could hear the commotion.

                “Sir, we’re sorry but we aren’t allowed to discuss anything!”

                “Can you not just tell me if they were the one?”

                That wasn’t the voice he had been expecting to hear as he walked out from the hall into the lobby. Angeal Hewley was in his First Class fatigues like the last time they’d met, but he seemed frazzled – part of his hair was sticking out in an odd windblown sort of way.

                “Angeal?”

                Saying his name drew the man’s attention to him and the sheer amount of relief on the man’s face caused him to blink. As he came toward him, Cloud moved to lead him from the desk toward the doors – the hostesses were already making no attempt to hide their ease dropping.

                Hands grabbed his shoulders and with authentic amazement, the large man breathed, “You’re alright!”

                “Uh… Yeah. I am.”

                Not sure what was going on the man bowed his head with a breath of liberation. Cloud wasn’t sure of what was going through his head, but it was apparent an enormous weight had been taken of his shoulders.

                “Um… There there. What’s…wrong?”

                He really didn’t know how to comfort anybody – any ‘comfort’ that he did know how to do was more techniques than anything, and he was a hundred percent certain they wouldn’t be well received by this man considering his ‘air-tight’ relationship.

                “I’m sorry for spooking you… I was just…worried.”

                As the man stood back to his full height Cloud looked up at him curiously.

                “Why?”

                “Why…? I heard around base that one of the hostesses here died, some said from injuries… I thought…”

                Then why would… Ah. ‘Hostess.’ It’s more of an interchangeable word here, even used by the male escorts. We met when I was dressed up, so…he implied the word to my situation. But even so, why would he think it was me who…

                Just like that it clicked.

                “Oh, my head…injury?” He brought his hand up to his head impulsively.

                “I thought… When I heard that one of the employees here died from injuries… I kept thinking about how you’d been hurt and I’d let you go without taking you to a hospital. I rushed here, fearing it was you. That I’d…let it happen.”

                Angeal sounded so aggrieved with himself that Cloud laid a careful hand on his arm. He wasn’t used to having concern aimed toward him, but he understood guilt well.

                “I tried to call you when I learned of what happened once I got back to base from my mission, but you didn’t answer so I began to fear the worse.”

                “I- I was working so I didn’t have my phone on me. We aren’t allowed to carry one around during our shifts.”

                “I guess that makes sense… Are you really alright?”

                Nodding, trying to be reassuring, he said, “I’m fine… Got a potion in me, uh-heh, got a good few hours of rest…”

                “I didn’t hear wrongly, did I? The hostesses were so obscure about the whole thing… Oddly so.”

                Eyes narrowing, Angeal glanced around the room suspiciously.

                “Is anyone even dead? You wouldn’t know it from looking around. You’d think business would have stopped out of consideration…”

                The fact the man was even bothering to think this way appealed to Cloud. As did the slow comprehension he’d dropped what he’d been doing to hurry here to check on him of all people. As slightly hazy of his memories were from getting the concussion, he remembered they’d had something like a moment between them, but had it been anything exceptional? He didn’t think so.

                “I can’t…really discuss anything.”

                That was starting to make sense to him now too, as he eyed the two girls watching them, whispering quietly. They weren’t the normal main hostesses – only Berri and Misti were allowed to say anything about ‘Belle.’ If it had been either of them, they would have told the kind SOLDIER it hadn’t been him…and he’d probably have left already.

                “Out of respect for the girl’s family, right?”

                Cloud couldn’t find it in himself to correct Angeal, so he merely nodded. The man was still looking around with unhappiness – clearly amazed in a bitter sort of way that more respect wasn’t being shown for the departed.

                Angeal… This isn’t a place for respect. You really shouldn’t be here.

                The man looked back at him, question formed when it died on his lips. Cloud waited for him to go on but instead watched as his cerulean eyes traveled down his body slowly. It seemed now that his anxiety had passed, Cloud’s clothing was coming into high definition. Cloud wasn’t someone who flushed anymore…but he flushed regardless.

                ‘Skimpy’ was the only way to describe the standard uniform. It involved a little white collar and black bow that clipped around the neck, and then down from there a black bra with a bright fluffy golden striped pattern along the seam. Since Cloud was a male and lacked any sort of bust, his was more of a sports bra design if anything. It had been modified to show off the fact that he was muscled as much as he was allowed to get.

                Down his stomach all was shown until it reached what was nothing more than a woman’s bikini design, curves high in the back but low in the front. The gold fluff was along the top and the legs seams. Again it was modified in his condition to almost be like briefs, as the girls did not have the parts he had and thus did not have the wardrobe problem he did wearing thongs. It was apparently bad decorum for any male escorts to have their junk hanging out for a normal guest to see.

                Cloud was not going to complain about the alteration.

                Besides that, the Bumble Bee Bust costume involved a giant bumble bee butt attached to the Velcro rim along his shorts. It of course hid the entire ass, and the only time you could see what was underneath was when someone walked upstairs and it bounced. The ass and headband with the antenna were the only thing that bounced when Cloud walked, and currently he was without the latter. The tiny thin wings were stationary.

                The uniform ended with the thin slick black boots, reaching above the knee with both sides of each boot having long golden zippers down the sides. The heels were a rounded three inch, pained gold.

                It was, without a doubt, a uniform designed to show off a woman’s bust from the front, and get guests and clients alike to stare longing and perversely up the wearer’s slim legs as they were led upstairs to their rooms. In Cloud’s case, it was designed to show off exactly how Claudia’s body looked out of the dresses.

                Knowing all this, Cloud was surprised by how many conflicted emotions he went through as Angeal’s eyes dragged back up his body. Wearing this definitely made him debauched, so although Cloud had grown used to wearing it he wasn’t certain why his heart was beating so anxiously at the mere idea of what might be going through the larger man’s head right now.

                After the pause ensued for a moment more, Angeal seemed to focus his gaze on Cloud’s eyebrows and crossed his arms. He didn’t really seem like he knew what to say.

                Crossing his own arms, Cloud quietly said, “…it was generous of you to come see if I was alright. I want to say thanks so…thank you, Angeal.”

                He wasn't sure why, but his words seemed to affect Angeal in some bizarre way. The larger man half-smirked to himself, as if remembering something funny before he spoke. 

                “You don’t need to thank me. I should have insisted you go to a hospital, regardless.”

                Shaking his head, he countered, “I’m alright – don’t beat yourself up for me.”

                With a sigh, Angeal did one more glance around the room – and for the life of him, Cloud couldn’t tell if it was because he was still annoyed at the lack of mourning or because he didn’t want to look at Cloud any longer.

                “…I guess I shouldn’t do that, huh. Well…was she your friend?”

                The question had him confused for a full five seconds before he realized he was talking about ‘Belle.’

                “Oh…no…not really. I didn’t…know her.”

                Frowning, he asked, “Really…? Just how many girls work here?”

                With a slight shrug, Cloud said, “About fifteen.”

                “That few of you in this one place, and yet you don’t know each other…?”

                It was clear Angeal’s mindset regarded camaraderie amongst comrades. Cloud didn’t know how to explain that sort of concept and structure didn’t exist here.

                If anything, it was just another reminder their worlds were separate from each other in so many regards. It was depressing to think about all the things he might have had if he’d made it into SOLDIER – friends, brothers-in-arms, allies he could trust…

                Holding his elbow, Cloud looked away from the SOLDIER.

                “I don’t normally talk with anyone… I guess I’m just antisocial.”

                “Oh. I guess…I understand that. Sephiroth knows the names of his SOLDIERs, but he rarely will interact with them because he isn’t that talkative either.”

                The comparison to Sephiroth gave him mixed feelings. Happy fluttering ones, and sad stalled ones. It still felt weird to meet him again and pretend he hadn’t known him. But…maybe it was the best if they continued to pretend that they’d never met. He knew damn well how hard he'd been avoiding even thinking about him since they'd met that night at dinner again.

                Shaking his stray thoughts away, he said, “I’m fine…so I probably need to go back to work.”

                He wanted to stay by Angeal – ask about Zack, maybe even that hothead Genesis too – but unintentionally, Angeal was becoming a constant reminder of the strength and bonds he’d wanted and never gotten… He was even the boyfriend of the SOLDIER who gave him so much happiness, if only for a brief time.

                Cloud really didn’t want to grow to hate this man. Especially after he’d been so considerate and kind…

                “Oh… I shouldn’t keep you should I?” His voice was flat, and his smile a little strained.

                Is he as uncomfortable as I am…? Does he not like this side of me – dressed like this instead of how I was? Is my escort status flaring too bright for you?

                They were bitter thoughts and he really wished he knew how to make them stop.

                “No, you shouldn’t.”

                He started to go back toward the stairs, but he caught Angeal raising his hand in his peripheral vision. He turned back to see him rubbing the back of his neck.

                “…did you mean it when you said you liked Genesis?”

                The question caught Cloud off guard. He would have expected to be asked about Zack, if anyone. He tried to recall their conversation, but couldn’t remember if he said he’d liked Genesis or not.

                “…why the curiousity?”

                “Just a man’s curiousness. You don’t have to answer, of course.”

                Cloud looked Angeal over. Unlike Genesis, he was a pretty down to Gaia sort of guy – blunt, but without the edge. Someone who took care of business…who didn’t mix words. If he asking, there was a reason. As such, he thought over his response carefully.

                “…he’s arrogant, and a bit of a prick…”

                At Angeal’s look he decided to be more forthright.

                “He’s rude and an asshole.”

                Angeal winced slightly.

                “…but having said that, I admire his tenacity – even though I hated being on the end of it. Everyone he doesn’t cherish is always below those he does, and no one in his mind deserves his kindness just because they exist. He seems like the kind of guy who couldn’t care less about someone he doesn’t respect…and couldn’t care more for someone he does. That sort of devotion is… I don’t have a good word for it, but it’s something…genuine, outstanding, and maybe even crazy? I don’t have a way with words.”

                Angeal seemed to accept this amicably.

                “You were right though, he’s not a bad person... Besides that, I’m not really sure what I think of him.”

                “…thanks for your honesty. I’ll leave now.”

                He started to head for the doors, but Cloud called out his name. When he glanced back, he shrugged in apology – for what, he didn’t know.

                “You know, Angeal… I don’t think I’ve ever met a man as kind as you before. You seem like a level-headed guy, someone very dependable… I think, if your Genesis’ friend it’s because he’s worth having as one…and I think it says a lot about your character too.”

                His words were nothing fancy, nor were they anything special, but the broad muscled SOLDIER got a strangely becoming flush on his cheeks. It was light, but it was there. The blush made him finally look his age too – someone in his twenties. It was so endearing that without thoughts to his actions, he walked toward the man and reached up to lightly run his hands down the sides of his head – to flatten his corkscrew hair down to how it should be.

                “Thank you… Cloud?”

                “Yes?”

                “What extra number did you put in my cell?”

                Without hesitation, he answered, “There should be two sevens, two fours, and one five. The rest are zeros besides the area code.”

                With a nod and a small smile, Angeal said, “I’ll remember that. Cloud?”

                “Yes?”

                “…I’ll send you a text so you know my number. Remember to,” he paused slightly to glance back around the room before focusing on him again – this time making the transition to his eyes easier. “get a hold of me if you get into some kind of trouble. Will you do that?”

               There had been so much honesty in the air until this moment that his voice softened with the lie unintentionally. 

                “…yeah.”

                Angeal seemed to notice it too and for a moment, seemed bothered by its discovery, but then shook it off. With another nod, Angeal gave a small wave and then headed for the entrance. Cloud, suddenly struck with a question that wouldn’t quiet, took a step after him.

                “Uh…?”

                Angeal glanced back, a strangely knowing smile on his face.

                “I’ll tell Zack you said hello, alright?”

                Blinking – wondering how’d he’d known he’d ask that – he nodded wordlessly.

                “Oh…and Cloud?”

                “…yes?”

                “…I think…your hair looks best like that. The spikes are…adorable.”

                Cloud blinked in surprise, gently tugging on his side bang as Angeal coughed into his fist. He would have expected a compliment to address what he was wearing if anything, but the fact that it hadn’t…it made it feel all the more genuine for some odd reason.

                After that, Angeal nodded a little too quickly and excused himself. Afterwards Cloud awkwardly crossed his arms and left the lobby to loiter on the stairs. It felt too weird – this desire to follow after the SOLDIER. He didn’t really even know what he wanted him for – to just take a stroll with no destination in mind, or to go sit and chat. Both desires were absurd, but they wouldn’t go away… They even progressed.

                If they ended up chatting, Cloud wanted to ask him about SOLDIER – what it was like, how much did he enjoy it? He felt a weird pressure now too – almost like a giddiness, and that was ridiculous. He put his hand against his forehead.

                What’s wrong with me…? I’ve barely had a drink in me tonight, it can’t be that… Maybe I’m just…a strangely agreeable person after a good orgasm… I can’t figure out what else it could be…

                Puzzled, he headed up the stairs ignoring the way the bust butt moved behind him.

                “How come, every time I try to forget… They bring it all back?”

                Sweet and bitter nostalgia – wishes and dreams – the wonder of so many old past and dead ideas… It was a cruel reminder of the harsh reality of his past, but also a glimmering hope for the future. What that hope represented was anyone’s guess – but it appeared like a city gleaming out in the distance from where he stood out in an emotionless wasteland. It was a forbidding hope…but it was still a hope.

                Back in the changing room on his stool, he flipped open his phone and saw a message from Reno – which came as a surprise, as he hadn’t expected to hear from him so soon.

                ::I might have found some1 who knows somethin about the busin-s.::

                It seemed, if only briefly, the city in the distance representing his hope got the slightest bit brighter.

 

Chapter Text

 

                “Are you sure about this Cloud? Really sure?

                Reno never seemed to call him Cloud, and as such he could catch how uneasy the man was about this whole thing. But Cloud was ready – he’d had two whole weeks to prepare. No matter what challenge he was tasked with, he’d handle it. They’d already made the deal – try a barely tested drug out, and this pill maker would set him up with another black market pill maker who’d start analyzing one of his Mother’s pills and duplicate it.

                “Don’t you at least want to wait until you have to turn to this…? You just sent the other five off, and I told you I’d be able to get you another one by next week…”

                “But after that your connection runs dry. Isn’t that what you said?”

                “Yeah, but…”

                “But nothing. It could take weeks for the pill’s formula to be figured out and the ingredients gathered so it can be duplicated. I want to get the finished product before my Mom actually needs it… If I wait until I must have it, she might not get it when she needs it.”

                With an aggravated huff, Reno shook his head. He kept glowering at the few people milling around the alleyway as they walked through it, sitting on old mattresses or graffiting the place.

                “There’s at least four people in this hallway I could get a raise for catchin’, yo…”

                “Catch them on your own time, somewhere else.”

                “I never said I was going to. How did ya think I found the person you needed?”

                They went past a busted chain-link fence and Cloud paused beside it. The fencing had rusted metal over it, but a fist sized hole still remained.

                “Somethin’ the matter?”

                “…no.”

                Shaking off his distracting thoughts, he went forward into the enclosure before two men in strangely SOLDIER resembling garbs came toward them. Beside him, he felt Reno tense like a cat. He may have stepped smoothly in front of him – making it seem like he was simply just stepping around Cloud – but there was nothing easy about it to Cloud’s eyes. Whoever these two were, faces hidden inside headgear, Reno recognized them.

                “What the hell is this yo?”

                His voice was calm but Cloud didn’t miss the way the Turk’s fists clenched.

                “An insurance policy.”

                The voice came from up ahead, where a man in a lab coat pushed aside a drape blocking the entrance of a small shelter like house.

                “Insurance policy, huh…?”

                “You are a Turk after all, working for Shinra none-the-less… We wouldn’t even be dealing with your likes unless it was a benefit to us.”

                So that’s Fuhito.

                Cloud eyed the two men in uniforms before focusing back on the scientist.

                “I don’t know what pissing match is going on here…and I don’t care. I’m just here to test your drug so you can set someone up to make some pills for me. I want nothing more, nothing less.”

                Adjusting the glasses on his face, the man examined him with a quick glance over.

                “A blunt one.”

                “More like an impatient one.”

                Fuhito’s eyes moved to Reno.

                “It seems he and I are on the same page. I’m ready to begin at once, but I won’t do the trial in front of him. He can stay out here with my insurance, and you can come inside with me.”

                “Look here ya Professor Hojo reject, I’m-”

                Cloud stepped out from around him.

                “That’s fine with me.”

                “Tch, you idiot. Doll, just chill out and let me handle this.”

                “You should be proud you have someone like the esteemed Professor Hojo on your side, Turk.” Fuhito sounded like Reno had hit a sore spot. “His brilliance gave birth to SOLDIERs. I will follow in his path and make RAVENs that surpass his, turning SOLDIERs into nothing but prototypes.”

                “Yeah, you wish. These wackadoodles will never surpass SOLDIERs. They’re too touched in the head.”

                This conversation was going over Cloud’s head and trying his patience. Walking past both uniformed men – who in his wake blocked Reno from following – he went to stand before Fuhito. The scientist spared him another glance over before turning.

                “Come along then.”

                They headed inside the small building before them, and Cloud ignored Reno’s growled curses as he let the drape fall behind him. Fuhito led him to the table in the center of the room and motioned for him to sit on it.

                “The drug shouldn’t cause dizziness, but a suspended feeling. It has been tested on active subjects during trials, but this is the first time I’ll test a relaxing subject.”

                At first Cloud thought Fuhito was explaining the trial to him, but soon realized he was talking into a recorder on his lab coat. As he grabbed a tourniquet and an alcohol swab, Cloud listened to him as he came closer and started attaching the former to his arm.

                “Test trial five. Substance xxxxin. Dosage half as less than the product of trial four…”

                The man swabbed his arm, then moved toward what appeared to be a small fridge of drugs. He withdrew one vial, checked the code out loud, and then inserted it into a syringe and knocked the air bubbles out. He approached Cloud and tapped the veins in his restricted arm.

                “The only thing you have to do,” Fuhito was speaking to him now, “is to relax. You should reach a dream state if my hypothesis is right.”

                Cloud simply nodded.

                Then, both apprehensive and uncertain, he watched the needle go into his skin to his vein. The liquid slowly made its way inside his bloodstream. About halfway into the injection Cloud felt it – a strange warm tingling sensation. It continued to spread throughout his arm after it was all inside him – flowing further through his body moment by moment. Just minutes afterward, Cloud had a clear thought of the drug at once.

                Holy Gaia Goddess and Knights of the Round, I feel like I’m one with the Lifestream right now…

                The room, which had been oppressive and dark, seemed like the coziest place that had ever existed – ever. The table below him which had seemed like nothing but a slightly bent throwaway now made him marvel at each bump and dent – wondering what the story behind each one was all about. He bet they were cool stories.

                It wasn’t making him horny like the HoneyBee Inn drugs – but no…he felt serene – at peace with everything and everything. Or was it anything and everything? Aw, it didn’t matter.

                It was such a startling sensation, but without the shock factor. Problems and concerns would drift in his mind, but now… Now they all seemed like mild anxieties, if anything.

                In fact, he wasn’t really sure what he was so worried about in the first place. Why was he ever worried to begin with? Sure, he got in debt as a kid, but eh, it happened. He sold his innocence – but, like, he got paid for it and everything. Even past abuse seemed low-key bad.

                I mean it could have definitely have happened waaay more than it had. It didn’t seem like a big deal anymore. He wondered why he’d ever even cried over it.

                “How are you feeling at the moment?”

                “Pretty cool.”

                “That’s good… Now close your eyes and relax.”

                Cloud complied, chilled and amazed all at once. He wanted some sunshine – he bet he’d glow in the light and the warmth would warm his very soul… Maybe if it rained, the sensation of the drops would tickle…

                He was starting to get an interesting image of a sunny day-shower – could almost feel the rays and wetness against his skin – but then a loud clatter brought him back out of it before he could immerse himself in what he was seeing.

                Fuhito was glaring at the entrance – why was he upset, didn’t he realize everything was okay? – and outside a series of angry threats were racing through the air. It amused Cloud. He could picture Reno, arms crossed, leaning back against the fence outside, little by little enraging the guards outside.

                A small laugh escape him as he pictured it – but his thoughts slipped toward the fence he was leaning against and an entirely different image came to mind.

                He was seventeen, in a bright pink dress that reached past his knees. He’d been crying because of some reason – couldn’t remember what – back against another chain-link fence full of holes. He had always been so angsty – couldn’t understand it now.

                But more vividly than he normally could, he remembered how cold the fence had been against his back as he sat against it. He hadn’t cared enough to move, but instead looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps. He hadn’t dared believe it – dared imagine it – but it was him.

                He could recall him so well – the black pants, his shirtless form – only bathed in silver hair that made him think of the moon and the stars now. He had looked like a warrior of the Goddess – one of her angels. Beautiful…but there was something terrifying about him as well.

                Cloud, entranced, had tried to get to his feet – and then been forced against the fence. The man he had admired since he was only a little kid spread his legs with what had seemed like a frightening ease at the time, and then before Cloud could really comprehend what was happening – Cloud was being taken by his idol, bruisingly so.

                His lip tore from the harsh kisses, hickies turned to a deep bite mark, and the hands gripping him unintentionally battered him – wrists, arms and sides, thighs and legs… Inside, he hurt against the pleasure too – it was rough, uncaring – and broke Cloud’s heart to pieces. It felt like falling in love only to have your heart shattered – the despair of a wedding where only one spouse is waiting at the altar.

                Cloud could recall every thrust, jerk, and gasp he’d croaked out – shocked into speechlessness at the assault that did so much more than besiege his body. He hadn’t fought back – not even because he knew he wouldn’t be able to get free – but because he didn’t feel like it was worth it any longer.

                Now it seemed like a good memory, no longer tinged with pain and sadness, but a certain sort of appreciation.

                I did get to have sex with Sephiroth. Not many people get to say that, right?

                His body had hurt so much, but his heart had hurt the most – it felt like he had been impaled.

                It wasn’t like good things didn’t come from it, though. Because of that, I made defenses. Cloud didn’t get hurt anymore – Claudia was born to take care of him. She blacked out memories, left gaps in what he could remember – all to protect him. She’d kept him alive all this time. Sephiroth’s cruelty had been turned into his salvation.

                Toward the end he had relaxed and clung to Sephiroth’s body, the action making his idol’s motions gentler than they had been. Cloud remembered holding onto the links in the chain fence behind him with his hips around Sephiroth’s – but most of all he remembered his once upon a hero’s eyes – he’d heard they were the color of jade and slit, but no one had ever told him his eyes actually glowed to the point that they hurt to look at, like ultra violet lights, or that his pupils were so thin you could barely see them.

                They had looked nothing like they had when they met again. As jade as ever, but far less bright – and Cloud could see his pupils clearly. His intensity was nothing compared to how it had been when they’d first encountered each other – and Cloud didn’t know how to act toward him – he’d hurt him, but Cloud still wanted him even though it definitely wasn’t healthy to desire such a thing.

                It all seemed hilarious now – not haha funny – but wow, my life’s weird! Even as the memory was playing in vivid detail in his mind, Cloud didn’t feel aroused by it now – far too spaced out in his own body and mind to really make the connection and get a reaction to what was going on in his head.

                As the scene was coming to an end, Cloud remembered his past self finally speaking – gasping his name.

                “..Sephiroth..”

                The word, coming from his lips, made the dream slide away and he was slipped back into the small room. Fuhito was before him, pausing briefly as he came back, but then continued talking into his recorder.

                “Subject is brought back from dream stasis by conversation… Brain kicks back to reality for a reply to his own words.”

                A little dazed, Cloud looked around. He still felt so euphoric – so calm – nothing could be wrong. His home town could catch fire – a giant meteor could fall from the sky – it didn’t matter. He’d still be down for it – he just felt…so good. Everything was perfect – even his Mom was all good. The medicine could be gone and he felt like she’d still be fine – she’d be fine – and he bet he could write to her and tell her everything that had been happening to him these past few years and it would all just…work itself out.

                Yeah…that’s a good idea – no more problems… I’ll write and tell her everything. She might even like me cross-dressing – Mom always wanted a daughter too… She also always wanted me to date someone older – I wonder what she’d think about me already having been a “bride”…

                Fingers snapping in his face brought him back to focus, and he smiled charmingly at the scientist.

