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Malady

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Chapter One: Enigma


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An unbelievable sensation.

He was sweating; his chest heaving. He threw his head back, letting out a loud groan. "Y-yeah!" His eyes squeezed shut, and the muscles in his body were taut. "R-right there."

The young blond looked up with apprehension, his face moistened with what the man could only have guessed was a flushed sense of nervousness. "L-like this, Zack?" His voice came out meek, barely there.

"No, you're holdin' it wrong." Zack reached down with shaking arms and corrected the young blond's hands, readjusting them to ease up on the pressure he emitted unintentionally. "There. That's a good angle. Keep going, Cloud."

Cloud obeyed silently, glancing up to the older man every now and then to study the reaction on his face; to read into the expressions he made, as Cloud's hands worked on him diligently.

"Good kid." Zack let a relaxed sigh escape his lungs as he closed his eyes, the feeling of Cloud's warm body between his thighs soothing.

Cloud stopped, his voice coming out in a slight panic. "There's...a lot of it!"

Zack let out a lucid laugh, the sweat that was trickling down his face caused him to shiver. The air around them thick and hot; it was unbearable. "Well, that's what happens when you're too rough."

"I-I'm sorry, Zack! I can't do this anymore!" Cloud began to pull back, his eyes wide with panic and disgust.

But he was stopped by Zack's hand grasping onto his arm firmly, his voice low, almost a whisper. "You're all I have, Cloud."

Cloud swallowed hard, staring at the older man with a face that was frightened, a face that wanted to just run from fear and trepidation. "B-but...I don't know what I'm doing."

Zack spoke in a reassuring tone, trying his hardest not to come off sounding desperate or pleading. He didn't want to scare the boy away. "You're doin' great. It'll come naturally to you."

"O-okay..." Cloud reluctantly slid back down onto his knees between the man's legs, and continued to wrap Zack's bleeding thigh in a bandage.

"You look so pale, is this your first time seeing this much blood?" Zack's voice rolled out of his throat, followed by an amused laugh as the young boy nodded his head silently, a grimace adorning his white face. "I'm sorry to put you through this, Cloud. But there's no one else to help right now."

Cloud continued to nod numbly, his hands shaking at the sight of the deep wound in the SOLDIER's thigh. He said nothing.

Zack continued to reassure the young one through gritted teeth, the pain coursing up his torso from his thigh in such an annoying throb. It felt much like a migraine, but in his leg. A 'thighgraine'? Zack mused to himself, trying to focus on something asinine in his mind to distract him from the pain. He failed at this, however.

Cloud suddenly leaned forward, his head going down to Zack's crotch area, his mouth grazing up against his bare thigh as he took the bandage between his teeth and ripped off the remainder of the roll, finally finishing dressing the wound.

Zack flinched involuntarily. The feeling of Cloud's warm breath against his skin, and the feeling of his soft hair brushing up against him made it hard not to grasp Cloud's head and hold it there between his legs. But Zack, once again, didn't want to scare the boy off. He forced probing thoughts down into his mind and managed a weak smile at Cloud as he pulled back. "See? That wasn't so bad, was it?"

Cloud slipped back onto his bottom, his eyebrows arching in a rather pitiful look. His eyes flickered down to Zack's blood on his own hands, as his shoulders wilted with distress. "I...I'm sorry," he murmured. "This happened because of me."

Zack let a small groan escape from him as he bucked his hips, tugging his issued SOLDIER trousers back up to his waist. He lowered himself slowly, buttoning the top with care. "C'mon now, Cloud. Don't beat yourself up over it. This is nothing that a SOLDIER 1st Class can't handle!"

This seemed to have upset the boy more. "I should have been able to handle it!"

Zack leaned forward frowning and placed a gloved hand on the boy's shoulder reassuringly. "Hey, how were you supposed to know that the monster knew how to cast Blizzaga? That's a high level spell, even for some SOLDIER!" He playfully punched Cloud in the chin, trying to get him to snap out of the impending self loathing he always seemed to hurl himself into whenever something went wrong.

How this pained Zack to watch his young friend become more and more dejected with himself, as their friendship formed throughout the past few months. With each mission that Zack had been assigned to with the young Cloud, he slowly began to notice the boy having a meek will when he was faced with something that resembled a challenge.

