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I.

Two heroes walk into a bar; the third is already there.

 

II.

Angeal’s not worried about Zack. Well, maybe he’s a little worried. But only a little. It seems like just yesterday that the puppy would badger him for cool moves and awesome missions… Probably because it was. Just yesterday, that is. And now Zack has a girlfriend and a boyfriend, and Angeal doesn’t know what to think. He left the puppy alone for an hour, for Shiva’s sake! 

Surely he wasn’t this much of a handful as a kid…? Angeal has the sudden and inexplicable urge to go to Banora and apologise to his mother. Not for anything in particular, just in general. 

  

III.

“Your puppy’s getting more action than all of us combined,” Genesis says from where he’s lounging in one of Angeal’s kitchen chairs. He reaches for a dumbapple from the fruit bowl on the table, and with the hand holding it points first at Angeal, who’s pacing back and forth like a harried mother hen, then at Sephiroth, who’s seated on the other end of the table with his back ramrod straight, stiff as usual. “It would be hilarious if it wasn’t quite so… pathetic.” 

He bites into the apple derisively, the crunch loud in the ensuing silence.

“You’re meeting with them tonight, correct?” Sephiroth stirs, a slight furrow appearing on his otherwise flawless face. “At the same time?”

“That’s right,” Angeal says, perplexed. “I don’t understand either. Where did he even find these people?”

“Infinite in mystery is the gift of the Goddess,” Genesis declares haughtily, then adds in a thoughtful voice: “This calls for an intervention.”

“What ‘intervention’?” Angeal asks suspiciously.

“So mistrustful,” Genesis says in an airy tone that usually precedes copious Fire materia usage and therefore complete and utter destruction. “I’m merely suggesting we ought to follow your protégé’s example and… live a little.” 

Already, Sephiroth looks like he’s adjusting this month’s budget for additional collateral damage expenditures in his mind, expression grim. Too preoccupied with parental nerves to even delve into one of his famous long-winded lectures, Angeal just shakes his head at him. And paces some more.

Genesis looks from one to the other, and feels a hitherto unknown smidgen of pity for his fellow SOLDIER Firsts. All work and no play, the both of them, and it’s not just the lack of LOVELESS stage productions that’s depressing. 

They’ll clearly be needing all the help they can get in this endeavour. 

 

IV.

“Who are you?” Angeal asks, exasperated. He’d expected a lot of things, certainly, just not… these two.

“A flower girl from the slums!” the girl, who’s a lot shorter than Zack, says cheerfully, and hands him a bouquet. 

“…” the boy, who’d probably be shorter than even the girl if not for the added height his spiky hair provides, narrows his eyes at Angeal. “Who are you?” 

Zack, who’s been looking sadly at the bowl of dumbapples, snaps to attention at the sound of the boy’s confrontational tone and is by his side in two large strides, eyes worried.

“Oh,” he says finally, and the sad look is back on his face, though he quickly replaces it with a smile. “Cloud, this is Angeal.” He hesitates a little. “...My mentor.” 

“…I don’t remember,” Cloud says after a lengthy pause, turning away from Angeal to look at Zack. “Sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry about!” Zack says rather vehemently, and tackle-hugs him to nuzzle at his spiky hair. “‘Sides, that’s why I brought you and Aerith here for, ‘kay? To introduce you all.”

It takes no time at all for Zack to tug the girl, Aerith, closer as well, and then the three of them are all hugging, right there on Angeal’s doorstep. It’s kind of touching, if bizarre, and Angeal doesn’t quite know what to make of it. 

He coughs to get their attention. “Well, we can finish the introductions inside. Why don’t you all come in first?” 

Cloud looks at him strangely over Aerith’s shoulder, then shrugs and goes in first, eyeing the interior as if he’s expecting razorweeds to spring at him from behind the decorative plants. Then, without asking, he starts opening drawers, unerringly picking the ones Angeal uses for storing potions over those that only have knickknacks inside. Angeal actually sees him pocket an Elixir, but decides not to say anything about it since neither Zack nor Aerith seem to find the kid's habit of... misplacing items unusual.

It’s going to be a long night.

  

V.

“You have to take him on two walks a day,” Angeal tells her seriously. “Otherwise he’ll get restless. You say you have a garden?”

"Yup," Aerith almost manages to stifle a giggle. Almost. "I make him fetch things all the time."

"Hey!" Zack says indignantly from his position at Cloud's feet, where the latter is idly running a hand through his dark hair. "I wish you two wouldn't bond over that."

Aerith looks on in amusement at the pointed look Angeal gives them both, one brow raised at Cloud petting Zack.

Zack follows his gaze and shrugs, leaning further on Cloud's legs and getting even more comfortable, butting his head against Cloud's hands with a contented sigh. Angeal shakes his head at his student, and takes his conversation with Aerith to the kitchen, motioning for her to take a seat at the table and waving off her offer to help with preparing dinner.

“If he starts getting distracted, you should just take a break,” Angeal suggests as he rummages through the fridge, setting out ingredients on the counter. 

“Mm-hm,” Aerith agrees airily.

“Also, if either of you hurt him, we'll be having words,” Angeal says while chopping the salad with the Buster Sword unnecessarily. 

More amused than anything, Aerith obediently choruses an, “Yes, Mr Angeal.”

