Whoa, look, an update! And your grandchildren haven't gotten married and had kids yet! (fiancés and unplanned pregnancies don't count, damnit) Special Credit goes to the Unseen Muse, without whom, your great-grandchildren would be reproducing as I speak. –ignores bystanders, giving funny looks-

I wrote the first part of this right after the last chapter but I bet by now no one remembers the Rorschach thing anymore. Damn. Useless clip from last chap at the beginning.

……………………………………………………

Chapter twenty-two

--

"This is great!" Zack exclaimed bubbly as he flipped through the transparencies. "Now all I have to do is figure out what these mean before class tomorrow."

"Yeah…" Reno regarded the SOLDIER. "…I'll leave you to it then…"

And people said he was crazy.

--

"It's not that I don't know what they mean." Zack darted behind the desk Reno had so recently vacated.

With the Turk gone, Zack had a much more comfortable blond on his hands, but Cloud was still staring at him with a mixture of bewilderment, panic and annoyance. As soon as the unwanted redhead made his overly dramatic exit, Cloud had turned on him and asked 'What (Zack read: thefuckinhell) do you mean by that?'.

And at this most perilous moment in time, the SOLDIER was scrambling for an answer.

"It's just that I don't know which pictures go with which tactic. See?" Zack offered a slide for the cadet's examination. It cryptically illustrated differently colored geometric shapes, whose movement was indicated though a series of curving and straight arrows. There weren't any words involved.

Cloud took the paper and hummed at it. "Are they in any sort of order?"

Zack answered by looking sadly toward the door, then back to the cadet; implying that after they had been in the hands of a of a certain Turk for so long (not to mention himself), any semblance of order they may once have possessed, had long since been dissolved/violated/desecrated.

"Okay. It can't be that hard to put them back in order." Cloud said with determination. "Here, I recognize this one, it's 'Indirect Approach'."

"I never was good at that one…" Zack remarked.

"No." Cloud agreed wholeheartedly. "Do you have a pen? I'll mark it, so it'll be easier to find in class."

"Yup, yup." Zack ransacked every single wrong drawer before finding the long besought pen. It may have being a good idea to search the top right hand drawer first, but not everyone is the same, Zack reasoned. "Here you go!"

"Okay, this shouldn't be too hard." Cloud dragged another chair up to the desk and sat down to label the depictions.

"Yeah, but it will be boring."

Cloud gave him a look which said 'I'm helping you for free' and the SOLDIER promptly united with his chair and began to utilize his First Class paper-flipping talents. He made progress at a good enough rate that even Cloud was contented. Until about a quarter of the way through the stack,

"Hey look, a naked woman!"

Cloud scowled weakly. "It's not a Rorschach test, Zack…"

"No look, it really is." Zack held up the proof of his sanity for the disbelieving cadet. It turned out to be a very real, expertly photographed, expert model; who had very few of the trappings of civilization draping her scientifically reorganized, extraordinarily curvaceous body.

Cloud looked up, conceded that his comrade was not hallucinating and looked right back down. Obviously, Tactics teachers really were all perverts. He had guess as much from the way they wrote their books and named things.

"I've seen her before." Zack drummed his fingers on his jaw.

"I wouldn't brag about that." Cloud focused on his work.

"No, I think I've dated her…"

This made the blond perk up. "You dated a…model?" Cloud used the polite term. Besides, she did have few stray inches of strange garb on her body masquerading as 'clothing', he used the term widely.

Zack nodded his certainty with another intent look at the photograph which Cloud was carefully saving his eyes from.

"Well, what happened?"

Zack fidgeted, not answering and making Cloud yet more curious.

"Well?" Repeat. Not giving up.

Zack made a slight huff and crossed his arms to frown better. "She said I was a 'flirtatious exhibitionist'."

Cloud pointed to the naked girl, pouting in the picture. "She…said that…"

"Yeah, whatever." Zack shoved the girl in one of the desk drawers. "She also said that Sephiroth was more of man, and she'd rather have him."

"No surprise there…"

"You're really set on hurting my feelings today, aren't you?" Zack whined sadly.

"Just saying…oh, 'Envelopment of a Single Flank'…" Cloud scribbled busily.

Minutes ticked away after that, slowly enumerated by the quiet clicking of a wall clock, which Zack had long since decided to be the corporeal embodiment of evil. As each second passed, so did a tiny part of the SOLDIER's attention span, which was like an indefinite amount of water in a bucket, dripping, dripping, dripping…

"How about we finish this tomorrow?" Zack suggested hopefully.

"This class is early. I doubt there would be enough time."

