Not dead yet, honest! ^^;;; On to the fic...
Theme: #21- Naptime
Fandom / pairing: Final Fantasy VII, Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth
Rating: PG at most
Disclaimer: sooo not mine - never even played the game in fact...
Table of contents of all 30 fics
"No, really," Cloud said, trying not to sound too desperate. "We can do this later. Or somewhere else. Or..."
"What's the matter? Haven't got your bed made to regulation?" Zack teased. "Slacking off since everyone else went home for term break and you've got the place to yourself, eh? Sounds to me like you're trying a little too hard to keep your superior officers from inspecting your quarters, Private."
Cloud bit his lip and kept walking.
Zack's grin got a little broader. "So is it girly magazines or kinky toys?"
"...Both?" he guessed, brows arching skyward at Cloud's panicked indignation.
Cloud sketched a helpless, apologetic half salute at Sephiroth in the half a second before he unbuckled his helmet and threw it at Zack's head, then followed it with a full-body tackle.
...Of course, since it was a rather scrawny teenager performing the tackle and a Soldier First Class as his target, the end result involved Cloud dangling in a foot-trailing skid from a white-knuckled grip around his waist as Zack cheerfully kept right on walking without giving the kid a chance to get his feet under himself again.
"Room 2105 D, right?" Zack asked nobody in particular, and keyed the lock override.
Cloud scrambled to get his feet back under himself; there was still one advantage of his lack of height, and he'd learned to take whatever advantage he could. Despite Zack's cheerful attempt at 'casually' leaning in the door with an arm braced across it, Cloud ducked under and wriggled into his room first anyway.
There were several training manuals lying open on the neatly-made bottom bunk, but no magazines or toys in evidence; still, Cloud took up an almost defensive position on his bed, back to the wall, busying himself with dog-earing corners to mark his places in the manuals but not actually moving to put them away.
"Well, damn; here I thought I was going to find something to make you blush over," Zack said ruefully, scratching the back of his head. "Word of advice, kiddo -- don't go around panicking like that unless you've got something really embarrassing to hide. It gets all my teasing instincts all riled up for nothing."
"Your teasing instincts are always all riled up for nothing," Cloud retorted, glowering at his armful of books.
Zack just laughed as if he'd been paid a compliment. "I can't help it! You're so much fun when you're all spiky and ruffled like that."
"Then what's your excuse for teasing the General?"
"Testing to see whether he ever goes spiky and ruffled too, of course," Zack said easily. "With all that hair, he's at a disadvantage, but I have faith in his talents..." He glanced up to see whether Sephiroth had reacted to the poking, but his General had long since taken to ignoring three-quarters of what came out of his mouth. Well, nobody had ever accused the man of being slow on the uptake.
The focus in his eyes wasn't quite usual, though, not for when it was just the three of them. "Seph...?"
"Strife," Sephiroth said, very softly, his unblinking gaze fixed on the shadows in the corner. "Over here. Now."
Cloud blinked, and glanced down, and -- much to Zack's bewilderment -- he started blushing. "Um. Sir. It's not--"
Holding up both hands in an oddly placating gesture, Cloud slid off the bed and walked across the room, keeping himself between Sephiroth and that shadowy corner. "It's not something to worry about, sir," he said, a bit apologetic. "I'm sorry, I just... um. I couldn't leave--"
"Would somebody mind clueing me in here?" Zack asked, hands on his hips.
"There's something alive under there," Sephiroth said, and he still hadn't blinked. "After I deal with this, have Maintenance taken to task for not securing the air ducts--"
"It's not like that, sir," Cloud said. "I know what it is. I... um... I kind of... brought it."
Then Sephiroth blinked, and Cloud took a half-step back at finding himself suddenly the new focus for that fierce, unearthly stare.
"You brought vermin into your quarters."
"It's not vermin," Cloud said, still pink-cheeked. "It's just a cat."
"...Then you have had issues with an infestation of vermin? You should have spoken with Maintenance--"
"No, sir," Cloud said, very carefully. "There haven't been any mice or rats or anything. I'm sorry, sir. I know it's against regulations. I just... um... she was injured, and it's cold out there, and I wanted a pet..."
"For what purpose?"
At the utterly stricken look in Cloud's eyes, Zack thought he'd better intervene. "Because it's a pet," he said. "That's a word for an animal you want in your place, instead of an animal you don't. Kind of like anti-vermin."