Cloud, who has just come into the kitchen to help set out the plates, nods slowly and thoughtfully, like this is all very reasonable—and maybe to him it is. He still edges away from the doorway and closer to Aerith though, putting himself between her and Angeal. 

“What happened to your sword getting wear, tear and rust on it, huh?” Zack’s suddenly in the kitchen too, and he actually growls at Angeal, who looks momentarily taken aback at his student behaving like a guard hound. 

“The puppy has grown,” Angeal mutters, voice a little sad, setting down the Buster Sword on the counter. 

Zack groans from the corner of the kitchen he’s bodily shepherded Aerith and Cloud into, and she peeks around his shoulder to giggle at the silly face he’s making. Cloud, on the other hand, just quietly ducks underneath Zack’s protectively raised arm, and goes to get the plates, shaking his head at the room at large as he does so.

  

VI.

The plan, if it can be called that, is for Aerith to trip on purpose, soaking up Angeal's luscious hair with water infused with Holy in the process. 

“Oh, no!” Aerith says, trying to sound dismayed instead of tickled. Her shaking shoulders look only a little like she’s trying not to giggle instead of trembling with genuine upset at upending a glass over Zack’s mentor. “I’m so sorry, Mr Angeal!” 

They put some in his water glass, too, just to be sure, but this way is much more fun. If Zack's a little more cheerful after, well. That's just a fortuitous side-effect.

 

( Genesis is a little more tricky, but hearing him curse up a blue streak in slightly outdated, theatric slang, looking rather like a wet, bedraggled trickplay of unusual size, is worth spending an entire day in the vents rigging an elaborate bucket system. So, so worth it. )

 

VII.

Cloud's first aid skills have come a long way from the time he had to get CPR lessons on the fly from an old man at a beach with one dolphin as his witness and not much else. 

Glowering suspiciously at anyone with a lab coat around—which, what with it being a med bay, means quite a few of the people present indeed—he kneels in front of Zack, taking off his ruined boot and rolling up his bloodstained pant leg out of the way, and levels him with a disapproving look to get him to stop fidgeting.  

“Eheh,” Zack scratches at his cheek sheepishly, and then, because if he can't move he'll definitely babble on, Zack says loudly, “Y’know, this really isn’t what I had in mind when I said you’d look good on your knees.” 

Something drops to the floor with a clatter. One of the other SOLDIERs in the room lets out a strangled sound, and a few of those who aren’t too badly wounded seem to unanimously decide that there's really no better time for a tactical retreat than the present and quickly make a run for it, a couple of bandages trailing after one particularly determined fellow. 

“Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten injured then,” Cloud says mildly in the ensuing silence, beyond unmoved by the spectacle.  

“But Cloooud,” Zack whines now that his live entertainment has fled the premises. “I didn’t mean to!” 

Cloud ignores him in favour of taking his foot in his lap, reaching for a washcloth to start in on cleaning the wound.

“Hey!” Zack exclaims not long after, startling a cautiously dozing patient and a jumpy nurse or two. “I could totally cast a Cure on that!”  

“…Not until it’s cleaned.”

“Oh, yeah. Forgot about that," Zack shrugs his shoulders, squirming in his seat. Then, with a hopeful look, "So, are you gonna be done soon? Are you? Are you?"  

"..." Cloud's not-answer is answer enough. 

Zack's uninjured foot starts thumping restlessly next.  

Finally satisfied now that there’s a temporary bandage in place, Cloud glances up at Zack to make sure he’s distracted himself again, and promptly digs his thumbs into the soft arch of the foot that’s still in his lap in retaliation for the incessant fidgeting. 

Taken off guard, Zack sucks in a sharp breath followed by a long, low groan that echoes thorough the med bay. 

And down the hall.  

Thorough the whole floor, really. 

Anyone still around that isn’t a bedridden patient, and therefore unable to escape, scurries out of there faster than black bats out of Shinra Mansion’s basement.

It’s actually kind of impressive.

  

VIII.

He doesn't understand what 'hell hath no fury like an angry chocobo' truly means until then, except Sephiroth hasn't any idea why the chocobo is angry, and technically the angry chocobo in question isn't even a chocobo but one of the batch of green SOLDIER Thirds whose hair bears an uncanny resemblance to their fair plumage. 

Strife keeps staring at him ‘like the General got his puppy killed, set his village on fire and shanked his mother or something,’ as one of the more… verbose Turks puts it, and Sephiroth thinks it a rather apt, if unprofessional description. After all, if looks could kill, Sephiroth’s sure he would be dead three times over. 

“Get away from him,” the diminutive Third says coldly from his position in front of the taller, broader and actually armed Zack Fair.

Sephiroth purses his lips at Strife’s frigid gaze—there’s no reasoning with him when he gets like this, something both Sephiroth and the structural integrity of Shinra building have had to learn the hard way these last weeks—and looks to Fair instead. But Angeal’s puppy is too busy fretting over Strife to pay him any attention, and Sephiroth knows when to choose his battles.

“So be it,” he sighs and, with slow movements so as to not set off Strife, sets down some paperwork on a nearby table. He addresses Fair, but doesn’t take his eyes off Strife, “Make sure to fill out these forms before the month's out, and hand them over to Angeal when you’re done.” 

