So here's the second of my three video game yaoi fics (the third had damn well better end up being short 'cause otherwise there's no way I'll be done by midnight! @__@)
Near-total-lack-of-fluff, creepy-as-hell, Seph-is-batshit-insane warning? ^^;;;; It wasn't even intentionally creepy-themed, it just kind of ...morphed on me. @____@
Title: 生け贄 (Ikenié)
Disclaimer: totally not mine; never even played it in fact...
Prompt: Sephiroth/Zack. How do you love a force of nature? [for animekittysama ]
Notes: Ikenié is a living sacrifice, an offering to the gods that goes to the altar still alive and sheds its blood on the stone. This is pretty damn grim. Not quite sure where it came from, other than 'force of nature' to 'act of God' to Old Testament-style appeasements of a pretty vengeful deity...
I was originally thinking petty gossip and both of them going 'huh? I thought YOU were the force of nature they were talking about,' which given their distinctive personalities could be quite a likely misunderstanding, but the plot kinda took a left turn at Albuquerque...
It had been less than a month since he'd heard a huddle of troopers talking about him in half-laughing, half-frightened, furtive whispers -- how he wasn't human, how Hojo's experiments must have been intended to create a cyborg leader who never bled, never hurt, never wept: a strategically brilliant, soulless killing machine.
Zack had knocked their heads together when the rumor had reached his ears, and scolded them loudly, in front of the rest of the troops. Sephiroth had been startled by that swift, angry defense -- startled, and perplexed. After all, the rumors were understandable; he would have been more surprised if nobody had remarked upon his ...differences.
But Zack had been angry with them, and Zack was never angry. Sephiroth had thought about asking, some time when they were in private, but... he didn't understand Zack's anger, and Zack might have become angry with him, if he touched upon whatever it was that had made him angry. The thought of Zack being angry with him was uncomfortable, unwelcome, in ways he had no words for. So he'd let it slide.
He wondered if there was any point left in asking, now that the boys in question were long since dead.
It had been a different boy who'd brought the whore to the infirmary, breaking the unspoken rule that the native women who sold themselves in secret to the invading soldiers should never be seen by officers, or acknowledged if seen. But the boy had too kind a heart for the Shinra military, and the whore had been convulsing and blind with the fever, and he'd brought her to the doctors, and she'd died less than three hours later. They'd all thought it was simple nerves that had his hands shaking, until his bunkmates had brought him back the next morning.
Even if he'd been there to ask the question at the very start, it wouldn't have been enough. The whore had done her work far too well. There were half a dozen in the first three days, and the first boy had died by the time one of his bunkmates mentioned it in Sephiroth's hearing.
"He called her Jenny," the boy said, staring with horror at the way his hands were twitching, and he couldn't stop them. "Couldn't pronounce that foreign gabble she called herself-- her word was more like Kenny, and that's not a girl's name--"
"Ikenié," Sephiroth said, and didn't even need the boy's startled recognition before he strode out to order absolute quarantine and then to contact Midgar.
Half the regulars had died in the first week. The other half had died by the time the first two third class Soldiers woke to fever and trembling hands. Materia and potions made it worse. It was a neurological virus tied into the flow of Lifestream energy in the body; the Soldiers' alterations let them resist it longer, survive it longer, but there was also more of them for the virus to feed on, between the Mako and the training and the rest of their alterations.
By the third week, all of the seconds were showing symptoms. The only two left untouched had been their only first class -- Zack -- and himself.
Their doctor had been second class; he'd held on to hope that they wouldn't lose the entire encampment, that some of the Soldiers might survive. He'd learned how to delay the worst of it by the time he died -- not of the virus, but at the hands of the black-garbed suicide squad of Wutain renegades that had crept in to the decimated camp to try to finish off the handful that remained of the Shinra troops.
Sephiroth had taken an unusually emotional, unusually vindictive pleasure in their deaths. Because the doctor had been making progress, even though there had been less than ten left alive in the camp, and Zack had woken up that morning trying to hide from him how his hands were shaking.
The two second class they hadn't managed to kill had looked at each other, and saluted him like they meant it, and one of them said, "Take the Lieutenant General and leave us, sir."
That was when Sephiroth had begun to understand Zack's anger. He'd thought the suggestion unworthy of a response, shoving his hair back from his face with a bloodied hand and trying to tie the tourniquet tighter on the lieutenant's half-severed leg so that he could cauterize the wound enough to stop the blood loss -- cure materia would have been a death sentence for either of them, and he refused to lose this utterly to a foe he couldn't see, couldn't even touch.
