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Awakening

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1.

 

Sometimes in his long, long sleep, Vincent wishes he could sleep deeper. Strange noises bring him closer to the surface of wakefulness than he would've liked and whenever monsters roam the room where his coffin sits, he finds himself on that dreary brink of wakefulness that promises him nothing but bitterness and pain. As the years pass, he comes to that brink several times, because of monsters, of storms that rock the house above hard enough for it to echo down below and because of people.

It happens rarely now, but people sometimes wander in the house. ShinRa workers, grunts and scientists, usually there to get something, leave something or check something – but after those first years, which now feel so long ago, they don't stay. All the scientific experiments have been moved away from Nibelheim, Vincent knows, and what limited possibilities the ShinRa mansion can now offer are not enough. So now, only their failed experiments and mementos and ghosts remain.

And he sleeps because he doesn't want to face reality. He knows himself too well to think it's anything other than that – there are ways people atone for their mistakes and failings and sleep is not one of them. Confinement… maybe, but he can leave any time he wants to. Hojo had made many mistakes there – the drugs had worn off years ago, and the coffin's lid is loose. He can leave. But he doesn't, because the world outside the darkness of the coffin is not the world he wants, not anymore.

Except, sleep eludes him so often. In fits and bursts, he dreams of days gone by, of things that never happened and of nothingness and then he is again aware of the mansion around him, of the scrape of a monster's claws, of the whining of a broken hinge somewhere above, where a draft has this or that door swinging. Like so he is aware of the years and of the time he has spent, doing absolutely nothing – and the more of it goes by, the less and less he wants to ever wake up.

If only he could've just died of starvation. But whatever was done to him was done too well – and he sleeps, undisturbed by hunger or any other bodily needs, supported by a power that isn't human, but which keeps his human body functional through years of neglect. Though who knows how much of a human he really is, these days.

He sleeps and dreams and then the dreams are broken again. Irritated, he struggles to go back below the surface of slumber, as he unwittingly listens. People are moving in the mansion, first just one but for several days they do not leave. Then there is a moment of silence which is followed by the arrival of several more people – there is talking and shouting, the banging of feet against the floorboards of the mansion above and the scrape and scream of door hinges below in the tunnels of the basement, where the moistness of the air must've ruined so many of them. Vincent can't make out the words, doesn't want to, but he can hear them, the people, and he can almost count them just by the directions of their voices. Many in the mansion above. Several more below.

They are walking past the catacomb where his – and many other failed experiment's – coffin lays – and abruptly he recognises one of the voices. It has been a long, dream filled time, but the nasal tones and the perfect lack of anything a normal human could've called an acceptable emotion is still the same.

Hojo. After all these years, Hojo has returned to the mansion.

But no. What good is it, to wake now, after so much time? All the sins he would so like to extract vengeance for are history now – what does it matter? No, Vincent will not wake for this. It would be foolish at any rate – Hojo never travels without an escort of Turks and SOLDIERs, and he has at his disposal very powerful weapons, technological and medical. Who knows how powerful they are now, after so much time has passed?

Vincent doesn't want to live in this world, but he wants to leave it in Hojo's hands even less. So he turns his head away from the noise of humans, from their distant voices and their footsteps and the sounds of things being moved, spaces being prepared. He turns away, and tries to sleep.

And fails – because the people don't leave this time. No, they stay, almost day in and out, and the sounds are constant. Talking, so much talking, and for all his attempts not to listen he does, and eventually he even understands. "…the specimen. If we don't, we might lose him!" someone says, cold and unaffected, and Hojo answers. "Very well, prepare him for surgery then. I'll fix him myself." And then, shortly after, Vincent smells blood.

Then the screaming begins: a mindless, hollow sound of someone in terrible pain, who doesn't know what is happening, doesn't understand, and can't get away from it. Vincent knows the sound well, and winces at it, coming so close to the surface of wakefulness that he almost opens his eyes. The screaming is silenced for a while, for hours, for days – it's hard to tell the precise passage of time – but it comes again, the same hollow scream that echoes through the tunnels, meaningless and agonizing.

And after time and time again, it is silenced.

Whoever had caught Hojo's interest this time, Vincent does pity them. He has borne the brunt of that knife and acid himself, and it is not something he wishes upon anyone, except maybe for Hojo and his loyal followers. He listens, and sympathises because in that place he is probably the only one who does, who can… and as the time goes by, he begins to squirm inside in guilt, for not lifting a single finger to stop it.

The voice, male, sounds so young. So confused. Terrified.

Then even more people come to the mansion – dozens of them. They don't come to the basement, only Hojo and his assistants have that dubious luxury, but they are there and they are in a bustle of activity, going in and out all the time. The noise lifts to unbearable levels, as they go in and out, and somewhere beyond the mansion itself, Vincent hears the sound of heavy machinery, tearing its way through what he has to assume is the Nibelheim village.

As the young voice screams at the unsympathetic basement and its occupants, Vincent shifts through layers of sleep and finally, after so long, opens his eyes – dismayed and relieved both, and absolutely certain there is very little he can do one way or the other. But awake, nonetheless.

 

2.

 

His body is strange – stiff and ungodly fluid – and for a while he just sits on the coffin's lid, trying to figure it out. He hasn't come this far out of his sleep ever since he was sealed in the coffin, so what he is now surprises him. His hair is longer, dirty and tangled, reaching the middle of his back. He's dressed in strange clothes, leather and a ragged red cloak with a high collar – why had they put such things on him?

And there is something wrong with his left arm, and his feet. They are covered in metal, in a gauntlet that reaches his shoulder, in metal boots that clink and clatter as he moves his feet. Uneasy but needing to know, he eases the gauntlet off first, releasing the clasps beneath the cloak and then carefully, quietly, pulling it off.

Beneath the metal his skin is dark red and shattered with black veins; his fingers end in black claws. As he looks at the mess of his own hand, running his still human hand over the dark skin, he wishes he was more surprised, that it shocked him. But he knew with painful clarity what Hojo was capable of – and what his failures could be like. Why it had been hidden beneath the gauntlet, he doesn't know, but the skin is sensitive and strange – the air feels odd against it – so he pulls it back on, to cover the inhumanity of it. The gauntlet is heavy and strange – but better, than the real thing.

His feet are the same, but different. Dark and riddled with veins, ending in claws, but the shape is even less human than that of his left arm. He has lost toes on both of his feet and those remaining have grown and there is what almost seems like a talon at the bend of his heels. It explains the hollow heels of his odd, golden metal boots. Monster's feet – monster's talons.

One truly had to wonder what Hojo had been trying to accomplish.

Vincent doesn't, however. He eases his odd footwear back on, and then contemplates the situation. With so many people beyond the door of his crowded little mausoleum, he can't exactly walk out. Nor does he really want to – but he also knows he cannot go to sleep now. So instead he looks for another way out and eventually finds it in the strangeness of his body.

It holds to form… strangely. He is physical, very physical, but there is something that shifts and then he isn't, not quite. He couldn't have put it into words if someone had asked – it feels a bit like he and everything on him turn into colour, for a while, or maybe into shadow. Something just barely tangible, but formless, shifting in the shape of his surroundings.

As this mass of substance that holds in shape only by his will, he slithers out of the room through the cracks of the ceiling, and finds himself in a bedroom of the mansion, swirling in the shadows beneath the beds. There are people there, so he shifts again, to the window in a fluid flow of colour and shadow, and then through the cracks, out and into the cool evening air.

Nibelheim has been razed through the ground, he finds. No, he corrects himself as he examines the ruins from the outskirts, shifting to physical form and crouching by one fallen building. It has been burned to the ground – and now the ShinRa construction crews are tearing down the foundations as well, their machines roaring away at the other end of the village.

It is an odd way to make a cover-up – normally they'd be satisfied with just destroying a place, bombing it from the distance and killing everyone in it. This is a bit too delicate for ShinRa. 

Curious, he shifts into his fluid form again and then makes his way closer, as close as he safely can, into the shadows of the ruins just next to one of the crews who are negotiating their way through one of the buildings. Then he listens as they talk.

"… I think so too. Mind you, if we have to make everything exactly the way it was, having the original foundations might be useful, but this place wasn't exactly well built to begin with. I wouldn't build a hut on these rocks, not to mention about a three story building."

"We don't need to make it last – just to look. After we're finished, the whole place can fall over for all we – and ShinRa – care. Now come on, let's get moving. There's work to be done."

So they are rebuilding the place, not just destroying it. It is interesting and intriguing – an effort which ShinRa normally wouldn't have bothered with. What are they trying to cover up? What had destroyed the village in the first place? An accident? Or had it been intentional?

Curious, Vincent lingers and listens until he knows that the grunts doing the building work don't know any more than he does. He then approaches the Turks as closely as he can – and they know a bit more. A ShinRa general had been the one to burn the village in a fit of insanity. And not just any ShinRa general.

"… where Sephiroth is now?"

"No one does. At some point in the fight the protective flooring was shattered – and then… well, it seems the general fell into the Mako pool. If his body survived it, which is doubtful, it wouldn't be there anymore; by necessity there is a flow in the Mako pools of reactors, so he would've been swept away long before Hojo got here."

Sephiroth. Vincent knows that name. It is the name Hojo had fashioned for Lucrecia's son – for his experiment. The same experiment which had Vincent regaining a bit of his humanity, so long lost in the life of a Turk… only to be lost again, under that man's knife. He doesn't know now, though, whether he is sad or relieved - or if he cares at all. Sephiroth is dead; turned insane by the discovery of his own nature, and then killed by those he had sought to kill.

Those who now wither under Hojo's knife.

Uneasy, Vincent returns to the mansion. There is nothing he can do, with the mansion so full, the experiments and subjects under constant surveillance, everything being so full of activity. He is still weak and his body is too strange - he wouldn't have dared to go against a ShinRa trooper, not to mention about a SOLDIER or a Turk, and there are both of those, guarding the mansion and the village.

All he can do is linger on the outskirts of this mockery of humanity and listen.

 

3.

 

Time goes by, and he doesn't sleep. Instead he shifts through the mansion, the village, the basement, and watches and listens. As the days turn into weeks and months, the reconstruction of Nibelheim is finished, and it is a masterpiece – just as he remembers it himself, from all those years ago. Every shop, the streets, the water tower – they had even managed to replicate the years of wear by the elements perfectly. ShinRa, for all its evil, know what they are doing.