If he looks too closely at Strife's eyes, he swears he can see the pupils become slitted and poisonous, mako green engulf the SOLDIER sky-blue of the irises.

He backs away from the room not waiting for an affirmative that won’t come, feeling unsettled. 

  

IX.

Strife's expression when he is told he's passed the test for SOLDIER isn't much different from his expression when he runs a man through with a broadsword thrice his size and gets copious amounts of blood all over his face and hair. Certainly the only visible discrepancy is the slight furrow indicative of displeasure and the distinct lack of gore, like getting into the SOLDIER program is more vile than being bathed in the blood of his enemies, which knowing what they know about Strife—that is to say, nothing much at all—might just be the case.

 

( Fair pulls him aside after, cleaning the blood efficiently with a soaked dishtowel as if he's done this a hundred times before. Strife is pliant in his arms, and contrary to his otherwise laconic nature, he seems to be murmuring a constant stream of words at Fair, spoken at such a low volume as to be intelligible to anyone other than the SOLDIER Second who has Strife practically in his lap, one of his hands brushing Strife's cheek almost absentmindedly after cleaning the blood and gore from it. 

It's all very sweet, and horrifying. 

It's only marginally less disturbing to witness the following times. )

  

X.

"Ah!" a female voice can be heard squeaking in surprise from behind the closed door of Second Class Fair's room, and then, in a slightly more muffled tone, "Mm, that's nice." 

"Man, you're good at this, Spike," Fair himself says. "You gotta do me too, after."

Someone giggles, and it sounds suspiciously like Aerith. Tseng has been poised to knock on Fair’s door from the start, but somehow still hasn't. Cissnei and Gun share a look behind him.

Only the sounds of a bed creaking can be heard for a long moment, and then, "Cloud, you can push harder, you know.”

“I’ll bet,” Fair says, voice taking on a distinctly suggestive tone, before returning to its usual cheerful loudness. ”Where'd you learn how to do that anyway?"

Strife’s answer is mostly intelligible and sounds a lot like ‘Wutai’, but that can’t be right… Can it? Cissnei and Gun's stares are now boring into Tseng's back.

Neither of them speak, though Gun raises a brow and looks meaningfully down the hall, and sure enough, Tseng catches the gesture with his peripheral vision. He frowns slightly, but instead of taking Gun’s advice to hightail it out of there, he holds his ground. 

“My turn!” Fair says, and judging by the sound of something heavy falling on a mattress, jumps right on the bed.  

A short scuffle seems to break out until the three of them settle on a bunk designed for one, albeit SOLDIER-sized, person. Not that the SOLDIER in question seems to mind, judging by the audible appreciative sounds. It’s Cissnei's turn to lean closer to the door, and she may or may not resort to using her elbows to get Tseng to budge from the prime eavesdropping position he’s been staking. Not that they are eavesdropping, no.  

This is... reconnaissance. 

 

( The morning after Cloud’s heavenly massage, Wutaian something-something ’tui na’, Zack wakes up feeling a little like a capparwire that’s been through a Slow and a subsequent Confu—in other words, he would be well and truly relaxed, if not for the nagging feeling that he’s being watched as he fairly floats towards the mess hall. 

And is it his imagination, or are there waaay more Turks around the SOLDIER floor than usual? Weird. ) 

  

XI.

There's someone in the training room on the 49th floor, even though the Seconds should already be done with their training. A loud crash sounds, followed by a groan, and then the thud of bodies hitting the ground and muffled cursing. There's a brief flash of materia being used lighting up the room, a yelp, and the telltale buzz of magic electrifying the air. Then silence.

The three SOLDIER Firsts share a look, and silently decide to investigate. Genesis palms a Restore materia, thinking the worst. Who knows what kind of damage some bumbling idiots have managed to wreak on themselves...? 

Alas, it's not so. 

"There is no hate, only joy," Genesis quotes drily, and pockets the materia, crossing his arms in front of his chest and looking down at the two SOLDIERs tangled on the floor. 

"Why am I not surprised...?" Angeal mutters. 

"Second Class Fair," Sephiroth greets. "...Strife."

"Why, pray tell, are your clothes smoking?" Genesis asks, genuinely curious.

"Fire materia misuse, is it?" Angeal sighs at the sheepish look Fair gives him.  

"Lightning," his protégé corrects. "And it wasn't on purpose, I swear! You gotta believe me, man."

From his perch on top of Fair, Strife finally turns away from his customary glaring match with Sephiroth, expression turning blank as he does so. 

A long, uncomfortable pause follows before Strife intones, still dead-eyed, "Zack's just trying to pound some hand-to-hand lessons into me,” while the SOLDIER in question makes a strangled sound not unlike a dying zemzelett beneath him. “I’m having a hard time nailing some of the techniques, so we’ve been at it for awhile. We got a little careless.”

Fair groans, hiding his no doubt red face in his hands. "Cloud, I thought you liked me! Why’d you have to throw me to the Nibel wolves!?”

Blushing faintly but trying not to let it show that it affects him, Genesis looks at the puppy skeptically. He seems to be oblivious to the fact that he’s already at the mercy of one such Nibel beast... After all, not even Strife's ‘allies’ seem to be safe from what probably passes as gentle teasing on that pile of cold rocks infested with giant mutated lizards Strife hails from, but to everyone else is, naturally, mortifying. 