                “The trial is over now, but feel free to…detox here.”

                Cloud watched him go outside and before long Reno came inside, expression one of annoyance – but it shifted to concern as he came forward and held Cloud’s face and squinted.

                “…holy shit you’re glazed like the President’s donuts. Yo, hey, you know who I am don’t you?”

                Cloud hadn’t ever given Reno’s hair the attention it deserved – It was freakin’ bright scarlet red – but he’d never even given it the time of the day before… No longer!

                Trailing his fingers through it, he smiled.

                “…and now you’re petting me.”

                “You have…the coolest hair. Ever. It’s like…summer and autumn had a love child.”

                “Don’t butter me up when I’m pissed at ya… But yeah – it’s awesome.”

                Cloud nodded, agreeing – not really sure why. Reno sighed as he endured the petting, still turning his face this way and that and checking his eyes before examining his arm until he found the puncture wound.

                “You remember what the wacky scientist gave ya, doll?”

                Cloud repeated what he remembered dreamily.

                “Hm… Have to remember that one… I’d ask how you’re feelin’, but that’s pretty damn clear. I could yell at you all I want, but it wouldn’t phase you at all would it?”

                “Phasing… That be a cool super power.”

                “Thought so. Hm… I don’t really want to stay here in enemy territory – or at least territory the enemy knows about. Can you walk?”

                Cloud slid off the table, really appreciating how lucky he was to have been born with legs. They were truly amazing things – and he had two of them!

                “That’s it, doll… Good, just follow me now… Oh, okay then, grab onto my ponytail – just…that’s it – yeah…”

                Very contently, Cloud trailed after Reno as they left the house.

                “So, since I’m not likely goin’ to get this chance again – and it would be pointless to talk about the other pill maker with you like this… Hey, Cloud. I’m your best buddy, aren’t I?”

                Happily, Cloud agreed.

                “Say it. Say I’m your best buddy.”

                “You’re my best buddy.”

                “Ehehe, okay…this might be kind of fun… Hn, this? Oh it’s just my cell phone – my camera, ya see? Don’t even worry about it. Now, doll, I’m a hottie aren’t I? Why don’t ya look right here and tell me…just how hot I am.”

 

..x..

 

                Three hours later, Cloud had his face in his hands. Reno had left him alone thirty or so minutes ago once the effects of the drug officially wore off and had been tormenting him left and right. Cloud didn’t need to see or listen to the videos – he could remember everything…

                Everything.

                His heart hurt with anxiety and stress. He was so embarrassed on one hand... Downright mortified on the other. 

                How could he even be so foolish? His actions terrified him. He remembered all of his thoughts, so calm and careless – how colorful the world had seemed… Now it all seemed so bleak, and he couldn’t help but think of how worse it could have been if Reno hadn’t kept him entertained.

                It really seemed like a good idea to…to write my Mom – to tell her all about the horrible things… Gods, I might have done it – wrote her and sent off a letter without a care in the world…

                He was terrified of himself. He’d gone in expecting a drug that caused hallucinations, or vomiting even – but he’d never expected there was a drug out there that literally changed what he had, until today, considered the rocks of his character. How quickly he’d flung them out the window!

                He felt so sick.

                But perhaps the worst thing about all of it…was the fact his perception of the world had been altered forever now. As a kid he’d seen it as daunting but something wonderful… After being an escort, his world had become black and white… lately, he’d been seeing streaks of gray – glimpses of color again…

                But that drug had given him the entire rainbow spectrum of color when he was not prepared for it. Everything had been warm and light – kind and joyful – he’d been so…comforted, like he was wrapped in eternal happiness. It was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before…

                …and now that it was gone he felt like it had all been ripped away. Things were bleaker than he’d ever seen them before – and it scared him. His hands were trembling around his tenth – maybe eleventh – drink, and he had another six at his side. He didn’t want to be conscious – to think straight right now.

                As amazing as the drug had been, it left an unimaginable emptiness behind – one Cloud feared he wasn’t going to be able to escape from. That city in the distance felt nonexistent now – a mirage.

                Raking a hand through his spikes, he muttered to himself. He needed to black it all out – forget everything – forget the whole thing…or it would drive him mad. He couldn’t handle everything he’d experienced…so suddenly being torn from his world.

                He drank the bottle down heavily, raking his hand through his hair again. The trip had also brought Sephiroth forward once more – an old ach, old wound… The experience had nearly killed what was left of ‘Cloud’ – but because of it, he’d come back stronger – and had been able to survive until now thanks to ‘Claudia’… But the drug had brought it all back, and now the scar felt reopened, and the wound was bleeding all over again. He wanted to forget it had ever happened…but…

                It was also something he never wanted to forget.

                The pain…the pleasure…that feeling of despair…it was like a present – one I couldn’t turn down, and afterward, I had no choice but to hold onto.

                …and then he’d met Sephiroth for a second time. He’d imagined how it would go down in his head endlessly if they ever came across each other again, but instead of any of his scenarios playing out… Sephiroth had looked him in the eyes and not even recognized him. Their encounter – which had shaken Cloud’s very foundations – had not even slightly been memorable to the dark angel.

                Somehow…somehow...that was the most painful thing to endure.

                Shaking his head, Cloud grabbed his next drink and rocked himself slightly. He didn’t want to think about it anymore – he wanted to forget.

                He was going to forget.

                That drug had been a miracle and the deadliest of offences, and Cloud knew if he didn’t do everything he could to forget what it had shown him – how it had made him feel – he was going to go mad.

                Nursing his drink close to his chest, Cloud closed his eyes as he tried to will himself into unconsciousness.

 

Chapter Text

 

                It had been three days and a night since Cloud had tried that drug. Things were finally settling out again for him – but something new had settled in its place. Something dark, something he recognized.

                His fingers were drumming on the table as he pulled out his phone. He went through his inbox.

                R.::I might have found some1 who knows somethin about the busin-s.::

                R.::Looks like in 2weeks, we have a go.::

                Z.::Um, hi, this is Zack! Angeal gave me your number. Hope that’s cool?::

                Z.::So, Angeal got to see you the other night. He told me about it – he’s a great guy, isn’t he?::

                A.::Cloud, this is Angeal.::

                Z.::Uh, Zack again! I was wondering…how are you doing? You okay?::

                Cloud moved over to his outbox.

                C.-R.::Great. Set up a meeting place and time.::

                C.-R.::Not any sooner? Well, alright.::

                C.-R.::So what about the other pill maker? When do I meet him?::

                C.-R.::Hey.::

                C.-R.::Reno.::

                Three days and no word from Reno. Cloud’s fingers started tapping more irritably along the white table top. The beauty of the golden and crystal centerpiece was lost on him. He was still drumming his fingers when his date sat back down across from him. Putting his phone away, he tried and failed to smile.

                Taking one of his hands, Mr. Sigfreid smiled gently at him.

                “You look lovely… I mean, you always look so lovely… But I suppose tonight, with the atmosphere… You look more charming than words can supply.”

                Watching the flames on the centerpiece and the way they made the crystals twinkle, Cloud was reminded how enchanting the world had seemed under the influence of the drug.

                Crossly, he moved his free hand down to grip the shimmering cloth of his dress. He wondered why he’d even chosen a pastel lavender color – he could have worn a trash bag and this delusional man would still be entranced by him.

                Why am I so angry? Get a grip already.

                Desserts were brought out to them. Cloud eyed the chocolate and mocha slice of cake drizzled in cherry sauce, and Mr. Sigfreid’s red velvet piece, dusted with crushed pretzels and a rich orange sauce of some kind. They were together on the platter, meant to be a shared delight for both.

                Cloud wanted to stab one with his fork and take a huge bite – not even from hunger, but just because it felt like a good way to release the tension coiling in his shoulders. He resisted the urge just barely when Mr. Sigfreid’s fork came into view and picked up a tiny piece and offered it out to him.

                “Please, my dear Claudia… The first bite is yours.”

                Trying to reign in his rampaging emotions with some dignity, he nodded and accepted the bite. Just as expected – the flavors were rich and delicious. Amazing. It helped cool him off, if only slightly.

                I know what this feeling is.

                When Cloud was introduced to drugs, they’d almost driven him mad. He wanted them left and right – they made scary things seem fun, and they made it impossible to feel pain. He took whatever was given to him whenever it was offered – it was a blessing he hadn’t overdosed like Pretty – like Belle.

                I would’ve though… I had more than one close call and bad reactions to what I was taking… That night, when I’d met Sephiroth – I was still dug in deep. I remember why I was crying now.

                “Mmm, simply…marvelous! Splendid! I feel wordless!”

                Nodding for the sake of it, Cloud took another bite so he didn’t have to say anything.

                The loan sharks had used me, made he do what they wanted…it had been in public too – on one of the train terminals. The drugs had made me wild – excited, happy – and it wasn’t until after they started wearing off that what had happened really hit me. I’d been at the end – I was giving up.

                “Claudia, dearest, try this piece – it is heaven.”

                Accepting the piece and nodding, Cloud glanced back toward the centerpiece as he took a drink of his wine.

                Then Sephiroth came. I was happy to see him – to meet him… I had idolized him for so long – left home to meet him and be just like him… Then before I really understood, we were having sex against that fence. The chain kept rattling against my back. My shoulder was against the opening of a hole.

                “Claudia dear, you’ve been so quiet tonight… Are you distracted?”

                “…I’m just enjoying…the atmosphere.”

                This seemed to delight Mr. Sigfreid, and he took another bite of his pretzel cake.

                It had hurt, being with Sephiroth… But not physically. I felt the bruising and stings later, after the drugs had fully worn off but they weren’t anything other than minor hurts – nothing worse than what I’d already born… No, it hurt being used by someone I worshiped as a hero. It hurt, but…

                He clinked his drink together with Mr. Sigfreid, unsure of what they were toasting now.

                …but I was also happy. I was able to pretend it meant something. When I closed my eyes I could imagine we were lovers and what we were doing was something really wonderful – it felt amazing, once I thought like that. I had clung to him and accepted everything, and had even managed to feel empty and sad when he was done and simply left.

                “…the wine is delicious isn’t it, Claudia?”

                Taking another long drink, he nodded. He didn’t catch the nervous hitch in the man’s voice.

                By making myself think it had been a good experience – by wholeheartedly believing it – I was able to continue on when I had already decided to give up. I was able to stand up again and make a stronger persona – one who would protect Cloud – build a wall between him and unpleasant things. While the dam filled with sadness, he stayed safe on the other side. That’s why…

                Cloud felt something nudge his lip while he was drinking.

                …I don’t think I’ve ever hated Sephiroth. The experience was so bitter and sweet, like a poisoned honey, but it was the experience that saved me from myself. As Claudia I was able to take the drugs in moderation, build a tolerance to them with willpower, and get to the point where I could dull everything to black and white and I didn’t need them any longer… Claudia herself, was the drug against pain and my fear.

                Dazed, Cloud turned his wine glass over and held his hand under it. The remaining red wine slid through his gloved fingers onto his dress as something fell from the cup and landed in his palm.

                Mr. Sigfreid was getting up and standing at his side, reaching out to take the little item in his hand. Cloud watched, stunned and puzzled, as he knelt down on one knee and slowly slid the band over Cloud’s gloved finger.

                It’s…a ring?

                Hands grasping him, Mr. Sigfreid was looking up at him with his dull eyes shining and his face sweating in nervousness. He had a tender smile on his face. Cloud, not comprehending what was happening, felt his breath stop.

                “Miss Claudia, I know this is sudden…we are apart in age, but our connection…it is real, isn’t it? I feel like a young man again when I’m with you… I feel – I feel like we are meant to forever be at each other’s side. I want to take you to be my wife, and I want…to give you the life you deserve. Miss Claudia, please, will you do me the honor of…calling me, Jameson, your…husband?”

                “…aren’t you married?”

                The question came out slowly, in confusion. In veiled distress.

                “I served her the divorce papers this morning… She is nothing but a mistake. There is only you, my dear.”

                Cloud stared at the ring, the large diamond and thin silver band… Slowly he reached to touch it and inch by inch tugged it off his finger. Voice low, Cloud stared at Mr. Sigfreid as if he’d never seen the man before. He felt like he hadn’t.

                “…I’m a prostitute, Mr. Sigfreid.”

                The man’s hand moved to his, stopping him from fully taking the ring off.

                “No – no don’t say such a thing… You’re so much more…and please, call me Jameson.”

                “You… You don’t know what you’re saying, I mean we…we don’t know each other, Mr. Sigfreid.”

                “What are you talking about? I know all about you, Claudia.”

                Then it dawned on him slowly, like a pile of bricks.

                Mr. Sigfreid knew nothing of Cloud – not even his name…

                …but he knew all about Claudia. He knew her lines, her expressions, her “kindness”. Everything that Claudia was, the paper imitation, he loved and adored.

                He was utterly and hopelessly in love with someone who didn’t exist – a mirror that only showed what he wanted to see. A glorified wall that kept Cloud from ever interacting with these people, because he’d thought they were all nothing but scum.

                Legs shaking as he stood up, Cloud finished removing the ring and managed to place it on the white table, now taking the time to notice how elegant it was set up – with white and crystal, the romantic music playing that was more quixotic than normal – and the few other diners who were now watching the whole affair.

                Claudia isn’t real…she’s just the character I’ve always needed – the thing I flaunted at Genesis to distance myself from a bad situation… But she’s real to this man. Terrifyingly so.

                Cloud did not love this man – not even as Claudia – but looking at his crestfallen expression Cloud still felt like his heart was breaking somewhere inside his throat.

                He was in so deep… So deep that he lost sight of what was real. He loved Claudia for everything – everything he knew about her – and I didn’t once… Cloud or Claudia… They didn’t notice.

                “Mr. Sigfreid, I… I’m sorry. I can’t…call you by your name… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…!”

                Grabbing the sides of the dress and lifting them up – and away from Mr. Sigfreid’s desperate hands and crushed expression – he hurried away from him toward the doors, leaving him kneeling on the floor.

                He hurried to the elevator and slammed the button down for the bottom floor eight times, moving back once the doors shut to lean against the wall. He put his hands over his eyes, still feeling and smelling the scent of the wine on one of his gloves.

                This can’t be happening… That wasn’t real… That couldn’t be real…

                He couldn’t stop shaking.

                Where’s Claudia’s cool, cold, and logical demeanor? What’s happened? Where did it go?

                When the doors opened Cloud flew out from them and the building as if Bahamut was right behind him. He ran through Sector Eight, looking around in desperation for a safe haven before charging down one of the alleys. He barely managed to get away from the crowds before he was vomiting.

                What’s…what’s happening to me?

                He stood there, clutching the wall with one hand and his dress with the other until there was nothing left inside of him. Then, uneasily, he moved away, stumbling in his heels until he fell to his knees in the middle of the alley. He brought his hands up and tugged his gloves off to look at them. They were still shaking.

                How did this happen…? How did someone fall in love with what wasn’t real? It was never – it was never real, so how come it was for him…? How come, despite knowing this, how come…it still hurts so bad?

                Wrapping his arms around himself, he wasn’t sure how long he sat there until he heard a series of footsteps approaching him. He glanced up at a whistle.

                “My my, what a pretty little mama we have here…”

                “What’s a sweetie like you doing in these alleys, hm?”

                “…you think…she’s servicing?”

                As they milled around, not yet getting too close, Cloud clung tighter to himself. He couldn’t seem to speak. They didn’t look like Slum thugs. They were dressed in white dress shirts and suspenders, black slacks and shoes… They didn't seem to be threatening him, and their were were only half serious... Half joking.

                One of the men held up his hand, displaying several Gil.

                “If you’re workin’, I’ll pay. We got time before they all get seated anyway.”

                He tipped his hat.

                “How about it darling?”

                Cloud wasn’t sure what he was expecting next, still unable to speak or move, but it definitely wasn’t for the skies above them to rain down a series of fireballs. They all yelped as fires landed in the spaces between them, and without any hesitation to look up all three men tripped over themselves to hurry away, not wasting a single moment besides to curse in fear as they fled out from the alleyway. 

                Still too shocked to really be afraid of a monster in the skies, he glanced up to see what was descending toward the ground. Uncertain if what he was seeing was reality or not, Cloud watched a familiar man touch down before him – and a black wing seemingly disappear. The visual was too alarming to focus on, and once it was gone, Cloud purposefully convinced himself he was seeing things.

                “Tch. I’ve been wanting to do that for weeks now… Their last interpretation of the Goddess was mediocre at best.

                He turned to Cloud, looking him over with one swell sweep of his eyes.

                “I take it you aren’t here in the theater's alley to watch the play, are you?”

                I thought you said I wouldn’t have to see you again.

                Cloud thought it, but he couldn’t say it.

                With a sweep of his arm the flames behind him burnt out. He walked to Cloud and took a knee in front of him, cobalt eyes assessing him. A hand moved to touch his side.

                “A wound…? No, wine. Even the best spill at times. I won’t judge.”

                When that still refused to get a response from Cloud, the auburn haired man sighed and instead reached his hands out and started thumbing gently under Cloud’s eyes.

                “Your waterworks aren’t doing you any favors…”

                “I’m…not crying.” Then, perhaps, because he wasn’t sure he said it, he repeated, “I’m…not crying. I don’t cry.”

                Pausing for a moment, Genesis gave a simple shrug.

                “Then maybe the humidity is high today… Either way, your makeup is running. There. That’s better now. Come on now – stand up. It’s unbecoming to sit on the ground like that.”

                A hand dusted off his dress and Genesis stared at him for a few long moments before he inclined his head to the door at their right.

                “Let’s go.”

                “Wh…ere?”

                When Genesis wrapped one arm around him, Cloud chalked it up to his imagination again when he saw that black wing appear and they suddenly lifted off the ground. They landed above the previous door on a fire escape, and effortlessly Genesis opened the window nearest him.

                “Why, the theater of course.”

 

..x...

 

                They were seated in one of the balconies. The play had been going on for twenty minutes already, but Cloud – despite staring at it the entire time – couldn’t have told anybody what it was about. His thoughts were blank, were distracted, were spinning – he didn’t even know.

                At his right, Genesis sighed.

                “Lately the theater has been letting me down. They aren’t being original. I hope next performance they’ll have gotten their act together. Don’t you agree?”

                The man didn’t glance at him, but Cloud could see one eyebrow raise as he waited on a response.

                “…I haven’t been paying attention.”

                Another sigh, softer.

                “No, I guess not.”

                The man reached over and touched his hand.

                “It’s often cold in here. Your hands are chilled.”

                Seeing since Genesis was in gloves, he wouldn’t have understood how he could have known that if he hadn’t added his previous statement. It was a weird thing to notice, but Cloud couldn’t get it out of his mind.

                “Here, give me your hands.”

                For a worried fleeting moment, Cloud anxiously wondered if Genesis was going to set his hands on fire as he cupped them between his…but watched and felt, slightly entranced, as Genesis’ hands lit up from inside the gloves and warmth spread against Cloud’s hands – not hot, just…warm.

                “…that’s a neat parlor trick.”

                A slight snort. Cloud never would have expected to hear something like that from Genesis, since the noise made him seem less refined and more child-like.

                “Burnt through six pairs of gloves and singed poor Angeal twice before I got it down to a talent. Every time I got pissed off it only made it worse.”

                “Emotions…affect the flames?”

                “Yes. They teach you your mana is what is important…and yes, it is… But intensity… That’s the real mastery of magic. Emotions are the true fuel to any spell.”

                “Then…you must really like fire, don’t you?”

                “…not at all.”

                The answer confused him, and he glanced up to see Genesis staring down at their hands.

                “You don’t like it?”

                “No, fire is a dreadful thing. It burns, it consumes, and it’s greedy – so needy… It’s careless, and devours others who get careless around it… Fire is devastating, and shouldn’t ever be played with.”

                “…then why would you choose to use it?”

                “Because fire terrifies me. It has caused…so much heartache, and it is the one thing that all humans, beasts – monsters – all instinctively have a fear of… It is a merciless god. But, or because of that, I strive to master it to the point that I will never have to fear it ever again.”

                Somehow, that made perfect sense to Cloud and he looked down at their hands again.

                “What about you? What do you fear?”

                The answer came easily.

                “…men.”

                “Not monsters?”

                “No… Men are more frightening. A monster does what you expect it to do… Humans are a little more…willful.”

                “Then, what of men…who are monsters?”

                Genesis seemed to be asking him something important, but Cloud didn’t know what he was searching for.

                “…I guess I wouldn’t know. I’ve never met one before.”

                “…hm, is that so?”

                Genesis moved his hands back, and Cloud clenched and unclenched his fists. They felt…warm. He moved to place them against his chest.

                “What happened tonight…can you handle it?”

                The question was idle, as if he was only asking about the weather. But remembering what Angeal had told him, he collected his thoughts before responding – wondering when it had become easy to think again.

                “…someone asked me to marry them.”

                Genesis was looking back over the play, but both eyebrows raised.

                “Oh?”

                “I mean…someone asked ‘Claudia’ to marry them.”

                “I’m guessing her response wasn’t ‘yes?’”

                Unsure how to explain the situation, he tried, “…she didn’t have one. She…isn’t real. She’s just a…shield.”

                “That’s a different answer than last time…but this one feels more honest. More than just a shield, she was a mask you wore in trying situations, correct?”

                Surprised he seemed to understand what he was saying, Cloud gave a small nod.

                “…yeah.”

                “A defense mechanism. It isn’t as uncommon as you might think to instinctively make one when faced with great hardships. Only sometimes…those facades break apart when the shock factor is too high. That happened tonight, so I’m assuming because of the proposal?”

                Again, near alarmed, Cloud nodded.

                “What was so shocking about being proposed to?”

                “I…” Searching for words, he explained, “Claudia… She was the one proposed to. But she wasn’t…real. Everything about her was fake, her…mannerisms, her words… None of it was real – she doesn’t feel emotions… She blocks everything from reaching…to the place where I keep ‘Cloud’ safe… So when someone proposed to her… It felt like she cracked.”

                Thoughtful, Genesis tapped his foot for several moments.

                “Then, knowing this… I have a question.”

                Turning to study him, Genesis still appeared contemplative.

                “Was it Claudia who was with Zack, or Cloud?”

                Uncertain, he tried to find a response but one didn’t immediately come to him. Had it been Cloud, or Claudia? He should have been able to tell the difference, but the lines…had blurred.

                “…I think, maybe both.”

                “Both, huh…? Hm. Then…what about with me? Was it Claudia?”

                He went to say yes, because he’d felt more sitting with Zack, but the words died on his tongue as the encounter came back to him. Slowly beginning to understand, he looked at Genesis who was patiently observing him – possibly had even intentionally tried to get him to figure it out all this time.

                “…it was Cloud.”

                The words, merely three, softly spoken, had more impact than they should have. They meant something enormous – something…unbelievable.

                “Claudia, in your own words, doesn’t feel anything. Claudia was the person who was proposed to. She felt nothing toward whoever loved her – not happiness, not sadness, not anger. By that assumption, if you felt happy with Zack – angry at me – then it was Cloud. Isn’t that so?”

                His voice was light, but his words were not.

                Sitting back in his chair, Cloud felt lost.

                “What does that mean?”

                Reaching out to Cloud’s hands with one of his, he cupped them as they stayed near his chest.

                “It means…that Cloud isn’t dead…and that your intensity was genuine.”

                Near helplessly, he asked, “What am I supposed to with…this?”

                Two soft pats on his hands before the man stood up.

                “It means…you figure it out. From here on out, it’s up to you. But if I have any advice you feel generous enough to hear, I can give you a tip…perhaps in the right direction.”

                “What?”

                With a small grin, Genesis chuckled.

                “Isn’t obvious…? Start by texting back Zack…and for politeness, I’m sure Angeal would appreciate it as well.”

 

Chapter Text

 

                “…and then I had this bad feeling and looked back, and can you believe it? That monster was up again. It knocked me across the room and dazed the hell out of me. I thought I was a goner for sure! But then Angeal – bless his helicoptering ways – swooshed with his giant Buster Sword.”

