No pairings. No slash. No boyxboy. NO ZACK/CLOUD. THIS IS A CRACKFIC.

Twin2: This whole story was spawned by something I said to my sister about an exercise in crowd control. We're not totally sure how it morphed into this, but it was funny while it lasted, and we hope you enjoy it.

Is it a bad omen, that the first stories for this fandom we actually post all seem to be crackfics?

Twin1: No, it's just coincidence and your paranoia.

Twin2: (twitch) …must… edit…

Twin1: Oh, and some of this will be slightly AU – we were trying to figure out a decent plot for this as we went, but the one we half-decided on… kind of escaped… You'll understand what we mean later.

Twin2: Just take note that parts of canon are disregarded rather spectacularly… such as the whole Zack-is-alive thing. Seriously, if you're looking for canon in that kind of fic, you're looking in the wrong place.

Rated for… themes… and the swearwords we just couldn't keep out of the fic. Thanks, Cid.

Yaoi fans, you're about to be sorely disappointed.

Disclaimer: If we owned Final Fantasy VII, the result would probably be something similar to what we're about to present. It's probably a good thing we don't.


The Art of Innocence


Tifa Lockhart was waiting tables in Seventh Heaven. The night was rather slow, though there was a reasonably sized crowd in the bar. It was Friday, meaning roughly double the number of customers than any other weekday. Unfortunately, despite the fact that she was run-off-her-feet busy, the time was passing excruciatingly slowly.

The busty woman frowned at a man who leered at her lecherously, aware of the fact that he was the sort who, with a drink or two on board, would start trying to feel her up. She glanced pointedly at the bar, and the smile slid off the man's face as he was reminded of Tifa's extra insurance tonight.

No-one ever dared lay a hand on her when Cloud was around.

The blonde man was sitting at the bar, his right elbow on the bench top. He had set his cheek on his right fist, and was toying with a glass containing a shot of whiskey with his left hand.

Tifa frowned to watch him. He hadn't said anything, but it was obvious he was waiting for something. His glowing blue eyes constantly shifted from the door to the clock above the bar, his youthful face creased in a frown, as if put out by how slowly time was moving.

What could possibly have Cloud so agitated? It wasn't anything dangerous, that she could say with certainty, as Cloud never sat and waited around for danger – no, if it was anything to worry about, Cloud would be out there on his motorbike, hunting it down with the 'kill it before it kills me or another of my close friends' mentality of a SOLDIER.

Impending doom aside, what could be important enough to temp the antisocial specimen into a public forum like the bar at happy hour? Tifa's eyes widened when she realised Cloud was fidgeting, twisting his free hand with a kind of nervousness she had never seen on him, even back when he was a child and softer, less jaded and bitter.

Cloud, totally unaware that he was being watched, glanced at the clock again and then fixed his gaze on the door, his left hand rising so that he could chew absently on his nails. Tifa just about spilled the beer she was carrying on her tray all over herself and decided it was time to focus on work and not her friend.

Another half-hour trickled by. Seventh Heaven hummed with the quiet buzz of the customers talking, never growing above a murmur despite the fact that no-one was hushing their voices.

Accordingly, when the door was pushed open so forcefully it swung against the wall with a sharp bang, everyone jumped and looked around. A tall, broad-shouldered man strode inside confidently, grinning around. Tifa just had time to register his mako-filled eyes and vaguely familiar face before he drew in a breath and half-shouted, "Honey! I'm home!"

Cloud had sat bolt upright the moment this man had appeared, and Tifa watched as a flicker of irritation passed over his face, only to be replaced with relief almost instantly. Had he… was this who he had been waiting for all this time?

"Idiot," the blonde growled, sliding off his stool and meeting the man halfway between the bar and the door, where he was caught up in a tight embrace by the stranger. To Tifa's surprise, Cloud actually hugged back briefly. "You're late," he added, his voice low. The bigger man laughed sheepishly as he let Cloud go and stepped back.

"Sorry, Spike," he said, reaching up to rub the back of his head. "I got distracted…"

"Yeah, whatever, let's get out of here," Cloud muttered, grabbing the dark-haired stranger's hand and hauling him towards the stairs leading to the upper living area of the building a little too eagerly. "This place creeps me out. I'll show you my room."

The stranger replied, but it was lost as they trotted up the stairs, sticking very close to one another.

Dead silence was left behind, utter shock written even on the faces of the customers. Tifa's fingers relaxed in her shock and her tray fell, four glasses shattering on the floor, splattering everything in range with alcohol. Even the shocked or outraged cries from those wet did nothing to shake her out of her frozen stance, her eyes unfocused as the last five minutes replayed over and over in her head.

No way. There was no freaking way.

Right?


Cloud hauled his companion into his bedroom and closed the door behind them before turning to look up at the older man with a soft smile.

"It's good to see you again, Zack," he said softly. "I've missed you."

"It's been a long time, huh, Cloud?" 'Zack' replied, grinning, looking around the room. "Nice place." Cloud shrugged, watching Zack as if afraid he'd disappear. Zack shook his head and tugged the blonde close to him with friendly roughness. "I'm not going anywhere, Spike. I promised I'd come back, and here I am."

Cloud flushed at being so easily read, but shook Zack off him and strode away, sitting on the bed and fixing Zack with a glare.

"You do have nerve, I have to say, coming back like this," he began, his voice now frosty. "It's been years, Zack. I had to tell Aerith you were dead – do you know what that did to her? Damn it, she looked like a kicked puppy for weeks. Not that I blame her, but… And what about me? I had to be here, surrounded by people, for years, in the plural. Meanwhile, you were off god knows where without having to deal with anyone. It's pathetic when the most sensible person in close proximity to you is the five year old girl, but that's how I've been living. So I'm angry at you, jerk."

Zack sighed. "Look, Spike," he began. Cloud shook his head.

"Don't 'look, Spike' at me. You, puppy, are in the doghouse tonight."

Zack grinned, his delight at seeing his friend overshadowing any other emotion. "Aw, and here I was hoping for a nice lumpy couch."

Cloud huffed and folded his arms, turning away. Zack bit back a laugh, aware that the blonde would not appreciate it in the least.

"I'm sorry, Cloudy," he said to Cloud's back, suitably contrite. Cloud's back didn't reply. "I… Look, I know that you know why I left, but that didn't make it any easier for you here, and I know you've been elbow-deep in nasty stuff since I left anyway. So, for that… I'm sorry." Cloud's back shifted a little, and his shoulders twitched. When Zack next spoke, his tone was entirely different. "Have you been sulking this entire time?"