The people lessen – and then more arrive in their place. Except these aren't workers but test subjects, collected from who knows where, carted in by truck and chained up in the upper mansion, where there is space. Vincent watches from the ventilation and the shadows beneath furniture, how the broken subjects are treated with a variety of medical cocktails by Hojo and by the other scientists, while the SOLDIERs and grunts hold them down and force them to take it. What they are after, Vincent doesn't know, and he doesn't like it at all.

And then he finds out when the first test subject is changed into somebody else, and released to wander the village first in a confused haze and then with a bit more of purpose as the ShinRa workers point him the way and tell him what to do. And so Nibelheim gets its first inhabitant, who had no idea who he had been before or how he had ended up there, but who is just malleable enough to settle.

And so Hojo finishes the cover-up by re-inhabiting the mock town with mock people. They are confused and aimless at first, wandering around without goal or purpose, but they settle into their patterns until the image of the village that had been was almost complete, almost perfect. It had the artificial quality of a photograph, however, and probably always would.

Then it is just the two test subjects again, them and the scientist bustling around them, trying to squeeze out whatever they thought they had in them. Vincent dares to go closer now, because as the time goes by, as months shift to years, the people start trickling out of the mansion until it is just Hojo and a skeleton crew of scientists. He watches as the two men, one dark haired, one blonde, are moved back and forth between examination tables and Mako tubes, how they are cut open and examined, experimented upon and then left aside.

It doesn't really seem like Hojo knows what he is looking for, though. He concentrates on the blonde man the most, the younger, the frailer – the one who sometimes used to scream but doesn't anymore. The scientist seems disappointed, though, and not just that – furious. As Vincent watches, the Head of ShinRa's Science department pumps all and every drug he has into the blonde man, syringe after syringe, each one stranger than the first – he even grafts something directly into the young man's body, bones that seem even less human than Vincent's own, odd additions. To no avail.

The young man has by that time fallen into the depths of a Mako Addiction, and is completely unresponsive to any and all stimulus.

Vincent watches this and wonders. It really seems at times like Hojo doesn't know what he's doing – like he is just trying this and that, and waiting to see the reaction. After a while, Vincent has to wonder if the man knows what a Mako Addiction does to a human body. Vincent does, having spent his entire life around science – both willingly and unwillingly. Mako Addiction, among many other things, stopped the body's natural functions. The blood still flowed, the body still breathed, but that was about it. Everything from hormone production to the functions of the digestive system – even the cellular cycle stopped, until the very existence of the body was only supported by Mako. That was why it was called Mako Addiction and not poisoning, because by the time it got to full swing the body was entirely dependent on Mako.

And while the blond man has the poisoning, there is no way any of Hojo's experiments have any effect on him – his body simply won’t not react to them. The idea that a scientist like Hojo does not know seems a bit ludicrous to Vincent, but then Hojo had always been… strange. Or perhaps in this case Hojo simply thought that the case ought to be beyond the normal perimeters of a Mako Addiction and he should've been able to work beyond the established forms.

And so, with his test subject unresponsive and his experiments failing one after another, Hojo grows annoyed and eventually disinterested. Vincent isn't surprised – it takes something special to hold Hojo's interest and this blond who miraculously is still alive doesn't seem special. Not to him, at least. So, eventually, Hojo turns, laments the failure almost absently and then begins to pack his bags. Most of the staff goes with him, but the troopers stay to watch over the project and Nibelheim.

It is still too dangerous to try to do something. But there are less people now, less dangers and sometimes, in the late night when the watch grows bored, the basement is empty.

And Vincent can safely move out from his dozens of hiding places and into the laboratories. There, while the machines beep and bubble and the two subjects float in diluted Mako, one poisoned almost beyond help and another getting there, he begins to rummage through the reports and files. They mention no names, of course not, and the older ones have dates covered beneath black marker, but he gets the gist of it soon enough.

The blonde man – subject C – had been the one to kill Sephiroth, whilst being run through by the general's sword. That alone had been enough to catch Hojo's attention, because Sephiroth had been his prize project so whatever could destroy Sephiroth had to be something special. And so Hojo had taken him, strapped him down, fixed him, and then began the slow, arduous process of breaking him, adding bits of this and that – of Sephiroth himself, of Jenova, and eventually of anything and everything he had at hand when the man had stopped responding to anything.

The other man, subject Z, had been used for other experiments. He was a SOLDIER first class, and his cells were already mutated by the Mako treatments he had gotten in the SOLDIER program – thus he wasn't a viable test subject like subject C. So instead subject Z had been used to see how far the SOLDIER program could be taken. Though of course Hojo couldn't leave it well enough alone, and had done some of what he had done to C to Z as well – with better and worse results because Z's cellular structure hadn't accepted the treatments at all.

Lowering the documents, Vincent looks between the tubes, inside which the two men float, scarred and bruised and unconscious. He isn't sure what he feels. He had been the same, in his time – just an extra test subject for Hojo to exercise his so called science on, something to throw anything at just to see how he'd react. And he too had earned that dubious pleasure by acting against Hojo and his experiments.

But what to do now, with this knowledge?

Stepping closer, Vincent laid his lone human hand against the warm surface of the Mako tank inside which the subject C floated, with a breathing mask on his face and nothing else on. He could still remember the man's pitiful screams, before they had petered out under the wave of the Addiction.

He didn't want to hear them again.

 

4.

 

For a long while, Vincent plans and prepares, implementing his Turk training in ways he hadn't thought he'd ever need to again. He re-learns the world from the newspapers in the village and around the mansion, figuring out how to use modern technology just so that he can sneak glances at the computers and, when the workers at the mansion sleep, at their PHS'.

It is unnerving to realise that ShinRa has finally conquered the entire planet – even Wutai had fallen during his sleep and now nothing stood in the company's way. Aside from that, though, the world hasn't changed that much. Midgar had been completed, there is a cannon the size of a large train in Junon, and they are considering building a Mako reactor in Wutai. Aside from that, everything is the same. Golden Saucer is the same, as is Rocket Town and Costa Del Sol. A Mako Reactor had exploded in Corel, but even that was nothing new – ShinRa's technology had a long history of massive explosions.

The SOLDIER program had come and now it is still going judging by the looks of it. Since the death of Sephiroth and Zack Fair, there were no first class SOLDIER's left, only seconds and thirds. The SOLDIER program itself is in shambles because of the lack of a suitable leadership, and with Hojo having long since lost interest in the SOLDIER - both thanks to the deaths of all the Firsts and the failure of his subject Z no doubt – it wasn't likely to flourish. Vincent learns most of this in hindsight, though he can't help but be a bit relieved that in his slumber he had missed the raise and most of the fall of the ShinRa's super soldiers.

What he isn't so relieved about is the amount of technological patrolling in the Western continent. It seems every square mile is nowadays covered by a robot of one sort or another, watching and recording everything they see. It is allegedly because of monsters, that the machines are there to protect travellers, but Vincent thinks it has more to do with Wutai's close proximity and their well known anti-ShinRa beliefs. However it is, the amount of patrolling makes figuring escape routes a little difficult.

Over the mountains is the best, he eventually decides. Robots couldn't patrol those regions without a high failing rate, and they couldn't cross them easily by helicopter either – the mountains would offer quite a few of hiding places as well. And of course there were the hot springs a little north of Mt. Nibel, which he is especially interested in.

With his escape routes figured out, and his knowledge of the world as up to date as it can be, Vincent prepares. It helps that by that time, the mansion is almost empty of scientists – only one of them remains, a supervisor whose main function is to watch for any changes in the two subjects, so quite easy to overcome. The biggest problem are the monsters around and of course the ShinRa troops still stationed around the village – but with a  weapon secured from one of the guards, who now thinks he has lost it during patrol, and enough ammunition to last him a while, he figures he is ready to try.

He is too late, however – by the time he has secured the mansion by putting the guards down and is making his way down to the laboratory, the supervisor is already unconscious on the floor, and subject Z is out and somewhat alert, standing on the Mako and glass shards that had spilled from the tube.

"Another one?" the black haired man grunts and then makes a lunge at Vincent. He would have hit had Vincent not grown accustomed to his body – he flows out of the way easily, and subject Z falters, almost falling over as his fist finds nothing.

"Calm down," Vincent says, the rifle, though loaded and ready, held pointing down. "I am not your enemy."

"Then what are you?" the man demands, pushing his Mako sodden hair from his eyes and glaring.

"The same as you," Vincent says, lifting his golden gauntlet in demonstration and then glancing down at the scientist. Without a pause, he aims the rifle at the man, and shoots him to the back of his head, making the black haired man flinch.

"What the hell are you doing?" subject Z demands. "He was out cold – and someone must've heard the shot!"

"I already emptied the mansion, no one heard. And you cannot leave behind eye witnesses," Vincent answers, stepping forward and past the man. Pressing a button he empties subject C's tank and then opens the door, making a move to catch the blond man before he falls through.

"Don't touch him!" subject Z snaps at him, stumbling forward and between him and the other subject.

Vincent frowns. This isn't quite how he had planned things to go – but then, he hadn't gotten the chance to free the subjects himself like he had intended to. Some of the trust, which he had been counting on, hadn't been build and probably wouldn't be, since he was not this man's rescuer but only someone who had shown at the right place at the wrong time.

"I only meant to catch him," he says softly. "The floor is full of glass."

"Who are you?" subject Z demands, not moving while subject C crumbles to the bottom of the tube, inert.

Vincent hesitates, wondering if they have the time, if it is worth it… but by the looks of subject Z's face, he doesn't have a choice and they'll only end up wasting more time if he holds back. "My name is Vincent Valentine – I was a Turk working with the project S, before I stood against Hojo and he… dealt away with me."

"You don't look very dead to me," subject Z says, but gives him a thoughtful look. "Project S."

"The Sephiroth project," Vincent answers. "It happened here, and I was assigned as part of the protection detail. I was… close to Sephiroth's mother. Which is why I stood against Hojo and paid the price for it."

Now the black haired man's glowing Mako eyes narrow. "You were close to Jenova?"

"Lucrecia," the gunman corrects. "A scientist in the project, who gave birth to Sephiroth. Jenova is only the organism whose cells were… added, when Sephiroth was still in her womb." He glances away from the man and down to the blonde test subject, who is now shivering in the tube. "He is getting cold," he says, disapproving.