                The following noise Zack made through the PHS badly mimicked something gigantic falling.

                “PLOP! It crashed down, dead – and wow. It was awesome!”

                “It sounded like an adventure,” Cloud agreed.

                “But get this. I tell him: ‘I thought you didn’t want to get wear and tear on your sword. Isn’t it important to you?’ And he goes: ‘Well, you’re a little more important than my sword. A little.’”

                Cloud could picture him holding his thumb and pointed finger out as he said it, and it brought a small smile to his face. It was strained though – as the two men surfaced at the end of the block behind him. Without a doubt he was now being followed to the HoneyBee Inn. They weren’t dressed nicely enough to be clients or guests, which could mean a loan shark’s hired hand was tailing him.

                Buying those pills through Reno hurt my nest egg unbelievably so… I missed a small loan payment. I knew it would come back to bite me, but it’s not like I can regret the decision.

                …or it could be someone who had more personal matters in mind.

                Suppressing a sigh, I don’t even look like Claudia right now, he tried to figure out if he should simply jog – or run if they chased – to the HoneyBee Inn and let the bouncers handle these guys, or if he should dart into an alley and take care of them himself.

                “…I’m really glad you called.”

                Startled, Cloud stopped – wondering uncertainly if the conversation had lapsed and Zack was now saying goodbye or if he’d missed something. Despite wanting to say something, words failed him.

                Four days ago I met Genesis of all people again, and he told me to talk to Zack and Angeal… I still don’t understand why – was it just for their sake he wanted me to do it, or for mine since I’d obviously been handling – or not handling – what had happened to me… Or, did Genesis have his own reasons for it?

                Either way, Cloud had only hesitantly called Zack the night before – hadn’t even texted him or Angeal back yet – and honestly hadn’t had his hopes high on getting answered after being so silent. Still, Zack had picked up and instead of calling him out on it, had seemed happy enough to hear from him.

                Which was still bothering him greatly.

                As the pause stretched further Cloud couldn’t help but blurt, “Zack… Um… Why are we having this call?”

                Immediately afterward he wished he could call his words back, but being unable to, he could only uneasily wait for Zack’s reply as he tried to absently keep track of how close the men behind him were getting. They’d picked up their speed now, but as of yet it wasn’t anything to worry about wholeheartedly.

                “Well, Cloud…”

                Zack sounded a little unsure himself.

                Trying to not let hurt bleed from his voice, he carefully said, “Zack… I loved having dinner with you, and I was… I am really grateful for everything Angeal has done for me… Even Genesis has surprised me since the first time we met, but I… I have to be honest. I’m confused – why do you want to talk to me?”

                It wasn’t for sake of self-pity that he asked. Zack was obviously in a relationship – one for all purposes he was happy with – and Angeal was the same – and after listening to Genesis and everything they’d all said or hinted at since… Cloud wanted to say they had some sort of dynamic going on – what exactly, he wasn’t sure. But something certainly existed…and as awkward, painful, and even as darkly wistful as the thought was, Sephiroth might even be a part of it.

                With this all in mind, it definitely didn’t make sense for a SOLDIER – now First Class – to risk not only his good name but his relationship by mingling with a Slum escort. There had to be a reason for it – certainly after everything he’d witnessed so far, Zack wasn’t a man to cheat… Angeal seemed like the guy who had morals as thick as tree trunks, and Genesis…despite the spiteful thoughts he’d had about the man at first, had intentionally and unintentionally shown how far he was willing to go for the relationship he had. Why he – some civilian not related to Shinra at all – was involved even in the slightest – it didn’t make any sense. SOLDIERs were without a doubt crazy, but still.

                Unable to say these things out loud he could only wait in frustration.

                “Y’know… I didn’t expect to see you again after I left the HoneyBee Inn in the morning.”

                Nodding even though the SOLDIER couldn’t see it, Cloud agreed.

                “But then, out of the blue, we ran into each other again. I was this lonely guy – definitely being clingy for some attention, but hey…you sat down with me anyway to keep me company. And that was hella nice. But well, we started talking and it wasn’t even about important things, but it felt real. I don’t really know how to explain anything. I never have – that’s why I’ve always tried to speak through my actions. That’s why I’ve been texting you, and probably bothering you – it’s hard to get, but Cloud… I just would like to see you again.”

                There he goes again, Cloud bit his lip. The guy said the most overwhelming things and more than likely didn’t even notice it. Resting his hand against his chest, annoyed at his heart for being so anxious, he tried to shake off the weird feeling Zack had left him with. These were exactly the kind of things that didn’t make sense!

                He was still trying to find a reply when Zack spoke up again.

                “It’s really weird, it doesn’t make sense, it seems kind of silly, and it’s even funny in a way… But Cloud? Emotions are really tricky things. I’ve had long conversations with people that have lasted for hours and I haven’t felt but the slightest flicker of the darn things… But even though our first meeting was short, and our second one wasn’t much longer… I still felt like we expressed a thousand-and-one things in only a few moments. Like we could have talked all day and night – be it in a fancy restaurant, or out in the middle of nowhere. You felt it too, didn’t you…?”

                Of course I felt it. The moment I knew you were a SOLDIER, I was interested in you. That was it. It was just the curiousity of meeting another one… But then I wanted to go further, which I never ever want – and despite that, you were willing to tell me no when anyone else would have jumped at the opportunity.

                We met again and I felt like ‘Cloud’ for the first time in two years… It was amazing – as thrilling as any drug. I felt like the mask was off again… Then it came back on when the others arrived… But, even with it on Angeal somehow managed to make me feel uneasy – made me feel jealous – because he was with you… Claudia has never gotten jealous, and because of that, a tiny crack appeared in the mask.

                Genesis managed to get under my skin right from the very beginning and the crack split and spread – Sephiroth merely being there threatened the entire thing – and Cloud came out.

                He’s right – it all happened under an hour…but it all happened regardless. I felt more emotions sitting at that table than I have since I was seventeen and near overdosing every night. I can’t explain it either – not as Cloud, not as Claudia – not as anyone…but if Zack feels the same way… Then what does it mean? Is it hope?

                Or is ‘Cloud’ being set up for heartbreak?

                Instinctively these thoughts made Cloud clutch his chest and grimace.

                “I…”

                He wanted to say that he definitely did, but he could hear footsteps coming up behind him now. Glancing ahead, he saw the Inn was only past this block. It was time to see what these guys wanted, then fight it out or choose flight if he got overwhelmed.

                “…have to go.”

                “Huh? But wait, Cloud-”

                “I don’t…disagree with you.”

                It was as much as he was able to admit. The words he’d wanted to say still wouldn’t come out – as if he weren’t capable of saying them. They felt suppressed – hidden away – in deep dark places meant to stay locked. Cloud wasn’t even certain if he had the key to say them anymore – and as such, he could only hope Zack would try to understand.

                “Zack, I have to go… I have company.”

                “Company? Didn’t you say you weren’t at the Inn yet?”

                Surprised he’d remember something like that, he tried to find a way to reassure him he’d be fine – one other thing he wasn’t used to. Zack’s question was something else he didn’t want to label as endearing, but didn’t know what else to call it.

                “I’m about a block away.”

                Worry seeped into the SOLDIER’s voice, and Cloud tried to ignore it.

                “Are you-”

                “I’ll be fine.”

                Cloud wasn’t sure where his own sincerity was coming from, but it felt genuine. It seemed the only thing he couldn’t handle more than Zack’s open-hearted statements was his raw concern. It came too quickly, too freely – Cloud’s heart literally couldn’t keep up with it. He didn’t feel like he’d done anything to deserve it, either.

                As the people were no doubt close enough to hear him if they listened hard enough, he softened his voice further as he said, “It’s probably nothing dangerous, and even if it is I’m right outside the Inn. One call for help and the bouncers will come running. But besides that, I’ve been in The Slums for a while, I can take care of myself. Goodbye, Zack…I’ll talk to you again sometime?”

                He felt nervous waiting for a reply, especially since he’d stopped and the two men behind him had as well. Thankfully this time Zack didn’t keep him waiting.

                “Of course… Just hey, at least text me that you’re okay afterward. I know you can handle yourself but…it would make sleeping easier tonight.”

                Zack probably thought he’d toned down his affections then, but Cloud still felt so…bowled over. What was he supposed to do with the knowledge Zack might sleep badly if he was worried about him?

                “Talk to you later, Cloud.”

                Cloud wasn’t sure if he said ‘Mm’ before or after he ended the call, but couldn’t focus on it as he turned around and slid his PHS into his back pocket. Two men stood before him, both slouching guys with their hands in their pockets. They bore bandanas on their heads and tied around one of their arms – Cloud didn’t identify a marker on them, but that itself only left a few options.

                “You’re Cloud.”

                No question, just a direct statement. They both looked him over – not lewdly, and not in anger – which were good signs…mostly. They made him wonder what they had in mind for him.

                “I’m not sure what you guys want… But I’m not in the mood for a fight.” He was eighty-percent certain they weren’t hired hands here to rough him up, as loan sharks tended to keep their goons dressed up, and these men were ragged by their standards. Still…better safe than sorry. He added, “If you’re here for a payment, I’m a little behind this month. I’ll make it up in the interest already, so tell your boss that.”

                “Actually,” one of them clucked his tongue when he spoke. “that’s what we’re here for. Not about any payment,” another click, “but Gil troubles.”

                Instantly wary, Cloud said, “I’ve had my share of bad run-ins with new loan operations. I don’t care what sort of system you have, I’m not interested.”

                The last thing he needed was more bad credit.

                The beefier guy – beefier as in around his gut – rolled his eyes. Cloud wasn’t sure what it was about him, but he gave off a vibe that Cloud disliked instantly. It was something…about the way he looked around the place. Something belittling.

                “Nothin’ like that either.” The man coughed, then repeated, “Nothing like that either.” Another click of his tongue. Cloud, a little surprised, realized the man was trying to speak concisely. It wouldn’t be a weird thing to notice above The Plate, but down here in these dark hours – it was a really odd thing for someone to do. Most of the time everyone pretended they couldn’t talk well to fit in.

                At least, in that one aspect, having had a strong Nibelheim accent had finally done Cloud some favors.

                The leaner man who clicked his tongue dug into his jacket pocket – Cloud finally recognized it as an older Shinra Army jacket, long outdated – and watched the man extend a card out to him. If he’d had any suspicions before, they were now realized once he saw the tiny symbol along the top corner.

                Lifting a fine eyebrow, Cloud stated, “I have nothing to do with AVALANCHE.”

                “You don’t,” agreed the thicker man.

                The other one added, “Yet… But that could change. You’re having Gil problems, and we’re payin’-” Another click again, “paying for a job well done.”

                “Maybe that’s true, but I’m not interested in terrorist strikes and bombing civilians. Nor will I be in the foreseeable future.”

                Both merely shrugged, but the card stayed extended.

                “Our boss said to give you the card. His number is the one on there. Only wanted us to say that he knows about you, and he’s willing to pay you well if you help him out.”

                Even having a card – an article – or anything else that was related to the symbols meaning AVALANCHE could get someone arrested and interrogated. That wasn’t anything Cloud wanted to get wrapped up in – but Cloud also knew the stakes of this meeting. They’d said it loud and clear – they were here to give him something, and that meant they wouldn’t go away until he took it.

                Accepting the card, Cloud asked, “Who’s this boss of yours?”

                He knew a little about the AVALANCHE Boss Elfe – everyone did – but he hadn’t heard anything about her in a while – which probably meant something was going down…something he definitely didn’t want to be involved in.

                Either way, if he showed a slight interest it might get them off his back quicker.

                Only the other two just looked at him drolly.

                “Call it and find out yourself. We did our job now.”

                As they were walking away, Cloud heard the stouter man mutter, “Talkin’ and recruitin’ prostitutes now… What’s next? That flower girl…? Pssh.”

                He couldn’t tell what the leaner man said in kind, but it seemed to be something in annoyance at his partner. Cloud looked away from them down at the card, turning it over front and back. Once he was sure the men had gone he let it drop and walked on down the block.

                I’ve already spent two years of my life in forced labor. I don’t want to spend the next two in custody. No thank you.

                Having not worked the last three days and nights because of his day off and then mysteriously altered schedule, Cloud was expecting to be greeted by the bouncers at the door. They weren’t good people, but they were kind enough to the escorts. Cloud even had a running bet with the main bouncer to the left of the entrance on who would and wouldn’t cause trouble some nights – so the fact that neither he or the other bouncer said anything to him made Cloud’s stomach fill with lead.

                The only time they ever acted like this were only times when they knew something was up. Something bad – one of Don’s Schemes, or…they knew someone was about to get fucked over – and not in the literal sense.

                Cloud could suddenly only think of Mr. Sigfreid, and his throat got tight. If he was right, then…

                Mr. Sigfreid must have finally cancelled me as his Queen Bee.

                It wasn’t often he walked into the Inn not feeling like a prisoner, but when the doors shut behind him he felt like he’d already received another sentencing. Disturbed, he clocked in – noticing Berri and Misti still weren’t behind the counter – and hurried to the dressing room, praying Elena wasn’t yet with a client tonight…

 

..x..

 

                The whole ‘shit-is-about-to-go-down’ vibe worsened when he walked into the escort chambers. Normally the girls were being catty with each other, doing their makeup – discussing the rise in perfumes and accessories – but the room was somber.

                The girls who were about were silent, doing their tasks in a methodical way Cloud had grown accustomed to doing himself. It only increased his anxiety. The tension in the air was thick enough that even in his full Claudia mindset he would have noticed it.

                But by some miracle, he noticed Elena heading straight for him. It seemed she at least would give him the terrible mercy of what was in store for him…

                …only she outright hugged him, in front of everyone. And as confusing, worrying, and alarming as this was, barely anyone glanced up. Those who did didn’t even blink. That’s when with grave understanding, Cloud knew what was coming – he was fired. The Don – The Don was going to… Cloud thought his legs would give if he had to finish the thought again. Especially now that he didn’t have a nest egg anymore…

                “It’s Splitz, Cloud.”

                Blinking owlishly – because Elena called him ‘Cloud’ firstly, and then secondly because ‘Splitz’ was a name he’d already tried to erase from his mind.

                “What?”

                Elena’s eyes were red and puffy. She’d been crying again.

                “…she came back.”

                “What?”

                Cloud didn’t know what else to say. From what he remembered, she’d found somewhere to go and had told The Don off. Everyone had kept whispering, ‘she’d gotten out.’ So then…

                “Why would she come back?”

                “Whatever plan she’d had fell through… The man who’d convinced her he loved her suddenly dropped her, kicked her out… She got mugged trying to find a place to stay and lost everything… Three days ago she came back for her job… We all thought she was crazy. She said such horrible things – things we’ve all wanted to say…we knew he was going to kick her right out but we never would have guessed that he would’ve…”

                She trailed off and her lips trembled, but before Cloud could encourage her to go on she spoke again.

                “…he took her back.”

                “He…what?”

                Elena could only nod.

                “…he made her beg on her hands and knees like she’d been doing to get her old job back…but then he let her have it. Even – even gave her your two nights…but we had our routine check-up at six-thirty today, like always, but… But when Splitz got her test back…”

                Pregnant?

                It was the first thing he could think of. The girls were all required to be on the pill – using their own pay – and requested to drink certain teas from time to time… Still, it was possible to…

                “He made her sick.”

                Blinking, Cloud didn’t understand what Elena was trying to tell him.

                “…last night The Don allowed two infected clients to sleep with Splitz. They’d been taken off the register for – for being sick…and having transmittable diseases… She didn’t know – she didn’t know at all, and we all know how the Don screens his escorts and his clients so regularly… Cloud, he let people give her STD’s.”

                Cloud looked away from Elena to the people listlessly sitting and standing around the room. Now that he looked closer, he realized it wasn’t the look of something about to go down – it was the scene after the giant repercussions. Everyone was upset, angry – but mostly he could see by their shaking hands or pinched expressions – they were terrified.

                “What about the bouncers…they card everyone, and the front desk always checks and updates…”

                Cloud was mumbling, not speaking to Elena at all – she seemed to know this when she quietly answered.

                “…orders are orders. The bouncers let them in… If they knew what was going to happen…or if they didn’t… It doesn’t matter. Same with…the girls behind the counter – but…with them it’s likely intentional.”

                The one insurance that they had always had here had been immunity from diseases. They weren’t common in the world – very few people had diseases that could be spread through body fluids – but whenever someone got sick it always made it onto the news because they were apparently incurable, and the diseases often led to numerous painful health complications if not death.

                Of course since they could be passed through The Don’s favorite pass time, he’d set up a rigorous test, mandatory for all escorts. They were checked every other evening or morning at six-thirty, depending on their shift, for any sicknesses. And of course all clients were checked up front before they were allowed to be with any escorts – they had to bring a new updated test strip with them every time they came back unless they were SOLDIERs, who were known for their immunity against diseases.

                These had always been absolutes. Any girl who’d ever been fired from The Don’s place had never been fired because she was infected during work – all clients, no matter how wealthy and frequent they had once been – were kicked to the curb if deemed even slightly sick.

                Having that lifesaver ripped away was a horrible shock. It felt like the rocky shaky old bridge they’d been crossing tirelessly had now lost all of its planks. The support system was gone. If it dropped one person, why wouldn’t the bridge drop them all?

                Cloud fought the urge to vomit as he asked, “Where’s Splitz now…?”

                Elena didn’t look like she wanted to say anything else, but finally whispered, “She made them do the test again, and then again… Finally she just went ballistic… She screamed and charged to The Don’s chambers, but he’d already been informed – had already known… He was waiting for her, he and the newer front desk girls – Splitz was after them too… They had a confrontation, but The Don shot her with a Taser shortly after. One of the bouncers took her away in the Chocobo carriage just before you got here… Everyone’s still in shock.”

                Putting his face in his hand, Cloud didn’t know what to say – how to act… Don Corneo had always been a bad man who did good indirectly. He kept everyone here with a job that let them eat well – even pampered on some occasions for popular escorts – but this… This was beyond anything he’d ever imagined. Don Corneo had tampered with someone’s body – changed a girl’s life forever… She’d never be the same again, and no one would hire her if they ever found out she was ill…

                …but that also left the mystery of why Don Corneo would allow something like this to happen in his establishment. If Splitz ever spoke out about what had happened…

                Elena grabbed his arm.

                “I’m worried about her. Do you think she’s alright? Why would they take her away and not just leave her outside?”

                …because she isn’t coming back.

                Cloud didn’t think a coward like Don Corneo was capable of murder…but one of his bouncers might be.

                It was too risky to say something like that, especially with Elena looking close to sobbing all over again. The night hadn’t even started for him yet, but Cloud felt drained and exhausted in a way he hadn’t experienced before. He felt lightheaded enough that he sat down.

                Elena was still standing in front of him, wringing her hands. Her eyes were begging him to find a solution – to take command of the situation.

                “Cloud… What are we supposed to do now?”

                Cloud truly did not have an answer. But he looked toward the escort hallway. Although he hated admitting it, Cloud often felt like he understood what the Don was up to… The fact that he couldn’t figure out his angle this time had him concerned. There was only one course of action he could think of.

                He needed to have a few words with The Don.

 

Chapter Text

 

                Cloud dressed in his Bumble Bee Bust costume and despite telling Elena to stay put, she insisted on going with him. Unable to prevent it, he finally shrugged in defeat and they set off through the escort hallway, and took it all the way to the third floor before heading to the middle stairs that led to Don Corneo’s chambers. But to Cloud’s surprise, two of The Don’s bouncers stood waiting outside the door.

                “Added security…?”

                Elena’s whisper made sense, at least. If Splitz had charged at him, The Don probably wasn’t going to be taking any chances for a while. Holding his hand out signaling for Elena to wait at the foot of the stairs, he was walking the carpeted stairs in his heeled boots when one of the bouncers immediately started shaking his head.

                “The Don is busy right now. He isn’t accepting visits from anyone.”

                Narrowing his eyes, Cloud suggested, “Surely Don Corneo wouldn’t turn down one of his HoneyBees…”

                Cloud tried to avoid Don Corneo as much as he could, but as such, that left Claudia exposed to him. That side of himself knew as much as a lard ass and pervert The Don was, he was very talkative after sex. If there was something more to what happened to Splitz, some error in the system – Claudia was willing to sleep with him to figure it out.

                I know that side of me is nothing but a shield, more so than ever now, but that doesn’t mean I still can’t use it.

                Shaking his head again, the man crossed his arms and repeated, “The Don just invited a new “bride” inside. He isn’t to be disturbed. Now buzz off.”

                His ‘joke’ made the other bouncer laugh, and irritated, Cloud stalked back down the steps ignoring the following low whistle.

                “What’s going on?”

                Crossing his arms with a sigh, Cloud glanced over his shoulder as explained.

                “He just got a new “bride” in there, apparently.”

                Frowning, Elena pursed his lips.

                “Weird… I only saw one of them today.”

                Looking at Elena inquisitively, she elaborated.

                “A new girl was in the lobby when the thing with Splitz went down. Since she went up the normal way and Splitz was carried through the escort hallway, she avoided all the drama… Otherwise she would have been smart enough to get out already… Though it’s curious. The Don picks his “brides” from groups of twos to fours, but mostly just threes. I don’t get why he wouldn’t just make her wait like he would everyone else… She must be really attractive, or he’s hurting from losing Belle and now Splitz.”

                Tapping his fingers on his arm, Cloud saw that Elena’s reasons made sense, but there was still something else going on. He could feel it. Elena opened her mouth with another question on her lips, but they were all surprised when The Don’s doors suddenly started opening.

                “I thought you said she just got in there?”

                Half turning, he watched The Don walk out from his room arm-and-arm with his new “bride.” He was still dressed to the nines, not in one of his numerous robes, and the woman was the same. She was dressed in a deep blue dress slit in the back and around her chest-…

                Cloud’s eyes widened and his mouth went dry. Some instinct inside of him that lived only for his self-preservation caused him to turn away from both of them and face Elena so quickly his antenna headband nearly flew off his head and let his spikes spring free.

                “Cl-”

                He grabbed her elbows before she could say anything and brought her closer, half shielding himself with her body and hissed in her ear.

                “Act like I’m telling you something!”

                Uncertainly she nodded, but then almost alarming, her face changed to one of curiousness with a half-smile, as if they were sharing a funny joke.

                As The Don and his “bride” walked down the steps, he could hear them talking.

                “…at the event?”

                “Ohuhuku, yes, my dear! Then do as we discussed, and I’ll personally make sure of it that all your troubles are nothing but in the past!”

                “…you promise?”

                “Would I lie to you? Ohuhu, you’re such a cute one! So voluptuous, but yet so uncertain of your beauty! Lovely!”

                As they walked past and kept going Cloud stared after them with rising dread and incredibility. He was seeing it – as Claudia, but recognizing it as Cloud. Unable to control himself he let go of Elena and followed after Don Corneo as he led the woman from the establishment, and even into the Chocobo cart now that it had returned.

                Cloud watched her lean out and exchange a few words with The Don, then nod and settle inside. He didn’t get in, but merely waved cheerfully up at her before shutting the door. The carriage took off and Don Corneo came back inside, seemingly surprised Cloud was there waiting for him.

                “Ah, Claudia… She was beautiful wasn’t she? So rare to find someone natural like that – can you just imagine how well she’d pull off the Bust costume? Makes me so wistful to want her as my newest bride…”

                Revolted to the point he couldn’t speak for several seconds, he finally managed to croak, “…she isn’t one of your brides?”

                Not noticing Cloud’s pale features or his downright shuddering, The Don grinned.

                “No, not that one – that one…I have plans for.”

                As he started to walk by Cloud again got his attention.

                “What sort of plans?”

                Now quirking an eyebrow and looking miffed, he pulled on one of his mustache ends in annoyance. With a huff he asked, “Is that anyway to talk to me?”

                Swallowing down the emotions rising – shock, anger, queasiness – disbelief – Cloud put his mask on and let expression drain away from his features, replacing it with a large fake smile.

                “It just has me so curious… Can’t you give me a hint?”

                The Don just continued to stand there, unamused.

                Breaking down Cloud further, Claudia stepped closer to him and placed slender hands along his chest and fed him the bait.

