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Smile for the Camera

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               For all Zack’s boundless energy, even he needed to unwind sometimes. Being a First was, admittedly, stressful, and, as much as he might deny it, that got to him sometimes. His boyfriends had their hobbies. Angeal photographed, Genesis edited those photos or read, Sephiroth took it upon himself to study obscure and detailed things that Zack could never keep track of. For Zack, it was video games. He kept up with plenty—it was one of the few things he actually spent his gil on—but he had a favorite. Moogle Dynasty. It was beautiful, and glorious, and wildly underappreciated. It was hard to find anyone else who cared about the game, much less people on social media who still posted about it. But there were a handful who shared art and stories they wrote, occasionally music playlists made to fit the characters and (sometimes absolutely wild) theories. He liked the character studies especially.

So when he actually managed to find people online who cared, he followed them instantly. He usually took to messaging them on whatever platform they were on. The issue was that a lot of people who were into the game were quiet. He had a lot of friends he met through the game that he talked to only very rarely, because they just didn’t answer quickly. That was fine with Zack, he understood—not everyone had the energy for constant conversation, and they always got back to him eventually.

When he found user stormcloud, he expected much the same, but sent a hello message regardless. They posted fairly regularly, given that Zack had only been following for two days, and he was itching to talk about their theory about one of the main characters being a double agent. But, from past experience, he figured it’d be at least a week before he heard back, so he’d put the matter aside. He was surprised when his PHS pinged only a few minutes later with a notification from the app he’d been using.

               stormcloud: hi there! how’s it goin???

               fairest-ofthemall: I’m great! better now that I got your message

               fairest-ofthemall: yknow, I figured it’d be a lot longer before you got back to me

               stormcloud: lmao I don’t blame you

                stormcloud: I’ve got this one friend, I think he answers me like once a month if I try to talk to him online

               fairest-ofthemall: yikes. I mean I get it, but it sucks

               fairest-ofthemall: so thanks for answering so quick!

               stormcloud: lmao np dude

               stormcloud: I keep a pretty close eye on my social media

               fairest-ofthemall: now that I’ve got a hold of ya I REALLY wanna talk about your double agent theory

               stormcloud: …………. really? that’s why you messaged me?

               fairest-ofthemall: uh. yeah? is that ok?

               stormcloud: oh. yeah dude, of course it is

               stormcloud: that’s just not really why people usually message me

               fairest-ofthemall: what are they usually messaging you about? seems like most of your page is about moogle dynasty.

               stormcloud: oh

               stormcloud: oh boy

               stormcloud: ah shit

               stormcloud: did you just start following me?

               fairest-ofthemall: a couple of days ago

               fairest-ofthemall: I know people usually wait longer to message, but your theory’s been stuck in my head since I saw it

               fairest-ofthemall: does that bother you? I can leave

               stormcloud: no no no, nothing like that. it’s actually really flattering that you messaged because of a theory of mine, I don’t get that often

               fairest-ofthemall: what DO they usually message you for then?

               stormcloud: guess it’s better if you hear it from me than get surprised later

               stormcloud: I’m a camboy

               stormcloud: most people follow me for that and just put up with the rest of my content or filter it out since I always tag it

               stormcloud: but listen, if that weirds you out, I totally get it. no hard feelings if you want to stop talking

               fairest-ofthemall: uh to be honest I don’t know what a camboy is

               stormcloud: lmao welp

               stormcloud: I take dirty photos and videos and sell them online, basically

               Zack stared at his PHS. He could feel his face slowly heating. He’d known about porn; for all that he was from Gongaga, he didn’t live under a rock. But he didn’t know that was a thing people did. But there wasn’t really much to think about. He killed people professionally. It wasn’t like he had a lot of room to be judgmental.

               fairest-ofthemall: oh. ok! you’re like safe, right? you don’t get creepy stalkers?

               stormcloud: awwww are you worried?

               fairest-ofthemall: gotta make sure my new buddy’s doin ok!

               stormcloud: lmao that’s sweet. I can take care of myself tho, don’t worry about it

               Zack frowned. It was, very pointedly, not a “no, I don’t get stalkers.” But he’d started talking to this guy maybe 20 minutes ago, it was a little early to press.

               fairest-ofthemall: glad to hear it! let me know if you ever get trouble.

               fairest-ofthemall: but what you can let me know right now is what started your double agent theory

               Cloud was staring down at his ratty PHS with a hesitant smile on his face before he began typing furiously. He didn’t actually know anyone who liked Moogle Dynasty. It was cool that someone was interested in it, and interested in talking about it with him. It was cooler that this new person, whom he dubbed Fairest, wasn’t messaging because of his work. It was great when people did that, don’t get him wrong. It was a chance to make extra cash. He’d sell them “private sets” that he actually reused and gave to multiple people that messaged him (he had a Word document that kept track of what user had gotten what private set). He’d do video “chats” for extra gil—not that he talked. That was one of his few rules: no talking. He wasn’t good with words to begin with and knew he’d fuck this all up if he opened his mouth to do anything more than moan at the right moment. Besides, it added some mystique that a lot of people apparently found attractive. Sometimes, clients would message him just to buy him things—those were his favorite. Everything nice in his tiny, shitty apartment had come from a client. He loved it best when they just wanted to spoil him and didn’t ask for anything in return.

               Cloud had gotten into the cam business largely on a whim. He’d spent his whole life being told he was too pretty. The boys in Nibelheim made fun of him for looking too much like a girl. The men in bars always told him how pretty he was, going on about his lips and his eyes—they always liked his eyes. He got catcalled regularly. He was used to men making lewd gestures and grabbing their dicks at him when he walked by. It was gross, and he didn’t like it, but he’d come to expect it.

               He’d always figured that was the end of it. He was damned to be pretty, and he’d have to put up with the unwanted advances. He’d learned how to defend himself precisely because of those advances. But one day, he’d been walking home, and a group of construction workers on break were raking their eyes up and down him, wolf-whistling and making kissing noises. He’d continued on his way, but not before he’d thought how much he would have loved to charge them for the privilege. He’d almost stopped in his tracks when he realized that he could, in fact, charge people.

               He’d thought about it his whole way home. He couldn’t do literal sex work—first of all, he had literally no experience with sex. While he didn’t think that’d necessarily be a problem, he didn’t want his first time to be paid for. Second, to his knowledge, there was a certain amount of talking involved. Flirting, even if it was blatant. He wasn’t sure he could get anything particularly suggestive past his lips, much less make it sound inviting. He was entirely sure he’d fail at that. Again, he thought he might be able to get by with speaking poorly by virtue of his pretty face, but it would just make everything more uncomfortable.

               So actual sex was out. There were phone sex call centers, but again, that required speaking, so that was out pretty quickly. But photos wouldn’t be so bad. People looked at him, whether he wanted to or not. This way, he could control what they saw. Not him, sweaty on his way back from a shift at Chocobo King, but him posed and presented properly. He would have complete control over what people saw. Sure, he’d need to be more undressed than he would like, probably need some lingerie or sex toys if he was daring, but it could work. He could do it on his own terms. That wouldn’t be so bad at all.

               He’d rushed home and began doing research. What types of things were common, what his would-be competition was doing, how far he could reasonably be expected to go. What perks there were, what exactly he could get out of this besides gil. He was pretty sure about it, but he needed to talk it over with someone before he made up his mind entirely. He’d usually call his mother about important life decisions, but that was out for obvious reasons. Tifa, the one other person he kept in contact with from Nibelheim, was out for a couple of reasons. One, they mostly wrote letters, and that would take too long. Two, she was too sheltered. She was still in Nibelheim, and if that wasn’t bad enough, she was the Mayor’s daughter. She’d veto the idea immediately.

               No, there was only one person to go to. His only actual friend in Midgar, for all that he’d lived in the city, in his shitty apartment working minimum wage jobs under the Plate, for years. He’d wandered into her church, and was infinitely grateful to find her there. He could have gone to her mother’s house to get her, but this was not a conversation he wanted to have with her mother around.

               “Hey, Aeris.”

               She looked up, smiling widely, until it weakened and softened at the edges.

               “Uh oh. I know that look. That’s the ‘I’m lost show me where to go’ look.”

               “I don’t have that look.”

               “Sure you do. You’re wearing it right now.”

               Cloud huffed, but knew she was right, so he let it go. He approached and sat on the front pew as she dusted her hands off and came to sit next to him.

               “What’s on your mind, Cloud?”

               He plucked at a small hole in the knee of his jeans. Aeris swatted his hand before he could make it any bigger.

               “Well, y’know how I kinda get heckled a lot?”

               Aeris’s eyes darkened. For all that his friend was sweet, she had a strong sense of justice, and could barely tolerate her friends suffering.

               “Yeah, I know.”

               “It got me thinking the other day. What if I could charge people for it?”

               “What, like… just walk up to them, hold your hand out, and demand their gil?”

               Cloud snorted, a twitch of a smile on his lips.

               “Nah, I don’t think that’d work. What I was thinking was like. Selling photos or videos online.” He looked at her, hesitant, weighing her response.

               She seemed to be doing that as much as he was. His shoulders relaxed a little. This was why he had come to her. Aeris was evaluating the idea objectively, taking into account its advantages and disadvantages equally. The risk and the reward. She hadn’t recoiled, or wrinkled her nose, or anything at the idea. She wasn’t looking at him differently just for thinking about it. She was considering it, and that’s what he wanted.

               “Super sexy ones, huh?”

               “That was the plan, yeah.”

               Aeris waggled her eyebrows and said, “How sexy are we talking?”

               Cloud laughed and shoved her shoulder just a little.

               “Pretty sexy.”

               “Liiiiiiiiiiike… underwear sexy?”

               “Yeah.” Cloud fought back the urge to blush.

               “Lingerie?”

               “Uh huh.”

               “Weird sexy costumes that people are into for no good reason?”

               “I guess?”

               “Will you get naked?

               “Probably.”

               “How far are you planning on going? Like, full on porn?”

               Cloud knew he was definitely blushing now.

               “I was looking it up to see what other people were doing. Masturbating on video’s pretty common. Toys and stuff. I’d probably do that, but I’d be the only one on camera.”

               Aeris tilted her head back as she considered this new information. She tucked her hands under her thighs and hummed as she thought.

               “I think it’s worth a shot,” she finally proclaimed. “My only worry is people at your job finding out. I don’t want you to get fired. Not unless you’re making enough from the pictures to cover what you need to pay for.”

               Cloud had thought of that. It was one of his biggest hesitations.

               “I know. That does make me nervous. But I could always get another job, it’s not like minimum wage jobs are that hard to get. It’s not like I’m risking a chance at SOLDIER.”

               Aeris laughed at that and bumped Cloud’s shoulder with her own.

               “I do have one demand, though.”

               “What’s that?”

               “You have to let me help pick out your outfits. Your fashion taste is terrible, and you’ll be so fun to dress up all cute.” Aeris gasped then, thinking of something, and turned to look at him with wide eyes glinting in mischief. “Would you wear a dress, Cloud? I know someone in Wall Market who’d probably custom make you one.”

               Cloud ran a hand through his hair and huffed. He wanted to say know. But then, it might sell well.

               “I’ll try it once and see what the reaction is.”

               “Yes!

               Cloud laughed, but looked at his friend fondly.

               “You are way too excited to get me into a dress.”

               “You’d look so good in one, Cloud. I don’t know a lot of guys who could pull one off, but you could.” Aeris lowered her voice into the one she used to make fun of the strange men that hassled him, “‘With those beautiful eyes, you could pull off anything, sweetheart.’”

               Cloud laughed and then stuck out his tongue, scrunched up his face, and shook his hands out in front of him in disgust.

               “Nasty, just nasty.”

               Aeris laughed brightly with him before hopping to her feet. She held out her hand, and Cloud took it, letting her haul him up.

               “Let’s get going then!”

               “What? Now?”

               “If not now, when? Besides, I’m excited to make you cute.”

               Cloud groaned in dismay, but there was a smile on his face that belied it.

               Aeris had taken him shopping, cooing at leather and satin and especially the lace, and they had bought him a handful of things. He was going to start out slow. He’d already worked out his format. Start fully clothed, strip down to the lingerie, strip naked, end with a video of him getting himself off. All he really needed to do that was some risqué underwear, and he now had that in plenty. He’d done his first set, using the camera on his laptop to take his footage, taking nearly three times more photos than he actually used.

He’d made a few posts on his page a while ago letting people know what he was planning, asking if anyone was interested, and honestly got a lukewarm response. But he ran a gaming blog, and his only content that wasn’t gaming related previously had been queer memes. But he’d posted his set anyway with two images: one fully clothes, one naked but with little hearts and winky faces covering the important bits. He’d only gotten a couple of buyers at first, but after he put it in the appropriate tags, it took off. Other camboys and camgirls, as he now knew they were called, took his set and ran with it, sharing it on their own pages, adding tags and comments full of encouragement and welcoming him. He’d expected competition, and while he got a few negative responses from other campeople, he was overwhelmed with the positivity. He’d been delighted to let Aeris know. He was starting to actually get excited about this.

Business had boomed once he got rolling. Aeris got him into far more than one dress. He now had a collection of dresses, and plenty of toys, and a lot of the leather, satin, and lace they had first seen. Aeris told him he looked particularly good in lace, and he had been very embarrassed when he asked how she knew that, but when she’d told him she just supported her friend when she had the money and didn’t watch the video that came with the set, Cloud was far more comfortable. After making sure she was okay with it, he started sending her photos that he was unsure about or couldn’t pick between to get a second opinion. She was his partner in crime, and he made sure to buy her things with the money she helped him earn even when she protested. It usually came down to “take it or I’ll throw it away and then it’s just a waste” to make her take any gift, but the bullying worked.

It had been weird when people first started messaging him. He hadn’t thought about doing anything one on one, and he’d felt very put on the spot by it the first few times it happened. But he got used to it quickly. He developed a few “private sets” and, though it was far more embarrassing to jack off on a video call than it was to do it in front of a camera, the clients seemed to like it when he blushed, and he made sure they paid damn well for it. He really wasn’t a fan of receiving dirty talk, and he always made it very clear that he wouldn’t do it himself. But a lot of clients liked to give him instructions on video calls or just say filthy things, and he got used to it quickly enough.

               He made one exception to his speaking rule, which was one of the few he had. For return clients that had stuck by him, who engaged with him privately and bought a lot from him, especially if they were the ones who just gave him gifts for free, he’d allow them to pick one pet name for their video calls, and Cloud would address the client that way. He wasn’t particularly surprised when they almost all picked “daddy,” with the one exception of a “sir,” but hey, they were allowed their kinks, as long as they paid him. And he did charge quite a lot for the pet name privilege. But the clients liked knowing that they were one of the few allowed to hear him say anything, and getting him to moan a name they chose was apparently very appealing. He hadn’t stopped the clients with the privilege from discussing it. It made more people eager for it, like it was some sort of elite club, and Cloud could get them to buy more and more things from him by dangling that in front of them. It felt manipulative, but this was a business, after all, and he’d never gave these people any indication that he actually wanted anything more from them than their money.

               That being said, Cloud had gotten very used to his private correspondences. He’d come to expect them. What he did not expect were people to approach him about Moogle Dynasty of all things. But it had been refreshing, talking to Fairest. It was nice to know that someone wanted to talk to him for a reason that wasn’t his nudes. That was starting to become a novel concept. When he’d mentioned it to Aeris that night, she was delighted.

               She was standing in front of his closet in his tiny, shitty apartment, helping him pick out his next outfit.

               “Y’know, this person messaged me today.”

               “Yeah? Which one of the private sets did you give him?”

               “That’s the thing, I didn’t,” he said. When Aeris looked over her shoulder at him, he continued, “They didn’t know I was a camboy when they messaged, I had to warn them. They wanted to talk about video games.”

               Aeris’s face lit up in glee.

               “Cloud that’s great! It’s about time you made a new friend.”

               Cloud made a scoffing noise and looked away.

               “You know I don’t really do that.”

               “That’s why you should. You know I love you, but I shouldn’t be your only friend in the whole city.”

               Cloud sighed. She had a point.

               “I wouldn’t say we’re friends. We just started talking.”

               “But you’re talking about something you like instead of work. And they’re not asking to see your dick, which is a plus. Speaking of, how’d they take it when you told them?”

               “Pretty well, actually. Their first question was whether or not I was safe. Said I should let them know if I get in trouble.”

               Aeris cooed. Cloud threw a pillow at her that she batted away.

               “That’s so sweet! I think you’ll be friends for sure. They sound like a good person.”

               Cloud hummed and leaned back on his elbows, staring at the water stain on his ceiling.

               “It’d be nice if they stuck around. You won’t let me talk about Moogle Dynasty with you.”

               “Because I’ve never played it and you can talk for hours about video games. You deserve to have someone who can listen and actually understand what you’re saying.”

               “I guess.”

               Cloud knew she was glaring at him (that sounded a little too self-deprecating to be something she’d tolerate well), but he kept staring at the ceiling.

               “Cloud,” here comes the lecture, “you know I—oooo wait! This one!”

               Cloud looked up, sitting upright so his knees were bent and his feet were pressed together at the soles, his hands resting on his feet. He watched as Aeris whipped out the knock off SOLDIER uniform he’d worn last year for Halloween. He raised an eyebrow.

               “I know you like costumes, but there’s nothing sexy about the SOLDIER uniform.”

               “Sure there is! People love men in uniforms. And it’ll show off your arms. Besides, with the high neck, you could hide a collar underneath, people would love that! Maybe one of your harnesses? Oooo, do leather and lace. Leather harnesses and collar, lace panties. Do the purple ones, you always look good in purple.”

               Cloud rolled his eyes, but then paused to give the uniform an appraising look.

               After a long moment, he shrugged and said, “Sure, why not? If the clients don’t like it, I’ll just not do it again.”

               “They’ll love it, Cloud, you looked so good in this,” Aeris said, setting it down on the bed before rifling through his accessories.

               He watched her work. He’d gotten very good at picking out his own outfits, but Aeris loved to help. He was pretty sure she just liked to dress him up and knew that he wouldn’t allow it with his regular clothes. But Aeris had a keen eye, and the two of them had learned very quickly what sort of things sold well.

               If Cloud was distracted while she sorted through his things, if he glanced at his PHS a little too often, she didn’t say anything.

               She left eventually, and he went to work. True to his word, he wore the SOLDIER uniform. He stuck with the color scheme of the uniform for the most part, all of his leather a matching black. He wore a collar with a large ring at the front that flopped down against his throat. He wore a harness that criss-crossed over his chest and hips, partially hiding the only pop of color on him, the purple lace panties. He made sure he was hard before he even started—he learned people liked to see the bulge in his pants even before the clothes came off. He had to stop every now and then as he flagged (it wasn’t like he actually got off on the work he did) to work himself back up, but this was routine at this point. For the video at the end, he’d clipped a black leather leash to the collar and tied the end to his bedpost, just out of frame, so it was more or less taut. He chose a large, realistic dildo that was big enough he had to open himself up off camera for the shot. He used the suction cup at the end to attach it to the wall and fucked himself on his hands and knees on it for the camera, making sure it got a good shot of his face as he played up his whimpers and moans, feeling the leash go tight when he pressed backwards, his cock swaying between his legs beneath him. The clients liked it extra when he came without touching himself, but he saved that for the more boring sets that needed something to spice them up, and the SOLDIER uniform ought to be titillating enough. He fell to one elbow, stroked himself hard and fast until he came over the sheets before pulling himself off the dildo. He sat back on his heels, panting, and slid his hands down his thighs. He bit his lip and lowered his eyelashes just a little, pulling his best “sultry and sated” look. Then he climbed off the bed and went to turn off the camera, cursing quietly as the leash tugged at his throat and made it hard to reach his laptop. He’d edit that ending out.

               Surprisingly enough, Aeris was right. The SOLDIER uniform was a hit. It was, honestly, one of his more popular sets. He hadn’t been expecting that at all, but hey, he wasn’t arguing. He was still working at Chocobo King during the day, trying to save up enough between the two jobs to move. Not above Plate, mind you; he knew how to be realistic. But somewhere that wasn’t quite as much of a dump would be nice. He was doing okay with his savings, but sets selling this well always helped. He was pretty sure he’d get a few new one on one clients out of it too, plus some repeats wanting private sets with the uniform.

               What he hadn’t been expecting, was that his new friend might buy his set.

               Zack had been, honestly, surprised when the post came across his feed. He’d known about his friend’s job (he’d decided to just call him Stormcloud, after his username), he’d told him outright, but he was still surprised to see it. He was even more surprised to see that the cover image was of a SOLDIER uniform, accompanied by one with Stormcloud wearing nothing but a collar and a very complicated looking harness with emoji flowers over his nipples and privates. He’d sat there on his laptop with the post open for a very long time before coming to a decision. He told himself that it was, primarily, to support his friend. This was how he made his living, and Zack had plenty of gil to burn. Stormcloud could use the cash better than he could, and he got the feeling his friend wouldn’t just take the gil. It was, admittedly, partially that he was curious. He had no real idea what went into being a camboy. But if he was going to be friends with Stormcloud, he felt like it was important to get a clue.

               So he bought the set.

               He downloaded it and opened the file, but hadn’t expected his apartment door to open without warning.

               Damn that all his boyfriends had keys.

               It was Genesis that waltzed in, and he did it before Zack had a chance to slam the lid shut. Maybe it would be okay. It was just a man in a SOLDIER uniform. Not that odd for a First to be looking at, right? Maybe Genesis wouldn’t even notice.

               His boyfriend breezed in, dropping on the couch next to Zack and touching his jaw lightly before kissing him. With that done, he shifted, curling slightly to rest his cheek against Zack’s shoulder, taking Zack’s hand in his own. His eyes drifted closed. It was a remarkably quiet entrance for Genesis.

               “Long day?” Zack ventured. He glanced at the laptop. He wanted to shut it, but he couldn’t lean forward far enough now that Genesis was resting on his shoulder.

               “The longest. They had the nerve to have the largest pile of paperwork waiting for me when I returned from my mission. The gall. I haven’t slept.”

               Zack chuckled, squeezing Genesis’s hand.

               “Why’d you come to see me, if you’re so tired? You should go get some rest.”

               Genesis cracked an eye open to look up at him.

               “Trying to kick me out, Zack?”

               “Of course not, Gen,” he said, raising their hands to kiss Genesis’s knuckles. “I just know your bed is a lot comfier than my shoulder.”

               Genesis hummed and said, “True enough. I—who is that?”

               Busted.

               Genesis leaned forward, examining the photo on his screen.

               “That’s no SOLDIER Second, I’ve never seen him before in my life. And why is he in a bedroom? With what seems to be a very prominent erection?”

               Zack could feel the tips of his ears turning pink. He hadn’t noticed the tent in Stormcloud’s pants, but sure enough, there it was.

               When he glanced down, Genesis was looking at him with a sly smile.

               “Are you looking at porn, puppy?”

               “I can explain!” Zack said a little too quickly, as Genesis set his hand on Zack’s upper thigh.

               “Oh, I’d love to hear it.”

               “I—well, I—you know how much I like Moogle Dynasty?”

               Genesis’s hand stopped where it was sliding further inward. He looked faintly confused.

               “Yes, of course I remember the wretched game.”

               “It’s not wretched, it’s great. The point is, I met someone online who really likes the game too. He’s really cool. He just, uh, well, he warned me I might see some other stuff on his page, because he’s—he’s a camboy,” Zack admitted, and then began speaking much quicker, eager to say his piece before Genesis interrupted. “I don’t know much about it and I want to be supportive and it’s not like I don’t have a lot of gil just sitting around so I thought that I’d buy it and I figured if I actually looked I’d get a better idea of what he actually does since I didn’t want to ask him because it seems invasive and—”

               “Zack. Zackary.” When Zack finally shut up, Genesis continued. “You’re not in trouble. No one cares if you look at porn, regardless of whether or not you know the person involved in it. You could have just told me you saw a cute face in a SOLDIER uniform and liked what you saw and I wouldn’t have cared. It’s sweet of you to care about this man enough to want to understand what he does.”

               “You’re… not mad?”

               “Heavens no. Had these been photos taken specifically for you sent by some interested party, we’d have something to discuss. The only thing about this that I’m interested in discussing is what else came with this photo. There has to be more.”

               Zack’s ears were turning red this time.

               “I, uh—yeah, there’s more.”

               “Go on, then.”

               This was supposed to be an innocent perusal of some not-so-innocent images. Zack hadn’t expected to get turned on by them, or worked up even a little. But here was Genesis, and now there was a tension in the air, especially with his blatant interest. Zack hit the arrow key and brought up the next image. Then the next. They watched as, slowly, the uniform was peeled away, revealing the collar and harness and lace. Zack couldn’t help how his eyes lingered on the head of his cock peeking out from the top edge of the panties, and gods, was he leaking? Somewhere along the line, Zack had gotten painfully hard. His pants felt far too tight. And then the lace was gone, and it was Stormcloud all on display, accented by those damned leather straps. No one looked that good in leather except Sephiroth.

               He hit the side arrow again, only this time, the image moved. Stormcloud was up at the head of the bed, slicking up a huge dildo mounted to the wall, looking between his task and the camera with a “fuck me” look in his eyes. Zack immediately hit the pause button.

               He looked at Genesis. Genesis looked at him. Genesis reached out and unpaused the video.

               They watched as the blond fucked himself, his moans coming a little tinny from the poor sound quality of the camera. They watched the rhythmic way the leash tightened and released. They watched him sink down to one elbow, his other hand occupied, before his back snapped into a hard arch with a cry. He sat up, bit his lip, and ran his fingers down his thighs. The video cut out.

               They sat in silence for what might have been the longest moment of Zack’s life. Then he felt Genesis crash into him, pushing him over on the couch and kissing him hard. There was a lot of quick fumbling with zippers as Genesis brought them both out. Each of them wrapped a hand around where their cocks were pressed against one another. It was sloppy and it was quick, but it was exactly what they needed. Genesis grabbed a form off the table, knowing Zack hadn’t been intending to fill it out, to clean up with before crumpling it and tossing it to the floor. He relaxed his full body weight on top of Zack, whose hands came up, slithering under his jacket to hold him close.

               “You said you found him through video games?”

               “Yup,” Zack said, popping the “p.”

               “Who knew video games would be good for something?”

               Zack took a long, thoughtful pause. When Genesis looked up at him to arch an eyebrow, he looked mischievous.

               “You know, he has other sets. It sounded like he’d been doing this for a while.”

               He loved the way Genesis’s eyes went dark.

               “Show me.”

Chapter Text

               Cloud stared down at his feed with a frown. He’d been giving it that look all day, but it didn’t change what he saw. He checked his phone whenever he could sneak it while at work at Chocobo King, but every time, it was still there. He kept hoping he misread, or that there was a glitch, but no, he was right the first time, and it was starting to settle in.

               Fairest had bought some of his sets.

               It was only a handful. Really, it shouldn’t have been anything alarming. It should have been good—sales were always good. But he hadn’t wanted this one. He liked talking to Fairest about Moogle Dynasty. He liked that he hadn’t known he was a camboy but didn’t pry about it, just accepted it and moved on. He thought, at first, that maybe he was just curious, but he wouldn’t have bought multiple sets if that was it. Just one would have been enough to know what he did. He tried to tell himself that maybe Fairest was just thorough, but he couldn’t quite get himself to believe it.

               He sighed again and put his PHS back in his pocket. Normally, he would have just headed home. Being on his feet all day standing behind a cash register and faking a smile while being polite to absolute dicks was exhausting. But he needed to talk about this, so he went to see Aeris. It took a little bit of time to find her; she wasn’t at the church, which meant he had to haul himself all the way to her home, and he was already beat. But Elmyra let him in with a smile and called Aeris down from her room for him.

               “Come walk through the flowers with me,” he said, not looking at Elmyra watching them from the counter. Elmyra was convinced they were dating. “Walking through the flowers” had become code for “I need to talk in private” so that they could get outside without Elmyra getting too curious. This looked like a lover’s stroll, and they were content to let Elmyra think it was. They knew better; that was what mattered.

               Aeris hurried over, grabbing him by the hand and tugging him outside. Holding hands and enthusiasm—a good sell. She led him away into the flowers before sitting down. Cloud dropped to the grass with her.

               “So, what’s going on?”

               “You remember that person I was talking to about video games?”

               “Yeah, why?”

               “They bought sets. Like, multiple sets.”

               Aeris’s face fell. She understood that this put him in a tight spot. It was one thing for Aeris to buy his sets as a friend—they’d known each other for a long time, and he trusted her, and he knew she wasn’t interested in him. But he’d just met Fairest, didn’t even know his actual name, and it was starting to look pretty strongly like he was into him. Cloud was bad at handling other people’s crushes on him. It was bad for business to turn people away, but he didn’t like leading people on, either. He always ended up making it very clear that he wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship, and some people stopped talking or buying from him after that, but it was better that way.

               “Have they said anything to you yet?”

               Cloud blew out a hard breath and ran his hand through his hair.

               “No, not yet. I just—I was really looking forward to having just a friend, and it feels kinda ruined now. Like now they’re going to be a client.”

               “Try talking to them about it. You never know, maybe they just wanted to be supportive.”

               “I guess. But we just met, why would they be spending money on me?”

               “Maybe they also wanted to see what goes into what you do? You said they didn’t know what a camboy was, right?”

               “Yeah, but wouldn’t they have just bought one set, if it was curiosity?”

               “Cloud, I don’t have the answer. You’ve got to talk to them.”

               Cloud hung his head and groaned.

               “But I don’t want to.”

               “You have to.”

               “Can you stay with me while I message them? It’ll be easier to bitch to you if you’re sitting here instead of texting.”

               Aeris laughed, but leaned back on her hands.

               “Of course, Cloud.”

               Cloud gave her a grateful smile before pulling out his PHS. He got hit with a wave of nerves, but opened the app anyway. He pulled up the messenger section and opened their conversation.

               stormcloud: hey, are you around??

               Cloud had to wait a few minutes for a response. He was starting to think it wouldn’t come when his PHS pinged.

               fairest-ofthemall: hey buddy! yeah I am, how’s it goin?

               Cloud chewed at his lip, hesitating. Apparently he hesitated too long, because he got another message.

               fairest-ofthemall: you still there?

               stormcloud: yeah, sorry

               stormcloud: I just wanted to ask you a question

               fairest-ofthemall: shoot

               stormcloud: why did you buy my sets?

               stormcloud: I’m not mad that you did

               stormcloud: but if your interest is in being a client, it’d help for me to know

               There was a long, long pause. Cloud started worrying that maybe he shouldn’t have asked at all.

               fairest-ofthemall: I bought them because I wanted to support you and understand what you do

               fairest-ofthemall: I’m sorry, I should have asked if that was ok first

               Cloud stared down at the PHS, but a hesitant smile crept onto his face. He hadn’t been expecting an apology.

               stormcloud: it’s okay, I just want both of us to understand what’s going on, so I want to talk about it

               stormcloud: why did you buy more than one set if you were just curious?

               There was another long pause before his PHS chimed.

               fairest-ofthemall: honestly? my boyfriend and I both liked them

               fairest-ofthemall: like a lot

               fairest-ofthemall: you’re really good at what you do

               Cloud’s heart sank. This was what he had been worried about.

               fairest-ofthemall: but it’s way more important to me to be your friend than to get your sets, so if me buying them weirds you out, just say the word, and I’ll stop

               There was a flicker of hope in his chest.

               stormcloud: seriously? you’d just stop?

               fairest-ofthemall: seriously. the last thing I want is to make you uncomfortable. you probably get enough people doing that to you already, I don’t want to be one of them

               stormcloud: give me a sec

               fairest-ofthemall: take your time dude

               Cloud looked up from his PHS to see Aeris watching him intently. She raised an eyebrow.

               “So they wanted to be supportive and were curious so they bought the first set. But then apparently them and their boyfriend were both into it so they kept buying sets.” Cloud chewed on his lip. “Is it weird to be friends with someone who probably gets off on videos of you?”

               “I don’t know, is it weird to have your friend help you pick out your lingerie and bondage gear?”

               Cloud huffed.

               “No, but that’s different. I don’t care that they looked. I care that they got off on it.”

               Aeris shrugged.

               “You said they had a boyfriend, right?”

               “Right.”

               “Then they’re probably not going to come onto you. I doubt it would change how your friendship functions. It’s not any weirder than a friends with benefits situation, really.”

               Cloud hesitated for one big, long moment, but then he nodded. He picked his PHS back up.

               stormcloud: sorry, I had to think about it

               stormcloud: this is a new situation for me

               stormcloud: but if you still want to be friends, then yeah, I do too

               fairest-ofthemall: PHEW

               fairest-ofthemall: I thought my dumb ass ruined something really good for a second there

               fairest-ofthemall: sorry again for not asking first

               fairest-ofthemall: and thanks for being so cool about it

               fairest-ofthemall: I didn’t mean to put you in a weird spot

               stormcloud: I believe you and that’s what matters

               stormcloud: I gotta know now though

               stormcloud: which was your favorite set??

               fairest-ofthemall: the SOLDIER one, hands down

               fairest-ofthemall: most of the guys I know in the program can’t pull of their uniforms as well as you did

               stormcloud: holy shit

               stormcloud:  you know people in SOLDIER?????

               fairest-ofthemall: uh

               fairest-ofthemall: yeah

               fairest-ofthemall: I’m in SOLDIER

               Cloud let out a loud laugh.

               stormcloud: yeah fuckin right

               stormcloud: I bet you’re an office temp

               stormcloud: how much of your day is spent making coffee?

               fairest-ofthemall: hey! I am in SOLDIER! I’m a First!

               stormcloud: lmaoooo come on dude there’s like five of them

               Cloud paused as soon as he finished typing it. Fairest. One of the Firsts was named Zack Fair.

               It couldn’t be.

               Could it?

               fairest-ofthemall: four actually

               fairest-ofthemall: and I’m one of them!

               fairest-ofthemall: guess which one

               Cloud stared at his screen.

               “What is it?” Aeris finally piped up to ask. Cloud didn’t take his eyes off his PHS.

               “I think the person I’ve been talking to might be SOLDIER First Zack Fair.”

               “Pfffffffft. Yeah right.”

               “That’s what I said. But his username has the word ‘fair’ in it. Do you think it’s a long con type thing? That he planned on telling people he was Zack Fair when he made the account?”

               “Maybe? I don’t know.”

               Cloud hummed.

               stormcloud: if you say Zack Fair I’m gonna scream

               fairest-ofthemall: ;)

               stormcloud: shut the fuck up

               stormcloud: no way

               fairest-ofthemall: way

               stormcloud: you could totally be making this up

               fairest-ofthemall: I’m not, I swear!

               fairest-ofthemall: oooo I know how to prove it! give me a sec

               Cloud waited impatiently, feeling a flutter of something strange in his stomach. SOLDIER First Fair. He was talking to a SOLDIER First. Who wanted to be friends with him. Who apologized when he thought he upset him. Who was willing to respect his boundaries.

               Who got off to his sets.

               Cloud could feel his face heating up.

               “Cloud,” Aeris said in a sing-song voice. “You’re blushing. What is it?”

               “Just—what if it really is him? That’s crazy, Aeris. I’ve looked up to the SOLDIERs since I was a kid. And the Firsts are all drop dead goddamn gorgeous. And one of them likes my sets?

               “You forget that you’re drop dead gorgeous yourself.”

               Cloud scoffed.

               “I’m pretty, but that’s it. I’m not in their league. I can’t believe one of them would find me attractive.”

               “Looks like you better start believing.”

               “That’s only if he actually is—oh my gods, is that a video?”

               Aeris scooted around to sit next to him, peeking over his shoulder. He held his PHS so it was in the middle of them and hit play, bringing the video up to cover the whole screen.

               Sure enough, it was SOLDIER First Zack Fair that beamed back at him. Zack gave him a wide grin and waved enthusiastically.

               “Hi Stormcloud! This is Zack Fair, because apparently someone doesn’t trust strangers on the internet, which is fair and responsible of you, good job. But I couldn’t have my new buddy not believing me, and I figure if you’ll let me see you naked, the least I can do is show you my face. So here you go!” Zack framed his face with his hand, moving it to outline his chin, his jaw, his cheek, looking ridiculous as he did so, making Cloud laugh. Then his face lit up with a thought. “Oh! And before I forget. Hold on. I’m goin’.” The camera stayed pointed on Zack’s face but the background blurred as he moved through what was apparently an apartment. Then he turned the camera around to show a closet full of clothes. Then he brought it back to his face, which was split in a grin. “SOLDIER uniforms! I can get you a real one if you want, they give ‘em out like candy once you’re in the program. Genesis spent like fifteen minutes picking apart all the ways the one you have is off. I didn’t really notice, but he can get fussy. Don’t tell him I said that. Anyway! Let me know if you want one and where to send it if you do! Just don’t go running around wearing it in public unless it’s Halloween or something, I don’t want someone picking a fight with you thinking you’re SOLDIER. Alright, I’ll quit lecturing. See ya!”

               Cloud stared down at the screen for a long while, mouth agape. He was only shocked out of it when Aeris let out a delighted laugh and bumped his shoulder with hers.

               “You got two Firsts interested, Cloud!” When he looked over, Aeris waggled her eyebrows at him. “That’s two that think you’re attractive, I better not ever hear you talk bad about your looks for the rest of your life.”

               “Two? Where did you get that from?”

               “He was talking about a Genesis, it only makes sense that it’s Genesis Rhapsodos. And if he saw you in the uniform, I’d bet he saw the rest of the set.”

               Cloud scrambled for his PHS.

               stormcloud: so uhm

               stormcloud: holy shit

               stormcloud: on so many levels??????

               fairest-ofthemall: lmao believe me now?

               stormcloud: how could I not???

               stormcloud: but should you really be telling strangers on the internet who you are? you’re like famous. anyone could find you

               fairest-ofthemall: eh, I’m not worried about it

               fairest-ofthemall: I’d be pretty bad at my job if I couldn’t take care of myself

               fairest-ofthemall: besides, I don’t think you’re the type to try stalking me

               fairest-ofthemall: I get the feeling you’ve been on the receiving end of that and wouldn’t want to do that to other people

               stormcloud: yeah that’s fair

               Aeris elbowed him in the side, still peeking over his shoulder.

               “Ask about Genesis,” she whispered.

               Cloud sighed.

               stormcloud: though I’ve got a quick question

               stormcloud: you mentioned genesis in your video? did you show him my sets?

               fairest-ofthemall: more like I was gonna look at one and he barged in while I had the screen up

               fairest-ofthemall: he demanded to see the rest

               Cloud paused to take that in, putting some pieces together in his head.

               stormcloud: is he the boyfriend who liked them?

               fairest-ofthemall: ah damn

               fairest-ofthemall: yeah

               fairest-ofthemall: just keep it quiet, okay?

               fairest-ofthemall: we don’t talk about it

               fairest-ofthemall: PR and all that

               stormcloud: got it

               stormcloud: I know a thing or two about keeping secrets

               Cloud looked up at Aeris, who was still reading along with him. She looked up and held her hands up innocently.

               “I won’t tell a soul, you know that.”

               Cloud nodded and looked back down.

               fairest-ofthemall: not everyone know about your job then?

               stormcloud: only one person I know irl knows

               stormcloud: pretty sure I’d lose my day job if they found out

               fairest-ofthemall: I didn’t know you had a day job!

               fairest-ofthemall: what do you do?

               stormcloud: nothing exciting

               stormcloud: I work at chocobo king

               stormcloud: so if you ever see me at a cash register try not to mention how you’ve seen my dick

               fairest-ofthemall: but it’s okay that they know that I’ve seen your dick huh?

               Cloud could feel himself turn pink. He knew it was true when he heard Aeris laugh.

               stormcloud: if you want rumors going around about how you sleep with blond twinks below the plate, be my guest

               fairest-ofthemall: nah, wouldn’t want to drag you into the limelight

               fairest-ofthemall: you don’t more creeps bein creepy with ya because of me

               stormcloud: thanks, I appreciate the thought

               stormcloud: I’d actually also appreciate if you could get me that uniform

               stormcloud: the SOLDIER set was a big hit

               fairest-ofthemall: no wonder, did you see how you looked in that thing?

               stormcloud: I’m the one that took the photos

               fairest-ofthemall: yeah, but did you LOOK?

               fairest-ofthemall: it’s not right that you look better in the uniform than I do

               stormcloud: yeah right

               stormcloud:  now who hasn’t looked at themselves?

               fairest-ofthemall: I see myself in the thing all day

               fairest-ofthemall: seeing YOU in it is a treat

               fairest-ofthemall: which is why I will be happy to send you a uniform

               fairest-ofthemall: first class and everything

               fairest-ofthemall: where can I send it?

               Aeris flopped back on the grass.

               stormcloud: 350 main street #7 below plate sector five midgar

               fairest-ofthemall: that better not be your home address

               stormcloud: lmao nah, I’m not that dumb

               stormcloud: it’s a p.o. box

               fairest-ofthemall: ok good

               fairest-ofthemall: I’ll get that sent out to you quick

               fairest-ofthemall: and hey I know I already asked but you were kinda vague

               fairest-ofthemall: you are safe right?

               Cloud couldn’t help the tiny smile on his face

               stormcloud: yeah I am

               stormcloud: I can take care of myself

               fairest-ofthemall: see

               fairest-ofthemall: “I can take care of myself” normally means there’s something to take care of yourself FROM

               fairest-ofthemall: I know it can get sketchy below the plate too

               fairest-ofthemall: and you’re like crazy attractive

               fairest-ofthemall: if things get rough for me down there I don’t really like thinking about what it must be like for you

               stormcloud: really, it’s fine, Zack

               stormcloud: I don’t leave the house without my materia

               stormcloud: things get rough for you because you’re SOLDIER and a lot of people down here don’t like Shinra

               fairest-ofthemall: my offer from before still stands

               fairest-ofthemall: give me a call if you ever need back up

               stormcloud: it won’t come to that, but thanks, I will

               fairest-ofthemall: now that the hard stuff’s out of the way

               fairest-ofthemall: I found this playlist for your favorite character and I may not know what music you listen to but you are gonna LOVE IT

               Cloud laughed, but flipped his PHS shut, knowing he wouldn’t be able to listen to it here anyway. He looked down to find Aeris looking up at him with one eye open, her hands behind her head.

               “You done flirting?”

               Cloud turned pink again. He should have been expecting this. It was safe to tease him this way now that the boundaries with Zack were firm and he was over his initial panic.

               “I wasn’t flirting. I literally started that conversation to make it clear I wasn’t interested.”

               “You weren’t interested in him as a client. But you like him, don’t you?” Aeris’s tone had an edge of teasing to it.

               “I do not, I’ve talked to him like, a handful of times and that’s it. Besides, he’s got a boyfriend, remember?”

               “Hey, you never know. It seemed like he was flirting with you too. How many times did he say how good you looked?”

               “Because he has literally jerked off to my sets. I mean, it’s kinda already on the table that he finds me attractive.”

               Which was still mind-boggling. He had no idea what to do with that. Two SOLDIER Firsts. Gaia, what was going on?

               “I’m just saying, keep an open mind.”

               “He’s just a friend, Aeris. A friend who likes seeing me naked, maybe, but a friend.”

               Cloud popped up to his feet and held a hand out. Aeris took it and allowed him to help her up.

               “What I will say, is that if you turn him down because you think you’re not good enough, I promise you I will hit you so hard with my staff that it dents.”

               Cloud laughed, but didn’t really think it was an idle threat.

               “Fair enough. Now let’s get you inside before your mom comes looking for us.”

               “I’m surprised she hasn’t given me a talk about using protection, with how long she lets us sit out here unsupervised.”

               Cloud shrugged as he led her along the path back to her home.

               “She keeps telling me that I’m such a gentleman. Probably thinks I wouldn’t without marrying you first or something.”

               “You are a gentleman, Cloud.”

               He looked at her sidelong and raised an eyebrow. She was giving him a smile that looked a little too innocent.

               “I own more lace underwear than you do.”

               “And you’re a perfect gentleman when you’re wearing it, too.”

               Cloud rolled his eyes, but snorted a laugh.

               “If you say so,” he said, coming to a stop. They were at her door.

               “I do. Now go home, I know work always leaves you tired, and that talk either helped or hurt that.”

               “I smell like I’ve been deep fried anyway,” Cloud said, pointedly not addressing her last comment. “I’ll see you later, okay?”

               “Bye, Cloud!”

               He turned and began walking away, back toward his own home.  When he was out of sight, he stopped and buried his face in his hands.

               He still wasn’t over it. Two SOLDIER Firsts. One of which he was friends with. He got a private video from Zack Fair. Even if he told people, unless he showed them, they would never believe him. He might be pretty, but he was nobody. Not even at his day job. He couldn’t be further from importance. But suddenly, he had a friend in a very high place. That was heady. Not that he would ever try to use Zack’s influence, or that he was only interested in him because of his rank. It was just… well, it was fucking cool, is what it was.

               Cloud had an unusual spring in his step the whole way home.

Chapter Text

               If Genesis didn’t know better, he would be incredibly jealous.

               In fact, he would deny it, but he was a little jealous anyway.

               Zack had been on his phone nonstop lately. No one else thought much of it, even though Zack had explained he was talking to his new friend. Angeal was glad he had found a new friend, especially since he was a civilian, and none of them were around those much. Sephiroth was baffled (the three of them were already plenty for his social needs, he didn’t really understand how Zack kept collecting friends) but unbothered. But they hadn’t seen what he had. They didn’t realize that this friend was an absolute beauty and that Zack had seen him in many compromising positions, or how interested Zack had been in those images.

               Now, Genesis held to what he had said originally. He didn’t mind if Zack looked at porn. He was pretty sure that all of them, with the exception maybe of Sephiroth, looked at porn from time to time. But it was different to get private images from an interested party. And sure, the images weren’t private and meant exclusively for Zack, and he didn’t know for sure if this Stormcloud was interested, but it was starting to raise his hackles.

               And, okay, yes, maybe he got a little jealous in general when people started getting too close to his boyfriends. Sue him.

               Still, he kept his mouth shut until Zack sat him down. He’d held Genesis’s hands tenderly and spoke to him in a soft voice.

               “You know that the three of you always come first, right? I might make other friends, including incredibly hot ones that I’ve jerked off to, but you three will always be first in my heart. Stormcloud’s just a friend. If it ever even comes close to anything else, even hints at it, I’ll come to you right away. I promise.”

               Genesis had huffed, mostly to save face, but gave Zack a long, sweet kiss. His boyfriend really was attentive, for all that he was distractible. He always noticed when something was going on with any of them, and was always willing to help fix it. It was one of the things Genesis loved most about him.

               So Genesis had his jealousy soothed. It helped that, whenever a new set came out, Zack always showed him. He left him to it.

               Zack was glad he was able to help. He wanted to keep being friends with Stormcloud, but he was being honest when he said Genesis and the others came first. He didn’t think his boyfriends would ask him to stop being friends with someone for them, but Zack would have to restructure how he did things with his new friend if it started to upset the others. He liked what they had now, but he would set up different boundaries if he had to. Still, he was glad he didn’t need to.

               But, he did feel like he had to come clean about what Stormcloud did, and that he looked at the sets, with Angeal and Sephiroth as well. He didn’t think they would mind, but he liked everyone to be in the loop.

               Angeal had paused for a long moment after Zack told him.

               “Are you interested in him?”

               “I’m interested in looking at his sets, and in keeping him as a friend, but nothing romantic.”

               Angeal shrugged, saying, “Then I don’t see the issue. I just want to know if that ever changes, or if he starts to seem interested in romance with you.”

               He grinned and grabbed Angeal’s face between his hands, puckering up dramatically first and pressing a loud kiss to his lips. Angeal nudged him away with a laugh.

               “But,” he interrupted, and gave Zack a chance to get out his groan of frustration before continuing, “I do want to see the sets.”

               Zack was more than happy to show him. He felt a little proud of his friend, his eyes flickering from the images to Angeal’s face, watching as his boyfriend’s eyes grew darker and darker. They didn’t even finish getting through all the ones Zack had before Angeal let out a rare curse and pulled Zack to him.

               It was a little more difficult with Sephiroth. Not because Sephiroth was jealous, but because he had even less of an idea of what a camboy was than Zack originally had.

               “I don’t understand. He’s… a model?”

               “Uh. In like, the loosest terms, I guess?” Zack hesitated, waffling for a second, before saying, “Do you want me to just show you? I know this isn’t necessarily your type of thing, but it might be easier.”

               Sephiroth waved his hand to express his agreement. Zack went and fetched his laptop, setting it down on Sephiroth’s apartment office desk. Sephiroth was seated in his office chair, and Zack propped himself up on one hand, leaning over his shoulder to press the arrow keys.

               He started with the SOLDIER set, because that was the best one, obviously.

               “That isn’t an actual SOLDIER uniform.”

               “No, but it looks good on him, and authenticity isn’t really the point.”

               “What is, then?”

               “Shh.”

               Sephiroth sighed at being shushed but quieted down obligingly. Zack pressed the side key, showing Stormcloud holding the belt out to the side like he was about to drop it on the floor, one hand rucking up his shirt, splayed against his stomach. The next had the shirt gone, showing that collar and harness.

               “Oh,” Sephiroth whispered.

               Sephiroth, unlike the others, appeared largely unaffected by the set. His breathing didn’t pick up, he didn’t turn pink, his eyes didn’t grow heavy-lidded. But, upon closer inspection, Zack saw that his boyfriend’s pupils were almost round they were so dilated and he was hard in his pants.

               It was incredibly gratifying to know that all of his boyfriends found Stormcloud just as hot as he did.

               They got to the video at the end, and they watched as Cloud sank onto the dildo with a moan. Sephiroth’s breath hitched in the same moment, and Zack let himself have the victorious grin. He kept it through the entire video, right through to the end, where it cut out, and there was a long pause.

               “So, what do you—”

               Sephiroth grabbed Zack by the hair and dragged him down into a scalding hot kiss.

               It was a long, long time before Sephiroth was present of mind enough to say, “No, I don’t mind if you continue speaking to him.”

               And the last of Zack’s hesitancy was swept away, just like that.

               He had nothing left to be hesitant about, but he thought Stormcloud would. It, apparently, wasn’t the case, because he seemed remarkably comfortable.

               It was maybe a few months into their friendship when his friend sent him an unusual message.

               stormcloud: hey Zack

               stormcloud: you can tell me no but I’d like your help with something

               stormcloud: if it’s cool and you’ve got the time

               fairest-ofthemall: sure thing bud, what’s up?

               stormcloud: I’ve got to take the shots for my new set tonight

               stormcloud: but I have no clue what to wear

               stormcloud: it feels like I’ve worn everything five times already

               stormcloud: I’d usually ask my other friend, but her mom’s sick with the flu right now, so I don’t want to bother her

               stormcloud: but like I said, you don’t have to

               Zack paused. He didn’t think this counted as an interested party sending him nudes, but he wanted to be sure. It was always better to communicate.

               fairest-ofthemall: one sec

               He opened his group chat and sent a quick message.

               Zack: hey guys. stormcloud wants help picking out his outfit for his set tonight since his usual friend is busy. should I tell him no?

               Angeal: it’s fine with me

               Sephiroth: I agree. But recommend the SOLDIER uniform for me.

               Angeal: he’s already done that

               Sephiroth: I’m sure he repeats himself at times.

               Genesis: You’re just biased.

               Genesis: I have no issues with you helping him.

               Zack sent a kissy-face emoji and then flipped over to his other app.

               fairest-ofthemall: okay yeah I’m happy to help!

               stormcloud: thanks, you’re a lifesaver!!

               stormcloud: okay so there’s the actual clothes and then what goes underneath, right

               stormcloud: I’ve got to pick the clothes first and we’ll go from there

               fairest-ofthemall: I have strict orders to recommend the SOLDIER uniform

               stormcloud: lmao I know you like that one

               stormcloud: oh, wait, I guess that was from Genesis? tell him I say hi and thanks for being cool with you helping me out. I’m guessing you took a sec to ask him if it was okay?

               Zack hesitated. It hadn’t been Genesis. He should say that it was. It would keep their cover better. But he didn’t like lying to friends, especially not friends who were remarkably cool that he talked to all the time and that put a lot of trust in him. He flicked back over to the messenger app.

               Zack: hey guys I know the answer is probably no but I’d feel bad not asking

               Zack: can I tell him about us? I don’t really want to keep lying to him when he’s trusting me with this kind of stuff

               Sephiroth: I don’t know if that’s wise. You haven’t known him for very long.

               Genesis: I don’t see the harm. Who could he possibly tell? If he shares our secret, we share his. It’s not necessarily fair, but no one will believe a camboy over us.

               Zack: ouch, gen, that’s brutal.

               Angeal: he has a point, though. and he does seem trustworthy. I’m fine with it

               Sephiroth: Make it clear to him that if he shares what he knows, I have the ability to find him.

               Genesis: What, no one’s going to call him brutal?

               Angeal: that’s because it didn’t need to be said, Gen

               Zack: thanks, guys. weird threats and all

               Zack ran a hand through his hair. This was getting tricky to juggle, but so far, things were working out. Communicating everything as soon as possible was helping—that was his usual go-to, and it always worked out for him. He was glad it was still working. He went back to the other app.

               fairest-ofthemall: actually, nope. different boyfriend, but yeah, I asked them first to make sure it was cool. I’ll let them know you say hi and thanks

               stormcloud: different boyfriend???

               fairest-ofthemall: yeah, I’ve got three

               There was a long pause. To calm his nerves, Zack went back to his text app.

               Zack: stormcloud says hi and thanks for letting me help him

               Angeal: that’s kind of him. tell him he’s welcome, and hi from me too

               Genesis: Good to know he has good manners. Pass along the same from me.

               Sephiroth: For me as well.

               He went back to the second app and stared down at the screen, where there was still no messages.

               fairest-ofthemall: they all say hi and you’re welcome, btw

               Cloud stared down at that last message, dumbfounded. He was halfway in one of the costumes he was considering, the maid outfit dress bunched at his hips. He was too dumbfounded to continue.

               Three boyfriends. Four SOLDIER Firsts. One boyfriend was Genesis Rhapsodos.

               A door slammed down the hall and snapped him out of it. He replied in a flurry of fingertips.

               stormcloud: I’m sorry hold on back the fuck up

               stormcloud: I know it’s none of my business and you probably can’t tell me but who??????

               stormcloud: seriously don’t tell me if you can’t but know that my mind is going to the very obvious place

               fairest-ofthemall: nah I already asked, it’s cool for you to know

               fairest-ofthemall: it’s genesis angeal and sephiroth

               fairest-ofthemall: gen says if you tell anyone he’ll discredit you by telling everyone that you’re a camboy and seph wants you to know that if you tell anyone, he can and will find you

               Cloud didn’t know if he should be starstruck or mortified. Two SOLDIER Firsts found him attractive, and he was friends with one of them who was dating all the others. The others, who apparently knew he was a camboy. Gods, that was probably all they knew. Zack must have made sure it was okay with them to be friends with him while still getting the sets—that made sense, Zack had a good sense for boundaries. But Gaia, it was embarrassing!

               stormcloud: uhm so

               stormcloud: holy shit

               stormcloud: a couple of things

               stormcloud: thank them for trusting me enough to let me know, and I promise I won’t tell anyone

               stormcloud: I wouldn’t have anyway, but those were admittedly terrifying threats

               stormcloud: but also did they uh

               stormcloud: did they all see my sets or was it just you and genesis

               fairest-ofthemall: they all wanted to see them when I told them about you, I hope that’s okay?

               Something fluttered in Cloud’s chest. Was it nausea? Excitement? He didn’t know what to feel right now, he was on overload.

               stormcloud: yeah, that’s fine

               fairest-ofthemall: honestly I ought to be thanking you

               fairest-ofthemall: you got me laid every time I told one of them

               Cloud felt like his face could catch fire. He sat down roughly on the edge of his bed, rumpling his skirt. He stood up absently to smooth it before sitting back down again.

               stormcloud: hold on

               stormcloud: they liked the sets?

               stormcloud: all three of them?

               fairest-ofthemall: yeah dude, like a lot

               fairest-ofthemall: seph only got through one set before pouncing on me

               fairest-ofthemall: it was the SOLDIER one btw, he’s the one who wanted me to recommend that one

               Cloud tossed his PHS to the other end of his bed and stared at it like it was a snake.

               Sephiroth. Got hot and bothered. From his set.

               He would go to his grave in debt to Aeris for making him do that SOLDIER set.

               He had looked up to Sephiroth as a kid. He was half of what inspired him to move to Midgar in the first place. He’d jerked off to a photo of him plenty of times.

               That man thought he was attractive?

               He took slow breaths until he was calm enough to go grab his PHS, but his hand shook a little.

               stormcloud: Zack Fair, if you are fucking with me, I swear I will

               stormcloud: I will

               stormcloud: I don’t fucking know, replace your shampoo with hair removal product

               stormcloud: and then you’ll have to explain to everyone that you’re bald because you played a mean joke on your friend

               fairest-ofthemall: oh my gods

               fairest-ofthemall: okay so that is the best threat I have heard in SO long congrats my dude

               fairest-ofthemall: but I’m not messing with you

               fairest-ofthemall: all four of us like your stuff

               fairest-ofthemall: I told you before, you’re REALLY good at what you do

               stormcloud: excuse me while I go have a fucking aneurysm brb

               Cloud put his phone back down and hopped to his feet, pacing his bedroom. This was unreal. It was fucking unreal. The four hottest men in the city all found him attractive. They were bothered enough by his sets to feel the need to sleep with their boyfriend to cool off. He knew nothing would come of it, he’d never even consider pressing for it, especially knowing they were all involved, but holy shit. He doubted he’d ever even meet them, but holy shit. This kind of thing just didn’t happen, and especially not to him.

               Cloud scrubbed his hands over his face and looked in his full length mirror.

               Right. He had a job to do.

               He pulled the dress the rest of the way on, straightening it out, fluffing the skirt. He hated dresses a lot less than when he started. He would never wear one in public, but they did make his legs look great.

               Cloud picked up his PHS off the bed again.

               fairest-ofthemall: lmaoooo what are you a fan or something?

               stormcloud: dude are you serious

               stormcloud: you four are like the most attractive people in the whole damn city

               stormcloud: and you have each other????

               stormcloud: I literally cannot begin to guess why any of you are interested in my sets

               stormcloud: but I AM going to have to charge you all individually from now on

               It was a joke. Mostly. He’d happily give them the sets for free, but, well, they could afford them.

               fairest-ofthemall: lmao scout’s honor stormcloud, no more freebies from me

               fairest-ofthemall: but really man

               fairest-ofthemall: you’re gorgeous

               fairest-ofthemall: if modelling scouts went below the plate you’d have been picked up by one

               Cloud snorted, but his face was heating up again.

               stormcloud: yeah right

               stormcloud: I could never be a model, are you kidding?

               stormcloud: I’d never be able to sell anything that wasn’t smutty

               fairest-ofthemall: we must be talking about two separate dudes

               fairest-ofthemall: I’m pretty sure that if any of us were single, we would have hit on you by now

               Did he even have enough of his mind left for it to keep being blown like this?

               Cloud stared for a while at the PHS.

               It was like some sort of crazy dream he’d come up with when he was a kid or something. If Nibelheim-him could see him now.

               stormcloud: alright alright I don’t REALLY believe you but thanks for giving me the world’s biggest ego boost anyway

               Cloud stood in front of the mirror and took a shot of him in the maid’s dress, complete with knee-high stockings and garters, but no shoes. Before Zack could say anything, he sent it.

               stormcloud: here’s option number one, in case you forgot you were helping me

               Cloud began to change, stripping out of the dress and into a tiny little sailor’s uniform with shorts so short and so tight there was nothing left to the imagination. He had to wiggle into them. The little cap that came with it sat a little odd on his hair, but he managed to nestle it in. He took another photo and sent it.

               stormcloud: those are the two I’m between, what do you think?

               fairest-ofthemall: I think if Junon was full of sailors that look like that, the boats would be crashing all the time

               Cloud smiled but shook his head at his PHS.

               stormcloud: that the one you like best then?

               fairest-ofthemall: I think so. you want more opinions or is that good?

               Cloud blinked. He hadn’t thought of that. He kind of liked the idea of getting all of their opinions, but he also wanted the other three to see him only at his best, which would be in the sets.

               stormcloud: I think that’s good, there’s an even number of you guys, the last thing I need is for there to be a tie and me to be back at square one

               Because he was never very good about being upfront and honest with his feelings, was he.

               fairest-ofthemall: ooooo good point

               stormcloud: let me get the rest of the photos, one sec

               Cloud sorted through his undergarments, picking out both royal blue and baby blue lace panties and a red satin thong, matching the accent colors on the uniform. Now, he put on the costumes for the pictures because seeing them sitting on his bed versus on him actually made a difference. But Zack would be able to pick between the three undergarments without seeing them on him.

               But, he did know that Zack thought he was attractive.

               Aeris did always call him a brat.

               Nothing would ever come of it, he knew that and was fine with it, but he didn’t mind teasing.

               Cloud sent pictures of him in each option. He didn’t do any of the flirty posing or sultry looks (that would have been too obvious) but he was still almost naked wearing lingerie. He hadn’t been entirely joking when he said that conversation had been an ego boost.

               Gods, the Firsts thought he was hot. He could die happy.

               Zack, for his part, was very glad he was home alone, because his mouth immediately went dry. He had known what was coming, but getting three separate images of a beautiful blond wearing next to nothing, even if the way he was standing was artless, was still an experience. He had to remind himself firmly that he had a job to do here.

               fairest-ofthemall: the light blue ones, they bring out your eyes

               stormcloud: lmao because that’s what I want the clients looking at

               fairest-ofthemall: hey! you have beautiful eyes ok!!!

               stormcloud: if you say so

               Cloud knew so. He’d been told a thousand times by a thousand skeezy men. But it actually meant something, coming from Zack.

               stormcloud: baby blue it is

               stormcloud: thanks for your help man, you really saved me, I’ve been sitting at my closet for like three hours

               fairest-ofthemall: sure thing dude, any time!

               stormcloud: I gotta go take these photos, I’ll talk to you later

               stormcloud: thank your boyfriends again for me, I really appreciate them being cool about this

               Cloud went and put his PHS on his dresser and grabbed his laptop, setting it carefully on his stool. He went and tried to wriggle his way back into the sailor’s outfit. He wasn’t sure what toy to use for the video, but he figured that would be pushing Zack a little far to ask advice for. He didn’t even ask Aeris’s advice for that, and she wasn’t attracted to him.

               But that reminded him of the three other men who were apparently attracted to him as well.

               With that on the mind, he didn’t have quite as much difficulty getting hard for his shots as he usually did.

Chapter Text

               True to their word, Zack and his group of boyfriends each bought the sailor set individually. He hadn’t been sure of all of them, but he found three new usernames he hadn’t seen before on his buy list. One was banoranred, another was honorfirst, and the third was simply sephiroth and Cloud was honestly surprised that one hadn’t been taken yet. It wasn’t terribly hard to deduce the other two, and he’d felt his stomach flutter and twist when he read the names. It was starting to sink in that, yes, Zack had been telling him the truth, that they were all actually attracted to him. They were all determined enough to get his sets to not only sign up for the blogging service, but follow his account and purchase the set on their own.

               He’d only been further surprised to receive a message from one.

               banoranred: Marvelous set, dear.

               stormcloud: thank you so much!!

               stormcloud: I honestly didn’t expect to hear from you

               banoranred: Did you think we were too good to interact with you?

               stormcloud: uhm, kinda, yeah

               stormcloud: I’m not sure why ZACK talks to me, but I’m sure he would have stopped if he wasn’t starved to talk about moogle dynasty

               banoranred: Yes, that dreadful game, I recall him saying you played it as well.

               banoranred: To my understanding, he speaks to you because you’re a delightful young man, more than your shared interest in the game. Is it so surprising that I might be interested in meeting what might be by boyfriend’s best friend?

               stormcloud: of course not!!

               stormcloud: only, I’m pretty sure that “best friend” isn’t me

               stormcloud: don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered you want to talk, I’m just a little confused

               banoranred: You know, somehow Zack failed to mention your abysmal self-esteem.

               banoranred: I hope this isn’t you being starstruck.

               stormcloud: I mean, I am a little, if I’m honest

               stormcloud: but considering you’re the one that threatened to tell everyone about my job if I couldn’t keep your secret, I got the impression that you didn’t think much of me

               stormcloud:  you wouldn’t be the first to think I have a pretty face and not respect me, it’s not really surprising

               banoranred: You misunderstand. I have an understanding of what the public response to your profession would be, that is all. Just as I understand what the public response to my unconventional relationships would be, and prefer to keep it behind closed doors.

               banoranred: Surely you can understand that.

               stormcloud: sure, I get that

               stormcloud: and I’m sure you can get the reasons why I just wasn’t expecting you to message

               stormcloud: don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it. just wasn’t expecting it

               banoranred: Do you appreciate all contact from clients or is this about me in particular?

               stormcloud: I didn’t pin you as one to fish for compliments, but yeah, this is about you

               stormcloud: but it’s because you’re dating my friend, not because of your job

               stormcloud: all I know about you is what the media and Zack can tell me

               banoranred: And you’re interested in learning more… for what reason?

               stormcloud: like I said, you’re dating my friend

               stormcloud: anyone who’s that important to a friend is important to me

               stormcloud: I want us to get along, if we can

               banoranred: I would like that as well.

               banoranred: So then, Stormcloud, tell me something about yourself that isn’t related to your sets.

               stormcloud: aww, not interested in hearing about the behind the scenes???

               banoranred: Another time, perhaps.

               stormcloud: hmmmm… it’s been a while since someone’s asked for something like that

               stormcloud: Zack just kinda launched right in with moogle dynasty

               stormcloud: and I doubt you wanna hear about that

               stormcloud: I have a terrible day job? is that interesting?

               banoranred: I suppose that depends on what the day job is, though I confess I’m surprised you need one at all.

               stormcloud: oh the job’s not interesting, I work at chocobo king

               stormcloud: I’m saving to try to move somewhere better

               stormcloud: two jobs saves better than one, and I only do sets once a week, so I’ve got the time

               banoranred: Have you not thought about a different job? Perhaps something with the same skillset?

               stormcloud:  if you’re suggesting modelling, I’ll tell you the same thing I told Zack

               stormcloud: I could never sell anything that isn’t dirty

               stormcloud: I might have a face for porn, but that’s about it

               banoranred: Hardly true, my dear.

               banoranred: I can think of plenty of lines that would love to have you as their face.

               stormcloud: I appreciate the flattery, really I do

               stormcloud: but I think we both know that’s not quite true              

               banoranred: I’m not in the habit of lying, Stormcloud.

               banoranred: And truly, your self-esteem is dreadful. How do you find the nerve to do what you do with such views of yourself?

               stormcloud: come on

               stormcloud: my self-esteem isn’t “dreadful”

               stormcloud: I just know my limits and what I’m good for, okay?

               banoranred: “What you’re good for” is hardly limited to pornography.

               stormcloud: sure, I also kill it at a cash register and playing moogle dynasty

               banoranred: I can see we will not get anywhere on this issue today, but don’t think I’m dropping it. I can be quite stubborn.

               stormcloud: so can I

               banoranred: Then, rather than continue to butt heads, tell me something else.

               stormcloud: no way, it’s your turn

               stormcloud: quid pro quo right???

               banoranred: I see how it is.

               banoranred: I have a favorite book.

               stormcloud: most people do

               stormcloud: except you can’t find out most people’s just by absorbing pop culture

               stormcloud: pick something that I can’t find in a five minute moogle search

               banoranred: Fine, fine. I have open tickets at the theater and go at least once a month, if I’m in the city.

               banoranred: Zack is the only one I don’t drag with me. He can’t sit still long enough for the production.

               stormcloud: pfffft

               stormcloud: yeah, sounds like Zack alright

               Cloud let the conversation wander where it would, simply glad it was happening. He still wasn’t entirely sure why Genesis seemed interested in talking to him, but he gathered it was much the same reason Cloud wanted to speak to him. They were both invested in Zack, who was in turn invested in the other. That gave them mutual interest. He could accept that. He was sure that Zack had other, closer friends who Genesis should be spending his time getting to know, but apparently he was taking up just enough of Zack’s time to be worth it. That he could understand.

               What he wouldn’t have been able to understand would have been the group text conversation going on between the SOLDIERs First.

               Genesis: I have terrible, terrible news, everyone.

               Genesis: Dear Zackary has either been withholding a terrible truth, or is woefully ignorant.

               Zack: what am I not telling everyone???

               Genesis: His Stormcloud has absolutely –appalling– self-esteem, and frankly, I won’t stand for it, if he’s going to be this close to Zack.

               Genesis: I know we all signed up on that site so that we could pay him fairly.

               Genesis: I demand that Angeal and Sephiroth message him also.

               Genesis: We’ll drag his self-esteem up to par by force if we have to.

               Angeal: what gave you this idea?

               Zack: hey guys, don’t overwhelm him

               Zack: I don’t know if this would help

               Zack: especially if he knew why

               Genesis: Hush, Zack.

               Genesis: He could not believe I would deign to speak to him, to start with. He also implied that all he believes he’s good for is pornography.

               Angeal: is this true, Zack?

               Zack: idk what he said to Genesis, but it sounds about right, yeah

               Zack: he knows he’s good at his work, but he does kinda think that’s all he’s good for

               Zack:  I told him once that he’d be a good model, and he didn’t think he could do it

               Genesis: I suggested much the same, and got a similar response.

               Genesis: This is unacceptable.

               Zack: listen

               Zack: he’d be super excited to hear from you guys, trust me

               Zack: he’s kinda a fan

               Zack: but he’s not gonna be happy if he find out you’re doing this because you think he needs help

               Zack: for all that he talks shit about himself, he really won’t stand for anything he thinks is charity

               Angeal: and if we’re upfront about why we want to talk to him?

               Zack: well… it’d go over better than it being a surprise, I think

               Zack: but he still won’t like it

               Zack: he might shut you down

               Angeal: I have to say, I don’t like the idea of him thinking about himself this way either

               Angeal: he seems fantastic, from what you’ve said, Zack

               Angeal: he deserves better

               Genesis: I completely concur.

               Zack: me too, but, idk

               Zack: I just don’t think this is going to go over how you think it will

               Angeal: let me try

               Zack: it’s up to you, but I’m telling him I told you guys to stay out of it

               Angeal: that’s fair, Zack

               There was a long pause, in which all three turned to other tasks. Genesis returned to speaking with Cloud about LOVELESS, which he had apparently never read. He was attempting to persuade him into allowing him to send him a copy through the P.O. Box he was fully aware he had, after Zack confessed to sending the uniform. Cloud kept insisting that he wouldn’t have time to read it, while Genesis insisted he would be able to find time on breaks at work if nothing else. Cloud then protested that he couldn’t accept it for free, Genesis argued that he must accept gifts all the time if he had a P.O. Box, and Cloud suggested trading the book for a private set. Genesis had to ask if it was acceptable to share the set with the others, but with that agreement secured, they had a deal.

               Angeal was in a meeting and finally set down his PHS, mumbling an apology and an excuse about Seconds having questions. Sephiroth cocked his brow at him, knowing full well that wasn’t true by the buzzing inside his own pocket, but he didn’t say anything. Angeal offered him a small smile but they focused on the meeting from then on out.

               Zack resumed his training from his over-long water break, but was thoroughly distracted. He liked the idea of the others getting to know Stormcloud. The blond had quickly become what he considered one of his closest friends, and it’d be nice for his boyfriends to know him. But he didn’t like the idea of them approaching him for the reason they were. He knew, he knew Stormcloud wasn’t going to like it. He could be prickly at times and had a surprising amount of pride, if only in select areas. He refused to accept help at any point in time. He’d made the mistake of complaining about someone being pushy to Zack once and then had spent half an hour chewing him out for insisting on helping run him off. Zack had only been offering because he knew he could help and didn’t like seeing his friend uncomfortable, but Cloud had been very unhappy. He clearly didn’t like people offering aid when he thought he could handle something, or when he didn’t think it was their business. And he was completely certain that Stormcloud wouldn’t think it was Genesis’s business what the state of his self-esteem was like. He knew this was going to go over poorly, and only felt bad for whoever would try to reach out next. He kind of hoped it was Angeal—he had more social grace and a bit of a thicker skin. Sephiroth, he was concerned, would take it a little harder to have a genuinely well-meant gesture rebuffed so hard. But there was nothing to do about it. He had said his piece. He intended to ignore the group chat until they moved on.

               Cloud had since gone back to his shift at Chocobo King, finishing his lunch break, and had no expectation of what was coming.

               Sephiroth: So, to be clear, we are reaching out to Stormcloud to help improve his self-esteem, and are letting him know our intentions when we do so, but he is likely to not appreciate the effort?

               Angeal: that’s about the gist of it, yeah

               Sephiroth: I don’t see the point.

               Angeal: he’s friends with Zack and Genesis seems to like him

               Genesis: I do. He’s interesting.

               Sephiroth: So we’re attempting to do him this favor out of goodwill because he is close to our boyfriends.

               Angeal: right. and no one should have low self-esteem like that, it’s not good for them

               Sephiroth: Might I try first?

               Genesis: Are you sure that’s the best idea, love?

               Sephiroth: I think I might have an idea of how to go about this.

               Angeal: go for it then, Seph. I trust you.

               Genesis: If you’re sure, then.

               Sephiroth looked down at his PHS with a soft smile, glad for his boyfriends’ trust, even if Genesis seemed hesitant and Zack hadn’t answered. He suspected Zack was done with the conversation and wouldn’t be contributing any further, and didn’t really expect an answer from him. He loaded up the correct app and had to figure it out briefly before sending his first message.

               sephiroth: Hello.

               Cloud stared at his PHS. He was warring with himself. Part of him was giddy. Sephiroth had messaged him. Sephiroth! But another part of him was furious. He was sure—dead sure, actually—that this wasn’t done because the man was interested. Partially because, no matter how attractive he might find him, there was no way the general wanted to know him. In the other part, because he had expected something like this from the second Genesis like the matter of his self-esteem “drop.”

               stormcloud: first, I want to say hello, and thank you for messaging me, it was kind of you.

               stormcloud: second, I want to tell you that, whatever Genesis said to put you up to this, you really don’t have to. he needs to learn boundaries. putting famous people up to talk to someone doesn’t boost their self-esteem, it makes them feel like they’re being pitied, and no one likes that.

               stormcloud: so, please pass on to Genesis for me that he needs to mind his own business, and you’re off the hook for talking to me. I really do appreciate the thought though, I’m sure it came from a well-meaning place

               Sephiroth stared down at his PHS. Stormcloud was… polite, in a way. He said “please” and “thank you” and that he appreciated Sephiroth’s effort. That showed that, whatever else he said, he was kind-natured to some degree. He was clearly irritated by what Genesis was trying to do, but wasn’t taking it out on Sephiroth. He could appreciate someone making themselves clear without taking out the messenger. For all of that, he had never seen anyone speak to himself or Genesis the way Stormcloud was. Sephiroth had dressed down enough SOLDIERs and troopers to know the tone when he heard it. That was exactly what Stormcloud was doing to Genesis through him. It was a scolding. And the fact that this camboy had the nerve to do that when SOLDIER Seconds wouldn’t was remarkable.

               sephiroth: You aren’t wrong in your assumptions. It was Genesis’s idea that we speak to you to build your self-esteem.

               stormcloud: right. which I’m saying you’re off the hook for. you don’t have to bother.

               sephiroth: I am not, however, messaging you to appease him.

               stormcloud: why are you messaging, then?

               sephiroth: Firstly, to warn you about Genesis’s suggestion, and that Angeal will likely message you as well. However, it is mostly because I am curious as to who could elicit such a reaction from him.

               stormcloud: trust me, it’s not that hard to get rich people to pity a slum rat

               Sephiroth hummed, filing that information away from later. He supposed it could mean anything, but the term “slum rat” was almost exclusively used to refer to people living below the plate in Midgar. He wondered if Zack knew that his friend was so close.

               sephiroth: It was not pity that made him act. Genesis is not a man inclined to pity. It was intrigue.

               stormcloud: oh?

               sephiroth: Yes. He wonders how a man who thinks so little of himself could attract Zack’s eye and manage in your profession. I also think he finds such low self-esteem beneath you, if you’ve proven worthy of Zack’s attention.

               stormcloud: I’m guessing he didn’t actually say this

               sephiroth: That would be true. He did not need to. I know him that well at least by this point.

               stormcloud: okay, so it’s not pity from him then. but it’s probably pity from you, huh

               sephiroth: Hardly. I’m no more inclined toward pity than he is. I share his curiosity, certainly, but mostly I think it would be best if we all got along. For Zack’s sake, if nothing else.

               stormcloud: you know you don’t have to talk to me for Zack and I to be friends, right?

               stormcloud: like I appreciate the thought and the effort, really

               stormcloud: and I think I’d like to get to know you

               stormcloud: but I only want that if you actually want to get to know ME, if that makes sense

               sephiroth: It does entirely. And I am interested in knowing you. I specifically requested to be the first between Angeal and I to speak to you because I felt we could both come to an understanding and move past that to actual communication.

               stormcloud: you volunteered?

               sephiroth: I did.

               stormcloud: to speak to me?

               sephiroth: yes.

               stormcloud: oh

               stormcloud: okay

               stormcloud: what did you

               stormcloud: uh

               stormcloud: want to talk about then?

               sephiroth: All I know about you is your work and that you live in the slums of Midgar. I’d like to know more.

               stormcloud: how do you know where I live???

