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"Damn it!"

Hearing that in Zack's familiar voice made Cloud blink twice, then back up a few steps to peer down the side corridor he'd just passed. That was the direction the SOLDIER barracks were in, but Cloud still wondered if maybe he was mistaken. Zack was supposed to be on his way to pick up his girlfriend for a fancy dinner that all the 1st Class were attending with the Shinra brass.

He didn't see anything, but Zack's voice came again from further down the hall that was connected by the side corridor. "Damn it, damn it, damn it!" He sounded genuinely irritated, which was odd. Zack got mad, and he could be upset, but he was rarely irritated. He was too easy-going for that.

Trotting down the corridor, Cloud turned the corner into the hall and sure enough, there was Zack stalking away from him. The SOLDIER was running a hand through his hair and tugging at it absently, like it was a nervous gesture or something. Cloud blinked again. Did Zack get nervous?

"Zack?" he called, and the older boy actually jumped slightly. "Hey, are you okay?"

"Cloud!" Zack sighed, and offered him a weary grin. "Yeah, just talking to myself. What are you doing here, looking for me?"

"No, I'm just coming off duty and this was a shortcut," Cloud explained. "I thought you were supposed to be at that dinner thing?"

"Yeah, well," Zack made a face and walked back towards him. "Aerith is sick. Like, really sick, throwing up all over the place. She said she thinks it might be food poisoning; it must be pretty bad if she's suffering from it, she never gets sick."

"Oh. Geez, that sucks," Cloud said sympathetically. "So you have to go to the dinner thing alone?"

"See, that's the thing." With a gesture, Zack indicated he should follow and turned to keep walking towards his room. "We're expected to bring a date. They won't let me in without one. I've just been wracking my brains for any other female of an appropriate age that I know who might be willing to drop everything and go with me. At this point, though, I'm not sure there's enough time even if I do manage to think of someone."

"Oh no!" Cloud's eyes widened. Zack had been looking forward to this function for months, ever since he'd found out he was going to be getting his promotion to 1st Class in time to attend. All the top Shinra brass were going to be there, and more importantly so was Sephiroth. There weren't a lot of SOLDIERs 1st Class, and they got to work with the general more often than anyone else did, but it would have been Zack's first chance to really catch the man's eye.

Truth to tell, Cloud had been horribly jealous ever since he'd heard that Zack was going to get to go. So far he hadn't been any closer to the Silver General than having the man pass by several rows in front of him on an inspection of his company. The chance to actually meet him was something Cloud would have given just about anything for.

Still, he felt bad that his friend was missing the chance. Cloud wasn't the sort to wish others couldn't enjoy things just because he couldn't have them. "So you're not going to be able to go?" he asked.

"At this point? Not unless you climb into a dress and pretend to be my date," Zack joked. His expression was amused, but there was disappointment deep in his eyes that made Cloud's heart ache.

"The sad thing is that I could probably pass," Cloud sighed. He certainly got teased often enough by the men in his unit about his 'delicate features'. He'd gotten into more than one fight over it, too. "Too bad. That'd get us both in to meet..."

What he was saying actually registered with his brain a moment later, and he stumbled to a halt both verbally and physically. Staring at Zack, he ran that back through his head a second time. If he went with Zack as the older boy's 'date', then not only would Zack still be able to meet Sephiroth, but so would Cloud.

Not in such a way that it would help his career at all, of course, but still. How many people got the chance to meet their childhood hero up close and personal?

"What?" Zack looked back at him, bemused. "You look like someone just cast Confuse on you, kid."

"No, I..." Cloud shook his head. He couldn't say it, couldn't actually suggest it. Zack would never take him seriously again. He'd probably lose the older boy's respect entirely. Hell, he'd never respect himself again.

But... Sephiroth. And Zack had been looking forward to this thing for so long.

Swallowing hard, Cloud looked away and made himself say the words. "I could. Do it. If you wanted. I mean. Yeah. Please don't laugh at me." By the time he was finished his disjointed offer, his face was a brighter red than it had ever been before.

"Do what? Why would I laugh at..." Realization of what Cloud was talking about dawned on Zack, and now he was the one gaping at Cloud. "What, seriously? You really would?"

The older boy's tone didn't sound like he was going to follow up with a 'you sick bastard, how could you even think something like that?', so Cloud peered at him cautiously. Zack looked hopeful, but like he was sure he'd heard Cloud wrong.

"Yeah," Cloud agreed hesitantly. "Hell, Zack, you know I'd do just about anything for the chance to meet Sephiroth. Do you think it would work?"

"Only one way to find out," Zack said, and grinned at him. It was the grin that usually told Cloud to brace himself because his friend was about to suggest something outrageous. Clearly he'd been spending way too much time around the SOLDIER, if he was the one making the outrageous suggestions.

"C'mon!" Zack grabbed Cloud's hand and tugged him towards his room, still grinning like a maniac the whole way. "We'll have to hurry, if we have any chance. Everyone else is probably out picking up their dates, like I was."

"But... where will we even get a dress?" Cloud asked, trotting along behind and trying to convince himself he wasn't having second thoughts.

"I've still got the one I bought for Aerith," Zack explained, lifting the garment bag he'd been carrying slung over one shoulder. Cloud had assumed it just held his dress uniform, back from the cleaners or something. "You're about the same size she is. If you can fit in it, then this might actually work."

"We're both going to be facing a court martial and dishonourable discharge when they catch me," Cloud muttered, wiping his free hand across his face to get rid of the sweat that had already started to form from sheer nerves.

"No we're not, because if it's likely that they'll catch us then we just won't go," Zack asserted. "And we won't have lost anything for trying. I can't believe you're willing to do this! I'm going to owe you so big time!"

A little startled, Cloud realized Zack thought he was offering to humiliate himself just for Zack's sake. Well, it wouldn't hurt him if Cloud didn't disabuse him of the notion. Having Zack owe him one could come in handy later.

For now, though, he needed to worry about the idea that he was about to try to pass himself off as a girl to the people who signed the paycheques of the guy who signed the paycheques of the guy who signed Cloud's paycheques. Not to mention General Sephiroth. Dear gods, what was he getting himself into?

"Strip," Zack ordered him the moment the door to his room had closed behind him. He was already following his own advice, dropping the garment bag on his neatly made bed and shucking off his uniform as fast as he could. "I showered before I went to go to Aerith' place, but you just came off duty. Good thing 1st Class get their own bathroom." He grinned and jerked a thumb at a small door Cloud hadn't noticed. This was the first time he'd been in his friend's new room.

"Lucky bastard," Cloud said enviously. When you had to share a communal washroom and shower with a platoon of thirty other guys, having access to a private bathroom was beyond mere luxury.

"Be jealous later, for now just get clean," Zack ordered him. "Hurry, we've only got about half an hour before we have to be there. They won't let us in late."

Cloud hurried. Being in the army had taught him how to get clean fast, and as much as he would have loved to take his time enjoying having a shower to himself for a change, he wanted to meet Sephiroth more. "I know one thing you can do to start paying me back," he said as he emerged five minutes later with a towel around his waist and rubbing another over his hair. "Half an hour uninterrupted time in your shower. Does the hot water last that long?"

"You better believe it," Zack said, grinning at him in the mirror he was using to tie his dress tie. "It'll last as long as you can humanly stay in there. They don't stint on the 1st Class, man. We're too damn valuable. You can have a go at it when the party's over, you'll want to get cleaned up before you go back anyway. What?"

That last had been added because Cloud had stopped short in the bathroom doorway, towel still covering half his face as he stared dry-mouthed at Zack. The older boy's dress blues fit him perfectly; the SOLDIERs got tailored uniforms, not just the haphazard size-matching the troops had to deal with. The dress uniform made Zack look a little older, a bit less like a hellion, and far too much like the epitome of the reason so many women swooned over a man in uniform.

Cloud was used to dealing with the occasional inappropriate flash of heat that he experienced deep in his body when he was around Zack. His friend was just so vibrant and entrancing, how could anybody not be attracted to him? But the military was pretty strict about that kind of stuff, and Cloud had no desire to get the shit beaten out of him if he was caught looking at a guy the wrong way. He had enough trouble just because he was 'pretty'.

Not that Zack would ever do something like that, but it would make things uncomfortable between them and that was the last thing Cloud wanted. Zack was his first and only real friend, and there was no way in hell he was going to endanger that for the sake of wayward teenaged hormones.

That was under normal circumstances, though. Zack in his dress blues, grinning at Cloud in that way he had that made you feel like you were the centre of his universe at that moment... that was more than Cloud had the willpower to resist, at least for those first few seconds of impact.

Finally the blonde managed to tear his eyes away from his friend and cough, trying to clear his throat before speaking. "You clean up pretty well," he said, grateful that his voice was only a little husky. "You'd better be careful, somebody might mistake you for a respectable SOLDIER."

Laughing, Zack reached out and ruffled the towel, since he couldn't get at Cloud's hair. Cloud swatted at his hand out of habit and went back to drying himself off, turning his back on Zack in an attempt to calm himself a little. The last thing he needed was for Zack to start wondering if dressing like a girl was some kind of turn-on for Cloud.

"Now what?" Cloud asked when he was done, letting the towel drape over his neck as he risked a glance at Zack. The older boy was leaning over his bed, digging in the garment bag, and Cloud had to bite his lip to keep a quiet whimper from escaping him at the sight of the way Zack's pants stretched to show off his ass. He averted his eyes quickly, hoping the blush on his face would at least be attributed to the embarrassment of what they were doing.

"Now we try to figure out how half of this stuff goes on," Zack said a bit sheepishly, glancing at Cloud over his shoulder. "I mean, I know how to get most of it off, but that's different."

"Stuff?" Cloud repeated, blinking and leaning over to see into the bag. The dress itself was yards of soft, silky-looking fabric in a shade of blue that would compliment the colour of Zack's uniform. On top of it, however, was a tangle of black silk and lace that Cloud vaguely recognized as being some sort of women's lingerie. He didn't exactly have a lot of experience with that sort of thing.

"Aerith lent it to me, she said if I did manage to find someone to go with me, they probably wouldn't have all the right stuff to wear with the dress on such short notice," Zack shrugged. "Let's see if we can figure it out."

It took several minutes and a bit of trial and error, but they finally figured out how to get the panties, garter and stockings on. At least the embarrassment of it all helped Cloud to keep his body under control - as long as he didn't let himself look at Zack for too long. Months of living with the utter lack of privacy in the barracks had cured him of any kind of body modesty, but it was a little different to have Zack looking at him and touching him to try to help him figure out how to wear everything.

The bra was easy enough, though it took Cloud a few tries to get the front clasp to work. They stuffed it with a pair of Zack's extra socks, and it was just as well that Aerith apparently wasn't overly well endowed. Standing there dressed in nothing but what would probably be very sexy black lingerie if it had been on a girl, Cloud felt ridiculous.

"We are totally certifiable for doing this, you know that?" he muttered, trying to fight his blush and not having much success. The fact that Zack couldn't seem to look straight at him without snickering quietly under his breath wasn't doing anything for Cloud's confidence that this was going to work, either.

"Yeah, probably," Zack agreed cheerfully, carefully removing the dress itself from the bag. "But it's not like it's the first thing we've ever done that would get us certified. And this one was your idea."

"It was not!" Cloud protested. "You started it, I just said I would go along with it!"

"Sure, but I was only joking," Zack countered, grinning. "Lift your arms. You were the first to be serious about it, so that makes it your idea." He slipped the dress over Cloud's head, the silky fabric sliding against soft skin like a whisper across his nerves. Cloud shivered at the sensation, startled. No wonder girls were always pining over silk, if it felt this good.

Zack had to tug to get the dress down over Cloud's shoulders, but thankfully he hadn't filled out much in the torso yet. It had short sleeves and a high collar, vaguely Wutaian in style and with a diamond cut-out just below the collar that was probably supposed to show off the swell of the girl's breasts. Thankfully it didn't come down far enough to reveal that Cloud's bra was stuffed rather than being the real thing. The collar would hide his Adam's apple, which was also a bonus. The skirt was long and full, swishing around his legs in a way that left him feeling rather... draughty.

Unfortunately, the short sleeves revealed the muscles that were finally starting to build up in Cloud's arms. The elbow-length white gloves that went with the dress didn't come high enough to hide them either. Glancing in the mirror, Cloud scowled at his reflection and sighed. "This isn't going to work," he said ruefully. "I look like a guy in a dress, not a girl."

"That's because we're not done," Zack said. "Don't give up yet. Here, sit on the bed," he shoved on Cloud's shoulder to get him to perch on the edge of the bed, and started rummaging in his bedside table. "Does your hair stand up like that naturally, or do you have to use gel?"

"It's natural," Cloud replied, watching him curiously. "If you're going to try to make it lie flat, forget it. My mom used to spend hours fighting with it, and it never worked."

"We'll see," Zack said, emerging with a comb and a bottle of gel. "I've spent sixteen years dealing with my hair, don't forget. At least yours is fine and not wiry. Now hold still. Permission to touch?"

Startled at the unexpected formality, Cloud blinked at him. "Sure. Since when do you bother asking permission before touching?" he asked. Military protocol said you had to ask before touching a subordinate, though nobody in their right mind ever said 'no'. But Zack was the kind of person who just impulsively touched people, hugging them or ruffling their hair or slugging them on the shoulder or whatever.