Cloud's mind seemed to shut down at any given time, whittling what little confidence he actually had for himself down to practically nothing. Zack longed to grab the boy by his shoulders and shake him violently whenever he said something negative about himself, but that wouldn't have done much to remedy Cloud's self doubts. And at first it was a bit of a hindrance to Zack, as much as he now hated to admit, but as time went by, and as Zack began to nurture the boy, taking him under his wing as a mentor, he soon found that this little quirk of Cloud's to be rather endearing. It was what made Cloud – Cloud.

But Zack was never one to turn his back on a friend or loved one, that certain quality in the SOLDIER made it next to impossible not to feel for the seemingly fragile Shin-Ra cadet, and he soon took it upon himself to make sure that this boy was taken care of. There was something so intoxicating about the blond boy that Zack could never quite figure out what it was. So it started out as a simple request from the SOLDIER to Cloud's fellow Shin-Ra unit to watch over him during missions. But after Cloud had returned injured from a mission to the Materia Cave on the Western continent, that request from Zack soon turned into a personal mission he delegated out to himself to decipher the enigma that was Cloud.

And Zack found this enigma to be staring back at him with soft eyes and a concerned look. He hadn't realized that he fell silent for several excruciating moments, much to the blond's dismay.

"Zack?" he said, his voice coming out shyly.

"Wanna help me up, buddy?"

Cloud nodded vigorously, jumping to his feet faster than Zack had ever seen him move. He must have thought that he had to do something useful, since he obviously felt guilty over Zack's injury. Zack took an odd note of the now dissolving shard of ice that had been used to impale his thigh as it was trying to leave no trace of existing by soaking up into the ground below. He frowned at it thoughtfully.

Smaller hands reached down and grasped Zack's forearms as Cloud helped hoist the injured man up onto his feet.

And then Zack had to be the one to help Cloud back onto his feet as he suddenly fell forward, his pale blue eyes fluttering closed.

"W-whoa!" Zack caught the young boy as he fell against Zack's chest weakly. Zack winced slightly as Cloud's knee nudged his injured leg, but he managed to keep steady, wrapping his arms around the smaller boy's frame. "Hey!"

Cloud murmured something incoherently, his face utterly pale.

"It was just a little bit of blood, Cloud! C'mon now." Zack watched as Cloud's hand slowly slid up his chest, gripping onto the brown leather strap beneath his armored shoulder to keep himself up. Zack reached down and tapped the blond's cheek lightly, trying to rouse him from the brink of unconsciousness. "Get a grip, buddy!"

"I-I'm...sorry." Cloud finally opened his eyes slowly, but he didn't look up at Zack, as he was embarrassed over his weakness. "I...don't like blood."

Zack laughed at Cloud as he held onto him until he could feel Cloud straighten out his legs and stand with his own weight. "No one likes blood, Cloud! No one but vampires and phlebotomists."

"Y-yeah..." Cloud lowered his hands from Zack's chest, his head cast down in the most sheepish expression Zack had ever seen him use to date.

"Can you walk?" Zack asked the boy, glancing around at their surroundings, which now flooded back into his senses. The pain had numbed out everything around him until that moment.

Cloud frowned terribly, his eyebrows meeting in the middle of his forehead. "That's not something you should be asking me."

Zack noticed that Cloud was staring at his leg. His blood was soaking through the layers of bandages and spreading slowly across the fabric. "What, this? I told you, nothing I can't handle. Let's get back to Midgar though, before they send a search party out for us." He reached up and slapped Cloud on his shoulder.

Cloud began to teeter on his feet and Zack retracted his hand quickly, his eyes wide in fear that he may have caused the boy to lose his balance in his woozy state. But Cloud corrected his wobbling and shook his head, trying to rattle his senses into working again. "I-I'm sorry Zack."

"Stop apologizing for something you shouldn't be apologizing for. I remember the first time I saw a lot of blood."

"Really?" Cloud looked up at the man, his face softening from its dejected appearance. "Did you faint?"

Zack's heart sank as the boy looked hopeful, like he was going to be able to connect with Zack on that level, as if Zack had a story similar to this one that would make him feel a little bit better about himself. But, unfortunately for the blond this was not one of those stories. All it was, was a simple, "No." Zack frowned as he boy's eyes fluttered to the ground, ashamed. "But, I did puke afterwards."

