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Like most things, the wings came to the Big Three exactly as one might expect.

 

Genesis, the eldest, got his first, He had been stressed to breaking with the killing and the lying and the young men lying bloody and broken in the fields. He stepped away from the mess tents for some air before he moved from angry words to angry fists, and lost himself near the western edge of camp in a flashy display of white-hot flame that took out three field huts, his jacket, the majority of his pants, the edges of his hair and half an acre of damp forest. When it was over, sharply angled wings rose from his naked back, trembling and new, the deep velvety black of pure coal.

Angeal and Sephiroth got to him about the same time, finding him sitting on a patch of mud blasted into something rather like brick, stroking one outstretched wing with an expression akin to wonder.

Getting him back into camp without his nudity being noticed was difficult, especially with twitchy wings to deal with. As they later learned- when Genesis casually hopped off a cliff and Angeal almost had a spontaneous coronary- Genesis’ wings were designed for speed and tight corners, just like the rest of his body. This came with a healthy dose of the twitches and a sensitivity to touch that was both a curse and a blessing.

 

Angeal, the patient and grounded middle child, got his in the middle of a spring storm. They were working disaster rescue, SOLDIERs everywhere hauling survivors from the wreckage of a fishing village mostly destroyed by a mudslide. Like many of the bigger SOLDIERs, Angeal spent most of his time lifting and hauling, and consequently finding the bulk of those who had not gotten out of their homes in time. Grieving, he had continued his work even as a fresh storm had kicked up, ignoring the calls of his friends and comrades in favor of working off his emotions.

He did this right up until a weak timber came loose, swinging down and sideways and catching him squarely in the gut, then continuing on with him along for the ride. A swirl of white feathers whirled up in the wind, unnoticed by the onlookers as, further down the street, a far more powerful gust of wind promptly blew Angeal off the timber and over the wall built to keep children from tumbling over the sea cliffs. It was far too short to stop a man his size.

When they fished him out of the harbor over an hour later, it took four men to get him onto the barge simply because of the weight of water dragging his wings down. Angeal sprawled shirtless on the deck, arms and legs and wings spread like some bizarre sea star, until Genesis remarked casually on the unusual number of wings Angeal now possessed.

When they were rinsed off and dried, all four of Angeal’s unusual wings went from a grayish color tinted with silt and algae to a brilliant, blinding white. They were incredibly long, though narrower than Genesis’ to compensate for there being two pair, and had served as unfortunate sails in the wind. When Genesis pushed him off the same cliff several days later, he concluded, as he attempted to lose altitude before he ended up on another continent, that his wings were made to catch the wind and glide forever.

 

Sephiroth’s wings took longer in coming. It was summer in Wutai, the war was winding down, and Sephiroth was attempting to sneak off base and find something decent to eat. He was caught, not by a base patrol or a ninja or an Imperial warrior, but by a ragtag bunch of civilians who were both somewhat drunk and very aware of how much trouble Sephiroth could get into for attacking unarmed men. This knowledge made them cocky. And mouthy. Their handle on Standard was just good enough to be cruel.

No one from the base was there when lightning cracked across a blue sky. No one but the drunks saw when black clouds billowed into being overhead. Only the drunks saw Sephiroth crumple, screaming, to his knees as the clouds opened and an icy rain began to fall.

But three Imperial ninja had arrived by the time Sephiroth had clawed through his coat and into the skin beneath, gouging bloody trenches into his own flesh as the skin of his back bulged and strained. They corralled the drunks, then stood silently and watched as Sephiroth’s skin gave way at last, splitting wide as enormous, sodden things exploded from his back in a spray of blood.They spread, up and out and up and out, the downpour washing the blood away until they were only black.

By the time Angeal and Genesis- and half the base’s complement of SOLDIERs- arrived in the clearing, Sephiroth was gone. Where he had been was a puddle of watery blood, three Imperial ninja, and the bodies of seven local men.

