(sweatdrop) I keep failing miserably in the attempts to write short. Originally this was going to be a three-parter and now it's gone and turned itself into a four-parter. Getting the first three posted, at least. (And yes, I do know there's a smoking gun out there; it's for part 4, which, believe it or not, was the section that started the whole thing off...)
Theme: #4 - Surprise
Fandom / pairing: Final Fantasy VII, Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth
Title: Mistletiptoe #1: Ambush
Disclaimer: sooo not mine - never even played the game in fact...
There was noise in the hallway. This was unexpected, because the vast majority of Shinra's armies were on holiday leave, and he was the core of the skeleton crew that remained for emergencies, and if there had been an actual emergency, someone would have contacted him with the clearly functional PHS system.
...More precisely, there was a ruckus in the hallway, and it was getting closer.
It was an entirely too familiar-sounding ruckus.
Sephiroth sighed softly to himself, resisting the unprofessional urge to rub his temples against the sudden tension-headache that was starting to manifest. The voices were becoming clear enough to distinguish even through the walls and half the length of the corridor.
"--Zack, I don't think this is a good idea--"
"Of course it's a good idea! I thought of it!"
"That's my point, Zack! The kind of stuff you think of -- pink dye in the barracks soap dispensers? Beer in the chocobos' watering troughs?"
"Spike, everybody needs to cut loose and party once in a while, even the pack animals. You're a grunt, you should know that."
"But those poor birds were staggering into things like the barn doors... Anyway, you shouldn't just go around--!"
And then there was a too-familiar squawk as Zack's young blonde shadow lost a quick microbrawl and found himself wrapped in the crook of Zack's elbow getting his hair rumpled for him... Sephiroth had his eyes closed against the approaching headache on legs, but he could still see the scene all too clearly. He'd seen it enacted a dozen times before; there was no reason to expect a variation now.
"Okay, hush up, we want this to be a surprise!"
"Sir-- you don't go surprising soldiers who've got reflexes like that!"
"That's what my reflexes are for, of course!"
"...oh, gods. I'm going to die..."
Sephiroth might have spared a moment to pity the poor young recruit whom Zack seemed to make a game of gleefully victimizing, if he hadn't been too busy pitying himself. He quickened his pace at skimming the paperwork in front of him, hoping against hope that he could at least get this document reviewed and signed off before the walking disaster let himself in and brought his ruckus.
In a way, the recruit was more right than he'd realized -- the pair of them really wouldn't be surprising a soldier with his sensory alterations, especially given the enhanced hearing -- but there was nothing saying that he couldn't singe Zack's eyebrows off if he burst in without knocking anyway.
Zack knocked twice before letting himself in less than a second later, cheerfully proclaiming, "Surprise!"
...It had been a warning of sorts, and so he couldn't really find justification for barbecuing the man before whatever scheme he had in mind found a way to explode messily all over Sephiroth's previously calm, quiet, and orderly office. Sephiroth sighed less quietly this time, and looked up from his not-yet-finished paperwork.
Theme: #10 - Rent (and yes, of course I'm being a smartaleck with the
other definition of 'rent')
Fandom / pairing: Final Fantasy VII, Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth
Title: Mistletiptoe #2: Cloud's present
Despite all of Zack's reassurances that the General would be glad to see them even if he didn't realize it quite yet, Cloud ducked back behind his lieutenant's shoulder, because the look in the man's eyes was far from welcoming.
"I told you this was a bad idea," Cloud hissed through gritted teeth.
Zack blithely ignored him. "Merry Yule, General! Come on, it's time to party!"
"...No, Lieutenant, it's not. In case you hadn't checked the duty roster, I am responsible for the second and third shifts tonight. Now if you'll excuse me..."
Zack's grin got even wider. "Nope."
Sephiroth's eyes narrowed slightly, and Cloud tried to make himself a smaller target.
"In off-duty hours I may indulge your whims, Lieutenant; but on a night when we are understaffed already, I will not permit you or anyone else to remove me from my post."
"Who said anything about removing you from your post? I just said you're not excused from the party."
Given Zack's speed, that was all the time he needed to jam a ridiculous green tree-shaped hat on Cloud's head, a red floppy one with a white bobble on his own, a double-fistful of greenery into the overhead light fixture, and a crinkly gold ring of candles on a bent wire onto the General's desk -- obviously Zack had just enough respect for the man's reflexes not to try to shove anything onto his person without warning. He'd also upended his bag onto the top of the poor man's desk with absolutely no consideration for the piles of paper already there.