"I think they reproduce when we're not looking." Zack glared at the horrifically numerous papers suspiciously.

Cloud found enough energy to look from Zack to the papers with a dazed expression. "I…don't…think that's…possible…"

"Seriously." Zack insisted. "There aren't any less of them than when we started."

"Of course there are." Cloud collected the slides which were finished with those malign ones which remained and placed the two divisions side by side. The finished collection was significantly larger. "See, there's not that much left."

"Exactly! Which means there will be time to do it tomorrow!"

"Which means there is still time to do it tonight."

"Erg." Zack whimpered but continued working until all ability for concentration was lost; at which time his head connected rather loudly with the desk. "So. Tired."

Ignore…ignore…ignore…

"Can't we stop now?" Zack clasped his hands in prayer.

"Fine." Cloud set down the pen and stood up stretching. "It's your decision." He leaned on the desk with his back toward the other.

"Really?!" Zack's face brightened with the glorious light of hope.

Cloud continued to lean silently while Zack started to panicked. Cloud hadn't spoken. Maybe he was mad at him; maybe he wasn't going to speak to him for the rest of the night; maybe he wasn't going to speak to him tomorrow either; maybe he was never going to forgive him; maybe he was going to revert into that most feared state of intolerable, undefeatable, mind-numbing, heartbreaking angst. And never hang out with him for the rest of their combined lives?

Zack jumped up and tip-toed around the desk, cautiously approaching the spiky haired blond, afraid that too much noise would somehow cause him to dissolve into the darkness of sulky oblivion.

"Cloud….?" He questioned softly.

After rounding the desk he was confronted by…well, nothing really very frightening. Cloud's face was stretched into a yawn so big it threatened to deconstruct his finely shaped face. His light lashes were crinkled, pressing against his cheekbones and the tiniest muscles were contracting to wrinkle his inconspicuous nose.

"Hmm?" The cadet blinked a couples times widely, looking like he might fall over any second.

"Y-you're not mad at me?" Zack held an arm out for balance, just in case the kid did suddenly decide to inspect the floor.

"Hmm? No. I'm just a little tired…" Cloud stifled another yawn, innocently oblivious to the frantic worries of his companion. After a moment, he finally managed to frown at Zack properly. "It's after curfew you know."

"What?" Zack's head whipped around to look at the clock; the source of all suffering. "Only by twenty minutes." Zack dodged into the hall, dragging the sleepy cadet with him as quickly as safety would allow…okay, maybe a bit quicker than that.

The SOLDIER began to reason. "Nobody really cares that much and we'll get there before anyone important noti— " He stopped abruptly. "Oh, hey Seph!"

Cloud rammed into his friend's back, making a small thump. He had to be the most unlucky person in the world.

Sephiroth hummed low in his throat and glanced at the clock. Not that he didn't know exactly what time it was; it was the gesture at mattered. He shifted his gaze back to his yet-to-be-intimidated second.

"Twenty-four minutes and twenty-three seconds late, Zackary." He always began with the most painfully obvious statements to make sure his second wasn't in any way confused and worked up from there.

"Umm…you're here too you know." The still-not-intimidated one pointed out.

Cloud remained as far behind his human shield as possible. Not that it was very far, considering Zack still had a very good grip on his arm; whether he had just forgotten to remove it, or was trying to keep the cadet from bolting and leaving him all alone with the explaining was anyone's guess. But Cloud found himself leaning unconsciously into tireless hold of the never-properly-intimidated Zack.

"As commander of this army, my professional, or even personal needs, supersede any and all ordinances applying to General Personnel." Sephiroth explained.

It was only when he was with Zack that these things happened, Cloud mused absently. So maybe Zack was the most unlucky person in the world.

"Exactly!" The overly spunky man beamed. "And it's only natural that as your Second in Command those privileges be carried down to me."

But then again, Zack was never punished for his multiple indiscretions, so Cloud was really the only unlucky one.

"Perhaps…" Sephiroth nodded slowly.

Zack bounced on his heels. "Of course!"

Actually, the General saw that Cloud always got out of reprimand as well, so possibly, Sephiroth was the unlucky one for have to put up with them…

"…or perhaps. As my Second, it is even more imperative that you set an orderly example for lower ranking SOLDIER and…cadets." The General placed his emphasis clearly.

"Maybe…" Zack tilted his head. In puppy-speak his ears would be flattened against his head.

Indeed, Sephiroth was to be greatly pitied. "Cloud." Sephiroth's attention shifted as quickly as his attacks could in battle. He focused on the very worn-out looking blond who seemed to have trouble standing.

The blond in question was torn from his thoughts and jumped to attention with a blink.