Cloud laughed, the color finally returning to his whitened skin.

"And you, my friend, have kept your lunch in your belly so I suppose you're a little bit better off than I was." Maybe it really was one of those stories, after all.

"Y-yeah."

"Well, Cloud, let's get outta here. I'm officially all out of potions, and the monsters will be lurking around again. I don't feel like dying up here on this cliff anytime soon, do you?"

"No. Definitely not," Cloud said, smiling faintly. He swung his assault rifle up onto his shoulder.

Zack gave Cloud one last pat on the shoulder before the two glanced over to the city of Midgar, which stood proudly before them on the close horizon.

~*~*~

Cold eyes surrounded by a sterile white dug into the SOLDIER's mind, attacking his nerves without uttering a single word. Arms were folded across a rigid chest, and a foot tapped impatiently against more sterile white.

"How could you let yourself get injured so easily?" A harsh, yet calm voice.

And a defensive, irritated response. "I just slipped up, okay?"

"It was a simple training mission," said the calm voice.

"Yeah, well, sometimes even SOLDIER makes mistakes," responded the defensive voice.

"Is Strife a hindrance to you?" said the calm voice.

"Stop squirming, I can't heal you properly Mr. Fair," said a new voice, and caused the two men to jump slightly. A rather pretty nurse in the Shin-Ra infirmary was kneeling down by Zack's left thigh, her hands glowing with the hues of Curaga. "And this would be a lot easier for me if you were to lie down, Mr. Fair."

The two men ignored her.

"Tseng, we had a deal. You get Cloud assigned to me, and I stop acting so reckless on missions." Zack flinched as the nurse bumped his thigh with her small hands, and she blurted out a frightened apology.

Tseng shook his head, scoffing. His cold eyes glanced down to the healing wound on the SOLDIER's leg. "Looks to me like you're not holding up your end of the bargain."

"Well it's not like I did it on purpose." He winced and withdrew his leg, looking down at the nurse with disdain. "Is this your first time?? 'Cuz you're really awkward."

She blushed a terrible shade of shame and stammered several words that weren't necessarily in a language that any human spoke. With now shaking hands, she resumed her magic.

"If he can't improve even under direct training from a SOLDIER 1st-Class, then I will personally see that he is shipped out for guard duty on the outskirts of the Northern Crater." Tseng was such a hard person to read, and Zack couldn't tell if this was an empty threat or not. But a threat was a threat, and Zack didn't appreciate such blatant arrogance and complete disregard for what he was spouting off.

"Look, he's getting better. He managed to cast Fira without so much as breaking a sweat today! He's the one who killed the monster in the end. It wasn't me."

Tseng lifted an eyebrow over his cold eyes. "Is that right?"

Zack scoffed, throwing his hands up in the air. "Yes! What do you want, a written statement!?"

"Actually, yes. I expect a report of the incident on my desk by evening." Tseng turned and walked out of the room as he heard Zack let out a childish whine.

Tseng walked briskly passed a meek figure clinging against the wall outside the door of the infirmary room. His eyes briefly met that of Cloud's, and he continued on.

Cloud quickly looked away as Tseng's gaze met his, and Cloud couldn't get the ashamed and guilty look from showing on his face.

I guess it's okay to go in there now. Cloud thought to himself as he straightened his feeble frame up from its shrunken position. He could hear the nurse informing Zack of some precautionary instructions on how to keep the wound clean and what signs to look for if it began to get infected. All of which Zack was paying absolutely no attention to, Cloud knew.

Cloud's eyes watched as Tseng entered the elevator at the end of the hallway, and the door closed behind him with a ding of the bell. Cloud relaxed a bit; how that man made him nervous.

A feeling of excitement washed over him at that moment, as now he had some time to hang around Zack before he had to report back into the barracks for the evening. He had questions to grill the man with about SOLDIER, magic, swords, materia, and everything in between. Anything and everything his brain could conjure up for the short time they would have together began to swarm into his head, as his legs involuntarily began to move into the infirmary room.

And soon he found the questions being knocked out of his head as he, rather roughly, walked right into the hard chest of Zack who was exiting. Cloud let out a small cry of surprise as he began to fall backwards, the balance taken right from his body.