                “It’s only…everyone is buzzing lately with conversation… I’d like to have a scoop for once.”

                “Hn.”

                The Don seemed thoughtful, and then smiled as if he’d thought of something clever.

                “That is true, isn’t…? All these nasty bad things filling the air will only sour my honeys.” He brought his free hand down to Cloud’s lower back, rubbing just above the butt bust. Claudia leaned further in, suppressing Cloud’s desire to get the greasy and oil covered hand away from him. He’d been touched by it enough already.

                “So I’ll give you something new to buzz and suckle on… Would you like that, my honey?”

                Claudia merely smiled, unable to do more than look eager.

                “Do you remember that event I mentioned a few weeks ago…?”

                Cloud hadn’t been there, but of course Don Corneo hadn’t noticed. What he did remember was the word “auction” Elena had used to describe it, and something about commodities.

                “Well, I had my eye on that wonderful woman for some time now, and she’s finally come to her senses… Ohu, at the party all my little honeys will be bid and sold for top dollar and I’ll make a fortune…so will you my little HoneyBees… But there’s a special honey at the end, as sweet as can be… The honey of an unplucked flower.”

                He brought his mouth to the shell of Claudia’s ear, kissing it as he mumbled, “That’ll be the special commodity of the night after everyone else has already been bartered for… The one “bride” of mine who hasn’t yet been mine, or anyone else’s for the matter… Can you imagine how hungry the men will be…? Even the women present will drool knowing they could have a wild flower. They’ll throw their Gil away.”

                Don Corneo then led Claudia back up the stairs and past Elena, who looked back at him in concern. They went into The Don’s chambers and closed the doors behind them. Claudia smiled the whole time, while as Cloud – growing more infuriated by the second – imagined suffocating The Don into his ‘Yes’ pillows, or better yet, running him over with his own carriage.

 

..x..

 

                Later that night, stiff-legged, Cloud walked down the block past the HoneyBee Inn and knelt and searched among the ground until he found the card he’d dropped earlier. Picking it up, he looked at the number.

                He’d already texted Zack back to tell him he was alright, when he wasn’t, had already said the same thing to Elena – had texted Reno two more times and even called, and still hadn’t gotten a response back… It was swim or sink time.

                Auction.

                Special commodity.

                How hungry they’ll be knowing someone as beautiful as she is happens to be a…

                They’ll bid their top dollar, fling Gil…

                Cloud dialed the number into his PHS and brought it close to his ear. As it started to ring, Cloud glanced around him before looking at the other card in his hand – the one with his credit.

                Not enough… My savings are depleted to near nothing… My most reliable client is gone… The ‘event’ is held three nights from now.

                “This is Cloud, I’m guessing.”

                A tough but clear male voice spoke up just after the third ring.

                “It is. I’ll cut straight to the point. You need something delivered, I’ll do it. You need an extra hired man to watch someone’s six, I’m in. Hell, I’ll even take part in bombing an unpopulated area… But I want paid. I mean paid. Whatever jobs you have lined up, I only want the one that pays the most and can be done before this Saturday night.”

                There was a sort of dark amusement to the man’s voice when he answered.

                “There’s dedication in your voice I don’t often hear, so with that in mind… I have a job for Friday night. Some espionage and a delivery. 5,000 Gil.”

                Without hesitation he said, “I won’t do it unless it’s 10,000 Gil.”

                An angry snort.

                “Like hell I’ll pay that much. I definitely won’t pay that price upfront.”

                Finally emotions began to crack through Cloud’s walls and he seethed, “Look. You had men search for me. You obviously need me for something. This job – I’m not stupid. It’s the one you wanted me to do in the first place.”

                “You aren’t wrong. I knew you’d call me back by tonight.”

                Snarling, he asked, “How?”

                “Because you saw that beautiful woman in at The HoneyBee Inn, didn’t you?”

                Cloud froze and looked around the block in a slow circle. He could feel the hair along his neck stand on end.

                “That’s right. I know who she is. Miss Lockhart, right?”

                “If you even try to hurt…”

                “Cool it. I have no intention of hurting her, but she might hurt herself further, you get me? She’s started up a profitable business here in The Slums. A real kind woman, strong too – but from what I know about you, you’re both a lot alike. You could handle the people harassing you, but your prideful – you owe debt, and you know you have to pay it. Miss Lockhart needs the Gil to pay off the loans she took when she opened her business. Same as you – now the question here is: will things be different? Will you help her out like no one helped you, or are you going to welcome *‘Miss Lovetart’ into the life of an escort? I’m sure she’d love to know the boy she’s crushing on is a floozy these days.”

                Cloud was so angry he felt his phone crack in his hands.

                “Before you ask how I know so much about you and her, don’t bother. I have my connections, like anyone else in The Slums. So I already know you have a personal link to her…and you want to protect her.”

                Cloud bit his tongue hard enough to taste blood and was ready to threaten this unknown man – but pulled himself back and reigned in his emotions. He took a moment to breathe deeply in and out before relaxing, and then started calculating. This was a setup – whoever was on the other end of the PHS hadn’t just had his guys come along and hand out this card on any night – they’d known Tifa – sweet childhood Tifa who’d grown into what Slum people called ‘dangerously beautiful’ – would be going to the HoneyBee Inn tonight to talk with The Don.

                They’d also then already known Don Corneo had something in mind for her – his big event that was taking place this Saturday night. That meant they knew The Don…might even be a client.

                With this in mind, and knowing his name as ‘Cloud’ and connection to Tifa, it only left a few options but they all pointed to blackmail. Whatever job AVALANCHE had in mind for him, they were willing to go to extremes to make certain he took it. It was already too late to pretend he didn’t care for Tifa – and he wouldn’t try to even if he’d had the chance. She’d looked after his mother while he’d been gone, had apparently even delayed her plans to come to Midgar when she turned sixteen. Now she was here, had a business, and Cloud hadn’t even known about it. His Mother hadn’t said a thing in her letters.

                Despite the unease that brought him, it didn’t change the fact that he owed Tifa. If she was in trouble like he had been when he first got to Midgar…

                He’d never let her repeat his mistakes.

                Cloud knew he had to try and get some control over the conversation. Someone who begs here in The Slums can’t complain with what they’re given – that’s why Cloud wasn’t going to beg. When it came to a fight of wills and bartering, Claudia was ready.

                “10,000, and I want a deal.”

                The man laughed incredulously over the PHS.

                “You must be insane. You’ll take the 5,000 and do what we want you to do, or you won’t get anything and get to watch that girl you like get sold off like a piece of meat.”

                “That’s where you’re wrong. I couldn’t figure it out at first, why you’d be interested in me… With a job this close and the timeframe so small… You should have tried to get into contact with me beforehand… That means that before recently, I wasn’t useful to you. Something changed that made me become a prime candidate to your plans…or even, I was what gave you the idea for whatever plan you have in mind.”

                The silence that followed only spurred him on. Cloud knew he’d found something important – could even assume what it might be.

                “That’s when I realized it must have been something that happened recently, sometime this month if not even closer than that. It’s no secret AVALANCHE hates Shinra and what they stand for. AVALANCHE members are always on look-out for cadets…for SOLDIERs. That latter is pretty hard to miss.”

                For just a brief moment, Cloud heard the mystery man make a ‘tch’ under his breath and knew with grim understanding that he was right in his assumptions. It was all starting to make sense. Unfortunately.

                “I’m right, aren’t I?” He taunted the man, but he still didn’t get an answer. Cloud went on. “You need me. There is no plan without me. It’s because of my own Slum ‘connection,’ isn’t it? Tell me I’m wrong. I dare you.”

                The only question is which of them… The Golden Square is too high profile for AVALANCHE members. That means they wouldn’t have saw me there with everyone… That rules out Zack… Which means someone saw me with either Angeal that night I got concussed…or with Genesis that time in the theater.

                Cloud wouldn’t dare reveal either name in case he gave his blackmailer more on him. He just had to act like he knew which one the man was talking about.

                “You’ve been in The Slum too long, prostitute. You’ve gotten too used to how things work down here… Except for the part about thinking you have a damn say about your price. An escort should know better… But I’ll give you credit where you deserve it. I’ll go 8,000 Gil and not a single cent higher, but I’ll listen to this deal of yours.”

                Grimly, Cloud knew the price wasn’t going to get any higher, but he had managed to tip the stakes in his favor. Now he just had to keep them that way…

 

..x..

 

                In the next fifteen minutes Cloud worked out the deal, arrangement, and meeting place for where everything would go down, and how his job was to be played – to the letter.

                The man, still remaining nameless, would transfer 4,000 Gil into his account now, but not a cent more until the mission was complete. The “mission” was explained to him some now, more later. It involved being dressed up as Claudia and attending what seemed to be Shinra’s large company party, celebrating the wonders of Mako and the heroes of the Wutai War. He needed to deliver a package – getting it there was the difficult part. It was why he was needed for this job. The party was only for reserved members involved in the “higher ups” section of Shinra, and as such for the plan to work…Claudia needed to be invited to it.

                Sitting on the sofa, Cloud glanced around making perfectly certain he was all alone before looking back down at his PHS… It was late, but… He didn’t want to hold off on the conversation to come. It was already making him feel ill. The one he’d had earlier with Elena still kept flashing through his mind.

                What’s this envelope for?

                I want you to make me a promise – you’re…the only one I can ask. I don’t have anyone else.

                Cloud…?

                If… I’m just saying if…something bad happens to me, can you do me a favor? If for some reason I’m not here on Saturday, I need you to give this to that woman we saw today. The one Don Corneo took outside. If you find her, can you give her this card? You don’t have to meet her – you can be discrete about it… Just make sure she gets it and opens it before anything happens to her.

                You’re scaring me a bit…

                I…just want to be prepared. I know it isn’t a reasonable request.

                You’re right, it isn’t…but yes, I’ll do that for you. Life is hard enough when you have to live a lie, let alone worrying the truth may come out if you die…

                Elena?

                No – it’s nothing. I just understand is all… But if I do this, will you make me a promise too?

                …of course.

                Okay. Just promise me that…if something ever happens to me you’ll check my drawer and find my address book. In big green letters I have an address written down too. It’s the information my sister gave me to contact her. I haven’t spoken to her in a while because…of my circumstances here…but if something happened to me would you at least let her know that I was…dead? I don’t want to just be taken away and forgotten about…

                …I promise.

                Cloud was lucky, in a morbid way. Elena had assumed his question came from the fact he was concerned about what had happened in the Inn recently, and nothing more. Which, true, Cloud could always die at the Inn if he got careless with the pills and powders again, but he’d been trying to look ahead.

                The deal he’d worked out with the man was a simple one. After completing the job, he’d be told where Tifa was at. Not before – as the man didn’t trust him enough not to try and ruin his plans. Cloud was certain that by the time he could send a letter off to his mom asking for Tifa's whereabouts, the reply would come too slow or his mom wouldn't realize the direness of his request. Even worst, she might. That was one part of the plan that the man over the phone had worked out for himself, somehow.

                He isn’t an idiot.

                That’s why Cloud needed a backup plan if he ended up being caught and arrested at the Shinra party, if not killed – as he still didn’t know what he was supposed to be smuggling in and delivering. At the very least if things went south he didn’t want it to be for nothing.

                This was just a plan if things didn’t work out the way they were supposed to. If they did succeed without a hitch, he was going to take the Gil from the job and go find Tifa before the event started and give her everything she needed to either a). pay off whatever loans she had, or b). run away if she was too far in. It would be hard to convince someone as prideful as Tifa to back off, especially without giving his own circumstances away, but he’d do whatever he could for her. She was one of the few people who deserved his full respect, and he wasn’t going to allow her to lose herself like he had.

                He would never let Tifa get auctioned off like an inventory item. Ever.

                With these depressing thoughts, Cloud dialed the number he’d already memorized and waited uneasily for several moments before a slightly tired voice picked up.

                “Cloud?”

                “Hey, Zack… Did I wake you?”

                “Yeah, but I fell asleep doing paperwork, so haha, it’s probably for the best…”

                He still sounded half asleep.

                Good.

                Cloud didn’t think he could be convincing on his own, not when he already had a bad taste in his mouth and getting the words out felt like spitting up dirt. Deception was all Claudia – but the people involved…they deserved Cloud.

                “Is everything okay?”

                Taking a deep breath he built his resolve against Zack’s kind and curious voice. He thought of Tifa, of his Mother back home – of the place he was in now – and finally of Zack and the others he was slowly growing warmer towards… They were all important to him now, but…important and precious were too different things. To save one he’d have to help betray the other. As hard at the choice was, it wasn’t impossible, only…heartbreaking.

                Even so, it had to be done.

                “…did you really mean it when you said…you wanted to spend more time together?”

               

Chapter Text

 

               Cloud was nervous enough without the suffocating dress. It felt two sizes too small for his chest – something that was remarkable considering he didn’t have a bust but lean and compacted muscles to begin with. It was made to ripple with dark blue-green ruffled seams along the front, and although the AVALANCHE members who’d given him it claimed it was the perfect balance of class and simplicity to fit in and not draw attention to himself, the design was uncomfortable.

                It was even snug going down his hips and had no split up the leg or extra length in the back. The color was some awful off-kilter Mako reject too. Cloud didn’t feel like he was going to a big scale party for the higher class at all. He felt like he was going to mass in the springtime – albeit in a more proper dress than what was called for – but it felt so…uptight.

                The sleeves that went over his shoulders were nothing but thin material ruffles of a darker green, and along the bottom seam was the same addition. He felt like this was a dress an older woman would wear, or a librarian out and about on a weekend.

                He had argued the choice, saying it didn’t fit his slender physique and would draw unwanted attention to himself, making notice how young he was – but the two AVALANCHE women who’d insisted on helping him wouldn’t hear of it. ‘The color went with the Shinra party theme, and it would blend in well among the others present.

                They apparently thought that was all that mattered, and obviously had not gone through what Cloud had suffered through from his young looks. But if he’d learned anything from being an escort and being made to wear shameless uniforms and even on some occasions ridiculous outfits, he’d learned how to change small things to make a big difference.

                He had wanted to tear the sleeves off and the bottom seam, but as it wasn’t his dress he improvised in other ways. Thankful he’d worn a shoulder length wig, he managed to style it up to a low bun – adding onto the librarian look unfortunately – but it did finally make him seem older. Dark eyeshadow and a darker shade between red and pink lipstick helped age his face afterwards.

                The only other problem came with the heels – or lack of them. For such a fancy function, they should have been three inches or higher – but barely reached two. They were a dark green and had obviously not been handled with care. It looked like someone had taken them from an abandoned factory storeroom that served as a coffin for the shoes of the last past decades, and unearthed them. There were even flecks of dust that wouldn’t wipe off! The Claudia inside of him was appalled.

                One of the girls made a snide comment about how picky Cloud was, and how spoiled escorts were about such unnecessary things. Probably because the dress was so tight that it hurt him, he fired something back to shut them up.

                “The only reason an escort like me is choosey on what I wear is because if I don’t impress someone with my looks, I don’t get to eat.”

                That did manage to make them stop taunting him, but to make matters worse and at this point adding insult to injury, Cloud was made to carry a thick purse that matched his dress. The only upside to it was that it was what he needed to deliver, and he wouldn’t have to hold onto all night, but even so…he didn’t want to look like this when he finally got to see Zack again.

                These irritable thoughts were running rampant through his head as he rode the train up to Sector Eight, thinking of the things he’d left Tifa in that envelope if he didn’t come back. It only made him angrier that he’d been forced into a tight position again, and he was ready to all but call the whole thing off when he stepped off the train into Sector Eight and caught sight of Zack.

                Cloud took a moment to appreciate what he saw, not being subtle about it at all. Zack’s SOLDIER sweater and puffy SOLDIER pants were replaced with sensible black slacks and a vest and tie over a white dress shirt. He didn’t carry any kind of suit jacket with him, but for some reason this seemed reasonable to Cloud. Zack didn’t look like the person who would dress to the nines if he could help it.

                He definitely didn’t need to.

                Grinning, Zack approached him and looked him up and down. It was a happy expression, but there was a certain tilt to his lips that gave him away.

                Cloud blurted, “Look, I know the dress is ugly as hell but… I didn’t know what to wear.”

                Zack’s grin only stretched.

                “I wasn’t thinking that at all. SOLDIER’s honor.”

                Suspicious, he asked, “Then what were you thinking?”

                “That you could totally pull off a smoking hot stewardess looking for fun and thrills.”

                Cloud let his head hang and sighed.

                “A stewardess…?”

                Well, I guess that’s okay. He didn’t call me a grandmother or anything.

                Zack bent and spoke secretively in his ear.

                “Yeah…and just between me and you…anyone who has that stewardess or…librarian look… Kinky.”

                Unable to himself, Cloud mumbled, “So you like that type…? Hn. Maybe I could set you up with someone.”

                Zack was all grins again.

                “Know any blondes? I got this thing for them, you know. Blue eyes too – total heartthrob.”

                It’s just so easy.

                Cloud didn’t understand it. Where was the awkwardness, the shuffling, the slight distancing…? It felt like old time friends meeting again – maybe even…lovers. It just didn’t make any sense. It definitely should have been more painful than it was now…considering he was going to be helping the very company that fought against this man’s. The thought still made him tense, but…the situation still felt calm and neutral.

                It was probably because Cloud didn’t know what he was delivering inside of the ugly purse. Hopefully some gasoline and matches to burn it.

                “You ready to go?”

                Zack must have been patiently waiting for him, because his wide grin had subdued to a gentler one. Cloud, now a little embarrassed, smiled. He hesitated when Zack offered his arm to him, checking his face to make sure it was really okay, and then slowly accepted. Arm and arm they walked across the street heading to the Shinra Compound from the shuttle station.

                It feels like I’m on a date with Mr. Sigfreid again, hanging off his arm… But this time around I actually care about what my partner has to say… I even want to know…what he thinks of me – of Cloud.

                “So…uh…”

                Zack had been looking back at the Golden Square building before turning back around. Truthfully, Cloud had been expecting a questions about what went down there by the subtle hints Zack had already dropped during their phone calls, but then had always steered in another direction before Cloud could answer anything. Still, he hadn't been expecting Zack to sound and look so uncertain.

                “Zack?”

                “…never mind. It isn’t important.”

                He didn’t know why, but he didn’t like Zack clamming up. He always seemed so open… It felt unnatural.

                “…you can ask.”

                “Huh?”

                Cloud shrugged slightly, subconsciously tightening his hands around Zack’s arm. He wasn’t sure where this odd sense of honesty was coming from, but strolling down the lanes of happy couples… It was becoming easy to imagine they were one of them.

                “Whatever it is, you can ask. I won’t get offended.”

                This free pass seemed too sacred to just give up to someone – but after a few moments Cloud decided it didn’t bother him. He actually wanted Zack to get to know him better – to judge him. Zack always said it was so easy to talk when it was just the two of them… From his rambling honesty the first time they met, to their bizarre dinner that made him feel like they were lost kindred spirits.

                It was now time to see if that held true when they talked about the serious stuff.

                “…okay then. But uh, feel free not to answer if I’m being rude. I’m not trying to be.”

                “I know.”

                He really did.

                “…have you really been an escort since you were only sixteen? I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.”

                As they crossed onto a new lane, Cloud tried to think of how best to answer.

                “…circumstances made it happen more than anything else. I didn’t have any other options left when it all went down, not with the time frame I had… Did Genesis not say anything about it?”

                The man had acted like it would just be a secret conversation between them, but afterwards he’d had a feeling Genesis might have shared to his friends – his lovers – whatever they all were.

                But…maybe he hadn’t after all.

                “He said you guys had a talk… Gen said a little and a lot – with him you sorta have to read between the lines, y’know?”

                “I’ve heard that.”

                “Anyway your story seemed to give him a change of heart, at the least. Don’t let him know I told you this, but he’s actually helpless against sad things despite…appearing like he couldn’t give a damn.” Then, apparently easing up on the conversation, he unsubtly whispered, “I think he likes you now.”

                A little bemused, Cloud said, “I was reading between the lines with him, so I wasn’t really certain.”

                That amused Zack, and he grinned and rubbed the back of his spiky head self-consciously.

                “…but to answer your question, yes. I have been an escort these last two years.”

                “Uh…is it okay to ask why you haven’t tried to work someplace else?”

                Nodding, Cloud answered quietly, and Zack leaned in instinctively. He tried to not get distracted by the thoughts of the last time he’d done so, when they’d been back at the Inn and he’d been just a naked crossdresser in Zack’s lap.

                “…I was really over my head with loans… Pay as an escort isn’t glamorous, but it is sufficient… I’ve thought about finding another job, quitting… But it isn’t that easy.”

                “It isn’t?”

                Cloud shook his head, first unwilling to go on but the way Zack guided him closer to avoid being shoved by a larger man walking pass them put his cheek against Zack’s vested chest and in his arms. The movement had been sudden, but so oddly gentle – not at all like he was used to… It wasn’t at all sexual either, but the pause that ensued couldn’t be anything but intimate.

                It made Cloud’s lips move of their own accord.

                “…my Mom is sick and needs heart medicine… It’s really expensive. The kind she needs is…being discontinued. It’s already been hard to get once it was called off the market and the debate over it began… Now with the end in sight, it’s gotten a lot tougher and more expensive to get. A…fr…guy I know has been buying them for me through the connections he has, but that’s running dry now too.”

                “…is there anything I can do to help?”

                Cloud smiled up at Zack sadly. He was clearly very sorry to hear what he was saying, but instead of merely apologizing he was offering to help. Cloud could even tell he meant it – he would try to assist if he could. It was another endearing sentiment.

                “I… I’m supposed to meet someone who makes pills once the guy I know gets back in touch with me. I’m hoping to cut a deal with him.”

                “So you need the Gil being an escort lets you get… And you’re getting the pills through illegal means, I’m guessing…?”

                Cloud was reminded Zack was a SOLDIER, an officer, and took a step away from his embrace but there was nothing threatening about his posture, only a puzzled sort of expression, as if he was trying to figure out if Cloud’s course of action was the best one he should be taking.

                Cloud almost opened his mouth and explained about his fear, the fear that if he quit…Don Corneo wouldn’t give him his job back if he desperately needed it again – almost explained the new fear regarding Splitz, and how even if The Don did ever give him his job back if he needed it…how horrible the punishment might be for ‘betraying’ him.

                Instead he said nothing, only thought: I would only make him uncomfortable saying these things… I think he’s starting to understand why I haven’t quit. I don’t need to say anything else.

                Without word, they started walking back down the lane arm and arm again, though now they were approaching the Shinra building. Some nerves started to set in and Cloud waited for Zack’s next question to distract himself. Maybe his unease was obvious by the way he squeezed his hand, or he simply thought Cloud felt uncomfortable, but he moved his arm around Cloud’s back and tugged him smoothly against his side. What he said next caught him by surprise, however.

                “I got mugged when I first got to Midgar, y’know.”

                He said it so calmly, casually even. Cloud eyed him with interest, letting him know he was paying attention.

                “I was fifteen and three guys ganged up on me. I was so embarrassed that they made off with my stuff and beat me up. When I tried to sign up to join SOLDIER, I got laughed at by the guys behind the counter ‘cause I was black and blue and had lost my registration papers. I was feeling miserable, but there were still two options left for me. Do you know what they were?”

                Cloud knew what one must have been but shrugged, stepping closer to Zack’s side as they entered the Shinra building and he looked around at everything he could have had, but never would... Not allowing his thoughts to linger on the matter, they headed to the elevators.

                “I could admit defeat and go back home, but that really wasn’t a choice for me. So instead I spent the next two days running around The Slums searching for the guys who stole my shit.”

                Cloud looked at him incredulously.

                “Are you serious?”

                Zack started laughing.

                “Everyone always gives me that expression…! Yeah, I’m serious. I was hell-bent on getting everything back. I totally underestimated how big The Slums were though – got lost more than I got found… Got mugged again, the exact same day. They beat me up worse because I gave all my shit to the first muggers.”

                “You can’t… Are you kidding?”

                Clucking his tongue and selecting the floor they would be going to, Zack drawled, “I am not. She was not playin’ around. Kicked my little spiked ass in front of a playground of children.”

