Warnings: This story contains implied male/male and male/female relationships. And crack. Really fluffy crack.
"Hey, Angeal? Has something happened to the General recently?"
Angeal frowned and looked up from the report on trainee fitness he was reading. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, I just though he looked kind of… down. Sad, you know."
"Sephiroth has never exactly been a barrel of laughs," Genesis remarked without looking up. He was sprawled on the sofa, reading a book, rather than a report. Zack didn't have to check to know it would be a copy of Loveless. He wondered why Genesis even bothered with reading it, when it was quite clear to everybody he knew the entire thing by heart.
"He has been rather depressed these past few months," Angeal admitted with a frown.
"It's probably a result of being forced to attend all those board meetings, and not being allowed to kill anybody," Genesis suggested. He looked at Angeal with a scowl. "You know he made me go in his place when the two of you were in Junon. It was awful. And then there's the paperwork." His eyes moved pointedly to the stack of paper on the table in front of Angeal. It was the weekend, and this was their apartment, not the office. He got an apologetic grimace in response, but Angeal picked up the next report nonetheless. Genesis sighed, and turned his attention back to his book.
"Anyway, I think he needs cheering up," Zack said.
"Aw, c'mon, Angeal, would I do that?"
"Yes. And your pranks generate paperwork. Lots of paperwork, especially when you involve other departments." The dark-haired SOLDIER 1st scowled at his protégé in an unaccustomed expression of disapproval.
"I didn't know accounting was going to get so uptight about it, geez. I'm sorry, Angeal." He gave his mentor a wide-eyed apologetic look.
Angeal sighed. It was hard to resist the puppy eyes. "Forgiven."
Zack launched himself at the bigger man, nearly toppling him off his seat. "Thanks, Angeal. You're the best." He paused. "Hey, that's it! I think the General needs more hugs."
Genesis and Angeal both stared at him, mouths agape. After a moment, the redhead managed to find his tongue. "You're going to hug Sephiroth?"
"Yep." Zack grinned. It was a perfect idea.
"The General. Mr Tall, Frosty and Hostile. You're going to hug him."
"Yeah, as many times as it takes. Nobody can fail to be happy when they're getting plenty of hugs."
Angeal still appeared stunned.
Genesis smiled. "I have got to see this."
Sephiroth was walking down the hallway when a body came flying at him unexpectedly. He lashed out in an instinctive response, and sent Zack flying into a nearby wall.
"Uh," Zack said a little dazedly, as he slid down the steel surface. Maintenance had insisted that all the hallways and common areas of the SOLDIER quarters have industrial steel walls, after complaining that their entire budget was getting eaten up by the need to replace dry-wall whenever the SOLDIERs started rough-housing. So he left a slight dent, and collected a bunch of bruises for his troubles.
"Zack?" Sephiroth asked, confused. "Why are you attacking me?"
"I wasn't attacking," Zack said indignantly. "I was giving you a hug!"
There was a moment's incredulous silence.
"It looked like an attack to me," Sephiroth pointed out. "Perhaps you need to work on your technique?"
Zack was mildly offended. Okay, so Genesis had occasionally compared his hugs to being pounced upon by a rather heavy tentacle monster, but that was just one of the reasons he didn't hug Genesis. Angeal never complained – well, not much, anyway. "No, I think we need to work on your reactions. I mean, if you think being hugged is an attack, you are seriously lacking in hugging experience. I can fix that, though!"
"Really?" Sephiroth asked weakly. "How?"
"There's only one solution. More hugs!"
Zack's next attempt included calling out, "Sephiroooooooth!" in warning as he came flying down the hallway, but it still got him knocked through a door – which was closed at the time. He was persistent, though.
After two weeks, Angeal took him aside. "Look, Zack? This hugging-Sephiroth thing? It's got to stop."
"What? But I'm sure I'm making progress. I just need a little longer –"
"He broke your collarbone yesterday."
"Nothing a little Cure couldn't fix," Zack pointed out with a nonchalant shrug. "And I didn't take it personal or anything. I was more upset when he singed my hair." He reached up, fingers brushing against a place where the spikes were shorter than the rest. "I had to trim it to get rid of the damage."
"That's exactly my point! You can't keep doing this!"
"Aw, it was just a little fireball, Angeal!"