"Sir," the other one said, and he was young enough that his voice hadn't settled. "We'd only slow you down, sir. You can still make it if they don't know where to come for you. Take the Lieutenant General and go."
"Sir," the older one said. "We won't do you any good if we go with you. If we stay, we can either slow the next batch down or -- or let them think they got us all. They've got to know there aren't many of us left. Take Zack and go. Now. Before they send the second wave."
He'd saluted them both, and left them there.
They might have been right that he was inhuman after all, Sephiroth thought, because even after a month, he was the only one unaffected by the nerve fever. But they were wrong that he never felt pain.
Somehow, he'd managed to keep Zack alive for a week. He'd kept the fever and convulsions from killing him by keeping him strapped to restraints and buried in ice that he kept renewed with materia, and he'd deal with the frostbite later, when cures and regens wouldn't feed the virus. The fever had broken in the middle of the night, and Sephiroth had needed to dig him out of the ice before his dropping temperature could slide all the way into hypothermia; he hadn't been able to release the restraints, though, because he was still convulsing fitfully, and the fever and the nerve damage had left him near blind, crippled and... helpless.
Zack was never helpless, just like Zack was never angry. Zack was the sun to his cold darkness, always there, and always smiling, and always full of enough hope and optimism for a dozen; he'd always more than made up Sephiroth's own lack, and never showed a moment's resentment for it, and...
A world without Zack's bright, charming, courageous smile in it was unfit to exist. For taking Zack's smile, he would see the entire Wutain nation burn before he left the filthy dregs of the planet behind him.
Shinra's war was Shinra's business, but this was personal.
Zack was fairly sure he was supposed to be dead. He'd known it when he'd woken up shaking, and his first thought was oh, hell, it's going to kill him if I die on him. He'd known it twice over when that suicide squad had come crashing in, and he didn't really remember anything after the pale double-flash of Sephiroth's sword and his silver hair against bloody, muddy blackness.
Heaven was supposed to be bright, though, and no matter how many times he blinked, he couldn't see anything, and his throat was utterly parched. He might have entertained the thought of hell, except that he already knew hell had nothing on Wutai, and Zack knew to the very core of his being that he hadn't been evil enough to be sent to Wutai for eternity.
...All right, he was nowhere near a cloistered virgin praying on his knees in a chapel. He had no respect for ranks or titles, and he'd offended a hell of a lot of Shinra bigwigs in his day. And he pulled a few more pranks than were healthy for his superior officer's ability to maintain that frigid dignity. But that was in a good cause, dammit. He was pretty sure he wasn't going to hell for making Seph grin despite himself, least of all when he did it in the middle of one of the President's most deadly boring speeches. That had to count as mercy in someone's scorebook.
He tried to ask where he was, but all that came out was a shaky, hoarse noise somewhere between a groan and a wheeze. Seemed like his ears were doing okay, though, because the sound of leather brushing over stone was one of the most welcome things he could imagine. The Wutain death squads didn't wear leather; pretty much nobody wore that much leather except--
"Drink," Sephiroth's voice said in the darkness, with one warm leather-gloved hand cupped behind the nape of his neck, the other holding something to his lips, dribbling precious liquid nectar into his mouth a few drops at a time. Zack tried to say more, but that hand was cruelly steady.
"Slowly," the voice told him. "I don't want you to choke."
Zack would have thrown something at his head, if he hadn't been tied down tight enough that he couldn't twitch a finger. He managed an impatient grunt, licking at the cup's edge to catch every drop; but Sephiroth took it away, and he would have whined if it hadn't come back a moment later, brim-full again.
Good clean water tasted even better than booze. The thought surprised him a little, but he wasn't going to argue with it.
"More?" Sephiroth asked, when the second cup was empty; Zack really would have said yes, except that the moment he stopped concentrating all of his strength on swallowing without choking, he was three quarters asleep and drifting off fast.
The second time he woke, Sephiroth had been expecting it somehow, because the water was right there, and Zack drank as greedily as he could manage when tied up like a mummy.
"Ngh," he said, and tried to clear his throat, and tried again. "Guh."
"More?" Sephiroth asked, and there was an anxious gentleness in his voice that utterly floored him.
