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For Ravensilver, with thanks. :)

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Even at the base of the mountain, the fog was thick, as though the clouds that wrapped its summit had descended en masse, a shifting blanket of dirty white. It was ominous. Everything about this was, especially the unnatural quiet. Angeal had mentioned in passing that this region was home to many species of exotic bird, and they had come a good distance from the nearest human habitat, yet there were no whistles or calls, not even the rustle of any small woodland animals. SOLDIERs' senses were fine-tuned for occasions such as this, their instincts as well as their hearing. In the wilderness, deafening silence was always a bad sign.

Zack turned to face his teacher, ready to break down, to drop the SOLDIER bravado and be a kid who was scared and wanted to go home...and no one was there. Angeal, who had remained so calm, who had ordered they stay close together, had been snatched away or swallowed up in the heavy mist. Zack's fear rose into full panic, and he spun on the heels of his boots, trying to call out and making only choking noises. Like a living, sentient thing the fog reacted, swirling in at him from all sides. Tendrils of it formed fingers that enclosed him, a giant hand ready to crush him in a fist. Zack fell or collapsed to his knees, and that's when he saw the body, laying right before him and missed until now.

Angeal. Motionless, stiff, colder than the mountain air, dark blue eyes staring upward and seeing nothing. Even more telling was the absence of his famous sword. Angeal would sooner die than lose his Buster, the symbol of his pride. He would sooner die than let Zack be afraid and alone and whimpering because his voice was caught in the grave his heart had become. On some level, Zack knew these things and their terrible meaning immediately, but still he clutched Angeal's shoulders and shook them and breathed in sobs, because he didn't know what else to do.

Angeal, Zack mouthed. Angeal! The hardest jolt he could manage wouldn't shake the eyes into seeing again. The skin his fingers dug into was like clay, molded and imprinted with this harsh touch as no living thing can be. Trembling hard, Zack began to draw in mouthfuls of frigid air, moving his lips around words that turned to wind. A sheet of fog passed briefly over Angeal's face and graying eyes, and when it was gone the body had changed. Now it was Zack lying there, his skin already waxy and his expression nearly unrecognizable as he stared past his own face.

This was better, horrible but better than Angeal being dead, by any means and at any time. But it released something in its kneeling twin, or just happened to appear just before Zack found a fragment of his voice and broke it into a scream that pounded the thin air.

"ANGEAL! ANGEEEEEAL!"

The dead thing had become animated somehow and was gripping him back, shaking him violently, maybe envious of the living and ready to drag him into darkness with it. A light was forming behind it, yellow, not the green of the Lifestream, and a fuzzy form in the sudden darkness. The daylight was shrinking to a sliver in the distance, the cold fingers released and expanded into a cover of embroidered silk, and Zack sat up in bed with bulging eyes and a muted scream still escaping his mouth. The figure peering in through the ajar door was half in shadow, but enough of his bright garb was visible to know he was an attendant, one of the palace's many servants, and enough of his face to see that he was deeply startled.

"Lieutenant Fair," he called in halting Continental, "are you unwell? Is there anything I can get you?"

"Angeal," Zack whispered, not in answer so much as shock and uncertain hope.

"Do you wish me to summon - "

The kind offer was cut off by an abrupt stumble forward, body and door swinging together and letting more light in. Angeal, normally so polite, had barreled past the smaller man and was hurrying to the wide unfamiliar bed. Zack's eyes filled and overflowed at the sight of him alive, the feel of him warm and breathing.

"Another one, Puppy?" Angeal felt himself being clutched at more desperately in reply, and with a pensive sigh rubbed his chin over a head of disarrayed black spikes. "I heard you yell, but I swear every door in this wing looks exactly the same."

"Commander Hewley?"

Angeal called something to the servant that Zack didn't catch, but he assumed was likely a thanks and dismissal in Wutainese. The door shut and left them in darkness, so Angeal turned on the bedside lamp, removing his arm from the protective hug no longer than absolutely necessary, and though the terror of the dream still clung to Zack, he felt foolish. He was a 2nd Class SOLDIER, ShinRa's rising star, expected to be the youngest 1st since Genesis Rhapsodos. He was not a kid, even if he let Angeal treat him that way sometimes.

"I'm okay." It probably would have been more convincing had he first detached his face from Angeal's T-shirt.

"I'm not so sure you are." Gentle voice, gentle petting hands destroying his resolve to pull away. "That's, what, the third one this month? I had hoped the nightmares wouldn't follow you here."

The haze of sleep lifted just enough for memory to fill in the blanks. They were in Kitani, a northern Wutaian province that had recently declared its independence, and its leader's interest in forming an alliance with ShinRa had led to Angeal being dispatched on this mission of diplomacy. If Sephiroth was the company's sword and shield, Angeal was its bridge-builder; there was no SOLDIER better at making and keeping peace.

Zack felt honored to be his student, and more than honored, and constantly worried that his own faults and impulsiveness and lesser abilities were a burden to Angeal - especially at crucial times like this. Yet here he was, also an honored guest in Lord Shujin's palace, keeping Angeal from the sleep he surely needed.

"I'm really okay." He forcefully pried his fingers from Angeal's T-shirt, reluctantly took his face further from the warmth and smell of his skin. "You should go back to bed, you've got more meetings tomorrow."

"They rise late here, don't worry about me. How did I die this time?"

"It's not funny! It was horrible," Zack grumbled without any real anger. His eyes shifted downward to Angeal's hand on his own, the one place they were still connected. "Jerk."

