Reeve is the first to go, having lived a busy life and built a great new world. Under his hand, Midgar and Junon both saw great changes: from cities to ruins to cities once more – built on the foundations of something awful, to be something great. His greatest accomplishment would always be the founding of the Eastern Republic, which, despite all of Rufus ShinRa's attempts, stood firm and strong and took control from corporations both large and small. Reeve dies as a man seen in a conflicted light, hallowed by the little people and hated by the big. But when he dies, the continents are at peace, and that is really something special. And of course, his robotic toys would probably never lose their popularity.
Cid is the next, after a smoke-filled life spent inhaling oil fumes and banging on a variety of engines with a variety of wrenches. He goes as a happy man, though. He saw the moon, was the first person to land on it at the age of fifty-seven, laid down the foundations of space travel, and designed several metal alloys that the world would be thanking him for for ages. He even managed to produce a son almost as obsessed with flying as he was.
After that, it's Barret. He dies as a man even older than Cid, but still young for his years – leaving behind a very wealthy adopted daughter who inherits his empire of oil and coal. Barret's death is sadder than Cid's and Reeve’s just for all the grandchildren, some too young to understand the ordeal, some understanding it entirely too well, but all missing their loud-voiced and big grandpa who had, for all his hurries and business worries, always had the time to lift a couple of them up on his shoulders and show them just how cool his arm really was. For those who had fought with him, the passing doesn't come as a surprise – for all his strength, Barret had been an old man. Old and well accomplished.
Then it's Tifa’s turn. She doesn't go as happily as Cloud would've liked, after a life that Cloud wishes later on that he could've made better. She had been a humble woman for all her strength, of course, and had been satisfied with her little niche in life – tending the bar of the Seventh Heaven, serving drinks, and occasionally minding Cloud's business when he was too much of a fool to charge his damned phone. But she didn't marry, didn't fall in love, and didn't have children aside from the orphans whom Cloud somehow gathered around him that she ended up mothering and grandmothering. Because he couldn't love her, and she couldn't love anyone else. And yet, she went smiling, somehow.
Yuffie lives to be a hundred and eight, and dies as the greatest – and first – Empress of Wutai. By that time, there are only so many of them left, and Cloud spends her last years by her side, protecting her from whatever that might hurt her – which is very little. She had brought Wutai back to its former glory and more, and couldn't have been any more loved and adored in her late age, even with her son as the new Emperor and granddaughter the Empress-to-be. After her death, her collection of Materia, vaster than the great Cosmo Canyon libraries, becomes a national treasure of Wutai.
Then there is time, and time, and time. Years passed. Decades passed. Cloud travels the world, sees it change – sees the Eastern Republic grow, change, shift; sees ShinRa lurk, flinch, and wither; sees new powers come and go; and sees how the ground around Midgar slowly, tentatively, begins to grow grass. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he is aware of Vincent – going in and out of periods of slumber and wakefulness, travel, and rest – seeing the world like he is but in shifts and scenes rather than the full play.
And then, after five hundred and forty years of life, Nanaki passes away. The whole world mourns his passing, because in his life Nanaki had done things greater than most nations managed to accomplish. He had resurrected his own people and built a nation out of practically nothing – the Cosmo Territories – brought forth seven different branches of science, and made two renewable and clean energy sources known worldwide. His greatest accomplishment, the City of Cosmo Canyon, is entirely powered by solar and wind energy and nothing else – and it is one of the five greatest cities on the Planet at the time of his death. The date of his birth becomes a holiday in most nations.
And then… then it is just Cloud and Vincent, standing by the grave of the last of their companions, alone in a world that can't remember their birthdates or the full extent of their deeds; a world that they have started to avoid somewhere along the way; a world that is quickly forgetting them too.
Alone, ageless and immortal, and as young as they had been at the time of their meeting – and with no idea what to do next.
They decide to meet once every ten years, and then they part ways. Cloud heads back to the Eastern Republic, which he considers his home, where most of his "descendants" live, even if not in blood. Vincent heads back to the town of Nibelheim, now long since abandoned and ruined, but which still holds that one chamber with the comfortable, horrible room where he had slept for so long. While Cloud traces the bloodlines of Denzel's descendants, Vincent builds himself a new stainless steel coffin.
And time passes, slower for Cloud who passes it in fits and bursts of activity. He spends years just travelling like he used to, but without a business to hurry him – he doesn't need it anymore. His body has passed the point where he needs to feed it daily, so he doesn't really need money for that – whatever he finds in the little wild that is left in the world is enough. And by now, his body can convert pretty much anything to energy so he could be eating wooden logs and still survive, so that is not really a problem. He travels, up and down the continent, from cities to towns to recently built villages. He meets with people and drinks in many bars, listens to rumours and follows politics with sidelong glances.
When they meet the first time, ten years after Nanaki's death, there is very little to talk about. The City of Cosmo Canyon hadn't changed much in that time, and they find the same bar they had visited the night of Nanaki's death, to toast their old companions in drinks that don't really affect either of them – too much fire and waste in their blood for something as insipid as alcohol to manage to make any difference. But the liquid warms them a bit, burns on their tongues, and for a while they feel younger than their centuries.
"Let's meet somewhere else next," Cloud says, after they – he, as he was the only one of them with any money on him – had handed over half a fortune to the barkeeper for a liquid that didn't get them drunk.
"How about Corel?" Vincent asks, and they agree on that, and part ways.
The next ten years Cloud spends working, first driving a truck in a delivery company that ships merchandise between Cosmo Canyon, Corel, and the Gold Saucer – or what had once been the Gold Saucer anyway, since it's the Golden Tower now. He leaves that job after only a year, not liking being unable to feel the wind in his hair and growing tired of sitting behind the wheel. Instead, he goes to work in the Corel greenhouses, liking the feel of dirt in his fingers and living things under his palms a little more. Two years of that, he moves on to hydroponics, and he somehow ends up working with the watering systems rather than the plants. He leaves that job after two more years, just before he would've gotten a promotion to manager. The next five years, he takes whatever seems the least grand and works the little jobs. He goes through seven of them – office assistant, secretary, janitor, gardener, technician, engineer, and construction worker – before the ten years are up.
He and Vincent find each other in the central square of Corel and opt not to bother with bars this time. Instead, they climb up the highest mountain in the Corel region, and look down on the sprawling city of Corel, with Cloud idly picking apart flowers while Vincent just stands and looks around.
It turns out Vincent hadn't been sleeping this time. "I went to Wutai," he admits after a long, comfortable silence.
"How was it?" Cloud asks, and lifts a white petal to his mouth, tasting it thoughtfully. When your diet wasn't constricted to food, you get to like the oddest of tastes.
"Loud, quiet. I was part of a temple for a while. Learned to meditate," the dark-haired man says, considering. "And then I became a Wú Lóng dancer."