The other Firsts aren't immune to the insinuations either, and Angeal coughs as he and Sephiroth awkwardly look away from the pair sprawled on the floor, "I... see. Mind if we use the room, then, if you're done?" His tone seems to suggest they better be. 

Expression giving nothing away, Strife drags his body down Fair as he gets up, making the dark-haired youth squirm. Eager to escape the Firsts’ presence, Fair hastily jumps up after him, for all appearances having gotten himself under control. Except he's carrying his newly-acquired, bigger broadsword that's reminiscent of the Buster in front of himself and walking strangely... Genesis is half-convinced he got the thing for this exact purpose.  

"Well, uh, have fun?" Angeal's puppy says awkwardly, ears pink and eyes avoiding looking at any of them, and hastily makes his escape with a loud, "See ya later, Angeal!"

Strife, whose expression has remained impassive the entire time, follows him out at a more sedate pace, but he seems to hesitate at the door, turning his face back a little to catch each of their gazes. And then he smirks, the little chocobo bastard. 

And then he's gone. 

Genesis is outraged and impressed in equal measure, despite himself. Now that the little menace is gone, he just doesn't feel like fighting his rival—defeating an awkward, mortified Sephiroth wouldn't be a very heroic victory now, would it? No, no it wouldn't.

He looks at his rapier sadly.

"I heard there's a new bar opening tonight," he says instead. "Surely Strife can drive even you two into indulging in a strong drink... or several.” Then he gives them both a meaningful look, “All that awaits you is a somber morrow.”

“It’s not that bad,” Angeal says feebly, but doesn’t disagree about the drink. They all know the day when both Fair and Strife make Firsts is fast approaching—despite their frankly ridiculously numerous faults, the two have taken to SOLDIER like sahagin to water—and then they’ll all have to work with them even more closely than now. It’s a sobering thought. Massaging his temples, his old friend sighs, "Might as well get some dinner while we're at it, too. You're looking a little thin, Sephiroth."

"I suppose work can wait," Sephiroth acquiesces with infinitely less prodding than usual, which just serves to show how much Strife rattles the man, and with a rueful smile looks to Genesis. "Lead the way."

  

XII.

“I thought Sephiroth was popular with boys your age…” The vendor trails off uncertainly at the thunderous look on Cloud's face. There is probably a rule out there about trying to sell posters of the Silver General to Cloud Strife, and it goes something like ‘DON’T’ written in large, bold neon letters.

"He'll have one of the ribbons, too," Zack intervenes smoothly, before a Comet materia can come into play.

"Nice save," Aerith stage-whispers, and they both grin unsubtly. 

Cloud accepts his ribbon with all the dignity of an affronted chocobo, but hesitates and lets Aerith tie it for him, glowing gaze focused on her eyes instead of the movement of her small hands.  

“I’m so—“ he starts to say, expression broadcasting distress, but Aerith shushes him and leans close to brush her lips against his neck, standing up on her tiptoes to kiss the corner of his mouth next, clutching at the fabric of his vest for balance.

Heart swelling at the sight, Zack wastes no time in enveloping both in a hug, covering their smaller frames with his bigger body like the Planet's most enthusiastic blanket, one arm around each smushing them all closer and shielding them from the world. 

Blond spikes tickle his chin when Cloud relaxes further into the embrace, Aerith still tucked safely in his arms, and Zack leans down to rest his head on Cloud's and nuzzle at his hair, remorselessly mussing it up even more than it usually is, and gaining a peck on his cheek from Aerith and a quiet huff from Cloud for his efforts—Aerith at least understands and appreciates the appeal of Cloud's special 'ruffled chocobo' brand of bed hair, unlike the owner of said hair himself. 

Cloud's shoulders have lost their faint tremor, at least, but Zack holds both him and Aerith a little tighter anyway. Just in case.

The rest of Wall Market collectively look away.

 

XIII.

One day, Strife shows up with a red... dog. 

Coincidentally, earlier that same day, there’s a lockdown on the 67th floor… Something about there being a lab accident, which isn’t all that unusual. The Professor’s experiments do tend to have various limbs, which they then tend to utilise to escape, naturally. Except following the lockdown, there’s a brief, company-wide announcement that Hollander will be taking Hojo’s place as the new head of the Science Department. 

The message assures everyone that the situation on floor 67th has been dealt with, and ends with a mention that the Professor will be missed. 

By the sound of it, it doesn't seem like Hojo's gone on an extended vacation to Costa del Sol. Upon closer look, the red specks around the dog’s muzzle look a little less like red fur, and a little more like… Well.     

A profound silence falls over the common room. People are staring at the beast. Strife is staring detachedly into the middle distance towards nothing in particular, for all appearances content to ignore his new pet, the gawkers, the men and women in suits lurking in the background, and the Planet at large. A brave soul snaps a quick picture of the beast at Strife's side before hastily retreating into the relative anonymity of the crowd. 

Someone makes the mistake of asking whether this dog, specifically, was the reason for the lockdown—'and for Hojo's untimely but not unwelcome demise' goes unspoken. 

The only reply is: "I'm not a dog." 

 

XIV.