"It's a little different in this situation," Zack said, shrugging. "More deliberate, you know?" Kneeling behind Cloud on the bed, Zack started tugging the comb through the younger boy's still-wet hair. He was brushing fast enough to pull at the knots, but they were in a hurry so Cloud said nothing. He still didn't think this was going to work, but having come this far they might as well go the distance.

"Geez, I didn't realize your hair was this long," Zack said in surprise once he had it all brushed out and was working the gel into it. The longest pieces framed Cloud's face and nearly brushed his shoulders, and the rest of it fell in layers of varying lengths.

"That's because you've never seen it wet before," Cloud shrugged, and Zack rapped him on the shoulder to remind him not to move. "If it was shorter, the spikes would just look weird. It's a pain when I have to wear my helmet. I keep thinking about chopping it all off, except I know it would still go in cowlicks in all directions unless I practically buzz it."

"Don't," Zack said absently, pulling at a lock here and there with his fingers to try to get it where he wanted it. "I like your hair. It suits you, when you get into your sulky moods and start bristling at everything. The rest of the time it's just cute."

"I do not sulk!" Cloud retorted, stung mostly because he knew it was true. He'd never been the most cheerful of people to start with, and failing the SOLDIER exams had hit him hard. Somehow it was hard to remain surly when Zack was around, though. It was one of the reasons he spent as much time in the older boy's company as he could. "And I am not cute."

"Right now you are," Zack informed him, and Cloud didn't need to see the grin to know it was there. "Especially when you pout like that. There, I think that'll work. Now you just need makeup. Lucky Aerith gave me that too."

"If I didn't know better, I'd start to think you'd planned this as some kind of prank to get me into a dress," Cloud said suspiciously, watching with narrowed eyes as Zack moved around to sit on his heels in front of Cloud.

"Believe me, if I'd planned this I'd have left myself more time!" Zack replied. "Now hold still again, and don't flinch."

The first time Zack went for his eye with the little pencil Cloud couldn't help wincing away. Closing his eyes, Cloud told himself to act like he was on guard duty and just trying to ignore a tourist or a bored off-duty trooper who was trying to get him to move. That worked well enough, letting him face straight ahead without moving, though it took a real effort.

After a few minutes Zack drew back, as if studying his work. When he didn't say anything after a long minute, Cloud opened his eyes and looked at him curiously. Zack had the oddest look on his face, bemused and a little startled, with something else beneath that Cloud couldn't read.

"What?" Cloud demanded, made nervous by the look Zack was giving him. "I look like an idiot, don't I? Damn it, I knew this wasn't going to work. I'm sorry."

Blinking at him, Zack opened his mouth a couple times like he was trying to find something to say and couldn't. Finally he just shook his head and pulled Cloud up by the hand, getting him on his feet and turning him to look at the full-length mirror.

The little gasp that escaped Cloud was entirely involuntary. The image looking back at him with shocked eyes wasn't that of a boy in a dress, it was a girl. A really pretty girl at that, with wispy blonde hair framing her face in that artfully tousled way and big eyes made even bluer than usual by the fabric of the dress. The makeup was just a bit awkward looking, but the obvious inexperience with which it had been applied somehow looked endearing rather than silly. Even the muscles in his arms just made him look athletic.

"That's... I look... holy Shiva!" Cloud blurted out, resisting the urge to bury his face in his hands because it would wreck the makeup. He did turn away, collapsing down onto the bed before his legs could finish going wobbly on him. "Fuck, Zack! I look like a girl!"

"Yeah," Zack said, and rather than laughing at the younger boy his voice held overtones of the same odd look that had been in his eyes. Clearing his throat, Zack continued in a more normal voice, "Wasn't that kind of the point?"

Glaring at him, Cloud scowled. "Tell me you'd be happy to realize you could pass this well, and I'll stop being upset."

"I probably wouldn't be," Zack admitted with a grimace. "Still. It's gonna get you in to meet Sephiroth, so it's not all bad, right? And you'll grow out of it. Another six months and your shoulders probably would've been too broad to fit in the dress."

He was being placated and he knew it, but Cloud sighed and smoothed his face out. "All right, so we'll be able to get in," he said reluctantly. "What do we do if someone talks to me? My voice is pretty deep, and I don't think I could do a convincing falsetto."

"Pretend you're really shy, I guess," Zack said after a moment of thought. He seemed to have regained his equilibrium, and Cloud wished the same could be said of him. "If you do have to talk, be quiet and try for that low, seductive voice some women have, you know?"

"Kind of," Cloud said, struggling to imagine himself with the kind of voice Zack was talking about. "Let's just pray nobody talks to me. What about shoes?"

"Let's hope they fit," Zack said, pulling a pair of strappy silver heels out of the bag, "because I have no idea what to do if they don't. Unless you've got something other than combat and parade boots tucked away somewhere."

"Yeah, right," Cloud snorted. "Even if I wanted to, where would I keep them? I'd be laughed out of the regiment. And I don't want to," he added hastily, just in case there was any question.

Gesturing for Cloud to sit on the bed again, Zack knelt and tried to wedge Cloud's feet into the shoes. It was a tight fit, definitely at least one size smaller than was comfortable, but they went on. "Heh. Gold would suit you more, but Aerith looks better in silver. Still looks okay, though. Good thing you've got such delicate little feet," Zack teased him, looking up with a grin as he tickled Cloud's ankle.

"If I were you, I wouldn't tease when I've got two inches of spike so close to your crotch," Cloud retorted, wiggling his other foot in warning. "Bet these would hurt like a bitch if I kicked with them."

"The real question is, can you walk in them?" Zack asked, standing and offering his hand again. "I know I sure as hell wouldn't be able to. Doesn't it take a lot of practice or something?"

"You're asking me like I would know?" Cloud said, taking the hand and standing cautiously. "I don't have any sisters, and my mom never wore heels." He took a few careful steps and nearly wrenched his ankle a couple of times before he got the trick of how to place the heel when he stepped. "Good thing I'm a mountain boy," he muttered as he took a few slightly more successful steps.

"What does growing up in the mountains have to do with it?" Zack wanted to know, looking at him curiously.

"You don't climb up and down all those goat tracks without learning good balance," Cloud explained, releasing Zack's hand and trying to walk on his own. When he made it to the far wall without falling or wobbling too obviously, he turned and grinned in triumph. "I wouldn't want to stand very long, these shoes are too small, but I think I can do it."

Zack was looking at him in that odd way again, his eyes trailing slowly down over the younger boy's body. Cloud supposed he couldn't really blame his friend for being bemused. If he saw Zack dressed as a girl, he'd probably be staring too. "How much time do we have?" he asked to distract Zack.

Glancing at the clock, Zack swore. "Not nearly enough! We're going to have to run, come on!"

"Wait!" Snatching his hand away from Zack's attempt to grab it, Cloud took a moment to pull the shoes off again. "There's no way I can run in these without breaking something. Now let's go."

They bolted through the halls like a pair of pranksters running from the aftermath of a practical joke; not an unusual description for Zack, actually. Cloud was just grateful that the quarters for the SOLDIERs 1st Class were in the main Shinra tower, so they didn't need to go outside in their mad dash.

Running in a dress was every bit as awkward as Cloud had expected it to be and then some, even without the heels. He finally gathered most of the material of the skirt up and held it out of the way with one hand. That left him flashing the tops of his stockings, but there wasn't anybody to see it. Who wore stockings these days, anyway?

By the time they finally pulled up just around the corner from the reception hall the banquet was being held in, Cloud was panting and flushed with the effort of running. Zack, damn his eyes, looked like he'd just gone for a light walk. "Bloody SOLDIER stamina," Cloud muttered, leaning over with one hand braced on the wall to try to get the shoes back on. They didn't want to fit, the half dozen straps falling out of place every time he moved his hand to actually put his foot in it. "Damn it. Zack, help me."

Chuckling, Zack went down on one knee and helped Cloud get the shoes on. "We made it with a few minutes to spare, so take a moment and get your breath," the older boy said. "Don't want people getting the wrong idea about what made us late."

That, of course, only flustered Cloud even more. How was he supposed to catch his breath when he had images flying through his head of what else the two of them might have been doing to get him so flushed? Of course people would get the wrong idea. Zack in his dress blues really ought to come with some kind of warning label.

It didn't take him as long to catch his breath as it would have a year ago when he'd first joined the army, at least. All his extra training with Zack was finally starting to pay off. Thinking about training let him not think about what he was going to walk into in just a minute, which was a good thing. He was way past second thoughts and on to fourth or fifth by now, and he didn't need to be any more nervous than he already was.

Perhaps sensing his nerves, or maybe just hearing the way Cloud's heartbeat had sped up erratically, Zack stood and looked down into the younger boy's eyes. In the heels it wasn't quite as much of a height difference as Cloud was used to, which felt almost as odd as the uncharacteristically uncertain look on Zack's face. "You sure you want to do this, kid?" Zack asked softly. "We can still back out now."

Oddly, Zack's words served to firm Cloud's resolve rather than weaken it. "We've come this far," Cloud said. "It'd be stupid to go back now. I want to see Sephiroth. Let's go, before being late makes the decision for us."

"As my lady wishes," Zack somehow managed to say with a straight face, and Cloud hit him. Laughing, Zack offered Cloud his arm. "No punching me, that's not a very ladylike thing to do," the older boy reminded him as Cloud tucked his gloved hand into the crook of the elbow Zack offered him. "Think 'dainty and feminine', remember?"

"Dainty and feminine, right, I can do this, dainty and feminine," Cloud chanted under his breath. He closed his eyes briefly to try to steady himself, then took a deep breath and did his best to settle himself into the role.

Then they were at the door, and there was no more time for thinking about it. The guard at the door saluted and checked Zack's invitation, then waved them through.

Stepping through the door was like walking into a different world. It was a noisy, chaotic, glittering fairy world with people everywhere and horribly overdone decorations that were probably supposed to look expensive and impressive. Everyone not in dress blues was dressed in the same ostentatious style as the decorations; jewels flashed everywhere, custom suits and designer gowns abounded, and most of the people present had that indefinable air of authority that comes from being in control over a great many peoples' lives.

"Who are all these people?" Cloud whispered to Zack as he looked around wide-eyed, his hand tightening on the older boy's arm. Surely not all of these civilians could be Shinra brass. It was a big corporation, but there were hundreds of people in here.

"The rich and elite from around the world," Zack murmured back, smiling and nodding in reply to a greeting from another SOLDIER. "That's the whole purpose of this thing, to trot out Shinra's elite and prove that their tax dollars are being well spent. They're showing off the SOLDIERs."

"Oh," Cloud said, a little overwhelmed. He'd thought this was a strictly internal affair of some kind. He wasn't sure whether to feel relieved that most of the people present were not directly in control of his military career, or more nervous because if they were caught he was going to be shamed in front of everyone in the world who mattered.

"How are we ever going to see Sephiroth in all of this?" he asked, dismayed. Had all this been for nothing? And they were trapped now, they wouldn't be able to leave for hours without a very good excuse.

"No worries, he always goes around to talk to the newest 1st Class members," Zack assured him. "Which, obviously, includes me. So stick close and don't wander off and you're golden."

"If you think I'm taking one step away from you, you're out of your mind!" Cloud exclaimed as quietly as he could. The last thing he needed was to be hit on by a drunken partygoer, or asked to dance. "You didn't tell me there'd be dancing," he added as he watched the couples whirling around in the cleared area. There was a five piece string quartet providing the music, mostly older ballroom dances.

"I didn't know there would be, but I guess it makes sense," Zack shrugged. "One more way to show us off, and something to do other than standing around talking. Why, you want to dance?" he grinned down at Cloud, who only just remembered in time not to scowl or punch his friend.

"Absolutely not!" he hissed back. "You take one step in that direction and I'll drive one of these heels right through your foot. I'm not making that much of an idiot out of myself."

"I was just kidding," Zack laughed, holding up his free hand in a gesture of surrender. "Let's grab some drinks and find somewhere for you to sit down."

Since Cloud had been about to ask for a chair, he nodded gratefully and followed after Zack as the older boy wound his way through the crowd to the refreshment table laid out to one side.

"Hey, Zack!" someone called from one side, and Zack turned and waved.

"Malcolm," Zack replied. "Good to see you, buddy. I didn't think you were going to be back in Midgar in time for this party."

"Neither did I," said the large black man who came up to them. His SOLDIER blues looked barely big enough to contain him, even though Cloud knew they must have been tailored for him the same way Zack's had been. With that much muscle he would have been scarily strong even without the mako enhancements; Cloud couldn't even imagine how powerful he must be now.

"We got reassigned to Junon, and since we had to pass so close to Midgar to get there the major said there was no reason we couldn't stop long enough to be at the party. Who's this?" Malcolm asked, looking down at Cloud in surprise. "Don't tell me you broke up with Aerith?"

"Nah, she's sick as a dog, so she convinced her friend to come with me so I wouldn't have to miss it," Zack lied easily as Cloud tried not to tense up beside him. It hadn't even occurred to him that the other SOLDIERs would know that Zack had a girlfriend or what she looked like.

"You lucky bastard, you get all the pretty ones," the big man said. "But hey, if you're not attached to this lout here," he jerked his thumb at Zack and raised an eyebrow at Cloud, who was blushing furiously at being called 'pretty', "maybe I should sweep you off your feet and rescue you?"