They found Sephiroth outside a ramen stand nearly five miles away, sitting behind it under the cover of an umbrella held by the owner’s wife, crying into his noodles with massive wings hung limply about him like a cloak.

Genesis did not try pushing him off a cliff to test them.

 

Then the war was over, due in part to ShinRa’s Big Three staunchly refusing to continue and also thanks to a conversation three shaken Imperial ninja had had with Emperor Godo.

Back in Midgar, three men got around to learning how to actually live with functional wings. Using them occasionally during the war was one thing, but that wasn’t daily life. That was generally a last-ditch effort to accomplish some nearly impossible task. And in the high-stress environment of battle, the wings were a constant presence, to the point of requiring special tailoring.

At home, the wings were…a little more transient. They popped in and out of existence, thankfully with none of the drama Sephiroth and Genesis had experienced and rarely involving the loose plumage cloud Angeal’s had arrived with. The force was usually enough to shred clothing, requiring even more special tailoring for Angeal and Genesis. Less so for Sephiroth, whose wings didn’t seem to want to go away. This posed some unique problems…his wingspan was nearly equal to Angeal’s, and each wing was incredibly broad. Folded against his back, the tips nearly brushed the floor and the folded tops curved above his head, easy prey for low or narrow doorways, small spaces, bookshelves and errant boots, to say nothing of the awkwardness of trying to sit in a chair. Genesis could sit down, provided the chair had a narrow back or was a stool. Angeal had quickly learned how to get the chair back under his wings, against his spine, before folding. It became a casual gesture, like hitching up the legs of a pair of fine trousers before sitting.

The wings responded quickly and easily to changes in emotion. Anger, pain, upset and fear all called the wings up in a hurry. Anger, they learned, was by far the most useful; nothing stopped people in their tracks like a pair of wings being flared in their face. Sephiroth often growled when he did this, and Genesis had a tendency to smoke gently. Angeal didn’t need special effects- with the blazing white of his wings as a backdrop, he appeared even larger and more solid than he already was.

Outside of this use, though, the wings were largely a nuisance during working hours, save for when Sephiroth decided to walk off the edge of the Plate in order to get to his favorite dim sum restaurant a little faster.

Behind closed doors, however, in their private quarters, wings were far more versatile. Genesis, temperature sensitive as he was, saw their use as blankets early on.

“We fill duvets with down,” he argued, tugging at the edge of one of Sephiroth’s wings. “It stands to reason that leaving the down on will still work.”

“Most down is from the bird’s belly ,” Sephiroth grumbled, but he obligingly spread one wing. Where Genesis’ wings had a velvety quality in their blackness, his had a sheen to them, like an oil slick, which was only becoming more apparent and rainbow-y as they all learned to properly care for their new limbs.

“Well, if you had belly feathers I would snuggle those instead. Now, let’s see…” Genesis wriggled under the curve of Sephiroth’s half-spread wing and sat down with a sigh of bliss. “ Ahhh …”

Sephiroth peered under his wing, which had cupped tighter as soon as Genesis was tucked within it. “Genesis?”

Goddess that’s good,” Genesis groaned. “I may never come out. Try it, Angeal.”

“I’m not cold,” Angeal murmured, not looking up from his book.

“Angeal , come try it .”

“Don’t I get a say?” Sephiroth asked curiously.

“No, you have the biggest wings, so you’re the snuggler. Angeal, don’t make me come out of this glorious warmth to get you , I will not be happy if I have to do that.”

Angeal sighed heavily and heaved himself out of his armchair, plodding over to squirm into the protective darkness of Sephiroth’s other wing.

“….huh.”

“You see ?”

Sephiroth peered in at the big man. “Angeal?”

“It is nice.”

Sephiroth sighed heavily. “ Fine . But if you two get too hot, I’m- ack !” All the feathers on both wings ruffled at once, a soft rustling noise that ended in his wings gaining a ridiculous amount of volume. “Wh…wh…”

Inside the suddenly fluffy cocoon, Angeal sneezed.