                A laugh blurted out of him and he covered his mouth. Zack still seemed so nonchalant about the whole thing, but there was a flush across his cheeks and the hint of a sheepish grin on his lips.

                “Yeah…” Cloud struggled to keep his voice calm but a giggle – a giggle! – escaped him. “Slum women can be scarier than the guys down here…”

                “Yep, I found that out the hard way… So the second night in The Slums, I was curled up on this slide, tired as can be and restless from all my bruises when I get the feeling someone is coming up behind me, yeah?”

                Cloud nodded, now as curious as he could ever remember being. He remembered thinking about having a fear of elevators and cramped places, but somehow hearing Zack’s story seemed to make it impossible to think about those old phobias – or even the problems that might occur tonight. It was such a strange affect Zack had on him.

                “So, annoyed and pissed off beyond belief, I sit up and see this lone hulking figure coming up on me and I get scared. I’ve always been a fight guy over flight, and this time proved just as true. I shot up and started yelling angrily all about how I survived the muggings I’d went through, and how I’d survive him too – fists up, bouncing on the balls of my feet ready to kill… And out of everything that this guy could have done, you know what he did?”

                “What?”

                Zack said, “‘Shhhhhhhh… Easy… Shhh, it’s okay. Calm down. I won’t hurt you.’”

                Cloud stared at him in wonder. Even though it was just the story being told, Zack imitation of a gentle hushing noise was very soothing to listen to.

                “By this point my anger just gives way to confusion, and I’m tired. Long trip from my home to Midgar where I didn’t get much to eat, and then the muggings and sleepless nights… I was so caught off guard I just sorta stood there uncertainly as he came closer and I finally got a good look at him.”

                As the elevator doors opened, Cloud was again reminded of his nerves and became skittish, but Zack’s arm around him was an ever-helpful support system. It made walking out from the elevators easier, especially when Zack didn’t seem to mind he was clinging to him slightly at this point.

                “He just puts his big hands on my shoulders and tells me I’m going to be alright. He told me I cried a little bit right after but I don’t remember. I sorta just…collapsed into him right then and there and passed out.”

                “He?”

                Grinning, Zack winked.

                “Why, my angel. Angeal.”

                A smile slowly started spreading across Cloud’s face.

                “…an angel? Yeah… I can see that. Angeal came to my rescue in The Slums too.”

                “Mm-hmm. He took great care of me – got me patched up, helped track down the guys who mugged me and get my papers pack…even watched me take the entrance exam once I was back in shape again. I impressed him somehow, and he offered to take me on as a protégé when I made it into the SOLDIER Cadets.”

                Wistful, Cloud said, “You were really lucky…”

                “I was… That’s why I feel a little sad about it.”

                “About what?”

                Looking at him, Zack slowly said, “…I want to be a hero so I can help people like Angeal helped me… It makes me wish there was something I could have done for you when you first got here.”

                Touched, Cloud looked away as they got in line to be carded and checked before being allowed into the party just ahead of the doors. Cloud looked down at his bag and glanced around at the two different lines of people checking bags of any ‘plus one invites,’ to make sure nothing dangerous had been brought into the party.

                Adjusting his painful dress, Cloud tugged Zack into the other line. It was longer and Zack noticed, but didn’t ask – stacking it up as nerves on Cloud’s part. Cloud eyed the trooper who had a folded handkerchief in his pocket before eyeing his bag once more.

                This better be the right guy, or it’s all over.

                Looking up at Zack, he finally found his voice again.

                “You don’t need to think like that… When I first got here, you would have only just been seventeen… A Third, I’m guessing. I’m sure you had your own troubles, just like me…”

                “Well, yeah but Angeal kept me out of a lot of trouble…”

                Cloud decided then and there that Zack was actually nervous, and was playing it safe talking about Angeal – like he had Genesis earlier. He took the initiative this time and boldly grabbed Zack’s hand as they moved up in the line.

                Zack had nice tan skin, unlike Cloud’s own pale features. A natural flush on him made his skin look even healthier – made it glow, while as Cloud’s turned odd rosy colors. What he liked even more than Zack’s blush was the fact he’d obviously made it happen.

                “Oh… Hehe.” Zack rubbed the back of his head self-consciously again before saying, “I wanted to tell you that story because… Angeal later told me he was impressed with me because despite having all the odds stacked against me, I hadn’t given up yet. Even after being hungry, getting trounced, meeting a lot of unfriendly people… I was still willing to go on. Now that I’m a bit older and I’ve met you… I get it now. I see a lot of myself in you.”

                He squeezed Cloud’s hand and before he knew it, they were before the trooper with the handkerchief. He eyed Cloud’s dress with tightly narrowed eyes, before finally looking down at Cloud’s bag. Cloud had to make himself focus because he felt his ears burning from Zack’s words, and wished feverously that his face wasn’t as red as he felt it was.

                Please let this be the guy.

                The trooper held his hand out, and Cloud slowly handed over his purse while Zack decided to rest his chin on Cloud’s hair – making apparent not only their height difference but the fact Cloud was unmistakably with him. The trooper opened the purse rather carelessly and checked inside. Cloud also tried to glance in, unsure if the man was going to do a sleight of hand and disappear with whatever was inside. As he got it into his mind to distract Zack, the man zipped his purse back up and handed it over.

                As their hands touched, Cloud felt the man slide a note into his palm. Slightly puzzled, Cloud put the purse back over his shoulder and grimaced as he felt a seam in his dress snap under his armpit. He at least hoped Zack hadn’t heard it…

                Soon after they walked pass and Cloud glanced around the room at the CEOs, SOLDIERs, and Shinra supporters scattered all around. Everyone looked so formal, dressed with such class – it made him apprehensive. These were the kind of people Don Corneo would probably try to hang around with – actually, he might even have come here if he didn’t have to set up plans for tomorrow…

                Shaking off the unwanted thought, Cloud let Zack lead them away from the cluster of people milling about. His azure eyes traveled the room before finding his target – the podium. The job was underway. Now all he had to do was place his purse inside of it so that when the party was over, the trooper from before could pick up the package.

                After that, he was free to find Tifa and get her out of the mess she was in. It was a welcome thought.

                Though…that still leaves the question of the note.

                With Zack right next to him he couldn’t open it to read, but it bothered him. They had all been so worried about discretion and secrecy, so why would they bother…

                There might be a change in plans.

                Annoyed at the thought of it, he tried to hide his feelings when he looked up at Zack. The SOLDIER was clearly looking for someone, but had kept a steady and reassuring arm around him as they migrated around the different chattering people all around.

                “Who are you looking for?”

                “Oh… Ange, Gen, and Seph. This is kind of a party for them, the heroes of the Wutai War. I guess they’re mingling somewhere in here or are waiting till they have to come out. Knowing them as I do, I bet it’s the latter.”

                “Oh…”

                Seeing an opportunity present itself, he quietly mumbled, “I’m feeling a little claustrophobic… How about I wait along the wall here and you go look around?”

                “Hm? Ah, okay. I’ll be right back!”

                Nodding, they disengaged from each other and headed in opposite directions, Zack happily waving back at him. When the SOLDIER disappeared between the bodies around him, Cloud headed to the wall using his body as a shield as he unfolded the note and read it.

                -Bring and place the bag under the stage at midnight. They’ll be a large crowd gathered at the time, and it’ll be easiest to get close without drawing attention to yourself. Our secret operative will be watching.-

                Just place it under the stage…? The operative must be the trooper from before, but… Why midnight?

                Small alarm bells were going off in Cloud’s head, and glancing around the room, Cloud saw a huge ornament clock along the wall fastened in the likeness of the Shinra Electric Power Company logo. It was eleven-thirteen. The train had gotten him here a little late.

                Still…the party is supposed to end before one o’clock. I wonder why I need to get it there before twelve... I was only asked to stow away the purse without being seen before the end of the night was over… If they already have someone here, why am I the one being asked to do this? What am I missing?

                Uneasy, Cloud glanced down at his purse. No one was looking or paying him any mind. He carefully unzipped the bag and glanced inside, not sure what he’d find.

                Puzzled, he moved his hand in and felt around, shifting a brush, makeup, and hairpins out of the way. Nothing felt peculiar or out of place – it seemed like a standard women’s purse.

                Just what am I missing…?

                Aggregated, he took his hand out and zipped up the purse.

                I shouldn’t be getting more involved in this… I was worried they were smuggling in weapons, but there’s nothing like that inside… It must be small – hidden inside the items in my purse…ah, or the purse itself!

                Glancing down at his ugly and fat bluish-green bag, he eyed it suspiciously. It was full of rumpled textures, ruffles, and curves – just like his dress. Maybe someone had sown something inside of it… A thought came to him.

                The purse isn’t important. It’s probably notes, information, maybe even pills being smuggled in.

                Nothing else made sense.

                He turned to stare at the stage underneath the large Shinra Electric Power Company clock. It was raised three feet from the ground with only a podium along the top. Likely President Shinra had already welcomed everyone to the party and at midnight would be the ceremony for the Wutai heroes.

                It’s not a bad plan, Cloud admitted. Everyone will be too busy watching the SOLDIERs get paraded to pay attention to a meek person getting closer to the stage. Anyone who notices me will stock it up to an eager fangirl. They’ll go right on looking at the SOLDIERs themselves.

                At once, tension drained from his shoulders.

                I kept thinking about betraying Zack all this time… I was worried I’d bring something terrible into Shinra, but if this is the best AVALANCHE has, no wonder Shinra has been kicking their asses.

                Paying the thoughts no mind any longer, he turned from the wall and scanned the crowd. He still couldn’t see Zack yet, but now he was hopeful. Things would be okay. He wasn’t going to have to do anything more to hurt him.

                I’m sorry I used you to get here, Zack. You’ll have to forgive me for that… But I did want to see you again.

                Zack’s spikey head popped up in the crowd, and before long Zack spotted him and a grin fit onto his face.

                For perhaps the first time that night, Cloud felt calm enough to smile happily back at him.

 

Chapter Text

 

                For the last thirty minutes, things were going great. Zack had explained that the Trinity was indeed waiting to come out until they had to be ‘unveiled.’ After that they were thinking of mingling as little as possible, and then calling it a night – or at least leaving the function behind.

                Currently Cloud didn’t mind the fact he wouldn’t get to see Angeal or Genesis – and by association Sephiroth – because he and Zack were feeding each other pieces of Wutai crab ‘ravgoo’ or whatever Zack had called it with one already plopped into his mouth. They were delicious, and Cloud opened his mouth to let Zack slide another piece in for him. They were being like those ugly nasty and despicable couples who couldn’t keep their goody hands off each other in public.

                Cloud was adoring every moment of it.

                Chewing thoughtfully after Cloud fed him a piece in return, Zack looked around the room as he swallowed and said, “Y’know… This is a pretty great night.”

                “Yeah?”

                “Mm. I’m really glad you called me… I was only around for the end of the Wutai War, so I don’t get recognition for really being there, since I wasn't, you know…? But at these things people always come up to me asking about the war, and since I’m a First Class now… They think I was there for the whole thing. I was real concerned about being heckled and tormented all night.”

                “Sounds traumatic.”

                “I am traumatized…my real battle scars are not from battles, but from the cougar claws of numerous women and sharp tongues of the jealous guys…”

                Cloud giggled, “Terrifying…”

                Stop that.

                “So when you called me up wanting to do something Friday night, I was elated. Now that you’re with me all the scary people will hopefully leave me alone and I won’t have to, like, fake a heart attack or something to get away.”

                “Have you actually done that?”

                “No, but last year some poor – or I suppose rich – overweight bastard had one…and I’ve had the idea ever since. I figured if I did fake one this year I could pretend that there was a curse on this function – y’know, like a Wutai curse – and scare my tormentors.”

                “You sound like you’ve thought about this far too much.”

                Zack merely grinned in reply, denying nothing.

                Cloud looked around as Zack took a drink. Midnight seemed to be getting closer now. Truthfully, Cloud was ready to get rid of the damned package. It didn’t fit on his lap or under the table and the raised chairs, but he felt too anxious leaving it hanging on the back of his chair. It left him with the option of always keeping one hand tightly wound around the unrelenting strap as it hung off his hip.

                “Can I ask you a personal question?”

                Caught more by curiousness than suspicion, which was still peculiar, he gave a slight nod.

                “…do you like wearing dresses?”

                The question made him become silent as he tried to figure out how to answer. He’d caught Zack eyeing him up and down several times tonight, and although that should have made him uncomfortable or at the very least gloomy, Zack’s gaze was surprisingly uplifting. It looked more like the SOLDIER kept looking only to remind himself Cloud was really there, and with him.

                He remembered something Angeal had said about being Zack’s ‘wet dream,’ if hazily.

                I didn’t think much of it at the time… But Zack does seem to have a fascination with my legs in this dress. Maybe it wasn’t just some off-hand comment… Actually, Zack would have had to of requested a crossdresser when he came to the Inn now that I think about it.

                Taking a demure sip, Cloud pondered, is that what Angeal meant…? Does Zack have some secret kink for crossdressers?

                Realizing he was making Zack anxious by not answering, he decided to not ruin his fun. Zack was good enough for him that he’d stroke his imagination… In fact, he didn’t think he’d even mind doing it.

                “I do…but normally only when…I wear lingerie underneath.”

                He wondered if he’d flirted a bit too seriously, but Zack’s face did that wonderful thing where it glowed, and this time even brighter than before. Cloud had to bite his bottom lip to stop from laughing as the SOLDIER swallowed and then swallowed again before speaking.

                “Really…?”

                His voice had increased to a new octave, and Cloud had to dig down even deeper to suppress his tremors and not erupt in loud ugly laughter. Raising his glass to his lips, he gave a tiny nod as he tried to reign himself in from giggling.

                I said to stop that.

                Zack was resting his chin on his upturned hand, and with the glass still pressed to his lips Cloud kept thinking about how this was just like their last dinner, only now they were sitting closer together, feeding each other, and on occasion bumping each other – accidentally maybe the first two times…maybe…

                “Can I ask you a personal question, in turn?”

                Zack blinked, but then smiled half into his hand.

                Gods, that’s adorable.

                “Sure thing. Ask away.”

                Setting his drink down, he lazily drew his hand along the tablecloth as he tried to figure out what to ask. About his job, or the others he was in a relationship with, maybe even about his hometown… But before he could say anything a trooper suddenly came up behind Zack and whispered something into his ear. The SOLDIER blinked before his features hardened slightly.

                “Right now, you said?”

                Cloud watched Zack get up, suddenly feeling anxious. It must have shown because the raven haired man reached out and rested his hand on top of Cloud’s.

                “Uh, something has come up but I’ll be back as soon as I can, okay?”

                “Is everything alright?”

                “It will be. Promise.”

                He took his hand away but leaned down to leave a very quick peck on his cheek before heading off with the trooper at his side. Cloud brought his hand up to feel where Zack’s lips had gazed.

                He looked like he did that on autopilot… Did he even realize he did it?

                Suddenly in need of air, he stood draping the purse over his shoulder. His eyes scanned the area before him before locating the balconies along the left wall and heading there.

                He was almost to one when a hand seized tightly around his arm and began to haul him back a step, behind a group of loudly laughing men. He went to wrench his arm free before he realized he couldn’t.

                What the hell…?

                He turned to tell off whoever had grabbed ahold of him but instead found himself staring into the face of someone instantly familiar to him. The words in his throat died out.

                “I’m sorry for manhandling you, but we can’t talk for long or we might get spotted.”      

                She moved to grab him by both shoulders so he was looking right at her, her expression one of seriousness and demanding his attention. The latter had been hers the moment he’d laid eyes on her.

                “You’re in danger. I need you to listen to what I have to say, word from word, and you have to stay calm no matter what I say, alright?”

                Still unable to speak, he nodded.

                Then Tifa, gorgeous Tifa, told him exactly what was going to happen at midnight with clear and concise words. She did not beat around the bush, but kept things simple and to the point. Cloud listened to her as one would listen to an emergency broadcast on the radio, silent and expressionless.

                When she was done, she had squeezed his shoulders in a supportive manner and instructed him on what to do, and then had with extreme gentleness, assured him she would never let that happen and to please believe in her – she would make sure everything would be okay.

                Then she had to go, disappear back into the crowd around them, and Cloud dumbly stood there in a daze, not even registering how happy he should be she hadn’t recognized him again… Instead he finally got his feet moving and walked into the girl’s bathroom to stare into the mirror long and hard for several minutes.

                His thoughts were consumed on how much he had hated the ugly and constricting dress he’d been made to wear all night… Of the useless purse on his shoulder.

                For some time he could not find it in himself to move, except to slowly raise his hands out just in front of his body, not daring to bring them any closer. They were shaking, and he kept thinking of Zack, who’d had his arm slung around him all night… Sweet and innocent Zack… He never would have known what hit him. Neither of them would have.

                I can’t…go back out there with anyone… I can’t get near them.

                Shock started to give way to anger and he ripped his PHS out from inside the purse, and then with a slight snarl he threw the bag into trashcan. He barely managed to text Reno five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten times. The final ones changed from needing him to simple and direct instructions that if Reno let down his Mother, he’d make sure he made his life miserable from the Lifestream.

                When he was done, he forced himself to calm down as he exited the bathroom. He moved around the people milling about, carefully hiding behind them, hearing Tifa’s instructions in his head.

                ‘Whatever you do, when the President starts addressing the crowd and has the room’s attention, do not try to get close to him or the stage. Stall however you possibly can.’

                There was a brute tapping heard echoing through the speakers, and Cloud glanced from the clock down to the stage where The President was now standing behind his podium. He was only beginning – the SOLDIERs weren’t being sent out yet. The crowd was just now moving toward the stage.

                He glanced at the clock again.

                11:53.

                I still have time… I still have time…

                Zack was nowhere to be seen yet, and he thought that for the best – even if he desperately wanted to see him one more time.

                His eyes slowly slid back to the balcony he’d seen before and he walked out onto it, closing the glass doors behind him without looking back. The balcony was pretty large…would it be enough? He wouldn’t know. He could hope so. Stiff-legged, he walked forward.

                The worse thing out of all of it…was that he understood. It made ‘horrible’ seem like too light of a word, but he understood it. The plan was a surefire way to accomplish AVALANCHE goals…and destroy Shinra’s.

                The fact even was…all the signs had been there from the beginning, he just…

                …hadn’t realized it for what it truly was.

                He’d accepted their reasons at face value, despite knowing what he did.

                ‘Some say AVALANCHE is an eco-terrorist group, and their fighting for The Planet… A lot of people think they’re right, but their methods are wrong. They’ve been known to take out civilians indiscriminately if it means hitting high profile targets.’

                Cloud remembered now as much as he did then, the tight constricting vice of the dress all along his chest and back… The ruffled pattern assumed to hide his lack of bust… To conceal whatever wasn’t underneath…

                Or was.

                He could still remember Tifa’s words.

                ‘You absolutely can’t walk through all of those people toward the stage – you’ll die if you do… Everyone who is around you will.’

                Cloud looked at his phone and his three contacts. Reno had already shown he was out… Angeal was with the rest of the Trinity…and Cloud didn’t know what to say to him now. That left Zack, who was still wrapped up in whatever he’d been dragged into, or was now back in the room looking for him again…

                11:55.

                It had become impossible to walk in his heels so he stumbled out of them. Trying to control his breathing, he walked to the balcony stone rail with his eyes still glued to his PHS. Tifa’s words were still in his mind.

                ‘You don’t need to worry. I’m going to find out who’s behind this, and I’m going to stop them. I will never let them get away with something like this!’

                If this was really going to happen, he didn’t want… He wanted to talk to someone again – but…if he couldn’t do that… The least he could do was say that he was sorry. He typed a short message with shaking fingers, sent it, and then let his PHS drop.

                Trying to stop from breathing too harshly and control each breath, he slowly hiked up one leg, ever mindful of his movements. Getting his knees on the railing, he somehow managed to get his quaking legs under him and looked down. Fifty-seven floors of terror stood below him, and Cloud was afraid that if he closed his eyes he’d black out and fall immediately. He hadn’t known if he was still afraid of heights, but…now he did.

                The concrete was cold under his feet as he inched them forward until his toes were at the edge. Even this high up with his head craned heavenward to avoid looking down again so soon, Cloud couldn’t see the stars in the sky for the smog’s coverage. It made him want to laugh, and it was becoming apparent…that he was losing it.

                I don’t want to do this… I don’t want to do this… I don’t want to do this…

                He inched one foot further along, thinking of all the people behind him… All the people moving around the floors just below – maybe those above too…

                After everything he’d gone through, death had always been considered a worthless option. He’d been dealt sour hands and a bleak fate, but he’d gone on because someone always needed him to… His Mother still did, but if he wasn’t going to get to look after her either way… He at least didn’t want to take others from their mothers. Not the people he didn’t know, and definitely not Tifa and the Trinity, and especially not Zack.

                His chest felt even more constricted as his breath kept hitching. It was killing him to stand there, frozen by fear and rising dread… He had so many reasons he had to keep living, but… But time was literally running out.

                He slid one foot over the void and his breath hitched again…all he had to do was lean forward and…

                “Tonight is rather peaceful… Not particularly clear, but it has been an enjoyable night so far. When the weather is good like this, but still too cold for the liking of ordinary men, I like to use these balconies to get away from the suffocation of the masses.”

                ...Cloud slid his foot back onto the ledge.

                “Zack has been enjoying himself immensely. Even Angeal and Genesis seem to be in good spirits, and they detest these functions as I do.”

                Cloud, somehow, managed to turn his head to look even though he would have never needed to. Sephiroth was casually leaned back against one of the pillars by the glass doors. Since he hadn’t looked back when he’d closed the doors, Cloud had never noticed him. He couldn't believe his luck... or lack of it.

                “I think their overall morale has been thanks to your attendance. Zack has consistently shown…how excited he’s been that you called him, and has had this date night planned ever since.”

                Sephiroth was looking down at his PHS as he said this, but flicked it shut to regard him with jade eyes.

                “It has made the rest of us very pleased. This experience…he is going through has been a sort of…gift to him from all of us, as we’ve all hurt him in some way. We would normally not tolerate infidelity, but Zack is so keen on you, and Angeal without a doubt already harbors certain helicopter tendencies toward you… Even Genesis, who for him, no man nor woman deserves any respect or kindness until they’ve deserved it, has even expressed a certain fondness for you… As such, I’ve been meaning to acquaint myself with you for some time. I would, however, much rather do so by conversation…and not leaping off a balcony after you.”

                Cloud hadn’t thought it was possible for his legs to tremble and shake harder than they were now, but lo and behold, they were now shaking so hard the rest of him was quivering.

                With a cruel smile, Cloud was sure this had to be some awful joke the universe was pulling on him.

                “You… You really should not be here Sephiroth. Not now.”

                “But yet, here I am.”

                Cloud didn’t know what to say. His eyes glanced down to his PHS. What time was it now? Did he have minutes left…or seconds?

                “I am not good with matters of reassurance, and I am not…good with consoling the disheartened… But I will implore you to rethink your immediate decisions and actions, because I can assure you, they will impact far more than just your life and anguish numerous people… Some who are without need of mentioning, very dear to me.”

                The glass doors opened and the person Cloud wanted to see the absolute most and least appeared, expression one bordering on horror, and the PHS in his hand nearly sliding from his grip as he stepped out and closed the doors behind him.

                Oh by the Nibel Gods, no, no…

                Swallowing, the raven haired man tried to take a step forward, but Cloud impulsively hissed, “STOP!” Zack froze, hands coming up palms out.

                This is so damn fucked up…

                Looking away from them, Cloud tried to keep his voice calm despite feeling everything besides it.

                “Zack… Sephiroth… Please, I’m begging you…go back inside. Please.

                Zack’s voice was weak, and it surprised him by softly saying, “Sure thing, Cloudy… Yeah. Let’s…all just go back inside okay? Together. Come on now…”

                He heard Zack take a few closer steps toward him and his breath hitched further.

                “I said stop!”

                He turned to look at him again, knowing he had to jump now or it wasn’t going to make any difference – but the part of him that was selfish and needy wouldn’t let him…let go. He implored it to again and again, but his legs wouldn’t move – not even to fall forward.

