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Stormborne

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Ragnarøkkr comes not in a storm of fire and death, but in a tired sigh, a quiet huff of breath snuffing out the last flickering candles of belief as ShinRa sweeps across the continents. A black plague. Silent.

At least one part of the prophecies was correct, Cloud thinks bitterly, tracking invisible smoke as it bleeds across the sky. There’s a reactor there, he knows, up on the peak of his tallest mountain—it’s been there for years now, spewing its poison into the air, invisible to the human eye but dark as ink to a being like Cloud.

Deep in the forests of the Nibel range, he pauses and shuts his eyes as another of the few lights remaining on the edges of his consciousness blinks out, sending a prayer for his lost brethren. Gods may hold more power than most beings, but such an existence is fragile and temporary, the fickleness of humanity a death sentence hanging over all their heads. To fade from the memories of the living spells nonexistence. Death.

Beside him, Máni whines worriedly and nudges at him, her nose cold and wet against his hand. Cloud absentmindedly runs his hand through her scruff, then under her belly, just beginning to swell with pups, and the wolf rolls over agreeably. But another light fades, and his hand freezes. Then he sighs.

Spending all his time in his territory may have been a subject of ridicule for the other gods—too close, too much attachment, not enough distance for awe, respect, worship— but the traces of his power left behind have saved Cloud from an earlier death. He’s one of the last ones left, now.

But his power fades quickly from his land. And as much as Cloud loves his wolves, he can’t live on their friendship and loyalty alone. Existing like this, his people’s indifference a gaping hole in his chest while he grows weaker and weaker by the day—a swift death may have been kinder.

His prayer, Cloud knows, is useless. For humans may seek the gods in their time of need, but whom do the gods seek in their own?

-

As the days pass, Cloud finds himself tiring more and more frequently, until he’s confined to the back of the den where Máni is preparing to raise her pups, dozing off more often than not even during the few hours he isn’t sleeping like the dead. Eventually he starts sleeping straight through entire days, even weeks—

Cloud wakes to something soft and warm and small clambering over him, and he blinks his eyes open slowly, lids heavy and uncooperative. His gaze is met with a gray bundle of fur, close enough to be blurry, before it wriggles excitedly and yips, a small pink tongue coming into focus as it laps at Cloud’s cheek.

There’s a scolding chuff from somewhere just out of Cloud’s field of vision, and the corners of Cloud’s mouth manage to twitch up.

“These your pups, Máni?” he croaks tiredly. Has he really been asleep for so long? The last time he’d been awake had been when Máni had been just over halfway through her term—

Another familiar muzzle noses at Cloud’s hair, and Máni’s mate, Sol, makes a questioning growl.

Cloud shakes his head. “I’ll do it. Bring them here.”

It takes a few moments for the pair to herd all three of them into Cloud’s view, but eventually they succeed, and the brown-gray pups squirm clumsily over each other and the stone floor.

Cloud reaches out and gently guides the first one closer. He’s browner than his two sisters, and there’s a fierce slant to his eyes. When Cloud presses a kiss to his brow, the pup tosses his head back, as if proud, accidentally knocking against Cloud’s chin in the process. Cloud smiles. “Ullr.”

The second pup is calm and still and merely watches Cloud with a careful gaze as he gifts her a similar kiss, her eyes large and dark, and in response, Cloud says, “Vör.”

The third is the one who woke Cloud up, and she nuzzles him again happily for her kiss. She’s near-identical to her sister but for the tufts of white along her ears and chest, and Cloud gives her an extra rub behind the ears. “Vár,” he names her.

Sol and Máni both rub their faces against his in thanks, and Cloud yawns, suddenly exhausted. The stone floor should be cold and hard against his back, yet it’s somehow enticingly comfortable, coaxing him to relax against it, to allow himself to drift away once more.

Máni whines as several other wolves slip into the cave, Cloud’s blessing over. Some of them press their noses mournfully against Cloud’s hair and fur cloak, as if trying to share their strength with him through touch alone, and Cloud sighs, eyes slipping shut. The three pups are a solid warmth against his side.

The next few times he wakes are not so widely spaced, but with each waking he feels more and more drained, as if he’d never rested at all. Still, he musters the strength to play with the pups for at least a little while each time. There are only three of them, this year, and Cloud has a suspicion that ShinRa’s mako reactor has something to do with it. Ullr favors play-fighting, tussling on the cave floor and sometimes even playing chase, when Cloud isn’t too tired. Vör, on the other hand, favors silence, and spends her time by Cloud’s side when he needs to rest. And Vár, despite being bright and energetic, never seems to leave Cloud’s side despite how stationary he usually is; she’s there when he wakes and there when he falls asleep.

Eventually, the occasions he wakes grow even rarer, and he lacks the energy to get up at all. The most he can do is lie there murmuring gentle reassurances as his pack hovers worriedly. They try to keep the pups away; they don’t need to watch Cloud fade any more than he already has. But Vár clings especially stubbornly, and Cloud has to admit that her tiny body against his is a comfort.

Cloud had always imagined that if he’d die, he’d die giving his all to protect what he cherishes most. But as he falls asleep for a final time, he thinks that if he has to die like this—an excruciatingly slow death, sapped of his strength and growing colder with each passing day—he doesn’t mind if it’s with the warmth of his family surrounding him, loyal to the end.