               Cloud was immediately reminded of his threat. That Sephiroth would find him. He hoped it wasn’t coming to that, considering he hadn’t told anyone about them, not even Aeris—and he had been burning to tell her.

               sephiroth: You called yourself a slum rat. That term tends to only refer to those who live below the plate in Midgar.

               stormcloud: oh. right.

               stormcloud: uh. well. I work at chocobo king?

               Cloud was incredibly surprised to find that he had an extended, pleasant conversation with Sephiroth. The man was, honestly, hilarious. He had a perfect dry wit that bit without ever actually stinging. It took a while for Cloud to relax, first from the thought that Genesis had sicced Sephiroth on him out of some misguided need to fix him, and then from the thought that this was, well, Sephiroth. It had been incredibly hard not to get flustered once he calmed down a bit, but every time he started to, Sephiroth somehow managed to soothe him. All it took was a gentle reminder to breathe or that he was doing so well. And that last part did things to Cloud, who always had had such a thing for praise, who knew that at some point while filming for a later set he’d be imagining Sephiroth telling him he was doing so well and felt at least a little guilty for that. This was his friend’s boyfriend, he shouldn’t be having dirty thoughts about him. Except that boyfriend apparently had dirty thoughts about him, so he thought it was only fair, really. The guilt was swept away easier than he expected.

               They talked, really, about everything and nothing. They were still talking when Sephiroth took a pause to message his group chat.

               Sephiroth: He’s a remarkable young man, really.

               Genesis: Did you get anywhere with him?

               Sephiroth: Not on the subject of his self-esteem, no. He doesn’t seem to like talking about it. He very much doesn’t appreciate the thought of what you’re trying to do. In fact, he told me to tell you to mind your business, and that you’re making him feel pitied.

               Genesis: That wasn’t my intention and you know that.

               Sephiroth: I do. I still find it impressive that he had the nerve to tell you to mind your business at all, though.

               Angeal: you think it’s safe for me to message him, then?

               Sephiroth: Perhaps wait a day. It might be a bit much for him, at the moment. He’s still getting overwhelmed from time to time talking to me.

               Genesis: He didn’t get overwhelmed talking to –me. –

               Sephiroth: You’ve always had more social grace than I have. I’m sure you put him at ease better.

               Genesis: I’m sure it’s that he idolizes you more than he does me.

               Sephiroth: I don’t know that that’s correct.

               Angeal: I’m sure Sephiroth’s got the right of it, Gen

               Angeal: I’ll talk to him tomorrow and we’ll see how it goes

               Zack had still yet to respond, but none of them were particularly surprised. He could get a little protective over his Stormcloud, and he had been right, after all: Stormcloud hadn’t appreciated what Genesis had tried to do.

               Cloud, however, was overwhelmed. He’d spoken to Genesis, Sephiroth, and Zack all in one day. Just pleasant conversations. Zack had been checking up on him, making sure he was alright, apologizing for his boyfriends, assuring him that they meant the best. Cloud was inclined to believe him, and forgave Genesis, largely by virtue of Sephiroth being so understanding and Zack vouching for him. The fact that his talk with Genesis earlier that day really had gone well didn’t hurt either. But now he was lying in bed, trying to sleep, his conversations long gone quiet, and he couldn’t quite believe what was happening. He knew, full well, that no one, except maybe Aeris, would believe him at all. And he wouldn’t blame them. He wouldn’t believe anyone who told him they had three Firsts on the line, especially not when all four Firsts allegedly found them attractive. Especially not when the fourth was probably due to message them as well. This was wild, in an almost unreasonable way.

               He wasn’t sure if he was excited to talk to Angeal, or dreading it. He was mostly excited, he thought, but there was also the consideration that there was no coming back from this. All of the Firsts talking to him seemed like the point of no return. Like his life would never be able to get any weirder, and to be honest, it was plenty fucking weird as it was. He was desperate to tell Aeris about everything, but he knew he couldn’t without breaking his word. He knew if the Firsts met Aeris, they wouldn’t mind her knowing, but that was out of the question. He just wanted someone to confide in. The closest he had for that right now was Zack, but he felt like his friend might be a little conflicted, considering they were his boyfriends and all. But Zack had never failed to listen to him fairly, so he resolved to try.

               In the morning, though. He was exhausted.

Chapter Text

               Zack, honestly, didn’t give much of his own input into his own missions. He took what was given to him. He didn’t really turn down anything, but rarely volunteered for something specific. From time to time he’d just take the first one he saw available if he was bored and needed to stretch his legs, but even then, he wasn’t picky about what the job was. He knew some SOLDIERs who refused to work below the plate. In their defense, they really were treated shitty down there. Slummers didn’t like Shinra and especially not a reminder of Shinra’s overwhelming force in the form of SOLDIERs. Even Zack, who did go below the plate for work, didn’t linger. But the monster nest he’d cleaned out had been, admittedly, huge, and he hadn’t gotten a chance to eat before he left, and he was starving. Out of all of his boyfriends, he was the only one with a real appreciation for fast food, and he didn’t really think he had the energy for anything more extravagant than the Chocobo King he was coming up on. If the restaurant reminded him of Stormcloud, well, it was a little plus. He ducked inside.

               He waited his turn in line, looking up at the menu, picking out what he would order. The young lady at the register was just that—young. Young enough that Zack wasn’t sure she was legally allowed to work, but he understood that you did what you had to down here. He wasn’t going to snitch. He was a little surprised at the way her face morphed into outright hate when he stepped up to the register.

               “Uh, hi?” he tried, and was surprised to see her yank her yellow hat off her head and peg it at the floor.

               She stormed to the back, hollering, “Strife!” as she went.

               One of the line cooks popped his head forward from under a vent hood.

               “Sorry about that, she really hates Shinra. We’ve got another cashier on break though, she’s going to go get him. He’ll help you.”

               “Oh,” Zack said, blinking. “Sure.”

               The cook flashed a grateful smile, likely just happy that he wasn’t kicking up a fuss, before ducking back to his own work.

               “I know, I know—listen, you’re really gonna have to get over this one day,” a voice from down the hall said. “What were you gonna do if I wasn’t here, kick him out?”

               Zack snorted, shifting on his feet.

               “Yes,” the girl answered.

               “That’s stupid and you know it. I’ll humor you this time, but next time, you’re on your own. And you owe me.”

               “For you doing your job?”

               “For covering for you while I’m on my break, yeah.”

               Zack watched the girl file forward and go to open another register, the man behind him in line stepping up toward it while shooting him a nasty look. Zack could not have cared less. He was now, well and thoroughly distracted.

               In front of him stood a very familiar blond in a terrible, tacky uniform. The stupid yellow hat was nestled in spikes he knew very well, wide blue eyes trained down on the PHS in his hand. He snorted at something he read there and offered a small smile, and that was distinctly unfamiliar. He’d never seen him look fond before.

               And then the blond looked up, made eye contact with him, and froze in place.

               He slowly, slowly turned tomato red.

               Zack knew he was just staring, dumbfounded, at what was distinctly his Stormcloud at his day job.

               “Zack?” Stormcloud—no, just Cloud, according to his nametag—said, his voice strangled.

               It snapped Zack out of it. He offered a bright laugh, leaning his hands on the counter.

               “No way,” Zack said, grinning widely. “I didn’t think I’d actually see you here!”

               “How did you…?”

               “I was just in the area and looking for lunch, honestly. Complete accident.”

               Cloud searched his face, as if he didn’t quite believe him. Zack leaned back and held his hands up innocently, but he couldn’t stop smiling.

               It was Stormcloud in the flesh! Wearing a godsawful uniform that he somehow managed to make look good. His eyes looked even more amazing here than they did in the photos. And he found that he really liked the small smile started at the edges of his lips as he stepped up to the register.

               “Come on, then, let’s get you lunch. I’ll sit with you until my break’s done. Unless you want to eat alone?”

               “Are you kidding?” Zack said, a laugh in his words.

               A laugh Cloud echoed before waving his hand for Zack to give his order, which he rattled off with ease. Cloud punched at the touchscreen quickly before spouting off his total. They exchanged gil for a receipt and then Cloud stepped out from behind the counter, pointedly ignoring the way his coworker was glaring at him.

               Cloud beamed, and it lit up his whole face, but especially his eyes.

               “Can I hug you?” he asked, just a little tentative.

               Zack grinned back and said, “Just you try and stop me.”

               He swept Cloud up and into his arms, spinning him around in a quick circle and earning Cloud’s beautiful, bell-like laugh before setting him back down, leaving his hands on Cloud’s shoulders, who cupped his elbows lightly.

               “I can’t believe it’s you,” Cloud said, shaking his head slightly, but staring up at Zack with an almost dazed look on his face. It was incredibly endearing, and Zack’s heart felt tight.

               “I can’t believe it’s you,” Zack countered. “I swear I’m not stalking you, I really was just in the area.”

               Cloud laughed again, and yeah, Zack could get used to that sound.

               “I believe you,” Cloud said, and both his expression and his tone were warm. It was so much better than the photos. “I just didn’t think I’d ever actually meet you.”

               “Order for Zack Fair,” the bitter young lady at the counter called, and Cloud trailed after Zack as he went to get it. The two coworkers exchanged a long and strange look before Cloud followed him back to a table—in the far back corner, to give them some privacy from his coworkers, who he didn’t doubt were listening in.

               “I thought about asking,” Zack confessed when they sat. “I knew you lived nearby and I wanted to meet you, but I thought it was too soon.”

               “Too soon? We’ve known each other for months now.”

               Zack rubbed the back of his neck in a nervous tic that had Cloud’s heart stuttering. It was adorable. He made Zack nervous?

               “Well, I didn’t want you to think I was stalking you, or going to start, or that I was being creepy.”

               The “I know you get enough of that” was pointedly left off out of deference to their location, but both knew it was there.

               Cloud shook his head though, that fond smile back on his face.

               “I trust you, Zack. I know you wouldn’t.”

               Zack’s eyes searched his face for a long moment before giving him a dazzling smile.

               “I trust you too, you know that, right?”

               Cloud snorted, but still smiled.

               “I’m not sure why, but I do believe that.”

               This time, Zack’s smile was nearly blinding.

               Cloud shook his head at him again, and Zack dug into his meal. He really was hungry after the monster nest, honestly.

               “So,” he said around a mouthful of food, which had Cloud laughing again. “Cloud, huh?”

               Cloud sighed, and there was a faint pink rising to his cheeks. “Yeah.”

               “Stormcloud’s pretty close.”

               “It’s—well, promise not to laugh?”

               “Uhm, absolutely not, but you better tell me anyway.”

               Cloud glared at him, but it was entirely lacking in heat, and yeah, his face was pink by now. He sighed heavily.

               “It was my childhood nickname. It just kinda stuck.”

               Zack froze, and eventually Cloud looked back up at him to see him forcibly restraining laughter. He coughed to hide it a few times, but he recovered.

               “How’d you get that one?”

               “I was a moody kid, alright? It’s not that funny.”

               “Your name is Cloud and your nickname was Stormcloud. You’re right, that’s not funny—it’s hilarious.”

               Cloud sighed heavily and ruffled his hair, nearly knocking the hat off his head.

               “Come on, yours isn’t any better. ‘Fairest of them all’ for Zack Fair? That’s terrible. And your friends aren’t any better.”

               Cloud pointedly didn’t mention the actual nature of their relationship, and Zack flashed him a grateful smile before looking offended.

               “Hey! They’re all great, okay?”

               “One of them is literally just his name.”

               Zack sighed, knowing full well that he was talking about Sephiroth.

               “Yeah, well, he’s never been very creative. But I don’t think you have any room to talk. Besides, taking everything into consideration, I could say a few things about the fact that it’s your childhood nickname you’re using.”

               Cloud slowly flushed darker, and the pout that formed on his face was adorable.

               “Leave that out of this.”

               “Come on, ya gotta tell me—did your mom give you that one?”

               “Zack!

               “What! It’s a fair question.”

               “‘Fair,’ huh?”

               Zack winked, and Cloud would deny forever the way his heart stuttered.

               “Now you’re getting it.”

               Cloud plucked a fry off his tray and flicked it into his face. Zack snatched it out of the air easily, looking smug when Cloud huffed and pouted again.

               “Actually, this is really good timing, us meeting,” Cloud said, derailing the senseless topic. He put his chin in his hands. “I have a favor to ask. I get the feeling you’re going to need permission, but I want to ask anyway.”

               Zack tilted his head, looking curious.

               “What’s the favor?”

               Cloud glanced over his shoulder to see a long line and his coworker thoroughly distracted. He shuffled forward, leaning further in. Zack got the message and leaned in forward as well.

               “I’ve had this idea for a while, but no one to help with it—well, I had someone try, but she was terrible at it, so we gave it up. I just use my laptop to—” He glanced over his shoulder one more time before whispering, “—take my shots, right? But that doesn’t give me a lot of options, and everything’s really static. I’ve wanted someone to take the photos for me for a while, but like I said, last person I asked was really bad. I don’t know if you’d be any good at it, but you’re the only one I trust enough to do this.”

               Zack looked at him closely, making sure he was serious about this.

               “You want me to be your photographer?”

               “Yeah.”

               “You trust me to do that?”

               “Of course.”

               Zack’s heart clenched at the sentiment, and he didn’t want to think about why.

               “I’ll have to ask.”

               “I thought you would. But you’d be willing, though? To try.”

               “Of course, if it’d help. I’m not great, but Angeal does photography, and he showed me a few things before. I was never super into it as a hobby, but I’d be happy to help.”

               Tension seemed to bleed from Cloud, and he gave him a soft smile.

               “Thank you, Zack. You don’t know how much that means.”

               “Really, Cloud, I’d be happy to. If you want, and everyone’s cool with it again, I can probably talk Gen into editing the photos. He edits Angeal’s for fun.”

               Cloud’s eyes lit up.

               “Really? You think he’d do that?”

               “Definitely. I really don’t think anyone will mind either of us helping.”

               Cloud grinned, undisguised excitement on his face.

               “This is huge, Zack. Photo quality’s what’s been holding me back forever now. This could be a game changer.”

               Zack found himself grinning back.

               “Like I said, I think they’ll go for it.”

               Cloud opened his mouth to answer, but his PHS began going off, the stupid warking tone that Aeris had set it to and he’d never bothered to change. He sighed heavily as he turned it off.

               “My break’s over, I gotta go. But let me know what they say, okay?” he said, sliding out of the booth.

               Zack slid out after him, his food still half-eaten on the table.

               “Of course I will, as soon as I know. Keep an eye on your PHS.”

               “I will,” he beamed as they came to stand in front of each other.

               Zack swept Cloud up into his arms again, lifting him off the floor just to make him laugh one last time.

               “Alright, alright,” Cloud said, a hint of laughter still in his tone, and Zack set him back down. “Don’t be a stranger, okay?”

               “Promise.”

               Cloud waved at him and then hurried back behind the counter. Zack went back to eating, but pulled out his PHS and began to type.

               Zack: so uh

               Zack: you’re not gonna guess what happened today

               Genesis: Aren’t you on a mission?

               Zack: nah, I finished, I sent in the notification that I’m done over my PHS and went to get food

               Angeal: and?

               Zack: and I ran into stormcloud at his day job

               Zack: his real name’s Cloud btw

               Zack: apparently stormcloud is a nickname and you should totally tease him about it

               Genesis: I don’t have to be told twice. Did you stumble upon him on accident?

               Zack: basically!

               Zack: I picked chocobo king because it reminded me of him but it was also the first thing I saw in the area

               Zack: he wasn’t even at the register at first

               Zack: the girl there was anti-shinra so she went to get him to ring me up while he was on break

               Zack: we hung out for a bit but he had to get back to work

               Sephiroth: And you’re still there?

               Zack: yup

               Sephiroth: Tell him I say hello.

               Genesis: From me as well. I’m amazed at your luck to be honest.

               Angeal: say hi from me too please

               Zack: I will on my way out, don’t wanna interrupt him

               Zack: and he had a favor to ask from me while I was here

               Genesis: Oh?

               Zack: he was saying his photo quality is what’s holding him back from doing a lot better

               Zack: he asked me to photograph for him

               Sephiroth: After having met you once?

               Zack: yeah, but we’ve been talking for months!

               Zack: he says he trusts me

               Angeal: that is a really a huge display of trust

               Zack: seriously

               Zack: I’m honestly pretty surprised

               Genesis: I’m assuming you’re wanting our permission before giving him an answer.

               Zack: yup

               Genesis: And it is only taking photos, right, dear?

               Zack: that’s all he asked for

               Genesis: Then it’s alright with me. His angles have been awful.

                Angeal: I’m fine with it. you can even borrow one of my cameras

               Sephiroth: I’m interested in seeing how this changes the sets. You have my approval.

               Zack: awesome!!!!

               Zack: thanks guys, he’s going to be so excited

               Zack: though there is ONE more thing

               Angeal: of course there is

               Zack: Gen, would you be willing to edit his photos? I told him I’d ask

               Genesis: Normally, I would say no just because you offered without asking me first.

               Genesis: But I have been itching to do something about them since the first set, so yes, of course I’ll do it.

               Zack sent a row of hearts and kissy-face emojis.

               Genesis: Yes, yes, I’m fantastic. Go tell that boy, make his day.

               Zack looked up at Cloud, watching him work as he chewed. Cloud looked distinctly different this way. He was still smiling, but it was a fake, customer service smile. It didn’t touch his eyes at all. After the smiles he’d received today, it looked almost cold. He sounded different this way too, without the glee and laughter. He liked his Cloud better.

               He considered a few options. He could holler for him and shout the good news, or just give him a thumbs up. He could wait through line again, order a soda or something, and give him the news. But both of those options left the obvious consequence of being overheard, and he didn’t think Cloud would appreciate the questions after he left. He decided instead to just message him.

               fairest-ofthemall: got a yes to both!

               fairest-ofthemall: I’ll be your photographer and Gen will edit your photos

               Cloud must have felt his pocket buzz, because he shot Zack a quizzical look. Zack beamed back and nodded, giving him a thumbs up. Cloud paused before understanding passed over his face and giving Zack a hesitant, questioning look. Zack nodded back a few times and Cloud grinned broadly, and when the customer in front of him cleared her throat pointedly, he didn’t stop smiling when he apologized and took her order. Zack hoped the message got across, but his messages would be clear enough regardless. He finished his last few fries and stood, going to toss out his things. He waved to Cloud on his way out, who waved back, much to his customer’s irritation. Zack had to stifle his laugh.

               “The guys say hello!” he called, talking over the customer.

               “Tell them I say hi!” Cloud called back, before offering another profuse apology and focusing back on the customer, doing his best to look contrite while his face was still lit up.

               When he was on the train back up, he felt his pocket buzz. He fished out his PHS to look at the message which was, unsurprisingly, from Cloud.

               stormcloud: fuck yes!

Chapter Text

               Cloud had been beyond excited to finally get Zack’s (and apparently Genesis’s) help with his sets. He’d been wanting to ask for months, but it never felt like the right time. How did you ask someone you’d never even met to come take sexy photos of you for the internet? It had largely been impulse that had him asking Zack at that first meeting, but he was so glad it paid off.

               The downside of the situation was the nerves. Zack was coming over today to take the shots and Cloud had been anxious all day. He’d already scrubbed down his apartment, which now looked far closer to immaculate than it had since he’d moved in. He’d spent forever picking out his outfit, though in the end he’d ended up going with his second choice from the last set, when he’d asked Zack for his opinion: the maid outfit that was such a hit the first time he did it. He’d spent at least half an hour debating whether or not to get dressed before or after Zack got there. On the one hand, it’d be less weird to answer the door in regular clothes, but then he’d have to step away to get changed. Which wasn’t a huge deal, it wasn’t like he thought Zack would rummage through his stuff or steal something, but he felt like it’d be a little rude. But then a terrible, bratty thought crossed his mind, and he knew he was going to get dressed ahead of time, whether or not it was a bad idea.

               Zack liked his sets, and the sudden surprise of him seeing him in the outfit when he answered the door would be worth it.

               Besides. It was one thing to know Zack found him attractive and another thing to see it. He had done plenty of video calls since he started being a camboy, and even if he hadn’t, he was pretty enough to be well familiar with the look of lust. But he found that he really, really wanted to see it on Zack.

               So Cloud got dressed when he had about half an hour before the SOLDIER arrived, just in case he was early. This time, everything was black, from his tight satin bustier that he always hated getting into to his garter belt and stockings to his lace panties. The dress fit perfectly over top, tight around his cinched waist and fluffed with petticoats at the bottom, even if it was so terribly short he wasn’t sure how it was supposed to be worn in public as a costume.

               Cloud spent the last fifteen minutes flitting around his apartment, straightening things that were already tidy and generally feeling useless and anxious. He had half a mind, in this last second panic, to call the whole thing off. But then he remembered that Zack was already on his way, and before he even finished that thought, his shitty doorbell buzzed. Cloud’s breath hitched and he eyed the door like he’d never seen it before.

               Then he blew out his breath slowly and straightened his dress, tugging at the skirts. He rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck and took another deep breath as he walked over to the door. Then he opened it with a smile that he knew was nervous but couldn’t quite keep off his face.

               He didn’t realize just how charming he was in that moment. Zack would have been stunned regardless from just the sight of him in that dress but that was something a lot of people had seen and would see soon. The way his shoulders were just a little tight and the hesitant smile on his face was all because he was seeing Zack, it was for him. It was wildly endearing and distracted him just a moment from the rest of the sight he was seeing.

               But then, because he knew it was allowed, he let his eyes sweep over Cloud, who got exactly what he wanted: the look of lust on Zack’s face. And something a little more confident seeped into him, erasing the hesitance. By the time Zack’s eyes made it back up to Cloud’s face, the nervous smile had turned into a shit-eating one. Cloud stepped aside to let Zack come in and shut the door behind him.

               He did a little twirl, causing the skirts to flare out.

               “What do you think?” he asked.

               “I think this set is going to do great.”

               Cloud laughed brightly before he noticed the bag slung over Zack’s shoulder.

               “What’d you bring?”

               “One of Angeal’s cameras, he said I could borrow it.”

               Cloud looked surprised. He hadn’t expected Angeal’s help, even if in a round-about way. He should have, probably. For all that Angeal was the last one he spoke to, he had arguably warmed up the quickest.

               “Tell him thanks for me when you get home, then. I have one here, but it’s pretty shitty.”

               Zack grinned but nodded and said, “I’ll let him know.”

               “I know I’ve already had you do it, but let him and the others know that I really do appreciate you doing this,” Cloud said. “Do you want anything? Water?”

               Zack laughed and waved him off, saying, “No, thanks. But I’ll tell them again, if you really want.”

               Cloud offered him a small smile, and it was just like the one he’d gotten at Chocobo King. Small and private. Theirs. Zack liked it a little more than he probably should.

               “Alright, let’s get to work then, huh? I always do the shots in my room,” he said, nodding down the hall. Zack nodded in return and Cloud began leading the way.

               Zack looked around the room when he entered, and was surprised to find it largely undecorated. He had been expecting posters or photos or something. But instead he got bare walls, plain white sheets, and simple furniture.

               “Is that why it looks like no one lives here? For the photos?”

               Luckily, Cloud knew it wasn’t a dig and laughed.

               “Yup,” he answered. “I didn’t want people picking apart my private life from what they could see in the photos, so I decided to keep it simple. Luckily, I hadn’t had the money before the sets to really buy anything, so it’s not like I had stuff to get rid of.”

               Zack hummed and set the bag down on the bed, unpacking the camera and putting it together the way Angeal had shown him. They got down to business, doing test shots and messing with lighting. They ended up bringing in a second lamp from the living room to help balance out the lighting situation. Zack had rubbed the back of his neck in that adorable nervous tic and shrugged, proclaiming it was good enough, and that everything else could get fixed in post.

               There was a long moment where Cloud and Zack just looked at each other, neither quite sure of where to start. This wasn’t something either had done before. Cloud had never had someone with him doing the sets, except the one time Aeris tried to be his photographer, but that had been filled with giggling and her offering rapid fire, ridiculous suggestions for shots. Zack had never taken photos that were erotic in nature except the occasional nude he sent his boyfriends when he was away on long missions, and a quick shot on his PHS was very different from what they were about to do.

               Eventually, the moment passed and Zack clapped his hands together with a bright (if slightly forced) smile.

               “Alright, Mister Professional, what’s the first shot you want? You better tell me what to do because I’ve got no clue.”

               That was enough to break the tension. Cloud let out that bell-like laugh of his and ruffled his hair, clearly his own nervous tic.

               “Alright, I basically want to do all the shots I couldn’t with a static camera before.  So we’re gonna start with the classic.”

               “The classic?”

               “The up-the-skirt shot.”

               Zack hummed his understanding and sank to the floor, sitting cross legged. When that didn’t quite work because Cloud was a short, short man if nothing else, Zack laid down on his back, the camera angled up.

               Cloud shifted so he could see the camera, popped his hip out just so, widened his stance just a little, and realized the problem he had forgotten from last time he tried a photographer.

               He always made a point to be hard in all his shots.

               It was a simple thing to pull up porn and jack off a little between shots, but every different with someone else there. With Aeris, he’d kicked her out of the room every time he needed to, and found it extremely hard to keep an erection. He hadn’t even thought about what to do about this issue with Zack. Was that the best case scenario? It was one thing for his best friend with whom he had no chemistry, and another when the person he was kicking out of the room so he could briefly masturbate was attracted to him. When he would probably be thinking about what Cloud was doing while he was doing it. When he would come back and there would undoubtedly be some sort of tension, the way there had been when Cloud opened the door in this stupid outfit.

               But that was it. The tension.

               He wouldn’t do anything with Zack. Zack wouldn’t do anything with him. They were strictly off-limits with each other and they both knew that. But Cloud had been in this business long enough to know when he was wanted, and he knew himself enough to know when he wanted someone else. There was something brewing between the two of them, even if it wasn’t necessarily romantic. But he didn’t need romantic right now. He needed the air charged with that sexual tension. Then, he was pretty sure, he’d have no problem both getting and keeping his hard-on, when the shoot became some elaborate dance of flirting that they both knew would go nowhere. He just had to stall with clothed shots until the tension built. Luckily, this skirt was so full of fluff no one would notice for the first few shots if he wasn’t hard, and this up-the-skirt shot focused more on his ass than anything else.

               Right. The shot.

               Zack was looking at him quizzically, and he blushed faintly, reprimanding himself silently for getting bogged down in his own head. He shook his head instead of explaining.

               “Give me a countdown?” he asked, and Zack nodded.

               “Okay! Three, two, one,” click!

               Cloud had given the camera his best “I see what you’re doing and it’s naughty but I like it” look, and when Zack pulled the camera away from his face, he looked a little dazed. Cloud’s cock twitched with interest at the stunned look on his face, the way his eyes lingered for just a quick second on his ass.

               Perfect.

               They went through a couple more basic shots, Cloud pulling his neckline down just enough to barely reveal the bustier, hitching his skirt up in another shot, burying his fingers in the upper lip of his thigh-highs. They used different angles but took a few straight on shots, but Cloud had been right. The air was quickly growing thick with tension, and Cloud’s body was responding to it just the way he had hoped. He didn’t dare check to see if Zack was getting as hard as he was, mostly out of fear that Zack would catch him looking and that that would ruin something, but the thought that maybe he was hard was tantalizing enough.

               When he was confident in his state, they took a series of him slowly stripping out of the dress, a set of progress shots. He ended it with one of him holding the shucked-off dress to his body, playing modest, while leaning back against the bed. They got the shot and Cloud immediately sat back up.

               “Okay, now I have a weird request.”

               Zack peeked out from behind the camera.

               “What is it?”

               “Take your shoes off.”

               “… What?”

               “Take your shoes off.”

               Zack set the camera down and went to comply, but still asked, “Why?”

               “Because we’re going to take the shot I’ve been dreaming about doing since I started and you aren’t standing on my bed in your dirty shoes.”

               Zack quickly had his shoes off and approached, saying, “Why am I standing on your bed?”

               “You’ll see.”

               With that cryptic response, Cloud hopped onto his bed and squirmed over to the center of it, tossing the dress to the floor. Despite the tension in the air and the fact that it worked for his advantage, Cloud wasn’t trying to make this sexy. He just went about his business the way he always did. It wasn’t like he had to actually try to keep the tension going anyway. It would fade every now and then, but then he’d give the camera just the right sultry look, and the air around them would feel ten degrees hotter again.

               Cloud kicked the blanket to the floor and laid back on his pillows in the center of the bed and began artfully draping the sheet over himself so it revealed tantalizing flashes of skin. He made sure that his hips were revealed, carefully arranging himself in his underwear so the head of his cock poked out over the band of the panties while pointedly not looking at Zack, though he could feel the heavy weight of the SOLDIER’s eyes on him. When he was arranged how he wanted to be, he laid back and posed with his arms above his head, the end of the sheet curled around one wrist.

               “Alright, stand up on the bed and take the shot looking down at me.”

               Zack was silent, and his eyes were dark when Cloud risked looking at him as he stood up on the bed. It made Cloud’s mouth go dry. Zack gave him his countdown, and it was very, very hard to remember that he was making eyes at the camera, and not the man behind it.

               He sat up quickly to rearrange the sheet, revealing more of himself, before laying back down again.

               They took another small series, with the sheet slowly being pulled away to reveal more and more until it was entirely gone. They took the rest of the set with Cloud splayed on his bed, as he slowly pulled off the bustier and underwear, though he left the garter belt and stockings. Cloud knew he was blushing by the end of it from the sheer amount of pressure in the room, the heavy silence that would have seemed odd, from how talkative Zack had shown himself to be, if there wasn’t a very clear reason for it. And then there as just the video left, and Cloud asked for a few more shots to stall.

               He really should have Zack film the video. It would be nice to get the shifting camera to take in everything, to zoom at all the right parts, but he wasn’t sure he could do it. It felt like crossing a line. He knew that Zack’s boyfriends had given them permission to do this, knowing exactly what went into the sets, but they couldn’t have known the amount of sexual tension that would build between the two as they did the shots. They couldn’t have known, because Zack and Cloud hadn’t. They both felt a little shocked about the sheer amount of want in the air at the moment. Zack, for his part, distinctly wanted to film the video, but had the same reservations Cloud did. He knew that, should the blond ask, he would have said yes and taken the video. But, in his gut, he was wondering if it was right to do so.

               Eventually, Cloud sat up from the bed.

               “I’ll take the video on my own later,” he said, not looking at Zack as he went to go grab a robe he’d set nearby and covered himself up.

               Neither was sure if they were relieved or disappointed with the decision.

               Zack began packing up the camera, and found the tension was still there, only now it felt a little awkward. He had to diffuse it somehow.

               “You said someone else tried to be your photographer? What happened there?”

               Cloud laughed lightly, and the tension eased. Zack let out a quiet breath.

               “All her shots were blurry. I couldn’t even use one of them. I think she was laughing too hard while she shot.”

               Zack laughed lightly at the thought, pointedly not thinking about the way neither of them had been in a laughing mood when they did the set.

               “Yeah, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?”

               There was a brief pause, before Cloud hesitantly said, “Hey, Zack?”

               Zack looked up at him and felt the breath knocked out of him. Cloud was covered in his robe, but it was a short number, and open to the waist with how loosely he tied it. The way he looked nervous immediately brought what might have been the best, might have been the worst scenario to mind: it was how he imagined Cloud would look when brought to bed for the first time. A little shy, a lot nervous, entirely artless. Zack swallowed hard.

               “What’s up?”

               “I… think we need to talk.”

               Zack swore very, very quietly under his breath. He zipped the camera bag and stood, leaving it on the floor.

               “You’re probably right. You just had to be the responsible one, huh?”

               Cloud offered a laugh, but it was a little hollow.

               “I feel like I owe you an apology,” Cloud admitted.

               “… Huh?”

               “I knew there would be some tension. I was banking on it, honestly. I just didn’t think it’d be that… intense.”

               “You were banking on it?”

               That blush crept back onto Cloud’s face, and there it was, the last piece of the “bringing Cloud to bed for the first time” fantasy. Zack swallowed hard for a second time.

               “I, uh, well I have to be hard for the shots. I figured it would happen if there was enough, well, tension in the air. Turns out I was right.”

               “What was the plan if that hadn’t happened?”

               Cloud turned a darker red.

               “I would have had to, uhm, send you out and jack off? But, considering you liked the sets, and you’d know what I was doing, well, it, uh, felt like you might as well be in the room at that point, and I don’t think your boyfriends signed up for that much.”

               Neither brought up the video, that maybe they had signed up for that much and more.

               “Right,” Zack said eloquently. For once, he was stumped for words.

               “Right. So it didn’t come to that, but things did get a little… heavy. I should have known it would get like that. I shouldn’t have asked you to do this, I really should have known better.”

               And this time, when Cloud looked down at the ground, that fantasy was shattered by the look of guilt on his face. This was never what Zack had wanted. This was the last thing Zack had wanted.

               Before he could think about it, Zack reached out and put his hands on Cloud’s shoulders.

               “Hey, don’t think like that, okay? I could be saying the same thing. Neither of us knew. Neither of us could have known.”

               Cloud smiled just a hair, but it was a bitter look. Zack didn’t like it one bit.

               “I could have. I do video calls with clients all the time. I know how things get when I do things like this with people who like my work. I really, really should have known.”

               “That’s different, Cloud. The people on those calls are doing them specifically to get off. That isn’t what happened here.”

               “Yeah, but I think we both wanted to, and that’s kind of a problem, isn’t it?”

               The “because you’re in a relationship” was left unspoken. Largely because it left the implication that, had Zack not been in a relationship, this night would have ended very differently.

               Zack pulled his hands away, one going to rub the back of his neck nervously.

               “Kind of,” Zack admitted. “Listen, let me talk to the others before we do this again, okay? I’ll explain what happened. Honestly, they might have expected it. They tend to know me better than I know myself.”

               Cloud felt a pang of longing. He wanted that kind of relationship; he always had. Part of him whispered that he could have had that with Zack, if only there wasn’t the obvious complication.

               “Good. I was going to tell them if you didn’t.”

               Zack smiled, but there wasn’t much humor behind it. At least it wasn’t bitter, the way that one of Cloud’s had been.

               “I think they’ll appreciate that thought, and the honesty behind it. That being said, it’s not off the table that I’ll keep helping. Not unless you want it to be.”

               Cloud felt the blush, which had started to fade, return.

               “I’d like your help still. If everyone’s okay with it.”

               Zack had a promise that they would be on the tip of his tongue, but he silenced it.

               “I’ll talk to them,” was the promise he could offer.

               “Thanks,” Cloud said, smiling just slightly.

               “Of course,” Zack said, smiling wider.

               He reached down and pulled his shoes back on, grabbing his bag and slinging it over his shoulder as he stood back up. Cloud walked him to the door, that strange silence lingering between them.

               “I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve got word, okay?”

               “Thanks, Zack. For everything. Really,” Cloud answered, sincerity thick in his tone.

               Zack smiled again, but this time, it was soft.

               “Really, I’m happy to help. Thanks for trusting me enough to let me do this.”

               Cloud offered his own small, fond smile.

               “What can I say? You earned it.”

               Zack huffed a quiet laugh at that and pulled his friend into a hug, nearness to nakedness be damned. Cloud was instantly grateful for it and hugged him back tightly. They stood there like that for a long moment, and surprisingly, given what had just happened, there was no sexual tension to it. Just two friends who needed the validation of the contact.

               “I’ll see you later, okay?” Zack said as he pulled away.

               Cloud smile and buried the instinct to kiss his cheek.

               “Absolutely.”

               Zack opened the door, gave a small wave goodbye, which as returned, before he left and shut the door behind him.

               Cloud stared at the doorway in silence for a long, long moment before ruffling his hair and slowly blowing out a long-held breath. He turned and made his way back to his bedroom, peeling the robe off as he went. Best to get the video over with while he was still naked.

               And if he came to the remembered image of Zack’s face dark with lust, no one would ever have to know.

Chapter Text

               Zack lingered for one long moment outside Genesis’s apartment door. He knew the other two were probably there; everyone was stationed in the city at the moment. Despite the fact that Sephiroth had the larger apartment, it was Genesis’s that they usually ended up congregating in. His was richly furnished, but in a homey way, unlike the clinical modern manner of Sephiroth’s. Angeal’s was cobbled together in a mish-mash of things that had meaning to him but little aesthetic sense, and Zack’s was largely cheap furniture stuffed full of knick knacks he liked and mementoes he’d picked up. It made Genesis’s apartment the most comfortable, and besides, Genesis actively enjoyed them gathering in his space.

               So it was Genesis’s apartment he was lingering outside, apparently long enough and unsubtly enough that the man himself came and opened the door for him with one single raised brow. He looked him up and down, narrowed his eyes briefly on his face and then sighed heavily. He stepped back into the apartment while pulling out his wallet, for some strange reason Zack couldn’t guess at.

               Zack trailed after him inside, unusually quiet as he did so. He went and set the camera bag on the counter.

               “Zack! How was it?” Angeal asked from his place on the couch, his legs draped over Sephiroth’s lap who was focused on a movie they were apparently watching. The general took a long moment before reaching forward to grab the remote and pause it.

               “Take your money,” Genesis huffed, shoving a wad of gil toward Angeal, whose face fell.

               “Ah, damn, I was hoping to be wrong this time.”

               Zack sighed for a moment before turning around and coming into the living room, though he remained standing, his hands on his hips.

               “What’d we bet on this time?”

               Sephiroth was the one who answered, as Genesis went to flop on the loveseat away from them both instead of where he clearly had been sitting before, pressed against Sephiroth’s left side. Angeal flipped through the bills to count them.

               “Whether or not you would feel guilty when you came home.”

               Zack paused for a long moment before sighing, rubbing at the back of his neck.

               “I thought you guys might have known. I only figured that out after I figured it out,” Zack admitted. He went to sit next to Genesis, who immediately looped an arm around his shoulders.

               “We all find Cloud attractive. You were going to go take dirty pictures of him. He’d be blind not to find you attractive as well. There was bound to be tension,” Sephiroth explained as Angeal pocketed his money.

               “Yeah, but there was like, a lot of tension. A lot,” Zack said, getting a guilty look on his face. “If I was single, I’d still be there, and I wouldn’t be watching a movie. I think Cloud was as interested as I was. That’s a problem, isn’t it?”

               “You didn’t do anything, though,” Angeal pointed out helpfully.

               Zack sighed and leaned against Genesis, who held him closer.

               “Yeah, but I really, really wanted to.”

               “It’s not entirely off the table, dear,” Genesis said lightly, fingers brushing over Zack’s shoulder comfortingly.

               Zack, who looked up at him in confusion.

               “What does that mean?”

               “I hadn’t brought it up yet, but it seems like it’s time to,” Genesis said, looking around at the other two, who were watching him with curiosity and interest. “There’s no reason to not, is there? We’ve brought other men to our bed before. SOLDIERs, given, but we’ve done it.”

               “You want to bring Cloud home?” Angeal asked, sitting up a little straighter.

               “We all find him attractive. Clearly.”

               “That’s true,” Sephiroth said, settling one hand on top of Angeal’s knee.

               “There doesn’t have to be anything romantic about it. Just some fun, if he’s interested in that. Though we would all clearly need to meet him first. Our chats through text have been pleasant, but I won’t have the first time I physically meet someone be when I bring him to bed.”

               Zack was looking between the other three, dumbfounded.

               Angeal hummed in thought, drumming his fingers against his leg.

               “I agree. I want to meet him first. I’m interested, but I’d feel better having met him,” Angeal said, watching as Genesis nodded in return before looking to Sephiroth.

               Sephiroth tilted his head to the side for a moment in thought before nodding and saying, “I think I’d like that. He’s as charming as he is physically attractive, and he’s gotten over being starstruck by now.”

               All eyes turned to Zack.

               “You guys… you’re serious?” Zack asked.

               The other three looked between each other before each nodded or offered a soft, “Yes.”

               “You aren’t just saying that because I want him, right? I’m not okay with this if we aren’t all genuinely interested.”

               Genesis smacked him upside the head.

               “When have we ever lied to appease each other?” he said, tone scolding.

               Zack rubbed at his head, but looked sheepish.

               “Never.”

               “That’s right, never, and we aren’t about to start over your crush on a pretty boy.”

               “Well apparently it’s a group crush on a mutual boy.”

               “Exactly, Zack. That’s the point. We’re all interested. The only question is, is he interested in all of us as well? Clearly, he’s interested in you.”

               Zack leaned against Genesis, thinking.

               “He’s said the Firsts are the most attractive people in the city, before. I think he might be, but I’ll have to ask.”

               “Ask him, then,” Angeal said, smiling. “Do you feel a little less guilty now?”

               When Zack smiled this time, it was definitely sheepish.

               “Yeah. I still can’t believe you knew I would.”

               “That I knew there would be clearly predictable sexual tension and that you would feel guilty about it? Which part surprises you?” Angeal asked, a hint of teasing in his tone.

               It got Zack to laugh, even if it was small, and that had been the goal.

               “Both, maybe.”

               “Now, to settle the other bet,” Genesis said, a wicked look in his eyes. “Did you film the video or did he decide to do it later?”

               Zack blinked in surprise and said, “He said he’d do it later.”

               Genesis lit up with a grin and held his hand out demandingly to Angeal, who sighed and went fishing for his wallet again.

               “I did think that’d be what you’d feel guilty over, though,” Angeal said as he got the required gil out and stood to go place it in Genesis’s hand. Before he could, Genesis grabbed his wrist and pulled him down, kissing him soundly before taking his gil. When Angeal went back to his seat, he looked less put out about losing the bet than he would have otherwise.

               “You’ll talk to him, then?” Sephiroth asked as they had their moment.

               “Yeah. I told him I’d let him know if you guys were still cool with me doing the shoots,” Zack explained before pausing briefly. “You are still okay with it, right?”

               “Of course,” Angeal said.

               Sephiroth nodded.

               Genesis huffed and said, “It’d rather defeat the purpose of the last conversation if I wasn’t. Though, if you didn’t film the video out of deference to us, I expect you to film it next time. Now I’ll have to pay for the set to see it.”

               “You’d have to pay regardless. You don’t do video editing,” Sephiroth reminded Genesis.

               Genesis lobbed a pillow at him, which he caught out of the air easily, setting it gently at his side.

               “I could look at it if it’s on the camera when I pull the photos off of it for editing,” Genesis said.

               “Don’t try to rip Cloud off his money, Gen. He earns it,” Angeal said, tone scolding but eyes amused.

               Genesis rolled his eyes and waved his hand dismissively.

               “Yes, yes. It would be nice to have a preview, at the very least.”

               “You’re getting a preview of the rest of the set as is,” Sephiroth said, raising an eyebrow.

               “Speaking of, now that this is settled,” Genesis said, extricating himself from Zack. “I am going to go edit those photos. I’m delighted to see what he did this time.”

               “It is good,” Zack said, only bragging a little on his friend’s behalf. “He answered the door in his outfit. Almost gave me a heart attack.”

               “You lucky little brat,” Genesis said, though he pressed a kiss to his hair on his way toward where the camera was sitting on the counter.

               “What was the outfit?” Sephiroth asked.

               “No way, I’m not ruining the surprise,” Zack answered, before calling over his shoulder to Genesis, “And you better not either, Gen!”

               “Cross my heart,” he called back, already halfway down the hall to his office where his laptop was waiting.

               “What about a hint?” Angeal asked, Sephiroth nodding along at his side.

               “It’s a dress,” Zack said, watching as both of his boyfriends’ eyes grew dark at the same time, smirking at the sight. He leaned back and put his hands behind his head. “Short one, too.”

               “Genesis better hurry with those,” Sephiroth said, glancing toward the hallway.

               Angeal hummed, but picked up the remote and said, “I’m turning this back on before we all get… distracted.”

               Zack laughed, and Sephiroth looked faintly disappointed, but his attention was fixed back on the movie as soon as it was on. Zack plucked his PHS out of his pocket.

               fairest-ofthemall: hey cloud, you around?

               stormcloud: yeah, just finished a little bit ago. how’d it go?

               Zack had to pointedly not think about what he just finished.

               fairest-ofthemall: fucking unbelievable, honestly

               fairest-ofthemall: in a good way

               stormcloud: gaia, you wanna lead with that next time?

               fairest-ofthemall: lmao my bad

               fairest-ofthemall: the short version is, yeah, I’m good to keep doing the sets

               fairest-ofthemall: they saw it coming

               fairest-ofthemall: even bet on it apparently, which, rude

               stormcloud: hey I’d rather that than them being mad at me

               stormcloud: I’m so godsdamn relieved

               stormcloud: I didn’t think they’d forgive me

               fairest-ofthemall: there’s nothing to forgive

               fairest-ofthemall: in fact, I’ve got kinda a big offer for you?

               fairest-ofthemall: I’d rather tell you in person though?

               stormcloud: absolutely not, you tell me right now

               stormcloud: you can’t say something like that and then NOT tell me

               fairest-ofthemall: video call as a compromise???

               stormcloud: deal

               stormcloud: call whenever you’re ready

               Zack popped to his feet.

               “I’m gonna go, uh, call Cloud,” Zack said.

               Angeal looked up from the movie, but Sephiroth just nodded absently, entirely engrossed.

               “Telling him already?”

               “I told him I had something to tell him but I’d tell him in person, but apparently he’s impatient.”

               Angeal chuckled and said, “Have fun, then.”

               Zack walked back toward Genesis’s bedroom, but poked his head in the office door. He found Genesis with the look on his face that usually preluded him grabbing a boyfriend and dragging someone to the bedroom.

               “Gen?”

               “Why are you interrupting me?” he said, his voice just a little rough, without ever looking up from the laptop.

               “I’m going to use your bedroom to call Cloud, okay?”

               Genesis waved him away, saying, “Yes, yes, just don’t put your boots anywhere they don’t belong.”

               “That was one time,” Zack grumbled as he left, thinking about the time he’d stripped too quickly and a boot had landed on Genesis’s nightstand. Apparently he’d never live it down.

               Zack went into Genesis’s room and closed the door behind him before fiddling with the app on his PHS. He knew it allowed video calls, but he’d never actually done one before. It took him a second to figure out the function, but it was ringing in no time.

               Cloud picked up quickly. He was wearing that robe again, and it was still open to the waist from the look of it. He gave him a dazzling smile through the camera that showed just how relieved he was. From the angle of the camera, Cloud was sitting on his bed, his face and shoulders alone in the shot.

               “Hey, Zack. Thank everyone for me. I was really scared they’d be pissed forever,” Cloud said.

               Zack shook his head but smiled and said, “Nah, they weren’t mad at all.”

               “So what’s this offer you’ve got for me?”

               “Well, I, uh, don’t really know how to say it right?”

               Cloud laughed brightly, the look on his face fond.

               “Zack, you just spent like hours taking pictures of me naked. I think you can just say it.”

               “Okay, but remember you asked for it this way, alright?”

               “Just say it, you idiot.”

               “They want me to bring you home with me.”

               “Oh, like, to meet them? Sure, I’d be happy to.”

               “Well, that’s a part of it, but I mean like, home home, y’know?”

               Cloud’s brow puckered and he shook his head slowly.

               “Not really?”

               Zack sighed and ruffled his hair.

               “Like, to bed, Cloud.”

               He watched as Cloud slowly turned red. Something shy crept onto his face, and there it was, the fantasy he’d had earlier tonight. This was what he imagined Cloud would look like if he brought him to bed, and apparently, he was right.

               “All of you?”

               “Yeah.”

               “You want that, too? Not just them?”

               Zack laughed, and the sound was a little nervous.

               “Cloud, after tonight, do you really think I’m not interested?”

               Cloud blushed darker and looked down.

               “I, uhm, well, shit, I—I wasn’t going to tell you. Godsdamn, this is embarrassing.”

               Zack could feel the look of concern take over his face as he studied his friend.

               “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”

               Cloud laughed, but the sound was tight.

               “It’s kinda relevant.”

               “You don’t have to tell me now, then?”

               “I should,” Cloud said, taking a deep breath. He still hadn’t looked up, and he still didn’t when he said, “I haven’t actually done anything like that before.”

               Zack blinked.

               “A lot of people haven’t had more than one partner before, Cloud. I hadn’t, before this relationship. We’ll help you figure it out.”

               Cloud laughed again, but it managed to sound almost strangled this time.

               “No, I mean, like, ever. Not even with one person.”

               “Oh,” Zack whispered. “Oh.”

               “Yeah.”

               “Never…?”

               Cloud ruffled his hair and glanced up at the camera, at Zack, seeing the surprise on his face. He winced, and then sighed.

               “I know it’s weird, but I usually work alone, you know? You don’t have to be with someone else to figure out how to get off and do it for a camera.”

               Zack coughed a little.

               “I guess that’s true.”

               “So I, uhm, well, can I think about it?” Cloud asked, watching Zack closely now. “If it was just you, that’s one thing, but all four of you, I just—I dunno, it seems like a lot, for a first time.”

               “That’s totally reasonable, Cloud,” Zack reassured, making sure Cloud believed it—he could tell he did by the way he relaxed a bit. “Take all the time you need. How about you meet the other guys? It doesn’t have to go beyond that if you don’t want to. I think they want to meet you regardless.”

               “I—yeah, I think I’d like that,” Cloud said with a small smile, though it faded quickly, the blush retaking its place. “Listen, I’m sorry, Zack, I—”

               “Hey, no, you’ve got nothing to apologize for! Four people for your first time is a lot. Think about it, but you’re not going to lose anything if you say no, okay? We’ll all still be friends. The offer will probably stay on the table, too, in case you ever change your mind. I don’t want you to feel pressured, okay?”

               “Right,” Cloud said, though he didn’t look fully convinced.

               “I’m serious, Cloud.”

               “No, I know you are. It’s just hard to wrap my brain around.”

               “Well, try? Because you’re not going to lose a thing. I promise. SOLDIER’s honor and all that.”

               Cloud laughed, and this time, it sounded a little more honest.

               “Sure, of course. Listen, now that the big surprise is in the open, I oughta go—I’ve still got to shower, and I’ve got work in the morning.”

               “Oh, right, yeah. I’ll let you go then. Remember, no pressure, okay?”

               Cloud laughed again, even freer this time.

               “I get it, you dork,” he said, and he finally sounded fond again. “Goodnight, Zack.”

               “Goodnight, Cloud.”

               Cloud flashed him a smile and then ended the call.

               Zack stared down at his PHS in complete confusion.           

               Cloud was a virgin.

               Cloud was a virgin, who had admitted that he’d trust Zack with his first time.

               Cloud was a virgin, and he was still open to the idea of all of them.

               This changed things.

               “Hey guys?” Zack called, leaving the bedroom.

               “Zackary, this better be important,” Genesis called from the office.

               “It is, get out here,” Zack said, making his way to the living room, where Angeal and Sephiroth were exactly where he had left them. The movie was paused by the time he made it out there and dropped onto the loveseat.

               “Good or bad news?” Genesis asked as he followed Zack into the room, dropping to sit at his side.

               “Weird news,” Zack said, glancing at the PHS that was still in his hand.

               “Well?” Sephiroth asked.

               “He didn’t say no, but there’s an issue.”

               “What is it?” Angeal asked.

               “He’s—he’s a virgin.”

               “You can’t be serious,” Genesis said, staring down at him closely.

               Zack shrugged.

               “His business aside, he’s beautiful,” Genesis continued. “How could he be a virgin?”

               “I don’t know, Gen, I didn’t ask,” Zack sighed. “He doesn’t have a lot of friends. He probably hasn’t had anyone he’s been interested in enough before.”

               “I’m surprised he’s comfortable enough to do what he does in that case,” Sephiroth said, tapping his finger against Angeal’s knee.

               “He said he works alone, so it was never an issue.”

               “I’m surprised he didn’t say no outright,” Angeal said, a crease in his brow.

               Zack shrugged again, saying, “He said it’d be one thing if it was just me, but four is a lot for his first time. He’s got a point.”

               “He does indeed,” Genesis agreed. “I don’t think any of us would have agreed to four as our first.”

               “I would have considered it, as he is,” Sephiroth admitted. “Provided I liked the people in question enough.”

               “I think that’s why he’s thinking about it at all,” Zack said.

               Angeal sat quietly, looking thoughtful.

               The others plowed ahead without him.

               “Does he still want to meet us?” Sephiroth asked.

               “Yeah, that he agreed to. He seemed interested regardless of the offer.”

               “Good. I want to meet him, whether or not this ends with us all in the bedroom,” Genesis said.

               “I told him there was no pressure. I think he believed me, but I’ll keep telling him either way. The last thing I want is for him to agree for our sake.”

               “Agreed. I have no interest in someone who isn’t sincerely interested in return,” Sephiroth said.

               “What if,” Angeal interrupted, “you took him to bed first?”

               The three stopped to look at him.

               “Like, just me?” Zack clarified.

               “Just you,” Angeal said.

               “Uh,” Zack started, “would you even be okay with that? We’re not dating him.”

               “Right, but I think I trust him with that much. I trust you to come back to us. It wouldn’t change anything. Not if we’re planning on bringing him to bed anyway.”

               “What if he ends up only wanting Zack?” Sephiroth said. “If he comes to expect getting just him, then is disinterested in the rest of us, it could ruin their friendship. It could give him expectations for a one-on-one relationship with Zack that won’t be fulfilled.”

               “Do you think that’s likely to happen, Zack?” Angeal asked.

               Zack paused to think about it before slowly shaking his head.

               “He’s been considerate of your relationship from the start, and I don’t really see that changing. If he started getting too invested in just me, I think he’d probably be upfront with me about it, and then would back off. I’d probably stop being his photographer, but that’s as much as I think would change.”

               “Then I think it’ll work out,” Angeal said. “And if he isn’t interested in all of us afterward, that’s fine too.”

               “I wouldn’t keep sleeping with him alone if that happened,” Zack said. “We’re kind of a package deal.”

               Angeal smiled at him and said, “I know, Zack. I trust you.”

               “I would like to meet him before we extend this offer,” Sephiroth said. “As much as I like him, this is a lot of trust to extend to someone we haven’t known for very long.”

               “I agree with that idea,” Genesis said. He’d been quiet up until that point, not entirely sold on the idea, but meeting Cloud first made it more palatable. “We should meet him, discuss afterward, and then we can make him that offer, if we feel comfortable.”

               “I think that’s fair,” Zack said. “I swear, I wasn’t trying to get you to let me do this alone.”

               “We know, Zack,” Angeal said, smiling again. “It was my idea to offer, remember?”

               Zack rubbed at the back of his neck, saying, “Yeah, that’s true.”

               “We’ll probably have to meet him individually or in small groups, by virtue of our schedules if nothing else,” Angeal said.

               “As long as we don’t all have to meet him at Chocobo King,” Genesis said, wrinkling his nose.

               “I think he’d prefer if we didn’t—I think he got enough flak for knowing me as it is,” Zack said with a sigh.

               “We’ll arrange something,” Genesis said, hopping to his feet. “Now, if that’s settled, I’m going to go get back to work.”

               “It was important, okay? I figured you’d want to know as soon as I did,” Zack huffed.

               Genesis leaned down to kiss his cheek and said, “I did. I’m not mad at you for interrupting, I’m eager to get back to it.”

               “Go on, then,” Angeal said, waving him away.

               Genesis rolled his eyes, but headed down the hallway again.

               Zack stood and went to sit at Sephiroth’s side, curling into it.

               “What are we watching, then?”

               Sephiroth began explaining the plot of the movie, but Zack was only half listening, too distracted thinking about everything that had just occurred to really focus.

Chapter Text

               Zack looked up with relief. He was in his office for once; trapped, actually. Sephiroth threatened him with guard duty if he didn’t get his paperwork done—guard duty! He hadn’t done guard duty since he was promoted to First and he really had no intention of changing that, so here he was, in his office, tapping slowly and morosely at his laptop to fill in his long overdue mission reports.

               So when his PHS began to chime, he snatched it up with relief. It was a sound he’d never heard from the device before, but hell, he’d take a Grand Horn barging into his office at this point. He glanced at it, realizing it was a voice call through the blogging app he and Cloud used. Speaking of, it was from Cloud himself.

               Zack had been a little worried. They hadn’t spoken much since the offer—given, it had been last night, and Zack had been in his office all morning, and Cloud likely had work himself. In fact, he was surprised he was getting a call from him. He usually was at work at this hour. Maybe he was on break.

               “Hey, Cloud! What’s up?” Zack chirped into the PHS as he pressed it to his ear.

               “Zack.”

               It wasn’t a tone he’d heard from Cloud before. It wasn’t a tone he’d ever wanted to hear. His voice was ragged and harsh and choked. He sounded like he’d been crying, and hard at that. Zack sat up straight in his chair, concern writ large on his face.

               “Cloud? You okay?”

               “No,” he said, and yeah, that was definitely a sob. “I—I can’t—it happened, Zack.”

               He sounded so hopeless.

               “What happened?”

               “Work found my blog.”

               Zack stomach sank slowly, then all at once. This was a nightmare.

               “Did they…?”

               Cloud laughed, but the sound was hard and bitter.

               “Yeah, they fired me. It was humiliating, Zack. They were all looking at the public preview images when I got in.”

               “Oh, Cloud, no,” Zack said, his own heart aching. His grip was tight on the arms of his chair.

               “They fucking—they asked if I could explain myself. They sounded so damn smug, they just—they knew there was nothing for me to say. How could I defend myself? It wasn’t like I could lie about it—they had the images right there. They knew, they just wanted to hear me say it.”

               “That’s so fucked up! What kind of asshole do you have to be to do that?”

               “I know. I’ve never been so humiliated in my life, Zack, honestly. I only got out of there without crying because I tore into them.”

               “You what?

               Cloud laughed, but it was weak.

               “I told them how bad they were at their jobs, and how none of the grunts like me respect them or like them, how we all break the rules all the time and every way their management style didn’t work. And then all their personality flaws. And their physical flaws. I was a real asshole back.”

               “They had it coming. Don’t feel bad for defending yourself.”

               “I did a little more than that. I’m pretty sure their descendants could feel the way I tore them a new asshole.”

               Zack laughed a little, and he was heartened to hear Cloud laugh back, even if he sniffled after.

               “If they had known you at all, they would have known better than to mess with you. They’re the ones that wanted a show, right?”

               Cloud chuckled again a little and said, “Right.” There was a brief pause before he said, “Hey Zack?”

               “Yeah, Cloud?”

               “Could I see you today? I wouldn’t normally ask, but my other friend is still working, and I know you are too, but your schedule’s a little more flexible—I mean, she makes her own hours, but she needs to work pretty much all day, and—”

               “Cloud—Cloud.”

               “—Yeah?”

               “Of course. As long as I’m not stationed outside the city, I’ll always have time for you when you need me. Let me make a few phone calls so no one expects me for the rest of the day, then I’ll come down to you, okay? Where do you want me to meet you?”

               “I can meet you at the train station. Thank you, Zack, thank you so much. This really means a lot to me.”

               “Anything I can do to help, man. I’ll see you soon, okay? Hang in there.”

               Cloud laughed a little sadly, but he hummed his acknowledgement.

               “See you soon.”

               Zack hung up and looked down at his PHS, slowly blowing out a breath.

               Well.

               Fuck.

               That wasn’t what he wanted to hear when Cloud called. That wasn’t what he wanted to hear ever, but he’d known it was coming eventually. He’d never said anything to Cloud—honestly, he figured he knew as well. But whether or not he had, there was no reason for his bosses to do what they had. He felt the spark of anger that had flared in his chest grow brighter and hotter. He hated few things more than seeing good people, especially people he cared for, mistreated. It was one of the few things that made him furious. He had to step on that anger firmly. He’d find something to do about the bosses later.

               He dialed Sephiroth as he got out of his desk chair and left his office.

               “This had better not be an excuse, Zackary.”

               “Well, it kind of is, but it’s a real good one, Seph.”

               He could hear the sigh over the line.

               “Let’s hear it.”

               “Cloud lost his job—I think you can guess why. They were really awful about it, he’s miserable. I’m going to go down to see him.”

               Sephiroth hummed.

               “I see. That is a serious situation.”

               “Right. He doesn’t really have a lot of people in the city—just me and another friend, and she’s at work.”

               “You’re also at work.”

               “He said he called because my schedule’s up in the air more—I think he figured it was a long shot, but he might as well try, and I don’t really want him to be alone right now.”

               “I understand the urge. I too would prefer it if he had someone. I’ll cover for you today, but you will do the work tomorrow.”

               Zack let out a sigh of relief, saying, “Thank you, Seph.”

               “Of course. Give him my best. If there is anything I can do to help, let me know.”

               “We’ll talk about revenge plans later.”

               “Zack.

               “What? They were really, really shitty. They have it coming.”

               “Don’t let it get out of hand.”

               “I’ll be the picture of restraint.”

               “Somehow, I doubt that.”

               “You do know me too well.”

               “Go comfort him, Zack.”

               “I’m on my way.”

               As he tended to, Sephiroth hung up without actually saying goodbye. It used to bother Zack more, but the “I love you, goodbye” was implied now, and he knew that.

               The path was a blur. He left the building without really seeing it, only faintly listened to the humming of the train on the tracks as it made its way down to the slums, didn’t really pay attention at all until he was standing on the train platform, looking around.

               He almost didn’t recognize him. The young man who approached him in a hoodie with the hood up and jeans did not look like the young man in the maid’s dress. His shoulders were slumped, and when he offered a smile, it was shaky. His eyes were puffy and rimmed with red; he’d clearly been crying. His hands were buried in his pocket and he looked like he was trying to make himself even smaller.

               Zack approached with long strides before scooping Cloud up into his arms. He pressed him close, tucking his blond head beneath his chin. He felt Cloud’s forehead hit his collarbone and his arms come around to hug him back, holding on tightly. He could feel his shoulders start to shake as the crying came again. Zack was glad Cloud couldn’t see his grimace. He’d known he’d been crying, he could hear that in his voice. He’d known it had been bad, but he’d hoped it wasn’t quite this bad. He’d known better, but he’d hoped anyway.

               Instead of commenting, he rubbed soothing circles into Cloud’s back, just standing quietly and letting the blond hang on to him. The rest of the train had long debarked by the time Cloud pulled away and rubbed at his eyes, sniffling.

               “Sorry, I did meant to snot all over you.”

               Zack offered a small laugh at that before squeezing Cloud’s shoulder.

               “That’s what I’m here for.”

               “Thanks again for coming,” Cloud said, looking down at his toes this time. Zack came to stand next to him and shoulder checked him lightly, but still enough to make Cloud stumble. When he gave the SOLDIER a betrayed look, he got a smile in return. It softened his own expression.

               “You can stop thanking me, really. You rescued me, honestly. I was doing paperwork when you called.”

               It didn’t have the intended effect. Cloud’s face fell.

               “So you were working.”

               Zack shrugged.

               “Yeah, but I’ve got an in with my boss, he said it’s okay that I come down here. He says hi, by the way. Offered to help any way he can.”

               It melted something on Cloud’s face and in his eyes. Everything about him looked soft. He rubbed the back of his head despite the way his hood stopped him from reaching his hair.

               “I’ll never get over how weird this is.”

               “What’s weird?”

               Cloud laughed lightly and looked up at Zack with a small smile.

               “I’ve got a SOLDIER First on speed dial and another one that wants to help when he can.”

               “Uh, I’m pretty sure all of them will say that too. Seph was the tame one. Gen and ‘Geal are going to want to strangle your bosses.”

               “I’m pretty sure that’s just Angeal’s sense of honor talking.”

               “That, and he’s protective over his friends. So is Genesis. So is Seph, for that matter, but he’s got a better lid on his temper. He’d rather help you than hurt those who hurt you.”

               Cloud looked down at his feet again.

               “That—really means a lot, that they would care so much. I’ve never really had a lot of friends, y’know? And I’m—” Cloud offered a bitter laugh, “—I’m pretty sure I just lost the ones I had at work.”

               Zack looped an arm around his shoulders and began tugging him away from the train.

               “C’mon. Let’s go somewhere and you can tell me all about it, and I’ll tell you about how I’ll break all their fingers.”

               It was only mostly a joke, but Cloud still laughed, and elbowed his side a little.

               The side of him that got that angry, that wanted to make people hurt for what they had done was something he tended to bury deep, and it said something about how much he trusted Cloud that he let him see it, even in passing jokes.

               Cloud leaned into him a little and sighed.

               “Can we just go back to my place? I don’t really wanna be out and about right now.”

               “Of course, anything you want,” Zack promised.

               Cloud looked up at him with a slight glint of mischief in his eyes. It was ruined by the way they were red-rimmed.

               “And if I want you to buy me alcohol I’m legally too young to drink?”

               “Hey, I said anything you want, right?”

               Cloud laughed, and the sound was a little less tight than it had been. He nudged Zack.

               “I’m kidding. Though I still think 21 is a stupid age requirement.”

               “How old are you?”

               “Eighteen. Which is two years above the legal age for drinking where I’m from.”

               “Huh. When did you start your job?”

               The way he said it was casual. He knew there would be no repercussions if he said he’d started when he wasn’t legal, if that had been the case.

               “My eighteenth birthday.”

               “Good, I’m glad you won’t get in trouble,” Zack said, pausing briefly before continuing, “When is your birthday?”

               “It’s coming up, soon. I’d tell you, but I get the feeling you’ll make a big deal out of it.”

               “You know I can just look up your first set if I really want to know.”

               “Yeah, but would you really put in all the effort to dig that far back in my blog?”

               “Uh, yes? I know it’s a shocker, but I’d put in a lot of effort for you.”

               Cloud turned faintly pink and looked down.

               Zack’s grin grew.

               “Awww, are you blushing?”

               “I’m not.”

               “You are! Take your hood down, I wanna see if your ears are pink.”

               “Zack!

               “C’mon, please?”

               Cloud made a huge mistake. It was a mistake that anyone who knew Zack as long as Cloud had knew better than to make. But those people had known Zack face to face, and Cloud knew him largely through text.

               He didn’t expect the Puppy Eyes.

               He groaned and rolled his eyes, pulling his hood down, and sure enough, his ears were pink.

               Zack laughed brightly, with such delight that it was hard to stay mad at him. He hugged Cloud, who shoved him back without meaning it, and didn’t fight when Zack continued to hang onto him.

               “I’ve seen you blush before, but I’ve never seen your ears pink! That’s the cutest shit I’ve ever seen.”

               “Zack,” he whined, and deny it as he might, it was a whine.

               They continued to bicker well-meaningly until they reached Cloud’s apartment, where Cloud led Zack up and unlocked the door for him. Zack found it was different inside without all the brewing sexual tension. Cloud looked different—everything about him was different. He was missing his affected allure, his mystery, the look in his eyes that made you want to fuck him, pure and simple. He looked simpler like this—sweeter. He was unassuming as he let Zack into the apartment and showed him to the couch. He was natural and relaxed as he offered him water and artless as he flopped back on his worn couch. When he tucked his feet up on the couch, his knees beneath his chin and his arms around them, he was a different person. He was a different person, but no less compelling. The man in those sets was captivating, painfully attractive, and pulled on every sexual instinct a person could have. This man was no less captivating, no less attractive, but he was more than his sexuality. He was sweet in a way Zack knew through text but had never seen before. He smiled softly and rested his cheek against his knees and shy in a way that tugged the heartstrings, but wasn’t necessarily tempting.

               The man in the sets was the kind of man that tempted you with pure seduction.

               This was the kind of man you fell in love with.

               And that was dangerous.

               Zack was lucky Cloud’s hearing wasn’t enhanced, or he might have heard the way Zack’s heart stuttered. He certainly heard it.

               He wrote it off. His heart was going out to a friend in need, that was all.

               But if this kept up, he’d have to have a very different conversation with his boyfriends.

               That wasn’t the issue right now, though.

               The issue was that this beautiful, wonderful man in front of him was hurting, and he was here to help.

               “So,” Zack said, crossing his legs and facing Cloud on the couch. “Tell me what happened.”

               Cloud sighed and pressed his forehead to his knees for a long moment, but then straightened out, even if he didn’t make eye contact.

               “I showed up for work like I do every day, and I couldn’t find anyone. And that was weird, because we were supposed to be opening, right? We had shit to do. So I went looking for everyone, only to find them all huddled around the computer in the office. I caught what they were looking at before they noticed me. Thanks gods no one actually bought a set—that would be literally my worst nightmare. I’m sure someone will when they get home, just to see how far I would go and laugh at the slut,” he said it, his mouth twisting into a sneer that sat poorly on his soft features, “but no one did there. It was just a list of my sets, posts with the preview images and the links to buy. You’ve seen the posts, you know it’s really obvious what they’re about. There’s no way to pretend like they’re not what they are.

               “They noticed I was there and it got really quiet, I mean, so quiet, Zack, you could have heard a pin drop. My boss was all, ‘Well, Cloud? Can you explain yourself?’ And I said, ‘Is there really anything to explain?’ And I know, I know I was so red in the face, and he just looked so smug, I don’t know if I wanted to hit him or cry, I swear to Gaia. He tried to sound all professional when he told me ‘you know, we just can’t have someone like that as a part of the company’ and I knew it had nothing to do with the company, you think Chocobo King gives a shit why they employ? I wanted to scream so bad.

               “So I said, ‘Oh, but they can have someone who cheats on his wife as a manager? ‘Cause we all know about your mistress, sir,” and ooo, Zack, I swear if there weren’t other people in that room he would have clocked me. Instead he just got this disdainful look on his face and he tried to tell me they weren’t really losing an asset anyway, and I told him there were dozens of customers who came in just to see my pretty face, since clearly, people are willing to pay to see it, and he looked so shocked, like he was allowed to bring up the sets but I wasn’t.

               We just kept going back and forth with him sniping at me and me airing every grievance I’d ever had with the company and him in particular, not to mention every problem everyone else had, and no one even tried to defend me. No one. I’d hung out with those people so many times, Zack. They were friends! Not close ones, sure, not like you, but close enough that they should have said something! And it wasn’t even because they were afraid for their jobs, because I’m reasonable, I get that. They looked disgusted, Zack. Like I was so much less than them. They work at Chocobo King! I make more off those sets than they do off that job, and I know it for a fact, because we all make the same shitty pay!

               “I don’t know Zack, I just, I think that’s the worst part. I trusted these people and they looked at me like I was repulsive. They didn’t even see the videos, they don’t know how bad it gets, and that’s how they looked at me.”

               Cloud looked him with a miserable look on his face and said, “Is what I’m doing really that bad?”

               Now, Zack had been patient. He’d been the perfect listener, in fact. He’d hummed in the right places, groaned and cursed in sympathy where appropriate. Zack had always been a good listener, and he was putting all his skills to use here, because this mattered. But that look Cloud gave him, the question he asked, just broke his heart into a million pieces.

               Zack reached out, uncharacteristically silent as he did so. He pulled Cloud’s hands away from where they were clutching at his calves and held them gently in his own. He looked at Cloud in perfect, heartfelt seriousness.

               “Cloud, I want you to listen to me. Okay?” He waited for a nod before he continued. “You aren’t doing anything wrong. What you’re doing isn’t bad. It’s just a job, and it’s one you’re really, really good at. I’m really sorry your friends turned on you like that, and that they can’t see what I see.”

               “What do you see, Zack?” Cloud said, his voice small, almost tremulous.

               “I see a beautiful man, inside and out, with the warmest heart I’ve ever seen. You’re amazing, Cloud, and I’m so sorry those people couldn’t see it. But that’s a reflection on them, not on you, okay? I don’t want you to feel bad about yourself because some jackasses don’t know someone special when they see them.”

               Cloud paused for a long moment, his eyes roving over Zack’s face slowly, before he slowly smiled. It was small, and hesitant, and shy, and very different from the firecracker that was just popping off about his terrible day, but it warmed Zack’s heart. He offered a smile in return.

               Cloud squeezed his hands and said, “Thank you. I don’t know how much I believe that, but I know that I want to.”

               “I’ll keep telling you until you believe me, then.”

               Cloud smiled, and it was a little sad when he did.

               “It might take a while.”

               “I know I don’t look like it, but I can be patient, when it matters.”

               Cloud snorted, and a little light came back to his eyes.

               “You’re right. You don’t look it.”

               “Hey!” Zack pulled a hand away to swat lightly at Cloud’s knee, who actually managed to laugh a little.

               “Can we do something else? It was nice to talk about it a little, but I kinda don’t want to think about it anymore.”

               “Sure thing, buddy. How about we order in pizza? My treat.”

               “Oh, Zack, I couldn’t—”

               “Hey, not to be rude, but I still have my day job, okay? Let me cover this.”

               It should have hurt when he said it, but strangely, the pain was absent.

               Cloud sighed, but shrugged.

               “You’re gonna insist until I go with it, aren’t you?”

               “Yup,” Zack said, popping the ‘p.’

               “Alright then,” Cloud said, a hint of smile at the edges of his lips. “But I order pineapple on my pizza.”

               Zack gasped in mock offense, touching his chest in horror.

               “You monster! Pineapple?

               “I would have thought you’d like that, being from Gongaga.”

               “Listen, Gongagans like fruit, but we also have taste.”

               Cloud shrugged and said, “Like I said, I can order it myself, since I’ll be the only one eating it.”

               “Hey, that’s not what I meant. You may have had a bad day, but nothing gets you out of being dragged for bad taste. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to cover you still.”

               Cloud looked him over closely before smiling a little wider this time.

               “Thanks, Zack. For everything. For coming down here today. You’re really helping. I don’t know how I would have handled this on my own, but it wouldn’t have been pretty.”

               Zack grabbed Cloud in a headlock and gave him a noogie that made him flail a little and squirm a lot.

               “What are friends for?”

               “Zack! Get off!”

               Zack then proceeded to go about ordering the pizzas one-handed, with Cloud still in a headlock and protesting the entire time. It was a good thing there were meal delivery apps now, or he would have had to call and shout over Cloud’s fussing.

               Instead, he tossed his PHS to the side and went back to aggressively giving Cloud a noogie, and then when he let Cloud push him off, he went about tickling him until he was laughing so hard he was crying for a different reason.

               He liked the sight of Cloud breathless and beaming a little more than he should.

               That was the reason he finally let him go—because he was enjoying himself a little more than he felt he should. He remembered the offer, remembered Angeal’s second offer, knew this was okay, but some part of his heart wondered about his intentions. But now wasn’t the time to think about it. Now was the time to be lighthearted and bring his friend up, since he was certainly down right now. Zack was good at a lot of things, but his specialty was cheering people up, and he was determined this time. He spun into a whirlwind of bad jokes and stories he saved for special occasions and gave Cloud the password to one of his streaming services so they could watch bad movies for the rest of the night.

               And when he let himself out in the early morning, Cloud having fallen asleep on the couch during a movie, Zack couldn’t bring himself to feel bad about the evening. Maybe he had a little soul-searching to do about how much he cared about Cloud, but in the end, he’d helped a friend in need. And that was what mattered.

Chapter Text

               No one had been entirely sure what to do.

               They all knew Cloud. To varying degrees, sure, but they knew him. They talked to him often and had for enough time now to call him a friend. But Angeal, Sephiroth, and Genesis weren’t Zack. They hadn’t known him as long, weren’t quite in the place where it was okay to see someone at their most vulnerable. Zack was that close—he got the emergency phone call. But the others were left locked in awkward limbo, wanting to do something but unsure if they were allowed. Angeal was the most patient in general, he knew he could wait until Cloud brought it up with him, at which point he’d be supportive. Sephiroth was less patient, and a fair amount more awkward. He was never very good with social cues to begin with, and this was a tricky one in general. He resolved to message Cloud the next day and make his best offer.

               sephiroth: Cloud, are you there?

               stormcloud: yup, not much else to do nowadays

               stormcloud: Zack said he told you. does everyone know?

               sephiroth: At this point, they do. I wanted to know how you were.

               stormcloud: shit, honestly

               stormcloud: but I’ll be okay

               stormcloud: it means a lot that you bothered to check in

               sephiroth: Of course I would, I’m concerned for you.

               stormcloud: seriously, that means so much

               stormcloud: I’m a little short on friends right now

               sephiroth: You have four in myself and the others. Genesis and Angeal would like to send their regards, but are unsure if it would be crossing boundaries.

               stormcloud: they wouldn’t be crossing any boundaries

               stormcloud: I’d love to hear from them

               stormcloud: I’m stuck alone in my apartment with nothing to do and it honestly kinda sucks

               sephiroth: Would you like company?

               stormcloud: are you offering???

               sephiroth: I am. Though it might take some time, my schedule is a little tight. One of the others might be able to visit, though, if you would like.

               stormcloud: that would be amazing, but only if they have time, ok?

               stormcloud: I don’t want anyone getting behind on their work just because I’m unemployed

               sephiroth: I will make that clear to them for you.

               stormcloud: thanks again, I really do appreciate it

               sephiroth: While I’m glad that helped, I do have another reason for messaging you.

               stormcloud: oh???

               sephiroth: Tell me the worst things you know about your boss and his performance.

               stormcloud: oh, listen, I appreciate it, but you don’t have to humor me by getting me to vent

               stormcloud: I got the worst of it out with Zack last night, I’m ok

               sephiroth: You misunderstand. I would be happy to listen in general, if that would help, but I would like whatever information you have so that I can contact his higher ups and have him removed from his post.

               stormcloud: ……………… I’m sorry what?

               sephiroth: Zack gave a vague explanation of how he mistreated you when he let you go. He doesn’t deserve to keep his job, and if he was inclined to that sort of behavior, I’m sure he was performing poorly in other areas.

               stormcloud:  you’re trying to revenge-get-my-boss-fired?

               sephiroth: Essentially, yes.

               stormcloud: Sephiroth

               stormcloud: I could kiss you

               sephiroth: I would be inclined to take you up on that offer, but I have someone to revenge-get-fired first.