"Like I said," Zack added, grinning, "you're so not excused from the party, General. Haven't you heard of office parties?"
Sephiroth didn't make the mistake of blinking a second time. Cloud wondered how Zack could stand there grinning like a fool in the face of that cold, stern gaze. But Zack was completely unfazed by it; in fact, he set down another box in the middle of the pile and opened it to reveal a slightly smudged dessert-roll with twig-shaped candles and leaves sticking out of it.
A quick gesture with a bit of materia had the candles igniting, and Sephiroth actually flinched back.
"What are you--? You're burning your food? On top of my year-end reports? Lieutenant--"
"They're just candles, Seph," Zack said ruefully. "It's a Yule log. Candles to bring the sun back and all. Old tradition."
"Burning your food on top of the Shinra quarterly reports will have no effect whatsoever on the planet's orbit."
"How do you know?" Zack replied, grinning. "They've been doing it for centuries. Maybe the fact that the sun comes back in the spring really does have to do with the Yule logs convincing the sun to come warm its hands with us again."
"The sun is a thermonuclear reaction, Lieutenant! It has no hands to--" Sephiroth stopped, took a breath, and said, "Extinguish my desk now."
"You're no fun," Zack said, and blew out the candles. "This is why we have to teach you how to party, right, Spike? Pass me the plates."
Caught between Zack's casual insistence and Sephiroth's taut, cold displeasure, Cloud froze like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming truck. "S-s-s-sir...?"
Zack looked back and forth between them, sighed loudly, and unstrapped the fastenings of Cloud's overfull backpack to dig the plates out for himself. "You're both hopeless, you know. I swear I'm going to teach you two how to party if it kills someone..."
"If you smear your flaming chocolate-covered thermonuclear summoning device all over my reports, Lieutenant, I assure you there will be a more than sufficient quantity of blood on the floor to suit that definition."
Zack paused in his plate-dealing and looked at Sephiroth suspiciously. "Was that a joke? That sounded like a joke. Kind of a bad one, sure, but we can't expect miracles. --Hey, Spike, did that sound like a joke to you? I think he's in danger of coming down with a sense of humor!" Then he burst into an ear-splitting grin: "I'm so proud! It's like watching my baby take his first steps-- I should have brought a camera!"
He didn't even need to look to dodge the bolt of lightning that nearly trimmed his hair for him and seared a crackling scorchmark on the wall; Cloud yelped and dropped to the floor with both hands over his head.
"Right, right, cake off the desk," Zack said cheerfully, scooping it up and transferring it to a report-free spot in the windowsill -- but he left the rest of the boxes jumbled in the middle of the desk. And he relit the candles once the box was in the windowsill.
Sephiroth had reseated himself behind his desk, and was staring down at it expressionlessly. One black-gloved hand nudged a box out of the way as he followed a paragraph down a half-covered document.
Still trembling all over, Cloud picked himself up off the floor and crept over to the desk and picked up a box. He nearly dropped it again when Sephiroth lifted a hand with a spark dancing between the fingertips in silent warning.
"N-n-no-no-nosir-- I'm helping--" He set the box on the floor hastily, then picked up another and set it beside the first. That glittering spark died away; Cloud didn't take time to give voice to the sigh of relief tugging at his throat, too busy quickly moving Zack's mess off the General's desk.
"Stop that, Private!"
Cloud was so startled he did drop the box he was holding, and then clutched at it hastily and snapped to attention, saluting toward the General -- and then realized he was standing at attention in the wrong direction, and shot a glance toward Zack, who was glaring at him with both hands on his hips.
"That's called aiding and abetting, Private. You heard him -- he expects it'll take bloody homicide to teach the two of you to party, right? So by removing the implements of teaching more civilian-friendly methods of entertainment, you're becoming an accessory to premeditated murder, and we can't have that on your record!"
A maniacal twitch of a grin was tugging at the corner of Zack's lips despite his best efforts at playing the stern officer. "Put that box right back where you found it, Private; that's an order!"
Cloud looked back and forth between Zack's mirthfully failed attempts to glare and the icy silver spill of the General's hair as he bowed his head silently over his work. He didn't hesitate a moment. "No sir, Lieutenant Zack sir!"
Zack wobbled at maintaining the indignant face for a moment, then crumpled into mournful hound-dog-eyed dismay. "Why not?"
"Because I know I can't dodge faster than a lightning bolt moves, sir."