Rather than reprimanding, Angeal only smiled. "Sorry, kid. I just don't want you to take these dreams so seriously. I'm sure they don't mean anything."

"Dreams always mean something. In Gongaga, we pay attention to them. And we believe that if you dream something five times - "

"What? It'll happen?"

"Uh-huh."

"And this is the fifth dream you've had of me dying."

Both of us. Both of us, lately. I won't tell you that, I won't let you think I'm afraid to fight, but I follow you. Just like I'd want to, if...

"Puppy?"

Zack didn't feel the single tear that had escaped until Angeal was brushing it from his cheek, and the boy took in a sudden, involuntary breath. Angeal's cupping hand froze against his face, and it was so warm and good that Zack closed his eyes rather than watch it drop awkwardly away. Once, physical contact between the two of them had been frequent and natural...Zack's confession of two months ago had shifted their relationship into something almost unrecognizable to him.

Still more than mentor and apprentice, but no longer innocent. Loving, but cautious. So, so much, suddenly not enough. They were like dance partners who had once glided effortlessly, and now couldn't keep off of each other's feet.

"I'm sorry," Angeal said quietly. That too was recent and awful - Angeal apologizing for touching him. Or rather for not being able to touch him enough. "What can I do?"

"Make this stop," Zack whispered without thinking.

"Sometimes dreams go away if you talk about them."

"I didn't mean the dreams, I meant...shit." Zack slid his feet back so that his knees folded and touched his chest, further armor over his heart. "Sorry. I'm the one who made things all weird."

A short pause. "You did nothing wrong. You know I'm not upset with you, at all. I'm honored by your feelings, Zack, who wouldn't be? But I can't acknowledge them from this position. I know you don't see it this way, but I would be taking advantage, of your heart if not your hormones."

He really was trying; it wasn't like Angeal to say so much in one breath. The speed of it dulled its sting just a little, a very little.

"It's okay. I'm not gonna bug you or...anything. I do understand." Hating and disagreeing with the elder's answer didn't preclude Zack from understanding Angeal's reasons, true. Not exactly 'hating', either, for how could he hate the honor that was so much a part of Angeal? "I mean, you wouldn't be taking advantage, but I'm not gonna try to convince you. I wish I never said anything."

"It was brave of you. Zack." Angeal waited until Zack looked at him. "I know that trying to pretend nothing has changed isn't working for you. If you think of something that will help you more, please tell me."

"It's fine, really. You've been...nice about it."

Zack knew, when he finally blurted out his overwhelming sixteen-year-old feelings, that the reaction could have been anger, disgust, a decision to stop being his teacher even, though he'd known Angeal well enough to doubt anything that extreme. Somehow, this awkward kindness was worse. He hadn't lost Angeal, hadn't lost anything. He had not even the comfort of something to mourn.

Angeal slid his fingers into Zack's hair and combed them through the spikes, on the alert for signs that he should stop. "You mean a great deal to me, Puppy."

Zack responded with a smile, small and pained but genuine.

"I wish I could stop these nightmares of yours." Angeal halted short of apologizing for them. Though Zack had never ascribed them to his rejection, Angeal hadn't failed to notice they'd begun immediately after. "I can only promise that I will be more careful. They will not come true."

"They must mean something." Zack tried to ignore the tingle Angeal's petting caused in his scalp, but doing so only made him more aware of Angeal's hand still on his, the soothing and probably unconscious stroking of Angeal's thumb on his wrist. "Dreams always mean something."

"Nightmares only mean that something, somewhere, is wrong. And..."

"...we know what's wrong."

Angeal's hand slid downward from Zack's head to squeeze his shoulder. "Just not how to fix it. I don't know of any cure but time. I suppose I could try to make you hate me instead."

"You couldn't."

"No," Angeal said softly, looking at him with love and regret. "No, I don't believe I could even try."

The heat from his gaze was filling Zack up. It had to stop before it could pool in his stomach and burn downward, he didn't want to have to take care of that while the memory of the dream was so fresh. And not in this strange place, with attendants who rushed in at every loud noise and probably now thought he was a baby who couldn't sleep without his teacher.

"I think I can go back to sleep now."

"I'll stay with you until you do. It may take me a little while to remember my way back, anyway," Angeal joked.

"Um, that attendant is probably still lurking around, he could show you." Zack cringed a little, but Angeal showed no sign of offense as he stood and briefly smoothed the boy's hair.

"Good point. Are you sure you'll be all right? Okay. Try to sleep, Zack. I don't think the dream will return tonight."

The words formed on the tip of his tongue before Angeal had even turned around, but Zack held them back. Sitting tense and taut in the now-cooler bed, he decided they would be unhelpful, embarrassing, a cause for further pity when he didn't want any at all. He would not say them, not make Angeal any more worried. But the light pooling in from beyond the opened door pushed them out of his mouth, as abruptly as it had earlier pulled him out of sleep.

"In the last one, I was dead too. I was trying to wake you up, like every other time, but you disappeared and it was me there instead. There was no blood on either of us, no injuries I could see, just death. Both of us. Angeal?"

He had turned back, was crossing the wide floor at a hurried pace, and Zack watched, hardly having time to realize what he'd said or that he'd spoken at all, and why it had agitated Angeal. The 1st Class resumed his seat on the mattress roughly enough to jostle the whole bed, and with a total lack of his recent caution, he gently grasped Zack and pulled him close.