               There was a long pause as Cloud stared at his PHS, completely baffled, his heart in his throat. He swallowed hard.

               Flirting and joking? How many people saw Sephiroth like this?

               Three. And he was dating them.

               stormcloud: this is me cracking my knuckles

               stormcloud: you better be ready for a block of text

               stormcloud: take notes

               Cloud proceeded to, for the second time in as many days, air every grievance he had with Chocobo King management. He knew, even as he had been doing it, that his little tirade on his way out the door would do nothing. But this was Sephiroth. If he just expressed vague displeasure with that manager, he was certain he’d be fired. But if he came armed with a list of valid grievances? It would be the nail in the coffin. The surplus nails in the coffin, even. A nail-gun, if you will.

               It made Cloud’s day a little brighter, and made him feel a bit less like shit for staying at home and lazing around in his underwear all day, looking like the peak of unemployment. At least he’d showered.

               When his phone pinged again, he figured it was Sephiroth getting back to him, but was surprised to see that it was Angeal.

               honorfirst: I’m guessing you’re around?

               stormcloud: because I’m unemployed or because Sephiroth told you to come talk to me?

               honorfirst: both. though he didn’t really send me, just said you’d appreciate a friend

               stormcloud: he’s not wrong

               honorfirst: annoyingly enough, he usually isn’t

               honorfirst: which is a fact that drives Gen up the wall

               stormcloud: are you giving me dirt on your boyfriends

               honorfirst: I might be

               honorfirst: use it responsibly

               honorfirst:  and preferably when I’m around to see their responses

               For the first time since Zack left in the middle of the night, Cloud laughed.

               stormcloud: sir yes sir!!!

               stormcloud: how generous are you feeling

               stormcloud: how much more dirt are you willing to give me

               stormcloud: I promise to use it responsibly

               Cloud sat on his bed cross legged, a pillow bunched in his lap that he rested his hands on. He found himself laughing and smiling much more than expected as Angeal regaled him with embarrassing tidbits and stories about his boyfriends. It was nothing overly private, mostly stories that had already been given out to some Seconds they were friends with, but Cloud appreciated the gesture almost as much as he did the stories. It felt like trust, and after having his own betrayed by his “friends” at work, it was nice to know someone else was still willing to extend that to him.

               It was a while before he got a message that confused him.

               honorfirst: oh by the way, Gen messaged you, right?

               stormcloud: no??

               stormcloud: was he supposed to

               honorfirst: Gaia

               honorfirst: yes, yes he was

               stormcloud:  what about? was it important?

               His shitty, tinny doorbell buzzed.

               Cloud looked between his PHS and the door.

               It couldn’t be.

               Cloud scrambled off his bed, digging through his drawers quick as lightning, hoping he was wrong and damning himself for thinking it was a good idea to hang out in just his underwear. If he carefully grabbed the pair of jeans that showed off his ass the best, no one would know.

               But everyone still in their apartments would know something was up soon because now whoever was at the door was knocking. Repeatedly.

               Cloud scrabbled through his shirt drawer, picking the first thing clean and simple—plain white shirt to go with plain black jeans. It could be worse. Besides, he was probably wrong. Right?

               He ran to the door, skidding into a wall when he took a corner too fast, but made it to the door relatively quickly to yank it open, only to see that yes, it was in fact Genesis there, with his hand still raised to continue knocking.

               They looked at each other in stunned silence for a moment, and Cloud couldn’t imagine why Genesis looked surprised, he was the one who had showed up at Cloud’s door.

               But his eyes swept over Cloud, clearly appreciative, and that was usually a look Cloud didn’t enjoy. But he liked it on Genesis. He liked the way his eyes were heated when he brought them back up to Cloud’s face, and he liked watching Genesis wrangle that down from a blaze to a smolder. After so many people looked at him like he was repulsive yesterday, it was nice to know people could still look at him that way. But then again, he thought he would have liked that look on Genesis no matter what happened the day before.

               The look lingered, drawing the long moment out even longer, until Cloud knew he had to break it, or Genesis’s eyes would regain their heat, and he wasn’t sure what he’d do if that happened. So he propped his hands on his hips.

               “Why didn’t you let me know you were coming?”

               “And ruin the surprise? Never, dear. Will you let me in, or keep me out in the hallway?”

               Cloud rolled his eyes, a little more exaggerated than he usually would have for the effect of it, but stepped aside to let Genesis in. The man sauntered in, looking around as he did so. Cloud closed the door and watched Genesis examine his apartment, feeling a little self-conscious. He’d never seen where the SOLDIERs lived, but he knew it was better than this. Cloud hoped he wouldn’t think less of him for his place.

               “This is much nicer than the place I had below the plate,” Genesis shocked him by saying.

               Cloud blinked his surprise and paused for a beat too long.

               “You lived below the plate?”

               “Oh yes. At the time, SOLDIER did not provide housing for its cadets, only formal members of the program. Angeal and I shared a truly ratty little hole in the wall when we first arrived; it was dreadful.”

               When Genesis turned to look at him, his shoulders weren’t by his ears in anxiety anymore. It had been just the right thing to say to relax him. Cloud smiled at him.

               “That’s something the PR department doesn’t share.”

               “No, nor should you, it would be truly awful for my image,” Genesis said, sniffing derisively, though there was a glint in his eyes.

               Cloud laughed this time, before saying, “No promises.”

               “While clearly I am a gift myself,” Genesis said, making Cloud snort. He got a sharp look that bore absolutely no heat as he continued, “I did bring you a present.”

               Genesis fished in the pocket of his coat, pulling out a thumb drive that he held out to Cloud. The blond took it, looking at Genesis quizzically.

               “The edited photos,” he explained.

               Cloud’s face lit up, looking down at the drive in his hands. He looked up at Genesis with a smile.

               “Thank you so much! This will help a lot,” Cloud said, before his face fell into an almost bitter look. He held the drive up and said, “Sole source of income now, y’know.”

               Genesis stepped closer, cupping Cloud’s cheek. He thumbed the space just next to the corner of his mouth, pulling at it lightly.

               “That sort of look suits you poorly. I like it better when you smile.”

               Cloud’s heart stopped in his chest, and he knew he was looking up at Genesis with very, very wide eyes, and he was pretty sure his face was starting to turn pink.

               But in a moment it was gone, Genesis stepping away and out of his space, turning to look at the apartment again.

               Cloud had to fight the urge to touch his cheek.

               What had that been?

               Was Genesis just this way with friends? Or how he was with people he wanted to sleep with? Because Cloud didn’t have a lot of experience, but that was the kind of gesture read romance to him, and he had told himself a long time ago it was off the table.

               It was, damn it. It was. Genesis was spoken for. Three times over. He was out of bounds.

               Just like Zack was.

               Unless he came to bed with them. That offer was on the table.

               Maybe it wasn’t romance at all, just a little flirt. Because damn, it had worked. Cloud had wanted to kiss him terribly in that moment. He could handle a flirt.

               He really didn’t have much experience, he had to remember that. He was sure it was just a flirt. Had to be.

               The moment had dragged on as Cloud convinced himself of this.

               Genesis spent the moment trying to convince himself of much the same, with the added aspect of trying to figure out what in sweet Gaia had made him do that at all.

               Belatedly, very belatedly, Cloud cleared his throat and said, “Thanks for doing the photos, by the way. I think it’ll really help.”

               “Oh not at all, it was a pleasure.”

               Genesis glanced at him as he said it, and a little bit of that heat was back.

               It was enough heat to convince them both that it had been a flirt.

               Cloud could feel his face heat up, but was helpless to stop it.

               “Still,” Cloud insisted, trying to ignore the blush on his face, “you didn’t have to, and I appreciate it. You don’t have to do all of them, if you don’t want. I’m going to be doing more now, so it’d be a chore.”

               “You’re going to update more than once a week?”

               Cloud shrugged, and it helped dissolve a little bit of the tension.

               “I kinda have to, don’t I? I make about as much off a set as I did a week of work, so I’ll have to do two a week or take a pay cut. I just hope people don’t get bored of them and my numbers don’t drop.”

               “Oh, I sincerely doubt that will happen. But, while I’m here, I did want to make an offer.”

               “What’s that?”

               “I was very serious when I said you could be a model. I’m a large patron of the arts; it wouldn’t be hard to get in contact with someone. All I would need is a standard headshot, and Angeal would be happy to take it for you, if you’re interested.”

               Cloud blinked once, twice, and then felt his brow furrow. He shifted on his feet.

               “I don’t know, Genesis, I still don’t really think I’m cut out for it. The stuff I do is one thing, but I wouldn’t know what to do if I were modelling and wasn’t supposed to be… well, sexy.”

               “Cloud, dearest, have you looked at advertisements lately?”

               Cloud tilted his head in confusion.

               “Sure.”

               “Most of them come down to sex appeal. It’s all in the eyes, and you’re very good at that. Unless it’s an art shoot, they’re likely looking for some form of sexy. Besides, I don’t doubt you would learn the rest quickly. You learned what you know so far quickly and entirely without coaching.”

               Cloud paused, ruffling his hair nervously.

               “You don’t have to make a decision now, dear,” Genesis said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I just wanted to offer.”

               There was a long moment as Cloud kept thinking, before nodding.

               “No, you’re right. It can’t hurt to see if someone’s interested, right? It’d go a long way to getting me a better place, too.”

               “Cloud, dearest, if you take off the way I imagine you will, you’ll be living above plate before long.”

               Cloud laughed a little, nudging Genesis with his elbow.

               “Don’t joke,” he said.

               “I’m being entirely serious.”

               “Suuuuure,” Cloud said, rolling his eyes with a smile. He wasn’t really sure if Genesis was teasing him, but it was easier to pretend that he was than face the frightening truth that he might be right. “Anyway, do you want to stay for a while? Zack gave me the password to one of his streaming services. I know his taste in movies is intentionally garbage, but I’d be interested in seeing what yours is.”

               “Well—”

               “And don’t say Loveless. Everyone knows you love Loveless.”

               Genesis huffed.

               “Don’t tell me you don’t enjoy it.”

               “Actually, I’ve never read or seen it, but the point is I want to find out what movies you like, and I already know you like Loveless. Give me something I don’t know.”

               “No, stop, that is unacceptable. I will bring you a copy of Loveless, and I expect you to read it, since you have time now.”

               Cloud rolled his eyes at how deadly serious Genesis was being, but was smiling when he did it.

               “Should have seen that coming, huh? Sure, I’ll read it, if you bring it to me. Now come on, you’re gonna pick something, and it better be good.”

               Cloud led Genesis to his living room and flicked on his TV, bringing up the correct service. True to his word, he made Genesis pick movies for the rest of the afternoon and evening. They were largely dramas, which he should have seen coming. Genesis had a taste for the tragic, that much was clear. He was lucky Cloud liked a little drama every now and then, and that he’d had his fill of cheesy nonsense the night before. It still felt nice to learn something new about the SOLDIER—it felt like a gift, and he had been sorely in need of a pick-me-up.

               The thought of it being a gift that made him feel better brought back the memory of the heated look in Genesis’s eyes when he’d opened the door. He thought about it for the second half of the movie they were watching, because it brought up a new idea. It was one he had to spend all that time mulling over, because arguably, it was a bad one. But it couldn’t be that bad an idea. And it wasn’t any worse than anything he’d done with Zack.

               That was what sold him, really.

               When the movie ended, Genesis went to pick up the remote to pick the next movie when Cloud put his hand over top of his. He looked up, quirking a brow.

               “Actually, while you’re here, can you help me with something?”

               “Absolutely, my dear. What is it?”

               “I need help picking my next outfit, since I’ll need to do my next set soon. I’ll do it myself, since I’m sure Zack’s busy, but I still need to pick it.”

               “Ask Zack, he might be more available than you expect. Or, I expect Angeal would be happy to help, if you’re comfortable with his help.”

               It threw Cloud off.

               “Angeal? Really?”

               “Of course. He’s the actual photographer among us. I know you find it hard to believe, Cloud, but we do all care, and we are all interested. As I understand was made clear to you.”

               Cloud felt his face heating up again. How did this get turned around on him this way?

               The mischief in Genesis’s eyes told him it was intentional too.

               “It was,” he said, a little quieter than he intended.

               He knew he didn’t imagine the way Genesis glanced at his lips.

               “Go on, then,” Genesis said, just as quiet. “Show me. Let me help.”

               Cloud could just imagine him saying those words in another context, and that heat was back in his eyes, and Cloud left the room immediately.

               When he was safely in his own room, his back pressed against the door, he was questioning his own sanity.

               He got away with playing these games with Zack. He sent him the photos of him in his underwear as one. He’d answered the door in the dress as another. He liked these games, the little flirting, watching the way his eyes went dark. He liked seeing that on Genesis just as much, but Genesis was not Zack. He seemed like he would give as good as he got, and Cloud was wondering if he was in over his head now.

               Part of him was excited at the idea.

               He went to his closet and began fishing around, pushing different items out of the way as he looked for an outfit that would be good enough for this. He pulled out two for Genesis to pick through. One was a modified trooper uniform—he’d gotten the original at a thrift store. This job had taught him how to sew, and it was a simple thing to make it skin tight. The second was an altered cowboy costume. It featured an incredibly tight short-sleeve button down with a bandana and appropriate hat, along with matching boots. He’d tossed out the jeans that came with the costume and replaced them with a very, very short pair of denim shorts that frayed at the edges and left little to the imagination. He started with the trooper uniform, which he had to wriggle into and then take a minute for all the buttons and buckles.

               He came out of his bedroom and down the hall to where Genesis was sitting on his couch, waiting for him. He came out to stand in front of him, feeling a little nervous about this strange, live modelling experience.

               The hint of shyness was better than anything he could have affected. Genesis let his eyes sweep over Cloud’s form, taking in every line and curve. It was the SOLDIER set all over again, seeing something so mundane to him turned into a dream. When he looked back up, Cloud had gained some confidence, looking at Genesis with that smoldering in his eyes, a familiar allure to him again. This was the man he had seen in all those pictures. He liked the shyness, yes, but that confidence suited Cloud better, in his opinion. It was… appealing, that he had been the one to put that look back on his face.

               Cloud didn’t even realize he was doing it as he slipped into a pose, one hand pressed against a thigh, his hip cocked to the side. Genesis’s eyes grew darker, and Cloud realized what he’d done. He changed poses, turning around so Genesis could see the way the pants hugged his ass perfectly, looking over his shoulder as sultry as he could manage.

               It worked like a charm.

               When Genesis said, “Show me the next,” his voice was rough with lust.

               Cloud didn’t bother trying to stop the flirty smile on his face as he left for his bedroom.

               This time, he dressed quickly, and when he went back out to Genesis, he went with confidence.

               Genesis smiled and snorted a little saying, “Zack did say you were a country… boy…”

               His voice trailed off as Cloud slipped into a pose, one hand tucked into his back pocket, one hand slipping fingers underneath the bottom edge of the leg of his shorts, turned just slightly to the side so Genesis could still see his ass.  His eyes grew hot again and, before he stopped to think about it, he was getting to his feet.

               Genesis crowded forward into Cloud’s space, and they were both a little surprised when Cloud stood his ground instead of backing up, despite the way Genesis was just a breath away, so close he could feel his body heat. They made and held eye contact, two sets of burning blue eyes. Neither realized how the other was warring with their self-control not to just lean in for the kiss they both clearly wanted. Instead, Genesis reached up and pulled that stupid hat off, dropping it at their side.

               With infinite care, Genesis put his hands on Cloud’s hips and began walking him backward. Cloud shivered at the contact but went willingly, letting him lead him until his back hit the wall. In spite of everything, Genesis’s touch remained chaste, but his eyes made it clear that he wanted to do much, much more with his hands than he was.

               They stayed like that for a long moment, Genesis’s hands pressed to Cloud’s hips, Cloud’s back pressed against the wall. Cloud bit his lip, and Genesis narrowed in on that immediately. He wanted to be the one biting that lip. His fingers dug in just slightly.

               Genesis leaned forward, and Cloud’s breath hitched. Instead of kissing him, however, he set his mouth next to Cloud’s ear, their cheeks brushing.

               “You have no idea what you do to me. Think about our offer. And ask Zack for the second.”

               Genesis pulled away and went to go grab his coat from where it was sitting on the couch, having taken it off earlier.

               Cloud was left cold and bereft in the absence of his body heat. He slumped against the wall just a little for support.

               “Second? Second what?” he said, and he sounded so perfectly breathless, Genesis paused for a moment. He looked over his shoulder, and Cloud looked like Genesis had kissed him breathless, instead of the strange dance they had done. He wished terribly that he had.

               He began pulling his coat on and said, “Second offer. I’d tell you myself, but I think he’d have my head if I didn’t let him do it.”

               “Are you leaving?”

               Genesis let his gaze sweep over Cloud again, clearly undressing him with his eyes. Cloud felt his face heating again and had to swallow hard.

               “Clearly you understand less than I thought about what you do to me. You’re invited to come with me, but I need to go home.”

               Cloud bit his lip, this time nervously.

               Because he wanted to go. Especially after the moment he’d just shared with Genesis. After the moments he had shared with Zack. He hadn’t met Angeal and Sephiroth yet, but he doubted it would be hard to find chemistry with them. It had certainly been easy enough with Genesis.

               But he couldn’t. He was on the fence about this whole thing in general, but he definitely couldn’t without having met the other two first. It was out of the question.

               But damn him if he didn’t want it anyway.

               He shook his head slowly, and Genesis’s expression softened.

               “Good,” Genesis said, much to Cloud’s immediate confusion. “I don’t want you to make this decision rashly.”

               It was touching in its own right that Genesis was more concerned with Cloud’s comfort than with his own wants and needs. Because clearly, he had both at the moment.

               With his jacket on again, Genesis bent to pick up the cowboy hat, approaching slowly and putting it on Cloud’s head just roughly enough that he laughed. It defused the remaining tension, and when Cloud looked up, they smiled at each other.

               “I like this one,” Genesis said. “It suits a bumpkin like you.”

               “Hey, I take offense to that,” Cloud said, with enough humor in his tone to make it clear that he didn’t actually.

               “You’re the one who put the outfit on.”

               Cloud paused, then shrugged, conceding the point.

               Without thinking, Cloud reached out and took Genesis’s hand, pulling him toward the door. Later that night, they would both be disconcerted with how easy that gesture was, how right it felt. But in the moment, they just enjoyed the contact.

               Cloud got Genesis to the door, which he opened and stepped aside.

               “Tell everyone I say hi,” he said.

               “I will. Think on what I said,” Genesis said, serious again for the moment.

               There was just a hint of darkness in Cloud’s eyes again when he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be thinking about you all night.”

               The “when I get off later because I’m still hot and bothered” was unsaid and unnecessary.

               Genesis smirked at him in response and let that be his goodbye before he swept out the door and down the hall.

               Cloud shut the door behind him and slumped against it, his hat going askew. He yanked it off and tossed it across the room. He groaned and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes.

               What was he doing?

               The only answer he had was that he had no goddamn clue, just that he needed to figure this out.

               And soon.

               Preferably before he got his own self into another situation thick with tension that couldn’t be resolved.

Chapter Text

               Cloud waited a few days. He thought it was best to be patient, in this circumstance. He bided his time talking with the whole group, including Zack, but he seemed to dance around what Cloud wanted from him.

               There was some mystery offer on table, and Cloud wanted desperately to know what it was.

               But it would be better if Zack came to him. There had to be some reason why he hadn’t brought it up yet. Maybe he was trying to give him some breathing room after he got fired, make sure he was in a good place before he extended whatever offer he had. Cloud tried to assure Zack (tried to assure all four really) that he was fine, getting better by the day.

               But it had been almost a week and Zack still hadn’t told him.

               And he had to do that set soon, very soon. He’d have to figure something out with Zack, for that reason if nothing else. It seemed important that he heard the offer before he had Zack down to do another set, somehow.

               What he couldn’t have known was that Zack was nervous. Sure, it had been Angeal’s idea for him to sleep with Cloud first. Obviously he wasn’t opposed to the idea of taking Cloud to bed. Very, very obviously it was the opposite. But making this offer felt different from the first, more personal somehow. Probably because he was the only one involved. He didn’t really think Cloud would reject him—not after what had happened when they shot that set. But he couldn’t get the idea out of his head that Cloud would want all of them or nothing, that just him on his own wouldn’t be good enough.

               Even he knew it was a stupid thought, but that didn’t mean he was able to put it aside.

               In the end, things got done the way they always had between Zack and Cloud. Cloud stuck his neck out because he was willing to take a chance on Zack, and had been from the beginning.

               No one would believe him that Zack Fair could get intimidated by a camboy, but here they were.

               stormcloud: alright, Zack, you’re taking too long

               fairest-ofthemall: taking too long to what?

               stormcloud: Gen told me you guys have a second offer and that I should hear it from you

               stormcloud: but you are taking WAY too long to get there, so I’m hurrying you up

               If anyone had told Cloud that he would be close enough to Genesis Rhapsodos to be allowed to call him “Gen,” at the man’s own insistence, he would have laughed in their face.

               Sometimes he had to pinch himself to remind him that his life and the strange turn it had taken was real.

               fairest-ofthemall: oh

               fairest-ofthemall: uh

               fairest-ofthemall: well

               stormcloud: quit stalling and just tell me

               stormcloud: you’re making this worse for yourself by dragging it out

               fairest-ofthemall: have you been talking to sephiroth?

               fairest-ofthemall: you’re picking up his annoying habit of being right all the time

               stormcloud: out with it, Fair

               fairest-ofthemall: alright, sheesh

               fairest-ofthemall: I want to preface it with the fact that it was Geal’s idea

               stormcloud: you’re not making me feel less nervous about this by passing the buck, y’know

               fairest-ofthemall: I’m not passing the buck

               fairest-ofthemall: I’m making sure you know that the guys are okay with this

               fairest-ofthemall: all of them

               fairest-ofthemall: we talked about it

               stormcloud: well you haven’t talked about it with me

               stormcloud: hurry it up

               fairest-ofthemall: Geal thought you might be more comfortable if your first time was with one person instead of with a group

               stormcloud: I mean, he’s right

               stormcloud: that’s the whole issue

               stormcloud: it’s never been that I don’t want you guys

               stormcloud: I do

               stormcloud: literally so much

               stormcloud: four’s just a lot for a first time

               stormcloud: I’m not seeing the resolution for that, though

               stormcloud: if your plan is to wait until I sleep with someone else first, you guys are gonna be waiting a while

               fairest-ofthemall: no, that’s not what the suggestion was

               fairest-ofthemall: shit, I was kinda hoping you’d just like

               fairest-ofthemall: read my mind

               stormcloud: it’s cute when you’re nervous, zack

               stormcloud: but I’m just about the last person you should be nervous about talking to

               stormcloud: you can tell me anything

               fairest-ofthemall: I know, you’re right

               fairest-ofthemall: the offer is for me to sleep with you first, one on one

               fairest-ofthemall: everything else can come after

               Cloud froze.

               He stared down at his PHS, uncomprehending.

               The offer was to sleep with Zack.

               Just the two of them.

               With his boyfriends’ permission.

               The moment stretched a long, long time as he tried to wrap his mind around this.

               It took his PHS buzzing again in his palm to snap him out of it.

               fairest-ofthemall: uh, Cloud?

               fairest-ofthemall: you don’t have to say anything now, if you have to think about it

               fairest-ofthemall: I don’t want to pressure you or anything

               fairest-ofthemall: this is only if you want to

               If he… if he wanted to? Was Zack blind? Had he been in a different room when they did that shoot?

               Gods, he wanted Zack terribly, and here he was, telling him that it was okay, that it was a possibility. He’d long since wrote that particular fantasy off as nothing more than a nice daydream.

               stormcloud: do YOU want to?

               fairest-ofthemall: Cloud are you serious

               fairest-ofthemall: of course I want to

               fairest-ofthemall: I just don’t want you to agree just BECAUSE I want to

               That… changed things.

               It was one thing for his little daydream to be one sided. It was one thing for Zack to want him in the context of the group, where he had insurance, had other people to go to if something went south and they didn’t click right. It was another for Zack to want him, just him, just the two of them.

               stormcloud: I want to

               stormcloud: I really, really, really want to

               He wanted all of them, that was true, irrevocably so. There was no way to deny it, nor would he want to. But he’d known Zack first. He was the closest to Zack, no matter how much the others were catching up. It would mean something special, for his first time to be with Zack.

               And that was a little dangerous.

               If his first time was with Zack alone, he might develop feelings. Feelings that, he knew without a doubt, would not be appreciated. The Firsts were happy with their relationship. They weren’t in the market for a fifth member. He knew that, had since day one, and he could respect that. He could appreciate the stability of their relationship. He didn’t want to ruin that. He didn’t want to ruin what they had right now with potential feelings that he knew would never be reciprocated. To do this would be playing with fire.

               But he’d always been bad with self-restraint.

               He told himself that he couldn’t know he’d develop feelings. There was no way to be sure. Everything might go just fine. He’d sleep with Zack, then hopefully sleep with the others, maybe a few times if everything went well. If not, hey, it still promised to be an excellent experience, and was one that he wanted desperately, even if he only had it once. He knew there was no way to let this lie. He was in too deep now to back out.

               fairest-ofthemall: really? are you sure?

               stormcloud: Zack Fair

               stormcloud: the ONLY reason I have kept my hands to myself so far is out of respect for your boyfriends

               stormcloud: but if they’re okay with this and you WANT to do this, then a thousand times yes

               Cloud had no way to know how relieved Zack was, the weight that was lifted off of his shoulders. It was everything he had wanted to hear and more. It meant something, to know that someone beyond faceless strangers and his boyfriends would be interested. It meant something that Cloud was interested. Cloud didn’t seem to see it, but he could have his pick of most anyone if he set his mind to it. All it would take would be the look and he’d have anyone he wanted following him to bed.

               Cloud, his Cloud, wanted him, and for his first time no less. First times were things people tended to remember, one way or another, whether they were spectacular or immensely disappointing, simply because they were the first.

               He swore to himself he’d make it spectacular for Cloud.

               fairest-ofthemall: the when is up to you

               fairest-ofthemall: I don’t want to rush you

               stormcloud: how could you rush me when I wanted you weeks ago

               fairest-ofthemall: you know what I mean, Cloud

               fairest-ofthemall: wanting someone and being ready for someone are two different things

               stormcloud: I know, I know, and I’m saying I’m ready

               stormcloud: look, how about, whenever you’re free, come down to my place

               stormcloud: I need to shoot another set

               stormcloud: I get the feeling that we’ll both be interested after

               fairest-ofthemall: do I get the film the video this time?

               stormcloud: would that be counter-productive?

               stormcloud: me getting off before we have a chance to do anything

               fairest-ofthemall: it won’t be an issue

               stormcloud: then hell yes

               stormcloud: thought I get the feeling it’ll be the quickest video I’ve ever done

               fairest-ofthemall: is this how it’s gonna be until I manage to get down there?

               fairest-ofthemall: relentless flirting?

               stormcloud: I have no idea what you’re talking about

               stormcloud: I didn’t even say that I think I’ll come harder with you watching me than I ever have before

               fairest-ofthemall: that’s it

               fairest-ofthemall: I’m finding seph

               fairest-ofthemall: I’m gonna find a way to get some time off

               stormcloud: only if you use it to get me off

               fairest-ofthemall: you’re going to be insufferable now, aren’t you

               stormcloud:  you know what they say, zack

               stormcloud: be careful what you wish for, and all that

               Cloud, frankly, had no idea where the words had come from. He had absolutely no experience with verbal flirting. He flirted with his eyes, with the tilt of his hips, with the careful press of his fingertips to his own body. That he knew. This was another beast entirely.

               He was pretty sure he only got the words out by virtue of it being through text.

               That, and it helped that Zack wasn’t actually here to see the way that he blushed so hard he looked like a raspberry.

               Zack, on the other hand, was not at all surprised that Cloud’s quick wit and the ease with which he flirted in person translated over so well into words. He knew Cloud never spoke during his videos for a reason; his friend had told him he wasn’t confident he could say the right things. But when it wasn’t business, when they were likely just true statements, it seemed to come naturally to him, inexperience be damned.

               He’d be an unholy terror once he was confident in himself.

               It was with this knowledge, and the knowledge that he was a terror already, that Zack flipped to his texting app.

               Zack: hey, so I talked to Cloud

               Genesis: Did you –finally– make him the offer?

               Zack: I did

               Angeal: and?

               Zack: he said yes

               Zack: so whenever I’m free next, I’m going to go down to his

               Zack: we’ll do his next set and then

               Zack: uh

               Zack: y’know

               Genesis: Isn’t he just precious when he’s flustered?

               Angeal: I’d say cute, but yes

               Zack: g u y s

               Zack: the important part is that I could really use an opening in my schedule

               Sephiroth: You can’t use him as an excuse every time you want off work, Zack.

               From where he sat in his office, Sephiroth flipped to the blogging app that he used strictly to speak to Cloud with. He wondered how much longer they’d go through the pretense of keeping the distance of using the messenger instead of just exchanging PHS numbers.

               sephiroth: Zack is asking me to make an opening in his schedule. Do you know anything about this?

               stormcloud: oh

               stormcloud: yeah that uh

               stormcloud: might be my fault

               His other text app pinged even as Cloud answered him.

               Zack: that’s not what’s going on and you know it!

               Zack: last time it was because he got fired, and we all know how that went

               He flipped back to Cloud.

               sephiroth: I take it he made you the offer?

               stormcloud: uh, yeah

               stormcloud: I said yes

               stormcloud: I may have riled him up a little

               stormcloud: if he’s antsy to get down here, it’s on me

               Sephiroth sighed and went back to the texting app, where the others had continued to chat.

               Angeal: I still can’t believe his manager

               Genesis: It’s a good thing Seph took care of it, or I might have. With a few well-aimed fire spells.

               Angeal: Gen, you can’t light civilians on fire

               Genesis: I disagree, if they have it coming.

               Angeal: Gen

               Angeal: that’s how you kill people

               Angeal: civilians can’t take a hit like a SOLDIER

               Angeal: Gen

               Angeal: Gen don’t ignore me just because I’m right

               Sephiroth: I’ll clear your schedule for tomorrow, Zack.

               Zack: thank you!!!!

               Zack then sent a row of hearts and kissy faces, which made Sephiroth sigh and flip back to Cloud.

               sephiroth: I admit, I’m curious as to what you said to get him so “riled up.”

               sephiroth: Ah, though if it’s too personal, you don’t have to tell me.

               Cloud proceeded to relay, in detail, exactly what he told Zack. Did he still look like a raspberry while he did it? Maybe. Could he believe that he was describing his bad attempt at flirting to Sephiroth? Barely. Mostly because Sephiroth did not seem to think it was bad at all.

               sephiroth: In that case, I can’t say I blame him. I think that would have approximately that effect on anyone. It certainly would on me.

               The topic then changed, and they began chatting about Sephiroth’s plans for the rest of the day, and how he was stalling with his own work. It was a good thing the topic changed, because if Cloud thought too long about the fact that Sephiroth was essentially admitting that those flirts would have the intended effect on him as well, his mind would short-circuit.

               While they had this conversation, Zack got back to Cloud, passing along the news that he would be free tomorrow, if Cloud was—which he clearly was, he was unemployed.  They too devolved into other topics, but both Cloud and Zack were left with their thoughts coming back around every few moments to high, high levels of anticipation for the following day.

               The only part that left Cloud anything less that mind-blowingly eager (and he had already punched the air a few times out excitement) was the fact that he couldn’t tell Aeris.

               He could admit, he felt a little bad about the whole thing. He usually told his best friend everything, absolutely everything, and it was killing him a little to keep something so huge from her. He was doing it because the secret of the Firsts’ relationship wasn’t his to share, even if Aeris already knew about Zack and Genesis through complete accident. The Firsts were becoming a huge part of his life, and he knew he had to tell her sooner or later. He resolved to talk to Zack about it and see if he couldn’t get permission to discuss the truth with just his one friend. Cloud knew Aeris wouldn’t tell anyone, but he also knew that the SOLDIERs would have no reason to believe that with nothing but his word. It would be a test of how much his word actually meant to the SOLDIERs. He told himself that he wouldn’t be hurt if they decided they couldn’t trust Aeris despite him vouching for her, but that tasted like a lie, even to him.

               He put it aside. There was nothing to do about it until he discussed it with Zack. And for the moment, he and Zack had arguably bigger things to think about.

Chapter Text

               Neither Zack nor Cloud were much inclined toward sleep that night. The difference was, Zack had Angeal, who saw all of Zack’s nerves and pent up energy and decided the best way he could help the endeavor was to fuck Zack hard enough that he fell asleep quickly. That left Cloud up at 3 am before he groaned in frustration and slipped into his bathroom to dry swallow his last two Benadryl in hopes of getting any sleep that night.

               They, a little foolishly, hadn’t set a time. Zack waffled all morning about how long to wait before heading down. He resolved to go in the late afternoon, as something about the work Cloud did made him feel a little strange about doing the shoot in the daylight. He told himself some nonsense about wanting better control over the lighting, as if there was daylight under the plate to make a difference in that anyway.

               There was nothing inherently wrong with the timing Zack came up with. Did it leave Cloud on edge most of the day? Yes, but Zack was almost as nervous. The real issue was in the fact that Cloud didn’t know when Zack was coming, so he couldn’t expect him.

               Would it have solved a few problems for one of them to just ask the other? Yes. Were either thinking clearly enough for that? No.

               So when Cloud got a request for a client for a video call, he didn’t feel like he had a lot of options. Zack wasn’t there yet to give him an excuse, and he didn’t even know if he was coming by soon. Though he didn’t love the calls, he also didn’t mind them too much, so he couldn’t refuse out of principle. But what got him to say yes the most was the simple fact that this was his only job now, and if he wanted to maintain his savings—hell, if he wanted to make sure he was going to make rent, he really needed to take any work that came his way.

               And that was how it came to be that when Zack rang his doorbell, Cloud was moaning with a dildo deep in his ass, wearing a strappy, full body harness, the hand that wasn’t pushing the dildo inside himself in a fist so he wouldn’t touch himself, because his “daddy” hadn’t told him to yet.

               But he sure as hell froze when he heard the doorbell.

               Luckily (was it lucky?), his client seemed to hear it as well.

               “I want you to go answer the door,” the man said, his voice husky—he seemed to like this idea. “Wear a robe, but nothing else. Put in a vibrating plug before you go.”

               Cloud moaned at the thought—mostly because it was Zack at the door, and he knew it. This was beyond even the kind of teasing he would have done on his own. He could say no, but the idea was hot in its own right, and it wasn’t quite enough of a push for him to refuse the client. Not when it was Zack at the door.

               So Cloud gave the camera his best bedroom eyes and nodded slowly.

               He pulled the dildo out with a soft whine, setting it on a bedside table before going to fetch a plug that would work for what the client wanted. He came back and flicked it on briefly, proving by the sound that it vibrated, before quickly slipping inside, still buzzing. He sighed, long and slow, letting his eyes roll back and shut as he did so. It wasn’t hitting quite the right spot, but that was probably for the best, anyway. Cloud got up, put on his silky, blue robe that matched his eyes so well, and held a finger up at the camera before slipping away, shutting the bedroom door behind him.

               When he answered the door, the sight Zack got was certainly not what he was expecting.

               He’d spent the ride down trying to figure out how Cloud would answer the door. Would he already be in his outfit, like last time? He wanted to know, terribly bad. He knew Genesis knew what the next outfit was—he’d bragged about it ever since he got back from Cloud’s, but refused to say what it was. Just that Zack in particular would appreciate it.

               But he didn’t expect Cloud, hair mussed, cheeks faintly pink, naked except for a robe and the faint hint of some sort of strap across his chest. He certainly wasn’t prepared for the way Cloud pinned him with his eyes, the way they were already dark with lust to a surprising degree.

               He was a little stunned, but it only lasted until Cloud grabbed him by the shirt and dragged him inside. He pushed him against a wall, Zack going willingly in his surprise, stepping close and pausing only when his lips were so close Zack could feel his breath.

               “This is okay, right?” Cloud said, one final check in, because he couldn’t not, not when the situation was still so unbelievable.

               Zack didn’t waste time answering, instead pressing the final half inch closer to capture his mouth. His lips were soft and warm, and they parted easily with the barest swipe of the tongue. He felt Cloud’s fingers tighten in his sweater as he kissed him, soft and sweet and not what Cloud was looking for in that moment, not when he was wound so tight with need. He whined in the back of his throat and tilted his head just a fraction of an inch, searching for a better angle, trying his absolute best to hurry Zack along, to drag him down into the need with him.

               It wasn’t working as well as he wanted.

               Zack remained unhurried, but he kissed Cloud thoroughly, mapping out the inside of his mouth, learning the shape and taste of him. His hands rested on Cloud’s hips, the hold simple and chaste and also not what Cloud wanted.

               But eventually, they pulled away for breath, and Zack got a chance to ask what his enhanced hearing had made him wonder since the door had been opened.

               “Why are you buzzing? Is your PHS going off?”

               Zack watched with growing interest as Cloud flushed darker, shifting on his feet, but still not letting go of the hold he had on Zack’s shirt. His eyes flicked down almost shyly, but when he looked back up, they burned. There was a hint of smile at the edges of his lips when he spoke.

               “It’s a plug.”

               Zack could almost feel his eyes go dark, much the way he could feel himself hardening in his pants, the way he had been since Cloud opened the door and yanked him inside.

               “I thought we were doing the set first?”

               Zack shrugged his shoulder, finally drawing Cloud’s attention to the camera bag slung over it.

               “We are. You didn’t tell me when you were coming so I—I’m on a call right now, with a client. It was his idea.”

               It took some of the draw away from the idea, to know that Cloud hadn’t done it because it was him.

               At least, until Cloud seemed to read that on his face and leaned up to kiss him softly, whispering against his lips, “I would have said no, if it wasn’t you.”

               That brought the heat flooding back to Zack’s eyes, and he finally did something that didn’t just relentlessly frustrate Cloud—he reached down and cupped his ass, pulling him closer and firmly against him, placed just right so he could feel the hard line of his cock through his pants against his hip.

               Cloud cursed quietly and reached up, grabbing two handfuls of Zack’s hair and dragging him down for a kiss that finally, finally had as much heat as he was looking for.

               When he pulled away, he was looking at Zack with eyes that said very firmly that this was not over.

               “I’m going to go finish my call,” he said, leaning up to press a brief kiss to his lips. “Think about what I’m doing in there, and know that it’s you I’ll be thinking about the whole time. Every time I say ‘daddy,’ it’ll be for you.”

               He hadn’t known if that last bit would work, but the look in Zack’s eyes made it pretty clear it did.

               Cloud slipped away, down the hall and back into his bedroom, letting his hips sway a little more than necessary as he went, knowing exactly where Zack was looking.

               If Cloud came back looking significantly more turned on than when he left, his client chalked it up to him liking answering the door that way as much as the client had enjoyed the idea of it.

               The client had him leave the plug in, instead having him raise and lower the intensity at his command, all while still refusing to let him touch himself, no matter how many times Cloud begged with his eyes and said, “Daddy?” with increasing need.

               When he knew that Zack was just down the hall, that he knew exactly what he was doing, that he could probably hear each moan and whimper with his enhanced hearing, it wasn’t long before it became a show of willpower for him to not ignore the client and touch himself anyway. Before long, he was whining loudly, his hips rocking as he tried to grind down harder on the plug, his cock drooling against his stomach, neglected. He had one fist halfway in his mouth, biting the knuckles to try and keep control over himself, imagining the whole time that the voice coming through the computer was Zack’s, that it was Zack watching him with a look in his eyes that said he wanted nothing more than to fuck him through the mattress.

               “Now, I want you to turn it up all the way and leave it until you come. You can do it this way, I know you can.”

               Cloud groaned. He had regretted posting that video where he came without touching himself almost immediately, no matter how popular it had made that set. Clients loved to ask him to do it for them, and while he could, he was usually so wound up by the time he finally managed that he was long since frustrated with the client for making him wait.

               So instead, he tried to change the client’s mind, pouting and whining, “Daddy!”

               The client, who just laughed, low and dark, and said, “No, baby. This way, or not at all.”

               Cloud groaned again, letting his head fall back against the pillow. “Not at all” wasn’t an option, when the end of the call hinged on him coming. Otherwise, he’d have to wait for the client to take pity on him, which didn’t seem likely to happen.

               He nodded slowly and, reluctantly, turned the vibrator up all the way.

               The sound that came out of his mouth could only be described as a keen. He shifted, adjusting his hips until it was angled just right, determined to get this to happen and soon, because while this game was fun with Zack outside, it wasn’t as good as being there with the man himself. He got the plug angled against his prostate and whimpered, his hands making fists in the sheets.

               He looked only at the camera, pretending that it was Zack on the other side of it, that the muttered encouragement and compliments were in his voice instead. It helped, and Cloud was speeding toward the edge far faster than he expected. He bit his lip, half for the effect and half to be a little less loud, but it only lasted until the client reprimanded him, demanding to hear him.

               So he obliged, tossing his head back and moaning, “Daddy,” with enough volume that he was sure Zack could hear it.

               He could admit that that one was entirely for Zack’s sake.

               When he came, it was sudden and surprising, and came with a half-whine half-shout as his back snapped into a hard arch, white painting up his chest.

               He turned the vibrator off and pulled it out, putting it on the bedside table next to the dildo. He was panting roughly still when he looked back to the camera, seeing his client looking immensely satisfied. He was saying something, some words of praise that Cloud only half-listened to, knowing he wouldn’t have to answer. He gave a small smile and the man laughed.

               “I’ll leave you to catch your breath. Thank you again. It was a delight as always.”

               Cloud smiled wider and blew a kiss, making the client laugh one final time before he exited the call.

               Cloud slapped his laptop shut and relaxed back against the bed, fighting for breath.

               What he wasn’t expecting, when he finally looked up, was Zack standing in the doorway.

               “Please tell me you’re finally done,” he said, and they both knew he only dared to say it because the laptop was closed.

               Cloud gestured at his chest, where the cum was slowly drying, and said, “Nothing left to do.”

               “I’ll be the judge of that,” Zack said, his eyes blazing as he damn near stalked toward the bed. Cloud felt himself go still, pinned under his gaze, by the sheer want in Zack’s eyes.

               He didn’t say a word, his glib tongue going still as Zack came to the side of the bed and climbed onto it, coming to kneel between Cloud’s legs. He looked him up and down slowly, and Cloud could feel his face heating. He knew what he looked like, and there was really only one word for it: debauched. He could do nothing more than watch as Zack leaned forward, his hands on either side of Cloud’s chest, slowly licking the cum from Cloud’s skin, his eyes on Cloud’s all the while. His tongue pressed flat to his chest, curved above and underneath the crossing straps of the harness, determined to get it all. When he was done, he sat back on his heels and licked his lips.

               Zack opened his mouth to say something, but Cloud would never know what it was, as his hands shot out to grab Zack by the leather straps holding up his belt that ran down his chest, yanking him down on top of him so he could kiss him.

               Cloud was long familiar with his own taste, as plenty of clients had asked him to lick his hand clean when he was done before. But this was different, tasting himself off Zack’s tongue, and infinitely hotter. It helped that, with Zack laying against him, he could feel the SOLDIER was still as hard as he had been before, if not harder. Curious, despite not being hard himself, he rolled his hips up against Zack’s, just to see what would happen.

               Apparently, what would happen is that Zack would break away with a hiss and look down at him with eyes that scorched.

               “Are you sure we have to wait until after the set?” he asked, his voice low and rough.

               Cloud laughed and said, “If we don’t, I’m going to be so wrung out by the time that we do the video that I won’t manage what I have planned.”

               Zack looked down at him in interest, his head cocking to the side as he said, “You have a plan?”

               Cloud put on his best innocent look and said, “I might.”

               Zack paused for a long moment, considering.

               “Then let me help hurry this up,” Zack said. “You have to be hard for the set, right?”

               “Yes,” Cloud said slowly, unsure what Zack was thinking of doing about it.

               Zack gave him a smile and a wink and slipped lower.

               Cloud still wasn’t sure what he had planned until he watched Zack lick slowly from the base to the tip of his cock, whimpering as he did. He let his head fall back, feeling more than seeing as Zack lifted his cock with one hand, repeating the motion before sucking softly on the head, pressing his tongue flat against it and dragging another strangled noise directly from Cloud’s chest.

               It felt amazing. Cloud had gotten himself off more time than he could count, in more ways than he could readily recall, and none of them had ever felt this good. He wasn’t sure if it was because it was another person in general or because it was Zack, but nothing could compare to the warm, wet, perfect heat that surrounded him as Zack slipped his mouth further down the shaft. He knew he was only just barely starting to get hard again and it was already a fight not to let his hips jerk up the way they wanted to. He was panting hard, and glanced down just in time to see Zack look up at him, mischief in his eyes.

               Cloud’s hand lifted just an inch, wanting to touch Zack somehow, some way, but unsure if he was allowed. He didn’t know how to do this. He had no experience to guide him. He wasn’t sure where the boundaries were, what he was allowed to do and what he wasn’t. The closest he’d come to this were the video calls, and in those, all he had to do was what he was told. That was all anyone was interested in—taking control, having him do exactly what they wanted. He didn’t mind that—giving up control. He was more than happy to let Zack have it; Zack had infinitely more experience than he did. He knew what he was doing. He was safe in Zack’s hands, knew the man wouldn’t guide him anywhere he didn’t want to go. That part was easy, following Zack’s lead. The issue came when he tried to reach back, to give back. He was afraid he’d try something and it wouldn’t be appreciated. That he’d end up taking something Zack didn’t want to give.

               He didn’t realize how much of it was written on his face and in that single aborted gesture until the mischief in Zack’s eyes disappeared, replaced with something soft and tender. He pulled off and curled one hand around Cloud’s hip, his thumb sweeping the skin comfortingly.

               “If there’s anything I don’t want, Cloud, I’ll tell you no. Trust that I won’t let you go too far. Trust me.”

               And that? That was as easy as breathing.

               Cloud nodded slowly, some relief in his eyes. Zack pressed a careful kiss to his tip before pulling himself up, propping himself on one elbow by Cloud’s head.

               It should have felt like being trapped, the way Zack caged him with his body. Instead, it felt like being enveloped, like a blanket wrapped around the shoulders. It felt safe, safer than he had felt in a long, long time.

               Zack kissed him again, but this time it was soft, gentle. There was something he needed to build before they went any further, something essential that they couldn’t do this without. There was some sort of reassurance in that kiss, some promise, that this was okay, that it would be okay, that nothing would go wrong that they couldn’t fix together. Zack carded a hand through Cloud’s hair, the gesture tender in some strange way that neither had expected. Something about Cloud in that moment was fragile, and they could both feel it, Cloud with some fear, Zack with a swelling in his heart that Cloud had let him see that much. This moment was important—arguably more important than the rest of the night. It was crucial to him that Cloud knew he was safe with him, that he could be trusted with him when he was fragile, that he would not touch him in some way that would hurt him. He only knew that it had worked when he pulled away and looked down at Cloud, who offered him gentle eyes and a soft smile.

               If Zack had been looking closely, he would have noticed the way his heart skipped a beat at that look, at the trust in those blue eyes.

               If Cloud had been looking closely, he would have noticed how full his heart felt, and how nothing had ever come easier to him than trusting Zack in that precious, crucial moment.

               But neither were looking closely at themselves. They were too busy looking at each other.

               It was easy for Zack to answer Cloud’s small smile with a blinding one of his own, which just made Cloud grin back. He reached up and touched Zack’s face, the gesture still a little hesitant, but gaining in confidence when Zack turned into the touch and kiss his palm. Cloud slid the hand up and into Zack’s hair, fingers curling around his head and into the baby-fine hairs at the base of his neck before pulling him slowly down into a kiss. When Zack kissed him, over-dramatic and with a smack sound instead of slow and deep like he wanted, he couldn’t help but laugh. It broke the moment as they laughed together, the sounds slowly petering out until Cloud grabbed Zack by the hair again to try a second time for the kiss he wanted. He got his way this time, as Zack kissed him, exactly as slow and exactly as deep as he wanted.

               He started a little, when he felt Zack reach down and curl a hand around him, stroking him slowly. There was no urgency in the moment, no rush, just the kind of deep kisses that claimed and Zack taking his time coaxing him back to hardness. He did so well enough and thoroughly enough that Cloud’s hips began twitching up in aborted little gestures he tried to stilled but failed to do so, the blond humming and sighing and moaning softly into his mouth. His stomach shivered when Zack pulled his hand away and slid it slowly up his abs, the muscles quivering beneath his touch, somehow more sensitive than Cloud had ever felt them. He pulled in a sharp inhale as Zack’s thumb brushed over his nipple, but a laugh was shocked out of him when Zack pulled back and snapped one of the straps of his harness.

               “We ought to do this set, or it won’t get done tonight,” Zack said, his voice husky in a way Cloud hadn’t really heard before.

               Cloud groaned and let his head fall back against the pillow. That wasn’t what he wanted. He didn’t want to work. He wanted Zack.

               “Come on, up and at ‘em,” Zack said, patting Cloud’s hip a little harder than expected, rough for the sake of humor. Cloud swatted at the hand, but the gesture held no heat as he rolled his eyes.

               “Alright, alright.”

               Zack rolled off Cloud and Cloud rolled off the bed, unbuckling and peeling off the harness as he went. He stepped out of it with more ease than should have been possible, considering how complicated it was—ease won by experience. Zack watched closely, his eye admiring as Cloud dropped the harness to the floor, his eyes raking over his naked body as he dug around in his closet. He pulled on a silky red thong that only barely managed to contain him, Zack’s eyes lingering on that bulge long enough that Cloud got much more of the outfit on than expected before Zack laughed.

               “Now I know why Gen said I’d like the outfit,” he said, watching Cloud put the hat on his head a little jauntily for comic effect. “He likes country boys an awful lot—he is one, after all.”

               Cloud looked at him in surprise.

               “I didn’t think Banora was that country.”

               “Oh, I’ve been, Cloud. It’s in the middle of nowhere.”

               Cloud shook his head with a smile.

               “He managed to knock the country out of himself. I’ve only barely lost my accent.”

               “You haven’t lost it all the way.”

               Cloud looked at him, a furrow in his brow.

               “What do you mean?”

               Zack gave him a wide grin, his eyes raking over him.

               “You can still hear it when you moan ‘daddy.’”

               Cloud felt his face go red, looking down to tug at his clothes and make sure they were in place just for something to do.

               “I wasn’t sure you’d actually be able to hear me.”

               “I’ve got pretty sensitive ears, and you’re not exactly quiet. Not that I’m complaining.”

               Cloud shrugged.

               “Gotta put on a show, right?”

               Zack stood from the bed and came over to Cloud, standing close. One hand curled onto his hips, the other lifted Cloud’s chin with his fingertips.

               “I like it better when I know it’s for me.”

               There was something in the tone, something almost possessive that made Cloud shiver. The look in Zack’s eyes said he noticed.

               “Come on,” Cloud said, trying to derail the moment. “Let’s do this.”

               Zack sighed as dramatically as he could but nodded and went to fetch his camera bag.

               When he came back, Cloud was digging in a box of sex toys.

               “Gaia, you have a collection,” Zack said, pulling out the camera and starting to get ready but still glancing over at Cloud, who turned faintly pink as he shrugged.

               “Comes with the job. People get bored if you use the same dildo over and over. I got complaints when I first started about that.”

               “I don’t know how anyone could complain about your videos. The sight of you coming…”

               Zack didn’t finish that thought, but he didn’t have to.

               “They usually went something along the lines of ‘if I wanted to see the same video over and over, I wouldn’t keep buying the sets.’”

               Zack snorted, the sound derisive.

               “As if the video’s the only thing they’re buying.”

               Cloud smiled, but shrugged.

               “I shouldn’t complain, it got me to buy more things, and some of them are worth it.”

               Zack paused and looked up.

               “What’s your favorite?”

               Cloud glanced over his shoulder at him, his smile sly.

               “I’ve got a few,” he answered. “I do have a new one that I’m excited about though.”

               “Oh yeah?”

               Cloud nodded, fishing in the box. He stood up, whatever it was held behind his back as he came over to Zack. When he was standing at his side, he placed it into Zack’s hands.

               It was a dildo, but it was huge, truly massive. Longer than anything Zack had ever taken, that was for sure, and so damn thick. Cloud pressed up against his back, his hands pressed against his stomach, his mouth by his ear.

               “It’s going to take forever to get in, but once it is…”

               Zack turned in the circle of Cloud’s arms and looked down at him very seriously.

               “You better let me film you for this one, and I would be happy to help you work up to this… monster.”

               Cloud laughed lowly, standing on his toes to kiss Zack.

               “Is that a promise?”

               “You bet it is.”

               Cloud kissed him one more time before taking the toy and moving away again, going to put it back in the box. He fished around in it for a few more seconds before pulling out a simple looking plug and a little remote.

               “Is that for tonight, then?” Zack asked, finally done setting up the camera and now just watching.

               Cloud nodded and smiled, the expression mischievous.

               “There’s one more prop for the video, but I want that to be a surprise.”

               “Let’s get this going, then; I’m terrible at waiting for surprises.”

               Cloud grinned and went over to steal one more kiss from Zack. He was surprised at how easy the motion had become. It wasn’t as if he was a novice at kissing—he had plenty of experience there. No, it was surprising how easy it was to kiss Zack, how quickly it had become simple for him to do without thinking. He kept waiting for Zack to tell him that it was too much, that fucking was one thing but all this in between wasn’t what he signed up for, but Zack was happy to kiss him back. Protesting was the furthest thing from his mind.

               He backed away and slipped without prelude into one of his poses; one he had used on Genesis in this outfit, with his hip popped and his fingertips curled under the edges of his tiny shorts. He then undid a handful of buttons on the button-down, pulled the bandana around his neck askew, and bared the long line of his neck, spreading his legs to stand a little wider. A few more shots and the top was entirely unbuttoned, instead tied in a knot at his sternum, fashioning a make-shift crop-top out of it that showed off his flat stomach. Another shot and his fly was undone, the red of his thong and the line of his cock filling the gap that it left. His clothes were slowly peeled away until he was on his knees on his bed, the cowboy hat the only scrap of clothing left, and it poised over his crotch at a last attempt at modesty. Then he was entirely naked, still on his knees but now leaning back on his elbows, his length resting against his stomach.

               The hardest thing about the shoot was to aim his “fuck me” eyes at the camera and not directly at Zack.

               And even then, he caught the man’s gaze sometimes.

               As it had last time, the tension that built between them kept Cloud hard as a rock for the entire photoshoot, and a few quick glances showed that it did much the same to Zack. It helped immensely when this was as much teasing Zack as it was work. It certainly made it that much more enjoyable for Cloud, and absolutely made the flirty looks come to his face easier.

               They took that last shot and Zack lowered the camera, saying, “Please tell me we’re done. You’re killing me, Cloud.”

               Cloud bat his eyelashes and gave Zack an innocent look and said, “What are you talking about, Zack?”

               “Cloud,” Zack growled, an almost-warning that nearly rumbled in his chest.

               Cloud could feel his eyes grow dark at the tone. He hadn’t heard it from Zack before. The thought that he could nearly make Zack lose control—yeah, he was ready for the video.

               Cloud went to where he had set the vibrator to the side and paused when he had both it and the lube in hand.

               “Hey, Zack?”

               “Yeah?”

               “You know, the plug’s a little big.”

               “… And?”

               Cloud looked over his shoulder at him.

               “And I’ll need to do a little work to get it in.”

               Zack looked confused, until Cloud’s look sharpened into the look.

               “Do you want some help?”

               Cloud smiled, his eyes hot, and nodded.

               Zack set the camera carefully down on a dresser and went over to Cloud, grabbing him by the hips and steering him toward the bed, supplies still in his grasp. His hands being full didn’t stop Cloud from wrapping his arms around Zack’s neck and pulling him in for a kiss, dragging him down to the bed with him. Zack grabbed him under the hips, grasping two greedy handfuls of Cloud’s ass, and lifted him further up the bed.

               Truth be told, Cloud didn’t really think he’d need much preparing. It hadn’t been that long since the video call, it wouldn’t take long from him to stretch back out wide enough to take the plug. But when he had Zack’s slick fingers pressed against his entrance, he knew this was exactly the right idea, even if it was a little frivolous. Was it necessary? No. But it was exactly what they both wanted.

               Zack slipped one finger inside, listening to Cloud’s breath hitch and stutter in his chest. He kissed down the blond’s jaw to his neck, keeping his touch gentle, at first. He licked a long stripe up his throat as Cloud tilted his head back with a groan, allowing him more room to work.

               “Can I mark you?” Zack asked quietly, his lips brushing Cloud’s ear.

               Cloud could feel his cock twitch at the thought of something, anything marking him as Zack’s.

               “Fuck, yes.

               Was it wise? Debatable. It could help with the set. It’d certainly make Cloud look fucked, objectify him a little more for his audience, and that wasn’t a bad thing. More than one client had noticed that, from the angle of the shots, someone else was taking the pictures for him now, and they all seemed to like the idea. Would it ruin his mystique a little? Probably. He wouldn’t be something pristine, entirely out of reach anymore. Everyone would know that, at least in small way, someone had had him. It might make people push a little harder for in-person meets, which he adamantly refused to do. But they could push all they wanted; he wasn’t compromising his safety for a handful of gil. There were as many pros as there were cons to the idea of a hickey being in the video, so it came down to what Cloud himself wanted.

               And he wanted that mark, that claim for the world to see.

               Zack bit at his neck as he slipped another finger inside and the sound Cloud made was broken. His hips jerked up, pressing him against the hard line of Zack’s abs, and then Zack crooked his fingers inside of him, and it wrung another, strangled noise out of him. He could feel him brush over his prostate, and his fingers were relentless, as relentless as his mouth on Cloud’s neck, nipping and sucking a bruise into the pale skin that would show it so well. He pressed his fingers in and out, pumping lightly, until he felt Cloud’s hips starting to work with him, until he stilled his hand and Cloud kept fucking himself on his fingers.

               “Don’t stop,” Cloud whispered, the words barely a breath. His fingernails dug into the back of Zack’s sweater, and they were both sure they’d be raking down his back if the shirt wasn’t in the way.

               Zack pressed a third finger inside and bit down harder on Cloud’s neck, just for the way he moaned, long and loud. He went back to curling his fingers over and over inside Cloud, pressing just right to that spot inside him. He pulled back, originally to check if the bruise was purpling yet—it was, how long had they been at this?—but got distracted, watching with hooded eyes the way Cloud writhed beneath him, his eyes shut, his face twisted in pleasure. He’d always known that Cloud looked good like this—he’d known it since he bought that first set and saw that first video. But it was different this way, when he was the one causing it, when the sounds Cloud made weren’t distorted by speakers.

               It was infinitely better.

               He was still watching appreciatively when Cloud’s fingers dug into his arms.

               “Stop, stop, I—you’re gonna make me cum,” he said, entirely breathless.

               It was an immense show of self-restraint for Zack to pull away in that moment. He wanted nothing more, absolutely nothing more than to bring Cloud to orgasm.

               But instead he pulled away, rolled off the blond who struggled to catch his breath. Zack found his own breath shorter than he had realized, his heart racing. He wiped his hand absently on his pants and went over to pick the camera back up, just for something to do.

               Cloud had finally caught his breath and used the moment where Zack was fiddling with the camera to grab something from the toy box and hide it beneath his pillows.

               “So, are you gonna tell me what you have planned for the video?” Zack asked, finally looking up, to see Cloud naked on the bed, setting the vibrator beside him.

               “It’s a surprise,” he said, a hum in his voice. He looked a little smug when he looked up at Zack.

               “At least I don’t have to wait any longer,” Zack answered, holding the camera up. “Are you ready?”

               “Yup. Can you give me like a countdown or something so I know when you start?”

               “Sure. Three, two, one…”

               Cloud shifted from his boneless sprawl to his knees, where he held up the vibrator. He used the remote to turn it on, buzzing loud enough that the camera would pick it up. He turned it back off again and set the remote aside before slipping the plug inside him with a sigh. Then he shifted forward, hands and knees, and held the remote out.

               Directly to Zack.

               When there was a pause, Cloud looked expectantly from the remote up to Zack, who only just understood what he had in mind.

               He reached out slowly, taking the remote from Cloud’s hand, careful to keep his own out of the shot.

               Cloud was giving him control over this. It would be up to him, how much pleasure Cloud had, and when he had it. If it was in short bursts or so long it overwhelmed him. If it was low and teasing or intense enough for tears. He looked down at the remote, partially in shock, and then to figure out how it worked. He glanced up every now and then to be sure Cloud was still in the shot, but didn’t realize for a long moment, only after he had figured the remote out, that what Cloud had hidden beneath the pillow before was a set of handcuffs, and that he had chained himself to the headboard.

               He was leaving himself completely helpless, entirely at Zack’s mercy.

               Zack wasn’t usually one to get off on having power over others. Even now, it wasn’t the thought that he had control over Cloud that made him hard as a rock; it was the trust. It wasn’t that he could make Cloud do whatever he wanted—he was a SOLDIER, and while it would be awful, terrible, not something he would ever even consider, it had always been an option for him, simply as a result of his enhancements. It was that Cloud trusted him enough, felt safe enough with him that he’d leave himself completely vulnerable on camera, believing in Zack to do what was best. It was the faith.

               Cloud situated himself against the pillows, his arms above his head, wrists pinned to the headboard, his legs bent and spread to allow a perfect view.

               He gave Zack a little nod to show he was ready.

               Zack could have done anything in that moment. Could have done nothing and drawn it out. Could have started the vibrator low and slow, gently teasing.

               Instead he turned it up as high as it would go, and then immediately shut it off.

               The result was a look of shock across Cloud’s face, a shout of pleasure, and his back arching harshly.

               When it turned off and Cloud recovered from the surprise, he was breathing raggedly. His eyes narrowed in something that might have been chastisement, but was mostly pleasure—a “that was naughty, but I liked it” look. He rolled his hips, grinding down on the plug, and bit his lip, waiting for more.

               This time, Zack turned it on low, and Cloud gave a sigh, letting his eyes slip shut. He rolled his hips again, spread his legs just a little wider, looking so damned inviting. Zack spiked the intensity up again, enough to make Cloud cry out, his face twisting. He whimpered when Zack turned it back down, a pout on his lips when he looked back up. He looked only at the camera, but Zack knew those looks were all for him.

               Zack turned it up to a middling intensity, and Cloud let out a long, low hum, his head falling back. He just breathed heavily for a long moment, and Zack stepped closer, bring the camera nearer. He panned up and down Cloud’s body, slowly, the way Cloud’s head was tilted back showing off the ever-darkening bruise on his neck. He lingered on the space between Cloud’s legs—you could see him clamp down on the plug, wanting more but not yet asking for it. When he panned back up just a hair, he spiked the intensity for just a second, watching as Cloud’s cock twitched, leaking against his stomach. He went back up to Cloud’s face, which finally lifted.

               Cloud bit his lip, his eyes begging for more, and a truly wicked thought crossed Zack’s mind. Maybe it was too much, but his sense of mischief demanded he do it. He turned the vibrator up all the way, loud enough that the buzzing could be heard on camera, strong enough that Cloud groaned, and tossed the remote to the bed, where it landed next to Cloud’s hip.

               There was nothing either of them could do about it now. Zack couldn’t let his hand get into the shot, and it would have to, if he wanted to retrieve the remote. Cloud was handcuffed to the bed—he certainly couldn’t reach it. It was a long moment before Cloud realized what had happened, when he looked between the remote and the camera in surprise. There was that gentle reprimand in his eyes again, but the soft smirk on the edges of his lips. You could see on his face that he took this as a dare, as a test, and that he was determined to rise to the challenge. He would hold out as long as possible, even if he had already shifted so the plug was pressed directly against his prostate, even if it was overwhelming in the best way.

               Cloud started off strong. He was panting heavily, that was true, but he was quiet. Then he was biting his lip in a fight to keep quiet. Then he was whimpering, then whining, then moaning. Then squirming, nearly writhing in place. He tugged fruitlessly on the handcuffs, probably regretting them now, but there was nowhere to go, and Zack couldn’t take them off until the camera was off, and he couldn’t turn the camera off until Cloud had cum. More than once, Cloud’s head thunked back against the headboard, each time displaying the mark on his neck. Cloud began to shiver every once and a while, then shudder, until his whole body was trembling. You could physically see the orgasm build and build and build until it broke and Cloud came with a high, sharp cry.

               Usually, Cloud let himself come down from the high, and then turned off the camera. This time, the vibrator was still going, still just as strong, and he was left trembling on that peak for far longer than he had anticipated. It wrung noise after strangled noise from him, until he gave one great sob of pleasure, a tear slipping down his cheek. That was when Zack realized he wasn’t going to be able to relax and give his usual flirty smile to end the video, that he was truly stuck, overstimulated at this point. He felt a spike of guilt as Cloud’s head fell back against the headboard one last time before Zack managed to turn the camera off and snatch up the remote, turning the vibrator off.

               He set the camera gently on the bedside camera where it wouldn’t come to harm before undoing the handcuffs, thumbing the little latch on the side.

               “I am so sorry, Cloud, I didn’t think—”

               “That,” Cloud said, “was amazing.

               “… What?”

               “Gods, that was—holy shit, Zack,” Cloud said, finally looking up at Zack. His eyes were still hazy with pleasure, but he was smiling. “I knew I’d come harder than ever with you here, but that—I didn’t expect that.”

               “You aren’t… mad?”

               Cloud looked at him like he had eight heads.

               “Mad? Why would I be mad?”

               “It was clearly too much, there, at the end.”

               “Yeah, but that was the best part.”

               Cloud liked being overstimulated.

               Zack filed that away for later.

               He didn’t have much time to think about it, because Cloud reached out and tugged him sharply, pulling him down so he barely had time to catch himself. He curled on his side, facing Zack, and pressed his forehead to Zack’s collarbone.

               “Let me catch my breath, and then we—we’ll—”

               “Take your time.”

               Zack swept his hand down Cloud’s back, feeling the fine tremors still working through him. The poor kid was going to be exhausted by the end of it, but he showed no signs of stopping. Just a breather, and he’d be ready for more—he seemed determined for that much.

               “You know,” Zack said, “there’s no rush. We can do this another day, if you’re tired.”

               Cloud looked up at him like he’d lost his mind.

               “If you think I’m waiting another day, you clearly don’t know me.”

               Zack laughed lowly, pressing a kiss to Cloud’s brow—a gesture that didn’t quite fit, was a little too intimate for what they were supposed to be sharing, but they were both too distracted to notice.

               “Whatever you like,” Zack promised, running his hand up and down Cloud’s back, who sighed and pressed back into the contact.

               They were like that for a long, long moment, simply breathing, cuddled up together. Cloud had one hand pressed to Zack’s chest, the other draped around his waist. Zack had one curled under his own head, the other rubbing at Cloud’s back soothingly. He wouldn’t be the one to make the first move, this time. He was—well, he’d been hard, achingly hard, for a long time now, and showed no signs of flagging. But he was determined not to rush Cloud, no matter how long he had to wait.

               It turned out, he didn’t have to wait very long at all. Before Zack would have expected, Cloud pressed both hands to his chest, rolling him onto his back. Cloud followed, straddling his lap, his hands firmly planted on Zack’s chest.

               “You,” Cloud said, “are wearing far too many clothes.”

               “We’ve been a little busy,” Zack said, with no small amusement.

               “Not anymore,” Cloud promised. “Sit up and get that stupid belt off. I don’t know how to undo it and I’m impatient.”

               Zack laughed outright, but he sat up and did as he was told. Cloud, however, did not move back as he sat up, their hips now pressed firmly together so Cloud could feel the length of him. While he was sitting up, Zack pulled off his shirt, before Cloud put his hands to his chest again and shoved him back down. Zack lie still, letting Cloud sweep his hands over his chest, exploring the ridges of muscle that, despite being lean and lithe, he did not have himself. He was distinctly appreciative, his gaze hot as it swept over Zack. He slipped down a little, his eyes meeting Zack’s as he pressed an open mouthed kiss to one nipple, his tongue swiping over it. Zack hissed in a breath sharply as Cloud nipped at the hardening bud, before closing his eyes and sucking lightly.

               Cloud shifted, slipping to one side, one knee coming between Zack’s. It gave him a better angle to cup Zack through his pants. When his hips jerked up into the touch, he didn’t stop the movement, humming his appreciation. With the complicated SOLDIER belt out of the way, it was a simple thing for Cloud to lower the zipper and slip him out. They made eye contact as Cloud pulled away to lick a long stripe up his palm, slipping two fingers into his mouth and sucking lewdly in a parody of another act, before slipping his now-slick hand back down and stroking Zack.

               He didn’t have any experience doing this with anyone else, they both knew that. The whole point of this was that it was his first time, after all. But the way Cloud’s hand curled around him still spoke of practice, the way his wrist twisted, his thumb sliding over the head, these were all movements that said he’d done this before, at least to some degree. He may not know how to do this with other people, but he knew what he liked himself, and was more than happy to see if Zack liked the same.

               Zack, usually, was neither vocal nor quiet in bed. He wasn’t stoic, the way Sephiroth liked to be, fighting down every noise, but he also wasn’t loud like Genesis, who liked to put on a show. He let his partner know what he appreciated, didn’t fight down any noise that came, but he didn’t go out of his way to perform like he could have.

               That didn’t stop Cloud from wringing sighs and low moans out of him with surprising ease. He wanted to kiss Cloud, but the blond was too focused on him, watching every reaction with hungry eyes. It was doing something to him, Zack knew, to see him respond to his touch, to know that he was giving Zack this pleasure. It wasn’t long before he felt Cloud hardening against his thigh.

               He waited until he could feel Cloud rock his hips gently, subtly against his thigh before flipping them in one swift motion, not giving Cloud a moment to think, but kissing him soundly.

               Cloud moaned into the kiss, hitching one leg around Zack’s hips and drawing him down as he pressed up, grinding them together.

               No, Cloud didn’t know what he was doing, but he had damned good instincts.

               They only pulled away when Cloud was completely breathless, when he looked up at Zack with those dark, desperate eyes and whispered, “I want you to fuck me.”

               Zack leaned down and kissed him again for one long second, heedless of the way that Cloud was already panting.

               “Don’t have to ask me twice,” Zack said, and Cloud wasted what little breath he had on a faint laugh.

               “Hurry it up, then,” Cloud said, kicking him in the back with one heel.

               “Demanding, aren’t you?” Zack teased, sitting back to yank his pants and underwear down at the same time, kicking them away. He then leaned back in, reaching blindly for the bedside table, fumbling for the lube. When Cloud realized what he was doing, he reached out and grabbed it, having remembered exactly where it was, and pressed it into Zack’s hand.

               Zack slicked himself, pressing a few fingers into Cloud, testing to see if he was still slick inside. When he was satisfied that there was no way this could hurt his friend, that he would give pleasure and pleasure only, he put the lube back on the nightstand.

               “Are you ready?” Zack said, oddly serious for once.

               The smile Cloud gave him was brilliant, somehow both excited and soft at the same time, and terribly fond.

               He leaned up and whispered into Zack’s ear, “I want to feel you inside me,” as he grabbed two handfuls of Zack’s ass and pulled him down.

               Zack went willingly, allowing himself to press slowly, ever so slowly inside.

               Cloud’s head fell back against the pillows with a high moan, his back arching to press his chest against Zack’s, his fingers digging into the other man’s ass and holding him still, inside him.

               Zack was having a very, very careful battle for control. For all the toys Cloud used, he was so tight. He felt amazing, and it was all Zack could do to hold himself still, to give Cloud some time to adjust to the size of him.

               Eventually, Cloud’s fingers slipped away, running up Zack’s back, pressing him close.

               Apparently he took too long.

               “Zack,” Cloud panted, “if you don’t start fucking me, I’m going to lose it.”

               Zack laughed softly and leaned down to kiss Cloud deeply as he pulled back slowly and eased himself back in gently.

               Zack was long out of the habit of sleeping with anyone who wasn’t a SOLDIER. His boyfriends were all SOLDIERs. The few people they brought to their bed from time to time were all SOLDIERs. He remembered, both from very, very distant experience and the endless stories of others, how gentle you had to be with civilians. That if he plowed into Cloud carelessly, the way he would with his boyfriends, he was liable to break him.

               So Zack treated Cloud with infinite care, pulling out slowly but pressing in as deeply as he could, stealing Cloud’s breath away each time. There was a softness, a gentleness to the act they were doing, something Cloud hadn’t expected.

               Cloud, admittedly, had a strange relationship with sex in general. While he’d never done it with anyone else before, not this way, what he had done was work. It was performance. It was impersonal. It was something he understood well, but only to a certain extent. He knew what people liked to see, the expressions they wanted, the sounds they liked. He knew how to pace himself and when to hurry, how hard to go and when. There was something practiced to it now, something that came easily but meant very little.

               This meant something.

               Cloud wasn’t thinking about any of the things he usually was. He wasn’t weighing the sounds that came out of his mouth. He wasn’t judging each expression. He wasn’t counting seconds, paying attention to timing. He was just feeling, letting the experience take him where it would. He was trusting Zack, that he would only take him where he wanted to go.

               There was something different about the way Zack went about it, too. It wasn’t what he had seen in porn, and wasn’t what he had done for the camera. It was gentle, and soft, and caring. It was sweet. There was nothing forced about it, none of Cloud trying to shove his own self over the edge just to get it over with. There was no camera to try and ignore, nothing he had to fight to keep away from. There was only Zack, the smell of him, the feeling of him inside him, the tender way he moved, his soft touches. Anyone who ever tried to treat him like he was something fragile was met with immediate scorn, but this, this didn’t feel like a mockery, or like pity, the way that always did. Zack was treating him gently, but only because he wanted to, because he felt Cloud deserved that care.

               And that was what was behind it all, wasn’t it? A surprising level of care.

               Cloud wasn’t accustomed to being treated gently. He was a pariah in his hometown. The friends he had made at work had scorned him when he was fired. He had Aeris, but Aeris knew just how tough he was, despite his pretty face. She knew he could run the gauntlet if he had to, that she didn’t have to hold his hand, and while she always, always supported him, that wasn’t this. It was caring, but of a different sort. It wasn’t soft, not the way this was. This was feather-down, satin and silk, a puff of the clouds he was named after.

               It wasn’t what Cloud had been expecting. It was so much more.

               When Zack took him in hand, even that was gentle. His strokes were firm but strangely still soft, in their own way. He realized what it was, what strange quality had been eluding him this whole time.

               Zack was taking care of him.

               Cloud couldn’t remember the last time someone did that simply because they wanted to. Even his mother—there was an obligation, there, that even if she did want to, she didn’t have much of a choice about it. No one took care of him simply because they wanted to.

               Just Zack.

               Or, maybe, the other Firsts, if he would let them.

               And Cloud moaned at that thought, a spike of pleasure shooting through him. That he could have this, this sweetness, this tenderness, four times over, maybe. Sure, there was no guarantee the other three would be like this, but he knew them. He knew them well enough that he knew they cared. Maybe it would be enough for them to handle him this softly.

               If anyone asked him, he would deny it. He didn’t need gentleness. He didn’t need to treated softly, or taken care of, or coddled.

               He didn’t need it, but maybe, maybe he wanted it.

               It was that thought, that pushed him over the edge in the end. The dream that maybe, just maybe, he could have this more than once, that this was a beginning, that maybe not only Zack, but Angeal, Genesis, and Sephiroth could care for him this way.