"Yes, Zack, I do know the uses of household animals," Sephiroth said, tight-lipped. "Dogs are trained for combat, and cats exterminate vermin, but to leave a live animal walking around uncaged when there were no vermin--"
Cloud looked like he'd just been kicked, which had Sephiroth's hands closing too tightly around nothing at all; Zack sighed, and put a hand between his shoulderblades to push him a little further inside, closing the door behind them. "Sit down, boss," he said. "I think this one might take a while."
Zack nagged Sephiroth into the desk chair, and perched on the edge of the desk himself, and he kept the General still while Cloud coaxed the cat out from under the bed and sat in the middle of his bunk with the animal stiff and wary on his lap, tail lashing. She was a big cat, a ginger tabby with a white chin and two white paws, and her tail made a solid thwap back and forth against Cloud's forearm as he tried to soothe her down from her staring match with Sephiroth.
"Okay," Zack said, trying to distract himself from the impulse to snicker over the similarity of the way the cat and the General stared at each other, neither one looking particularly domesticated at the moment. "So. Pets. You leave them out of cages because they like it. They aren't just for working or for experimenting on."
"There is no need to patronize me, Lieutenant."
Zack blew all the air in his lungs out in an enormous sigh. "Sorry, boss. I just really don't know how much of this type of stuff you do or don't know, given... how you grew up. I mean... there's more to pets than guard animals and exterminators."
"Those are the most common uses," Sephiroth said, still wary. "I grant that dogs can be trained as assistants to the injured or disabled, but cats are less obedient. Less reliable. I cannot see an alternative purpose in cats."
"It's not very practical," Zack warned lightly. "Pets, like children, aren't usually very practical."
"Children can be trained more swiftly and efficiently than adults, and then as they lose the facility for rapid absorption of their training, they grow into size and strength that compensates for it," Sephiroth said, waving a hand. "Don't confuse the issue."
Fighting down the sick rush of vertigo at realizing how and why Sephiroth had learned to think of children like that, Zack faltered over his attempt at the usual smile. "...Let's just say that pets can be impractical, then."
"Yes, I can see that," Sephiroth replied, with a nod toward the still-bristling cat in Cloud's lap. "It seems ill-tempered, and does not catch vermin." Gentling his voice, he asked the boy, "What does it do, Strife?"
"She... uh... she purrs," Cloud said softly, stroking the thick fur in a futile attempt to calm the unsettled cat.
"What is that good for?"
"Um." Cloud bent his head further. "Nothing, really. It's just... nice."
"Anything else?" He'd probably meant it for coaxing, but it came across more as an order. Zack flinched despite himself, but Cloud was holding up remarkably well.
"She's... soft. And warm," the boy murmured, scruffling her thick fur with an affectionate hand. "She likes chasing my socks around the floor. It's kind of cute. And she likes being petted. She purrs when I pet her, sometimes. That's... I guess that's all, sir."
Even through the silver curtain of his hair, Zack spotted the wary sidelong glance Sephiroth gave him, and the tension in his shoulders as though he were expecting mockery as he asked, "What is purring like?"
Cloud blinked, and there was something a little too startled showing around the edges of his eyes now, but he kept his voice admirably under control.
"It's... a feeling as much as a sound, sir. She kind of... quivers, and buzzes, and... um... I'm sorry, this sounds stupid, doesn't it." Smoothing her fur carefully, Cloud said, "She's not usually this nervous. I'd try to get her to purr for you, sir, but I don't know what's wrong..."
"You're probably the only one she's used to," Zack said, and ambled over to crouch by the bedside. "Come on, kitty, I won't-- yeowch!" Sticking his assaulted fingers in his mouth, Zack mumbled, "Damn, she's got some fangs on her."
But the cat now cowering in the corner was making horrible faces and rubbing her muzzle against Cloud's pillow.
"Oh, hell -- I'm sorry, Zack! She's never bitten me, I don't know why she's--"
Watching the cat's scrunched-up nose and frantic muzzle-rubbing, Zack murmured, "It's the Mako."
"...huh?" Cloud looked back and forth between them.
"They've got better senses than we do, Spike," Zack said, rueful. "She can probably smell it in Sephiroth from across the room. I haven't got as much of it, but it sure looks like she can taste it on me. Poor thing doesn't have any idea that we're not like the monsters in the alleys."