This was what their hugs had used to be, back when Zack was the one who initiated them and Angeal would indulge him - this wall of safety all around him, a reminder that he was loved like a blanket wrapping him. Angeal seemed to be the one who needed it now, and it felt too damn good to refuse.

"I will not let that happen," Angeal was saying in a rough whisper. "I will not let you die, I won't lose you."

The desperation in that voice sounded so much like want, Zack felt his repressed desires shift into overdrive, and he couldn't stop. He buried his face in the skin of Angeal's neck, cool from the night air on its surface but easily made warm again by the nose and mouth nuzzling it. One of his smooth legs, bare beneath the silk sheet, curled around Angeal's seated form.

It was much trickier to shift his other leg, to move until he was straddling Angeal's lap, but he managed to before the 1st realized what was happening. Strangely, he didn't jump away or lift Zack off, just kissed his forehead and murmured a strained "Puppy" against it.

"Just let me, once, before I die. Please?" Zack wasn't thinking clearly, wasn't trying to break Angeal's heart and use the man's worst fear against him. "'M sorry, it's just...just..."

Just that it felt too incredibly good to have his groin finally pressed to Angeal's, to feel its heat and pulsing against his own. It felt so natural that he didn't pause to realize that Angeal was hard too, or wonder what that meant, if it meant anything. Angeal's arms tightened around him, maybe only intending to comfort, but this made it easier for Zack to grind against him, lost in the rhythm at once and unable to stop, even though in the back of his mind Zack was terrified and embarrassed and clueless about the reality of sex with another person.

He hid his flushed face against Angeal's shoulder, trembling with pleasure already but also guilt on top of that because the hand in his hair was still petting, still trying to soothe. Angeal was still his calm, loving self, while Zack was lost to the baser instincts he'd been so steadfastly ignoring.

It was physically good, raw and searing, burning without pain, but instead of working up to the expected peak, the pleasure droned on with no release in sight. It wasn't enough, and instinctively Zack's hand slipped between their chests and moved south, to provide the needed stimulation. Angeal made no move to stop him, and that stopped him, made the boy's fingers go limp against his flat stomach and his eyes tear up.

Angeal would let him do this unfair thing. Angeal loved him enough platonically to pretend it was more than that, feared taking advantage of him enough that he would let himself be taken advantage of instead. Zack was doing what Angeal never would, and the misery of that made him slump on the elder's lap, sitting still and crying tears of frustration and hatred of himself, anger and gratitude both at Angeal's saintly patience and the wish that he could be more worthy of the love this great man showed him.

"Puppy," Angeal said softly into the silken tangle of black hair, sounding surprised by something. Zack's daring and presumptive actions, maybe, or the rare sight of him crying.

"I'm sorry..."

"Puppy." Angeal's lips touched his jawline, pressed a lingering kiss to his cheek, then brushed over his ear. He bit gently there before trailing a row of kisses down Zack's neck, holding him still when the boy started and made a questioning noise. "Ssh."

"But...but...oh Gaia there, please - "

Angeal's mouth had discovered a particularly sensitive spot just below Zack's left ear; he moved his lips hard against it, devouring without teeth, then added his tongue for further pressure and to sample the clean taste of skin. Zack cried out a low groan, and the hand on his hair tightened its grip and tilted the head for easier access.

Zack's hand, still frozen between them, clenched into a shaking fist...then the fingers left his hair and were on it, pushing them both downward to the source of this shared electricity. Zack was being cupped and stroked through his boxers, and he could tell from their closeness that Angeal was too, though he had no idea whose hand was where.

Further apologies, objections to what was essentially a pity-handjob, thoughts of acting the adult he claimed to be and stopping this - all these noble ideas occurred to Zack, and might have been seriously considered if he'd been able to concentrate more. All the daydreams and fantasies he'd had of what it would be like with Angeal couldn't compare to the intensity of the reality. While imagining this, Zack had never taken into consideration this loss of control, this inability to analyze anything but how good Angeal felt. He had enough awareness, though, to see that Angeal was enjoying and wanting this too, and to be pleased by that.

Zack came with a hard thrust into a tangle of fabric and fingers, clutching warm muscled arms and muffling his cry in Angeal's neck. Angeal made a lower, grunting sound as he released, pulling Zack closer and nudging the boy's head onto his shoulder. His hand smoothed a path up and down Zack's spine, coaxing the muscles of his back into calmness, and soon the tremors passed.

Zack knew Angeal well enough to know that he wasn't being hated or resented or blamed for this, and that he wouldn't be pushed away, even though he figured it was what he deserved. Selfishly, he clung to his mentor's embrace and groped his clearing mind for something helpful he could do or say. "I'm sorry" was no good; Angeal would just tell him it's okay, and it wasn't.

"Gods, I've really done it now."

Angeal's voice was so heavy, so weighted with regret, that Zack could only hug him tighter, trying to comfort with touch as he'd been comforted himself so many times. He wanted so badly to attempt a kiss, but didn't, not because he'd be stopped, but because he was too afraid to look at Angeal's face and confirm the sadness he imagined would be there.

"I love you," Zack said in a tiny whisper, not sure if he'd be heard.

"Puppy..."

Don't cry, do not cry!

"...don't cry."

"I'm not," and he wasn't, but the words wavered as they came out, as telling as tears would have been. Angeal was lifting him up now, gently, not in any great hurry, and setting him back on the bed. Large hands stroked his arms for a few moments before urging him to lay down, and a pair of dry lips left a kiss on Zack's forehead before they were apart.