Zack tried to think of a way around that one, and finally admitted defeat, shoulders slumping pathetically.
"...you hear that, Sephiroth? You've gone and terrified the party spirit right out of this poor young recruit."
The General's shoulders stiffened. Zack clamped a hand over Cloud's mouth to keep him from protesting, and waxed poetic on the subject.
"He's so young, it's his first time spending the holidays away from his home and family, he's got to feel horribly lonely and homesick as it is, and you're so cruel, so cold..."
Struggle as he might, there wasn't a thing Cloud could do against a First Class soldier with an axe to grind -- particularly when he was stuck in the role of the axe.
"Shame on you! What kind of role model are you providing? What kind of superior officer treats his subordinates that unfeelingly-- and at the holidays no less--"
"...Stop it." Two black-gloved fingertips were pressed hard into his temples.
Zack was grinning far too much for anyone's good, but he held his peace -- and Cloud's with it.
When the General lifted his head, the ache in his eyes was startlingly human despite the slit pupils and the eerie glow of power behind them.
"You wanted to return home, Private? Your home is a place with special meaning to you, a place that brings you happiness? ...Zack, you should have let the boy go."
Cloud pulled with both hands on Zack's too-casual grip on his mouth, and couldn't budge the stubborn bastard.
"Yeah, I should have, but he's just so devoted to our grand and noble cause that--"
"Let him speak for himself, Zack. ...Had you wished to return to your home, Private Strife?"
When Zack finally let go of his mouth, all the words tried to come tumbling out at once.
"No sir! I mean -- yes, sir, but no-- I mean -- I wouldn't have minded going home, but-- I thought it was more important to be here, sir..."
Sephiroth tilted his head to one side a bit. "There's no need so urgent that the army would require an additional foot soldier on duty right now, Private -- or even a dozen of them. If your commanding officer didn't explain that to your squadron, I shall have words with him."
"No, sir. That is-- he did, sir; he did explain that to us. That's not why I stayed..." Cloud stopped, and gulped hard, shooting a sidelong glance at Zack.
"Go on, Spike," Zack said, grinning. "I can dodge the lightning bolts, after all."
When Sephiroth turned toward Zack, his eyes were much less human than they had been a moment earlier. "You made the boy stay, then?"
"No, sir!" Cloud said hastily. "He didn't make me, he just -- told me, he... um... --Not like that, sir, I don't mean 'told' like an order, just... he... Zack explained some things, a little, and... I thought I should stay...?"
Somehow, instead of making it better, everything he was saying seemed to make it worse. Sephiroth's frigid disapproval of his lieutenant's behavior was all but tangible. Cloud shot a miserable, apologetic look at Zack, who was still grinning. The cheeky bastard just nodded and made a little shooing gesture at him.
Cloud took a deep breath and fixed his gaze on his boots so that the shifts in Sephiroth's expressions couldn't curdle the words in his throat.
"Zack... um... he said that... you never had holidays to yourself, sir -- that you were always on duty when everyone else went away to their families, that the only parties you went to were political things where people were there to make points with each other and try to wear down the other side, not to... to be together because you wanted to be, or to sing carols or have a Yule log or trade presents or anything that a family would do. So I thought... um... maybe we could bring you presents and a Yule party this year...?"
He wanted desperately to see how the General had taken that, but he couldn't make himself lift his head. To crack the agonizing silence, he dove back into apologetic chatter.
"But I didn't know he was going to mess up your papers and interrupt your working, I thought we were just going to help you finish things so that you could have some free time that we wouldn't be bothering you and making a mess, it wasn't supposed to be a bother, it was supposed to be fun..."
"If we waited politely for him to get done working, we'd be waiting for the next five years," Zack said loftily, hands folded behind his head. "Besides, this way got his attention a lot more thoroughly."
"Stop that." Sephiroth's voice was achingly weary.
"Who, me? Stop when I've got the upper hand?"
Zack made a lip-zipping gesture, with a grin that stretched the definitions of silence.
Cloud could feel Sephiroth's gaze on the top of his head, despite how careful he was not to look up from the toes of his boots.
"I'm so sorry about your paperwork," he murmured. "I should've tried harder to stop him, I mean, I wouldn't exactly want someone to come in and start messing with my equipment in the middle of training either, I just -- Zack knows more about soldier parties than I do, I thought-- I don't know what I was thinking--"
"...You're saying it's my fault you stayed here."