Cloud nearly chokes on the petal, remembering the energetic, complicated festivals of Wutai and its dances. The image of Vincent, working as a part of a crew that made the – often very big – silk and paper dragon dance, whirling the thing about on poles… It didn't quite fit. "How come?" he asks, after regaining his composure.
"The masters at the temple thought it would be a learning experience," the pale gunman says, glancing at him.
Cloud smiles at that, wondering what that must've been like – if Vincent had in fact gotten kicked out of the temple for being too solemn. If anyone could manage that, it would be Vincent. "Was it?"
The gunman considers that for a moment and then admits almost embarrassedly: "It was… interesting."
They decide to meet in the Golden Tower the next decade and part ways – Vincent to go where ever and Cloud to contemplate. He had been working to pass the time and he had seen some interesting things during his many occupations, but one couldn't say he had been having that much fun. In the end, he decides to leave Corel and its solemn, hardworking people behind, and heads to Costa del Sol instead.
Costa del Sol was one of the rare places in the world that hadn't changed much. It was still golden and sunny, shining in rivalry with the sun. The buildings were bigger and taller now, reaching for the sky, and there were pools all over the city. But aside from that, very little had changed in the last five hundred years or so. It still welcomes Cloud as a stranger and wishes him a good, long, and enjoyable stay.
He learns to surf and tans himself to a shade that would've put Zack to shame. He plays volleyball on the beach and figures out that drinks without alcohol could be good. He learns to party in the heated Costa del Sol night, and meets many, many strangers with the same idea in mind as he – to have as much fun as possible. Some of them he likes, others he detests. Some teach him what he likes, others what he hates. And in the end, he learns that there are still things out there that somehow, after all this time, can make him feel downright innocent at times.
He is a pretty well-lived person by the time he leaves the gazebo he had bought in the southern district of Costa del Sol, and heads to the Golden Tower. It had changed much more than Costa del Sol – it had grown tall, grown huge, and grown, if possible, even more artificial than it had been in its youth. The city stands on towers and stilts as high as mountains, and boasts, with reason, for having the ten tallest buildings on the Planet.
"You're… dark," Vincent notes at the sight of him and his tan, and Cloud grins behind his shades like a true beach bum of Costa del Sol would and then they exchange experiences. While Cloud had been as loose as he could be, Vincent had become a bit more serious – he had gone to Rocket Town and enrolled into the University of Science, and was now in the process of writing his thesis on the history of Mako and the Lifestream.
"That's an interesting choice," Cloud notes, a bit confused. Vincent has always been intelligent, but studying, at their age? And Mako to boot too. Though the manufacture of Materia is still going on all around the world, Mako is no longer used as an energy source – though in some places, like the City of Cosmo Canyon, Mako-based fertilisers are used to rejuvenate the otherwise dead areas.
"I suppose I am trying to… leave the past behind," Vincent admits, shrugging.
"And to that end, you study it," Cloud says dryly. "Is that something else you learned in Wutai?"
"Yes," Vincent agrees and then looks at him. "Have you done anything worthwhile lately?"
"Absolutely nothing," the swordsman says and grins sheepishly – though he had learned more than he was entirely comfortable with about all the fetishes and kinks people could have, he doubted that it could be counted as worthwhile. "Maybe I'll do something the next decade," he says, shrugging. He wasn't in a hurry to get back to the swing of doing things that mattered, though. He liked wasting time, and he had a lot of it to waste.
"Maybe," Vincent agrees, shaking his head. "Have you been doing any fighting recently?" he then asks, and pointedly looks at Cloud's arms – much thinner than they had been and losing their muscle definition.
"Not really," Cloud says. His sword is in a bank vault at Costa del Sol, along with his Materia. It wasn't like he needed them, anyway – at this point he could take on dragons bare-handed. Or… he used to be able to. "Probably should do something about that too."
The gunman shakes his head. "Let's meet in the Northern Continent the next time," he says a bit pointedly.
Cloud grimaces. He had gotten soft in the last decades, but not that soft. Had he? "Icicle Inn?" he asks, and tries not to sound too plaintive.
Vincent just blinks at him. "The Crater," he says, in a voice that brooks no arguments.
By the time of their meeting in the Northern Crater, Cloud has lost his tan and regained his muscles and his fusion sword is once more a constant presence at his back. He is not quite as strong as he could be – with his genetic structure and physical adaptability, there is always room for improvement because, somehow, he didn't have actual limits left. But the strength he gained in the last ten years, training, fighting random monsters, and training some more is enough – any more and it would become a bit superfluous.
The Crater hasn't changed – still cold with howling winds and strong monsters. While fighting his way through to their meeting place, he has to wonder if it would ever change, considering how long it had been there. It’s been unchanged since the time of the Ancients and more, after all. With his lifespan – which, by the looks of things, would never have an end unless something killed him – would he see it change, and the wound on the Planet heal?
It was something to look forward to, aside from the decennial meetings with Vincent.
Except for the fact that at this particular decennial meeting, Vincent isn't there. The Crater is empty aside from Cloud and the monsters. Wondering if the gunman had forgotten or gotten caught, Cloud waits. The first day passes quickly in a rush of monsters and cool winds. The second day is a little longer, and after travelling and not stopping to eat much at all, he is getting hungry. By the time a week is gone, he is forced to leave the Crater just to find something to eat – something that wasn't a part of monsters anyway. He hasn't stooped that low yet.
In the end, Vincent doesn't come and Cloud goes instead, with worry in his heart and a very tight grip on his sword handle. He travels back south, to the shores of the Northern Continent, past its little struggling settlements, and then over the seas and to the Western Continent. Rocket Town welcomes him in metallic smoke and the stink of engine oil – it is still, after all this time, the global gathering place of engineers and motor maniacs.
The Rocket Town University of Science remembers Doctor Vincent Valentine who had gotten his doctorate in History just nine years previous, but they don't know where he went. Cloud is forced to hunt down Vincent's former classmates and his thesis supervisor to learn that Vincent had been intending to head to the Eastern Republic, to Midgar, to study the last remaining Mako Reactor on the Planet – a non-functional replica of Reactor 4, kept in top condition for all these years for research and study. Cloud, after one last round around the university, goes after him.
It's been over three decades since he'd seen Midgar, but it hadn't changed that much. There are new buildings and skyscrapers, and some old ones are gone. The central park had shrunk a bit, but in compensation it had grown levels. There are gardens on people's balconies now, and the main streets are lit by the enormous advertisement screens that tell him to buy this or that brand of scent or clothing or technology.
And Vincent is nowhere to be seen. It takes Cloud the better part of two weeks to find just one person who remembers Doctor Valentine – a former worker in the replica reactor, who had been in charge of giving tours there. Yes, the man says, he remembers Valentine – had been struck by the similarity of his name to that Vincent Valentine, one of the eight people who had saved the world from the meteorite. Nine, Cloud corrects him, and then demands to know more.
"I gave him a personal tour around the reactor and answered his questions," the former employee at the reactor tells him. "He had a lot of questions, if I recall, especially about the human experiments. We had a mock laboratory set up there, with some examples, and I think we spent most of our time there."