Zack bit his lower lip and turned so he was facing the wall, to spare them both the awkward eye contact that a few moments of pleasure must have made worse. He sensed Angeal's hand moving toward his, seized it and held it to his heart, forcing the elder to edge closer to keep his balance.

"If I was older," Zack heaved, but clearly, "if I was just any SOLDIER and not your Puppy, if I was someone who didn't hurt your honor, then..."

Angeal sighed, and Zack squeezed his eyes shut, unwilling to risk a glimpse of pain on the face he loved more than any other. I'm being childish, I've been nothing but childish all night...but isn't that what Angeal wants? Isn't that how he'd rather see me?

"Sleep. We'll talk tomorrow."

Angeal ran his free hand over and through Zack's hair, felt him nod as well as saw it in the soft lamplight. Then he waited for a not-uncomfortable minute or two, until Zack was ready to release him, before he squeezed the boy's shoulder and soundlessly slipped out.

"Nice one, Fair," Zack said coldly to himself once he was alone. He grabbed a handful of the blanket that smelled the most like Angeal, pressed his face into it and longed for sleep. He lay awake a long time instead, glaring into the warm dark.

azazaza

"Now that we have made some progress with the rights of Kitani citizens as members of an independent principality, as opposed to those they would have in the great nation of Wutai, perhaps we should discuss changes that must be made to the boundary line," the stocky man in colorful garb said, tapping the conference table to ensure he had everyone's attention.

It took Angeal only a moment to translate the words of Lord Godo's representative from Wutainese into Continental, so he was able to consider them while the official translator explained their meaning. Angeal was seated at a place of honor, directly across from the speaker, Lord Daikou, and at the right-hand side of Lord Shujin himself.

Their host was quite young, mid-twenties at the most, and beloved, as he had been capably ruling this small province since his early teens. He was disarming at first sight, with dyed-blond hair and kind eyes that showed amusement when Wutai was called 'great', a faint but intended slight to his own land. Angeal had found the man to be pleasant and personable, as well as intelligent; Shujin spoke to him in Wutainese and Continental with equal fluency, and when someone used the local dialect, he often translated for the commander himself, before the official translator could.

Angeal was also impressed that Shujin could keep himself so consistently calm, knowing that if Wutai left these proceedings feeling slighted or unsatisfied, it would likely mean war. Small wonder the highest-ranked in Kitani had been so welcoming to Angeal. If they could obtain ShinRa's support and friendship, Wutai would let them go peacefully, rather than risk open war with ShinRa again. Angeal's task on this mission was to assess Kitani's value as a potential ally, and read Wutai's intentions toward them both. He was skilled at gauging people's feelings, at the quiet and more rare SOLDIER duty of observation without action, but today it was hard to keep his mind and eyes from wandering to Zack.

"Angeal-san, do you object to discussion of the boundary?" Shujin asked politely, eyes unafraid and twinkling.

"No, please, go on."

That was a lucky break - a topic whose details weren't important to Angeal, just the outcome. He now had the leisure to check on his student with more than the briefest of glances.

Zack was seated near the other end of the table, with the other second-rung officials and assistants to those who were doing most of the talking. The 2nd had been told he didn't have to attend what was essentially a long talk about increasingly boring and distant issues, but Zack had insisted - Angeal suspected this was in reaction to some of the officials treating him more like a teenager than a highly qualified SOLDIER. Subtly looking the boy's way, Angeal saw that Zack was less mobile than usual, sitting with a pensive expression and a soft gaze that flickered around attentively, but seemed to be looking mostly inward.

Puppy. If only there was a magic that would banish all the pain you're feeling, I would give anything to obtain it.

Zack was seated beside a young, long-haired man a few years his senior, the assistant to Kitani's second-in-command, the Chancellor Lord Haneku. He and Zack, though both behaving like serious adults, occasionally traded disbelieving smiles and whispers that made the other nod and enthusiastically whisper back. It was a relief to see Zack more cheerful, even for just a few moments at a time, a pleasure to see his youthful spirit thriving in a dull, still place. But the memory of the previous night was heavy on Angeal's heart, and he knew it must be so for Zack.

If only it were a bad memory, it would not be so vivid. Angeal was shaken from his reverie by the sound of Zack's voice.

"My lords..." How grown-up the boy sounded. "...please forgive my intrusion. But if you can't agree what side of Chusuji Lake the boundary line should fall on, why not place it in the center? Each country can have a mile and a half outward, and the small island in the middle and the water just around it could be used as neutral territory, for important meetings and signing of agreements."

Lord Daikou blinked with surprise, quietly conferred with his second and then nodded. Lord Haneku quickly scribbled in his notes, and smiled at Zack. He addressed Angeal, though; it was the Kitanijin's way to give compliments indirectly.

"You have a bright student, Commander."

"I do, yes." Angeal didn't feel right saying 'Thank you' at such times, as though he were Zack's owner. He gave Zack an approving smile, and received a very dim one in return before the boy looked away.

Lord Shujin glanced quickly back and forth between them before addressing the table. "My friends, I think we are proceeding admirably," he said in Continental, pausing out of courtesy to the translator, "but I cannot in good conscience keep growing young men inside all day in such fine weather. As the meeting will conclude soon anyway, Ateki, Zack, why don't you leave now and get some fresh air?"

"Good idea," Lord Haneku said, the nodded to his subordinate. "Yes, go on, just don't go far."