"Oh yeah? What would Tamieka have to say about that, I wonder?" Zack countered, raising an eyebrow at the other SOLDIER in turn. "I've met your girl, remember? You're braver than I am if you're willing to cross her. And I know she's gotta be here, you wouldn't have gotten in without her."

Laughing, Malcolm gave Zack a slap on the shoulder that would have sent Cloud flying. "I'm allowed to flirt, just not to touch. Though I gotta say, Aerith must trust you a hell of a lot to let you go out with such a pretty thing on your arm. At least tell me your name, sweetheart."

Cloud wasn't sure whether to flush more at being called 'sweetheart', or blanch because they hadn't even thought about someone asking for his name. Cloud wasn't exactly a common name, nor was it terribly feminine.

Once again Zack proved that he'd had far too much practice at talking his way out of trouble he'd gotten himself into, because he didn't even hesitate. "This is Skye, and she's pretty shy. Aerith and I had to beg and plead to get her to agree to come with me, she hates crowds. So ease up, before you scare her off!" Zack laughed. "I don't want to get chewed out by Aerith for not taking care of her friend."

Doing his best to look shy, Cloud edged a little closer to Zack and ducked his head. Malcolm chuckled. "I still say you've got all the luck. Have a good time, kid. I better get back to Tamieka before she starts wondering what else I'm getting besides drinks."

"Skye?" Cloud whispered the moment the man was out of earshot, glaring at Zack.

"It was the best I could think of on short notice!" Zack murmured back, but his poor attempt at an apology was further ruined by the laughter in his eyes. "Your name doesn't exactly have a feminine form."

Grumbling, Cloud decided it would be better to change the subject rather than risk someone overhearing. "They call you kid? I thought he was talking to me for a second."

"I'm eighteen," Zack said wryly. "Look around. If you spot another 1st Class under twenty, I'll buy your whole platoon drinks next time we're at the pub. I am a kid, to them." He made a move like he was going to ruffle Cloud's hair like he usually did, but thought better of it. "If you think the troops treat you like a kid, be glad you're not a SOLDIER. It's ten times as bad."

"Easy for you to say, you are one. I'd still rather be a kid SOLDIER than a kid trooper," Cloud said, biting back the bitterness that still rose every time he remembered the moment he'd seen his exam results. He shook it off quickly this time, not wanting to be distracted enough to slip up and reveal himself as a boy.

"So, what do you want to drink?" Zack asked as he surveyed the table. "Looks like most of it is alcoholic."

"No alcohol," Cloud said firmly. He couldn't even begin to contemplate how much of a bad idea that would be. "For either of us. We don't want you forgetting my name any more than we want me blurting something out."

"Probably a good idea," Zack agreed with a grimace. "Now let's just hope nobody spiked the cider."

They each took a glass of the cider and retreated from the crowd around the table, searching for somewhere Cloud would be able to sit down. The shoes were really starting to kill him, which Zack could probably tell by the way Cloud kept leaning more and more of his weight on the older boy's arm. There didn't seem to be anywhere to sit except at the tables, however.

"Maybe we should just find our table," Zack finally suggested, pulling his invitation out of his belt pouch to check it. "There are other people sitting already, though it's probably still half an hour until they bring the food out."

"I don't care about food, just about being able to walk tomorrow," Cloud said, struggling to keep his face blank so people wouldn't ask why he looked pained. "I have to stand guard duty tomorrow evening. That means I need to be able to stand."

"Shh, don't talk about things like that, someone might overhear," Zack hushed him, steering him towards the table they'd been assigned to. "Fourteen, fifteen... here we go. Looks like we've got it to ourselves for now." Zack found the little cards at the place settings that said 'Captain Zack & Guest', and pulled out Cloud's chair for him in a gallant gesture that earned him a snort of amusement from Cloud.

On the other hand, as Cloud quickly realized, he wouldn't have been able to sit properly and pull the chair in without that help. There was more to moving in a skirt than just walking, apparently. Who knew?

"Look, there's President Shinra," Zack said as he dropped into the chair next to Cloud, nodding at a table that had been raised above the others on a dais. "And the rest of the brass, looks like."

The president was easy enough to spot, he was a distinctive man and his picture was everywhere. Cloud ticked off the others in his head as he recognized them. Scarlet, Hojo, Heidigger of course, Palmer, a young-looking executive type Cloud didn't recognize, and a couple of empty chairs. Presumably one of those was for Sephiroth, though Cloud hadn't seen any sign of the general yet.

"Who's the dark-haired one on the end?" Cloud asked curiously. "That's not the president's son is it?"

"Dunno, haven't seen him before," Zack shrugged. "The president's son is blonde, I know that. Must be another department head that doesn't have much to do with the military."

"There are parts of Shinra that don't have much to do with the military?" Cloud asked, only partly joking. It might have started out as a simple electric company, but everyone knew that Shinra was the major world power now.

"A few, tucked away here and there," Zack said wryly. "Mostly to do with the reactors, I'd imagine. I don't think..." He glanced over Cloud's shoulder and his eyes widened. He nearly spilled his cider as he jumped to attention and saluted. "General Sephiroth, sir!"

A year's worth of training almost blew Cloud's cover right there as he moved to do the same. Only Zack's discreet kick in the ankle kept him in his chair, and his heart raced with how close he'd just come to revealing himself. He turned without standing and looked up, and suddenly his heart had a whole new reason to pound.

There he was, larger than life, the Silver General himself. He was a lot younger than Cloud had expected he would look, despite the shining silver fall of his hair. If he was out of his twenties Cloud would eat his boot polish. Considering how long ago the Wutai war had been, that was a little disturbing.

"As you were, captain. Congratulations on your promotion," Sephiroth said, and his voice was a deep rumble that seemed to sweep over Cloud like a Bolt spell. The air of quiet authority that he carried with him was almost overwhelming, and it wasn't hard to see why this man had been able to lead the Shinra forces to victory even at such a young age. He could have done it on sheer charisma alone.

"Thank you, sir," Zack replied. Was it Cloud's imagination, or did his friend sound a little breathless too? He'd have glanced over to check, but he couldn't tear his eyes off Sephiroth. Sephiroth. Standing right in front of him. It was like something out of his childhood fantasies... with the addition of the dress, of course. The only thing missing that would have made it perfect was if it had been Cloud who was being congratulated for making 1st Class.

For the moment, though, even that thought couldn't upset him. He was too caught up in the awe of meeting Sephiroth to care about the actual circumstances.

"Are you all right, miss?" Sephiroth was looking straight at him, but it still took Cloud a second to realize that the general was speaking to him.

"Ah... y-" A second, harder kick from Zack jolted him, and he coughed and tried to modulate his voice. "Yes, sir." The 'sir' was automatic, and Cloud didn't think he'd be able to not call the general that no matter how hard he tried. Well, hopefully Sephiroth would take it as a polite form of address by a young girl to her senior, rather than a trooper to his superior officer.

"She's kind of shy, and not all that happy that I managed to convince her to come with me, sir," Zack interjected smoothly. "And she's been listening to me go on at length about how much I admire you. You're a bit awe-inspiring sir, if it's not too forward of me to say so."

Cloud had lowered his eyes to his lap, where his hands were trembling even though he'd clenched them together. Awe-inspiring was a good word for it. Hero 'worship' took on a whole new level of meaning when Sephiroth was involved. He practically was a god; they certainly treated him like one, after he won the Wutai war for Shinra.

Praying his voice wouldn't betray him, but unwilling to let the opportunity go by without saying something to his hero, Cloud swallowed and lifted his eyes again. "It's an honour to meet you, sir," he said, and hopefully the breathiness in his voice would be enough to make it sound feminine.

For a heartbeat Sephiroth looked down at him, and Cloud could have sworn the man was seeing all the way down into his soul. Then the general nodded in acknowledgement and glanced away, and Cloud was released from the hypnotic effect of his glowing eyes. He remembered to breathe again, trying to do it quietly so he wouldn't look like quite as much of an idiot.

"I've been hearing good things from your commanding officers," Sephiroth was saying to Zack. "And of course it's impressive that you've made it to 1st Class so quickly."

"I'll do my best to make sure you keep getting good reports, sir," Zack replied, and he sounded like he was walking on air. Cloud couldn't blame him; getting compliments like that from General Sephiroth wasn't an everyday occurrence.

"I'll look forward to it, captain. I hope you enjoy the dinner. Miss." With another nod he turned to leave, and Zack saluted him briefly again.

The moment Sephiroth had moved past their table, Zack collapsed back into his seat as if his legs had given out on him. Cloud had turned to follow Sephiroth's path away from them, so he was facing his friend again. "Wow. That... he... gods... just... wow, Zack!"

"Yeah, I know," Zack agreed wholeheartedly to Cloud's incoherent babbling. "I've seen him up close a few times before when my unit was under his command, but he never stops being so... so... yeah."

Cloud felt flushed again, and when he put a shaking hand to his cheek he could feel the heat even through his thin gloves. He was acting like a schoolgirl with a crush which, while certainly helpful to his disguise, was not conducive to hiding his interest in men from Zack.

"So was it worth it?" Zack asked, looking at him. Not trusting his voice, Cloud just nodded silently. Had meeting the general been worth the embarrassment of dressing himself up like this? Hades, yes. Absolutely. The man was even more impressive up close.

"Now all we have to do is get through dinner, and then we can make our excuses and leave," Zack said cheerfully, relaxing as he began to recover from speaking with Sephiroth. "From what I hear, the food will be pretty damn good, too."

"It's got to be better than what they serve in the mess," Cloud murmured. "It's certainly guaranteed to be better than field rations!"

Even as he shushed Cloud, Zack was chuckling. "I told you, don't talk about stuff like that! But yeah, I swear you could eat dirt and it would be more appealing than the rations."

"Well, if I'm not supposed to talk about army stuff, what am I going to talk about?" Cloud shrugged slightly and looked down at his lap again. "We can't just sit here and stare at the walls."

"I suppose I could always flirt with you," Zack grinned, his eyes overly bright. Cloud kicked at him and missed, but Zack saw the movement and laughed. "You're so cute when you're ruffled. Maybe I should flirt with you. It'll certainly keep me entertained."

"Zack!" Cheeks flaming, Cloud glared at him. No, he did not want Zack flirting with him, mostly because it would only fan the stupid crush he had on his friend. The last thing he needed was more fodder for fantasies of Zack. Besides, having Zack flirt with him when he knew the older boy was just teasing would only hurt him by driving home the fact that it would never be real.

"Aw, you're no fun," Zack proclaimed. "Well, I suppose I could always regal you with tales of my heroics. That's the traditional thing for a SOLDIER to do when he's wooing a new girl, I'm pretty sure."

"Heroics my ass," Cloud snorted, lips twitching. "I was there for half of them, remember? It's no good telling tall tales to someone who knows the truth." Actually Zack had been pretty heroic on several occasions Cloud could think of, but he also knew his friend wasn't really the type to brag.

"Shot down again," Zack said mournfully, clutching a hand to his heart. "You're a hard lady to please." That earned him another kick, and this time Cloud connected enough to make the older boy wince. "Ow! Hey, wearing those heels should be classified as carrying concealed."

"Stop teasing me, and I'll stop kicking you," Cloud replied pleasantly. "Just because I'm wearing a dress doesn't mean my reactions to being teased have changed."

"You just don't want to... oops." Zack straightened a bit and looked over Cloud's shoulder. "Incoming. Looks like they're getting people to sit down, they must be serving dinner soon."

"Good," Cloud sighed, shifting and tugging at a part of his skirt that was caught beneath his legs. "It may have been worth it, but I really can't wait to get out of this damn dress."

As people made their way over and found their places at the table, Zack smiled and introduced himself and 'Skye' to all of them, and fielded curious questions about the SOLDIER program. The tables seemed to have been arranged so that there was one SOLDIER at each, along with several of the high society. Cloud was smiled at politely and then dismissed as 'just the girlfriend', which was more than okay with him. The less people talked to him, the less he'd have to talk to them in return.

The last glittering and bejewelled couple was just settling down at the table when a man in a dark suit came up and leaned over between Zack and Cloud. "Excuse me, sir," he said to Zack. "You've been requested to join the main table for dinner. Along with your guest, of course." His eyes flicked over Cloud in a look that made Cloud blush despite its brevity, even though Cloud couldn't quite figure out just what emotion had been in the man's eyes. It was the brief glimpse of a gun in a shoulder holster beneath the suit jacket that told him who, or rather what, this man was; a Turk.

"Us? With the brass?" Zack repeated, exchanging a wide-eyed glance with Cloud, and then looking up at the main table. A young blonde man who could only be Rufus Shinra was standing beside the empty chair on the president's right, arguing heatedly with his father. Sephiroth was just walking up the steps to the dais to take his place between Heidigger and the unknown executive. There was another Turk standing just behind the president's seat, offset to one side probably to make room for the one who'd come to fetch Zack and Cloud. Nobody seemed to be paying them much attention. "Are you sure you've got the right people?"

"Quite certain, sir," the man assured him.

"Well... sure, I guess so," Zack agreed uncertainly. Leaning in towards Cloud as he stood and offered the younger boy a hand out of his chair, he murmured, "Who knows, maybe Sephiroth wants to talk more to me. I'm sure as hell not going to say no. Right?"

"Definitely not," Cloud agreed, letting Zack help him up out of the chair. It took him a second to find his balance in the shoes again, and then he nodded and they followed after the Turk towards the high table.

