(sweatdrop) so I completely and utterly failed at trying to make this one short. Even AFTER I split it into three different themes. ^^;; Something about first person always goes shorter than third person. Anyhow, sixteen pages later...
Theme: #5 - Love bites
Fandom / pairing: Final Fantasy VII, Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth
Table of contents of all 30 fics
Warnings: Three-piece fic because originally it all was going to be the "Stop that" theme and then it turned into a monster, so I divided it up across three themes.
This one contains a bad two-way pun on the 'Love bites' theme, and all of 'em have some extremely ouchy ironic spots that don't even recognize what they are, plus enough snark, sap, and goofiness to choke a chocobo. You have been warned.
It was a quiet night, late in the autumn; their squadron was on a completely routine patrol pattern, scattered across the countryside at measured intervals waiting for any monsters to show up, and nothing larger than a hedgehog had shown itself in their quadrant all week.
Zack teased the General that he'd scared off the wildlife. The General didn't respond to his baiting. Privately, Cloud suspected Zack was right, but he certainly wasn't going to get dragged into the middle of a conversation like that.
The trouble with quiet nights was twofold, when it came right down to it. The General didn't really understand the concept of 'off guard' or 'relaxing.' He was always on guard, always ready for anything. No one he didn't trust had ever caught him sleeping, and the list of people he trusted was disturbingly short, and Cloud had been astonished and humbled the first time he realized he was a part of that very short list of people who were trusted enough to see him sleep without triggering whatever reflex of watchfulness had him slitting those luminous eyes open just a crack in the middle of the night at the sound of unfamiliar footsteps.
So the General was one of the problems with quiet nights, because he prowled like a wild thing, and even when he was sitting still, it was the kind of explosive stillness that could burst into action at any moment; Zack claimed it tired him out just watching the man sit and try, unsuccessfully, to 'relax'.
Zack himself was the other problem with quiet nights. He understood relaxing a little too well. Usually with large quantities of alcohol involved, because the first-class Soldiers had such accelerated healing rates that it took an unhealthy quantity of alcohol to have any effect for more than ten or fifteen minutes.
...And Zack also got bored far, far too easily for anyone's good.
Cloud rearranged a half-burned log on the fire, trying to duck down small enough to hide behind the leap and crackle of the flames, because Zack was in an unusually freewheeling mood and it didn't do to catch his attention when he was bored and more than half drunk.
"Your head," Zack informed him lazily, head propped up on one arm and watching him through the leap and flicker of the fire, "looks like a chocobo's ass."
Cloud hunched smaller and tossed a couple half-burned twigs on the fire.
"What, you're not even going to squawk at me and prove my point?"
"...No, sir?" he ventured, hoping Zack's alcohol-shortened attention span would shift on to the next topic soon.
"I wonder whether a chocobo's ass is as soft and fluffy as it looks...? C'mere."
Cloud's jaw was hanging open. He closed it, hastily, and poked at the fire hard with a stick, trying hard to look busy.
"Want me to make it an order, Cloud?" Zack said, with a lazy, self-satisfied grin. "Because you know I so outrank your fluffy chocobo-ass head it's not funny. --Or maybe it is, and I'm just not drunk enough yet. Hmm." He took another swig out of the bottle he had by the neck. "Anyhow, c'mere already, will ya? I don't bite."
"I believe this is covered under the regulations about harassment of subordinates and conduct unbecoming an officer, Lieutenant." The General's voice was low and smooth as ever, but there was a faint ripple of amusement beneath it; and Cloud felt his face burning in humiliation that someone like General Sephiroth would feel it necessary to intervene on his behalf because he wasn't handling it himself.
"All I wanna know is if chocobos' asses are as fluffy as they look, and he's wearing one on his head. Damn convenient, that."
Zack rolled to his feet, staggering a bit; an eyeblink later Cloud did squawk, because suddenly there was an arm around his neck and the lieutenant's other hand was busily scruffling his hair, and he hadn't even seen him cross the intervening distance. Damn those First Class reflexes anyway...
"See, you even sound like a chocobo," Zack declared in tipsy delight. "That's what I should call you. Private Chocobo-ass. Good name. Nobody'd miss who I meant."
"Lieutenant--!" Cloud was torn between the need to struggle and the sinking knowledge that Zack could break his neck without even noticing, as drunk as he was and as strong as all the first class were.
The General spoke again, from across the fire. "You are a disgrace to that uniform, you realize."
Cloud could feel all the blood draining out of his face.
"Sir! --I'm sorry, sir! I-- I'll--"
--what could he do really? It was pathetic that he was standing there like a rag doll, even if his opponent was both First Class and his superior officer, and--
"Not you, Private; him." The firelight gilded the General's silver hair as he shifted in the shadows, as though there were a river of fire pouring down his shoulder and fading into the night. "I will not have you referring to my subordinates as chocobo's asses, Lieutenant."
"Spoilsport." Zack was actually pouting. The sight, especially when glimpsed out of the corner of his eye over one frantic shoulder, was somehow deeply disturbing.
"Shall I make that an order?"