Cloud spun around, eyes widening indignantly. "You would too!" he insisted, lurching upwards so that he was kneeling on the bed. "You pout when I don't let you have sweets – how much worse do you think you'd be if I left for two years, seven months, eighteen days and nine hours?!"

The blonde sounded slightly hysterical, so Zack followed the only course of action available.

Tickles.

He launched himself at his friend, intent on forcing laughter out of his overly sensitive little buddy. Cloud was, and always had been, highly ticklish, and Zack took full advantage of the fact, attacking the already-shrieking blonde with an immaturity only Zack could manage.

"Zack, you retard!" Cloud hollered, locking his arms around his friend and rolling them both over, grabbing Zack's wrists and pinning them both above the older man's head. Zack was squirming, so he straddled his friend's muscular form and used his weight to pin him, leaning forward so that their faces were close before informing the dark-haired man in no uncertain terms, "You are a fuckwit. Don't be such a baby."

It was into this situation that Tifa entered.


After spending approximately eight minutes staring at the place Cloud had hugged that strangely familiar man, Tifa managed to reanimate herself. As she woodenly began to clean up the mess she had made, she tried valiantly not to think, not to consider what exactly she had just seen, especially not allowing herself to venture guesses as to why Cloud had been so eager to relocate to his bedroom.

Tifa shook her head violently to clear an unwanted image, then paused as another thought struck her.

What if it wasn't what it looked like? Sure, Cloud had never shown any interest in girls, but he hadn't exactly shown other interest either. The stranger had mako-filled eyes and was obviously well-trained and inhumanly strong – Cloud probably knew him from SOLDIER. He could be a good friend, made before Cloud had thrown up his defensive barricades with broken glass, barbed wire, rabid dogs, snipers and hellfire ready to take out anyone who tried to get close to him.

And the hug could be a reflection of that close friendship, combined with relief at seeing each other alive and well – SOLDIERs were a hunted, endangered species nowadays.

And everyone knew Cloud was antisocial. He hated being in the bar when it was open. Seeing as Marlene and Denzel were both asleep upstairs, Cloud's bedroom was the logical place to take his friend, where he was sure he wouldn't disturb anyone, and where they'd have the privacy needed for a reunion.

With a sigh of relief, Tifa straightened off the floor, broken glass in hand, and moved to the rubbish bin to throw it away. Already she was feeling rather foolish. What had she been thinking? Cloud wasn't the sort for… well, anything.

After a few more minutes, curiosity got the best of her and she slipped up the stairs in a lull in activity in the bar, intent on pinning a name to the irritatingly familiar face that was the strange SOLDIER.

She knocked quietly on Cloud's door, but there was no reply. Inside, there was thumping and words being spoken that she couldn't make out through the door and a panted half-laugh that made her heart stop in her chest.

She hadn't heard Cloud laugh since…

Unable to wait any longer, she pushed the door open and entered the room, only to freeze, horrified.

The pair of SOLDIERs were both on Cloud's bed. Cloud was on top, pinning his companion in a prone position, leaning forward as if to kiss him. "You are a fuckwit," the blonde informed the man below him. "Don't be such a baby."

A hundred explanations for that statement raced through her head and Tifa felt herself turn a brilliant red. She knew she should leave – she didn't want to see this – but she felt frozen to the spot.

The stranger, thankfully, noticed her. "Hold up, Spike," he said, nodding in her direction, "We have company."

Cloud frowned and glanced backwards at the door. When he spotted Tifa he let his companion go and slid off of him, standing and opening his mouth to say –

Tifa squeaked, choked out a "Sorry" and fled before she had to endure an explanation.

Left behind, Cloud looked back at Zack, baffled by the actions of his friend. Zack shrugged.

"Females, Spike," he said, crossing his arms behind his head and relaxing on Cloud's bed, "Don't bother trying to understand them, just love them as they are."

Cloud nodded. "Off the bed, puppy. I'm sleeping there tonight. You can have the floor. If you're good, I'll give you a pillow."

Zack gave a world-renowned pout. "Can't we just share?" he said. Cloud shook his head instantly.

"Hell no! I'm mad at you, remember?" Zack sighed heavily.

"Oh, woe is me," he began dramatically. "My own best friend would rather cast me out to the cold, hard wood floor than share his nice, soft bed with me, just because I left to protect him. Now, on the night of my return, we should be celebrating but instead we are torn asunder by-"

"Alright, alright!" Cloud cut in, "Just stop talking! Argh."

Zack grinned. Victory.


Marlene carefully edged the door into Cloud's bedroom open, holding her breath. He had been here last night – he'd read her a bedtime story and given Denzel a piggyback ride upstairs to bed – but past experience had taught her that he could well be long gone by now.

Her brown eyes lit up in delight as she saw his bed was occupied, but she was halted in her goal to jump on him and delightedly hug him good morning when she noticed that he wasn't alone.

There was another man in the bed with Cloud. He was Bigger Than Cloud, but Not As Big As Daddy, which was good, because if he was Cloud wouldn't fit next to him. As it was, they looked a little crowded.

The bigger man was hugging Cloud like she hugged her teddy bear, his cheek resting on Cloud's golden hair. Cloud was curled up, looking warm and happier than he usually did.

Marlene left quietly.

Downstairs, Tifa was making breakfast, looking a little distracted. Still, she smiled when the five year old entered the kitchen and hopped up on a seat at the table.

"Good morning, Marlene," she said sunnily. "How are you today?"

"Good," Marlene said, grinning in thanks when Tifa poured her a glass of cold orange juice and set it on the table before her. "Tifa?" she began.

"Hm? Yes, sweetheart?" Tifa replied, absently melting a lump of butter in a frying pan.

"Why is there a strange man in Cloud's bed?" Marlene asked as she watched her mother-figure pour pancake batter into the hissing pan. Tifa made a jerking movement, and an odd sound, rather like she was swallowing a frog that was croaking its objection to being made a meal.

Marlene giggled.

Tifa wheeled around and looked at her, biting her lip. "Uh…" she stalled. The little girl looked up at her innocently. Tifa sighed and took a seat.

"Marlene, you know how Cid and Shera are… close?" Tifa said carefully, naming the foul-mouthed pilot and his wife. Marlene nodded agreeably.

"Daddy calls them 'special friends'," she said happily. "He said sometimes a man and a woman like each other so much they make special friends, and maybe they even have a baby!"

Tifa silently cursed Barret, she wasn't sure for what exactly, as it seemed he'd done a fair job explaining marriage to the inquisitive five year old, but it was just easier to be angry with him.