Cloud's eyes widened in astonishment. "But... you mean... --that's not right. You're the kindest person I've ever known; she shouldn't need to be afraid of you!"
Torn between embarrassment and gratitude, Zack scratched the back of his head. "Aw, Spike, you're gonna make me blush--"
"--You're kind about everything except teasing, anyway," Cloud corrected himself, as scrupulously honest as ever. "But cats don't blush, so you wouldn't get any fun out of teasing her, so--"
Sephiroth made a strange, half-muffled sound, then managed to divert it into coughing. Zack glared at him sideways.
"You're sure it's just scent?" Cloud asked, suddenly hopeful. "I mean, if we convince her you're not for chewing on, she wouldn't get a taste of it, so if she can't smell the Mako in you--"
He cut himself short and scrambled off the bed, crawling underneath and groping around until he came out with a sock that had been double-knotted. With determination in his eyes, he started rubbing the sock-ball all over Zack's hands; Zack backed away despite himself.
"Okay, Spike, look. I know Soldiers' socks out-smell just about anything in the nose-spectrum, but--"
"Huh? Oh -- no! No, it's just that she tore the mouse-toy to shreds, so I had to wrap up the catnip in something before she got it all over the room. Hold still." He kept rubbing the catnip-sock over Zack's hands and arms and chest, and then turned toward the General and tipped his head to one side, considering.
"Leather mostly just smells like leather, doesn't it, sir? So that leaves your hair and--" His eyes traveled down Sephiroth's bare chest; he started to turn a fascinating shade of pink and snapped his gaze back to the General's forehead quickly. "Er. Um. --Anyway, maybe if you don't mind we should find you some catnip cologne or... or... body wash... um, or maybe not. Just an, er, a suggestion...? More like an idea... kind of... wacky idea... um."
Zack couldn't help himself; he burst out laughing at both of them. Cloud ducked down even smaller, shoulders hunched around his ears, and Sephiroth's attempt at controlling his utter bewilderment at the notion of 'catnip cologne or body wash' would only have worked on someone who hadn't been working his way under that mask for years.
"Oh, here, give me that." Zack plucked the catnip-sock from Cloud's nervous fingers and grinned.
Sephiroth's eyes widened, but he hesitated over the most direct dodge, which would have broken the arm off the desk chair he was in -- which left plenty of time for Zack to plonk himself squarely into Sephiroth's lap and start scrubbing at him with the catnip-sock.
"You get the little skittery thing calmed down, I'll take care of the big skittery thing here," he said, grinning. "Just think of it as one of the stranger leather treatments out there and we'll do fine, boss."
"It won't work, you know," Sephiroth murmured to Zack, watching Cloud wriggle his way under the bottom bunk to try to coax his cat out from its wary huddle in the furthest corner. "There's more to the Mako taint than just the smell of it. Most laboratory animals react to me even through a wall."
"How much do you want to bet on it?" he replied, gleeful. "You've obviously never seen a cat playing with catnip."
"...If the creature will endure my touch, you'll have my surrender the next time you attempt to drag me to a bar."
"Done," Zack said, rubbing his hands together. "I'm looking forward to collecting on that!"
"And what will you wager?"
next time you put one of those caterwauling Wutain theater CDs in at the
office, I won't even tease you about those damn half-hour I'm-dying-I'm-dying-no-wait-I'm-dead-see-h
Cloud reemerged from the corner under the bed a bit dustier than before, with a fiercely tail-lashing cat in his arms; she focused in on the catnip-sock in Zack's hands, though, and her ears pricked forward immediately.
"You like this toy, huh?" he asked the cat lightly, sitting on the edge of the desk again and thumping the sock against the surface a couple times. "Spike, let's see how much she's interested."
Cloud set the cat down on the top of the desk, still stroking her back soothingly; she stretched out one paw toward the catnip-sock, and then another, and then she oozed a few inches closer -- and Zack kept tugging it back, until he had the toy perched on his knee and a still-skeptical cat crouched a few inches away giving him a good eyeballing.
"Yes, I know, I'm a horrible tease," Zack informed her ruefully, both hands cupped very still around the toy so that the cat wouldn't be threatened by any sudden movements. "If you're going to put up with me for more than ten seconds, you'll just have to get used to it."
