Previous Fem!Zack stories are: Guard Duty, followed by It Takes Two.
soloyuymaxwell, here's your reward fic for making me such a great Fem!Zack piccie! ^_^
Ummm... this is crack, so anything goes. Uh-huh, a perfect excuse for my probable mangling of poor Rufus's character. ^_^;;; As for where and how far things goes, who knows? ::nervously eyes lightly snoozing COI-het-plotbunny::
Title: Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice (1/2)
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 AU (COIverse, maybe)
Warnings: crack, genderswitching
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels and sequels belong to Square-Enix.
A/N: Inspired by icedark_elf's story Learning Curve.
Summary: Keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. How hard can that be? (Uh, Seph, you do realize that this is Zack you're talking to, right? ::sweatdrop::)
Cross-posted to soldiersmut and zackfans and ffvii_yaoi
Shortly after General Sephiroth's abrupt departure from one of Shinra's famous corporate parties, the General's female escort quietly slipped away from the festivities. Her departure was mostly unnoticed, except for Rufus Shinra, who had developed an almost obsessive curiosity about the mysterious brunette, and one other individual.
Rufus caught up with the mysterious woman near the cloakroom just as she was retrieving a small purse.
"Leaving the party so soon?" Rufus inquired mildly.
The brunette woman in green and violet silk turned gracefully and gave him a rueful smile.
"I guess you caught me. Guilty as charged."
"Any particular reason?"
"My date ran off and dumped me, so now I'm sneaking away to cry my poor broken heart out," she said in a sad, woebegone tone.
Rufus blinked, then struggled to choke down an involuntary chuckle. If her previously displayed self-confidence and Sephiroth's obvious preference for her company weren't sufficient warning signs that something was up, there was the unmistakable gleam of playful mischief in her eyes....
They were fascinating, those eyes, with colors that shifted from violet-grey to blue-gray to violet-blue from instant to instant. It could just be an effect of the hallway lights, but he somehow didn't think so.
"Hmmm. Not buying that story, huh?" she murmured, thoughtfully tapping a finger against her chin.
Rufus silently shook his head.
She perked up. "Okay, how about this? I was bored because no one wanted to talk to me."
"Well, that's a little more believable," Rufus said graciously, his lips twitching.
Her shoulders sagged and she held up her hands in mock-surrender.
"All right, I confess. I ducked out of the party because I'm a sniveling coward."
Rufus raised a highly skeptical eyebrow and murmured, "I think we're seriously backsliding in the plausibility department." Someone who could cope as comfortably as she did with Sephiroth certainly didn't lack for courage.
"No, really! I'm trying to hide from a certain overly persistent rotund gentleman," she protested.
Rufus wondered just who would be bold enough -- and/or stupid enough -- to sexually harass Sephiroth's date. Only a few people fit both that criteria and the physical description. Perhaps Heidegger? Not likely. Although Heidegger certainly had an eye for pretty ladies and didn't mind antagonizing Sephiroth on occasion, the director wasn't brave enough to brazenly flirt right under the nose of his wife, a famous society beauty who gave Scarlet serious competition in the 'flashy but vicious' department. Quickly running through the list of attendees, there was only one possibility left....
"Are you talking about Palmer?" Rufus asked, in a tone of mingled amusement and sympathy.
"That's the guy, the one with the over-ripe cologne, tacky suit, and sweaty, grabby hands," she said with an eloquent shudder. "He first offered to massage my poor bruised feet, then said he wanted to give me a private showing of his etchings."
Rufus snorted and said, "I seriously doubt that Palmer even knows what on earth an etching is."
"I figured as much."
There was a hastily smothered giggle from the young woman working the cloakroom and the brunette flashed her a quick grin.
"Well, since I'm willing to bet gil that this Palmer guy won't be deterred by anything less than serious body harm, I decided that a tactical retreat was in order," she said cheerfully.
When Rufus had set out to follow and learn more about Sephiroth's mysterious female escort, he had expected... well, he wasn't entirely sure what he expected from her, but it certainly wasn't this utterly disarming combination of easy-going charm and playful good humor. Now he was beginning to understand those little glimmers of amusement in Sephiroth's eyes during the party that in any other person would be outright guffaws or laughter.
Her eyes abruptly widened as she glanced over Rufus's shoulder.
"Oh hell, he's coming this way."
Rufus quickly looked behind him. "I don't see...."
"Trust me, I can smell that fruity cologne of his from a mile away. He'll be turning the corner any minute now," she said with brisk assurance.