               Zack followed along not far behind him, with a telltale rush of heat inside him, curling around Cloud almost protectively, a little possessively.

               And that was a thought Cloud liked. That Zack might like him enough to be possessive.

               They caught their breath slowly, Zack slipping out of Cloud as he softened. He rolled off, but brought Cloud with him, an arm around his waist. Cloud went willingly, snuggling up against him, ignoring the mess between them.

               Everything was warmth and softness and Zack. He felt safe, like this, safe in a way that was almost entirely unfamiliar. He wanted for nothing in that perfect, golden moment in Zack’s arms.

               He felt, faintly, as Zack shifted away, reached for something to clean them up with, but he was much too tired, now. The three orgasms had caught up with him, and he lay curled up, boneless in bed, content in the knowledge that Zack was close at hand.

               He thought that maybe, no matter what happened, he might be happy with anything, as long as Zack was close by.

Chapter Text

               There was a knock at the door.

               There was a knock at the door and Cloud did not want to answer it.

               He didn’t know who it was. He didn’t even know who it could be. He didn’t get visitors that often. His only guess was Aeris, so he snuggled back down, pulled the comforter up a little higher, and resolved to go back to sleep. She’d forgive him. Or if it was urgent, she’d call and yell at him to open up. He could ignore the door for at least a little longer.

               He sighed happily, nestled in the soft warmth around him, curling closer to the strange heater in his bed. It was strange because he didn’t usually sleep with anything in his bed, but some part of him told him it was okay. It seemed familiar, at least. Something about the smell set him at ease.

               There was another knock at the door.

               This time, Cloud groaned, pulling the blanket over his head. If whoever it was knocked twice, that probably meant it was important. Aeris definitely would have called instead, which meant this was someone he didn’t know as well, which meant he should probably answer.

               But he was comfortable.

               For some reason, it wasn’t surprising when the source of heat in his bed turned out to be a person, whose arms came up to tug him closer, a laugh rumbling quietly in their chest that he could more feel than hear. It was the last straw. That sound, that feeling was far too pleasant. There was no way he was getting out of bed. Whoever it was would have to come back later.

               There was a third knock.

               “Cloud? Do you need to get that?”

               It was only once he spoke that everything slotted into place, that the warmth was Zack, that they were curled up together because they had slept together the night before, that apparently Zack had stayed the night instead of slipping out at some point like Cloud expected him to.

               It made something soft flutter in his chest that Zack hadn’t left.

               “No,” Cloud insisted, burying his face in Zack’s chest so it came out muffled.

               Zack patted his ass and said, “Go answer it. You can come back to bed after. It might be important.”

               Cloud sighed heavily but slid out of bed, giving it one last mournful look as he pulled on his blue robe, which was still near the bed where it had landed after he answered the door in it yesterday with Zack. Apparently this was a thing now, answering the door naked except for that robe. At least he wasn’t wearing the harness this time.

               There was a fourth knock on the door before Cloud got out of the bedroom, so he opened the door to the hallway and called, “I’m coming, hold on!” before following it with a mumble of, “Shiva’s tits.”

               He yawned and rubbed his eye while making his way down the hallway, was in fact still rubbing his eye when he opened the door.

               “It’s early, what the hell do you… want…”

               Cloud’s hand slowly lowered.

               He found himself staring up at Sephiroth, the General, Demon of Wutai, who looked nothing like any recruitment poster with that expression of fond amusement on his face. He wasn’t wearing his uniform—probably in hopes of not being recognized. He was wearing a simple black t-shirt, black jeans (Cloud couldn’t help but wonder if he ever wore color), and short black boots. His hair was even tied back into a high ponytail. He held up a plastic bag.

               “I brought supplies to make breakfast. I thought you and Zack might be too tired to actually make something. I hope I’m not intruding?”

               It took Cloud a longer moment than he was proud of to recover, and he knew, he knew he was pink in the face when he stepped back to let Sephiroth through.

               “Of course not! Thank you so much, this is very thoughtful. I was probably gonna skip whenever I finally hauled myself out of bed.”

               A (wildly endearing) look of concern came to Sephiroth’s face.

               “Are you in the habit of skipping meals? It’s not healthy to do that.”

               Cloud ruffled his hair nervously.

               “Only when I’m lazy or money’s tight.”

               He was hesitant to admit that last one, worried about offers of charity that he would refuse on principle, which he was worried would then make things strained. Sephiroth only just got here, he didn’t want to ruin things already.

               But Sephiroth just offered a small, “Hmm,” of consideration before going to set the bag of supplies down in the kitchen.

               He had barely done so when he turned, a soft look on his face. Cloud followed his line of sight to where Zack was shuffling down the hallway, yawning, wearing only his SOLDIER issue pants.

               “Did I hear Seph?” Zack called as he made his way down the hallway, looking at Cloud, as the man in question wasn’t in view.

               Cloud nodded and said, “He brought us breakfast.”

               “I still have to make it,” Sephiroth corrected, pulling supplies out of the bag and setting them on the counter.

               “What’d’ya bring?” Zack asked through a yawn, coming into the kitchen with the other two.

               “Blueberry pancakes,” Sephiroth answered, taking out the last of the ingredients. Cloud noticed with a flutter in his stomach that he brought cinnamon. It was an old Nibel trick, cinnamon and blueberries, one he mentioned to Sephiroth a long time ago. He tried not to read too much into it that the man remembered.

               Zack went over to his boyfriend, setting one hand on his hip to draw his attention. Sephiroth looked away from his task and dipped his head immediately, giving Zack a soft peck on the lips.

               “Good morning,” he muttered.

               Zack beamed and tugged playfully on Sephiroth’s hair, saying, “Morning!”

               Sephiroth swatted the hand away, but looked more amused than irritated.

               It was Cloud’s apartment, Cloud’s space, but he was left feeling out of place. The exchange between the two was so easy, unhurried and familiar, and very much something Cloud knew he had no place in. Cloud would never have these men the way they had each other, and that left a pang in his heart. He told himself it was because he wanted a relationship, that he just wanted to be that close to someone, and that it had nothing to do with the specific men in front of him.

               Even to him that was starting to sound like a lie.

               Cloud didn’t know what to do. What was the protocol for one the man you just slept with kissed his boyfriend good morning, before said boyfriend made you both breakfast? It was a very firm reminder of what Cloud’s place was in all of this. The self-deprecating part of him said he was nothing but a fuck, a pretty face, that that was as far as their interest extended. The better-rounded part of him knew that wasn’t true, that maybe they didn’t love him like they loved each other, but they were friends, and they cared, even if it wasn’t the same. It was enough for him. It had to be.

               He still felt lacking.

               Cloud didn’t realize how much of it was written on his face when Zack glanced over. There was hesitancy, a lack of certainty written into every line of his body and curve of his face. He looked lost. This wasn’t the confident man who had dragged him in the apartment by his shirt last night, or the one who knew exactly what he wanted and was happy to demand it. This Cloud had soft eyes that almost looked a little wounded. Not mad, not offended, not jealous, but like seeing Zack and Sephiroth kiss had been some sort of failing on his part.

               All the work Zack had done the night before, building Cloud up, making sure he knew he was wanted, was starting to unravel.

               Zack hadn’t talked to the others about the day after. He knew he was allowed to stay the night—knew Genesis would have torn him a new one if he tried to come home that night, even if he hadn’t wanted to stay of his own volition. He didn’t know exactly where the lines were drawn. Had that one time been all he was allowed? Was he supposed to keep his hands to himself from now on? He wasn’t sure, but he knew how to fix this moment, and he knew his boyfriends would forgive him if this was crossing a line.

               Zack left a lingering touch on Sephiroth’s shoulder, but stepped away, coming over to Cloud. He settled his hands low on his hips and, giving Cloud time to pull away if he wanted, leaned down to kiss him softly.

               “Good morning to you too,” he said, his voice quieter than it normally would have been.

               It was all in the eyes. The gentle affection, the small smile, the warmth—that was what convinced Cloud, more than anything.

               Cloud unwound, smiling almost shyly.

               It might not be the place he wanted, but he had a place with these two. Zack wasn’t going to suddenly leave him behind because his boyfriend showed up. He wasn’t something to be used and tossed away—not to Zack. Last night was a beginning, not an end. Sephiroth showing up didn’t change that. Sephiroth had always been a part of it, as had Genesis and Angeal. It would take some negotiating to figure out how he fit in with all of them, but it could be done.

               It would be done, if the look on Sephiroth’s face had anything to say about it.

               Cloud glanced over Zack’s shoulder and saw Sephiroth standing quietly, his arms folded over his chest, watching them. Cloud froze, expecting a look of jealousy, of anger or hatred, but then he looked closer and saw the faint smile on his lips.

               Meeting Cloud’s eyes, Sephiroth said, “You two fit one another well.”

               Cloud could feel himself blush. This was all still so strange—how could he say that? Zack was his boyfriend and Cloud was an outsider. It was one thing to share with someone in their circle, when they were all dating, but how could he think of sharing with Cloud? But apparently it wasn’t only plausible, but easy to the man, who he had just met in person for the first time not five minutes ago, to see his boyfriend and his friend kiss and only approve.

               Zack grinned wide, trailing his hands around Cloud’s hips as he went to stand behind the blond. He wrapped his arms around his waist and rested his chin amid the blond spikes, looking lazy and affectionate. Cloud wondered if he was like this with all of his friends, or just the ones he slept with.

               “We’re a good set, huh?” Zack said easily, almost boastfully. “Though Cloud here could make anyone look good.”

               Cloud felt himself turn a little redder, elbowing his friend lightly in the side.

               “Zack.”

               “What? It’s true.”

               “He does have a point,” Sephiroth agreed, his eyes sweeping Cloud up and down.

               It was then that Cloud remembered how undressed he was.

               “Gaia,” he whispered. “I should, uh, probably go put actual clothes on.”

               “Are you suuuuure?” Zack sang, dipping one hand to slide it along the outside of Cloud’s thigh, slowly hitching up the robe.

               Sephiroth looked amused, but he also looked incredibly interested in the path of that hand.

               Cloud bit his lip, unsure. Part of him, the bratty part that liked to get the better of him, wanted to see how far Zack could go, if he could drag one or both of them back to the bedroom, or failing that, tease them relentlessly. Another part screamed that things were different with a third person there.

               He still hadn’t made up his mind, the hand was trailing toward dangerous territory, and he looked at Sephiroth without thinking. The man met his eyes and those green ones burned.

               “Don’t stop on my account.”

               Cloud knew he was gaping, but how could he not? Some part of him hadn’t truly been convinced that Sephiroth (Sephiroth!) was interested in him, but there was no denying it now, not when he looked at him that way and made comments like that one. Zack used his free hand to take Cloud by the hip and pull him flush against his chest.

               Zack knew this was pushing things a little. Cloud didn’t seem sure anymore—he knew what that looked like now, how Cloud acted when he was ready and eager, and it wasn’t this. But there was an opportunity, here, a way to ease Cloud into things. Even if it wouldn’t be his first time, four people would still be a lot to handle. If a little touching and kissing with another person there made things easier later, then it might be a good idea to start small this way while they had the chance. Sephiroth was a good person for this. Genesis would have joined already, ever impatient, and Angeal would have told Zack to stop by now, certain that he was pushing Cloud too far. But Zack knew Cloud. He was dead certain that if Cloud wanted him to stop, he would say so, or pull away.

               Instead, Cloud leaned back against his chest, just slightly.

               He still looked worried when he asked Sephiroth, “Is this really okay?”

               Sephiroth nodded and said, “More than. If there was an issue, last night wouldn’t have happened, and I certainly would not have brought you breakfast.”

               Cloud laughed a little at the last bit, but it still sounded a little nervous.

               “I just—it’s a little hard to believe, y’know?”

               Zack hummed his acknowledgement, well familiar with the state of Cloud’s self-esteem, and the pedestal he put the SOLDIERs on.

               “I don’t see why,” Sephiroth said. “You’re a beautiful, charming, clever, warm-hearted man. Anyone who wouldn’t want you is blind, and anyone who wouldn’t want to befriend you is a fool.”

               Cloud stared at Sephiroth with the biggest eyes. It was one thing for the man to give him passing compliments through text, it was another to hear them in person. Partially because Cloud himself didn’t believe those things to be true, but mostly because he couldn’t really believe Sephiroth believed them.

               “He does this great thing,” Zack said, thumb rubbing circles into Cloud’s thigh now, “where he says the sweetest shit as if it’s as obvious as the sun.”

               “Those things should be obvious, Zack. They’re simply true.”

               Cloud swallowed hard. He didn’t agree, but he could spend forever letting Sephiroth tell him.

               He reached down and took the hand Zack was using to doodle on his thigh and held it tight. He needed the support to get the words that just crossed his mind out of his mouth.

               “Do you have permission to kiss me, or is that just Zack?”

               Sephiroth’s eyes grew dark, and he pushed away from the counter he was leaning on. He walked forward—more like stalked, really, from the way Cloud suddenly felt like prey, like something about to be devoured.

               When he was close enough, Sephiroth cupped Cloud’s cheek, thumb brushing over his bottom lip, as Cloud’s mouth parted for him on instinct. His other hand took its place on Cloud’s hip, mirroring Zack’s. He stepped even closer, not quite flush, but enough that Cloud could feel his body heat. It was almost overwhelming, being caught between these two, nowhere to go from one that wasn’t into another. But it was overwhelming in the best way.

               “I have permission to kiss you. Would you like me to?” Sephiroth asked, his voice almost a purr.

               It was all Cloud could do to whisper, “Yes.”

               Sephiroth dipped his head and kissed Cloud, with nowhere near the amount of heat that was in his eyes. His movements were slow and sure, moving from a simple press of lips to kissing Cloud’s mouth open. The kiss remained open-mouthed but went nowhere until Cloud got impatient and pressed his tongue to Sephiroth’s lips. He did it a few more times, slowly getting frustrated that Sephiroth wouldn’t kiss him how he wanted. The hand that wasn’t holding Zack’s reached up, his arm looping around Sephiroth’s neck. He let out a low, needy whine, and that was apparently what it took to budge Sephiroth’s self-control. He finally slipped his tongue into Cloud’s mouth, kissing him slowly but thoroughly. It was almost lazy, and entirely indulgent, like they had all the time in the world and Sephiroth was too busy enjoying himself to rush. Cloud tried again and again to get him to kiss him harder, but there was no way to make Sephiroth change his mind. Eventually he gave up, sighing into the kiss, letting Sephiroth take him where he would.

               Cloud had to pull away first for breath, and Sephiroth let him go, but only after nipping him lightly on the bottom lip. Cloud let his head fall back against Zack’s shoulder as he panted, letting the arm around Sephiroth’s neck slip some so it wouldn’t drag him further down, until just his hand was curled around the back of his neck. He felt a hand tighten on his hip (he thought it was Sephiroth’s, but it was hard to keep track) as Sephiroth dipped his head again, pressing an open-mouthed kiss to the hickey on Cloud’s neck, sucking on it just hard enough that Cloud gasped. He could feel as much as hear it when Zack laughed.

               “Careful, Seph, let him breathe.”

               Sephiroth hummed and looked up through his eyelashes at Cloud, who made the mistake of glancing at him. His heart stopped in his throat.

               “Maybe I like him breathless.”

               Cloud let his head fall back again, eyes shutting, and swore quietly.

               This time, both SOLDIERs laughed, and Cloud’s hand tightened on the back of Sephiroth’s neck—the sound was warm, and fond, and both of those laughs were for him. Held between the two of them, with their laughter in his ears, did much to erase his earlier fears. In that moment, he simply felt wanted, and not just for a fuck.

               Zack took advantage of the angle they were at to press a quick kiss to Cloud’s lips, following it by leaning over his shoulder to kiss Sephiroth.

               “As much fun as I’m having, can we try to find a way to kiss and make breakfast? I’m starving.”

               “You’re always starving,” Sephiroth sighed, but obliged and pulled away. Cloud couldn’t help but sigh at the loss. Zack slipped out from behind him, trailing a hand along his lower back as he went. He felt almost bereft without them, after having both so close. But he only hesitated briefly before following them over to the counter, convinced (at least for the moment) that they would want him with them.

               All thoughts of changing out of the robe had passed. Partially because he was now distracted. Partially because it was clear that both Sephiroth and Zack liked looking at him in it.

               Zack stood to the side and let Cloud take his place next to Sephiroth at the counter, taking him by the shoulders and moving him into place when he hesitated. Cloud dug around in his cabinet for a large bowl and measuring utensils as Sephiroth began opening the ingredients.

               “Zack isn’t allowed to cook,” Sephiroth explained. “He eats half the ingredients raw and then burns the rest.”

               “He’s exaggerating,” Zack insisted, despite the way his hand was already halfway to the carton of blueberries. Sephiroth swatted it away.

               “I’m not. He’s truly a nuisance in the kitchen.”

               Zack leaned close to Cloud and stage-whispered, “I think he’s flirting.”

               Cloud snorted a laugh, and before he could get self-conscious about the undignified sound, Sephiroth glanced toward him with a fond smile. Cloud answered it with a small one of his own.

               Sephiroth, for his part, was discovering what Genesis and Zack had meant. Cloud in person was almost entirely different from Cloud in the sets. He’d guessed at it before, from small comments he made, how he phrased certain things, but seeing his demeanor solidified everything. Sephiroth had little concept of low self-esteem. He’d been told all his life that he was the best, and had never had any proof to contradict the idea. It was hard for him to wrap his head around the idea of not feeling good enough, not the way that Cloud did. His own problems with feeling worthy came from a sense of his own lack of humanity, the monstrous in him, more of an issue with what he was than what he lacked. He didn’t fully understand how Cloud could feel undeserving, when he was clearly a beautiful person in every way that mattered.

               But, when he knew to look for it, it was obvious. It was in every hesitant gesture, every lingering pause, the shy looks, the bitten lip, the smiles that didn’t quite dare to be as bright as they could be. The performance Cloud gave in his work was a good one, and he sold it flawlessly, but having met him in person now, he knew that it was covering up something. He was certain it wasn’t entirely a lie, he’d seen the way Cloud’s eyes went dark, the way he dared once he had been reassured. But that reassurance did have to come first. Sephiroth wondered, if perhaps he’d be less hesitant if they were less famous, if pointless rank was what was making Cloud feel inferior. He hoped not. The rank had always meant little to him. What meant more was Cloud looking him in the eye and smiling, seeing not the General, but Sephiroth, just the man, and still looking at him fondly. He’d expected the heated looks; Cloud had stated that he was interested. He knew in the abstract that Cloud liked him as a person. But it was different, seeing it in person, seeing him soft and warm in the eyes, and it was wildly endearing. It was charming in a way his sets could never be.

               This was Cloud, just as he was, without pretense. There was shyness there, and hesitancy, and nervousness, but a shocking amount of honesty. Sephiroth didn’t like that there was that distance, that Cloud felt uncertain with him, but he did like that Cloud was comfortable enough to show it. He was absolutely certain that he could have covered it with confidence—Cloud knew how to act, that much was clear from his work. But he let him see that hint of vulnerability, and that felt like trust. It meant more than Cloud would have known, after Sephiroth trusted him with Zack for a night, a one-on-one situation that they, as a rule, didn’t allow.

               But it was Cloud. And Sephiroth knew now, having met him, that he would have a hard time denying him anything.

               “Seph? I think those ingredients are mixed.”

               Sephiroth blinked and looked down at the dry ingredients to find that Zack was right. He glanced over at Cloud, whose own bowl held the wet ingredients, to find he was waiting on him, but doing so with barely restrained laughter.

               “Does he normally space out while he’s cooking?” Cloud asked Zack, who leaned over to rest his chin on Cloud’s head.

               “Nope. Must be the sight of you in that robe.” Zack’s hand started trailing up Cloud’s thigh again, but this time, Cloud smacked it away and laughed.

               Sephiroth found he liked it better when Cloud laughed.

               “You were in my bed all night, you don’t have to keep flirting with me,” Cloud said, handing the wet ingredients to Sephiroth, who began mixing them together.

               “Maybe I just like to flirt with you.”

               “You like to flirt with everyone,” Sephiroth said, glancing sidelong at the two. Zack had wrapped his arms around Cloud’s middle, his chin still nestled in blond spikes again. Cloud was leaning back against him, though his eyes were questioning when they met Sephiroth’s. Still unsure if he was allowed this much. Sephiroth nodded, and Cloud offered a faint, relieved smile. He relaxed a little more in Zack’s arms. “How did last night go, if I may ask?”

               “Amazing,” Cloud said with a happy sigh. “I can still barely believe it was real.”

               “If that’s how he was on his first night, he’s going to be a terror with some practice,” Zack said, looking at Sephiroth meaningfully. Cloud nudged him with an elbow.

               “Don’t joke,” he protested.

               “Who’s joking? You were good, Cloud.”

               “If it was anything like kissing you, I’m inclined to agree,” Sephiroth said, glancing up from the batter.

               Cloud snorted, despite the way he was pink in the face, and said, “You don’t have to flatter me to get me to go to bed with you.”

               Cloud said it with a joking air, but Sephiroth eyed him in a way that was serious. There was something behind the words, an edge that meant he hadn’t been entirely flippant, and Sephiroth saw it as easily as Zack did. Zack’s arms tightened a little around his waist, and Cloud cleared his throat.

               “Sorry,” Cloud said. “Guess my sense of humor doesn’t always come through.”

               “The joke was understood. It was the sentiment behind it that needs work,” Sephiroth said, and Cloud could feel Zack nod his agreement. Cloud shifted, looking at his toes for a moment.

               Zack kissed the top of his head and said, “It’s okay. We just want you to know we care. Right?” He looked up at Sephiroth for confirmation, Cloud mirroring him with more uncertainty in his eyes.

               “Of course,” Sephiroth said, as if it was the most obvious thing.

               Sephiroth put the pan on the stove and melted some butter on it before spooning a few soon-to-be-pancakes onto it.

               “It’s just—a little hard to believe, sometimes. You guys are amazing, and you have each other. I just don’t really see why you’re interested.”

               “Do you think that having Zack would be the equivalent of having Genesis?” Sephiroth said, calmly flipping one of the pancakes.

               Cloud looked at him, confused. Zack hummed quietly, knowing where this was going.

               “No? They’re different people.”

               “Then why is it hard to understand that someone might be interested in them, but also you? You don’t offer what they do, that’s true, but they don’t offer what you do. You are different people. I am attracted to Genesis, Angeal, and Zack for wildly different reasons. I am attracted to you for different reasons still. You may not see your best qualities, or find value in them, but I think I can speak for all of us and say that we do.”

               Sephiroth said it so easily, as if it was simple fact, as if he was reading numbers and figures off a page. He didn’t even look up from his task, focused instead on cooking, on getting exactly five blueberries in each pancake. It was a good thing he didn’t look up, and that Zack was behind him, because Cloud knew he looked stunned.

               It was one thing for Aeris to tell him things like that. He had known Aeris for years, and he was pretty sure that she could find a redeeming quality in anyone. Sephiroth was not that soft-hearted, but he could still manage to say things like that to him.

               Cloud didn’t say anything. He patted Zack’s arms and leaned forward—Zack dropped his hold quickly. Cloud stepped forward and took Sephiroth by the hand not wielding a spatula until he turned to look at him. He cupped Sephiroth’s cheek, much as the SOLDIER had done to him before, and urged him to lean down with a gentle touch. The kiss he gave him was soft, but that was the point. This wasn’t about longing and heat. This was much more important than that.

               They leaned away, and Sephiroth searched Cloud’s face, trying to be certain he had been understood. When he found what he wanted, he didn’t quite smile, but his eyes softened, and that was better somehow.

               Cloud popped up on his toes to press a quick, last kiss to his lips before saying, “Pancakes are burning.”

               Sephiroth frowned and turned back to what he was doing, hastily removing the food before it burned too badly. Cloud turned around, leaning against the counter, the edge of it pressing into his lower back. Zack came to stand next to him, resting his hip against the counter.

               “You know,” Zack started, “Cloud let me help with the video this time.”

               “I should hope so. It was your job to film it.”

               “No, I mean, like, help.”

               Sephiroth looked up at him, brow furrowed.

               “It would be a bad idea for you to be in it. The PR department would have your head.”

               Zack grinned and shook his head.

               “I’m not in any of the shots.”

               Sephiroth’s brow furrowed further.

               “I don’t see how you helped, then.”

               “You’ll have to wait and see,” Zack said in a sing-song. Cloud rolled his eyes, but was smiling.

               “I hate the waiting portion,” Sephiroth grumbled, turning over more pancakes. “It doesn’t help that Genesis won’t let us look until he finishes editing.”

               “We’re supposed to be buying them, anyway.”

               “I would still purchase them. I would just also like to look.”

               “Hey, Zack?” Cloud interrupted. Both SOLDIERs looked at him.

               “Yeah?”

               “Is all the footage saved on the camera itself?”

               “I think so, why?”

               A sly smile curled on the edges of Cloud’s lips, and there it was, his confidence coming back. Teasing, he could do, and do well. As long as they were far away from questions of belonging or compliments that extended past his physical attractiveness, he knew what he was doing. Both Zack and Sephiroth were glad to see the glint of mischief in his eyes. Zack, because he had wondered if seeing him with Sephiroth was doing some sort of harm to Cloud’s self-esteem, and Sephiroth, because he had never seen it in person before, and the sight of it made him go still.

               “Would you like to watch the video, while you’re here?” Cloud said, his voice sweet, a little coy.

               Sephiroth didn’t say anything. He just nodded.

               “Aw, Cloud, you’re going to ruin the surprise! The video is great after the build-up of the set.”

               “Zackary,” Sephiroth said.

               “Seph?”

               “Shut up.”

               Cloud laughed, the sound bright in a way it had yet to be that day. If the responding smile on Zack’s face could only be described as dopey, well, Sephiroth was too busy looking at Cloud in surprise to notice. Sephiroth reached out and touched Cloud’s cheek, who looked at him curiously.

               “You’re beautiful when you laugh. You stop worrying.”

               Cloud paused, turning pink again. He’d been called beautiful many times, by many disgusting men whom he didn’t want to hear it from, but the word held some kind of magic, coming from Sephiroth.

               “Thank you?”

               Sephiroth did the thing Cloud was coming to recognize where he smiled but only with his eyes.

               “You’re very welcome,” Sephiroth said, turning the stove off with a flick of the wrist. “The food’s done.”

               Zack stretched his arms above his head and leaned back until there was a satisfying pop from his back. He sighed happily.

               “Thank Gaia. We worked up an appetite last night.”

               He said it mostly to watch Cloud blush, and he certainly got his wish, even if it came with a flying elbow he had to dodge.

               “A shame there’s no video of that,” Sephiroth said, carrying the plate of pancakes to Cloud’s tiny, rickety little table. He was lucky he’d bought the set with four chairs and had enough to seat everyone. Cloud grabbed plates and silverware from the appropriate cabinet and drawer before making his way over. He was surprised to find that Zack and Sephiroth sat across from one another, leaving the chair between them for Cloud. He half expected Zack to sit in the middle as a buffer, but apparently it was unneeded.

               “You’ll see it live soon enough,” Cloud said, the words coming out light but the look he gave Sephiroth was heavy. It was returned with heat, watching as Cloud’s robe gaped when he leaned over to pass out plates.

               “You are still interested, then?”

               Cloud paused, blinking at him in surprise.

               “Of course I am. Why would I not be?”

               Sephiroth shrugged, putting pancakes on all three plates.

               “There was some concern that you would only be interested in Zack, afterward.”

               Sephiroth carefully didn’t say that he was one of the ones that had been concerned.

               He didn’t need to. Cloud could guess it from the blank look on his face and the set of his shoulders.

               “Zack’s dick wasn’t that good.”

               “Hey!” Zack said, picking out a blueberry and flicking it at Cloud.

               Cloud laughed and picked it up from where it rolled on the table, putting it on his own plate so it wouldn’t get lost.

               “Seriously, though,” Cloud said, looking at Sephiroth with a warm smile. “I can’t imagine what it would take to make me lose interest in all of you. Like you said before, right? Being interested in Zack isn’t the same thing as being interested in Genesis. Different people.”

               This time, Sephiroth actually smiled.

               “I’m glad our trust was not misplaced. I would have hated to lose you.”

               Cloud felt something in his chest tighten, reminding himself very firmly that Sephiroth meant it as a friend.

               “You won’t lose me,” he said, smiling with confidence this time, because this he was certain of. “You’ll have to kick me out if you want that.”

               “Not a chance,” Zack said, this time with a mouth full of pancakes.

               Sephiroth frowned and said, “Zack.”

               Cloud grinned. It was so domestic, it was—well, it was cute. He felt a little privileged to witness the exchange.

               As he did when things got too emotionally heavy, he got flippant.

               “That’s alright, I’ve literally had his dick in my ass, I think I can handle bad manners.”

               Cloud grinned widely as Zack seemed to choke on whatever he was going to say next, and possibly his food. He almost turned worried before he managed to swallow and started to laugh.

               Sephiroth looked between them fondly. They were good for each other. He’d always known that Zack had no problem being the lively one in their group, that they could all keep up with him in their own way, that they all appreciated his sense of humor (when they weren’t the ones being pranked). But it was rare to see Zack let loose quite this much, the way he was with someone who instigated orneriness just as much as he did.

               “You little…” Zack said, standing and leaving his food.

               It was an unfair show of SOLDIER speed when Zack dove in to tickle Cloud, who hadn’t been expecting such a move from a grown man. This was a mistake, Sephiroth knew—never underestimate how far Zack would go for a laugh. And he got his laugh, a lot of them, as Cloud fell into helpless giggles, trying to shove his arms away and failing.

               “Say I’m the best dick you’ve had in your ass and I’ll stop,” Zack said, grinning down at Cloud, who was crying at this point.

               “You’re the—the only dick I’ve… had in my ass, Zack!”

               “Then it oughta be easy to say.”

               “Zack!”

               “Say it,” Zack sang.

               “You’re the best!” Cloud just barely managed to choke out around his laughter. Zack paused and looked at him expectantly, so Cloud rolled his eyes as he caught his breath, saying, “You’re the best dick I’ve had in my ass.”

               “Damn right,” Zack said, pressing a loud, wet kiss to his cheek. Cloud made a noise of disgust and wiped it away, much to Zack’s amusement.

               “We’ll see if that’s still true after I’ve finished with your boyfriends,” Cloud said, a challenge in his eyes.

               “More like after they’re finished with you,” Zack said, sitting back down. He speared some of his pancake and held it up, using the fork to point at Cloud. “You’re gonna be walking funny for a week.”

               “Better be,” Cloud said, nonplussed. “I want to sore for days afterward.”

               “Careful what you wish for, Cloudy. You might go home bruised up if you get them going enough to forget their strength.”

               A slow grin formed on Cloud’s face.

               “I hope you know I take that as a challenge.”

               “We will not send you home battered,” Sephiroth said with a frown. “We all have Cure materia; there is no need.”

               Cloud chewed his pancake thoughtfully, then propped his chin in his hand and looked at Sephiroth.

               “Maybe I want them. Maybe I want to look at them and remember the night over and over again until they fade.”

               Zack chuckled at the way Sephiroth’s eyes darkened. He always liked marking his boyfriends, but they were SOLDIERs, and healed quick. There was little consequence for a few bruises, as long as the recipient didn’t mind when they were made.

               “Maybe,” Cloud continued, leaning forward, egged on by the look on Sephiroth’s face, “I want you to mark me, so everyone who sees me on my way out knows that I’m yours.”

               There was a long moment where no one seemed to breathe before Sephiroth quickly pulled out his PHS.

               “What are you doing?” Cloud asked, confused by the turn of events.

               “Clearing Angeal’s schedule. He’s the only one you haven’t met, correct?”

               “Yes?”

               “And that’s what we’re waiting on?”

               Cloud laughed, understanding the urgency now.

               “Yeah,” Cloud paused, chewing as he thought. “Maybe he can help me do my next set. Do you think he would?”

               Sephiroth glanced up at him.

               “I can ask, but I’m sure he’d be delighted.”

               Cloud smiled and said, “Ask him for me, then.”

               “On it,” Zack said, already pulling out his own PHS.

               Cloud watched the two on their devices, bewildered, and not for the first time, that these two men were scrambling to arrange a night where they could fuck him. It would be his honor, really, and they were acting like it was the opposite. He just shook his head and continued eating his pancakes.

               The group chat between the four was going rampant in the meanwhile.

               Sephiroth: Angeal, I’m clearing your schedule for tomorrow.

               Angeal: I mean I won’t say no, but why?

               Genesis: Can you clear mine while you’re at it?

               Sephiroth: No. Angeal needs to meet Cloud. I’m relatively certain we’re all tired of waiting.

               Angeal: sure, no problem

               Angeal: why the rush, though?

               Sephiroth: Because Zack was right, and Cloud is a tease.

               Genesis: Dear, we all knew that.

               Sephiroth: It’s different when he’s in front of you.

               Zack: Geal, he wants to know if you’ll shoot a set for him while you’re here

               Angeal: he’s comfortable with that? when we’re first meeting?

               Zack: he’s the one that brought it up

               Genesis: Wait, are you both still there?

               Zack: yeah, why?

               Genesis: Get off your PHS’s! You both have terrible manners!

               Sephiroth: This is urgent.

               Genesis: It’s waiting until tomorrow anyway, it can wait a few more hours. Pay attention to Cloud.

               Angeal: tell him I’m happy to help, and put your PHS’s away before Gen finds a way to cast fire through them

               Genesis: Don’t tempt me, Angeal.

               Sephiroth and Zack put their PHS’s away almost in the same moment. If Cloud noticed, he chose not to comment.

               “So? Did he answer?”

               “Yeah,” Zack said. “Says he’s happy to help.”

               “Oh, good,” Cloud said, smiling just a little. “Which sets were his favorites? I want to pick something to wear for him.”

               “The SOLDIER set, but that was a unanimous favorite,” Zack started.

               “Anything with a collar or a harness,” Sephiroth added. “He likes you in leather.”

               “And the thigh-highs. He’s a sucker for those.”

               Cloud hummed in thought, leaning back in his chair. The other two continued to eat, leaving him to his contemplation, until he said, “Sephiroth, does he like your boots? The tall ones with your uniform.”

               “Quite a bit, actually.”

               Cloud grinned and said, “I’ve got one, then.”

               “Can we know what it is?” Zack asked, while he chewed again, earning another look from Sephiroth, which he ignored.

               “Nope,” Cloud said, popping the ‘p.’ “I want it to be a surprise.”

               “We’re very good at keeping secrets. We take frequent confidential missions,” Sephiroth added, in what might have been the most blatant attempt at wheedling that Cloud had ever seen.

               “I believe you, but I want it to be a surprise for you both too. Me saying it and you seeing it are two different things.”

               “You could put it on and show us,” Zack said, a little hopeful.

               “How about, I don’t show you, but we watch the video as a compromise?”

               Zack looked at Sephiroth. Sephiroth looked at Zack. They both put their forks down.

               Cloud smiled in a cheeky way that said he got his way and he knew it, before standing and leading them toward his bedroom. He could hear the chairs scrape the floor as they both stood to follow. He grabbed the camera from where it was still sitting on the dresser from the night before and picked up his stool, the one he usually put his laptop on for filming, and set it at the foot of the bed. It was quick to grab his laptop, and when Zack came in a few seconds behind Sephiroth, he had the camera’s cord in hand. Cloud thanked him quietly before hooking it up to his laptop, booting it up as he sat cross-legged on the bed, carefully maneuvering his robe so he didn’t accidentally flash anyone (much to their disappointment). Zack came and sat on his right and Sephiroth sat on his left. He didn’t see Sephiroth look at Zack in askance, glancing pointedly at Cloud. He also didn’t see Zack’s encouraging nod, or Sephiroth’s following look of hesitance.

               He did, however, feel when Sephiroth slid an arm around his waist, clearly unsure if the touch was allowed or would be appreciated. Cloud was surprised, but ready to encourage. He wanted this kind of contact, the kind of casual affection that let him know he was wanted for something outside the bedroom. He leaned back into Sephiroth, scooting backward to curl into his side.

               They were still watching his loading screen when Sephiroth muttered, “Can I hold you?”

               Cloud looked up at him, confused, and said, “You are holding me?”

               “Closer, I mean.”

               Cloud blinked in surprise, but the smile he gave was beatific.

               Sephiroth had to fight the urge to narrow his eyes at it. Zack was not always the most self-aware man. He was well-able to pull the wool over his own eyes, if he so chose, and though Sephiroth didn’t know it, he very much chose to do so with Cloud. Sephiroth was not so capable. He was painfully aware of the way his heart swelled at the sight of that smile, and what it likely meant.

               But it passed quickly. Perhaps it was a fluke. Nothing to worry about. Yet.

               Sephiroth shifted behind Cloud, sitting cross-legged himself, before lifting Cloud easily by the hips, which made him gasp.

               “Are you alright? Did I hurt you?” Sephiroth asked, still holding Cloud aloft. He was certain his touch had been gentle. He had been careful. Was it not enough?

               He could hear Cloud swallow hard.

               “No, just—Gaia, it’s hot you can just lift me like that,” Cloud said, his voice thick.

               Zack laughed, but there was enough heat in his eyes that Cloud could tell he was laughing with him, not at him.

               Sephiroth settled Cloud in his lap, wrapping his arms around his waist, Cloud sitting with his legs out in front of him this time, not needing to worry about the placement of his robe as much. Sephiroth found that he liked the way Cloud fit beneath his chin more than he should. None of his boyfriends were so small that they fit just right this way.

               The computer finally finished turning on, and Cloud reached forward, only to find it now out of his reach. Sephiroth shifted them forward, having no trouble negotiating their joint weight (which Cloud had to try very hard not to think about), until they were close enough Cloud could fuss with his computer, pulling up the correct folder.

               Cloud leaned back against him and quietly said, “Close your eyes.”

               Sephiroth was reluctant to listen, wanting to see the rest of the set, even if it was just the thumbnails. But he did as he was told, and it was only once he obeyed that he heard Cloud open the correct file.

               “Okay, open them.”

               Sephiroth opened his eyes, and didn’t notice the way his arms immediately tightened around Cloud’s waist at the sight of him sprawled, naked, against the bed they were sitting on. Cloud tapped the space bar, and the video began to play.

               Sephiroth watched with incredible interest as Cloud demonstrated how the vibrator worked. When Cloud handed the remote off to Zack, Zack glanced over to find that, yeah, Sephiroth’s pupils were blown wide again. He propped his elbow on his knee, his chin in his hand, and smiled as he watched the video he had helped film.

               The tinny quality of the speakers ruined Cloud’s initial cry of pleasure, but only some. They continued to watch as Zack toyed with the intensity, Cloud giving the camera a look so sultry it burned. Sephiroth’s breath hitched when he watched the remote land by Cloud’s hip, and when he started breathing again, it was just a hair quicker. By the time the Cloud in the video gave that one great sob of pleasure before the video cut out, Cloud in real life could feel Sephiroth hard against his ass. It took all of Cloud’s willpower not to grind back against it, but if he shifted a little in place and it had a similar effect, well, it wasn’t really intended that way.

               Sephiroth groaned in frustration and let his head fall to Cloud’s shoulder, his arms tight around his waist, pressing Cloud’s back firmly to his chest.

               “Did you like it?” Cloud said quietly, voice just a little too rough to be innocent.

               “I am filled with infinite regret that I said I wouldn’t go any further than kissing you,” Sephiroth said, lifting his face so his words wouldn’t be muffled.

               When Cloud shifted in his lap this time, it was a little more purposeful.

               “You could ask for permission.”

               Sephiroth glanced up at Zack, whose eyes were dark but grinned regardless.

               “I’m here to watch—you think I’m gonna say no? Go ahead and kiss him before he starts deliberately riling you up, I’ll ask the others.”

               As Zack pulled out his PHS, Sephiroth lifted Cloud again, spinning him in his lap. Cloud wrapped his legs around Sephiroth’s waist and, cupping his face, immediately kissed him, moaning his approval when he was met with the heat he had wanted from their first kiss.

               Zack: hey uh so

               Zack: Cloud showed Seph the video

               Zack: exactly how far is he allowed to go?

               Zack: his balls will be so blue shiva gets jealous if he has to wait to get home

               Genesis: While it would serve him right for watching it without us, I expect it was Cloud’s idea.

               Zack: yup

               Angeal: let’s try to save something for when he’s here, at least

               Angeal: what his hands and mouth do are up to him

               Genesis: I almost regret going down to visit when I did. If only I’d had that permission before I went.

               Angeal: you didn’t ask

               Genesis: In fairness, neither is Sephiroth. Zack is asking.

               Angeal: on his behalf

               Angeal: stop stalling to frustrate Seph on purpose

               Genesis: Oh alright. Yes, I agree. But put my vote in for Sephiroth using his mouth on his knees. He looks fantastic like that, Cloud deserves the sight.

               Zack only barely managed to choke back the laugh at the last message. Only Genesis would give his boyfriend instructions on how to fuck another man without even being there to see it. He had to fight back another laugh when he looked up to see Sephiroth working his own lovebite onto Cloud’s neck, opposite the one Zack had left the night before. Cloud had his hand clamped over his mouth in an attempt to be quiet.

               “You’ve got a green light,” Zack said. “Gen thinks you should give Cloud his favorite sight, Seph.”

               Sephiroth hummed thoughtfully, knowing exactly which sight that was, as he nipped Cloud’s neck a little harder than before. He felt Cloud’s hips jerk forward, brushing their hips together enough that he knew the blond was as hard as he was. Zack pulled Cloud’s hand away from his mouth as Sephiroth sucked the mark deeper into his skin. He reached between them, trailing his fingertips gently over Cloud’s length, naked as he was beneath the robe. When Cloud let out a high whine, Sephiroth sighed. He wouldn’t get tired of that sound any time soon.

               Sephiroth lifted Cloud, untangling them despite the noise of protest it earned, depositing Cloud on the edge of the bed. Zack shifted, coming to sit behind Cloud, his legs framing Cloud’s hips, his own hard-on pressed to the blond’s ass. Cloud ground his hips backwards, and Zack let his head fall back, cursing quietly.

               Cloud would never get over the idea that he was the one making Zack react like that.

               He didn’t have much time to think about it, though, as Sephiroth leaned over and kissed him, deep and claiming, his fingers deftly undoing the belt on the robe. He brushed the robe off Cloud’s shoulders, and Zack helped him remove it all the way, tossing it to the side. Sephiroth trailed his hands down Cloud’s chest, then down his thighs as he sank to his knees between his parted legs. Cloud’s breath hitched at the seemingly impossible sight, something he’d never even imagined. Zack’s hands reached down and spread his legs a little wider—not because there wasn’t room for Sephiroth already, but because he thought Sephiroth might like the view, and Cloud might like the idea even more. He was right about both.

               Zack’s hands slid up Cloud’s body to his nipples, which he circled lightly with his thumbs. He watched over Cloud’s shoulder as Sephiroth, while maintaining eye contact with Cloud, licked slowly up his length. He repeated the process over, and over, only really teasing, absolutely not enough. He dipped lower, laving his tongue over his balls and pulling one into his mouth, sucking lightly. The noise Cloud made was strangled, partially from the feeling, partially from the way Sephiroth was letting his cock rest on his face. He grabbed a hold of Zack’s knees, needing something to hang on to.

               Sephiroth pulled away with a wet pop, licking up the length one more time before sliding slowly down it, pulling the whole thing into his mouth and throat. Cloud whined louder with each inch he slid down, his head falling back against Zack’s shoulder when he bottomed out. He was torn between staying like that and looking back down, but finally chose the latter when Sephiroth began to move, because how often was he going to see this? Probably never again.

               No one would ever believe he had Sephiroth on his knees for him.

               And it was clearly not the first time he’d been in that position, as if Zack’s comment hadn’t made that clear enough. Sephiroth knew exactly what he was doing, playing Cloud’s body almost better than he did himself, and he had a lot of practice getting himself off. He didn’t protest, didn’t even lose his rhythm, when Cloud’s hips began to twitch upward. That was how Cloud knew Zack didn’t grab a hold of his hips and hold him still for Sephiroth’s sake, so much as to frustrate Cloud. He groaned his frustration, but Zack just laughed lowly in his ear.

               “Someday you’ll get to fuck his mouth, but for now, let him take care of you,” Zack whispered in his ear.

               The first half of that was blindingly hot in its own right, but the second was what got to him. Taking care of him. Exactly what Zack had done the night before. Gaia, he’d guessed that maybe the others would, but he hadn’t fully believed it. But, if the look in Sephiroth’s eyes when he looked up after those words said anything, that was exactly what he was trying to do. And that thought would ruin him.

               “I’m—I’m close,” Cloud choked out, his grip white knuckled on Zack’s knees. When Sephiroth wouldn’t pull of, he tried again. “Sephiroth, really, I’m—”

               “He likes to swallow. Will you let him?” Zack said.

               As if he had a choice, after a statement like that. Cloud came with a sharp cry that rose in pitch as Zack pinched his nipples, making everything that much more intense. Sephiroth drank him down without a word of protest, but with a lot of heat in his eyes as he watched Cloud’s face.

               He was about to pull off when Zack cheerfully added, “Cloud likes being overstimulated, y’know.”

               “Zack.”

               “What? You do.”

               “I—fuck!”

               Sephiroth hummed around him before sucking lightly on the head, dipping his tongue into the slit. He curled his tongue around it, pressed his tongue flat to it, let his teeth graze over it. By the time Sephiroth decided to have mercy, Cloud was a whimpering mess, held up only by Zack behind him. Zack shifted them backwards, scooting far enough that Sephiroth had room to climb onto the bed, fitting between Cloud’s legs, spreading them a little wider.

               “You taste as good as you look,” Sephiroth said, staring down at Cloud, who cursed quietly.

               “You can’t look that good and then do that to me and then say shit like that,” Cloud protested.

               Sephiroth smirked and said, “Why not? I think you might like it.”

               “I do like it, that’s the problem.”

               “Do you see a problem, Zack?”

               “Not at all, Seph.”

               Cloud groaned and let his forehead fall against Sephiroth’s shoulder.

               “You two are gonna kill me.”

               “At least you’ll have fun on the way out,” Zack said brightly.

               “You would be sorely missed,” Sephiroth said, face serious, but eyes glinting with amusement.

               “I’ll give you something to miss,” Cloud huffed, reaching between them to undo Sephiroth’s pants. He hummed his appreciation, tilting Cloud’s head back with two fingertips at his chin, before beginning to work a third mark onto his neck.

               “He’s gonna end up with a collar of those at this rate,” Zack commented.

               Cloud’s fingers fumbled for a second and he cursed quietly, but not so quietly that the SOLDIERs couldn’t hear it.

               Sephiroth licked up the side of his neck and hummed thoughtfully.

               “I don’t think he minds. Do you, Cloud?”

               And gods, the way he said it—like he was tasting his name, like he wanted to keep it on his tongue forever. It made Cloud shiver. It made him lose track of his words. He shook his head instead.

               Both SOLDIERs laughed, but Sephiroth quickly refocused on that third lovebite.

               When Cloud successfully withdrew him from his pants, he felt Zack’s hand come around his own.

               “Let me show you how he likes it,” he said quietly. He grabbed Cloud’s free hand and moved it to Sephiroth’s ponytail. “First, he likes having his hair pulled. Hard.” Cloud was a little hesitant, but when would he have another opportunity to pull Sephiroth’s famous hair? He yanked and felt him twitch in his hand, felt him groan into his neck. Cloud could hear the grin in Zack’s voice when he said, “Then, you…”

               Zack proceeded to guide him through stroking Sephiroth, all his sensitive spots, the way to twist his hand just right, exactly how hard he liked it. Once he taught him what he needed to know, Zack pulled his hand away, watching the two instead. He liked how Sephiroth looked, curled around Cloud like that. He looked almost protective, and Zack liked the idea that Sephiroth would want to protect Cloud as much as he did. He also wasn’t against the way the continued attention to his neck had Cloud squirming in his lap, grinding back against him in a way that may or may not have been intentional (it was).

               Sephiroth had managed to get a fourth mark onto Cloud’s neck before he had to pull away and breathe, “I’m close.”

               Cloud hummed his appreciation, saying, “I want you to come on me.”

               Sephiroth looked down at him sharply.

               Cloud tugged his hair in response.

               He hissed in a breath, but was not one to be distracted, saying, “Are you sure?”

               “What, you can swallow, but I can’t ask you to come on me?”

               “I don’t know if those compare.”

               “You’re right, swallowing is a bigger deal,” Cloud said, before reaching up and whispering in Sephiroth’s ear, “I want you both to mark me however you can. I want to be yours, even after you leave. I want to see myself covered in your cum so I can think about it again later, so I have something I like to think about when I work.”

               When Cloud pulled away, it was to see Sephiroth’s pupils blown so wide they were almost round.

               “Zack, move to let him lay back.”

               Zack, having heard every single part of that whisper, was quick to comply.

               Cloud released Sephiroth to lay back on the bed, stretching out, languid. Sephiroth knelt on the bed, straddling his hips, and took himself in hand. That is, until Zack came up behind him and knocked his hand away, determined to finish this himself. He used every trick he knew, bringing Sephiroth closer and closer, watching his body for every tell that he was nearly there. Then, at the final moment, he wrapped the ponytail around his hand and yanked hard, watching as Sephiroth spilled over Cloud’s chest. He looked toward Cloud, who was watching Sephiroth’s face with a hungry look in his eye.

               Zack was content to let it go. He had his fun with Cloud the night before. This was about Cloud and Sephiroth, and while he helped, the focus should remain on them. They were the ones that needed to see how they fit together (excellently, apparently), whereas Zack already knew how he fit with Cloud. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d watched two people go at it and then not come.

               But Cloud and Sephiroth both turned their eyes to Zack, and he knew that wasn’t going to happen.

               “It’s okay, guys, I’m good,” he protested, because he couldn’t not.

               “Zack,” Cloud said impatiently, “I felt how hard you are. I want you to come on me too.”

               “Cloud…”

               He clearly had no idea what it was like to be on the receiving end of that line.

               “Please?”

               He said it with the biggest, pleading eyes, as if he truly wanted nothing more. Zack knew, in that moment, that this was the universe’s revenge for every time he used the puppy eyes to get his way.

               “Do you know how hard you are to say no to?”

               Cloud just gave him a triumphant look as Sephiroth slipped away, zipping himself back up. He took Zack by the shoulders and guided him into the space he left, coming to stand behind him.

               “I’m going to enjoy spoiling him,” Sephiroth said, pressing a soft kiss beneath Zack’s ear, undoing his pants for him all the while.

               “I like the sound of that,” Cloud said, with a seemingly innocent smile that both Zack and Sephiroth knew to be a lie.

               Sephiroth began stroking Zack exactly how he knew he liked it. There were different tricks, depending on the goal. He knew how to tease Zack so he lasted so long he begged to come, he knew how to get him to last just long enough that he could get him off in another way, he knew how to get him off quick and hard. It was the last one he went with, and Zack knew immediately that he wasn’t messing around, reaching back to grab Sephiroth by the hip to steady himself. His eyes were hot as they raked over Cloud’s form over and over again, Cloud’s grin getting a little cheekier with each pass. He reached down and ran his hands up Zack’s thighs.

               “You look like a dream, Zack. You’re spoiling me, letting me see you like this. You’ll spoil me rotten when you come on me.”

               Zack leaned his weight back against Sephiroth, he breathing ragged. He offered a flash of a grin.

               “And here you said you couldn’t do dirty talk.”

               “You bring out the worst in me. Or is it the best? Do you like it when I talk that way?”

               “Zack loves that kind of talk,” Sephiroth added, his voice low and sultry. “You should hear the things Genesis says to him. He could get him to come with a word.”

               “Is that right?” Cloud said, mischief in his eyes. “I’ll have to have him teach me so I can be better. Though there is one thing I know you like. Isn’t that right, daddy?”

               “Fuck,” Zack choked, and that was it. He came hard, trails of it reaching up to Cloud’s collar bone.

               Cloud waited until he had both sets of eyes on him to look down at his chest and back up at them, looking immensely satisfied.

               “Can you two do me one last favor?”

               “Let me find you something to clean up with,” Zack said, still breathing hard.

               Cloud laughed and said, “No, not that.” When Zack paused and looked back at him, he said, “Can one of you take a picture? I want you to send it to Gen and Angeal.”

               Zack paused, and then laughed, immediately reaching for his PHS.

               “You are gonna get it from Gen for this, you know that?”

               “Depends on what I’m hearing. If it’s how much he wants to fuck me, then I certainly don’t mind.”

               Zack pulled up the camera function, shaking his head and still grinning as he moved back a step, lining up the shot. Cloud posed, propped up on his elbows, one knee bent up, the other leg dangling. He looked smug and satisfied and well-fucked.

               Genesis was going to be livid with jealousy.

               Zack lowered the PHS after the shutter noise went off twice, just in case the first photo came out poorly. He flicked over to the group chat.

               Zack: incoming

               He sent the photo, and then, just as he was pocketing it, he looked back to Cloud, who swiped two fingers through the mess on his chest before sucking his fingers clean. Zack and Sephiroth both stood stock still as they watched, until he pulled his fingers out of his mouth with a wet pop, when Zack made a dash for the tissue box and handed it to Cloud.

               “You are gonna get us all going again and then we’ll never leave.”

               “Oh darn,” Cloud drawled.

               “Dammit, Cloud.”

               “I second that sentiment,” Sephiroth chimed in, his eyes still focused on Cloud’s chest. Cloud seemed to notice, because he moved to run his fingers through the mess again.

               He almost managed, before Zack caught his wrist.

               “We both have work to do today, and we don’t have permission to actually fuck you, no matter how much you ask for it.”

               Cloud let his head fall back against the bed with a groan, his hand going limp in Zack’s grasp.

               “Fine. Can’t blame me for trying.”

               “Sephiroth’s right. You are a tease.”

               Cloud sat up and began wiping off his chest with a sigh at the waste of it. He would have loved to clean it all off his chest with his fingers and tongue, but apparently that was out of the question. Zack went about putting on the rest of his uniform, that had been scattered around the room, and packing up the camera

               “You’re only a tease if you’re not actually trying to get fucked.”

               “I disagree. Wholeheartedly,” Sephiroth said, watching Cloud clean himself as if he too thought it was a loss.

               “Seph’s right. You’re still a tease.”

               “No, being a tease would be sending you all dirty photos at all hours just to work you up.”

               “Remind me not to give him my PHS number,” Zack said to Sephiroth, who nodded in agreement.

               “I can send photos over the app, you know. I’m just polite and haven’t.”

               “… Why do I feel like there was a ‘yet’ implied at the end of that?”

               Cloud just smiled at them.

               He dropped the last tissue on the bed before hopping off of it and fetching his robe. He slipped it on, tying it off loosely so it hung mostly open, hiding very little.

               “Come on then, Mister Day Job, I’ll show you both out.”

               Zack let out a breath of relief. He hadn’t been convinced Cloud wasn’t going to try and keep them, and he knew he didn’t have that much will power.

               Cloud led them back down the hall to the front door where he stopped before opening it. He walked with confidence, as much as he had been lacking when Sephiroth first arrived. Zack thought it was a shame, that they had to build him up this way, that they seemed to start from square one every time, but it was worth the effort, for that dazzling smile he gave them when he turned back to face them.

               “Can I kiss you before you leave?”

               Zack looked at Sephiroth, who gestured with his hand.

               Zack stepped forward and took Cloud’s face between his hands, kissing him loudly until Cloud broke away with a laugh.

               “Zack,” he said, but the reprimand was light.

               Zack smiled, its edges going soft, and then leaned down to kiss Cloud properly. It was slow and tender and made Cloud think of the night before. It made him remember being taken care of. The memory was as sweet as the kiss. Zack pulled away, pressed one final, quick kiss to his lips, and then stepped aside.

               Cloud turned to Sephiroth, who stepped up toward him. He settled his hands low on Cloud’s hips, and Cloud stood on his toes to wrap his arms around Sephiroth’s neck. He pulled him down just a little to kiss him, and he was surprised to find it as gentle as Zack’s. It made him remember that Sephiroth had wanted to take care of him as well. He had to fight down the shiver that wanted to run down his spine at the thought.

               Sephiroth pulled away, but kept one hand on Cloud’s hips. He pressed his fingertips to Cloud’s throat, ghosting over the red marks he had left.

               “Send me a picture when they’re dark?” he asked, looking from the marks up to Cloud’s eyes.

               “Be careful what you wish for,” Cloud said, a hum in his tone.

               “You’re gonna regret that one, Seph,” Zack said, amusement thick in his voice. “But you better share.”

               “I thought I was going to regret it?”

               “Misery loves company and all that. Can’t let you suffer alone.”

               Cloud snorted but lowered his arms, letting one hand brush Sephiroth’s shoulder.

               “Alright, you two, go before I find a way to make you stay,” Cloud said, a heavy look in his eyes that said he meant his threat.

               Zack grabbed Sephiroth by the elbow and said, “I think he’s serious. Come on, or you never get to complain about me not doing my paperwork again.”

               Sephiroth paused, like he was still considering it regardless, but sighed.

               “Alright. We’ll hear from you soon?”

               Cloud smiled brilliantly and said, “Just you try and stop me.”

               He opened the door, and the SOLDIERs stepped into the hallway, looking supremely reluctant as they did so. Cloud leaned against the frame with his shoulder, arms crossed over his chest. When Zack looked over his shoulder, Sephiroth caught the motion and did the same. Cloud grinned at them and waved. Sephiroth raised a hand in his own gesture, and Zack blew a kiss. Cloud laughed one last time before going back into his apartment and shutting the door behind him.

               He leaned back against the door and sighed happily.

               He was a lucky son of a bitch.

               He was even luckier to not be in the group chat. When Zack checked it on the train up, he nudged Sephiroth, showing him the messages.

               Angeal: holy shit

               Genesis: I don’t know if I want to strangle all of them or fuck each one myself.

               Genesis: Probably both. If only we knew if Cloud was into that.

               Angeal: he’s got four hickeys and cum all over his chest

               Angeal: I think you’ve got a fair shot

               Genesis: Good. Because that boy will feel me for a week after I am done with him.

               Angeal: he’s a civilian, Gen, you have to be careful with him

               Genesis: I understand the concept of restraint, Angeal. I still intend to fuck him as hard as I can without injuring him, for as long as he can take it. Twice, if he’ll let me.

               Angeal: he’s going to end up exhausted as it is, don’t be greedy

               Genesis: I will if he intends to send photos like that one. We’ll give him a potion or something, it ought to give him more energy.

               Angeal: you can’t keep him going indefinitely by misusing potions

               Genesis: I can certainly try.

               Zack looked up at Sephiroth, who looked back at him.

               “I told him he was gonna get it.”

Chapter Text

               Sephiroth sent him off with a very strict warning, one that Zack agreed with, even if he hadn’t thought to give it himself, and didn’t fully believe would be necessary with Angeal, but was more so needed when Genesis announced he would be tagging along.

               “Be careful with him. He’s not the same in person. Especially with both of you there, you will need to convince him that he’s wanted for more than his body. He will come to you with heat and try to get you to follow his lead. Don’t do it. Show him that you care first, or you’ll break his trust, and he won’t even think to tell you that you have.”

               “He’s not so fragile,” Genesis had said, a scoff in his voice. Angeal knew it was largely because he couldn’t take what amounted to marching orders from Sephiroth without some form of protest.

               “Fragile, no. But he is being vulnerable with us. He’s never let anyone as close as he’s allowing us to be. For the most part, people approach him out of lust. It’s all he expects. I think it confuses him that we are interested in him as a person and not just his body. I think he struggles to wrap his head around the concept. Even if you’ve met him before, Genesis, you’ve barely touched him. If you handle this wrong, you risk being lumped in with his clients, if you make him think your motives are the same.”

               Genesis sniffed derisively, folding his arms and saying, “I think I’ve made it clear that I care. I don’t see why he would make those assumptions.”

               “That’s why he’s allowing you this chance. Don’t spoil it by being too stubborn to give him the care he deserves.”

               Genesis looked at Sephiroth, and then sighed, conceding the point with a wave of his hand.

               But both he and Angeal thought about that warning the whole way down to the slums. Genesis was struggling to see it. Cloud had been hesitant at first, but it seemed more like shame about his apartment and being flustered at his sudden arrival. He’d recovered quickly, and they had a pleasant afternoon that only went as far as it did because Cloud was the instigator. It was hard to reconcile that with what Sephiroth had told him, but he supposed that, at the time, nothing sexual had been an option for them. Cloud couldn’t be concerned that Genesis was only there for his body because his body wasn’t available at the time. That was different, now. He’d rather err on the side of caution than risk giving Cloud the wrong impression.

               Angeal, honestly, wasn’t very surprised. One of the first things Genesis had told them was that his self-esteem was lacking. Another was that he thought all he was good for was his work. It followed that he would think that anyone interested would want to bed him and nothing more. He’d had every intention of taking it slow, even before Sephiroth warned them. He had never been very interested in quick and dirty fucks with no meaning to them. He liked to sleep with people he was close to, even if that closeness was platonic. He’d always had every intention of making sure that Cloud knew that, that he was attracted to him because he was Cloud, not because he was pretty.

               Because they were busy thinking in circles, neither spoke much on the ride down, or the walk over to Cloud’s apartment. They did both wonder how Cloud would answer the door—they’d heard all about the dress and the robe at this point. It kept them in suspense as they waited after knocking.

               “Coming!” they heard Cloud call from inside the apartment. Their SOLDIER hearing picked up the quiet, “shit,” that followed, as well as the sound of him stumbling.

               Angeal glanced over to see Genesis looking a little fond as he shook his head.

               When he opened the door, Cloud was wearing jeans and a simple blue t-shirt that was tucked neatly into his pants. It brought out his eyes perfectly. Neither was sure if they were disappointed or relieved that he wasn’t scantily clad, considering that would make it much harder to follow through on Sephiroth’s orders.

               Cloud’s mouth did drop into a little “o” of surprise when he saw there were two people instead of one at his door.

               “Genesis? What are you doing here?”

               “Creative direction, my dear.”

               “He means he’s nosy and was starting to feel left out.”

               “Hardly.”

               Cloud huffed a laugh, but stepped aside to let them through. The SOLDIERs entered the apartment and Angeal looked around much the way Genesis had on his first visit.

               “You’re right, Gen, this is much nicer than what we had.”

               “I told him as much. I don’t think he appreciates it enough.”

               “I appreciate it plenty,” Cloud interjected. “I’ve seen some of the shitholes down here. Do either of you want anything? Water?”

               “No, thank you,” Genesis said.

               “No, but that’s very kind,” Angeal said, turning back to Cloud with a smile.

               Cloud looked a little flustered at the comment and said, “Just good manners.”

               Genesis hummed in acknowledgement before changing the topic, saying, “Do you need help picking an outfit again, or did you have one in mind?”

               Cloud looked between the two and smiled. This was easy, in a way. This, he knew how to handle. He was glad, now, that he had asked for his first meeting with Angeal to be doing a set. There was a tone for the meeting, this way. He was standing on familiar ground. It was easy to flirt, to tease, to give Angeal The Eyes. He had plenty of practice doing that. When Sephiroth had visited, it had been unexpected and entirely without a planned, underlying sexual current. Things had led there, yes, but that hadn’t been where they started. They started in a place of friendship, complicated by what had happened the night before, tangled with implications of what they had planned down the road. That had been fraught. This was simple. He knew who to be, for this. He knew what was expected, and what was appropriate. This, he could deliver.

               “I put one together for Angeal. Zack and Sephiroth told me some of your favorites.”

               Watching Angeal’s eyes grow dark made Cloud’s smile a little wider, a little cheekier.

               “Oh? And what did they tell you?”

               “I’m not going to ruin the surprise,” Cloud said, grin growing larger still.

               Angeal sighed and looked at Genesis.

               “They were right,” he proclaimed.

               “About?” Genesis asked.

               “He is a tease.”

               Genesis rolled his eyes and said, “And I keep telling you all, we already knew that.”

               They both looked at Cloud, who just shrugged, saying, “I’m not going to apologize. I am going to go change, though. You’re welcome to the couch.”

               “What, no show?” Genesis drawled.

               Cloud smiled innocently and said, “And ruin the surprise? Never.”

               He disappeared back into the bedroom as Genesis and Angeal sat themselves on the couch, Angeal taking the camera out and putting it together carefully.

               “He’s more confident than I was expecting,” Genesis said, a few moments after he heard the bedroom door shut, sure Cloud wouldn’t hear him.

               “We haven’t done anything yet. It’s early still.”

               “You have a point,” Genesis said with a sigh.

               In the bedroom, Cloud was pulling on the outfit he’d set out on his bed and giving himself a careful pep talk. He very deliberately put aside the memories of Zack and Sephiroth, and how they had taken care of him, and his faint hopes that maybe Genesis and Angeal would as well. It was unfair to expect that of them. This was business, at the moment, nothing more personal than one of his video calls. He had no right to expect anything to happen after they were done the set, either. If they got as wound up as their boyfriends from watching him work, then there was a fair shot, but he couldn’t go into it thinking that would happen. He absolutely could not go into it thinking that they would not only want to have him after, but that they would treat him with the same care their boyfriends had. Like Sephiroth had said, they were different people. There were no guarantees, and if Cloud let himself get his hopes up, he’d be crushed when they were dashed.

               No, it was better to stick firmly to what he knew. Business. Work. If something happened after, and that was a big if, it was just sex. It didn’t have to mean anything. Like dozens of men had told him before, he was a pretty face, a hot piece of ass—he’d do. He shouldn’t expect their interest to extend beyond that.

               But he couldn’t help thinking about it. He almost wished that they weren’t friends, for this, despite the fact that he never would have let them this close if they weren’t. If they weren’t friends, he’d know exactly what they wanted from him. Their friendship complicated things.

               Maybe it didn’t. Maybe those things were entirely separate. Maybe they wanted to talk to him, be friends, but that was only outside the bedroom. Maybe when they were in it, they’d only have a singular interest. Maybe the two things could be entirely divorced.

               Cloud let out a slow breath.

                That had to be it. That left him knowing where he stood. He could keep things separate—he could. He would. Business in the bedroom. Friendship outside of it. He was allowing them actually into his bedroom in the first place because of the latter, but that made the prior okay. He didn’t think he could stomach sleeping with someone who had absolutely no outside interest in him, but he could handle a separation of interests. That made sense. Even famous SOLDIERs wanted friends. Even famous SOLDIERs had libidos. Feelings didn’t have to be involved. Even platonic feelings probably weren’t wanted anyway.

               Cloud looked in the mirror, tugging his clothes straight.

               He could do this. He wasn’t being caught off guard, early in the morning after a disarming night, where he was weak and a little too open, where Sephiroth had been able to easily see his insecurities, if his reactions had been any sign. He was ready, this time. He wasn’t going to burden them with his nerves, or slow things with his hesitance. He was going to go out there and be confident, and charming, and make them want him. He was good at that. Simple thing, really. Something he had more than enough practice with.

               Cloud nodded firmly to his reflection and then left his bedroom.

               He walked down the hall to where the others were sitting, listening to them talk quietly about troop movements.

               Don’t think about the life they have together, outside of this, and that they don’t need you for it. You’ll lose your nerve, and you can’t afford to turn around and hide in your bedroom.

               Cloud stepped around the corner and came to a stop, resting his weight on one hip, his hand propped on it. He raised an eyebrow and gave them a flirty smile as they turned to look, falling silent.

               Something in him unwound as he watched their eyes go dark.

               See? This is what they want you for. You were right. You know how to handle this. You can do it.

               Cloud was wearing a leather biker’s jacket, zipped all the way up his neck, covering his torso and arms entirely. He had on matching, very small, very tight leather shorts and thigh high leather boots that ended up leaving very little of his skin exposed. The whole outfit was black, and played on every interest Cloud knew Angeal had, short of wearing the SOLDIER uniform.

               Genesis whistled lowly.

               Angeal got off the couch and approached slowly, Cloud’s smile growing with every step he took. When he reached him, the smile was all false innocence.

               “Do you like it?” Cloud said in his sweetest voice.

               “Very much,” he said, eyes doing another pass over his form. “I like it more that it’s for me.”

               “I wanted something special to meet you in.”

               “It would be special regardless, because you thought of me.”

               Cloud faltered. That sounded too much like sentiment. He still had the heated look in his eyes, but the words coming out of his mouth didn’t match.

               He was reading too much into it. Had to be. A lot of men liked the idea that he did something in his work for them. It was why clients liked it so much when he let them pick a nickname for video calls.

               This was still in safe territory.

               Cloud recovered quickly, but not quick enough that Angeal didn’t see the flicker of hesitation.

               Angeal’s hand came up, curving around Cloud’s cheek, his thumb brushing over the cheekbone.

               Cloud faltered again. The gesture was sweet in a way that distinctly didn’t match the rules he’d built in his head.

               Maybe it was just some strange form of foreplay. Touching innocent places as a beginning. Sure. That sounded plausible.

               He got his footing again, just as quickly, but if Angeal hadn’t been sure about the hesitance the first time, he sure was now.

               Angeal slid his hand down, curling it around the back of Cloud’s neck, and dipped his head to put his mouth at Cloud’s ear.

               “I like that you thought of me, but I don’t want to be work to you, Cloud.”

               Cloud went still beneath his hand.

               Angeal pulled back to look down at him and saw how lost he looked before he miraculously managed to recover a third time. The smile he gave was so easy, Angeal almost believed it.

               “Of course you’re not work,” Cloud said before letting his look turn sultry. “I intend to take you much further than I go for work.”

               It didn’t have the intended effect. Angeal’s expression softened in a way that left Cloud sure he’d said the wrong thing, though he couldn’t imagine how. This was what they expected, had to be. Friendship in their off time, but a fuck when it came down to the kind of look Angeal had given him. Separate. Completely unrelated.

               The look Angeal was giving him now almost made him question that, but he didn’t quite dare to, a little afraid of where that would leave him.

               There was a long moment where no one said anything before Angeal rallied and tried again.

               “Cloud, you know that you’re very good at your work, right?”

               Cloud relaxed. He’d been reading too much into things again.

               “Thank you,” he said with a smile that looked light and breezy in a way he did not feel.

               “And you know we all respect what you do, yes?”

               Cloud nodded and said, “You’ve shown that from the start.”

               “Then what does it take to show you that this isn’t about work?”

               Cloud’s brow furrowed.

               “I don’t understand. I know this isn’t work. Like I said, I don’t go that far for work.”

               “Then why are you performing for us like you do for the camera?”

               Because I thought that’s what you wanted.

               It was on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t say it. It wasn’t what Angeal wanted to hear.

               But the sudden uncertainty, the confusion on his face said it loud enough for him.

               Angeal’s heart leapt into his throat. He hadn’t wanted to be right. He hadn’t wanted Sephiroth to be right. But he should have expected it. He always was.

               “Cloud,” Angeal said, dipping his head to press his forehead to Cloud’s. “You look incredibly hot in your sets, but that isn’t who I’m attracted to. That’s not the man I want to bring to my bed. That’s not the man I trust with the loves of my life. I want you, Cloud, not the act you put on to meet other’s expectations.”

               Cloud’s hands came up and slowly fisted in the front of Angeal’s shirt. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to push him away or draw him closer, so instead he just hung on for dear life.

               “I—I don’t know what I’m doing. With any of you,” Cloud admitted in a whisper. “I keep trying, but I can’t figure out what you want from me. I want to give it to you, but I don’t know what it is.”

               Cloud started when Genesis set a hand on his shoulder. He hadn’t realized the man had gotten so close, or that he’d even stood up. When he looked up at him, Genesis’s expression was gentle in a way he hadn’t seen it before.

               “That’s the thing, Cloud. We don’t want anything from you.”

               The furrow in Cloud’s brow deepened. Angeal’s hand slipped around his waist, and Genesis brushed the hair from his eyes.

               “What do you want, then?”

               “We want to give to you.”

               Zack’s words from the day before rang in his ears, “Let him take care of you.”

               Cloud’s heart ached sharply.

               “Why?” he just barely managed to choke out.

               “Because you deserve it,” Genesis said simply. “I don’t know who ever taught you otherwise, but I would hurt them for it, if I could.”

               Cloud ducked his head. It hadn’t been any one person. It’d been a town of people who outcasted him, who hit him when they called him pretty. It had been every heckler and catcaller, every person that leered or reached out to touch without asking and forced him to rebuff them with violence. It had been every drunken flirt, every lewd comment, every one of a thousand things that made him feel violated and then taught him to expect it. That this was what he was good for. This is what people would want from him. Sex, and nothing more. And if he wouldn’t give that up, they’d just take with their eyes anyway, so might as well charge them for the privilege. Might as well learn to own it, to make it his own, to make it his weapon and his mask so it couldn’t hurt him anymore. Reclaim his sexuality, so no one could use it against him, ever again.

               Until he got so wrapped up in it, held it so tight to him, wrapped himself in it like armor that he just couldn’t figure out how to put it down when it wasn’t needed anymore.

               He didn’t know what to say. The words just wouldn’t come. None of them would ever understand that they were offering him more than he ever would have dared to ask for. Than he would have even thought to ask for. It seemed like something out of place, like something the world as he knew it would never allow, that he might have what they were offering.

               It was a good thing they were only offering sex and friendship, not a place among them. He’d be entirely helpless if they did that. There would be no words to describe how lost it would leave him.

               There was a lot of that, the feeling that he had no words left. So instead, he didn’t say anything at all. He reached up with a gentle hand to touch Genesis’s cheek, who leaned down and met him half way, so Cloud could kiss him. It wasn’t fiery, or demanding, which was how he’d approached his first kisses with Zack and Sephiroth. It was soft and warm, more to convey a message he didn’t have words for than to stoke any fires. Their lips didn’t even move, just pressed together before they drew away, Genesis looking at Cloud with a softness in his eyes that the blond never would have expected.

               He couldn’t dwell on that, though, because Genesis wasn’t the only one who had made an impossible point. He slipped his hand down Genesis’s jaw and then cupped Angeal’s, who also leaned down readily. The kiss they shared was just as simple, just as gentle.

               When they pulled away, Cloud looked between them with doe eyes, the smallest smile on his lips—small only because he wasn’t forcing it, and it didn’t need to be any larger to get its point across.

               “There you are,” Genesis said quietly, carding his fingers through Cloud’s hair. “I was wondering when we’d see an expression you meant.”

               Cloud flinched, saying, “Sorry, I just—”

               “No, no, I’m sorry, that didn’t come out how I meant it. I wanted you to know I enjoy seeing you true to yourself. I like that you trust us enough to let us see you.”

               Cloud frowned.

               “I’m not always acting.”

               “You’re not,” Angeal agreed. “It just takes you time to open up. Sephiroth was like that, at first. It was almost a year before we got a real smile out of him.”

               Cloud blinked, and relaxed a little further. It hadn’t occurred to him that someone so confident, so sure of himself might hide himself away like Cloud did.

               “He smiled yesterday,” Cloud said, just a hair of confusion in his tone.

               “He’s in the practice of it now, and you’re easy to smile for,” Genesis said, his tone flippant, as if the compliment was obvious.

               Cloud looked between them, surprised, and, proving Genesis’s point, Angeal smiled. Cloud huffed, turning indignant because he was lost as to what else to do with that comment.

               “Alright, you’ve both made your point. We ought to get on with this, or we’ll be here all night.”

               They started to move away, but Cloud grabbed them both by the front of their shirts. When they looked back, he cleared his throat, but was pink in the face. Gaia, this was easier when it was just about fucking.

               “I need someone to kiss me first.”

               Genesis raised an eyebrow, but Angeal wasn’t one to protest just for the sake of it, and leaned down to kiss him. It was quick and chaste and simple and not at all what Cloud had meant. He laughed as Angeal pulled away. He didn’t notice the way they both went still, watching his laughter closely; he hadn’t done that yet tonight.

               “Not like that,” Cloud said. “I have to—well, I have to be hard, to do this. I need you to work me up a little.”

               “Oh no,” Genesis drawled. “What a hardship.”

               He slipped behind Cloud, trailing his hand over his waist. Angeal’s hands slid down to frame his hips as he stepped closer. Cloud felt his breath hitch at their sudden proximity.

               Angeal leaned down to kiss him, and it started off as sweet as the last. He eased Cloud gently into the heat, slowly taking the kiss deeper and deeper until Cloud had his hands fisted in his shirt again, trying to tug him closer still. Genesis was running his hands up and down Cloud’s sides, watching them kiss until he was sure Cloud was thoroughly distracted, which was when he dipped his head to press an open-mouthed kiss to what little skin peeked out over the collar of his jacket. His hand slid over Angeal’s, squeezing it briefly, before coming to rest between Cloud’s legs. After so long with Sephiroth, he was well aware that it took more than a gentle touch to be felt through leather, so his fingers were firm when they cupped him. He did his best to work Cloud through the leather—he didn’t want to ruin the surprise of what was underneath, not when Cloud went through all the work to wrap himself up like a present. He whined into the kiss, and it wasn’t long before Genesis felt him start to fill out in his hand.