"You look…unwell." Sephiroth remarked with a frown only he could give. All the evil mojo went in Zack's sad, under-loved direction.

"No Sir." Cloud gave witness to his own wellness (a very weak argument in itself). He shook his head, being compromised only by an inexplicable sense of guilt. "I'm…sorry for disregarding curfew, Sir." He apologized most sincerely.

The general waved it off. "You were under the supervision of a superior officer. All responsibility for this incident will be imputed to him." Sephiroth turned an evil smirk to his second. "As well as responsibility for; Disruption of Routine, Human Rights Violations, Unjustified Expenditures and," He lingered. "…Misappropriation of ShinRa Funds."

"No way!" Zack's jaw dropped. "You're making that shit up!"

"You are free to return immediately to your quarters." Sephiroth continued pleasantly with a gesture in the appropriate direction.

That made sense right? Poor Sephiroth.

"Yes Sir." Cloud nodded.

"He just wants to make sure you don't see my brutal death." Zack whined at the scary man glowering toward him. It may not have been a very advisable strategy.

"Actually, no." Sephiroth implied a hint of surprise with his voice. "I wouldn't kill you here; clean-up would be far too troublesome. It would be much simpler and more sanitary to dispatch you outside of the base. Blood stains are extremely difficult to clean off these walls, you know." Sephiroth flicked a single hair into place. "And they lower morale for some reason."

"Yeah…thanks for the comforting words." Zack sniffled. "Remember me, Cloud."

Something must have made him this way, right?

Sephiroth saw the blond hesitate and mistook Cloud's deep musing over his childhood for concern toward his friend. "I assure you, Zack will remain well enough to teach Tactics class tomorrow morning." He soothed.

"Oh, yes Sir, okay, whatever you think is best." Cloud snapped back to himself once more.

"'Okay'? 'Whatever'? How about 'No, don't kill my best friend' huh?!" The betrayed Zack protested against his cold treatment.

"Sleep well, Cloud." The general nodded calmly.

"Thank you, Sir. Good night." Cloud returned and skittered (it was a manly skitter) as quietly as possible though the halls, now twenty-eight minutes behind schedule.

"Curfew was established for a reason." Sephiroth addressed his remaining victim.

"I just lost track of time." Zack shrugged, looking extraordinarily innocent. "I won't do it again."

Sephiroth remained dissatisfied, knowing that the more innocent this man looked, the more disaster he could expect in his migraine-punctuated future. "Hmm, if Cloud is too tired to spar with me tomorrow…" He pondered thoughtfully. "Can you suppose who will take his place?"

"No, not again…" Zack thumped his head on the wall. He really did not understand how Cloud could stand the sparring. The SOLDIER was so much stronger, yet the Cloud always came out of these fights better off.

After brief consideration, Zack realized it was probably because Sephiroth wasn't determined to injure and/or mutilate Cloud through the most painful methods devisable, as he seemed so intent on doing to his second. And Sephiroth was very original person. He could devise a lot.

"Cloud will be fine in the morning!" Zack promised. "He'll be just peachy, I know it."

"I'm not as confident." Sephiroth persisted oh-so-very, very sincerely. "It's important that all trainees be well rested. Fatigue would be detrimental to Cloud's progress and ultimately a disadvantage to ShinRa…"

"He'll be great! As good as new. In perfect shape!"

"…and worst of all, it would make for very boring sparring." Sephiroth concluded.

"Yeah, you're such a hero."

--

Zack awoke to a painful and very distinctly evil buzzing sound. After a good thirty seconds of concentration he determined that it was a warning of some kind and probably some sort of message to him. The thought gave him a funny feeling in his stomach, because, what would anything that sounded so horrible want with him?

Upon refection, the clever SOLDIER determined the buzzing device wanted him to wake up and the sensation round and about his stomach was there because it was near time for breakfast. The weird little chills up his spine were most certainly due to the fact that he had been dreaming of Sephiroth making him spar with him after all.

Zack vaguely wondered why he couldn't ever have good dreams about that circumstance, like Cloud seemed to…

Which brought him back to why he had inflicted this pain on himself and set the alarm early, so, so early, too early…

Yes, right. That brought him back to why had inflicted this pain on himself and set the alarm early; His diabolical CO had threatened him with, well he wasn't exactly sure, but his heartless CO had threatened him with something very un-good if he screwed up his educational duties this time and it was his most serious duty to get to class at the appointed time, which was an hour before it started. Don't ask him why.

By the time Zack noticed the thing had been buzzing all this time, he was pretty damn sure the clock was possessed. After moving one newly located limb under his pillow to shut it up, he realized that Cloud hadn't so much as shifted from the noise and concluded he was most likely possessed as well.