"Well, sometimes, two men or two women can be special friends, too," she said, choosing each word carefully. Marlene considered.

"So he's Cloud's friend?" she said. "And since we don't have another bed, he let him share, like he does with me whenever I have a bad dream?"

Tifa nodded. "Yeah, sweetie," she sighed heavily. Good enough. Marlene smiled serenely at her.

"Okay, then." She pointed a little hand at the stove. "Your pancake's on fire."


Cloud woke slowly, feeling remarkably warm and secure. Very quickly, however, he became aware of why exactly he felt like this, and growled.

"Zack, I'm not a plush toy," he bit out. "Let me go or I'll remove your arms."

Zack, not the morning person, mumbled something and buried his face into Cloud's neck. Cloud's eyebrow twitched, and he moved.

In an instant, Zack had been dumped to the floor and was blinking up at him in sleepy confusion. "Wha…? Wanna pillow back."

"I'm not your pillow," the blonde informed his friend severely. Zack whined.

"R'too!" he grumbled. Cloud threw the real pillow at the man and climbed out of bed, running a hand through his wild hair, beginning the next chapter in his life-long futile battle to tame the stuff.

"…You could use gel." Still on the floor, now sitting, Zack seemed awake enough to offer a suggestion, albeit one he had given before and had discovered wouldn't work anyway. Cloud gave his friend a sarcastic look and gave up, quickly changing his clothes and pausing to wash his face.

"Come on," he sighed once he was prepared to face the day, "I'll introduce you to Tifa. She'll probably hit me for not introducing you last night, by the way."

Zack made a face. "I don't want to," he whined. "I've gotten so used to being antisocial, I've even forgotten how to flirt! How can I meet a girl like this?!"

Cloud scoffed. "It's probably a good thing," he said unfeelingly. "What would Aerith say if she knew you were hitting on Tifa? Besides, Tifa's younger than me – you're getting a little dangerous, aren't you?"

Zack rolled his eyes, using Cloud as a climbing frame to haul himself to his feet. "I didn't say anything about dating her. I just wanted to flirt a little. How else can you talk to a girl?"

A pause.

"…Like a normal person…?" Cloud suggested. Zack laughed, then sighed dramatically and draped his arm over Cloud's smaller shoulders.

"Cloudy-boy, there is no such thing. Now, let's go down and eat something, hey?"

Cloud let Zack set in front of him, heading for the door, but his enhanced senses caught a whiff of something and he said, "Hey, is that smoke?" as he stepped forwards. At the exact same moment, Zack stepped backwards, flanking close to Cloud instinctively at the idea of danger, and managed to stand a booted foot squarely on Cloud's bare toes.

Cloud stifled a yelp and hit him, hard. A glare later, he lead the way down into the kitchen, saying, "It's just Tifa cooking, idiot. Ow."


Tifa managed to put out the flames and started the whole process of cooking breakfast over again. She was just flipping the first pancakes out of the pan when she heard the sound of two people entering the kitchen.

Okay. You are not going to blush, she told herself firmly. It's perfectly acceptable that Cloud has a… partner… and there is nothing for him to be ashamed of. If he doesn't make a big deal out of it, you shouldn't either.

Ensuring she had a smile firmly on her face, Tifa turned to the boys entering the kitchen and said a cheery, "Good morning!"

And froze when she saw the way Cloud was limping and heard his grumbled, "Ow."

"Look, I'm sorry," the other man was saying. "It's not like I meant to hurt you, or anything. If anything, I was trying to make sure you didn't get hurt."

"Yeah, whatever," the blonde muttered. "You are so sleeping on the floor tonight."

"Spi-ike. Don't blame me because you-"

"Breakfast's ready!" Tifa broke in, knowing – knowing – that she was bright red again. Damn it.

The men looked up, distracted from their bickering. After a pause during which the three adults stared awkwardly at one another and Marlene got bored waiting for Tifa to hand out the pancakes and fished a couple off the serving plate herself, the stranger elbowed Cloud firmly.

Cloud made a 'hm?' sound, before sighing and saying, "Oh, right. Tifa, this is Zack. You might remember him – he came to Nibelheim once. Anyway, he's my… friend. He'll be staying with us for a while. Zack, this is Tifa. Hit on her and I'll hit you. Got it?"

Tifa winced at the warning – jealous? – glare sent Zack's way even as the memory of where she knew this man's face from hit her. Of course! He'd been the SOLDIER in the photograph with her and Sephiroth, taken when she was just a teenager. Oddly, he (like Cloud) hadn't aged a single day. He still looked around eighteen, sporting the exact same boyish, effortless good looks as he had more than seven years ago. Must be a SOLDIER thing.

Despite Cloud's harsh words, Zack's grin was friendly as he nodded a greeting to Tifa. "Nice to see you again. Don't mind him," he jerked his head at Cloud, who had settled at the table and was scowling at the strawberry jam as if willing it to explode. "He's just annoyed that I kept him up so late last night. I got lotsa energy – it's hard for me to settle down and sleep." If he found it odd that Tifa made a noise oddly like a whimper and turned a deeper shade of magenta, he didn't comment, instead turning to ruffle Cloud's wild hair and say, "You're glaring very hard at that jam, Spike. Did it do something awful?"

"No. This is called 'I'm still mad at you, bastard'," Cloud replied bitingly. Zack pouted.

A tense five minutes passed, Marlene being the only one seemingly unaffected as she ate her way through four pancakes and then started amusing herself by painting patterns with the maple syrup.

Finally, Cloud sighed and dropped his head onto the table. "Oh, alright," he grumbled. "I forgive you, just stop sending out kicked-puppy vibes!"

Zack dropped his pout like a hotcake and grinned. "Cool!" he cheered, sitting down next to Cloud. The blond sighed.

"Zack, this is Marlene," he said, gesturing at the girl Zack had yet to notice. "Flirt with this one and I will lynch you. Marlene, sweetheart, this is Zack. He's-"

"Your friend!" Marlene supplied happily. "I know. You two are special friends!"

"That's right," Cloud replied, relieved that Marlene had gotten the concept of a 'best friend' so easily.

Zack's eyes widened upon seeing the young girl, and then flicked from the small child to where Tifa was chewing her lip nervously.

"Cute kid. She yours?" he asked Cloud casually, a glint of something more sinister in his eyes that made Tifa wince.

Cloud shook his head. "No. Me and Tifa're just looking after her for her dad – Barret, I told you about him, remember?"

Zack nodded. "Big man with gun for arm. Yeah, I remember. So, you and Tifa are…" he trailed off, looking from Tifa to Cloud.