Instantly, subject Z turns. "Damn it," he mutters, opening the door and quickly lifting the blond man up – or trying to. His strength hasn't come back to him and he falters, nearly falling over with his burden. Vincent stops them, grabbing first a hold of subject Z's elbow and then winding his human arm around subject C, taking his weight and lifting him up. The subject is light, thankfully, and even with a single arm Vincent can keep his feet from hitting the floor.

"You aren't recovered yet," the gunman says, swinging his rifle to his back to hang by the strap, and then releasing subject Z to lift subject C entirely in his arms. "The Mako has saved you from some of the atrophy, but your body is not the same, can't be, after years of inactivity."

"Years?" subject Z demands. "H-how many years?!

"Four," Vincent answers, and carries subject C away from the tubes. "You both need to wash and get some clothes. Come on. The mansion above is safe."

His eyes wide with shock, subject Z stumbles after him. He is still in shock and thinking when they reach the mansion, and Vincent leads him to the bathrooms, where he lays subject C on the floor and turns the water on as warm as it gets, to wash the remains of the Mako off.

"What are you doing? The water is way too hot, you'll end up hurting him!" subject Z snaps, when he sees the steam rising.

"He has Mako Addiction – so he cannot feel a thing," Vincent answers, ignoring the weak arm trying to pull him away. "And heat is what he needs the most right now, so that he can sweat some of the excess of Mako out of his system. A hot bath would be the best, but there are no tubs here and I don't want to waste time."

"Mako Addiction. I thought he was just out cold," subject Z muttered, falling to the floor beside the blonde man. "This is… I can't think. Four years? Has it really been four years? But…"

As he trails away, Vincent hoses the blonde man up and down until his skin is turning red and even his hair runs clean. Then, after turning the temperature down a bit, he turns the hose onto the black haired man who at first flinches, but then sits still under the spray, bowing his head and letting Vincent run the water through his short hair, only shivering lightly.

"Why are you doing this?" subject Z asks, when Vincent finally puts the hose away and goes to fetch towels.

"He was screaming, in the beginning," Vincent answered. "Woke me up from my slumber. I… couldn't do anything then, too many people. But later…" he shakes his head, and drops one of the towels on subject Z's head. "Hojo has had many failed experiments and I couldn't save any of them, neither Lucrecia nor Sephiroth... nor myself. But you… I thought I could save you."

"Much appreciated, man," the other man murmurs and begins clumsily scrubbing the water from his hair. "Is… is Cloud going to be alright?"

"Cloud? Is that his name?" Vincent asks, and turns to the blond man. "Perhaps. It is my intention to take him to the north side of Mt. Nibel – there are natural hot springs there. They will help him in his recovery."

"Good, that's good," the black haired man says and wraps the towel around his waist. "You intended to save us without knowing our names?" he then asks.

"You're only referred by your designations in the reports. Subject C and subject Z," Vincent answers.

"Ah. Well, it's Zack, not Z. Zack Fair – and he's Cloud Strife," the SOLDIER says and stands up slowly. "Is there any clothing around here, do you think?"

"I will go and see," Vincent says and stands as well.

 

5.

 

Even though Zack seems disgruntled by the civilian clothing Vincent gets for him and Cloud, he puts them on without verbal complaint. The fact that they had found his enormous Buster Sword and even some of his old Materia in one of the rooms seems to help his mood a little. After that discovery, Vincent gets the supplies he had accumulated in preparation – the bags with food that he himself doesn't need, but which he knows the two other will appreciate when they start feeling hunger again.

"So, what next?" Zack asks.

"Through the back of the mansion, and into the forest. There is an animal path there we can take, which will lead us near to the hot springs," Vincent answers, carrying Cloud across his shoulder – it would take much too long if Zack tried to carry the blond. While supporting the blond with his dominant hand, he digs out the lighter with his other one, and idly begins setting the beds and curtains they came across on fire.

"Why?" Zack asks, but without objection in his voice.

"Evidence removal. They will find the scientist and the guards shot and you gone but hopefully this way they will consider you stolen, rather than escaped," Vincent answers, and then helps Zack through the window before easing himself out, careful with the unresponsive Cloud half across his back. Then, like so, they leave the burning ShinRa mansion behind them.

The way from there is slow and hard. The path isn't the easiest to take and Zack is still very weak and has to take several breaks as they venture deeper into the wild mountain forests. Vincent takes out the monsters they come across mostly by himself – it's easier with the rifle, and even though Zack can carry the Buster Sword, his hands shake when he tries to swing it.

"How much further?" the SOLDIER – or former SOLDIER – asks plaintively, as the night begins to fall and the forest turns dark.

"Much," Vincent answers without inflexion and looks around. He can see a bit better in the dark than he used to, but Zack is a different matter and with Cloud… "I think we need to stop for the night."

They find a relatively secluded spot by the mountain side, where the cliff forms a sort of ceiling and protects them from most of the wind. By unspoken agreement, Cloud is situated between them, half on Vincent and half on Zack, well protected from the cool ground and cliff wall.

"Do you really think he can recover?" Zack asks while Vincent wraps his ragged cloak around the blond man.

"I wouldn't have taken him with us if I didn't think he could," the gunman answers, wrapping an arm around Cloud's back to secure the cloak in place. "It will most likely take a while."

Zack sighs and nods, leaning back a bit and staring into the darkness. After a long quiet moment in which Vincent thinks he might've fallen asleep, the man shifts and pulls out something from his pocket – a paper note, which Vincent had seen him take from his discarded SOLDIER uniform. The paper rustles dryly as Zack unfolds it and reads it, his face twisting in regret and longing.

"I… need to go to Midgar," the former SOLDIER says after a moment of silence, folding the paper again and holding it against his forehead for a moment, like trying to engrave whatever was in it on his mind through physical contact. "There is… someone is waiting for me there. And if it's been four years…"

"Do you think they're still waiting?" Vincent asks, but not cruelly.

"Yes," Zack answers emphatically. "She wouldn't give up, she'd wait. And I've kept her waiting for so long. I should…"

The gunman says nothing, looking into the darkness. It seems… idiotic. It is idiotic. Zack is ShinRa's, Hojo's test subject – and Midgar is ShinRa's throne. He'll be hunted down and captured and if not that, then killed. What Zack and Cloud need to do is to hide until ShinRa forgets them, or just gets interested in other things. Hide and recover and grow strong enough to be able to keep themselves safe.

But who is Vincent to tell anyone what they ought to do? He had slept in a coffin for decades, not doing anything. And if he was the one in Zack's shoes… if he too had a place to go, someone to wait for him…

"Then you need to go," he says simply, looking down at Cloud who listlessly stares at his shoulder. Gently, he presses his fingers against the blonde man's eyelids, pulling them down over the unseeing eyes.

"Not going to tell me how stupid it is?" Zack asks, smiling crookedly.

"You already know how stupid it is," Vincent answers, and leans his head back. "So, as long as you do your stupid thing smartly, you can do it without getting yourself killed. Keep out of sight, don't go where they'd expect you to go, hide yourself, get a disguise…"

Zack frowns at that, running a hand through his spiky hair and then looking at his Buster Sword with a mixed look. "I, uh… About Cloud…"

"If you take him, you'll only get the both of you killed," Vincent answers, closing his eyes. "It will most likely take him weeks to recover even with proper care. He will be a dead weight and slow you down. Without him, you might make it." There is a moment of silence, and he can feel Zack's conflicted gaze on him. "And," the gunman adds. "I wasn't about to let you take him anyway."

"Is that really your choice?" Zack asks, in a quiet voice with an edge of danger beneath it.

"Is it yours, to put him in danger when I can keep him out of sight and safe?" Vincent asks calmly. "Do your fool's errand if you must. But do it without endangering other people."

Zack doesn't answer at that and at the shifting of Cloud's weight, Vincent can tell the man is moving. Opening his eyes slightly, Vincent gently pulls Cloud's feet to his lap as well, until he's holding the blond man alone – and Zack is standing up. "The Buster Sword," Zack says, looking at it. "It… it used to belong to my teacher – it was made by his father and it's a sign of his family honour, his own honour. He gave it to me so that I would…" he frowns and shakes his head, glancing at Vincent. "Cloud only used it once but he used it better than I ever did. If he recovers, give it to him? Please."

Vincent frowns, glancing at the enormous sword. To carry Cloud and it… well, he could manage it. And once he reaches the hot springs, he won't be moving for a while. "Very well," he says. "You should wait until morning, however," he adds. "Going out without a weapon in Nibelheim at night is not the smartest move."

"I'm not that well known for being smart," Zack sighs and crouches beside him, reaching out to ruffle Cloud's hair. The blond man's head lolls a bit and his eyes open, but there is no awareness or recognition in them, so Vincent gently closes them again. Zack smiles sadly. "If I make it, and if Cloud recovers… I would kind of like to see him again, one day. Do you have any idea about where you're going?"

"Cosmo Canyon," Vincent answers. He had considered Rocket Town, but ShinRa's influence there is too great. Cosmo Canyon however was of no interest to ShinRa – the geography and the geology made it unsuitable for Mako reactors despite the fact that the land was rich in it. "If not there, then I will see about leaving some sort of message for you."

"Cosmo Canyon. Okay," Zack nods and then ruffles Cloud's hair again, gentler this time. "Bye, Spiky," he whispers to the unmoving man and stands up. A minute later, he's vanished into the dark forest and Vincent is alone with Cloud and the Buster Sword, wondering if he will ever see the former SOLDIER again.

Looking down at Cloud, Vincent wraps his cloak tighter around the young man. "He'll be fine," he murmurs, illogical reassurances for someone who can't hear, but it is oddly comforting for him as well. "And we'll be fine, as well."

 

6.

 

The next day, Vincent strips Cloud and then gently rests him on the edge of one of the hot springs he has found. While the young man bathes, unaware of anything around him but slowly sweating out the excess Mako inside him, Vincent sets about securing the perimeter. There is no way to do it properly and he can't safely build any sort of structures to cover them – they would only become evidence for ShinRa to eventually find. But he checks the highest point for a good gun position and learns the terrain, makes mental notes of possible escape routes and hiding places and also notes any edible plants in the area.