*-*

Autumn turned to winter and Angeal got himself a student. An adorable, lovable, unabashedly enthusiastic student who had been born and raised in a tropical region. Winter was…not Zack Fair’s idea of a good time. And it wreaked merry hell on his system as he experienced his first real winter, having somehow managed to be assigned to warm areas for the last two winters and stuck inside adjusting to his shots the year before that.

By this time, they had the blanket-wings routine down to a fine art. The fluffing problem tended to only happen if there was someone under each wing, so Angeal was safe with Zack tucked into his left side, warm and secure under a blanket of feathers.

“Mama ‘bo,” Sephiroth remarked, settling into the armchair across from Angeal with a mug of coffee and an enormous book.

“Someone has to be. What are you reading?”

Sephiroth smiled sheepishly and held the book up. It was a compilation volume of one of the Wutai graphic novels Genesis tended to tease mercilessly about.

“…Rurouni Kenshin? Can’t say I’ve h- ack !”

Zack exploded out from under Angeal’s wing and launched himself over the coffee table, aiming for the book. Sephiroth managed to get his coffee out of the way but caught the young man moving at full speed. The armchair went over backwards with some undignified squawking and a cloud of black feathers. From behind the upturned furniture Angeal, who had all but swallowed his fist trying not to laugh, heard “OH MY GAHD THIS IS THE TRIPLE VOLUME OMNIBUS! WHERE DID YOU GET THIS?” and gave up his struggle entirely. He was still laughing and and weakly pounding his fist on the arm of the couch when Sephiroth emerged without his book and drifted over, trying to scowl and mostly failing.

“At least he approves?” Angeal managed.

Sephiroth gave him a good buffet with his wing and retrieved his coffee.

*-*

Having wings took some adjustments. Having wings with Zack around…so, so much worse.

 

Zack touched. He poked. He tugged (gently) and sniffed and on one memorable occasion licked . He asked dozens of questions no one had any answer too and posed technical situations no one had tried out yet. He rode on Sephiroth’s back on a trip over the Plate to the dim sum restaurant and hung under Angeal’s body in a repurposed tire swing.

But it was also Zack who figured out preening .

 

It was spring again, early spring with blowing precipitation that was sometimes rain, sometimes sleet, and sometimes hail in a delightful combination of ‘hey world fuck you’. Whenever the wings appeared outdoors, the unfortunate bearer had to come back inside and sit under a heat lamp with microfiber cloths, carefully sweeping moisture off the feathers. A wrong swipe was uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and rarely horrifying if a bloodfeather got broken in the process. Getting the feathers themselves back in order was time consuming and uncomfortable.

It was on one of these occasions when Zack came across Genesis reordering his plumage. He cocked his head to the side to watch awhile.

“Why are you doing it that way?” he asked at last.

“This is the only way to do it,” Genesis muttered.

“…no it isn’t. Can I try?”

“If you pull my feathers out I will beat you .”

“Fair enough.” Zack scooted closer, pinched his fingers together, and began running them through Genesis’ feathers in quick, smooth strokes.

It took only a minute or two before Genesis was leaning into him, wings limp, eyes half closed. The sensation of Zack’s fingers moving through his feathers was a special kind of calming deliciousness on par with having Sephiroth’s fingers in his hair, and it was impossible to resist.

“Better?” Zack asked, working slowly from Genesis’ back to the tip of his wing.

Hnnngg ?”

“Man, you’re adorable like this. A fluffy Gen-loaf.”

Genesis couldn’t summon the energy to do more than huff at him and continue melting against him.

 

Preening sessions became a regular event, particularly after Zack taught them all how it worked. Apparently he had learned how to do it by spending too much time in the chocobo barns when he was a cadet. Exhausted ‘bos might not be able to preen properly, which could lead to problems, so the hostlers (and Zack) preened them when it was needed.