"Um... not your fault, but... because you were still here, yes, sir."
"...You thought my existence so pathetic that I would need comfort for it."
That completely derailed Cloud's train of thought; he looked up before he realized what he was doing, and then his throat stopped working. Saying no would be a lie, but saying yes would be too cruel when the man looked practically ill at the idea. He shot a frantic look at Zack.
"Go on, Spike," Zack said ruefully. "You've done fine so far."
"No I haven't!" Cloud shot back. "I -- I'm so sorry, General, I didn't mean to offend you-- I don't know why I thought this would be a good idea, I had no business-- no right-- I should go, we should both just go--"
"Okay, everybody hold on," Zack said, catching a grip on Cloud's collar before he could make good on that threat. "You were doing fine up 'til then, kiddo. You don't need a right to bring somebody Yule presents -- you just need a good heart, which you've got in spades. And you, Seph -- nobody said a damn thing about 'pathetic,' okay? Friends do things like this for each other. I've gone to pester Spike when he's stuck on some boring patrol, just to keep him company. It definitely makes the patrol go faster when he's chasing me around trying to choke the daylights out of me!"
He sounded positively proud of that announcement, too. Cloud hid his face in both hands to try to keep from groaning aloud: "Zack, you're not helping!"
"The point is, boss, you're the one on the boring shift tonight, and we're here to keep you company," Zack said. "And we brought a party with us to cheer all of us up. And a Yule log. And presents. --Look, if you're going to throw us out, at least open the kid's present first; he nearly drove himself nuts this past week, trying to find something he thought you'd like to have."
"Zaaaaack! Don't tell him that!"
"It's true, though."
Zack picked up Cloud's carefully wrapped present and tossed it at Sephiroth, who caught it and looked down at it as though it were a new species he'd never seen before.
Cloud heard himself babbling again, and couldn't quite figure out how to stop. "If you don't like it it's okay, sir, I can find something else, really! He's exaggerating, he always does that, he always makes things sound like-- like-- Anyway, if you don't like it I'll find something else for you, I promise--"
Then he stopped, and blinked, because Sephiroth was trying to carefully untie the bow stuck on the top of the package.
"Does this hold it together?"
"Uh... no, sir. That's just to, er, look nice. I think. I hope it looks nice anyway, I'm not good at this stuff, not like my mom was-- er-- anyway, it's, um, taped... on the bottom...? I probably did it wrong, I don't know why they tape the things on the bottom, it's just that that's how my mom did it, so I thought-- I don't know--"
"You did fine, Spike," Zack said gently, and patted his shoulder. "It's more like nobody's ever given him a present before."
Cloud stared at his general's bent head for a moment, utterly stricken. Sephiroth's hands stilled.
"That was unnecessary, Lieutenant."
"I'm right, aren't I?" Zack prodded.
"...Bribes don't usually come wrapped in decorated paper, no." He picked up a letter-opener and began carefully working at a stubborn piece of tape that wouldn't peel free.
"It's not a bribe," Cloud said desperately. "I wouldn't -- I'd never-- I just wanted to give you something, that's all--"
"He knows that, Spike," Zack said, still rubbing his shoulder in quiet comfort. "We both know. Relax. It's okay."
The piece of tape was too well adhered; it began to tear the paper beneath it, and Sephiroth stopped, studying the situation carefully. He took out a pocket knife and began to cut through the tape, trying not to damage the paper beneath it; Zack cleared his throat, and Sephiroth looked up at him.
"Here's how unwrapping usually goes, boss," Zack told him, with a rueful grin. He picked up his own present, and enthusiastically ripped the paper off and tossed a handful in the air: "Whee! Okay, let's see here--"
Zack pulled the box open and tossed the lid, and then blinked at the contents, and the corner of his eye started twitching. "...Wiseass."
"I thought you could use those," Cloud retorted, on much surer ground with his lieutenant.
"What do you think, General?" Zack asked, holding up a pair of books: Minding your Manners and Non-alcoholic Cocktails for the Business Workday, with a bookmark shaped like a hedgehog and a puffy little bobble on the end. "I think this is a personal comment from the unwashed rabble, don't you?"
Sephiroth considered it for a silent moment; the corner of his mouth quirked, and then he turned back to his careful knifework on the tape. Zack snorted his opinion of that.
"Yeah, thanks for the support, boss. Your turn, Spike."