Zack looked at Angeal, who smiled tightly to hide the sudden feeling that he really didn't want his Puppy out of this room, anywhere out of sight. Some time apart and distraction would do them both good, and all of Kitani was depending on ShinRa's help, so no one would have any reason to bother the boy. Still, Angeal quickly checked to be sure Zack's sword was on him as he stood.

"Are you sure, Angeal? You won't need me?"

Angeal opened his mouth, but needed a moment before anything came out, and thus put an awkwardness into the air that hadn't been there before. "Of course. Just be careful, and back well before dark."

Zack nodded, bowed quickly to Shujin and then the assembled others, and headed toward the door with what only Angeal would know was less than his usual bounce. The young man with him was similarly energized, and even before they left the room the two were nudging each other and laughing quietly. The elders watched them go with their own laughter, feeling indulgent toward their juniors who were not much more than kids, after all.

"I'm glad to see Ateki-kun smile, I had forgotten he could," one of the Kitani delegates said; Angeal had forgotten his name.

"He's a good boy," Lord Haneku said fondly, and Angeal remembered a bit of gossip he had heard, that Haneku had adopted the boy under tragic circumstances, the rest of the family killed during a tribal feud. "And he has found a good friend. You must be very proud of Zack, Commander, he's quite remarkable."

"You are a lucky man, Commander," someone said. "Your student is very mature, and polite, and - "

"Kirei," Lord Daikou finished, and murmurs from around the table concurred.

"Pretty," Lord Shujin translated, and Angeal - who had understood - wondered why until he realized the man was actually offering his own agreeing opinion.

This time, 'Thank you' would have not only been uncomfortable, but also the opposite of what Angeal was actually feeling. He forced himself to remember that he in fact had no right to be offended or suspicious, especially when the compliment was given so matter-of-factly, the way someone would describe a painting or a sunset. But clearly he was not successful in keeping uneasiness from his expression.

"Commander, please excuse my concern if it is impolite, but did you quarrel with your young lover?" He didn't notice who spoke, but every head was turned his way with the same curiosity.

Lover? Who - oh.

"Zack is not my lover, he's my student," Angeal croaked, and took a long drink of his water. For his dry throat, not the heat in his face. Not at all.

"Oh, I see."

"Forgive me for assuming, Commander."

"How strange."

"Is that normal?"

"My friends," Shujin broke into the round of murmuring, "we have weightier matters to discuss. Let us return to them and leave the honorable commander alone."

Angeal, who had kept his wits about him under far more stressful circumstances, found he could not follow a single thread of the conversations that ensued. The voices that argued and compromised all around him were relegated to background noise, and Zack was as ever at the forefront of his thoughts. The boy's confession of months ago had incited a sort of panic in Angeal, as though he were somehow being accused.

Zack, of course, couldn't know that his teacher had been repressing improper fantasies of him for a year or more, but faced with the boy's timid, rushed admission of love, Angeal had simply reacted. Badly, as it turned out. If he had just confessed his own feelings, they might be deliriously happy right now.

Why did I freeze? Zack is young, and childish at times, but not a child. Anyone who knows him knows that. I think our friends and comrades would be pleased for us. Months ago, Sephiroth asked when the last time I dated was. And when Seph points out your lack of social interaction, you know you've got a problem.

Did he want to be with Zack? Angeal considered the question and could come up with no answer but an emphatic, heartfelt yes. So what was the problem? Here the stoic man kept running into a wall. All he could think of was that he was reluctant to change anything. He hadn't been exactly unhappy, repressing all this time, and Zack had seemed happy. Angeal's memory helpfully showed him flashes of the previous night, Zack's desperation and guilt, and his face only minutes ago, dim where there had always before been light. He's not happy now, though.

"That concludes our discussion for today. My lords, I thank you all." Shujin stood and bowed to the delegates as they took their leave, and looked knowingly to his right, at the last man to stir and rise. "Angeal-san, will you stay a moment and speak with me?"

"Of course." Angeal paused here, and continued once they were alone. "I'm sorry I didn't contribute much this past while. I was distracted..."

"Since your student departed. I noticed. Are you worried for him? I assure you, no man of mine would dare harm him in any way."

"I know, and I'm grateful." Angeal didn't entirely like the implication in those words of what kind of harm was most likely, but in all honesty, that had always been a concern. Zack attracted a lot of attention wherever he went, and much of it was not wanted. "But Zack is a very capable fighter. He can take care of himself."

"But you still worry. You have a kind heart, Angeal-san, I think you must be an exceptional teacher. Would you worry less about Zack if he was attached?"

"What?" The question was startling enough in itself; the sharp look and change of tone made it more so. "Attached?"

"Forgive me." Shujin bowed his head and switched to Wutainese. "My skill with your tongue is not sufficient to explain. I meant, perhaps you would have less cause to worry about your student if he were involved in a relationship with one who could ensure his safety."

"I don't understand."

"The anger in your eyes tells me you do."

Angeal stared steadily at the handsome young man, unable to relax his facial muscles or soften what he realized was a somewhat hostile glare. Shujin didn't waver for a moment. He could not have held his little and uncertain country together so well and so long if his soul had been less than strong. And he seemed to understand that it wasn't exactly anger Angeal was feeling - or at least, not an anger directed entirely outward.

"Just to clarify, Angeal-san, I am expressing interest in Zack."

"I...see."

"If you do not admit that this bothers you and why, you will only face this same frustration every time a suitor comes along." Shujin smiled. "And of course, you will be denying yourself happiness for the sake of...what exactly? Not Zack, surely. Even I, a stranger, know how he feels about you. He has many talents, but hiding his feelings is not one of them."