"Fine, fine, I'll think up something else." Zack nuzzled the short-cropped bristles at the nape of Cloud's neck, and Cloud heard himself squawk again before he clamped a hand over his mouth and wished for a hole he could crawl into and die, to hide from the way the firelight danced over the half-hidden mirth in the General's eyes.
"...Dandelion," Zack mused, ruffling Cloud's hair with his cheek; his breath smelled overpoweringly of some alcohol Cloud didn't even know how to name. "Sunny and fluffy and bright yellow... Private Dandelion?"
Cloud was tugging on Zack's arm with both hands now, and couldn't budge him an inch. "Sir, please--!"
Zack flicked a stray lock of hair, and giggled when it bounced right back into place. "Private Hedgehog. All bristly and spiky and shy, and so damn cute when you're all riled up like that..."
Cloud squeezed his eyes shut tight, gathered what sad rags remained of his nerve, and told himself that he wasn't going to stand there and be pathetic in front of the General a minute longer even if the Lieutenant's reflexes killed him for it.
So he bit Zack's arm.
"Shit!" Zack yelped, and pulled away too fast, and toppled over on his ass.
Cloud spun on his heel and planted himself in a defensive stance, knowing the horrible cold truth that he wouldn't have a breath of a chance if the lieutenant took it badly-- but Zack didn't even notice; apparently falling on his ass was one of the funniest things that had happened to him for a while, or at least since he'd gotten drunk.
"Spike!" he announced gleefully, wheezing with his arms wrapped around ribs that ached from both the impact and the laughter. "Looks so damn hedgehog-cute and fluffy and then you get a faceful of the sharp poky bits...! Okay, Private Spike, I like you. C'mere and have a drink."
"The shit you drink would kill anybody else," Cloud muttered, trying to be unobtrusive about tugging his uniform back into order.
"What was that?"
Cloud blanched again, belatedly remembering the First Class soldiers' enhanced senses, including hearing. "Uh... er..."
"The shit you drink would kill anybody else, sir," Zack corrected him, and took another swig out of the bottle. "And you're probably right at that. Good head you've got there, Spike, even if it does look like a chocobo's ass."
Zack flopped back on the ground with a sigh, staring upside down through the fire at the General, and then he giggled again.
This clearly did not bode well for anybody, Cloud thought, and wondered exactly how far and how fast one had to run to be out of range of a Bolt 3's blast radius.
...Probably as far and as fast as a Soldier First Class could run, which both explained the fact that Zack was still breathing and meant that Cloud himself was likely to be smoldering char in a few more minutes.
Maybe the General carried phoenix down in the case of friendly-fire casualties. Maybe.
...maybe he should just start running now, because Zack was opening his mouth again.
"Sparkles," he said. "What do you think, Spike?"
"What do I think about what, sir?"
"We'll call him Sparkles. Can't go around calling him 'the General' all the time, and that damn tongue-twister of a name just doesn't come with any built-in nicknames -- 'least, none that I haven't seen him try to eviscerate people for, so: Sparkles. Yep. I like it."
The General hadn't blinked.
The General hadn't blinked since Zack opened his mouth again, actually. This was looking like a very bad sign.
"Or maybe Kitty," Zack mused, rubbing his chin upside down. "See there? That was a bristle! And if he had paws you know he'd be licking them and ignoring the hell out of me right now, but he doesn't -- so the poor bastard hasn't got an escape that still leaves him his dignity, and he's all about the dignity...
Cloud wondered dismally if he should have started running half an hour ago. Because Zack was still talking.
"Gotta be a cat type. Dogs drool too much, and a puppy'd probably try to turn all that leather into a chew toy, so it's a good thing he's obviously a cat person... look, even the eyes; see those? Aww, lookit, just like a little kittycat... well, okay, a big, cranky kittycat..."
...shit, I don't want to die here, I don't want to die--
"Hmm. General Sparkles or General Kittycat? Which do you like better, Spike?"
"I -- ah --" I'm not answering that question, I DON'T want to die--
"Or have you got a better idea?"
"Yes, sir!" Cloud said, before his brain caught up with his mouth.
"Uh-huh. And what would that be?"
Cloud gulped, and managed not to squeak as he said, "That would be, um, not giving General Sephiroth demeaning nicknames, sir!" His hands were shaking. He shoved them in his pockets.
"...I prefer his idea, Lieutenant."
That ripple of silk in Sephiroth's voice was deeper this time, rougher, and somehow managed to convey every last inch of agonizing torture that was in for anybody who disagreed, without a single note of outright frustration. Cloud's knees gave out on him, and he landed on his rump next to Zack, who was laughing his fool head off again.
"Yeah, well, you're the spoilsport who wouldn't let me call him Chocobo-ass! Obviously you're not drunk enough. --Yet."
Zack tossed the bottle in the direction of the General's head; Sephiroth caught it out of the air without even blinking, and upended the bottle calmly into the flames.
As the fire roared toward the sky, Zack made a sound like a wounded bear. "My booze!"
He made a lunge straight across the fire, and Cloud flinched back reflexively, because the alcohol was still splashing around and igniting flares.