He tossed a crinkly bundle of wrapping paper at Cloud, who blinked at the wild plastering of tape all over haphazardly applied paper, and then just shrugged and tore an end off. Inside, there was a bright yellow fluffy thing; Cloud made a half-muffled sound of unwilling amusement, and peeled the paper away from a plush gold chocobo chick.
"You were saying I was making comments?" He ruffled the little thing's fur affectionately, though. "So soft... He's a cute little guy. Thanks, Zack. --The other recruits are never going to stop ragging on me, you know."
"Yeah, I know," Zack said happily. "That's what you're here for, Spike: to provide unintentional amusement and a handy victim for us all."
"I should have gotten you the Remedial Behavior for Total Idiots book instead," Cloud muttered under his breath, arms crossed.
Sephiroth had finished his careful, near-surgical removal of the tape and set the wrapping paper aside neatly, then opened the box. Inside was a carefully folded pile of fabric, a creamy color for part of the length, deepening to the warm red-gold of dancing flames at either end.
"...What is it?"
Cloud felt as though his face was burning. "It's a scarf, sir. --I'm sorry, it's probably a stupid present, it's just that -- your uniform -- I mean -- you have a coat and gloves but you don't have a scarf, and it's cold out there, and you have to be outdoors at so many parades and presentations, I thought you might like something to... keep warm with... But if you don't like it I can get something else, or if it's the wrong color -- I mean, your uniform's black, maybe anything's the wrong color, I should've asked--"
Zack reached over and clamped a hand over Cloud's mouth helpfully.
Sephiroth reached into the box and lifted out a fold of the scarf, studying it. Something about the unfolded shape must have been more familiar; something behind his eyes eased, and he said, "Civilians wear these outdoors, don't they."
"Yes, sir," Zack said, smiling.
Behind his hand, Cloud was mumbling something that had the sound of the word 'uniform' in the middle of it, and Zack poked him in the shoulder with a free fingertip.
"And no, kid, you haven't broken military regulations and damaged his uniform or anything. Relax."
Cloud pulled himself away from Zack's hand with a gasp, and said, "But there was a gray one too, it -- it looked more like you, sir, more like your uniform, but... it looked kind of... cold, and I thought scarves are supposed to be warm. But the gray one would have looked better with your uniform; I should've--"
Zack wrestled him into a headlock and got a hand over his mouth again. "He's saying the color's negotiable," he translated with a grin. "Would you rather have a different color? --And in this case black leather with plate armor is NOT one of the options, just so we're clear on that part, Seph."
"It seems warm," Sephiroth replied, still studying his gift. "...And warmth is the only purpose?"
"Yeah, that's it," Zack said, rueful and gentle. "Scarves are a motherly thing, all about 'I worry about you and I want to keep you warm and safe from the snow and the cold.' They're not so much about spare materia slots or blocking stabs or bullets; that's what armor's there for."
Cloud had turned the color of an overripe tomato behind Zack's hand. Zack blinked at him. "...Hey, can you breathe?"
"That is a question to ask sooner rather than later, Lieutenant," Sephiroth observed, his eyes flickering back and forth between the two of them.
"You got a head cold? You should've said something," Zack told him. "Er, wait, how were you gonna say anything with my hand over your mouth? Right. Er, my bad--"
He let go hastily and scratched behind an ear, and so he completely wasn't expecting Cloud to lunge for his throat. Zack leaned a palm against Cloud's forehead to keep the smaller teen from being able to connect as he flailed and thrashed wildly. "...Huh?"
"Scarves-- you-- I wasn't-- --it's NOT A GIRLY THING, you-- you--!"
"I didn't say girly, I said motherly."
"Kids these days," Zack clucked. "No respect for their elders. What would your mother say if I..."
"--go on, rip out my pride and stomp on it, you bastard--"
"You had pride? Since when?"
With a howl of frustration, Cloud lunged for him again. Laughing despite himself, Zack caught his wrists and held him still by the simple expedient of lifting straight up until Cloud was dangling like an overgrown Christmas ornament.
"Sorry! Sorry, Spike, but that one you did run into head first. Come on, kiddo, calm down. So you don't want to be 'motherly,' fine, sure, you're a teenaged boy, I can understand that. So we'll just have to think up some other way to explain why you're worried about a superior officer ten years your elder catching a chill and getting a cold from the lack of a properly warm fluffy scarf to wrap up snug when he goes outside."
Zack paused and rubbed his chin, with Cloud still dangling squirming in his easy one-handed grasp. "Some way that's got nothing at all to do with acting like a fussy mama chocobo clucking over a chick who's half a foot taller than you are -- let's see here, is 'worrywart' a better description?"
