So, it turns out Nekomaxwell, Julius Caesar, and I share a birthday. ^___^ The previous kitty fic was kind of the memorial for the cat I almost could have had; this one's about what happens during the time when Zack's asleep and Cloud and Sephiroth have to survive without him as a buffer zone. But it also involves playing with cat toys and a bitty kitten, so I thought it'd be a good birthday fic for someone whose nickname is, after all, Nekomaxwell... ^__^
Title: Beer Run
Theme: None exactly - sequel to Thirty for Three #21- Naptime, and birthdayfic for Nekomaxwell!
Fandom / pairing: Final Fantasy VII, Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth
Rating: PG-15 or so for Cloud's overactive imagination
Disclaimer: sooo not mine - never even played the game in fact...
Table of contents of all 30 fics
Cloud had to really stretch his legs and walk quickly in order not to have to break into a run to keep up with the General, whose stride was so much longer that he felt even more like a kid playing tagalong-soldier than he did with Zack. He was sure the General wasn't doing it intentionally, though; the General moved through the world like a blade through water, sure and swift and with no hesitation, no wasted motion, and the rest of the world swirled and spun in his wake.
...Well. Except for Zack. Zack threw unexpected loops and detours into everything, even into the General's carefully ordered life.
...Maybe especially into the General's carefully ordered life. That thought was oddly comforting and disturbing at once, because as nice as it was to think that Cloud wasn't the only target in a world where Zack was always armed and grinning, somehow he'd thought the General was -- above everything, somehow. Above teasing, above confusion, above hurt... certainly above Zack, he was Zack's superior officer, but...
As much as Zack had laughed at the notion of Sephiroth being his 'owner,' and purred obediently when scratched, Tifa's mother had had a saying about cats. It went along the lines of "you never really own a cat; the cat owns you. It just takes them a while to train you properly."
Most of the time, Cloud thought Zack acted like a happy dog -- all bright-eyed enthusiasm and bouncing, delighted by life and the chance to play with it. If he'd had a tail, it would have been wagging away while he begged shamelessly for the next game of fetch, or tummy-rub, or tasty bits from the table. But there was something particularly kittenish in the way Zack seemed to be 'training' them both in how to play his freewheeling games, and how he called Sephiroth 'boss' as though it were a term of indulgent affection rather than deference or respect.
Cloud had gotten so used to watching Zack poke and prod and throw both of them into disarray that he was almost startled to see how the rest of the world treated the General, and to realize that he himself really was actually much closer to the ordinary person's reactions than Zack had ever been. He'd never spent time with the General before Zack had swept into his life and dragged him along for the ride, and Zack had a positive genius for getting under people's defenses and poking and prodding and tickling when he got there. Without Zack along as a confident, grinning irritant, the General was crisp and flawless and moved without a moment's hesitation, and the people around them stepped out of his way with wide-eyed stares.
Cloud almost wondered if he'd be doing the General a favor if he dragged Zack somewhere else more often. If Zack's poking and prodding at any possible vulnerability was something that shouldn't be allowed, if he was simply destabilizing the General because he knew he could....
...except he could see the tension in the General's shoulders, in the set of his chin and the flat line of his lips. It wasn't there around Zack, but that tension, that precise control, had been in place since the moment they stepped out of the Shinra building, since the moment he strode down the street as though he owned it.
It only took an instant's thought for Cloud to put a name to the way he moved: exhibition drill.
Even off the training field, Sephiroth moved to the unheard beat of a cadence drilled in as deep as his heartbeat, as though every pair of eyes belonged to a drill judge. As though the mere presence of the public made it a drill; as though he could never be off exhibit, let alone off duty, in the presence of civilians...
Cloud stumbled over his own feet, his mind spinning; Sephiroth turned to glance back at him, and Cloud scrambled to catch up, his hand halfway through a salute before he realized it.
"At ease," Sephiroth told him, with a slight quirk at the corner of his lips, and Cloud nearly stumbled again: he doesn't even realize he's doing it. He doesn't know what he's doing...