Zack snatched the bottle out of the General's hand just as the last few drops dripped out of the bottleneck, and he stood there with ash-spattered boots and soot-smudged skin, staring mournfully at his empty bottle.
"Dammit, Sephiroth-- you want me to call you Sparkles for the rest of your natural-born life?"
"You're not nearly as drunk as you're pretending to be," Sephiroth said. "And you should stop toying with your subordinate."
"And you too, of course?" Zack drawled.
"I can defend myself." The Mako-green eyes glanced pointedly toward the empty bottle.
Cloud flinched again. Meaning, of course, that I can't...
"Yeah, you can defend yourself," Zack said plaintively, "but neither one of you has got any idea how to tease back!"
He heaved a huge sigh and pitched the empty bottle over his shoulder toward their packs, flopping down at Sephiroth's side and poking idly at one of the straps on his boots.
Sephiroth moved his foot away.
Zack stretched out and started poking again.
With a faint sigh, Sephiroth stood and walked around the fire to sit beside Cloud instead.
Startled, Cloud sat bolt upright, not sure whether he should salute or not in a situation like this; while he was frantically trying to remember the protocol for 'accidentally becoming your superior officer and personal idol's refuge from harassment by another superior officer,' and whether or not it involved standing up to be at attention as well as saluting, the General put a hand on his shoulder.
"At ease, soldier," he said, amused, and stretched his feet out toward the fire again.
Cloud stared at the man, his mind caught in spin-lock.
This was the General. THE General, the only one who really mattered in the minds of the everyday soldiers, and he'd just walked over and sat down beside a raw private who couldn't even defend himself against good-natured teasing from one of the friendliest officers in the army, which the General himself certainly wasn't -- his reserve was just as legendary as his talent, just as legendary as that sword, as the black leather and that unmistakable silver hair like their living battle-standard, and here he was, because Zack trusted Cloud even though he teased him within an inch of humiliated spontaneous combustion. And the General trusted Zack, even though Zack apparently tried to tease him too, which was a chilling thought all by itself, and he still wasn't entirely convinced he shouldn't be trying to figure out the blast radius of a Bolt 3 just in case, but in the meantime -- gods, the General, sitting there beside him like some sleek black panther, not even close to tamed but resting for a moment, secure in the knowledge of his own strength, and the combination of the power and the beauty and the lethal grace was enough to take his breath away...
"You're staring, Spike," Zack murmured right in his ear; Cloud yelped and dodged, and Zack hastily caught him by the belt before his reflexive lunge could take him straight into the fire.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa -- easy there, don't make me go looking for my old chocobo harness to keep you out of trouble!" Zack dropped him on his hands and knees beside Sephiroth again, laughing as he dusted his hands off. "Sparkles, you sure I can't call him Chocobo-ass?"
Sephiroth was looking up at the stars, miles away from the banality of junior officers with no sense of decorum, and Zack laughed again.
"Okay, maybe you are more a Kittycat than a Sparkles. Maybe. Except you glitter a lot too. 'Specially that hair. And the eyes. Damn, you just don't make things easy for a guy, do you... let's see here. Do you purr?"
And he sat by Sephiroth's side and reached over to scratch behind the man's ears.
"Lieutenant!" Cloud yelped, and this time his voice did break high, much to his embarrassment. "Lieutenant, please -- please, I don't want to die -- I don't want to--"
"Die?" Sephiroth asked, staring fixedly into the fire because it would sacrifice too much of his dignity to acknowledge Zack's latest obnoxiousness. "Why on earth...?"
"Because I don't know what kind of blast radius a Bolt spell has got, so I'm not sure how far away from this -- this-- lieutenant--"
He realized a minute too late how much he'd made 'lieutenant' sound like 'brainless asshole' to an officer even further up the chain of command, and redirected the rest of the sentence fast, still stammering.
"I mean, it's not that I think you're unreasonable, sir, not at all! It's just that everyone's got some kind of limit, and Lieutenant Zack seems to be trying to find out what yours is, and, er, I d-don't -- I really don't want to be at ground zero, s-sir..."
Sephiroth made a small, weary sound, but said nothing; the lines of his face were tighter than they had been a moment ago.
Zack leaned over Sephiroth's shoulder to grin at Cloud, still stroking his fingers lightly through the man's long shining hair. "Don't worry, Spike," he said cheerfully. "He's got way the hell too much of a grip on his self-control, if you ask me."
"Which I didn't," Sephiroth murmured to the flames.
"Which nobody ever does," Zack agreed with an overexaggerated sigh. "But even aside from the self-control, you still don't need to worry: he's also got perfect aim! So Spike's in no danger when you fry my insubordinate ass, right, Sparkles-kitty?"
"...Do you ever give it a rest?"
Zack thought about it for a moment, then grinned. "Nope! Not until you learn to quit playing defense and start fighting fire with fire. --Goes for both of you, by the way. And tag team is legal. Or at least I don't allow any rules, so tag team isn't against any of the rules that don't exist!"
For a moment, the only sound was the shift and pop of a log in the fire.
"And that was a HINT," Zack declared, still leaning one elbow on Sephiroth's shoulder and smoothing his hair idly with the other hand.