An unwelcome heat swept over Angeal's face. "So this was a ruse to make me jealous, to scare me into forgetting that Zack is much younger than I, and impulsive, and already enough of a target just by being my student..."

"Not entirely a ruse. If you don't want him, I will happily take him." Shujin lightly touched Angeal's arm for a moment. "And I don't think any of your reasons, however valid they might be in your world, matter very much next to the thought of Zack being snatched up by anyone else. Nor do the reasons you have left unspoken."

Angeal, who had been thinking of vaguer fears - his own dangerous life that would be unfair to any lover, his fame that would doubtless affect even a rising star like Zack, his inadequacy compared to the treasure Zack was, the possibility of it not working out - slumped a bit and smiled sadly to let Shujin know he was right. There were a hundred reasons, some legitimate and many not, and they were nothing compared to how he felt, if he allowed himself to feel.

"We have a proverb in this land, Angeal-san, which says that it is good to stand still and let the world come to you. But stand too long, and your life will pass by unlived. To put it less delicately, you are denying yourself love for no good reason, and your student is probably getting sexually frustrated. You should go, before I do."

"Thank you," Angeal said shortly, and walked away without further consideration or ceremony. He faintly heard Shujin laughing kindly as he threw open the ornate double doors.

azazaza

"Zack!"

Angeal called the name in what sounded, to him at least, like a reasonably calm voice. Palace attendants, then guards outside, then people of the neighboring village had all pointed him this way, toward the woods that skirted the nearest mountain of the range. Zack had his sword, and the monsters in this area were within his capabilities, so Angeal wasn't exactly worried about his safety. It was just that acceptance of his feelings made Angeal very anxious to have Zack back in his sight, in his arms if this decision to be honest wasn't coming too late. And if it was...he owed the boy an apology and an explanation, and love that Zack deserved to know he had, regardless of what he chose to do with it.

It was only late afternoon, but the daylight that peeked through the dense forest walls was already wan. At night, when the temperature dropped, fog would descend from the peaks above and shroud the trees in a cool white mist. Today the fog was appearing early, thin but enough to give the place a dream-like quality. With no one around, Angeal could only rely on his ability to sense other mako-enhanced creatures to guide him, but he had always been particularly good at finding Zack, and he navigated the forest paths and veered off them with confidence. The line he followed that would lead to Zack grew shorter, shorter...and Angeal stopped so suddenly that he nearly stumbled.

The clearing was full of death. At least five bodies lay on the dirt; the shallow fog gave the illusion that they were floating. Most were sparsely clothed, mainly in the lightweight armor that Wutaian fighters preferred, and the glimmers of metal beside them were the kind of short swords Angeal remembered from the war. Ateki, Zack's new friend, was crumpled near the open space's center, his diplomat robes bloody. But Zack...

"Zack!" Angeal called, not expecting to hear an answer and already planning his vent of rage at Shujin, his frantic report to ShinRa, his agreement to any ransom and his complete breakdown if it failed. "ZACK!"

"I'm here."

The 1st leaped over three bodies to follow the familiar voice, and found Zack getting to his feet beside a small natural pool. Water dripped down from his sword as he set it down; he had apparently been cleaning the blade. Angeal resolved to run to Zack and hug him at either the first sound of hurt or as soon as Zack turned, but the boy didn't move to face him.

"What're you doing here? It is really you, right?" He laughed without feeling. "Of course it's you, if this was a dream you'd be...and me too. While I was fighting them, I was pretty sure I'd win, but I wasn't positive, because this looks so much like my last dream. And dreams always mean something."

Angeal said nothing, and continued to stand in the clearing littered with corpses and watch Zack in the clearing ahead, facing the trees that lined the distance in all directions. Zack wasn't still, he never was except in deepest sleep, and the silvery light reflecting off the small pool bathed him and made his nervous twitching painfully visible. Without looking away, Angeal unsheathed the Buster Sword and set it carefully against the nearest tree. He wasn't sure why he did this, unless it was an automatic reaction to the heaviness he was feeling.

"Oh, you wanna know what happened, I guess. Ateki...I don't know. I don't know if he was on Wutai's side a long time or if someone influenced him recently. He brought me here on purpose, where the soldiers were waiting, hidden. He tried to kiss me, to distract me, but I sensed them, so I was ready, and they were fighting to capture at first. Then Ateki got angry and came at me with a knife, and I had to...and after that, they didn't seem to care as much. I liked Ateki. I should apologize to Lord Haneku, and tell the Wutaian delegates we won't hold this incident against them."

Angeal knew what he wanted to say to that and opened his mouth, but Zack laughed first and continued before he could. The boy knew without needing to hear what reassurance Angeal would choose.

"I know, I know. You'll handle all that, right, so I won't have to? Thanks, Angeal. I do appreciate your insane hovering, really. But sometimes I gotta do hard stuff myself. Because I can. I want you to see that, even if it doesn't change the way things are between us. I mean, if I can kill, I can explain my reasons for having to. And I can tell people no...and yes."

Zack's face tilted upward, shifting his gaze from the ground to the scenery before him, the trees rising out of the low fog. If he thought it was strange that Angeal remained so far away he didn't say so, but he did wrap his arms loosely around himself, mimicking the hug that his mentor usually provided.

"Sorry about last night. Don't say it's okay. Or that it was your fault too. You were trying to make me feel better, like you always do." Zack laughed hollowly again. "Anyway, I can't cling to you after a nightmare and then ask you to treat me like an adult."