"And then?" Cloud demands, anxious.
"He left," the man shrugs. "I figure he went to Midgar University or something, but I don't know. Never saw him after that."
And so Cloud goes to Midgar University, and from there to the NM Centre of Sciences, then to the Institution of Materia Research, and lastly to the World History Association, who try to send him back to Midgar University.
And there, he leaves the legal ways that are doing nothing but offering him minute past incidents and circular directions, and goes to what would've been Below the Plate if Midgar had a plate anymore. It still has its dark underbelly, however, with its grime and crooks and, nowadays, a highly defined criminal society. A society which Cloud had been, some forty years ago, a small part of – fighting in the underground arenas for sport.
The old Boss of the Zoloms is long dead, as is his son, and the grandson doesn't know Cloud from a random thug. But he is a smart man and respects strength. And when Cloud goes through a horde of bodyguards and thugs, that strength is plain to him. He is grateful that Cloud didn't kill anyone and doesn't want to kill anyone. But when Cloud begins to ask questions, he grows uneasy.
"Vincent Valentine, you say?" the new boss asks, twiddling with his sleeves, his rings, and the hem of his fancy jacket. "Can't say I know the name."
Cloud doesn't have the patience for that, though. He plunges his sword into the hard stone floor, cracking it beyond repair – ten years ago he would've had some trouble with the feat, but he hadn't been idle and it doesn't even strain his wrist. "Wanna reconsider?" he asks, while pulling the sword loose and then burying it into the floor again, now one feet closer to the boss.
The boss reconsiders it pretty fast, and Cloud learns of the Neo ShinRa – a group of, from what Cloud gathers, history worshipping scientists and thugs who had a taste for artefacts from half a millennium ago and for any bit of unrecorded history. They didn't care for Mako or Mako energy – everyone knew how bad that was. But the human experiments of the old ShinRa – the monsters, the SOLDIERs…
"I heard about the good Doctor Vincent Valentine by accident. Thought it was a joke, see?" the crime boss says uneasily. "But then Neo ShinRa started asking questions and the Doc vanished."
"Where?" Cloud asks coldly, pulling his sword from the fourth hole in the floor and pointing its tip – still razor sharp – at the boss. "Where is Neo ShinRa?"
"I don't know, man, no one does."
"Then you're going to point me to someone who does know. Because unless I find out, I will tear Midgar apart brick by brick to get to them."
He finds his informant, a former Neo ShinRa thug who had been kicked out of the circle for having suffered a crippling injury. At his guidance, Cloud delves into the catacombs of the ancient sewers beneath Midgar – most of which had collapsed, some of which were flooded, and some of which, by the looks of them, had been rather recently rebuilt.
He asks the first people he encounters in the sewers where Vincent is. After a jolt and worried glances at each other, they attack him. He doesn't ask after that, and instead walks forward, steady and relentless, leaving behind broken bodies and groaning spirits.
He finds Vincent some five hundred feet below the city's surface, in a chamber reinforced four times with layers of metal and concrete. Vincent is bruised, broken – and asleep. Without bothering to figure out why or how, Cloud gathers him up and heads back towards the surface, leaving the chambers burning behind him.
Vincent sleeps for three years before waking up in the second bedroom in Cloud's little house in the town of Kalm. Unlike Cloud had worried about in the intervening years, he is lucid and calm and only nods at Cloud when he sits up. "I could hear you, through my dreams," he admits, as Cloud hands him a bowl of broth – usually unnecessary, but Vincent did need to eat occasionally. Especially after a long sleep. "I apologise for not waking earlier."
"It's fine," Cloud assures, sitting beside him and watching just to see if his only living friend would recover. But Vincent’s hands are perfectly steady as he spoons the soup away to the last drops. "So," Cloud asks as the bowl is put away. "What happened?"
Vincent thinks about it for a long time – four days in total – before coming to Cloud's little backyard garden and answering. "I suppose I was foolish, going by my real name," he starts. "It does have historical connections, and I have not put much effort into changing my appearance."
He looks different now, though. Still pale and dark-haired, still red-eyed and slim – but instead of the lost golden claw, Cloud had wrapped his left arm in bandages, and his old leathers and cloak are long gone, replaced by a dress shirt and black cotton trousers. In the last times that they had met, Vincent had always worn his old clothing – or something very similar to it, as very few materials could withstand time like they could. And though Vincent had been his guest for years now, he looks strange to Cloud's eyes.
"I met with a man in the World History Association whom I thought to be a fellow researcher, but he turned out to be from Neo ShinRa," Vincent continues. "I don't know how or how much he knew of my physique, but it was enough for him to successfully tranquilise me in our third meeting. After that…"
After a long silence, Cloud shifts, turning his attention back to the tomatoes he has been pruning. "What were they after?"
"The methods by which I was created," Vincent answers. "They knew much, but not the precise procedures. They asked me, but of course I did not know myself. After that…" he shakes his head. "In the second year, I decided to go to sleep."
Cloud nods – he probably would've too, if he had been in that position, if he had the ability to hibernate like Vincent did. He hadn't known it could withstand even physical pain and torture like that, but it doesn't matter. "Well, I doubt they'll try anything like that for a while," he says. "I burned the place. And if I didn't kill them all, then I pretty much crippled them for life."
"Societies like theirs are tenacious," Vincent says quietly.
"So are we," the swordsman says and throws his friend a perfect, plum tomato. Vincent catches it without a blink and looks at it. "Let's stick together for a while, though," Cloud says, standing up. "Since we missed our meeting and all."
Vincent nods, and tentatively bites into the tomato, making Cloud grin.
They don't leave Kalm for years, settling into an oddly comfortable, even if often perfectly silent, life in Cloud's house. He's pretty sure his neighbours think they're lovers and that he's semi insane to live with someone like Vincent, who, even at his calmest, seems to breathe danger and darkness, but he doesn't much care. He works with his garden, gets a motorcycle and tunes it just right. And after a couple of years, he and Vincent join their skills in mechanics and gunmanship to recreate the Death Penalty that Vincent had lost somewhere along the way.
And, at least once a week, they venture out of town to fight monsters and more often than not each other until they're bruised and bleeding and making everyone in Kalm think that they're in a highly destructive relationship that would end up with one or both of them killed. Another thing neither of them really cares to even bother thinking about. It is good to fight – great to fight someone on their level – and it makes them feel young.
Mostly, though, things are quiet, mundane, and boring. Vincent reads, studies, and gets himself a new computer every year, while Cloud grows and builds and readjusts to kill time.
"This bores you, doesn't it?" Vincent asks in the fifth year, while Cloud is painting the living room for the eighth time, changing the colour from light blue to a calm, dirty white.
"You get used to handling boredom when you're my age," Cloud grins at him with paint on his cheek and fingers. "It's not bad and it's nice to have someone around for a while."