Then he settles down to wait. He is no expert in Mako Addiction, but he remembers enough from those years long ago to shift Cloud back and forth between the hot spring and the cool air, to try and stimulate his body into reacting to the change of temperature. He washes the young man daily with the soap he had stolen from ShinRa Mansion to wash away the surfacing Mako and makes him drink as much water as he can, to give the young man's sweat glands something to expel.

It doesn't seem to be working much, and Cloud throws up most of the water at first. But as the days go by and turn into weeks, eventually he holds it in, and the Mako starts coming out more and more, his sweat taking a greenish tint. Whether it is enough or not is still left to be seen – the young man is so saturated with Mako that that his eyes glow like Zack's had and nothing would ever get all of the stuff out… but it seems to be having some effect.

Vincent is patient, though and not in a hurry. Although he can hear the ShinRa helicopters in the distance, probably there to investigate the fire at the mansion, they don't make any move towards the mountains. Eventually they leave entirely. It is probably  because of Zack that they are safe. Because Zack had left and now is no doubt leading ShinRa on a merry chase across the continent and thus away from them. Vincent wonders for a while if he ought to feel guilty about it, but he decides against it. He suspects that Zack would've only felt proud, had he realised what he is unknowingly doing.

Once more time passes, eventually Cloud stops sweating Mako and slowly his bodily functions seem to start again. The first time Vincent hears his stomach growl it startles him a bit, but it is with relief that he begins feeding the young man, easing him back to food bit by bit. It, of course, has its own unpleasant side effects, but Vincent has dealt with unpleasantness before. Cloud's mind, however, is a different thing – while his body returns back to life, his mind continues to wander.

"I guess there is little else we can do here," Vincent muses, tugging at Cloud's eyelid gently and looking thoughtfully at the glowing blue eye. The iris is reacting to light again, contracting when the sunlight hits it, but Cloud doesn't seem to be seeing anything. He is as well as a hot bath can make him. The rest is up to the young man himself – all depending on whether he wants to return to his body or not.

It is time to get moving.

In the time Cloud spent recovering, Vincent had fashioned a sort of harness so he could carry the Buster Sword at his back while he carried Cloud in his arms, so they leave without too much trouble. He takes the rifle too of course, not wanting to go without a weapon himself, and whatever food he has been able to gather in the wild. Water will prove to be a problem as they go further south, but he has some bottles with him and hopefully they'll be enough between rivers and springs.

And so they leave. The journey down from the mountains of Nibelheim is long and difficult, as Vincent goes the roundabout way to avoid Nibelheim itself. After that, though, they're in the plains at it gets a little easier, even though there are the patrols to be worried about, especially around any major roads. He is in no hurry, though, and circles around most of those, avoiding people and settlements like a plague and slowly, steadily, making his way south.

The first time Cloud comes to is in the shore of the Wutai Sea, when they're about halfway on their journey. Vincent is just preparing some of the fish he has caught for Cloud to eat, when the blond lifts his head and blinks hazily, his eyes shimmering. "Z-Za-ack?" he asks, looking at Vincent.

"Zack has gone to Midgar," Vincent answers, looking at him cautiously while moving away from the fire and closer to him. "My name is Vincent, Zack left you in my care."

Cloud blinks at that, looking at him. "Me?" he asks, the vowel stretching oddly. "…I am?"

"Your name is Cloud Strife. You were a ShinRa infantryman," Vincent says brushing his hand gently through Cloud's slightly sagging hair. It needs a wash. "You were held by ShinRa scientists and experimented on after you killed general Sephiroth."

 "Sephi…roth…" Cloud murmurs and his eyes fall shut again, his head lolling down. He doesn't come to again, so Vincent returns to cooking the fish and when he feeds it to Cloud in small bits, the man barely swallows.

It takes a week of travel and a day of thirst before Cloud comes to again. It happens at the spring that took Vincent all day to find, and while the gunman fills the bottles, Cloud lifts his head again and looks around blearily. "W-where?" he asks, and Vincent glances up.

"Western continent, somewhere at the northwest of Cosmo Canyon," Vincent answers and brings one of the bottles to him. Cloud drinks weakly, eyes half lidded and only partially seeing, and spills most of the water down his chin – but he swallows without having Vincent to massage his throat.

"I am taking you to Cosmo Canyon," the gunman adds, wiping the excess water away with his human hand. "I don't know how we will manage there, but ShinRa doesn't have a presence there. You'll be safe."

"Safe," Cloud whispers, staring at him with hazy, bright eyes. He blinks, and some sharpness seems to come to his eyes. "Who are you?" he asks, with an even, well spoken voice that contrasts with his previous, soft mumbling.

"Vincent Valentine. I am taking care of you," the gunman answers, but the sharpness in the other man's eyes is gone already.

And so they travel, Cloud coming to and fading again periodically – but doing it so more often as the time goes by. It might be the time, or maybe the heat – the further south they go, the hotter the days get – but he seems to be recovering faster and that is all Vincent cares about, as he navigates the maze of ravines and mountains that is the land around Cosmo Canyon. Some days Cloud can almost walk by himself, other days they hold odd, half spoken conversations that go in circles – Cloud keeps repeating his four simple questions; where was Zack, who was he, where was he and who was Vincent, and Vincent gave the same answers every time. Mostly though, it is Vincent alone, carrying Cloud in silence.

He eventually carries Cloud all the way to the middle of the maze of canyons and ravines and then up the long, long stone steps, up and to the mountain where the village of Cosmo Canyon is.

 

7.

 

Cosmo Canyon is more welcoming than Vincent had dared to hope. At the sight of him, and of Cloud whose Mako Addiction is painfully obvious to anyone who knows anything about the condition, they are lead up the strange village and to the house of Bugenhagen the Elder, who seriously takes them in and inspects Cloud from atop the floating orb of Materia he is sitting on.

"Quite the case this," the old man murmurs. "How long has it been?"

"Four years of experimentation for him. I released him from the Mako about three months ago," Vincent answers. "I treated him in hot springs and since we came south he seems to be coming to, but he is still catatonic most of the time."

"I suppose he would be, with a case this severe," Bugenhagen says and turns to him. "What did you intend, by coming here?"

"Hopefully to live in secrecy," Vincent answers, not bothering to hide his intentions since it could only hurt on the long run. "For now ShinRa's forces have been unaware of us as far as I know, and most likely they are distracted by Zack Fair, another human experiment subject who also escaped at the time Cloud did. But it is likely that should they find out about Cloud, they would come after him, to capture or dispose of him."

Bugenhagen sighs and shakes his head. "ShinRa never changes," he says and then bobs in the air. "There is something about him, though. How much do you know of Cosmo Canyon?"

"Some," Vincent says, considering. Have things changed in the time he has been sleeping? It doesn't seem like it but it's possible… "I know it is the foremost ground for the study of Planet Life, and that the geology makes it impossible for ShinRa to build a Mako Reactor here, hence their disinterest in these lands despite the high saturation of Mako."

"Oh hoh hoh!" the old man laughs, bobbing in the air with the force of his guffaws. "True, true. The soil here seems like rock, but it's actually composed of layers of soil and sand and other minerals. Just the construction process would shatter the ground and whatever people would try to build would simply sink into the Planet," he says, whirling around. "Hence why we build around the ground and into the caves, rather than digging them ourselves – it is simply not safe here. That is why the ground here is rich in the power of the Planet, because unlike with more rocky lands, the power flows freely between the layers. And that is why we can hear the Planet here."

Vincent frowns at that and then glances around himself, wondering. He had been hearing something, like whispering just below the edge of his hearing, but… "The Planet?" he asks dubiously.

"Normally she cries and moans loudly enough to disturb the sleep of the most sensitive," Bugenhagen agrees and motions around them. "This house and the observatory above it stand right atop a Lifestream fountain of sorts, so the voices here are the loudest. Since you came here, however, she has quieted down and only whispers in terror."

The old man frowns and looks at him seriously now. "She does not like you," he states simply, warningly.

"Ah," Vincent answers and looks at Cloud who is sitting in the seat beside him, propped against the table and thus kept from falling over. "It is not only Mako that is inside Cloud," he admits. "The lead scientist in the project that experimented on him… added things. I imagine what the Planet objects to most, are the parts of Jenova – she was also called the Calamity That Fell From The Sky in the documents concerning Cloud's experiments."

"And you?" Bugenhagen asks seriously.

"I… too was experimented on, long ago. I now have the ability to transform into creatures. No, that is not quite right…" Vincent thinks about it for a moment. He had come to know his monsters on the way south, mostly. He doesn't like any of them much, but they are there and not going anywhere. "I have creatures inside me. Beasts and monsters. A demon."

"I see," Bugenhagen murmurs, considering. "Well that aside, it is always our duty to help those in need, and I can't say you're the first refugees who have ended up here after taking the brunt of ShinRa's machinations," he says then. "I will talk with the townsfolk, see what we can do about this. We might even find something for a strapping young warrior like yourself to do his head in thanks.

"However," Bugenhagen continues. "The Planet does not like him. She is fearful of him, and what's inside him," he says, looking at Cloud. "Therefore we must keep an eye on him."

"I already planned on doing that," Vincent says, frowning. "After all the things done to him, it is… possible that there will be side effects. The Mako addiction has for now kept any potential mutations at bay, but it is passing. With all the things added, the likelihood of nothing happening is… small."

Bugenhagen nods. "Well, as long as you know," he says, concluding the meeting.

The Cosmo Canyon people are a bit nervous about them, but they let them stay in one of the store houses where bedrolls are spread for them and most of the excess stuff is taken out. It is by no means a stellar accommodation, but it seems suitable enough and even though there is a subtle sound at night, it is quiet. Cosmo Canyon itself is a quiet place, lacking all the bustle and noise of a normal town, having no machinery aside from what the windmills power, and no transportation vehicles. People walk and if they can't walk, they climb, and that is all.

It is also, at times, primitive. There are only two proper baths in the entire village, one in Bugenhagen's house and another in the Shildra Inn which most of the village uses. Most of the village doesn't have running water at all, and instead they get it from the Inn as well. There is no central heating either and their storage hut is too ragged and too full of draft for any additional source of warmth, oven or stove or anything like that, to work there, so the nights are cold. After the first one, spent half watching how Cloud shivered beneath the blankets, Vincent spends his nights curled down as well, not to sleep but to offer his body warmth to the blond man.

