Y'know, sometimes you eat the bunny and sometimes the bunny eats you. TWENTY-FOUR PAGES LATER. AND too long for a regular post, let alone a comment. Figures.
(sweatdrop) I was a costume design double major in college (along with English). So when Coyo planted this bunny in my head, it totally ate my brain: what the hell WERE they smoking when the Shinra designers came up with THAT for a 'uniform' for their highest ranking officer?
So I had to think of some kind of way to try to make it NOT just game-designer fanservice-crack. That was much, much harder than I'd anticipated.
And then I just had to go and also try to work in the getting-people-out-of-uniforms bunny plus a mental challenge to myself to see if I could do pure or almost-pure exposition rather than so much back-and-forth dialogue, because Coyo rocks at exposition in all sorts of modes and I know I lean way too much on dialogue and humor and it still got away from me in the last few pages, but I made it most of the way through and I'm really trying to study at her feet... er, paws... er... yeah...
Rated R for just about everything
this was supposed to be COMMENT LENGTH, how did I end up with 24 frickin' pages... oh well...
ETA: Apparently I messed up on the ages math somewhere. Hadn't known Last Order had established an actual age for Zack; everything I'd seen online just gave his age as either "??" or "dead" and I just took a stab. Sorry about that! Let's play 'let's pretend' 'cause there's no way I can pull that out of it, it's too fundamental to the story...
The folding chairs they set up on the platform for these events should really have been handed off to the torture and interrogation division, in Zack's far from unjaundiced opinion. With the kind of budget the Shinra military had, they could afford something better than tin flimsies that cut into the backs of your thighs and shut off the blood circulation to your feet, and squeaked like mad whenever you fidgeted. And when you were listening to Palmer and Heidegger blather on for hours on end, you were definitely going to fidget. So these things definitely belonged to the torture and interrogation division.
He couldn't even fish out his PHS and start playing Pocket Chocobo Raiders with the sound on mute, because he was sitting almost directly behind the podium, in perfect sight of several hundred standing-at-attention cadets. He almost envied the cadets. At least they didn't have to try not to fidget while sitting on the folding torture devices masquerading as chairs. His left foot was tingling. It was going to go from a tingle to outright numbness in a few minutes, which would be better until he had to stand on it again and try not to fall on his face in front of all those cadets...
Sephiroth had gotten around the issue of the folding chairs by simply standing at the side of the podium, silent and still, a living battle-standard; the only motion Zack had spotted all morning was the pale flicker of his hair, when the spring breeze tugged it into a sparkling dance against the backdrop of the dark-uniformed ranks of the cadets.
If it had been anyone else, Zack would have laid good odds that the man had fallen asleep on his feet. About a quarter of the soldiers learned that trick sooner or later; the good ones learned to do it with their eyes only half-shut. This was Sephiroth, though. He was definitely awake. Whether or not he was paying attention didn't really matter; at events like these, he always looked as though he was seeing visions a thousand miles beyond the sunrise.
When he'd been a part of the awestruck crowd, Zack had idolized him for it. Now that he was sitting on the platform trying his damnedest to ignore the chair, Zack understood more than he wanted to about the visions Sephiroth was seeing. Most of them probably came out of Wutai, and had nothing to do with glory and honor, and nothing to do with blathering fat men in creamy-pale, spotless uniforms that had never come closer to a battlefield's bloodstains than the horridly cheery spattering of scarlet among the ribbons and medals on their overinflated chests.
Palmer laughed at one of his own jokes. Nobody else did. In the silence that hung awkwardly for a long minute, Palmer fidgeted around and then snapped his fingers at Sephiroth as though the man was an obedient show dog trained to heel.
Something on Zack's chair snapped with a loud poing when he tensed at Palmer's sheer stupid arrogance. Damn flimsy torture devices, he thought to himself bitterly. He stood to move to Sephiroth's side as though it had been planned, rather than an alternative to getting inexorably dumped into the middle of the platform as his now-broken chair gradually crumpled under the combined weight of Zack's ass and Palmer's drone.
There were dozens of medals and ribbons to hand out; Zack busied himself finding the right ones as Palmer read off the names, and he popped open the boxes and handed the trinkets to Sephiroth to give to the awestruck cadets as they filed up to the platform one at a time and shook his hand with sweat-damp palms.
Most of them were too overawed to speak. Sephiroth's voice was the only sound other than Palmer's nasal name-droppings; the General spoke his congratulations to each cadet by the name that had been read, and they worshipped him for it. Zack knew that Sephiroth spoke their names and looked into their eyes because he was memorizing each of them as they passed, each name and rank and face, because he actually believed the dogma that they would respond more willingly to a leader who addressed them by name -- that, and he possessed a startling genius that could memorize facts like this, instantly, with barely a few seconds' introduction.
It was only one of the traits that made him able to lead the way he did, able to recall the most minute details of plans and layouts and battlefield situations; it might have been the one the troops most appreciated, but it wasn't necessarily the one that did the most to keep them alive. They didn't care, though; they responded to their names upon his lips like rows of flowers lifting their faces to the sun, and so Sephiroth memorized the names and the faces of the children who would die for him, because he felt it an obligation.