Angeal felt his feet begin to move, and the length of wispy ground between he and Zack began to shrink.

"Really...you don't have to do anything. And I won't..."

Close now, only feet away.

"...I won't take advantage again, like I did last night."

Angeal's hands lifted and fell gently onto Zack's shoulders; the boy exhaled at the touch and turned his head to lightly brush one hand with his chin. Angeal massaged his shoulders and the muscles of his upper back a few moments, then slid his palms down Zack's arms and beneath them, to wrap his arms around him. Zack tensed briefly, then sank back into the embrace, even held onto the encircling arms to keep them there. Angeal nestled his face next to Zack's, and through the contact felt him smile.

"We can still hug? That's good."

"You think you took advantage of me last night?"

"I did."

"And I you. I suppose that makes us...even. Equal. Equal enough, at least...and if that's just a pathetic excuse, I don't care anymore."

"Angeal?" Zack said softly, understandably confused.

"I love you so much. So much, Zack, I don't know why I told you I couldn't. I thought I was was being responsible by denying what I wanted, that I could preserve you just the way you are. I didn't consider that I was keeping you unhappy, and I didn't know how hard it would be to want you like this and pretend I don't. I'm not okay with anyone else touching you or looking at you, and being that way and doing nothing is unfair to you. More unfair than the difference in our ages or ranks or the fact that I'm supposed to be teaching you."

It's possible that Angeal, in his twenty-five years on Gaia, had never uttered a speech longer than that. Zack breathed heavily but said nothing, and wrapped his fingers tightly around one of Angeal's hands. That was enough to encourage Angeal, though he was pretty certain he wasn't making sense.

"Puppy, I still don't think it would be fair to you, for a lot of reasons you probably haven't considered. But now that you know the truth, pretending we're platonic isn't any better. If you still love me, if you can forgive me, if you'll forgive me all the grief this may end up causing you - "

"You idiot."

Before the fond insult had fully left his mouth, Zack had whirled around and was hugging Angeal back, pushing his face roughly into a muscled but sensitive chest. The bold contact, especially between their hips, imparted a degree of permission, so Angeal brushed his lips over the curve of Zack's ear, down the soft line of his jaw and back again.

"Fair to me? Equals? You think this was ever about something that can be measured? I just love you. I just want you to love me."

"I love you, Zack. I'm sorry I didn't say that right away. I'm sorry it required this."

"What, the dead bodies or the table of old guys eyeing me?" Zack asked, and made a pleased humming noise when he was clutched tighter, pet more fiercely. "Please tell me this isn't just a protective thing, like you don't want me having sex with anyone."

"I want you to have sex with me," Angeal said in a rush, and joined in when Zack began to quietly laugh. "I didn't mean to say that so plainly."

"Being vague wasn't doing us any favors."

The release of laughter didn't dilute or vent the heat that was building between them. Angeal considered holding back, but Zack was pushing against him what was very obviously an erection to match his own, so that idea was discarded. He tilted Zack's head back a little for easier access, and their lips met in a kiss that, after a flash of shyness, was eager and greedy and fanning the flames further.

When they broke apart for air Angeal ran his thumb over the boy's faintly bruised lips, feeling proud rather than worried, and slipped his other hand under Zack's shirt to explore his stomach and chest.

"They're dead," Zack said uncertainly, meaning he wasn't sure it was in good taste to be doing this here. Even so, he moaned willingly when his ass was cupped in appraisal and approval, and nuzzled back against the nose that brushed his own.

"But you're not. We're not. Puppy, listen to me."

"Oh Gaia...I can't if you're gonna touch there - "

"Listen." Angeal didn't withdraw his hand, but was careful to cup between Zack's legs gently, not to rush. "When you told me what five identical dreams mean in Gongaga, it made me remember something."

"Nnnn...what?"

"I always thought it was strange. In Banora, if you dream someone's death, it means they'll fall in love."

"...really?"

"Mmm-hmm. Although some people argue that it actually predicts a wedding."

"Whoa, slow down, SOLDIER," Zack half-laughed, half-groaned. "People will think you knocked me up or something."

"If I don't, it won't be for lack of trying," Angeal muttered, dropping to his knees.

"You're so weird. What are - oh fuck, Angeal..."

His mouth was full, but the commander used his hands to reassure instead, touching the skin Zack's pants had hidden before he yanked them down and finding it pleasantly warm and quivering. He finally settled them on Zack's ass, cupping and squeezing it while the rest of him leaned against a convenient, smooth-barked tree for support.

Zack was clearly enjoying this, heaving and crying out and clenching handfuls of the elder's hair as gently as he could. The boy thrust his hips a bit in an obvious request for more, but not too hard. He was distracted, no doubt, by the insistent probing of Angeal's talented tongue into the slit and the tiny beads of fluid he eagerly lapped up.

"Nnn...please...that...fuck..."

However fragmented his speech, Zack clearly approved of this. Angeal took him in deeper, focused more on sucking than laving now. Zack gasped, groaned, dug his blunt nails into the broad shoulders and arched his back, lifting up onto the toes of his boots. With a strangled cry that may have been intended to be Angeal's name, Zack shuddered and shook with a tremor strong enough to briefly double him over. He slumped a little then, away from the tree, and steadied himself by holding onto Angeal. He wouldn't have fallen; familiar hands were on his sides and supporting him, as they always had and would.