And while the people watch them nervously and Vincent tries to figure out some way to fit into the society in a way that would make the people accept him and Cloud as part of their everyday life, Cloud begins to slowly recover. The fits of coherency are longer now, and more frequent – and he eventually begins to think beyond his original, circling thoughts.

"Why did Zack leave me?" he asks one hot day, while Vincent is trying to figure out how to block some of the draft from the hut.

"He said there was someone waiting for him in Midgar," the gunman answers, feeling around with his human hand for the source of the draft. "He did consider taking you with him but decided against it. You would've slowed him down and in your sickened state been a weakness he couldn't afford."

Cloud flinches at that, making Vincent look at him with something like satisfaction. If he can already be hurt emotionally, he really is on the way to recovery. "Also," the gunman adds. "I would not have let him take you anyway. He would've only gotten you or himself killed. I was in a better position to care for you."

The blond says nothing at that, just looks away and at the Buster Sword, which stands leaning against the wall next to the door. "Why?" he asks, after small eternity of silence has passed by. "Do I know you?"

"No, except for now. You did not know me before, I did not know you," Vincent says.

"Then why?"

"You were screaming. It woke me," Vincent answers and then glances at the younger man, whose blue Mako eyes shine in the shadows of their small, dusty living space. "There were many I couldn't help, before. But I thought… I could help you."

For some reason, it makes the blonde flinch again, and eventually fall back to his mindless lull. Shaking his head, Vincent turns back to the task at hand, and lets him wonder.

It turns out Cloud is most aware in the coldest nights, when the winds are strong and howl through the canyon like raging beasts. He shifts in Vincent's arms, stiffens, glances back and then relaxes when he sees it's the gunman curled around him, and no one else, and then he talks, admitting things he doesn't speak out loud on the daylight.

"I can't remember my mother's name. I had a mother, I know I did, I can almost remember her face, but…" and, "Sometimes, I dream I'm Zack. I remember when he got that, and it's like it was handed to me, and not him," pointing at the buster sword. "I forget what I was in ShinRa. I keep thinking I was SOLDIER even though I know I wasn't."

And Vincent would tell him what little he knew of the younger man's life, what little Zack had told him, cursing himself for not asking more. Most of what he knows, he learned from the reports. "You were an infantry man, assigned under Sephiroth and Zack during the Nibelheim inspection," he says, clasping his human hand over Cloud's cold fingers. "You wanted to become a SOLDIER, but didn't pass the tests the first time, and instead became part of the fourteenth infantry squad. Before Nibelheim, you had been an infantry man for a year and two months."

"Yeah. Yeah, that's right, isn't it?" Cloud murmurs and looks at him over his shoulder. "But why do I have the Buster Sword?"

"Because Zack left it to you," the gunman answers. "He said you used it once, but better than he ever did. That it was from his teacher, a symbol of honour."

"Honour…" and with that Cloud falls quiet.

 

8.

 

The changes, when they begin, start with the end of Cloud's final stages of Mako Addiction. By that time, Vincent is expecting them.

At first, it seems like nothing. Cloud turns one night in his arms and nudges at him until Vincent falls to his back, rather than lying on his side like he usually does. While the gunman wonders if it had been good idea to get Cloud so adjusted to such intimate physical contact, the younger man shifts to lie half on top of him on his stomach, leaning his head against Vincent's shoulder. There he falls asleep with a heavy, relieved sigh, and wrapping a supportive arm around the younger man's waist, Vincent lets the matter go. It is how they arrange themselves for the night, from then on.

As the Mako Addiction fades completely and Cloud is aware of everything all the time, he begins to tentatively approach the villagers. Even though the people seem as nervous of him as he is of them, they mingle eventually – though not because of any really well thought decision or serious determination. It is because the children of Cosmo Canyon are unexpectedly drawn to Cloud, for some reason. They seem nervous at first, but in the end they end up flocking around him, asking questions about his sword and his eyes and about Vincent, whom they fear too much to approach. And when Cloud fails to hurt any of them or even push any of them away, the adults ease up as well, a few of them even showing some sympathy and pity, and some offering to help.

Eventually Cloud reveals that he has a bit of a knack for machinery – his mother, he thinks, might've been a mechanic, or maybe he had learnt in the army? – and is immediately ushered to help with one of the windmills, that had broken a while back. Watching cautiously from the shadows Vincent sees one of the village men pat Cloud on the back in congratulation for something he had done, and gunman's eyes narrow as Cloud flinches in pain.

Later that night, he ushers Cloud to the Inn for a bath and stays, watching. The skin of Cloud's back is red and swollen and he turns the water as cold as he can, sighing in relief under the spray.

 The village doctor – who is not really a doctor, only a country healer with a knack for setting bones – doesn't know what to make of it, and neither does Bugenhagen. It sets Vincent on the edge, however, because the swelling is steady and not going anywhere and as the days go by, Cloud likes people touching his back less and less.

"It doesn't hurt, when no one touches it," the young man admits against his chest, while Vincent carefully avoids touching the inflamed area of his upper back. "I don't mind."

"It could be something dangerous. A mutation," Vincent points out.

"And even if it is, what can we do about it?" Cloud asks, and he has a point there. They don't have the resources or the means to study what is happening to him, nor any way of stopping it even if they knew what it is, really. "It doesn't hurt," Cloud says again. "I'll worry about it if it starts hurting."

Vincent keeps an eye on Cloud just in case, though, but it doesn't seem like he's about to start coughing up blood or like some strange tumour is about to split him open. When Cloud begins to show the signs of restlessness, he at first suspects it has something to do with the thing on his back, but then the young man flexes his arms and begins to do squats and push-ups and Vincent knows what it is this time.

"Have you even fought against monsters?" he asks, stopping the blonde man in the middle of an energetic squat.

"Yes, in the infantry. I think," Cloud answers, frowning and thinking about it. "Yeah, I did."

"Good. Then you'll know what to do," Vincent says, taking his rifle and motioning at the Buster Sword. "Come on. You need some exercise."

What Cloud needs is a chance to exert himself. His body is now Mako infused and his muscles have finally begun to accept their enhancements – and now the young man is full of an energy he has no way to safely release in the village. However, in the canyons below, after the long trek down the stairs leading away from the village, there are plenty of monsters for him to work his energy against.

"It's… so light," Cloud murmurs after their fourth brief encounter with the local beasts, looking at the Buster Sword he was so easily swinging. "I remember using it against Sephiroth, but… it wasn't this light back then."

"You have about as much Mako in you as a high class SOLDIER," Vincent reminds him, standing back with the rifle at ready, but not taking any shots. He, after all, has no problem with his energy levels. "If I understand the enhancements right, you should be able to lift quite a bit now."

"Hm," Cloud hums, swinging the Buster Sword again. He is a bit clumsy with it – not used to swords of that size or possibly of any size. But it is steady in his hand and after a while the swings begin to hit more and miss less. Vincent watches, wondering what he will he do once Cloud is stronger than him and stops needing him anymore. By the look of things, that day isn't very far off.

From that day on, their forays into the canyons grow more and more commonplace, much to the delight of the villagers. Even though Cosmo Canyon is a peaceful place, it, like every other corner of the planet, is infested with monsters and before the town hadn't had much of a chance against them – hence the reason it had been build on the highest mountain of the area. Cloud makes quick work of the beasts around, however, until his muscles begin to redefine themselves and the Buster Sword turns into an extension of his hand, steady and firm.

And at night, while holding the younger man in his arms, Vincent wonders, gently running his human fingers up and down Cloud's bare lower back. Cloud has stopped wearing a shirt whenever he can, which considering how far the swelling has gotten is understandable, and which left Vincent without a barrier between his touch, and Cloud's skin. Cloud is turning into a very firm, compact, well muscled man. And so strong. Of course, there had been little doubt that he would – with so many enhancements, it had been only matter of time. But…

"Vincent," the blond groans softly. "Do-do you have a knife?"

"What for?" the gunman asks, frowning.

"My back," Cloud says, lifting his head and grimacing. The swelling on his upper back, just above his shoulder blades, is stretching oddly and Cloud lets out a pained, shuddering breath. "It feels… the skin, y-you need to cut the skin."

"What?" Vincent snaps, shifting a bit. "No, Cloud, that can't –"

"Gotta do it. Cut it open," the blonde man demands breathlessly. "Cut it, or I'll do it myself with the Buster Sword," he adds and when Vincent hesitates too long, he makes a lunge for the sword standing by the near wall. The gunman manages to stop him, just barely, by wrapping the gauntleted arm around his waist and pinning him against his chest.

"Why?" he demands to know. "Why does it need to be cut?"

"It's constricting me. I can't stretch," Cloud moans, panting with pain while resting his chin on the gunman's shoulder. "Come on, Vincent, please. It hurts."

With a frown Vincent reaches his human hand to touch the swollen area for the first time. He can feel the movement beneath, and he very nearly snatches his hand away when the thing beneath reaches out and the reddened, inflamed skin stretches with it. There is something growing there, moving beneath Cloud's skin.

He hesitates for a while, before lifting Cloud up and to his shoulder and carrying him out of the hut, down the stairs and across a walkway to Shildra's Inn. There is no one there at this time of the night, but the bathroom is always open and without hindrance Vincent takes Cloud there, stripping him down before turning the water on.

Then, taking the utility knife he carries on his belt, he turns Cloud around, and very gently begins to slice the stretched skin open.

And, after the blood and plasma have ran clear under the barrage of cooling water, the small, featherless wings emerge from beneath the flaps of cut skin, quivering under the water spray but very, very present. Vincent cuts off the extra skin while Cloud pants with relief and pain, and the little wings stretch with obvious relief, reaching out.

"Did you know?" Vincent asks, after turning the water off and examining the cuts he had made to remove the extra skin. Cloud needs a cure, or at least some salve.

"I knew there was something there. Didn't know what," Cloud says, eyes closed and head nodding. "That feels… so much better," he adds with a sigh, and as the little wings flap ever so slightly, Vincent can't help but believe him.

 

9.

 

There is no way to hide the wings, so they don't. And while the village buzzes with whispers and rumours, and Vincent worries if this is the end of the mutations or just the beginning, the wings grow, gaining a layer of downy white and then start to stretch out.

"The Planet is quite nervous," Bugenhagen admits to Vincent as they watch Cloud sit by the Cosmo Candle fire, surrounded by the village children who are taking turns petting the downy wings. "She is unsure about our Cloud and quite worried."