Sephiroth never had truly understood that it was inability rather than wilful laziness that kept Palmer and Heidegger and the others from memorizing the troops the same way. Given the rest of the higher-ups' attitudes, though, Zack doubted they'd have bothered with it even if they'd had the ability, and so he never bothered to explain the difference.
When the last of the glowing, overwhelmed boys filed past and had returned to their places in the ranks, Palmer cleared his throat importantly and began on another overflorid speech about illustrious service and valor. Zack was close enough to see the tightening at the edges of Sephiroth's eyes, though that was the only sign he made, even to one who knew him.
Silently, Zack started cursing Palmer, Heidegger, Scarlet, Hojo, and Shinra's entire bloody lineage back and forth several generations, because he knew what was coming next.
They'd learned not to make ribbons for him, because he refused to allow anyone -- even someone he trusted, even Zack -- to attach ribbons to his uniform. The first time they'd tried it at an awards ceremony had been an unmitigated disaster. They'd ended up handing it to him instead of pinning it on, after an awkward dance with many fixed and panicky grins in front of a bewildered audience, through which Sephiroth refused to bend and had actually started to walk off the stage before Zack caught him and persuaded him just to hold the thing, just until they were done. Afterwards, the chunk of twisted metal and fabric had barely been recognizable when Sephiroth had dropped it into the nearest available trashcan.
There had been quite an argument about it later, behind closed doors -- nearly as impressive as the one over his uniform, in fact. The compromise reached was that Sephiroth would politely hold whatever they handed him until he was off the stage, and then he would give it to Zack for safekeeping afterwards -- because it was bad publicity for Shinra's most honored general to treat his ribbons as though they were frivolous and demeaning trash, or for someone else to fish them out of the wastebaskets in which he'd deposited their wreckage.
One of Zack's office drawers was about three-quarters full of pins and ribbons and medals Sephiroth refused to touch. They seemed to enjoy making a show of giving him the things, perhaps to force photo opportunities that he couldn't refuse as easily as he refused to be seen with any of them later.
They'd settled on medals, lately, because they could force him to bow his proud head far enough for one of the higher-ups to put it about his throat. Palmer's spotless cream uniform, with the gold bits dripping from the shoulders, was far too tight to let him raise his arms above his own shoulder-height, and so Sephiroth was forced to bow almost double in order to receive the latest 'honor.'
Flashbulbs popped all over the arena, of course; Palmer's smile was smugly beatific, and Sephiroth's expression was perhaps mercifully hidden behind the shining curtain of his hair. For one sick moment Zack was afraid that Palmer was going to pat Sephiroth's bowed head, as though he were merely a well-trained animal being praised for performing his deadly tricks on command.
Sephiroth didn't wait for Palmer's dismissal; he turned and left the platform without looking back, and Zack silently thanked the gods for being the one known as the impulsive hothead, because that meant he could tell protocol to go fuck itself on the nearest flagpole as he dropped any pretense at decorum and ran after his general.
The flimsy gold-plated clasp holding the ribbon snapped under one sharp jerk, and Sephiroth shoved the medallion and its red ribbon into Zack's chest hard enough to wind him, not pausing in his stride. Zack staggered for his balance for a moment, then caught his breath back and shoved the medal into his pocket and made damn sure to tuck in all signs of the ribbon too before he chased after Sephiroth again.
"Hey," he said, trying hard. "Some good kids back there, you know?"
No response, not even a flicker of irritation. This wasn't good.
"There's a couple we should think about promoting away from Heinrich before he can fuck them over too much. That redheaded kid with the freckles -- Macdonald? Macdouglas?" It had been Macdougall, but Sephiroth didn't even pause to correct him.
Zack cursed a few more generations of Shinra ancestors, including the jackass who must have been somewhere up Palmer's line, and trotted along beside Sephiroth's long savage strides like an overeager terrier pup.
Sephiroth strode into the motor pool without even a pause for a nod at the guards.The guards looked at each other for a moment, but obviously they shared enough brain cells not to protest. Anyone who got in the General's road right then would have been a congenital idiot beneath even what the Shinra army would accept, and they wouldn't survive long. Zack didn't have the luxury of being able to scare the shit out of teenagers just by breathing, but since he was chasing after the General, that spared them from any need to pretend to do likewise, and they stayed well out of his road too.
The motorcycle's engine snarled like a trapped, wounded animal under Sephiroth's hands. Zack started his own more sedately, but he shifted straight into third gear just in case. He wasn't about to take the time to put a helmet on, because he'd seen Sephiroth do this before, and he knew he was the only one Sephiroth would allow to see him do this. Anyone else would have been killed for it without a thought -- if not by Sephiroth, by one of the Turks. Because their perfect shining general wasn't allowed anything so human as a temper tantrum. It would be bad for publicity.
Of course, the way Sephiroth threw temper tantrums made most people's temper tantrums look like a civilized chat over tea and crumpets with the First Lady. But still -- even after years at the man's side, Zack couldn't decide who was more fucked up about it: Sephiroth himself, for still believing that bullshit about having to control any unseemly emotions at all times, or the manipulative image-obsessed PR assholes who'd trained their pet genius so well that he could go through five years in Wutai without ever breaking like this.