"Did you say something?" Sephiroth replied, bland as milk. "I've been trying not to listen."
Zack rubbed his chin judiciously. "Better," he said. "We'll give him points for that one, won't we, Spike?"
"What do you mean 'we'?" Cloud grumbled, feeling his face burn from more than the heat of the fire. He tried to get through it on sheer nerve and think later: "I'm -- I'm on the General's team. Sir."
"Great! Welcome aboard the fantasy league," Zack said, with a grin that was more than half leer. "So do you imagine yourself pitching or catching?"
It took a couple seconds for Cloud to process that, and then he was on his feet and had a double handful of Zack's shirt and was shaking him and shouting incoherently in his face, and both Zack and the General were staring at him in absolute bemusement.
He dragged himself back together by sheer force, said, "I'm going to patrol the perimeter," somehow managed to add a "sir" on the end of it, and ran.
Theme: #15 - Stop that
Fandom / pairing: Final Fantasy VII, Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth
Title: Hedgehog's Dilemma
Rating: PG-13 or R (language, not violence)
Cloud had never thought so seriously, or so desperately, about going AWOL in his life.
There aren't any monsters left out here, his mind was telling him. You'll never have to look the General in the face again if you don't go back for your supplies, if you just keep running, and sooner or later there'll be a town...
He kicked over a tree that was in his road, because the lava-hot burn of shame was still scalding its way down his spine, and because that tree hadn't done anything more to him than he'd done to the bastard of a lieutenant who'd decided to rip his heart out of his chest and dangle it dripping in front of his hero in order to laugh -- neither of them had deserved it, but life was a bitch anyway, and he could live without his supplies, he had enough training that all he'd really need was his boot knife until he found a town, and then he'd never have to face either of them again--
The arms that caught him around the waist and lifted him straight off the ground weren't really a surprise, just a sinking confirmation of the fact that life was never, ever going to give him a break.
"You son of a bitch," Cloud choked, fighting back tears of rage with everything he had left, because he'd be damned if he let the drunk smirking asshole see him cry. "You -- you bastard, you--"
"I'm sorry, Spike," Zack said, and the sincerity in his voice was startling. "It was a joke. I didn't mean to hurt you like that. I'm sorry."
"What a fucking hilarious joke," Cloud retorted through clenched teeth. "To make the General think I -- I look at him and -- and -- you fucking bastard--"
Zack sighed against his shoulderblades. "I'm sorry," he said again. "But it's not like you're the first one, you know."
"...The first one to what?"
"To fall madly, desperately in love with him, of course," Zack said. "Dozens of kids do every year. I thought it was a joke because I've been there too, that's all."
Cloud's mouth was open, but he couldn't force a sound out of his throat. Zack sighed again, and set him down, and turned him around with both hands still on his shoulders to keep him from bolting.
"Don't even tell me you're going to deny it," Zack said. "It's written all over your face."
"...I don't! I can't-- I wouldn't dare-- you--"
Zack just looked at him, with those eerie eyes shining electric blue in the dark.
"I WOULDN'T!" Cloud shouted, shaking all over. "I know what I am, I know what he is, I know there's no way -- I know that, and for you to go and make him think I-- I'd-- you bastard, I thought you were my friend--"
"I am, dammit," Zack said, and reached out and caught him into a rough hug. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I didn't know how much like him you really are. So skittish, so fragile, so damn easy to hurt--"
"What in the hell are you talking about?" Cloud demanded.
"I'm talking about the fact that neither one of you knows how to take a hug without flinching, dammit! --Sit down and listen, Spike, and that's an order."
Running clearly didn't do any good when he was up against a First Class, and so Cloud sat down in the fallen leaves, staring at nothing. Zack sat next to him, and put an arm around his shoulders, and started to talk.
About soldiers who were treated as experiments, injected with substances that none of them really understood, substances that made their reactions and their senses sharper, swifter, no longer human. About the way that most soldiers were recruited as teens or adults -- all of them really, all except for one. About the one who'd begun his very life as an experiment in a Shin-ra lab, who'd been raised to be the perfect warrior, who'd become a model soldier and a model leader as expected, as required -- and who'd had no idea how to be any kind of human, who hadn't even really understood what the word 'friends' meant. Because it implied the existence of a time when he wasn't being a model warrior, a time when he was nothing more -- or less -- than human.
About how damned long it had taken to teach the man to respond to jokes, to accept even a casual touch, let alone anything more. About the legions of girls and women who threw themselves at him, about the boys in every class who wanted to be just like him, whether to impress girls or to impress him -- and how abhorrent he'd found the entire concept, because he didn't understand what could be enjoyable about his own life, and couldn't imagine why anyone else would want his life either...
Cloud buried his face in both hands. "Oh, hell, he's got to hate me," he whispered.
"Why would he? You're not the one who's been calling him Sparkles half the night," Zack said, with a short sharp chuckle.
"But -- I'm just like the rest of them, just -- worshipping him, blindly, not understanding anything--"
"No, you're not," Zack replied. "That's why I'm telling you all this, so that you can start to understand."