This lead to the occasional semi-circle of SOLDIERs on Sephiroth’s living room floor or spread over Genesis’ bed and squashy throw rugs. Whoever had had the worst day got to sit at the front, doing no work at all, and Zack always sat at the back, as he had no wings to preen. These events usually ended in Zack ordering pizza for everyone while they drowsed where they had fallen.

 

Later in the spring, when Zack was thankfully on assignment with Angeal, Genesis and Sephiroth determined that preening the underside of each other's wings had other applications as well, when the mood was right. The sensitive skin and delicate feathers there were deliciously responsive. Angeal got involved when he came back. Zack, being a subordinate SOLDIER, was not invited.

*-*

Within the next year, a few other pairs of wings popped up around SOLDIER. They all belonged to senior First Class SOLDIERs whose Mako levels were the highest, and all had only the single pair, feathers coming in more like those seen in nature: red brown, cream with brown barring, gunmetal grey. Handsome, useful limbs. Preening lessons were added to the first aid courses for treatment of advanced First Classes in shock or in situations where they couldn’t preen themselves. A HoneyBee Inn girl figured out the secret of the under-wing fluff preening and spread the word.

Wings became the thing , a sign of the highest advancement SOLDIER had to offer. And the number of SOLDIER who had earned them was very, very small. A tiny, intimate club of men who knew that earning your wings was a terrible, terrible thing.

*-*

In the fall of 2002, Sephiroth was given an assignment to Nibelheim along with Zack as backup and a pair of troopers, one of whom was Zack’s pet trooper and Nibelheim native Cloud Strife.

The day before he was due to leave for the mission, Sephiroth dragged himself out of bed three times before his alarm to vomit before giving up entirely and sleeping on the bathroom floor. He reassigned his mission to Angeal via his PHS and tried to get some sleep.

 

In Nibelheim, hindered by rain on wings that he couldn’t get to go away, Angeal allowed Cloud to take Zack around to ‘see the sights’, which was loosely translated as ‘chasing monsters in the old ShinRa Mansion’.

Somewhere between chasing a small pack of unnamed monsters into the depths of the building and finding Sephiroth’s name in the library, Zack’s eyes began to change color. By the time Cloud noticed, Zack was seven volumes into the horror of Sephiroth’s childhood and his eyes were almost fully emerald green.

Cloud had the good sense to run, though that meant going back through the basement. When something overhead crashed and the walls around him shuddered, he jinked left instinctively, diving through a hole in the wall they had made earlier in their chase and effectively preventing his premature death by falling ceiling. The chunks of the upstairs floor blocked him into the dark room, forcing him to dig a glo-stick from his pack and subsequently have a small heart attack when he found himself in a room full of coffins.

 

Zack had fled the mansion by the time Cloud and his skinny, leather and crimson-clad rescuer from the coffin-room emerged, leaving a trail of felled trees, churned up earth and what looked like severe wind-damage in his wake. The trail lead away from the village, up into the mountains. Towards the reactor.

“We’ve got to get Angeal,” Cloud gasped. “He can…can…”

“He cannot,” his new companion said quietly. “He will only be enslaved.” He straightened up, promptly dwarfing Cloud. “Come. You and I may have a better chance. You in particular.”

Cloud swallowed, looking up into burning eyes. “Not you?”

“I have no way to know if I am weak to the thing in the mountains.” He rolled his shoulders slowly, then reached for the holster at his hip and checked the enormous gun there. “But you are not.”

Imitating the gesture, Cloud reached back to check the SI sword still strapped to his back. He had a standard-issue rifle as well, and the old pistol he’d learned to shoot with, with ammo for both.

“This is going to kill Zack, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps.”

“It’s going to kill me.”

“Likely.”

“What about you?”

The man looked at him and one side of his mouth curled up in a sad little smile. “I’m already dead. Come. He already has a head start.”