                “What does, ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t know’ mean, Cloudy?”

                Cloudy. It was said so sweetly he’d ignored it the first time, but this time he couldn’t, not while he was looking right at Zack… The other thing was the message he’d sent Zack, his last message, and he stared at the SOLDIER’s PHS in his hand… There was no way he could have known he’d be on the balcony from that…

                Sephiroth had his PHS out when I looked at him earlier…

                Azure eyes cut to the right and he was alarmed to see Sephiroth had already moved and was now against the railing, just a few feet from him – already close enough that if he lunged he would be able to grab him. It made the tremors worsen, because if he did try to do that…everything would be over.    

                It was about to be regardless.

                “Cloud, talk to me…hey.”

                Zack stepped another foot closer, hands still held up and voice so tender it actually hurt to hear.

                “I’m sorry, Zack.”

                Another step.

                “It’s okay, whatever it is… It’s okay.”

                Another step, and Cloud was shaking his head.

                “Please, you’re going to get hurt if you come any closer.”

                “Not as hurt as I’ll be if you take that step, sweetheart.”

                Jump. Jump right now. Right now. You can’t let anyone get any closer… Please jump!

                Then Zack said the words that killed him.

                “Shhhhhhhh… Easy… Shhh, it’s okay. Calm down. I won’t hurt you.”

                He couldn’t move because his legs wouldn’t, and he couldn’t see because his eyes were burning, and he couldn’t speak because his throat felt tight, but then Zack was right in front of him raising his hand to slowly take Cloud’s – guiding him to turn, resisting springing at him only by how tight his grip was getting.

                There were signs of relief in Zack’s voice as whispered, “That’s it…easy. Step down.”

                Cloud tried to but his legs wouldn’t budge.

                How long has it been…? It’s been too long… Too long already.

                Zack dropped his PHS and was moving to his other hand upward, possibly to Cloud’s hip to help him down, but then Cloud heard it. In his mind the soft noise was as loud as a Reactor explosion.

                Cl-chi-chi-rnk.

                Zack must have heard it too because his eyes widened in confusion and Cloud tried to get him to let go because the pressure against his chest – he was about to – and take him with – and he had to let go. His jerk was forceful enough to dislodge Zack and he felt a moment of relief before he went over the railing and fell.

                He saw Zack’s horrified expression looking out over the rail and heard a yell rippled from his throat, but Cloud couldn’t make a sound. From terror or shock, he fell soundlessly without moving, only closing his eyes when Zack’s form got too blurry to make out from wind or tears.

                I’m going to die… I’m going…

                Those were supposed to be his last thoughts, but abruptly he felt arms seize him and opened his eyes as, in terror, he thought Zack had leapt after him – but no, the beat of a wing dissuaded Zack from being the one to leap after him, or Genesis who briefly entered his mind at seeing the appendage – because he was face to face with jaded eyes, not shades of blue.

                Perhaps part of him might have been happy to be in his idol’s arms again, but it was buried beneath too much grief. The last time he’d been in this man’s arms, he been hurt by him…nearly killed.

                …and now this time around, Cloud would be the one to hurt him.

                The ‘nearly’ killed was yet to be seen.

               

Chapter Text

              

                While suspended in the air, there was nothing to do but wince and brace himself against the General, waiting for the inevitable explosion that would kill him…and perhaps Sephiroth as well. It was so different being in his arms again – and not only because they were suspended in the air, but because Sephiroth had chosen to hold him tightly but with a gentleness he hadn’t used before. His strong arms were wrapped around Cloud’s middle, and Cloud had his hands dug into Sephiroth’s dark blue military duster shoulders, feeling the badges and medals against his arms, and the smooth rippled chest against his cheek from the low neck of the black silk dress shirt underneath.

                He knew he was about to die, and he knew he should be remembering what had happened the last time he’d been in this man’s arms…but those thoughts wouldn’t come. All he could think about was the fact that he was in Sephiroth’s arms, that the man had even attempted to save him…

               He found these were nicer last thoughts than the ones he’d had before, and kept waiting for the inevitable blast to go off now that the bomb had stopped making noises… He waited tensely in the arms of his sworn enemy – his lover – past heartbreak – but despite the moments ticking by…the bomb did not go off and raze them both in a fiery explosion.

                In fact, the only thing happening was a few moments where Sephiroth kept them aloft before steadily rising. Cloud wasn’t watching of course, but he could tell. He could hear the upbeats of Sephiroth’s wing, the slow and steady rise as his wig being pushed by wind… He could even tell the moment they rose back over the balcony and landed gracefully, even though his feet hadn’t touched the ground because he was now being held bridal style.

                He could tell because he could hear Zack’s relieved sigh as he came closer.

                He was still very much alive when Sephiroth went to lightly place him on his feet, or tried to – his legs had turned to wimpy noodles, making his body have to slide down Sephiroth’s. And then, his legs just gave out so instead he was carefully moved so he could sit down against the stone railing behind him. Zack was at his side at once, almost dropping down next to him in exhaustion, one leg bent at the knee.

                “Thank Gaia you caught him, Seph… Ugh… My heart…”

                Cloud could still barely bring himself to move – it felt like his own heart had been left behind somewhere during the fall, despite hearing it beat so rapidly against his dress…against his bomb dress.

                Bringing his hands up he stared down at them. They were barely quivering now – but he couldn’t feel them.

                 I’m still not dead… No one is dead…

                 Zack’s hands moved over his hands gently, but steadily squeezed his tighter. Cloud didn’t want to look away from them, but as the grip grew his eyes found their way to Zack’s angry expression – an expression close to tears.

                 “Why the hell would you jump!? Don’t you have – don’t you have a mom you’ve got to support!? Did you think of her at all!? What the hell! People…” He voice broke and became softer as he moaned, “People have to stop doing this to me! They have to stop…trying to leave me like this!”

                 Cloud couldn’t say anything as Zack let his head slump and shook as he reached out to hold him tightly in a hug. Sephiroth moved to stand behind him at once, resting his hands on Zack’s trembling shoulders. Jade eyes were smoldering with numerous emotions, none of them Cloud wanted to be directed at him, so…instead he looked back to Zack and found the willpower to squeeze his hands back.

                 His voice was raw, even though he hadn’t screamed when he fell.

                 “I…have to look after my mom…but I didn’t think I had a choice.”

                 Zack looked up at him and burst out, “You always have a choice!”

                 Cloud was getting frightened by Zack’s expressions and emotions. He felt his eyes burning as he blurted, “I did have a choice! It was jump, or take you and everybody else with me! I… I didn’t want anyone else getting killed!”

                 Then he quieted, alarmed, and looked back down at his chest… Still nothing.

                 His freezing nor words did not go unnoticed.

                 “What do you mean by that?”

                 At this point Cloud wasn’t even anxious anymore. He felt bone-weary, drained… Zack’s concern was too much for him – and Sephiroth’s stare was too pointed to resist… As he tried to explain his voice grew soft.

                 “…I have a bomb on me.”

                 Zack’s eyes widened while Sephiroth’s pupils narrowed to thin slits. The latter’s stance changed immediately as he asked, “Did you plan to take someone out tonight? Are you working for AVALANCHE?”

                 “I didn’t know… I didn’t know, honest… When I found out…” He put his hands gingerly over the fabric covering his chest. “I tried to get away when I knew someone was going to detonate it… I came out here to jump but you wouldn’t let me do it.” Then, barely a croak, he managed, “It…still might go off. I thought for certain it was about to…”

                 Zack and Sephiroth traded glances, varying emotions playing out, before Sephiroth said, “I’ll inform our bomb defusal corps immediately. For now-”

                Zack immediately shouted, “No way!” When Sephiroth tried to speak again the raven haired SOLDIER shook his head firmly. “No! I know what you’re going to say and just…no! I’m staying right here. I know the danger, I get it, but I’m still not moving. Nothing good ever comes when I leave someone alone in these kind of moments.”

                Sephiroth stared Zack down but the younger SOLDIER didn’t yield an inch. Finally, pinching the bridge of his nose, Sephiroth seemed to concede the point. He shifted his gaze back to Cloud, who was watching the both of them incredulously.

                “So tell me Seph, if Cloud here has a bomb strapped to his chest…how do we get it off?”

                “My dress.” It came out as a blurt, and when they stared at him he softly explained, “It isn’t on my chest… That’s why I didn’t know… It’s inside my dress.” They both continued to simply stare and he, very uncomfortably went on. “I was asked to wear this dress…had no idea… But T- someone I know told me about it a little while ago… I have no clue how they knew, but once I heard what they had to say… I realized it all made sense.”

                He let his head rest against the railing behind him, closing his eyes.

                “What makes sense?”

                “Not now, Zackary. We can have this conversation after we diffuse the situation.”

                “Oh. Yeah. Of course… You think you can do it?”

                “I won’t leave you up here while the corps assembles…and every moment of inactively could very well mean a moment closer to a detonation. If that is the type of bomb you carry, then there are three immediate reasons for it not going off at the moment. One would be it jammed. The killswitch may have been hit, but the mechanics of the bomb are not functioning and relaying the order as they should. Two is that the killswitch is out of range. It may be possible that by being out here, and briefly over the edge, you managed to get far enough away that the order could not be received. Three is that the killswitch was not used. I heard an odd noise come from you before you fell. Assuming that was the bomb reacting to a reply, we could guess that instead of the killswitch being flipped to blow from standby, it was pushed back to inactive.”

               Three didn’t make any sense to him…unless Tifa had actually managed to save him – but he couldn’t know that for certain. It could have been any of the three… The seams of the dress itself could have jammed the bomb, especially with the ways the dress had been tearing tonight… And the distance theory had merit too.

               “Then what do we do, Seph?”

               “In this situation, it depends on what happened. If it is option one, carelessly removing the dress may prove fatal.”

               “I think so too.”

                When they looked at him, he remembered Tifa’s words to him about being careful not to pull and tug the dress – that even the frills as sleeves and along the bottom might be holding a wire. He was more thankful than ever he hadn’t ripped them off like he had originally intended to do.

               “If option one is what happened… Me pulling it off may rip the seams or move the material blocking it. Then…”

               He didn’t elaborate…didn’t need to.

               “Option two, then?”

               Zack sounded hopeful despite his weary expression.

               “Option two would allow us to safely remove the dress as long as we keep Cloud out of range from the detonator… Should it make noise again, I will fling Cloud back over the railing at once.”

               It was not a reassuring answer.

               “Option three?”

               Zack didn’t sound so much hopeful but desperate this time.

               “Option three would mean it is perfectly safe to remove the dress, though one would be prudent not to do so in a reckless manner.”

               A silence followed where they all looked at each other before Zack finally asked, “How do we decide…on if it’s safe to try and remove it or not?”

              They looked at Cloud to pick, but he gazed back at them helplessly. His answer had been to fling himself from the tower after working up the courage he’d need…they were the ones who made it a mission to save him. Whatever happened next…he was more than willing to leave it into their hands.

              “I may have a solution, though…it is not without great risks.”

               As calmly as he could, Cloud looked at Sephiroth and took in his composure. If he was not willing to give into panic, then neither would he. He stated, “Everything is a risk right now… If you have an idea, I’ll hear it.”

              With a slow nod, Sephiroth said, “If you will put your utter trust in me… I shall try to free you from the bomb you wear. AVALANCHE explosives are not known for going off correctly. They blow too early, hurting their own men and civilians…” Seeing Cloud’s look, he went on. “But they are also known for stalling, jamming, or being outright duds. As such if there is any delay…it will work immensely in our favor.”

               Zack was the one who asked, “And if it doesn’t?”

               Sephiroth did not acknowledge it. He continued to hold Cloud’s gaze. Cloud stared back, wordless for a few moments, but finally he nodded. This may have been the same person who he had such regrets and bitterness over, but right now…he was trying to save him. He had to accept that…and respect it.

               Because serpentine jade eyes were looking at him, demanding his attention and his answer. The man before him now was the one he’d worshipped when he was younger. Hearing his low timbre of a voice, Cloud could feel some of his anxiety starting to dissipate.

               “I’ll do whatever you think is best.”

               “Good… Then with an apology, I must ask you to yet again stand back up on the edge.”

               Zack made a slightly strangled sound, somewhere between a whimper and a choke, but Cloud didn’t blink at the request. Instead he squeezed Zack’s hands again.

               “…I don’t know if I can. My legs have gone weak.”

               “You must try. Zack, assist him…careful not to touch the dress or jostle him.”

               Zack looked at the both of them helplessly, closed his eyes, mouthed a prayer, and then got up to help Cloud to his feet gently minding all parts of cloth on him. He then, with a slight tremor himself, helped Cloud stand back on the ledge again.

               “You need not face me this time. In fact, it would be best if you didn’t.”

               Watching the man retrieve Masamune from behind the pillar he’d once been leaning on, Cloud continued to follow him with his eyes as Sephiroth extended a dark black wing from somewhere along his shoulder blade once again. He flew until he was hovering outside of the balcony, feet behind Cloud’s back. It felt so surreal, just like a dream…but he knew now like that time with Genesis’…nothing was fake about it.

                He focused on Zack.

                “I’m sorry.”

                Zack shook his head, firmly stating, “No. Don’t say sorry anymore tonight… This…this is the best bombshell of a party that I’ve ever…been too.”

                His humor fell flat, but still Cloud appreciated it and tried to smile for him. It too fell short, but Zack kept a hold of his hands and was soothingly caressing the backs of them with his thumbs.

                To fill the silence, Zack asked, “Seph, hey…what are you planning to do?”

                “I’m going to cut the dress apart in the back.”

                “What if it explodes?”

                “The delay should be enough for me to retrieve it and fly it far enough away to avoid injury.”

                “What about yourself?”

                “If I can withstand Genesis shooting a Firaga in my face, I’m sure I will come back alive from this. All you need to worry about is pulling Cloud forward the moment I retrieve the dress and covering him. Don’t allow him to fall.”

                “Of course! You… I’ll count on you, and you count on me.”

                With that Zack looked back at him.

                “It’ll be alright, Cloud. Sephiroth’s plans never fail. If he thinks he can do this, then he can. So don’t worry.”

                Meekly, Cloud nodded at Zack’s reassurance. He wanted to close his eyes but held off. If he had to die…he still didn’t think it was a bad way to go, holding Zack’s hands and being with him. It certainly beat plummeting away from him.

                “Just stand still, Cloud. It will all…be over in a moment.”

                With those words, Cloud breathed in deeply…and held his breath.

                There came the singing of a blade after the cut had already happened, but Cloud didn’t realize it until his dress began to fall forward toward Zack – slit perfectly along the back zipper and seam. Then it was gone, taken by Sephiroth without him even seeing the man’s hand reach out for it – and Zack was yanking him against his body, turning and suddenly covering him with it as they knelt.

                Cloud braced when he registering he was being cradled and protected, pressed into Zack’s chest. He finally closed his eyes and clung to the SOLDIER as he tried to imprint how warm Zack was into memory, his scent – something like pine cologne and clean linen – but the explosion they were waiting for never came. They stayed like that for several heartbeats, huddled tightly for what seemed like an eternity, until Cloud eventually heard Sephiroth’s booted feet touch back down on the balcony. Zack raised his head from Cloud’s and turned to look back.

                “Seph…?”

                With great calmness, Sephiroth said, “The danger has passed now. I removed the dress safely without triggering the explosion and have already relocated it to a deserted construction site.” He was putting his PHS away. “A message has been sent and the bomb defusal corps is being activated to handle the situation there.”

                Zack’s sigh, was for lack of a better term, explosive.

                Cloud got to his feet with Zack’s help, utterly mystified that he was still alive. He watched Zack spring forward to capture Sephiroth in a tackle hug, shouting his praises, and the fond and gentle look Sephiroth was returning to him as he wrapped one arm around his body, placing his hand on the back of Zack’s raven spikes.

                 Wrapping his arms around his form, Cloud let what he was seeing sink it with the realization…his life wasn’t in danger anymore.

                 I was so certain that… With the bomb in my dress along the chest… I knew I wasn’t going to make it. There wasn’t enough time… I had at the least wanted to make sure nobody else got taken with me, but… In the end even when I had a bomb strapped to me Zack wouldn’t part from my side. Sephiroth didn’t either. Though it wasn’t for my sake – but for Zack’s.

                 Watching them as they stepped slightly back from each other, Zack grinning up at him with open love, and Sephiroth demeanor now purring like the cat that got the canary, Cloud pressed his lips together and squeezed his arms.

                Sephiroth loves him… He absolutely loves him. They all do. Zack is special… Angeal clearly adores him, and is without a doubt close to Genesis. Genesis made it perfectly clear he was in a relationship with Zack, with ‘lovers.’ They truly are all together, and they’re…really happy that way.

                Swallowing as they turned back to him, Cloud attempted a smile as he glanced between them. His eyes couldn’t help but linger on Sephiroth’s gaze.

                That’s why, regardless of what happens now…or later… I’ll forgive you Sephiroth, and I’ll forget. What happened between us is a secret nobody else is ever going to know. I don’t know if you’ve really have forgotten or if it is just an act, but I won’t ruin this happiness… I wouldn’t dare. Not just for your sake or my own, but because I don’t want to shatter theirs.

                Zack came to his side and hugged him fiercely, and Cloud let his lead lull against the SOLDIER’s shoulder as Zack sighed contently.

                “That was-”

                Before Cloud even realized what was happening Zack suddenly gripped him tighter than before, and Cloud’s face was back into Sephiroth’s chest as the man seemingly just appeared against them, arms constricting. For several moments Cloud didn’t know what was happening, but then he registered the glass pane doors behind them quaking and the slight rumble registering through his bare feet. It only lasted for a handful of seconds, but Cloud gasped as he realized what it meant.

                “Is everyone alright?”

                Sephiroth stepped back from them, already turning to face back over the balcony and pressing his left arm back against Zack’s side, who’d moved to stand behind Cloud, still half sheltering him with his bigger body. Cloud could only guess they’d heard the explosion go off before Cloud had felt the tremors.

                Peering over the balcony from where he was, Cloud could see the tell-tale signs of rising smoke and worry gnawed in his stomach.

                “It went off then.”

                Zack was still tense and wary at his side, arms sheltering him as he observed Sephiroth’s back until the man turned back around.

                “It looks as if the bomb had a delayed detonation.”

                He and Zack moved to look over the ledge, and they saw the red and orange of a fire somewhere off below, burning and the rising smoke. By the size of what Cloud could see even with unenhanced eyes, the explosion would have taken out the entire floor he’d been on – maybe several others. He swallowed uneasily, looking away.

                “You said that place was abandoned, didn’t you Seph?”

                “Yes… Yes, I did. Let us be thankful that we had enough time to deal with the situation.”

                Sephiroth turned then, to regard Cloud. His eyes slowly moved up and down Cloud’s form, for a moment his stoic façade frowning. Cloud knew keeping his arms crossed did nothing to conceal the bright pink lingerie that the strapless see-through material was, nor did the lacy underwear underneath. He’d been seen in all matter of undress, costumes, compromising situations, but Cloud couldn’t help but think of the unwanted reminder that what he was wearing was close to the colored dress Sephiroth had taken him in.

                Part of him wanted to know if it reminded him of that night, but most of him just wanted… Just wanted a clean start. A clean slate for both of them. Cloud wasn’t willing to damage Sephiroth’s relationship, so he hoped if Sephiroth truly did not remember him they could leave it at that.

                “I have many questions for you, Cloud.” For a moment his heart dropped, but Sephiroth went on. “But for now they will have to wait. It is past time I head back inside, and there is a report I’ll need to handle regarding the order to take care of the bomb… Yes, for now, they will have to wait.” He said the last word with a clipped tone, staring Cloud down to let him know that there would be something like an interrogation coming.

                Zack had left Cloud’s side to peek through the glass pane doors behind them. As he came back he said, “Yeah, Ange and Gen are already on stage… It looks like they’re looking this way too – they might have heard the glass rattling from the explosion, if nothing else. If you don’t get out there soon people are going to come looking, and I gotta figure…that seeing one First Class SOLDIER and General Sephiroth standing out here with a beautiful near-naked nymph is gonna cause…a few concerns…and headlines.”

                At first Zack had trailed off thoughtfully, but as he slowly examined Cloud he could tell he was finally taking time to check him out, and that familiar glowing blush was spreading along his features.

                “Zackary is right. Still, we cannot leave you out here and I can’t be spotted trying to carry you off somewhere else. That means it’ll be up to you to sneak him away from the party.”

                Intelligently, Zack drummed, “Uhh… Yeah, okay, I get that but um… How about the part where Cloud is gorgeously naked and if I open up these fogged over glass doors everyone’s going to be getting an eyeful of him…?”

                “You’ll figure out something.”

                “C’mon, Seph… Be reasonable here. What could possibly make somebody not stare at a half nude man dressed in colorful lingerie…? Hell, even I know it isn’t the time, but uh…I’m still looking.”

                Sephiroth crossed his arms and tapped one hand’s fingers for a moment, glancing at the glass doors and then Cloud. He looked to Zack who was giving him a helpless look, then back to Cloud who was merely staring at him.

                “I could…just wait here.” The night air was cold – not making the see through lingerie do him any favors, though Zack would probably say something different – but he grew up in a cold hometown. He could bare it if he had to.

                Zack shot that down immediately.

                “Absolutely not. You’ll freeze up here, but besides that – once The Pres gets done showing these guys off, people are still going to chatter and move around… Do you really want to risk someone deciding to come out here for a smoke and coming up on you?”

                “And again, that leaves Zack being spotted with you… Even if you waited here until the oration is over without a doubt someone would try to follow myself, Genesis, or Angeal out here.”

                Angeal…? I wonder…does he have a wing too? Is that what Sephiroth just implied?

                Before Zack could speak, Sephiroth started to remove his medaled duster with a quiet sigh. Zack stared at him, asking, “What are you doing, Seph?”

                “If it is so important to get Cloud from here without drawing attention to him, then the only course of action is a simple, but bothersome one. You asked what would the crowds look at besides him… Well, the shirtless General of SOLDIER walking in with his Masamune drawn will accomplish that, I assure you.”

                Zack blanched, before what looked like a giant grin started to form on his face – it looked like he tried to resist it but couldn’t manage to.

                “Are- are you really okay doing that Seph!? I know how you don’t like it when…”

                A nod from Sephiroth, and he handed his jacket over to Zack and began to pull his dark dress shirt over his head. Cloud watched on in confusion as the tall General came his way and began to slide it on over him. Moving in a skillful methodical way, Cloud came to bare the General’s shirt. It went down to his mid-thighs, and the chest split did nothing to conceal the bright lingerie underneath… With the long sleeves, Cloud felt like he was drowning.

                “Um… Seph…”

                “I am not finished.”

                Moving in the same way, Cloud’s eyes widened as he tore the sleeves to his own shirt clean off, and then began to tie them around Cloud’s waist, ending up giving the shirt the appearance of a dress’s shape, especially with the how the sleeves were wrapped and folded to make a low hanging bow behind him.

                “You’re strangely good at this…”

                “I have never had to fasten a makeshift dress before out of my own articles of clothing, but you should know firsthand how battle garments don’t always hold up in a fight. Something like this is not a far stretch of one’s imagination.”

                With that, he moved one of Cloud’s hands up to the split in the shirt and had him bundle it up so that it was above his telling lingerie. From there he retrieved Cloud’s heels and set them down before him so he could step into them, handing him his PHS with the other hand.

                “In a dark room with all eyes on me, I assume you are capable of the rest, Zackary.”

                Grinning to the point it probably hurt, Zack nodded.

                “Oh yeah, I’ll keep him close to my side so he’ll mostly be blocked by my body once you’re up there with Angeal and Gen. We’ll head out while everyone is going glassy eyed.”

                “Good… Now be careful and wary of others. This ploy will hold up unless under close scrutiny… Now I must go, for the people inside have already gotten restless.”

                With that, he grabbed his Masamune after sliding on his military duster again. Zack told him, “You’re the best, Seph. I promise I’ll make it up to you for having to inflame your fangirls…anyway you want me to.” The slightest sign of a smirk, and then Sephiroth was opening the glass panel doors with a little more drama than he ever would have done, and striding toward the stage. As they moved so Zack could keep the door propped open with his hand, they could hear exclamations filtering through the room immediately as eyes caught sight of the infamous General.