No, the first breaking had come afterwards, when a teenaged boy who'd just crushed a nation returned home to accolades and glory, and had asked his leaders the simple question of why the war had started in the first place.
It was all Zack could do to keep his front wheels close enough to Sephiroth's rear wheels to make sure the man wasn't going to try to slam his bike into a concrete wall at a hundred and ninety miles an hour. The hell of it was it probably wouldn't kill either of them -- but when he was conscious of Zack's presence at his side, Sephiroth wouldn't allow himself such a thought. He might not think of it without Zack there either; but if Zack had been in Sephiroth's boots, he sure as hell would have thought of it sooner or later, and so Zack clung to his shadow like a bloody determined leech.
The problem really was that he couldn't ask; he could guess, sometimes too damn well, but he could never just ask Sephiroth what he was thinking when he did things like this, because that would mean acknowledging it had ever happened. And that would put Zack in danger of facing one of the Turks' careful clean-ups of any of Shinra's unpleasant messes. He wasn’t stupid enough to do that to himself -- or to Sephiroth, because he knew how the man would react if Zack went and got himself killed for asking one compassionate question too many. They both knew how Shinra worked, and they both played by the rules for as long as they could, and Sephiroth never let himself fall apart until he was far enough away that only Zack could see. So Zack never 'saw' him fall apart, and the facade was papered over, and the Turks never came knocking on his door at three a.m., and it was all just fucking fine.
Of course it was fine. What the hell could go wrong? Wutai was licking the dust off Shinra's boots and smiling through it; the reactors kept the company filthy rich; nobody had proven a damn thing about Mako radiation causing the monsters -- at least, nobody had proven it in court, which was all that mattered because it was all that cost money. And all the soldiers needed something to do with themselves now that President Shinra had conquered the whole fucking world in the name of avarice, so the grunts could go out and make a show of killing the monsters in front of the yokels and keep them happily paying their bills and their taxes. And if they lost a few grunts here and there, well, that just impressed upon the yokels that nobody but Shinra or the occasional lunatic bounty hunter had the muscle to go up against the things, which kept them paying their protection money and calling it bills and taxes, and it was all just one goddamn happy family now, wasn't it...
Zack remembered how Sephiroth had gotten that uniform, how close it had been to the first time he'd broken like this, how fragile his control had been afterward. How close Zack had been to needing to explain an entire conference room full of dead celebrity-fashion idiots to Heidegger and the President.
It had been a long time since Sephiroth had needed that much time to regain his control afterwards -- Zack wasn't fool enough to be reassured by that, though. It worried him sick, thinking about how quickly Sephiroth could turn everything off again, how tomorrow he'd walk into the General's office and he would look up as though none of what was going to happen had ever happened at all. The man was getting too damn good at toeing the Shinra party line even as it was killing him inside. Zack could have wrung several high-up necks for that much alone, because he didn’t have a clue what he could do about it when he wasn't even allowed to acknowledge any of this--
Dammit, he'd never, ever thought he was going to miss what Wutai had done to Sephiroth, but at least it had been cleaner. At least you could tell who the enemy was, and kill them, and be done with it. That was at least half of what was driving Sephiroth like a hellhound right now -- the need to face something he could call an enemy, and defeat it. And the man had an uncanny instinct for finding the nastiest mutated freak in a day's radius when he was in moods like this. That wasn't the part that had Zack worried. The part that always had him worried was what came after the bloodshed, after the part that was straightforward and ugly and could be done and over with.
At the time, Zack'd thought the end of Wutai would be the end of his hell -- they both had. They were both children, and both stupid that way, and they'd had the innocence to still believe, even after Da Chao. Maybe especially after Da Chao. And then they got home, and discovered that hell was just beginning. But if anyone had tried to tell him that then...
He'd been seventeen years old, and thought he knew everything, and believed in General Sephiroth like he believed the sun would come up in the east; and he'd been a damn idiot.
Da Chao was supposed to have ended it. Some part of him that was still seventeen and bewildered still didn't quite believe that it hadn't. Still didn't believe that it could get worse than Wutai when nobody was bleeding their guts out on you and you were warm and dry in an air-conditioned board room and a woman with a rack like Scarlet's was looking at you appreciatively and purring in the back of her throat.
The older, smarter part of him wanted to go back to Da Chao.
Whatever the hell it was that was roaring from up on that plateau, Sephiroth was flying straight for it -- regardless of trivial little details like roads, fences, boulders half the size of a summons, a thirty-five degree incline up the cliff face... Zack was pretty damn sure the specs on these things didn't include the words "off road vehicle." Of course, it'd be a miracle if either of the bikes ended up intact enough to get the two of them home again anyway.
Gods, he missed Da Chao. At least then his knowledge hadn't been more painful than his ignorance. He'd at least thought he'd known things, then, and even being wrong hadn't hurt like this.
He'd thought that he knew for sure that the legendary General Sephiroth was at least forty -- the silver hair threw a lot of them off, the hair and the unearthly gravity, and the depth of his voice even then. It had been a shock to discover that they were being led by a teenager -- and another shock to learn that the teenager didn't even know his own age. He might have been fifteen, he said, or might have been twenty. He'd first noticed a calendar on a lab's wall twelve years ago, and had estimated from then on.