Sephiroth had taken his seat now, but when he glanced at the two of them approaching his face registered mild surprise. Cloud swallowed, confused. If it wasn't Sephiroth who had invited them up, then who was it? Maybe this was a case of mistaken identities after all.

The president and his son were still arguing in heated whispers as they approached, but just before Cloud and Zack would have been in earshot the president made a chopping motion with his hand that caused his son to fall silent immediately. "Enough, Rufus," the man declared in a more normal tone of voice. "Don't think your new title as vice-president gives you any influence over my decisions. I'm still your father, and this is still my company."

"Yes, sir," the young man said stiffly, though Cloud could see he was still seething. He clung to Zack's arm as his friend paused, not sure whether they should continue or hang back to avoid being drawn into what was clearly a family argument.

In the next moment the president had turned his attention to them, clearly dismissing his son from his mind. He gave them a broad, jovial smile that made him look just like his portraits. "Well now! Don't you two make just the prettiest couple. It's my thought that since this is a bash intended to show off you SOLDIERs, I ought to have at least one of you up here for everyone to see. Other than Sephiroth, of course," he gave a big belly laugh that shook his whole body. "But everyone already knows his worth to Shinra and the world. You don't mind joining us, do you lieutenant...?"

Since the man seemed to be waiting for a name, Zack saluted him briefly and replied, "Zack, sir. Of course we don't mind, we'd be honoured. Right, Skye?" He glanced down at Cloud, who nodded fractionally and edged a little closer to Zack. This seemed a little strange, and it was starting to set in that he was about to have dinner with a group of people who, if any of them realized he was a boy, could very well destroy his entire career.

He noticed that Zack hadn't corrected the man about his rank, either. Well, nobody in their right mind argued with President Shinra. Except his son, apparently, who was still standing behind his chair and radiating disapproval at his father. Cloud wondered what in the name of the Ancients the man found so heinous about his father inviting them to sit at the main table. Surely it had something to do with this, it was too much of a coincidence otherwise. Was he that much of a snob?

"Rufus, my boy," the president was continuing, "Why don't you go take their place at the table? Can't deprive our guests of their chance to get a taste of Shinra's elite entirely, can we? I'm sure you'll be an acceptable substitute." His tone was cheerful, but there was an edge of warning in his voice that clearly made his words a command.

Rufus bowed slightly, and released the death grip he'd had on the back of his chair. "Of course, father," he said politely, and none of the anger in his eyes was evident in his voice. Turning, he made his way back along the dais behind the table to the steps at the side.

"I guess we still need another free spot, don't we?" the president said, eying his executives. "Reeve, why don't you go with Rufus, they're all foreigners and they'll probably be full of questions about Midgar's reactors and plate system. And that way Jack... no, sorry, Zack... can sit next to Sephiroth, hey?"

"Of course, sir," the dark-haired executive agreed at once, standing and shoving back his chair. He let Rufus go by and then fell in behind the young blonde. Zack and Cloud moved towards the steps, and as they passed Reeve gave them both an apologetic look that Cloud didn't understand. Moreover, the glance Rufus flicked over him wasn't the haughty disdain he'd expected, but rather a faint look of pity.

Then they were gone, moving towards the table Zack and Cloud had just vacated. Cloud was forced to lean on Zack's arm for balance as they walked up the narrow steps, grateful it was wide enough for them to walk abreast.

Pausing at the chair Reeve had left, Zack pulled it out and then looked uncertainly up the line of people. Cloud had expected everyone would shift to give him a place to sit next to Zack, but the president was smiling and beckoning him. "No point in forcing everyone to move, and I'm more than happy to have a pretty girl on each side," the man said, glancing briefly at Scarlet on his other side and then gesturing again at Rufus' abandoned seat. "Come on, don't be shy. I don't bite."

He laughed as if that was a joke he'd just come up with, and Heidigger, Palmer and Scarlet all laughed with him. Sephiroth's face had gone completely blank, a polite mask as if he were standing at inspection, and Hojo seemed to be ignoring the entire proceedings. Cloud glanced at Zack, who shrugged helplessly. What could they do? Nobody said 'no' to the president.

Hesitantly Cloud made his way up to the empty place setting, and another of the wait staff came up to hold it and push it in for him as he sat down. He thanked the man softly, turning nervous eyes on the president and wondering what he was supposed to do now.

"Well? What are we waiting for?" the president asked, clapping his hands. "Let's eat."

Servants began bringing out the dishes of the banquet, serving the head table first and then fanning out through the rest of the room. Cloud watched with his heart in his throat as a waiter placed a bowl of soup in front of him, and he was suddenly painfully aware that there was a lot more silverware on the table than he had any idea what to do with. He was just a backwater mountain boy! He hadn't really been too worried about it when they'd just been down at their assigned table, but now he was sitting next to the man who arguably ran the entire world.

"Dig in now, don't be shy dear," the president encouraged him, picking up the outermost spoon and slurping up a mouthful of the soup. Glancing surreptitiously to the side, Cloud saw that the others had all taken the same spoon, so that was the one he chose as well.

The first sip of the soup actually startled him into speaking, though thankfully some instinct reminded him to try to sound feminine. "It's cold!"

Laughing, the president leaned back in his chair and slapped his knee as if Cloud had said something hilarious. "Bless your heart, dear, of course it is. Never been to a formal banquet before, hmm? That's alright, don't you fret a bit. You just follow my lead, and I'll take good care of you."

There was something about the smile he gave Cloud then that made the boy nervous, though he couldn't have said what it was exactly to save his life. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, going back to sipping more cautiously at his soup. It was kind of weird, eating cold soup. He couldn't imagine why anybody would want to, but nobody else was complaining about the temperature.

As the courses went on, the president continued to chat with Cloud and encourage him to relax. It had exactly the opposite effect, as Cloud's shoulders grew more and more tense and the strain started to give him a headache. He kept glancing over at Zack, who seemed happy enough talking quietly with Sephiroth. Every time he saw the barely contained excitement on his friend's face, Cloud once again resolved not to let his discomfort ruin what was surely a once in a lifetime opportunity for Zack. And so he continued to listen to the president, nodding whenever the man paused for breath and trying to look like he was vaguely interested.

He wasn't, really. Whatever he'd expected the president of Shinra to be like, this wasn't it. The man was a braggart, to put it mildly. All he could seem to talk about was the important decisions that he made, the way he'd changed the world, and how luxurious everything in his life was. Cloud's 'shyness' didn't seem to deter him in the least; if anything, Cloud would have had a hard time of it if he had been inclined to talk much, as the man rarely seemed to take a pause for breath.

The president had a tendency to make expansive gestures with his hands as he talked, and he kept leaning a little closer to Cloud each time he bent over to share some 'secret' in a whisper than surely reached the back of the room. Even so, it wasn't until some time during one of the subtlety courses, when the man casually draped his hand over Cloud's shoulder and squeezed, that Cloud finally clued in to what was going on.

The moment he realized that the president was trying to seduce him, Cloud could have just melted and died of embarrassment. His cheeks flamed and he hastily leaned forward, both to get out from under the man's hand and to reach for his wine glass. There hadn't been any beverages provided except the wine, and Cloud had been too intimidated to ask for anything else. Until now he hadn't touched his glass despite the president repeatedly urging him to try it, but he needed the distraction.

What the hell was he supposed to do now? He'd been a little concerned about a drunken party-goer hitting on him, but he'd never in his wildest dreams imagined that it would be the president of Shinra. He took a couple of quick gulps of the wine just to wet his dry throat. It was every bit as good as the president had been promising, but Cloud wasn't really interested in the quality of it.

He jumped as the hand descended onto his shoulder again, and had to struggle to hide his nervousness as he looked over at the president. "Here now, you're too tense," the president declared, kneading his meaty hand on Cloud's shoulder. His thumb kept trailing down over Cloud's collar bone, and his fingers drifted along Cloud's spine in a way that made him shiver. It wasn't a positive reaction, more like a shudder of disgust, but the man seemed to take it as encouragement. He leaned in even closer, until his alcohol-laden breath washed over Cloud's face and it took an effort not to wrinkle his nose.

"A pretty girl like you deserves to get to enjoy these sorts of things, don't you think?" he asked, and now Cloud was far too aware that the expression on his face was nothing short of a leer. "Wouldn't you like to be able to wear nice dresses and have fancy food all the time?"

As offers went it was more than just clumsy, and Cloud had to wonder if this approach had ever actually worked for the man before. Well, Odin only knew the man wasn't likely to attract anyone with his appearance or sparkling personality, but he was very, very rich. There probably were plenty of girls who would line up to throw themselves at him just for a chance to earn a few pretties or live in the lap of luxury for a while.

Even if he had been a girl, though, Cloud wasn't one of them. And he very much doubted the president would be pleased to realize the pretty 'girl' he was trying to seduce was actually a private in his army. There was just one small problem. As he'd already reminded himself tonight, nobody in their right mind said 'no' to the president.

"Actually, I don't think it's really my sort of thing," he said cautiously, edging away. That put him closer to Heidigger, who was nearly as repulsive as the president, but at least Heidigger was just watching the proceedings with a smirk rather than trying to actively seduce Cloud.

The movement got the president's hand away from his shoulder and neck, but rather than withdrawing it this time the man just trailed it down over Cloud's arm, his fingers playing with the stretch of bare skin between the sleeve and glove. "Well now, I expect that's just because you've never had much chance to get accustomed to it. I've never yet met a girl who didn't love all the parties and baubles and pretties. Hmm?"

Either the man was lying, oblivious, or just had no exposure to women outside of the high society money-grubbers and gold-diggers that attended this sort of party. Cloud could think of a couple of women just off the top of his head who would probably be no more interested in the man's offer than he was. Tifa, for one, and Zack's girlfriend Aerith for another.

Shuddering again, Cloud forced himself to sit still and not jerk away from the touch on his arm. If he angered or offended the man there was no telling what he might do, especially considering how drunk he was. Now Cloud finally understood the looks that Rufus and Reeve had given him as they passed; they must have known what the president had planned. Hades, everyone at the table must have known.

For that matter, Sephiroth had done a pretty good job of keeping Zack distracted. Surely he couldn't be helping the president seduce the 'girlfriend' of one of his own men? Flicking a glance in Zack's direction, Cloud saw the older boy was looking at the president's hand on Cloud's arm with an ugly expression on his face. If Sephiroth was still trying to distract him then he was failing; Zack had noticed, and Zack was Not Happy.

Unfortunately, there also wasn't much Zack could do about it without throwing his entire career away. President Shinra had ultimate authority over everyone in his army, and that included the SOLDIERs. If Cloud upset him or Zack pissed him off, he could ruin Zack's whole life with a snap of his fingers.

"You're far too beautiful to be wasted out among the masses," the president told him in what was probably supposed to be a compliment. "You deserve to be pampered and happy. I can make you very happy... if you'd do the same for me."

"I... I don't think..." Cloud's voice was husky with nerves, which at least helped cover the repulsion that crept in despite his best attempts to remain neutral. He chose his words very carefully. "I don't really think I could be worthy of that sort of, er, pampering. Sir." The president withdrew his hand, and Cloud breathed an internal sigh of relief. Maybe the man was finally getting the signal that Cloud wasn't interested. "But I'm sure there are plenty of women who would eep!"

Cloud actually yelped quietly and jerked in his seat as he felt the wandering hand return; on his thigh this time, stroking his leg and rubbing the soft material of the skirt against his skin. Blanching, Cloud froze in his seat and took tiny, shallow little breaths, afraid to move any more than that lest the man take it as encouragement. The president was inching upwards with each pass of his hand, and if he got much higher then Cloud was going to be in a very large amount of trouble. He threw a desperate look at Zack, pleading 'help me!' with his eyes.

The growl Zack made was probably audible all the way over where Hojo was sitting at the opposite end of the table. If the whiteness of his knuckles was any indication, the fork he had his fist clenched around was never going to be useable again. He started up out of his chair, the mako glow in his violet eyes blazing hotter than Cloud had ever seen it before. "Sir..."

With a look and a brief touch on his arm, Sephiroth stopped Zack from rising any further or saying anything more. Cloud felt sick to his stomach and wondered if the man who had been his hero since he was old enough to walk really was condoning this whole mess.

When Sephiroth turned towards them, however, the polite mask he'd schooled his face into was ruined somewhat by the anger and disgust that showed in his fierce green eyes. "Upon reflection, Mr. President, I do believe you were right after all."

"Right?" The president blinked and looked up at Sephiroth, his hand - thank all the gods that were ever summoned! - stilling on Cloud's thigh still an inch or two from his groin. He seemed to be having trouble shifting mental tracks. "What's that, Sephiroth?"

"As the head of the SOLDIERs here, I should be participating more in the... festivities." Sephiroth said the word like it offended him, but he was obviously making an attempt to placate the president.

"Ah, you're going to dance after all?" the president exclaimed, and Cloud's eyes widened. Sephiroth? Dancing? It just... didn't really compute. He could picture the man doing a blade dance in the Wutai style of combat, but that was about as close as he could get to imagining General Sephiroth dancing.

"It's only fitting that I provide an example for the men," Sephiroth said, tilting his head slightly in acknowledgement. "However, since I am the only SOLDIER who was not required to bring a guest to accompany me... captain, do you mind if I borrow your date for a few minutes?"