In a daze, he watched Sephiroth buy a six-pack of beer bottles from a street vendor as though the carton were military provisions; he was so busy staring at the garish cardboard covering in Sephiroth's black-gloved hand that the General actually had to clear his throat to regain Cloud's attention.
"We have the first set of ...ammunition, of sorts," Sephiroth said, gesturing with the carton. "The other two requisitions were toys and teasing. I believe you would know better than I the most appropriate types of toys with which to tease him."
"...SIR?!" Cloud felt like his face was going to spontaneously combust. "Sir, I'm -- I'm fifteen, I--"
He couldn't say he hadn't imagined, of course -- Zack was so vibrant, so vivid, that it didn't take much imagination at all to think of how he'd respond to -- to the kind of toys that Cloud was entirely too young to be buying, just as much too young as the alcohol, but--
"As I said," Sephiroth agreed, brows slightly furrowed. "You're younger than I am; you've certainly had more experience with toys, and more recent experience at that."
--but the thought of Zack laughing and gasping and panting all at once, the way his eyes would shine, the way the sinews in his throat and the back of his hands would stand out as he tensed and shook as Cloud tickled him with-- with-- or, or if he pushed... something... in... and Zack would arch his back and curse through his teeth with that fierce grin and that wild light in his eyes --
--what other kinds of toys were there? He didn't know very much, but... if... if the General wanted... toys... for Zack...
"Toys, " Sephiroth said, his brows quirked together. "Playthings. Some little objects for teasing pets, or people who are like younger brothers. You have more experience with both of those areas than I."
"...OH!" Cloud felt nearly light-headed with relief. "Oh, THAT type of toys! Ah... ahaha... uh... yes, sir! I can-- I can definitely go buy-- um! Right! We -- we need a toy store--"
"Yes, I'd said that," Sephiroth said. "What had you thought I'd meant?"
"I... uh..." Not going to answer that. Hate to have to kill myself from humiliation. Uh. Need a distraction-- "There's a store!" Cloud said, pointing over Sephiroth's shoulder. "I'll, uh, I'll be right back, sir!" And he took off at a run.
When Cloud had finally gathered up the nerve to go through the checkout line with the pile of tube socks he'd shoved into his basket because his brain had gone totally blank and all he could really think was that no soldier ever had too many clean pairs of socks, Sephiroth was standing outside the door waiting for him.
"Strife," Sephiroth said, "this appears to be a pharmacy."
"Uh. Yes, sir?"
"...So long as you're aware of that, then."
Cloud could feel Sephiroth's gaze on the top of his head; he wondered if his scalp could get sunburned from force of bewildered-stare, but he certainly wasn't going to look up to meet his eyes.
"...I assume we are still in need of the other sort of toys, then."
"What?” Cloud yelped. "No, sir! No, I didn't -- I wouldn't -- they wouldn't have sold me-- anyway!" He held out the bag of tube socks for display as he scrambled madly for ideas.
"That's all I bought, sir, I swear! I -- um. Anyway. We can--" He blinked, shook his head, and dove in head first. "We can put them on the beer bottles! Because they're like a Zack-version of the catnip sock."
The arch of that one silver brow was just devastatingly sardonic. Cloud scrambled to keep his head above the water of up-shit-creek-without-a-paddle somehow.
"No, really," he said, hoping if he could make himself believe it hard enough, the General might believe it too. "It'd be just like a Zack-catnip-sock! They've got beer in them and Zack likes beer the way my cat likes catnip and it'd take too long if we sewed them into mice. The socks, I mean, not the beer. You can't really sew beer, I mean, which is why I got... socks... sir...?"
Sephiroth was rubbing at the bridge of his nose the same headache-pained way he did when Zack was running around on a caffeine high, which made Cloud feel a little guilty, but on the other hand at least he wasn't standing around at parade-attention anymore.
"We are still somehow failing to have the same conversation," Sephiroth said, and there was a distinct curl of amusement tinged with frustration in his voice. "Let me ask these things in order, cadet."