"But to him I'm no different from any other mindless groupie," Cloud said, miserable. "I -- I can't even look him in the eyes when I speak to him--"
"That'd be one of the differences right there," Zack said, rubbing his shoulder gently. "You haven't got an egotistical bone in your body, Spike. And you have no idea how many hundreds of young hotshots walk up to him and try to show off. Their brains, their muscles, their swords, their dicks -- whatever. They want to make him pay attention -- or else show him up, and that's a damn stupid idea. He's the least human of all of us; they don't stand a chance, and they ought to have the sense to know it. But you, on the other hand, do your job -- your own job, not something you've thought up to try to pull some stupid but 'impressive' stunt in front of him. And you don't harass him, other than making cow-eyes all over the place. By comparison I'm sure that's got to be a hell of a relief."
"...am I really that obvious?" Cloud muttered, wilting.
"It's cute," Zack said with a grin, ruffling his hair. "Hell, it's downright adorable."
"That wasn't a 'no,'" Cloud mumbled, hugging his knees and burying his face in the rough fabric of his uniform. "Shit. I need a uniform with a helmet. Or a mask. Or a bag over my head or something..."
"Cut that out," Zack said, rubbing his back lightly. "You're my secret weapon. I'm counting on you."
"I'm your what?"
"You're my secret weapon against Sephiroth, of course," Zack said, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
"But -- but -- I -- but--!"
"He can ignore me, because I'm obnoxious and irritating and I don't know when to back off and give up on anything," Zack said, smiling. "He can't ignore you. It'd be like kicking a wet puppy. Too damn pathetic to think about."
"...Thanks so much for the awe-inspiring faith in my competence, you asshole."
"Any time," Zack said expansively, ruffling Cloud's hair again; this time Cloud swatted at his hand, and he grinned. "See? There. Better. Stop rolling over and taking it, and poke back at me. We're going to teach him how normal human friends act with each other if it kills him."
"Or me?" Cloud muttered.
"Or you, sure. But I don't want to waste you; have you got any idea how hard it is to find such a perfect straight man for my punchlines? Come on, Mr. I-blush-too-easily-for-anybody's-good, let's go embarrass you some more and show him how people recuperate from that."
"Excuse me, I never said I'd--"
Zack simply picked him up by the belt and tossed him over a shoulder.
"...Son of a bitch!" His breath was starting to seize up in his lungs again, in blind panic. "Don't mock me just because you can, just because you know you can humiliate me in front of him, you--"
Zack heaved a huge sigh that shoved his shoulder into the hollow of Cloud's stomach a bit painfully. "It's not about embarrassing you, Spike," he said. "Not really. It's about showing him that it's okay to laugh at your friends, and for your friends to laugh at you. Nobody's ever teased him in his life. Nobody's ever had the guts. Or the stupidity," he admitted, a bit sheepish. "But we're going to fix that, because somebody's got to, and because I trust you not to hurt him. --I trust you not to hurt him more than I trust myself, when it comes to that; you haven't got any ulterior motives."
"I said, I'm the only person on the planet with the stupidity to tease him, so I'm counting on you for the guts part of the assault," Zack said airily, and smacked him on the rump. "There. Blushing again. That's so damn cute..."
"He's got good ears," Zack reminded him with a chuckle. "Better make that 'you bastard, sir' for a while."
"I can't look him in the face," Cloud whispered. "How am I supposed to look at him when -- when you told him --when he knows--"
"He's known for a long time, you know," Zack replied, unusually gentle. "It's not an insult, being idolized by someone like you. If anything, it's flattering."
"But -- but you said he doesn't like it when--"
"He doesn't understand it," Zack corrected him mildly. "He's as private as you are. ...No, actually, he's worse. And it makes him uncomfortable when people revere him like that -- but he's going to have to get used to being adored, because neither of us are going to go anywhere for a long time, are we?"
"Uhh..." ...It would have been easier to argue if all his blood hadn't rushed to his dangling-upside-down head and his lungs weren't full of Zack's shoulderbones.
"Look, Spike. He's learned to deal with respect, because being a leader worth following means learning to deal with respect," Zack said. "So you're going to teach him that adoration is just the warmer, more tender side of respect. Because he won't really listen to me about things like this anymore; that's the trouble with being the one who teases him..."
"Wait. You didn't say anything about -- wait, how am I supposed to...?"
"Just be yourself," Zack said, smiling. "Only a little less embarrassed. The squirming's cute, though; keep the squirming..."
"...aaauuuuggghhh--!" It wasn't much of a scream, but it was as close as he could get with Zack's shoulder in the pit of his stomach. A bit vengefully, Cloud hoped Zack's Mako-enhanced ears were ringing.
Theme: #13 - Irritating people
Fandom / pairing: Final Fantasy VII, Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth
Rating: PG-13 or R (language, not violence)
Zack dumped him at Sephiroth's feet like a wriggling sack of potatoes and saluted, snapping his heels together briskly.
"Operation 'Recapture Chocobo Ass' successfully completed, General Sparkles sir!"