It seemed that he was going to be alone this morning, among demons and textbooks, and the worst of all horrors, demonic textbooks. That was what he would be fighting this morning, and he dearly longed for one of those cuddly little wasteland monsters.

With that thought, the valiant SOLDIER rolled out of bed, being careful not to disturb the sleeping Cloud any more than necessary.

--

"Hey-hey, rise and shine!" Zack bounced back into his shared dorm. After all, he was up early and after getting the classroom and all of his papers and books and junk together, there was no way he was giving up an opportunity to pester a just-barely-awake-Cloud. No, no, no, that was priceless.

"Hnnn…." Cloud flinched and blinked at the light assaulting his eyes; glassy blue slits of color tried to bury themselves deeper in the pillow.

Zack grinned and dug around his bed until he came up with a phone and surreptitious snapped a few pictures before the kid's eyes could focus enough to see more than large, fuzzy plains of shapes.

"Hey sleepyhead, half the day's wasted!" The SOLDIER brightly quoted everything he could ever remember his mother trying to wake him with.

"…zzack?" The blonde's voice had clearly been soaked in confusion. When confronted by a beaming Zack this early in the morning, Cloud was obviously considering the possibility that it was still a dream. What he didn't know, was that Zack had had coffee. Oh yes, all was well with the world.

"Who else?" Zack smirked happily. "You don't think there're two guys this good looking on Gaia do you?"

The cadet sighed and shook his head.

"Haha, I didn't think so." The intensely confident man preened, interpreting the response his own way. "So! How ya feeling?"

"Hmm…" Cloud stretched slowly. "Just a little tired…"

"What?" Zack suddenly jerked to the alert; images of Masamune slicing four inches through his thigh playing vividly in his mind. Sephiroth so took advantage of Materia and Mako infusions. He breathlessly began with the questions,

"You okay? Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee? Orange juice? Snickers? Painkillers? Really, really strong coffee…"

"No, I'm fine." Cloud held out his palm and took it all back. "Really."

"You're sure?" Zack persisted.

"Yeah, I just said I was a little tired…" Cloud quirked an eyebrow at the man who had suddenly acquired such a strong concern for his health.

"Okay. So you don't need me to get you any caffeine pills or stimulants?"

"Um, no thanks…I'm good." Okay…so maybe it wasn't all about his health…

"Great! Than you ready for classes? This is gonna be the most kick-ass Tactics class ever!"

"Um, breakfast first, right?" Cloud cast a worried glance at Zack for the sake of his nourishment.

"Yeah, yeah, definitely!" Zack nodded vigorously, just in case there was any confusion as to his agreement. "I just don't want you to be late."

Cloud rubbed a hand over his face once more and swung his legs down to the second rung on the bunk's ladder. "You're the one teaching it, remember?" He eyed Zack crossways.

"Yup. And I'm going to do an excellent job of educating the next generation of little SOLDIERs!" He punched the air in expectation of his victory.

--

"Now!" Zack jumped onto the desk, legs sprawled in every direction, knocking papers onto the floor in completely ignored flurries. "Who can tell me what this one means?!" He pointed to the latest display from the miraculously functioning projector.

"Hey!" An adventurous cadet volunteered. "I saw that thing in geometry class. It's a…hypotenuse…right?"

Zack looked at the image critically. "Could be… I'm mean, it kinda looks like one…I kept saying it looked like a doghouse but…"

Cloud tapped his pencil 'inconspicuously' against his textbook.

"Oh, right, right." Zack snapped back to his teacherly duties, explaining how the red squares and the blue squares where arranging themselves into complicated positions so that they could jump each other.

Unsurprisingly, having such an open, friendly teacher inspired a lot of class participation and Zack worked studiously to keep them quiet, with limited success.

He was trying to explain: "It's best to take you enemy from behind, where he's least defensible and…"

"What if your enemy's a 'she'?" A student whom no one bothered to learn the name of, piped up.

"Yeah," Aforementioned Adventurous Cadet joined in. "Should you take a woman from behind?"

"What the hell Kid?" Zack spat out. "Never, ever, ever try that! Most of them really hate it wh—"

Cloud began his best impression of a cat dying from a hairball. The pained choking sounds successfully brought Zack to remember what class he had been assigned to teach and whip a pencil at the Adv. Cadet.

"Shut up Kid." Zack reprimanded, after his student tried unsuccessfully to dodge the projectile. "From now on I'm using gender-neutral pronouns. All of the green squares and the red squares shall be labeled 'it'."