"Nnnn--" ...damn it, he hated this whole hoarse-raspy-no-talking thing, because he really needed to ask what the hell was going on. "Nuh. Nguh..."
...except he couldn't talk when there was a cup at his lips, carefully tilted so that the water hovered on the edge of spilling over; Zack forced back his impatience and drank again. He needed a way to say thank you, and didn't have it; the best he could manage was to lean his head into the curve of Sephiroth's hand, and smile. He thought he was smiling, anyway, even if he wasn't sure all of his face was working.
But then the cup shattered on the ground -- sounded like stone somehow -- and Sephiroth pulled back, staggered away from him, hit something that cracked.
"Nnnnuh..." ...Damn it. Damn it damn it DAMN IT--
--and then Sephiroth's hands were shaking when he touched him again, which scared him. Really, really scared him.
Sephiroth held a trembling finger to Zack's lips, running fingers through his hair, and his voice shook too.
"I'll kill them all," he said, almost conversationally, except for the little ragged hitch in his breath. "I'll kill every last one of them, and the entire worthless continent will burn for you. And I'll take you with me. I'd never leave you here alone, Zack. I'll take you with me when it's time to go. I promise you that."
This was not sounding good. This was not sounding good at all.
"But... would you rather go first...?"
Oh, this was sounding even less good. Extra super duper ungood. With whipped cream of badness even.
"It would be selfish of me," he said, in that strange, tremulous, almost-rational-but-not-quite-there voice. "It would be cruel to make you linger, suffering -- do you want to go first, Zack? Are you in pain...?"
"Nuuuuh," Zack said, and wished like hell he wasn't tied up, because at least he could try to crawl away or something.
Sephiroth's hands had stopped shaking, which was a damn good thing when the cold sharp edge of something Zack thought he could name laid against his throat.
"I'll give you your choice," Sephiroth said. "Would you rather go now, Zack...?"
Zack laid as still as he could, barely breathing, not daring to swallow, knowing better than to even try to make a sound.
After what seemed like an eternity, Sephiroth lifted the blade away from his throat, and stroked unsteady fingers through his hair once more. His hands were warm. That was somehow eerie.
"You've always been so brave," he murmured. "Thank you. --Can you wait for me just a little longer, Zack? There's something I must tend to, before we go."
Ordinarily, Zack would have been trying to talk him down, trying to touch him, trying to smile at him and convince him that everything was going to be all right. But, tied down against the sporadic convulsions and unable to speak, Zack wondered if he might have been wrong and he was in hell after all.
They'd worked out a sort of signal-language; Sephiroth would ask yes-no questions, with a startling amount of patience, and Zack would blink his answers. It helped, as far as it went, but it didn't go far enough -- Zack didn't have a way to ask the questions that Sephiroth would never think of, the questions like how are you feeling? or do you need to talk about it? or even hey, how 'bout them Tigers? Who do you think won the intercontinental playoffs this year? Anything to get him to talk about regular life, not just about the stripped-down essentials of food? water? sleep? more? done?
Zack worked hard on learning to speak again, while Sephiroth was gone doing ...whatever he did that left him worn to the bone, with his footsteps stumbling from exhaustion but his voice filled with savage, grim accomplishment. Zack had the feeling he knew what Sephiroth was doing to the villages and towns of Wutai, and didn't want to know if he was right. First, he had to get his voice back. Everything else was secondary -- the blindness, the convulsions, everything else could be survived. But Sephiroth gone mad with whatever the month of exposure to the virus was doing to him... that wasn't a good thing for anybody.
Because it had to be the virus, right? It was a damn good thing he wasn't convulsing, but that whole conversation about leaving-with-Masamune's-assistance had really sounded like some kind of fever-hallucination, and Zack was pretty sure he wasn't the one who'd been out of his head through it. And all right, Sephiroth wasn't ...normal, but he was still human. He had to be human. Zack refused to believe he wasn't human anymore, after all the shit that mad scientist had put him through. If he was human, the virus was probably doing something to his state of mind, and so Zack just had to get better in time to make sure he was there for Sephiroth if and when his glacial strength of will succumbed to whatever the virus was doing to the inside of his head.
The thought that it might not be the virus's doing was an even less comfortable thought. So Zack pushed it out of his head and kept working on relearning to control his face, his voice, anything to reach out into the darkness and try to touch whatever was left of the General who'd seen his entire squadron slaughtered by an invisible enemy and had never before tasted defeat.