"Nnn," Zack said blissfully as he was licked clean. "Angeal..."

Even after being satisfied so well, Angeal realized, Zack wanted more. How fitting, as the 1st's own need was straining both his pants and his sanity, demanding attention. He took his mouth off of Zack (faintly regretting the loss) and turned the half-nude boy around, delved into the offered heat with his tongue for a moment before he forced himself to pause.

"Puppy..." The sight of his saliva glistening on the pretty white skin was distracting. "What do you want to do?"

"Everything," Zack whined impatiently. "Gaia, don't stop, do something, anything..."

Honor intact, Angeal spread him with careful hands and dove back in, repeating every swipe and jab that made Zack react positively, with movement or noise. When Zack began to involuntarily clench and force his tongue out, Angeal wet his fingers and used them to loosen him, rubbing circles into the ring of muscle until it could admit three of them with relative ease.

"Okay okay that's enough do it already!"

Between Zack's needy voice and his wiggling, Angeal's patience was worn down from a thin layer to nonexistence. He straightened up quickly and unfastened his pants, then blinked, startled, to see Zack's face beneath his own.

"Puppy? Did you change - " But the boy had removed his pants entirely, not pulled them back up.

"Can we do it like this?" Zack whispered shyly, and put his arms around Angeal's neck.

If there hadn't been a way, Angeal decided, he would have come up with one, anything for Zack. He pressed the boy back a little, against the convenient tree, murmured "Hold on to me" and lifted the long bare legs to wrap around his waist. They pressed against his sides tightly, hands kept a solid grip on each other beneath Angeal's hair, and Angeal cradled him from beneath with careful hands, gently spreading as he moved into position.

"Zack."

"Keep looking at me. I want to see you." Zack kissed back, happily, when Angeal seized his lips, but broke away after only a few seconds. "Hurry, I need you..."

Angeal began to push inside, as carefully as he could. Zack was very tight, as he'd expected, but moved forward to take him in, and his willingness - eagerness - seemed to ease the way. Angeal gritted his teeth, forcing himself to keep quiet to listen to the sanity-obliterating nosies Zack was making, faint cries of slight pain and louder, uninhibited moans of pleasure. The heat was somehow excruciating in a way that only felt good, but similarly Angeal tried to keep his eyes open so he wouldn't miss a moment of Zack's face.

The boy was flushed, head tilted back and mouth slightly open. When Angeal had gently slid all the way inside, Zack relaxed his squeezed-shut eyes, then opened them and gave him a sweet, almost sleepy smile.

"Angeal."

Angeal kissed him again, furiously and sloppily, then pressed their burning foreheads together as he eased back and drove forward. Zack yelped and tightened his legs around Angeal, restricting his movement so that he could only thrust back and forth, alternating between shallow and deep, but that was fine with both of them.

"Gaia fuck, Angeal don't stop - "

"I won't."

"Angeal..."

"Are you - "

"'M good so good holy fuck..."

Angeal increased speed and pulled Zack's body against his own, thrusting hard, each like a quiet, contained jolt of lightning for them both. Angeal was spent before he wanted to be, orgasm pulled out of him by the sound and spasm of Zack's, but he caught his breath through a wide (and probably dopey) grin. If this wasn't perfection, it was at least the closest to it he could remember ever experiencing.

Zack groaned tiredly into his shoulder, unintelligibly but presumably trying to express the same opinion. He grabbed Angeal's hair and awkwardly tugged until the 1st was close enough for him to kiss, though after a moment his face drooped back into hiding, nuzzling like a burrowing animal. Angeal held him tightly, easily, and gave him the minute of quiet he seemed to need.

"Puppy?"

Zack made a pleased noise and shifted again to look at him. Angeal's heart swelled; there was the blinding smile he had been missing.

"Still think you're taking advantage?" Angeal didn't answer quickly enough. Zack sighed, still smiling. "You'll get over it."

"I love you."

"How do you love me?"

"In more ways than I should. That's all the answer I ever intended to give you," Angeal said softly. "But I can't let you go."

"Can you put me down, at least?"

"No."

"Hey, I'm not a girl, I won't be carried around," Zack whined, and squirmed until he was still in Angeal's arms but standing on his own. "Who ever said there's just one way you're supposed to love me? That's not fair. I'm way too lovable."

"Yes, you are."

"And you really intended to just sit back and do nothing about what we feel for each other? What if someone else had come along?"

"I would have tried to be happy for you," Angeal said, running his fingers through the black spikes, "and possibly killed him." He laughed a little. "This is much healthier, then."

"Are you being sarcastic?"

"No. I'm too happy for that," Angeal admitted.

Zack squeezed his arms around Angeal with enough strength to crush an unenhanced man. "Keep holding me," the boy whispered, and Angeal hugged him and breathed the clean rain-and-life scent of Zack's hair while the teenager whispered something solemn in what Angeal recognized as Gongagan. He had been saying something similar, Angeal realized, during the earlier minute of silence, muffling it into cloth and skin. Angeal couldn't understand the words but found them beautiful, and listened raptly until Zack finished.

"What was that?"

"Prayer for the dead."

"Is that what you were saying before too?"

"Nah. That one was a thank-you. To Gaia, for you."

Angeal cupped Zack's face with his hand and reflected the boy's mischievous smile. "Including Gaia in all this? Bad Puppy."

"I know." Zack's pale eyes smirked up at him from a face that glowed with contentment. "Almost like I was taking advantage, huh?"

Hope you liked it!!!