Groans filled the room, most present finding the class much more interesting with gender-positive pronouns (if that's an expression).

"Complain all you want." Zack stolidly crossed his arms. "From now on, every polygon you see up there is androgynous!"

Zack was interrupted from switching the projection by his PHS and the small happy-dance which followed its more than welcome distraction.

"Zack here!"

"Where are you?" Short and to the point as every illustrious general should be.

"Where else? I'm trying to teach Tactical Warfare to a bunch of perverted little brats." Zack gave his phone a funny look, guessing that Sephiroth would know he was doing so.

"You should have been done thirty minutes ago." The general frowned, knowing Zack would likely assume he was.

"No way." Zack spun around to look the wall-clock in the eye. "This says ten 'til."

"Then it's wrong." Sephiroth shrugged, the sound of creaking leather carried through the astute little communicator.

"Oh man," The beleaguered SOLDIER grabbed a fist-full of his hair. "I've been going through thirty minutes of hell that didn't have to?! That just sucks…" He vehemently glared and the errant clock; his suspicions confirmed that it was out on a personal vendetta to destroy him.

"Hmm." The Silver Haired Man sounded thoughtful.

"What?" Zack's eyes narrowed warily.

"All that time and the Demonic Projector from Hell hasn't slaughtered you yet?" Was sarcastic smirk a sound? Zack thought it was.

The SOLDIER edged away from said projector. "Not yet."

Sephiroth let out a long, disappointed sigh. "I'll hope for better things next time. There's always a chance…"

"Ha-ha, so funny." Zack deadpanned, or got as close thereunto as a Zack could. "And all I said was that it made strange noises. That's all."

"Dismiss the class. They're already behind for other subjects." Sephiroth demonstrated the deadpan voice for his second's education.

"Aren't you gonna get trampled? That is you I hear turning the corner, right?"

"I'm not really afraid of trampling Zack."

"Oh yeah." He waved the class out with his spare arm. "Okay, kids get out. Class over!" The truly terrible but much loved substitute teacher sat back and watched the rush for the door with a slight smile. "Twenty gil says one of them brushes against you."

"Fifty gil." The Mighty General substituted without hesitation.

"…nope. Not taking that bet." Zack shook his head, his hyperactive hair making a conspicuous swishing noise against the receiver.

"It was your idea."

"Knowing you, you'd light a nice little ring of fire around yourself or something."

"I promise not to use any element whatsoever. Content?" The general parleyed.

"Okay, you're on… They've been stuck in here for an hour and a half, one of them has to be stupid enough to do it."

"Hn, we'll see." The general's phone clicked off.

Zack briefly considered how much he was going to regret this, before bounding into the hall just as the herd of cadets neared the end of corridor. Sephiroth still couldn't be spotted, having purposefully disadvantaged himself by staying around the corner out of sight, until last minute.

Overly-confident bastard, Zack scowled. He really should never have taken this bet…

Using pure First Class agility, he snuck his way through the crowd to watch from a good vantage point as the first wave nearly ran head-on into the general and stopped dead in their tracks before crashing into him.

Zack watched expectantly as one unstable cadet teetered, loosing his balance. But his hope was quelled when the poor kid's friend grabbed him by the collar and pulled him out of harms way.

Little gasps and shuffling and the saluting followed but nothing that could pass for physical contact. Sephiroth didn't so much as make that eerie little rush of air thing he did so well. Whenever bumping and shoving got a certain cadet too close, the slightest little shift of green would occur in his eyes and wayward students would swiftly compress against both walls.

"There goes fifty gil." Zack watched in defeat as the last of his class trickled away, just Cloud a few stragglers in the back… Just Cloud…?

The imaginary little lights started blinking like crazy in Zack head; this was too perfect. Evil grins abounded on the spunky and perpetually delinquent lieutenant's face as he watched his favorite blond head toward the general, calmly and nonchalant, almost completely adapted to Sephiroth's presence. Cloud wasn't going to touch him, but he'd come pretty close and think nothing of it.

Zack waited until his sacrificial cadet was passing just beside the unsuspecting general…

"Cloud!!"

The blond started and spun around, his elbow bumping Sephiroth's arm without him even noticing it.

"Zack? What?" Cloud's mouth fell open slightly and his head tilted to the side as Zack pulled his fist in the air accompanied by a triumphant 'Yes!'.

He cast a bewildered look upward to the general who gave an aggrieved yet resigned shake of the head.

"You don't want to know."

……………………..

I'm very sorry this took so long! Words can't bespeak my sorrow and regret. All I can say is… …Supernatural is really addictive. Um, please review? –scratches head nervously-