Zack moved swiftly, his hands going down and grasping Cloud's outstretched arm before he became parallel with the cold tile.  He chuckled, watching the shocked expression that formed across the blond's face as he hoisted him back up onto his feet before he even knew what happened.

Cloud blinked hopelessly, his eyes darting back and forth on the hand which still clung to his arm firmly, not wanting to let go until Zack was sure he could stand on his own feet.

"You okay?"

Blood began to tingle behind the skin in Cloud's cheeks, but he willed it away after a quiet, yet embarrassed laugh. "S-sorry," he said.

"There you go, apologizing again for something that you shouldn't be." Zack's hand slowly lowered, watching Cloud's face carefully. "You sure have a bad habit of doing that."

"S-sorry."

A gloved hand dragged down the man's face, helplessly. "Damn, Cloud."

Cloud squeezed his eyes shut, apologizing for apologizing too many times. "Sorry!"

"Just...shut up." Zack laughed and wrapped his arm around his shoulder, pulling him into his side in a brotherly fashion. "Hey! How 'bout some food!"

"But...shouldn't you be resting your leg?" Cloud said, but secretly was hoping for the opposite. He waited on edge for Zack's reply, hoping that he would say that it was nothing, and that he could spend all the time in the world with him.

"Nah, I want food, then dessert, then maybe seconds, and dessert seconds, and then sleep. In that exact order."

"Don't forget your report you need to write."

Zack's face fell flat. "Y-yeah. And the report." He reluctantly added that to the list of things he wanted to do before lights out. They began to walk towards the elevator, the sound of their footsteps echoing in the hallway. "Can we maybe slip that in after the seconds?"

"Wait. Between the seconds or the dessert seconds?" Cloud said, sounding confused.

"Um...well...maybe...never."

They both laughed together as the elevator door opened, and in they stepped. The door closed with a ding of the bell.

~*~*~

The young blond stood more than uncomfortably in Zack's tiny living quarters on one of the barrack floors. It was located in its own section that housed the SOLDIER members only. He felt out of place, almost as if he didn't deserve to be on the same floor with so many great SOLDIERs.

Cloud was admittedly a bit jealous that he had to sleep in a large, cold room filled with loudly snoring and crude men in tiny bunk-beds, while Zack at least got his own room with a small, but humble living space. But that was a perk that came with the job, Cloud knew. And Zack deserved the tiny one bedroom luxury, despite this jealousy.

He wondered where Sephiroth's room was on the floor, and he grinned shyly to himself. How he would have loved to walk past Sephiroth's space and to pass by him. He would love to catch a glimpse, or perhaps maybe have Zack finally introduce him to his hero. But Cloud was content enough to be brought into Zack's little home, and began to feel giddy as if he were really meeting Sephiroth.

And this began to confuse him.

What started as admiration for the fact that Zack was a 1st Class, soon turned into admiration for Zack himself. He was strong; confident; charming and optimistic. In Cloud's eyes he was nothing short of the perfect SOLDIER; he was everything the young blond envisioned a SOLDIER to be. The sheer embodiment of a hero, like Sephiroth, and Cloud felt blessed to have developed a close friendship with him. Just knowing Zack made Cloud feel like he himself was important and privileged, and that fact alone kept him motivated to try hard to be like him. Zack gave Cloud the strength and will he desired to feel at least on par with his fellow Shin-Ra infantry, as sometimes he pictured himself to be the busted leg of the unit. And of course, name dropping the fact that he was friends with Zack Fair, SOLDIER 1st Class came with some perks as well. But he only used that as an ace-in-the-hole when his confidence was plummeting in a conversation with his peers.

And Zack Fair, SOLDIER 1st Class had been talking to Cloud for some time now from his bedroom, but Cloud had zoned off.

"Cloud?" Zack poked his head out into his living room where Cloud stood, staring off distantly into the leather couch in front of him. He hadn't moved from where they first entered the apartment. "Yo! Cloud!"

Cloud blinked and forced a sheepish smile. "S-sorry."

"I asked if you were hungry."

"Oh...um...a-a little." He was lying. He was very hungry from the training in the outskirts of Midgar all day. Fighting creatures worked up an appetite quickly in the fifteen year old, and he longed for a nice hot meal that would put him in a food coma for several hours.

