Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII is the property of Square-Enix. No profit is sought from this work.

Warnings: This follows the events of 'Rising Through the Ranks', though it should not be entirely necessary to read that fic first. If you are a dedicated homophobe, heterophobe, anti-Seph, anti-Zack, anti-Aeris or uncomfortable with a portrayal of Sephiroth as less than perfect, this may not be the fic for you.

Genre: General – A little bit of everything. MUAHAHAHA;)


Paint the Town



Blue, Paint the town blue, Turn the whole world upside down.

- 'Blue', 3Canal

"What they got you doing now, General?" Zack scooped the top file off the staggering heap on his commanding officer's wide oak desk. He shoved the inbox aside to make room for himself and began flipping through the pages. "MIA reports?" He was incredulous.

"Get off my desk, Zachary." The General's voice was clipped and curt and cold as ever. Zack pretended he had not heard him.

"They got you going through these things individually? Shiva's tits, man, you'll still be working on these when you're dead!" He wriggled around to make more space for himself, completely oblivious to the glare that was directed at his back. "We won the war, but still, it wasn't easy, no matter what Mr. President said to the media."

"Zachary!" The sharpness of the tone made the dark-haired man turn. His superior was glaring at him from an executive style leather chair. "Get off my desk!"

Zachary, being Zachary, was feeling a little reckless that day. "What for?" he drawled.

Green eyes narrowed at him. "You're not on my to-do list. Now remove yourself from my desk before I do it myself."

Zachary was ever a rash soul, but even he knew when to stop pushing it. He calmly slid off the desk and turned around to study the General.

The silver-haired man had his head bent over the reports. His eyes were intense and though he seemed to be skimming, just idly leafing through the pages, Zack knew that not a single detail escaped notice.

"Typo on page four," the man murmured, "Third paragraph, second line, seventh word."

Zack shivered. His commanding officer's rapid precision was uncanny. It was the stuff of whispered rumor all throughout the military and beyond, but very few ever saw evidence of it up close now that the war was over.

The General tossed the offensive file aside in disgust. There was an ugly snarl on his face in the second before he drew another from the heap. The man's temper was just as legendary. The General – capital 'T', capital 'G' – had the appearance of nothing short of absolute perfection and he demanded the same of everyone and everything around him. Anything less irked him no end. Zack could see the tension in the man's shoulders. All over a typo.

The stress was getting to the man. As Second-in-Command, Zack was in a position to observe what very few would ever even dream of seeing. He knew things that would have had the legions of fresh-faced, eager recruits reeling if they found out. He knew that The General was…flawed.

Suicidal tendencies could hardly be considered normal under any circumstances. Zack was not even sure how suicidal the man truly was. Sephiroth had been so calm and matter-of-fact when he had described his last attempt. Zack had been pretty sure it was not the first, though the man had mentioned nothing else on the matter.

Something was fast driving Shinra's finest to the breaking point. Perhaps he was already there, or worse, had gone right past it to the point of seeming almost normal again. Zack watched the man turn pages, reading at such a pace that the reports might have burned up with the speed with which they were signed and set aside. Much more of this and Sephiroth would snap. Again. At himself, at Zachary, at the SOLDIER candidates, anyone who was unfortunate to get in his path. No wonder most people gave the man wide berth. Those who were not in absolute awe were afraid.

"Hey," Zack leaned in. "How about we take a break?" He had to do something. He had made a silent promise to himself soon after Sephiroth had confessed to playing with poison. It was part of his duty, keeping the General safe from all threats and that included any dangers the man posed to himself. "Sephiroth," he hollered again, knowing that the use of the man's name would get his attention. "I said let's take a break."

Sephiroth paused and looked up. "I don't see why we need to take a break. I'm the only one doing any work here."

Zack rolled his eyes but it was lost on the man, who had already dived back into the sea of reports. "Come on, Seph!" He was treading on dangerous ground with that one, but if one method did not work, more stringent measures were needed. "How about a sparring match? Just you and me and a couple of swords." The General's glare could have frozen a volcano, but Zack had committed himself to his unofficial mission. He would bear the risks. "It'll work the kinks out of your back," he continued with a lightness that was only half-true. "I'm sure you must be really stiff from sitting there all morning." Zack waggled his eyebrows at the man. That usually got a response from people. His girlfriend giggled at it. His trainees tried not to laugh, unsure if such a thing was appropriate in front of a First Class SOLDIER. The Shinra secretaries called him a tease.

Sephiroth only watched him with a stony expression. Zack felt his mouth go dry. Sephiroth's silences were dangerous. No one had ever figured out how to read him. His reaction was completely unpredictable.

The silver-haired man stood. Zack kept his grin plastered firmly on his face, though his cheeks were beginning to hurt from the effort. He willed his feet to stay right where they were. He had been through a war with this man, but that did not make Sephiroth any less intimidating, especially when the man drew himself up to his full regal height.