And it wasn't like he was completely out of his mind, Zack told himself desperately, as Sephiroth held a bowl of broth to his lips and helped him drink. Sephiroth still knew who Zack was, still cared about his well-being, even if he spent too much time either out doing ...things... or else silent and brooding and tending to a fire Zack could barely see, a faint warm-gold haze in the darkness.
So Zack had to relocate his voice before Seph brooded himself completely around the bend. Because he'd always brooded too much, even before they'd found themselves abandoned in hell. It was practically a civic responsibility to keep him company, hell or not. Keeping him company in hell was better than leaving him alone in heaven, and leaving him alone in hell was just not worth thinking about.
He seemed more drained than usual when he came stumbling in one -- well, Zack assumed it was night, just because he assumed going-time was morning and coming-time was night. But his footsteps were shuffling a bit, slow and dragging, and he collapsed more than sat at Zack's side to offer him broth and fruit.
Concentrating hard, Zack said, "'Ey. Sheff."
Sephiroth nearly dropped the bowl, and Zack couldn't help his little wheezing chuckle. "Sheff." Zack tried to twitch his fingers. "'Anz. Hanz."
"What?" he asked; Zack wiggled his fingers again, more emphatically. "Hands?"
Sephiroth tore the bindings off his hands with one short sharp jerk, and Zack groped around in the dark until he found black leather over warmth, then followed the shape up to shoulders, and then he could finally give him the hug he'd been needing to give him forever, because his mouth still wasn't up to sounds as complicated as thank you.
Sephiroth wrapped both arms around him and held on tight, hard enough to bruise, but Zack didn't mind; this was progress, this was something other than poking at the fire and cleaning his blade and seeing whatever it was he saw in a world where Zack was the only one he had left and Zack was broken. Zack was still broken, but at least he could do something to distract him now.
And he wasn't going to be ungrateful for anything. Sephiroth had let him live, and Zack needed to convince him that that had been a good idea. The only thing he wished for -- the only reason he still ashamedly, guiltily wished he could see a little more -- was that he didn't know whether or not it would horrify Sephiroth if he tried to smile for him again, and that was something he really needed to know. He couldn't just ask, because Sephiroth ...wasn't exactly a stable, impartial witness. So he really needed to be able to see how much of a mess he was, or at least to have someone else around whom he could ask. But in the meantime, he'd work on talking.
For the first month, Sephiroth made a habit of razing the towns and villages he targeted, a scorched earth approach that left nothing but ash in the wind and charred husks crumpled in their death throes. He couldn't risk being followed back to where Zack was slowly healing, which meant no living creature could survive his presence, and he had to be careful to strike in a wide-ranging, random pattern.
It wasn't all that difficult to arrange. Rage and pain were power in themselves, but when rage and pain were placed under the discipline of determination and coldly-honed strategy, Sephiroth found that there was very little built by mankind that he could neither incinerate nor raze to the ground in less than an hour. What remained afterward could nearly always be described as 'smoldering corpse-strewn pile of rubble.'
He'd noticed after a few weeks that many of the smaller villages were being abandoned, which simplified his work; buildings and fields didn't run or scream or try in vain to fight back. He could have left the villages empty, but this was a matter of policy, and his policy had become to inflict suffering upon the Wutain nation equivalent to what his men had felt as they screamed, convulsed, and died. Their deaths were to come unexpectedly, but they needed time to suffer; in terror and pain they were to watch their death come walking to face them; and they were to have no refuge to turn to, as his men had had no refuge and no relief. And so he burned their villages and their villagers with equal calm.
None of them spoke his language; he spoke just enough of theirs to understand the "why?" amid the screaming.
"Ikenié," he told them, and methodically struck them down.
"Sheff," Zack said when he returned, hoping his eyes could smile for him. "'Dja 'ave goo'day?"
"I've been making progress," Sephiroth said, and there were rustling sounds, something wet tearing, a shuffle, and Sephiroth's tall dark shadow crossing in front of the fire-blur. "How are you feeling?"
"Good. No c- cuh-.. shake. All day."
"That's good," Sephiroth said, kindly, and it would have been easier on Zack's stomach if he hadn't been able to smell blood. "That's very good."
"Nn." Silently, Zack flailed for something he could break down into simple enough words that wouldn't also be horribly blunt, but Sephiroth was faster.