"...oh shit, he's STILL--" Cloud curled up in a ball, and wondered whether rolling into the fire might be less painful than dealing with the rest of this conversation. "Shit shit shit shit..."
"Sit up, soldier!" Zack barked in his best drill-sergeant voice, sitting on his heels to shout from a foot away from his head, and Cloud had snapped himself upright before he was even aware of what he was doing. "Right! Much better. So: he's all yours, sir!"
...Zack, you BASTARD.
A moment later, Cloud hoped that telepathy wasn't among the undiscussed side effects of the Soldier treatments, and added a mental sir just in case.
"So what do I do with him, Lieutenant?" the General asked dryly.
He could practically hear Zack's leer. "Well, sir, if you're looking for inspiration, I've got this great reference book -- plenty of illustrations and ev-"
Cloud's canteen caught him full in the face.
Cloud was so astounded to have connected that his jaw dropped open. Sprawled by the fire, dabbing blood away from his nose, Zack wagged a finger at him, laughing too hard to speak.
That was when his brain kicked back into forward gear, and he scrambled over to Zack's side, one hand digging in his medkit for a cold pack and some painkillers.
"Oh shit, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-- please tell me I didn't break your nose, oh shit, Zack-- sir, I mean -- I'm sorry sir-- tilt your head back a little-- fuck--"
Zack popped his broken nose back into place, cast a Cure on himself, and gave Cloud a bloody-faced grin that was meant for reassuring but mostly looked ghastly with the blood still streaking his face in the firelight.
"'S progress," he said, still a little thick-voiced from blood in his throat, and swallowed hard. "See, that's how you discourage somebody from targeting your chocobo-ass head, Spike. Keep that up and you might actually get me housebroken or something!"
Hugging his knees again, Cloud managed a sound that came out more like a whimper than a protest.
That was insubordination and -- and assaulting a superior officer with a projectile weapon -- and -- how many years' disciplinary action is that again? Or would he just court-martial me, if he was sane that is, and-- in front of the General and everything, dammit, I'm such an idiot--
"You could have dodged that in a heartbeat, Lieutenant."
The General's voice was faintly disapproving, and Cloud huddled up tighter, grinding his face into his knees. Can't run, he'll just catch me again... I wonder if I try to commit ritual suicide if they'd stop me...
"Oh, sure, I could have, but don't even try to tell me I didn't deserve it!"
"...I am astounded that you recognize that."
Somehow, the General was directing the tenor of his disapproval at Zack, not at the no-name grunt who'd just assaulted a superior officer and broken his face and-- none of this made any sense, least of all the idea that somehow he was supposed to be of any use in showing the General how friends behaved with each other, because he was pretty sure friends didn't go around breaking each other's noses, least of all when they outranked them, and...
"Did you break him, Lieutenant?"
"Wait a minute, did who break who?"
The look he got must have been something, because Zack chuckled sheepishly a few seconds later.
"Right, right, sorry, Seph. It's just that he's scared you hate him for some reason."
...Zack, you bastard.
There was a moment's painful, sharp-edged silence, and then the General asked, "Why...?"
"How should I know? Ask him yourself."
ZACK, YOU ASSHOLE--
"Private Strife?" the General said, and Cloud's brain froze on the thought, he actually knows my name...
Somewhere a long ways away, Zack was snickering. All his world had focused in on the General -- the smell of leather and steel and just a tinge of old blood, the way his breath caught for a moment, then came back in a slow soft exhalation...
...shit, there were words in there too...
"...Strife, regardless of what tales you may have heard of the Demon of Wutai, I assure you I have never made a habit of wantonly slaughtering my subordinates. If I were to begin tonight, I would certainly begin with the Lieutenant there, who is finding too much amusement in both your misery and my own."
Cloud nodded against his knees, still too humiliated to look up, and mumbled, "Sir, yes sir..."
After an awkward, stymied moment, Sephiroth took a crisper tone with him. "So, if you wouldn't mind, Private -- stop hiding your face as though you expect me to strike you dead at any moment, and report."
Cloud sat up straight by sheer reflex, and opened his mouth, and found that he couldn't make a single coherent sound around the panic that had knotted his throat shut.
"Anyone ever told you how much your bedside manner sucks, Seph?" Zack wheezed, doubled up with hilarity. The look Sephiroth shot him could have singed stone, but Zack just started laughing harder.
Cloud drove a fist into his own stomach to get his lungs working again, coughed, choked, and managed to gasp, "I'm sorry, General Sephiroth, sir-- I'm sorry-- I didn't mean to-- to--"
"To what, soldier?"
"To -- to -- to--" Cloud gasped for breath again, and then said all in a rush, "To bother you, sir, to let him bother you, to -- to walk around making a nuisance of myself, Zack said that you'd noticed that I've -- I've ...that I... admire you, sir, I-- I admire you so much, but you don't like that kind of attention from people, so I'm sorry, sir -- but I can't help it, so I don't know what I can do but apologize and try not to look at you or disturb you and --and I'm so sorry--"
And then there were two gloved fingertips to his lips, tasting of oiled leather and honed steel, and a thumb under his chin that coaxed his head up with a careful but utterly inexorable strength, until Cloud found himself staring frozen into those electric green eyes.