When Hollander gets replaced next, no one’s really surprised. What’s surprising is that Strife isn’t around—has been, in fact, away on a mission for about a week now—not that it matters. All the video feeds and PHS pictures of the red beast have disappeared mysteriously, as has the evidence the Turks may or may not have covertly planted. Gone from Shinra’s servers. Gone from the backlogs of personal and company computers both. Just gone. There’s nothing. 

Was there ever really a talking red dog? 

People are starting to think they collectively imagined it, and the whole thing is already on the fast track to becoming a company myth. 

 

( Somewhere in the outskirts of Mt Nibel, Nanaki and Cloud sneeze at the same time.

“You aren’t catching a cold, are you?” A bundled up Aerith asks worriedly, snuggling up closer to them.

“Hm,” Cloud hums noncommittally, and stirs the large bonfire they are all sitting around with a stick.

An outraged cry sounds from the nearby copse, and not long after a dark figure barrels into the clearing. 

“A cold!? Not on my watch!” Zack bounds over and, dropping the additional firewood to the ground unceremoniously, lunges at Cloud and Aerith, throwing an arm around each and smushing them to his warm chest. 

“You’re not even wearing a coat,” Aerith says, but promptly leans into this new source of warmth anyway. “How’s that fair?”

“I’m always Fair,” Zack responds immediately, grinning. 

“That’s so… juvenile,” Nanaki murmurs wonderingly, flicking his tail and watching them with unconcealed interest. 

“Mm-hm,” Aerith agrees, smiling, and leafs through the last pile of Hojo’s research. A few sparks fly skyward when she feeds another notebook to the bonfire. "The sky out here sure is something else, isn't it?" )

 

XV.

Sephiroth stares at the newest head of the Science Department, momentarily left speechless, “I thought Jenova was my…” 

“No,” Lucrecia says with a small, apologetic smile. “I am your mother.”

…Well. It seems Sephiroth will have to have a talk with Strife. Not that he puts any stock in the rumours about the diminutive Third’s involvement in the unanticipated demise of various Shinra science personnel, but just in case. He’d really rather not, though it appears he can’t take the chance with the current Science Department head. 

After all, he'd like to get to know his mother.

Still lost for words, he looks to the tall, long-haired man lurking at Lucrecia’s shoulder. They lock eyes, and although his face is half-covered by his collar, the man gives off the impression of faint amusement.

“Vincent Valentine,” he introduces himself, then thinks to add, “We’re not… related.”

  

XVI.

The door to Mayor Domino’s office is ajar, a line of light from within spilling into the hallway of the 62nd floor. A SOLDIER on guard duty stands very, very still in the shadowed corridor, looking straight ahead and trying to turn a deaf ear to the conversation going on inside the room, but the Mayor's cackling ricochets around the entire floor, shattering any illusion about plausible deniability being an option. 

The walls must be incredibly thin, because even Strife’s voice can be heard saying 'bomb' clearly, low-pitched as it is.

“BOMB!” Mayor Domino parrots delightedly, too loud to ignore. “God, I love the sound of that! BOMB!” Then he mutters under his breath, though still loud enough for the guard outside to hear, “I’m so angry, I’m like a walking time bomb waiting to explode.”

“This is about the Mako Reactors,” Strife says, sounding entirely unconcerned with the Mayor’s blatantly obvious anger management issues.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Mayor Domino chortles, gleeful like someone who’s finally seen the light after years of darkness. “Now that ought to really make them suffer! Heh, heh, heh…” 

...Bombs? 

Explosions?

Mako Reactors...?

A bead of sweat slowly rolls down the guard’s temple. Maybe it isn't what it sounds like—

“That’s right,” Strife says, a hint of something in his tone that seems to strongly suggest that the light Mayor Domino's just seen better be a Mako Reactor on fire. “Just give me the information I want.”

The SOLDIER guard doesn’t stay long enough to hear anything else incriminating, his not inconsiderable appreciation for life helping him keep warm as he spends the rest of the night navigating the air conditioning ducts in a bid for freedom.

 

XVII.

Strife’s fingers brush against Fair’s cheek, idly tracing crisscrossing lines into the unblemished skin. Fair shivers visibly, hands curling into loose fists, and turns his head to nuzzle at a girl with a pink ribbon in her hair, who pauses in her mission to get them all covered in suntan lotion to briefly put her arms around his neck and wink at Strife. 

An identical ribbon loops around Strife’s bicep—leave it to Angeal’s puppy to choose pink to mark his territory when red is clearly a much superior colour. 

Leaning up on his elbows, Genesis lowers his sunglasses to eye the distasteful display from his artful sprawl on a beach lounge chair. “You two,” he says to Fair and Strife. “Make yourselves useful and go get me a Triple Firaga on the rocks.” 

“And an Ice Dive for me,” Director Lazard adds from where he’s sitting on a lounge chair on the other side of Genesis and reading the Shinra Times, but falters when he catches sight of the dark expression on Strife’s face, “…or not.” 

“Not cool, man,” Angeal’s puppy whines at Genesis. “I’m in the middle of an Aerith-and-Cloud sandwich right now! Go get your own drink.”

Genesis narrows his eyes, and is just about to snap at them to get going or else, when Strife leans in to whisper something to Fair, and unexpectedly stands up, dusting off the sand from his rather short shorts as he does so.   