"Hm," Vincent answers, wishing he knew more. Are the wings a Jenova based mutation, or something else? What more are they to expect? Is there any way to stop this from happening? What would happen if they cut the wing away? Can they cut the wings away?

Narrowing his eyes he considers it, looking at Cloud who flaps the growing wings at one of the girls in the group, right at her face, making her giggle. Cloud smiles and seems almost happy and for the life of him Vincent can't imagine putting him through a surgery that would take the wings away, after all the trouble Cloud has had getting them out. Though of course, the very thought of Cloud under a scalpel fills him with a fury he can barely contain – the memory of those screams from months ago still lingers in the back of his head.

"Is there a way to soothe the Planet, and make her not so worried?" he asks instead. "We can hear the Planet here. Can she hear us? Could she hear if we tried to explain this?"

Bugenhagen considers it. "Hm. It is possible. I must contemplate this."

And he does while Cloud's wings grow. The children of Cosmo Canyon very nearly turn the wings into their own private project and someone produces a book on birds, from where they learn the feathers as they grow, marginal, primary and secondary converts, scapulars and then primaries and secondaries… and so the wings stretch, until each one of them is about as long as Cloud's arm when stretched out.

"I don't suppose they'll ever be big enough to fly with," Cloud muses, stretching them out. They are still relatively small, all things considered. A lot of feathers all together, but simply not long or wide enough to support his weight. "Pity."

But still, the children seemed to more than enjoy them. Even the townspeople got used to them pretty quickly, and began taking them in stride, accepting them as part of everyday life. In the end no one had much of a problem with them.

Except for Vincent. "This is starting to be a bit awkward," he notes one night, while pushing Cloud's right wing from his face gently. "Maybe it's time you start sleeping on your own. With the wings, it shouldn't be that cold."

"No," Cloud answers quietly, worming an arm around the gunman's waist and burying his face into the folds of Vincent's cloak. "Don't wanna."

"Cloud," Vincent says warningly, nudging his shoulder until Cloud lifts his head. "You're a grown man, you know. Not a child."

The blond man blinks and then looks at him confusedly, amusedly – and with a bit of worry. "I never thought I was a child with you," he says, frowning.

"Then you ought to be able to sleep by yourself," Vincent says slowly, frowning as well, a little unsure of his ground now.

Cloud shifts, until he and his white wings are looming over the gunman and the glow of Cloud's eyes is the only light left in the shadow. "That is not why," he says, a bit awkward but determined to get himself across. "I don't want to… it's not because I'm a kid scared of the dark, or cold, or anything like that. It's you and I…" he ducks his head, trailing away unsurely.

"Cloud," Vincent murmurs, with a horrible feeling in his gut.

"I know, okay? You just wanted to help me because you couldn't help the others and all that, and it's not me in particular but everyone in general you wanted to save, but couldn't so you settled on just me," the blonde murmurs, bowing his head and pressing it down on Vincent's shoulder again, hiding. "I know it's not me. But… it is you, for me."

"That's not it," Vincent says, unsure how to explain. Yes, he had felt guilty, guilty for Lucrecia and Sephiroth, for himself and for everyone else he had done nothing to help. Cloud had been the symbol of that – but so much more too. Cloud had been screaming. But, at the same time this… this is dangerous. This, whatever Cloud feels for him, thinks he feels for him, is dangerous.

Clearing his throat, Vincent tries to deflect it. "You were only sixteen when you were captured –"

"Don't you dare," Cloud growls into the folds of Vincent's red cloak without lifting his head. "You don't get to say that I'm not a child and then tell me I am one, not in one conversation. Don't try to explain this way. It won't work. If you don't then you don't, that's fine. But don't try to tell me what I'm feeling isn't real."

The gunman sighs and wraps his human arm a little tighter against his waist, just beneath the warm cover of Cloud's secondary feathers. The feathers seem to be all over him, but he doesn't really mind. "Alright," he says quietly and they don't speak of it again that night.

The next evening, Bugenhagen approaches Cloud about the difficulties the Planet has with the young man. Vincent isn't part of the conversation, but he can see Cloud's considering expression and his frown, his nods and shakes of his head and how in the end Cloud makes a decision.

"I'll go down to the sealed caves," the blond says, coming to Vincent. "There are Lifestream springs there, and Bugenhagen thinks I can talk to the Planet there, sort this whole… Jenova thing out."

"Are you going to the Cave of the Gi?" Vincent asks worriedly, having heard a lot about the monsters and spirits there and not wanting Cloud, despite all the man's strength, to go there alone and without backup.

"No, just to the entrance where the springs are clean," Cloud says and smiles. "It'll be fine."

Still, Vincent lingers at the opening that leads down to the sealed caves, waiting nervously – first for hours and then, after the time stretches and stretches, for days. He would've liked to go down and get Cloud himself after the first few hours, of course, but Bugenhagen doesn't let him, telling him to wait over and over again.

"He is fine," the old man assures him. "Despite whatever is in our Cloud, the planet won't harm him. Their conversation is simply taking longer than we expected."

"He still needs to eat," Vincent argues. "Is there even any water down there?"

"The Planet will look after him, don't worry."

But Vincent worries, and doesn't move from the cave entrance until four days have passed and he is seriously starting to consider breaking the lock and seal and going to fetch Cloud bodily from his so called discussion with the Planet. He is just about to do it, when the trapdoor separating the main village from the tunnels leading down swings opens, and Cloud emerges, the top of his alula feathers peaking out first, and then his spiky hair coming into view.

And Cloud is different.

"That took a while," Vincent points out cautiously, looking at him closely. Something about Cloud's eyes is different. They still shine as bright as ever, are as blue as they had ever been. Except maybe they are even bluer, somehow. "What happened?"

"We talked," Cloud answers, grinning and then jumping up from the tunnel with a flap of his wings, and landing right in front of Vincent. "The Planet destroyed the Jenova inside me."

"She… did?" Vincent asked nervously, staring at Cloud's wings. They were massive all of sudden. Twice, no, three times as big as before. Bigger, even. "But… the wings…?"

"Have nothing to do with Jenova, actually," Cloud answers, glancing backwards. "See, when Jenova was frozen, she was trying to pretend to be an Ancient, a Cetra. So what Hojo used was Jenova in guise of an Ancient. Some of the Cetra had wings, you see? So that's what they are," he spreads one of them and Vincent stares helplessly at it. It is enormous, wider than Cloud's arm is, longer, longer than he is tall. Big enough to fly with now.

"The Planet fixed it," Cloud explains, running a hand over the thick layer of inner feathers. "Took Jenova out and made the fake Cetra parts inside me real – it’s because of Jenova that the fake Cetra parts had that much power, because Jenova itself would've killed me. Humans can't handle Jenova, it's like a disease to us, but Cetra could: they were made of stronger stuff. So Jenova was trying to turn me into Cetra so that she could work on me better. But after she was gone, the Cetra parts would've fallen apart and I would've died of degradation, so the Planet fixed it."

"Alright," Vincent answers a bit faintly, still looking at him. "So… the planet made you into a Cetra?"

"She made me into something," Cloud shrugs, care free, and stretches out his wings, first to each side and then forward, when the walls met the feathers. It leaves Vincent surrounded in the wings, in white feathers, staring at him. "I'm okay," Cloud says and with a nod the gunman relaxes.

"And I am going to fly," Cloud adds with a grin, and Vincent tenses again.

Cloud does fly, though. Vincent can't stop him as he runs out of the tunnels, to the edge of the cliff where the village stands and flings himself out and into air. The gunman follows, however, reaching inside him and releasing some of the power he always kept as contained as he could, letting some of Chaos leak into him until he too had wings – and quite bit more than wings. As he flies after Cloud, though, he feels wholly inadequate with his ugly bat's wings, his horns, his darkened skin. A demon.

Cloud, though, only flashes him a delighted grin and while the villagers watch them in amazement, they fly.

 

10.

 

Vincent had loved Lucrecia, but it had always been a sort of distant, helpless love, always held back and contained because she had never truly returned it. It had been easy to love her, though, just because of her unwillingness to share the feeling – to long for the unobtainable saved him a lot of pain, even if it ended with him in agony before the end.

Cloud is nothing like Lucrecia. They share some of the kindness, but Cloud is open and honest in a way she had never been, and shy like Lucrecia Crescent never could've been. He is nothing like her physically and spiritually Cloud is a whole different creature – even after his odd, renewing brush with the planet that had left him grown beyond his limit but essentially the same. Lucrecia never would've curled against Vincent's chest, covering him in limbs and feathers and telling him to suck it up because the floor was damn cold.

Vincent is a bit torn because of it. And not because of it, but because of the rest. Because Cloud is Cloud – he needs Vincent and doesn't, he is strong and still clutches on tightly, needy. And despite the fact that the young man… feels something for him, he doesn't demand any sort of answer. Not that Lucrecia would've either – even though she had asked kindly that he stopped being so blatant, she hadn't demanded it, not really. And yet there is something very different, very refreshing, in the fact that Cloud takes what he can, accepts Vincent precisely as he is, and doesn't demand for more.

He shouldn't, he really shouldn't… but in the end Vincent is getting used it. To the feel of feathers on his face, and Cloud's body, growing heavier with strength and so warm, in his arms. To Cloud's shy smiles and his surprising grins and his lunatic lunges over the edge. To the sight of him ducking and weaving in the air, in a crowd, snatching up children at random and making them scream with delight as he takes them up for a bout of flying. To his quiet words in the dark. His silent affection, never pushed but always present.

And Vincent can't imagine leaving. He has considered it, quite often. Cloud has grown so strong, and he doesn't need to be watched over or guarded, doesn't need anyone to protect his back. Cloud could've stood against armies now all by himself, and not just because of the Mako in his veins but also because of the part of him that is now Cetra, that makes Materia burn in his hand brighter than ever before and makes his spells impossibly strong. Cloud doesn't need help, even if ShinRa is still out there and would want to capture him now more than ever, Cloud doesn't need to be guarded. If anything, Cloud could be guarding him and every other person in Cosmo Canyon. In a way he already is.

He doesn't need Vincent. Vincent could leave. Cloud could leave, maybe try and find Zack, see if he's still alive. Anything could happen.

But Vincent can't imagine it anymore. Can't even begin to think of nights when Cloud isn't stretched across him, a dead weight making it difficult to breathe, wings everywhere, feathers all over the place, and so very comfortable.