Zack had mentally labeled him twenty, because he couldn't deal with the thought that Shinra's legendary General might be a couple years younger than he was. He never stopped to wonder how the older ones took it, not back then, because they were all too busy trying to stay alive to have a thought for anyone else.
Besides, he looked older than that -- not just the hair, either. The war had worn them all down to the bone, but Sephiroth even more so than anyone else -- because it was his first command, because he was responsible for winning the war for Shinra, because he couldn't allow himself to fail. He'd said that to Zack once, during that last hellish week, and hadn't understood why Zack had laughed at the phrase: couldn't allow himself to fail, as though it were merely a question of adequate willpower and applied self-control.
And damn if it hadn't basically come down to that in the end anyway.
Sephiroth hadn't slept during the last four days on Da Chao -- not only hadn't slept; he hadn't eaten, hadn't drunk more than whatever of the torrential monsoons had fallen upon his face. He'd driven himself with nothing but materia, potions, and determination, and he'd refused to bend for anything, not even his own mortality.
By the fourth day Zack had given up trying to get him to drink, because he couldn't keep it down. When it was all over and the bigwigs were shouting at each other over where to put the commas in the treaty, Zack had knocked out their undefeatable general with a sleep spell and put a saline drip in his arm himself -- the trained medics had had their hands full with the ones who were dying from actual blood loss, not from something as internalized as exhaustion and dehydration and spell-shock.
Some lunatic asshole journalist had decided to make his career out of the last week on Da Chao -- not that the camera flashes were giving away their position, really, because there was nowhere to run but forward and up, and there were a hell of a lot bigger explosions going on. The prick had lost a leg and gotten a hero's pension for the picture that Shinra decided to milk for all it was worth back home.
Zack sometimes wished it had been the man's head the hellhound bit off instead, because then the camera would likely have gone down the thing's gullet too.
Objectively, it was a good picture -- it was a damn lucky picture, most of the rest of the man's shots had turned out either wildly overexposed from the flare of some blast or horribly blurred by a running dash for cover; but all it took was one for the marketing machine to seize on. Sephiroth's black leather was a sick little twisting reminder of that shot, every damn day.
Zack didn't even remember when he'd interrupted the General between beating back the waves of Wutain summons, just for long enough to put the raincoat on him -- he'd been beyond speech at that point, but he'd been shivering in the driving rain, and Zack had given up on anything but keeping himself alive long enough to keep the General alive, even when it meant protecting him from himself. That and casting more cures and regens than he'd thought he could call the power for. Some time between then and the end of the fourth day, one of the sleeves had been torn off, either for mobility or for a temporary bandage until Zack could drag up the energy to cast another cure; it was all a blur of blood, filth, and exhaustion, except for that one moment frozen by the photographer and snatched out of time.
He hadn't even looked human. Zack didn't know what the hell the broody teenagers that had it framed on their walls were wanting to gawk at -- he'd been there, he was standing in the background of that shot, and the sheer horror on his own face still made him flinch when he saw the thing. Of course, half the time they cropped him out of the closer shots, because their bloodied, barely-mortal god of war made a more picturesque composition without a drenched and mud-spattered and too-human sidekick scared to the verge of pissing himself.
The General had probably been summoning Ifrit, because even when the world had narrowed to a vicious, mindless cycle of nothing but magic and murder, Sephiroth had always been drawn to fire. For all Zack knew, the backwash of flame might even have felt good amid the monsoon. He couldn't remember which of the flashes it had been, from the other side of the lens; there had been a lot of pictures, and a lot of monsters.
The photographer had caught Sephiroth mid-summons, Masamune running scarlet with blood and the reflection of the witchlight pouring down his hand, blasting his wet hair back like a corona of liquid metal spattered in blood. He'd been casting from an orb clenched in his bare palm, not even bothering to mount the materia in something designed to channel its power; he'd made his living body the channel, called up the flames that licked over his fingers and reflected in inhumanly burning eyes, the pupils narrowed to slits against the flare of power he poured out of his own being into the blood-streaked darkness around them
Even gaunt with exhaustion and pain and so pale that his skin seemed almost transparent, he was beautiful and deadly, worn beyond the edges of human mortality to some naked, raw essence of power and rage.
Zack wished he could have said that the horror on his face came from whatever Sephiroth was calling Ifrit against, but the focus of his eyes was just as clear as the blood running like water down the steel of Masamune's blade, just as clear as the lava-bright burn of the fire clenched in Sephiroth's upraised hand.
Zack hated that picture, with a sick burning disgust he usually reserved for Hojo, because of what it showed him about himself -- and because of what it showed Sephiroth about him. He'd never had the courage to ask Sephiroth if that was why he hated the picture too.
"It's perfect!" the exquisitely manicured blonde from Shinra PR had exclaimed the moment she saw it in the display the journalist set up in the conference room. "War is hell, the valor of our soldiers, courage against all odds, all that patriotic shit -- the hicks will lap it up like butter; it's perfect. In fact--"
And she'd turned on a white-haired child half her age, standing awkward and mute in his standard-issue uniform and looking nothing like the legendary Demon of Wutai, and she ran her hand down his breast and patted a curve of taut muscle as though he were a particularly fine show-animal. "Oh, we can use this."