“I’ll go,” he says more to his companions than anyone else. “Do you two want anything?”

“You sure?” Fair asks, looking a second away from jumping after him. “Won’t you need help to carry them all over?”

“Silly,” the girl laughs a little at Fair, then says to Strife, tone amused, “Why don’t you choose something for us, Cloud?” 

Strife nods once, and turns to make his way towards the steps that lead into Costa del Sol proper. Bemused, Genesis watches Fair and the girl watch him go.

“I hate to see him go,” Fair says seriously, eyes tracking the way Strife’s swimwear slips a little lower on his hips as he moves, “but I love to watch him leave.”

“Zack!” the girl admonishes, but the effect is mostly ruined as she too can’t seem to stop staring after the blond.

“What was that about anyway? You look like you know something I don’t, Aerith!” 

“You’ll see,” she says with a small smile, and her vague answer piques Genesis’ interest.

Strife takes his sweet time, but when he returns, he’s carrying their five colourful drinks stacked in one hand in a rather enviable show of equilibrium. Leaving what look to be three Firewheels to his companions first, he makes his way towards them at last, handing off his and Lazard’s drinks warily before backing away without a word.

Now thoroughly suspicious, Genesis eyes his Triple Firaga and when it doesn’t explode in his face like its namesake, deigns to gingerly take a sip. It’s the best drink he’s ever had.

“Strife,” Genesis looks to the belligerent SOLDIER Second, more than a little surprised. “Where’d you get this?”

“Yes, do tell,” Lazard says. “This Ice Dive is delicious.”

Strife looks up from the newspaper he’d snagged from the Director, lowering it and allowing Genesis to catch sight of the bolded headline ’SEVERAL MAKO REACTORS OUTSIDE OF MIDGAR NOW OUT OF COMMISSION’. He doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and then, “…I made it.” 

“Eh!?” Fair jumps up in one smooth motion from where he’s lying with his head pillowed on Aerith’s lap. “I didn’t know you could mix drinks! And Aerith didn’t tell me a thing. That’s it,” he says, and tumbles Strife to the sand.

Genesis has an unfortunate feeling of déjà vu from that one encounter at the training room, except this time the two are a lot more naked, and sweaty. Aerith and Lazard lean forward at the same time, the latter more subtly than the former, to better see the spectacle.

“The fates are cruel,” Genesis intones, throwing a look in the direction of the Director, not that the man is paying him any attention, and downs his delicious drink—that Strife apparently made, which is a fact he chooses to ignore for now—in one go, idly wishing his sunglasses could protect his eyes from being damaged by ultraviolet radiation and from the sight of Fair trying to tug Strife’s shorts lower—an endeavour he's unfortunately rather successful at—but it is not to be.

 

( Two Turks, immaculate in their suits even on a hot day at the beach, are crouched behind several palm trees in a pool of blood. This in itself is not unusual, except that the blood seems to be coming from the Turks, and not some victi—ahem, some other poor chap that has garnered the wrong kind of attention from their illustrious organisation.

“You’re bleeding,” Tseng says absently, eyes fixed on where the Cetra girl, Aerith, is giggling charmingly at Strife’s predicament. 

“So are you,” Cissnei counters, sniffing delicately. 

Fair chooses that moment to sweep Strife off his feet and throw him over one shoulder. He goes after Aerith next, putting her over his free shoulder even as Strife is hanging resignedly from the other, and then he dumps them in the water.  

They all emerge wet, flushed and breathless.

Cissnei’s nosebleed, which had slowed to a trickle, returns with full force. 

Much later, a loud voice can be heard among the peaceful nighttime hum of the cicadas and the gentle lapping sound of the waves as they roll onto the sandy beach. “Yo, what the hell…?” 

Rude shrugs at his partner, and he and Reno turn to look down at a bloody Tseng and Cissnei, their colleagues’ HP bars dangerously low.

Two emergency X-Potions and a trip to Midgar later, two new official fan clubs are founded, with an unofficial, flower-themed third making an appearance every now and then. ) 

 

XVIII.

Strife’s penchant for accumulating swords, some of which put First Class Hewley’s Buster Sword to shame, the untold number of materia on his person at any given moment, and his general disposition which is not unlike that of a walking, occasionally talking armoury, tend to make people underestimate the easy-going puppy at his side.

The Turks and the rest of the SOLDIERs know better.

The only time Zack Fair appears without Strife lurking at his shoulder, nice, cheerful Zack looks every SOLDIER and Turk present in the eye, looks behind himself to make sure Strife isn't present, and smiles, the temperature dropping like someone’s summoned Shiva herself in the room, his eyes half-obscured by dark shadows. 

"Do not touch my sweet spiky-headed chocobo if you ever want to see the light of day again,” he says amiably, then like a switch, his frigid smile turns warm again and with a, “Well, that’s all I wanted to say. See ya guys later!” Zack skips out into the hall and presumably heads straight for Strife's arms. 

No one speaks of it again, but they don't even dare look directly at Strife for a month after. In the meantime, Director Lazard quietly slots them both for a promotion.

 

XIX.

“Did you know you have a fan club?” Zack asks him one day while he’s doing push-ups with Cloud sitting on his back and idly toying with his earring and hair.

Cloud tilts his head to look down at him, brows furrowed.