"Just friends," Cloud said firmly. "We both live here. She looks after the kids and runs the bar, I run deliveries most days."

Zack seemed to accept this, and Tifa just about collapsed with relief. She did not want a jealous SOLDIER seeing her as a threat.

Cloud glared at a highly disappointed Zack. Oh, he knew how much Zack would have loved to rag him out for settling down with a girl and a kid. Ironically, the glare seemed to perk Zack up as he picked up on the unconscious 'they're still my family and I'll kill you if you upset them' vibes he was broadcasting.

On the other side of the table, Tifa watched the two men exchange looks, Cloud seeming to reassure his companion with his expression, and averted her gaze, somehow feeling as if she was intruding on something private.

Marlene, thoroughly disgusted with the way the grownups were just staring at one another, jumped up from the table and said, "Tifa, I hafta go get ready for school. Um, Cloud…?" She had the blonde's attention in an instant. "Could you… maybe… walk us to school today?"

Cloud considered her for a moment, before his expression softened and he inclined his head: a promise in Cloud-language. Marlene, being fluent in that particular dialect, lit up and raced away, shouting, "Yay!"

Zack grinned. "She's cute, Cloudy," he said. "Seems to like you a lot." His tone turned teasing. "Quite the lady's man, huh?"

"Oh, shut up," Cloud grumbled, toying with his cutlery. Tifa realised that she hadn't completed cooking and hurriedly pushed her chair back, turning back to the stove and rapidly cooking the remaining pancakes.

When she was done, she turned back to the table and divided the food up, trying to ignore the way Cloud sacrificed one of his pancakes for his… for Zack, or the way that Zack didn't mind his fingers.

"So…" she began, trying to find some way to start a conversation. "…How did you two meet?"

Cloud gave her an odd look that made her wince, but Zack started in with an animated chattering.

"Oh, well, you see, we first officially meet each other – as in, I learned his name and he stopped calling me 'sir' (because I used to outrank him, big time) – the day I learned to never let Tseng – he's a Turk, nice guy but a horrible pilot – fly a helicopter unsupervised. Or at all, for that matter."

"Why? What happened?" Tifa asked, looking between the men. Cloud grunted.

"He crashed," he said matter-of-factly.

"Into a mountain," Zack added. "I mean, come on! How do you just not see a mountain?! It was a nice day and everything! We had to hike the rest of the way."

"A-And so you became friends during the walk?" Tifa bit her lip. She did not just stutter. No way. Cloud and Zack looked at each other.

"He insulted Nibelheim. I insulted Gongaga – Zack's hometown. After that it was, well, inevitable." As he spoke, a soft smile tugged at the corners of Cloud's mouth, as if he was reliving a fond memory. Suddenly, Tifa felt much better about this new… boyfriend (Hah! There! She acknowledged it!). Cloud hadn't looked so… happy for a very long time. Maybe not ever.

A glance at the clock spurred her into normal-mode. "Oh! Look at the time, Cloud! You have to go if you're going to walk the kids to school on time."

The blonde shrugged. "I'll take 'em on the bike," he replied. "They enjoy it when I give them rides of Fenrir."

Zack laughed. "Remember when I used to take you for rides on my bike?" he said reminiscently. "And we used to accidentally get lost and be all alone for hours until I got an angry phone call on my PHS from Kunsel?" He grinned, remembering the exploring and adventures he and the reluctant, 'sir'ing blonde he'd adopted had embarked on.

Tifa, who had almost gotten her blush under control, felt it flare up again. Cloud looked vaguely annoyed – no doubt self-conscious about those… encounters… which would have had to be early on in the relationship, relatively speaking.

"Even so, you should go. Traffic," she said weakly. Cloud frowned, but nodded and stood to leave. He dropped a hand onto Zack's shoulder and said, "Be good, or I'll never let you in the bed again, puppy. Tifa – if he misbehaves, a rolled up newspaper across the nose does wonders."

Then he was gone, and Tifa almost panicked when she realised that this left her alone in the kitchen with Zack.

She hoped he would just keep speaking, but he was just watching her with what seemed to be polite, amused interest. Frantically, she cast about for something to say.

"Well, I suppose I know why he never asked Aerith out now," Tifa offered to break the silence, and was instantly mortified with what had tumbled out of her mouth. Zack looked puzzled for a moment, before his expression morphed to delight and he grinned.

"Guess so," he said, sounding amused. "I'd kill him, and he knows it."

Tifa squeaked.

Cloud soon returned downstairs with not one but two children in tow. Zack's surprised comment was totally silenced by the glare the little boy gave him, and the SOLDIER grinned.

"Aw, someone's just like Cloud. Is this one yours, Spike?"

Cloud hesitated, very aware that Denzel was waiting for his answer just as much as Zack. "He's not my son," he said shortly, strapping on his holster and checking the pink ribbon around his arm. "But he is mine."

Denzel's eyes lit up at hearing the gruff announcement. He knew what Cloud had said was true, but having Cloud actually say it, to a stranger no less, made something warm inside him.

Zack's eyes softened, taking in the whole sweet situation, before he grinned and ruffled Denzel's hair sharply. "Well, that makes you family, then!" he cheered. "Cloud-chibi can be your name, except you don't have Spike's spikes. Well, we'll just do this for now," he was now vigorously tousling the boy's hair, resulting in a wild mess that much more closely resembled Cloud's untameable mane, "And we'll get you some gel later."

"Puppy, leave Denzel," Cloud stressed the boy's name, "alone. Come on kids – we'll be late."

Tifa watched the whole scene from the sink, biting her lip in sympathetic nervousness when Cloud introduced his adopted younger brother to his chosen partner and nearly collapsing with relief when Zack seemed to accept him, though that comment about being 'family' made her flush a little. After a few moments, Cloud and the kids filed towards the front door, Marlene leading the way with Cloud shepherding from behind.

Zack trailed after them, and Tifa found herself following too out of curiosity. Surely Zack wasn't going to go too…? They wouldn't all fit on Fenrir. Or maybe they were walking after all?

But Zack made no motion to step through the door. Instead, he caught Cloud's arm before the blonde could leave and pulled him close, bending down to –

Tifa looked away, bright red, and scurried back into the kitchen. She thought she'd almost accepted the idea of Cloud with this person, but she didn't think she could handle seeing him being kissed goodbye just yet, especially when it was so blatantly obvious he was the submissive party in the partnership. Somehow, she had trouble coming to terms with the idea of Cloud submitting to anyone.

Cloud was a little surprised when Zack had caught his arm and tugged him backwards, towards the larger man, but didn't fight him. Zack bent down and said quietly in his ear with SOLDIER paranoia at being overheard, "Be careful, Spike."