"Big enough that the walls need repainting to hide the scorchmarks, and do you know how much Maintenance is complaining about having to re-lay the carpet in that hallway? They're threatening to have it taken out of our budget!" Angeal's voice was rising, and he took a deep breath before continuing, more calmly, "Look, if you won't do it in the interest of your own continued good health, then you should consider morale."
"What do you mean?"
"Sephiroth now twitches at unexpected noises or movements. A General who twitches does not inspire confidence in the troops under him. Your hugging campaign is adversely affecting morale in the lower ranks."
"Oooo-kay," Zack said with a huge sigh. "I'll just have to find some other way to cheer him up."
Angeal didn't know whether to be relieved or worried.
Zack was still determined to cheer up the general; he just needed a new plan for how to do it. His next idea struck him when he was under the plate, visiting Aeris.
"Cookies!" he exclaimed, spraying a mouthful of crumbs everywhere.
Aeris gave him a strange look. "Yes, Zack, they're cookies. I would think that you'd eaten enough of them already today to know that."
He swallowed hastily. "No, no, I mean, cookies make you happy, right?"
She laughed. "It depends on what you put in them, but cookies certainly make you happy."
"That's because they're your cookies," Zack replied with a particularly charming smile. "But actually, I was thinking about Sephiroth."
He quickly explained his theory that the General needed cheering up to relieve the pout that last remark caused Aeris to wear, and went on to relate his misfortune in being banned from giving the man hugs. He could see the moment Aeris stopped thinking of Sephiroth as ShinRa's SOLDIER General, and started thinking 'that poor man.' By the time he finished he knew he had a new ally.
"So I think home-made cookies are just what he needs," he finished.
"Right," Aeris said with a firm nod. "I'll get started right away. There's some broken trellis in the garden that needs mending."
"You're not really any good at handyman-type stuff, but I'm not having you in my kitchen while I bake. By the time I get that far, there'd be nothing left to go in the oven," Aeris said firmly. "And I don't want to just throw that trellis out. I have some new seeds for climbing roses, and nowhere to put them."
"Oh. I'll go fix it, then." Even though Zack was doing this for Sephiroth, he was still disappointed not to get any cookie dough.
"And when you're done there…"
The next morning, Sephiroth entered his office to discover there was something unexpected waiting for him. He immediately checked the surface of his desk for any other signs of tampering: In Tray on the right corner, reports neatly stacked and waiting for his perusal; Out Tray on the left corner, forms and internal memos carefully placed into envelopes marked with the correct office for which they were destined; pen laid horizontally in the centre of his desk, and a coaster off to one side, because he deplored the rings coffee mugs left behind. All of it was placed with military precision, angles perfect, carefully spaced. Except for the plate of cookies.
He shifted it a little to the right – that was better - and reached for his PHS.
"Tseng, there appears to have been a breach in security."
When he explained the problem, Tseng pointed out that Wutaian terrorists were unlikely to leave home-baked goods in the hopes of poisoning him, although he could always have the Science Department check to be sure. And in the meantime, Tseng would check the security footage of his office to see who was responsible.
Sephiroth immediately sent the cookies to the Science Department, and started on his reports while waiting for Tseng to get back to him.
Tseng was remarkably efficient, as he called back in less than half an hour. "I reviewed the security footage for last night and the early hours of this morning. It appears the cookies were left by Major Fair."
"Zack?" Sephiroth wondered if he should call the science department and tell them not to worry about the tests, then thought better of it. If Zack was involved, there was no telling what was in the cookies.
Two hours later there was another call, from one of the lab techs. "Sir, we tested the cookies you sent down. They contained flour, sugar, milk, butter, baking powder and three types of chocolate." There was a brief pause. "Uh, would you like us to send them back to you now?"
Sephiroth was surprised as they seemed to be normal cookies; he'd immediately thought that he'd found himself the target of one of Zack's infamous pranks. "No," he said distractedly, trying to figure out what the SOLDIER 1st was up to this time. "Dispose of them however you wish. Thank you for your trouble."
"Thank you, sir!" the lab tech said with unexpected enthusiasm.
Sephiroth blinked, and put it down to the fact that Hojo never remembered polite civilities when dealing with his underlings.
Towards the end of the day, Zack poked his head into the office. "Hi, Sephiroth. I, um, just came to collect the plate."
"Yeah, the ones the cookies were on? I need it back. I hope you liked them, by the way." He gave Sephiroth an expectant look.