She never had known how close she'd come to dying in that moment, because Zack had clamped down hard on Sephiroth's shoulder. To this day he couldn't have sworn whether it was to save Sephiroth a thickly-concealed punishment for turning war-honed reflexes on a supposed civilian, or because he'd wanted to murder the calculating bitch himself.
"No cream," she muttered half to herself and half to her assistant and not at all to the stunned young man who could have killed her with a single hand. "The bleached little thing's practically an albino, we don't want to fade him out more, he'll turn into a little white ghost in the corner. We want them to pay attention. Something rich and vivid--"
She caught his wrist, turned the palm up as though he were a doll, pulled down the edge of his white standard-issue gloves, and only the sheer shock of the presumption kept him from backhanding her through the wall. Even in Wutai he'd been fanatical about hiding that tattoo on the back of his hand, up until the point where everything human had been burned out of him and all that was left was Ifrit's flame pouring like his lifeblood from his upraised fist.
"There," the woman said, trailing a fingertip over the blue-violet of the veins in his wrist, stark beneath the translucent-pale skin. "Match that, and throw in a splash of crimson. It's more military-looking than matching the green, gorgeous as his eyes might be-- all right, we're done with you for now, boy; you can go." And she turned her back on him and started sketching on the back of one of the photographer's prints.
It was the next day that General Sephiroth, more shaken by the woman's calculating manipulation than by anything he'd seen in Wutai, asked President Shinra why they had gone to war. The President had laughed at him, and patted his shoulder, and told him not to worry about it.
He'd asked more people, including Heidegger, and Palmer, and Scarlet, and even Hojo, and none of the answers satisfied him. It was really as though they'd forgotten that he was a genius, in their delight over how well he had followed their orders.
Zack had been exceedingly drunk when he'd explained it, and probably crueler than he'd needed to be. But he was feeling old and used at eighteen, and he didn't want to think about how much younger General Sephiroth looked off a battlefield, standing in a bar in one of the slums under the plate and asking him -- him -- what exactly for the glory of Shinra and the protection of our populace meant.
For the glory of Shinra meant for the money to fund the President's gold-plated toilet brush and Hojo's lab experiments and all those damn reactors, he'd said, and the protection of our populace meant the protection of our monopoly on Mako power, since Wutai has been collecting materia for centuries and probably knows a hell of a lot more about it than we do.
"The bigwigs can't stomach that," he'd said, eighteen and drunk and thinking he was better than anyone twice his age, and if he hadn't been working for Shinra he probably would have been wrong. "If there's any kind of power to be had, they want to have their hands on the weapon's hilt, or they'll smash it out of sheer spiteful greed, so nobody else can play with their toy."
Something had shifted behind Sephiroth's eyes then -- even too drunk to stagger a straight line, he'd seen it, and wondered a minute too late what the hell he'd just done to the boy's carefully Shinra-controlled world view.
"Their hands on the hilt of anything that could be considered a weapon," Sephiroth had said, "or they will destroy it, so that no other can wield it. So I must be a proper weapon for them, a weapon that performs precisely as they expect, and does not dare to think or question for itself. That is the place of the weapon's owner, after all; the weapon itself has no such luxury."
"General?" Zack asked, muzzily alarmed.
He hadn't replied; he'd simply turned on his heel and left.
Ten seconds after Sephiroth had walked out the door, Zack swore a blue streak and cast esuna on himself -- it was one of the least pleasant ways of sobering up that he knew of, but he didn't want to have to consider facing Sephiroth if he wasn't dead sober. Because he hadn't heard that tone in the boy's voice since Da Chao, less than a month and more than a lifetime earlier.
That was the first time he'd had to clean up Shinra's mess after Sephiroth had broken under Shinra's horrendous mishandling, and he hadn't had the faintest idea in hell what he was doing. He still wasn't sure if he'd done the right thing or not -- they were both still here, they were both breathing, but sometimes that wasn't good enough, not by a long shot.
Sephiroth's motorcycle had been abandoned to a ravine at the edge of the plateau; judging by its trajectory and by how deeply the wreckage had imbedded itself into a crevasse in the rock, Zack guessed he must have leapt off it at well over a hundred miles an hour. The monster was probably a flier, then -- he kept hearing the screams, but couldn't pin down the location, because everything echoed up here.
...Correction, Zack thought as a leathery wing-shaped thing plummeted out of the clouds and hit the dust less than twenty feet away, followed by an entirely different scream than the others. The monster probably used to be a flier.
It kept struggling for a good half a minute longer, but one final scream was cut short by an all-too-familiar gurgle. The rest of the beast fell out of the clouds, still spewing blood from its missing wing, and from where the Masamune had been driven straight through its skull.
It's a damn good thing the bitch didn't try to dress him up in cream after all, Zack thought, sourly.
They'd presented him a redesigned uniform in rich blue wool the color of his veins, cutting in sharply at the waist and then flaring with a dramatic swirl to the hem like a more elegant version of that damn raincoat, dripping with shined and polished medals, decorated with war-ribbons. He'd refused it outright.
The designer had been horribly offended; the other officials in the room had more brains, and stammered and looked at each other. Scarlet was the only one with the balls to laugh, and informed the General that refusing his new uniform was not an option.