                Zack snickered, but there was a slightly rueful expression on his face.

                “…I’m sorry.”

                Zack glanced at him with an eyebrow quirked.

                “It sounded like this was something he wouldn’t like to do…”

                “Well, yeah… Sephiroth doesn’t like it when he gets openly goggled, but… He wouldn’t have offered to do it in the first place unless he’d already made up his mind… So, remember what I said earlier? No more apologizing… Let’s just you and me…scram. We’ll leave all the apologies here and deal with the difficult stuff later, okay?”

                With a meek nod, they waited a full twenty seconds so that Sephiroth would have had time to cross the room and stroll to the middle of the stage before Zack pressed the door open and in the dim room, they closed the door behind them. Keeping Cloud against his body, they walked along the wall. Cloud could tell a few people glanced at them, but everyone’s attention was undividedly on Sephiroth. Zack glanced back and swallowed down what sounded like a snort.

                “What?”

                “The President is just standing there like a dumb oaf… But,” he was trying not to chuckle, “Genesis and Angeal obviously don’t have a damn clue what’s going on… They’re staring at him like he lost his mind.”

                It made Cloud feel even guiltier, but Zack’s slight tremors at least let him know he found the situation more amusing than anything else. It put him a little at ease… But when his dress rode up flashing lacy panties he flushed. He moved his free hand down to his front, pulling the makeshift dress down and holding it there because it was riding high along his hips now. As they turned the corner of the room and were headed to the exit, Cloud saw only one of the troopers was stationed at the doors – and not the one with the handkerchief.

                Was he the operative that had the detonator…? It would make sense for him to flee before he set the bomb off.

                Cloud felt his hand clench around the bunched material, gritting his teeth. If he ever found out who that S.O.B was, he would…

                The trooper was casually watching them approach, but made a slightly startled noise as they got closer and he kept staring at Cloud. What he said caused Cloud to freeze.

                “You… Aren't you that one who wore the ugly dress earlier?”

                For a moment Cloud stiffened with anger.

                Is he one of them too?

                The man was looking him up and down in confusion as he said, “…where’d the hell your dress go? And what are you wearing now…? I can’t blame you for changin’ and all…but uhhh…” He started to trail off as he realized he was being rude – or at least Cloud thought that might have been the reason, at first.

                Then he heard Zack’s voice, low and dark – and glanced up to see the SOLDIER’s eyes were narrowed and blazing. There was nothing friendly about his smile.

                “Two troopers, at all times, are to man this side of the door and the outside of it… Yet before me now is only one trooper. You want to make a scene out of this? Because I’m not afraid to get your name, your station, and your job.”

                Alarm went through Cloud, but not as hurriedly as it did the trooper who shook his head frantically and back-pedaled to the door, opening it for them.

                “N-no Sir… Sorry Sir. My mistake. This is the dress she was always wearing, Sir.”

                As they were walking past, Zack clamped a none-to-gentle hand on the trooper’s shoulder.

                “It’s better if you just completely forget all about this… Is that understood?”

                Shaking his head so hard Cloud was surprised his visor did slide down, the guy looked down at the ground and closed the door behind them without a word. They walked past the other two troopers who only glanced up to see Zack was a SOLDIER, then glanced back down at their card game. As they exited into the hallway toward the elevators, things were more brightly lit… If the troopers suddenly started eyeing them now…

                “Keep it cool. We’re good.”

                Nodding stiffly, they got into the elevator and Zack pressed the button. The doors slowly closed, and they both breathed a sigh of relief. Zack turned to look at him, expression tired from recent events, but a smile was still tugging on his lips.

                It wasn’t the time or the place, but Cloud was flushing. He hadn’t expected Zack to threaten the trooper and was surprised by how…hot the whole thing had been.

                Maybe I do have some sort of kink for danger and being somewhat exposed… I don’t know how I feel about that.

                As the elevator was taking them down, Zack looked at him as he quietly said, “I’m so glad…you’re okay. My heart kept pounding so hard when I saw you on that ledge, and then every moment afterward.” He sighed softly, before resting his chin just past Cloud’s forehead.

                “About what happened tonight… We need to talk.” His voice was gentle, but it still sounded like an order. Uneasy, Cloud nodded. The shuttles wouldn’t be running with how late it was now and although he’d planned on simply staying at a motel… With the current events that had played out, he had a feeling Zack was going to take him back to his place for the night, and wouldn't be letting him leave until an interrogation took place.

                And when we’re there… I’m going to have to admit I used him.

                It made him feel ill to think about, but while they were still in the elevator, not yet to the complicated stuff… He pressed into Zack’s body and let go of the dress shirt to grab Zack’s instead. Zack, still so believing in him, didn’t hesitate to pull him a little closer. Closing his eyes, Cloud tried to enjoy the moment while they still had it.

                I want to act like everything is still okay… If only…for a little while longer.

 

Chapter Text

 

                Sitting on the couch with his hands tight on his knees with his head bowed, Cloud told Zack the utter truth. He told him about how the Gil he’d been saving these years was nearly gone to buy his Mother’s pills and about missing a small loan. He told him about being approached by two AVALANCHE members the night they had their call, and then thinking they were a new loan business at first. He told Zack about dropping their card and leaving it behind him, but then going back after it when he saw Tifa.

                His words stumbled then, but he told Zack about her too. He told him how as kids he’d always liked her because everyone did – she was the mayor’s daughter, the girl next door, and despite being so beautiful she liked to rough house with the boys – could even beat them up too… He admitted he had a crush on her when he left for Midgar and still had dreams of making it big… She was one of the people he had wanted to impress.

                Then things went downhill for him, but yet how his relationship with her grew because of it. He told him about how she used to write him on the back of his mother’s letters and cards, let him know how his mother was doing – then how they were both doing. She always asked questions about how SOLDIER was and Cloud made up whatever he could to entertain her because he didn’t want her – didn’t want anyone to know the truth of how hard it all was to not have anything like he wrote.

                When Zack, sitting on the coffee table in front of him, delicately asked if he still had feelings for her, Cloud told him Tifa was without a gorgeous woman now…but no, he didn’t. He’d never be able to have a relationship with a woman now – it would never be fair to her. He also, over time, started seeing her more of a friend than a crush, especially as he went about working as an escort and women began to lose sex appeal to him.

                He’d long since saw her only as someone he admired and respected, as she’d stayed behind in Nibelheim instead of coming to Midgar for his Mother’s sake for an entire year longer than planned. He explained how he owed her for that, for protecting the one person in his life who’d always been precious to him…

                Slowly, he explained about how seeing her with Don Corneo terrified him. He never wanted her to go through the things he’d had to as an escort. He didn’t want her to be a “bride” too, but couldn’t talk to her and warn her because he was just as afraid of her finding out who he was. He quietly told Zack about talking to Don Corneo and finding out he wasn’t planning on taking Tifa as his “bride,” but selling her as a ‘special commodity’ tomorrow night – or technically because of the time now, tonight.

                Head bowed lower, Cloud told him he was selected for a job by AVALANCHE because someone had seen him with Angeal or Genesis. They had known he had some sort of connection to high profile Shinra targets, and had offered him a job, putting blackmail behind it. When Zack asked him about that Cloud found it hard to answer.

                He told him how he wasn’t sure how, but somehow whoever was behind the deal knew he and Tifa were friends – despite them having not even had a chance to meet up in Midgar yet. He was worried they’d hurt Tifa or tell her about him – just the same as he was worried she’d end up going through with the Don’s auction and being sold if he didn’t get the Gil he needed to help her out.

                Then under no unclear terms did Cloud let Zack know he had used him to get into the Shinra function.

                The silence stretched for a while after that, before Zack carefully asked about the bomb and what the job had been. Willing himself to continue to be honest, he told Zack he hadn’t known what he was delivering at first. He had believed whatever he was delivering was in the purse AVALANCHE had given him, but when they’d first separated that night he’d checked it after getting a message there had been a change of plans. He told him he’d been worried about what was inside, but it hadn’t been anything but an ordinary woman’s purse.

                “I ended up thinking maybe something was snuggled inside the purse itself… But I check the bag over thoroughly and since it didn’t look like anything dangerous or threatening was being smuggled in, I had relaxed…”

                He told him he’d known things weren’t adding up, but had considered himself paranoid. So he’d tried to forget all about it and just enjoy the night, but then he’d run into Tifa at the function. When Zack expressed his surprise, Cloud merely nodded. Though reluctantly, he admitted what he knew. 

                “I was alarmed too… But she still didn’t recognize me. She just warned me about the dress and how she was certain there was a bomb sewed inside it… She told me she believed members of AVALANCHE were were going to set it off at midnight once I’d gotten surrounded by all the Shinra supports and CEOS and The President himself…”

                He shuddered at the memory.

                “I still don’t know how Tifa could have possibly known…”

                Swallowing, he went on to explain his actions. Removing the dress once it was on was too dangerous, as he hadn’t wanted it to go off early. He’d realized while staring at it he wasn’t going to get out of the situation alive, because that had been AVALANCHE’s plan from the beginning. When Zack asked him why, Cloud was reluctant to say.

                “Because… Because I was a Slum prostitute. Nobody was going to miss me when I was gone, and even if anyone would have been able to identify me… It would have just been blamed on a suicidal member of the gang and nothing else. Would have never of tarnished AVALANCHE’s name. In fact, it might have increased their reputation.”

                Zack scoffed at that but Cloud didn’t let him get angry, quickly reminding him what he was saying was the truth before going on.

                “I really didn't know what to do… but I was mostly afraid that if the blast went off it would take everyone out with me… Tifa, you – Angeal, Genesis…Sephiroth too. I knew I had to get away and running through the building would have still cost more lives. Knowing that…I knew I had to jump.”

                After that there wasn’t anything else to explain. Zack sat quietly in front of him as he stared down at his white knuckles. He was ready to be yelled at, maybe even hit, but more likely he knew Zack was simply going to explain how he was going to have to have him arrested.

                I’ve caused so much trouble for myself and everyone else… I don’t want to cause anymore.

                But then he thought of Tifa again and worried for her, but ended up chiding himself. He remembered Elena and knew she wouldn’t let him down.

                It was an unexpected realization that he actually relied so heavily on her and counted her as one of his very few friends.

                It’s a bit sad that I only realize that now.

                He was gently shaking the thought away when Zack finally spoke up…and he decided to say the most unexpected thing of all.

                “So… You really do wear cute lingerie underneath your dresses, huh?”

                His voice was mysteriously kind and Cloud finally managed to look up at him in confusion. He was scratching the faint scars on his cheek as he smiled softly.

                “…what?”

                “I did get to see you in your hot panties tonight… So that wasn’t bad. Was pretty great actually. I also did get to see Sephiroth strip and dazzle an entire crowd… Ah, and I can’t forget Gen and Ange’s face when they saw him.”

                “….”

                Cloud stared at him. Stared at him really hard because he was utterly speechless and didn’t know what else to do. Zack carefully reached his hand out to press his fingers into the back of Cloud’s hand.

                “I’m not mad.”

                “Wh-why not!? I used you!”

                He couldn’t help but blurt it out, scratch the wound again – Zack needed to wake up. A betrayal was not a casual thing, something to ignore! Especially not one like this.

                Those fingers tapped lightly.

                “I know.”

                “Then why!?”

                Slower taps.

                “…because I still had a great time with you.”

                Cloud decided in that moment that he hated Zack Fair’s guts.

                “I don’t understand you at all…”

                Zack stared as he glowered at him, slowly moving his hand up to cup the side of Cloud’s face. His thumb moved gently across his pale cheek.

                “But I think I’m starting to understand you.”

                Then, with a sort of dawning horror, Cloud realized Zack wasn’t just touching his face – he was wiping away water. As small drops landed on his bare legs Cloud stared at them incredulously.

                What the hell are those?

                His hands flew up to his face, wiping his wrist along the underside of his eye and the back of his hand against the other one as he shook his head. He was not crying. He did not cry. He gave that up a long time ago – he was just… He was just sweating from stress.

                “I’m not crying. I’m not.”             

                Zack tugged his hands away little by little with a sad smile. Cloud closed his eyes and shook his head, adamantly repeated that he was not crying and it was just water. He then proceeded to tell Zack what an idiot he was.

                A hand moved to rub the top of his head.

                “You’re actually not an honest guy are you…? You’re just like Genesis is… Adorable.”

                When Cloud still refused to open his eyes to look at him, he heard Zack sigh and quietly say, “Look… I get it. I get it, Cloud. You were pressed between a rock and a hard place. You had to push back against one or you were going to get smashed. If I was in your situation I would have probably done the exact same thing…so I don’t blame you.”

                Zack scratched his cheek again, expression still so calm.

                “Yeah there’s a bit of a problem regarding going against Shinra, but uh… It isn’t like you came to Shinra knowing you were carrying around a bomb. Hell, you were even willing to throw yourself off a building to avoid taking any of us officials with you… So, no matter how I look at this… You were blackmailed. I don’t want to hate you for any of it…so I’m not gonna.”

                He said it so nonchalantly, so flippantly, that Cloud became aware he’d been staring at Zack for some time now. He didn’t know what to say or do so instead he held one of Zack’s hands in both of his because he… He just didn’t know.

                “All I ask of you in this situation is to make me a promise.”

                “A promise?”

                “From now on you have to swear you won’t endanger yourself like you did tonight.” Zack’s face winced as he ground out, “I keep seeing you going over the ledge… I don’t have wings… If Sephiroth hadn’t caught you… I would have jumped after you, but I still don’t want to think about it anymore. Swear you won’t do anything like that ever again… Do that and let’s just call it water under the bridge and be done with it. I’m not going to hold you accountable for any of it and honestly… I’d rather you tried to do the same.”

                Cloud had no problem making that promise, swearing it almost reverently, but afterward…he couldn’t help but study Zack.

                “You really aren’t…angry?”

                Zack’s hand suddenly squeezed his tightly, causing him to start.

                “Oh no… I’m angry. I’m pissed. But not at you… At AVALANCHE. I’m so mad at their plan that if I was in a room full of them I’d fling my sword down and attack with my fists, brawl my frustration out on every last one of them.” 

                Then, almost in an apologetic manner, he rubbed Cloud’s hands before getting up and going down the hallway. Cloud watched him in confusion as he disappeared into a side door. There was the sound of a cabinet opening and closing, followed by running water. Moments afterward Zack exited and came back to take his seat on the coffee table and began to wipe at his face with a soft rag. Cloud automatically restated that he wasn’t crying.

                “No, I guess you aren’t… The makeup is just running, right? Well let’s just get it off so I can see Cloudy.”

                ‘Cloudy’ made Cloud’s heart skip a beat and he twisted, fisting his hands into Sephiroth’s dress shirt. The action caused the split neck to show again. Zack gave a low appreciating chuckle before Cloud took the warm wash towel and stared wiping at his eyes. Zack had been doing it too gently to get rid of anything.

                “That’s better.”

                Zack was resting his chin on his upturned hand, rocking his feet slightly as he watched. Cloud remembered the SOLDIER saying some people made puppy references at him. He could see why. Zack was always twitching or trying to touch.

                Squashing the cloth up in his hands when he was finished cleaning his face, Cloud stared at it for a few moments. Then he looked at Zack, not knowing what would be an assumption.

                “What now?”

                “Now?”

                Cloud shrugged a little helplessly, gesturing at everything and nothing at all as he said, “I know what you said... But what now? Do I leave…?”

                Indigo eyes widening, Zack sat up and shook his head and with his hands out as he blurted, “Ah, no – it’s really late and I mean… I kind of thought you might have wanted to stay the night here from the very beginning. In fact, it would probably be safer if you stayed here tonight, all things considered.”

                Blinking at that he asked, “Why?”

                “Uhhh… I mean, the shuttle isn’t operating this late at night… That, and you should probably lay low for a while, shouldn't you?”

                “Oh.”

                “What were you expecting?” Zack sounded too inquisitive, almost suspiciously so. Not wanting it to come out indifferent, he tried to explain.

                “I guess I was just expecting to go stay in a motel until morning…”

                “Oh.”

                “Oh. Did you doubt our SOLDIER hospitality?”

                They both blinked and looked toward the door, neither having realized someone had let themselves in. Zack in particular did a double take when he saw Genesis leaning against the doorway, one leg draped casually alongside the other. The auburn haired man got up and strolled across the room toward them, moving to sit on the couch and without warning wrap an arm around Cloud and yank him back so he fell against the man’s chest.

                “Uh, Gen?”

                “It’ll make sense.”

                No more than six seconds later the front door opened abruptly and Angeal and Sephiroth walked in. Cloud wasn’t sure what he was expecting but when Angeal’s eyes zeroed in on him the man’s expression turned to stone – hard and unyielding and without a trace of the gentle expressions that had always softened it before – Cloud bit his tongue from shock.

                When he stalked toward them Cloud tensed all over and instinctively clung to the closest thing near him – that being Genesis – as he imagined how painful it was going to be having his face punched out the back of his skull. He even flinched – and Cloud was not a flincher.

                Rough hands seized his jaw and tilted it up. He was about to apologize but his teeth were still pinning his tongue – expecting a knockout strike. At his side, Genesis was running a hand slowly up and down his hip. His voice was entirely too soothing considering Angeal was still studying him with that stone-faced smoldering expression.

                “You’re terrifying the boy, Angeal dearest.”

                Zack was up behind Angeal but instead of holding him back he was massaging the man’s shoulders, lopsidedly smiling as he chided, “Angeeal… You’re doing that thing again with your face.”

                Cloud was unable to do anything but swallow when Angeal finally let go of him. The large man started to cross his arms at first, but then Zack was slinking along his side and he changed his mind to wrapping both arms around him and tilting his head up too.

                “I’m fine, Cloud’s fine, we’re all fine.”

                “Are we?”

                That was Sephiroth, who unlike the others, was taking his medallion covered duster off and hanging it inside of a closet beside the door. He glanced at Zack as he said this, jaded eyes narrowed. Zack lost his silly and pleased expression at once, and the change was so noticeable that it that moment, Zack Fair seemed older suddenly. Cloud was captivated by the change, and once again reminded Zack Fair was a 1st Class SOLDIER.

                "This wasn't Cloud's fault." 

                “Lovely. You can tell us more later, then, hm?”

                Genesis’ body relaxed some, and Cloud hadn’t even been aware he’d been tense – not with the way his hand had carelessly lifted up the black dress above his thigh and was running his fingers on the tantalizing lacy panties. He squirmed, unsure how to react.

                Angeal moved suddenly again, turning to go into the kitchen. Zack followed after him at once, and in Cloud’s mind, only adding onto the nickname he’d been given.

                Genesis’ other hand moved up to tilt Cloud’s face toward his.

                “Don’t mind Angeal. He’s not angry at you, that was just his thing. When he gets stressed out with worry his face muscles just tighten up, like the rest of him,” Genesis added the last part with a purr, “but he’ll be fine in a moment.”

                Cloud looked at him and back at Sephiroth who was retreating down the hallway. He kept waiting for the questions to come – assuming Sephiroth had already explained the situation – but even when Sephiroth came back with a new shirt on he merely sat in the armchair across from them and the coffee table.

                 His jade eyes regarded Cloud with a cool scrutiny, lingering on the outline of Cloud's pink undergarments with something other than lust. Cloud couldn't place the narrowed expression Sephiroth bore, but Genesis seemed to make note of it as his caressing slowed and he hm'd quietly. 

                Angeal and Zack took their time in what he assumed to be the kitchen. When they finally came out minutes later Angeal’s hair was ruffled slightly, reminding Cloud of that time at the HoneyBee Inn, and Zack was spotting a becoming flush and sucking on his bottom lip. When Angeal sat in the other armchair and Zack slid into his lap, they made it appear like it was the most natural thing in the world.

                Cloud was biting his lip, stuck between Genesis’ obvious petting, Angeal and Zack’s arrangement, and the steady unending stare Sephiroth was giving him. He was about to squeak out something, maybe not even words, when Genesis whispered, “You understand, don’t you…?”

                Cloud was confused for a solid second, before he realized Genesis was half gesturing to the room and the SOLDIERs in it. Before working at the HoneyBee Inn Cloud may have been totally oblivious to the now blatant subtext around him, but not anymore. Now, he could clearly see the writing on the walls.

                 Nodding slowly, Cloud quietly said, “Yes.”

                “You figured it out on your own, hm?”

                It was a question that sounded staged somehow, but Cloud merely nodded again as Angeal and Zack were drawn from each other to focus on him. Angeal in particular seemed to notice Genesis’ stroking hand.

                “Genesis.”

                “It’s called caressing, dearest. Stroking soothes frightened little things… He’s trembling. He's going to crash something awful when the adrenaline ends.”

                Cloud didn’t notice it until then, but he did have an unsteady tremor coursing through his limbs. He just didn’t know if it was in fact left over adrenaline because of his racing heart, or because Genesis’ was openly touching him in front of everyone despite the tense conversation they all should have been having.

                “Then stroke him somewhere…more appropriate.”

                With a dramatic sigh, Genesis tugged the shirt back down over his hips before moving to place his hand over the cloth at his hip. He moved his thumb along it instead.

                Uncertain what to do, and not having an easy way to pull away from Genesis without him moving his arm, he tried to get comfortable around the metals adoring his duster. The one to break the following silence was Angeal.

                “I’m sorry for startling you before, Cloud.”

                Shaking his head to signal it was okay, he looked away from them. It was different somehow. One-on-one, it was easy to start talking with them but being surrounded like this…it reminded him of the last time they’d all been together and how badly that had went. He was already thinking of a way to excuse himself from the situation when Sephiroth took charge unceremoniously.

                “I am…famished.”

                At once Angeal said, “I had already ordered something to be delivered here around now.”

                Zack chirped, “Thinking ahead?” as Genesis sighed, “You’re always a godsend, dearest.”

                With a curt nod, Sephiroth stared him down as he asked, “You enjoy Wutainese, right?” Before giving him a chance to answer he stood. “Come set the table with me. I will teach you how to use chopsticks if you are unable to grasp them correctly.”

                Before Cloud knew what was happening Genesis had his hands on his hips and was guiding him up where Sephiroth took his hand and led him into the kitchen Angeal and Zack had gone into earlier. He glanced back to see Zack get off Angeal’s lap and for the two men to start heading down the hallway. Then he was led to a cupboard and had his arms raised because Sephiroth was settling a platter on them.

                “Do not drop anything. These are priceless Wutai plates, gifted to me by a now dead craftsman.”

                Wide-eyed and alarmed, Cloud held perfectly still as Sephiroth began to pull plates out and set them on the platter. They were rounded rectangles that curved upward, made of some kind of black wood and full of intricate lines carved and curving along the top in silver. They may have been actual silver bands.

                As the weight increased on the platter because of the five plates, three large bowls and four smaller ones, one long thin cup and then at last small black cups, Cloud shifted slightly as he tried to not let his arms lower. When Sephiroth closed the cupboard, he watched him without giving any other instructions even as the seconds ticked by. Not knowing what he could possibly be looking for, Cloud tried not to squirm too noticeably.

                He was just opening his mouth when Sephiroth refused to let him speak, turning him and guiding him to the large table and taking the platter from him and setting it down in the middle of the table. As he rubbed his arms, he watched Sephiroth meticulously set the table. Plates are placed evenly, large bowls stayed on the platter, while the four smaller one were on each side of it. The cups were placed directly to the right of each plate except for the head seat where he placed it to the left. It stuck out as odd to him, considering how systematically he’d placed them in some familiar setting for him. So odd in fact, Cloud realized Sephiroth had picked up everything in his right hand but moved it over to his left before placing them.

                Is he left handed…?

                Unsure of his own actions, he reached out to the seat closest to him – on the right of the head seat – and moved the cup to the left side of the platter carefully watching Sephiroth’s reaction. The man was paused, eyes narrowed as he observed him. Sephiroth’s question was poised.

                “You are left handed?”

                “Ambidextrous.”

                The large word came to him at once. He’d realized it himself while working as an escort, and it was considered one of his lucky traits…for obvious reasons.

                Is that why he had me hold the platter…? Was he checking?