               “That’s it,” Genesis praised in Cloud’s ear. “That’s right. You’re doing so well.”

               He felt Cloud’s hips jerk forward, saw the way he broke away from Angeal just long enough to whisper, “Fuck,” against his mouth before kissing him again.

               “Did you like that?” Genesis said, a hum in his voice. He slid his fingers down Cloud’s length, hard enough now that they should probably stop, but Genesis for one was enjoying himself. “Should I tell you how good you are? How perfect you’re being for us?”

               Cloud whined, the sound low and ragged in his throat. He pulled away again with a gasp.

               “Gaia, okay, enough, I’m ready, I’m good.”

               “Very good, in fact,” Genesis said, nipping at his ear. Both SOLDIERs could feel the way he shivered.

               “Gen, if we don’t quit, the set will never get done.”

               Genesis slid his palm against Cloud very deliberately.

               “It could wait.”

               Angeal laughed, though the sound came out a little rough.

               “Gen, the sooner we do this, the sooner we get him out of the outfit.”

               Genesis gave a very put upon sigh but stepped back, Angeal mirroring him. Cloud sighed and then nodded toward the bedroom. He waited for Angeal to pick the camera back up before leading them back there.

               Genesis perched himself on Cloud’s stool off to one side, watching as Cloud watched Angeal, who went about taking test shots and checking lighting.

               When he was finally finished, he nodded, and told Cloud, “Whenever you’re ready.”

               Cloud started with a simple pose, his hands in the pockets of the jacket, his stance wide. The only thing racy about it was the clear line of his hard-on. Then he eased the zipper down to his sternum, not truly deep enough to be provocative, but enough that it showed the collar he had hidden beneath the jacket and the hint of a strap across his chest. He buried the fingers of one hand into the top of his boot and the other tugged his neckline just barely askew.  He undid the jacket so it hung open, revealing a harness that hugged his collarbone and ribs, then turned to face sideways, arranging the jacket so it revealed his chest without hiding the curve of his ass. Then the jacket was off entirely, tossed aimlessly to the side, and Cloud propped one boot on the edge of his bed, leaning his weight forward on it just enough, arranging his arms just right to draw the eye down to the tent in his shorts. After that shot, he lowered the zipper, revealing black lace, not fighting back his sigh of relief at being less constrained (Genesis did not hide the interest in his eyes at the sound). He wiggled the shorts a little lower on his hips and sank to his knees in front of the bed, leaning back against it and pushing his hips forward, threading his fingers into the harness. Then off came the boots and Cloud looked away from the camera.

               The room had been silent save Cloud’s heavy breathing the entire time. Angeal, despite the way he was clearly still hard when Cloud stole glances to check, was the picture of professionalism. He was entirely focused, concerned with his angles, with catching the light right, moving around and crouching down  and at one point holding the camera above his head to get the shot he wanted. As far as he was concerned, promises of anything else could wait. Cloud was trusting him with his livelihood, and he wanted to do his part as best he could. If the shots came out poorly, it would be on him—Cloud always excelled in his part. He had enough training to know how to put aside something unimportant (like how hard he was) to get done what mattered.

               Genesis, for all that he claimed to be there for “creative direction,” did not say a word. He watched with hungry eyes, liking watching Cloud work. The shots were excellent, of course, but he enjoyed the in between more. He liked watching the sultry look fall to an almost endearing look of concentration as he prepared himself for the next shot, figuring out what he wanted to do next. He clearly didn’t mind watching the slow reveal of Cloud’s skin, either. There was something almost magical about watching the motion of the reveal that was missing when you flipped from one image to the next. He certainly hadn’t minded that little sigh Cloud had given either. That was a sound he wanted to hear more of. He’d heard plenty of sounds out of the blond in the past, but never in person. It did something different to him, to know he was one of the privileged few to hear those sounds without the distortion of speakers.

               When Cloud finished kicking his boots to the side, he crossed to his closet, and began digging around in a drawer.

               “Genesis? Would you be able to help for this part?”

               “I won’t be able to be in any shots, dearest.”

               “No, I know,” Cloud said, standing from the drawer with something leather in his hands. “I wouldn’t want you to—it’d be a nightmare for you, and I think Shinra might kill me for sullying your reputation.”

               “What do you need help with, then?”

               Cloud approached him and took his hand, tugging him off the stool. He led him over to the bed, standing him next to Angeal. Without breaking eye contact, he unraveled what was in his hands, clipping what was apparently a black leash to his collar, and handing Genesis the end of it.

               The way he took a hold of it was almost reverential.

               “Cloud.”

               He smiled, coyly, fluttering his eyelashes.

               “I could tie it to the bedpost , but I like the idea of you holding it.”

               He still refused to break eye contact as he ever so slowly slid the leather shorts down his legs, before kicking them to the side.

               Cloud got on his knees again, his hands primly on his lap this time, his posture immaculate, looking perfectly obedient, like he was awaiting a command.

               Angeal took the photo, but Cloud shook his head.

               “Pull me, Genesis.”

               He watched the heat flare in Genesis’s eyes as he took him at his word, yanking him forward by his throat. He held his pose, but the leash was taut and making him lean forward just a hair, tugging his collar out of place enough to reveal the four, deep purple bruises Cloud had sent Sephiroth a picture of that morning.

               Angeal took a moment longer than he should have to actually take the shot, entirely distracted by the picture Cloud made.

               Cloud stood slowly, pulling the lace underwear down as he did so. He stepped out of it carefully and walked forward, to Angeal this time. He smiled innocently and kissed his cheek, all while slipping the panties into the pocket of his uniform.

               “A thank you for your help.”

               “Where’s my thanks?” Genesis asked.

               Cloud hummed and stepped back, climbing onto his bed, Genesis letting the leash go slack just enough to allow it.

               “Let me know when you’re done editing, and I’ll send you a present. One for each set.”

               “I’ll hold you to that.”

               “I hope so.”

               Genesis had something on the tip of his tongue, he still wasn’t sure what, but it dried up and blew away as Cloud shifted to his hands and knees, his cock hanging heavy between his legs, his back arched just enough to pop his ass out. Genesis didn’t need to be told to pull the leash this time. If Cloud gasped a little at the sharp tug on his collar, no one seemed to mind.

               Angeal took the shot, and Cloud relaxed, his back curving just a little more with the motion.

               “I think that’s it,” Cloud said, though he didn’t move from his position. Angeal lowered the camera, both SOLDIERs now just looking at him appreciatively. After a moment, Cloud sank to his elbows, still looking up at them but now allowing a perfect view of his ass.

               “No,” Genesis said sharply, pulling the leash enough that Cloud was forced to clamber off the bed, laughing. “Enough teasing, minx. Do the video so we can get on with it.”

               Cloud, still laughing, unclipped the leash and took it from Genesis’s hands, going to his closet to find an appropriate toy and put the leash away.

               “What, finally going to follow through on those threats Zack warned me about? What was it you said? You’re going to make me ‘feel you for a week?’”

               “Cloud, don’t antagonize him,” Angeal said, but there was a laugh in his tone that made Cloud look over his shoulder with a smile.

               “Why? He’s the one making apparently idle threats.”

               “They are hardly idle, my dear. I intend to follow through thoroughly when you’re in our bed.”

               Cloud sighed, standing with his hands full and walking back to the bed before hopping onto it.

               “This is another hands-and-mouths only night, isn’t it?”

               “Don’t underestimate what we can do with that much, Cloud,” Genesis warned.

               Cloud tugged on his collar, pulling it a little more askew to show the bruises, and said, “Now that better be a threat you’re actually going to follow through with tonight.”

               “If he doesn’t, I will,” Angeal promised, watching closely as Cloud arranged himself back against the pillows, fumbling in a drawer on his nightstand for lube before slicking what they guessed to be a vibrator.

               “Alright, I’m ready. Give me a countdown?”

               Angeal obliged, and when the count hit one, Cloud’s bedroom eyes came alive in an instant. He flicked the vibrator on, demonstrating how it buzzed. He slowly turned it up higher and higher until it was surprisingly loud, shaking visibly in his hand. Cloud spread his legs and pushed the vibrator, still going all the while, slowly inside him with a long, steady groan. His head tilted back, and he fumbled blindly for something else he had set on the bed. Angeal and Genesis weren’t quite sure what it was until he finished putting it in place and set his hand on the covers again, revealing a snug cock ring.

               The vibrator was going hard enough that it was still loud enough for the camera to pick up, and the SOLDIERs knew from the way Cloud was twitching, giving sharp little jerks, whining loudly that it was too much. He would have come in a minute flat if it wasn’t for the ring making it impossible. It wasn’t long at all before he was leaking against his stomach, and he chose to do what neither Genesis nor Angeal would have done in his situation. He collected the precum with his fingertips and began to slowly but surely jerk himself off. Every pull brought a gasp or a whimper or a moan, and fine tremors began to spread through his body.

               Genesis wasn’t sure if Cloud actually liked orgasm denial, or if this was just a show he put on because the audience liked watching him writhe. He was sure he wanted to find out the answer for himself.

               It went on so long that either SOLDIER would have intervened, had the camera not been there. As it was, they couldn’t take the ring off without entering the shot or turning the camera off, and that would ruin the video, making everything Cloud had done so far useless. They couldn’t take it off themselves or even ask him to do it himself without spoiling things. It was only the knowledge that they would have to start all over again with the video and he would have to wait longer in the end that stopped Genesis—he had never been a patient man.

               Eventually, it became so much he keened, back arching as he squirmed. He finally tore the ring off, tossing it to the side without caring where it went. It took only two quick pumps of his hand before he came with a shout, a surprising amount shooting up his chest. He turned the vibrator off and let his head fall back against the headboard, panting raggedly. After a long moment, he lifted his head to give the camera a look that came across much like a sated cat. He smiled slowly and tilted his head before running a hand up his chest, smearing the mess across his skin. Then the sultry look disappeared and he nodded to Angeal, who breathed a quiet thank you to the gods as he stopped the recording, turned the camera off, and set it on the dresser. When he turned back, Genesis was already at the bedside, grabbing Cloud’s sullied hand and licking across the palm. Cloud’s eyes had turned dark again by the time Angeal reached the other side of his bed. Genesis pressed one knee into the mattress, but Angeal pulled himself onto it, slipping between Cloud’s legs, which parted easily for him. He leaned down and began slowly, carefully licking his chest clean.

               Cloud hadn’t been intending on this kind of attention when he’d smeared the cum over his chest. He’d just thought that his audience would like it. The one time his angle had been odd and he’d managed to shoot some onto his own cheek, the response had been tremendous. People liked seeing him filthy and painted in white. If there was a way for him to get it on his face and in his hair the way that really required someone else’s help and get a shot of that into a set? It wasn’t possible to sell out of digital copies of images, but he thought his buyers might find a way.

               That being said, when Angeal and Genesis swooped down on him, it should have been overwhelming. There was heavy tension in the atmosphere and heavier looks in their eyes, but when he tried to reach out to them, his was gently but carefully pushed away. There was fire in the air that he could almost see, but they were going so slowly, moving so carefully. The touches they pressed to his skin were gentle, Genesis sliding his hand down Cloud’s arm and cupping his hand softly, Angeal using the hand that wasn’t supporting himself to rub little circles into Cloud’s hip. They seemed to be interested in nothing more than lavishing him with attention in that moment. All they required of him was that he let them.

               And that was strangely difficult. Despite Zack and Sephiroth’s attempts, he still wasn’t accustomed to attention this soft. He was still unsure of what to do with tenderness. When he was clean and the SOLDIERs looked up toward him, Cloud was looking between them with eyes full of wonder, like he’d been given a gift.

               How in the hell did they manage to make cleaning cum off of him mean something?

               Angeal ran his palm up Cloud’s chest, the motion a little possessive, enough to make Cloud shiver. It was enough to startle him out of his trance.

               He put a pout on his lips and said, “Will you two finally let me really touch you? I’ve been wanting to all night.”

               “We’ll think about it,” Genesis said breezily, pressing a kiss to each of Cloud’s fingertips.

               “What he means, is, we aren’t the point right now,” Angeal corrected, giving Genesis a sharp look that held no heat, which was returned with an unapologetic smile.

               “What’s the point if touching isn’t?”

               “The point is you, Cloud,” Angeal said, pressing a kiss to his sternum without breaking eye contact. “We’d like to take care of you.”

               There was that phrase again. “Taking care of him.” It made his lungs go still.

               They needed to stop saying that, and soon, or he’d really start to believe them.

               Reaching for flippancy, which failed him rarely in the past, he drawled, “There’s nothing to take care of right now.” He twitched his hips up, bumping against Angeal’s stomach, to make the point that he was entirely soft at the moment.

               “There will always be something to take care of. You matter, whether or not you’re hard.”

               He really needed to get them to stop doing that, that validation thing. It was starting to go to his head (even though he suspected that was the point). A part of him wanted to protest, to say Angeal was mistaken, but he knew he wouldn’t hear it.

               “So, what, your plan is to lie here with me until you flag and then go home?”

               “That depends. Is that what you’d like?”

               It had been sarcastic. Angeal was adamantly refusing to let him have his self-deprecation, and despite his confidence that came in waves, he still wasn’t entirely sure what to do without it.

               “I’d like to have you.”

               “Then you will. I want to give you what you want. But I also want you with me.”

               “We do things together,” Genesis said, “or not at all.”

               Angeal reached down between them, taking Cloud carefully in his hand, his touch-feather light, but Cloud’s breath stuttered anyway.  Genesis finally sat all the way down, his hip at Cloud’s side. He turned Cloud’s face with a touch to his jaw and leaned down to kiss him.

               There was no urgency in the way they touched him. It was clear that they were happy to let this take all night, if that was what it took to do things properly. They had no intention of rushing, even if Cloud tried to hurry them along. He knew they had been waiting, turned on and frustrated for a while now because he had teased them, and he wanted desperately to give them the relief he knew they must have wanted. But that just didn’t seem important to either. They were too focused on him, on finding a way to tell him with their touches that no matter what self-deprecating thoughts he had, they didn’t share his opinion. It made him wonder, what in the world they saw when they looked at him, because it clearly wasn’t what he saw when he looked in the mirror. It was like they were trying to press affection into his skin, and he was soaking it up like a sponge, feeling half-starved for even a scrap of it. He’d gotten so used to the way Midgar treated him with cold distance, to the way Nibelheim hadn’t really wanted him, that he felt like he was overflowing after the past few days, after Zack and Sephiroth’s impossible generosity, and the way Angeal and Genesis seemed intent on treating him the same.

               It was everything he had dreamed of that night with Zack.

               It seemed impossible that maybe, just maybe, he would get to have it.

               Cloud wasn’t usually one for soft touches. When he got himself off, he was firm, sometimes even a little rough. He didn’t brush fingertips or tease himself, not unless there was a camera in front of him, in which case his own interests and wants weren’t something he was really considering. But the gentle way their hands pressed to him, the sweet way Genesis’s lips brushed his own, had him panting and desperate for more quicker than he would have thought possible. It felt so good, to let them touch him and know that their only goal was to give to him, never once thinking to take. It left a strange sweetness on his tongue, a flutter in his chest, and him aching for more. He had one hand curled around Genesis’s wrist, the one where his hand was curved around Cloud’s jaw, and the other buried in Angeal’s hair, who was busy pressing satin-soft kisses to his chest.

               “Please,” he said, entirely breathless. “I want—”

               “What do you want, dearest? All you have to do is ask.”

               “I want—you. Both of you. Any way you want, it doesn’t matter, just—please.”

               Genesis sighed happily against Cloud’s mouth before looking down at Angeal, who was watching them fondly.

               “Someday, I’ll really make him beg, and it will be glorious.”

               “As long as I’m there to see it.”

               Angeal shifted up some, pulling himself out and lining them up, taking both of them in his hand. He rolled his hips and Cloud gasped, but he matched the motion on the second pass.

               “Is this alright?” Angeal whispered into Cloud’s neck.

               “Gaia, yes.”

               Angeal pushed at his collar and nipped at his neck, beginning to work his own mark onto Cloud’s throat. He moaned softly at the idea alone, wondering if maybe he could get all of them to mark him, that way he could have proof written into his skin so he’d be able to remember this was all real. Genesis was the only one left—it didn’t seem impossible.

               Genesis threaded his fingers into Cloud’s hair, guiding his head back so Angeal would have room, angling his chin so he would be able to resume kissing him.

               Angeal was steady and persistent. His rhythm didn’t change, even when Cloud’s hips missed a beat, he just pulled him back into orbit like gravity. This wasn’t any more rushed than their earlier touches, despite the sounds Cloud was making now, which Genesis was pulling happily from his lungs.

               It wasn’t long before Cloud whispered against Genesis’s mouth, “Angeal, I’m—”

               “I am too,” he reassured, though his voice was rough in a way Cloud had yet to hear it.

               Genesis’s fingers began to card through Cloud’s hair, pushing it up and out of his face, stroking it softly. He didn’t pull away far, just far enough to speak against Cloud’s lips.

               “You’re doing so well, Cloud. You’re beautiful, this way—you glow. I’ll dream of the sight of you like this, how you’re moving, how good you’re being—”

               “Gen, I—”

               “I know, dearest. Come for us, Cloud. Let us see you.”

               The orgasm that tore through him was something he was helpless to stop. The sound he made was high and desperate, and he had no idea what his face was doing, and for once, he didn’t care. He could feel both sets of eyes on him, and he couldn’t convince himself that he needed to worry about what they saw there. Something in his gut told him it’d be okay, that he could show them anything at all and it would all be okay.

               Somewhere along the line, he heard Angeal groan, felt him go still and a splash of warmth up his stomach, but when he looked down, Angeal was already looking back up at him. Maybe he’d never stopped.

               Cloud smiled then, and everything about him was soft. He seemed to radiate fondness, his smile beatific, his eyes impossibly warm. When he turned to look up at Genesis, the man’s breath hitched at the sight. He reached down, stroking his fingertips over Cloud’s cheek, watching as he shut his eyes and leaned into the touch.

               “I will never stop being glad that we found you,” Genesis whispered.

               Cloud laughed and the sound was unrestrained in a way neither had heard before.

               “You’ll have to try pretty hard to get rid of me, now that you’ve found me.”

               “Won’t happen,” Angeal said with absolute seriousness.

               Cloud hummed and shut his eyes, lingering in contentment.

               “I’m glad.”

               They lay in silence for a long moment, simply breathing, until Genesis reached out and grabbed a few tissues. He prodded Angeal in the side so he would move enough to allow him space to clean Cloud up, before tossing the tissues in a wastebasket by the bed, filled with other suspicious tissues.

               “Gen?” Cloud said, cracking one eye open to look at him (when had he shut them again?).

               “Yes, dear?”

               “Will you come closer?” he asked, reaching up to pat the space behind his head.

               Genesis sighed, acting put upon, but minded very little. He moved without further complaint, coming to sit cross-legged at the head of the bed.

               “Excellent,” Cloud said, before patting Angeal’s shoulder. “Would you move for me, too?”

               Angeal rolled off him, but curled up at his side, not going far.

               That done, Cloud flipped himself over, lying on his stomach, and pulled himself up and halfway into Genesis’s lap. Angeal chuckled, stroking a hand up Cloud’s back as Genesis looked down at him and quirked an eyebrow. Cloud smiled and leaned down to press a careful kiss to where Genesis was still straining at his pants.

               “You didn’t think I forgot, did you?”

               “No, but it’s hardly necessary.”

               “What happened to ‘together or not at all?’”

               “This isn’t what I meant by that. I had a point to make.”

               “I know, and you made it. Now let me make mine.”

               “Which is?”

               “That as much as I like being spoiled,” he couldn’t say taken care of, couldn’t get it passed his lips, it still meant too much for him to dare, “I don’t want this without you, either.”

               Genesis’s eyes softened, and he brushed the hair out of Cloud’s face again. He seemed to like doing that.

               “If you’d like, then.”

               Cloud gave him a winning smile, then fussed with his zipper and pulled him out. He stroked his hand carefully down the length.

               “I haven’t done this before, but I know the gist of how it goes. I want you to tell me if you don’t like something, or if there’s something specific you’d like instead.”

               “I’d rather give you creative license.”

               “Genesis.”

               “I’ll tell you if I don’t like something, but I won’t give you any hints.”

               “I will, though,” Angeal said cheerfully. “He likes when you lick his slit.”

               “Angeal,” Genesis warned.

               “Keep taking that tone with me, Gen, and I’ll tell him every trick I know.”

               Genesis pursed his lips together, but knew Angeal would absolutely follow through on that threat.

               While he was distracted, Cloud dipped his tongue almost delicately into his slit. When Genesis hissed in a breath at that, he lapped at it, then pressed his tongue flat to the head. Genesis moaned when he took the head into his mouth, sucking and licking at it. In fact, Cloud was delighted to find that Genesis was much louder than his boyfriends. He didn’t mind when they were quiet—it made the rare noise they did make that much more precious—but the ready responses were encouraging. Cloud had absolutely no faith in his own abilities in this, having no experience, but the sounds Genesis made were starting to build his confidence. Genesis was alternating between carding his fingers through his hair and making a tight fist in the locks, never pulling or pushing, just holding on.

               What Cloud liked more than the moaning, was the way Genesis started to ramble when he began bobbing his head. He wasn’t sure the SOLDIER even knew what he was saying, but Cloud was hanging on every word. He went on about how good Cloud felt, how good he was, how he was a natural, he looked so perfect like that, he made Genesis feel so lucky, it should be illegal for someone to be so good with their tongue, did he have any idea how fantastic he made Genesis feel?

               Angeal watched them, eyes caught between hungry and fond but leaning toward the latter, his hand stroking Cloud’s back absently all the while.

               Cloud was starting to wonder if Genesis would ever run out of praise when he choked himself off mid-sentence, instead saying, “Cloud, I’m close.”

               Cloud hummed around him, loving the sound of Genesis cursing quietly above him.

               “Cloud, I’m serious.”

               “Mmmm.”

               “Cloud.”

               He looked up at Genesis, his eyes almost dancing with mischief. Genesis seemed to realize, then, that unless he made it very clear that he wanted Cloud to pull off because he didn’t want him to swallow, that his motivations weren’t for Cloud’s sake, he had no intention of stopping. And Genesis just couldn’t do that, because it seemed completely impossible to look at Cloud looking at him with such joy and then lie to his face.

               Genesis came with a cry, Cloud doing his best to drink down everything he could. When a drop escaped his lips, he pulled away to catch it with his tongue before returning to his task, making sure that there was nothing left on Genesis.

               Genesis zipped himself back up before shuffling down and tugging Cloud with him, pulling them so they were all lying next to one another, though Genesis and Angeal had to lay on their sides to fit on the bed. Genesis began drawing abstract patterns on Cloud’s chest with a finger while Angeal caressed his hip. Cloud was left feeling strangely blissed out, like he’d fallen into a dream and wanted very much to never wake up.

               But there was one more thing he wanted, before the night inevitably came to a close.

               “Hey, Gen?”

               “Cloud?”

               “Would you mark me?”

               Genesis propped himself up on one elbow to look down at Cloud in askance.

               “Everyone else has,” Cloud explained, tapping one finger against the red mark Angeal had just left. “I want one from each of you.”

               “Collecting the whole set, are we?”

               It was the soft smile on his lips that let Cloud know it wasn’t a jab. He laughed instead.

               “I didn’t ask for Angeal, Zack, and Sephiroth. I asked for all of you. It wouldn’t feel right, if I wasn’t wearing a mark from each of you.”

               “Far be it from me to deny you,” Genesis said with a sigh, curling over Cloud.

               Cloud tilted his head back obediently, felt Genesis tug his collar out of the way before setting to work.

               “You are going to be difficult not to spoil,” Angeal said, watching with amusement.

               “Y’know, Sephiroth—ah! Gen—he said something similar.”

               “Did he now?”

               “Mmmm, I don’t know why.”

               “Because you’re like a flower, Cloud—you bloom, if you’re given the right care, and it’s beautiful.”

               “And you—nnn—want to watch me, what, bloom?”

               “It’s a metaphor, Cloud,” Angeal said, a laugh in his voice.

               “I know that.”

               “I think we all like seeing how you light up when we make you happy. It’s a little addicting.”

               “I’ll never understand any of you,” the last word trailed off, grew long, rose in pitch and tone until it turned into a whimper as Genesis bit down, hard. He then pressed a soft peck against the mark he had made, almost an apology, though he didn’t look like he was sorry when he pulled away.

               “You don’t have to, right now,” Genesis said. “You will, eventually. Until then, you just need to trust us.”

               Cloud blinked, and then smiled.

               “I think I can do that.”

               Genesis pressed a final kiss to his lips before reaching over and kissing Angeal, stroking his fingers through his hair in what Cloud was coming to realize was just a gesture Genesis enjoyed. He then laid back down next to Cloud, curling into his side.

               No one said anything for a long time. They didn’t need to. Everything important had already been said, in words and gestures and touches. The rest could be sorted out in time. They were all far too happy to simply exist in the afterglow.

Chapter Text

               Angeal and Genesis had left later in the night than they had intended. Somewhere along the line, Cloud had fallen asleep and turned to curl into Angeal’s chest, cuddling close. Genesis had scooted closer, spooned up behind him, and they had been far too pleased with the situation to tear themselves away. Cloud looked like an angel, when he was sleeping. His expression was open, and free from worry in a way that it only ever was when he was thoroughly distracted or acting. At one point, he had smiled softly in his sleep, and had been so beautiful Angeal’s heart had almost stopped. They were jointly amazed that Cloud had trusted them enough to fall asleep in front of them, not really believing that they had worn him out so much that he would have fallen asleep if he still had his guard up. The moment had seemed too precious to break, was something that needed to be well and truly cherished before they left.

               But eventually they did leave, waking Cloud with kisses before they did so, not wanting him to wake and find them gone. He had mumbled sleepy apologies and insisted on showing them to the door, despite the way he shuffled down the hall yawning and rubbing his eye. They had tried to talk him into just staying in bed, that they could show themselves out, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

               Before they left, Genesis talked Cloud into unlocking his PHS for him and handing it over. He programmed everyone into Cloud’s device and began a group chat by sending everyone a photo he quickly snapped of Cloud, who had only been able to smile softly when he realized what Genesis was doing, still half asleep, covered in hickeys and still wearing his collar. He’d given them both kisses that were almost kittenish in his tiredness before they left, though not before they both made him promise to leave his PHS on the kitchen table so the others wouldn’t wake him when they inevitably answered.

               Genesis and Angeal didn’t quite dare to hold each other’s hands as they left (you never knew who was looking and Midgar was one giant rumor mill), but brushed the backs together as they walked.

               “I think we found someone special, this time,” Angeal had said as they waited for the train, quiet so he wouldn’t be overheard.

               “He takes quite a bit of effort, but he’s worth that much and more.”

               “Zack said he only has one other real friend in the city, and that the people at his job turned on him. I tried to get him to, but he won’t talk about his hometown except in the briefest way. I don’t think he really understands kindness very well, or thinks that he deserves it. He never expects it, and the littlest scraps make him so happy. It breaks my heart a little.”

               “It makes me want to do anything I can to teach him the world doesn’t have to hurt, but it also makes me want to break the fingers of anyone who has ever treated him any other way.”

               “I want to meet this other friend of his, or at least thank them. I’m glad he wasn’t entirely alone here until we found him.”

               “I’m surprised Cloud hasn’t told them about us, if for no other reason than to talk to someone about what’s been happening. Unless he has already and has just kept quiet about it.”

               “He’s an honest man. He told us he wouldn’t, and I believe that. I think he’d ask us first. He probably will, eventually.”

               “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Genesis said as the train finally pulled into the station. It effectively ended the conversation, because there was no way they’d find privacy on the train, no matter how quiet they were.

               They did, however, turn to their PHS’s.

               Zack: holy shit, is this Cloud’s number?

               Sephiroth: I don’t see who else would have such a picture of him.

               Zack: hi Cloud! Good to see you had a fun night ;)

               Sephiroth: It does look like a few of those marks are fresh.

               Cloud: hi, yeah, it’s me!!

               Cloud: had to get one from everyone

               Cloud: if I end up going to yours I’ll have to wear a scarf or something, or everyone will REALLY know I’m there for a booty call

               Zack: hate to break it to ya, but your bed isn’t big enough for all of us

               Zack: it’ll have to be up here

               Cloud: I don’t mind!

               Cloud: it’ll be a nice excuse to go topside

               Cloud: it’s been a while

               Sephiroth: How long is a while?

               Cloud: haven’t been since I got here

               Cloud: I could never justify the expense

               Zack: holy shit, I don’t think I could go years without the sun

               Cloud: you get used to it

               Cloud: when are we planning this, btw?

               Zack: soon, I hope

               Zack: we’ve got no reason to wait, unless you need more time?

               Cloud: hell no

               Cloud: you could tell me right now and I’d be scrambling to get out my front door

               It was at this point that Genesis and Angeal were finally on their PHS’s.

               Genesis: Cloud, you are supposed to be in bed with your phone on the table.

               Cloud: it is on the table, like I promised

               Cloud: I’m just sitting with it, instead of in bed

               Cloud: you never made me promise to go back to bed

               Zack: aw, did you fall asleep?

               Zack: you’re adorable when you’re asleep

               Cloud: I am not

               Cloud: I’ve drooled in my sleep before, that’s not cute

               Genesis: He absolutely fell asleep, and it was in fact adorable.

               Cloud: Gen!!!

               Sephiroth: I can’t believe I’m the only one who hasn’t seen you asleep before.

               Angeal: if we wear him out enough, he’ll fall asleep when he’s over

               Sephiroth: I think that can be arranged.

               Cloud: I’m repeating my very very important question

               Cloud: when are we doing this????

               Angeal: when are you free?

               Cloud: I’m unemployed, remember???

               Cloud: the question is when are YOU all free

               Sephiroth: Luckily, I am responsible for our schedules, and not above misusing my authority. We can be available tomorrow night.

               Zack: you aren’t gonna actually make us work during the day, are you?

               Sephiroth: That is what I expect of you, yes.

               Zack: you think any of us will be able to concentrate, knowing what’s gonna happen that night?

               Sephiroth: You are a SOLDIER. I fully expect you to be able to control yourself and focus when it’s necessary.

               Genesis: In fairness to the puppy, I hardly think paperwork qualifies as a necessity.

               Cloud: holy shit, do they call you PUPPY, Zack?

               Zack: no, absolutely not. never have not even once.

               Angeal: yes, routinely

               Genesis: Very often, yes.

               Cloud: oh my fucking gods

               Zack: guys!!!!!

               Cloud: p u p p y

               Zack: don’t even think about it, Cloud

               Cloud: think about what, puppy?

               Zack: CLOUD

               Cloud: they ought to train you better, you bark too much

               Zack: you are so in for it when you’re here

               Cloud: maybe you’re the one who ought to be wearing a collar

               Zack: see what you guys did!!!!

               Genesis: I, for one, am not at all sorry.

               Angeal: maybe we should put you in a collar

               Sephiroth: Cloud, do you have a spare?

               Cloud: oh plenty

               Cloud: I’ll bring one tomorrow

               Cloud: you want a leash, too?

               Genesis: Yes.

               Angeal: yes

               Sephiroth: Yes.

               Zack: GUYS

               Cloud: you know, they sell plugs that have tails attached

               Cloud: maybe I’ll get one for you next time I’m at the store

               Zack: don’t you dare

               Cloud: I’ll get you one of the rubber ones that wags when you shake your ass

               Zack: keep it up, Cloud, see how bad you get it tomorrow

               Cloud: there is literally nothing you could do that I wouldn’t be excited for anyway

               Zack: I could tickle you

               Cloud: aw wait c’mon no

               Genesis: Have you done that?

               Zack: yeah, he hates it

               Sephiroth: He is rather adorable when you do it, though.

               Angeal: you’ve seen it?

               Sephiroth: When I visited the other day, yes.

               Genesis: Well, now we know how to effectively punish him, since he seems greedy for everything else we threaten him with.

               Cloud: I liked the threats about fucking me hard better

               Genesis: I know; that’s why they aren’t good for punishing you.

               Cloud: alright, if you’re just gonna drag me, I’m going back to bed

               Cloud: I’ll see you all tomorrow

               There was a round of “good night”s in the chat as Cloud walked back to his room, plugged his PHS in, and went to sleep, with a smile on his face and anticipation fluttering in his stomach.

               It was an anticipation he woke up with, that proceeded to last the entire day. Little did he know, the SOLDIERs felt much the same. They made their attempts, but succeeded in getting very little work done at all despite being secluded in their respective offices.

               Cloud was surprised to find that he wasn’t actually very nervous, just excited. It had done wonders to set him at ease to have been with all of them in a small way before. He had an idea of what he was stepping into, now. He briefly attempted to tell himself that their behavior before was no guarantee for what they would be like that night, but he was able to silence the thought with relative ease. They had no reason to treat him softly and then change their minds. It didn’t make any sense to lull him into a false sense of security, and it was a little insulting to them to think that they might be the kind of people who would do such a thing.

               His only actual concern was the ticket for the train. He’d never gone above plate, not because his papers weren’t in order, they had to be for him to enter the city in the first place, but because the ticket going plateside was just stupid expensive. It was a deterrent, to keep slummers out of sight, but it sure worked on Cloud. If it really came down to it, he decided it would be worth it to cover it from his savings, but he thought he could manage. He might have to skip a few meals here and there, and he absolutely wouldn’t be able to justify even picking up coffee grounds this month, but he’d manage.

               That was, until Sephiroth bought exactly enough of his old sets to cover the cost of the train ticket.

               It was genius, actually. If he had tried to offer Cloud money, he would have refused, and been infuriated. He was a little infuriated regardless. But this was paying him for his work, and he couldn’t actually complain about that. This way, Sephiroth got something out of it too, and something Cloud knew he would enjoy.

               Still, he did text him privately.

               Cloud: thank you

               Cloud: but also fuck you

               Sephiroth: Is that a promise?

               Despite the sudden access to Cloud’s PHS, the group chat was largely quiet. They hammered out an exact time, 7pm, but otherwise said very little. Everyone was a little too busy daydreaming about the possibilities.

               Still, Cloud spent an inordinate amount of time picking out what to wear. He ended up in a floral button down that he only barely managed to tuck into his skin-tight black jeans, which he had considered not optional, because they hugged his ass the best. He matched it with little brown boots and ended up resorting to his large, fluffy, gray infinity scarf, purely by virtue of the fact that it was the only one that covered the hickey Genesis had left high, high on his neck, the bastard. It just wouldn’t be covered by any other scarf or collared shirt he owned. Was he going to sweat to death in a knit scarf in the middle of August? Likely. But his only other option was to walk brazenly into Shinra Headquarters  and ask for Sephiroth, which was who he had been told to request when he got there, and let everyone that he passed in the entire building know that he was about to get fucked. While he was sure plenty of them would be jealous, and that made him want to rub it in a little, he also didn’t like the idea of that many people knowing his business. He liked the idea of that many people knowing Sephiroth’s business even less.

               He was mostly worried that the surprise he had hidden under his clothes would be sodden by the time he got there, but he’d have to risk it. They’d forgive him.

               He wasn’t sure how soon Zack would forgive him for the collar and leash he had in his back pocket that were distinctly not for him, but he thought he might be able to speed the process up by agreeing to wear it himself tonight.

               The train ride up ended up being the worst part. At this hour, most people were taking the train down, not up, so it wasn’t even that packed. But, there were still people in close proximity, and absolutely no airflow. It felt like it was a million degrees. He didn’t even dare adjust the scarf to try and get it away from his skin a little because Genesis’s mark was so high up it’d be visible in an instant. And there was no mistaking what it was, not with the clear teeth marks he had left.

               Cloud managed to get over it when he stepped off the train. It was dusk now, and the sun was setting, but it was still the sun. He took a deep breath of air that wasn’t actually stagnant and had no hint of trash on the breeze. He could still smell a hint of mako, but it wasn’t overpowering the way it was below the plate. Even if tonight went horribly wrong somehow, he thought it might be worth it regardless, just to breathe (relatively) clean air and see the sky again.

               He kept glancing up between the sky and his PHS as he followed a map to the Shinra Tower. He was a little hesitant to walk in, but the Firsts had promised him that 7pm was after most of the office staff had left, and there wouldn’t be as many people there. He still needed a deep breath to steel his nerves before entering.

               He approached the secretary at the front desk with a small smile. She smiled back, but he was fluent in customer service after his time at Chocobo King, and could see that the look she was giving him was entirely unimpressed. She seemed to know that he didn’t really belong here.

               “Can I help you?” she asked, regardless of her opinion.

               “Hi, yeah,” he started, watching her performance slip. He could watch her decide he wasn’t worth her time, based purely on his below-plate accent. It made him wish he hadn’t picked it up, even if his old Nibel one wasn’t much better. “I’m here to see Sephiroth?”

               She blinked slowly, and the smile she gave him was snide.

               “Do you have an appointment?”

               “Uh, an unofficial one, I guess? He’s expecting me.”

               “I’m sorry, sir,” she twisted her tone a little on the last word to let him know exactly how much she didn’t respect him, “I can’t let you through without an official appointment.”

               “I see,” Cloud said, frowning. The SOLDIERs hadn’t told him that. “Give me a second, okay? I’ll call him. I’m sure he’ll come down and clear this up.”

               “Sure.”

               She clearly didn’t believe he had his number, but wouldn’t call him on it at work.

               Cloud sighed. He wasn’t willing to be rude to her—Chocobo King wasn’t that long ago, and he was well familiar with people who were assholes for no reason and the fact that they were gossiped about for weeks, mocked mercilessly behind their backs. He didn’t want to be one of those. So instead he just pulled out his PHS.

               “Sephiroth speaking.”

               “Hey, Seph.” He wouldn’t be rude to the secretary, but he wasn’t above grinding her nose in the fact that he knew Sephiroth personally. He had never actually referred to the man with the nickname before, but he did want to make this woman jealous.

               “You’ve never called me that before,” he answered, some surprise in his tone.

               “I know, do you mind? I’m at the front desk, they won’t let me up.”

               “I don’t mind at all, but I see now why you won’t explain. Who is the secretary?”

               Cloud turned and leaned over, very obviously reading her nametag.

               “Linda.”

               “Ah, yes. She gets rather self-important. I should have checked the schedule. I’d tell you to pass the phone over, but she won’t believe you unless she sees me personally. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

               “Thank you. I’ll see you soon.”

               Cloud wasn’t surprised when Sephiroth didn’t say goodbye; more than one of his boyfriends had complained about that particular bad habit. He just pocketed the device.

               When he caught Linda’s eye and she raised an eyebrow, he said, “He’s on his way.”

               Her smile said she didn’t believe him, and she said, “Sir, we don’t allow loitering in the lobby. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

               “He’ll be down in a few minutes.”

               “I still have to ask you to leave.”

               “Look, if I’m right, do you really want to be the one who kicked out Sephiroth’s guest? He won’t be happy about it if he knows I was at the desk and you made me wait for him outside.”

               “I’ll take my chances.”

               Cloud rolled his eyes, grumbled, “Topsiders,” and went to wait outside. He stood just to the side of the doors, his arms crossed over his chest despite the heat, looking impatient as he watched through the glass.

               Linda conspicuously looked back at her screen and did what Cloud was certain was pretending to be busy. He sighed. This wasn’t the kind of note he wanted to start the evening out on.

               He was, however, immensely pleased when he saw Sephiroth come around from behind the desk and look for him. He was even more pleased to see Linda so purely shocked that he actually came that she didn’t seem able to speak. Sephiroth didn’t even look at her as he searched for Cloud, but he did not look happy when he finally saw him outside the door. Cloud smiled and waved at him, feeling a little vindication at the whole situation.

               Sephiroth came outside and opened the door for him. Cloud wanted to hug him, but he wasn’t sure what that would do to his reputation, so he refrained.

               “What are you doing outside?” he asked, before Cloud could get any words out.

               He went inside the building, and Sephiroth began leading him back toward the desk.

               “I was told I couldn’t loiter in the lobby.”

               The corners of Sephiroth’s mouth lowered.

               “I see.”

               They approached the desk, and Linda, by this point, was white as a sheet.

               “I need a visitor’s pass for my guest.”

               “Sephiroth, sir, I—”

               “You do not want to waste any more of my time, Linda.”

               “Yes, sir,” Linda whispered, digging frantically in a drawer, going so fast in her haste that she fumbled for longer than she would have had she taken her time.

               “How was the ride up?” Sephiroth asked as they waited. Cloud’s accent was thick enough that it was no secret to anyone he spoke to that he lived below the plate. He didn’t feel the need to try and hide it.

               “Stuffy, but quiet. It was worse last time I took it.”

               “How so?”

               “This time, I knew more or less where I was going when I got off it.”

               “Ah, that does help. You found the building easily enough?”

               “Seph,” he said, mostly to mock Linda, but also enjoying the way the man’s eyes lit up a little at the nickname, “it’s the tallest building in the city. Even if I didn’t have a map, I’d be able to find it.”

               “Here you are, sir,” Linda interrupted, holding the badge out with hands that shook.

               Sephiroth took it from her and pinned it to the front of the pocket on Cloud’s chest.

               Okay, maybe the scarf had been frivolous. Everyone would probably guess what he was here for, at this point.

               “I will be making sure your manager is aware of how you treat guests,” Sephiroth said coolly, breezing past the desk, one hand on the small of Cloud’s back to guide him. Cloud gave her a smile that was far too innocent for what had just happened and let Sephiroth show him where to go.

               If he didn’t know better, he’d think Sephiroth was trying to stake a claim, in the way his hand stayed so low on his back the whole time, even after it was clear Cloud was going to come with him. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to make sure no one fucked with Cloud, or if he wanted everyone to know Cloud was his. He wasn’t sure, but he really liked the idea of the latter.

               Shouldn’t have bothered with the scarf.

               Sephiroth led him into an elevator. When it opened, everyone inside filed out. Cloud wasn’t entirely sure if that was because they were all going to the first floor, or if no one wanted to be inside with Sephiroth. He thought it was their loss, but followed him in. Sephiroth hit the button to take them as high as they could before they would have to switch to the executive elevator before returning to Cloud, setting his hands on his hips and pulling him close. Cloud went easily, and tilted his face up to accept the kiss Sephiroth pressed to his lips.

               “I didn’t think you’d actually bother with the scarf.”

               “Well, I wouldn’t have, if I had known you were going to all but grab my ass in the lobby.”

               “Should I not have?”

               “I don’t really mind. I just figured no one needed to know that your taste included blond slumrats.”

               Sephiroth frowned, reaching up to brush Cloud’s cheek.

               “You know that isn’t how I think of you.”

               “You don’t, but most people do. That’s what Linda thought.”

               “Linda will pay for her attitude.”

               Cloud shook his head and said, “Don’t actually get her fired, okay? I don’t want someone to lose their job over me.”

               “Think of it as her losing her job over bigotry against over half of Midgar’s population.”

               “Sephiroth, c’mon.”

               “What, am I only ‘Seph’ when you’re trying to get under the skin of secretaries you won’t even allow to be fired?”

               Cloud blushed a little, saying, “I wasn’t sure if I was allowed. I should have asked first.”

               “You call Genesis ‘Gen.’”

               “He asked me to.”

               “Will you call me ‘Seph’ if I ask you to, as well?”

               Cloud shifted, fitting one of his hands over Sephiroth’s.

               “Are you sure you should be seen being so familiar with someone like me?”

               “That’s a problem for the PR department, not me. You didn’t answer the question.”

               Cloud paused, then smiled a little.

               “I will, if you want me to.”

               “I do.”

               “Okay, then. Seph.”

               Sephiroth dipped his head to kiss him again, then stepped away just in time for the doors to open.

               He pressed his hand to the small of Cloud’s back again and led him across the floor to a different elevator, which was empty when it opened. He had to wave a keycard in front of a sensor before he pressed the button for a floor with a dizzyingly high number, then turned back to Cloud.

               “We’ll be getting off on the First’s floor, after this. May I take your scarf off?”

               Cloud sighed in relief and unwound it from his neck himself, holding it in one hand when he was done.

               “Thank gods, it was hot under that thing.”

               If Sephiroth heard him, he didn’t seem to think it was worth answering. He was too busy staring at the marks on Cloud’s neck. So, clearly the only thing for Cloud to do was tilt his head back and allow him a better view. He reached out, trailing his fingers over the skin, at one point pressing his thumb into a bruise. Cloud gasped, and Sephiroth’s eyes shot up to his, watching as Cloud carefully bit his lip. Sephiroth leaned down and carefully tugged his bottom lip free with his own teeth before trailing his tongue over it. He leaned away, and Cloud chased him, pressing their mouths together. He stood on his toes, but eventually Sephiroth was out of reach. When he was, Cloud looked at him with hungry eyes. He slipped his hands beneath Sephiroth’s coat and onto his hips.

               “I can’t wait to feel you inside me.”

               “Luckily, we won’t have to wait much longer.”

               He must have glanced at the number ticking up above the door at some point, not that Cloud knew when he could have, because he turned toward the door with perfect timing for it to open when he faced it. Despite the fact that no one was around to be scared off by the gesture, Sephiroth still settled his hand low on Cloud’s back as he showed him where to go. It was, perhaps, a testament to the fact that no one was around that Sephiroth allowed himself to slip his fingers just barely into the waistband of Cloud’s jeans.

               He brought him to a door numbered “02” and tapped his card to the panel by the door, saying, “Genesis has the largest bed. This is his apartment.”

               Cloud stepped inside, Sephiroth’s hand disappearing as he shut the door behind them. Cloud was surprised to find that, of all things, Angeal had apparently wrestled Zack to the floor and was holding him with his arm twisted behind his back and a knee in his spine. Genesis, who had shucked his famous red coat at some point, was acting as if this was perfectly normal, and was reading LOVELESS on the couch. Angeal looked up and smiled when he saw Cloud. Genesis appeared to finish whatever line he was on before snapping the book shut and setting it gently on the coffee table before looking up.

               “Please tell me you didn’t walk up here like that,” Genesis said, eyes narrowing in on Cloud’s neck.

               He laughed, and all of the SOLDIERs were surprised to find that it wasn’t actually very nervous at all. They had done an excellent job setting his fear to bed, a much better job than they had thought.

               “I had a scarf on,” he said, holding it up, “but I might as well have, with the way Seph wouldn’t keep his hands to himself.”

               “‘Seph?’” Angeal said, raising his eyebrows.

               Cloud cleared his throat and shrugged.

               “He said it was okay.”

               “I’m more interested in the fact that he couldn’t keep his hands to himself,” Genesis said, leaning back on the couch.

               “He only touched my back, but I think it was probably enough.”

               Sephiroth shrugged, unapologetic.

               “I didn’t want anyone else to get ideas about him.”

               “Oh, dear, I’m sure they’ll get ideas anyway. They’ll just keep their hands to themselves now.”

               “Good enough.”

               “Will someone please let me up?” Zack finally whined, his voice a wheeze.

               “I don’t know, puppy,” Angeal said. “Will you say you’re sorry?”

               “Fine, fine! I’m sorry!”

               Angeal stood, releasing Zack, who flopped over onto his back and finally breathed deeply.

               Angeal walked over to Cloud and gave him a simple, chaste kiss in greeting.

               “Any problems getting up here?”

               “Only Linda at the front desk. Who Sephiroth isn’t allowed to get fired.”

               Angeal nodded seriously, looking up at his boyfriend.

               “Demoted?” he suggested.

               “Angeal,” Cloud said with a frown.

               “Done,” Sephiroth agreed.

               Cloud sighed, but Genesis laughed on the couch.

               “Would you like anything, Cloud?” Genesis called. “Water? Tea? Wine?”

               “Cloud isn’t old enough to drink,” Zack said, finally sitting up on the floor.

               “That isn’t what I asked.”

               Cloud smiled and said, “No, thank you. I did bring you guys a present, though.”

               Four sets of eyebrows rose.

               “Oh?” Sephiroth asked.

               Cloud reached into his back pocket and pulled out a handful of leather, holding up the collar and letting the leash dangle.

               “Cloud!” Zack gasped, sounding utterly betrayed.

               Cloud could not have looked less sorry.

               Angeal carefully took the collar from Cloud’s hands, looking at Zack meaningfully.

               “Nuh-uh, I’m not wearing it.”

               “Oh, I think we could get you to,” Genesis said. “I think we could even get you to ask for it.”

               “Maybe we only let him come if he’s wearing the collar,” Angeal suggested.

               “He’ll certainly ask for it then,” Genesis agreed.

               “Cloud, you absolute traitor, do you see what you’ve done?” Zack said, glaring at his friend, but without any heat whatsoever.

               “We’ll save that game for another night,” Sephiroth said, peacemaking but distinctly not saying no.

               “As long as I can be here for it,” Cloud said, a song in his tone.

               Zack groaned and let his head fall back.

               “Not you too!”

               Angeal set the collar and leash carefully on the counter before coming up behind Cloud. He wrapped his arms around his waist and rested his cheek on his head.

               A lull passed over the group.

               “I, uh, don’t know how to start this,” Cloud said, finally turning a little hesitant.

               “Well, we could do any number of things,” Genesis said, finally standing from the couch. He paused as he spoke to hold a hand out to Zack, helping him to his feet. “But it would help with most of them if we were all wearing significantly less clothing.” When Zack was standing, Genesis yanked his shirt free from his stomach guard and then pulled it up and over his head, tossing it to the side.

               “I am excited to finally see you all naked,” Cloud admitted, flushing just a little. “Most of you didn’t undress for me.”

               “We will now,” Angeal promised in his ear, reaching down and slowly untucking Cloud’s shirt. “We were just distracted, before.”

               Cloud pushed his hands away and turned around in his arms, saying, “Then strip before you get distracted. I’m only taking my clothes off after everyone else does.”

               “I like it when he’s demanding,” Genesis said, removing his stomach guard and dropping it to the floor.

               “You hate it when Sephiroth does it,” Angeal reminded him, removing his own belt.

               “That’s because Sephiroth is infuriating on a good day.”

               “I take that as a compliment.”

               Genesis scoffed, but as Cloud looked around, the SOLDIERs were all, collectively, listening to him. He was pretty sure his jaw was hanging open as they slowly removed their clothing, letting it fall where it would, well familiar with the sight of each other and not feeling at all self-conscious. He had to swallow hard when Sephiroth, who managed to finish stripping first, came up behind him and slipped his hands into the front pockets of Cloud’s jeans, watching his boyfriends.

               “They look good, don’t they?”

               “Are you sure there wasn’t an accident on the train and I’m actually dead somewhere? I think this is what the Promised Land looks like.”

               Sephiroth huffed a laugh in his ear, pulling a hand free when Genesis tossed his underwear at them to catch it. He let it fall to the floor by his own.

               “Now you know how we feel when we look at you.”

               “Flatterer.”

               “I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. I’ve never been in the habit of lying.”

               “That’s only because most people are too afraid of you to deny you anything,” Genesis said, leading the way back toward the bedroom. “You lie any time you think it’s necessary to get your way.”

               “A technicality.”

               Angeal kissed Cloud’s cheek and passed them to follow Genesis. Zack waited at the mouth of the hallway as Sephiroth took a hold of Cloud’s hips and urged him forward, marching him slowly after the others. Zack grinned at him when he caught his eye and winked, only following himself once Sephiroth and Cloud had passed. Cloud was pretty sure he heard Zack slap Sephiroth’s ass, but he couldn’t be sure.

               When he got into the bedroom, it was to see a bed so big he actually started to laugh. It defused the little bit of nerves that had built while he was waiting on the others. Genesis looked at him with offense that didn’t touch his eyes.

               “You try finding room for four large men.”

               “How did you even manage to get that thing in here?”

               “Very careful maneuvering,” Angeal said.

               Sephiroth trailed a hand over his hips and went to go sit with the others, pausing briefly to kiss Genesis.

               Cloud was left feeling very put on the spot and unsure of himself. Three naked SOLDIERs staring at him. Why had he asked them to get undressed first? What was he supposed to do now? Strip tease? He didn’t even know how to do that. He took his clothes off between shots, never for the camera, and for a good reason. He was certain this was going to be awkward. There was no way he was going to end up looking as good as the men watching him no matter what he did. He was going to disappoint. Gaia, maybe it wasn’t too late to just leave them all to each other and escape before he managed to ruin what they had already deigned to give him.

               “Y’know, I can basically hear you working yourself into knots.”

               Shit. He’d forgotten Zack was behind him.

               Zack came around to his side, took a hold of his shoulders and made him face him, their profiles to the other SOLDIERs. When Cloud glanced at them, Zack took his chin and made him look at him.

               “You didn’t have any nerves when you got here. Why now?”

               “When I got here, I didn’t see…”

               “They’re gorgeous, I know. As much as I wanted them, they freaked me out a little too when they first brought me here.”

               Cloud blinked in surprise, forgetting, for a moment, to be nervous.

               “But you’re a SOLDIER. You do brave things all the time, and you look like that.”

               Zack shook his head.

               “I was less nervous facing my first Grand Horn, and muscles aren’t the only way to be attractive. No matter what I look like, they’re beautiful, and they’re legends, right?”

               Genesis opened his mouth to protest, but both Angeal and Sephiroth took a hold of each of his wrists. There was something important happening here, something that they would ruin if they interrupted.

               “Right,” Cloud agreed quietly. “But so are you.”

               “I wasn’t, then. Just some brat that caught their eye for Gaia knows what reason.”

               It hit home a little too hard for Cloud.

               “But,” Zack continued, a look of rare seriousness on his face, “if I’ve learned anything, it’s that they don’t do anything without being sure of it. Whatever they saw in me, it didn’t matter that I didn’t see it myself. They had made up their minds. They had their reasons. I could have done anything that night, made any one of a thousand screw-ups, and it wouldn’t have mattered, because they had already decided I was worth it. No matter what happened, they would have forgiven me for it, and still wanted me after. Hell, I’m sure I did screw up, but it was such a blur, I can’t remember it right, and they think it’s funny not to give me details. But the details don’t matter, Cloud. I was safe with them before I even walked in the door. There was nothing I should have been afraid of, because there was no way I was going to lose anything. The only place to go was up.”

               Cloud watched him closely, saw that he meant each word. This wasn’t something he’d ever heard Zack talk about. It was something private, that meant something to him, and he was letting Cloud see it. Cloud still didn’t fully believe their position was comparable. He couldn’t be sure, but he was relatively confident Zack was only brought to their bed after they’d established a romantic relationship. There were different feelings tying them together than what they had with Cloud. Besides, Zack was Zack and Cloud was Cloud. He knew damn well why the Firsts would want Zack, but he still couldn’t see why they would want him.

               But he did know that they had gone through a lot of trouble to make sure he knew that they did.

               Zack watched the realization slowly dawn over his face and said, “Do you understand?”

               Cloud nodded carefully, saying, “I think so.”

               “You’re safe, too, as safe as I was. You can trust us. There’s nothing that you can do tonight that will make us throw you away after. Nothing.”

               Cloud leaned up slowly and pressed a soft kiss to Zack’s lips.

               “Thank you. I think I believe you.”

               Zack reached up and, after glancing up at Cloud to make sure it was okay, began slowly undoing the buttons of his shirt.

               “I’d rather you be sure, but I’ll take it.”

               Cloud laughed a little, the sound nervous, and said, “I think that might be as good as you’re gonna get right now.”

               Zack leaned down to kiss him and said, “It’s enough.”

               Cloud placed his hands on Zack’s hips and let him slowly undress him, revealing inch by inch the lace bodysuit he was wearing underneath. It had thin straps and a diamond shaped cut out that revealed the flat plane of his stomach. Zack pushed the button down off his shoulders, letting it fall to the floor.

               “You always have to tease, don’t you?”

               Cloud smiled a little and tilted his head to the side.

               “What’s the point of having all this lingerie if I can’t use it when it counts?”

               Zack laughed, the sound a little quieter than usual, but there was a strange hush in the air that it felt wrong to break. There was definitely a thread of heat to it, but the act of undressing Cloud had become almost reverential. His fingers were careful as he went about undoing his jeans and crouched down to pull his shoes and socks off one by one. He reached up and slowly pulled the pants down, finding he was almost peeling them off with how tight they were. As he stood, he ran his hands up Cloud’s legs, then up his sides, coming to frame his face and kiss him softly.

               “There. How are you feeling?”

               Cloud smiled at him, the look a little softer than it should be, given what they were intending to do.

               “Safe.”

               It was like the whole room released a breath it had been holding. They’d all expected some form of backsliding from Cloud, that they’d have to remind him that they cared even if they had proven it to him by now. Him to feel safe with them, like he could trust them, was what they had needed to continue.

               Genesis cleared his throat loudly and pointedly, drawing all eyes back to him.

               “Get over here and bring him with you. I’m tired of waiting,” Genesis said, but his tone was light, letting Cloud know that he wasn’t actually upset.

               “Yes, sir!” Zack said, snapping a salute that was absolutely pristine and earned a laugh from Cloud. Angeal relaxed a little further at the sound.

               Genesis hummed and said, “I’m going to have to get you to call me ‘sir’ when I’m holding your leash.”

               Zack frowned, but took Cloud by the hand and led him toward the bed.

               “We’re not talking about the leash right now.”

               “You’re right, I suppose. You’re very lucky that tonight is about Cloud.”

               Cloud frowned, but let Zack push him gently into Genesis’s lap, which he straddled, setting his hands on the man’s shoulders for balance.

               “You all keep saying that, every time. Why is it always about me?”

               “Because we like to give to you,” Angeal said, curving his hand around the back of Cloud’s neck and drawing him in for a kiss over Genesis’s shoulder.

               “And because we see each other all the time, and you are a rare treat. When we finally get the opportunity to, we want to focus on you,” Sephiroth explained. When Cloud pulled away to look at him, he found that Zack had slipped onto the bed and behind him, his hands running over Sephiroth’s chest.

               “So, when I’m less new, you’ll finally let me out of the spotlight?”

               “Does it bother you?” Genesis asked, his hands sliding onto Cloud’s hips. “Being in the spotlight.”

               Cloud shook his head and said, “No, I do kinda like it. But you all keep giving to me, and never let me give back. I want to.”

               Genesis hummed and kissed him lightly, promising, “In time. For now, I have an important question for you.”

               “What’s that?”

               Genesis slipped his fingers under the bodysuit.

               “Do you mind if this gets dirty? I want to fuck you in it.”

               Cloud went still. It was an incredibly hot image. He looked over and saw Angeal watching with interest.

               “Won’t that be difficult? It covers the relevant bits.”

               Genesis reached down and pulled the crotch of the bodysuit to one side, freeing Cloud’s stiffening cock. He ran his fingers between Cloud’s legs, over his perineum, over his entrance, being sure it was entirely to the side. When he pulled his hand back out, he traced the same path, but this time dragged his fingers over Cloud’s length on the way up.

               “Now it’s not.”

               Carefully, Cloud rolled his hips, grinding them together, repeating the process over and over again.

               “I don’t mind, but if you’re going to do it, I want to be a mess by the time we’re done.”

               “So you do have a thing for people coming on you,” Sephiroth said. “I thought it might have just been that you wanted that photo.”

               “Well, that too, but I do like it,” he said, leaning over to kiss Sephiroth, who met him half way. He spoke against his mouth, but loud enough that they could all hear, “If anyone comes, and it isn’t on me or inside me, they’re going to owe me.”

               “Owe you what?” Angeal asked.

               “A load. I choose where it goes.”

               “Oh no,” Genesis drawled. “What a terrible punishment.”

               “Why,” Cloud asked, “are you being sarcastic when you could be inside me?”

               “You are demanding, aren’t you?” Genesis said, pressing his hips up to meet Cloud’s.

               Cloud gave him a grin that said he wasn’t sorry.

               “More than one person has called me a brat.”

               “We’ll see what being bratty earns you.”

               In a flash, Genesis had grabbed him by the hips and tossed him. He landed perfectly in the center of the mattress, his head against the pillows. Before he could catch his breath from the surprise of being thrown, Genesis was there again. Cloud grinned, breathless, and reached between them to take Genesis in hand.

               “What, you finally gonna teach me a lesson?”

               “Few people dare to goad me into anything, and for very good reason.”

               “Hmm, I dunno, I think more people would if it would get you to hurry up and fuck them.”

               Zack tapped Genesis’s shoulder, who didn’t even look over, just held his hand out. Zack pressed the bottle of lube into his hand and then grinned down at Cloud, pausing to kiss him. It lasted longer than the others so far had, and pulled what breath he had remaining out of his chest. Before it ended, Genesis had pressed two fingers inside him, making him whine into Zack’s mouth. When he pulled away, Cloud was panting.

               “I warned you, like, so many times. You’re playing with fire.”

               “You’re just saying that because Gen looks good in red,” Cloud said, but his words faltered occasionally. Genesis wasn’t being rough, but he wasn’t quite being gentle, either. He was relentless in pressing his fingers in and out of Cloud.

               “While that is definitely true, I’m saying it because you’re gonna get it, Cloudy.”

               “If this is what it takes to get you guys to stop treating me like I’m made of glass, then I’ll have to start being even brattier.”

               Genesis pressed a third finger inside, and it didn’t quite burn, but Cloud could definitely feel himself stretching. Good. He didn’t need them to take their time being gentle with him. He didn’t want them to. Now that he was certain they would still want him when they were done, he’d be happy to take it a little rough. He certainly was never as gentle with himself as they liked to be.

               He watched as Angeal appeared at his side. He reached over and took Zack by the chin, drawing him into a kiss, while reaching down with his free hand to begin stroking Cloud, who was more than happy to watch. They looked good together, and this time, he didn’t feel out of place. Maybe it was because he was literally in the center of them all, but he felt like he belonged with them. There was no way for him to feel lost when they surrounded him, ready to pull him back the second he started to drift away.

               Cloud watched curiously as Sephiroth grabbed Zack by the shoulders and pulled him away, Angeal taking the hint and leaning back as well. It gave him a clear view of Genesis, who spread his legs wider and leaned down over top of him. He kissed him, hard and deep, and then pressed his tip against Cloud’s entrance. He pulled away for a second, looking down at Cloud in askance, waiting for a nod before pressing inside slowly.

               Cloud moaned, long and drawn out, for every inch that slid inside. Genesis didn’t stop and wait for him to adjust the way Zack had, but he did give him time by keeping his thrusts painfully slow, even if they were deep. Genesis dipped his head and began to mouth at Cloud’s neck, which at this point was almost hypersensitive from all the tender spots littering it. He brought his arms up to pull Genesis closer, tossing his head back, doing his best to fall into rhythm and meet each thrust.

               It wasn’t quite what he had expected. Genesis had been threatening to “give it to him,” and Cloud thought that meant hard and rough and fast and deep, none of which he was opposed to. It was deep, and sometimes the thrusts came so hard their hips slapped together, but somehow, it managed to still be gentle. It wasn’t rough in the slightest. It was sensuous, the way Genesis led them through this. There was nothing bruising about it. Cloud wasn’t sure what they were doing could even be called fucking, but whatever it was had become incredibly passionate. There was the overwhelming sense of some feeling in the air, but Cloud couldn’t put his finger on what exactly it was. There was want, yes, a terrible amount of it, but there was also something else. Whatever it was, Genesis seemed to be trying to press it into his skin, bury it deep inside him, be sure he pulled it in with every desperate breath. Cloud had joked about Genesis teaching him a lesson, but something was being taught here, it just wasn’t that Cloud’s place was submitting to Genesis. It was about this unknowable thing in the air, and Cloud thought he was starting to understand, even if he couldn’t name it. He just knew that he was filled to the brim with it and that if Genesis went on much longer, he would overflow.

               “Gen,” he barely managed to breath.

               “I know, love.”

               And Cloud’s breath stopped in his chest.

               Genesis had never called him “love” before. “Dear,” yes. “Dearest,” even. But never “love.” He hadn’t known that was an endearment the man used. The thought crossed his mind then, that it must be something he saved for his boyfriends, but he had to bury it quickly, insisting to himself that he saved it for people he took to bed, before he dared to look too closely at that first thought. It almost made him afraid, that word. Terrified, almost, because what if that was the name of whatever had been building in the air between him and Genesis?

               He couldn’t think about it, largely because Genesis, who hadn’t even realized what he said, reached between them and began stroking Cloud, who found every last thought knocked clean out of his head.

               He could hear himself start to babble, but couldn’t stop it, couldn’t find a way to stop the endless litany that was nothing more than Genesis’s name, said like a prayer.

               His hips jerked up and he curled forward, pressing his forehead to Genesis’s as he came, hard, still holding onto the man desperately. It was an incredibly long moment before the aftershocks ended and he slumped back against the bed, breathing raggedly.

               Genesis’s thrusts were becoming erratic, his rhythm faltering, as he reached up and pushed the hair from Cloud’s eyes. Cloud gave him a feather-down smile and leaned into the touch, and his eyes were so affectionate, and that alone got Genesis to spill inside him.

               Genesis didn’t know what to make of that. Coming, from a look of fondness? What the hell did that mean? He didn’t get a chance to look at it too closely because Cloud reached up and mirrored his gesture, brushing the hair out of his eyes.

               Genesis pulled out of him and sat back on his heels. Cloud released his legs, from where they had been locked around his hips.

               “Gaia, it is heady, being with you.”

               Cloud tilted his head, his brow furrowing.

               “I don’t get what you mean.”

               “I do,” Zack said. Cloud looked over to find Sephiroth with his fingers buried in Zack, who was leaning fully back against his chest. He was watching with eyes full of some emotion Cloud couldn’t name. Maybe it was the same one that had been in the air. “You’ve got this way about you, when someone’s inside you. I think you finally stop thinking. You get so wrapped up in it. It is heady, to have someone so focused on you, to have someone trusting you so much and not try to hide it.”

               If Cloud wasn’t flushed from exertion, he would be from that comment.

               “All I’m doing is lying there,” Cloud protested.

               “You do so much more, I don’t know how you manage it without being aware of what you’re doing,” Genesis said, looking down at him, shaking his head.

               “I don’t do anything.”

               “Maybe that’s what it is, then. You finally stop trying so hard.”

               Cloud pouted.

               Angeal laughed and reached a hand out to Cloud, who took it, and let the man pull him up to his knees. Angeal guided him into turning around and leaning back against his chest, the hard line of him pressed to Cloud’s ass.

               “We all like seeing you for you,” Angeal said into his ear, trailing his fingertips over Cloud’s thighs.

               “While I wholeheartedly agree, you should give him a moment, Angeal,” Genesis said, sprawling out to lay with his head against Sephiroth’s thigh. “He’ll be sensitive right now.”

               “He likes it when you keep going while he’s sensitive,” Sephiroth said helpfully.

               “Is that true, Cloud?”

               Cloud couldn’t quite get himself to admit it. He nodded instead.

               “Do you want to keep going, then?” Angeal asked, this time letting his hands stray toward his inner thigh.

               “Yes,” Cloud managed to get out this time.

               Angeal pressed a careful kiss to his neck, and then himself against Cloud’s entrance. He waited for a long moment, until Cloud finally caught his breath, before easing himself in, even slower than Genesis had, but not before Cloud felt cum start to trickle down his thighs.

               The mess didn’t seem to bother Angeal one bit, who pressed his hand against Cloud’s collarbone and wrapped his other arm around his waist, holding him close. Cloud felt a little weak after what he’d just done with Genesis, but it didn’t seem to be a problem, because Angeal held him up with ease, no matter how much weight he leaned back against him. He rested his head back against the SOLDIER’s shoulder and relaxed as much as he could.

               It was far too much, in the best way. Angeal found the right angle, making Cloud jerk and gasp in his arms when he did, and insisted on keeping it. Pleasure tore through every single nerve, and Cloud knew that if his body was able at the moment, he’d be hard as a rock. It was overwhelming.

               When Cloud tried to press back and meet Angeal half way, a hand came around his hip and held him in place, Angeal whispering in his ear, “Let me.”

               And Cloud did. He didn’t have to try at all, didn’t have to put in any effort, just let Angeal give him what he would. He pressed in and out of him with inexorable slowness. The way he fucked him wasn’t passionate, the way Genesis had been. This was sitting fireside, your hands extended over the flames, instead of being the fire itself. It was hot tea on a cold day, a blanket around the shoulders. It was strangely comforting, in a way that didn’t quite make sense to Cloud. He hadn’t quite understood what had been brewing in the air between him and Genesis, still didn’t, but it had still fit his understanding of sex. This didn’t, not quite. What they were doing felt good—felt amazing, really—but it seemed to be less about getting off and more about filling some hole inside Cloud that he hadn’t even known he had. It was gentle, and careful, and tender. It was so sweet Cloud could almost taste it on his tongue.

               It seemed to go on forever, Angeal sliding in and out of him, never rushing, never urgent or hurried. It was almost luxurious. It was indulgent. It met a need, yes, but in the way decadent food only technically fixed hunger.

               Cloud was relatively quiet, not because it didn’t feel as good, but because it somehow felt wrong to break the hush in the room if he could help it. That didn’t stop Angeal from wringing out gasps and the occasional whine, but mostly, he just panted in his arms.

               He reached back, grabbing a hold of Angeal’s hair and dragged him down for a kiss, but that strangely didn’t burn either. It just gave him some form of relief that had nothing to do with the way he was now hard again.

               “Cloud,” Angeal whispered when they broke apart, “I’m close. Where…?”

               “Inside me, Angeal, please.”

               Angeal kissed him again, and Cloud got so lost in it, he almost didn’t feel the way Angeal went still, or the rush of warmth inside him. He kissed Cloud through it, and after it, until Cloud pulled away for breath. He slid out of him and lifted him gently (Cloud shivered as he did, still finding that ridiculously attractive), settling him at the headboard. Cloud didn’t protest, instead relaxing where he was set, trying to catch his breath again and letting his eyes fall shut. When he opened them, it was to see Zack sitting cross-legged in front of him. Angeal had moved to the other side of the bed, now holding Genesis, who was ever so slowly stroking Sephiroth.

               “It’s like magic, watching you,” Zack said quietly.

               “Enthralling,” Genesis agreed.

               “I think I know what you both meant, now,” Angeal added, resting his chin on Genesis’s shoulder. “He doesn’t have to do anything at all, but he still finds a way to give you everything.”

               “He’s just… open,” Zack said.

               “I keep telling you all you don’t have to flatter me,” Cloud said with a scowl.

               “We’d be talking this way even if you weren’t here to hear it,” Zack said. “No one’s trying to butter you up. You’re just special. Of course we want to talk about it.”

               Cloud shook his head and spread his legs, determined to distract them out of this topic.

               “Are you going to keep me waiting?”

               Zack leaned forward and pressed his legs closed again, before coming up to straddle his hips.

               “I dunno, maybe I should, until you agree that you’re awesome.”

               “Zack.”

               “You’re lucky I wanna find out something else instead.”

               “What’s that?”

               “If you still do whatever the hell it is you manage to do when you’re inside someone else instead.”

               “… Zack? What?”

               What Zack was suggesting seemed impossible. It hadn’t even occurred to him. He’d wanted each of the Firsts to fuck him, but the reverse hadn’t even seemed like an option.

               “Unless you don’t want to?”

               Cloud bit his lip. He wanted to. He wanted to so much.

               “I won’t be any good at it.”

               “You won’t know until you try.”

               “Zack, it’ll be bad, I’m sure of it. I’ll probably come in like three seconds.”

               “Even if you did, it wouldn’t matter. What’d I tell you at the beginning? No matter what happens, it’ll be okay.”

               “But, I—”

               “Cloud,” Zack said, reaching out to curve his hand around his cheek. “Hey. It’s alright. You’re not going to disappoint me. Nothing you do here could make me change my opinion of you.”

               “… But what if I—”

               “Like I said, doesn’t matter. I want to give this to you. You don’t have to accept, if you don’t want to, but I don’t want you to say no because you’re afraid of how I’ll react to something you do.”

               Cloud thought about it for a long time, and Zack let him take as long as he needed, his fingers tracing patterns in the lace as he waited.

               If Zack was right, then the worst that could happen was that Cloud would do something stupid like come too quickly, and get embarrassed. That was more a problem for him than for anyone else. He thought he could handle that.

               Eventually, Cloud nodded, and the smile Zack gave him was brilliant. It was definitely worth the potential embarrassment, to see that smile.

               Zack lifted himself onto his knees and held Cloud in place before sinking slowly onto him. They moaned at the same time, somehow managing to match pitch. Cloud’s hands came up instantly to grab at Zack’s hips, needing something to hold onto.

               It felt so good it was almost blinding. Zack was warm, and wet, and tight, and Cloud was finding it a little hard to breathe. His hand had nothing on this. No wonder the others liked fucking him so much, if he felt anything like this. He let his head fall back against the pillows. Zack intentionally tightened around him and rolled his hips, tearing a sharp curse out of Cloud. He raised himself on his knees, and the only thing that somehow managed to feel better than that movement was when he lowered himself back down. Cloud whimpered, his hips pressing up. Zack’s hands grabbed his hips and held him in place firmly. No one seemed to want to let him do anything.

               Zack’s pace was faster than Angeal’s had been, but he was no rougher than the others. He seemed entirely focused on making this as good for Cloud as possible, using every trick he knew. When Cloud looked up at him, they locked eyes, and found it impossible to look away. Zack smiled down at him, and Cloud smiled back, giving a breathless little laugh when Zack winked at him. He tried to reach up and start stroking Zack, but his hand was pulled away, placed gently back on Zack’s hips.

               He’d never done this before, but something about it felt familiar. It was in how Zack was looking at him, the crackle of some energy he knew between them. It was light, in a way. It was like smelling something that struck a chord inside you, making you certain that the scent was significant in some way, though you couldn’t place the memory. It was strangely like a homecoming. Cloud felt infinitely safe, in that moment, finally fully believing that Zack was right, that nothing could go wrong that they couldn’t fix. It was a little exhilarating, the feeling of endless possibility, the absolute certainty that it would all be okay no matter what happened.

               Something of what he felt must have been on his face when he smiled, because Zack huffed a little laugh and said, “That’s it, Cloud, that’s just right. Perfect. Exactly.”

               Content that whatever point he’d been trying to get across had been made, Zack finally began stroking himself. He tossed his head back for the first time, groaning, and sped up a little.

               “Zack, I—I’m close,” Cloud warned.

               “Good, I’m not gonna last much longer either.”

               “Are you gonna pull off?”

               “Hell no. I have every intention of wringing every last drop out of you.”

               Cloud let his head fall back, whining, “Fuck, Zack.”

               Zack just laughed, even if it sounded a little breathless.

               When, not much later, Cloud tightened his grip in a final warning, Zack used his free hand to take hold of one of Cloud’s, lacing their fingers together and squeezing. He clamped down on Cloud, and that was it, Cloud crying out as he pumped Zack full. Zack gave a long, contented sigh before coming across Cloud’s chest not much after.

               They looked at each other, and everything felt right, like this was the way it was always meant to be. Zack laughed brightly and leaned down to kiss Cloud, carefully leaning far enough that Cloud slid out of him. When he pulled away, he climbed off Cloud, flopping back with a sigh on the unoccupied side of the bed.

               Cloud caught his breath and then looked pointedly at Sephiroth.

               Sephiroth, oddly enough, looked hesitant.

               “Seph?”

               “Cloud?”

               “What’s the face for?”

               “Perhaps I… shouldn’t.”

               Cloud propped himself up on his elbows, his brow furrowed.

               “Why not?” There was half a beat, and then Cloud’s face lit with understanding, nodding his head. “It’s the mess, isn’t it? Give me a second, I’ll clean up.”

               “We’ve made a far bigger mess before, dear, and it didn’t bother him then,” Genesis said, looking at Sephiroth with curiosity.

               “I’ve… never been with someone unenhanced. I’m concerned I might injure you.”

               “I trust you, Seph, it’ll be okay.”

               “I don’t trust myself.”

               Cloud frowned. There was no way to argue that. He could insist they could just give him a potion after, that he’d heal up just fine, but he didn’t think Sephiroth would forgive himself if it came to that.

               “I don’t need to. We can do something else. Or just go to sleep, if you’d like.”

               Cloud gave him a look that said that was absolutely unacceptable.

               Then realization passed over his face.

               “Then we’ll do it so you don’t have to trust yourself. You just have to trust me.”

               “… Cloud?”

               Cloud shifted to his knees and scooted back, patting the spot he’d left.

               “Come here.”

               Sephiroth went without a fuss, coming to sit in the spot Cloud had left. Cloud guided him gently, arranging him until he was lying on his back, Cloud straddling his hips, much as Zack had done him.

               Cloud slid his hand up Sephiroth’s chest and leaned down to kiss the look of uncertainty away.

               “Can you lie still?”

               “I can.”

               “Then just relax, and there’s nothing to worry about.”

               Cloud did what he remembered Zack doing and held Sephiroth still before lowering himself onto him. He whined as he did so, feeling oversensitive again, and listened to the sound of Sephiroth slowly breathing out.