Realizing that she was about to bolt for it -- and if that happened, Rufus strongly suspected that he would never see her again -- he quickly stepped forward and offered her his arm.
"Would you be interested in a leisurely evening stroll around the new Southside Promenade?"
She looked at him, looked down the hallway, then back at him. Finally, she made an 'oh what the hell' sort of shrug and took his proffered arm.
"Sure, I'd love to."
Arm in arm, they smoothly headed out the door just as Palmer plodded around the corner, huffing and puffing, just as she had predicted.
Now they were so close, he noticed two more interesting things about the young woman. First, she was a few inches taller than he was, something that was not obvious when she was standing next to Sephiroth. Second, she was younger than he had first thought. Watching her with Sephiroth, her poise and confidence had led him to put her in her early twenties. He now realized that she couldn't be more than two or three years older than he was, which made her about seventeen or eighteen at the most.
Once outside, as they made their way down the steps of the building, he said, "We haven't even had the chance to introduce ourselves. I'm...."
"Rufus Shinra, only son of our illustrious President Shinra. Someone pointed you out to me earlier."
"Ah. And you are...?"
"Karen. Karen Fair. But call me Kary."
"It's a beautiful name, and it suits you."
She made a choked sound, then grinned back at him.
"Kary is a variant of Karen, which means 'pure'. A beautiful name it may be, but I have to be honest with you -- pure, I'm not. But you definitely get points for the attempt," she added in encouraging tones.
He looked at her, taken aback both by her candidness and the kindly, but firm way she had sliced right through the habitual social flattery. Once again, he couldn't help a rueful chuckle.
"You're right. When you put it that way, it sounds quite pretentious of me. I don't know anything about you."
But how he wanted to, even more than ever.
Sephiroth had told Zack to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. Or try to, at least. Well, the first part of that semi-order was pretty much shot, considering that he was now parading around on Rufus Shinra's arm, of all people. And flirting, too.
But at least he was staying out of trouble. What could be safer and more harmless than a little evening stroll in a high class Upper Plate shopping area, especially with Rufus's contingent of Turks discretely in tow?
As they arrived at the recently opened promenade, the crowd was thinning out as the shows started in nearby theaters. With the loss of their potential customers, street vendors were beginning to pack up their carts. Kary took a few quick steps over to one of the remaining vendors and bought a cup of what looked like freshly baked dough nuggets, drowned with dark gooey cinnamon sugar and topped with sour cream frosting.
He watched as she chatted cheerfully with the elderly man, and when it came time to pay, the vendor waved away Kary's gil and with a wink, heaped on an extra serving of frosting. The older man got a smile and a bright burst of laughter in return, and Rufus thought that the vendor was well pleased with his end of the deal.
Kary pulled the first nugget free from the sticky mass and began eating with a blissful expression, clearly savoring each bite. In the absence of cutlery, there was simply no dignified way to eat the sugary concoction and Kary didn't even bother to try. She seemed to enjoy licking the gooey cinnamon and frosting off her fingers almost as much as eating the nuggets themselves.
Rufus had to admit that buying the snack was an ingenious way of controlling the flow of conversation. After all, social convention dictated that it was rude to talk when one's mouth was full. On the other hand, the aroma coming from the freshly baked nuggets was incredible.
He was so busy watching her, Rufus was caught off-guard when she suddenly held the cup out to him, clearly offering him a bite. He hesitated -- it was unwise for the heir to the world's most powerful corporation to accept food from complete strangers... especially from beautiful, charming, mysterious strangers.
As years of safety warnings and security lessons ran through his head, Rufus wondered how to decline her offer gracefully. By now she had surely noticed his hesitation. But when he looked into her magnificent violet-grey-blue eyes, he didn't see any sign of confusion or annoyance.
Instead, he sensed that she somehow knew why he didn't just reach out and take one of the sweet treats, as practically any normal person would do. But at the same time, he didn't see pity in her gaze for someone who had grown up in a world full of assassination attempts, hidden threats, and rampant paranoia.
Other women might have jerked the food away in an embarrassed flutter, or they might have brandished it like a challenge, as if taunting him for cowardice. Instead, Kary simply waited, offering without pushing. She left the decision -- yes or no -- entirely to him. And all he saw in her eyes was understanding, patience, and quiet encouragement. It was almost as if Kary had been in a similar situation before and knew just how to handle it.
In the back of Rufus's mind was the odd thought that Kary was probably marvelous with animals.
Although he didn't know anything about her, it was clear -- to Rufus, at least -- that Sephiroth trusted the woman to an extraordinary degree. That beautiful, soaring tango between her and the General never could have happened without a tremendous degree of mutual understanding and trust between the partners.