Sephiroth drew the Masamune there in the middle of the conference room, and someone wet himself. Even as Zack was panicking over whether or not he could tackle his General before he killed any of the idiots who were trying to treat him like a dress-up propaganda doll now that they were done having him kill for them, and whether or not he ought to bother to try to stop him -- before Zack could make up his mind, Sephiroth flung the great blade's sheath into the middle of the conference table.
"You don't sheathe a weapon in cloth," he'd said, cold as the northern icefields, and just as deadly. "You sheathe a weapon in leather and steel, in the elements of death, because to deny its purpose and its truth is both ignorant and shameful."
The designer opened her mouth. Scarlet, who'd always had brains to go with the balls or she'd never have survived as long as she did, ground her heel into the woman's toe hard.
"Leather is torn from the flesh of a once-living creature, and reshaped to the killer's purpose," their general had said, as calmly as though he were lecturing a group of slow-witted cadets. "Steel is the power of life and death; it is control by force, rather than by right or by honor. You sheathe a weapon in death. Recognize me for what I am, and treat me with that bare minimum of honesty."
"Of course they think more of you than that," the designer had assured him, smiling through gritted teeth. "This is no time to have a fit of teenaged sulks; we're using you on the entire country's op-ed polls here-- "
"As you say, I am your tool," he'd replied flatly. "I do as I am commanded, not as I choose. I kill on command, without hesitation, without remorse, because you have ordered it -- and you honor me for obedience, nothing more. And you will not sheathe me in silk and ribbons and deny that I am the weapon in Shinra's hands."
That was the first time Scarlet had looked at him with anything more than thinly-cloaked dismissal in her eyes -- the first time she'd actually begun to assess him as a man in his own right, and more than that, as a man rather than as a precocious boy.
When the designer had opened her mouth again, she seized the woman's elbow hard enough to bruise and hissed into her ear.
The designer had blinked a couple of times, slowly, and said, "I suppose I can work with that too..."
The next version came back crafted entirely of black leather and mythril, cut to echo the pattern of blood streaked across his bare chest in that damned photo, and the designer had insisted on that elegantly weighted hem. They'd even taken pains to ensure that he'd have the range of motion a swordsman needed, with dancer's gussets in the armscyes and the inseams.
Scarlet looked entirely too pleased with the black leather, for reasons that were likely entirely different than Sephiroth's.
The General determined that he could move as he needed to, and said nothing else, and wore it as Masamune wore its scabbard. And he continued to refuse to wear any of the medals that they continued to thrust upon him.
Whatever that monster had been, it was dead before it hit the ground. If he knew Sephiroth at all, that was bound to be a disappointment. The General really didn't understand the concept of moderation when it came to venting.
Of course, when you were taught never, ever to show the slightest imperfection in public because you'd damage the company's reputation, and when you knew how painful Shinra's ways of protecting its reputation could be, and when you were taught that any emotion at all was too revealing, too prone to misinterpretation -- when you were taught something like that and then sent off to four years of war, having to keep that damn control in place the whole time because you were in charge of the whole fucking mess, in charge of a war against another entire continent when you were maybe sixteen years old, and maybe twelve, and you had people two and three times your age who couldn't see you crack because you were their leader goddamn it and you were there to lead for a reason, you had to be there for a reason, there had to be some reason behind it all, and it was worth more than your damn life to hold the whole thing together long enough to win for the bastards who'd sent you there at maybe twelve fucking years old--
When you were brought up like that, you learned not to vent. Not at all. Not ever.
And you learned it too damn well for your own good, particularly when you were a goddamn kid genius who never got to see how other kids learned about things like having emotions and throwing tantrums and getting over things.
So losing emotional control wasn't just misunderstood; it was downright forbidden, to the verge of unimaginable. You just shoved everything down and waited, and sometimes it festered but stayed hidden, and once in a while it exploded, and then you got disgusted with yourself for failing, for showing your failure even more than for the failure itself, and you couldn't hide that disgust with yourself either, and you knew it, particularly when there was a friend there watching to make sure you didn't hurt yourself too much, because a witness made it all worse, made your failure real and tangible and seen.
And then things got really nasty.
As nasty as the smell of that thing's split guts sizzling under an onslaught of lightning that was searing the ground beneath its carcass into fused ceramic.
Sephiroth wasn't just frying the damn bird-thing -- he was vaporizing it, burning it at a heat beyond even smoke, beyond ash, to a streak of pure black carbon on the seared earth.
There was overkill, and then there was... was... whatever the hell the word for this was, the word for when Sephiroth called down another strike even though there was nothing left to hit but a bubbling black smear, and the earth itself had melted into a searing pool of molten glass.
He'd started staggering after that last hit -- he'd called all of this shit down without any kind of support materia, one bolt at a time, one after the other after the other, trying to wear himself down to the point where he'd collapse.
"Boss," Zack said, quietly. "That's enough."
It wasn't a surprise that Sephiroth ignored him -- a bit of a disappointment maybe, but not a surprise. Sephiroth braced a hand on his knee to keep himself upright, and lifted the other fist, and called down another strike of lightning, white-hot as magnesium and close enough that even Zack could feel the charge in the air.