The cat reached over his thigh and batted at his hand, with a faint prickle of claws as a ready warning; Zack didn't move, and she gave him another long look.
"I think it wants you to give it the toy," Sephiroth murmured.
"Yeah, I know," Zack said easily. "Unfortunately for her, I'm a lot more devious than she is. --Come on, puss; if you want a dose of the kitty-crack that bad, you'll just have to get used to the idea that I'm your new dealer for the evening." He squeezed it between his fingers lightly, and left it sitting in his palm.
The sudden burst of lemon-mint fragrance broke the last of the cat's restraint, and she climbed across his lap as though he were merely an inconveniently placed bit of furniture located between her and her rightful entertainment. Zack let her get two good swipes at it, and then rubbed it between his palms and swiftly flicked it into the air over his shoulder. After looking him over sourly for any telltale white sock-danglings, the cat started sniffing at his hands with a bit more interest than she'd deigned to admit to before.
"See, hands are good for something after all," Zack said, letting her snuffle and lick at one palm while the other was vigorously scratching at the good spots behind her ears and under her chin. "Who needs an old sock anyway? Hands give petting and scruffles too... yeah, you like that, don't you, sweetie?"
"It's growling," Sephiroth said, wary-voiced.
"Nah, she's just purring her fuzzy head off," Zack said. "Is she normally this loud? I'm amazed nobody's tried to turn you in for illicit power tools, Spike!"
"She's not normally quite that loud," Cloud replied. "But it looks like you can lay the charm on anything, can't you."
"Irresistable charm and the good drugs, that's me," Zack chuckled, then had to lean his head back when the cat put her forepaws on his chest and started nuzzling around for more of the catnip-scent, still wondering where her toy had gone. "...Hey, easy there, girl; your foot really isn't going to fit up my nose."
He risked a quick glance over at the other two, trying to judge exactly how much more prodding he was going to have to do, but Cloud's eyes had that particularly stubborn I-have-an-idea glint to them, and that was encouraging.
...The cat, meanwhile, was getting frustrated at her inability to prod her missing catnip-sock loose from Zack's nostril and was starting to nose around his throat while pawing at his hair.
The whiskertickle and the snuffling cool wet nose combined with the soft fluffy earflick right behind his jawbone was just downright unfair. "...Pfft. Mrpppphhha ha ha hee tickles--! Tickles tickles gaaah Spike help--!"
"Sir?" Cloud said to Sephiroth, holding out a hand. "Your glove? She's really very soft. It'd be a shame not to be able to feel her; and Zack might need some assistance, too."
After a long silent moment, through which Zack gurgled and whimpered at the tickling and bit down hard on his bottom lip so as not to startle the cat too much with any sudden howls of laughter, Sephiroth sighed quietly and stood. When he placed his right glove in Cloud's waiting hand, Cloud's entire face lit up with delight.
"Thank you, sir!"
Sephiroth bent over Zack's becatted shoulder, hesitating over whether or not to try to touch the animal; the scent of more catnip was enough to drag her attention up from licking the hollow of Zack's throat, and both ears and tail came straight to attention.
She scrambled straight up Zack's chest and swatted with both forepaws at the tempting silver spill of Sephiroth's unbound hair, but the General pulled back sharply at her lunge.
"Ooof!" Zack wheezed, and ignored the cat's yowl as he lifted her so that her hind feet weren't shoving straight into the pressure point beneath his collarbone. "You're heavier than you look, girl. Yes, I know we're withholding toys. Boss, come sit down."
"...It struck at me. It doesn't--"
"Your hair looks like a cat toy, and you smell like one. She wants to play," Zack explained, wry and gentle. "Come here."
The moment Sephiroth had edged close enough, Zack reached over and grabbed a handful of his hair, tugging until he sat on the edge of the desk despite himself. The cat was watching both of them, and when Zack offered a handful of Sephiroth's hair, she gave it a cautious snuffle, then batted at it halfheartedly, then meowed at Zack.
Still held on a leash of his own hair, Sephiroth was much more wary than the cat. The cat had concluded that although he was clearly part monster, he was also somehow part made of cat-toys, and she meowed again, complaining about the cruel injustice of the world.
"What does it want?"
"Um. This? I'm sorry in advance, sir," Cloud said in a very small voice, and tossed the catnip-sock into Sephiroth's lap.