The next year is the anniversary of Nanaki's death. And by unspoken agreement, Cloud starts the paperwork to sell the house while Vincent rediscovers his liking for leather. They part ways with a silent nod, knowing that they'd meet again in ten years, in that exact spot.
Decades pass, slow but steady, with meetings in between to tell the time. They shift from continent to continent, from towns to cities, from land to sea, to island, to mountains, building up a repertoire of experiences and expertise that in the long run doesn't mean all that much. After the years spent together after Vincent's kidnapping, they don't spend more than a few days together at one time, knowing better than to allow themselves to grow adjusted to one another.
The meetings are pretty much the only things they have to look forward to, and they don't dare to ruin that little joy in their increasingly long lives.
It's a hundred and fifty years since they started, when Cloud is the one to miss a meeting. It is the start of the Plague years, as the super diseases brought forth by eons of incredible scientific mastery finally break loose. Humanity, by that time, has grown so used to antibodies and magical cures that the first disease – a flu virus that at first seems harmless but kills hundreds of thousands of people in the Eastern Republic – catches them off guard. The adjustment to high levels of medicine ends up being the doom of that era, because this flu turns out to be immune to medicine and magic both. And so it ravages from the east to the west and the north, and even Wutai and Mideel aren't safe in their relative isolation.
The flu is followed by another viral infection, which starts from the south, spreads to the west and then to the east, taking the already weakened humans once again off guard and very nearly finishing what the flu virus started. In its wake, several other viruses pop up, and while the infrastructure of medicine crumbles and people die, fighting over the last shots of this or that antiviral concoction, Cloud too grows ill.
He doesn't know if Vincent makes it to the meeting or not – he doesn't know much of anything in the year he spends hidden away in the slums of Junon, going between feverish delusions and deadly hypothermia. The Mako in his blood seems to only urge the viruses on and he burns and freezes under them, feeling like his body is finally giving in and starting to break down completely, and his cells are disintegrating somewhere between the Mako and the viral infections.
When he comes to, Junon is a ghost town and the mass graves are plentiful. No cure has been found to either of the two epidemics, but by then they've ran their course – and those that would die had done so. Cloud doesn't have much strength for anything for a long time, not to even thank his lucky stars for surviving. He spends years just recovering – mostly sleeping, and eating when he has the strength to do so, and just resting.
By the time he feels a little like a human being once more, he finds out that he had taken the plagues worse than most of humanity – precisely because of the Mako in his blood. It turned out that both of the viruses had been using magic and Mako as a sort of sustenance. The City of Cosmo Canyon had been almost wiped out, and Mideel was completely empty, because their people lived so close to the Lifestream and carried a bit more of it in them than average humans. It was a small wonder that Cloud hadn't died, considering the amount of Mako he had inside him.
It is a lesser amount now, as he finds when he gets the chance to look into a mirror. His eyes don't shine quite as strongly as they used to – they still do, but the glimmer is almost unnoticeable now. The viruses had eaten away some of it, and he isn't quite sure how happy he is about that. On one hand, he had never much enjoyed the sensation of having Mako in his veins. On the other hand… it did have its advantages and he could already tell that he was weaker, somehow.
And stronger too, but differently. He doesn't need to eat at all anymore, though he can if he wants to. Instead, he finds himself drawn outdoors, under the direct sunlight, and when he has it shining down on him he feels better than in the shadows. It is strange and worrying, and after a while he withdraws himself from humanity and into the mountains at the centre of the Eastern Continent.
And there, while trying to figure out how much sunlight he needs in order to manage, and whether it is sunlight or all light that provided him his new strange sustenance… his first wing starts to grow.
After he is done cursing and hissing and cursing some more, after he's done with the panic and worry and fear, after he's done visiting Midgar for materials, and the micro explosive is ready and resting above his heart – ready to take him out if the mutation turns out to be malicious – he takes a closer look. The wing is a small, wretched thing, completely featherless like something a newly born chick might have, and is nothing like what Sephiroth had had. It sticks out not from the area of his shoulder blade, but much lower – near the bottom of his ribcage – and it's not just a wing.
He is growing new muscles too as well as new bones on his back – all connected to the wing as its beneath-the-surface supports. They are still frail – the muscles undeveloped and weak, the bones pitifully thin. He could've snapped them with his fingers. But they are there and slowly, slowly, they are growing.
Over six hundred years after Sephiroth's death and Jenova's destruction… Cloud is growing a wing.
When he goes to the place where the meeting he had missed due to the plagues would've happened, he had tried to remove the infantile wing four times. Once by himself – bad idea – and three times by going to a variety of underground doctors who didn't ask too many questions. All had worked, for a while – the last doctor had even removed all the extra muscles and bones from his back. But each time, the wing had grown right back.
Now it lays flat against his side inside his clothing, the downy white feathers tickling him – still small enough to be unseen, but persistent and there and, by all accounts, not going anywhere.
And then Vincent is there and Cloud forgets about the wing entirely. "You too, huh?" he asks a little dully at the sight of the new horns Vincent's bandana doesn't quite hide, and the bulging of the red cloak at his back.
"Me too?" Vincent asks, frowning. And wordlessly, Cloud takes off his jacket and shirt, to reveal the infantile wing. "Ah," the gunman says and for a long time they stand there silently, just taking it in.
Whatever the viruses had done, they had stripped away some layer of protection between them and their mutations. Vincent is permanently reverting into his Chaos form, though as with Cloud, the mutation is slow and still unnoticeable. Vincent has two wings already, though. Small little bat-like wings that gleam black and red in the sunlight and wouldn't be enough to support a housecat, but which, like Cloud's single wing, are growing.
"I thought it was a side effect. But considering it is happening to you as well, I wonder…" the gunman trails away, while Cloud pokes around his bare back, finding the familiar new muscles there. They are higher than his own odd, low wing, though, and grow near the shoulder blades. "It is quite a coincidence," Vincent continues.
"A bit, yeah," Cloud agrees, pressing a bit to feel the shifting of the gunman's shoulder blades – they are shifting to accommodate the new bone structure of the wings. "We're too different for this," the swordsman murmurs. His mutations are Jenova and Sephiroth based, and Vincent isn't anything like a SOLDIER. Sure, the gunman has Mako in him, but his mutations are based on monsters and demons. "I don't see how it could be anything but a coincidence though."
"The Cetra, maybe?" Vincent asks and Cloud frowns.
"I don't think Aerith would've condoned the plagues," he says quietly.
Vincent is quiet for a moment, before looking back and at Cloud, who is still examining his back. "The viruses ate Mako," he says then. "Both of them fed on it – were engineered to feed on it, I imagine, by whatever laboratories they escaped from. By all accounts, both you and I should've been among the firsts to die, with the high Mako content in our bodies."
Cloud nods slowly and then shifts back, pulling his hands away from Vincent's pale skin. "So you think the Ancients induced the mutations to make us survive?" he asks, considering it. He can't see why or how it could be done – especially why, considering that his mutation is based on the very thing that had killed the Ancients. Jenova and anything based on her, it, whatever it had been, was entirely too dangerous to be… induced like this. Especially now, when Cloud is the strongest human on the Planet – if he goes into a Jenova-induced killing spree, even Vincent wouldn't be enough to stop him.