"Um. Yes, sir." Cloud scrunched his eyes shut and tried to brace himself for imminent death by humiliation.
"First, why would a pharmacy be your first choice for a toy store? Second, what other toys would a pharmacy not sell to you? Third, are we not still in need of types of toys that a pharmacy would not offer?"
"Uh. It was... um... convenient, sir? Yeah. It was... pharmacies have a lot of things, you know?" He laughed nervously. "And. Um. Other toys. There are... um... well, I can't buy alcohol, sir, I'm not old enough, and there are... um... other things... that pharmacies sell... for, er, people older than me."
"I don't believe he smokes any recreational drugs, legal or otherwise," Sephiroth said. "Alcohol seems to be his preferred vice."
"Which is good!" Cloud said desperately. "Because they're a pharmacy and they wouldn't sell things like that to me if he did. --Things like recreational drugs. Right. Because I'm underage. --Sir."
With a faint sigh, Sephiroth said, "And the third point?"
"Uh... which one was that, sir?"
"Pharmacies stock drugs intended for humans; are you not in need of a replacement mouse-toy for your cat?"
--oh. OH. THOSE 'other toys!' Cloud turned around and whacked his forehead against the wall of the pharmacy, hard, twice. Sephiroth caught his shoulder before he could connect a third time.
Cloud tried to fumble his way through it dizzy, because he certainly hadn't done too good a job of it when theoretically in his right mind. 'Because I thought you meant a sex-toy shop, sir,' was clearly not going to go over well.
"I, er, forgot?" he offered. "My poor cat. I can't believe I forgot she needs a new mouse..."
"She seemed reasonably content with the drug in a sock during the interim," Sephiroth said, watching him warily for any sudden moves toward the wall again.
"...Yes, sir," Cloud said, eyes down. "They're happy with catnip any way they can get it, sir."
"So where do they sell appropriate toys for pets?"
"Um. There's this little pet shop in Sector Five..."
Above the plate, people simply made way for Sephiroth and stared as he passed. Below it, some of them cowered and others scattered like ...well, like rats. Cloud tried to keep close to him, because the way some of them glared seemed to have less to do with awe and more to do with seething resentment.
The humans weren't the only ones to react to him, though. The moment that Sephiroth passed in front of the pet store's awning, there was a half-second of dead terrorized silence and then all the animals went mad at once.
The biggest of the birds had begun beating his wings against the bars and screaming in a voice too much like human; the littler animals, the herbivores, were huddling into the farthest corners of their cages. The owner came hustling out of the back, about to demand what was setting off his stock like that, and his face actually turned grey when he saw Shinra's legendary General standing in his store.
Cloud desperately wished that Zack was there. Zack knew how to make everything go right, because he was so good at knowing exactly when and how to make things go wrong too. Cloud wasn't the one who knew how to read the way the General's pupils contracted into slits, the way his perfect composure never faltered; and yet there was something not right about it, the way he looked around at the screaming, terrified animals in utter silence.
"Sir," the shop owner said, in a trembling voice. "If -- if you might -- I'll bring you anything you'd wish to see, sir, if, perhaps -- outside, a little further--"
Sephiroth inclined his head, then turned on his heel crisply and walked out -- perfect, flawless, and inhuman. Cloud gulped hard, nodded an apology to the frantic store-owner, and ran after him.
"I'm -- I'm sorry, sir, I -- didn't know, I didn't think-- I'm sorry!"
Sephiroth tilted his head, brows quirked, the sharp bones of his face too crisply carved out of shadows by the glare of the magnesium street-light.
"...There is nothing for you to apologize for."
"But-- but--" Cloud dug both hands through his hair. "I didn't think they-- they're pets, they're-- not supposed to--"
"It's all right, Private," Sephiroth said, startlingly gentle. "I'm accustomed to it."