The General wobbled on his feet, and took a faltering step forward, toward where the blaze of lightning ripped down from the heavens and chained together the tattered sky and the scorched earth.
Zack had the Buster Sword out and swung into his path before he was even conscious of moving.
"That's enough, boss," he said.
Whatever it was burning behind Sephiroth's slit eyes as he turned on him, it didn't look human anymore. Zack wondered if that would ever stop surprising him, even as he cursed himself for a suicidal moron with too much devotion and nowhere near enough common sense.
The only thing that saved him at times like this was the fact that Sephiroth had already worn himself hollow, really, because the General wasn't holding anything back. Zack suspected he sometimes became the face of Shinra in Sephiroth's wild eyes -- wearing their uniform, wielding their weapon, chaining him to life and to responsibility and to duty without control, chaining him to Shinra's corporate will.
There was no visible recognition of friendship or even humanity in him, when he lashed out with the Masamune faster than the lightning itself. Only the fact that Zack had trained with him for years let him survive the strike, and the next, and the next.
Moron, Zack told himself, panting as he barely managed to deflect a sharp thrust that would have gone straight through his ribcage and still managed to slice open his bicep. Damn dog-loyal moron. Just because you know nobody else on the planet could survive him when he's like this -- that's no reason to keep throwing yourself into these -- one of these days he's probably going to kill you -- and that'll destroy him; you know it will. And then where will you be--
--besides dead, of course--
Even trembling too close to collapse, the combination of his speed and reach and strength was too damn close to lethal; Zack had to get that sword out of his hands before he could handle the rest of it. He baited him with a wide white grin and a beckoning flick of the fingers, flinging the buster sword aside. Sephiroth lunged almost faster than thought, the split second of hesitation from sheer shaking fatigue rather than remorse, not just yet. Zack leapt forward as he lunged, caught him by the wrists and twisted hard.
Sephiroth hissed through his teeth when his suddenly-numb hands failed him; the Masamune's own momentum carried it yards away, well out of the fight as long as Zack could just manage to hang on. Which was going to be a hell of a challenge in itself, of course-- the man was damn near as flexible as a python.
If he'd connected with that palm strike, for example, Zack was fairly sure the fragments of bone would have been driven through his skull and straight into his brain. Sephiroth wasn't thinking, just lashing out on sheer blind rage and instinct, but that in itself was damn close to lethal even for Zack. Still, he couldn't keep a tight, savage grin off his face even as Sephiroth kicked him in the side and he felt ribs crack.
Zack knew what he was, of course -- he was the only man in the world who'd survived Sephiroth in a killing rage, but even more than that, he was the only man in the world Sephiroth half-trusted to survive that rage. Only half trusted, because Sephiroth's world was sick that way -- he never, ever really trusted anything but pain, never trusted that friendship couldn't be broken, that love wouldn't let itself die no matter what the world threw at it -- and the worst that Sephiroth's world could throw at anything was inevitably himself.
He never fully trusted Zack not to die and leave him alone, never trusted that the world wouldn't find a way to break him. He tested Zack's strength with everything he had, never holding back, because there was no mercy in the world and he was its instrument of brutality. He was always, always waiting for the moment of betrayal -- the moment when Zack failed, and fell, and left him alone.
"No way, boss," he said, grinning like the demon he saw reflected in Sephiroth's white face. "No way in hell. You can't make me fail you."
Sephiroth snarled, and knocked his feet out from under him, and the back of his head hit the lightning-fused earth hard enough to make him see stars, but he held onto that grin doggedly, because pretty soon that was going to be all he could hold on to.
Sephiroth drove his fist straight into the stone, up to the elbow, his bone-white face inches from Zack's, his eyes burning acid green, snake-slit and venomous.
"So we're playing who's on top now?" Zack purred, or maybe wheezed, because those ribs were starting to hurt. "I can go for that, boss."
He hooked an ankle around Sephiroth's waist and twisted, and sent them rolling across the scrub and the shards of new-formed volcanic glass, and he hoped to hell he'd remembered to pack a cure in the saddlebags this morning because both of them were going to need it. There was blood trickling down Sephiroth's temple, staining his hair crimson, and Zack stretched up to lick it away, and got backhanded hard enough that he saw stars.
Okay, no gentleness, not yet. I just hope he doesn't knock any of my teeth out when I bite.
Zack always lost the game of who's-on-top, because he wasn't willing to break bones for anything but literal life-or-death choices. Sephiroth didn't have that restraint -- or rather, he did, but he wasn't feeling it yet. On the other hand, it was always a good idea to make the game run as long as he could manage, to keep laughing and teasing and taunting and running, because he knew that by the time it got to hand-to-hand Sephiroth had worn himself to the point where only the rage was keeping him upright; the more of that he could defuse, the less the rest of it would hurt.
He wasn't used to wrestling on top of just-fused lava-glass, though. Sephiroth didn't notice pain when he got like this, and Zack didn't want to leave anything imbedded in his skin that his accelerated healing would seal over before he realized what had happened -- it took a twist-and-heave that made his cracked ribs scream, but Zack tossed his mad-eyed maniac far enough that he could scramble away from the lightning-seared earth.