"Why, though?" Cloud asks.
"Because we're all that's left," Vincent answers. "There are no Ancients left anymore. And someone has to watch over this world."
Cloud blinks at that, at the simple way it had been spoken and then leans back a little further. "You're serious," he says.
Vincent looks away. "We are too old, Cloud. Hojo wasn't that good."
True. Cloud had been wondering why and how Hojo could've really stopped aging in the pair of them, especially in Vincent who was an older experiment than Cloud – Vincent had come before Sephiroth, even. And yet they are not only ageless, but they are strong – or had been, before the plagues. Strong, immortal and forever young. No. Hojo hadn't been that good.
"Would've been nice if they had asked us first," he mutters, but with a crooked smile. He likes the idea that he's immortal because of the Ancients – rather than because of ShinRa. It makes him feel… a bit better.
"Perhaps we should, for now… meet more often," Vincent says, while pulling on his cloak once more and hiding the demon's wings beneath it. "To make sure there are no adverse side effects."
"Aside from us growing inhuman appendages?" Cloud asks and snorts, standing up. Craning his neck a bit, he looks at the little wing growing from the middle left of his back and shakes his head. It doesn't look like Sephiroth's wing – Sephiroth's wing had been massive and dark. This one is small and white.
But it is growing.
"Yeah," he answers. "Once a year?"
"Unless something else occurs, that seems like a viable solution," Vincent agrees.
Slowly, the wings grow and they grow accustomed to them. Vincent gets his ability to fly first, and on their fifth meeting in the mountains of the Eastern Continent, the gunman descends on Cloud from above, making him feel oddly jealous even if flight wasn't something he was unfamiliar with or something he had ever wanted personally. His wing is still small and would probably never support him in flight, but it is as long as his arm by now – the feathers are getting longer every month, every year. It was only a matter of time until it would be as big as Vincent's dark, leather wings.
"You cannot fly like Sephiroth?" Vincent asks, watching him.
"Sephiroth flew by magic, not because of the wing," Cloud shrugs. "The wing was just a manifestation of the power in him."
"Hm," Vincent answers and they're silent for a while. There is little to exchange – neither of them can mix and mingle in human societies anymore, though Cloud could with some trouble if he hides his wing… he doesn't bother. What he needs to know he can find out from afar – the towns and cities are still half empty and people are still struggling to support themselves, after having an over sixty percent decrease in population.
"What are you doing now?" he asks after a while, as they sit on a cliff, watching a rocky valley below.
"Waiting for the other shoe to drop," Vincent says and sighs. "I visit towns during the night, when the darkness hides me, but it is… not the same anymore." He is quiet for a while. "The mutations seem stable. I'm… thinking of sleeping again," he then admits.
Cloud sighs and nods. He would too, if he could. It's not the same at all – there is so little to distract him anymore, so little to kill time with in the mountains. And sure, he could've moved elsewhere, but with the wing growing all the time, he doesn't dare to. People are hungrier for scientific discovery than ever – they would want to prevent such outbreaks from happening again – and he would be an endless source of new ideas, with all the crap inside him.
"Sleep here?" he asks. "Somewhere here, so I can wake you if something… if something goes wrong," he adds, nodding at his wing.
Vincent considers him for a moment and then nods in agreement.
They build Vincent's coffin together from stone and wood, and Vincent falls asleep in the back of the mountain cave which Cloud has come to call his home in the last years. And then it's just Cloud by himself in the wilderness, but he doesn't mind – just the knowledge that Vincent is nearby eases his mind a bit.
And time passes. Slowly, slowly, at first. But Cloud gets adjusted to the simple life in the wild and, eventually, he discovers things to do. He carves hollows into the front of his cave and finds dirt to fill them with, planting greens and vegetables he doesn't need to eat anymore, but which he finds comforting. He makes himself a forge and finds metal in the mountains, making some tools. He begins carving wooden and then stone figures, and eventually moves on to carving out the walls of the cave until it begins to look like a hall, with straight lines and intricate patterns. He builds a complex plumbing system that feeds him fresh water from the snow melt, and makes a bathing pool that can be easily heated with Materia
Ten years after the plagues, five years after Vincent went to sleep, Cloud's second wing begins to grow – matching the first one that has reached its full length now, which Cloud can wrap around himself on cool nights. He considers waking Vincent, to see what the man would think, but decides against it and goes on with his life normally, growing odd plants and carving odd figures until he grows bored with that, and starts venturing around the mountains in search of anything interesting.
He finds some metal veins and discovers that the mountains are rich in emeralds on the north side, and have a vein of sapphires in the west. He finds two Mako springs, one of which has produced a huge lump of Materia, too big to be of any use, but quite pretty to look at. He leaves it where it is, though – it's too big to be carried and he already has a bag full of other stones that he wants to cut.
And cut them he does. His first attempts in jewel cutting are less than perfect, but as the years go by, he gets a bit better until his attempts in making certain cuts can be almost called respectable. There are no precious metals in the mountains, but there is iron and Cloud is a good enough weapons smith to be able to make his own stainless steel. And with some experimentation, he ends up making some rather odd but entertaining steel jewellery, the steel serving as the mounting for the jewels he had found.
By the time Vincent wakes up, though, Cloud's third wing is growing above his first one, and he has moved from jewellery back to gadgetry.
"What are you doing?" the now demonic gunman asks, while Cloud tinkers with cogwheels made of iron and steel and occasionally of stone and wood.
"Killing time," the swordsman answers, shifting his wings so he can see the man over his shoulder. "Good morning. You've slept for about twenty four years."
"Hm. Feels like less than that," Vincent says and, without invitation or permission, reaches out to touch Cloud's wings, running his fingers freely over and through the thick white feathers. "You should've awoken me," the gunman says, while Cloud shivers.
"It didn't seem to be causing any damage," Cloud shrugs, looking at him. Vincent's horns have been growing in his sleep and now reach further back than before. They have also, by the looks of it, ruined his pillow. With a snort, the swordsman reaches back and picks the feathers and bits of fabric from the jagged horns, before pausing to marvel at the feel of them. They felt hard like metal, but were warm.
"How do they feel?" he asks curiously, tapping his fingernail against the hard bone.
"Heavy at times, but most of the time I don't even notice them," Vincent says and then just looks at him until Cloud realises the position they're in: Vincent’s hands in his feathers, his on Vincent's head, and neither of them has a shirt on – too difficult to bother with, with wings.
Slowly, Cloud pulls his hand back. "Hungry?" he asks, turning away a bit awkwardly.
"A bit," Vincent answers, stands, and walks out of the cave and into the sunlight where he stands, his dark red wings spread wide to take in the light. After a moment, Cloud leaves the cogwheels and joins him, and they enjoy the day for a moment in silence, taking in the light and the cool mountain air.