Cloud blinked slowly at the man. "I'll be fine, Zack," he replied. "Promise."

Zack searched his eyes for a moment, before nodding and stepping backwards. "You damn well better keep that promise, Spike."

"Zack, it's just a school run." Cloud rolled his eyes in exasperation. Back for twelve hours and already mother-henning him within an inch of his life. "I'll be back before you know it, and then I'll take you around Edge so you can see everything. It's a little different to Midgar."

Zack nodded. "Okay." Stepping backwards, he let Cloud go and watched him leave before turning to go back inside and search out the busty, strangely blushing barmaid. He was determined to figure out what it was that made her turn such bright colours whenever he was in the room – after all, Zack couldn't deny that he was heart-stoppingly handsome, but that alone didn't explain the blush and decidedly odd questions. Besides, Tifa hadn't been like this when he'd met her last, back before Hojo.

…Maybe she was shy, because of the things she had said to him the last time she'd seen him? All that 'I hate ShinRa, I hate you, I hate every SOLDIER in the world but especially you' stuff – perhaps she was reliving the screaming fit in the light of some cooling off time, and was embarrassed.

Well, Zack would just explain that he wasn't holding it against her that she had lashed out after seeing her dad die right in front of her. The SOLDIER scoffed a little at the thought. Who wouldn't lash out at one of the men responsible, in that situation?

She was in the kitchen, scrubbing furiously at the pan she had burnt pancakes in a few minutes ago. Zack came up behind her and quietly lifted a dishcloth off a nearby hook, picking up one of the newly-washed plates and drying it with the ease of long practice.

Tifa squeaked when she realised she was being assisted. "Zack! Oh, no, please – you don't have to do that!" she protested. Zack was looking for where the plates were kept, opening random cupboards, and grinned broadly as he found the right one.

"I know," he replied, picking up a new plate and drying it. Tifa flushed a little, but went back to scrubbing the stubborn grime off her pan. "You know," Zack said casually, wiping away moisture on the coarse porcelain plate in his hand, "Last time I saw you, we didn't exactly part on good terms."

For a moment, Tifa was puzzled. What was Zack talking about…? Oh. Yes, she had yelled at him when she'd seen him while Nibelheim was burning, hadn't she? What had she said, again? That she hated him, right?

Looking up at the man, Tifa realised that he was probably anxious to make peace. She liked to think that she was one of the people Cloud was closest to in this world (though, due to the fact she had been unaware of Zack's existence until Cloud had brought their relationship right under her nose and practically circled it was a neon highlighter and pointed emphatically at it, she was beginning to doubt that assumption, just a little) and it made sense that Zack was trying to settle old grudges.

"Oh… that," she began awkwardly, and then said in a rush, "I wasn't serious, you know, and Tousan had just died and so I was very emotional and I don't hate you or all SOLDIERs or anything and I really think you should just, like, forget everything I said because it was totally wrong and I wasn't thinking and I was a pissy teenager at the time anyway so… yeah." She trailed off lamely.

Zack watched her, a slight frown on his face. He had seen the confusion when he mentioned that encounter in Nibelheim, which wouldn't have been there if Tifa was dwelling on it. So her embarrassment had to have another cause.

Tifa had spooked upon seeing Zack's serious expression and fell over herself to keep babbling.

"Really! I – um, look, it's not a problem, and I don't have anything against you or Cloud, or you and Cloud," she fumbled, "And you can stay here with him – I don't mind, and I've already explained to Marlene because she saw you in bed this morning and Cloud will make sure Denzel knows what's going on and really, if you just give it a couple of days to let you settle in, you'll find we'll add you to our family and really, you really don't have to worry, because there's nothing going on between me and Cloud and there never has been – actually, he's like my older brother, and he looks after me, but seriously, that's all there is to it, and it's not like anyone cares that, you know, you're a guy and-"

"Hold on a moment," Zack interrupted before the girl could get hysterical. "Take a breath. So you don't hate me, that's okay, I get it." Carefully, the once-First replayed the rush of information he'd just received in his mind, and his purple eyes widened marginally when he realised what, exactly, was making Tifa blush. Oh.

Oh.

She thought he and Cloud were… involved. In the sense that they were at the very least doing the horizontal tango, and at most were in a de facto marriage. Zack had to hold back a horrified protest, forcing himself to think things over.

A lot of things made sense now – the stuttering, the blushing, the way Tifa magically disappeared whenever Zack came even remotely physically close to Cloud or vice-versa.

So how to deal with the situation? Zack's first instinct was to recoil with revulsion and inform Tifa in no uncertain terms that both he and Cloud were very, very straight and any interest in each other was purely fraternal in nature. He loved Cloud, but not like that. Never like that.

Ew.

On the other hand, the reactions this little mix-up had caused had been amusing, to say the least, and Zack's mischievous nature was delighted with the opportunity to cause a little chaos.

But that would be mean. Funny, but very mean, especially if Tifa had a crush or something on Cloud. And spreading rumours questioning Cloud's… tastes… was undeniably highschool-bitch-style cruel.

But Cloud was obviously totally ignorant of the way they were being seen, because the moment he had the slightest inkling of what Tifa was thinking, he's sit her down and explain awkwardly in his grown-up I'm-not-shy-I'm-broody way that there was nothing of the sort going on.

Cloud was no fun.

Zack deliberated for a moment longer, before he broke into a grin that was carefully muffled. I'm so going to hell for this, he thought gleefully.

"Thanks, Tifa," he said, relief in his voice, running a hand through his longish hair. He adopted a puppyish look, trying to summon up a fond, lovesick expression by thinking of Aerith and how cute she had been as a teenager. "It's really important to me that I get along with Cloud's family. He talks about you a lot, you know? I don't want to make him have to choose between us."

Tifa looked hugely uncomfortable. "Me neither," she mumbled, looking down at her hands, submerged in soapy water. Zack almost pitied her as he fought with his grin. It would do no good to start cackling like a maniac.

This was too funny. Too easy, as well, so Zack made a mental promise not to say anything explicitly confirming or denying Tifa's… thoughts. He would just weave some careful sentences, and let everyone draw their own conclusions. That way, he could play with Cloud in the room, too, because the naïve blonde wouldn't be able to spot what he was doing.

Finally, the grin broke its bounds and spread widely across his face as he went back to drying dishes.

This was going to be fun.

Zack was just setting the last dish down in the cupboard and starting on the cutlery when he heard Cloud's familiar footsteps tapping over the wooden flooring. "Tifa?" he heard him call, and there was a thread of anxious almost-fear that only Zack would be able to catch as he continued, "Zack?!"