 

When they made it to the reactor- the dead man could leap for great distances, as if he had Mako strength and invisible wings to glide with, and he was strong enough to carry Cloud up the steeper bits- the mouth of the reactor entrance had a thin stream of polluted Mako and bits of…something dribbling out of it onto the rocks below.

“…human flesh,” the man said quietly, after leaning down to sniff it. “Or it was, once.”

Was human flesh ?” Cloud demanded.

“If we survive this, I will explain. Or attempt to.” He looked at Cloud. “My information is some twenty-odd years out of date, I’m afraid.”

“Your information is…you just…” Cloud resisted the urge to pull at his own hair. “ Who are you ?”

The look he got was cagey as hell, one Cloud recognized from Zack’s photos of Sephiroth denying things like ‘are these your sappy romance comics’ and ‘did you eat the tart I bought for Angeal’.

“….call me Valentine. Now move .”

 

The tunnel bored into the mountain was lined with the wreckage of what Cloud would have called Materia incubation pods before that day. The remains hanging from or heaped beneath them, however, proved that they had been repurposed for something else entirely…something much, much worse. He swallowed against the urge to vomit and let Valentine lead deeper into the mountain, where crashing and growling sounds echoed eerily off the pipes and vents.

Despite the warnings Valentine had given on their way up the mountain- vague in many respects, but all culminating in the likelihood of Zack being reduced to a violent, mindless beast who would attack them both with a zealot’s enthusiasm- they found Zack in the center of the reactor, where Cloud knew the controls and records ought to be. And they were, more or less, ranged around an enormous glass tube that Zack was attempting to hack his way into. The glass was spiderwebbed with cracks but hadn’t yet broken, which was a surprise in and of itself, since Zack was nearing his First Class promotion and ought to be able to break most things. Behind the glass floated…a body? A woman? Some nightmarish blend of woman and monster, hooked to wires and tubes. Her eyes glowed.

“….Valentine?” Cloud ventured.

“Shield your face,” the man warned, raising his cloak with his free arm to do the same. When Cloud obeyed, he lifted his gun and fired a single round.

The glass exploded in a shower of shards and Mako-tainted nutrient fluid. The monstrous thing hung heavily on the tubes and wires for a moment before Zack threw himself at it with a scream, tearing it down with hands that were already cut and bleeding, his gloves nothing but cuffs hanging loosely around his wrists.

“That…is not the outcome I’d expected,” Valentine remarked, watching Zack tear the thing apart.

“You don’t know Zack,” Cloud informed him. “How do I help him?”

“He has apparently lost his weapon. Give him your sword and hope he doesn’t put it through your chest.”

With that encouragement, Cloud grasped his sword’s blade carefully in both hands and awkwardly held the other end out to Zack.

“Zack? Zack, hey…here…you can use my sword.”

Zack’s head snapped up, catching Cloud in his burning gaze like a deer before a wolf. All traces of blue-violet were gone, leaving fluorescing emerald green eyes, red rimmed, pouring…tears?

He snatched the sword from Cloud’s hands, slicing the blond’s palms with the speed of it, and turned back to his furiously messy butchery. Cloud backed over to Valentine and stood with him, bloody hands trembling.

“Valentine? He’s…he’s crying.”

“I can see that.”

“Do you know why?”

“No. Do you?”

“He…he read something in the library…he said Sephiroth’s name was in it and…and he started getting really angry…but I-“ Valentine grabbed his shoulder and spun him around, leaning down to stare urgently into his eyes.

Sephiroth ?”

“…yes? General Sephiroth? He’s…um…in his twenties, really tall, long silver hair and a sword so long the tip can break the sound barrier when he swings? He’s best friends with Zack’s teacher…”

Sephiroth is alive ?” Valentine demanded, giving him a shake. “Do not lie to me.”

“I think he wished he was dead when we left, he had some kind of awful stomach virus, but- awp !”