"Dammit," Zack said, his voice muffled from inside his bedroom.

"What's wrong?" Cloud took a step forward, taking an odd mental note of how plush the carpet felt under his socked feet.

Zack laughed nervously. "I...forgot to do my laundry. I have no clean pants to wear that aren't full of dirt and blood."

Another odd note – Zack was a bit messy.

It was nothing that five minutes of picking up and a garbage bag wouldn't cure, but a mess was a mess, in Cloud's mind. His mother had always taught him to be clean and tidy. Borderline O.C.D, his mother was, and she would scold him if he even so much as left a cup sitting on the table for too long, unattended.

But Zack was the opposite, having empty cups of instant ramen noodles strewn about across the coffee table in the living room, and Cloud wondered if that was all from one sitting, as Zack had a healthy appetite. A few magazines flipped open on the couch; a layer of dust across the small television; and a few open bottles of water on the small counter top in the kitchenette area. All were reasons for Cloud to feel that much more uncomfortable. Cloud was a bit mortified as he realized the mess was bothering him, and he wondered if he was becoming O.C.D like his mother was about cleanliness.

"Hey, make yourself comfortable, this may be a while as I search."

Cloud hesitantly walked over to the black leather couch and sat down stiffly, the sound of the material beneath him squeaking. The cushions felt firm as if they were brand new, and given the amount of dust that covered the television in front of him, Cloud wondered how much time did Zack actually have to spend in his apartment.

Cloud could hear Zack laugh rather loudly, and he turned on the couch to face the doorway to Zack's room. "How mad do you think Tseng would be if I wore shorts to the chow hall?"

"Very mad. As mad as he will be if you don't give him a report of the training mission today."

Zack grumbled, and his voice became clearer as he stepped out into the living room, wearing nothing but his boxer-briefs. "Dammit, all my clothes are dirty."

Cloud's eyes briefly fell upon the man's chest, taking a bit longer of a look on his defined abs than he had planned, and he quickly tore his gaze away. Whether his eyes lingered for too long because of jealousy, or something else hidden inside his mind, he wasn't sure. "Just wear dirty clothes then, it's just the chow hall," he finally said.

"Hey! This SOLDIER's gotta look good at all times, pal. You'll understand sooner or later, when you join." He paused for a moment and then darted into the bathroom. "I think I may have something thrown in here." The light was flicked on, and Zack disappeared inside.

Cloud tugged at the knee of his issued Shin-Ra trousers, uncomfortable. He hoped that Zack would clothe himself soon. His eyes went to a magazine next to him to try and take his mind off of, well, Zack.

"Can you hurry? I'm beginning to starve over here," Cloud said, whining. He picked up a magazine about Shin-Ra weaponry, and he immediately threw it back down onto the couch. But it looked out of place, so he picked it back up again and neatly set it down on the coffee table in front of him. But now it looked odd next to several cups of ramen, so he picked those upright.

But now the ramen was a bit funny sitting there, so he picked them up and stood, walking over to the kitchenette area to find the garbage can. He tossed them out and turned, seeing the half empty bottles of water. So he dumped those out into the tiny sink and tossed them in with the ramen to keep them company. They seemed happy together in the garbage can, and Cloud was pleased that he could introduce the two together and start a new friendship between ramen noodles and water bottles.

But the sink had some lonely dishes in it, so Cloud picked up the sponge and began to spend some time with them so they didn't seem so alone and dejected.

And Cloud was unaware that Zack had heard all of the friendship going on in his space and he stood behind the small bar counter that connected his kitchenette with the living room, grinning at the young blond who stood oblivious, unaware that he was being watched and laughed at silently.

Zack waited for Cloud to turn the faucet off before he spoke. "Having fun?"

Cloud twirled around, his face pale and his eyes wide. "I-I'm so sorry!" He lifted a wet hand to his face and cupped it over his mouth. "I didn't mean to impose."

"It's all right. I know, my place is a mess. I never have time to clean it, really."

"I didn't mean to be rude."

Zack shook his head, chuckling at the bumbling blond boy. "Don't worry about it. I'm not mad."

It was then that Cloud noticed that Zack had the same amount of clothes on as he did a few moments ago. Cloud looked away.