                It seemed so strange that he wouldn’t just ask about something like that. Cloud watched him turn and open another compartment in the cupboard, withdrawing a bundled silver napkin. He came back with it and lifted the long cup on the platter upward and in what could have only have been practiced to be so smooth, Sephiroth flipped the napkin open. His hands moved so that the black sticks – chopsticks? – fell into the long cup as he immediately moved the napkin away to set it in diamond fashion in the middle of the platter. He set the cup down directly on it and then stepped away, his job done…but to Cloud, it had been like witnessing art in motion.

                Is he…ambidextrous too?

                A little stunned, Cloud sat down in the chair nearest him when instructed and was about to scoot his chair in when Sephiroth grabbed the back of it and instead of pushing it in lifted it up and smoothly placed it back down once he was settled in underneath the table.

                Not long after, as Cloud was still silently reeling from how stunned and flustered he was, there was a knock at the door and Cloud could hear Zack chatting with what sounded like a trooper who’d delivered their food up to them. Angeal and Genesis came back out from down the hallway, dressed more comfortably now, and the latter sat on his right and Angeal across from the redhead. When Zack brought the food in he handed each item over to Sephiroth and Cloud watched each move in awe – the way he had no trouble pouring sauces into the little bowls without looking, the way white rice went in one bowl and a fried blend into the other, and how each item was served by some long since memorized proportion sizes or favorited food to everyone at the table.

                Cloud’s own plate was given very little of anything, but a whole lot of everything. He didn’t even open his mouth to say what he liked or disliked – not because he was shy of speaking up but because he was so enraptured watching someone ambidextrous flaunt their ability with so much skill, so clearly better and more focused than he was.

                The display ended with Sephiroth pouring tea for all of them. Cloud wasn’t even sure if he liked tea – but he wasn’t thinking about that or anything else anymore. Zack, across from him, was grinning into his hand again but Cloud only barely noticed it. He knew he was being obvious, but he didn’t care.

                When Sephiroth took his seat, calm and composed, Cloud wondered if it was the spicy food that was making him lightheaded. He knew it wasn’t, but he wondered anyway.

                Finally Zack moved, clapping his hands in front of his face and saying something in Wutainese that Angeal told him meant ‘thanks for the meal’ and Genesis was telling him Banora White tea mixed with raspberries wasn’t a Wutai tea but a favorite of theirs, and someone reached out and grabbed two of the black chopsticks from the long cup and placed them in his hands while someone else threw away the ones the meal had come with, and then a hand was over his instructing him how to hold the chopsticks and pick up each item. When he looked over he wasn’t surprised it was Sephiroth’s hand over his, calmly instructing him without words, as he neatly picked apart some sort of fried dumpling on his own plate using chopsticks, all the while watching Cloud.

                It should not have been as distracting as it was, nor as arousing, but Cloud was still entranced. Which came to be how he had his second dinner with Zack, Angeal, Genesis, and Sephiroth – far less dressed than before, and far more impressed with each of them. And perhaps since the first time he’d taken the shady drug Fuhito had given him, he forgot about his worries and anxieties again. It was, after all, impossible to focus on anything besides Genesis and Angeal’s legs hooking under the table, the food Zack was holding out to him, or Sephiroth’s ever moving hands…

               

Chapter Text

               

               It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but all of his partners showed varying degrees of surprise as the blonde enigma all but passed out on the couch. Surely the exposure to such a high stakes adrenaline rush, coupled with being well-fed then led back to a comfortable couch to relax in was just too much for the blonde’s nerves.

               Zack himself whistled quietly at the sight of the defenseless ‘exotic entertainer.’ He squatted down where Cloud was breathing softly against the arm of the couch and checked him over with curious eyes before officially announcing him, “Dead to the world.”

               Angeal only looked vaguely surprised at the news as he helped Genesis out of his duster, taking it from him and heading to the closet to put it away. Genesis on the other hand waltzed over to stare down at him as well, crossing his arms as Angeal’s voice carried.

               “I’m more surprised he even made it through dinner. He was in such a state of shock throughout the meal I doubt he realized just about every action he was doing was on autopilot. At least he managed to feed himself before passing out.”

               “It seems he has had a very trying night indeed, even compared to the life he has lived so far. Speaking of that, by the way, do tell what all transpired that caused the infamous General Sephiroth to strut around shirtless with his medallions and sword gleaming for all of Shinra to see. Does your little act tonight follow why Cloud here was stripped of his clothing?”

                Angeal came back over, crossing broad arms and staring down at him and Zack, who winced in turn around a sheepish smile.

               “Yeah, I’m dying to know as well. Your curt, ‘There was a bomb, but it has been handled,’ and ‘Don’t question Cloud when we get back,’ have had me on edge all night, to put it lightly.”

               Zack whipped around to look at him, incredulous.

               “That’s all you told them?”

               Bored, he answered, “More or less. I decided we could get the whole story from you once you obtained it from him. I trust I left you alone long enough for you gather what you needed.” He made it clear he wasn’t asking that like a question before going on once Zack jerked his head in understanding.

               His jade eyes narrowed as he explained, “I also had my hands full parading around while also keeping all questions regarding the bomb to a minimum. If not for my intervention, your little blonde friend would be in a far less hospitable location, enduring far more interrogation than I am sure you subjected him too.”

               Zack’s expression was grim as he nodded once again in understanding. Angeal and Genesis exchanged a look but wisely didn’t intervene.

               “Thanks for that, Seph.”

               “Do not thank me yet. If Cloud is a danger, I will have him arrested and interrogated. By the Turks themselves if I must.”

               Zack stood and faced him.

               “It won’t come to that.”

               Sephiroth eyed him coolly for a long, long moment, before easing further back in his chair in a way that his partners would describe as ‘deceitfully relaxed.’ That being because there was nothing about his words or possible actions that could be considered, ‘not in control.’

               “That is why I questioned you as soon as we came in. I left the immediate matter up to your judgement, and your judgement alone… But now that hour has passed. Give me your report.”

               For someone else, he might have added an incentive not to lie to him, but he had no worries in regards to Zack. It also had nothing to do with the fact Zack was one of his lovers.

               Zack stood straight and crossed his arms behind his back, subconsciously falling back into a learned behavior while Genesis sat down in the other arm chair, and Angeal sat on the arm of it, eyes intent on his once-upon-a-time student.

               The younger ravenette hair man collected his thoughts before speaking.

               “It was a set up. Cloud was being played.”

               “From the beginning, Fair.”

               Zack hesitated for a moment, but steeled himself.

               “It’s a bit of a long story, but the basics are that AVALANCHE sought out Cloud. Someone Cloud really cares about was being targeted. Basically, his childhood friend became a hostage without realizing it. If Cloud didn’t deliver something for them, she was likely going to be hurt.”

               Angeal seemed puzzled.

               “Why on Gaia would Cloud be targeted of all people?”

               Zack stared at Angeal slightly uneasily before his mentor narrowed his eyes. “What, Pup?”

               Zack sighed, “I’m not a puppy anymore, ‘Geal… Well, according to Cloud he may have been targeted because of… you or Genesis.”

               “Oh?

               Genesis lifted an eyebrow at that claim, but Zack hurried on before the fiery lieutenant could add his own statement to Zack’s report.

               “Someone, most likely apart of AVALANCHE, saw Cloud and Genesis on that date at the Golden Square – or someone saw Angeal carrying Cloud that night he took a hit to the head. Hell, if Cloud was being watched after being with Genesis they also might have seen him Angeal. It’s like you guys have always told me, when your 1st Class, people notice you.”

               Genesis pursed his lips as Angeal glared at the carpet.

               “So… Your saying we put a target on Cloud’s back?”

               The stress rolling off Angeal was palpable now, but Zack focused on trudging on. With or without his comfort, Angeal was definitely going to be brooding on what he had said for some time now.

               “That’s what Cloud thought, anyway. He said he wasn’t certain which one of your guys had been tracked back to him, but he basically got the guy he was speaking to on the phone to confirm that’s why they needed him.”

               Cloud suddenly shifted with a quiet groan, almost as if he could sense the suddenly tense atmosphere. Almost without thinking, Zack turned and stroked Cloud's spikes back in a soothing matter. He could feel his heart squeeze slightly when Cloud subconsciously nuzzled against his hand.

               The others paused as well to watch as Cloud was soothed back into a comfortable rest as Zack draped a throw blanket over him.

               Genesis in particular eyed him until Cloud settled before speaking.

               “Kudos for him to keeping his cool enough to gather information while being blackmailed. That’s not a skill that is lost on me.”

               His features were oddly calm, and Zack wasn’t exactly comforted by that all things considered. Still, he turned back to Sephiroth.

               “Spikey here was caught between a rock and a hard place. If he didn’t do what they wanted, his childhood friend might have gotten hurt. If he did do what they wanted…”

               “…then he would therefore become an accomplice of AVALANCHE, a traitor to Shinra, and a traitor to your trust.”

               Sephiroth filled in the missing pieces easily enough.

               Surprisingly, Zack said nothing in defense of his friend, nor did he try to argue Sephiroth’s point.

               “Cloud called me and asked if I wanted to meet-up with him somewhere Friday night. Looking back now, I know he was leading me on to get me to invite him to this banquet…” Zack’s face was oddly expressionless as he spoke, even for giving a mission report. “I know he actively betrayed my trust. I also know he had to choose between two evils… I’m not going to stand here and say that isn’t a big deal, but I’ve also decided I’m not going to blame him for any of this.”

               Genesis was drumming his fingers along the armchair, irritable.

               “I see how this scene is all coming together now, and I hope the fifth act of this little play is at least more entertaining then the performance thus far.”

               Angeal eyed his friend curiously for a moment, before his gaze hardened.

               Zack understood what Genesis was alluding to. Betrayal was no small feat, nor was it something Genesis would tolerate.

               But Zack wasn’t giving a report to clear Cloud’s reputation.

               He was simply stating the facts.

               “The night was going great, despite everything… But, well, a trooper came and got me and told me one of the sleezy CEO’s was troubling some of the waitressing staff and he needed backup as to not make a scene…” Zack paused then, eyes focusing on something only he remembered. “…it isn’t unusual for troopers to come ask me for help. I’ve tried to follow after Angeal’s example, after all… No offence Gen-Gen.”

               “Hrn.”

               “…but I did think it was weird that a trooper would come bother me when I clearly wasn’t patrolling. Either way, the trooper and I got separated – or maybe they ditched me because the whole thing was part of AVALANCHE’s plan. I can’t say for sure. Either way while I was distracted, Cloud apparently got approached by his childhood friend at the function. He has no idea how she got in but, she got into the function and told him he was unknowingly carrying a bomb.”

               Angeal’s expression became downright harsh, then.

               “A bomb really was brought into the banquet then? How on Gaia’s green earth did it get that far into Shinra’s upper floors without detection?”

               “Oh, that’s definitely my fault Angeal. If anyone has to take the blame for that, it’s me.”

               Zack said it so seriously that every eyebrow in the room raised.

               “What?” Zack looked annoyed. “It’s true. Cloud was hanging off my arm, and I was definitely keeping him close. There was no way anyone was going to trouble or pat down Cloud when he was with me, I mean come on, I’m a 1st Class like you guys now.”

               Sephiroth pinched the bridge of his nose before conceding Zack’s illogical point, for now, and waving him on. Though he did make a mental note of it.

               “…anyway, Cloud’s friend, without seemingly recognizing him, told him he was in danger but she said she would ‘stop the plan,’ or something to that extent. I can’t say how that all turned out… But Cloud headed to the balconies once he realized what he was carrying.”

               Genesis eyed Angeal and they both shared a nod before the auburn haired man spoke.

               “I told Ange the windows were shaking.” Angeal admitted, “I could feel a tremor, though it was slight enough that I almost thought it was because of Heidegger’s incessant laughter.”

               “Continue on, Fair.”

               Zack turned and stared at him.

               “I mean, should I? You were there during the next part before I arrived. I think maybe you should give the report now.”

               Sephiroth cast him a Look, but Zack faced him without flinching.

               “Sephiroth?”

               Angeal’s inquiry caused him to sigh.

               “Very well, then… I had gone out onto the balconies to get some fresh air. I had just received a text from you, Zack, asking if I had seen Cloud, when he came out onto the balconies. Because I was beside the sides of the door, and he did not look back, he didn’t see me as he closed the door. Since I was already unnoticed, I decided to observe him.”

               “That is called stalking, Sephiroth.”

               “Quiet, Gen.”

               “Cloud approached the railing, and I could tell something was amiss. He moved as though his body was stiff, and before long he began to climb over the rail. I sent a text to you Zack, telling you of his location with an order to come quickly.”

               “And I’m glad you did, Seph, seriously.”

               “It became immediately obvious from Cloud’s posture and stance on the edge that he meant to throw himself from the building.”

               “Gods.”

               Zack spoke then.

               “Cloud found out the bomb was sewn into his dress and he didn’t know how to get it off him without setting it off. It wasn’t like he could very well see it, and even if he could, he probably wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. All he knew was that it was supposed to go off around midnight when the Old Prez addressed everyone.”

               Sephiroth addressed his oldest friends then.

               “So his solution was to jump so that if the bomb detonated, it would at least not take everyone else with him.”

               “I thought I was going to puke when he went over the ledge like that.” Zack looked ashamed to admit it, but continued on. “I went to leap after him, but Sephiroth basically threw me backward and dove himself. Which, by the way, rude. If I hadn’t stopped my momentum you would have thrown me through those glass doors back into the building.”

               Sephiroth eyed him in annoyance.

               “Should I apologize for saving your friend, and by design yourself? Last I checked, you never grew a wing, Fair.”

               Zack pouted.

               “No… No you shouldn’t have to apologize… I just wanted you to know.”

               Angeal stood up then, and Zack shrank slightly.

               “Let me get this straight. Cloud had a bomb strapped to him, and he threw himself off the building… and you tried to jump after him?”

               Zack shrank down slightly further with a grimace.

               “Look, ‘Geal, I’m not a SOLDIER Cadet anymore… and I didn’t even know about the bomb yet!”

               “I know you well enough to know that wouldn’t have stopped you.”

               Zack conceded this with a wince, before muttering, “‘sides, Sephiroth didn’t let me anyway.”

               Angeal whirled on Sephiroth then, who found himself whole-heartedly displeased to now be the center of that infamous scolding Hewely-stare.

               “And yes, that’s only because you Sephiroth, jumped after a bomb in his place.”

               “Again,” Petulant, Sephiroth reiterated, “should I apologize for saving the life of Zack’s friend, or not?”

               Angeal, if anything, increased the potency of his glaring.

               “Ange, dearest, I have personally Firaged you and our dear Sephiroth on multiple cases. I have even blasted you in the face on more than one occasion. Given, I have never been aiming to kill my two deeply beloved, but I digress. It would take a bomb capable of leveling the Shinra building or something equally outrages to actually stand a chance at killing us… What? Don’t you glare at me too. I’m right, and you know it.”

               Angeal, now in full-blown glaring mode at everyone in the room turned away and stalked to the other side of the room, seething. He began to pace out his frustrations.

               Sephiroth figured Genesis would give some lip about Angeal’s helicoptering ways, but he remained silent and focused on him and Fair. Meanwhile, Zack just winced seeing his mentor so obviously wound.

               Leave it to Angeal to cow them all to some extent.

               Sephiroth decided to take charge once again.

               “Well, as you can imagine, I and Cloud lived. I jumped after him and carried him back to the balcony, where he then informed Fair and I of the situation. I weighed the options available, and then discarded Cloud of his dress and carried the bomb off to an unmanned construction site. I had plenty of time to do that, and travel back to the balcony before the bomb detonated… Which I suppose proves its detonation had at least been delayed, if not stopped. Be it from shoddy craftsmanship, or outside interference, I cannot say at this time.”

               Though he had been wondering about it. Perhaps it merely was a case of being poorly put together, or maybe Cloud’s dress or the fall delayed the signal. Maybe, just maybe, there was even merit in the ideal that Cloud’s friend might have delayed the detonation. Though this was all conjecture at this point, and thus, moot until further evidence could be supplied…

               That being said…

               Sephiroth stood.

               “Afterwards I donated my shirt for Cloud so no one would catch myself or Fair alone with a man in lingerie. Then I staged that entrance to buy Fair time to slip away with Cloud, where he proceeded to get Cloud here and interrogate him.”

               “I didn’t have to interrogate him, Seph. He told me everything.”

               Another moot point, as far as he was concerned.

               Genesis eyed him.

               “You’re going somewhere.”

               “Yes.”

               Zack seemed puzzled.

               “Wait, that isn’t all… Shouldn’t we talk about our plan against AVALANCHE? Cloud also mentioned something really sketchy was about to be going down at the HoneyBee Inn that weird Don Corneo guy runs. It looks like Cloud’s childhood friend might be in the middle of all this, so shouldn’t we–”

               “Act at your own discretion, Fair.”

               The younger ravenette haired man seemed further confused, before frowning.

               “What’s with that…? And stop calling me Fair, I’m not giving you a report anymore. You have literally slept with me.”

               “That I have, but I have no plans to treat this incident as something that is already done with.”

               Zack’s gaze hardened.

               “…so what, you’re planning on turning Cloud over to Shinra after all?”

               Sephiroth did not make it a habit of underestimating others. As such, he was not surprised at Zack’s deduction.

               Even though it was not completely accurate.

               “At this time, I have no clear reason to. I am simply going now to make sure I won’t have to have a reason.”

                Zack’s frustrated gaze followed him as he headed toward the door.

               “What does that even mean, Seph?”

               “Heel, mutt.”

               Zack and Sephiroth’s gaze turned to Genesis.

               Genesis’ cobalt eyes were brighter than usual, a testament that although he had been rather quiet, his mind was racing with all of this new information.

               Sephiroth doubted anyone but those currently present in this room would have been able to tell by his cool posture, however, as he continued to gaze after Sephiroth from where his chin perched on the back of his hand.

               “Our little silvernette is off to do damage control, isn’t that right?”

               As Sephiroth slid his tried-and-true black leather duster on, he rebuked, “More like managing the fallout at this point. I’ve been away too long already.”

               Then he was out the door.

               Angeal had stopped pacing a few minutes ago, but now he moved toward the door as well.

               “Zackary, make sure Cloud has a change of clothing when he awakes and he gets fed before he departs if I’m not back by morning.”

               Then the door shut, leaving three.

               Zack winced as he rubbed the back of his neck.

               “Haah. ‘Zackary,’ huh? Big guy hasn’t called me that in a while… But wait, where is everyone going?”

               Genesis sighed as he stood up, stretching his arm over his head.

               “Was it not apparent, puppy? They’ve gone to manage the situation, or direct it, I suppose. Perhaps we will luck out and not have the Turks knocking on our abode by morning if they do a well enough job.”

               Genesis moved to examine Cloud’s deeply sleeping face.

               “…and you should hope for their success, little sleeping beauty. After all, your beauty sleep depends on it.”

               The auburn-haired sword-mage turned to Zack then.

               “Well, I’ll leave the house-sitting duty in your capable hands, then.”

               “Wait, you’re leaving too? Seriously?”

               Genesis slid his coat on and as he opened the door. Before departing, he cast his bright gaze at Zack with a smile that was a little too wide.

               “Oh, I’m incredibly angry right now. I would not be good company. Ta-tah, Zackary.”

               Then the door shut, leaving Zack feeling miserable. Glumly, he muttered, “It feels weird when you call me by that, Gen. If you’re aggravated, just punch me. Sheesh.”

               Zack turned with a sigh, putting his fists on his hips as he gazed down at Cloud, who despite everything, still seemed to be sleeping peacefully.

               “I prolly should go after Gen-Gen before he starts setting things on fire, since Sephiroth isn’t here to fight him and ‘Geal isn’t here to temper him… But it’s probably better to let him and ‘Geal vent a little.”

               There was no way those two wouldn’t be royally upset by the situation Cloud found himself in. Even indirect, that was a heavy weight to bare… Let alone the situation with the bomb…

               Sephiroth was still a bit of a mystery though.

               He knew the man well enough to know when he was busy calculating something in that mind of his… and he’d spent a good portion of the hour staring intently at Cloud, all the while Zack could practically hear the gears in his head turning.

               He hoped the man he cared about was overriding the General in that think-space of his, because man, hadn’t Cloud been through enough already?

               “We’ll figure this out, Spike, don’t worry. I’ll have your back, okay?”

               Cloud gave no answer, but he did curl up slightly in response to Zack’s words, which the ravenette decided, that was a good enough answer as he ran his hand through Cloud’s spikes.

               “Now, how about I move you somewhere more comfortable, hm?”

               


               

               “Sephiroth.”

               The General stopped and glanced back over his shoulder where Angeal stood.

               Jade eyes regarded him warily.

               “If you plan on scolding me further…”

               “I’m still angry, but I have no attention of treating you like a misbehaving child any further. It would just be a waste of my time.”

               …and some people had the audacity to believe Genesis was the most biting in their relationship.

               Sephiroth sighed and continued on as Angeal fell into step with him.

               “I know you well enough to know you’ve already thought several steps ahead to achieve whatever you’re goal is.”

               Playing this game are we?

               “…and I know you well enough to know that you’re a man of action. You wouldn’t have followed me without following that odd moral compass of yours… What is it telling you right now?”

               If there was any conscience he felt he could listen to right now, it was Angeal’s.

               “My instincts simply told me to follow you, and I’d find myself going in the right direction.”

               Perhaps for the first time that night, Sephiroth felt himself smile softly. But only for a moment.

                “At the function tonight, I heard some interesting things before I stepped outside. Now I’m inclined to believe they could relate to Cloud’s situation from what I learned from Zack’s report. I’m off to gather more information… That being said, I have an assignment for you. In fact, you’re probably the best suited for it.”

               And Angeal had come of his own accord. It truly was as if he had sensed it. Really. Angeal never failed to amaze him.

               Seeing he had Angeal’s undivided attention, he stated, “We have traitors or at least fakes among our ranks. Find out who was stationed at this function tonight and check if they showed up or not. Find the spies.”

               Angeal’s expression was grim.

               “You think there is more than one?”

               “Despite Zack’s words, I feel as though it shouldn’t have been that easy for a bomb to make it all the way up here undetected. There is certain to have been a clue left somewhere. Find whatever lead is available.”

               Angeal turned off and started heading toward the security rooms before he paused. Sephiroth stopped as well, eyes narrowed.

               If anyone could find out if there was a fake trooper in their midst, Angeal could. He wasn’t called the ‘spiritual leader’ of SOLDIER for no reason. And yet, did the broader man have a problem with his plan…?

               Angeal faced him, and for a moment, Sephiroth found his face hard to read.

               “Sephiroth, thank you for protecting Zack. When he needed help, I’m glad he had you to rely on.”

               “Of course. We have made a pact, after everything, haven’t we?”

               Angeal’s gaze kept him from continuing on his way.

               “…yes, Angeal?”

               “…and thank you, Sephiroth, for not getting yourself hurt. I am glad you are well. Even if I have to temper my desire to throttle you and Zackary right now.”

               Sephiroth felt another rare smile tempt his face.

               He tapped his temple as he mused, “Be sure, I know full well you plan to scold me further despite your words. I have memorized each of your lectures, as you have drilled them into me as thoroughly as Genesis’ renditions of Loveless.”

               “Don’t exaggerate, Sephiroth. It’s unbecoming of a General. Now, get to work, SOLDIER.”

               With that he turned, and Sephiroth found himself chuckling quietly to himself as he headed toward the elevator. Leave it to Angeal to lift his mood…

               As soon as the elevator doors opened, he stepped inside and keyed in his destination before turning and leaning back against the steel wall behind him. Finally alone with his thoughts, he refocused on what was important.

               Really, now.

                All of this fuss, all because Zack fell in love with an enigmatic blonde dancer…

               Though, the memory of those baby blue azure eyes was something familiar to him somehow.

               They danced on the edge of his memories, temptingly.

               Perhaps when he was done with gathering the information he needed, he would know exactly why he also had a hard time taking his gaze away from the blonde who avoided his eyes whenever he could.

               Perhaps then, he would also understand this strange pit of guilt that settled heavily in his stomach whenever those pretty blue eyes finally glanced his way...