Finally realizing exactly what Sephiroth was up to, it was all Cloud could do not to audibly gasp in relief. Zack looked a little dazed, but he shook his head. "No, of course not, sir. If Skye doesn't mind."

"I don't mind!" Cloud blurted out, trying hard not to sound too eager so he wouldn't offend the president. Forget about his earlier statement to Zack that there was no way he was going out on the dance floor; there were worse evils than making an idiot of himself dancing.

Sephiroth stood and took a step past Heidigger to offer Cloud his hand, and Cloud accepted it gratefully and allowed the general to lift him to his feet. The president squeezed his thigh one last time as Cloud stood, and Cloud was grateful the man couldn't see his expression because he couldn't hide his brief flash of disgust and horror.

The president seemed disgruntled, but uncertain how to turn the situation back to his advantage. It was clear that while he officially held Sephiroth's leash, even President Shinra didn't want to cross the Silver General. Now if only he wouldn't lash out at Zack because he'd been thwarted in getting what he so obviously wanted.

"Don't worry," Sephiroth murmured as he led Cloud back down off the dais. Zack reached out and touched Cloud's hand briefly in a silent apology as they passed, and Cloud squeezed his hand back quickly. "I'll make certain there are no reprisals against your boyfriend. I apologize that you had to suffer through that."

"That's okay, sir," Cloud said, his voice shaking with relief. It wasn't hard at all to make it higher and breathier than normal. "I'm just thankful that you rescued me."

Raising an eyebrow, Sephiroth looked down at him. "I only require the men under my command to call me 'sir' at every turn," he said. His voice was almost bland, only faintly amused, but for a panicked moment Cloud wondered if somehow Sephiroth had seen right through him after all.

Then reason reasserted itself. If the general had realized he was a boy, then the president's unwanted attentions would have been the least of Cloud's worries. Obviously Sephiroth had no idea. "I guess it's just that Zack calls you that all the time," he said by way of apology. His hand tightened on the general's arm as they reached the dance floor, and he realized he had a whole new problem. "Um. Si-Sephiroth?" he corrected himself, his voice hardly more than a nervous squeak. "I, uh, don't actually know how to dance."

"It's not a favoured pastime of mine, either, but it's not difficult," Sephiroth assured him quietly. "Just follow my lead."

Nodding, Cloud tried to get his heart to stop pounding so hard he could hear the blood rushing in his ears. Sephiroth turned to face him and took one of his hands, placing the other on his waist. Vaguely remembering the way he'd seen other people do this, Cloud put his other hand on the general's shoulder, though he had to reach up to do it. He'd known Sephiroth was tall, but Cloud barely came up to the shoulder plates on his trademark jacket.

The strings swung into a new melody, and Sephiroth swept him up into the dance. Not quite literally 'sweeping him off his feet', but close. It was a simple enough dance, just a basic waltz, but Cloud concentrated on it fiercely in an effort not to misstep. The last thing he wanted to do was tread on Sephiroth's feet. The height difference made it a bit difficult, but after they'd completed several turns without mishap Cloud slowly started to relax.

Feeling distinctly surreal, he finally decided to just enjoy himself. He could say with a fair amount of certainty that he would never have this opportunity again, so he might as well make the most of it. Up close, he could smell Sephiroth's sharp scent and feel the silky strands of silver hair that sometimes swirled around him on the turns. How many people had ever gotten this close to the general? Not many, he was willing to bet.

This was going to fuel his fantasies for quite some time to come, Cloud realized, but he just couldn't bring himself to be embarrassed by it. Not yet; he was too entranced with the fact that it was happening at all. Thoughts of the president and worries about people realizing he wasn't a girl faded into the background.

It seemed to last forever, and yet when the music wound down and Sephiroth brought them to a halt, it felt as through barely a minute had passed. Cloud was startled to realize that he was flushed and out of breath, and he pressed a hand over his heart to try to keep it from thudding right out of his ribcage as Sephiroth bowed slightly to him.

"As pleasant as that was, I believe you have another claim on your time," the general said, and turned to one side. Cloud followed his gaze, and for the first time realized that Zack was standing right beside them, watching them with the same bemused look he'd had when he first saw Cloud in the dress.

"If you don't mind me cutting in, sir," Zack quipped, flashing the general a brief salute.

"On the contrary, captain. My thanks for letting me steal her away." Sephiroth nodded to acknowledge the salute, and Zack stepped forward to take Cloud's hand as the general backed away.

"A word to the wary, captain," Cloud heard Sephiroth murmur softly to Zack as they passed. "By tomorrow he'll have moved on to the next conquest, but don't let her out of your sight tonight."

"Understood, sir," Zack replied just as quietly, and then Sephiroth had moved on into the crowd and left them together in one corner of the dance floor.

"Your feet up to another dance?" Zack asked him, looking down at Cloud in concern. "He's still watching, I figured it might be a good idea to assert my claim or something." He smiled when Cloud wasn't able to find his voice immediately, and waved his hand in front of the younger boy's face. "Mission control to... Skye. You still in there? Or should I just leave you to your blissful memories? You looked like you were having fun out there."

There was a faint edge in Zack's voice that startled Cloud. On the surface Zack's tone and expression were the same as they always were when he was teasing Cloud, but... something was different. A sharp pang of fear went through Cloud as it occurred to him to wonder just how much his expression might have given away about the way 'hero worship' was virtually synonymous with 'crush' for Cloud where Sephiroth was concerned. Was Zack upset to realize that his best friend might not be entirely straight?

"I can dance," Cloud said uncertainly, not sure if it wouldn't be better to just leave before this night blew up in his face any more than it already had. "The music is slower now."

"Yeah, dinner's mostly over so they're playing the slow dances now," Zack agreed, moving to take Cloud into his arms. It wasn't the same as the formal waltz position Sephiroth had taken; Zack had one hand between Cloud's shoulder blades and the other at the small of his back, and Cloud had a choice between wrapping his arms around the older boy's neck or waist. He chose the neck, and the position left them with a bare few inches between their bodies as Zack started to move them in slow swaying circles.

The heels left Cloud only a few inches shorter than Zack. They should have been more or less face-to-face, but Cloud couldn't bring himself to look any higher than the hollow of Zack's throat. He could feel that his face was still flushed, and Zack's silence was making him increasingly nervous.

"Zack?" he finally worked up the nerve to ask. At almost the same moment, Zack sighed and said, "I'm sorry." Cloud was startled into looking up, and they were left staring at each other for a long moment before Zack shook his head. To Cloud's surprise, the older boy shifted his hand up from Cloud's shoulders to the base of his skull, and urged Cloud to lay his cheek on Zack's shoulder.

An illicit thrill ran through Cloud at the closer contact, and he shivered. He realized the reason for it a moment later when Zack ducked his head and murmured almost directly into his ear. "When I realized what that bastard was up to, it was all I could do not to jump up and punch him. Instead I just sat there like an idiot. I'm sorry, I should have done something sooner."

"What could you have done?" Cloud shrugged, the motion rubbing his shoulders against Zack's chest. His words were whispered into the bend where Zack's neck met his shoulder, and travelled no farther than Zack's voice had. There was no way anybody could overhear them. It meant they didn't have to guard their words, and Cloud didn't have to force his voice higher. "He's the president, Zack. If you'd done anything, he could have ruined you with hardly a thought."

"Still, damn it. I should have... I don't know. Glared him into submission." Zack sounded frustrated, and Cloud could feel the tension in his friend's shoulders beneath his cheek. Zack's fingers threaded absently through Cloud's hair at his neck, making him shiver again.

"It's okay," he assured the older boy. "It wasn't so bad for most of it, just uncomfortable and nerve-wracking. It was only at the end..." he shuddered at the memory and turned his face more into Zack's shoulder.

"What'd he do, anyway?" Zack asked, fingertips rubbing soothingly at Cloud's neck. "I saw the way you jumped, and you sounded like he'd pinched you or something."

Cloud could feel his face getting hot again, and he sighed. He'd blushed more tonight than he usually did in a month. Well, at least it helped his disguise. "He was just... getting a little too close to the truth," he muttered. "Literally."

"He what?" Cloud nearly tripped when Zack stopped moving abruptly, his body gone rigid as he pulled back far enough to look down at Cloud. The look in the older boy's eyes was fury and outrage, mixed with protectiveness and something Cloud almost wanted to call possessiveness. "That son of a bitch," Zack swore, quietly but fervently, glaring at the table where the president was now laughing with Heidigger. "I swear to Bahamut, president or not I am going to rip him a new one..."

"Zack!" Scared his friend was actually serious, Cloud clung to him and kept him from turning and walking off the dance floor. "Zack, stop, it's not that big a deal. Zack! Listen to me!" Cloud shook him, and that at least got the older boy looking at him again instead of the main table. "Contrary to current appearances, I am not actually a helpless girl in need of protecting, remember? I'm fine, everything is okay, and it is not worth your career! It was repulsive, but he didn't actually touch anything worse than my thigh. Sephiroth stopped it before anything really awful happened."

Surprisingly, that earned him a sour look from Zack. "Yeah, he's a real life hero," Zack muttered, and tugged Cloud close again before the blonde could think of anything to say to that oddly bitter statement. "Look, thinking about it is just making me more angry. Let's drop it, okay?"

"Yeah, sure," Cloud agreed, wondering what in the world was going through the older boy's head. There were times, plenty of them, when Cloud wondered about the sanity of Zack's thought processes, but he'd never been left quite this baffled.

So they danced in silence for a while, bodies swaying to the music as Cloud let Zack lead them around the dance floor. They'd darkened the room, leaving the atmosphere as intimate as was possible in a room with several hundred people in it.

Dancing with Sephiroth had been thrilling, but dancing with Zack was exhilarating in an entirely different way. Sephiroth was like a falling star, bright enough to burn if you tried to touch him but fascinating to be close to. Distant, untouchable, even when he had Cloud in his arms. Zack was his best friend, familiar and comfortable, and yet what they were doing now was anything but familiar or comfortable. They'd been this close before, but only momentarily while Zack ruffled his hair or slung an arm over his shoulders.

Closing his eyes, Cloud put his head on Zack's shoulder again, waiting for the older boy to tense or pull away. Instead Zack shifted so he was holding Cloud the same way he had been when they started. Even if it was just for appearances, it was more than Cloud had ever hoped for and more than he knew he'd ever get again.

Far too soon, Zack stopped moving as the music changed to a new song. "We should get the hell out of here," he murmured in Cloud's ear. He didn't immediately move to pull away, though, so Cloud didn't let go yet. He was reluctant for the moment to end, despite the near-disaster the night had been.

Gentle fingers threaded through his hair again, tracing his cheek, and when Zack chuckled the sound rumbled beneath Cloud's ear. "Hey, you didn't fall asleep on me, did you?"

"No, I'm awake," Cloud said, clearing his throat when his voice came out husky. "Yeah, we should probably go." Repressing a sigh, he pulled away and turned to walk off the dance floor.

It was a good thing Zack was still holding him by one hand, because that and the older boy's SOLDIER reflexes let him catch Cloud when he stumbled and nearly fell. Hissing in pain, Cloud leaned against Zack as his state of entranced contentment broke and he realized just how badly his feet were hurting. "Shit! Damn it!" It was all he could do to keep his voice from carrying farther than Zack. Seeing his friend's worried look, he elaborated, "The shoes."

"Oh." Zack winced in sympathy. "Yeah, I guess one dance would have been enough. I should've stopped a while ago. Can you walk?"

"Yeah, I think so," Cloud gritted out through clenched teeth. He'd deliberately blocked out the pain in his feet, because he hadn't wanted to be distracted from dancing with first Sephiroth, then Zack. Now that he'd been reminded of it, though, it was all slamming home at once. "Help me?"

Slipping an arm around Cloud's waist, Zack did his best to support him without making it look like he was actually carrying the younger boy. "Just get to the door, you can take them off once we're out in the hallway," he whispered, and Cloud nodded.

Their bodies brushed with every halting step, hips bumping together in a way that did nothing to help Cloud calm himself. He would have wondered if someone had been stupid enough to turn on the heat in a room with this many people in it, except he knew the heat was entirely internal. Oh yes, this night was going to stay with him in his dreams for a long time to come.

He didn't see Sephiroth again before they reached the door, and there was no way Cloud was looking back at the main table to see if the general had returned to his seat. With his luck, the president would think Cloud was looking for him.

"I can't believe the president picked me out of every girl in the room to hit on," Cloud muttered as they finally passed through the door. "He's got lousy taste in women."

"I dunno," Zack said, giving Cloud that bemused look again. "You do remember what you looked like in the mirror, right? I'd say he's got pretty good taste."

The words shouldn't have made Cloud as pleased as they did. He flushed and said nothing, not trusting his voice. Once they'd turned the first corner, they paused long enough for Cloud to slip the horribly restricting shoes off. He tried a couple of experimental steps, and Zack had to catch him again when he wobbled.

"No good?" Zack asked sympathetically.

"It's better without the shoes, but I think it's going to take a while for them to stop throbbing," Cloud sighed. Zack nodded and wrapped his arm around Cloud's waist again, wordlessly offering his continued support. They started moving again, and Cloud tried to act like it was only pain that made him lean his weight into Zack's solid body.

He heard the quiet footsteps behind them, but he didn't think much of it. Partygoers had been trickling out of the room in couples and small groups, and most of the SOLDIERs would be headed back the same way they were going. It wasn't until he realized how tense Zack had gotten that Cloud started to look around to see who was following them.