The cat launched itself straight over Zack's arm and landed in Sephiroth's lap barely a second after the sock did; ignoring him completely, she grabbed a mouthful of cotton and shook her head fiercely and thumped the sockball back and forth along his thigh and settled in to lick and gnaw, rumbling in sheer bliss.
"Breathe," Zack told him wryly, leaning against Sephiroth's side and rubbing the knotted-up spot between his shoulderblades as though he were an overgrown housepet himself. "You won't hurt her, she can't hurt you, and I do believe the drinks are on me."
"There is a difference," Sephiroth murmured, barely more than a breath. "Currently, it seems to perceive me as furniture."
"Cats treat everybody like furniture."
"You know what I meant."
"You just said 'endure,'" Zack reminded him, teasing. "Okay, new bet. Give her a good scritch right there, right between the shoulders. See if she likes it."
Hesitantly, the General brushed bare fingertips over the outermost tips of the cat's fur; she thumped his hip with her tail but didn't stop purring. After a cautious moment to determine whether the tail-thump was a warning or not, he touched her again, a little more firmly, and she twisted around and shoved her cheek against his hand.
Zack was delighted to see how swiftly he learned. Instead of pulling away at the cat's squirming, he rubbed his fingertips against the area she'd shoved against him, then scratched when she shoved harder. And he only flinched a little when her purr redoubled in volume. She rolled around and wriggled until his fingertips were scratching right under her cheek and chin, eyes half-lidded in bliss; she trapped his wrist between her paws to keep his hand right there, and, utterly bemused, the General obeyed the wordless command.
Cloud's eyes shone brighter than a sunny sky when he really smiled like that, without any fear or reservation. Right then and there, Zack forgave the cat for everything.
Rubbing her head against his fingers, the cat tried to keep his wrist and the sock-ball trapped in her paws at the same time, but she licked at the worn cotton vigorously enough that the toy slipped free of her paws and bounced away; Sephiroth frowned, unable to bend far enough to reach it without disturbing the cat.
Zack thought that the obvious solution was to point and laugh; Cloud, on the other hand, retrieved the toy and gave it back to the cat, who shoved it into the nearest fold in Sephiroth's coat and set to gnawing and licking again. ...Pointing and snickering was apparently just as bad in Cloud's lexicon as pointing and laughing, because Zack earned himself a bop upside the head for that, too.
"I still don't understand," Sephiroth murmured, stroking his fingertips through her chest-fur as she rumbled with purrs.
"But she's really soft, isn't she?" Cloud asked, hopeful. "Do you like being purred on, sir?"
"Mrpphhhft," Zack said intelligently, and shoved a hand over his mouth before Cloud's sharp glower could lead into another bop on the head.
"Any of us could injure or kill it without the slightest effort, and I don't understand how any animal can simply ignore that," Sephiroth said, "your feline drug-in-a-sock notwithstanding."
"She trusts me," Cloud said. "Us, now. It's just ...nice. Knowing that she doesn't have to trust you, but she chooses to anyway. Knowing that there's something fragile and fierce and independent that depends on you, adores you, makes happy sounds when you pet her -- something that needs you to be strong and wise and kind... and to bring food and toys, of course."
Sephiroth's fingers had hesitated in the cat's fur; she batted at his hand with an imperative mew, and he began scratching again.
"You protect your cat, and care for it, because it is small and fragile, and it needs your protection and care; it could have chosen another, but it has chosen you," Sephiroth said, slowly testing the shape that was forming in his mind. "It trusts you. Both of you are happy when you pet it, because it is soft and warm, and it enjoys the attention, and you enjoy giving it attention."
"Yes, sir." Reaching past Sephiroth's paw-pinned hand to ruffle behind his cat's ear, Cloud asked, "Would you like to have a cat, sir?"
But Sephiroth was assembling a different picture entirely. "You tease the cat with toys," he said, "and it complains, and you laugh and give it the toy, and it purrs, and then you are both happy. You keep it around not because you expect any material return from it, but rather because you have an abundance of kindness to offer, and you take pleasure in another being's contentment."
"I suppose so, sir." Cloud was watching Sephiroth's face closely now, trying to follow the thread of his tentative attempts to apply logic to emotion.