Sephiroth walked out from behind his desk. Zack swallowed, but kept grinning. He really wanted a glass of water, but there was no time for that. He instinctively braced himself for a quick toss and a hard landing. The smile on his face grew a touch more genuine at that thought. Let Sephiroth throw him out. He would get right up and walk back in. The General was not going to get rid of him so easily. After all, he was just doing his duty.

Sephiroth stopped two feet away from him. The two men stared at each other for a while, one nearly bursting with adrenaline and the other, completely still and calm.

"Let's go."

Two words. That was it. Sephiroth walked over to the wall to remove the Masamune from its bracket. Zack stared. Had Sephiroth really just accepted his offer? In the middle of a heap of work. He blinked. The General was already heading out the door.

Zack sprung into motion. He followed behind, eager and excited. First he had to retrieve his sword from his own office down the hall, but he had actually gotten through to Sephiroth and not lost any body parts in the process. It was a start. Perhaps guarding the man would not be as difficult as he had first expected.

"I'll meet you on the training level!" he hollered as he ran. Sephiroth might have given him a small nod of acknowledgement in the brief moment before the elevator door closed, but it was not important. Zack was itching to spar. It had been too long since he had fought a truly challenging training match. The General usually preferred to train alone, though how he honed his skills to such perfection without an opponent was anyone's guess. Zack yipped as he burst into his tiny office. Things were going his way.

Sephiroth took advantage of the privacy of the elevator. He rubbed his forehead with one hand. Searching through all those reports was an endless chore and Zachary was quite right. He likely would be searching well into his next life, even with his accelerated reading rate. Still, it had to be done.

He appreciated the break his second had offered nonetheless. There were times that Sephiroth regretted ever admitting to attempting suicide. It had been a moment of weakness perhaps, not that he had made the attempt, but that he had confessed, and to that ever-babbling Zachary, of all people. Fortunately it seemed that Zack did know how to keep quiet about some things. If anyone had even hinted at something being wrong with the 'Great SOLDIER', Sephiroth would have skinned the man and made a coat from his hide.

The elevator chimed as it reached the training level. Sephiroth stepped out carefully and made his way to his private workout room. He walked stiffly, straight-backed and proud. Heads turned as he passed. Combat technique classes stopped as he walked by. There were salutes on all sides, stares of wonder, glares of silent envy and curious whispers as he moved on. No doubt the cadets, training officers and SOLDIER candidates were wondering what he was doing here. It was none of their business. He did not let his gaze stray from the path in front of him.

He had to remove his glove to press his palm against the sensor lock of his training room. He entered quietly and shut the door behind him, careful not to lock it so that his second could get in. Sephiroth removed his heavy coat and walked across the room. The far wall was glass, heavily tinted to prevent anyone from seeing inside while letting in some natural light. The view would have been wonderful if it had been of anything other than Midgar. Sephiroth turned away. He went out to the middle of the hard floor and took a few practice swings.

He was glad for the break, but truly, Zachary had been making a thorough pest of himself lately. Sephiroth did not mind a little chatter now and then, but Zachary never stopped. Never. And the hedgehog-headed man was sticking to his  C.O. like a tattoo. No getting rid of him now, no, sir, not since Zachary had so 'heroically' pulled the unconscious man out of a burning apartment.

Sephiroth sighed. If things went well with this match, maybe he would be able to convince the man to back off and give him his much-needed space.

The door creaked open and Sephiroth drew himself into a relaxed, but ready position. Zachary entered with his monstrosity of a weapon slung over his shoulder. Sephiroth hid his frown of disdain at the thing. Zachary knew how to wield the thing, of course, and he did it very well, but Sephiroth himself had always preferred a more elegant looking weapon. He studied his own sword as Zachary readied himself.

The Masamune was perfect, from hilt to tip. Sephiroth polished it religiously every night and its thin width reflected a bright sliver of the sky behind him. The blade's edge was so dangerously thin that on bare flesh it could carve a line so fine that it would only be noticeable once the first trickle of blood began to seep.

Zack walked out to the middle of the floor, grinning like the idiot he was. Sephiroth smirked. This boy was getting schooled today. The swordsmen stepped into the ring, eyeing each other with wary respect. They stepped closer, crossed swords and it began.

Zack leapt back quickly, expecting a lightning attack from the General, but Sephiroth was content to stand in a defensive position, with the Masamune held straight to ward off any forward attack. The silver-haired  man was far beyond a novice's need to make the first move. Zack grew wide-eyed as he circled the man. Was Sephiroth smirking at him? Well, he would show that pasty pale cardboard cutout of a man a few things.

He feinted to one side and with rapid footwork, lunged forward. Metal clashed and the men paused, frozen in the moment. Zack studied the General's easy posture and the absolute lack of strain on the man's face. The sheer weight of the Buster sword would have slowed a weaker man, but Zack had trained hard. He knew his weapon as well he knew himself, but this knowledge was nothing next to Sephiroth's ease with the Masamune.