"You're not supposed to have to get accustomed to it!" Cloud said, frustrated. "Lab animals are one thing, anything would be afraid of the Shinra scientists, afraid of anybody who pokes at them, that's something totally different-- these ones, they're pets. That's what a pet store is, it's... they're not supposed to..."
He trailed off helplessly, glaring down at his shoes, and wished desperately that he could be Zack just for five minutes. Zack would have known exactly what to say, what to do--
Black-gloved fingertips turned his shaking, fisted hand over, and pressed lightly at the knuckles; Cloud's fist uncurled despite his best intentions, and Sephiroth placed a few gil in his palm. Cloud stared at the coins for a moment, numbly, and then looked up.
"Your cat would like another toy, wouldn't she?"
"That's -- I mean, yes, sir, but--"
"Go and find her a toy she'd like, Private. It's not complicated."
Cloud stood wavering for a moment, and then dashed into the store.
"Oh, Holy -- he's not coming back in, is he?" the store owner asked, looking straight past Cloud's head for any taller shadows following.
Cloud didn't feel like dignifying that with a response. "Have you got anything that isn't afraid of a Soldier?"
"Anything with a brain's afraid of Soldiers, kid, including me," the store owner muttered. "If you want a pet for a Soldier, get a rock."
"Wrong answer," Cloud said, and leaned over the store counter, and wished for the thousandth time that he was Zack -- but for the moment, his scrawny, fluffy-headed, unintimidating teenaged self was going to have to do well enough. "Think harder, before the General gets tired of waiting."
That got the man's attention, anyway; he nearly tripped over himself trying to make excuses. "I don't sell chocobos, they need too much space, and they're the only things stupid enough not to-- I mean-- I don't sell chocobos. Go ask at the Gold Saucer, see if they've got any chicks or any retired racers or--"
"My cat didn't mind him, once she got distracted by the catnip," Cloud said. "If you have any easygoing cats that really like catnip--"
The store owner reached under the counter and fiddled with a cage for a moment, then produced a squalling black-and-white spotted kitten and a fistful of catnip mice. "Here," he said. "Just try your luck out there."
"How much would it be for--"
"Just don't bring him back," the store owner said. "Not him, not anybody First or Second Class. And we'll call it even, how's that, kid?"
Cloud sighed, and stuffed several of the mice in the sock-bag in order to have both hands free for the scrambling kitten.
He'd thought it might go all right; the kitten was certainly interested in the catnip mouse he'd unwrapped, but about halfway across the street, the tiny little thing froze, ears slicked flat back. It made a pathetic little mewling sound and tried to shove itself up Cloud's sleeve, the mouse-toy completely forgotten; Cloud stopped where he was, and swore to himself as he tried to carefully extract the kitten from a trembling, claw-scrabbling little huddle in the armpit of his uniform.
"Strife," Sephiroth called, not moving from beneath the lamp. "Your kind intentions are appreciated, but please don't torment the creature. Your cat seems to have been an aberration."
"Mine's older, she's less afraid of people," Cloud said, hunching his shoulders forward to try to grope down the back of his shirt as the fluffy little thing slid down his spine and scrabbled at his belt from the inside. "This one's -- gods that tickles -- probably too young, I should-- gah-- should ask him if--"
"Don't," Sephiroth said. "I thank you for the thought. And the thought is kindness enough. Take this little one back."
"I would, sir, if I could get it out of my uniform--" He didn't dare untuck his shirt because it would be too far for such a little kitten to fall, and his arms just didn't reach far enough down the collar of his shirt.
Sephiroth hesitated for a moment, then took a step forward; the kitten's squalling was mostly muffled by Cloud's shirt, but it sank all its claws into Cloud's back, and his squawk of pain was loud and clear. The General stopped where he was, and began carefully backing away.
"Sir-- I'm sorry, I'll -- I'll get you a fish or something? They don't play very much, but-- they're pretty, and they're kind of soothing to look at, and--"
"I really don't need another pet, Private," Sephiroth said, and when Cloud looked up, he was actually smiling -- it was a faint, rueful thing, but it was a smile. "Zack takes more than enough supervision by himself."