"You treat it like a sentient being. If you were equals in strength, you would have called it a friendship; since it is an unequal relationship, you call it your pet," Sephiroth said, one careful fingertip brushing back and forth against the creamy white patch under the cat's chin. "So you wanted something that would be your own pet, as you are Zack's pet, and--"
Zack's startled guffaw nearly drowned out Cloud's wail of protest; the cat yowled, hissed, and launched itself for the underbed corner again, and only Sephiroth's leather had saved him from a good scratching. Sephiroth stood abruptly and turned for the door; Zack caught him by the elbow, still laughing, and hung on tight despite Sephiroth's savage jerk.
"Remove your hand, Lieutenant. It's clear enough that I don't understand; you needn't mock me as well--"
"Zack's an idiot, sir," Cloud said fiercely. "Ignore him."
Scrubbing at his eyes with the heel of his hand, Zack draped himself around Sephiroth's shoulders and hung on for dear life. "I dunno; seems pretty accurate to me!" he chortled. "He's soft and warm and fluffy, and I ruffle him all the time, and I tease the hell out of him but he forgives me when I bring food-- I think you hit the nail right on the head there, boss!"
"Zaaaaaack!" Cloud wailed.
"Release me, Lieutenant."
"I don't think so," Zack said, rueful. "I wasn't laughing at you so much as I was laughing at Spike. --Yeah, I know, that's not an improvement, is it? Just give me five minutes, okay? Because it was damn cute, and I don't want you running off with your feelings hurt."
"I am not a child." The General's eyes were slit, venomous green, and Cloud took a step back despite himself.
"I know that, boss," Zack said, softly. "I know. The problem's that you never were. Look, just five minutes. You gave the furball a second chance; give me a chance too?"
Silently, Sephiroth turned back toward the desk; Zack breathed a sigh of relief that sounded a little louder than he'd meant it to, and sagged back into the desk chair.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean for you to think I was laughing at you. If I'd been saying it, I'd just have been teasing Spike, and I hadn't realized you... weren't."
"My cultural ignorance may be a source of amusement to you, Lieutenant, but it is hardly so amusing to me," Sephiroth replied in a low voice, his face hidden behind the loose spill of his hair. "I was trying to understand."
"I know," Zack murmured. "I'm sorry. Boss, I swear I'm being dead serious when I say I'd never mock you about something like this. It's just... I was laughing because it was so true; he's little and cute, and he can be ferocious when he wants to be, and..."
"And it must have been somehow inappropriate for me to call him your pet." Sephiroth shifted a little, still looking away. "I apologize, Private. I was not... aware."
"It's all right, sir," Cloud said, glaring at Zack. "You weren't the one laughing at me."
"See? Plenty fierce," Zack said, with a halfhearted chuckle. "You really did nail it."
"Then why were you laughing?"
Zack took a careful breath, and dug both hands through his hair. "Humans aren't seriously called pets, boss. Just animals. It's kind of demeaning, unless you're making a joke so that the other guy can cuff you right back."
"But-- I've heard civilians call partners 'pet' before. At organized social events, in public; it seemed a term of affection, usually from a man to a woman although--" Sephiroth stopped, and shook his head sharply. "Never mind. As you have made abundantly clear this evening, I am an ignorant fool. If you will excuse me--"
"Not just yet," Zack said, catching his wrist before he could turn away again. "First, there's no way in hell you're any kind of fool, and the places where you're ignorant aren't your fault. Second, pets are supposed to have you smiling. So you definitely need some more pet-time, mister."
"You don't need to drug the poor animal into overcoming its natural fear of Mako just to appease me," Sephiroth said.
"It's not really like drugs," Zack said thoughtfully. "It's more like beer. Some cats get really mellow and others go nuts, and then they sleep it off for a while -- though I've never seen a cat with a catnip-hangover, so really they've got it good..."
Cloud was already halfway under his bed again, and Sephiroth sighed aloud.
"Come on," Zack said, tugging on both of his hands. "We have to test your immunity to sleep rays too."
"Cats give off sleep rays," Zack said, with great earnestness. "When they sleep on you, it's, like, irresistable. You have to build up a lot of tolerance before you've got any hope of survival, and we can't just leave you un-immunized, can we? Some rebel group could come along and drop a sleeping cat in your lap, and then where would we be?"
"...Under a sleeping cat, I presume."