               He rode him slowly at first but picked up speed gradually, his hands planted firmly on Sephiroth’s chest for balance. Sephiroth kept his hands carefully placed on Cloud’s hips, as if almost afraid to touch. Despite the fact that he had cum all over his chest and thighs, Sephiroth was treating him like he was something pristine. It made him wonder what in the hell he saw when he looked at him. He knew he was probably red in the face from exertion, sweaty, he could feel a few strands of hair sticking to his face, and he was certainly breathing hard. It couldn’t be attractive, and definitely wasn’t pretty the way he usually was. In his sets, he always made sure he looked as close to perfect as possible, like a painting. He was very, very far from that right now, inelegant, dirty, and disheveled. He certainly wasn’t pristine. But he might have been an angel, for the way Sephiroth was looking at him.

               This was different, than what he’d done with the others, partially because he was the one in control at the moment. Cloud knew, instinctively, that this was not something Sephiroth allowed most people to do. Everything about him said he was not a man that yielded control easily. But he went pliant under Cloud’s fingers, yielded when he simply asked. He was a man that gave orders, not took them, but he let Cloud tell him what to do. Cloud was sure that, in that moment, he could have asked for the moon, and Sephiroth would find a way to reach into the sky and get it for him.

               The others had been focused on giving Cloud pleasure. And while riding Sephiroth definitely felt good, he was letting Cloud give to him instead. And that in itself felt like a gift. He was giving Cloud something precious, something rare, something that mattered infinitely more than an orgasm.

               Genesis had made him feel wanted. Angeal had made him feel safe. Zack had made him feel like he belonged.

               Sephiroth made him feel like he was trusted.

               It was faith Cloud saw in his eyes when he looked down at him, faith that he could let Cloud have this power over him and that nothing bad would come of it. He wouldn’t try to get him to do anything he didn’t want, try to control him, or possess him, or lord it over him, or even brag about it to others. He trusted that he could let Cloud do whatever he wanted with him, and they’d only come out on the other side better for it.

               Very, very few people relied on Cloud. He wasn’t really close enough to most people for anyone to trust him. It felt precious, that Sephiroth would do so. It would have meant the world, no matter who he had been, but it was a gift beyond the world, reaching to the stars, that this man, who found so much difficulty trusting anyone, trusted Cloud.

               When Sephiroth’s breath was ragged, he finally said, “Cloud, I—”

               “Please.”

               And Sephiroth found it impossible to deny Cloud anything, especially when he looked at him with doe eyes and a fond smile and asked for it like it was the only thing in the world he wanted.

               He finally moved, his hips pressing up, burying himself deep in Cloud as he came. Cloud tilted his head back and sighed happily at the feeling.

               When Sephiroth relaxed back against the bed, Cloud looked down at him with a smile as he pulled off him.

               With utmost sincerity, he said, “Thank you.”

               Sephiroth looked at him in confusion, having no idea what he was being thanked for.

               Cloud looked around at the other three and said, “All of you. Thank you. Seriously. This was—like a dream.”

               “There’s nothing to thank us for, Cloud,” Angeal said, shaking his head.

               Cloud, whose thighs had been shaking for a while now, was shaking hard enough that sitting up on his knees was difficult. Sephiroth picked him up and moved over, placing Cloud in the center of the bed. He held his hand out, and Angeal passed him tissues as Cloud spoke.

               “There is. I just—I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay you for tonight. I don’t think I could even start to.”

               “Hush, Cloud,” Sephiroth muttered, beginning to help him out of the filthy bodysuit. “It was our pleasure.”

               Cloud seemed ready to protest, certain he hadn’t got his point across, but Sephiroth gave him a look that said he understood perfectly. After all, it hadn’t been so long ago that Genesis and Angeal had taken him to bed for the first time, and he’d felt like he’d been handed the world.

               Cloud nodded slowly, and Sephiroth did the thing where he smiled but only with his eyes before tossing the bodysuit to the floor and cleaning Cloud up. Cloud tried to help, but his hand was gently pushed back to the bed. He stopped fighting it and allowed Sephiroth to do what he would, lying back against the bed, feeling boneless, content, and exhausted. He tried to fight back a yawn and failed.

               Angeal took that as his cue. He pulled himself away from Genesis, kissing the man before he left, and went to get the downy comforter that had been set to the side to spare it any messes. By the time he got back, all tissues were discarded, and Genesis was lying behind Sephiroth, who was lying at Cloud’s side, with Zack curled up on his other. Angeal thought it was a little odd that Genesis wasn’t trying to be closer to the middle, as he usually did, but wrote it off as him continuing his insistence that tonight was about Cloud. He draped the blanket over them all and climbed into bed after he turned the lights off. He wrapped an arm around Zack’s waist and pressed a kiss to the back of his neck, before beginning the usual chorus of good night’s. Cloud’s was the last, sounding bone-tired but immensely happy.

               When he thought everyone was asleep, he whispered, “Happy birthday to me.”

               He hadn’t accounted on SOLDIER hearing.

               Sephiroth’s arm tightened around his waist, and Zack shot up in bed.

               “It’s your birthday?”

               Cloud knew he was blushing, but hoped it was too dark with the lights out for anyone to tell.

               “Yeah.”

               “Why didn’t you say anything!”

               “Because I didn’t want you to make a big deal out of it, which you would have. Besides, I don’t know if you could have gotten me a better present than tonight.”

               The last part did much to assuage Zack, but he still frowned.

               “I’m still going to throw you a party. And get you a gift. Now it’s just gonna be late.”

               “Zack, you don’t have to do either. I don’t even like parties, and you don’t know the only person I’d want you to invite.”

               “Lay back down, puppy. We’ll figure out something to do for him later,” Angeal said.

               Cloud groaned and said, “Not you too.”

               “Accept your fate, Cloud. They’re like this with everyone’s birthday,” Sephiroth mumbled.

               “This is why I didn’t say anything.”

               “Well, too late now.”

               Cloud cursed under his breath, which made Angeal laugh as he tugged Zack back down. They all settled back into a sleepy pile.

               Genesis wasn’t as close to Sephiroth’s back as he could be, though he knew he would curl closer in his sleep. Everyone else was beginning to drift off to sleep, but he found himself wide awake, mind turning furiously and getting nowhere.

               Something very odd had happened tonight. Something that hadn’t happened in quite a while.

               Genesis was certain he only noticed because he had his turn with Cloud first. Once he was sated, he had settled in to watch the others gleefully. But what he saw grew stranger and stranger as it went. He kept looking to the others, but no one was giving him the same look in return. No one seemed concerned.

               This wasn’t the first time they’d brought someone to their bed that they had to reassure. Their status simply intimidated people, even fellow SOLDIERs. Perhaps them even more so, because they were technically their commanding officers. Cloud had taken more care than was usual, that was true, but it didn’t explain what had happened. Neither did the fact that they were friends with him. They were always friends with the people they brought to bed. Given, Cloud was a little closer than most, but the SOLDIERs had the unique bond of being comrades-in-arms going for them, and Genesis felt that evened the playing field. Even if it didn’t, that didn’t explain what had happened, either.

               Genesis was intimately familiar with how his partners looked when they had romantic feelings for someone. He saw it every day when they looked at one another. He knew the way they touched someone they cared for that way, how they kissed them, the way they moved in bed when they felt that way. It was exactly what he had seen tonight, with Cloud.

               They touched him like they loved him. They kissed him like they loved him. They didn’t even fuck him, not really—they made love.

               It was not what they had discussed.

               But no one seemed to realize what they were doing. They were all too focused on Cloud. He didn’t know what Cloud looked like when he was in love, but the way he looked at the others made Genesis think the feelings weren’t one-sided.

               He’d had half a mind to put a stop to everything, to interrupt and demand they at least talk about things before they went any further, since this had strayed into territory that was not what they had agreed upon. But he had to be certain about what he saw, that it wasn’t just some trick of the eye. But if seeing each of them actually with Cloud didn’t convince him, seeing their expressions as they watched the others with him would have done it. They had feelings. They just didn’t know it yet.

               Genesis wanted to feel jealous. And it had been a long time, since he’d last felt that particular emotion—the longing for jealousy. The last time had been when, much like tonight, he’d looked around and saw love on his boyfriend’s expressions while looking at someone they were not dating. That night had been a movie night with Zack, not them in bed, that was true, but the feeling was the same. That night, he had wanted to be furious with Zack, but he hadn’t been able to. It had taken him a long time to figure out that he hadn’t felt jealous, because he cared for Zack in much the same way.

               That, in the end, was what had prevented Genesis from putting a stop to the night. He’d have to think on it—he suspected he’d spend the rest of the night doing so—but he had an inkling that perhaps he, too, loved Cloud. And if he did, and they all loved each other, then there was nothing wrong with what they were doing. It wasn’t what they discussed, no, but the heart did what it wanted without its owner’s consent. He couldn’t stop everything and demand a discussion when he wasn’t even sure how he felt. If he ended the night, and he realized later that he did love Cloud, then he would regret ruining the night forever. If he didn’t, then he still got a spectacular night with Cloud, and they would just have to do some renegotiating to figure out how things would work from here on out.

               Genesis had never claimed to be a particularly ethical man; that was Angeal. He wasn’t above doing something morally wrong to get his way. He was greedy, and selfish, and impatient—he knew that about himself, and wouldn’t apologize for any of it. He had wanted this night with Cloud, even if it got complicated, and he wasn’t going to deny himself because of the risk of future complications. He didn’t regret not ending things, and he would have difficulty apologizing for it, if the others were mad later when they had the inevitable discussion about it.

               And they would have the discussion soon. But it would have to be after Cloud left. He wouldn’t get his hopes up by letting him know it was a possibility, if he couldn’t actually offer a place in their relationship to him. Not when he was almost certain Cloud had feelings for them. It would be cruel, to have him there for the talk.

               It was something that couldn’t be resolved until tomorrow at the earliest, so Genesis decided not to worry about it. He focused instead on teasing apart his own feelings, trying to figure out where he stood, so he would be prepared himself when the discussion did come.

               He was going to sacrifice a night of sleep to do it, he was sure, and that was something he usually refused to do. But this seemed too important to wait.

               Cloud was worth a sleepless night. He was worth much more than just that.

               And that, Genesis thought, was the problem at hand.

Chapter Text

               Cloud ended up waking up at some point in the middle of the night. His sleep schedule had gone down the toilet after he had been fired, finding it hard to haul himself out of bed without somewhere to be, and even harder to get himself in it when he wasn’t tired, just because he should. It ended up with things entirely skewed. Some days he woke with the dawn. Some days he woke with the dusk. Other days he took two three hour naps and called it good enough. He thought tonight was looking like the latter, that this was apparently good enough rest for him. Despite the way his body ached pleasantly, he didn’t feel tired anymore.

               He could go home, but he didn’t want to, and he didn’t think the others would want him to either. His first instinct was to get on his PHS to kill time until the others woke, but he was coming to understand just how sensitive SOLDIER senses were, and he was certain the light of his screen would wake them, if him fumbling around looking for it didn’t. He decided, instead, to daydream. He had plenty of new material, after all.

               He snuggled down into the warmth of the bed with a pleasant sigh, replaying the night. He skipped to the part where Zack had reassured him, not really wanting to think about the awkward moment that made that reassurance necessary. He smiled softly, remembering the teasing, the threats of things that he didn’t mind at all, even the following through of them.

               He tried, now that he had time to ponder it, to figure out what exactly had been in the air between him and Genesis. His first guess was want, but he was familiar with what that felt like now, and that hadn’t quite been it. He knew it wasn’t simple friendship. Could have been affection, but that didn’t seem quite right, either. He was turning over idea after idea that grew increasingly more ridiculous until, unbidden, Genesis’s words from the night before replayed in his ear.

               “I know, love.”

               He’d thought, in the moment after that line, that it was an endearment he saved for his boyfriends, before he buried the idea. His next thought had been that maybe that was the name of what had been brewing between them, but before he’d really considered it, Genesis had knocked the idea out of his head.

               He wasn’t there to distract him now, and Cloud’s mind came to a screeching halt.

               Love.

               Everything slid into place, like the stars aligning. Just why it had mattered so much to him that they care, and didn’t just want to fuck him. Why he was so desperate for them to take care of him. Why he needed their affection like he needed air. Why he’d felt so hurt when he saw Zack and Sephiroth kiss that first time. Why he was so afraid of being left behind.

               Gaia, he loved them.

               Oh, no.

               Cloud shot up like a bolt and scrambled out of bed, almost falling as he tripped over the blanket.

               Three SOLDIERs shot up as he had. Angeal and Zack were watching, but not really understanding yet, their minds still waking up even if their bodies had responded, trained by war to answer the smallest stimulus. Sephiroth, who never really experienced a state of being half-awake, was watching Cloud closely, a furrow in his brow.

               Genesis sat up slowly, having still been awake.

               “Cloud?” Sephiroth asked.

               “Fuck, fucking fuck, godsdamn—shit.”

               “Cloud, what’s wrong?” he tried again.

               “I—I fucked up, that’s what’s wrong. Gaia, how could I be so stupid? I’m an idiot! I was so blind, how did I not see it? It was right there! From the beginning! I know I’m slow on the uptake sometimes but this is ridiculous, even for me.”

               “What are you talking about?” Zack asked, half-asleep and not understanding.

               Cloud was scrambling to try and find his clothes in the dark and not having much success. He finally managed to find his shirt and pants and began wiggling into his bottoms.

               “I’m the world’s biggest moron, that’s what I’m talking about. I can’t believe this, I can’t believe I would do something like this. I took advantage of you, I—I betrayed your trust, and—I down and out spat on everything you’ve ever tried to give me, I’m so fucking stupid.

               “Cloud, you’re not making any sense,” Zack tried again, slowly waking up but still not grasping what Cloud was talking about.

               Pants on, Cloud pulled his arms through the shirt, leaving it unbuttoned as he searched for his shoes.

               Sephiroth looked around at the others, unsure of what to do. He ended up doing a double take when he looked at Genesis, who was watching Cloud with sad but knowing eyes.

               “I knew the rules from the start, you’ve always been upfront and honest with me, and I wanted to do the same, but apparently I can’t even be trusted with that much, and you all let me so close to you, and I always knew I wasn’t good enough, but I can’t believe I’m the kind of person who would do this. You never should have looked at me twice. You should have turned around and left the first time I told you I wasn’t enough, you should have taken me at my word, it would have spared us all this whole mess.”

               “Cloud, slow down,” Zack said, fully awake and concerned now as he watched Cloud shove a shoe on with no sock, still trying to find the other.

               Sephiroth was still trying to read on Genesis’s face whatever the hell he knew that they didn’t.

               “No, I—I have to get out of here, I should never have come in the first place, I—” Cloud paused, realizing now that he was almost hyperventilating. He pressed his hands to his face and took one deep breath, ignoring the way his hands shook.

               “Cloud, please, we can fix whatever this is, just tell us what’s going on.”

               Cloud barked a laugh, but it was hard and bitter. He dropped his hands and looked around again, finally finding his other shoe.

               “No, Zack, no we can’t fix this, I ruined everything. You’re never going to want to see me again, and I don’t blame you, not even a little. I’ll delete your numbers out of my PHS as soon as I’m home, you won’t have to hear from me ever again. Gaia, I hope you never forgive me for this, I don’t deserve it.”

               Zack’s face lit with panic and he began climbing out of bed, only to be stopped when Sephiroth’s hand shot out and caught his wrist, his eyes still pinned on Genesis. Zack looked down at his wrist, over to Sephiroth, and tried to tug free, but Sephiroth had always been stronger than him, and he wasn’t budging.

               “Wait, Cloud, just wait, we can—”

               “I’m so fucking stupid,” Cloud said, dashing out the door and slamming it behind him, his shirt still unbuttoned and shoes untied. He didn’t bother trying to find the bodysuit, or his socks, or his scarf. The others could throw them out whenever they realized what he had done—and they would, they were too smart not too. He felt guilty—guiltier—for giving them one more thing to clean up, one more scrap of him they would have to try and erase from their lives when they washed him off their skin and deleted every piece of him off their laptops and PHS’s.

               Cloud bolted through the apartment and out the front door to the elevator, where he pressed the button a dozen times before it arrived. It was blessedly empty at this hour, and he stepped inside. He breathed out a shaking breath, determined that he wasn’t going to let himself cry in Shinra Tower of all places, and began buttoning his shirt and tying his shoes.

               Gaia. He loved them. It was the one thing that had always, always been off limits. He’d known that from the start. That was the one, single, solitary rule. That was the only thing they asked him for, that he respect their relationship and their boundaries. They only let him into their bed because he didn’t have feelings for them and wasn’t going to try and worm his way into their relationship. They’d been concerned that he would develop feelings after sleeping with Zack, and they had been right to be worried, even if they hadn’t understood that he would develop feelings for all of them. It was just one more way he betrayed them. He convinced them he was a safe person, then took advantage of their trust to indulge himself. He lied to them to get himself into a position they never would have allowed him in if they had known. It didn’t matter to him that he hadn’t been aware of what he was doing. He should have been. It would have been obvious to anyone with eyes. It wasn’t their fault he just took the title for Gaia’s Biggest Moron. They took him at his word, that he wouldn’t get attached, that he would stay within the limits, that he wouldn’t try to take more than they could give. They afforded him liberties they wouldn’t have if they had known, liberties Cloud had always known he didn’t deserve.

               They had each other. All they needed was each other. He’d always known that. They’d always been clear about that. They loved each other, and as much as they might like Cloud, it was never going to be the same thing. He had no right to expect anything else. He had no right to tell them what they wanted to hear just to get closer, to trick them into trusting him. He had no right. They were going to be furious, and hate him, and never forgive him, and he deserved it. Even if they wanted to give him a second chance, or try and figure out a new way to make things work between them, he would turn them away. He’d taken too much from them already.

               The elevator door dinged open, and Cloud crossed to the lower elevator, getting inside. There was a skeleton crew still present, and they tracked him with their eyes, but he couldn’t be bothered to care about the hickeys on his neck or his sex-mussed hair. What did it matter, what they thought? He’d never be coming back to the Tower again anyway.

               He got into the other elevator and pulled out his PHS. 3:42am. It was late, and he was shitty for making the call, but he couldn’t not. He didn’t deserve it, but he really, really didn’t want to be alone right now.

               “Cloud?” Aeris asked when she picked up the phone, her voice thick with sleep. It was clear he woke her up.

               “Aeris, I—I’m sorry to wake you up, but can I—can I see you?”

               “Of course, Cloud, what’s wrong?”

               “Nothing, I—”

               “If it wasn’t obvious from your voice, I’d know from the fact that it’s almost four in the morning that something’s wrong.”

               “I—” His breath hitched, in a way that threatened tears. He sucked in a breath and blew it out slowly, until only his hands trembled. “I fucked up, Aeris. I fucked up bad. I think I just ruined the best thing I’ve ever had.”

               “I’m sure it can be fixed.”

               “It really can’t, not this time. It was fragile from the start, and I broke it into a million pieces.”

               “Why do I think you’re not talking about an object?”

               “Because I’m not. I—I can’t give you details, Aeris, it’s not my secret to share—I would have told you by now, I wanted to tell you, so bad, but I can’t. I betrayed their trust bad enough. I can’t make it worse.”

               “Hey, that’s okay, Cloud, it’s alright. You don’t have to tell me anything. Why don’t you meet me at the church? You’ll feel better with your hands in some dirt.”

               Cloud coughed a watery little laugh.

               “Aeris, I think that’s just you.”

               “Can’t hurt to try, right? It will help for you to take care of something living. You won’t hurt the flowers, you never do. You only ever help.”

               “What can I say? My two talents are porn and gardening,” Cloud said, the sarcasm coming out hard and bitter.

               “Cloud.”

               He sighed.

               “I know, I know. I’ll see you soon, okay? Thank you. I know I shouldn’t have asked in the middle of the night.”

               “I’m here for you any time you need me. I’ll be waiting for you.”

               Cloud stepped out of the elevator as he closed his PHS. He walked quickly through the lobby, infinitely glad that Linda’s shift had apparently ended. He didn’t want to face her, not when she would have been doing them all a favor if she managed to turn him away at the door. He kept his head down and his feet quick, not making eye contact with anyone, though he could feel plenty of eyes on him. He pulled the visitor’s badge off his chest and tossed it on the front desk as he passed, not stopping for even a moment. He was out the door as quick as he could be without actually running.

               He made his way down to the train station, but even the sky and fresh air wasn’t enough to make things feel okay again.

               Dozens of stories above him, Sephiroth was staring hard at Genesis.

               “What do you know?” he said, his voice hard in a way it rarely was with his boyfriends. “What could you possibly know that makes what just happened sensible?”

               All eyes turned to Genesis.

               He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. He moved, going to sit at the foot of the bed, facing his partners.

               “I was going to wait until we were all awake and Cloud had left to bring this up. I didn’t realize he’d realize himself what happened. I certainly didn’t think he’d blame himself for it. It seems clear to me that he didn’t do it on purpose.”

               “Do what, Genesis?” Zack snapped, a rare thread of anger in his voice. Cloud had clearly been hurting, when he left, and Zack let him go because of whatever Genesis knew. It went against his very nature to leave a friend so wrecked and not help.

               “Cloud has… feelings, for us.”

               “So what? We all knew he cared. We wouldn’t have brought him here if he just wanted to sleep with our titles.”

               Genesis sighed and said, “No, Zack, he loves us.”

               The only one who didn’t gape at him was Sephiroth, but even he did look surprised.

               Genesis continued, “From what he said, it seems he only just realized, and thinks he somehow tricked us into letting him in our bed under the false pretenses that his feelings only extended to friendship. Never mind that he clearly didn’t know before he leapt out of bed and couldn’t have possibly done it intentionally.”

               “Cloud… loves us?” Zack said, like it was still impossible to him.

               “I hadn’t been sure until he reacted how he did. The only thing I was certain of was the fact that we all love him. We need to figure out what to do about that, before we approach him again.”

               “Wait, hold on, Gen, what?” Angeal asked.

               Genesis sighed with impatience, but looked at them all softly.

               “I know you all quite well. I see, every day, how you interact with men you love. Really, it wasn’t so hard to recognize it in how you were with Cloud. It was obvious, if you know what to look for.”

               Angeal was the first to really understand. He sighed and slid his hand through his hair. He understood, now, why his heart had almost stopped when he saw Cloud smile in his sleep. He understood why he wanted to protect him so badly, to shield him from a word that had been hard to him. It made sense, why it made his heart hurt so badly to see the way Cloud was desperate for affection, and why he could have spent every moment for the rest of his years doing nothing more than treating him softly. He’d fallen in love three times over already. He thought he would have seen the signs sooner than this.

               Sephiroth came next, looking down and hiding behind the fall of his hair. He’d found it impossible to deny Cloud anything. He wanted nothing more than to give him anything he fancied, no matter how small or large, just for the chance to see him happy. He found it startling easy to trust him, when he found it next to impossible to trust anyone. He’d put Angeal and Genesis through the ringer to earn his trust. It had taken Zack quite some time, and he’d only given him the chance because Angeal had vouched for him. But it came as natural as breathing, to let Cloud in. He remembered the way Cloud had smiled at him that first day, and the way his heart had swelled. He’d had an inkling, then, but wrote it off. He regretted that, now. He should have been paying more attention.

               Zack was last, purely because his brain came to a screeching halt at the words. He couldn’t think at all for a long, long moment, and then it all came in a rush. The months of conversation, of learning Cloud slowly, and how it had felt so rewarding to get to know him. How he had been protective over him from the very beginning, fearing for his safety. That it had been Genesis and Angeal to bring up taking him to bed and for Zack to be his first time, because somewhere in Zack’s gut, he knew now, he’d forbidden himself even the idea, because a part of him understood how he felt. How honored and privileged and touched he’d been that Cloud wanted him to be his first. That whole night, how his heart had stuttered in his chest so many times, the butterflies in his stomach, how very crucial it had been to him that Cloud knew he cared. Because he did care, far more than he was ever supposed to. Far more than he would have admitted to himself, knowing it was off limits. He knew, now, that he had loved Cloud for a long time, and he had just told himself otherwise so he wouldn’t have to risk losing him. He cursed quietly, punching the bedspread without feeling.

               Genesis watched them come to their realizations in their own time. He’d had his chance to come to his own, but at least he’d been able to do it in relative privacy. There had been no rude shock of someone pointing his own feelings out to him. But even he was left feeling stupid that it had taken him so long to realize what was obvious in hindsight. He’d spent his time with Cloud tonight trying to press his love into his skin, to say with touch what he hadn’t even been willing to let himself think. He had felt, to use Cloud’s words, “fucking stupid.”

               “So,” Genesis said, now that they all understood. “What do we intend to do about this?”

               “Do?” Zack asked.

               “We only have two options, really. Bring him into the fold, or cut him out entirely. It isn’t really fair to him, or to us, to try and remain friends when we all clearly want more. The only question is, are we willing to risk upsetting our dynamic by adding another member.”

               “Wait, no, hold on,” Zack said, holding up a hand. “Why did you let him run out of here, if you knew? He blames himself, and it’s not his fault. He was miserable, Gen, and we let him leave.”

               “Because we can’t discuss this with him here. It would be cruel, to toss about the idea of having him with us, if we end up deciding against it. If that’s the conclusion we come to, it will be kinder, in the end, to let this be the end of our contact.”

               “We can’t just let him blame himself!”

               “He won’t believe it isn’t his fault unless we tell him we love him, and I won’t tell him that unless we’re welcoming him in. It isn’t right, to dangle what he wants so much in front of him, just to rip it away.”

               “But…”

               Genesis reached out and placed his hand on Zack’s knee.

               “I’m not saying this is definitely the end. I’m saying we have to talk about it.”

               Zack nodded slowly.

               Angeal tapped his finger against his knee and said, “We’ve taken the risk before. You and I risked it adding Sephiroth. The three of us risked it adding Zack. Would this be so different?”

               “We knew both of them longer, and we all share a lifestyle. We have common experiences binding us together. There are many things we understand instinctively that Cloud may never grasp, no matter how much we explain. As much as I care for him, Cloud is very different than we are. I don’t pretend to know how his addition might upset things.”

               “He doesn’t live in the Tower, either,” Sephiroth added. “Part of the ease of our relationship is that we are close to each other at all times. The furthest we live from one another is down the hall. We routinely see each other as a part of our duties. It will be difficult to make him feel included, when he lives below the plate.”

               “Yeah, but isn’t he worth the effort?” Zack asked. They all paused and looked at him. He continued, “I’ll admit, it’ll be a pain in the ass to make it work, but he’s worth it, isn’t it? We can figure out the details with him, find some way to balance everything so no one’s left out.”

               “That doesn’t change the fact that, as much as we all care, our lifestyles simply may not be compatible,” Genesis said slowly.

               Zack huffed and said, “You guys have never dated civilians, you don’t get it. That’s normal. Most people don’t share a job and a home and all their friends. Most couples are two people with lives pretty far divorced from one another that find a way to bring their worlds together because they want to share those things with each other. Yeah, Cloud doesn’t get SOLDIER, but we could introduce him, show him around. He could give us a tour below the plate, introduce us to that friend of his. It’s a risk we didn’t have to take with each other, but it’s something most relationships have to handle.”

               Sephiroth hummed. SOLDIER was his entire world. He understood very little outside of it, and knew almost no one outside the program. Certainly no one, with the exception of Cloud, that wasn’t Shinra affiliated. He didn’t pretend to have a functioning understanding of the average relationship, either. He knew enough to know his was odd, by most standards, but that was the extent of it.

               “I think Zack’s right,” Sephiroth said. “Beyond all of the arguments, I think the simple fact at the heart of it is that I have never known any of us to be cowards. We take risks frequently. We don’t give up because there’s a chance of failure, and we never have. And even if it doesn’t work, and Cloud can’t remain a part of the group, I have full confidence that the four of us could come back together and repair whatever damage was done in the attempt.”

               They all looked at Sephiroth, more than one blinking slowly in surprise.

               He did have a nasty habit of saying bluntly exactly what needed to be said.

               “Then we should try,” Angeal said, smiling. He reached behind Zack and over to take Sephiroth’s hand, who squeezed his lightly.

               “We all agree, then? We want to date Cloud?” Genesis asked, looking around at each of them.

               Zack looked excitedly between all of them, watching the round of nods, before hurrying off the bed.

               “I gotta go call him and see if I can talk him into coming back up. It’ll fix this all, and he won’t have to feel guilty anymore.”

               He looked around the room before remembering they had undressed in the living room and making a break for the hall.

               Genesis watched him over his shoulder as he left and then sighed. He scooted into the center of the bed, Angeal and Sephiroth coming to press against his sides.

               “We’re doing the right thing, aren’t we?” Genesis whispered.

               Angeal kissed his hair and said, “Only one way to find out.”

               Zack came back into the room, holding his PHS, flipping through his contacts until he found the right one. He pressed it to his ear as it rang, mumbling, “C’mon, c’mon…”

               As they had their conversation, Cloud made his way down to the church. Part of him wanted to drag his feet, for no other reason than he felt like shit. Most of him wanted to see Aeris, though, so he hurried. He needed someone safe, right now, safe in a way that the others never had been, no matter what Zack had told him. Zack had been wrong—there was something he could do to ruin the night, and he’d done just that. No, he needed Aeris, who always seemed to understand. Even if she didn’t, she got him to explain, rephrasing over and over again if he had to, until she did. It always seemed to matter, to her, that she truly grasped whatever it was he was getting at. She saw worth in him. It wasn’t the way the others had—they saw value, but pretended his flaws didn’t exist, eager to try and teach him to do the same. They wanted to teach him that he was worth more than he was. Aeris, too, thought he was worth something, but it was different. Over the years, she had seen the very worst of him, and never turned away. No matter what he showed her, she seemed ready to accept it as a part of him. She loved to remind him that those things didn’t make up all of him, that there were good things too, but she never once tried to pretend he was all sunshine and light.

               He knew she probably wouldn’t believe that what had happened was his fault. They both knew he blamed himself for more than was actually responsible for; she’d had to talk him around into seeing he had nothing to feel guilty for plenty of times. But the fact of the matter was, she was wrong, this time. He was just glad that, at the very least, she wasn’t going to call him on it tonight, while it was fresh.

               He got to the church and shut the door hesitantly behind him to stall a little. When he turned around, it was to see Aeris standing up from where she had been at the flowers, brushing dirt off her hands.

               “Hey, you,” she called.

               And, in the safety of the church, where he’d always had a home, and Aeris’s comforting presence, everything came tumbling down. He just didn’t have it in him to keep his guard up any longer.

               “Hey,” he choked out, but it was watery, and his breath hitched immediately after. She came hurrying down the aisle as he clamped a hand over his mouth, his face twisting.

               She collided with him when she got close enough, pulling him to her and holding him close as the tears finally came.

               “Oh, Cloud,” she whispered, one hand rubbing his back, another in his hair, pressing his face into her shoulder. His hands grabbed fistfuls of her sleeves.

               “Aeris, I—I was so close, I almost had everything, and I ruined it in the worst way possible. I’m just—I’m a terrible, awful person. I shouldn’t have even called you. I—I don’t even deserve this. I just—I swear, Aeris, I touched the sun, and it was so, so beautiful, and everything I ever dreamed of, and I never meant to betray them, I promise, I promise I wouldn’t have done any of it if I had known, but I didn’t because I’m stupid and blind and I—I—I—I fucked up.”

               Aeris shushed him, stroking her hand over her hair. She wasn’t sure what any of it meant, had no context, but what she did guess had happened was that Cloud had almost gotten something he wanted terribly, but reached for it in some way he decided was wrong, and lost it. Above all, she knew that a scant few of the things Cloud blamed himself for were actually his fault. In almost every instance, he made someone else’s mistake his responsibility, finding some twisted reasoning to take fault. She suspected that what he had “done wrong” was dare to reach at all, and whoever held what he wanted had rebuffed him for it, and harshly at that. It infuriated her, that someone might not see that Cloud deserved the world. She held him tighter, thinking of her small stash of materia, and the staff she always kept on her, and how, if she got the chance, she would use either or both to make it plain to whoever was responsible that they had been the one to make a mistake.

               Cloud was just starting to work himself up to real sobs when he suddenly choked and went still. He pulled away from her, hiccupping, and pulled his PHS out with shaking hands, dashing tears from his eyes to read the Caller ID. Whatever he saw there made him curse in the most broken way.

               Unacceptable. How dare this person try to reach out and make whatever they had done worse?

               She snatched the PHS from his hand and ended the call.

               Cloud groaned and sniffled, wiping at his eyes again.

               “He’s just gonna keep calling.”

               To prove his point, the PHS buzzed in her palm.

               “Wait here,” she told him firmly. He looked like he wanted to protest, but then his shoulders slumped. He was just too tired. She walked away from him, only glancing quickly at the Caller ID. She did a stutter step when she saw the name. She pressed on, hurrying away from her friend.

               Zack. Zack, who had made Cloud so very happy. Who had gotten so close to him. Who seemed to light up his life, make him feel worth something, just a little. He’d made Cloud so happy just by talking to him. He meant the world to Cloud, she knew that. No wonder he was so torn up.

               She answered the call and pressed the PHS to her ear, speaking over Zack when he tried to begin, but quietly enough that Cloud wouldn’t overhear.

               “Listen to me very carefully. You don’t know me, but I’m Cloud’s friend. He’s with me, and he’s safe. I’m going to keep him safe, and that includes keeping him safe from you. I don’t know what you’ve done, or how you managed to convince him that it’s his fault, but if you’ve ever cared about him, you’ll stop calling, because all you’re doing is hurting him. I don’t know if you know where he lives, but he’s going to be staying with me for a while, so don’t bother going to his. I understand who you are, and the resources you have, and that you’ll probably be able to find out who I am and where I live. I’m going to appeal to your common sense, and hope that you have some in the first place, and ask you not to do that. I don’t care that you’re a SOLDIER. You hurt my friend, so if I see you, I’ll hurt you. I know full well that you could kill me, but I’ll remind you that I’m Cloud’s friend, and that would hurt him. Once upon a time, that would have meant something to you. I don’t know if that’s still true, and I realize that that might not actually be enough to talk you out of killing me, but I’m willing to take that chance. Stay away from Cloud. I’m going to turn his PHS off. Do not keep calling him. Do not leave him texts that he’ll have to face when he turns it back on. Back off before you do any more damage.”

               She ended the call, and turned off the device as she walked back toward Cloud, who was sitting on a pew, now. Her steps slowed as she approached, finally taking a good look at her friend. Her eyes narrowed in on his neck, and the marks it was littered with. She felt anger flare in her chest, and knew she should have laid into Zack harder.

               She knew Cloud hadn’t had his first time yet. She knew that those marks didn’t necessarily mean that he had, but they implied it pretty heavy. In fact, it implied that Zack had brought him to bed and then kicked him out. Cloud had always insisted that Zack saw past his sets, that they were friends, but apparently, Zack was just another asshole who saw Cloud’s pretty face and the shape of his ass and nothing else. The amazing thing Cloud had dared to reach for was Zack, the sun he had touched was Zack.

               She knew Zack had a boyfriend, didn’t know how Genesis played into all this, but she knew that put him out of reach romantically. She knew in her gut that Cloud hadn’t even dared to ask for romance; he’d just wanted to be near. He probably would have taken whatever scraps he was given and thanked Zack for thinking he deserved that pittance. That was it, wasn’t it? Cloud had slept with Zack and tried not to ask for anything more than he was given, and then realized he wanted more. Instead of asking for it, he came to the conclusion that he’d already taken more than he deserved. It sounded like he hadn’t even realized his feelings at the time, from the way he had said he wouldn’t have done whatever it was if he had known. Gaia, was he really just asking to be close and allowed to love Zack, and Zack couldn’t give him that much? He didn’t have to sleep with him again, but surely he could have allowed them to stay friends, even if he couldn’t return Cloud’s affections. Cloud would have understood that, she was sure. Instead, he’d just kicked him to the curb, like feelings were some great failing.

               She’d always known she disliked SOLDIERs for a reason.

               It took effort to keep the way she wanted to call Zack back and rage off her face. She slipped in next to Cloud and pressed the PHS into his hand.

               “What’d you tell him?”

               “Don’t worry about it,” she said, looping an arm around his shoulders. “Why don’t you come stay with me, for a little bit? So you don’t have to be alone.”

               He sniffled again and shook his head.

               “I couldn’t, you and your mom are on a tight enough budget as it is, and I don’t have much gil to help, and I can’t work there, and—”

               “Come help me sell flowers, then, to cover it. We’ll sell more with two of us. It’ll even out.”

               Cloud looked at her like he didn’t really believe that was true. But he also knew he didn’t want to go home. His sheets had still smelled like the others when he left. It had delighted him that last night, but it’d only be a reminder of what he had lost, now.

               He nodded slowly.

               She gave him a soft smile and got to her feet, holding her hand out to him. Cloud let her pull him to standing, and she kept a hold of his hand, leading him out of the church. They held hands all the way back to Aeris’s home, and somehow, that simple contact helped. It helped much more to feel that the hand in his palm was slender and soft, not wide and roughened with calluses from years of fighting. Slender and soft was safe.

               Zack, in Shinra Tower, was still staring at his PHS as they exited the church.

               The other SOLDIERs were watching him silently. They had all heard the call. Few conversations remained secret with their hearing.

               Zack looked up at them, lost.

               “But—it’s just a misunderstanding. We can fix this so easy, if we can just talk to him. No one did anything wrong. There’s nothing wrong about us loving each other. It’s just—she didn’t even give me a chance to explain.”

               “See it from her side, Zack,” Angeal said, despite his frown. “Her friend came to her distraught. This friend blames himself for others’ mistakes all the time. It makes sense, that she’d think that’s what happened here.”

               “I just—hell, if he even just told her what he told us, really explained what he was thinking, she’d be able to see that it doesn’t make any sense either! No one could blame him for something he didn’t know he was doing, even if she doesn’t know our side of things.”

               “He won’t tell her that much,” Sephiroth said with dead certainty. “He thinks he’s betrayed our trust. Do you really imagine he would do so further by sharing our secret without our permission?”

               Zack pressed his palm to his forehead.

               “Gaia, he’s just gonna bottle it up, isn’t he?” he whispered.

               “I’m afraid so,” Genesis answered.

               Zack looked up at them and said, “What are we gonna do?”

               “We could contact the Turks, get them to track the location of his PHS,” Sephiroth suggested

               “I thought the trackers were only in Shinra-issue PHS’s?” Angeal said.

               “That’s the official line.”

               “From the conviction in that woman’s tone, she really will attack us on sight,” Genesis said. “And, while none of us would kill her, it would still distress Cloud to see us put her out of commission.”

               “Surely he’d forgive a Sleep spell,” Sephiroth said, his brow pinching.

               “Do you really want to test his limits, at the moment?” Genesis said, eyebrows raising.

               The way Sephiroth sighed conceded the point.

               “Then we’ll have to do this the tedious way,” Sephiroth said. “Someone goes to his apartment once a day. We knock. I’m certain he won’t answer, but we can wait there for a while, perhaps an hour. At some point, he’ll move in the apartment, and we’ll be able to hear it. When that happens and we know he’s returned home, we either raise a racket so he answers to shut us up, or failing that, force the door.”

               “Because that’ll make him happy,” Genesis snorted.

               “He’ll forgive damage to his door sooner than damage to his friend,” Sephiroth said. “Even if a Sleep spell wouldn’t really be damage.”

               Zack came over and flopped back on the bed.

               “This just sucks,” he sighed. “We finally realize how we feel, and how he feels, and we know we’re going to move forward, and we can’t, because a few bad assumptions were made. Now that I know we can, I want to have him with us. I’m sure we could make it all okay again, if he were here. I really liked having him with us.”

               “We all did,” Genesis said. “That was the issue.”

               “It’s not an issue anymore,” Zack said, and this time it was a whine. “I just really don’t like knowing he’s out there miserable somewhere, and that we could fix it.”

               “There’s nothing to be done,” Sephiroth said. “It might be best to let him have his vulnerable moment where he feels safe.”

               “He felt safe here, earlier tonight. He said so,” Zack protested.

               “Because we made him a promise we couldn’t keep. We told him there was nothing he could do to push us away, all while keeping a firm boundary between us. We shouldn’t have told him that what we felt was unconditional until we knew it was true.”

               “It felt true, at the time. Dammit, it is still true. He didn’t do anything wrong.”

               “By the rules we gave him, he did. We told him no romance, and he crossed that line. Then we told him our care was limitless, despite having made it clear that there were, in fact, conditions.”

               Zack looked up at Sephiroth with a frown.

               “Are you saying you blame him?”

               “Not at all. He didn’t do anything wrong. None of us did. But the conclusion he drew does follow a certain logic, if you ignore the fact that his theoretical misstep was unintentional. I can see how he made the assumption he did.”

               Zack groaned and tossed an arm over his eyes.

               “What good is it that it makes logical sense when it doesn’t make practical sense? Even if you can follow point A to point B, it doesn’t matter, if point B is wrong in the first place.”

               “I’m not sure that metaphor tracks.”

               “You know what I’m saying, Seph.”

               “I think I do. But your metaphors still need work.”

               Zack pulled his arm away to glare at Sephiroth, only to find him looking down at him with soft eyes.

               “Come on,” Genesis said, pushing himself back on the bed and patting the mattress. “We’re not going to get any further tonight. We might as well sleep. We can carry out Sephiroth’s tedious plan in the morning.”

               There was some grumbling, but they complied, scooting together closer. Despite the fact that no one said it, they all knew they weren’t going to get any more sleep that night. Their minds would be too busy, turning over every event and conversation that had occurred in the light of what they now knew, and fretting over wherever Cloud was, trying to figure out exactly how miserable he would be and how guilty they should feel about it. They all knew they wouldn’t sleep, but they had every intention of lying together anyway. The proximity brought some comfort, even if it didn’t fix anything.

               Cloud didn’t curl up with anyone for comfort, despite the fact that Aeris offered to let him sleep in her bed, refusing to care about what her mother might think. Cloud refused, because he cared what Elmyra thought, and didn’t think he could handle one more person looking at him and connecting him with anything that had to do with sex, even if the assumption she would make was wrong.

               He curled up in a ball in the center of the bed, hiding under the covers. Alone as he was, he cried himself to sleep for what he had lost, and the sin he had committed against the ones he loved, and tried to convince himself that no one else would hear his tears. The thought of disturbing anyone else, of causing even the slightest further inconvenience, was more than he could handle at the moment.

Chapter Text

               On the whole, Elmyra didn’t mind having him. She’d almost said something at first, when she saw the hickeys on his neck. She didn’t really believe that Aeris had given them to him, and that made her think he had cheated on her daughter, but then she saw them together. Aeris wasn’t blind, she could see what Elmyra could, but she didn’t appear bothered by it in the slightest. That was what got Elmyra to let the matter go. If Aeris was okay with it, she could be, too. She’d just have to adjust her understanding of what their relationship was.

               Still, there had been a long moment when he first came down the stairs in the morning, where Elmyra saw him, and he saw her, and he watched her process with a dead look on his face. He understood where her mind went, and what she was trying to wrap her head around. He didn’t want to think about sex, or about how he got those marks, but there was nothing he could have done to prevent this moment. It helped Elmyra let her confusion and brief flicker of anger go when she looked up to Cloud’s face and saw that, whatever had happened, he wasn’t happy about it, or proud of it. There wasn’t the smallest scrap of emotion on his face, and while Cloud was never an open book, he wasn’t icy this way. He’d just stared back at her, awaiting her judgement, whether or not she would kick him out, and she hadn’t been able to. It was clear, from the look he gave her, that something was wrong, and she didn’t have the full picture. She’d always known Cloud to be a good person. She could give him the benefit of the doubt.

               As time passed and Cloud spent his days with them, Elmyra found that he never quite lost the dead look in his eyes. It was like something inside him had just shriveled up and died, and sometimes it made her shiver to look at.

               For all of the way he didn’t bother pretending with Aeris and Elmyra, he was perfectly capable of pretending like there was nothing wrong. He took Aeris at her word and went to sell flowers with her to cover his expenses, and they did sell more flowers than she did on her own. He turned on the charm, and it was easy, really. It was just like his own work. Aeris smiled sweetly and spoke in her kind voice to customers. Cloud smiled innocently, but gave them The Eyes, twisting his hips and holding him himself just so that people’s first thought was that he was selling something else.

               It was comforting, in its own strange way, to reduce himself to this. When he performed this way, people looked at him and saw something to fuck, and that was it. He knew how to be that for them. There were no messy emotions attached. He didn’t care about these people, or what they thought of him, or whether or not they gave a damn about him. He didn’t need or want them to. He wanted their money, and flirting got them to hand it over.

               It didn’t make him feel good, per se. It didn’t make him happy. But it eased the knot in his chest, gave him something familiar to hold onto. This was a world he understood, without amazing men who saw something good in him and tried to take care of him because of a terrible misunderstanding that he deserved it. This world he knew, where people looked at him and saw an object, where he was reduced to his body and nothing more. He didn’t have to think, this way. He didn’t have to feel. He just had to smile prettily and wink on occasion.

               Aeris was not pleased with what he was doing. It wasn’t hard to figure out what he was up to, how he was attempting to cope by debasing himself. She tried to talk to him about it, once, to remind him that it wasn’t necessary to act that way. He’d just shrugged and said that it wasn’t necessary to sell flowers, but it was necessary to him, right now. And she hadn’t known how to argue with that. Every flirty smile and heated look dug a little deeper under her skin, but she had no idea how to put a stop to it. She was sure it would only do more damage, in the end, but Cloud didn’t want to hear it, right now. He was too busy punishing himself.

               The only thing she could do was keep him away from his PHS. Her threat hadn’t fully worked, and he was getting text messages constantly. She never got a chance to read them, didn’t really know who they were from or what they said, but she could guess they were from Zack. She tolerated it the first day he stayed with her, but every time he absent-mindedly pulled out the device to check it when it buzzed, she could see his face fall and twist. She started taking his phone from him while they worked, telling him it was to help him focus. He didn’t fully believe her, but he also didn’t protest. She couldn’t stop him from lying in bed at night, pouring over the messages from people whose numbers he hadn’t managed to delete despite his promise to do so.

               It tore his heart out in degrees. Every single one asked him to answer. They were pleading, and if he didn’t know any better, he’d say they were begging him. They kept insisting that they just wanted to talk, that they just needed a chance to explain. That they understood, but he didn’t have the full picture, and this could all be resolved easily if he’d just meet them one last time. They swore up and down that they’d leave him alone if he listened to what they had to stay and still wanted that. They talked about how much they missed him, how much they wanted to hear his voice, how much they would give to see him smile.

               He believed them; he did. He really thought that they missed him. He didn’t believe that things could be fixed, though. What he had done was unforgivable. He’d known that they would be too kind with him, that they would try to forgive him and find a way to work things out. They were good men, too good to let him go when he was hurting, too good for him in general. That was the issue, really. They didn’t see it, but he did, and he wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. If they wouldn’t keep away from him, he’d make them, for their own sake. They weren’t going to toss him aside the way they should, so he’d force their hand.

               But he still read their texts.

               He ended up staying with Aeris for a little over a week. He didn’t go home because he wanted to be there, necessarily. He didn’t want to be alone, and for all that Aeris couldn’t thaw the ice that had built around him, she was still comforting. He went home for the same reason he put on the act while he was selling flowers. While at home, he could work, and that was a more intense version of the same. He knew he’d be able to talk his usuals into video calls. If the looks he got when he gave flirty smiles on the street made him feel appropriately dehumanized, it would only be more intense when he was actively objectifying himself, naked and moaning and fucking himself for the entertainment of others. That was what he wanted, really, in this moment. He needed a firm reminder of his place, and it was clear that the SOLDIERs weren’t going to give it to him. He needed to remember just why, even before he’d known he had feelings, he had been so terribly out of line to reach for those men anyway.

               So he gave Aeris his reassurances, that he would be fine, that he’d call her if he needed her, that he’d check in. He’d given her his best calming smile, and even though she had answered it, he’d known it hadn’t worked. Still, by silent, mutual consensus, they agreed not to discuss that fact. She let him leave without protest, and Cloud returned home.

               He’d hesitated a long moment outside his door when he got there, afraid of going in. There were too many memories there, now. He’d be able to look at a dozen different spots and get flashes of the SOLDIERs, remember their sweet words and soft touches. He didn’t want that. But there wasn’t anything he could do to stop it, and he was just stalling, at this point. Better to go in and throw himself into work until he stopped thinking about it.

               And that’s what Cloud did. He hurried inside, pointedly not looking around, and all but dove for his laptop. He messaged around, asking if people wanted calls. More than one person was happy to take him up on the offer. Cloud lost track of how long he spent working. He did call after call after call, breaking only long enough for water, to down the last few cups of coffee he could scrape together to stave off the post-orgasm tiredness, and scrounge up another client. Normally, by the time he did those things, he was able to get hard again, and he could keep going.

               It was so easy to lose himself in it that it was almost dangerous. He was hungry, almost starving for the way those men looked at him. It scratched some desperate itch he’d had since he’d fled Shinra Tower. It was the simplest thing, when he was being watched that way, to believe that this was truly all he was good for, his end-all-be-all. It wiped away every last thing the SOLDIERs had ever managed to convince him of. There was no affection, no caring, no sweetness or tenderness or softness, and certainly no love. There was only heat, and a pleasure he didn’t really want, but was desperate for people to take from him.

               He lost track of how many calls he did. He lost track of what time it was. His PHS was his only clock, and it was turned off and on his nightstand where it couldn’t remind him of all the things he was trying to forget. His voice was starting to go hoarse from crying out so loud for so long, but the clients seemed to like that, how well-fucked he came across this way. He was almost constantly oversensitive now, having long since crossed over the point where it was too much. This wasn’t even too much in the way he enjoyed, anymore. It was overwhelming, that made him want to hiss every time he touched himself, the pleasure so strong it hurt, but that was almost better. He didn’t want to feel good. That wasn’t what this was about. He didn’t care about the way he was over-taxing himself, the way his body was slowly screaming its protests louder and louder. He had every intention of ignoring it, as long as people would continue watching him like he was just a thing to them.

               What he hadn’t accounted for, was the fact that the SOLDIERs had been checking his apartment to see if he was home.

               It was Genesis’s turn that day. He’d been relatively busy, having been sent on a mission in Sector Zero that morning, then required to debrief, then fill out the standard paperwork. As a result, it was evening, by the time he finally managed to get to Cloud’s. He had raised his hand to knock when he heard something he didn’t expect.

               At this point, he was fully capable of recognizing the sound of Cloud moaning.

               He stopped to listen for a moment, sure he was hearing wrong. But no, those were familiar cries of pleasure coming from the direction of Cloud’s bedroom. He thought it was impossible, that Cloud would be working. He had been so emotionally wrecked when he left, and Genesis didn’t believe for an instant that he was over it. He could only think that Cloud’s financial situation was more dire than they had fully understood, if he could really only afford to take a week off.

               It was only out of deference to the call Cloud was clearly on that he kept the blond’s name out of his mouth. The idea of a client knowing his given name set Genesis on edge in the worst way.

               He pounded on the door.

               Inside the apartment, Cloud went still, staring at his bedroom door with wide eyes. He held his breath, not daring to make a sound.

               He didn’t think they’d actually come down here to look for him.

               But he knew how sensitive their hearing was, that they would probably be able to hear him inside the apartment, if they hadn’t already. He hoped that maybe they hadn’t yet, or that they would believe they were mistaken if he just remained silent. When the client started to ask what was wrong, he hit the mute button on his laptop as fast as he could.

               There was a long moment, before Genesis knocked again.

               Cloud pressed his lips together, trying to control his breathing as best he could. He didn’t think they’d be able to hear that much from outside the door, but what did he know?

               “I know you’re in there!” Genesis called through the door.

               Cloud mouthed a curse. He pressed his hand over the microphone on his laptop. He didn’t know if the client would recognize Genesis’s voice, but he didn’t want to risk it. No one needed to know that the SOLDIERs were familiar enough with a camboy to visit his home.

               “Come and open this door, or I’ll knock until you get a noise complaint!”

               He didn’t care about that. His neighbors could complain all they wanted, if it got Genesis to leave.

               Unfortunately, Genesis hadn’t really believed that would work in the first place, so he followed it with, “If you don’t let me in, I will kick in your door. You know I’m able to.”

               Cloud narrowed his eyes.

               There was no way he actually would. That was ridiculous. It was just a threat. A bluff. He wasn’t going to fall for it.

               At least, that was what he thought, until he heard a resounding crash come from the front of his apartment.

               It shocked Cloud bad enough that he lost balance on his already shaking legs, falling back to his heels, shoving the dildo that was inside him as deep as it would go. He cursed quietly, looking down at it. Before he managed to do anything about it, the door to his bedroom was flung open.

               Genesis paused in the doorway to take stock of the situation, finding it to be much of what he expected. Cloud, naked on his bed, the base of some sort of toy pressed against his ass, a laptop open in front of him. His hands were by his hips, having fallen away from the mic when he lost his balance. The room reeked of sex.

               Genesis stormed over to the bed and snapped, “He’ll call you back,” at the laptop, before ending the call and slapping it shut.

               He stared down at Cloud, who stared back up at him with eyes like saucers.

               “Has your PHS been off this entire time, or have you just been ignoring us?”

               Cloud frowned, but part of him was relieved. He could handle Genesis’s anger. It was softness he was afraid of.

               He shifted to shaking knees to pull the dildo out of himself and set it to the side, saying, “I saw your messages. I thought it was obvious that I wasn’t answering you for a reason.”

               He’d been trying to goad Genesis into more anger, because that was safe, but when he looked back, it was to see him watching him tenderly, with concern. Cloud paused where he was, still leaning forward on his knees, frozen in place.

               “You’re trembling,” Genesis whispered. “You’re exhausted. How long have you been working?”

               Cloud swallowed the curse he wanted to utter. He’d hoped Genesis wouldn’t notice.

               He shifted, sitting cross-legged so he was relaxed enough that he wouldn’t shake. Maybe, if he couldn’t see the evidence of it, Genesis would forget sooner.

               “Since I got home.”

               “How long ago was that?”

               “I don’t know,” Cloud said, snide sarcasm twisting his tone and his face. “What time is it?”

               He wanted Genesis angry with him, and he had hoped rudeness would do it, but the man just softened further.

               “Why? Are things so dire that you needed to do this?”

               Cloud sighed and looked away, ruffling his hair.

               “It isn’t about the money.”

               “What is it about, then?”

               “I… needed a reminder.”

               “Of what?”

               Cloud looked up at him. He wouldn’t apologize for this. It was better to tell Genesis, anyway. Maybe if he said it enough, he’d believe him.

               “What I’m good for.”

               He could watch Genesis’s heart break for him, and it made something inside him crumble up into ash and blow away. He didn’t deserve that. He wasn’t good enough, for Genesis to look that way over the simple truth.

               Genesis sat carefully on his bed and reached out to touch him, but Cloud flinched away, looking to the side. He couldn’t handle soft touches, not right now. Not after what he’d done.

               “I will go to my grave guilty for hurting you this way.”

               Cloud sighed. Why did they never understand?

               “You didn’t do anything wrong, Genesis.”

               “I did. I let you leave that night, and that reinforced these ideas you have. I’m not sure what else I could have done, but there must have been something, some better way to handle it. I’m sorry I’m not a smart enough man to see it.”

               He shook his head, but he still didn’t quite dare to look up.

               “Genesis, you’re brilliant. You did the right thing, letting me leave. I didn’t belong there, in the first place.”

               “That isn’t true.”

               “It really, really is.”

               “Cloud, there’s something we need to tell you. It’s important. You don’t fully understand what happened that night, and we would have told you sooner, but you deserve to hear it in person, from all of us. I fear you’ll misunderstand if we aren’t there to answer your questions as they come.”

               “I understand what happened perfectly. I tricked you, and betrayed your trust. I got you to let me where I didn’t belong and stole from you.”

               “That isn’t true.”

               “Stop saying that—it is.”

               “Cloud, look at me.”

               He winced. After everything, he couldn’t deny Genesis. He’d taken so much. It was the least he could do, to give the man what he asked for, when it wasn’t something that would hurt him in the end. That, Cloud would say no to. Genesis wasn’t seeing things clearly, was trying to forgive things he shouldn’t, and that, Cloud would put an end to.

               He looked up, and saw an infinite softness on Genesis’s face, accompanied by the deepest sadness.

               “You didn’t do anything wrong. I can prove that to you, if you’ll come with me. Come to the Tower. We’ll talk with the others, and set this to bed. Or, if you don’t want to leave here, I’ll have them come down. We can do whatever you like, but I need you to give us this chance. If, after you listen to us, you still want to part ways, we won’t stop you. But you have to hear what we have to say, first.”

               “No.”

               “Cloud—”

               “No, Genesis. I don’t know what I have to say, to get it through your head. I’m not the man you seem to think I am. I’m not good enough, and I never have been. Whatever the hell you all see when you look at me, it’s just not accurate. You look at me like I deserve the world but, I—I’m trash, Genesis. I’m something you use up and toss away when you’re done. That’s it. That’s all I ever have been.”

               “That isn’t true.”

               “You’re right; even garbage had a use at one point. I’m,” and then Cloud said some complicated word in another language that Genesis had never heard before.

               “I don’t know what that means, but I’m entirely certain you’re incorrect.”

               “I would have said it in Common, but it doesn’t translate quite right. It’s the name of a Nibel plant. It has flowers that look almost identical to its leaves and produces fruit that doesn’t taste like anything, but makes you incredibly sick. It has only two jobs: be pretty when it blooms, and produce good fruit. It doesn’t manage to do either. It’s what people in Nibelheim call anything that has absolutely no worth.” Cloud laughed, soft and sarcastic. “They used to call me that a lot.”

               When he looked up, Genesis was finally as angry as he wanted him, but it was for all the wrong reasons.

               “Maybe I should just burn the town down.”

               Cloud laughed again, and smiled at Genesis, but it didn’t touch his eyes.

               “Why? They were right, the whole time.”

               Genesis stood abruptly.

               “That’s it. I won’t hear any more of this. Get up, you’re coming with me.”

               He sighed and said, “No, Genesis.”

               “Unfortunately for you, Cloud, there has only ever been one good man between us, and it isn’t me. I can and will toss you over my shoulder and carry you to the Tower if I must. Get up, get dressed, and spare yourself the indignity.”

               Cloud paused for a long moment, but after looking closely, he found Genesis was serious. He sighed and climbed off the bed. He went about getting dressed, and for the first time when he knew he was going to be around the SOLDIERs, he didn’t try to look his best. He was trying to discourage them, after all. No need to impress if he was trying to drive them off.

               There was a heavy silence that fell over the room, as Genesis watched him without speaking. It ended up getting Cloud to hurry more than he would have, just to get out of the atmosphere.

               When he was dressed, he grabbed his PHS off the nightstand, and they got out the door, only for Cloud to hesitate and turn around to look at it.

               “What are we gonna do about that? I don’t have much, but I’d really rather it not all be stolen when I get back.”

               Genesis looked back at the door, dangling from one hinge.

               He sighed and stepped forward. It took a carefully controlled fire spell, but he managed to weld the hinges back together so the door hung correctly. There wasn’t anything to do for the broken lock, though, so Genesis just melted the knob. When he looked over and saw Cloud looking at him incredulously, he shrugged.

               “I’ll bring you home and kick it in again for you. We can stop for a new handle and lock on our way back down.”

               Cloud frowned, because that meant prolonging his time with Genesis even after they agreed to part ways, but he didn’t see many options. He couldn’t kick the door in. He shrugged and just began leading the way out of his building.

               There were so many things Genesis was aching to say. The truth was burning a hole in the tip of his tongue. He wanted to just tell Cloud how he felt, how they all felt, if it would do anything to ease this hell he had fallen into. He wanted to tell him that he had known that night, and hadn’t been mad at him then. That it couldn’t have been his fault anyway, because he hadn’t known what he was doing at the time. That none of it mattered now anyway, because he could be with them, if he only said yes.

               But he couldn’t let himself. Cloud deserved to hear it from them all, when they were all readily available to reassure him. And Genesis was certain that would be necessary now. After he had taken all those calls to convince himself it was all he was worth, after he called himself trash, after he compared himself to that plant, Genesis knew they had done possibly irreparable damage to Cloud’s self-esteem. He didn’t know how long it would take to pry him out of this hole he had fallen into, only that he would spend as long as it took to get him out of it.

               Cloud was walking just fine if you didn’t look too closely, but Genesis was watching like a hawk. He moved like he was sore, like he was one big walking bruise. His movements were slow, like his body felt impossibly heavy. He still trembled from the effort of holding himself up. His eyes were drooping, clearly exhausted after how many times he must have wrung an orgasm out of himself. He was a wreck, and Genesis wanted the name of that last client, who had looked at Cloud and not felt concerned at the sight of him.

               They didn’t speak on the way up. Cloud was busy reminding himself that nothing they could say would change his mind, and that this was just one final formality, and that he was only doing it because Genesis would have dragged him bodily if he kept refusing. Genesis was focused on Cloud, worriedly watching every movement, half-expecting him to just drop at some point.

               Cloud couldn’t keep his mind occupied on the train. Now that he was sitting and didn’t have a client to distract him, it was terribly hard to stay awake. His eyes kept drifting shut, his head nodding. More than once, he had to jerk himself upright, from where he’d started to slump over against Genesis. The SOLDIER had no intention of pushing him away. He wished he would just succumb, honestly, and at least get a few moment’s rest while they couldn’t go progress anyway. He would be sure Cloud was safe, that no one touched him while he slept. There was nothing for the blond to worry about, but he fought sleep the whole time regardless.

               It took quite a bit of effort for Cloud to haul himself to his feet when the train stopped, and had stumbled, Genesis catching him by the arm to keep him upright; he’d been waiting for something like this. Cloud extracted himself quickly, but he could still feel Genesis’s hands on him even after they separated, and they burned. The touch had been firm by necessity to keep him standing, but the way his fingers trailed away when Cloud jerked his arm toward his chest was soft. It was what Cloud had been trying to avoid.  He needed to keep it very firmly in his mind that, even if, by some strange, undeserved turn of the universe, Genesis still cared for him in some measure, he shouldn’t, and it was unearned. That was hard to do when his fingertips brushed his skin that way.

               He hurried off the train.

               It was a little easier to distract himself, above the plate. Here, he had the sky, and the setting sun. He could appreciate those without thinking. It was a balm of sorts, simple natural beauty, and it relaxed him. Despite the heat, it made him think of Nibelheim, where the sky had seemed so close. It made him miss the cold, crisp mountain air.

               It was easier to think of that than the mess that he landed in with the SOLDIERs.

               When they got to the Tower, Genesis led them straight toward the elevator. When Cloud slowed down at the desk, Genesis grabbed him by the shoulder and pressed him forward. When the secretary began to protest that Cloud needed a visitor’s pass, Genesis summoned a fire spell to his hand, holding the flames in his glove in silent threat. The secretary relented, and they made it to the elevator.

               The silence lingered between them all the way to Genesis’s front door. He didn’t even try to break it, just tapped his keycard against the panel. He opened the door and stepped inside, holding it open for Cloud, who hesitated in the doorway. Genesis gave him a look that said plainly that he’d drag him in if he had to, so Cloud walked in on his own.

               “I found him,” Genesis announced to the room.

               Three sets of eyes shot up. Zack was sitting on the floor in front of a laptop, Angeal was laying on a couch on his PHS, and Sephiroth sat in an armchair filling out forms. Cloud looked around at them hesitantly, growing even more unsure when he watched clear delight bloom on each face.

               It made him feel worse. He didn’t deserve it.

               They all called his names, at different volumes, but with the same joy. They each set aside what they were doing immediately.

               “Go sit, Cloud,” Genesis said quietly.

               Cloud frowned, but wasn’t convinced Genesis wouldn’t just pick him up if he said no. Besides, his legs were shaking pretty hard after the long walk. He listened, and went to sit on the empty loveseat.

               Zack had opened his mouth to say something, but closed it slowly. They all watched carefully, taking in the way Cloud moved, how he shook, the way he seemed to be run ragged. Even when he was sitting, his legs trembled. The path up to the Tower had been longer than Cloud remembered, and he’d been at his limit before they left. It had been sheer stubborn willpower that got him this far.

               “Why do you look like you just spent the day training with Seph?” Zack asked carefully.

               “He’s been working,” Sephiroth said, watching Cloud with a close eye.

               Cloud looked up in surprise, not sure how he reached that conclusion.

               Sephiroth shrugged and said, “Either that, or you found someone to replace us. The smell is rather strong.”

               Cloud blushed and looked down. He had come all over himself today more times than he could keep track of, and Genesis hadn’t exactly given him time to shower.

               Sephiroth’s senses were a little keener than the others so he picked up on it sooner, but with the hint, now, Angeal and Zack could smell it too.

               “How long were you working?” Zack asked. “You’re all worn out.”

               “I started sometime this morning.”

               “… But you took breaks, right?”

               “Not long ones.”

               “How long is not long?”

               “Long enough to be sure I could get it up again and find my next client.”

               “Cloud,” Zack said, the same look of heartbreak forming on his face that had on Genesis’s. Cloud looked away. “Why?”

               “You don’t want to know the answer to that one,” Genesis said, coming to sit next to Angeal. He was careful to give Cloud his space, certain he didn’t want to be crowded right now.

               “Whatever the reason is, it can’t be worse than what I’m imagining now that you said that.”

               “Perhaps not, but if I hear him say it again, I’m going to find someone to strangle.”

               “I might as well say it,” Cloud said, suddenly growing bold, and a little flippant. “Aside from the fact that you were going to haul me up here regardless, that’s the real reason I came. I don’t need to hear whatever you have to say, but I do have to talk you into letting me go.”

               “Cloud,” Angeal started.

               “No,” Cloud said. “You all are good men—the best, really. I know you’re going to forgive me, because you’re too kind not to.”

               Genesis snorted and mumbled, “Not something I’ve ever been accused of before.”

               Cloud ignored him, continuing, “But I don’t deserve it, and I’ll talk until I’m blue in the face, if that’s what it takes to make you see that. I’m not what you think I am. I’m—”

               “Cloud Strife, I will gag you before I listen to you make that plant comparison again.”

               “Plant?” Sephiroth asked.

               “You really, really don’t want to know.”

               “But it’s true,” Cloud protested. “Even that was generous, but it’s the best comparison I have.”

               “Do you want me to gag you? Because you don’t need to speak, for this, not at first. What you need to do is listen.”

               “You’re going to have to, because—”

               In a flash, Genesis was at his side, a hand clamped over his mouth.

               “Cloud, for once in your life, stop being stubborn.”

               Cloud glared at him.

               Genesis sighed.

               “I should start,” he said. “Because I owe you an apology.”

               Cloud just scowled harder. He didn’t want to hear this. He was the only one who had done anything wrong.

               Genesis continued, “I let you leave that night because I knew, before you did, how you felt for us. But I also knew how we felt for you, which necessitated a conversation that you couldn’t be present for.”

               Cloud looked at him without comprehending.

               “You love us, Cloud, we know that. But what you don’t know, what makes that okay, and proves you didn’t do anything wrong, is that we love you to.”

               Cloud went utterly still beneath his hand, his mind grinding to a halt. He heard the words. He spoke Common, he knew what they meant in the abstract. He could string them together, knew what they meant when placed next to each other that way, but he couldn’t make sense of them. It was impossible. There was absolutely no way it could be real.

               Genesis pulled his hand away slowly, sure now that Cloud would let him finish.

               “I had to let you leave because I needed the others to be aware of how they felt, and we needed to discuss what to do about it. But the answer was very simple, really. We didn’t have to talk much at all. We love you, and we want you with us, if you’ll have us.”

               “Like…?”

               “As a partner. We want to date you.”

               Silence stretched as Cloud spent a long moment trying to wrap his mind around what they were saying. Not only did they forgive him his misstep, but it wasn’t a misstep at all, because they loved him in return. Romantically. They wanted to date him. They were offering to bring him into the fold. Let him be one of them.

               Him. Cloud. Camboy. Slumrat. Trash. That one useless, worthless Nibel plant.

               There was only one way any of this made any sense. There was only one way that Genesis, that any of them could say those words to him.

               Cloud started laughing.

               The sound wasn’t happy. It was sharp, and on edge, and hysterical. He tossed his head back, his whole body rocking with it.

               The SOLDIERs looked around at one another, uncertain.

               “That’s good, that’s—that’s a really good one. I thought the rapid-fire calls were a pretty good punishment, that rubbing my nose in how I only matter when I’ve got something in my ass was good enough, but no, you guys are right. You’ve always been smarter. This is genius, really. Hats off to you.”

               “Cloud…? What?” Zack muttered.

               Cloud pressed his thumb to the corner of his eye, wiping tears away, still laughing a little.

               “Really, though. You hunted me down, dragged me above plate, brought me all the way through Shinra Tower in front of hundreds of people who saw me, just to tell me the world’s cruelest joke. Gotta hand it to you, you really managed to figure out the one thing I wanted most, y’know? I do wonder how long you were gonna string me along before you ripped it away from me, but I’ll hurry this along. I’ve got a walk of shame to do back through the Tower, and I ought to return that client’s call. Maybe I can take a few more tonight when I get home, really remind myself of my place. Not that it’s necessary anymore. I think you’ve brought that point home.”

               He looked around, a wide smile stretched across his face, purely by virtue that this was all so absurd, it was hilarious. He watched as each face fell, twisted in hurt, watching their hearts break.

               Cloud laughed again, a loud bark.

               “Gaia, you guys are good. You act better than I do, when you want to,” he said, before slapping his hands to his lap and hauling himself up on shaking legs. “But I’ve wasted enough time here. Thought I’d have to try pretty hard to make you see I don’t matter, but it looks like you got there on your own. I’ll show myself out.”

               They all spoke at once.

               “Cloud, wait—”

               “Hold on, just—”

               “Absolutely not, you can’t—”

               “Cloud Strife.”

               The last came from Sephiroth, and it was like a whip-crack.

               Cloud was no army boy. He had no training. It hadn’t been drilled into him, to respond to The General’s tone. But it didn’t have to be. He responded instinctively to the way Sephiroth snapped his name, freezing in place as he rounded the couch. He barely dared to breathe, and he wasn’t sure why. Some animal part of him knew to be afraid of that tone, even if the rest of him was screaming at him to ignore it and run.

               Cloud barely dared to look over his shoulder at Sephiroth as he climbed slowly out of his chair. He crossed the room in dead silence, not because the other SOLDIERs were afraid of Sephiroth the way Cloud was in that moment, but because it unwound something in them. This stopped being their boyfriend. This was The General. And their commander had never led them wrong before.

               Sephiroth came to stand next to Cloud. He turned him with a touch, making him face him, towering over him. The look on his face and in his eyes usually softened his presence around Cloud, made him loom a little less, but everything about him was hard.

               “You’ve told us over and over again how much you think of us. Was that all a lie?”

               “No, of course not.”

               “We are, to some, war criminals. We are murderers. Does that suddenly repel you?”

               “No, I—”

               “Do you imagine that our work has killed us inside? Made us all so heartless that we enjoy making others suffer?”

               “No—

               “Because what you are suggesting is unimaginable cruelty. That we would take you at your most vulnerable, lie to you, tell you what you want to hear most, dangle what you long for so terribly in front of you just to rip it away and laugh at your pain.”

               “I… that’s not—”

               “It is, Cloud, that is exactly what you are suggesting. Have we ever given you any reason to believe that we despise you? Because I can’t imagine anyone doing such a thing to someone they don’t hate with every fiber of their being.”

               “You never have.”

               “Is it your understanding, then, that we are such twisted men that we would do such a thing not out of hate, but simply for sport?”

               “No.

               “Well, then, what is it, Cloud? You say you don’t believe we hate you, and that you don’t think we are the sort of monsters that live to cause misery. You say you think we are good people. But you cannot believe those things and maintain that we are not extending this offer in earnest.”

               Cloud lowered his head. He didn’t know what to think. Everything that Sephiroth was saying made sense, but—but what they were offering was impossible. They couldn’t love someone like him.

               “I—I just—I don’t get it. How could you…?”

               Sephiroth reached out and cupped Cloud’s cheek, tilting his face up. When he looked up at the SOLDIER, his face had softened.

               “Cloud, I understand. I was taught all my life that I was good for one thing and one thing only. That I was a weapon, and outside of battle, I had no use. It followed that, if my sole purpose was bloodshed, I was monstrous in nature. Made inhuman by the enhancements done to me, only driven further afield by my training. I did not see how anyone could care for me, or want anything from me except that I murder for them. It took me years, and a thousand missteps to unlearn even a piece of that. I still struggle, every day, to believe that I might be worth the love that these men have for me. But they were patient, and kind, and have been willing to do whatever it takes to teach me. We will do the same for you. It does not matter if you never believe you are good enough. We will spend forever trying to show you that you are.”

               Cloud could feel his eyes slowly start to water, but he couldn’t stop it. He couldn’t stop the shivering breath he pulled in, or the hiccup he gave. He reached a hand out, slowly, tentatively, not quite daring, not really believing he was allowed to touch, but needing to try anyway. Sephiroth met him half way, taking his hand and squeezing it softly.

               “I love you, Cloud,” he whispered. “Will you let me do that?”

               Cloud paused, and then nodded, hard, repeatedly. He pulled his hand away just to grab Sephiroth by the coat and pull himself close, burying his face in his chest. He still didn’t think such presumption was really okay, but he thought that Sephiroth might allow it. And he did, quickly wrapping his arms around Cloud and pressing him close as he cried. In the sheer relief of it all, his legs finally gave out, but Sephiroth caught him quickly. He picked him up, his hands taking Cloud by the hips, who wrapped his shaking legs around his waist for balance. Sephiroth carried him to the larger couch and sat down. Without saying a word, Angeal shifted close on one side, and Genesis came from the loveseat to sit at his other. Zack stood from the floor to sit on the coffee table. Cloud couldn’t keep track of whose hands were whose, only that a lot of people were touching him very gently.

               It was a long, long time before Cloud’s sobs petered out, and he leaned back in Sephiroth’s hold, pushing tears away with the heels of his hands as he sniffled. He looked up at the man, and then around at the others, having to crane his neck to see Zack.

               “You really mean it, don’t you?”

               “That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you from the start, Cloud,” Angeal said, using his thumb to clear away a tear-track.

               He sniffed and pressed his forehead to Sephiroth’s collarbone.

               “I’ve been an idiot, haven’t I.”

               “No, of course—” Angeal started.

               “A little bit, yes,” Genesis said.

               Angeal glared at him, but Cloud gave a watery laugh.

               “It’s still—really hard to believe. That you—love me. Gods, it even sounds ridiculous.”

               Sephiroth ran his fingers through Cloud’s hair, saying, “As I said. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to believe us. We’ll wait.”

               “It’ll be a while.”

               “We don’t mind. Genesis is impatient, but even he will wait.”

               “This may be one of the few things worth waiting for,” Genesis said, curling his hand around Cloud’s waist.

               “We still have a lot of things to work out,” Cloud protested. “Logistics. You live up here, and I need a visitor’s pass to see you and one of you to escort me before they’ll let me in, and there’s the cost of the train tickets, and I’d be surprised if there weren’t already rumors that I was sleeping with Sephiroth at least, so I don’t know how we’ll keep this a secret, and I doubt you’ll be okay with me continuing my work, I’ll have to find something else, but I really don’t want to work for Shinra, and—”

               “Cloud, Cloud,” Zack said, pressing his hand to the small of his back. “Don’t worry about it right now, okay? We’ll figure all those things out. Just relax. You’ve had a hard day, and you’re exhausted. Do you want to sleep?”

               “We really should just figure this out now,” Cloud said, but the last word was half-swallowed by a yawn he couldn’t fight back. There was a round of laughter, and Sephiroth stood, picking him up again with ease.

               “To bed, then,” Sephiroth announced, carrying him back toward the bedroom.

               “But, it’s early for everyone else, and I don’t know if all this should wait that long, and—”

               “Cloud, hush,” Genesis said, watching Cloud over Sephiroth’s shoulder, trailing behind them. “It can wait until the morning.”

               “But—”

               “No. Believe us, we would have given most anything to have a chance to lie with you these past few nights. Indulge us, if not yourself.”

               “But I’m too tired to do anything.”

               “I said lie with, not sleep with. All you have to do is rest.”

               “But—”

               “Hush.”

               Cloud sighed and hid his face in the crook of Sephiroth’s neck, but stopped protesting. When they reached the bedroom, he was deposited on the bed, his shoes removed for him before he was moved beneath the covers. The others dressed down some, mostly down to pants that they left on, but they kept some modesty, despite the fact that they had all been naked in front of each other before. They climbed into bed and curled around Cloud as a group.

               Cocooned in warmth and finally, finally feeling safe in a way he hadn’t since he’d last been in this bed, Cloud drifted immediately into sleep, despite the way he wanted to stay up at least a little longer and savor the impossible moment.