"Can you fly yet?" Vincent asks finally.
"To be honest, I haven't even tried," Cloud answers, and after a glance they wordlessly decide to make the attempt, Cloud spreading out his three wings, two full grown and one still growing, and Vincent just jumping up and ahead before pausing in mid-air to watch – to catch him, if he would fall.
Taking a deep breath, Cloud makes the plunge.
They leave the cave behind a little after that, Cloud carrying with him a satchel full of precious stones just in case but otherwise only taking their weapons with them. It doesn't feel necessary to stay anymore, when neither of them is bound to the ground like they had been; they have also been out of contact with the world for nearly a quarter of a century, and want to know what is happening.
They encounter a small village in the plains first, a new one which has fields and plantations all around it. In the night time, they fly over the village, counting houses and fields and taking note of the train tracks and the variety of tractors and trucks. "Built to support a bigger city, I'd say," Vincent says after a while. "They grow more food than they need here."
"Hm, yes. Junon?" Cloud suggests and they wordlessly take to wing again, heading for the harbour city. Junon hasn't changed much, but it has more people than it had before, when Cloud had left it years ago just after the plague – though not as many as there had been before that. There are more ships in the harbour now, and judging by the looks of things, people fished more.
After Junon, they head inevitably to Midgar. It is doing much better than Junon, and is almost full of people. What worries Cloud, though, is the number of soldiers they see as they fly over the city at night, him keeping more distance than Vincent because his wings stood out clearer against the dark night sky. Soldiers and military vehicles, and there are new flags on the poles in the Midgar's parliament's front steps.
"I think there has been a shift of politics," the swordsman says a bit worriedly. "Those aren't the Eastern Republic flags."
"No, they aren't," Vincent agrees and then tells him to stay hidden while he dives into the city and vanishes into its shadows. Annoyed but knowing he would do very little good, Cloud stays aloft, circling the city and watching it with worried eyes, wondering, wondering. Midgar had gone through many shifts, most of them bad. Was this bad? If so, then how bad? The number of soldiers…
Vincent returns just shortly before morning and they fly to the mountains south of the city to talk. "Apparently, a section of the Eastern Republic government that supports a rigid control of medicine and health care is in charge now," the demonic gunman says while shifting his left wing up and down and rubbing at the muscles around it. "Something about the Cosmo Territories supposedly having created bio weapons."
"Why would the Cosmo Territories do that? The City of Cosmo Canyon got hit worst out of all the big cities," Cloud says, pushing the gunman's hand aside and digging his fingers into the tight muscles of his back, easing the tense muscles into compliance. Unlike he, who had been awake and working for the last years, Vincent is still stiff with sleep.
Vincent sighs a bit and leans back towards him. "Politics and propaganda," he says with the smallest of hitches in his breath. "I suspect the Cosmo Territories recovered from the viruses better than people thought they could after the hit they took, and it is possible that the Cosmo Territories discovered antibodies for the plagues themselves. They have better institutions there."
"Should we go and have a look at what they're doing in the west – see if this is going to end up in war?"
The gunman glances at him over his shoulder. "Do you think we can cross the ocean?" he asks a bit dubiously.
"If we go down to the southern woodlands and from there head to Gongaga, there would be enough islands to take breaks on," Cloud points out and shifts his hands a bit, pressing his palms flat against Vincent's back and digging his thumbs into the muscles, rubbing in circles.
"Perhaps," Vincent answers, his voice low, and his eyes half lidded and staring at him.
Cloud swallows, suddenly very aware of the skin beneath his hands, warm and firm… but ignores it, for now.
Eventually, they fly away from Midgar and head south, south, and a little further south; flying by night and resting by day before turning west until they reach the peak of the woodlands peninsula. There, they rest for a day, Cloud curling into his wings to sleep while Vincent keeps watch, until it is night again. Then, with some nervous hesitation, they head over the sea.
The winds are merciless and at first throw them constantly off course, trying to push them down to the waves and rocks below. Soon, they learn to fly higher, out of reach of the wild lower winds and on to the calmer, higher winds where they can stay aloft easier and don't have to exert as much energy.
When the first island comes into view, they descend upon it with great relief. It's small and weatherworn and has nothing living on it, but it's dry and Cloud is too grateful to mind the discomfort as he falls onto the rocky surface and directly to sleep. He wakes up later to the sound of rain, with Vincent sitting at his side, leather wings stretched to cover them both and protect them from the rain.
"Looks like we have to wait," Cloud murmurs at the sight of the downpour.
"Yes," Vincent agrees, and for two days and nights they wait as it rains and rains, huddling together in the relative comfort of Vincent's massive wings that protect them better from the weather than Cloud's feather wings would've.
"How long as it been now?" Cloud murmurs, trying not to be so aware of Vincent's body temperature or the weight and smell of the wing that rests around him, just enough above him to keep his hair dry.
"Since we met. Since Sephiroth."
Vincent considers it quietly, shifting a bit and crossing his ankles as he stares at the rain. "Six hundred and seventy one years," he answers then.
Cloud laughs a bit at the precise answer and ducks his head, thinking back. Granted, they hadn't been all that close in the first fifty or so of those years, but while everyone else aged and they didn't… they had grown a bit closer. Except no, not really; because they hadn't spent all that much time together – if anything, they had avoided each other. Hadn't wanted to get tired or bored or worse yet annoyed at each other’s presence, knowing that one day, they'd be all they had. Keeping their distance to savour their closeness.
Resting his cheek on his bent knee, the swordsman looks at the silent, red-eyed gunman. Even with the demonic additions, Vincent looks very much like the Vincent he had met. Still pale, still slim, still red-eyed, dark-haired, and cool.
"Looks like the rain is letting up," Vincent says, swallowing and not looking at him.
"Yeah," Cloud agrees and the tension in-between goes, once more, unacknowledged.
It turns out that the Cosmo Territories are not only aware of what is happening in the East, they're preparing for the war too. What made them think it was a good idea to go to war so soon after the plague, Cloud couldn't even begin to answer, but that is what they were thinking, apparently. They too have soldiers on their streets and military machines waiting at every corner – they have robots and tanks and one night he and Vincent fly over an airstrip full of bombers.
"Should we do something?" Cloud asks thoughtfully, as they watch the daily exercising of the soldiers in one of the many military bases.
"What do you suppose we can do?" Vincent asks back and he has a good point. For all their age and immortality, it wasn't like they could match the firepower of nations, especially nations as technologically advanced as the Cosmo Territories and the Eastern Republic.
So they watch as the people spew propaganda and prepare for the war. What eventually snaps, they have no way of knowing, but one day the preparations cease, and the military begins to actually mobilize. The planes take to wing, the armies head east, where troop carriers await them at the eastern shores of the Western Continent. And in the meanwhile, the Republic is doing the same thing in the east, only in reverse, both in a hurry to make a foothold in each other’s continents as soon as possible. They both seem to manage it, and then the fighting begins.