Zack noticed Cloud's sudden uneasiness and decided that it had nothing to do with the fact that Cloud was caught cleaning up his apartment, red-handed. "What's wrong?"

"N-nothing. I'm just...tired." He lied again.

Zack frowned as he looked over his friend whose attention was at the front door seeming like he wanted to bolt through it suddenly. Zack realized then that he wasn't wearing much clothes. It hadn't occurred to him, as he was comfortable in his own place and he was used to being around other men in any situation. Having gone through Shin-Ra infantry, and then SOLDIER throughout the years, being around other people with hardly any clothes on was hardly a thing to worry about for Zack. He thought that Cloud would have been used to that too, having to share barracks with about thirty other men at a time, and showering with those people as well. Why would Cloud be so bashful all of the sudden? He decided to not probe at him and turned to find something to wear.

Cloud relaxed, seeing Zack retreat back to his room through the corner of his eye. He shook his head, a bewildered expression crawling across his pale face. He just couldn't look at him, and he knew that it showed.

After several moments, the SOLDIER finally emerged wearing the same uniform he had when they had entered the place. The same pair of trousers that had a huge tear in the thigh, surrounded by the same blood stain from his injury, wearing that same bubbly look on his face as the thought of food in his near future crossed his mind.

Cloud looked at Zack and smiled softly, seeing that look he recognized. "Food time?"

"Hell yes. Sorry to keep you waiting, Cloud. I guess this'll do." He walked to the front door and Cloud noticed he was walking with a slight limp.

His heart sank. "Are you sure you want to go all the way to the chow hall? I can bring you back something, if you like." Cloud trotted over to him as Zack was bent over, tying his boots with a slight wince. Cloud was hoping that Zack would agree to this, so he could be of some assistance to him.

"Nah, I'm fine. Just a little sore. I'll sleep it off." He threw open the door as Cloud hurriedly began to tie his boots back on.

Zack smiled at him as Cloud fumbled with the tongue of the boot that had seemingly ate his laces. He waited patiently, but Cloud failed to notice his understanding demeanor, and continued with his frantic search for the ends of his laces.

Cloud was so entertaining to watch sometimes and his heart swelled when he realized that the boy was so eager to please him. It was rather endearing watching him scramble around, doing everything he could to be of use to him. Zack had to admit, it worried him a bit to know that the boy was so devoted to him, and Zack wished he would do things so enthusiastically for himself from time to time. But Zack was content in knowing that Cloud seemed to enjoy any activity he did with or for Zack, as long as it meant more time around him.

"You know, you can slow down."

Cloud looked up at him from his seat on the floor, his knee brought up to his chest as he clumsily tied the laces he was finally able to unearth. "Sorry! I know you're probably in a hurry to get something to eat."

Zack began to laugh, looking down at Cloud who was too busy apologizing to notice he tied his index finger into the knot on his boot.

It took two hard tugs of his hand and a quick glance down to notice this. And then a red blush appeared on his face. He hung his head, hoping that his hair would hide the fact that he was utterly embarrassed, once more.

But no amount of his wild hair would cover his face enough to hide it, as Zack squatted down, ignoring the burning pain in his leg as he helped Cloud remove his hand like father would do with his child who was learning how to tie their shoe for the first time. "Here."

This embarrassed Cloud even more and he looked away, ashamed of himself.

Zack tied Cloud's boot for him and flashed him a wryly grin, but Cloud didn't catch it, as his eyes were miles away.

"I could sing you the shoe tying song if you need me to."

Cloud seemed to pout at this, which all the more edged Zack into more teasing.

"Over, under, around the tree..." he began.

"Shut up, ass." Cloud playfully shoved Zack's hands away and scrambled to his feet.

Zack laughed as he stood, watching as the blond stormed by him, completely embarrassed. More laughter came from Zack as Cloud stumbled on the other boot in which he forgot to tie. He stammered forward, his hand thrusting out to the wall next to him to stop himself from tasting the tiled floor.

And even more laughing from Zack.

And even more blushing from Cloud.

Zack walked over to his stunned friend and kneeled down beneath him. Cloud's inquisitive eyes went down, hiding behind several wisps of blond hair, watching as Zack began to tie his boot for him.