               But he didn’t take the loss too hard. After all, he had the promise of many, many more moments, just like this one.

Chapter Text

               Cloud woke with a few immediate questions.

               The first, was why his PHS was buzzing. He didn’t get calls very often and never had. The second was why his PHS was in his pocket, which drew him to wondering why he was still wearing jeans if he was in bed. He then couldn’t figure out why it didn’t smell like home, why this bed was so much softer than his own lumpy, genuinely shitty mattress, and why it was so delightfully warm. But then someone shifted against his back and sighed, arm tightening around his waist, and Cloud remembered in a flash where he was, and what had happened the day before.

               He only refrained from cursing because he didn’t want to wake anyone that managed to sleep through his PHS going off. He scrambled a little, trying to tug his PHS free from his pocket, but he finally managed, and he thought one or two of the SOLDIERs might even still be asleep. When he glanced at the Caller ID as he went to end the call, though, he knew there was no chance of that lasting. He had to take this.

               “Hello?” he whispered into the device.

               “Cloud? You didn’t call like you promised. Are you okay?”

               “Fine.”

               “Why are you whispering?”

               “I—”

               “It’s alright, Cloud, we’re all up,” Angeal said around a yawn.

               Cloud sighed and put his hand over the PHS to say, “Sorry,” before putting it back to his year and speaking at a regular volume. “Uh, don’t worry about it. Like I said, I’m fine.”

               “You sound like I woke you up. Why are you in bed so early?”

               “Just tired.”

               “You didn’t do marathon calls again, did you?”

               “How did you even think to guess that?”

               “I saw how you were when we were selling, remember? I thought you might, but Cloud, we talked about this. It’s not healthy.”

               “No, Aeris, I know. I just—it seemed like a good idea, at the time.”

               “Are you short on rent again? You know I’m happy to help if you are. You’ve helped Mom and me out plenty of times before.”

               “No, that’s not it.”

               “Because if this was more of you trying to punish yourself for something you didn’t do, I’m not going to be happy.”

               Cloud could hear the subtext that said, “I’m going to teach the actual guilty parties a lesson because I know you won’t.”

               “I—well, that wasn’t quite the reason, not really, but—”

               “If this is another self-esteem thing—”

               “Listen, I know you mean the threats you’re not actually saying, but they’re not necessary, okay? I got things sorted out.”

               “With?”

               “With the, uh, people involved in—y’know. The other day.”

               “The people that made you call me practically in tears at four in the morning.”

               Cloud cleared his throat.

               “If you want to say it that way. But like I said, it’s sorted, now.”

               “So you forgave people who didn’t deserve it again.”

               “I—no, Aeris, that’s not what happened. This one’s on me.”

               “You always say it’s on you. You know how many times things like this have actually been your fault?”

               “Alright, yeah, maybe you have a point, but I overreacted this time. I drew a conclusion without having the full picture and I freaked out.”

               “And you have the full picture, now?”

               “Yeah. It’s honestly a pretty fucking impossible one and I think I’m going to be pinching myself for the next year trying to believe it, but yeah.”

               “So are you going to explain what happened?”

               Cloud paused, looking up at Zack who was curled up facing him. He still looked tired, but he nodded.

               “I—I think so? I need to talk to them about it, but I think I need you to know, Aeris. Even if no one else does.”

               “Okay. What I’m hearing is that you want to tell me but aren’t sure if they’ll let you. But whatever it is, it sounds like it’s your business as much as it is theirs. So I’m going to give you all some motivation to come clean. If you tell me you can’t explain, I’m snitching to Mama Strife. The whole thing. Four AM call, tears, hickeys, keeping secrets. We’ll see what she has to say about it.”

               Cloud gasped in shock.

               “Aeris, you—you wouldn’t. She’ll fly out here! She can’t afford the ticket without losing her winter savings!”

               “And we both know she’ll care more about coming out here to set you straight than she does about her savings.”

               “Come on! I’ve told you what Nibel winters are like, she needs those!”

               “Then I guess you better start talking, huh.”

               Cloud groaned and smacked his forehead against Zack’s chest, who chuckled and patted his shoulder.

               “Alright, alright. I don’t really think they’ll try and tell me no, anyway. Can I at least talk to you about it tomorrow? I really ought to do this in person with you. If I don’t give you the opportunity to smack me with your staff the second it’s outta my mouth, you’re just gonna hit me harder later.”

               “At least you know me that well. Tomorrow, then. I’m holding you to it, Cloud.”

               Cloud sighed and said, “Goodnight, Aeris.”

               “Night.”

               Cloud hung up and pocketed his PHS again.

               “Sorry. I should have known she’d call. Didn’t mean to wake you all up.”

               “I think only Angeal was asleep, anyway,” Genesis said, followed by the soft sound of him kissing Angeal, who grumbled.

               “That’s the girl that threatened me, huh?” Zack asked.

               Cloud looked up at him in confusion.

               “She threatened you?”

               “Yeah, when I called after you left the other day. She didn’t tell you?”

               “Uh. No?”

               “Didn’t think she was trying to be sneaky about it,” Zack said, looking a strange combination of confused and impressed.

               Cloud rubbed his brow.

               “It does sound like her though. I had to stop her from hitting someone with her staff when someone grabbed my ass one time.”

               “Someone what?

               Cloud waved his hand dismissively.

               “Point is, she’s gotta be pretty pissed with you guys, even though she isn’t sure who she’s aiming it at yet. But I really do have to tell her about us, if we’re going to be a thing. She’s my best friend. And she really will call my mother, and you do not want her finding out about this, if Aeris gets to talk to her first.”

               “I think I can speak for all of us and say that no one wants you to keep us a secret from your friend, Cloud,” Genesis said, tightening his arm around Cloud’s waist from where he was spooned up behind him.

               “This is your relationship as well now,” Sephiroth said. “This isn’t you sharing our secret. It’s you sharing your own.”

               Cloud sighed and said, “In the interest of full disclosure, she already knows about Gen and Zack. She was reading over my shoulder when Zack mentioned it the first time.”

               He stiffened, prepared for anger, but Genesis smoothed a hand over his chest and kissed the back of his neck.

               “Why was she reading over your shoulder?” Zack asked, but he only sounded curious, not mad at all.

               Cloud shifted and said, “You told me a long time ago, when I first asked you why you bought my sets. I had her sit with me because I was upset—I thought you’d want to stop being friends and just be a client, once you bought a few. I didn’t know you were gonna drop big truth bombs, or I wouldn’t have let her look, but then it was too late. I know she hasn’t told anyone. She never would. She won’t tell anyone about the rest of it, either.”

               Sephiroth, who had propped himself on one elbow behind Zack, reached over to lay a hand on Cloud’s arm.

               “We believe you. We trust your judgement.”

               “Though we will want to meet her,” Angeal insisted. “If she’s this important to you, she’s important to us.”

               Cloud laughed a little, though the sound was nervous.

               “Good. She’ll want to meet you all too, and you better try and impress her. If she comes away thinking you’re not good for me, she’ll raise all sorts of hell, and call my mother.”

               “You say that like it’s such a bad thing for your mother to visit,” Genesis said.

               “Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see her again. But neither of us can afford a ticket to get her here—I had to hitch-hike my way over when I came. Besides, she’s terrifying when she’s mad.”

               “You hitch-hiked? How old were you?” Zack asked.

               “Fourteen.”

               “And you got here safe?

               “Yeah, I got lucky. I ran into some old man at Costa del Sol that was headed this way. He saw how young I was and how everyone was looking at me—even if I was too young and dumb and sheltered to realize what that meant, at the time. He decided it was on him to get me to Midgar. I owe that man and his beat up yellow truck a lot, honestly. I don’t like thinking about what might have happened, now that I know enough to be concerned.”

               “And your mother just let you leave?”

               “I told her I was meeting up with a pen pal in Rocket Town and we were going together. There was no way she’d let me go if she didn’t think I was supervised, are you kidding me?”

               Genesis sighed in relief and pressed his forehead to the back of Cloud’s neck.

               “I don’t like thinking about how that trip could have gone,” he mumbled.

               Cloud patted the arm around his waist and said, “I don’t either. But if we’re up, we ought to figure out all the stuff we were putting off because I almost fell asleep in Seph’s lap.”

               “Aren’t you still tired? You only slept a few hours,” Angeal asked.

               Cloud pulled away and dragged himself up to sitting. The others followed suit, if reluctantly.

               “I’m awake enough. Let’s get this over with.”

               They spent the next three and a half hours in deep discussion. The first thing that was decided was that, barring out-of-town missions, one of them would be there to spend the night with him Monday through Thursday. They assigned days based on their usual schedules, though their jobs never did give them much stability. Genesis was Monday, Zack Tuesday, Sephiroth Wednesday, and Angeal Thursday. Friday, Cloud insisted he would be fine on his own. In fact, he insisted multiple times that they didn’t have to bother, but they refused to hear it. Even if Cloud was still adjusting to the idea of actually being a full member of the group, they were anxious to have him with the, and refused to have him be left out.

               Saturday and Sunday, Cloud would spend in the Tower. Weekend passes were available for SOLDIERs who had civilian partners they wanted to bring home, and if they were usually only used for partners and not “friends” as they intended to claim Cloud was, no one would really question the Firsts. They were going to put him on a frequent visitor’s list so he would be able to check in and out without an escort.

               They didn’t want to keep Cloud a secret, but they didn’t have much choice. They couldn’t all claim to date him and not invite questions about their own relationship. They expected that there would be questions, that sooner or later someone would insinuate something, but they were certain that a flat denial would end things. As much as it would help keep people away from Cloud to put some sort of claim on him, they couldn’t risk it.

               Cloud was given explicit permission to continue working, for more than one reason. He clearly hated the idea of working for Shinra, which was the largest employer in the city. He would have difficulty getting a job regardless after how he lost his last. It would only be a matter of time before he lost the new one for the same reason. It didn’t seem worth it. The others didn’t mind him continuing his current profession, regardless. Genesis had insisted that there was a certain appeal to getting to have what everyone else wanted but wasn’t allowed to touch. After a moment of pause, the others agreed. Cloud reminded them that he was interested in trying modeling, and that it wasn’t a guarantee that he’d be doing this forever, if they didn’t want him to. They reassured him that they didn’t mind, and that there was no rush, but Angeal did promise to take his headshot in the morning, and Genesis would pass it off to the appropriate parties during the day.

               Cloud did insist, however, that whatever agencies were given his headshot were made aware of his current career. He wasn’t going to have a repeat of Chocobo King. It had been bad enough when he was a no-name cashier below the plate. If he actually blew up the way Genesis insisted he would, and then it came into the light? It’d be a scandal, the kind that even the average person ended up getting wind of. He didn’t want that kind of limelight. Whoever hired him needed to do it already knowing the truth and already being okay with it, or this wouldn’t work at all.

               With the hard parts sorted with much deliberation, they went back to sleep. In the morning, Sephiroth made them all breakfast, and the SOLDIERs trickled off to work. Angeal was the last, taking the headshot before showing Cloud down to the exit. They exchanged their farewell kiss in the elevator since they couldn’t do it in the lobby, but did give one another a fond smile at the desk before Cloud disappeared.

                Cloud admittedly dragged his feet the whole way down. He had texted Aeris to let her know he was leaving and that he would meet her at the church. She had agreed and reminded him that she knew where he lived if he didn’t end up showing. He took far longer to get there than he usually would have, but eventually, he did push the doors open and trudge inside, shoving his hands deep in his pockets.

               She didn’t even look up from where she was, sitting cross-legged in front of the flowers, just patted the space beside her and went back to weeding.

               He sighed and walked down the aisle before taking his place next to her. He watched as she ripped out one last weed and set it in a pile with its fellows at her side, before she scooted around, turning to face him.

               “This better be good, Cloud.”

               He took a deep breath in, and blew it out slowly.

               “You know how Genesis and Zack are dating?”

               “I remember.”

               “Well, they’re—they’re all dating. All the Firsts.”

               “… All of them?”

               “Yeah. Genesis, Zack, Angeal, and Sephiroth.”

               Aeris was watching him closely as he fidgeted. She nodded slowly.

               He continued, “It’s a secret—people wouldn’t react well, you can imagine. Four’s a lot for a relationship. They asked me to keep it a secret, or I would have told you.”

               “I don’t blame you for not telling me. How does this relate to the other night?”

               He could see her tallying how many people she needed to be mad at.

               “I—well, they, uh—a while ago, they, kinda, offered to take me to bed. Wait—wait, no, don’t get mad yet, let me finish.” He paused, waiting for her to cool off, even if she frowned, before continuing. “I told them that four was a little too much for my first time, so they let me have my first one-on-one with Zack. That was when most of the—uh, neck thing happened. I kinda hooked up with the others in like little ways after that, but they eventually did bring me to their place for the, uhm, big night.

               “They were really sweet about it, Aeris, like so sweet. Every time, they were so careful with me. They were trying so hard to make sure I knew they liked more than just my ass. And I felt so safe with them, and really cared for, y’know? That whole night, I was so, so sure that nothing could go wrong. It was like magic, it really was. When I said it was like I touched the sun, I wasn’t exaggerating.”

               “Then what went wrong, Cloud?”

               The anger was off her face, at this point. She was watching curiously, trying to fit together what he was telling her and what she already knew.

               “I fell asleep after, and then I woke up in the middle of the night, and I was just thinking about what happened, and I realize that I—I love them. And that was the first rule, right? They were in a relationship, but it was their relationship. They cared about me, sure, and they wanted me, but there were limits. And I was really sure that I crossed the line. I thought that I had tricked them into letting me in their bed and took advantage of them. That I betrayed their trust. Because they did trust me, to let me sleep with them. But they extended that trust with the understanding that we were all just friends. But I didn’t think of them that way, and I realized that I hadn’t for the whole night, I just didn’t realize it when it was happening.”

               “So you freaked out and ran.”

               “Right. They’ve been trying to get a hold of me since to talk to me, but I kept ignoring them. I was doing your favorite thing, the one where I keep telling myself I’m just a piece of ass and that’s all I’m good for—you’ve heard this stupid sob story from me before.”

               “Being flippant about it isn’t any better than when you’re upset about it.”

               “It is a little. Anyway, Genesis kicked in my door yesterday and dragged me plateside to talk to them. Turns out, he realized that night too, but he also realized that they all loved me back—which is godsdamn crazy. Apparently he only let me leave because he needed to talk to the others about whether or not they wanted to date me and didn’t want me there just in case they decided against it.”

               “And did they? Decide against it?”

               Cloud paused and then shook his head.

               “We’re—uh, we’re gonna be dating. Are dating, now, I guess.” He rubbed the back of his head and said, “It all still seems so surreal.”

               Aeris looked at him closely, thinking over the situation and what he had told her.

               “I want to meet them,” she declared. “If you’re going to be together—all of you—I’m going to meet them. Besides, I think I might owe them an apology.”

               “… What? Why?”

               “Because if I didn’t make my own assumptions and let them talk to you that night, you wouldn’t have been miserable this last week. I’m sorry, Cloud. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions.”

               “I—hey, no, Aeris, you don’t have to be sorry. You were just trying to look out for me. Gods know I don’t always do a great job of that myself.”

               “True, but still. Part of this is on me, and don’t keep arguing with me about it, you won’t change my mind. When am I meeting them?”

               Cloud sighed and leaned back on his hands.

               “I’ll ask when I can get them all to come down.”

               Aeris reached out and took his hand in hers.

               “I am happy for you, Cloud. I just want to make sure that you aren’t settling for the first people to treat you kindly.”

               He sighed but smiled at her and squeezed her hand.

               “I’m not. They’re great—you’ll see. I think you’ll like them a lot, once you get to know them a little. But let’s try and not tell my mom, okay? She’ll freak. I don’t think she’ll care that they’re men, but I think she’ll care that there are four of them, and she really doesn’t like Shinra. If she found out I was dating the company’s poster boys, I’d be in for it.”

               Aeris laughed and said, “I’ll only tell her as a last resort, promise.”

               He smiled back, and they devolved into simpler topics. He began helping her with the weeding, because Aeris had been right, a week ago, when he’d called. It did help, having his hands in dirt. It was calming, to touch something alive that he knew how to handle. He didn’t misstep, with plants. There was no socialization to worry about. Just giving care to something happy to receive it. It reminded him of home, too, of the little herb garden his mother had. They’d never had flowers, Nibel folk were generally too practical to bother raising such things, but the act of gardening was the same.

               It ended up being a few weeks before everyone could get an afternoon off. The first few weeks of their relationship were easier than anyone had expected. The SOLDIERs expected more feeling each other out. Every time they had added a new member, there had been an adjustment period, as they tried to figure out how to mesh everyone together. This wasn’t as big an issue purely by virtue of the fact that, the majority of the time, all five weren’t actually in the same space. None of them had any difficulty being one-on-one with Cloud, which made the majority of the week a breeze.

               The tricky part was the weekends. Cloud had been added to the visitor’s list and was able to sign himself in and get a weekend pass when he arrived on Saturday. He was a little surprised that they didn’t actually fuck every night he was there—he had to be gently reminded that they were dating, not in a friends-with-benefits situation. If everyone knew that this was a lingering effect of Cloud’s conviction that people only wanted him for his body, no one brought it up.

               They were still feeling each other out, trying to understand how they all fit together, but for the most part, it was easy. They were still learning about one another, but there was no awkwardness straining things. In fact, Cloud’s hesitance almost seemed to help. The others were so focused on making him comfortable and making sure he felt loved that they had no time left to worry about their own nerves.

               But the full five were only all there once it was late. It was the reason they didn’t just schedule the meeting with Aeris for one of the weekends. One of them was always working until midnight, or even out of town on a mission. Once, Cloud had fallen asleep before Angeal managed to get home—no one had the heart to shake him awake, especially considering they all thought he was adorable when he was asleep.

               When they did finally manage to get everyone below plate, it was a Friday afternoon, which was what they had been aiming for. This way, they would be able to come down, and bring Cloud topside with them when they returned home for the night, and he could spend an extra day with them. They had triple-checked that he wouldn’t miss having the day to himself, but Cloud had insisted he wanted to go.

               He had given them the address to the church and was waiting there with Aeris for them to arrive. They were sitting perched on the steps leading up to the altar, staring at the door and chatting idly.

               “I dunno,” Cloud was saying, paying more attention to the door than his words, “I haven’t heard back from any of the agencies yet. Hopefully they’ll start getting back to me soon. I’m sure they’re busy with their actual models, y’know? I think—guys!

               Aeris turned from the door to watch Cloud’s face light up in sheer joy, popping to his feet. She paused to try and think about it but, no, she had never seen Cloud look quite this way. His joy was something quiet, something restrained. She had seen him happy, yes, seen him smile and laugh plenty of times, but never quite this brightly. There was something almost raw in the delight on his face. Like he wasn’t trying to hide for once.

               She stood slowly, brushing her skirt off as Cloud bounded down the steps and even further down the aisle to meet his partners. She recognized them all on sight, placing each one easily. Angeal looked relaxed, his hands in his pockets, while Genesis had a strange air of almost over-confidence. Sephiroth had a blank expression, but Zack looked a little nervous, right until Cloud crashed into him, making him laugh. He grabbed Cloud around the waist, lifting him up, as Cloud tucked his legs up behind him and pressed a kiss to Zack’s lips.

               And there, Aeris could see it immediately, as they looked at each other for one brief moment before Zack put Cloud down.

               They really did love each other.

               Cloud slipped away to make his rounds, kissing each in greeting. He let Genesis cup his face and draw him forward into the kiss, but grabbed Angeal by the pockets his hands were in to drag him forward into pressing their lips together, laughing softly as they did. Sephiroth’s hand he took gently, threading their fingers together, seemingly undisturbed by the dead look on his face. He kissed his lips, then his cheek, then whispered something in his ear that Aeris couldn’t hear as he squeezed his hand.

               It was, “I love you so much.”

               When he leaned away, Sephiroth wasn’t quite smiling, but his expression had softened.

               He stepped away and grabbed Zack’s hand, who was still at the front of the pack, and led them down the aisle to where Aeris was waiting by the flowers.

               “Everyone, this is Aeris, my best friend. Aeris, this is—”

               “Cloud,” Aeris said, though she mostly sounded amused.

               He rubbed the back of his head and said, “Uh, yeah, right. Guess you’ve seen ads.”

               Aeris smiled and said, “Hello. It’s nice to finally meet you all. Cloud’s told me a lot.”

               “All good things, I hope,” Genesis said, watching her closely. He hadn’t forgotten her threats. He had absolutely no problem with her being protective over Cloud, but if she remained convinced they were the enemy, there would be an issue.

               “Annoyingly good things, considering how much I wanted to hit you in particular for letting him go that night.”

               Cloud winced, but he looked closely at Aeris. She didn’t look angry; she was smiling a little, though she mostly looked exasperated. He looked over to see Genesis watching her warily.

               “Did he explain why I chose to do so?”

               “He did. That’s why I didn’t greet you with a Thunder spell.”

               Cloud breathed a sigh of relief. If she could joke about it, she had forgiven him.

               Unfortunately, the others didn’t know her quite as well, and weren’t set at ease quite so simply.

               Genesis, who had a bad habit of getting prickly and defensive, especially when he wasn’t fully convinced he was actually in the right, bristled.

               “Would I have been expected to allow it to hit? You have to be aware that civilians can’t cast quicker than I can.”

               Cloud sighed and said, “Gen.”

               “Oh, I don’t think you’ve met a civilian who casts quite the way I do,” Aeris countered, with a hint of mischief in her eye.

               “I am Shinra’s most accomplished caster. You do know this, yes?”

               Cloud crossed his arms, but let it happen. There were bound to be growing pains, as they all got to know each other. Aeris wasn’t above pulling someone’s leg, and he knew that the more confident they were, the more tempted she was. They’d have to figure these things out about each other eventually, and Cloud couldn’t hold their hands through all of it.

               “Yeah, but you are Shinra. They aren’t always known for their competence, are they?”

               “The company on the whole, perhaps not, but the SOLDIER program has always been immune to these flaws.”

               “I’m not so sure about that. I’ve seen how easy it is to run SOLDIERs out of the slums. They’re so spoiled and used to praise that they can’t take the heat they get down here.”

               “An exaggeration. SOLDIERs may not linger here, but they hardly turn tail.”

               “That’s not what I’ve seen.”

               “Well, then you’ve—”

               They were interrupted by a soft “pffft” sound from Zack.

               Genesis turned to look at him. Angeal coughed to hide his own laugh, but Zack was doing a very poor job about hiding his amusement.

               “Something funny?” Genesis asked.

               “Uh, yeah,” Zack admitted. “I know most people are too afraid of you to rile you up, but I didn’t think you’d fall for it so easy.”

               “… What are you talking about?”

               When he looked over, Aeris was smiling sweetly. Cloud had his arms crossed and was shaking his head; apparently, he’d had nothing to worry about. He saw the look on Cloud’s face, then saw the amusement on Angeal’s, and watched as Sephiroth raised an eyebrow at him. He sighed and tossed his hands up.

               “It wouldn’t have worked if I didn’t come here expecting a fight,” Genesis protested. Aeris looked unapologetic, but Zack and Angeal laughed.

               Zack walked up to Aeris and held his hand out, saying, “I’m Zack. I think we’re gonna get along great, if that’s how you introduced yourself to Gen.”

               Aeris grinned and shook his hand.

               “I’m just glad to find out that at least a few of you have a sense of humor. You won’t be able to keep up with Cloud in the long run if you don’t.”

               “Hey,” Cloud protested. “I resent that.”

               “You’re the world’s biggest brat, Cloud, they’re going to need to know how to take a joke to handle you,” Aeris said, shaking Angeal’s hand when he approached and offered it to her. Cloud stuck his tongue out at her, doing much to prove her right in the process.

               “Angeal. It’s a pleasure. Please, feel free to hassle Genesis any time you’d like.”

               “I’ll take you up on that,” she said, as he stepped away.

               Sephiroth had followed next, Genesis lingering with Cloud, a little put out to be the butt of the joke. Cloud had a hand on the small of his back and kissed his cheek as Sephiroth held out his hand. He was impressed to find that Aeris, despite knowing who he was, didn’t hesitate to shake it, and do so firmly.

               “Thank you for taking care of Cloud all these years,” Sephiroth said, keeping a hold of her hand a little longer than the others.

               Aeris paused, tilting her head, a little curious at his choice of greeting.

               She took long enough that Cloud piped up, “I don’t need to be taken care of.”

               “Yes, you do,” Aeris and Sephiroth said at the same moment. She then smiled at him, and he gave her a soft look that she expected was his own approximation of a smile.

               Cloud huffed in the background, but settled when Genesis kissed his cheek.

               Sephiroth stepped away, and Cloud pushed Genesis slightly forward.

               Aeris did not look at all sorry for having given him a hard time, and Genesis found he could respect her for that. This time, she was the one to hold out her hand first, and Genesis shook it in return.

               “Truce?” she asked.

               There was some amusement in Genesis’s face when he said, “Truce.”

               Cloud dropped onto the floor next to the flowers, and after patting the floorboards on either side of him, got the others to follow suit, forming a loose circle on the floor. Aeris sat at his one side, and he tugged Genesis’s hand to get him to sit at his left—despite their truce, it seemed like a good idea to give them a buffer. Zack sat on Aeris’s right, and Angeal and Sephiroth filled the gap.

               “So,” Zack said, propping his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand, “tell us embarrassing stories about Cloud.”

               “Zack,” Cloud groaned, rolling his eyes.

               “Did he ever tell you about when we got him his first dress?”

               Cloud let his head fall back and said, “Aeris, not that one.”

               “No, he certainly has not,” Genesis said, leaning around Cloud to look at her.

               “Well,” she began, before launching into the tail of the Wall Market dressmaker and how they got him to be Cloud’s tailor.

               It went on like that for a while, Aeris telling ridiculous stories of antics she and Cloud had gotten into over the years. It did quite a bit to unwind the lingering tension from the air. No one was focused on how important this meeting actually was when they were too busy laughing about how Cloud had to sneak his way into the Honey Bee to get his first lingerie items.

               After a while, they traded. The SOLDIERs told her about Cloud’s pettiness with Linda at the front desk the first time he visited, as well as his ongoing pettiness with her whenever she was working and she had to check him in. They cooed to her about how cute he was when he was asleep, especially when he was trying to stay up and failed.

               And that was Aeris’s favorite part, the tangent she dragged them as far down as she could. She was determined to get them to talk for as long as possible about all the things they loved about Cloud. Partially, because she needed to know that they really did care for him, and that he was going to be properly appreciated by his partners, if she was going to give them her stamp of approval. But partially, she liked watching the way Cloud slowly went red, unaccustomed to endless praise and unsure of what to do with himself in the moment. Genesis reached out to hold his hand but never stopped fawning over him; he just knew Cloud could use the comfort to accept listening to people talk about him this way. That gesture did a lot to set Aeris’s mind at ease.

               Aeris hadn’t particularly wanted to approve of the relationship. She didn’t like Shinra, for an endless number of reasons. She didn’t like SOLDIER in particular, for what they stood for as Shinra’s strong arm, for the atrocities they committed in the company’s name. But she was willing to set her personal opinions aside for Cloud’s sake. And what became clear to her over that long conversation was that these men, despite their flaws, loved Cloud dearly. And that Cloud loved them just as much in return.

               And that, she couldn’t, in good conscience, stand in the way of.

               In the end, her PHS alarm went off, reminding her that it was getting late and she needed to head home. She sighed and tucked the device away after shutting it off.

               “Alright, that’s my cue to wrap things up,” she announced, looking back up at the others. “You guys have done a lot to set my mind at ease today. You’ve convinced me you actually care about him, so I’m going to let any rocky starts slide. Just take care of him, okay? He’s a tough little bastard, but he needs to be loved. He deserves that much from you all. If I hear about you doing anything short of that, we’re going to have a problem.”

               “If that’s your concern, you have nothing to worry about,” Sephiroth said, standing. He crossed their little circle and held a hand out to help her up, which she took. She dusted her skirt off.

               “Weirdly enough, I believe you,” she said, smiling up at him as the rest got to their feet.

               When everyone was standing, Angeal began the round of goodbyes, before slowly ushering everyone toward the door. They each shook Aeris’s hand a second time, save Zack, who asked first politely, but pulled her into a hug.

               With a final, “Let’s go, puppy,” Angeal dragged Zack, the straggler, toward the door, to give Cloud and Aeris a moment of privacy.

               Cloud stuck his hands in his pockets and watched them walk away before looking back toward Aeris, who was watching him.

               “You know I don’t need to be babied, Aeris,” he protested. He knew they weren’t out of earshot, not with their hearing, but he also knew they would pretend not to hear out of politeness.

               “Of course you don’t. But everyone needs to be cared for, Cloud. Even your SOLDIERs. You’re no exception,” she said, reaching up to brush hair out of his eyes. He sighed.

               “I guess. You’re really okay with this, though?”

               “I wouldn’t have said it if it wasn’t true, you know that. I think you’ll be fine with them, Cloud. And if you’re not, we’ll figure out what to do next.”

               Cloud smiled at her and said, “You’re the best, you know that?”

               Aeris smiled in return and said, “Obviously. Now go enjoy the night with your boys. Raise a little hell in the Tower for me.”

               “One bitching for Linda, coming right up.”

               Aeris laughed, and Cloud grinned at her before pulling her into a hug.

               “Thanks, Aeris.”

               “You’re welcome, Cloud.”

               He squeezed her one last time before letting her go. They exchanged quiet goodbyes before Cloud trotted off after his boyfriends, who enveloped him as a group when they got close enough. In the privacy of the church, they touched him freely, hands on shoulders and pressed to his back. They pulled away before the doors opened to reveal them to the rest of the world, but it meant something to Aeris, to see them steal the contact while it was safe.

               They really did care.

               Aeris would rest much easier tonight than she had the past couple of weeks since she found out about them.

Chapter Text

               It took longer than Cloud had expected to hear back from the modeling agencies. He thought they would want to get back to him relatively quickly, considering it was Genesis that passed along his photo. But weeks went by without word.

               In the meantime, he started falling into routine. Angeal and Zack each helped him shoot a set when they visited on their respective assigned days, which Genesis edited when he had time during the week. Cloud took calls on his off-days with increasing frequency, now that word had gone around that he was doing them more often. He was kept relatively busy, but never too busy to keep up with his boyfriends, or maintain contact with Aeris.

               Still, when a few more weeks went by without word, Cloud got anxious. He asked Genesis for the contact information of the agencies in question so he could follow up. Each one he called gave him strange, vague non-answers about whether or not they were interested. Cloud didn’t really understand what was going on until one of the last ones on his list.

               The man who took his call sighed on the line.

               “Look, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but I’m guessing no one’s going to, and I don’t really want to waste your time. You’ve got the face for this, kid, you really do. Any other circumstances, and we would have snatched you up in a heartbeat, especially with a Rhapsodos recommendation. In fact, your benefactor is the reason why I’m not supposed to be telling you this—no one wants to piss him off.

               “But the truth is, you really ought to just give up. No one going to hire you, not with your background. I know at least a dozen clients who would love to have you as the face of their lines, but they’d drop you like a hot potato the second they found out about your—uh, other work. No one wants their company associated with that kind of thing, y’know? Bad for business. Especially the luxury lines, their customers are notorious prudes. It’s a shame, really, you’d make a killing without your history, but that’s the way things are. I can’t have you on the payroll when I know no one will book you. Sorry to be the one to give you the bad news, but I figured it was only right that someone do it, so you don’t sit around waiting for something that’ll never come.”

               Cloud had stared at his PHS for a long, long time after that call. In his gut, he’d known from the start. As much as he didn’t like it, it did make sense. No sense in someone taking a risk on him, when it was sure to bite them in the ass when the truth came out. And the truth would come out, that was why he’d had Genesis tell them upfront in the first place.

               He didn’t tell the others, not yet. He wasn’t ready to see their faces fall, and he didn’t have it in him to talk Genesis out of trying to take it out on the companies shooting him down. He’d tell them when he had some time to come to terms with what happened.

               In the meantime, he had other concerns. He had a new regular, which was normally a great thing, but he was starting to get red flags from him. The man was asking for calls daily—which again, not a problem. But the way he spoke had these little possessive twists. He bought every single one of Cloud’s sets. He was getting obsessive. He was asking Cloud for personal information, and Cloud had to repeatedly, politely remind him that he didn’t discuss that kind of thing. The client always laughed it off and apologized, but he also continued asking. Even if he continued to back off, he wasn’t respecting the boundaries Cloud was putting up. This was the kind of behavior that, in Cloud’s experience, led to him having another stalker.

               Which wasn’t a big deal, really. He’d handled them before, and he’d always known he would handle them again. It came with the job. People fell in love with what they couldn’t have and, even if it wasn’t actually love, it came with a desperate need to possess. Genesis had said there was an appeal to having what no one else was allowed to touch, and his clients shared the view. The stalkers were determined to be the ones to have him, regardless of what he said about the matter. It was infinitely different than what he had with the SOLDIERs.

               But the SOLDIERs were the issue, here. He knew they would freak out once they knew. They were protective on a good day, but when there was an actual threat? Cloud didn’t want to know how they would overreact. And it would be an overreaction, because, as he’d told Zack that very first day, he knew how to take care of himself. He had his materia on him every time he left the house for a reason. He never really expected one, but was always ready for a fight.

               So was he worried about the potential stalker? No. Was he worried about what would happen when his boyfriends found out? Absolutely. He didn’t need them going overboard to protect him. The last thing he needed was someone bleeding out because one of his partners got blindsided and didn’t know when to stop. He could handle things. He just didn’t really think they’d let him.

               Clearly, he was supposed to tell them. He knew that. They would want to know. And he had told Zack, ages ago, that he’d come to him if he needed help. But he didn’t need help, not yet. And besides, he wasn’t even sure, at the moment, if this was going to develop into full stalker territory. All he had were the warning signs, the seemingly innocuous things that only concerned him because he had done this before.

               Cloud resolved to let the others know when he was certain. He knew, in his gut, that once he was certain, it was too late, but he pointedly ignored that.

               So he let things spin further and further out of control while pretending nothing was wrong. He didn’t tell his boyfriends about the modeling agencies, and he certainly didn’t tell them about the potential stalker. None of the agencies called him, but the client sure did. Incessantly. Sometimes he asked for multiple calls a day. Cloud was actually busy shooting more private sets, because this one had run through all the ones he had prepared.

               The client was starting to get upset when Cloud went offline for the day when his boyfriends showed up for the night, or when he took the weekend off, despite it being made clear that this was something he did and that it had nothing to do with avoiding the client himself.

               The final warning sign was when he started asking to meet up with him. When he guessed that Cloud lived below the plate and which sector he was in based on his P.O. Box. He offered to meet him anywhere he liked, that he’d take him out, they could do anything Cloud wanted, as long as he met him. He was happy to pay whatever Cloud asked for.

               Cloud clients came in many flavors, but this one was distinctly Above Plate Rich Prick. This was the type that saw a pretty face for sale and had decided that if he threw around enough money, he could get whatever he wanted. That Cloud himself was on the table, if he wrote a big enough check. That sort of entitlement disgusted Cloud the most.

               Cloud kept turning him down, over and over, infinitely polite, but it never stopped the man from asking. It just made him throw around bigger figures. He thought Cloud was playing coy to get more money out of him, refusing to believe that Cloud was something he just couldn’t have. He was determined that this was open to negotiation, no matter how clear Cloud was that that just wasn’t the case.

               So Cloud resolved to tell his boyfriends. It was a little late in the day, and Zack was probably already on his way below plate to see Cloud for the night, but the last pass the client made was the final straw.

               Cloud: hey, uh, guys

               Cloud: I have something to come clean about

               Genesis: I don’t like the sound of that.

               Cloud: yeah well I don’t like saying it any more than you want to hear it

               Cloud: I think I’ve got another stalker

               Cloud: I can handle it and you’ve got nothing to worry about

               Cloud: but I thought you’d all want to know

               Sephiroth: Who is it?

               Cloud: just some client

               Cloud: I don’t have a name

               Sephiroth: Do you have a description? A photo? We can find him with little.

               Cloud: no, see, this is why I didn’t want to tell you guys

               Cloud: you don’t have to find him

               Angeal: it’s better if we find him, than if he finds you

               Cloud: really, you don’t have to worry

               Cloud: I can take care of myself

               Zack: you shouldn’t have to

               Zack: you don’t have to deal with this alone

               Cloud: really, I’m fine

               Cloud: I haven’t run into him in person, which means things aren’t too bad

               Zack: why do I think you almost put a yet at the end of that sentence

               Cloud: ok, maybe it was implied

               Cloud: but seriously

               Cloud: everything’s fine

               Zack: it doesn’t sound fine

               Zack: you don’t sound safe

               Cloud: I am

               Cloud: I know how to handle assholes like these

               Cloud: just trust me, ok?

               Angeal: you aren’t the one we aren’t trusting

               Cloud: listen, I was just giving you a head’s up

               Cloud: I’m gonna go meet you at the station, Zack

               They all knew that was code for “I’m not going to answer anything else so don’t bother messaging me” and let the matter drop.

               Cloud made his way through the sector to the station easily, the route long familiar now. He made a habit of picking up his boyfriends from the station. They wouldn’t let him help contribute to the cost of the tickets, even though he was the reason they were buying them—they wouldn’t even let him buy his own tickets. This was the least he could do.

               He got to the station and was waiting with the crowd for the train to pull in when he felt a hand fall on his shoulder.                                                                                                                                            

               Cloud looked over, and felt his stomach sink between his shoes.

               It was his client.

               Looked like he spoke too soon.

               “Stormcloud,” the man said, a warm smile on his face.

               Cloud pulled his hands out of his pockets and backed a step away. The man followed.

               “I told you, this kind of thing isn’t okay,” Cloud protested. He turned to leave, trusting Zack could find his way on his own, but his wrist was grabbed.

               “Don’t be like that.”

               “Hey, let me go,” Cloud protest, trying to tug free, but the client’s grip was firm around his wrist. He started hauling Cloud away, off toward a nearby alley, his grip so hard it was bruising, as the train pulled in. He wanted to scream, and yell, and carry on, but he knew it would do no good. That wasn’t how things worked in the slums. You solved your own problems, or they didn’t get solved. There were no helpful bystanders who would swoop in to help. No matter what they heard, everyone minded their own business. He could scream himself hoarse and no one would come to his aid.

               Cloud knew he was right about the exact kind of asshole this man was by his appearance. Business suit, neat tie, hair slicked back, shiny shoes clicking on the pavement. Even his watch looked expensive. He’d make an easy mark in the slums, and he’d probably be robbed if he lurked down here too often. Unfortunately, it seemed like he found his target before he could become someone else’s.

               He would have normally used his materia by now, but the client had his hands on him, and all he had was a Thunder materia. The lightning would pass through his target and into Cloud, incapacitating them both. It wouldn’t be worth the risk, in the off chance the client came to first. Cloud didn’t want to know what would happen if he wasn’t able to move yet, but the other man was.

               He struggled the whole way, but it didn’t stop him from being dragged deep into the alley and pinned against the wall, his wrists by his ears. His feet were kicked apart so the man could fit a thigh between Cloud’s legs.

               “You sick fuck, let me go,” Cloud snapped.

               “You should have taken me up on my offers,” the man whispered in his ear, leaning in to smell Cloud’s skin. “I would have paid anything.”

               “You’re still gonna pay. Just not gil.”

               The man laughed and looked down at him condescendingly.

               “What could you possibly do?”

               In the distance, Cloud could hear someone calling his name. Zack. Shit. He had to end this before his boyfriend found them, or there would be bloodshed.

               Cloud spit in his face.

               The man’s expression morphed in rage, and he opened his mouth to say something, but he leaned back just enough in his disgust to allow Cloud the room he needed. He jerked his knee up, directly into the man’s balls, which had been positioned perfectly by the way he had his thigh between Cloud’s legs. The client curled forward but crumpled, stumbling backwards. Cloud let off his strongest Thunder spell, despite knowing it would draw Zack’s attention. He cast twice more, and he could smell both ozone and the man’s hair sizzling as he fell to the ground.

               Cloud straightened his clothes and walked over before stomping one booted foot into the man’s chest, pressing his full weight forward as he leaned down.

               “Stay the fuck away from me, or I won’t stop at three casts next time. This is the slums. No one down here will care if they find another dead body—it doesn’t matter who you are, plateside. I’ll end you, and I’ll get away with it. Think twice before you try and come after me again.”

               Cloud gave the man one sharp kick in the side, stomped as hard as he could on his balls, and then turned away, just to find Zack watching mutely from the mouth of the alley.

               He hurried toward him, grabbing Zack by the hand and pulling him away from the scene.

               “Was that—”

               “Yeah.”

               He felt Zack pull backwards, ready to go back and end what Cloud had started. Cloud tugged harder on his wrist.

               “It’s handled, Zack. He’s not a SOLDIER. No civilian takes those kind of hits and keeps coming.”

               Zack seemed infinitely reluctant, but he allowed Cloud to drag him to his apartment with no more fuss.

               When they got there, Zack immediately pulled him to a halt, looking him over.

               “Are you okay?”

               Cloud heart was still beating like it was trying to get out of his chest, but otherwise, he was fine.

               “I told you I could handle it.”

               Zack looked at him closely.

               “You did. I gotta say, I really thought you would hesitate.”

               Cloud offered him his best reassuring smile. The only hint that this was an ordeal at all was in the way it shook at the edges.

               “I told you, I’ve done this before.”

               Zack softened, reaching out to touch his cheek.

               “Cloud, I—”

               “Hey, it’s fine. It’s over, right? Can we just—not talk about it, for tonight?”

               Zack ran his fingers through Cloud’s hair, but nodded slowly. He picked Cloud up and carried him to bed, with every intention of touching him softly in any way he thought might help until Cloud forgot what had happened.

               Zack, true to his word, did not bring up what happened that day for the rest of the night, or even the next morning, before he left. What he did do was call an emergency meeting with the other Firsts when he got back to the Tower.

               There was a lot of moaning (mostly from Genesis) about it, until he said that it was important and had to do with Cloud. That got him to shut up pretty quickly.

               Zack explained what had happened to them to a room full of complete silence. When he was finished, each of them had a different expression on, but they all promised murder.

               “You saw the client,” Sephiroth said. “What did he look like? We could find him.”

               “I don’t know that Cloud would forgive us, if we did,” Angeal said, though he sounded infinitely reluctant.

               “That isn’t why I brought it up,” Zack said. “We need to find a solution. Even if this asshole drops it, which Cloud seems certain he will and he’s done this before, it’s only a matter of time before someone else tries the same thing. You didn’t see him after, guys. He put on a brave face for me, but he was shaken. He handled it like a pro, really did, I’m proud of him, but it got under his skin. I don’t want to see him like that again.”

               “So, what are you suggesting? Because it’s clear you’ve got something in mind,” Genesis said, looking at him closely.

               “I’m suggesting we move him into the Tower.”

               “What? Shinra will never allow that. The Tower is a home for SOLDIERs, troopers, and executives only, and Cloud would never join the military.”

               “True, yeah, but Shinra does bend over backward to give you anything you want, Seph.”

               Sephiroth’s brow furrowed, and he said, “What are you implying?”

               “I’m saying, you ask to get him a room. You could probably even talk them into letting him be on this floor. They always give you anything you ask for when you make it clear you really want it.”

               Genesis shook his head and said, “I don’t think it’ll work. They’ll ask questions. What could he possibly say his motivation is?”

               There was a long pause.

               “You know,” Angeal said slowly, “people already think Sephiroth’s taking him to bed when he visits. He is the one who had him put on the visitor’s list.”

               Genesis bristled.

               “So?” he asked, not looking pleased by what they all knew was common knowledge.

               “So, we tell the execs that he’s Sephiroth’s boyfriend. They’ll yield to that. If Seph plays the protective boyfriend card, it’ll be simple. Everyone would believe he’s possessive, it’s not like he isn’t.”

               “I resent that,” Sephiroth protested.

               “Doesn’t matter, it’s true,” Zack said. “Why does he have to be Sephiroth’s boyfriend? He could be any of ours.”

               “Because they’re more likely to give Sephiroth whatever he wants,” Angeal said. “Besides, it’ll be good deterrent. No one would want to cross any of us, but everyone’s most afraid of Sephiroth. It’ll do a lot to get people to stop harassing Cloud. I don’t know a lot of people with the guts to hit on Sephiroth’s boyfriend.”

               Sephiroth looked uncomfortable. He never liked his status, and liked using it even less.

               Genesis and Zack just looked unhappy. They each wanted to lay that claim on Cloud themselves. Not least of all because, whoever Cloud was officially dating, would be allowed to touch him affectionately in public without consequence.

               But they couldn’t find a way to argue. Angeal did have a point.

               When it was clear from their faces that Genesis and Zack agreed, Sephiroth sighed and said, “We’ll have to ask him. Cloud isn’t a fan of Shinra—I doubt he’d be happy about moving into the Tower, even if it was for his safety. Perhaps especially if he believes it’s for his safety.”

               “But then we could be with him all the time, too. It would help bring us closer,” Zack protested.

               “We’ll explain that to him,” Angeal promised. “But, are we all okay with that? I think we know that even if Cloud gets his own room on the floor, or anywhere in the Tower really, he’ll be effectively moving in with us.”

               “Of course I’m okay with it,” Zack said.

               “I would be much relieved to have him where I know he’s safe,” Sephiroth said.

               “Seeing him three days a week is hardly enough for me, personally,” Genesis added.

               Angeal nodded.

               “We can talk to him about it this weekend. But no pressuring him, okay? If he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t have to. We’ll find another way to keep him safe, if he doesn’t want to move.”

               There was a round of sighs, but round of nods that followed.

               With the emergency resolved, they split apart, going to their own offices and, in Sephiroth’s case, mission.  But they were all left daydreaming about the possibility now in front of them. That maybe, if Cloud was amenable, they would be able to have their newest boyfriend live with them. Where they could see him more than a handful of times a week. Where they knew he would be safe. Everything else could be sorted later, including potential consequences of the public knowing that Sephiroth was dating a camboy—because it would come to light, sooner or later. But for now, they didn’t worry about the risks. They all just dwelled happily on the possibilities.

               There was more than one dreamy sigh that day.

Chapter Text

               After Zack had left that morning, Cloud had crawled back into bed. He didn’t say anything to Zack, hadn’t wanted to worry him, but the stalker took more out of him than he had been ready to admit. His wrist had the dark outline of the man’s hand around it, and the sight and soreness was a constant reminder of what had happened. Every time his mind started to stray toward the events, he could feel hands on his wrists, a thigh between his own, a nose pressed against his neck and inhaling him. He hadn’t lied to Zack—it was true, he had handled things like this before, this wasn’t new territory. That didn’t mean it wasn’t a little traumatizing every time it happened.

               He’d gone from a perfectly normal day to a horror show in a split second, yesterday. He’d been minutes away from his worst nightmare. Never mind that Zack was nearby and never would have let anything happen to him—what if he didn’t find him in time? What if he only found him after it was too late, and the man had disappeared after taking what he wanted? Every time he thought about it, he shivered.

               So, no, he wasn’t feeling quite up to his regular day. Sephiroth was coming to see him that night, but he had all day to get himself back up on his feet. He could take his time, be a little gentle with himself until he was ready to put on a brave face again. But until then, he was alone, and there was no one to hide from. No one would see him crawl back into bed and pull the blankets tight around himself, curling into a tight ball. No one would notice how carefully he was controlling his breath to keep it even and slow. At some point, he would get up and actually take care of himself. He’d eat, and take a long, very hot shower, and give himself the day off work. But for now, the most he could handle was lying still and breathing slowly.

               He was still focused on his breath when his PHS went off. He groaned, hoping it wasn’t someone he cared about, who he needed to pretend for, but he also knew no one else would be calling.

               He picked up the device and glanced at the screen, a little surprised to see it was an unknown caller. He normally didn’t pick up for anyone he didn’t know, but there was something niggling the back of his mind, where he knew he was expecting a call, but he couldn’t quite remember what it was.

               “Hello?” he answered, pressing the PHS to his ear.

               “Hello, is this Cloud Strife?”

               “Uh, yeah, it is. Who is this?”

               “This is Jeremy from Top Line. A Mr. Rhapsodos submitted your headshot to us?”

               Cloud sighed. That’s right, the call he was waiting for was from the agencies. Except now he knew that they were only going to give him bad news. Might as well get it over with.

               “Yeah, yeah he did.”

               “We were hoping to offer you a contract.”

               Cloud’s brain screeched to a halt. He jerked upright in bed.

               “A what?

               “A contract, sir. We start off with one year with all our new models, standard practice. It can be renewed and replaced with a longer term one after the year is up. I’d be happy to discuss pay rates, hours, and booking processes, if you’re free today for a meeting.”

               “I—yes, absolutely. I just—he did explain to you what my current career is, right?”

               “Ah, uhm, yes, he did. He used the word camboy?”

               “That’s right. And you guys are okay with hiring someone like me?”

               “Mr. Strife, I don’t know if Mr. Rhapsodos made you aware, but we’re a rather small agency. We deal with a little more of a niche market than the larger ones do. The companies we typically work with don’t have quite the same consumer base. Your current work might even be a draw to some who are looking to come across as edgy or socially progressive. We’ll be able to book you with little issue. We won’t be able to pay quite what the large companies can, but we won’t have their issues finding you businesses to work with, either.”

               “You’re—you’re serious?”

               “Frankly, Mr. Strife, I’m a little too busy to waste time making calls just to string people along. Are you free today for a meeting?”

               “Yes, yes absolutely. What time?”

               “Will three hours from now work? I have a few other people to see first.”

               “That’s perfect. I’ll see you then. Do you need me to, uh, wear anything? Bring anything?”

               “No, just come as you are. We won’t have you do any work until the contract is signed.”

               “Right, okay. Thank you so much.”

               “I’ll see you soon, Mr. Strife.”

               “Bye.”

               Cloud hung up the PHS, then stared at it for a long, long moment.

               Then a wide grin split his face and he laughed loudly, a noise filled with joyous disbelief. He flipped over to his texting app as he scrambled out of bed.

                Cloud: an agency picked me up!!!!!!!!

               Zack: FINALLY!!!

               Zack: congrats, Cloud!!!!

               Angeal: congratulations!

               Genesis: Well done, my dear.

               Sephiroth: Congratulations.

               Cloud: I’ve got a meeting with them in a few hours to go over details, so I’m gonna be plateside

               Cloud: I can stop by tonight if you want and tell you how it goes??

               Cloud: or I can meet you back at mine, Seph, if you want tonight to be just us

               Sephiroth: I think I can share for tonight. We’ll all want to hear the news.

               Cloud: ok! I’ll see you guys then!

               Angeal: good luck, Cloud!

               Zack: knock em dead!

               Cloud, despite knowing he had time, rushed to get ready. He showered and spent longer than he intended petering around trying to pick out an outfit. He knew that the agent had told him he wasn’t doing any work, but he still wanted to make a good impression. He didn’t think this was the kind of thing that required a suit, but even if it was, he didn’t have one. He ended up going for something dark and as trendy as his wardrobe got before then having to sit around and kill time. He made breakfast, followed by what might have been the world’s weakest cup of coffee, considering he was essentially out of grounds. It was really more vaguely dirty hot water than anything else, but it was nothing he hadn’t had before. He knew how to pretend it was properly brewed.

               He brushed his teeth three more times and flossed twice before he left, partially to waste more time so he wasn’t heinously early, but partially because the thought of turning up with bad breath or something in his teeth was a nightmare. As it turned out, he was only fifteen minutes early to the appointment, which he thought was reasonable.

               The meeting went far better than expected. The entire situation was explained to Cloud. The terms of his contract, how bookings would work, how he’d be paid, how much he’d be paid, an actual step-by-step explanation of how professional photoshoots would work. There was a brief disclaimer that the easiest clients for him to get, with his history, would be sex shops, BDSM clubs, and the like, but they were polite enough to ask if he had a problem with that. Luckily, it didn’t bother him at all. It was a little different, being the public face of such a group, but the ads wouldn’t include videos of him literally jerking himself off, so it wasn’t asking for too much. He did make a point of asking if they would require him to stop his personal work on the side, which they insisted wouldn’t be a problem, and he was free to continue his own business.

               All in all, Cloud left the building, having signed the contract and feeling good about it. They were going to contact him when they found his first booking, and he had his agent’s number programed into his phone now, so he wouldn’t miss the call. He wasn’t too proud to admit that he was excited about it. He called Aeris to give her the good news as he walked through the few sectors that separated his agency from Shinra Tower.

               Unfortunately, he arrived in the lobby to see Linda on duty, who did not seem pleased to see him on a Wednesday, when he was on the weekend list.

               Cloud sighed and said, “Listen, Aeris, I’ll have to call you back.”

               “Something the matter?”

               “Yeah, I just got into the Tower, and there’s an issue.”

               “Linda again?”

               “Yup. I’ll call you soon.”

               “Good luck, Cloud. I think you might need it.”

               Cloud sighed but hung up as he approached the desk.

               “Look,” Cloud said, “I know I’m on the weekend list, but we all know I’m here to see Sephiroth. You can fudge protocol a little bit and just give me a pass, or you can make me haul him down here. You’re going to end up giving me a pass either way. You might as well avoid inconveniencing him and let me up.”

               Linda stared him down hard for a long moment, and Cloud was sure she was going to tell him to go fuck himself (or at least, the polite, customer service version). Instead, she sighed heavily and got him a standard visitor’s pass.

               “Just have him put you on both lists, if this is going to be a thing.”

               Cloud sighed his relief and took the pass saying, “Thanks. Really, I appreciate it.”

               She sighed, much as he had, but sounded far more put-upon.

               “Just go.”

               Cloud didn’t stay to argue the point. He took the pass and pinned it to his chest as he hurried to the elevator.

               He wound his way up through the Tower until he was knocking on Genesis’s door, who opened it not in his uniform, but in soft pajamas and a red, silk robe. Cloud raised an eyebrow, but he just stood to the side.

               “I finished work early and decided to come home and relax, so someone would be here to greet you when you got in,” Genesis explained as Cloud came in and took his shoes off at the door.

               “And that warranted pajamas?”

               “Naturally. As fond as I am of my jacket, I don’t actually find the uniform to be very comfortable.”

               Genesis took Cloud by the hips when he stood up and dipped his head to kiss him slowly. Cloud stepped forward and into his space, looping his arms around his neck to draw him closer. Eventually, he pulled away, breathing hard.

               “How long until the others get here?”

               “It will be a while yet, especially for Sephiroth. He has some meetings this afternoon. Why?”

               “If it was only going to be a little bit, I’d say we should just sit down and chat to wait for them, so I can catch you all up at once. But if it will be a while…” Cloud leaned forward, pressing Genesis to stand upright, before jumping and wrapping his legs around the man’s waist, confident in his strength and reflexes that Genesis would catch him. He had been right, there was nothing to worry about; Genesis adjusted his grip easily to support Cloud and laughed all the while.

               “Bedroom, then?”

               “Bedroom.”

               They went about things slowly, leaving puddles of clothing behind them. It was a long, long time before anything went wrong. Eventually, Cloud was sprawled back against the bed, Genesis’s head between his legs. Genesis went to grab Cloud’s hand from where it was fisting in the sheets to put it in his own hair when, as soon as he took hold of his wrist, Cloud hissed in sharply, and not in a way that was from pleasure.

               Genesis pulled off immediately and looked up. He hadn’t been rough in how he grabbed Cloud—he was always very aware of his strength with the blond. He’d always been careful. Had it not been enough? He loosened his grip and turned his hand so it was palm up, spreading his fingers to reveal Cloud’s black-and-blue wrist.

               “Cloud? What happened?”

               Cloud wanted to pull his wrist away and hide it to encourage Genesis to forget about it, but he knew that would only make things worse.

               “Don’t worry about it, okay? Just a bruise.”

               “Yes, but it’s dark. How did you get this?”

               “Does it matter? It’s handled.”

               It was the turn of the phrase that did it. The way Cloud had always insisted he could “handle” threats that came his way.

               Genesis looked up sharply.

               “This is from yesterday, isn’t it.”

               Cloud sighed.

               “It’s over, alright? Nothing to worry about anymore.”

               “I can make it really be over, if you just—”

               “Listen, Gen, you’re really killing the mood. It’s as over as it’s gonna be, and I don’t wanna talk about it.”

               “Then let the mood be killed,” Genesis said, sitting upright between Cloud’s legs. “This is more important. What happened? Zack didn’t give us many details.”

               “I just said I don’t want to talk about it.”

               “Yes, you did, and I’m inclined to respect that, but I have the distinct feeling that this is you trying to bottle things up again, when they really ought to be talked through.”

               “Maybe I just don’t want you guys to collectively lose it and go kill someone who doesn’t have to die.”

               “If you don’t want him dead, he won’t be.”

               “Or maimed. Or having half his bones broken. Or any of his bones broken. I kicked his ass exactly as much as I wanted it kicked, Genesis.”

               “Then we won’t go find him, if that’s how you feel. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discuss what happened.”

               Cloud had the decency to really consider what Genesis was offering, because this seemed to be more about Cloud’s wellbeing then exacting revenge. He did consider it, but that meant pulling up the memories he would have to discuss. Then he could feel hands on his wrists and a thigh between his own. It devolved, spreading to include every unwanted touch he’d ever felt, every groping hand, every time someone had pressed their unwanted dick against him. He could feel himself go pale and the way he shivered, hard. He sat up and pulled his legs to his chest, breathing carefully again, much as he had that morning. With a little willpower, it was possible to force down the imaginary touches, but it still left him feeling dirty.

               “I—I don’t think I can, right now,” Cloud said, his voice quiet and rough. “Maybe later. I’m sorry.”

               He hated this. This was why he wanted to be alone today, why he’d been planning on stretching that time until Sephiroth arrived. He’d gotten so distracted, so wrapped up in what happened with the agency, that he’d forgotten how upset he was. It was one thing to be like this when he was alone. It was another for it to happen in front of his boyfriend, especially when they had just been otherwise occupied in bed together. It made him feel weak. He didn’t like the thought of anyone seeing him like this, but much less his boyfriends. He knew he was safe with them, that they had seen him emotionally wrecked and in tears before, but that didn’t make this okay. This felt different, somehow.

               He felt more than saw Genesis scoot to sit next to him by the headboard. He was having a hard time focusing.

               “Cloud? Is it alright if I touch you?”

               It meant so much, in that moment, that Genesis asked.

               He wanted Genesis to touch him. He knew that, if he did, it would be soft, and gentle, and very unlike everything he was currently trying to forget. It might be healing, in its own way, to be touched like that right now.

               But he was feeling too many ghosts, at the moment. He thought if he felt one more set of hands on him, he really might scream.

               He shook his head quietly.

               “That’s fine,” Genesis reassured, pressing all the care into his tone that he couldn’t put into his touch. “Have I ever told you about Banora?”

               Cloud shook his head again.

               Genesis leaned down to draw the blanket up and over them as he began describing his hometown. He talked about the wind in the trees, the orchards, the dumbapples. He talked about the dumbapple pie Angeal’s mother makes, and how he always felt more at home with Angeal’s mother than he did his own. He talked about the fields and rivers, about how strict and pretentious his parents were. He described small town life and it was so familiar, all the complaints that Cloud had himself when he lived in Nibelheim, that it got Cloud to laugh a little.

               He unwound in measures, as Genesis spoke. He could see the picture Genesis was painting, and while it was very different from Nibelheim, it was comforting in its strange familiarity. He let himself get lost in imagining the landscape and falling into anecdotes about the trouble Genesis and Angeal used to get into. He couldn’t feel any more phantom hands on him.

               Genesis kept a close eye on Cloud as he spoke, watching his progress. He was very familiar with trauma. Sephiroth had his own share, from his childhood in the labs. Zack didn’t talk about it, but the little time he had spent in Wutai had wrecked him for a period. Angeal, who had been in the war from the start, had led for most of it, and was as soft as Zack where it counted, came out just as bad. They’d all helped each other through episodes like this, where memories got to be too much to handle. It was old hat. Genesis had hoped that Cloud would have no such issues, that no matter how hard his life had been, it hadn’t been quite hard enough to leave this type of scar. But just because Cloud’s damage was of a different variety didn’t mean the wounds were any less deep.

               There were two parts to how he helped people through these moments, if open discussion about the issue wasn’t an option. The first was distraction, to draw them away from whatever they were struggling to face. The second was to draw them into conversation, get them engaged so they wouldn’t fall back into memory.

               “You know, I hadn’t been aware that Nibelheim had its own language,” Genesis said, watching as Cloud finally looked up at him. “I’d like to hear you speak it, sometime.”

               Cloud looked at him with confusion for a long moment, before realization passed over his face.

               “Sorry you found out how you did, with that comparison the other day.”

               Genesis waved his hand dismissively.

               “There’s nothing to forgive. Things were rather emotionally charged, at the time. Would say something else for me?”

               “What do you want me to say?”

               “Anything you’d like, dearest. You don’t even have to tell me what it means. I just want to hear you speak it.”

               Cloud hummed in thought and leaned against Genesis, who very, very hesitantly put his arm around Cloud’s shoulder. Cloud nuzzled his chest and scooted closer to tell him it was okay, that he could handle this right now.

               Cloud began to speak Old Nibel, explaining their concepts of love. In Nibelheim, love was discussed in degrees and flavors, defined by what part of the body you loved someone with. Familial love was with the heart, friendship with the brain. Shallow but passionate love was with the skin. Addicting but toxic love was with the liver. Stable, lasting love that endured whatever came at it was with the feet. When you loved with your spine, it meant the kind of love that provided support, that buoyed both parties and could get a person through anything. There were any number of combinations, but few could claim to love someone with their whole body.

               That was a rare, rare level of devotion, because there was a particular type of love that was near impossible to find. Nibel folk said that it wasn’t distributed evenly. Some could go their whole lives without it, while others might have a half dozen they loved this way. But for most, it came, at best, once in a lifetime, but you always knew when you found it. It was what they called loving with your marrow. When your love was written into you, embedded so deep that it became a part of your bones.

               “I didn’t think it was real, when I was young,” he said, still not speaking in Common. “It sounded too good to be true. But they were right—you do know it, when you find it. I think I love you all with my marrow. It’s too soon to tell you, I’d probably just run you off, and then where would I be? And you wouldn’t know what it means, even if I could explain it. You have to be Nibel, to really get it, the kind of depth that it means. Marrow love is almost revered, there. Any protest to any union is silenced, if you love the other person with your marrow. It might be the one thing everyone respects, except the weather. Maybe one day I’ll tell you. Just not today.”

               Cloud leaned up to kiss Genesis on the cheek, who sighed happily, and turned to kiss his lips before he pulled away.

               “It’s a beautiful language,” Genesis said. “Banoran never sounded so lovely.”

               “Banora has a language?” Cloud asked.

               “Oh, yes. I hardly use it anymore; only to argue with Angeal. He’s the only one I speak to who knows it, and I don’t like to exclude the others by using it.”

               “But you’ll use it to argue with him?”

               “Well, they’re not missing out on anything in those moments.”

               “You just want to be able to say whatever you want without someone yelling at you. Angeal wouldn’t, even if you were fighting.”

               Genesis sniffed indignantly.

               “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

               Cloud laughed and rested his head on his shoulder. He opened his mouth to say something, but the door opened.

               “Anyone home?” Angeal called.

               Genesis yelled something in what Cloud guessed was Banoran. When Angeal came to the door, he looked confused.

               “Are we speaking Banoran outside arguments, now?” he asked. “Because I’ve been itching to tell you,” and then he said something in Banoran that had Genesis flushing, a smirk on his face all the while.

               “I’m going to hold you to that, later,” Genesis promised as Angeal approached. “But since you’re up, pass us our pants. We ought to move to the living room, anyway.”

               Cloud sighed and stretched, but blinked in surprise anyway when his pants smacked into his bare chest. He climbed into the garment and out of bed without further protest.

               The three went to curl up on the couch together, Cloud sandwiched in the middle. Angeal was apparently able to read Genesis’s cues, because he didn’t need to be told to keep his touches chaste and soft.

               The other two trickled in slowly, Sephiroth not until a little later in the evening. When he did, he lingered in the doorway, looking around at the body language of the others before sighing.

               “You were waiting for me, weren’t you?”

               Cloud leaned around Angeal to smile up at him.

               “Of course! Didn’t want to tell the same story four times.”

               “I was talking to the other three.”

               Cloud paused and looked around at them.

               “You guys have something to tell me, then?”

               Genesis sighed and said, “Perhaps you should go first.”

               “I don’t like the sound of that.”

               “Indulge us?”

               Cloud did what the others all knew to be a pout but would never call such a thing, because Cloud wouldn’t be happy to hear it.

               “Alright, alright. I called around most of the agencies a while ago, but they all gave me vague answers, except one guy, who finally told me straight up. He said they’d love to hire me, but wouldn’t be able to book me because of my job. I’d given up on it, but I got a call this morning. It was from the smallest agency you gave my photo to, Gen. Apparently they work with enough of a niche market that they’ll be able to book me. I signed the contract this morning. I’m official,” he said, finishing with a small smile.

               Zack jumped off the armchair to crash into him, pulling him forward into a hug.

               “That’s great news, Spike! You’re gonna do great!”

               Cloud laughed, but hugged Zack back until he pulled away to sit on the coffee table. When Sephiroth sat on the loveseat, Zack moved to go sit next to him.

               “They said it’ll probably be BDSM clubs and sex shops at first, they’ll be the most interested when they find out about the camboy thing, and apparently they’re obligated to disclose. But it’ll probably be a nice transition, starting with something similar to what I already do.”

               Angeal squeezed his shoulder and said, “I’m proud of you, Cloud. You’ll do well.”

               Cloud smiled and kissed his cheek, before saying, “Okay, now stop stalling. What do you have to tell me?”

               There was a collective sigh from the room.

               “Uh oh,” Cloud said. “That doesn’t sound good.”

               “Just let us finish before you draw any conclusions?” Sephiroth asked.

               Cloud nodded slowly.

               “We want to extend an offer. We didn’t make a formal attempt without your consent so there’s the possibility it could be denied, but we believe it to be likely that we could arrange for you to live in Shinra Tower. Possibly on this floor with us, even. If you were interested.”

               Cloud narrowed his eyes at Sephiroth, and then looked around at the others warily.

               “Why?”

               There were a dozen possible reasons, and Cloud didn’t really like most of them.

               “For a few reasons,” Angeal said. “Because we only get to see you three times a week per person, and that never seems like enough. Because we’d be able to see you throughout the day instead of just in the evening. It’d be nice to have you close by. We could all get much closer, and we’d worry about you being left out less.”

               Cloud folded his arms over his chest.

               “Okay, so those are the pretty reasons. Now tell me the ones you know I don’t want to hear.”

               There were more sighs.

               “Well, there was—yesterday, y’know?” Zack said. “You handled it like a pro, you really did. No one doubts that you can take care of yourself. We’re not trying to baby you, and it’s not that we don’t trust you. We do. I think we’d just all feel a little better knowing that you’re safe. I only showed up after you got off that first cast, so I’m not sure about everything that happened, but whatever went down left you shaken, Cloud. I really, really didn’t like seeing you like that. No one’s going to go after the bastard if you don’t want us to, but it hurts, seeing you so broken up. And we know you enough by now to see it even when you try to smile around it.”

               Cloud frowned, but looked down. He wanted to be pissed. He wanted to be furious, actually. But Zack’s phrasing did a lot to mitigate that. It was one thing for them to want to coddle him because they didn’t think he could take care of himself. It was another because it hurt them to watch Cloud suffer. That, Cloud was inclined to indulge.

               “You know stuff like that can happen plateside, too, right?” he asked, looking up. “Even worse than that, I’m sure. Rape happens above plate too. Unless your plan was to keep me locked in the Tower all the time?”

               “Of course not, Cloud,” Genesis said, taking his hand. “But things are different, above the plate. The difference in crime rate is frankly absurd. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. I’m saying it’s less likely to happen. Even if it isn’t stalkers, there will be fewer people trying to touch you without asking, which means fewer fingers I’ll end up breaking.”

               “Genesis.”

               Genesis lifted his hand and kissed his knuckles, but didn’t apologize.

               Cloud sighed and used his free hand to ruffle his own hair.

               “How would you even convince them to let me stay here? It’s not like there are apartments for rent, and I’m not working for Shinra.”

               Zack coughed and said, “Well, the exec’s do give Seph pretty much anything he asks for, and we thought that they’d let him have a spare room for his… boyfriend?”

               Cloud stared at him blankly.

               “What.”

               “Y’know,” Zack said, scratching the back of his neck. “Just in case they ask for a why.”

               “You want to tell them I’m dating Sephiroth.”

               “… Yeah?”

               Cloud sighed impatiently and said, “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. Did you even think about it?”

               “Of course,” Genesis said. “They’re unlikely to refuse the bastard anything, but they certainly won’t say no to giving him a room for his boyfriend.”

               “Yeah, but then everyone will know I’m his boyfriend. You know how rabid his fans are. They’ll track me down in a heartbeat, and then everyone will know that Seph’s dating a camboy.”

               “That’s PR’s problem,” Sephiroth said.

               Cloud pinched the bridge of his nose and said, “No, Seph, it’s my problem. The spotlight is gonna be on me the second word gets out. People are gonna track down every fact they can about me. I’ll probably end up a common household name, for gods’ sakes. And they’ll all know I’m a camboy. If it wasn’t bad enough in the abstract, think about what people are gonna have to say about that. No one will give you shit, they wouldn’t dare. But the slumrat camboy who stepped out of line and seduced the General? Gaia, I’d be in for it.”

               “No one would dare speak to you that way,” Sephiroth insisted.

               “Not while you’re there maybe. But they’ll say plenty of shit behind your back,” Cloud said, shaking his head. “I have to think about it. If it was just moving in, I’d say yes, but coming out about the relationship, I—I just don’t know, it seems like stepping into a minefield. I’m not saying no. I’m just saying. I’ve got something thinking to do. Can you guys give me some time?”

               Genesis kissed his temple and said, “Of course, love. Whatever you need.”

               Cloud sighed and relaxed against him.

               “Alright, now that serious business is out of the way, can we talk about something that won’t give me an anxiety attack?”

               “Did you all know Cloud is bilingual?” Genesis offered, looping an arm around his shoulder.

               There were various noises of interest from the others, and Zack leaned forward.

               “Say something sexy.”

               So Cloud said, in Old Nibel, “You smell like cabbage when you get back from the gym.”

               Genesis elbowed him in the side and said, “Whatever you said wasn’t sexy, was it?”

               Cloud smiled up at him and said, “You’ll never know.”

               He let the conversation devolve into different anecdotes in Banoran and Old Nibel, discussing grammar structures and phrases that wouldn’t translate right with Genesis and Angeal until it got too technical, and Zack got bored, and struck up conversation with Sephiroth. It ended up being a pleasant evening, but he ended up sleeping very, very poorly that night.

               He spent most of the night staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out what the hell to do. Because something had to be done. It really would help immensely to live above plate, now that he was going to be working plateside. But, well, that wasn’t the heart of the issue. That was the fact that Cloud wanted terribly to live with the rest. He wanted to fall asleep with them every night and wake up every morning in their arms. He wanted to see them every day, to be able to weave in and out of their lives instead of having assigned days. He wanted to be Sephiroth’s boyfriend, to have there be some public claim, something that marked him as at least one of theirs. He wanted something that let it be okay to touch at least one of them when they weren’t hiding behind closed doors.

               But there was the cost to think about. So he couldn’t make the decision rashly.

               Gods, but he wanted to, though.

Chapter Text

               Cloud ended up waffling for longer than he intended. His plan had been to take a couple of days to think on it and give them a firm yes or no, but weeks were passing, and he still didn’t have an answer.

               It didn’t help that he was now actively busy. He was above plate almost daily for bookings. He tried to get them to consolidate the days to save himself train fare, but there was only so much that could be done. It was only once he got his first paycheck (which was far larger than anything he was used to) that he was actually able to afford the fare without dipping into savings. It meant he got to get lunch with his boyfriends on occasion, or sometimes ride the train down with them back to his place. Sometimes he spent an extra night at theirs, which was a nice way to save on ticket costs, but he had to keep up with his first job as well.

               When he got home from bookings, or on days that he was off, he was taking calls. More than once, he came home already tired just to have to shoot a set, which only wore him out further. Instead of sleeping with his visiting boyfriend after, as he usually did, he literally fell asleep. He didn’t necessarily mind—he liked having something to do that wasn’t lazing around at home all day. But he was starting to overwork himself.

               A large part of the problem was that his fanbase was increasing. People were seeing the ads of him around the city now, in magazines or on websites or the occasional poster. More people were passing on the link to his page, more people were buying his sets, and more people were asking for video calls. It was all great for business, really, but something was going to have to change, and soon.

               Balancing his jobs was, honestly, the harder issue to find a solution to. There was no easy answer, no “yes or no” to decide between, as there was with his living situation. So he resolved to worry about work later—he could handle being tired. Was it a great idea to overwork himself? Debatable. Were his boyfriends starting to nag? Yes, particularly Genesis, who had already tossed him over his shoulder, dragged him to bed, and pinned him with his body weight until he fell asleep, once. But it could wait.

               So instead, he used some of his rare off time to go find Aeris. It was what he always did when he had a real dilemma and couldn’t make up his mind. She had a way of thinking about things logically without disregarding the value of emotional motivation. She never changed her mind about him, no matter what issue he came to her with, even after that first fateful discussion of being a camboy. She was safe for these kinds of delicate discussions in a way few people were.

               He waited for her at the little hole in the wall in Sector 5 that led to her mother’s home. It could wait until she was done selling flowers, but he didn’t want to wait with Elmyra, as this wasn’t exactly a conversation she could overhear, not when it referred to his relationship with the Firsts. Instead, he sat in the dirt and played fetch with the stray dog that lingered in the area. It had grown fond of him over the years—probably because he brought it scraps often and wasn’t afraid of it the way most people were. It was hard to be afraid of a dog after growing up around Nibel wolves. True, the dog growled and barked at most people, but after some food and a few pets, it had warmed right up to Cloud. It didn’t need to be approached anymore; it trotted right up to Cloud whenever he came by and trailed after him when he was in the area.

               He was busy scratching it under the chin when he saw Aeris’s boots come to a stop in front of him. He looked up at her and smiled.

               “You could have called, if you were going to visit. I would have come home earlier,” she said, a frown on her face. She held her hand out to him, and Cloud took it, letting her help him to standing.

               “I didn’t mind waiting. It was nice to do nothing for a little bit anyway.”

               Aeris led the way back toward her house, her empty basket in the crook of her arm.

               “You’re still busy, then? I thought the agency was trying to consolidate your days.”

               “They are, but there’s only so much work they can do on the schedule, y’know? I’m managing.”

               “Is that what you came here for?” When Cloud frowned at her and opened his mouth to say something, she shook her head and interrupted, “You only ever show up without letting me know if something’s on your mind.”

               Cloud huffed and looked forward again. He hadn’t meant to be so obvious.

               “That’s not what this is about,” he said, looking over his shoulder to check how far they were from the entrance to the sector. There was a fair amount of distance and the din of the area had faded, so he said, “The Firsts offered to get me a room in the Tower.”

               Aeris looked at him and hummed, leading them over toward the flowers.

               “And you’re conflicted about it.”

               “Well, yeah. If it was just living there, I’d say yes—the train fare has been killing me, and I do want to live close to them, and I’d get to see them every day, and that’d be great. But to get me the room, they’re pretty sure they’ll need to give a reason, and the only one they could come up with was telling Shinra I’m Sephiroth’s boyfriend.”

               “But not mention the others?”

               “No, the story would be that it’s just the two of us.”

               “And that’s the issue.”

               “Yeah, I mean, everyone knows how the Silver Elite are. Even if they only tell executives or whatever, word’ll spread. It won’t be long before the whole city knows, and sooner or later, someone will recognize me, and not from the modeling. Sephiroth says it’s the PR department’s problem to deal with what everyone will think about him dating a camboy, but honestly, I’m kinda afraid of the backlash. No one will say anything to him, but they’ll give me an earful when he’s not there.”

               Aeris looked at him closely, sitting between two rows of flowers. Cloud followed suit, sitting across from her, picking at the hem of his jeans for something to do.

               “So the issue is the gossip.”

               “I guess?”

               “Is it because you’re ashamed of what you do?”

               “I mean, not really? I used to be, but what happened at Chocobo King kinda helped to kill that. That, and the way the SOLDIERs have treated it with such respect since I’ve met them. It’s just a job, and one I’m good at. I’m not ashamed of what I do, I just don’t like the way other people treat me for it, y’know? My old coworkers looked at me like dirt when they found out.”

               “That’s understandable, no one would want to be looked at that way.”

               “Right.”

               “So you’re afraid of people looking at you differently. And, because he’s so famous, everyone will know, which means everyone will look at you differently.”