"You'll find it down at the Science Department," Sephiroth said with a worried frown. He had told them to dispose of the cookies, but perhaps they wouldn't have thrown the plate out, too? If so, he'd replace it. He hadn't considered the crockery to be of much importance, but clearly it was.
"Science Department?" Zack echoed.
"Yes, I sent them down to be tested for dangerous substances."
"Oh, wow, did you make those cookies?" one of the techs said when Zack asked after the plate. "They were delicious."
"You ate them?"
"Only after making sure they were perfectly safe," the lab tech said righteously. "Although who would booby-trap cookies? The General can be a little paranoid at times. But when we were done with the testing, he said we could have them. I only got one – you have to be quick around here. I think the plate's still around somewhere, though."
"Right." Zack sighed. Maybe he could convince Aeris to make some more, because surely the General wouldn't have them 'tested' by the Science Department a second time.
Another plate of cookies appeared on Sephiroth's desk the next day. He frowned at it, as it was in the way if he was going to get any paperwork done before his nine o'clock meeting, and moved them to the other side of his desk, positioned neatly between both trays.
He'd nearly forgotten about them when the SOLDIER 1sts he was supposed to be briefing arrived, and one of them immediately spotted the offering.
"Oh, wow, are those oatmeal and raisin?" Rigby exclaimed. "My mum used to make those all the time when I was a kid. Damn, sir, how'd you manage to score those around here? The ones the cafeteria makes look like cardboard. Taste like it, too," he added.
"You may help yourself if you wish. Major Fair left them." There was a brief hesitation. "It's alright; I sent the previous batch to the Science Department, who assured me there were no laxatives or other harmful substances in them."
There were six SOLDIERs in the room, all with SOLDIER metabolisms and appetites. Within seconds, the plate was bare.
Sephiroth wondered if perhaps he should provide refreshments at all of these meetings, as the SOLDIERs seemed much more enthusiastic about discussing the up-coming manoeuvres in the Icicle region after cookies.
A SOLDIER passing Zack in the hallway clapped him on the shoulder, and said, "Hey, thanks for the cookies, those were great."
"Cookies?" Zack asked. "Did the General have any?"
Rigby thought about it for a moment. "Uh, maybe. If he had some before we got there. Did you make them yourself?"
"My girlfriend did."
"And you're just giving them away?" Rigby shook his head. "You're a strange one, Fair."
The third day, Zack waited in the office with the plate. He was determined the General was going to eat at least one of these cookies as Aeris had really pulled out the stops: they were apricot and white chocolate, which was also his favourite.
When Sephiroth didn't appear in the first half hour, he decided it wouldn't hurt if he had one cookie to tide him over – after all, he was missing breakfast in order to be here at the ridiculous hour the General started work. When Angeal wandered in with a handful of files shortly before ten, he looked surprised to find Zack sprawled in one of the visitor's chairs, a half-eaten plate of cookies on his lap.
"What are you doing in here?"
"Waiting for Sephiroth," Zack replied.
"But he's in Junon until Wednesday."
Zack sighed. That was just his luck. He took the plate of cookies with him as he left. There was no point in wasting perfectly good cookies, after all.
When he tried to convince Aeris to make another plate of cookies on Wednesday, she was having nothing of it. "Ingredients for cookies don't grow on trees, Zack! If the other three plates didn't work, what makes you think this one will be any different?"
Zack had told her what had happened to the first two plates; wisely he kept silent about the fate of the third. "But how am I going to get the General to not be all depressed and mopey anymore?"
"Mopey?" Aeris sounded a little doubtful about that particular term
"Well, that's how he'd look if he wasn't so serious all the time," Zack said staunchly. "But he's all mopey on the inside; I can tell."
"Maybe you should get him a pet," Aeris suggested. "They're supposed to be good for relieving stress. And it's hard to be unhappy if you're cuddling something cute and fluffy."
"I need your advice," Zack announced. "I want to get the General a pet, and you two know him best. I was thinking a puppy or a kitten or something."
"The Science department has been working with some cross-breeds to try and produce a guard dog that can successfully work around SOLDIERs," Angeal mused. "I think it was the beasts Wutai use that gave them the idea. Last time I checked, they were looking at altered Nibel Wolves."