"You don't need to apologize," the General said, with the faintest hint of a quirk at the corner of his lips; Cloud stared at his mouth, and at the sweep of silver hair brushing across his cheek, because it was easier than meeting those eyes.
"I would far rather inspire admiration than terror or disgust. Or mockery," Sephiroth added, with a sharp glance at Zack, who just grinned. "And when it comes to civilizing that intoxicated nuisance, I can hardly hold you to a standard I obviously cannot match myself. So you have no need to apologize for your behavior -- unless you plan to make a habit of hiding from me like this, which is both awkward and unprofessional. Do you?"
"N-no sir! I mean-- I'm sorry -- I mean-- I didn't mean--"
Sephiroth set fingertips to Cloud's lips again, and said, "What did I just say about apologies for unnecessary things?"
"Yes sir! That is -- no sir, I won't -- unless I've done something stupid again -- I mean--" Cloud gulped hard, and saluted, hoping it would cover for the rest.
Sephiroth's brilliant, unearthly eyes bored straight through his soul for a long agonizing second, and then he nodded slightly. "Thank you, Strife. At ease."
Easier said than done, sir, Cloud thought, shoving his hands back into his pockets again, so that it wouldn't show so much that he was still trembling.
Zack's snickers had expanded into full-blown guffaws.
"What is it now, Lieutenant?" Sephiroth asked, in the weary voice of one who was already deeply dreading the answer.
"Nothing," Zack wheezed. "Just... just.. you... telling him... to relax! Talk about... blind leading the blind--!"
"Some of us may simply prefer other forms of recreation. Not all of us are insufferable would-be alcoholics, for example."
"Point!" Zack gasped, sketching a line in the air with a shaky fingertip. "Point and match... your serve, General Sparkles sir!"
Sephiroth was too still for a moment, and then he sighed, and glanced over at Cloud. "Do you understand him?"
"I -- uh -- no, sir," Cloud squeaked.
"A pity," Sephiroth murmured, staring into the fire again.
"I'm sorry, sir..."
Sephiroth held up one finger, a silent reproof, and Cloud flinched, clamping a hand over his mouth a moment too late.
"Sorry, sir -- I mean -- er -- that is -- Shutting up now, sir!" He clamped the other hand over his mouth too, and sat fidgeting as Zack thumped the ground with a fist in throes of mirth.
The General could occupy himself with fire-gazing, with his attention somewhere far away and yet his hand poised by the hilt of the Masamune at his side, ready to react at a heartbeat's notice; Cloud wasn't nearly as good at battle-ready meditation, and fidgeted helplessly with a stick he poked into the fire. Zack was mostly lying still, except for fitful half-muffled explosions of snickers whenever he caught Cloud fidgeting, or whenever something about Sephiroth's silent readiness caught his sense of humor, or whenever he felt like it, all of which were adding up to the effect of a cheese grater on Cloud's already-overtight nerves.
"Penny for your thoughts, Spike."
Inspiration (and her big brother Payback) hit him between the brows with a blaze like a Comet spell.
"I was just realizing," Cloud said. "General, sir, doesn't Lieutenant Zack need a humiliating nickname too?"
Sephiroth blinked, and then began smiling. It was a rather unnerving expression, with the firelight dancing over the sculptured bones of his face and igniting the eerie green witchlight in his eyes, and Zack gulped hard.
"Uh..." Gamely, he rolled with the punch. "Sure I do! Okay. What do you think -- do I look more like a 'Dragon' or a 'Tiger' type?"
"More of an 'Imbecile' type, really," Sephiroth said, fingertips templed together just beneath that smile, and Zack gave him an utterly betrayed look.
"Hey! That's not a nickname, that's an insult!"
"And Chocobo-ass isn't?" Cloud muttered.
"And he didn't let me name you that, now did he."
"Dandelion? --Kittycat? --SPARKLES?" Cloud's voice raised an octave in indignation. "I swear I don't know why the General hasn't blasted you into next month--"
Zack switched tactics abruptly, trying the woebegone eyes. "Come on, Spike, I'm your friend; I'm your boss even, I'll give you a promotion if you give me a better nickname than that!"
"I think it has a nice ring to it," Cloud said sulkily, glaring at Zack. "Lieutenant Imbecile, that is."
because General Sparkles says so, of course," Zack needled.
"Yes, 'just because General Spar-'... I mean... I'm sor-... uh... that is... um... oh, fuck."
Sephiroth made a strange, half-strangled noise. His shoulders were trembling, and one black-gloved hand was pressed firmly over his mouth, but there was nothing he could do to mask the laughter in his eyes.
Zack gawked at him as though he'd just sprouted a second head, and then elbowed Cloud in the ribs hard, grinning from ear to ear.
"You keep forgetting my instructions, Spike!" he said. "That was supposed to be 'oh fuck, SIR!'
"All right, looks like you need some more drill practice." He rubbed his hands together gleefully. "Repeat after me--"
"I'm sorry, sir," Cloud said, shoulders hunched around his ears in abject misery.