"But pets don't get themselves in trouble nearly as much as Zack does, fish especially--"
"--I hold responsibility for too many lives already." That slight, wry smile hadn't changed. "I command thousands, I direct the lives of men all over the Planet, I send my comrades to die with a word -- and I myself am sent half across the globe at an hour's notice, for weeks or months, and I return to either training or a Shinra laboratory. I would need an assistant to be sure that any pet I kept would not die of neglect when my duties take me elsewhere. I do thank you for the kindness of your intentions, Private; but I cannot in conscience accept."
"...Oh. Um." Cloud gulped hard. "I'm... I'm sorry, sir."
"As I said," Sephiroth replied, leaning idly against the street-lamp, "there is nothing for you to apologize for."
"I'm sorry anyway."
Sephiroth ran his fingers through his hair, brushing it out of his face, with a rueful chuckle. "You've spent too much time around my pet lieutenant, Private Strife. Time enough for his more inexplicable habits to begin rubbing off, in any case."
"...Yes, sir." Both hands cupped awkwardly over the kitten-shaped lump in the small of his back, Cloud carefully carried himself and his shivering little passenger back into the pet store, and sat on the edge of the counter to untuck his shirt and coax the little needle-sharp claws out of his uniform. He gave back the mice, except for the one that he'd opened, and paid for it, and shuffled his way back out of the store feeling inexplicably as though he'd been kicking puppies.
It was hard to make himself lift his eyes from the ground, hard to look any higher than the clasps of the General's boots; he couldn't shake the feeling that if he'd just been Zack, or more like Zack, he'd have found something soft and warm and affectionate that the General wouldn't be able to let go, something that would make him smile whether or not he meant to. Something that would look past the Mako taint and the unnerving, slit-pupilled predator's eyes and curl up in his hands and purr for him anyway. Zack made things like that happen, whether with catnip or with beer or with the sheer force of his own charm, and...
...and the General was walking toward him, and the garish carton of beer had sprouted ears.
Cloud blinked, and looked just a little higher.
...Lots of ears. White and blue tube sock striped ears. There were tube socks tied over the beer bottles in some complicated little bundle that left little ear-shaped tufts sticking out each side.
"Do you think these will be acceptable for teasing him with?" Sephiroth asked, surveying his work with a critic's eye. "I based them on your description of beer-containing catnip-mouse-replacements, and they do seem to fit his criteria: alcohol, toys, and teasing, with the addendum that alcohol makes everything into toys. But mice also have eyes, and whiskers, and tails--"
"We, uh... we can do that, sir," Cloud said, still blinking at the beer-sock Zack-mice. "There's lots of laundry markers and buttons and things in the quartermasters' wing."
"Ah. Useful to know." Sephiroth turned toward the rail station, the sound of his long, measured strides the only thing clean and crisp down in the slums.
Zack made a better pet for him than anything from that store anyway, Cloud thought, half-trotting to keep pace at the General's side. Zack knew how to tease him, and how to train him to tease back. An ordinary cat wouldn't have had a chance of coaxing the General into hand-making toys to suit its tastes.
And Zack had the good part of dogs, too: the fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, devotedly loyal part. The General needed that constance and devotion just as much as he needed the teasing, if they were ever going to teach him how to -- how to walk, without pacing cadence, and how to laugh like you meant it, and -- and all the things that made the General think that Zack had been rubbing off on Cloud, because the General needed Zack's type of rubbing-off-on from as many sides as he could get it.
...The overly unhelpful part of his brain promptly supplied an image of himself and Zack rubbing off on the General.
In great detail.
Complete with sound effects.
Cloud nearly walked himself straight into a lamp-post.
The General's footsteps paused for a moment. "Private? Are you all right?"
Cloud shook himself all over, and ran to catch up. "Sir, yes sir!"
...And if the General asked him why he was spending so much time blushing bright red, he'd just have to blame it on a catnip allergy.