“They won’t insist on calling me big brother, will they?” Cloud asks, feeling a little apprehensive.  

“What?” Zack says, puzzled. “I don’t think so. Why?”

“That’s alright then,” he says absently, inwardly sighing in relief.  

“Aren’t you excited?” 

“Not really,” he replies truthfully. 

“I was one of the first to subscribe, y’know,” Zack says proudly, turning to give him a look that spells trouble, and Cloud knows he won't like what Zack says next, imagining the warning hum of a Pre-Emptive materia even without having one equipped right now. Oblivious to his thoughts, Zack barrels on, “It's a new club, but they already have a lot of gil—it's all going towards a reward for whoever manages to get a picture of you in a dress, though."

"No." Cloud says immediately, but Zack just waves him off breezily, not even pausing his push-ups and instead continuing to do them one-handed, to better keep Cloud from bolting like a wild chocobo by holding onto him firmly with his free hand.

"You see," he continues on, heedless of Cloud's suffering, "it's not about the gil—" 

That's exactly what worries Cloud, though he doesn't voice the thought. He just sighs resignedly and shifts his weight a little to dislodge Zack's wandering hand, as his calloused fingers are proving to be distracting.

"But! I really, really want to see. Just you, me and Aerith. No pictures," Zack turns his big, blue eyes on Cloud and Cloud can honestly feel his HP bar waver and dip. "If you're really against it, I won't bring it up again though.” Even Zack's spiky hair droops as he says so, his eyes glowing beseechingly, pouty expression wreaking havoc on what little resolve Cloud has left.   

"Why do they even know about that?" Cloud rakes a hand through his unruly spikes, frustrated. "There's nothing to even know about!" 

Somehow correctly assuming that Cloud not saying ‘no’ outright means he'll get his way, Zack's mood lifts faster than if he were doused with Hyper, and he suggests cheerfully, "Lucky guess?" 

"Lucky for who...?" Cloud mutters dejectedly. 

Well, at least he can make Zack do the requisite squats for the wig, this time. 

 

( Sephiroth sees something blue blur along the hallway as he is escorting Lucrecia, his mother, around Shinra building. 

“Is that Strife…?” He squints, hand automatically reaching for the comforting weight of the Masamune in a bid to confirm that this is, in fact, reality, and not some horrific, mako-induced hallucination. “In a… dress?”

“Sorry,” Lucrecia says, briefly resting a hand on his arm to get his attention. “Could you repeat that? I didn’t quite hear you.”

“…It’s nothing,” Sephiroth says, impassive expression giving nothing of the turmoil he feels inside away. Perhaps he’s just tired and… seeing things. Yes, that must be it—maybe he should take some R&R leave, post-haste. 

Genesis just went to Costa del Sol, so he could ask him…

“All that awaits you is a somber morrow,” Genesis quotes listlessly at him, his healthy tan incongruent with the dark shadows underneath his eyes. “No matter where the winds may blow.”

“LOVELESS, Act III,” Sephiroth says, bemused, but doesn't get a chance to ask his fellow First to elaborate. 

“Did you know Strife can mix drinks exceptionally well?” Genesis asks conversationally in a complete non-sequitur, then adds, almost as an afterthought, “He also has a beauty spot on his left—“ Angeal, who’s just walking into the room, hastily shoves the dumbapple he’s holding into Genesis’ mouth, muffling the rest of the sentence.  

“Is this about Costa del Sol again?” Angeal asks resignedly, letting his hand fall away. 

“I saw things!” Genesis hisses, proverbial feathers ruffled, then puts his head in his hands and repeats in a quieter tone, voice muffled by his gloves, “I saw things.”

Sephiroth is not unfamiliar with the concept of seeing… things. He pats Genesis' shoulder awkwardly, looking to Angeal for help, but the man just shakes his head at him. 

Sephiroth isn’t entirely sure what’s going on, but he’s getting the impression that no amount of R&R will help.

“Perhaps a Firaga…?” he suggests, knowing that Genesis is fond of the drink.

Genesis just groans. )

 

XX.

Aerith and Cloud are laying on top of the flowers at the church, and she’s tugging at his blond spikes playfully, rearranging them this way and that. Cloud seems resigned to quietly enduring the treatment, only occasionally cracking open his glowing eyes to check that everything’s alright before subsiding, their mako shine briefly illuminating the shadowed church interior. 

“Cloud?” Aerith asks, rolling her body entirely on top of his, their faces close enough to kiss.

“Hmm…?” he says sleepily, eyes blinking open lazily and turning a little cross-eyed from her proximity.  

She giggles, “Cloud, your eyes!”

“What about them?” he prompts when she doesn’t seem likely to elaborate, feeling amused.

“They’re beautiful,” Aerith says, her breath tickling his cheek. “Like the sky!” 

“Oh,” he says, not having expected that and unsure how to respond. People usually thought of them as weird or downright creepy, but then again, Aerith’s not just anyone. “…Thanks,” he finally settles on, feeling grateful for more than that, but unable to put his thoughts into words. 

A little hesitantly, he reaches out one of his hands to gently brush his knuckles along her cheekbone. Aerith shivers a little at the touch and leans closer, slanting their mouths together. Cloud’s hands slide to her waist in a long caress, thumbs rubbing small, distracting shapes into her skin, a sweet kind of heat sparking between them.