"We'll have stew for dinner, but for now..." He put something slick and round into Zack's cupped palms, closed his fingers over it, and said, "I found a plum tree today. Be careful of the stone."
"Yum," Zack said, extra emphatically, trying to smile without letting his face twist. He couldn't handle silverware yet; his hands still shook too much for that level of motor control, but he could drink on his own, and that included food in bowls, and fruit was easy as long as he didn't drop it. It was a little easier for him to pretend he was 'almost good as new' when Sephiroth gave him food he could manage on his own.
Sephiroth touched his cheek lightly, and said, "Don't worry. I'll be finished soon."
After a while, it grew tiresome. The destruction had become mechanical, impersonal, an exhausting routine repeated over and over, and there seemed no end to the string of tiny villages and huddled refugee-camps dotted throughout the forests and swamps like an unpleasantly resistant flea infestation.
There had to be some more focused way to see to it that the nation suffered for their underhanded, cowardly tactics; he couldn't turn their own germ warfare back upon them because Zack's fever had broken and he was almost certainly beyond the stage of contagion, and there was no practical way to stop its spread at the borders even if he'd found a way to isolate the factor in his blood. And so in contrast to their pathetic cowardice, Sephiroth faced them as a warrior should, and let them look upon the face of their death as it moved among them; but it was ...tiring.
His goals were tantalizingly close to within his grasp, but his physical body was proving inadequate for his needs: too restricted in range, too easily exhausted by the summons of creatures that were closer to the proper scale required, and even they were not truly effective enough. Despite all his training and all his talent, his body was simply inadequate for the speed and scope required by this task. He found it galling that he, a warrior bred and born, honed to the peak of his art, could not even begin to match the capabilities of that soulless virus.
There had to be a more efficient, more thorough way to impress upon these vermin the true magnitude of the error of their choice.
The Wutain government had given their surrender to Shinra three weeks before the Turks managed to trace one of Sephiroth's deathstorms back to a little cave not far from what remained of the quarantined camp. The surrender had been fairly abject; their continuing pleas had become more and more desperate.
The President was beyond delighted, and took the opportunity to wring every concession he could ask while holding off on formally 'accepting' their surrender until someone had traced down their loose cannon and gotten him under control.
It wouldn't be good for public perceptions if it ever came out that they'd lost control of their ultimate weapon in the throes of an uncontrollable, power-mad slaughter, of course, which meant that sooner or later Sephiroth would need to be stopped -- but the President really didn't mind if it was later rather than sooner. It was a war, after all, and wars were designed for the benefit of the victors and their suppliers.
It had very nearly gotten ugly when the Turks did find them. They hadn't expected to find a surviving victim of a 99% lethal virus, and had no way to know whether either or both of them could be carriers. Heidegger had demanded that both of them be firebombed from a few miles away; Hojo had had an apoplectic fit about the potential waste of his life's work, and had ordered half a dozen regulars into the cave with them for a week's exposure. Human guinea pigs were the simplest and cheapest way to tell what they were dealing with, he argued.
Zack had tried to apologize to the poor terrified troopers, but, not unreasonably, they wanted nothing to do with him -- a slurring, shaking wreck of an ex-Soldier that they were risking their lives over.
Heidegger had tried to order Sephiroth to take out a few of the mine towns while they were waiting to see whether the soldiers would turn symptomatic, trying to wring the last dregs out of their excuse for wanton destruction so that there would be some strategically rich mineral and Mako assets up for exploitation as soon as the ink on the treaty dried.
But Sephiroth refused to leave Zack alone with the regulars, who stared at him with fear of his sickness and hatred of their orders stark on their faces. Heidegger muttered darkly about insubordination, and was promptly overruled by half the rest of the Council, who were split evenly between calculating the acreage that he'd already cleared of native inhabitants and an uncomfortable awareness that they'd likely have the man himself back on the board meetings as soon as it was established that he wasn't contagious.
Some of the boys murmured about "divine retribution against the Wutes," while they were waiting to see whether they'd die. Others muttered about "freak" and "monster" and "not human." They didn't seem to realize that there was nothing wrong with Zack's hearing, and never had been anything wrong with Sephiroth's.
Zack was angry again, but this time he lacked the ability to correct them, either verbally or physically. Sephiroth sat with him and stroked his unruly hair back from his face and carefully dripped potion into his eyes; the tremors weren't as bad when the life-energy came a little at a time, and he was starting to be able to distinguish the pale blur of Sephiroth's hair from the rest of the shapes lurching past the fire-glow.