"What would you do without me, buddy?" Zack's bright eyes traveled up to meet Cloud's, letting a wide, toothy grin crawl across his face.

Cloud was still blushing a terrible shade of red.

~*~*~

They had not walked twenty feet before the SOLDIER was leaning up against the nearest wall wincing in a sudden onslaught of pain from the fresh wound on his thigh. He was thankful for the empty hall, save for the worried blond, as he had let out a rather embarrassing yelp once the unwanted and unexpected pain coursed through his nerves.

Cloud was immediately at his side, his hands cupping Zack's outstretched arm to help him balance. A few beads of sweat rolled down Zack's temple, his vision seeming to course with the throbbing of the pain.

"You're not okay, I knew it." Cloud swung Zack's arm over his shoulder, supporting his weight against him as they slowly turned back to his apartment. "There's no way I'm letting you go all the way down to the chow hall. C'mon," he urged him, after a moment of rest from the SOLDIER, of course, and they hobbled back down the quiet hall.

Zack flopped down onto his squeaky couch, letting a very long and exasperated sigh escape from between gritted teeth. He watched, slightly amused, as Cloud dragged the coffee table across the plush carpet and held out his hand for Zack's leg.

Zack obeyed and Cloud helped ease his leg onto the coffee table to elevate it. It instantly began to feel better. He leaned his head back, closing his eyes at the relief.

"So maybe it was a bad idea." He let out a questionable noise as he felt Cloud beginning to tug at his boot. A warm smile crawled across his face as Cloud removed his boots for him and placed them neatly by the door. "I could've done that, you know," he said in his defense.

"Just like you said you were fine and could make it down to the chow hall?"

Zack chuckled in response.

Cloud walked over to the television and swiped a gloved hand across the screen. He flicked it on and walked back over to Zack, holding out the remote. "Relax for a bit. I'll be right back."

Zack blinked in confusion as he silently took the remote, and before he could question Cloud he was already leaving his space in a blond blur.

He realized what he was doing and shouted after him. "Bring back dessert!"

~*~*~

After much sweet-talk from the blond cadet to the lady behind the chow hall serving food, he managed to escape with more than an arms full of boxed up meals, and of course, desserts. At first she was reluctant to let him leave with what was obvious more than the young boy could possibly stomach, but after he used what little charm he thought he had on her, she eventually gave in. She even packed the meals for him.

Clambering through the halls filled with the rowdy, and somewhat inconsiderate, Shin-Ra infantry and SOLDIER mix was a feat in it of itself. But pushing his way through this sea of power hungry and cocky men with a tower of foam boxes was even more admirable, as Cloud somehow managed to do it. Meek and polite pleas from Cloud escaped him at first, careful of whom to address, and in what tone, but eventually aggravation got the better, and seldom used, half of him and he began snapping at people to move out of his damn way.

Finally, he reached the 1st Class SOLDIER floor and let a long, heavy sigh as he carefully balanced his way down the empty hall.

Reaching Zack's residence, he soon realized to his dismay that opening the door himself was next to impossible, as he found himself staring through a pile of boxes to the closed door in front of him.

"Dammit!" he said, frustrated. Should he knock? Should he get Zack to come help him, even though he was behind the door resting? Cloud shook his head, whimpering softly.

He began to slide one hand out from beneath the boxes, leaning back to allow their weight to be balanced against his chest and face. He let out a small cry as one almost toppled over, but he managed to balance it back in its place. He paused, feeling his heart beat heavy in his chest, thankful that the dessert that Zack so longingly wished for didn't end up as a new form of shoe shine on his issued boots. He was so engross in his balancing act that he was unaware of the footsteps beside him.

"Allow me,'" said a low, male voice.

Cloud could sense a form next to him reaching in front, and opening the door for him. He stammered several polite apologies and thank yous to the person who stood besides him. He knew that it had to be some sort of high ranking SOLDIER.

And he slipped inside and heard the person close the door behind him, watching as Zack grinned devilishly at him from the couch. He still had his leg obediently propped up on the coffee table, to Cloud's surprise.

"What's that look for?" Cloud almost collapsed as he set the mound of boxes down on the table next to Zack's leg.

"How in the world did you manage to haul all those meals here, let alone get Sephiroth himself to open the door for you!?"

"S-Sephiroth!?" Cloud yelped, nearly choking on the saliva in his throat.