Valentine shoved Cloud aside to stumble against the railing over the reservoir and threw himself bodily at Zack.

No. Not at Zack. At the thing Zack was tearing apart. Which he was…also tearing apart.

Cloud decided that he might as well get in on the insanity and went to assist in the destruction.

 

Zack collapsed, weeping, into what remained of the mess after Cloud had pushed most of it through the railing and into the Mako below. Valentine sat beside him, arms propped on his knees, dark hair a damp, stringy mess, looking dazed.

“We should go,” Cloud said quietly. “Even if you’re dead, I don’t think Mako inhalation is going to be very good for you, and there’s a lot of steam coming up from the reservoir now. Help me get Zack moving?”

Together they half-lead, half-dragged Zack back down the hallway to the tunnel mouth, then out onto the wet, rainy mountainside. It was getting dark, the sun already sinking behind the western peaks.

There, Valentine helped Cloud sit Zack down, then vanished into the tunnel again. Cloud never got around to asking what he did there, but there was roaring, and the smells of scorched flesh and hot metal and stone. The ends of his hair were a little charred when he returned, and his bandana had lost a couple of inches.

“Traveling in the mountains is dangerous at night,” Cloud said quietly. “But I’m going to freeze if we don’t, and I don’t think Zack’s in any condition to stay out here either.”

“No,” Valentine agreed, but he sat on a rock beside Cloud and began to awkwardly finger comb his hair out of his face with the dangerously sharp- and gore caked- claws on his gleaming metal gauntlet. “Give him a moment to breathe. Perhaps he will calm and be easier to travel with.” He cast a look at Zack, curled on the rocks and still crying. “I may be able to carry him, but the footing here is…”

“I know a way back. Rather than…um…the way we came, or the main road. There’s a path. Zack might be too heavy for the bridge, though…”

“I should be able to get him across without trouble.” He shifted abruptly, and fresh blood dribbled into his eyebrow from a cut at his hairline.

Cloud sighed and reached for his pack. “Give me your hand. I’ll clean those. Can you get an infection from all this…yuck?”

“I doubt it.”

“But you could get rot, I suppose. I’ll do your forehead too.”

“Tend to your own hands first,” Valentine murmured. “I can-“

“No. I fuss over others to cover my own anxiety in situations that upset me.” Cloud dug a first aid kit and a sachet of wipes from his bag and reached for Valentine’s face. “Hold still. If you still have functioning nerve endings, this is going to sting.”

Valentine ended up sitting still while Cloud cleaned his cut, then started work using swabs from the kit to clean the tiny joints in his gauntlet. He was nearly done when Zack’s exhausted sobbing began to gain momentum again.

“Zack?” Cloud ventured. “Hey, are you okay?”

“It hurts,” Zack gasped. “It hurts , they didn’t say it would hurt why does it hurt so much?”

What hurts? I’ve got a med kit, I can help you if you tell me what it is.”

“The wings ….f-fuck… ahh …like tearing out my spine ,” he managed, voice coming out in a whine.

“Did he say wings ?” Valentine asked.

“Yeah, the…some of the First Classes have them, but Zack’s not…he isn’t ranked high enough. He’s not even a First yet!” Cloud reached for Zack, pulling at his mostly-intact shirt until he got it over the older man’s head and could toss it aside. “I…I don’t know if this is going to be okay…”

The skin of Zack’s back bulged, swelled, and abruptly tore down the middle. Zack screamed.

*-*

Angeal was sitting in the pub side of the Inn’s ground floor, staring out at the rain that hadn’t let up overnight. Dawn was close enough that there was some light outside…some light and no sign of his student or said student’s small blond friend. Some of the locals said there had been a small landslide up near the manor. No sign of any bodies. No sign of anyone having been there, except that one of the local men had said some of the trees appeared to have been cut down . That could only have been Zack, but…

The door banged open. Angeal startled, wings flaring to knock several chairs over.