"We're in the kitchen, Cloudy," the dark-haired man called over his shoulder, smiling fondly as he dried off a scrubbed-clean fork. Cloud would probably be a bit fidgety for a while, until he got it into his head that his best friend wasn't going to disappear. Zack found it amusing. And cute, but he wasn't going to tell Cloud that. From what he'd heard, the little trooper had gotten waaay too good with a sword for that to be a good idea.

Cloud's footsteps paused unexpectedly in the doorway, and Zack flicked his drying-towel over his shoulder before he turned around, greeting him with a half-smile. At the peculiar expression on the younger man's face, Zack tilted his head slightly, flicking a lone knife between his fingers absently, not even noticing the dangerous exercise. "Cloud? Something wrong?"

"I've never pictured you as domestic before," the blond explained, still wearing that unfamiliar expression. "It's disturbing."

Tifa carefully kept her eyes focused on the tablecloth she was straightening. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Zack reach out, grab the front of Cloud's shirt and pull him close, and instantly shut her eyes tight, blushing again.

Behind her, Zack bent just a little and whispered in Cloud's ear, "I was thinking about our little 'the world is ending' problem. What do you think we should do next?"

"Zack," Cloud said, sounding a little irritated, pushing at the bigger man's chest while casting a significant look towards Tifa. "Not here."

"Aw, no need to be so secretive, Spiky," Zack grinned, louder, very aware of how Tifa was struggling not to bolt for the door. "I'm sure that Tifa here knows all about our little… secret."

"No, she doesn't," Cloud said forcefully. "Just the uninformed basics. And if you want to stay my partner, you will make sure she is never exposed to any… details."

Taking in Cloud's serious glare, Zack tried very hard to dampen his expression even as his inner chibi-Zack cackled and did a victory dance. This was brilliant! Now even the blonde was helping his evil causes, albeit unconsciously.

Tifa bit her lip hard, risking a glance at the pair to find Zack's teasing grin fading and Cloud glaring up at him from arm's length, whole body stiff and blue eyes snapping angrily. She looked away quickly.

She was causing problems, it seemed. Cloud was obviously shy – and probably frightened, too, despite being too proud to ever show it. In Nibelheim where they had both grown up, there had been very strict views on appropriate relationships, and Tifa suspected her blonde friend was painfully aware that he and Zack would have been viewed as blasphemous, sick-minded criminals in his hometown.

Tifa swallowed and looked down, hating the fact that she was causing friction between the men behind her. She wanted Cloud to know that she was perfectly fine with what was going on, but, well, she couldn't just say it.

And Cloud was, at the end of everything, very shy and private. It was obviously uncomfortable for him to even reveal his feelings for Zack in the first place. She didn't want to embarrass him by letting on that she knew their relationship wasn't strictly non-contact emotional.

Her face heated at the thought, and her resolve broke. With a mumble about needing the bathroom, she fled.

Cloud frowned as he watched her go, before turning back to Zack. "Okay, what did you do to her?" he demanded. Zack spread his hands innocently.

"Nothing!" he protested. "We were just talking – clearing the air, you know? I wanted to make sure she was okay with me, because last time we met she was screaming like a banshee how much she hated me and wished I'd go off and die a horrible, gruesome death, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But turns out, she's cool with everything. Phew, huh?"

Cloud sighed as Zack went back to drying, starting on the cups. "You're impossible."

"But you love me anyway," Zack replied, and was incredibly pleased with his timing when he heard Tifa's footsteps just outside the door. Hell, yes.

"Yeah, yeah," Cloud chuckled, opening a cupboard for Zack to show him where the cups went and noticing Tifa standing in the doorway. "Oh, Tifa. Zack and I are going out – I'm going to show him a bit of Edge. Is that alright?"

"Oh – yeah, sure!" Tifa replied hurriedly, eager to give the pair a chance to be alone. Thankfully, her vacating the room seemed to have let them settle their mini-fight: Cloud was back to hiding a smile and Zack was laughing as he flicked soap suds from the still-full sink at the blonde.

After a few moments, a damp Cloud managed to slide under his guard and splatter Zack spectacularly and the larger SOLDIER howled, catching his blonde friend around the middle and jerking him flush against his front, using his body to pin him as he shoved a wet dishcloth down the front of Cloud's shirt.

She was blushing, but Tifa still had to smile, standing as unobtrusively as she could in the background, not wanting to interrupt such a sweet moment. When the laughter died down, Zack let Cloud go carefully and shook his hair off like a dog.

"So, shall we go?" he prompted. His voice brightened as he added, "Hey, maybe if we have time, we can go into Midgar, re-discover some of our old haunts, huh?" He dropped his voice lower and added, "Make some new memories, perhaps."

Cloud looked at him a little strangely. Tifa seemed to be fighting not to go bright red and run away, hands clapped over her ears.

"…Let's go," Cloud said eventually, dismissing the weirdness. He tuned out Tifa's squeak.


Tifa was determinedly not considering what, exactly, Cloud and Zack were doing right now as she did several mundane tasks that had to be done, such as tidying the upstairs bedrooms and picking up all the kids' toys before they got lost or damaged.

Everything was fine. All was going well. It was good. Zack was nice enough, Marlene at least had no problems with him and Cloud seemed happy for once. The blonde deserved a little happiness, Tifa reasoned, after everything that had happened to him to date.

Then, Barret turned up, slamming the door open and calling, "Hello! Marlene! Surprise!"

Tifa promptly dropped Marlene's doll and groaned. This did not bode well. With a heavy sigh, she turned towards the stairs just as Barret lumbered up them, still calling out for his daughter.

"She's at school," Tifa said, a little shortly. Well, she was annoyed! She knew exactly how Barret was going to react – and even if he managed to somehow swallow the Cloud-Zack situation, he was guaranteed to say or do something insensitive that would make one or both ex-SOLDIERs uncomfortable.

"Barret," she said, cutting off the man's disappointed grumble. "There's something I need to tell you…"


Several hours later, two rather smudged men returned to Seventh Heaven astride Cloud's big bike. Cloud pulled up in the parking bay he used, hidden from the street by a grey brick wall.

Zack blinked as the low roar of Fenrir's motor cut out and was replaced by a roar of a different kind – an unfamiliar baritone, a deep rumble that wasn't quite a shout but was definitely louder than normal speech –

"Oh joy," Cloud grumbled, kicking the stand down and leaning his weight to the side, looking as if he was seriously considering kicking it up and riding straight back out of there. "Barret's here."