Even Cloud's hair was drooping in abject misery. Zack set him down and slung an arm around his shoulders to keep him from either bolting for the door or crumpling into a huddled little ball of humiliation on the General's carpet.
"It's a kind and comforting gift," Zack told him, gentle-voiced. "Yeah, it's something my mom would do, but she's a kind and comforting person. And so are you. That isn't something to be ashamed of, okay? Chin up, kid. ...In case you hadn't noticed, he likes it."
Cloud's head snapped up at that, and he stared back and forth between Zack's grin and the General, who was still sitting on the edge of his desk holding the scarf and studying the fabric as though it held some arcane mystery. It really didn't suit him -- it was a cozy sort of thing, hand-knitted of soft yarn and festively dyed like a warm hearthfire, and it looked as badly out of place in the stark, crisp office as the bright blue and green piece of wrapping paper still lying on top of several year-end reports.
"...you're messing with me again, aren't you. Stop it, Zack, please."
"For once, I swear I'm not messing with you," Zack said, rueful, and then lifted his voice more out of courtesy than out of any thought that Sephiroth hadn't been able to hear them. "What do you think, boss? Steel gray instead? Or something green to go with your eyes--"
Sephiroth's black-gloved hands tightened just a bit on the scarf's fabric. "...I would prefer to keep this one."
"I told you so," Zack gloated to Cloud, who was doing his tomato-red impression again.
"Its purpose is to be warm, isn't it?" Sephiroth murmured. "To be warm, and to remind the wearer of your kindness and your concern. It will serve each of those purposes admirably. Thank you."
"You're welcome, sir!" Cloud said, and his voice squeaked high, and he snapped to a salute in the vain hope that Zack wouldn't laugh too hard at him. From the not-well-muffled choking sounds behind him, that was one Yule wish that wasn't likely to be granted any time soon.
After a moment's hesitation, Sephiroth said, "You don't need to worry about me."
"...Sir, yes sir!" Cloud said, still crimson-cheeked under the salute. "I'll try to stop, sir!"
Zack completely lost it, falling over on the floor with a thump and wheezing with glee. Cloud kicked backward sharply with one booted foot, and was gratified by the little grunt of pain from the laughing bastard before he snapped back to perfect attention.
"At ease, Strife," Sephiroth said, and Cloud hastily shifted to parade-rest stance instead.
Scrubbing laugh-tears off his face, still wheezing around aching ribs, Zack propped himself up and sat cross-legged in the middle of the carpet, watching the evening's entertainment with a broad grin. "You've got another box there too, Seph. Although if you go into surgery on the wrapping this time I may strangle you with that scarf. It's there to be torn off, okay?"
"...Then why put it on in the first place?"
"To make things look festive, that's all."
"Then why tear it?" Sephiroth replied, more confident with his knife this time, but still taking care not to nick the paper as he cut through the tape and unfolded the wrappings.
Zack's box held a packet of paper on top of a mound of foam peanuts. Sephiroth's eyes narrowed; from his position, all Cloud could read was the headline, but that was more than enough.
The packet proclaimed itself to contain one Form 33976-Z: Equipment List and Procedural Instructions for the Deployment and Operation of One Shinra Military-Grade Party In A Box.
"Zack, you didn't," Cloud muttered.
"Of course I did! Our esteemed General here learns everything best from military manuals anyway; I thought I'd just give him some help he knows how to handle!"
Zack wadded up a ball of paper from the floor and tossed it at Sephiroth's ankle, because the man was rubbing his temples again, eyes closed tightly against the pain of the world. "Come on, General, give us low-ranking grunts the field training version."
Sephiroth said a word Cloud hadn't realized a man like him would know... although, on second thought, the General had spent the vast majority of his life working among soldiers.
Theme: #26 - Hidden
Fandom / pairing: Final Fantasy VII, Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth
Title: Mistletiptoe #3: Zack's present
The first three items excavated from Zack's box were CDs that proclaimed themselves to be variants of 'funky groove euro dance beat techno house party mix' music, with adjectives more or less scattered at random among the garish neon covers. The next was a box for a lava lamp. The illustration had glowing purple lava blobs floating in electric green ooze. It looked like a lab experiment gone horribly wrong. Sephiroth's cat-slit pupils were flaring and contracting in an effort to deal with the near-radioactive vibrance of the colors.