Cloud staggered inside, dripping wet, covered in mud and grime and what looked like blood spatter, which made Angeal’s stomach knot up. It only got worse as a tall, rail-thin man stepped inside, until Angeal saw that Zack was half draped over his shoulders, dragging massive, sodden, mottled wings behind him.

Zack ,” he breathed, rushing over to help (and taking a few more chairs out on his way).

“He’s coming down off greening,” Cloud explained. “I…I don’t know what happened…his wings …”

“No Second Class has ever…but…” Angeal paused. “And you are?”

“Valentine. Cloud…found me.”

“We need to get Zack dried off,” Cloud interrupted. “We’ve been out all night and he was worn out before that. Commander , stop gawping !”

 

Angeal maintained a low-grade fuss on their way upstairs, through the process of getting Zack stripped down, cleaned up and into bed, where he promptly fell asleep, wings draped over both sides of the bed. Then he sat on what was supposed to be Cloud’s bed and demanded explanations, hugging himself with wings and arms as Cloud did his best to explain.

“You should stop for now,” Valentine advised, halfway through the tale. “He isn’t well. I doubt he will retain much of what you’re telling him.”

“He’s…what?” Cloud looked up at Angeal. “Sir?”

Angeal looked a little guilty. “I thought it was just nerves, waiting for you, but…it’s possible Sephiroth was contagious…”

Cloud made a small sound of indignation. “Then why are we sitting here talking ? You didn’t sleep! When did you last eat ? No, don’t answer that, just…. augh! Go to bed! Now !”

Angeal stared at him, accustomed to taking orders from small, angry people but not at all used to a trooper being the one responsible.

“He fusses over others to cover for his own anxiety,” Valentine deadpanned. “I would advise doing as he says. In my experience, he won’t take no for an answer. Go. I will stand watch.”

“But you’ve both been out all-“

“It matters little. Cloud will rest once you have been taken care of, and sleep does not concern me. I’m dead already, you see.”

Cloud chased Angeal away while the man was still trying to process this statement.

*-*

Two miserable days later, Angeal woke flat on his back in bed, wingless, with sunlight streaming through the bedroom windows and something incredibly large and obscenely colorful leaning over him, grinning.

“You’re awake !” Zack crowed. “Finally ! Cloud said to leave you alone because you practically puked up a lung but…but An geal ! LOOK!”

Angeal did look. And looked some more, because the wings rising from Zack’s back were unlike any SOLDIER had ever seen. In size and shape they were much like Sephiroth’s, powerful multi-purpose wings attached to even more powerful new muscle groups along his spine. But the color …the most colorful SOLDIERs wings to date were a myriad of browns. Zack’s were the riotous rainbow of a tropical parrot, red and blue and gold and green so bright they all but glowed in the sunlight.

Zack ,” Angeal managed.

“I know ! But hey, none of you guys told me how much it hurt to get wings. Dick move , man. That sucked .” Zack spread his wings as much as he could in the confined of the room and fluffed his feathers proudly. “But check these out , right? They’re awesome !”

Angeal nodded faintly. “I’m sorry, Zack, I…we would have told you when you were closer to wings being likely …no one’s ever gotten them happily …”

“No shit. Does it always feel like your spine is getting pulled out of you, like pulling an extension cord from the socket?”

“Er…. no . Only Sephiroth has ever said it hurt that much…”

“That would likely have to do with the situation,” Valentine said from the corner. Angeal jumped. Zack grinned at him.

“You think so? How’s that? I’ve never been like Sephiroth before!”

“The creature you found in the reactor was used to make all SOLDIERs, in as much as I have been able to determine. But dead cells were used to make most of them, including you, Commander Hewley. Sephiroth…contains the living cells. Given the number of wounds on your hands and arms, Zachary, and the lack of protection between them and the…ah… mess …living cells spread into your bloodstream and fueled a transformation akin to Sephiroth’s.”