Idly he rubs a hand along Cloud's spine while the young man hums contently against his collar, wondering. What if he did? What if he does? Can he? Does it matter? He doesn't know, isn't sure – he is a bit scared, that much he has to admit. Scared because this isn't like Lucrecia at all and the distance isn't there. If he goes with it, Cloud will be there and Vincent isn't sure if the young man will catch him only to break him later. People's hearts are so easy to break and Vincent's had never been that strong. Now, so unadjusted to people and so alone…

"Cloud," he says softly, turning his face and speaking to the young man's ear. "Are you sure?"

"Mm, about what?" the blonde man asks, turning his head and tickling Vincent's neck with the spiky blonde hair.

"About me."

The young man freezes for a moment and then shifts, feathers rustling as he settles them against his back instead of the dramatic sprawl they usually end up in when he's lying down. As the blonde man leans over him, Vincent looks at his eyes considering – how can anyone have eyes that blue? Mako or no Mako, it doesn't seem like a real colour, it's too bright.

"Very sure," Cloud says, looking at him and smiling wryly. "It's your fault, too. You've spoiled me rotten."

"Have I?" Vincent murmurs, lifting his human hand and brushing the spiky bangs away.

"Absolutely. Just look at us," Cloud says, shifting and settling more comfortably, still looking down at him. "Are you, though?" he then asks, reaching with one hand and pushing Vincent's bandana off, making the gunman frown. He ignores it though, brushing his fingers through Vincent's hair, until his face is completely uncovered. "Are you?" Cloud asks again, quieter.

Vincent considers that and all the problems. ShinRa, damn it all, and everything else. Zack too, who knows where the man is, if he's even alive anymore. The Planet – dying beneath their feet according to Bugenhagen, and still willing to cure and repair and make Cloud whole. Him, and all his demons and nightmares.

He doesn't answer. Instead, he touches Cloud's chin, pulling him down into a kiss.

There are still so many things to consider – and sometimes Cloud makes him so confused and so mad. Neither of them are quite that sane, when one gets right down to it. Vincent doesn't sleep and yet he suffers from nightmares – and Cloud flings himself down from cliffs entirely too often for it to be healthy. Sometimes, they can't stand the world, sometimes Cloud hides in his wings and pretends to not exist, and Vincent doesn't remove his gauntlet or boots even in bed. Sometimes Cloud broods and Vincent's mind wanders and they don't talk for days. And sometimes they misunderstand each other, a lot.

And sometimes, it is alright.

Days, weeks later, Vincent finds Cloud sitting on the edge of a life threatening cliff, crouching and looking down at the Planet below with a dangerous expression. "What are you doing?" he asks, keeping himself as level as he can with even beats of his stolen wings, while inside him Chaos growls and rages against his mind. Around them the winds of Cosmo Canyon are wild and growing stronger and he doesn't much like the way Cloud is balancing just on the edge of the small cliff.

"I'm you," Cloud answers.

"No you're not," Vincent says, worried, looking at him closely. Cloud still has bouts when he is confused about himself and thinks he is SOLDIER first class rather than what he really is. If it's starting to spread to him as well, rather than just being contained in the existence of Zack Fair…

"Not like that," the blond answers, giving him a look that says you idiot. "You do this. You sit in the rooftops and glower down."

"I don't," Vincent objects with a frown and Cloud laughs, relaxing in his crouch, tucking his wings tighter against his body.

"You do," the blond says and then reaches dangerously out and towards Vincent, too far – almost falling. Alarmed Vincent flaps his wings and shifts forward, to meet the touch before Cloud can fall – and is immediately pulled forward and into a precarious kiss that threatens to drop them both into the hungry ravine below. Hastily taking support of the edge of the sharp, small cliff, Vincent pushes a bit forward to push Cloud back, and into the safety of the cliff.

"You worry too much," Cloud laughs against his lips, and reigns him in fully, over the edge and then to the cliff, falling backwards to accommodate Vincent in the small, crowded space. "Ouch," he then moans, as he lands on his back. "My wings."

"You are mad," Vincent growls at him, pulling him up again and away from the self inflicted hurt. The winds are tugging at his own wings, trying to pull him from the cliff and into the air so he wills Chaos away and his own wings with it and so returns to his human form.

Cloud smiles at that and then pushes him back, taking an advantage of his wingless state. Vincent gasps softly as he lands on his back just on the cliff's edge, his head just barely resting on the precipice rather than the open air beyond – and at his each side, there is a mortal drop of dozens of feet of open air, all the way to the ravine's bottom.

"Nah. I'm not mad at all," Cloud says, shifting forward and on top of him, so that they both are balancing on the dangerous cliff. With a smile the blonde rests his weight on top of Vincent, the winds visibly tugging at his wings and making the gunman quickly lift his knees to brace him and keep him from falling.

"You are definitely mad," the gunman grumbles, cautiously taking support of the cliff with his golden talons and wrapping the other arm around Cloud's waist, to anchor him down.

"Well, maybe a bit. But you like it," the blond says.

"I do not like to see you endangering your life needlessly," Vincent argues.

"Liar. You like saving me," Cloud answers, grinning, and silences the objections with a windblown kiss.

 

∞.

 

"How many stairs are there?" Yuffie asks plaintively, as they make their way up the hundreds of stone steps leading up to the Cosmo Canyon settlement. She's trying to cover her face with her arm and get away from the raging winds, but with mixed results – only getting the loose sleeve on her left arm to her face.

"Five hundred and fifty eight," Red XIII answers, looking around with an unreadable expression on his feline face.

"Hey, it's good training. And we all need exercise after sitting so long in that buggy," Zack grins, trying not to feel like his heart is trying to simultaneously plummet to the bottom of his stomach and crawl out of his throat, as he looks up and ahead. Cosmo Canyon. Planet, how long has it been, since Nibelheim? Almost a year, now, hasn't it? It feels longer and shorter at the same time – so much has happened since then.

And he can only hope and pray that maybe, just maybe, Vincent Valentine had kept his promise.

"Are we there yet?" Yuffie asks with a groan. "If not, can we take a break?"

"I'm with her," Barret says, huffing slightly and wiping sweat from his dark forehead with his lone hand. "Let's have a breather."

"It's not that far, come on, we can rest once we get there. Come on, look at the iron ladies, they're not giving up, are they?" Zack points and Tifa and Aerith, the first of whom looks like she wants to flip him a finger and the latter just sighs tiredly. "Okay, fine, a little break, but you guys are only prolonging the inevitable and we have to climb these stairs at some point."

"Well I'm not tired at all!" Cait Sith proclaims happily.

"You're a bleeding robot, of course not," Barret grumbles, falling to sit on the stairs with a heavy sigh. He's not the only one, Yuffie sits down almost immediately and Aerith and Tifa both do the same, stretching their legs and sighing. Barret groans, rubbing at his calves. "Why couldn't they build an elevator here?"

"Waste of energy," Red XIII answers and looks up the meandering stairs which seem never ending. "I think there is someone coming down."

They all turn to look ahead and after a moment they see the child, who is running down the stairs, screaming as he comes. Blinking, Zack reaches for the handle of the Hard Edge he had stolen back in Midgar, preparing for battle. It doesn't seem like there are any monsters about, but maybe there is something up in the village… Cosmo Canyon is close to the Lifestream, isn't it? Maybe there is some sort of monster break out going on…

Before any of them can do more than stare in confusion, there is a blur of white coming down. Just before Zack's wide eyes, the child is caught and then snatched up and taken to the air in single powerful thrust of white wings. At first Zack thinks – hopes, prays – it's a monster, but then the figure pauses in the distance to look at them while the child screams and trashes in its hold. It's a human, too far away to be clearly seen, but obviously looking at them before turning around and flying up and to the village's direction, taking the trashing child with it

"Damn it. Get a move on, guys," Zack snaps and pushes forth, to run the steps two at a time. He can still see it in the back of his mind – those white wings. Angeal had had white wings, as well as his… copies. But why here, and how? Angeal was gone, Genesis was… there was no way there were copies here, was there? Unless it was something new, a new experiment of some sort. Except why in Cosmo Canyon? There was no reactor, no laboratory, nothing in Cosmo Canyon.

Except perhaps for Cloud Strife, who had Sephiroth's cells inside him.

Gritting his teeth, Zack hurries forward, only distantly aware of the others behind him. He doesn't like leaving Aerith behind, but she is strong now and has the others with her, she'll be fine for a while. And besides he needs to be ahead and taking this thing on, if it turns out to be something like that.

The village, when he reaches it, is shockingly peaceful. No monsters, no copies of anyone as far as he can see. And no one with wings – though there is a child there, who looks a rather lot like the kid who has been snatched up. He's now in what Zack can only assume is his mother's arms, still trashing in throes of epic temper tantrum.

"Not a step further," a male voice says and Zack finds himself face to face with a gun barrel – and the rest of the gun is held in the expert grip of a surprisingly familiar figure.

"Vincent?" Zack asks with surprise, and the gunman blinks, lowering his rifle. "Hey, it is you, man, long time no see!" Zack exclaims, looking at him from top to bottom. The guy hasn't changed a bit – still the gauntlet, the weird boots, the cape and everything. He even has the bandana on in that same way, with hair sticking out at random points. "Damn, you haven't changed at all. Have you even washed you hair?"

"Zack," Vincent says slowly and then looks past him, to the others who are coming up, most of them breathless and tired

"Ah, these are some friends of mine," Zack grins and makes quick introductions. "Aerith's the beauty over there. Tifa's the other beauty; she packs a punch so don't try anything. Yuffie, who's a brat but don't mind her. Barret, he's cool. Cait Sith, he's a robot but that's pretty okay and –"

"I'm home," Red XIII says, jumping up and then looking at Vincent. "Who are you?"

"Vincent Valentine," the gunman answers, looking at the red cat and nodding. "You must be Nanaki – Bugenhagen has mentioned you. He is up in the observatory, I believe."

"Thank you," Red XIII says, and jumps away, running up the nearby stairs and vanishing somewhere in the midst of the weird, towering structures that seem to grow out of the cliffs.

"I see you survived," Vincent says then, pulling the gun up and pointing the barrel at the sky. "Well done."