"It's fluorescent!" Zack said proudly. "When you turn on the blacklight, it goes weird."
"The blacklight," Sephiroth echoed, with a faint thread of pain in his voice.
"Don't worry, it's in there too; just keep shoveling peanuts out of the road. Want a hand?"
"No, thank you, Lieutenant; my desk has become enough of a casualty of war already."
In addition to the blacklight, the box also contained half a dozen hip-flask-sized bottles of alcohol in colors that were never intended to be considered consumable, including one that roiled liquid silver like mercury.
"That one there matches your eyes," Zack pointed out helpfully. "In case, you know, you want to destroy your liver with something that's color coordinated to your eyeballs."
"You are an idiot," Cloud said helplessly.
"Hey, I didn't go insulting your taste in presents, did I?"
"Yes you did!"
"Oh. Right. Sorry 'bout that. --Anyway, there's some more stuff tucked in the corners, Seph, just dump the peanuts on the floor or something. Or stuff 'em in a drawer for the next party, they make great confetti after you've gotten drunk enough..."
"...I have never been that drunk."
"Which is why you have your party in a box, so we can help fix that! What are friends for, man..."
Half a dozen rocks glasses were buried among the peanuts as well. One was etched with a delicate frost pattern, one was etched with a chocobo, and one was etched with a hedgehog, though the rest were plain.
"So we never have to wonder which glass is whose," Zack said, grinning. Sephiroth looked less dismayed by the glasses than by the rest of his desk's contents, so he nudged the man with an elbow to keep him working on the pandora's box of horrors. "Keep digging. You still haven't found the Supplemental Yule Kit."
The Supplemental Yule Kit was a brown corrugated cardboard box containing a highly collapsible fishing rod with an explosion of twigs, berries, and leaves snarled around the end of the line.
Sephiroth and Cloud both blinked at it, one in perplexity, the other in slowly, steadily-growing horror that was manifesting itself as a series of near subvocal whimpers.
"...It's not fluorescent," Sephiroth observed.
"I can fix that!" Zack said, rubbing his hands together in mad-eyed glee. "Give me two minutes and a can of spray paint and--"
"No -- no, that's quite all right; I misspoke, Lieutenant. I should have said 'at least it's not fluorescent.'"
"Well, then," Zack said, still with that wide, manic grin. "Military precision, General. Got to make sure you express things as clearly as possible. Now, then -- you've got a checklist over there; time to make sure all the equipment is functioning!"
"...The Supplemental Yule Kit appears to have been damaged in transit."
Cloud whimpered aloud. Zack slung an arm around Sephiroth's shoulders with the look of a cat with a full bowl of cream.
"We'll get to that in due time, boss. Come on. The easiest way to learn a new procedure is to drill it, right? Right. So. Get out section 6.5 alpha in the documentation and let's get to work!" He even pulled Cloud over and sat him on Sephiroth's other side, saying disingenuously, "Watch this, Private; always good to study at the side of a superior officer, right? --Right?"
"...yes, sir," Cloud said, because agreeing to whatever Zack said was usually the fastest way to get these things over with.
The checklist had even been printed on triplicate paper, with white, pink, and yellow carbon copies waiting atop the clipboard. Wearily, Sephiroth began at the top of the form; his handwriting was swift and precise, almost a draftsman's penmanship.
Ranking officer on site: Sephiroth, General, Shinra Military Operations
Estimated time until mission commencement: Negative forty (40) minutes and counting
Sephiroth paused for a moment, with a green-eyed glance at Zack, who was unrepentantly leaning over his shoulder to read the answers; then he wrote, To satisfy my junior officer's mordant sense of humor as efficiently as possible in order to return to my officially assigned duties.
Zack snorted his opinion of that; in response to Sephiroth's quirked brow, he replied, "Hey, I didn't say anything, did I? Go on."
Mission equipment: One (01) Shinra Military-grade Party in a Box inc. one
(01) Supplemental Yule Kit
Mission personnel: Instigator First Class (A1, codename Imbecile); Selected Victims (A2 and A3)
Cloud made a half-strangled squeak, and put a hand over his own mouth when Sephiroth glanced at him.