"In trouble, that's where we'd be!" Zack corrected him with an indignant finger-poke to the chest. "So we're doing Shinra a vital service, tending to this tragically overlooked part of your training in resistance to underhanded rebel tactics. ...By the way, I'm kidding, boss. Except for the sleep rays part. I don't know how the little buggers do it; it's amazing."
The cat mewed plaintively as Cloud hauled her back out from under the bed, but she gave up her struggles and settled in to purr when Cloud lifted her into a safer position in his arms and started scratching under her chin. Zack coaxed Sephiroth into sitting beside the cadet, grinning when his chilly, reserved commander reached his bare hand toward the cat's fur without any prompting.
"Here, sir," Cloud said, and nearly poured the limp, purring creature into his lap. "As long as somebody keeps scratching under her chin like that, she's happy."
"Evidently so." Sephiroth bent his head, quietly intrigued by the soft white paws; the cat gave an enormous yawn and rolled over to bat at his dangling hair again, but decided chin-scritchings were more important.
Cloud was the one almost holding his breath this time, enchanted by the General's rapt fascination with the purring animal. That pure, breathtaking smile was completely unfair, especially when the kid didn't even know he was making people's lungs skip and stutter. Weapons like that needed to be brought under somebody's conscious control, for the sake of the planet; Zack nudged Sephiroth lightly and pointed.
"Look, boss; you went and coaxed out the Spike version of purring too! Let's see if he likes ear scritches."
"Don't," Sephiroth said, sharply. "Don't demean him through the excuse of my ignorance. I never intended it to be an insult."
"It's all right, sir," Cloud said, running a hand through his hair sheepishly. "I mean, I can see what you were thinking. I'm short, and kind of fluffy-looking, and I'm weaker than the real Soldiers, and Zack's got all those caretaking instincts -- and all those teasing instincts too. If you hadn't mentioned it, I'm sure he'd have thought of it himself."
"Weakness is not the same as a difference in strength," Sephiroth said. "It had nothing to do with weakness. He strokes your hair the way you stroke the cat; he teases you to make you play; he loves it when you rely upon him, when you smile for him... and so you wanted a pet of your own, because you wanted something to rely upon your own strength, something kind and playful at once..." He stopped and shook his head, and the cat blinked up, testing the flicker of his hair with one lazy paw. "In any case. I apologize, Private. I had never intended to imply that you were inferior or weak."
"I think the thought you were looking for is 'kid brother,' Seph," Zack suggested. "They come with all the teasing and cuddling benefits of pets, but they get to sass back."
"But brothers share genetic kinship," Sephiroth said, frowning. "That is predetermined, and inalterable."
"There's foster brothers--"
"It's really all right, sir," Cloud said, scratching the cat's shoulder and watching the patterns his fingers traced in her thick fur. "I don't mind if I'm Zack's pet. Because Zack needs a keeper too."
Sephiroth blinked. Zack made a half-muffled snort.
"Just look at his head," Cloud said, warming to the subject. "That hair needs somebody to groom it properly. And he plays with any toy that crosses his path, some of them even less dignified than rolled up socks. He looks at everything like a potential toy. He needs a keeper. Someone to have common sense for him when he doesn't--"
"Hey!" Zack protested, half laughing and half indignant.
"You do need a minder, Lieutenant," Sephiroth said, considering. "You throw yourself headlong into too many dangerous situations. You respond to adrenaline the way this creature reacts to its drugged sock-toy, although occasionally less gracefully."
"Hey!" With his bottom lip pouting out, Zack said, "I thought we were done demeaning people and calling them animals!"
"It was a comparison, not a statement," Sephiroth replied, one brow arched. "I make no claims that you are his cat, merely that you lack his cat's sense of self-preservation, and often need supervision for your own safety. --Private, when speaking in human terms, could you be viewed as both his pet and his keeper?"
"--HEY!" Zack was laughing hard enough to wheeze, miming a fatal blow through the heart and toppling over on the bunk dramatically.
"I think it'd take somebody really strong to be his keeper," Cloud said, looking Zack over assessingly. "Somebody older, and wiser, and who's got better common sense. That sounds like you to me, sir."
"Hmm." Sephiroth reached over to brush his bare fingertips over Zack's hair.
Still laughing so hard he was doubled up around aching ribs, Zack wheezed, "Well, boss...?"