But did the fact that Sephiroth trusted Kary, and vice versa, mean that he, Rufus Shinra, could trust her? Hard experience and cold logic said 'of course not', but for once, Rufus felt the nearly overwhelming urge to chuck reason and logic out the window and go with his gut instincts.
And his instincts were telling him that Kary meant him no harm.
Almost defiantly, Rufus leisurely reached out and took the topmost nugget, which incidentally had the most frosting. The Turks following him were probably having a mild fit. Well, let them. He was going to enjoy himself for once, and to hell with the consequences.
Amazingly, the sugary nugget was as delicious as it smelled, all warm and buttery. It nearly melted on the tongue, the sweetness of the sugar countered by the spicy bite of the cinnamon and the rich mellow tang of the sour cream frosting.
Zack had to fight hard to not laugh aloud when he saw the almost rapturous look on Rufus' face as he ate. For Seph, it had been chocolates, especially the dark chocolate and raspberry truffles from the most exclusive chocolatier in Midgar.
"Don't hold back. They're best when they're hot," she murmured.
After taking the plunge with that first bite, Rufus found himself enthusiastically munching away as he and Kary strolled down the promenade. With the onset of dusk, many of the boutiques were starting to close, but others remained open.
As they conversed, Rufus could have pressed Kary for more personal details, but he was concerned that if he pushed too hard, she would slip right through his fingers. And so Rufus chose to keep things light and casual, listening carefully for any clues about her past.
He did discover that she was very familiar with Midgar, despite spending a lot of time 'out in the field', a comment that strengthened his suspicions that she either worked in some military or security capacity. Somehow, he just couldn't quite picture Kary as an engineer or scientist, although he didn't doubt that she had the brains for those occupations. Karen Fair struck him as a person who could succeed in practically anything she wanted to do. And while other people, men especially, might be intimidated by a woman of such obvious competence and talent, Rufus certainly wasn't one of them.
However, a niggling sense of familiarity led him to ask her directly if they had ever met before. Her response had been equally straightforward, as far as it went -- no, they hadn't met personally, but she did have a relative or two who worked for Shinra and physical resemblances tended to be strong in her family. When she didn't elaborate, he left the matter alone, although he fully intended to pursue it later.
And so they chatted on topics which ranged all over the place from sports to art to motorcycles to the latest movies. Sprinkled amid the casual talk would be the occasional question about Kary herself. She was perfectly aware that he was digging for information, of course, and with a grin would offer an intriguing tidbit, but nothing more.
But instead of becoming frustrated, he found himself enjoying Kary's particular combination of openness and canniness. He had always assumed that honesty and deviousness were inherently incompatible in a person, but Kary somehow managed to be both in a perfectly natural way.
Rufus couldn't remember having more fun with a woman in... well, in a long time. All too frequently, his encounters with women ended up as tense, wary exercises in evasion and deterrence. The young, unmarried ones were constantly trying to attract his attention and out for all they could get from him, including but certainly not limited to gifts, favors, a wedding ring, and/or sex. Not that the older women were much better. All too frequently, they were worse.
Practically the only women who weren't busy trying to crawl into his pockets and/or his pants were the female Turks. And people wondered why he tended to favor the Turks' company over his so-called social peers? Not that the heir of the Shinra Corporation really had any peers.
Kary, he realized suddenly, reminded him very much of the female Turks. Not only in her obvious confidence and self-assured competence, but in the way she managed to be female, but not excessively feminine, at least not in the sense he was used to. Perhaps that was part of the reason he felt so comfortable with her, even though he knew so little about her. Kary was no pushover, and would give as good as she got. Except, unlike Scarlet, she wouldn't try to gobble down huge chunks of a person in the process.
As they passed by one of the art galleries, they both stopped to look at the picture in the storefront window. Almost as one, they tilted their heads to the right, then tilted them to the left, all while continuing to stare at the incoherent mish-mash of clashing fluorescent colors. They then looked at each other.
"It's modern. I'll say that much," Kary said, squinting slightly as if she found the eye-searing painting painful to look at.
"And someone is going to buy that monstrosity, probably for at least six figures, and display it prominently just to bolster their reputation for being a collector of cutting edge art," Rufus said cynically.
They continued their stroll down the row of shops until they came across yet another gallery. In its window was a modernistic painting, although not nearly as bad as the earlier one. This particular painting was covered in large geometric shapes of black and white, mixed with slightly smaller circles of pure green, red, purple, and yellow. It wasn't horrible, but in Rufus's opinion, rather boring with its large areas of flat plain colors.