"Don't," Zack said before Cloud could twist around to see over his shoulder. He kept his voice low, and his eyes were intense. "Don't look. Just be ready to move if you need to."

Not sure just what the hell was going on, but more than willing to trust Zack's greater experience, Cloud nodded slightly and shifted his weight so Zack would be able to break away quickly if he needed to. It still looked like Zack was hampered by Cloud's weight, but in truth Cloud was hardly leaning on him at all. It meant his feet were screaming at him in agony, but he shoved the pain to the back of his mind the way he'd learned to do any time he was injured during combat.

The steps behind them didn't speed up or change at all, but a moment later they turned a corner to find the hall blocked by three men in dark suits. Turks, Cloud realized with a thrill of fear. "Something wrong, gentlemen?" Zack asked them with an easy smile, casual and uncaring. "Are you lost? These are the SOLDIER quarters."

"Just here to issue an invitation to the lady," the dark-haired man who seemed to be in charge said, his tone equally casual. "The president has requested your presence, ma'am."

"I'm really kind of tired," Cloud dissembled, his body slowly tensing as he prepared to dodge if necessary. There was no way he was up to taking a Turk one-on-one, let alone a group of them, but all he really needed to do was keep himself in one piece long enough for Zack to deal with them. Smart money was on a Turk against a trooper any day, but a SOLDIER 3rd Class could wipe the floor with a Turk. For a 1st Class like Zack, not even a group would be enough to keep him down for long.

"Don't worry, I'm sure he won't keep you too long," the Turk replied, while someone behind them snickered. More Turks, Cloud was sure. They tended to work either alone or with each other, not with others.

"I'd really rather not," Cloud said, keeping his hands loose at his sides so they hopefully wouldn't realize he was ready to fight. Zack still looked casual, one hand in the pocket of his dress blues, leaning his weight on one hip and looking about as far from ready to fight as he could be. Cloud had trained with him often enough to know how deceptive that stance was, how fast a SOLDIER could go from relaxed to battle-ready, but if they were lucky the Turks wouldn't be as knowledgeable.

"Perhaps I was not quite clear," the Turk said. His tone was still pleasant, but behind him the other two had snapped open their emag rods, the favoured close-in weapon of the Turks. "The president has issued an invitation. Trust me when I say you don't want it to become an order. Why don't you be a good girl and come with us?"

"The lady said she doesn't want to go," Zack said. He didn't have a weapon, but it didn't seem to concern him in the least that the Turks did. Cloud heard the hum of electricity from behind them, and someone cracked their knuckles. There were at least two more in the rear, possibly three.

"I'm not in the least concerned with your opinion on the matter, SOLDIER boy," the Turk said dismissively. "Why don't you move along and stop interfering, and you'll be allowed to keep that shiny new promotion of yours."

Glancing at Zack, Cloud caught his eye just long enough for Zack to grin at him and tip his head slightly to the back. He wanted Cloud to take the ones behind, then, while he would go after the three in front. Cloud nodded back just as slightly, and Zack's grin widened.

"Sounds like we've got a bit of a problem, then," Zack said. "Now, five Turks against one unarmed SOLDIER and his girl might seem like good odds to you boys, but maybe you ought to take a step back and remind yourselves that I'm 1st Class at my age for a reason, hmm?"

"This is the last time I'm going to ask nicely," the Turk replied. "Step aside, and let the lady come with us to keep her appointment."

There was a hushed rustle from behind them, and Cloud knew the Turks weren't planning to wait for their answer this time. Zack shifted his weight and kicked back at the man coming up behind him, then lunged for the three in front. Cloud spun, trusting Zack not to let anything through to hit him from the back, and he had a split second to evaluate the situation behind them. The man Zack had kicked was staggered and cursing, but he wouldn't be out of the fight for long. The other, a woman, started forward with her emag rod raised.

For lack of any other weapon, Cloud flung one of his shoes at her face. It startled her into backing up and raising her rod to block any further attacks to the head, leaving her torso momentarily open. Cloud took the opportunity, driving in with all his weight behind a punch to her solar-plexus. She coughed and doubled over, fighting for air, and he followed it up with a hard chop downward to her neck. He didn't have a lot of hand-to-hand training, but as a member of the sword corps he at least knew how to handle a close-quarters fight.

The female Turk collapsed, dropping her emag rod in the process. Judging she was out of the fight at least for the moment, Cloud turned to try to find the man Zack had kicked.

He was just a little too slow, or the man had recovered faster than Cloud had expected. A hard body hit him from behind and the Turk grabbed his right wrist, wrenching it up behind Cloud's back in a way that made his shoulder scream. Cloud started to struggle, but froze when the Turk laid his emag rod against Cloud's throat in warning. At the moment it was just an ordinary metal baton, but with a flick of one finger the man could trigger a deadly current.

With a tug on Cloud's arm the Turk urged him to stand straight and turn to face the rest of the fight, and Cloud didn't resist. The man could break his arm almost as easily as he could kill him, and Cloud's desire not to have to go to the infirmary in a dress was only a bit less than his desire not to have to go to the morgue. He was sweating, as much from the fear that the Turk would realize he wasn't a girl as from fear of physical pain.

Zack had already wiped out two of the Turks, and was closing on the last one as Cloud looked. The Turk was slashing and stabbing with his rod at full strength, and Cloud could smell the burned ozone even from where he was standing, but Zack dodged it with the careless grace that was the trademark of all SOLDIERs. He moved more like he was dancing than fighting, ducking and weaving until he saw an opening and then darting in with the speed of a striking snake.

There was a sick crunching noise as Zack's kick connected with the man's ribs, and the last of the three went down. "Freeze!" shouted the one holding Cloud, jerking upwards on his arm and wringing a small pained noise out of him.

Never one to blindly obey orders, Zack turned and took a step towards them with his fists up before he actually registered the position Cloud was in. He froze as ordered, his eyes glowing with mako and rage, glaring over Cloud's shoulder at the Turk. "If you know what's good for you, you'll let go right now," Zack said, his voice low and menacing.

"Move and I'll shock her," the Turk said, and he sounded nervous.

"No you won't," Zack said with certainty. "Shinra wants her, and he won't want her dead or with a broken arm. Plus, if you kill her, you've lost your hostage and then I'll really be mad. Let go, and get the fuck out of here."

"I don't have to kill her, I can just hurt her," the man threatened, backing up slowly and forcing Cloud to go with him. "A few electrical burn marks here and there won't upset the president. But it'll sure hurt like a bitch."

Unseen by the Turk, Cloud's left hand tightened around his other shoe. He'd never dropped it, having had the lesson 'never ever drop your weapons' drilled into him quite a while ago. As weapons went it wasn't much; he wouldn't be able to throw it in the man's face as a distraction like he had the first time, because as soon as he lifted his arm he'd get shocked.

On the other hand, those heels could practically qualify as a stabbing weapon. Shifting his grip slowly so the movement wouldn't be noticed, Cloud looked up and met Zack's eyes. The older boy clearly had no idea what Cloud was planning, but he nodded slightly to show he was ready when Cloud made his move.

It was an awkward angle, but Cloud put as much strength behind the thrust as he could, jabbing backwards with the heel of the shoe at about waist height. He missed the groin but the heel gouged the hell out of the Turk's thigh and made him curse and jump back in reflex.

That moved his emag rod away from Cloud's throat just enough that Zack felt secure in attacking. In a motion so fast it was almost a blur the SOLDIER snatched the rod out of the Turk's hand, broke his wrist in the process, and slammed the rod into the man's chest. A flick of a switch turned the current on, and the Turk's body convulsed. When Zack pulled away again the Turk dropped to the ground, dead or unconscious.

Cloud hoped it was the latter; if they'd actually killed anyone, Zack could be in quite a lot of trouble. "Are they dead?" he gasped, as the adrenalin faded from his system and shock started to set in.

"No," Zack shook his head wearily, and turned to pull Cloud into a tight hug. "I don't believe you," the older boy laughed into Cloud's hair. "You hit him with your shoe? You are something else."

Then Zack pulled back just far enough to let him lean down to Cloud, and kissed him. Not a brush of his lips over Cloud's cheek or even mouth, either. It was a full blown, all out kiss like nothing Cloud had ever experienced before.

Dazed and reeling under the sudden unexpected onslaught of sensation, Cloud clung to Zack's shoulders and tried to figure out what he was supposed to do. He couldn't quite process the idea that Zack was kissing him.

Thankfully Cloud's body seemed to know how to respond, even if his mind didn't. He lifted up on tiptoe and opened his mouth, letting Zack slip his tongue inside to touch him in ways that made his whole body shiver. It was so far beyond the occasional fantasy Cloud had allowed himself to indulge in that it blew him away.

A tiny, needy sound escaped him as he pressed up a little closer to Zack. The motion caused the whole front of their bodies to brush against each other, and Cloud shuddered as he felt Zack's cock hard and solid against his hip.

Whether it was the sound or the motion, something seemed to jerk Zack back to reality and he pulled away abruptly. "Sorry!" the older boy exclaimed, his cheeks flushed a bright pink and his eyes brighter than the mako could account for. He kept a hand on Cloud's shoulder just long enough to be sure the blonde wouldn't topple over at the sudden loss of support, then drew back all the way to the other side of the hall.

"I'm sorry," Zack apologized again, not meeting Cloud's eyes. "I shouldn't have... I wasn't thinking. I'm sorry. I just... it won't happen again."

Leaning back against the wall behind him for fear that his knees might be too weak to support his full weight, Cloud stared at his best friend with a dazed look. "Huh?" he asked intelligently.

Still not looking at him, Zack shook his head and bent to grab the shoe Cloud had thrown at the female Turk. "Come on, some of them are going to wake up soon and I want to be back in my room before that happens. They won't dare actually break down the door of a 1st Class, every SOLDIER in the hall would come pouring out to beat the shit out of them."

"But..." Whatever Cloud might have said when he finally managed to gather his wits was lost as Zack started walking down the hall, leaving Cloud to follow on his own. Still trying to figure out exactly what had just happened, Cloud limped after his friend with the other shoe still clutched in his hand.

"Zack, wait!" he said, exasperated when the older boy didn't even look back or slow his pace at all. "Damn it," Cloud muttered under his breath, and moved to run to catch up. He nearly tripped on the first step as his skirt tangled in his legs, and he cursed and gathered it into his other hand to let him move more freely.

That in itself served as a sobering reminder, however. Was it possible Zack had gotten caught up in the whole deception and actually forgotten, just for a moment, that Cloud wasn't a girl?

The thought made him feel sick to his stomach. That kiss had been everything Cloud had ever dreamed of, but if it had only happened because Zack was thinking of him as a girl then somehow the whole thing felt... cheapened. It wasn't really him that Zack had been kissing, just the pretty girl Cloud looked like at the moment.

That still didn't completely make sense, though. Zack knew plenty of pretty girls. He flirted with them all the time when they were out on the town on leave, a casual sort of flirting that didn't mean anything but was flattering to the girls. He'd even rescued more than a few of them over the course of his career as a SOLDIER. Cloud had been there for some of those moments, and heard stories about the others. Not once, no matter how pretty the girl or how dangerous the situation had been, had Zack ever just kissed one of them. Zack might be a natural flirt, but he never followed through. He was loyal to Aerith, even if it was a casual relationship for the two of them.

So why had he kissed Cloud? Just because he knew and cared about Cloud, so the relief to have him safely out of danger had been more overwhelming? Cloud could certainly imagine the other boy kissing Aerith impulsively like that, given the same situation.

The other thing that didn't fit was the fact that Zack had been hard against him. All the way hard, not just starting to get into it like Cloud had been. Which meant either he found that kind of physical violence a serious turn on, which Cloud doubted... or he'd been hard enough before the fight had started that even being attacked hadn't calmed him down significantly.

Which implied all kinds of other things that left Cloud almost dizzy when he tried to sort through it. Was it just that he was that pretty in a dress? Surely not. Zack wasn't the kind of guy to be panting after everything in a skirt. Cloud was grudgingly willing to admit that he was awfully pretty as a girl, but he wasn't that gorgeous.

They'd reached Zack's room, and the older boy unlocked the door quickly and let Cloud go first into the room. Once inside he locked it again behind them and started looking around for Cloud's uniform. "It's pretty late, I guess you should get back to... no, shit, damn it, you can't leave," Zack interrupted himself before Cloud could say anything, looking dismayed.

"Why not?" Cloud asked, though he wasn't sure he wanted to leave. Not until he knew one way or another why Zack had kissed him like that. "They're looking for a girl in a dress, not a trooper in uniform."

"Yeah, but you didn't have your helmet," Zack said with a sigh, seating himself on the edge of the bed and running a hand through his hair. "They might be watching the door. If they see a blonde girl go in and a blonde boy come out..."

Wincing, Cloud conceded the point. "I'll have to stay here. I can bed down on the floor with your bedroll. I've slept in worse places."

"I'll make your excuses to your lieutenant, you won't get in trouble," Zack said wearily. He still wasn't looking Cloud in the eye, busying himself with standing and going to rummage in his trunk for his bedroll.

Trembling with nerves and something that might have been anticipation, Cloud moved to stand next to him, trying to catch his gaze. "Zack?" he asked softly. "Why did you..."