Field of operations: Ranking officer's departmental office, Floor 54, Shinra
Equipment and material deployment checklist:
( ) Blacklight (01)
( ) Other supplemental equipment (list on separate page)
( ) Lava lamp (01)
( ) Supplemental disco ball (see Supplemental Dance Club Kit, Form 33977-Z section B.ii.7)
( ) Supplemental lampshades for drunken personnel's heads (requisition from Heidegger's office; see Form 91105-Z section D.vii.9)
( ) Supplemental Yule Kit (01)
( ) Other supplemental equipment (list on separate page)
( ) Dance music (03)
( ) Boom box or equivalent (01)
( ) Other supplemental equipment (list on separate page)
( ) Alcoholic (06 minimum; requisition more as needed)
( ) Not alcoholic (optional, not recommended)
( ) Glasses (to match number of personnel on site)
( ) Other supplemental equipment (list on separate page)
Sephiroth completed the rest of the form in a sort of numb detachment. He signed off at the bottom through sheer force of habit and separated the copies, then pulled out an interdepartmental envelope and was halfway through addressing it to Scarlet's office by the time he realized what he was doing.
Zack was snickering at him again. Cloud was looking exceptionally busy fidgeting with the Yule log's arrangement for no apparent reason. Sephiroth sighed, and shoved the paperwork into Zack's chest hard enough to stagger him.
"Seph, buddy, this is why you need help with recreation; you don't do it nearly often enough to have any kind of instincts of your own," Zack told him wryly. "Come on, let's get this party in gear."
There wasn't a lava lamp in the lava lamp box, though. It was a little plastic green tree with a switch on the bottom that made lights twinkle in its branches. The contents of the second groove rave beat dance party euro technomix CD case proved to be a collection of carols from a Section 7 schoolchildren's choir. The blacklight box held a wadded-up string of twinkle-lights that Cloud spent quite a while carefully untangling and arranging around the window that held their Yule log.
Zack ducked back out into the hall and grabbed two flasks full of liquid that gave off visibly steaming vapors when poured into styrofoam cups. One was a muddy brown liquid and the other was a rusty liquid, and Sephiroth looked at Zack skeptically as he opened the electric green hip flask and poured a shot of the contents into a brown cup.
"I trust you can understand my skepticism at the thought that either of those substances are appropriate for human consumption, Lieutenant. I cannot imagine what you would have had to do to alcohol to produce something of that-- that texture--"
The rusty sludge got a shot of the neon red hip flask and a double shot of something orange and viscous, and Zack grinned at him. "Come on, General, where's your sense of adventure? You survived Wutai, you can survive this. And if not I know you've got heal materia kicking around here somewhere! Come on, bottoms up." He held the rusty liquid under Sephiroth's nose.
...The scent of the stuff was unexpected, to say the least; it had nothing to do with the sharp bite of alcohol, just an assortment of spices he couldn't name, and something like sweet apples. Sephiroth took the cup and sipped at it carefully.
"...What is this?"
"Old Yule tradition," Zack said, grinning. "For Pete's sake, the kid's even more underage than I am; did you really think I was going to get him wasted?" Sephiroth took a breath to answer; Zack laughed and waved a hand. "On second thought, don't answer that, boss. Spike, you want hot cider or hot cocoa?"
"Cider," Cloud said. "There's enough chocolate in the Yule log."
"Now see, there's where you're wrong, kid. There's never enough chocolate!" He took a swig of the green-doctored cocoa in his cup and sighed in bliss.
Out of a growing suspicion, Sephiroth reached for one of the hip flasks and unscrewed the top to smell the contents.
The green one was peppermint syrup; the red one had cinnamon and some other bright, spicy blend of flavors; the opaque, viscous orange one was simply juice concentrate. The sludgy beige thing that shimmered appeared to be hazelnut and chocolate. Zack caught his hand before he could open the fluidly metallic one, though.
"Liquid mercury," he said, grinning. "I wouldn't drink that if I were you."
"...You are the most devious, manipulative, calculating, evil-minded son of a--"
"Aw, you're flattering me, boss."
"I thank the Ancients that you're on my staff," Sephiroth murmured.
Zack tilted his head to the side a bit, and his grin softened. "Really?"
"Of course," Sephiroth replied. "If you can abuse and mislead your allies like this, I have no desire at all to learn what it is to be your enemy."
Zack threw his head back and laughed, and slung his arm around Sephiroth's shoulders, and touched their styrofoam glasses together in a cockeyed salute. "Touche! Shot through the heart. I love you too, boss."
"I know," Sephiroth replied, gazing at Cloud's attempts to hang little bent-paperclip ornaments on the tiny tree. "We'd be targeted much less often if you didn't."
ETA Jan. 5: Continued over here...