"Yeah, well. Probably wouldn't have if you hadn't told me to disguise myself and stuff," Zack says, grinning embarrassedly. He's not bothering with it anymore, seeing that ShinRa's pretty much aware of it and doesn't seem to mind having him running around that much. Having Sephiroth clone about stirring things up probably gives them too much to worry about. But he would've never gotten into Midgar if he had walked in on SOLDIER get up, and if Vincent hadn't told him to disguise, he probably would've tried, like an idiot.

The gunman nods, and then glances at the group before motioning them to come forward. "So, what brings you to Cosmo Canyon?" he asks.

"Our transport broke down, but I wanted to come here anyway. I figure we're gonna spend the night, though, if Red XIII is from this place, I don't know… well, we'll see I guess," Zack says with a shrug and looks around expectantly. "Is he… I mean, you're here. So is Cloud here?" he asks, and Tifa perks somewhere behind him.

Vincent glances around and up, for some reason, before turning back to Zack. "He's… somewhere," the gunman says. "Whenever stagers arrive, he keeps his distance until their allegiances can be verified, for many reasons. I suppose he is not aware it is you, this time," he muses, before turning to leave. "I'll see if I can find Cloud and tell him you're here."

As the gunman leaves, Zack turns to the others, to find Tifa at the front. "Cloud's here?" she demands. "You didn't tell us Cloud would be here."

"Well, I wasn't sure, he might've not been - I didn't want to bring up any false hopes," Zack says defensively, taking a step back as she narrows her eyes dangerously. "I wanted to be sure before I said anything, okay? I didn't mean to keep anything from anybody." Then he remembers something and turns to Vincent's retreating back. "Hey, Vincent. We saw someone with wings on the stairs – you know anything about that?"

"Quite a bit," the gunman says over his shoulder and then vanishes somewhere in the clatter of buildings in a flick of red.

"The hell?" Zack murmurs, scratching the back of his head before shrugging and swinging the Hard Edge back to his back, before turning to the others. "Well, anyway. Shall we wait by the fire?"

"Shouldn't we check out where Red XIII went?" Yuffie asks, peering up the stairs the cat had climbed.

"I wanna be here if Vincent brings Cloud back," Zack answers and walks up to the fire. "Besides, if this is where Red's from, he'll probably want to catch up with his folks and stuff."

"Well, you guys do what you want – I'm gonna go and check out if this place has a bar," Barret says and heads off, Cait Sith following close behind. Yuffie, after a moment of consideration, hurries after them, peering around herself curiously like she is already considering where all the materia is.

Zack shakes his head at that and walks over to the fire, curious. Cosmo Canyon is and isn't what he had been expecting – though the utter lack of anything from ShinRa is weird, it's also refreshing. No cars, no machines – very few power lines, leading from the scattered windmills to the scattered houses. For a while he wonders what they power – probably only the most important things, refrigeration's, water pumps and that sort of things. Then he is distracted by the frankly awesome view the place has, and it doesn't hurt that it's the evening and the sun is just about to start to set, setting the canyons and ravines around the town alight.

"It's pretty," Tifa notes, walking closer to the edge of the cliff where the town has been build. "Why do you suppose they build this high up?"

"Probably to get away from the monsters," Zack shrugs, sitting down. "Harder for them to get here, this being so high up. Though I hear that Cosmo Canyon has a space observatory, but that probably came after the town had been build and all."

Tifa nods looking around them anxiously before sitting down. Zack glances at her a bit guiltily – he really ought to have told her more about Cloud and what little he had told hadn't really put her mind to rest. After Nibelheim had burned, the fact that Cloud hadn't been there had been one of Tifa's rare comforts in life, and then Zack had told her that, yeah, he had been there. And that together they had been kept by Hojo. And then he hadn't dared to say more, not knowing if Cloud had even lived not to mention if Vincent had managed to bring him out of the Mako Addiction.

And damn, does he ever feel guilty about that. Vincent had been right, of course, he would've only gotten them killed if he had dragged Spiky with him. But to just up and leave like that? When the whole thing had caught up with him, he had felt like a douche. He still felt a bit like a douche, after everything.

"There is someone here," Aerith says, bringing him out of his thoughts as she sits down beside him. "It feels… nostalgic."

"In a good or bad way?" Zack asks, winding an arm around her shoulders. There are many sorts of nostalgia – he rarely felt the good sort these days – and he doesn't want Aerith to feel bad.

"Good. It feels like… it reminds me of when I was really small," she admits, leaning against his shoulder. "It's a strange feeling, but not bad."

"Well, that's good. I'm all for happy nostalgia," Zack grins, and stretches out his legs while trying not to look like he is glancing around worriedly. Where is Cloud? What has he been doing all this time – is he out of the Addiction? Has Vincent been taking care of him?

"Zack?" Tifa asks from across the fire. "How bad was it, in Nibelheim? Before you escaped?"

The former SOLDIER frowns at that, not really liking to talk about it, wishing he never had admitted the whole mess. "Bad," he says then. "Especially for Cloud. I had it easier, I was used to Mako, but he… I'm not sure when, exactly, he got the Mako Addiction but after that he was catatonic. He was catatonic when we escaped."

"And you just left him?"

"I left with him with Vincent – he knew what to do and wasn't about to storm ShinRa's gates like I was. Spiky was safer with him," Zack says a bit defensively, though he can only hope Cloud really had been and that he wasn't lying through his teeth.

"How can you be sure?" Tifa demands, but before Zack can answer her eyes flicker up, catching the glimpse of something and widening. Frowning, Zack and Aerith both turn to look, and Zack's jaw nearly drops as the sight of two winged figures, descending towards them. He forces the shock down and quickly gets to his feet, reaching for the Hard Edge, except…

The figures land, the first without a sound, gently touching the ground as his white flap wings smooth the landing – the other, darker figure with a resounding thump, crashing down almost to his hands and feet. "Cloud?" Zack asks with horror, as the blonde man tugs his wings in, folding them to his back. It is Cloud, spiky hair and blue eyes and Mako glow and all. Except for the wings and change of clothing – cargo pants and a strange sort of vest which, by the looks of it, leaves his upper back bare where the wings connect, rather than the civilian clothing stolen from ShinRa Mansion.

The other figure straightens and then seems to shimmer or shift, like a mirage in the desert – and then the horns and the wings and the odd coloured skin is gone, and it's Vincent, looking like such transformations were a perfectly normal part of the world and that there was nothing unusual about the fact that Cloud had wings.

"Zack," Cloud says quietly, hesitantly, and Zack feels even more like a douche.

He escaped most of the negative side effects of what Hojo did because he was a SOLDIER and his Mako treatments from before protected him – his cells were already mutated so Hojo wasn't able to cause anything. But Cloud… Cloud was only an infantry man, without any treatments. And with S cells inside him, Sephiroth's genetic makeup… was Cloud a copy, now? Was he degrading?

"What… what are those?" Tifa asks, also on her feet and staring.

"Hm?" Cloud asks, blinking at her and then frowning. "Don't I know you…?" he trails away, considering her for a long while and then glancing at Vincent who just shakes his head.

"It's Tifa. We grew up together. That is… we're both from Nibelheim," Tifa says, still looking at the wings. "What are those?" she demands to know again.

"They're… wings?" Cloud answers confusedly, spreading one of them – it's massive, thick with feathers even at the base and nothing like either Angeal's or Genesis' wings had been. "They grew a few months after we came here," he adds, running a proud hand over the feathers.

"But… isn't that Jenova's…?" Zack frowns, looking at him. He doesn't look like he's degrading. And he has two wings, where everyone else he had ever seen with any had only had one on one side. Hell, Cloud looks like he's in better health than Zack has ever seen – his bare arms are rippled with muscles and the vest he wears looks like it's about to burst. And he's tanned to boot.

"Cloud," the ex-SOLDIER asks. "How are you feeling?"

"Great," the blond answers, confused again. "How are you feeling?"

"Never better," Zack says in equal confusion. Doesn't Cloud know what wings signify in people? Hadn't he been there, in Modeoheim, hadn't he seen Genesis?

"Hey," Aerith says softly, stepping a bit forward. "It's you I'm feeling. Are you… you feel like, are you an ancient?"

The question startles both Zack and Tifa, but neither Cloud nor silent Vincent seem surprised. "I'm something," Cloud shrugs, the wings rustling. "I asked the Planet to fix me sometime after we came here, and she took away the… things Hojo added. I already had the wings, though, and bit of Ancient genes so the planet fixed those." He trails away, leaning forward a bit and looking at her. "So you're the last one. Hello."

"Hi," she answers, half smiling, half frowning.

"How about," Vincent speaks softly, "we head to Bugenhagen's house? We can talk this through there, out of the wind."

"Fine by me," Zack says, glancing at Tifa, who is still staring at Cloud with incomprehension, and at Aerith, who nods thoughtfully. Cloud just shrugs and turns, falling into step with Vincent – and not just that, but winding one of his wings almost possessively around the man's shoulders, much to Vincent's apparently irritation, even though the gunman makes no move to free himself.

Frowning, confused and oddly excited, Zack follows them. There is something going on here, something interesting – something which might finally, after all these years, explain a bit about the whole wing phenomena to him. And then there is also Vincent with his skills with a gun and Cloud with his obvious new strength – and his own and the AVALANCHE's quest to save the world. He needs to tell Cloud and Vincent about Sephiroth too, about president ShinRa's death, about everything. And find out what exactly was going on here.

"Wings," Tifa murmurs, looking at Clouds back, bare between the wings where the vest was cut to accommodate them. "Wings."

Zack nods, smiling a bit and then thinks of something. "Hey, you two?" he asks, making Cloud and Vincent both glance backwards – and he sees that it's not just Cloud's wing around Vincent, but Vincent's human hand is resting at Cloud's side, just hidden by the lower feathers. He lets it pass, for now. "What happened to the Buster Sword?" he asks instead. He had left it with Vincent, to be given to Cloud who had protected his honour ever so much better than Zack had – but Cloud wasn't carrying it now. Probably couldn't, with the wings.

"It's in our house – I only take it out when we head down to the ravines or the caves and I don't carry it around in the town," Cloud says, frowning. "Do you… want it back? I'm kind of used to it by now."

"Nah. Keep it," Zack says, crossing his hands behind his neck and smiling. He could never use it, especially after all that had happened – a reactor blown, people uselessly killed, the plate fallen… yeah, he could never use that sword again, not with his honour trampled so far down into the mud.

It had always been an angel's sword anyway.