Still, he took Sephiroth's hand and squeezed tight, because there was nothing else he could do.
"What do you need?" Sephiroth asked immediately, placing a hand over Zack's. "Food or water, or analgesics, or a quieter environment to rest? I'll quiet them if you--"
"Naah," Zack said, a little too hastily, because he really didn't want to know what 'quieting them' involved. "Jus' you."
"...I should be more quiet?"
"Naah," he said again, with a rueful shake of the head. We both need a distraction was both too many syllables and a little too revealing for Zack's taste, so he settled for, "Talk. --Bored."
Sephiroth made a little sound that might have been the start of a laugh. "Inevitable, I suppose," he said. "But... I... don't know any stories to tell, not the way that you do."
"'Sokay," Zack said, and squeezed his hand again. "Tell mine. --Tell mine back."
The poor troopers actually flinched at the unexpected sound of Sephiroth's laughter, and huddled further away.
Therapy, Zack thought, was a bitch. He was still strong enough to walk, but the misfiring, damaged nerves wouldn't leave him enough control to manage it. Hojo's prescription for them both was a triple dose of Mako injections, to 'purify' their contaminated immune systems. The Mako had left him with voices screaming in his head and the strength to crush the metal crutches he was wobbling along with whenever a nerve cluster misfired again. Hojo offered him more injections; Zack managed to find excuses to be really busy somewhere else, and Sephiroth sheltered him, and Hojo muttered about foolish children who didn't want to take their medicine but let him be.
Sephiroth had looked nearly unaffected by the Mako injections, showing nothing more than a certain tension in his face and a redoubling of the unnatural shine in his eyes; Zack couldn't tell how much of it was an act, a front to not give Hojo the satisfaction, and how much was his own accumulated resistance after the years and decades of injection after injection.
Zack really, really wished that the first pile of paperwork he'd found to hide behind when Hojo came looking had not been the mortality statistics of the last month in Wutai. Because there it all was, everything he'd never wanted to know, laid out in cold numbers: a few hundred here, a thousand there, a couple dozen in a little outpost, eighteen hundred in a town, and the survival rates were consistently zero.
"Zack?" Sephiroth asked, setting a carefully half-filled mug of hot tea in front of him and touching his hand gently to guide him toward the mug, a habit that had gotten itself ingrained through the days and weeks where Zack couldn't see for himself where to reach. "Are you all right? The doctor has left; if you need to rest--"
"Nah, doin' fine," Zack said, and wondered if he was lying even as he tried for his best smile.
He still didn't have enough control back, because Sephiroth flinched a little, but he didn't turn away. Instead, he sat on the edge of the desk Zack had made himself busy with, and watched carefully as Zack lifted the mug in both hands to keep from spilling it, and nodded encouragement when Zack managed to drink without burning himself.
"There was a woman in the conference room," Sephiroth said, almost tentative, and Zack bit his lip to keep from saying yeah, we've had an infestation of 'em lately. Something of his amusement must have shown in his eyes, though; Sephiroth shook his head a little, and said, "That's not what I mean. She had a child, and she was ...there was something different about the way she spoke to it. Her voice ...changed. It was pleasant to listen to."
"Mmm?" Zack blew lightly on the surface of the tea, wondering how best to coax the rest of the story out of him.
"I wish I had known it then," Sephiroth said, "I could have spoken to you that way, while you were ill."
"You d' fine," Zack said, and put the tea down so that he could touch Sephiroth's hand. "What d' she say?"
It was a good thing he'd put the tea down. The first thing that Zack thought was what the hell? He's singing. The second thought, hard on its heels, was oh holy Shiva, 'her voice changed' -- he doesn't even know the WORD for song--
His voice was untrained, unsteady, but Zack was careful to keep smiling, because Sephiroth was watching him closely for any sign that he was making a mistake, and he couldn't let him think that, so he had to keep smiling even as the sickness of it all clawed at the hollow of his heart.
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you;
Please don't take my sunshine away..."
The bar brawl that destroyed half the tavern had started with a tipsy joke.
"The General's a fuckin' force of nature, man," one of the cadets had said, shaking his head. "Gorgeous as hell to look at, preferably from a couple miles away behind a bunker--"
--and that was the point where Zack had tackled him bodily, knocking him clear through the wall of the building, and started shaking him hard enough that things were making cracking sounds.