"Barret?" Zack asked blankly.

Cloud's hand hid his eyes briefly. "Barret. To quote you, big man, gun for arm, Marlene's adopted father. I thought we had this conversation this morning."

Zack's face cleared abruptly and he swung his leg over the bike to stand up. Excellent. Someone new to work with. "Oh, Barret! I remember him!"

"Sure you do," Cloud grumbled from behind him, standing more slowly and a good deal less enthusiastically. "Marlene will be happy, at least…"

"But not you?" Zack inferred, a twinge of concern flicking in his chest, more from an old protect-Cloud-at-all-costs habit than any real belief that this Barret was dangerous. Cloud shrugged one shoulder, brushing at a smattering of grey dust marring his perfect black emo-clothes.

"He's… big," he said eventually. "And not just big, you know? Big like…"

"Fills any room he's in to overfull?" Zack suggested, knowing just what Cloud was talking about. "And talks a lot, something you and your sulking can't handle?" Cloud grunted.

There was a pause.

"Well, come on then," Zack said brightly. "I have to meet him sometime, right?"

Cloud looked ready to protest, casting a longing gaze back at Fenrir, but Zack grabbed his shoulder and hauled him into the bar.

There was a large, dark-skinned man inside with Tifa, speaking in the rumbling voice Zack had heard from outside. Cloud, dragging his feet as a result of his reluctance, saw that the AVALANCHE leader looked agitated, and turned to them semi-aggressively, taking in the newcomers, his dark eyes raking over Cloud once before jumping straight to Zack.

There was a moment when Barret eyed him suspiciously. "An' who's this? Spiky, he wit you?" he growled without so much as a hello. Zack wasn't sure if he was trying to be threatening or not. It wasn't working if he was.

Cloud glanced sidelong at his old friend. "Zack, this is Barret Wallace, Marlene's dad. Barret, this is Zack Fair. First Class SOLDIER back when ShinRa was still running. I've known him for years. He's perfectly safe. You can put the safety back on now."

Tifa shot him a startled look – had Cloud been teasing, just then? – and Zack beamed.

"Nice to meet you!" he said brightly extending his left hand to shake, matching Barret's remaining limb. His right hand he placed carefully behind Cloud, hooking fingers into the blonde's belt in a motion he knew Cloud would see as 'you're not going anywhere: I have spotted a gun and have accordingly gone all mother-bearish'. And if from where Tifa and Barret were standing it looked as if he was getting a good grope in, that wasn't his fault, was it? Nope, all just an honest mistake.

Zack was feeling rather pleased with himself.

Barret looked like he was struggling not to say something – or burst out into a long rant about relationship and gender.

Tifa was resigned to kicking Barret's shins every time he opened his mouth and smoothing things over when he said something insensitive.

Cloud was happily oblivious to the little soap opera playing out around him, and even less aware of how crucial his role in it was.

"Nice ta… meet ya," Barret growled eventually, squeezing Zack's hand much tighter than strictly necessary, his gaze flickering between the two SOLDIERs, almost without his command. Zack could tell he was trying very hard to glare him into removing his hand from its perceived position on Cloud's person, and smiled sunnily, happily 'misinterpreting' the look.

"Nice to meet you, too!" he said again, a bounce in his voice. "You're Marlene's daddy, huh? Man, she doesn't half go on about you – you've raised a beautiful little girl, Mr. Wallace." Barret looked vaguely appeased, so he added a quick, "Bright as a button – you know, she came into our room to find Cloud this morning – it was so cute – you see, Cloud was still asleep, and she saw us there together – we were curled up in a, huhm, compromising position, you could say – and backed out again just like that. Such a sweetheart, that one."

Here, Zack stopped to survey his work. Barret was back to fighting the harsh comments trying to burst out of him, and Tifa appeared to have jabbed the large man with a fork to stop an explosion angrily protesting the corruption of the innocence of his five year old.

There was an awkward pause. Cloud looked over his shoulder at Zack and raised an eyebrow. It wasn't like the Puppy to let silence hang…

And what was up with all the weird comments? Or the way Barret had yet to let go of Zack's hand and looked like he was trying to crush it in his larger one (good luck there)? Had they maybe met before? Barret hated anything ShinRa, anything SOLDIER, and Zack had pretty much been ShinRa's poster boy SOLDIER – Sephiroth's second in command, he'd seen a lot of conflict. So he and Barret could have crossed swords before. That could make sense…

…Maybe…

Flicking his hand backwards, Cloud broke Zack's grip on his belt, swishing his friend's hand away from him and giving him a glare that he knew would convey "It's fine, I'm safe, this is my friend you idiot." Bastard was way overprotective, a fact which irked Cloud no end. He was an adult, wasn't he? He had been a First freaking Class SOLDIER, for Pete's sake! Right under Zack – third in the hierarchy of SOLDIER back in the day, only Zack and the General above him.

He really could take care of himself. Really.

But convincing Zack of that little fact was nigh on impossible. Irritably, the blonde scowled at Zack and hissed, "Quit it!"

Zack grinned back, unruffled by the shorter SOLDIER's annoyance. "Okay, okay, hands to myself in present company, got it," he chuckled, prying his left hand out of Barret's grip and shaking it briskly. "No need to glare so hard, Cloudy."

Tifa breathed a sigh of relief as Cloud took control of the situation. The blonde at least had enough sense to not allow his boyfriend to antagonise Barret by highlighting their relationship in such a way. The surly man wasn't overly fond of Cloud at the best of times – lots of deep-seated resentment for the way Cloud had come in and more or less hijacked AVALANCHE entirely – and having another SOLDIER taunting him about his daughter while inappropriately fondling Cloud was one way for violence to soon result.

"Barret," Cloud said evenly, distracting the dark-skinned man from his internal debate over whether or not to shoot Zack, "Why are you here? I thought you weren't returning until the day after tomorrow."

"Finished early, Spike," Barret growled, still glaring at Zack. Cloud stepped between the pair.

"Where are the others?"

"Cid's roun' tha back, dumpin' some parts or somethin'," Barret explained in a grumble. "Don' care where tha' brat got to, though she was right behind me…"

"Hey, people! Yuffie the Treasure Princess is in the house!"

Zack was too busy staring open-mouthed at the annoying brat he thought he'd finally ditched years ago walk right back into his life with a perky grin and a cocky swagger to notice Cloud glare at him in a very 'She's a teenager, don't even think about it' kind of way.

Tifa shifted uncomfortably. Zack was staring at Yuffie, who admittedly was very pretty, and Cloud had clearly noticed, and was unhappy about it. Then Yuffie spotted Zack and began to squeal.