It all seems to happen quickly to Cloud, but in truth it takes months – it is only his sense of time that is now skewed. The war begins in small clashes and inconsequential exchanges of fire, until something tips the balance. Then a Cosmo Territory military base is bombed, shortly followed by a raid to some Eastern Republic city. There are clashes on the sea, and once Vincent and Cloud watch two massive ships sink each other into the ocean between the continents.
A year into the conflict, they discover that in their isolation they had missed something the humans had done in their absence when Gongaga, one of the Cosmo Territories' supporting bases, is wiped from the map in a brilliant flash of destructive power that leaves the jungles around it dead and the surrounding areas dying.
Scared and shocked, Vincent and Cloud immediately fly there, then away again when the radiation hits them. After that, they're on fire to figure out what just happened. The concept of nuclear power is not new to either of them – even the old ShinRa had had theories, but a fission explosion? That is a new one. And not one they like.
They like it even less when they get their hands on a newspaper and see that it's not just the East that has nuclear devices, but the West too – and Junon had been hit with one.
"Okay, we have got to do something," Cloud says, wincing as he listens to the crying of the Planet and the writhing of the Lifestream – silent for so long, content for so long, and now whimpering under the odd bombardment that it didn't quite understand but which hurt so much.
"Like what?" Vincent demands, as uneasy as he is but too much of a pessimist to even think there'd be a chance.
"I don't know! Anything!" Cloud snaps. "How many of those things can they have? If we take them out, somehow…"
Vincent bites his lip, considering it for a long while before scowling. "There is no way to know how many they have. Or where they are," he says then. "And even if we could find them all, how could we stop them?"
Hissing through his teeth, the swordsman runs a hand through his hair, trying to think of something, anything. This is like the Sister Ray all over again, except it is so much worse because he doesn’t even understand those weapons and they are aimed at people. When had humans learned to fight wars this big?
There is nothing they can do, realistically speaking. That doesn't stop Cloud because no matter how old and worn and weird he is, he does love the Planet, always has, and he can't stand the sound of it in pain. Vincent follows because that's what they do now apparently; they fly together against the world and its winds.
On the way to the battlefield that is burning the same woodlands that they had crossed over to get to the west, they are forced to pause and rest on the bow of a battleship. At this point, they don't care about being seen, and Cloud is so tired after fighting the winds with wings that aren't quite that strong yet that he just collapses, only vaguely aware of Vincent standing over him, remade Death Penalty aimed at the soldiers of the ship, keeping them at bay.
Once Cloud has had his eight hours of uneasy slumber on the metal deck, he and Vincent leave behind a silent crew, who hadn't put up a fight or made that much noise at their strange stowaways, but who had certainly stared their fill.
They make appearances on the battlefields, watching, wishing there is something they could do, and doing what they could. It is very little. Cloud still has enough Materia to make some difference – he heals the wounded with Restore Materia mastered to the point of bursting, throwing massive healing spells over entire battalions and villages that had suffered the strain of an army passing through. He casts Barriers and Shields over buildings that lasts for days and nearly abuses his Heal Materia in the attempt – and eventually, miraculous success – of healing those that had suffered a brush with radiation.
Vincent, on the other hand, takes all the offensive Materia. And while Cloud heals and protects, he reshapes the earth in massive Quakes and puts down entire battlefields with Sleepels. And, when he can do so without killing too many people, he takes out tanks and other war machines, leaving behind twisted, burning metal that couldn't be used for anything. And when he can't do that, he bathes the roads and binds the vehicles in ice.
It is a bit of a shock to find that no one much tries to fight them – if they don't run away, then they fall to their faces on the ground, prostrating themselves before them. Slowly, with some puzzlement, Cloud begins to realise that Materia is very rarely used anymore, and most of it has been lost – when he brings a dead child to life with a spell, people think it's a miracle; and when Vincent casts a Quake, people think he is really controlling the ground.
It is strange. It is a bit embarrassing. And it is extremely effective.
Eventually, the fighting ceases, and Cloud and Vincent stop somewhere in the middle, waiting for the other shoe to drop as they re-equip their Materia, getting ready to take down anything that the humans might throw at them. "It's been a while," Cloud notes while swinging his fusion sword – it had been very, very difficult to carry, with him being unable to strap it to his back anymore, but oh so worth it. He knew he needed a smaller sword, one that he could carry with him despite the wings, but it would do for now. "I don't think we've fought like this in centuries."
"Not this much certainly," Vincent agrees, cocking the Death Penalty idly and aiming at the nearby bushes. "Come out," he orders, and the first of the peace negotiators stumbles forward – a young man carrying a briefcase, looking like he would like to be anywhere but there.
"Um, sirs, uh, lords?" the man asks, stumbling over his words almost as much as his feet. "I am of the Cosmo Territories, carrying a message from the High Councillor."
"Let's hear it," Cloud says, sticking his sword into the ground beside him and stretching his wings – the third one is finally about as long as the others and he can feel the fourth one coming out, above the second one to match the third. His bones ache, but it's a familiar, pleasant ache now.
The missive from the High Councillor is, at first, a bit insulting. The man suggests an alliance between them and the "nation of humble humans of the Cosmo Territories, who follow the ways of the Planet". Cloud laughs at it outright while Vincent just stares at the poor messenger, but they don't get to really answer because that's when a helicopter flies overhead, dropping a man into their midst.
"My lords of the Planet," the new man says, bowing. "I was sent here by the President of the Eastern Republic with his greetings and well wishes, and a message."
And that's when things get interesting. A bit amused now, Cloud listens to the second missive, while the messenger from the Cosmo Territories grits his teeth and grumbles. It's pretty much the same as the first, except for the fact that the Eastern Republic seems to think that they had better claim because they were, technically, in the Republic's territory, being in the southwest woodlands of the continent.
"In light of this, I believe that a meeting between your gracious selves and the president would be most fortuitous," the messenger says.
"My great lords, I must object. Did you not in the battle of the Third stand by the Cosmo Territories' men and women, protecting them from the cruelty of the Republic?" the first messenger cuts in.
"And in doing so did you not destroy the battalion of the Territories' tanks and mortar launchers?" the second messenger points out.
Cloud glances at Vincent with a single raised eyebrow. The man shrugs, and promptly uses the Seal Materia he had used to cast Sleepels with to Silence both of the men. "Okay," Cloud says, looking at the two gaping messengers. "We don't really care about your nations one way or the other and we aren't allying with either of them or any other nation. What we want is for you to stop dropping bombs," he says and almost growls the last three words out.
"You can kill yourselves and each other if you really want to," Vincent adds. "Just do it without hurting the Planet."
Neither of the two messengers looks very convinced and Cloud sighs. "Though, here's a thought. Say one of you stops using atomic weapons while the other continues. Guess which one we'll side with?" he asks, leaning on his sword idly and looking at the two silenced messengers. "And guess what kind of damage this guy could do in a city. Like Midgar or Cosmo Canyon for example," he adds, pointing at Vincent who alone can level entire battlefields now. Though of course Cloud can do the same, but he is a bit better with making and fixing things these days, rather than destroying them.