"You must've caught him in a generous mood for him to do that, especially for a 'grunt' like you."  Zack chuckled, jokingly speaking the word grunt.

Cloud then gave into the urge to collapse, and he so willingly did on the couch next to Zack, who peered at him suspiciously.

"T-that w-was S-Sephiroth!?" His face drained of its color; drained of any bit of confidence and stability that was barely there to begin with.

"Yeah, you didn't notice?" Zack said casually, as he leaned forward grabbing a box from the middle, not even caring what was inside. He opened it like a treasure chest, carefully and considerately taking in the beautiful and hearty sight in front of him. A big, fat cheeseburger. He purred with contentment.

Cloud would have been chuckling at the behavior of his friend if he wasn't so occupied reeling beside him.

Zack ignored Cloud and began to passionately eat his burger.

The blond continued to stammer the hero's name repeatedly, his eyes losing their luster to embarrassment and shock. He stared into the television mindlessly, not taking in the sights before him on the screen.

After a few silent moments, Zack waved a hand in front of Cloud's face, shrugged when he got no response, then resumed eating.

Eventually, hunger got the other better of him, and Cloud reached forward with a now steady hand and grabbed whatever box he first touched and brought it to his lap. His face was still void.

Zack began to laugh at him uncontrollably then, once he glanced his way. He was blindly fumbling for his utensil with his right hand, completely and utterly unaware that the fork he was searching for was in his left hand already. Blank eyes continued to watch the flashing screen in front of him. "You're too cute!" Zack cried out, leaning to the side of the couch, racked with laughter.

"What?" Cloud blinked, looking over at Zack, his then distant eyes now back to the present, filled with confusion and what almost looked like interest.

"What?" Zack said back through dissipating laughs, but the question was actually aimed at himself. His laughter subsided with several heaves of his shoulders at the realization of what he just blurted out to the young Cloud. He slowly sat up, his eyes wanting to look away from Cloud's, but resisted. That would be too suspicious.

"What did...you just say?" Cloud peered at him questionably.

"I said 'You're too cool!'" What a terrible save.

But it seemed to be enough for the blond as he turned his gaze back to the television in front of him with a quick nod, and began to mindlessly eat his dinner from his lap.

Zack let out a very slow, constricted sigh that was inaudible to the wary blond beside him, and he was thankful for that. He bit his bottom lip, his eyes staring at the images on the screen, but was not processing them.

A thought occurred to Zack then as a shampoo ad flashed on the screen. "Why are you so shocked that it was Sephiroth?"

Cloud choked on the bite of food in his mouth.

Zack reached over and patted his back instinctively as Cloud took in gulps of restricted air, watching as his hand went up to his chest and pounded several times.

"W-what?" he squeaked out, his eyes wide with a dubious look.

"You got a thing for him, or what?" Zack grinned, but then realized what he had said and then waved a hand dismissively in front of his face. "I mean, is he your hero or something?" He forced back an embarrassed flush that threatened to wash over his face. Zack had been hoping that Cloud would answer his original question, in hopes to determine if he was possibly into that sort of thing...

Cloud was the one to turn red out of the two, as his hand lowered from his chest and onto his box of food. He leaned forward and placed it on the coffee table quietly, trying to form his answer in his head.

Please, please, please, please answer the question. Zack's mind was a sudden jumbled mess, his heart racing in his chest.

But of course, like a tragedy, Cloud answered as vague as he possibly could, which really was no surprise to Zack at all. He was rather secretive and shy, and would possibly never admit anything of the sort.

"I was just shocked that he would help me out, is all."

Zack's shoulders slumped, and he turned his attention back to the television in front of him dejectedly.

"I..." Cloud started, and Zack looked back at him with curious eyes. "I've just always wanted to meet him."

A smile broke out on Zack's face tenderly. "I could arrange that, you know."

"R-really?" He was suddenly trembling at the thought and Zack could see this excitement in him, like a child who just received a brand new bike on their birthday.

"Let me pull some strings with Tseng, and I'll see if we can go on a mission or something soon, okay?"

Cloud nodded enthusiastically, the largest of the blond spikes on his head bobbing as he did this.

Damn, he really is too cute.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

...To be continued in Chapter Two: Bruised