"Big mean ugly SOLDIER dude! I thought you were dead! Oh-em-eff-gee! You are so much more awesome than I thought!"

And then the ninja princess was hugging Zack as tightly as she could manage. Zack was laughing, hugging back briefly. "Hello, trouble," he said lightly, easing her away from him. "How you been keeping?"

"Oh, you know." Yuffie let him go and shrugged. "Fighting, joining rebel terrorist groups, saving the world, that sort of thing. Same old, same old."

"You two know each other?" Tifa put it, somewhat unnecessarily. Zack nodded anyway.

"Uh-huh! I met this brat in the Wutai war, back when she thought she could beat me up. She was a cute little nine year old back then, but she hasn't changed much."

Cloud sighed. "I'm leaving," he announced, turning on his heel to walk out of the bar again. Zack instantly pushed Yuffie away like a hot potato and followed him.

"Spiky! Hey, wait up!"

Cloud almost made it. He almost escaped the gathering of people – those living, breathing, talking things he despised being surrounded by. Of course, 'almost' never kicked Sephiroth's pasty alien arse three ways to hell, and Cloud hated that fact as he found himself trapped in the hallway between Zack and the door. This in itself would not have been a problem, if not for the fact that the doorway was occupied with a shaggy red creature – Nanaki, who was looking up at Cloud with knowing brown eyes.

"Gotcha!" Zack shouted, grabbing him from behind and hauling him backwards. Adopting a babyish voice, he continued, "Now, Cloudy-poo, what have I told you about running away from mummy? Naughty, naughty, Spiky-pie."

"Fuck off and die," was Cloud's elegant reply as he was hauled back into the crowded kitchen by the scruff of his neck, glaring over Nanaki at the tall, red-swathed figure that was Vincent Valentine, as if just daring him to laugh.

He needn't have worried: Vincent was merely watching Cloud being manhandled and mentally reviewing all the times he wished he had/could have done the exact same thing, and mentally applauding this dark-haired stranger for his courage.

Ninety-nine point nine percent of the world's population would have their hands sliced from their wrists and shoved down their throats if they ever attempted to touch Cloud in any way, much less force him somewhere he didn't want to go. Vincent was reasonably sure that he was one of that scant zero point one percent that could get away with it relatively intact, but had no desire to test his theory. This man, on the other hand, seemed to have no qualms about physically manipulating Cloud, and was now arranging him in a chair in the kitchen. Cloud, far from attempting to kill the man, was actually being remarkably docile.

He was spewing forth threats and oaths that would make any sane man back away slowly, but for Cloud in this situation, that was pretty amiable.

"Oh! Vincent, Nanaki! You're here!" Tifa said unnecessarily. Neither specimen felt the need to reply, though each nodded at her in greeting. "Would you like some coffee?"

"I am fine," the quadruped replied. Vincent merely nodded again, once, and Tifa set about brewing the hot beverage for him.

"Okay!" Yuffie bounced on her toes, clapping her hands together under her chin. "Holiday's over! Everyone's healthy and alive: time to get back to kicking butt!"

"Settle dow', bra'! Ya gonna give me a bleedin' migraine!" Barret hollered as if he was on the other end of a football field, not right beside Yuffie, sitting in one of the table seats. Yuffie began to shout back, Cid, who had emerged from the back room with a smear of engine oil over his nose, joined in, and Zack began to shout random sentences just for the hell of it. Cloud groaned.

"Fuck this," he announced, shoving Zack away so he could stand. "I'm going to get the kids from school. Zack, come."

Zack, ever the loyal puppy, bounded after the blonde. When they had departed, Nanaki looked up from his seat on the floor.

"Would someone please explain who the dark-haired man who just left is?" he asked politely. Tifa flushed a little.

"Sorry, Red… um, that was Zack Fair, Cloud's… boyfriend."

Yuffie actually broke off her argument to stare, as did Cid.

"What?!" was the general outcry. Tifa scowled.

"You're not going to give them trouble about this, understood?" she snarled, glaring something awful. Nanaki considered.

"While I am unsure of the meaning of your human labels, I can sense that this 'Zack' has claimed Cloud as his own," he said thoughtfully, chewing the word 'boyfriend' over and trying to determine its meaning.

Vincent's face was creased in the slightest of frowns. Try as he might, he was unable to connect Tifa's words with the relationship he had just witnessed. "Tifa," he said in his deep, serious voice, "Where did you get this information? Did either man tell you outright?"

Tifa hesitated. "Well, no," she admitted, "But there's things that they've done… and said… and well…"

"This shit is fucking creepy," Cid announced. Yuffie wrinkled her nose, crossing her arms under her generous bust.

"No fair!" she whined. "Guys that cute and strong and cool can't be gay! It's not fair!"

"What happened to 'big mean ugly SOLDIER dude'?" Tifa asked dryly. Yuffie waved her away, crossing her arms with a harrumph.

"Well, at least Cloud's got taste," she grumbled.

There was relative silence for the next twenty minutes. Tifa passed around coffee and some biscuits that she'd unearthed from the back of the cupboard, and everyone contemplated this new and surprising detail about their leader.

Finally, sounds came from the front hallway, indicating the kids and their collectors had returned. Denzel crept into the kitchen shyly, while Marlene barged her way in, shouldered through the people and launched herself at Barret with a joyful, "Daddy!"

Cloud appeared next, looking rather disgruntled, and Zack brought up the rear, literally pushing Cloud forwards. The blonde appeared to be trying to dig in his heels.

"You're not getting out of it that easy, Spike!" the dark-haired SOLDIER announced. Cloud scowled as he dropped back into his chair.

Vincent shifted, long hair moving with him. "Cloud," he began frankly, "What is the nature of your relationship with Zack Fair? Many are under the impression that you and he are romantically involved, and I would like to be sure."

There were horrified squeaks from all around the kitchen as Cloud's eyes widened and his face steadily coloured in a way it hadn't in years. Zack was disappointed that his fun had ended so abruptly, but recovered quickly enough that when Cloud spun to look at him for an explanation, he appeared as horrified as the blonde did.

"I…" Cloud appeared to be unable to form words, so Zack took over.

"What is wrong with you people?!" he shouted in a horrified 'what the fuck' tone. "He's my brother! Gaia, you people are perverts! Argh!"

There was a pause, then a flurry of apologies and explanations. Zack caught the back of Cloud's jacket as the blonde tried to flee and had to grin as he surveyed the chaos, feeling rather as if he had just gotten away with a rather scandalous crime.

Which, well, he had.