When the General himself came down to the cells to supervise their release, one of the kids wet himself in sheer terror. Zack hadn't really wanted to explain any of it, but he'd made his report as requested, and saluted, and Sephiroth looked at him from across the desk with brows faintly furrowed.
"Why would anyone call me a force of nature?" he asked, sincerely perplexed. "I am unnaturally enhanced, unnaturally experimented upon -- I have nothing whatsoever to do with nature."
"Jus' a saying, Seph," Zack said carefully. "It's ...abou' power. Power mos' people don' have. Like a storm, or earthquake. Somethin' bigger than us."
After a long, frozen moment, Sephiroth murmured, "My power makes you angry?"
"No," Zack said. "Hell no, Seph. Tha' 'miles away 'hind a bunker' thin' made me angry."
"Why?" Sephiroth asked, without blinking. "It would seem a logical precaution to take, in the presence of an overwhelming force of destruction."
Zack blew all the air out of his lungs and dug both hands through his hair and tried to think of simple enough words to try again.
"Even if y'r a force of nature, Seph, I love you anyway. An' not from miles away 'hind a bunker."
Sephiroth was too perfectly still. "That is not ...sensible. If your proximity to me puts you in danger--"
"--aw, fuck." Zack grabbed a notepad off his desk, hit himself over the head with it, threw it across the room, and then half-slid across the desk, scattering papers everywhere before he landed in Sephiroth's lap. "Not a damn thing wrong with pross-- bein' close to you. Sure as hell wouldn've made it back from 'Tai withou' you. Y'r not a goddamn walkin' doom or somethin'."
"I was death to Wutai," Sephiroth said, utterly motionless, watching him too close.
"Not to me," Zack said fiercely. "Never to me. Some o' the shit you c'n do scares the hell outta me, but you don' worry me. I trus' you. Dammit, Seph, say somethin'--"
"How can it be safe for you to love a force of nature?" Sephiroth asked.
Zack flashed his wildest grin, not caring if it came out crooked, and bent close enough to touch their foreheads together. "Carefully," he said, and brushed a fingertip along Sephiroth's nose. "Very carefully. --But not respectfully. No respect at all."
After a moment's taut consideration, Sephiroth gave an explosive sigh. "...That would be precisely as expected from you, wouldn't it."
"You know me," Zack said, grinning like a lopsided banshee. "No respect. No worries. Prob'ly some tickles an' a lot o' laughin'. Okay?"
"You are a careless, reckless fool," Sephiroth said. "You endanger yourself too thoughtlessly. If you will not amend that behavior, I will see to it that it is amended for you."
"Heh. You wouldn' be lucky enough to get rid o' me tha' easily--"
"You nearly died!" Sephiroth snarled, and the white rage in his voice rocked Zack backwards for a moment. "You are never to do that again! You are never to leave me behind!"
Zack reached forward, carefully, and stroked his fingers through Sephiroth's hair, and then curved an unsteady hand against his cheek.
"Not plannin' on it, boss," he said, as gentle as he could, but he knew better than to give a promise he couldn't keep. Mortality was a bitch some times.
"Swear to me," Sephiroth said, too deadly earnest. "Swear to me that you will never leave me."
Zack drew himself straight, and gave the crispest salute his hand could manage. "I swear I'll do my bes' never t' leave you alone, sir."
Sephiroth studied him, narrow-eyed, and then sighed again softly. "That is all that you can give, isn't it," he murmured. "I will hold you to it, you know. I will demand from you everything you can give."
"Knew that already, boss," Zack said, and ruffled his hair a little, because he could. "I'll give you everythin' I have, an' then some."
"I know that, as well," Sephiroth replied, and bowed his head forward to rest against Zack's shoulder.
"Well, good, then. All settled."
"You are the force of nature among us," Sephiroth murmured, gloved hands tightening upon his hips. "You make it possible to live. The world should not continue to exist if it takes you from my side."
...oh, shiiiiit. "Glad t' be useful?" Zack quipped, hoping he was just being paranoid. Sephiroth didn't respond, holding Zack carefully, resting his cheek against the pulse-point of his heart.
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine..."
"Shhhh," Zack murmured, holding him closer. "I know, Seph. I'm righ' here. 'Sokay."
"...please don't take my sunshine away."