               “Right. I don’t want the whole city looking at me that way. Besides, it’ll probably be worse than it was at Chocobo King. I’ll come across as some upstart. I’ll be the little camboy from the slums that got to Sephiroth with my wiles or whatever. No one will think I’m good enough for him.”

               “And you’re an idiot, so you’d have a hard time disagreeing.”

               “Hey.

               “So your downsides are the city looking at you with disgust and like you’re not good enough for him. What are your upsides?”

               “Well, I get to basically move in with them. I can see them all the time. I’ll be closer to my day job, and won’t have to worry about train fare. I won’t have to worry about PDA with Sephiroth at least, since we won’t be a secret. Honestly, it would be kinda nice to rub everyone’s nose in it. There’s a list a mile long of people that want him, but I get to have him. So do the other Firsts, but no one will know that.”

               “Brat.”

               “We already knew that. C’mon, Aeris. Give me your sage advice.”

               Aeris cracked her knuckles, then leaned back on her hands.

               “If you’re talking just about quantity, you’ve got more pluses on your list than minuses. But, what you’ve got to worry about is quality. What I think it really come down to is, is it worth the whole city looking down on you, to be closer to your boyfriends, literally and figuratively?”

               Cloud blinked.

               How did she always make it so simple?

               He let out a little bubble of laughter and ruffled his hair.

               “It really was that easy, huh?”

               Aeris smiled at him.

               “Sometimes, all it takes is an outside perspective.”

               Cloud hopped to his feet, leaned over to kiss Aeris’s upturned cheek, and said, “Aeris, you really are Gaia’s blessing.”

               She laughed and swatted his leg, saying, “Save the sweet talk for your boyfriends. Go tell them the good news.”

               “I’m not going up there tonight, but I do want to let them know as soon as I can.”

               “Get out of here, then. And don’t work too long when you get home.”

               “… How’d you know I was gonna work?”

               “All you’ve done is work, lately, Cloud. We’ll have a talk about that, too, eventually, if you don’t cut it out.”

               Cloud sighed and said, “Should have expected that. Can we save it for another day at least?”

               “Go on, get out of here. And I’m not helping you move when I know you’ve got four SOLDIERs on speed-dial.”

               “Aw, Aeris, not even help packing?”

               “Maybe packing, but that’s it. Now go before I decide to lecture you about overworking yourself now.”

               “Yes ma’am,” Cloud laughed, hurrying away.

               As he walked through the sectors back toward his apartment, he texted his boyfriends. Part of him wanted to give them the good news in person, but he didn’t think this should wait, and he wasn’t making quite enough to afford two roundtrips plateside in one day. It was Friday, his one day alone, but that meant they could discuss everything in more detail tomorrow.

               Cloud: hey, I’ve got some news

               Zack: something up with the agency?

               Cloud: nah, all good on that front

               Cloud: I figured out what to do about the whole living situation thing

               Genesis: And?

               Cloud: I’m down to move, if the offer’s still on the table

               Zack: even with the rabid fans???

               Cloud: rabid fans and all

               Cloud: you guys are worth the fuss

               Cloud: besides, I do want to rub it in everyone’s face that I can put my hands aaaaaaaaall over sephiroth in public

               Genesis: You realize you will also be rubbing it in our faces, as we aren’t allowed to touch him in public, either.

               Cloud: guess you’ll have to finally teach me that lesson, huh?

               Genesis: You truly are bratty.

               Cloud: always have been

               Cloud: so is the offer still on the table?

               Sephiroth: Very much so. I can speak to the appropriate parties tomorrow, if you’d like.

               Cloud: please!!!

               Cloud: you guys are gonna help me move right

               Zack: what, don’t want to carry all your shit by yourself?

               Cloud: what’s the point of dating SOLDIERs if they won’t even do the heavy lifting for me???

               Zack: you’re lucky you’re so damn cute

               Angeal: of course we’ll help you move your things. we wouldn’t ask you to move and then not help.

               Cloud: thanks, guys

               Cloud: we’ll just have to be careful with the inevitable box of vibrators

               Cloud: otherwise things are gonna get super awkward

               Cloud: carrying a buzzing box all the way up into Shinra Tower

               Zack: you’re carrying that one

               Cloud: hell no

               Cloud: I am taking the lightest boxes and you’re an idiot if you imagined anything else

               They devolved into banter until Cloud arrived home, when he told them he was going to get a little work done before turning in. There was a round of complaints, that he should just take the evening off, but he reminded them that this was his one night where he wasn’t with them and therefore free to work without being on a timer. No one was happy about it, but they let it go.

               He didn’t quite marathon the calls the way he did when he had been avoiding the others, before Genesis had kicked his door in—which his landlord had been furious about, and only shut up about when Genesis dropped by to hand him a wad of cash. Cloud had wanted to argue and insist that he could pay for it, loathe to take anyone’s gil, but Genesis shut him down, saying that he would pay for it as he was the one who caused the damage. He still wasn’t sure if his landlord had dropped it because of the cash or because it was Genesis Rhapsodos who dropped it off.

               He took a total of three calls that night, with a half hour break between. About a week ago, he had gotten into the practice of taking a selfie after he finished with a call and sending it to the Firsts. He was pretty sure that, the days where he worked while his SOLDIER for the night was on his way down instead of meeting them at the train, he got his boyfriends to actually run to his place from the station with those photos. That night, he sent them a shot after each call, a slow progression into looking sullied. His hair grew messier as he went, his expression growing a little more fucked-out with each photo. After the last one, Genesis had told Sephiroth to go to the executives first thing in the morning, because he wasn’t going to tolerate being so far away for much longer if it wasn’t necessary anymore.

               Cloud had curled up in bed laughing about that message, his hand still curled around his PHS before falling asleep. It was infinitely easier to drift off with the knowledge that, soon enough, he wouldn’t be sleeping alone anymore.

Chapter Text

               Sephiroth was a patient man. He had been taught from a very young age how to wait however long it took for the opportune moment. He was only partially following his training. He should, likely, have scheduled a meeting with the appropriate individuals, waited for their schedules to empty, and then address the matter of Cloud moving. It was highly unprofessional to hijack a meeting about specialty projects and their budgets for his own personal matters, but he at least had the decency and the patience to wait until the very end of the meeting, when all scheduled issues had been addressed.

               “Before we all leave,” he interrupted, as the others began to pack up, “I have a request to file.”

               “Another project? We’ve already divvied up the budgets, there won’t really be anything left for this one, Sephiroth,” Reeve said, settling back in his chair. He looked the least upset about the interruption, out of all of them.

               “A requisition, but there will be no financial cost for the company.”

               He shuffled some papers and then plucked the stapled form from the bottom of his stack before tossing it to the center of the table, where Scarlet picked it up.

               “A requisition for a SOLDIER First apartment for a Cloud Strife? Is someone getting promoted?”

               “Hardly. He isn’t a SOLDIER.”

               “What department is he in?”

               “He isn’t. He doesn’t work for Shinra.”

               There were several scoffing noises and one laugh from Heidegger.

               “Ridiculous,” he said, still chuckling. “We don’t provide housing to outsiders. Especially not a SOLDIER First suite.”

               “As he is my partner, I was thinking an exception might be made.”

               The room froze. Every head snapped to Sephiroth.

               “Partner?” Scarlet asked, and he could see her calculating in her head, trying to find the best way to angle this for her own benefit.

               “Boyfriend, if that’s the term you prefer.”

               “I didn’t know you were in a relationship,” Reeve said, still looking shocked.

               Sephiroth stood and gathered his papers.

               “Now you do. Will he be granted the apartment?”

               “Certainly not,” Heidegger said.

               “Shame,” Sephiroth drawled, pinning Heidegger with his heaviest stare. “I would hate for things to become inconvenient. But it would certainly inconvenience me if he were denied the suite, and you know how that sort of thing tends to spread.”

               The room dropped a few degrees. There was a long pause of absolute silence, where no one seemed to breathe, but instead stared at Sephiroth, who stared back impassively.

               Scarlet snatched up the form and signed on her designated line at the bottom, granting her approval. It was quickly passed around the room without any further discussion until Reeve, who waited pointedly to be the last, handed it back to him without the look of the strange terrified ire that came over Shinra executives when they had been bullied into doing anything. Sephiroth took the form and they shared a nod before Sephiroth stepped to the side to catch Tseng to discuss giving Cloud the appropriate security clearances to move about the building without being stopped at every turn.

               Overall, it wasn’t a particularly remarkable meeting. He had used the same thinly veiled threats to get his way dozens of times for the benefit of the SOLDIER program, which was how the Board knew he would absolutely follow through on making things “inconvenient.”

               But, because he knew how his boyfriend was, he let Genesis know about the meeting via a phone call once he was through and the form had been submitted, with instructions to rush its processing and permission granted to use his name to do so. Genesis’s first response was to be sure it had been approved, then was to ask, with thinly veiled glee, if it was “the usual.”

               Genesis had long since taken up hunting down surveillance footage of meetings like this. At first, finding out how Sephiroth could bully his way into anything had infuriated him, because people were not as afraid of him as they were of Sephiroth, and that was unacceptable. That lasted up until Angeal pointed out that those people were terrified, but Genesis himself would not be cowed, and dared to do much more with Sephiroth than just tell him no. It had soothed his ego and made him curious as to just how terrified the Board got. Once he saw the first round of footage, it became a standing practice, because it was hilarious to watch these supremely powerful individuals all but wet themselves because they received a sharp look that he routinely ignored or actively antagonized himself. He had to bribe Tseng with a favor for each video, but it was worth it.

               This time was no different. Genesis rushed his way through the rest of the PHS call to call the Turk leader as soon as possible, trusting that Sephiroth would let Cloud know the good news. He followed through on that as soon as he was off the phone with Genesis, promising to tell Cloud that he would let him know as soon as the request had been cleared so he could start packing.

               Cloud had the day off from modeling but was taking his sweet time about doing calls. He was taking hour long breaks between, since he had all day to get through his requests. He’d even taken a brief nap after a call, but had woken up to a surprising message from one of his usuals.

               starburn: are you dating Sephiroth?

               He stared down at that message for a long, long time.

               He hadn’t expected it to happen so quick. He knew people would find out. He knew it would come back to his work sooner or later. The others had warned him that Shinra was the worst rumor mill there was, and it would get out quickly. But he didn’t expect it to get out that day.

               stormcloud: yeah I am

               stormcloud: do you have a problem with that?

               starburn: nah, just curious

               starburn: good for you dude

               starburn: you still up for that call soon?

               Cloud was lucky. Starburn had always been a relatively relaxed individual, from the little actual talking they had done. He continued to be that way; he didn’t mention Sephiroth again, and it was business as usual. They did their call, after which Starburn thanked him politely and gave him the large tip he tended to.

               Not everyone was as kind.

               Things didn’t get too bad that day. There were a lot of people asking for confirmation that he was, in fact, dating the Sephiroth. A few asked for details about him and what it was like being with him, which he politely refused to discuss. Some of those had pressed relatively hard, but after he put his foot down and threatened to block them, they eased up.

               As time went by, things got worse.

               People at his day job heard, and he had less control there, than he did in his camboy work. He was very respectful when he told them he’d rather not discuss personal details about his relationship, but he had to dance around the wheedling that followed.

               People started treating him differently. The agency started treating him differently. Strangely enough, they were treating him better—not that things had been bad before. The agency was small, and all those who worked there knew it; they would never be hugely popular models while they were contracted here. So they found it exciting to be working with someone with ties to someone so famous. The agency loved his relationship. It was fantastic publicity for them, that Sephiroth’s boyfriend was one of their models. His workload picked up even more, as more companies actively sought him out, trying to associate their brand with Sephiroth through him.

               People at his day job treated him better. It was not the same with his camboy job.

               His regulars didn’t change. He got congratulations and well wishes from them, as well as a few others. There was a sudden influx of people wanting to do calls because, as one person put it, they “wanted what Sephiroth had.” He was a little unsure of what to make of that, but didn’t turn those people away—their gil was as good as anyone else’s. When one person found out about the nickname privilege and asked if they could have it, specifically requesting that Cloud refer to them as “Sephiroth,” it was shut down immediately. It was one thing for his relationship to be a part of his draw; he was willing to take advantage of that situation. But bringing it actively into his work just felt like crossing a line.

               Still, those were the positive responses. There was plenty of negative. He started receiving messages that were just insults, long rants berating him, death threats, promises to find him and “make him regret getting out of line,” encouragement to kill himself.

               That, he hadn’t been expecting.

               It hadn’t bothered him at first, not really. He’d actually laughed at the first few because he’d found them ridiculous. Then the quantity kept going up and up and up. Every time he checked a message, it was another insult or threat. He was blocking users left and right but they just remade accounts. He never acknowledged them, never messaged back, but it didn’t seem to stop anything.  But it was slowly starting to wear on him. He didn’t need every doubt he had about his own self-esteem thrown in his face 24 hours a day. It was starting to get under his skin, bring up all the insecurities about whether or not he deserved the Firsts that he’d thought he got at least part way past.

               The request for his room was stuck in the Shinra mill, and though Sephiroth kept trying to push it along, it had been weeks now.

               People were staring at him in the city and whispering as he passed. He had more than one person follow him for an extended period of time, and he’d wandered around the sectors for hours at one point to lose them, because he was afraid to lead them to his home.

               It would be different, if he was above plate. He worked up there long enough now to know that Genesis had a point about the crime rate. He knew for a fact that he could get jumped on his way home, have any number of awful things happen, and no one would stop it in the slums. People were afraid to touch him because of his connection to Sephiroth, that was true, but they also knew that Sephiroth lived above plate. He wasn’t there all the time to be a deterrent, and neither were the other SOLDIERs. He felt like he was walking around with a target on his back.

               He didn’t mention either the threats or his concerns for his safety on the streets to his boyfriends, but he didn’t have to. They all knew him well enough to catch the way his eyes flitted around the street as he walked them back to his apartment after picking them up at the train station, the way his shoulders were tense, his bracer packed with not just his usual Thunder materia but each one he owned. They saw him check his PHS and sigh, putting it away with a look of disgust or anger. The worst was when they caught him checking a message and then staring at it for a long, long while, looking terribly lost the entire time.

               They could guess at the issues. They had their own followings, and while no one was stupid enough to threaten any of them, they were used to constant negative feedback and having all of their flaws pulled apart by people who could hide safely behind the anonymity of the internet. And that was how they were spoken to as enhanced fighters that terrified a lot of people; it had to be worse for Cloud. They knew all about Cloud’s self-esteem, and knew it couldn’t be helping.

               Still, they didn’t press things. Cloud had shown himself to be amazingly independent. He wouldn’t tolerate any coddling, or anything that even smacked of it. They all ached to offer their apartments until Cloud’s own was cleared, but knew they had pushed him hard enough with their original offer. They had tossed the idea around between themselves, and all come to the conclusion that it would go over poorly.

               Cloud wouldn’t tolerate coddling, but he did tolerate their touches going softer than they already had been. They were determined to give him every reminder they could that they loved him, to press it into his skin, to get him to pull it into his lungs until it became so buried in him that he couldn’t forget it. Cloud knew exactly what they were doing, that they could see him being affected and were trying to help, and part of him grated at it. He didn’t like the idea of them treating him gently because he was showing weakness, even if he was trying to hide it.

               But he understood that this was their attempt to help. They were trying to respect his boundaries by not offering their own apartments—no, they hadn’t asked, but he could see the desire to in every time they asked him to come early on the weekends, or stay late on Sunday, or spend the night during the week while he was already plateside. He appreciated them not pressing, and he did still hate accepting help in any form, no matter how freely it was offered, he also knew better than to rebuff them. They were doing it because they cared, because they loved him. He knew that if their roles were swapped, he would want to do anything he could to help. He could allow them that much.

               He had half a mind to let things continue as they were, until everything went sideways.

               He got off the train after work and began heading home, only to realize that he was being followed. Again. A quick glance over his shoulder told him it was two people this time, and that was unusual. It made him nervous. He could hold his own in a fight. He was scrappy, and quick, and fought very, very dirty. If it was just one person, he wouldn’t be worried, but he didn’t have much practice going against two opponents. He didn’t like his odds.

               He could hear their pace quicken and went faster himself. He got more nervous. That wasn’t the kind of behavior that said they were just trying to follow him home. Going quicker meant trying to catch up. He didn’t know what they would do when they caught him, but he didn’t want to know.

               He panicked. He did the only thing he could think of: he pulled out his PHS to call Sephiroth. He could have called any of his boyfriends, but Sephiroth was the one with the highest clearance, the one who would be able to come to him as fast as possible by simple virtue that he could drop whatever he was doing with no consequences.

               He didn’t get to make the call. His followers rushed him when he pulled out the PHS and knocked it from his hand. He watched it fly into the wall and then clatter to the ground. One of them grabbed him under the armpits and dragged him backwards into an alley while the other went out of his way to stomp on Cloud’s PHS—if it wasn’t busted beforehand, it certainly was now.

               Cloud, in his panic, struggled against the hold. The man behind him had him pulled back against his chest, arms hooking under Cloud’s armpits and up to lace his fingers together behind Cloud’s neck, creating a firm hold he couldn’t wriggle out of.

               The one that stomped on his phone came over before Cloud collected himself to realize he needed to stop fighting the hold by struggling aimlessly. He got a solid punch in, cracking Cloud across the face. He could taste metal—his lip had split. It was, however, enough to knock sense back into him. While the man was winding up for another strike, Cloud let off a Fire spell. Usually, he stuck to Thunder, because it didn’t do too much permanent damage. But Cloud had no idea how far these people were intending to go, and he needed them unable to follow until he was certain he was a safe distance away. They would be occupied putting the flames out this way.

               Cloud leaned forward, then slammed his head backward into the other man’s face, listening to the sickening crunch of his nose. It got his hold just loose enough that Cloud could get free. He let off a second Fire cast as he bolted from the alley. He didn’t make for his home this time, no, he made for the station. He got there just in time to have to literally jump through the doors to make the train going plateside.

               That was it. He was done. He couldn’t keep doing this. He couldn’t have death threats, constant insults, what was essentially overtime at both jobs, and be afraid for his safety all the time. He was fed up.

               When he got to Shinra Tower, it was to a flood of people leaving. It was quitting hour, and people were on their way out. He had to fight against the tide to the front desk.

               The secretary today was Jenn, who was terribly sweet, except when she was tired, at the beginning of the morning and the very end of the day. He was cutting it fine to still meet sweet-Jenn, and from the look on her face when he arrived, he had missed the window.

               But he watched her jaw drop as he approached.

               “Cloud? What happened?” she asked; the front desk staff had come to recognize him a while ago.

               Cloud sighed and touched his lip, frowning when his fingers came away bloody.

               “How bad does it look?”

               “Uh, pretty bad.”

               “Damn. Can I have a pass? Better Sephiroth finds out from me than second hand through the rumor mill.”

               “Boy, I don’t envy whoever did it,” she said, shaking her head as she went to fetch the appropriate badge.

               He thanked her quietly when she gave him the badge, and despite it being too late for her to be her sweet self, she smiled at him when she wished him good luck.

               Cloud kept touching his lip as he made his way through the Tower, frowning again every time his fingers ended up bloody. He didn’t want to have this talk while bleeding.

               He pointedly ignored the way his hands were still shaking—it was just the adrenaline. Obviously.

               He knocked at Genesis’s door and heard the man holler something from inside the apartment, though he couldn’t make out what it was. It wasn’t long before Zack came and answered the door.

               His face lit up at the sight of Cloud, only to immediately fall.

               “Cloud? What happened? Are you okay?” he asked, eyes roving over Cloud, trying to find more damage beyond the now-swelling lip.

               “Can I come in?”

               “Yeah, right, sorry,” Zack said, stepping out of the way to allow him to pass.

               “Everything okay, Zack?” Angeal called from the kitchen, concern in his voice. He hadn’t liked what he heard Zack say, or his tone of voice.

               “Uh, no, not really,” Zack called back.

               “Are they all in there?” Cloud asked.

               “Yeah, they’re cooking—well, Genesis is mostly drinking wine and critiquing, but.”

               Cloud nodded and took Zack’s hand and led him into the kitchen, where everything came to an immediate halt as soon as his boots hit the tile.

               There was a long pause as the three remaining Firsts took in his split lip.

               Angeal and Sephiroth made to come over to him, but Genesis, who was still leaning against the counter, reached out and stopped them with a hand on their chests—or an elbow, in Angeal’s case, as he was still holding a wine glass.

               “Don’t crowd him,” Genesis said. “Cloud, what happened?”

               Cloud was infinitely grateful in that moment. He thought he might have panicked if he was suddenly surrounded, no matter how much he trusted these men. Zack at his side, their hands still linked, was about as much as he could handle at the moment.

               “I—” Cloud paused, pulling in a great, shuddering breath, blowing it out slowly to regain his self-control. “I got jumped on my way home. They only got the one hit in, but, I just—didn’t want to go home. Can I stay here?”

               “Of course, Cloud,” Genesis said, as it was his apartment. “You’re always welcome.”

               “I mean, like, can I stay? Until my place here gets cleared. The walk home, it’s been freaking me out for a while now when I’m alone, and tonight was—a lot. This isn’t the first time I’ve been followed, and I don’t know if it’ll stop any time soon, and I just don’t really feel safe, and—”

               “Cloud, hey,” Zack said, squeezing his hand. “It’s alright. You can stay the whole time—if not here, then at mine. We all wanted to offer, but we didn’t think you’d like it if we did. I think we’d all feel a lot better if you were here.”

               Cloud looked down and nodded.

               “Sorry, I didn’t want it to come to this.”

               Zack stepped in front of him and, moving slowly so he’d have time to protest, pulled him into a hug. Cloud was a little hesitant, but allowed it, and soon found himself relaxing into the hold. It did a lot to feel the soft, now-familiar SOLDIER sweater under his cheek when he rested his head on Zack’s chest, and smell the strange mix of sword oil, wood, and citrus that was distinctly Zack. He breathed in deeply, the scent setting him at ease, and hugged Zack back. Zack raised one hand to Cloud’s head, holding him close, tucking him underneath his chin.

               “It’s not ‘coming to’ anything. We want you here, remember?”

               Cloud sighed and mumbled, “Right.”

               They stayed like that for a long moment, until he felt something cool wash over him. He shivered at the strangely ticklish sensation and pulled away from Zack to look around curiously, to see Genesis with his hand outstretched, his bracer glowing green. He lowered his hand and Cloud touched his lip, only to find it cured.

               Genesis pushed away from the counter and went to Cloud. He handed Cloud his drink, who took it absently, and then gently pried Cloud away from Zack. He walked him over to where he himself had been standing and guided him into place between Angeal and Sephiroth. He pressed a kiss to Cloud’s forehead.

               “They’ll be near, but they’ll be busy. It’s like company without company,” Genesis explained as Cloud held his wine glass out to him, but he pushed it back toward Cloud’s chest. “And that is for you to unwind.”

               Angeal frowned and said, “Gen, is that wise? Besides, he’s underage.”

               “Even if we were so inclined, who on Gaia would we report him to? We’re effectively the police, Angeal.”

               Zack laughed in the background, but quieted at a look from Angeal.

               “Still, should he have that, after the day he’s had?”

               “There’s an argument that would say he should have it particularly because of the day he’s had.”

               Cloud frowned and said, “I know I’m not legally allowed to drink, but I am an adult. I can make my own decisions.”

               Angeal looked appropriately chastised, but Genesis looked unapologetic.

               “It’s just not a habit I want you to build, turning to alcohol when there’s trouble,” Angeal said.

               Cloud set his hand over Angeal’s and gave him a small smile. It would have normally been wider, but it had been a hard day.

               “You don’t have to worry about me, Angeal. I grew up around alcohol; Nibelheim’s very casual about it. Drinking there is common, but drinking to excess is rare. You don’t have to worry about me becoming a drunk.”

               “You’re not in Nibelheim anymore,” Angeal reminded.

               Cloud shrugged and said, “No, but that’s how I was taught to see alcohol, and that hasn’t changed. Drinking a lot is for celebrating exclusively, and that seems like the right idea, to me.”

               Cloud was unwinding in little increments as he spoke. Talking about Nibel culture was relaxing; it was the one part of the town, aside from the language, that he appreciated. It was also a welcome distraction.

               He sipped the wine and Genesis nodded his approval before going to stand next to Zack, looping an arm around his shoulders. Cloud knew he was backing away to give him some space, and he appreciated the gesture.

               Angeal nodded and said, “I trust you.”

               Cloud gave him a soft smile—it was always a nice sentiment to hear, and it meant a lot in moments when he wasn’t feeling his best.

               Angeal returned it, and then went back to his cooking, Sephiroth following suit after nodding his head, confident now that things had been at least partially resolved. It would do wonders for his own mood, to not fear for Cloud’s safety.

               Zack elbowed Genesis in the companionable silence of the room and said, “Hey, wanna show Cloud the video you got off Tseng? I think he’ll like it.”

               Genesis grinned and kissed Zack, saying, “You’re a genius.”

               “I know,” Zack said, grinning back. Genesis rolled his eyes but pulled out his PHS, flipping through it.

               “What video?” Cloud asked before taking another sip.

               “Gen got the surveillance video from the meeting where Seph asked for your apartment. You’ll see why it’s good.”

               “Here we are,” Genesis said, crossing the kitchen again to hand Cloud his phone, still careful not to crowd him.

               Cloud took it in his free hand and hit play, watching it with interest, until he got to the part where the room froze before immediately scrambling to sign the sheet.

               At that, he laughed outright. He kept laughing, having to set down the glass to not spill. It felt like a knot unwinding in his chest. It felt good to laugh, a much needed relief of tension, like opening a valve to relieve pressure. It was exactly what he needed, a chance to laugh, surrounded by people who cared for him in a place he felt safe. Nothing was going to go wrong, here. He could laugh, and smile, and just be with the people he loved most. He melted into the moment in a way that had little to do with the tiny amount of alcohol he had drunk.

               He didn’t look closely enough at the moment to realize all that it meant. Instead, he just grinned and rewound the video, playing it over again a few more times. It got him laughing every time, and more than one person in that room looked at him in fondness.

               The day had been bad, but the next ones were going to be better. Cloud was going to be safe, here.

               He always was.

Chapter Text

               Cloud moved into Shinra Tower in degrees. His things ended up sprinkled through all the SOLDIER First apartments. His clothes ended up split between Genesis and Angeal’s apartments and his few knick knacks wound up in Zack’s along with his gaming things. His work supplies ended up in Sephiroth’s apartment, which was where he took his calls; Sephiroth had offered, since his was the least used apartment. It was cold and largely impersonal there, as Sephiroth preferred to spend his time with his boyfriends when he wasn’t in need of personal space. Since the apartment was empty, and Sephiroth had the most sensitive hearing to tell immediately if Cloud was on a call when he walked in, it made the most sense for his work, to avoid being interrupted. They brought his things plateside one bag or box at a time. It wasn’t like Cloud had many things anyway; almost all of his belongings were work related at this point.

               He found a place in the SOLDIERs’ lives seamlessly. He was given keycards to all of their apartments and offices, as well as the appropriate ones for the elevators. It was more difficult than he wanted to admit to keep them all straight, but he managed. He visited their offices during the day, usually to bring them lunch; he found that Sephiroth in particular forgot to eat if he wasn’t reminded. He refused to stay for long, not wanting to distract them, but every now and then, when he got especially bored, he did visit for that express purpose. Those were the times when secretaries were told to take an early break and the door was locked. Those visits usually ended up with Cloud either bent over or sprawled on top of a desk. He did it with them all, but he made a special point to knock things off Genesis’s desk when they did that, just to rile him up.

               The secretaries throughout the building got used to seeing him. The ones at the front desk let him breeze in and out without stopping him anymore, but he made a point of stopping to chat if he wasn’t in a hurry. He had been Chocobo King’s version of a front desk, he knew what it was like to be approached endlessly to perform a service and have to smile your way through it with deference. The secretaries were people and deserved to be treated as such, so he made a point to be friendly with them. He was a relatively quiet person by nature, so the conversations were rarely drawn out, but the least he could do was stop to smile and exchange pleasantries.

               It went a long way in winning over the secretaries, even and including Linda, who he had butted heads with so bad at first. He had yet to be there very long, and making progress with them was slow, but they seemed to be warming up.

               Moving into the Tower went a long way in making Cloud feel safe. When he went below plate now, for the most part, he went with one of his boyfriends to pick up his things. When he went to visit Aeris, he usually met her at the station after she was done working. He wasn’t alone below plate anymore, and that made it more difficult for him to be followed or harassed. No one really dared to do it above plate, not when there was a higher risk of Sephiroth showing up and a generally lower crime rate.

               He wasn’t quite used to the online harassment, but it was getting easier to take. He was able to laugh at the more ridiculous rants he received, and he felt safe enough in the Tower that the death threats bothered him less. The constant reminders that he wasn’t good enough still didn’t sit well, but his boyfriends’ support was doing wonders for that. He was with them so much more often now, able to breathe in their love daily. He still didn’t fully believe he deserved them, but he was slowly becoming convinced that it didn’t matter. They were infinitely clear in how they felt about him, regardless of his opinion of himself. They weren’t going to suddenly believe he wasn’t worth it and ditch him, that much was becoming clear. He didn’t believe in things easily, but he believed in them, and in their love for him.

               By the time his apartment was finally cleared, Cloud had settled into the Firsts’ apartments. He didn’t really bother moving all of his stuff into his own space, only his work things, so that he had a properly private space where he wouldn’t disturb anyone with his moaning or risk being walked in on.

               The strangest thing happened when his apartment was cleared. The rumor mill had long since spread word around the city that Sephiroth’s boyfriend had moved into the Tower, with whispers about where he could possibly be staying, but nothing had been officially confirmed. When the paperwork went through, someone in Shinra must have leaked the truth, because Midgar finally really believed that Cloud was there to stay.

               What he hadn’t been expecting was for the modeling agencies he had originally reached out to to suddenly call him back. Now that he had some sort of official recognition as Sephiroth’s partner, they seemed eager to capitalize on his connection. Companies were apparently willing to put aside his side job for the sake of his relationship.

               Cloud turned them each down resolutely. If they had felt they were too good for him before, he wanted nothing to do with them. He had no intention of being used for his relationship. His opinion of himself might be low, but he wouldn’t tolerate other people sharing that sentiment. He had no intention of working, or associating in any form, with anyone who thought he was lesser for his first job.

               Nothing else changed when he moved, at least nominally, into his own place again. He ended up leaving his lease in his place below plate, paying the hefty fee for leaving early with little complaint because, apparently, Shinra refused to accept rent from him. He protested that he didn’t want their charity, and they insisted that they would not be treated as an apartment complex. They extended a place to him as a favor and intended to treat him like any other resident, and that would be the end of it. Still, he strongly suspected it was because they were afraid of pissing off Sephiroth by charging him.

               Which left Cloud in a very, very peculiar place. He was no longer paying rent. He ate with his boyfriends, and when he offered to help pay for groceries, he was told that Shinra footed that particular bill. He didn’t even have to pay for electric or internet. He was suddenly left with no regular expenses except for his PHS bill, once he got his replaced. Shinra had offered him one of those as well, which he had flatly refused to take. He knew it was paranoid, but he was concerned they were only offering so they could bug his PHS. He didn’t really think they were trying to keep tabs on him, but he also preferred not to take his chances.

               So he had very little expenses, but a constant, high stream of income. He was working at the agency almost daily now. He had gotten out of doing sexier ads as more companies were willing to work with him after word got out about his relationship, and it took a little bit to adjust to the different style of modeling. He had a particularly hard time figuring out what to do with his hands, but he picked it up quickly.

               He was working often for the agency, which was a big paycheck on its own, but his camboy work was raking it in as well. He was incredibly popular now, despite all the flack he got online. His regular calls brought in steady gil, but his sets were selling constantly. Every now and then he did a Shinra specific one, and those sold at a rate that frankly astonished him. There were the SOLDIER sets, a trooper one, ones wearing the standard secretary uniform, male and female version both. He was especially proud of the executive sets he did, featuring a copy of Scarlet’s red dress and a version of Heidegger’s green uniform that was incredibly tight and included very, very short shorts instead of pants. Said executives were apparently furious about the sets, but when they had asked Sephiroth to make Cloud take them down, he’d just walked away from them, making his answer clear.

               He found himself at a loss for what to spend his gil on. He bought supplies for work, able to afford luxury sex toys now and more and more elaborate, custom made costumes. He bought a new laptop, a gaming computer, several consoles for his sole hobby. But mostly he sent his spare gil home to his mother, who could use it more than he could. He knew how hard it was to scrape by in Nibelheim. He’d always sent her what he could, but it was a pittance before. He was just waiting for the alarmed letter that would come. He’d have to explain how he suddenly had so much extra gil. He knew he’d have to own up about his job sooner or later, that it was likely to get back to her now that word got out about him and Sephiroth. He owed her an explanation. She ought to hear it from him first, and she ought to hear the whole truth, not just what the public heard.

               But he couldn’t quite bring himself to write that letter. He kept putting it off.

               What was most difficult about adjusting to the Tower was that it was a world in its own. Most of the employees had lives outside it, but there were entire departments that rarely left the building. There were cafeterias and coffee shops and back corners or dorms to sleep in. If Cloud himself didn’t have a job outside the building, he probably wouldn’t leave it either. He found himself only really leaving for work anymore; work, and dates with his boyfriends, though only the ones with Sephiroth were obviously dates at all.

               He couldn’t help himself, really. He told himself that it was a bad idea, that he should refrain, that he really shouldn’t antagonize the public any more than he did simply by being himself, but he wanted to. If they were going to make his life difficult regardless, he wanted a little payback. And when it came in the form of rubbing the city’s nose in his relationship, he couldn’t really motivate himself to hold back.

               He didn’t keep his hands to himself in public. He held Sephiroth’s hand, kissed him frequently, linked their arms together, tucked his hands in the man’s back pockets when they were standing around together. He touched him any time he had an excuse to. The gossip magazines had a steady supply of photos of them being affectionate, because Sephiroth had a hard time denying Cloud anything, and found this game of his amusing regardless. He liked Cloud’s spark, the way he was so ready to spit back at the world that disapproved of him. His self-esteem might need work, but he refused to take what society dished out through the anonymous internet lying down.

               He was perfectly polite when he was approached—and he was approached. More than one newspaper or magazine tried to get a statement or an interview, which he always politely declined. No, he was infinitely respectful, entirely beyond reproach in how he handled the public, but that made it all the sweeter to rub it in everyone’s faces what they couldn’t have. As far as society was concerned, Sephiroth was his. Sephiroth was the world’s most eligible bachelor, but now he was taken, by Cloud. So, so many people wanted what Cloud now had, and Cloud knew that was more than half the reason he was harassed at all. But if he had to deal with the harassment anyway, he might as well indulge himself. Especially if it made people who didn’t like him furious.

               He antagonized the city when he was outside the Tower, but inside Shinra, he played a very different game. He essentially lived with the people who worked there. The Tower was his home, now, and he shared it with every worker. It only made sense, to him, to try and smooth relations with them.

               It started with the secretaries. They warmed up to him quickly because he was friendly with them in a way most people they dealt with weren’t. For a good while, there remained a distance between them, until one of them, Jenn the sweetheart, pulled him aside one day.

               She had been hesitant, and unsure of herself, and apologetic. Her face was bright red.

               “I know this isn’t really appropriate, especially not at work, but you’ve always been friendly, and open, and pretty unapologetic, and you’re the only person I can think to ask,” she said, faltering as she spoke.

               “What’s your question?” Cloud asked, though he could hazard a guess. This was about his camboy work in some way. He had expected questions sooner or later, it had just been a question of how long it would take someone to ask.

               “Do you have advice on…” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “sex toys?”

               Cloud blinked. It wasn’t what he was expecting.

               “I mean, sure, absolutely. We do have different… bits, so I can’t give you perfect advice, but I can help.”

               He walked her through it. He explained how sex stores above plate over charged, and how she should go below plate if she could—but bring someone with her, if she wasn’t too shy, just for safety’s sake. He gave her shop recommendations, down to which employee to ask for if she needed advice, and that if she could sneak his name in conversation, she might get a discount. He explained a wide range of products, what they all did, what products she would need to care for whatever she bought. He did it all calmly, without being embarrassed at all, and answered all the questions she dared to ask.

               She was as grateful as she was embarrassed. Cloud hadn’t known, but the secretaries formed their own clique, and they were a gossipy bunch. Word had spread among them that Cloud was open to inquiry, and he ended up fielding about every kind of question related to his work that could be asked. Even some that were unrelated, but had to do with sex; he didn’t explain that he had a limited amount of knowledge, having been a recent virgin, but did his best to answer.

               He hadn’t known how repressed Shinra employees were. They had so many questions they had apparently never dared ask anyone, but were happy to ask him, now that it was clear he both knew what he was talking about and didn’t mind explaining things to them.

               It had the very strange consequence of getting the secretaries to adopt him into their fold. He became their collective confidante, strangely enough, and they went out of their way to include him. He got added to their collective email list, which got him the best gossip in the building. They even shared what was too sensitive to be written down. No one stopped him looking for a pass anymore, letting him breeze through the building at will. He could ask pretty much any favor of them and get it granted, if it was in their power, though he didn’t abuse the privilege. The last thing he wanted was one of them to get in trouble for indulging him in something they weren’t supposed to.

               They adopted him, so he adopted them in return. He started taking care of them in what small ways he could. He went on coffee runs, especially for people who looked like they were exhausted. He helped them carry supplies and sometimes went to backrooms himself to fetch them while a secretary was otherwise occupied. More than once, he covered a desk while someone went on a bathroom break.

               Because he was already doing it, Cloud began helping out the other workers, as well. He knew exactly what it was like to be the bottom of the food chain in a vast corporation. The way the grunts were looked run down was infinitely familiar when he saw it. So he helped interns and temps find their way around the floors, guiding them to offices and elevators. He brought coffee to office workers, and occasionally ran coffee runs for executives in place of their workers, not to help the executives, but because their subordinates needed the break. He was soon known for bringing chicken soup made from his mother’s recipe to sick office workers and secretaries who didn’t have sick time and couldn’t afford taking time off.

               His boyfriends were infinitely amused when he was, somehow, unanimously dubbed by the grunts of the building as “the Angel of Shinra.” He didn’t really understand why he got the title. He was just being nice. He was doing for the workers what he had wished someone would have done for him at Chocobo King. He didn’t do shit for the executives—in fact, he actively gave them shit. More than once, he had gone into someone’s office to lecture them about their treatment of their employees. He had gotten the idea when he was told he had the kind of sweet face that made people not want to disappoint him, and he was not above using that to guilt bosses into treating their subordinates better.

               Zack, in particular, found it hilarious, and took to calling him “angel” and cooing at him any time he was caught being nice to the workers.

               The grunts thought of him as one of their own, and the executives were coming to be a little afraid of him, for his guilt-trip powers and his connection to Sephiroth, who they were even more afraid to disappoint. The real issue Cloud was running into was the military.

               SOLDIER, unit and family that they were, made up their mind unanimously about Cloud. They gave him their respect but not their approval. He was dating their General, and had shown himself to be very close to their Firsts. That afforded him a certain amount of status. They couldn’t disrespect someone so obviously important to their superiors, but they didn’t have to like him. They were cold and distant and perfectly polite. But, after the way the office workers and secretaries took him in, it was immediately clear that they didn’t approve.

               And Cloud did want their approval. Badly. These were the men who fought with his boyfriends. These were the men that had their backs, who they trusted to keep them safe. These were the men that his boyfriends protected with their lives. They clearly mattered to the Firsts, which meant they mattered to him. But no matter how kind he was to them, he was always rebuffed, however politely.

               That didn’t mean he didn’t end up hearing about The Bet. SOLDIERs minded their mouths around him, but their lips were loose in front of the secretaries. SOLDIER had collectively decided that Cloud’s draw for Sephiroth must be his body. The story they accepted as the actual truth was that his status as Sephiroth’s “boyfriend” was a cover to get him a room in the Tower. They decided that, because he was a camboy, he was also a prostitute. Clearly, Sephiroth was paying him to have sex with him. Some tossed around the idea that he was essentially a sugar baby, that Sephiroth took care of him and met all his financial and material needs in return for sex. That there was no actual romance between them, just an exchange of money for rounds in the bedroom.

               The Bet had multiple facets. One part was how much Cloud charged Sephiroth a night. Another was whether or not Sephiroth shared with the Firsts, whether or not he charged them the same amount, and if so, how much that was. The final piece was how much he would charge the other SOLDIERs if they could get him to agree.

               The secretaries had informed him of the Bet with solemn looks. He’d just sighed and rolled his eyes but thanked them for telling him. They apologized for the bad news regardless.

               Cloud wasn’t terribly surprised. He’d gotten more than one angry message on the internet insinuating the same thing. It stung a little more, because he did want the SOLDIERs approval, but he wasn’t sure how to get over this hurdle. He wasn’t even supposed to know about the Bet. For all that part of it was about sleeping with the other SOLDIERs, none of them ever approached him about it. He wasn’t sure of how to even broach the subject with them. There were none that treated him any more warmly than the others, no one who felt a little safe to ask about it.

               He didn’t tell his boyfriends about it, and he knew the secretaries wouldn’t either—partially because they didn’t talk to the Firsts very much, partially because he asked them not to. He knew that, if they found out, they would talk to the SOLDIERs, and that would just make things worse. It wouldn’t end the Bet; they’d just be more careful about discussing it. It would only make them resent him more for the scolding they would get.

               Cloud had been stumped about what to do about the situation for longer than he would have liked. Eventually, the solution came in an unlikely way.

               Genesis made a throw away comment about the infirmary’s materia and ether use policy, a scathing reproach about their rules that he’d mentioned to Zack, but planned on moving past quickly. Cloud had stopped the conversation to ask for clarification, not being familiar with the policy. Their rule was apparently that Cure materia would not be used on SOLDIERs unless they were in the field. Constant casting required constant ether use, which was a drain on company finances. SOLDIERs healed rapidly, and didn’t really need the Cures as bad as troopers. The Firsts had all complained about it multiple times, but nothing ever got done about it. It was now something they griped about but had given up on fixing.

               Cloud, however, was a little more stubborn. He didn’t like the idea that the SOLDIERs were left suffering to save a little gil. He knew there was no way to change the policy; there was especially nothing he could do about that, as he didn’t even work for the company. But he could do his part to fix the situation on his own.

               Cloud bought a Cure materia and used the strange surplus of gil that he was still getting used to having to stock up on ethers. He showed up at the infirmary with a bag of them and his Cure equipped in his bracer. He explained to the secretary there what his plan was, and she ushered him into the correct rooms.

               He went through each SOLDIER room, casting Cure after Cure until they were each healed. Sometimes it took a dozen casts and so many ethers over a day that he had to go back up to his apartment and grab more, but he made a point of doing it. The nurses and doctors, who never approved of the policy but couldn’t change it, turned a blind eye, pretending they never saw him. They let him move around the infirmary, Curing SOLDIERs as he would with no fuss.

               The SOLDIERs didn’t know what to make of it. Cloud had to know they didn’t like him. They couldn’t understand why he was going out of his way to help heal them. They all saw him as he did it. He left the infirmary so exhausted he walked out on shaking legs, sometimes. He was using his own money on the ethers. He was paying the price for healing them when he didn’t have to. They never asked for it. Some of them actively told him not to, which was always ignored.

               Eventually, one of them grabbed his wrist when he tried to leave the room after healing him, and said, “Why are you doing this? You have to know we don’t even like you. We’ve never approved of you and the General. You have to know that by now.”

               Cloud blinked at him and looked at him oddly.

               “So what?”

               “… What?”

               “So what? Of course I know you don’t like me; the Bet made that pretty godsdamn clear.”

               “You know about the Bet?”

               “You guys aren’t really subtle, y’know that?”

               “Then why?

               “Because it’s not right that you should have to suffer to save a little gil. Because you’re all important to my boyfriend and my best friends. I know some of you get hurt because you’re taking hits meant for them. I can’t help you on missions, and I can’t keep any of you safe, but I can help this way. I just want to do my part.”

               The SOLDIER’s grip on his wrist went slack in surprise, and Cloud pulled away and left without another word, considering the conversation over.

               Word spread quickly through SOLDIER, that Cloud was helping for their sake, not to make a point or get them in his debt. It did a shocking amount to soften their opinion of him. He was taking care of them without looking for anything in return, not even their approval. And his simple lack of ulterior motive did wonders. That, coupled with the way he ran himself ragged at times Curing them, was what won them in the end.

               Because Cloud had made it clear that, regardless of what the SOLDIERs thought, he thought of them as part of his own. Cloud had adopted the grunts of Shinra, and apparently he had adopted SOLDIER, despite the fact that they didn’t ask for it.

               SOLDIER knew quite a bit about camaraderie. If someone was going to take care of them, bring them into the fold, then they would bring him in in return.

               The SOLDIERs never said a word about it, but the secretaries let Cloud know that, surprisingly, the Bet had been called off. The SOLDIERs began talking to him when he was at their bedside, and then in the hallways and coffee spots. They warmed to him as a unit, the way they did most things, and suddenly, Cloud was an unofficial SOLDIER.

               The Firsts had been overjoyed. They hadn’t known about the Bet, but they had known their men’s opinion of Cloud. They knew their SOLDIERs well by this point, could tell how they felt even though they did their best to hide it. They saw the distance Cloud was treated with, but there was nothing they could do about it. It would help nothing for them to order the SOLDIERs to befriend Cloud; it would only result in resentment. But their fellow SOLDIERs were important to the Firsts, and to watch the two halves of their family come together had eased a tension they hadn’t even realized had been there.

               To the secretaries and office workers, Cloud was “the Angel of Shinra.” To the SOLDIERs, he ended up being “Nurse Cloud,” for the way he helped them in the infirmary. It had started as a joke, a gentle tease and a thank you, but it ended up being the only way they referred to him.

               When Cloud put out a set featuring a nurse costume, he gave the SOLDIERs a discount. He found it infinitely hilarious every time he saw one of the photos printed out and hanging in a locker. Once, he found a blown up version hanging in a locker room, and that had made him laugh so hard he got a stich in his side and had to leave the room.

               Cloud had no ulterior motive for helping in the infirmary, but he did have one when he got a little handsy with SOLDIERs—just a little bit. He hugged them regularly, indulged in the joking ass-slapping the SOLDIERs did sometimes, and kissed their cheeks in greeting and goodbye. More than once, he looped an arm through theirs as he walked with one, or sat on their backs as they did pushups just to see if they could manage. He sprawled across their laps when there were no seats left in the cafeteria and kissed their knuckles to fluster them.

               Partially, it was because he liked being affectionate, when he knew it was allowed. The SOLDIERs indulged him, once Sephiroth had made it clear he didn’t mind. They treated him with infinite respect, never initiating the contact themselves but always happy to accept it. They were careful of boundaries and always handled him gently. He was like a very large housecat that they had somehow ended up adopting.

               Partially, it was because when he was so openly affectionate with all the SOLDIERs, no one thought a thing of it when he did the same with the Firsts. He couldn’t touch or kiss them quite the same way he could with Sephiroth in public, but it was something. He was allowed some manner of affection with his partners without repercussions, and that was at least half of what he had been after.

               If his touches lingered a little, if the way he looked at them was a little softer than it was with the other SOLDIERs, no one said anything about it. The Seconds and Thirds thought that maybe, maybe there was something there, maybe Sephiroth shared Cloud with the other Firsts, but that was between Cloud and their superiors. No one suspected that all the Firsts were together in addition to sharing Cloud, and that was what mattered.

               Cloud had successfully adopted Shinra’s grunts and the SOLDIER program, but no matter what he did, he couldn’t actually win over the troopers.

               He had the sneaking suspicion that the issue was he was a little too much like them for comfort. Troopers had little status in the army; even their officers came second to SOLDIERs. Cloud was a nobody too, and a slumrat at that. Yet he was dating Sephiroth, their General, their most superior officer. He was friends with the Firsts, who were the next ranking commanders. He was taken in by the SOLDIERs. Every person the troopers answered to seemed to like him. He had what they couldn’t have; they were bound by the hierarchy of the army, which he was exempt from. He worked outside it, wasn’t bound by it, and got away with what they never could. They were, in a word, jealous.

               Cloud was handling it just fine. His days were busy between his jobs and helping the workers and SOLDIERs and being with his boyfriends. He didn’t even see the troopers that often; the barracks were on a floor he rarely went to. But he did pass them going around the building, could hear the snide remarks they didn’t bother trying to hide, saw their dirty looks. It quickly came to his attention that they had taken up the Bet the SOLDIERs had long since dropped.

               He didn’t like it, but he tolerated it. He was developing a much thicker skin than he’d had before, thanks to the constant online harassment. He could ignore them and go about his day. He tolerated it, until they crossed a line. They could say whatever they wanted about him, call him any endless litany of insults, but he wasn’t going to stand for them going after the people at Shinra who had taken him in.

               When he caught one saying the secretaries had picked up being sluts from him, he drew the line.

               He cleared his throat and came to a stop in front of the group of troopers, folding his arms over his chest.

               “Here’s the thing, fellas,” Cloud said, looking them over. “I’m a busy guy. I’m tired, like, a lot of the time. I don’t really have time to deal with you making asses out of yourselves all the time. But we’re setting some ground rules, right now. Say what you want about me, but leave everyone else out of it, alright? Stop talking shit about people just because they don’t hate me the way you do. It’s shitty.”

               “Or what?” one of them sneered, looking Cloud up and down.

               “Or I’ll kick your ass.”

               There was a round of laughter.

               “You couldn’t if you tried.”

               “Wanna bet on it?”

               “Sure, we’ll take your gil,” one of them said, “How much are we—”

               Before he finished what he was saying, Cloud cast Thunder on the lot of them. He’d always had a talent for materia. He knew a lot of people who struggled with it; a lot of folks below the plate couldn’t cast at all. Most of Nibelheim could, however; it was a skill they were taught young, a part of their hunting training by virtue of the mako fountain that gave them a supply of materia. It was how he won most of his fights below plate—a dirty trick that most people just couldn’t replicate.

               He wasn’t above using it here, either, especially when he knew for a fact that troopers had no access to materia.

               “We done here?” Cloud asked.

               “You fucking asshole,” said the first trooper to recover. “Fight me fair!”

               “Nope,” Cloud said, popping the “p.”

               Then he cast again.

               They did this for a while. Cloud cast, one of the troopers would decide to mouth off, and he’d cast again. It kept going until one of them went to talk shit again, and his friend clapped a hand over his mouth.

               That was when Cloud nodded in satisfaction.

               “Make sure the other troopers know about this, okay? Next time, I’m going to cast first and lecture second. Got it?”

               There was a round of nods, and Cloud walked off.

               There was no more trouble with the troopers after that.

               There was no more trouble with the troopers, but there was trouble with the Science Department.

               Cloud had heard all about what he dubbed the “Hell Department.” The Firsts had described their myriad experiences with checkups and mako injections. Sephiroth hadn’t been keen on it, but he’d explained what had happened in his childhood to Cloud. He trusted Cloud and didn’t want to keep such a big secret from him, but he never did like talking about it.

               Cloud had looked at him softly, touched his cheek, and said, “It’s over now. They didn’t break you, and now you know you can live through anything. But now, we’ll be here to help you through whatever comes.”

               It was infinitely better than the pity he’d been expecting.

               Though it was, almost entirely, Sephiroth’s fault that the Science Department approached Cloud in the first place. They only did it because he was, specifically, Sephiroth’s boyfriend. Plenty of SOLDIERs had civilian partners; that wasn’t abnormal. But Sephiroth never had before.

               Still, Cloud could hardly believe what they were asking of him.

               “Let me get this straight,” he said slowly. “You want me to go down to sketchy experiment hell so you can see if I’m getting enhanced from taking Sephiroth’s cum.”

               The scientist coughed and said, “That’s, uh, essentially it, yes.”

               “I think I’m turning super human because my boyfriend cums in my ass.”

               “Sephiroth does have a much higher mako level than the other SOLDIERs. There’s a possibility of transferal between you two.”

               “Transferal via his cum.”

               “… Yes.”

               “You have to know how fucking stupid that sounds.”

               “It’s a transferal of bodily fluid. SOLDIERs aren’t allowed to give blood for the same reason, because of the risk of mako transfer.”

               “Now I have to ask. Is it because it’s inside me? If I got him to only come, say, on my face, would I still be at risk?”

               There was another polite cough.

               “We would have to run tests to be sure, but the chances would be lower if the bodily fluid was only introduced externally.”

               “So it’s specifically because he cums in my ass. Or down my throat, I guess.”

               Was he being lewd explicitly because it was making the scientist uncomfortable? Yes, absolutely. If he had to listen to this stupid, stupid suggestion, he was going to make them as uncomfortable as possible as payback.

               “I—well, yes.”

               “Then there’s a bigger risk if I swallow than if it’s in my ass? Because it’ll slide out of my ass eventually, but it stays in my stomach.”

               “We would, uh, probably need to test that. If you will consent to the tests.”

               “Damn, I was really hoping I would be able to get you to actually say ‘cum.’ It’d almost be worth this conversation if I got you to say it.”

               “Excuse me?”

               “Let me make this clear. I’m not consenting to your suspicious sex tests. I’m not consenting, and if you try to take me to your department against my will, or make me vanish for a little while to run your tests, it’ll end badly for you. Remember that I’m dating Sephiroth and close friends with the other Firsts. The rest of SOLDIER thinks of me as family, too. You’ll bring the whole department down on your head if I go missing, because if you think I’m not going to go tell Sephiroth about this immediately, you’re wrong. He’ll know exactly what you’ve done if I go missing.”

               “Is that a threat?”

               “Oh, absolutely.”

               Cloud smiled sweetly, patted the scientist’s shoulder as he stepped around him, and continued on his way.

               Sephiroth was furious when he found out about it. Angeal was appropriately concerned. Genesis and Zack, however, were just endlessly entertained by his attempts to get a scientist to reference cum in a serious conversation. Their only regret was that his attempt failed.

               The Science Department, with good sense, backed off.

               Cloud had been determined to make Shinra Tower into his home, mostly because he was going to be living there, and didn’t want to be miserable. He hadn’t thought he’d find an unexpected family there with the workers, but he was infinitely grateful. He got a full homecoming every time he returned to the Tower, now. The internet might still be cruel, but his home cared for him.

               And that was a novel experience for Cloud. Nibelheim hadn’t cared for him. The slums were a cold place, where friends were few and far between. He was used to having a scant handful of people to cling to, and that had always been enough for him. But being welcomed in by so many, having people care, meant more to him than he thought it would.

               Sometimes he thought about how this had all started with the simple happenstance of Zack stumbling across his blog. Now he gained four perfect partners, a new home, and a found family.

               Who knew Moogle Dynasty would give him so much?

Chapter Text

               Cloud was, by no means, a SOLDIER. He wasn’t known for his bravery, because he wasn’t very brave, he was just very stubborn. But he wasn’t a coward, and he wouldn’t back down from what he decided needed to be done, no matter how much it scared him. This was a constant, whether it meant standing up to bullies in Nibelheim, snapping back at his manager when he was fired from Chocobo King, or laying into executives at Shinra who didn’t treat their workers properly.

               He wasn’t a coward, but he did have a healthy respect for putting things off.

               And he was putting off sending that letter to his mother. He knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. Claudia Strife was a very proud woman, and he could imagine her having a lot to say about his camboy career. She was also Nibel through and through, which came with a certain amount of value placed in tradition. This made him particularly concerned that she wasn’t going to be happy that not only did he not find that older woman to take care of him, but he found four men who were the poster boys for the company she absolutely detested.

               No, his mother was not going to be pleased.

               He didn’t know how she was going to react. A few months ago, he would have known she couldn’t just fly out here to give him a talking to, but she had all that spare gil he had sent her, now. She certainly wouldn’t be afraid of the long distance cost to call his PHS. He was hoping for a sternly worded letter. That would be the best he could hope for.

               But he was afraid to find out what it would be. So he just didn’t send the letter for a while. He let himself get wrapped up in his jobs, in Shinra, in his boyfriends. He had plenty to keep him busy, now; no more scrolling through the internet for Moogle Dynasty gifs, unless he was in line waiting for coffee. He actually managed to convince himself that he “just kept forgetting,” only ever remembering when he was tired at the end of the day, when he always told himself he’d do it tomorrow.

               He was ready to let things continue that way, when he saw the impossible.

               His name, on TV.

               Nibelheim was tiny and backwater, but even they had television. And a story about his scandalous relationship with Sephiroth? It didn’t mention his camboy work, just that he was a model from the slums, and let that be scandal enough. It wasn’t the full story, but it was enough that Cloud became concerned. He didn’t want his mother to get scraps of the truth and make the wrong assumptions, and he especially didn’t want her to find out any of it from anyone other than him. She’d be furious that she had to find out second hand.

               So Cloud finally sat down to write his mother.

               The letter was pages long. He detailed how he’d been scraping by with working at Chocobo King, and how he’d become a camboy. He didn’t give her too many details on the actual work, just enough that she would understand what he was doing and that he was safe while he was doing it (he didn’t mention any stalkers). He explained how Zack stumbled upon him online and the long, twisting road that led him into his relationship. He talked about life at Shinra, how the company was definitely rotten at the higher levels, but the individuals working there were just like anyone else. He wasn’t sure how she’d feel about him and so much of Shinra adopting one another, but he thought she’d like to know he’d found some strange, unnecessarily large semblance of a family.

               He got the letter sent out, but he knew it’d be a while before it reached its destination. He could only hope it reached her before the news did.

               A week and a half went by before he received a call on his PHS. He’d been sitting sideways in Angeal’s lap at the time, playing a game on his phone while Angeal read a book, their arms crossing over each other. The call interrupted his game, and he groaned his annoyance, before he looked more closely at the call itself.

               Then he cursed, fervently.

               “Who is it?” Angeal asked, before looking over his shoulder. He hummed at the contact that just said “Ma,” before saying, “She doesn’t call very often.”

               “Because it’s expensive. Fuck, I’m in for it.”

               “Best to get whatever it is over with.”

               He picked up the PHS and greeted his mother with, “You didn’t have to call, y’know. It’s expensive.”

               When she spoke, it was in Old Nibel, and that’s how Cloud knew he was really in trouble.

               “Cloud Strife, I raised you better than this.”

               Cloud leaned his head against Angeal’s chest but answered in the same language.

               “Which part is it that you’re mad about?”

               “All of it, but we’ll start from the top. Exactly how explicit is this work you’re doing?”

               “Explicit enough that I’m pretty sure you don’t want the details.”

               “Try me.”

               Cloud sighed. He could feel his face start to heat up.

               “Like, really explicit.”

               “Are you naked?”

               “For most of it. It’s worse than that, Ma.”

               “Do you have sex on camera?”

               Cloud pressed his hand over his eyes.

               “No, but I get as close as you can while being the only one in the shot.”

               “Cloud.”

               “I know, I just—you remember how the kids always used to call me pretty?”

               “Of course I do. You hated it.”

               “Right. Pretty, in a big city, translates to a lot of staring and having gross things shouted at you and people touching you without asking. One day, I just got tired of it. I figured if it was going to happen anyway, I might as well charge people for it.”

               There was a long pause as Claudia thought this over.

               “So you started because people were looking at you like you were naked whether or not you actually were.”

               “Right. If I can’t stop it, I might as well get something out of it.”

               Claudia sighed heavily, but said, “I don’t like it, and I’d rather you stop, but that I can understand.”

               Cloud lowered his hand and blinked in surprise. It was far more than he had been expecting from his mother.

               “Thanks, Ma.”

               “I’m not saying I’m okay with it. I’m not.”

               “I didn’t expect you to be. I don’t really think any mother wants their kid doing sex work of any kind.”

               “Are you sure you can’t stop, now that you’ve started actual modeling?”

               “I could, yeah, but I don’t really want to. I think I’d miss it if I stopped. And besides, if I quit now, everyone would think they shamed me out of it, no matter what my actual reasons were. I’m not ashamed of what I do, and I won’t let the whole city think it can guilt me into doing anything.”

               “Stormcloud, how many times do I have to warn you about that hard head of yours?”

               “At least one more time, like always.”

               She sighed and then said, “These boys of yours. Did you have to pick the Firsts?”

               “I didn’t pick them. I just kinda—slipped and fell into it. I didn’t mean to fall for them; you should have seen how bad I panicked when I figured out that I did. I ran away from them and avoided them for like a week before they got a hold of me and talked sense into me.”

               He carefully didn’t mention the kicked-in door.

               “And they treat you right?”

               “Ma, they’re more than I could ever have asked for. They’re sweet, and kind, and they love me more than I deserve. I really think I could ask them for the stars and they’d find a way to scoop them out of the sky for me.”

               “Let me ask you the important question. Where does your love live?”

               It was an old Nibel question, and Cloud’s breath stilled at it. In quiet moments, he’d spent a lot of time figuring out what parts of the body he loved his partners with. He didn’t think the answer would actually matter, because his boyfriends didn’t understand what all of it meant anyway. It was something to figure out for his own sake, but it hadn’t even crossed his mind that his mother might ask.

               “My marrow, Ma.”

               It had long since become clear to him that his love was written into the very depths of his bones.

               She blew out a long breath, making static rattle through the PHS.

               “They’re yours, then. I won’t stop that. But I do want to meet them.”

               If she could get over his camboy career and accept his boyfriends, the worst had passed. That was how Cloud knew it was okay to groan in protest.

               “Maaaaa,” he whined. “You just want to give them a hard time.”

               “Of course not, Stormcloud. I just want to make sure they’re good enough for you.”

               “Which definitely translates to giving them a hard time,” Cloud grumbled, before sighing, “I’ll pay for your plane ticket, but only if you promise to be nice.”

               “I’ll pay for it, then.”

               “Ma!”

               She laughed this time, and Cloud finally relaxed entirely, leaning wholly against Angeal.

               “You love them with your marrow, Stormcloud.  That makes them family. This isn’t negotiable.”

               Cloud pinched the bridge of his nose and said, “Fine. But I’m buying your ticket.”

               “You don’t have to coddle me, you know.”

               “I’m not coddling. I’m taking care of my dear mother in her ripe old age,” he sniped, a faint smile on his lips. Cloud would get in trouble for backtalk, but never teasing.

               Claudia laughed and said, “Now your boyfriends are really in for an interrogation.”

               “Like they weren’t already.”

               “Alright, baby. I’m going to let you go; they charge by the minute with these distance calls.”

               “Send me the bill. And don’t call me baby.”

               “I won’t send you the bill, and I’ll always call you baby, baby.”

               Before Cloud could protest any further, Claudia hung up. Cloud tucked the phone away and then buried his face in the crook of Angeal’s neck, letting out a long, frustrated groan.

               “How did it go?” Angeal asked, running a soothing hand up his back.

               “My ma’s coming to visit.”

               The hand stilled.

               “She’s what?”

               “I told you I came clean about work and you guys. She wants to meet you all. Says you’re family if I love you the way I do.”

               Cloud didn’t really think he’d run them off if they knew the intensity of what he felt for them, but he still didn’t want to take chances.

               “She wasn’t upset about the relationship?”

               “She was, at first. She decided not to fight it.”

               Angeal pulled away to look at him with a strangely knowing glint in his eye.

               “She just decided to let it go? I thought you got your stubbornness from her.”

               “I do, I just—there’s this Nibel get-out-of-jail-free-card with relationships, and I used it.”

               “What card is that?”

               Shit. He still didn’t want to tell him.

               “It’s, uh, complicated. Lotta backstory. Short version is if you love someone a particular type of way, no one fights you on it.”

               “And you love us this way?”

               He leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss to Angeal’s lips.

               “I love you all every kind of way that there is.”

               He loved them with his whole body. There was no way for them to know the depth of what that meant, but Cloud knew. This was a close enough approximation.

               Angeal gave him a feather-light second kiss before nuzzling his face into Cloud’s neck, his sideburns scratching the sensitive skin.

               “When can we expect her?”

               Cloud went still.

               “Shit. I forgot to ask.”

               Angeal chuckled.

               “Maybe she’ll call and tell you.”

               Cloud sighed and said, “Nah, she’s just gonna show up at the front desk, I’m sure of it. Godsdammit. I’ll tell the secretaries to call me when she gets in.”

               “Do they have your number?”

               “’Course they do. They usually just email me the gossip, but they’ll call or text me the really good bits.”

               “Good thing, then. I get the feeling there would be a scene if they tried to turn her away.”

               “I doubt they would—she’s got my hair, anyone would believe her the second she said she was my mother.”

               “You know, it makes sense, that it’s genetic.”

               “Yeah, who knew a rat’s nest could be passed down the line.”

               Angeal pulled away to kiss his cheek and threaded his fingers in his hair.

               “I like how wild your hair is,” he said before pressing a kiss to his neck. “I especially like making it even wilder.”

               Cloud hummed, glad for the change of topic, and said, “Why don’t we go see how wild you can make it?”

               Cloud got his answer when Angeal picked him up and carried him into the bedroom, laughing the whole way.

 

               The Firsts were, in short, a catastrophe.

               Cloud had warned them that his mother was coming to meet them at some undefined date in the near future, and the panic had spread like a wildfire.

               Genesis insisted that there was nothing to worry about, that she would love them all, especially if she’d already given her blessing. If you didn’t look too closely, it was almost believable. But to anyone who knew him well, it was obvious he was nervous. He swept his hair from his face in a nervous tic frequently. He turned a little too boastful, the way he only did when he was covering something vulnerable. He picked more fights with Sephiroth, dragging him to the VR Room often, to work out both their nerves, though neither would admit that was the reason.

               And Sephiroth was nervous. He’d never met one of his boyfriends’ parents before, and could hardly be said to have parents himself. He had no idea what behavior protocols were for this situation, and Angeal’s sage advice was simply to “be himself”—absolutely useless. He polished Masamune a few too many times, checking it obsessively for nicks he knew weren’t there. He buried himself in paperwork. He got snarky with Genesis in return, egging him on to encourage their fights.

               Zack was perhaps the most obvious. He harnessed his anxious energy, turning it into the infamous puppy energy. He dragged Cloud around the city, trained incessantly, was doing squats for hours sometimes. He talked too quickly and hard trouble standing still. He couldn’t quite concentrate and was always bouncing from one task to the next—his paperwork really suffered. He was constantly rubbing the back of his neck, or ruffling his hair, or pulling at his gloves. Even some of the Seconds asked Cloud if Zack was okay.

               Angeal’s nerves were the hardest to spot. He was steady, and calm, and showed no nervous gestures. Cloud almost believed it, until he put two and two together. Angeal buried his nerves by taking care of the others. He refused to let himself be the center of attention, always treating the others, or doting on them, or calming them down. Cloud hadn’t been entirely convinced at first, but then he gave Angeal a knowing look when he was comforting a nervous Zack, and Angeal had to look away, something almost shy on his face. He was used to being the stalwart one, their rock. It didn’t do for him to show nerves.

               Cloud was having none of it. His boyfriends had, on an endless number of occasions, taken care of him, in every way possible. So it was his turn to return the favor. He spoke to them softly and calmly, gave them compliments to build their confidence. He was extra affectionate, latching onto whoever needed the comfort the most at the moment.

               More than once, Cloud stepped physically between Genesis and Sephiroth during a tiff and took Genesis’s hands in his own, kissing each knuckle and fingertip and line of his palm until he settled. He did what next to no one dared; he took Masamune from Sephiroth when he was obsessing over it. Well, he didn’t take it, there was no way he could lift it, but he pushed Sephiroth’s hand gently into setting it down and peeled each finger away from the hilt, lacing his own through them instead. Zack he calmed like a spooked deer, with careful caresses and soft tones. He took Zack’s energy, turned up to eleven, and spoke quietly to it until he joined him in calmness. He didn’t stop Angeal from fixating on the others, but he did trick him. He demanded Angeal’s attention, getting him to dote on him instead, and when his focus was entirely on Cloud, he flipped it. He kissed him softly and touched him gently and told him how much he loved him.

               Or, when all else failed, and no amount of tenderness would ease them out of their anxiety, he dragged them to the bedroom and fucked the nerves out of them.

               All in all, he had his work cut out for him until his mother arrived.

               But she turned up eventually. Cloud received the call from the front desk secretary letting him know that she was here and asking for him, and asked if she should be let up or if he would come to get her. He told Jenn he’d come get her, and it was entirely to stall.

               Cloud: guys

               Cloud: guys my mom is here

               Zack: wait fuck really

               Zack: are you shitting me right now

               Zack: I’m at the gym I have to go shower holy shit buy me time with your life

               Genesis: Where are we meeting her?

               Cloud: I’m going to give her a tour to buy Zack some time

               Cloud: meet at your apartment, Gen?

               Zack: fuck, dude

               Sephiroth: For once, Zack, I share the sentiment.

               Genesis: My apartment will do. You’re lucky I’ve been keeping it clean lately.

               Angeal: stop texting and go shower, Zack

               Zack: f u c k

               Cloud slipped his PHS, still buzzing, back into his pocket as he got on the elevator. It wouldn’t help anything to let his boyfriend’s nerves get to him when his mother was finally here. His pants kept vibrating with the incoming messages, but he ignored it, focusing on breathing deeply until he got off the elevator.

                His eyes were scanning the area as he made his way to the front desk, until he found his mother there, chatting amiably with Jenn, the secretary.

               When she looked up and saw him, she smiled wide.

               “Well, well, if it isn’t the Angel of Shinra,” Claudia said, though she held her arms out for him.

               He rolled his eyes and went to hug her, but when he pulled away, he glared half-heartedly at Jenn, saying, “Did you have to tell her?”

               “You are an angel, Cloud.”

               Cloud groaned loudly and said, “I’m gonna get you back, Jenn. She’s never gonna let me live it down.”

               “Let’s go, angel, show me around.”

               Cloud glared at his mother this time, but she looked utterly unrepentant.

               Cloud did as he had said and gave his mother a tour of the Tower. He chatted with her about the flight and how she had been and if she had enough stock for the winter. She asked him about work and life in the Tower and Sephiroth (she had been told that the other relationships were a secret). They were interrupted numerous times, as enthusiastic workers and SOLDIERs came up to greet her, realizing she must be his mother, thanking her for her wonderful son. Still, no matter how hard she pressed, he refused to explain why the SOLDIERs called him “Nurse Cloud.” Not because there was anything wrong about him helping in the infirmary, but because he was afraid of the locker room pictures of his set coming up somehow.

               He dallied as much as he could, drawing out the tour without seeming to, but he knew if he stretched it too far, his mother would catch on. He didn’t quite dare check his PHS to see if the others were ready yet; he could already hear her telling him to get off the damn thing. Instead, he led her up to his apartment, which thoroughly impressed her. She was further impressed that he somehow swindled Shinra into giving it to him without charging rent.

               He was just glad he put away all his sex toys the other night just in case.

               But eventually he was out of things to show her and he sighed and said, “Alright, let me introduce you. Everyone should be in Genesis’s.”

               She hummed quietly, but didn’t reassure him, as she would have in most situations. She didn’t want to promise not to give the SOLDIERs a hard time in case they deserved it.

               He led her to the appropriate door and did something he hadn’t done in quite a while; he knocked. He immediately let himself in after, but he thought they might appreciate the warning.

               As it was, when he opened the door, they were all standing up in front of the places they had clearly just been sitting on the couches. Sephiroth had already entered parade rest, the way he did when he was nervous. Cloud had been hoping the anxiety wouldn’t get to him quite this bad.

               “Mrs. Strife,” Genesis said, coming around the couches. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” He took her hand delicately and kissed the knuckles. She raised an eyebrow at him, but wasn’t swooning afterward the way people tended to when he did that.

               “Genesis,” she greeted as he released her hand. She turned to the others and said, “Boys.”

               Cloud had to fight back the urge to snort. He was pretty sure Sephiroth hadn’t been lumped in a group of “boys” in years.

               She set one hand on Genesis’s shoulder, squeezing it lightly, before she went about shaking each First’s hand. Genesis glanced at Cloud, who glanced at him. Cloud gave him a reassuring smile and squeezed his hand before nodding toward the couches.

               “Well, we don’t have to stand on my account. Let’s get comfortable; we’ll be here a while,” Claudia said, taking over the armchair. The SOLDIERs shifted a little to accommodate, with Angeal, Sephiroth, and Zack sitting together on the larger couch, leaving Genesis and Cloud on the loveseat.

               “When I let Cloud run off to the big city, I told him to find an older girl to settle down with, one who would take care of him,” she started.

               “Ma,” Cloud protested, turning faintly pink.

               “Imagine my surprise when he told me he found four older men instead. Much less the faces of this garbage company you work for.”

               “Believe me, Mrs. Strife—”

               “Call me Claudia, please.”

               “Claudia, we understand very well the flaws of the Shinra Company,” Genesis said. “We do our best with what we’re given.”

               She looked at him closely, but nodded slowly. It seemed to count for something, that he didn’t make excuses for Shinra.

               “Then my real question is, are you taking care of him?”

               “I don’t need to be taken care of,” Cloud said, the familiar pout on his lips that he always refused to acknowledge was a pout at all.

               “No, you never have,” Angeal said, looking at him, and then toward his mother. “You’ve raised an incredibly capable son. Stubborn, and a little unwilling to lean on us, but we’re doing our best to make sure that he understands we all lean on each other, and we’re not coddling him. He doesn’t like to let us, but we make a point of taking care of him every way we can.”

               “They’re insufferable about it,” Cloud said, looking at Angeal instead of his mother. When they made eye contact, they smiled, despite what he said. “But they usually know better than I do when I need help.”

               Claudia looked between the two, at the soft, dopey smile on her son’s face. It was an expression she’d never seen from him before. She stared at it until Cloud looked away from Angeal and back toward her, his eyebrows raised at the silence.

               “You really do love them with your marrow, don’t you?”

               Cloud’s face immediately turned bright red as his partners all looked at him curiously.

               “Mom.”

               “Oh, ‘Mom,’ is it—did I say something I shouldn’t have? They know, don’t they?”

               Cloud had half a mind to switch languages, but that wouldn’t be fair to the others.

               “Of course they don’t, they don’t know what that means. No one outside Nibelheim does.”

               “And you haven’t explained it? It’s important, Cloud.”

               “It’s really not. They know I love them—that’s as far as the Common language lets you extend the sentiment.”

               “But you love them with your marrow.”

               Cloud could feel his ears start to turn red.

               “Yeah, and?”

               “That means something—something very important. They don’t understand the depth of it. They don’t know how much you love them.”

               “Ma, I don’t think I could teach it right. I don’t think anyone who wasn’t raised with it would get it all the way. Some things just don’t translate.”

               “You’re being stubborn, and about something you shouldn’t,” Claudia declared, before turning to the SOLDIERs. When Cloud opened his mouth to interrupt, Genesis took his hand to silence him. “Different types of love are located in different parts of the body. There’s a whole system, he can explain it later if you’re curious, but the important love is the kind in your marrow. Where it’s so deep, written into your bones, a part of you that can’t be cut out, that makes up who you are. It’s limitless, and informs every part of you. It’s sacred, marrow-love, and some people don’t find it even once in their lives. Cloud is blessed four times over, to love you all this way. You should be honored.”

               There was a thick silence, and Cloud adamantly refused to look up from his lap during it. It was embarrassing. He didn’t expect them to return the sentiment—whatever love they had for him was enough. He didn’t need them to share that depth. He’d always wanted to be written into someone’s bones that way, but he never really thought it would happen. He just didn’t like them knowing quite how unbalanced things were.

               Eventually, it was Sephiroth who said, “I suspect that Cloud is right, and we will never fully understand all of the nuance of what that means, but I think I can speak for all of us and say that, as far as we do understand it, we share the sentiment.”

               Cloud’s head shot up. He forgot his mother was there entirely, looking around the room to each SOLDIER, seeing the fond looks in their eyes, their soft smiles. He watched them all nod at him, and Genesis touched his jaw lightly before pressing a kiss to his cheek.

               “One day, we’ll get you to fully believe that we love you as much as you love us. With our marrow, even.”

               If his mother wasn’t there, he’d be dragging them all into kisses.

               As things were, however, Claudia was present. She was present, and she watched what unfolded carefully. These boys weren’t Nibel, no, and Cloud had a point; they would never revere marrow-love quite the way it deserved. But it was clear to her, simply from the looks they shared, that they truly did love her Stormcloud the way he loved them.

               And that was enough for her. Any protests about their employer, about the odd nature of their relationship, about their line of work could be swept aside. Those were minutiae. They were, in the grand scheme of things, unimportant. This was what mattered. That Cloud was loved as deeply and truly as he deserved. And it was clear to her that he was.

               She steered the conversation away, into safer topics. She had a lot of ground to cover, a lot to learn about the men her son loved so deeply. It might have all been unimportant in the light of their love, but she still wanted to know. These were her sons, now, too.

               They weren’t the nice, older woman she’d had in mind before Cloud left for Midgar, but they would do.

               They would do nicely.