"Wrong drill, Private!" Zack chirped. "Repeat after me: 'Oh, fuck, sir--'"
Cloud knotted both hands in the fabric of his fatigues to keep from hiding his face, because the General had told him a Soldier didn't hide, but it was harder than he'd expected. He mumbled his "oh, fuck, sir" in the smallest voice he could manage.
"I can't hear you!"
"Yes you can, Lieutenant Imbecile, sir," Cloud muttered in the same tiny voice.
The General choked on a laugh he couldn't quite swallow back, and then started coughing to cover for himself.
With his head bent as close to his chest as he could manage, and both hands braced on his thighs to keep himself from hiding, Cloud mumbled, "I'm s-..."
"No," Sephiroth said, and coughed once more, rueful. "No, if anything, I'm the one at fault, Private. I shouldn't have laughed."
"Bullshit, sir," Zack said lightly, but his eyes were serious. "You should laugh a hell of a lot more often than you do."
"But not at an innocent fledgling just testing his wings."
"Why not? He's so cute when he flails around like that -- just like a chocobo chick..."
Cloud could feel his face burning. "Zaaaaack!"
"Well, you are," Zack said stubbornly. "Both of you have got a hell of a lot to learn about how to laugh, and how to get laughed at without getting hurt. So you're lucky you've got a black belt in the art of teasing right here! Leave it all to Zack-sensei." Then he stopped, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Say, how's that for a nickname? I like it better than Imbecile."
"Far less accurate, though," Sephiroth said, and Cloud bit his lip to keep from laughing.
The sudden solid weight of Sephiroth's hand on the crown of his head startled him. "Go on, little one," the General said softly, and ruffled his hair the way Zack had done earlier; it made Cloud's heart lurch up into his throat. "Go on and laugh. Don't let my presence deter you."
Cloud just stared up at him, motionless, breathless, completely overwhelmed.
After a moment's hesitation, Sephiroth withdrew his hand, and glanced over at Zack. "You did the same, didn't you?" he murmured. "Why...?"
"You're looking at him, Seph," Zack said, rueful-voiced. "For some people, that's enough to shut down all higher neural responses. --Oi. Spike. Lungs. Breathe. In, out..."
Cloud remembered about air, and gasped, and then choked, and spent a while wheezing weakly, staring at the fire and hoping against hope the General might mistake the flush in his cheeks for warmth from the flames.
Zack looked back and forth between them and shook his head.
"You two are hopeless," he announced, and walked over and grabbed a handful of Cloud's collar and dragged him backwards half a foot, then draped Sephiroth's arm over his shoulders. Both of them froze at that; Zack made an exasperated noise, sat on Cloud's other side, and put an arm around them both.
"See? No pain, no trauma, no heart attacks -- yes, General, I know I'm occupying your sword hand; deal with it. I am going to teach you two how to relax and laugh at this if it kills all three of us. --Which it's not supposed to do, Spike. Breathe."
Zack smacked the back of his head lightly. "Cut that out, or I will call you Chocobo-ass."
After a long, silent, horrendously awkward moment, Zack sighed and plowed a hand through the wild black mane of his hair, then said, "This isn't working, is it. Scoot over, Spike."
Zack wriggled his way in between the two of them, and caught Sephiroth's hand and stripped off the glove. From the way he hissed through his teeth, Cloud almost wondered if it had hurt somehow; but Zack wasn't budging, despite the evident tension in his shoulders from hanging on to a hand that Sephiroth was trying to pull away.
There was a dark, vivid mark on the back of his hand, and Cloud looked away quickly, because it was clearly something that he shouldn't have known about.
"It's all right," Zack said, in the face of Sephiroth's fierce, taut silence. "Neither of us would ever judge you. He doesn't even know what it means, Seph. I swear it's all right."
Slowly, gradually, Zack won the war of wills; he pulled Sephiroth's hand around his shoulders, far enough to rest atop Cloud's head again. Then he tilted Cloud's head onto his shoulder, and settled his arms about them both with a contented sound.
"See, isn't this nice?" he asked, smiling at them both. "...I told you his hair was as soft as a chocobo's ass."
"I wouldn't know," Sephiroth replied, gazing into the fire; but his bare hand rested gently against Cloud's hair and stroked just a bit. "Unlike some, I don't make a habit of molesting other species often enough to discover such things."
Cloud choked, wheezed, and shoved both hands into his mouth; Zack had no such qualms, laughing aloud. "All right, you win! You win, I'll quit with the chocobo jokes."
"And with 'Sparkles' as well," Sephiroth murmured, and it clearly wasn't a request; but Zack grinned up at him cheekily anyway.
"You drive a hard bargain, but yeah, sure. You win."
For a too-brief minute, there was nothing but peace, and the crackle of the fire, and the comforting warmth of both of them -- Zack's strong heartbeat, Sephiroth's hand light and almost curious atop his rumpled hair.
It was too good to last.
Cloud flinched even before Zack opened his mouth, because he'd felt him take a breath to speak, and that was never, ever a good idea no matter how quietly he said it:
"...besides, I can still scratch under your chin, kittycat."