"Soft," Sephiroth mused, and stroked again. "And warm. I believe those were the essential criteria, Private?"
"Yes, sir!" Cloud said, with the widest, most gleeful grin Zack had ever seen on the boy's face. Damn, looked like he'd have to embarrass himself some more, if the rewards were that worth it.
"Not quite," Zack reminded them both, wheezing. "Soft, warm, and purrs...! So... who's gonna scritch behind my ears?"
"I'm not putting my hand in there," Cloud said, still with that sunny, playful grin. "Something'd bite me!"
"A good thing I have leather gloves, then," Sephiroth said, soberly, and Zack just couldn't tell whether he truly understood how much teasing was going on or not.
But he couldn't expect miracles, and the legendarily cold and reserved General was scratching behind his ear with the cautious delicacy of an artist practicing a new craft, and he couldn't disappoint the man, not after all this. So, dutifully, Zack started to purr.
Cloud's sudden burst of giggles was worth it, even if it did startle Sephiroth's hand into freezing.
"...Zack? Should I not have...?"
Cloud clamped both hands over his mouth immediately, remembering how Sephiroth had reacted to unexpected laughter the last time. "'M-srry-'m-srry--"
"No, no, no," Zack said firmly. "No panic, no apologies -- this is why teasing is fun, guys. Keep scratching." And he shoved his head against the man's hand in his best imitation of catspeak, purring like a rusty motor. A bit hesitant, Sephiroth began scratching again, and Zack grinned to himself as he purred his encouragement.
"So, Private, how are my responsibilities as his designated minder distinct from my responsiblities as his commanding officer?"
"Toys," Zack said, grinning. "You now have to give me lots of toys. And teasing. Teasing is an essential part of any pet's daily routine."
Cloud bit back another giggle at Zack's martyred expression, and tried his best to keep his voice serious and respectful. "I don't think the teasing is really essential, sir."
"I suspected as much." Looking back and forth between the cat sleeping in his lap and the grinning Soldier sprawled at his side, Sephiroth mused, "You may have chosen the simpler responsibility, Private. When you need to keep yours out of trouble, you can simply close it in your room."
"And rolled-up socks are a lot less expensive than beer," Cloud agreed, eyes shining. "Are you sure you don't want a cat, sir?"
Sephiroth's hand hesitated again.
"I still think you need to work on the teasing, boss," Zack muttered, arms crossed. "Keep scratching. Yeah, right there." With his eyes closed, he missed the rueful look the other two traded over his sprawled body as he started to purr again.
"You need someone to watch over you," Sephiroth said, letting his hand rest lightly against the crown of Zack's head. "Just as he needs someone to watch over him. I believe this arrangement is... acceptable."
"Good to know, boss." Zack yawned despite himself; the combination of the bed and the petting were getting to him, even if the cat was out flat in Sephiroth's lap. "Sleep rays," he mumbled. "I'm telling ya."
"Then rest," Sephiroth said, "and Private Strife and I will make any necessary arrangements."
"Yeah," Zack said, shamelessly scrunching up the blankets of Cloud's previously well-made bed in order to wad something under his head as a pseudopillow. "Remember. Teasing and booze."
"I thought it was teasing and toys," Cloud said.
"Booze turns everything into toys. Two for one deal."
"...I see." Sephiroth placed the boneless, faintly snoring cat against Zack's shirt.
"Um, sir? I'm sorry, but I'm not old enough to buy him alcohol, sir," Cloud was saying apologetically as Sephiroth led the way to the door.
"I'll requisition the alcohol, Private. I believe you should acquire some of the other necessary pet supplies..." The door latched behind them before he could hear any of the details, though.
When Zack woke again, the cat had wandered off, but the 'new owners' had obviously been taking their responsibilities to heart. There was a brand-new catnip mouse in a package on the desktop -- alongside a row of suspiciously beer-shaped bottles stuffed inside doubled-up knee socks.
Knee socks that were both knotted and sewn shut over the top of the bottles, no less. With little mouse faces drawn on them, badly, in laundry marker.
He really couldn't help the goofy grin he felt spreading over his face. Sure, the two of them were teasing-impaired, but when they put their minds to it, they really could manage it all on their own.
Yeah. He'd just have to be sure to apply plenty of training and practice and motivational encouragement, and it'd all work out fine.ETA: And the shopping-run sequelthing is over here!