That's no good," Zack protested. "It should be something cute and fluffy that you can cuddle, not a monster that can rip out a man's throat before he can scream. And it should have nothing to do with work. It's a pet."
"Not all people like small, yappy dogs," Genesis pointed out in an arch tone. "And most unaltered animals freak out when the get near a SOLDIER, so a kitten wouldn't work, either."
"Oh." Zack frowned. Where was he going to find something cute and fluffy that wasn't scared of SOLDIERs?
"What are you doing in my office, Cadet?" Sephiroth asked sharply. It was already after five, and he'd spent the afternoon inspecting the units about to depart for Wutai. And he still had a lot of paperwork to go over before tomorrow's board meeting.
"Eep." The cadet leapt out of the seat he'd been sitting in and snapped to attention – a move made less impressive by the floppy blue bow that decorated his wrist, and hid most of his face from view when he attempted it. There was another small sound of embarrassment, which made the ribbons in front of his mouth flutter.
"At ease. But I still require an explanation." When he lowered the hand with the ribbon , Sephiroth could see the cadet – a little blond with hair almost as unruly as Zack's was – had blue eyes that matched the shade perfectly.
"Major Fair told me to wait here until you got back, Sir. And to give you this."
Leaving un-requested foodstuffs in his office was one thing, Sephiroth decided as he accepted the note. Leaving un-requested cadets was another. He'd have to talk with Zack about this. And maybe replace the lock on his door.
He rounded his desk and sat in his chair with a barely-audible sigh.
Hi, Sephiroth! the note read. I got you a present.
Sephiroth looked sharply at the blond with the bow on his wrist. Surely Zack wouldn't…
Aeris says pets make people feel all stress-free and happy, so I thought you could use one. Genesis said you probably wouldn't like a puppy, but I wanted you to have something cute and fluffy that you could cuddle, and I finally settled on this. After all, chocobos are cute, aren't they? It'll be a problem when he gets bigger, but I figured he'll do for now.
It was true that Angeal always referred to Zack as his puppy. In fact, just about everybody did by now, but this was… unexpected.
"What's you name, Cadet?"
"Cloud Strife, Sir."
"Hn." He hesitated a moment, then said, "Come here, Cloud."
Reluctantly, the cadet walked around the desk to stand directly in front of the General. Sephiroth frowned. Cloud didn't look unhappy to be here, although he wasn't sure you were supposed to just give people away like that. There was a slight flush on the boy's cheeks, and he shifted a little from one foot to another as Sephiroth looked at him. Just nervous, then.
His gaze settled on the odd hairstyle the boy had. It wasn't quite as outrageous as Zack's but it still stuck out at strange angles. He glanced down at the note he held once more, then reached up a hand to brush at the pale strands. To his surprise, they were soft, with no sign of any hair products. "Fluffy," he murmured with a small smile.
When Zack answered his door an hour later to find Cloud standing outside it with a box in his arms, his shoulders slumped. "He didn't like it, then?"
"He never even looked at it," Cloud said, his cheeks an odd shade of pink.
Zack sighed, and stepped back to let him in. "I figured this one was a sure thing. So what happened?"
"Well, I waited like you said," Cloud began, putting the box down. There was a floppy bow tied about his right wrist, which Zack recognised as the one he'd tied about the box earlier. "But he was getting kind of noisy in there, so I opened it to check on him. And he started fussing again when I went to put the lid back on. He fell asleep before the General got there."
Zack peered into the box at the tiny chocobo chick nestled inside. It was cute, fluffy and cuddly. He'd been sure the General would like it. "You gave him the note?"
"Yeah. That was where it got really strange." Cloud's cheeks went from pink to red.
Zack looked up. "What do you mean?"
"Well, he, uh, patted my hair. The he pulled me on his lap and just kind of… played with it. For half an hour."
"Huh?" Zack mentally reviewed what was written in his note. Understanding dawned as he watched Cloud pull the ribbon off his wrist. "Oh."
He supposed the kid did look a bit like a chocobo.
"Then he apologised for having to leave, but he had another meeting to go to." Cloud frowned. "Who has meetings at seven o'clock at night?"
"The General keeps a really busy schedule, you know," Zack said innocently. His mind was racing with new possibilities. "I know a lot of the time, he works eighteen-hour days."
Cloud's eyes widened in sympathetic horror.
"Hey, Cloud?" Zack asked. "Are you busy tomorrow night?"