Flinching like he'd been hit even though Cloud hadn't touched him, Zack straightened and turned away to spread the blankets out over the floor. "At least you can enjoy that shower you wanted. Take your time, like I said the hot water will never run out."

"Zack!" Cloud moved again to block his friend's path, not too difficult in the small room. "Would you look at me? Why did you kiss me like that?"

"Damn it, Cloud!" Finally Zack gave up on avoiding him and turned to look at him directly. He looked frustrated and unusually flustered, as if he felt cornered. Beneath everything was that same odd look in his eyes that he'd had under the bemusement when he'd first seen Cloud in the dress. "What do you want from me? I'm sorry, okay? You're hard enough to resist normally, but with the dress and the dancing and... fuck, I'm only human."

"Hard enough to resist normally?" Cloud repeated, blinking. Surely the odd look that he kept seeing in Zack's eyes wasn't, couldn't be, desire?

Judging by the stricken look on his friend's face, Zack hadn't meant to say that part. "Shit."

Laughing softly, Cloud shook his head. "Here I've been worried for months that you'd notice the crush I had on you and be upset."

"Crush?" Zack looked at him like he was certain he'd heard Cloud wrong. "You have a crush on me?"

"Good to know I actually managed to keep it hidden." Cloud blushed, ducking his head. There had been times when he'd caught Zack looking at him sideways and been sure the older boy knew, or when Cloud had inadvertently been more blatant than usual and he couldn't imagine how Zack could miss it. "So I mean, you don't exactly need to apologize. I wasn't objecting." The blush got hotter, but he managed not to stumble over the admission.

Gentle fingers under his chin tipped his head back up again, and reluctantly Cloud met Zack's eyes. The older boy was giving him that same odd look this time, and now that it wasn't hidden behind some other emotion Cloud could clearly recognize it as the heat of desire.

"You know it's probably just hero-worship," Zack told him, studying Cloud's expression like it held the secrets of the Ancients. "I remember how long it took you to stop being in awe of me, or convinced that there was no way I could really want to be your friend."

"It's not hero-worship," Cloud muttered. "Or, I mean, it's not just hero-worship. Trust me."

"Oh yeah?" Zack smiled, and it wasn't a smile Cloud had ever seen from him before. It bore no relation to his usual teasing grin or happy-go-lucky smile. This smile matched the look in his eyes, a slow burn that Cloud could feel all the way down to his gut. "You're that sure, huh? How often do you think about me when you touch yourself?"

"Zack!" The older boy had always had a penchant for scandalizing Cloud's small town sensibilities, but this went way beyond that. "How could you... I don't... Zack!" When words failed him, Zack's name generally served as an all-purpose protest. It happened distressingly often.

"That often? I'm flattered." The little chuckle Zack made could have been a physical touch, the way Cloud shivered at the sound of it. Zack took a step forward, and something about the predatory gleam in his eyes made Cloud instinctively back up. Zack kept moving forward until Cloud hit the far wall, next to the door.

Leaning in, Zack put his hands on the wall on either side of Cloud, effectively trapping him there. "So does that mean you wouldn't object if I kissed you again?"

All the air rushed out of Cloud's body like he'd been punched, and he couldn't draw breath to speak. Wordlessly he shook his head, his eyes locked with Zack's as the older boy leaned down and fastened his mouth to Cloud's.

It was different this time, more deliberate and intense. Zack took his time with it, ignoring the implicit invitation when Cloud opened his mouth, just working his lips and tongue against Cloud's lips. Shivering, Cloud wrapped his arms around Zack's neck and held on for dear life.

When Zack did finally slide his tongue into Cloud's mouth, it was with more of the same slow, deliberate motions. He touched what felt like every inch of Cloud's mouth and tongue, lingering over the spots that made Cloud moan or shudder. Cloud did his best to retaliate, but it was so hard to think when Zack was touching him like this and he wasn't experienced enough to be able to do it on instinct.

By the time Zack pulled away a bit Cloud was dizzy and breathless and every bit as hard as Zack had been in the hallway. He'd had no idea you could get this turned on just from a kiss; Zack hadn't even been touching him anywhere else. "Zack," he panted, the word closer to a moan than coherent speech.

"Oh yeah," Zack murmured, and the look on his face was very smug indeed. He drew back further, running his eyes over Cloud's flushed face and down his neck to his heaving chest, then further still until his gaze reached the floor. When he returned to looking at Cloud's face, the heat in his eyes made Cloud gasp again. "Right now, I think you are just about the hottest fucking thing I've ever seen in my life. Wish I had a camera."

"I don't!" Cloud protested, shaking his head to try to clear it a little. "The last thing I need is you having that kind of blackmail material on me." Inwardly he was a little uncertain, shaken by Zack's words. Was it just the dress that made Zack look at him this way? Cloud certainly couldn't remember him ever doing it before. "So you're saying I need to dress like a girl to get your attention, is that it?" He tried to make the words flippant, but mostly he just sounded hurt.

"No, I'm saying that you flushed and panting for me with that dazed look in your eyes is fucking hot," Zack corrected him with a grin that had a bit of teasing under the heat. "The dress is just a nice bonus. Never really understood the appeal of crossdressing, but there is something sexy about knowing you're hard as hell under there. And getting to dance with you was nice." He leaned closer again and whispered, "Are you?"

"Am I what?" Cloud asked, his poor overheated brain not up to following Zack's conversational jumps.

"Hard as hell under there?" Zack prompted him, tracing his lips over the shell of Cloud's ear and making him moan. "I'll take that as a yes." He dropped one hand from the wall, sliding it over Cloud's arm and down the side of his body, pausing at his hip. "Permission to touch?"

"Oh gods, Zack," Cloud moaned. There was something about the formality of the question that made it feel more deliberate and intentional, as opposed to something they were doing just because their hormones were getting out of hand. "Ye... Zack, wait," Cloud interrupted himself as Zack started to run his hand down over Cloud's pelvis towards his cock.

Instantly Zack froze, his fingers inches away from the aching erection that was barely restrained by the little black panties that had come with the dress. There was a part of Cloud that was incredibly touched by the knowledge that Zack really would stop if Cloud asked it of him, even though he could see from Zack's expression that it was killing him.

That part was loudly drowned out by the rest of Cloud's psyche screaming frustration that he'd put on the brakes. It took an effort to remember why he'd said 'stop'. "Aerith," he finally gasped out. "Zack, we can't. Damn it." However caught up in the moment they might be, Cloud knew Zack would hate himself in the morning when he came to his senses and realized he'd cheated on his girlfriend.

To his surprise, Zack just gave that low, sexy chuckle again. "You're so sweet, you know that? It's one of the things I like about you. Aerith has always insisted that if I'm allowed to fantasize about her and another pretty girl in bed together, then I've got no call to object to her fantasizing about me and another hot guy. Not that I would have." Stunned, Cloud stared at him, and the chuckle became a laugh. "Considering how often she's had to listen to me bitch about how hard it is to keep myself from jumping you sometimes, I know exactly what she'd say if she could see us now."

"What?" Cloud asked breathlessly. He wasn't sure if he was asking what Aerith would say or just questioning his sanity for thinking he'd heard Zack confess to complaining to his girlfriend about his desire for another guy. Zack apparently took it as the former.

"She'd ask what we were waiting for," Zack told him, amusement mixing with the desire in his voice. "And then she'd probably ask if she could watch, but we won't go into that."

"She's crazy," Cloud said flatly, unable to process any of this. "As crazy as you are. No wonder you've lasted so long together."

"Says the boy in a dress and garters," Zack mocked him gently. He leaned in again and rubbed his fingers over the silky material of the dress, reminding Cloud of where they'd left off. Cloud whimpered as the motion dragged the silk against the bare skin where his thigh met his body. "So. Permission to touch?"

"Yes," Cloud gave in to what they both wanted so badly. He trusted Zack; if the older boy said his girlfriend would be okay with this, then Cloud wasn't going to argue. "Oh Hades, Zack, yes."

Zack closed the last few inches between his hand and Cloud's cock, wrapping his fingers around the hot, hard length of it right through the skirt and panties. Cloud choked and rocked his hips up; he couldn't have stayed still if his life depended on it. Zack wasn't even being serious yet, and it already felt ten times better than anything Cloud had ever done to himself.

The feel of the silk fabric didn't hurt, either. It glided over his sensitive skin, helping to cover the sword callous on Zack's palm so his hand moved more easily. Zack practically purred in Cloud's ear as he stroked slowly, dragging out each motion until it seemed to last for a year.

"Fuck, Zack," Cloud groaned, pushing his hips up in an attempt to get Zack to speed the pace. Zack just started trailing his mouth down over Cloud's neck, making his breath catch in his throat. "Please..."

"So impatient," Zack murmured, but even as he said it he was rocking into Cloud's hip, pressing his erection against Cloud at the same maddeningly slow pace his hand was moving at.

Emboldened by the obvious evidence of Zack's need for him, Cloud slipped his hands down over the older boy's chest and started undoing the buttons of his tunic with fingers that shook. "I want to touch you," he said, cheeks going pink at the corny stupidity of the phrase, but unable to think of anything that didn't sound like they were in a bad romance movie. Well, maybe the cliches were cliches for a reason.

Taking his other hand off the wall, Zack yanked at his dress tie until it was loose enough for him to pull it right over his head. He dropped it to one side, uncaring of where it ended up. He had to let go of Cloud to shrug the tunic off, and Cloud whimpered quietly at the loss of touch. Zack hadn't bothered with a tank-top under the tunic, so his muscled body was bare to the waist. Cloud couldn't keep from reaching out to run his hands over that smooth expanse of tanned chest the way he'd dreamed of doing so often.

Zack's chest was warm under his hands, the skin roughened by the fine hair scattered across it. Now it was Zack's turn to moan as Cloud's fingers found and played with his nipples, teasing them into sensitive peaks. Cloud decided he liked making Zack moan, so he set out to cause it as often as possible.

Their lips met again in a much more urgent kiss, Cloud straining up on tiptoe to try to get more of Zack's intoxicating taste. The older boy's hands went to cup the globes of Cloud's ass, and lifted him higher still. There were times when Cloud forgot just how strong the SOLDIERs were; having Zack holding him off his feet with no visible effort was a pretty good reminder.

Freed from having to support his own weight, Cloud tried to wrap his legs around Zack's waist but was hampered by the skirt. Frustrated, he left off teasing Zack's nipples and moved to undo the bodice of the dress so he could get out of it.

"Don't," Zack ground out, pushing forward so he was pinning Cloud against the wall with his whole body. "Leave it on, it's sexy. I like the silk," he all but purred, rubbing his chest against Cloud's. The way he was leaning against Cloud had pressed their cocks flush together, and the rubbing motion made them shift against each other in a way that caused them both to moan. The most the skirt would allow was for Cloud to hook his feet around Zack's calves, pressing as close as he could.

"But there's too much cloth in the way," Cloud complained breathlessly, rocking up hard against Zack's cock and squirming at the resulting wave of heat that washed over him.

Nuzzling just below Cloud's ear, Zack blew out a breath that gusted over his throat and made his whole body tingle. "Depending on how far you want this to go, I'm not sure that's a bad thing," he said, his voice husky.

"How far?" Cloud repeated, huffing a laugh. "What, are you worried about offending my delicate sensibilities or damaging my virtue? For the last time, just because I look like a girl right now doesn't mean I am one." He rocked his hips up again, making very sure Zack knew the boy in his arms was one hundred percent male. "I'm a sixteen-year-old boy, and you're in the middle of making just about every fantasy I've ever had come true. You think I'm going to tell you to stop?"

His words made Zack shudder against him, and the older boy nipped Cloud's ear hard enough to make him gasp. "Almost every fantasy?" he repeated, his words hardly more than a growl. "Who got the rest, Sephiroth?"

"Some of them," Cloud admitted, bewildered by the sudden change in mood. Zack growled and bit him again, and Cloud shivered. "Zack, are you jealous of Sephiroth?" Cloud asked as the truth dawned on him, thinking back on his friend's odd behaviour after Sephiroth had rescued Cloud from the president. "C'mon, are you seriously telling me you've never done it while thinking about him?"

A sheepish expression crept over Zack's face as he lifted his head to look into Cloud's eyes, and his lips twitched. "Well, no," he acknowledged. "It's just... damn it, watching the look on your face when you danced with him, I could have killed him. Especially because it just reminded me that I had no claim on you at all, and I wanted to."

"So? What are you waiting for?" was Cloud's only question. Zack looked back at him for a long moment, the heat growing in his eyes with every moment as he convinced himself that Cloud really meant it.

Then, to Cloud's surprise and dismay, he set Cloud back on his feet. "Don't move," Zack ordered him, and turned away to go dig in his trunk.

Oh. Of course. Cloud flushed again as he realized what Zack was after. He knew the theory of the mechanics of sex between men. You could hardly avoid it, living in the army, though most of the information had come from crude jokes tossed back and forth between the men.

He leaned against the wall and waited, trying to take the opportunity to catch his breath. There didn't seem to be enough air in the room, as if someone had let off a Fire spell in a contained area and it ate up all the oxygen. Cloud was still panting when Zack returned with a bottle of the oil used to care for the leather bits of his equipment, and the fierce, heated look on Zack's face didn't help at all.

"You are," Zack said, kissing him briefly but hungrily, "the fucking hottest," another kiss, hotter still, "thing I've ever seen. And if you keep looking at me like that, this is going to be over a lot faster than it should be. Turn around."