He started to turn for another taunting summons, but didn't make it that far; Sephiroth's headlong rush caught him off guard, and ground his shoulder into the dust and pebbles when he fell.
Spitting dirt, he thought wildly, at least it wasn't the arm he skewered. Not that that was likely to last long, and from the way his shoulder was stinging and starting to feel wet, he must have been moving fast enough for some of those pebbles to dig in.
With a kind of cheerful morbidity, Zack told himself, well, blood's better than no lube at all.
He hung onto the grin by sheer determination, fumbling with Sephiroth's belt, and got his hand jerked away and slammed against the ground hard enough that he felt bones grind together. That left Sephiroth leaning just a bit to one side, though, which was good leverage for another roll-over, even though they kept rolling and scrabbling and struggling for several more revolutions and Zack still ended up on the bottom. He gave up and just tore his shirt off, because it wasn't doing him much good in shreds.
Something else flared behind Sephiroth's eyes at that, and Zack grinned bigger and shifted his hips up in a way that had nothing to do with wanting to unseat him -- not just yet.
"Sure you can stay on top?" he taunted, running a finger down his general's cheek. He pulled back fast when Sephiroth snapped at it, though, because from the snarl he wasn't completely sure the man was beyond trying to take the finger off at the knuckle yet.
The way the fabric of his pants tore at a sharp jerk was both encouraging and a little terrifying. Zack wondered if maybe he should have tired him out a little more first. That was one advantage Sephiroth had with his leather -- it was a lot harder to just rip it off a person; Zack had, of course, figured that out through hands-on experimentation, and felt fairly confident about the empirical evidence he'd gathered, and oh fuck the man's tongue was hotter than he remembered, all but searing against the gash in his shoulder, torment and taunting and a bare shadow of gentleness so snarled up it was a fucking mess, but it was a fucking hot mess --
It was always hot and savage and messy, and sometimes bloody, and the pebbles digging into his skin when Sephiroth ground him into the dirt -- well, they were better than lightning-glass, anyway; Zack reminded himself to be glad for the details, trying hard not to bite through his lip. Sephiroth's hand was knotted in his hair, keeping his throat bared and taut so that he couldn't twist away and bite; he let his mouth fall open and panted for breath, not caring how undignified it was.
None of this was about dignity, just about raw passions, rage and shame and lust and guilt and desperate need -- all the things that a well-handled weapon was never supposed to feel, all the things that nobody else was supposed to awaken in an obedient tool...
Gazing up at the smudge of ash and silver and luminous green that he couldn't quite make his eyes focus on, Zack thought hazily about what could replace the flagpole in his mental list of all the things about Shinra that needed a good fucking. Sephiroth, of course, was his own claim; the rest should really go get their fuck-jollies somewhere else-- somewhere -- oh fuck--
When he could see again, Sephiroth's fierce grin was just about as sadistically hot as the little panting gasps for breath that all but burned against his throat.
Zack really should have worn him out a little more first... he let his eyes drift shut just for a minute, savoring the heat of him, the sweat-slick softness of his skin sliding over the flex of tight hard muscle beneath, even the coppery sting of blood in his mouth, with a trace of Mako-stench beneath.
There was blood on Sephiroth's cheek again; he stretched up to lick and kiss, grazing his teeth just enough to call it violence if Sephiroth still couldn't bear any hint of tenderness. The vivid green eyes shut tight, silver lashes thick and soft against the curve of his cheekbone, but he didn't flinch away.
So Zack let himself hold him through his climax, fingers stroking through the bloodstained silk of his hair, wrapping himself around him and holding him together as he shuddered and fell apart. He murmured nonsense into Sephiroth's trembling shoulder, rolled the tangle of them onto a side so he could breathe and kept holding on as Sephiroth tried to pull away and couldn't gather the strength anymore.
He never cried afterwards -- Zack wasn't sure if he could cry, because if anyone in the world would have seen him cry, Zack was pretty sure he was around the top of the list. His eyes were wide and white all around the edges and horribly empty, and the sheer self-loathing on his face made Zack's guts twist every damn time. He never cried, but the little shuddering, choking gasps for breath would have been called sobs from anyone else, and his muscles spasmed into a tight hard knot of disgust and shame and misery, and it was all Zack could do not to scream at him to stop being such a goddamned emotional retard sometimes.
It wasn't his fault he hated himself for everything he showed, whether it was rage or lust or pleasure or shame or whatever. That really didn't make it any easier to deal with, not when Zack wasn't allowed to say a single word about it and he was going to have to walk in tomorrow and act like none of this had ever happened -- not this time, not the last time, not the next time, not ever.
So he took savage, merciless advantage of the fact that Sephiroth wouldn't fight back like this, and took his face between his hands, and kissed away the blood still sluggishly trickling from his temple, and smoothed back his hair and whispered all the words of love and comfort and acceptance and forgiveness that Sephiroth refused to let himself hear. And he cursed at Hojo for a while for good measure, and the jackass that was the founder of Palmer's family tree, and he held him close and ran his fingertips playfully over the knots between his shoulderblades, and rubbed and tickled a little and teased until the little desperate gasps eased into slower, deeper breaths, on the verge of sleep.
Over to the rest