Swords pushed against each other and the men stepped back, circling each other slowly. Zack grinned with the thrill of it. Zack whirled and lunged again, and again, Sephiroth blocked him. Zack pressed forward but could gain no ground. Sephiroth laughed and pushed him off. Zack glared. The game was on now.

It was a slow match at first. Sephiroth was content to simply defend himself from Zack's carefully planned attacks. The Masamune's extreme length was no hindrance to combat. Far from it. Zack could hardly get in close enough. Each lunge was met with the metallic clang of a rapid parry and he often could not even recall seeing the other man move.

The match picked up the pace as it went on. Zack kept swinging, spinning, whirling, forcing himself to be more creative, but Sephiroth was ready for him at every turn. The sound of ringing metal echoed through the room, growing faster with each moment.

Sephiroth pushed Zack off with his sword at each turn. The dark-haired man did not have time to wonder at his opponent's strength. His heart was thundering in his chest and yet Sephiroth had barely broken a sweat. The General had yet to make a truly offensive maneuver as well. One fierce shove sent Zack whirling. He grinned as he spun, reigning in the weight of his blade to control his movement. He dropped down to one knee and made a violent swing with the Buster sword. Sephiroth lightly stepped out of the way and stopped the wide blade with his own deceptively narrow one. Zack caught the man's smirk in the reflection.

That was too much. It was bad enough that Sephiroth hardly seemed to be putting effort into the match. His speed was godly and his strength divine. His skill was mind-blowing. Zachary was willing to concede all that, but did the man absolutely have to be laughing inside as well? That just would not do.

Zack rose to his feet, furious. He launched a rapid series of violent thrusts only to be blocked at every turn. He felt the sweat pouring down his face. Sephiroth hardly seemed ruffled. One parry brought the man in unusually close and for a moment Zack thought that he had actually pressed the man.

Sephiroth only smirked again at him over their crossed blades. "Too slow," he said, and shoved Zachary off.

Zack saw red. He had worked too hard to have anyone, even his General, call him 'slow'. He reeled in the his sword and leapt into the air with a wild cry. He used his sword's weight to angle himself into the perfect deadly somersault. He smelled his victory in the air. When he came down the hilt of his sword would connect neatly with Sephiroth's pretty, smirking head.

Time seemed to slow down as gravity took effect. Sephiroth still wore his wicked smile. Zack saw it too late, the flick of the wrist, the slender blade sweeping up in a shining arc. The Masamune connected with the Buster sword and tilted it just so, throwing Zack's spin off target and throwing him off balance as well. He had nothing to push against in midair to regain control.

Zack's heart reached his throat and in a flash of shock, he let his sword slip from his grasp. There was a moment that stretched out into eternity, when he saw the ceiling above him and Sephiroth's satisfied smile, when he knew that flailing would do no good, and he realized two things. The first was that he was going to land on his ass. The second was that it was going to hurt. A lot.

To tell the truth later, he did not really remember the landing. Sephiroth's expressionless face emerged from the stars he was seeing.

"Are you injured?"  The man did not sound the least bit out of breath. Zack stared up at him blankly, thinking.

"No," he said finally. "I think I'll live."

Sephiroth nodded. "Good." He stepped away to sheath his sword. If Zachary had been anyone else, he would have been speechless.

"Aren't you going to help me up?" he shrieked. Sephiroth looked down at him.

"I thought you said you weren't injured."

Zack knocked the back of his head against the wooden floor. "That doesn't mean I wouldn't appreciate a hand up." He lay back and waited. Sephiroth just stared at him.

After a while it became apparent that the General saw no need whatsoever to help his Second. Zack groaned and hauled himself off the floor. He rose shakily, and used the Buster sword to prop himself up. His tailbone was going to have a pretty ugly bruise come morning.

Sephiroth frowned at Zack. "Don't damage my floor with your sword."

Zack's jaw dropped. "Damn it, Sephiroth, here I am, hurting and aching. You won't offer me a hand up or anything and you're worried about your goddamned floor?" He slung the offending blade over his shoulder. "You really are a bastard."

Sephiroth was already heading towards the door. If the words stung him, he showed no sign of it. He picked his coat and gloves up, unruffled as ever. Zack dragged himself over to his commanding officer, wincing at the pain in his lower back.

"I'll get you for this, Sephiroth," he wheezed, aching and cranky from it. "I'll teach you a thing or two about being nice to people. Just you wait."

Sephiroth gave him an amused look and ushered Zack out the door. He did not wait for the man. He just headed for the heavenly silence of his office. Just as he had hoped, Zachary did not bother him for the rest of the day.


Time: 3hrs 32 mins

Music: Paint the Sky With Stars – Enya

Notes: I had so much fun with 'Rising Through The Ranks' that I wanted to do it again, and I always did want to write about Zack and Seph. Not much of a definite plot for this so I'll just see where it takes me. That in itself would be a new approach for me. I hope I don't bore you to tears with it. =P