Time seems to slow as they kiss, each second like a century, dust particles occasionally catching in the light as they float by, the sweet scent of the flowers surrounding them lingering in the few spaces where they aren't touching. 

“Room for one more?” a rough-sounding voice asks when they finally part, and he peeks over Aerith’s shoulder to see Zack watching them from the edge of the flower bed, his mouth parted slightly, pupils so wide Cloud imagines he can see himself and Aerith reflected in them. 

“Sure,” Aerith giggles a bit breathlessly, a lovely dusting of pink on her cheeks. “Then it will be a puppy pile.”

“Hey now,” Zack protests, but his heart isn’t in it, and he’s already moving towards them, mindful of the blooms.  

Cloud spares a moment to think that he has never felt peace like the soft give of the lilies underneath him, the fragrance of their small blooms pressing into his skin, his restless heartbeat slowing beneath the warm weight of both Aerith and Zack.

 

( “Sorry we’re late!” Zack stumbles into Lazard’s office, dragging a rather dishevelled Strife by the hand.

“Is that—?” Angeal tries to ask, but Zack’s already on it.

“Look! Look! Look!” he chants happily, running circles around his mentor, pointing at his own hair. “Look, Angeal! Isn’t it beautiful? It is, isn’t it?” 

Disoriented, Angeal grabs him by the collar and lifts him clean off his feet with a long-suffering sigh. Only then does the SOLDIER First survey the flower crown adorning his student’s wilder than usual spikes. The sprays of small, bell-like lily of the valley blooms are twined together with care and arranged just so. Their white colour stands out against Zack’s dark hair.

“They are,” Angeal agrees, reaching out to rub one of the soft petals between his fingers, followed by a careful pat to his student’s head so as to not displace the arrangement, which is quite lovely.

“Aerith made them for us,” Zack beams proudly, the satisfied expression on his face reminding Angeal of a chocobo with a stack of Sylkis greens. Speaking of chocobos…

At first glance, Strife seems to be wearing his own flower crown rather stoically, the pale blooms not as obvious against his lighter hair. But there’s an air of a cautious sort of happiness about him, the glow of his eyes somehow softer when he turns his gaze towards Zack. They both smell of flowers. It’s a good look on Strife, in Angeal’s opinion—and also apparently Zack’s opinion, as his student nearly throws himself at Strife with his arms open, heedless of the very real possibility of toppling him over.

Then there’s a lot of… nuzzling. 

Angeal turns away just as someone coughs awkwardly—it’s Director Lazard. Also, the entire board of directors, a handful of SOLDIER operatives, several Turks, and a whole infantry platoon. 

“Yo,” a redheaded Turk finally breaks the drawn-out silence. “That’s pretty hot.” 

“Reno,” his partner says without moving his lips, somehow giving off the impression that he’s facepalming without actually doing so. “Shut up.” )

 

XXI.

Three SOLDIER Firsts walk into a bar.

“What would you like to drink?” the person behind the counter asks in a tone of voice drier than the desert surrounding Corel Prison, and about as friendly as the latter.

It’s Strife. 

You,” Genesis accuses from where he stands frozen on the doorstep, then turns on his heel dramatically and walks right back out.

Pausing in his work of wiping down a pint glass with a dishrag to stare at Genesis’ retreating back, Strife just shrugs. A moment later, Genesis storms back in with an inarticulate noise of frustration, heedless of jostling the other two SOLDIERs who are still standing in the doorway.

“Are you quite done having a hissy fit, then?” Strife asks, throwing the dishrag over his shoulder and leaning on the counter with an infuriating smirk on his face, “…Sir.”

Genesis’ eyes flash dangerously, but his vexed expression wavers when Strife places a highball glass of something colourful in front of him. 

“You shouldn’t antagonise him like that,” Angeal says, taking a seat with Sephiroth following his example cautiously. 

Strife’s only response is a pointed look at Genesis holding his drink like it’s the long lost final act of LOVELESS, or the gift of the Goddess itself. It's doubtful he will be seeking retribution for Strife's earlier comment anytime soon, if at all.

“…Right,” Angeal says, slanting a dubious glance at his old friend and the glass he’s clutching to his leather-clad chest.

“It’s not spiked,” Zack jumps in from somewhere, slinging an arm around Angeal, then cheerfully amends. “Probably.”

Angeal tries to push him away with little success, and finally resigns himself to drinking the Goblin Punch Zack orders for him. 

“I’ll have a Chocobuckle,” Sephiroth orders at last, expression pinched as if he is expecting to get a Death Sentence instead, then tacks on, “…Please.”

Strife nods silently, and sets to making their drinks. Curious despite himself, Angeal watches the deft, practiced movement of his hands, and then all too soon he finds himself holding an admittedly impressively made potation. He takes a sip.

“Oh,” he says. It’s delicious.

“Indeed,” Sephiroth agrees, visibly surprised—probably more at not being poisoned that at the wonderful quality, though. 

“Yes,” Genesis nods begrudgingly, and all three SOLDIERs turn to offer a word of thanks to Strife for the drinks.

But the counter stands empty and unattended, the polished wood gleaming in the low light of the bar, and neither Strife nor Zack seem to be around.