A little disappointed that they wouldn't be able to kiss any more, but more than understanding the need to make things just a little less intense if they wanted it to last, Cloud turned and put his hands against the wall. Zack pressed up close behind him, his cock rubbing up against Cloud's upper ass and his hands stealing around the younger boy's waist to trail over his stomach and hips.

Gasping when Zack rocked into him hard, Cloud braced his hands and pushed back, refusing to give way so that Zack ground against him and made them both moan. Zack's hand found Cloud's cock through the fabric of the dress again, stroking briefly before trailing away again.

"Tease," Cloud accused him hoarsely, and Zack chuckled again.

"No, that's what you've been doing all damn night, swaying around in those sexy heels and looking so incredibly fuckable," Zack replied, his voice rough with need as he spoke right into Cloud's ear. "You have no idea how much effort it took not to pull you up to me and kiss the hell out of you while we were dancing."

"So are you going to pay me back, or just talk about it?" Cloud asked, and Zack growled again.

Strong hands bunched in the sides of his skirt and lifted it, flipping it up over his back so that his ass was exposed to the cool air but it still draped down to his ankles in front. He shivered, from cold this time rather than lust, but Zack didn't leave him to stand bare for long. The older boy pressed close again, the linen of his dress trousers coarse against Cloud's skin after feeling the silk all night. "You're still... wearing too much," Cloud managed, trembling as Zack rubbed his cloth-covered erection into the crack of Cloud's ass.

"So're you," Zack said almost smugly, trailing one hand down over Cloud's hip to his bare leg. He snapped one of the garter straps gently, and for a moment Cloud thought he meant to unfasten them.

Instead, Zack slipped his fingers under the crotch of the black silk panties, the backs of his knuckles brushing against the underside of Cloud's balls and making him groan. With one quick yank the SOLDIER tore the panties like they were made of tissue paper, leaving Cloud still dressed in the garters but otherwise bare from his knees to his hips.

"Zack!" Cloud exclaimed. "That belonged to Aerith!" It was difficult to work up any kind of real indignation; his aching erection had been freed by the removal of the panties, and the soft fabric of the skirt was brushing against his tip with every breath he took. It was distracting, to say the least.

"Not the first pair I've torn," Zack muttered into the skin under Cloud's ear, and he could feel the older boy's smile. "I'll pay her back." He ran his hand along the arch of Cloud's hip, then down over his ass, flirting with the crack. Cloud got more and more tense with every moment, trembling with anticipation and unfulfilled need.

"Please, Zack," he begged, fighting the urge to reach down and touch himself to help relieve the ache. He could do that anytime he had five minutes of privacy. Right now, he wanted to feel Zack's hands on him. "Please."

"A tease and you're greedy," Zack laughed softly, and pushed his fingers in more firmly. His index finger found the tight ring of muscle around Cloud's asshole and traced over it, adding more pressure with each pass. Cloud gave a startled groan, surprised that it felt so good. He knew there was supposed to be something good in it for the bottom, but he'd thought that was a spot inside somewhere.

"Relax, Cloud," Zack whispered, and Cloud did his best. Zack put his free hand on Cloud's hip and urged him to move out away from the wall, guiding him sideways a bit until there was a shelf Cloud could use to grip as he leaned over at an angle. That made it even easier for Zack to reach his hole, and the older boy slowly pressed one fingertip inside.

It felt... weird, sort of full and it made him want to squirm. He forced himself to hold still and relax a little more, and Zack's finger slipped in far enough to be past the muscle. That felt really weird, but not unpleasant. Zack's other hand moved around to stroke his cock slowly, and that helped Cloud relax further and start to actually get into it.

Enough so that when Zack pulled out again, Cloud made a disappointed noise. "There's plenty more where that came from, but I don't want to hurt you," Zack promised him. He reached over to where he'd put the bottle of oil on the shelf, and twisted the cap off with one hand. He had to let go of Cloud's cock to pour some of it onto his palm, but when he then moved to spread the oil over Cloud's ass and his finger slipped inside almost without resistance, Cloud forgot to complain.

"Yeah, that's it," Zack encouraged him, slowly working the finger in and out. Cloud found himself breathing in rhythm with the movements, his hips rocking slightly to meet the intrusion. And then Zack touched something inside him, and any doubts Cloud had still been harbouring about how fun this was for the bottom were instantly destroyed.

"Sweet Shiva," Cloud choked, his whole body shuddering with the force of the sensation. "Oh, Hades, Zack, do that again!"

Laughing again, Zack obliged him by stroking his finger repeatedly over that wonderful, amazing, incredible spot inside him. Cloud was left gasping and leaning most of his weight against the wall, hardly able to stay on his feet. When Zack withdrew briefly and added a second finger it made Cloud's ass burn and stretch almost painfully around them, but Cloud didn't care in the least. Not as long as it kept feeling that good.

He could feel Zack trembling against him, feel the way the older boy's cock was so hard against his ass that it had to be painful. "Do it," he urged, voice cracking in the middle when Zack stroked over the spot again. "Do it, Zack. Now. Please. Fuck me."

"Shit, Cloud," Zack groaned, his fingers pausing as he leaned his forehead against Cloud's shoulder and shuddered. "You are a hell of a test of my self-control, you know that?"

Once again Zack's hands vanished, and Cloud swallowed the keening noise that wanted to escape him at the loss. This time he heard the sound of Zack undoing his belt and shoving his pants and boxers down over his hips. When Zack pressed in again, it was his oiled cock rather than his fingers that probed between the cheeks of Cloud's ass.

Letting his breath out, Cloud firmed his grip on the shelf and leaned over a bit more to give Zack a better angle. He did his best to stay relaxed, but Zack's cock was a hell of a lot bigger than two of his fingers had been. It hurt at first, a sharp burning pain that made Cloud hiss despite his resolve to remain silent.

"Shh," Zack hushed him, reaching around to stroke Cloud's cock again. The blonde had gone a bit soft with the pain, but Zack's hand felt good anyway. "It stops hurting fast, I promise."

"You've... you've done this? Before?" Cloud asked, dazed at the idea.

"Hey, I was a starry-eyed new recruit once myself, you know," Zack replied, amusement threading through the desire in his voice. "Now, relax. Deep breaths. Remember how good it felt a minute ago."

Cloud did his best, and slowly Zack eased himself further into Cloud's body. Once the head of his cock was past the initial restriction it wasn't nearly as painful. Finally he was all the way inside, his thighs pressed tight against Cloud's ass, his hand stroking almost lazily over Cloud's cock.

Panting, Cloud squeezed his eyes shut and struggled to adjust to the feeling of being split nearly in two. Zack's heated breath was gusting over his neck, making him shiver with each breath, and he could feel the tension in the older boy's body as he waited for Cloud to give the go-ahead.

Eventually Cloud drew a deep breath and exhaled, opening his eyes again and focusing on the shelf in front of him. "Do it," he said, his voice rough, and he heard Zack moan in response.

Having Zack pull out again was almost as painful as him pushing in, as his cock dragged over tissue now stretched and raw. When he pushed back in again, though, the pain was starting to fade at last and Cloud's body started to respond to the odd sensation that was left. Zack had still been stroking him all this time, and now Cloud was fully hard again.

Rocking into Zack's hand, Cloud focused all his attention on the sensations in his cock. If he could just concentrate on that, the pain would fade soon enough.

Sooner than 'soon enough', in fact. Zack pressed his free hand between Cloud's shoulder blades to urge him to lean over more, and the shift in angle caused the head of Zack's cock to suddenly rub over that spot with every thrust. Stars burst in Cloud's vision, and he gave a strangled shout as he bucked against Zack.

The older boy held him more or less steady, speeding his pace a bit. Moaning, Cloud subsided and just abandoned himself to the sensations, tossing his head and rocking back into each thrust as hard as he could. Any thoughts of pain were long gone, submerged in sheer ecstasy.

"Cloud," Zack was moaning, his words garbled with lust. "Cloud, gods, Cloud... you have to come, soon, now, please, please, oh gods you feel so fucking tight and hot and good and shit, Cloud, please tell me you're near the edge..."

"Go..." Cloud's voice broke on his first attempt to speak, and he had to cough and clear his throat a couple of times before it would obey him again. "Go ahead," he urged, more than a little flattered and extremely turned on by the knowledge that he'd driven Zack into begging. "Do it, I want to feel you come in me. Zack..."

"Cloud!" Zack's rhythm stuttered and turned into jerky motions, hard but shallow thrusts that moved almost continuously right over that spot. After less than a minute of that he felt Zack shudder against him and still, body pressed close to Cloud's as his hips moved in minute little jerks.

Maybe it was only Cloud's imagination, but he thought he could feel Zack's semen spurting hot inside him, and the thought drove him wild. He moaned and rocked his hips, trying to get some kind of friction or stimulation. Zack's hand had stilled at the same time as the rest of his body, and Cloud whimpered with frustrated need.

"Sorry," Zack muttered hoarsely, and started stroking him again. This time it was fast and hard, his grip almost but not quite too tight, guaranteed to drive Cloud over the edge in minutes. After a moment he withdrew from Cloud's body, but before Cloud could protest the sudden empty feeling Zack had thrust three fingers into him, filling the space and pressing firmly against that spot.

That was all it took, and with a shout Cloud came harder than he ever had before in his life. It felt like he must have emptied everything inside him onto Zack's hand, and he was vaguely aware of Zack murmuring encouragement into his ear.

When it was finally over, Cloud sagged against the wall and Zack's hold, not sure how he'd managed to stay on his feet through the whole thing. "I can't move," he said absently, somehow feeling as if that should have disturbed him more than it did.

The statement earned him another one of those smug, sexy chuckles from Zack. "Good," the older boy all but purred. "You stay there, and I'll get the camera."

"Zack!" Jerking upright, Cloud glared over his shoulder at his friend. Zack was laughing quietly, grinning back at him in the way that meant he felt he'd gotten the better of Cloud. "Jerk," Cloud muttered, but there was even less heat behind the word than usual.

Glancing down, he made a face. "Shit. I think we ruined the dress," he said as his dismayed glance ran over the large wet stains on the front of the skirt. He'd come rather a lot, and the skirt had been rubbing into his precome for quite a while before that.

"That's okay," Zack assured him softly. "I mean, where would you ever wear it again?" He laughed as Cloud turned far enough to punch him in the shoulder, and deftly caught Cloud when the motion threw the still wobbly younger boy off balance. "Careful. You seem a little weak in the knees."

"Yeah," Cloud agreed, sagging into Zack's arms. "Maybe lying down would be a good idea?"

"Probably," Zack agreed. Without another word he scooped Cloud into his arms, the skirt trailing down as he carried the younger boy over to the bed. "You're not going to insist on sleeping in the bedroll, are you? The bed's big enough for two."

"Only if we don't mind getting real friendly," Cloud said automatically, eyeing the width as Zack laid him on the mattress. Then he thought about what he'd just said, and grinned. "I guess we don't. I don't have to sleep in the dress, do I?"

"No, dumbass," Zack snorted fondly. He was shoving his trousers and boxers the rest of the way off his hips; he'd apparently only pushed them down far enough to let him get at Cloud. He kicked off his boots as Cloud fumbled with the fastenings for the dress, and finally managed to undo the bodice enough to let him get it off. He was more than happy to rid himself of the stuffed bra.

He had to sit up to get the dress off, and Zack took it from him and turned to drape it across the chair. Cloud reached for the first garter, and Zack mock-pouted at him. "Aw, you're not going to leave them on? You look sexy like that."

"I am not sleeping in these," Cloud said, rolling his eyes as he peeled the stockings off and wriggled out of the garters. Those he dumped unceremoniously beside the bed, then scooted over when Zack gestured at him to make room.

It was surprisingly easy to settle in comfortably together. Cloud would have expected it to involve a lot of awkward shifting, but it just seemed natural for him to lie on his side and let Zack curl up around him. It certainly felt pleasant, even if it was probably the 'girl's' position. Considering the events of the night, Cloud could hardly start protesting being the 'girl' now.

"Zack?" he asked hesitantly after the older boy had snuggled against him. "Are we... going to do this again?"

"Which?" Zack asked, clearly amused even though Cloud couldn't see his expression. "The sex, the skirt, or the sex-in-a-skirt?"

"The first one," Cloud clarified hastily. Then he paused, and admitted in a small voice, "I might not mind doing the last one again sometime." It had been strange, but there was something arousing about the taboo of it, not to mention the feel of the skirt against him as Zack thrust into him. Plus, if it was going to get Zack that hot... "But I am not wearing a skirt in public again!"

Chuckling, Zack squeezed him briefly in a one-armed hug. "I wouldn't have asked. And yeah, I'm kinda hoping for a repeat performance or three. Or thirty. If you want to?"

"Hell yeah," Cloud agreed instantly, relaxing and closing his eyes with a smile. "As long as you're sure it's okay with Aerith."

"Then we'll do it as often as we're stationed in the same place," Zack promised softly, dropping a kiss on the back of Cloud's neck. "If I found you hard as hell to resist before, there's no way I'll be able to keep my hands off you now that I know how good you feel. You're stuck with me for the duration, kid."

"Good," Cloud said, satisfied. He shifted so he could feel Zack's body in a warm line all the way from his shoulders to his knees, and sighed in contentment. Measuring everything else against this, he could only conclude that the night had been a smashing success.