Zack stared down at his hands, looking a little sick. “I…I got monster cells inside me ? Living ones ?”

“You had the dead ones already.”

“That’s…but… oh …was that…was that Jenova? I read about her in the library…”

“Jenova?” Angeal interrupted. “Sephiroth’s mother?”

 

The conversation devolved from there, and by the time Cloud arrived with lunch, Angeal and Valentine were yelling at each other and Zack was yelling ineffectively at both of them.

Cloud calmly put the tray he was carrying down on the table in the corner, shoved two fingers into his mouth and let fly with an ear-piercing whistle that had all three men covering Mako-enhanced ears with both hands.

When you’re all done terrorizing the locals, it’s time to eat,” he said acidly. “Might I suggest you all can it until we get back to Midgar? Then you can round up Commander Rhapsodos and the General and deal with the problem…rationally.”

“…Cloud,” Zack ventured. “Are you doing the…the thing where you fuss over-“

Yes , I am. Now, I’m going downstairs to apologize to the owner. Eat. Hodges says that the transport is fueled up and ready to go as soon as we are.”

Zack looked at Valentine. “You’re coming with us?”

“I have…loose ends to deal with. Then, perhaps, I will leave Midgar again.”

 

Angeal’s wings manifested right before they made it to the transport, so Cloud sighed heavily, resigned himself to barfing over the tailgate, and let Vincent take his spot up front. There was no way the man and his miles of leg were going to fit in the back with three pairs of wings to contend with.

It was a very, very long ride.

*-*

It did not take long for the Big Three, Zack and their creepy companion to make an inquiry. It took even less time to shake Shinra Electric Power Company to its core.

 

Two weeks after Rupert Shinra had been deposed and Professor Hojo imprisoned, awaiting trial for an impossibly long list of crimes that ended in ‘no, Valentine, you can’t shoot him and get it over with. You either, Faraman’, Cloud stormed into Angeal’s quarters with his shiny new keycard, fuming.

What he found didn’t improve his mood. Angeal, Genesis, Sephiroth and Zack sprawled together on Angeal’s living room floor, making good use of the squashy new rug Genesis had bought him, snuggled in a pile of feathers and flesh. Cloud could see enough fabric to tell him that pants were still being worn, but the quantities of loose down and feathers lying about suggested the tail end of a very serious preening session.

“You have a ceremony to be at in two hours !” he groaned. “You have to be there! Direc- President Deusericus insisted ! And Vice President ShinRa asked specially !”

“We’ll be there,” Angeal yawned.

“Calm down, Strife,” Genesis agreed.

“Calm down ?”

“Now you’ve done it,” Zack chuckled from somewhere in the middle of the heap.

“You want me to calm down ? I should pluck you ! I’m only eighteen! I’m not your mother! ” Even as he said it, though, he was striding across the room, scooping up shirts and boots and sorting them by wearer onto the couch. “Why do I put up with you people?” he demanded, heading for the broom cupboard and the little hand vacuum kept there.

“Because you loooooove us,” Zack cooed.

You shut up. You I have no problems clubbing with this vacuum.”

Sephiroth rose from the pile long enough to snag Cloud by the ankles and pull him in, burying him in fluff. “Our clothes are already laid out. We’re all clean. We have time .”

Cloud sputtered, then gave in as too many hands made quick work of his shirt and someone kissed the small of his back.

One hour,” he insisted. “And then you get ready.”

We get ready,” Sephiroth corrected. “You’re coming or the rest of us aren’t going at all.”

“Speak for yourself,” Vincent Valentine said from the corner he hadn’t been standing in when Cloud had tidied up a few minutes before. “I will be attending regardless, as will all Turks.”

The cuddle pile flew apart in a flurry of startled yelps, cursing and even more shed feathers. Vincent, resplendent in an impeccably tailored black suit and red shirt, smiled and vanished.