However, Kary seemed unusually interested in the picture. In fact, she was smiling, as if appreciating a private joke. Curious, Rufus took a closer look at the painting, but saw nothing unusual about its simple colors or its equally simplistic design.
Finally, he couldn't help asking, "What are you seeing?"
She glanced at him, a slight flicker of surprise in her violet eyes which shifted almost instantly to a sort of rueful comprehension.
"It's got an interesting use of colors," she said simply.
Zack couldn't explain it any better because Rufus, with his normal human eyesight, couldn't see what Zack could. Rufus was probably seeing a painting with seemingly random blobs of a few plain colors -- pleasant enough, but nothing exceptional.
But with his SOLDIER-enhanced vision, Zack was seeing something entirely different. The painting depicted a simple pottery bowl filled with glowing orbs of materia, much like the portraits of fruit one so frequently saw in artwork. However, a non-enhanced human couldn't see the incredibly subtle shadings which so wonderfully highlighted the shine, clarity, and three-dimensional shape of the materia orbs, nor could they see the tiny variations in black tones which accentuated the bowl's gracefully curved shape. Only a former or current SOLDIER could have painted that picture, and the sheer subtlety of the colors was something only his fellow SOLDIERs could truly appreciate.
Zack knew in an instant that Sephiroth would love it.
Even as they turned away from the picture and resumed their stroll, Rufus continued to wonder about Kary's reaction to the painting. He hadn't missed the way her eyes had taken note of the gallery's name. Obviously she saw something in the picture that he was missing and even though he burned with curiosity to know more, he let it go for the moment.
"You know, I've never seen Sephiroth dance like that. I never realized he could."
She smiled at him and shrugged. "The potential's always been there. But dance is one of those activities where the choice of partner can make all the difference."
It was not a boast about her own prowess. Her tango with Sephiroth made her statement an indisputable fact.
"And without the right partner, it's easy to end up simply going through the motions?" Rufus asked casually, taking the very last dough nugget and using it to sop up the final remains of the gooey cinnamon and frosting.
Kary gave him an oddly somber look and said, "Unfortunately, yes."
Rufus wondered about that look -- again, nothing as maudlin as pity, but rather that same eerily clear understanding as before. It was as if she was noticing things in him that no one else had ever noticed before. And for someone who had learned early in his life the need to conceal his thoughts and feelings from others, it was unnerving to have a complete stranger see him so clearly. But at the same time, it was also oddly relieving to be so exposed, to not have to struggle to hide or express things he barely understood himself.
Not only was Kary gorgeous, smart, charming, talented, good-humored, and sincere, she was damnably perceptive. Rufus no longer wondered why Sephiroth was interested in Kary. He was wondering why the hell Sephiroth hadn't already married her. Because if Sephiroth wasn't interested, he was certainly was. With someone like Kary by his side....
With a sharp mental jerk, Rufus brought his own wild fantasies up short. What the hell was he thinking? Recklessly going with one's gut instincts was fine and good for a casual evening's outing, but it was no way to live one's life. He barely knew anything about Karen Fair. He didn't even know if that was her real name. She was keeping secrets, she had something going with Sephiroth, of all people, and no one could possibly be as perfect as she appeared....
"Why are you blushing?"
Kary's amused voice interrupted his racing thoughts. To his acute chagrin, Rufus realized that he was indeed blushing furiously. Silently cursing the fair complex he had inherited from his mother, he groped for something to say that wouldn't make him look like a total idiot.
"It... I was...."
In the midst of his floundering, Rufus was vaguely aware that two storefronts away, another couple was arguing fiercely. The man, a senior member in one of Shinra's trade or economic development departments, was bellowing at his new trophy wife, a woman barely half his age. Their argument apparently involved the chunky jeweled necklace around the woman's throat, with her husband shouting for her to take it off while she clutched at it and shook her head in angry refusal.
A light tap on his flushed cheek brought Rufus's attention back to Kary, who was smiling, her eyes bright with mischief. And as she leaned down, he realized that she was going to kiss him. Which was perfectly fine.
He first felt her tongue lightly lick the corner of his mouth, but even as he wondered, her lips met his. And like the food they had so recently shared, her mouth was exquisitely soft, warm, and tasted of sugar, spice, cream, and something infinitely more delicious....
It's a tired old cliche for fireworks to go off when a couple shares a romantic evening kiss. Unfortunately, the thing that went off for Rufus and his female companion was a three-ton truck bomb tucked away in the underground garage of one of the buildings lining the Promenade.