Now the messengers look vaguely worried and interested, giving each other uneasy looks. Cloud nods and pulls his sword free from the ground. "Think about it, why don't you?" he says and glances at Vincent before jumping aloft, the demonic gunman following close behind.
"Do you think that's enough?" Cloud asks, as they fly away from the site – for now.
"If it isn't, I suppose I could level some cities," Vincent answers sarcastically, and the white winged swordsman laughs.
"It could be worse," Vincent points out idly, while Cloud glowers at the world around him. The gunman smiles slightly at him and then carefully looks away when Cloud turns his glower on him. "At least they're not trying to kidnap us this time," Vincent points out.
"Very funny," Cloud mutters and adjusts his robes – his extremely grand white robes that are embroidered with silver and gold and, at the right angle, look a bit like a dress. He has to admit, though, the back is better than anything he has managed to make since growing his third pair of wings, bringing the number up to six in total, which is where they stopped growing, thank Planet. The designers had taken very careful measurements of his back and now the fabric settles around his wing joints snugly. For the first time in decades, it doesn't feel like he has a hole in his back.
Except they are robes. They drag on the ground. And the thing around his waist looks a bit like an elaborate corset at times.
"You look fine," Vincent assures him amusedly.
"I don't want to hear that from you," Cloud mutters, throwing a sideways glance at him in his perfectly respectable leather coat, also tailored specifically for his wings, but which at least maintains the appearance of masculinity. "Why couldn't I be the demon?" the swordsman asks, giving a somewhat longing look at Vincent's trousers.
"Luck, I suppose," Vincent says and holds out his hand. "We should go, or we'll be late."
Sighing, Cloud takes the hand and they turn to leave their rooms, walking out to the corridor and then along it towards the centre of the weird floating… thing they are on. It isn't quite a boat, being immobile and not intended to be moved, but it isn't really a platform either. If anything, it is a floating city-to-be, sitting on the surface of the ocean somewhere between the Western and Eastern Continents.
And they are the honoured guests here. So much so, in fact, that they have to be clothed accordingly.
"Well, at least it doesn't get in my way too much," Cloud murmurs, glancing down. The hem is just short enough in the front that it doesn't get beneath his shoes. Planet help him if he wanted to walk backwards, though.
Vincent smiles faintly but says nothing, just looking around and then guiding Cloud towards an elevator that would take them one level up and eventually to the stairs, which they then had to walk down grandly and slowly for the entire Planet to see. Well, for everyone there, which tends to include a couple dozen of reporters, so it might've just as well been the whole Planet.
"You know, there will be hell to pay when they figure out we're not actually an angel and a demon," Cloud points out as they wait for the elevator to lift them.
"It won't make us any less powerful," Vincent answers and Cloud concedes the point with a chuckle.
The elevator releases them, and they walk out, hands still clasped in the mostly symbolic hold, fingers entwined. Then the guards – one from the Cosmo Territories' Special Forces and the other from the Eastern Republic's Task Force – open the doors for them, both bowing in almost synchronised unison, and Cloud smothers a sigh as they step out and onto the top step of the stairs leading down to the actual hall, where the celebrations for the twenty years of peace since the war are held.
Silence falls, cameras snap and flash, and they stand for a moment before walking down. "Why did we have to go public?" Cloud asks with a sigh, trying not to move his lips.
"You wanted to save the Planet," Vincent answers, his face perfectly bland, horns gleaming in the flashing light.
"Gotta stop doing that, then." Though there are definite upsides to being public figures. They can go into cities and towns once more without having to worry about being killed or chased off or captured for experiments. The whole planet is invested in their existence – and their good will, for some reason – so no one dares to lay a hand on either of them. That is pretty nice.
Except, of course, for the downsides aside from the celebrations and horrible clothing. The moment they step down from the stairs, they are swamped by reporters, who quickly begin asking them if they'd like to give a few words, what they thought of the upcoming celebrations, where they had been the last few months since there had been no sightings, and where will they go next – what continent, what city, what town.
And after they have managed to shake off the reporters, there are the officials and noblemen, the high and mighty and rich people from all three continents, all pushing forward to have a word and get their pictures taken with the Planet's Guardians. And then there are some more reporters.
They are eventually saved by the arrival of the High Councillor of the Cosmo Territories and the President of the Eastern Republic, who give speeches from the stairs, welcoming them all – especially the Guardians – before making wishes for many years of peace, and then announcing that the celebration could begin.
By that time, Vincent, who has an even harder time dealing with crowds than Cloud does, though he hides it better, is gripping the swordsman’s hand rather tightly. "Get me away from these people," the gunman demands, hissing into Cloud's ear, while the orchestra begins to play, filling the hall with the classical notes of a waltz.
"Not so cheery now, are we?" Cloud asks with an amused grin, but turns to the people around them. "My apologies, gentlemen, ladies, but we will have to continue this a little later," he says, and then drags Vincent to the dance floor – pretty much the only place there where they can be in something like peace. "I hope you know how to dance," he adds a bit belatedly.
Vincent frowns, looking at him. "Five years in Wutai. Do you? And can you dance in those robes?"
"I lived with Tifa and Marlene, and yes. Just don't push me backwards and I'm fine," Cloud snorts and they arrange themselves with some difficulty until they are in a semi gender-neutral position, and can begin without having to fear for their toes. It is mostly thanks to their training as warriors rather than as dancers that they manage to avoid injuries, however; and the fact that they know each other pretty damn well by then doesn't hurt.
"Where will we go after this?" Vincent asks quietly, as they settle into a pattern.
"I don't know. Somewhere where we haven't been to in a while," Cloud shrugs, shifting his wings out of the way of a nearby couple, both of whom are too busy staring at them to mind where they're dancing. "How about the Crater? You never showed up, after all."
"True," Vincent murmurs, and then they just dance, enjoying the closeness and the – rather relative – privacy in each other's arms. When the piece ends and people dissolve into applause, they don't release each other, not wanting to get surrounded by reporters again. Instead, they wait, just looking at each other.
Cloud smiles crookedly, tilting his head a bit. "How long are we going to dance around this, Vincent?" he asks, nodding between them.
"As long as we can," the demonic gunman answers gravely, voice low. "There's time."
The swordsman smiles, releasing one hand and bringing it to Vincent's cheek, running his thumb up and down along the veins that sometimes showed there. True, there was something very nice in waiting – they had built their new lives almost entirely on waiting for each other by now. And since they now lived and flew together, there was so little to anticipate. And yet…
"Yeah, well, I've never been that patient," Cloud murmurs, shifting so that he was standing on the balls of his feet, and thus closer to Vincent's height. While the gunman's hand tightens its hold on his waist, Cloud glances to the side, where a couple of reporters are stumbling over each other to get the perfect shot, and smiles wider. "Let's give them something to talk about," he says, and leans closer.