-

Cloud wakes to a desperate cry, earth-shatteringly loud in its anguish.

It’s no less startling for its soundlessness—things like intent and belief matter significantly more than a physical sound when calling for a god’s attention—and with the advent of mako energy, humans have long stopped relying on gods for aid. ShinRa’s new ways of life make the boons gods provide redundant; Cloud hasn’t received a prayer in well over a decade, and this call for help is much louder than anything Cloud’s heard in longer, despite it being targeted towards no one in particular.

Helplessness, the voice cries. Hopelessness. Despair. Death.

Cloud opens his eyes to a different cave than the one he’d fallen asleep in. His wolf companions are long gone, leaving him cold and alone. Instead, a faint blue-green glow lights the area, a radiant crystal framing the silhouette of a woman, seemingly asleep. But when he presses a hand against its smooth surface, Cloud is swamped with—

Sephiroth. Sephiroth my son my poor terrible son Sephiroth—

Vincent I’m so sorry Vincent I’m sorry I’m sorry forgive me I’m sorry

JENOVA won’t let me die I can’t die let me die let me die—

help me

anyone

please

With one last flare, the woman—the voice from earlier— Lucrecia— goes silent. Not dead, but dormant. Waiting.

Cloud takes in a breath, lets it out, then takes another, deeper. The air is suddenly fresher, more invigorating than it has been for the past decade, and Cloud feels alive as the power drawn from Lucrecia’s last wish surges through his veins.

Cloud presses his forehead up against her crystal.

Lucrecia Crescent. We have heard your request, and find it worthy of our aid.

… Thank you.

-

Even without the guidance of Lucrecia’s request, Cloud would be able to identify the scorching, blinding presence up by the gaiaforsaken reactor. It leaves the bitter taste of fire and death and destruction strong on Cloud’s tongue. His new power will wane as each portion of her request is completed, so he decides to face this scourge first, while he is at his strongest.

Despite the reactor nearly being on the opposite side of his domain, Cloud covers the distance near-instantaneously, relishing in the way he can harness the wind once more, at least for this. It sets him down gently at the entrance of the reactor, unable to take him any further, but caresses his cheeks and braid fondly as if greeting a long-lost friend, and when Cloud raises his hand in thanks, it twines through his fingers in encouragement. So he sets his shoulders and slips in through the walls, heading straight for the presence burning starfire-bright ahead of him.

The Calamity’s—JENOVA’s—deathsong echoes loud and enticing in his ears, crooning of the radiance of imploding stars, of conquering the wondrous beyond, of the untamed beauty found in dispassionate, indiscriminate destruction as all things crumble to dust.

Cloud shuts his ears to it, clutching the materia on his necklace for reassurance. He makes it all the way to an impassive face of metal, constructed by humans for their strange new goddess, before her voice grows too deafening to ignore.

your strength is waning, little one, she hums. you are fated to death, as are all things on this planet.

Her gaze sweeps over him, imperious, pitiless, dismissive. For a moment, Cloud trembles under its terrible, unforgiving weight, and he imagines that if she were to focus all her attention on him, he would be kneeling, prostrate.

But Cloud is a god born of the wild mountains, and the mountains bow to no one.

So he carefully selects a certain materia, calling on the untamed storm singing in his blood, and a breath of wind comes to life in the dead stillness of the metal altar, stirring his clothes and hair. There’s a distant rumbling build of static as Cloud feels every inch of both his fur and hair stand on end and JENOVA finally rouses, alarmed, surging to attention—

But it’s too late. The rumbling peaks to a deafening roar, and a blinding flash of lightning from an unseen storm strikes the alien goddess, sending the slick green fluid the humans had embalmed her flaring up into a brilliant, searing explosion. Her throne of twisted metal and glass shatters.

JENOVA howls. how dare you? how dare howdareyouhowdareyOU—

Another bright flash of lightning and an earth-shaking peal of thunder, near simultaneous, has her shrieks abruptly cutting off, and Cloud is left standing in resounding silence, the only sound the steady drip-drip-drip of mako off the jagged remains of the glass tank onto the floor. The shards frame the charcoal-colored lump that was formerly JENOVA in the strangely artful way only careless devastation can achieve.

Intruder or not, enemy or not, Cloud shuts his eyes and mourns the death of another goddess.

Now, he is well and truly alone. Except—

Except no. Now, without JENOVA’s blinding presence clamoring for Cloud’s attention, there’s a faint cluster of— something— hovering on the edge of Cloud’s notice, on the edges of the only town in his domain.

Nibelheim.

Though he’d used to visit Nibelheim in disguise quite often, it’d become physically painful ever since they forsook their beliefs. The last time he’d been there, the children had only known of him as a vague folk tale told by their parents, who had discarded him as such of their own will. He’s not certain he’s ready to go back, not when the situation can only have gotten worse since then, however long it’s been since he fell asleep. However, not only is Lucrecia’s will tugging him there, but these presences—

They’re not gods, no—they may be outwardly similar, but their essence is different. They prey on the dark, illogical fears of humans rather than their awe and worship.

Humans call them demons.

Cloud frowns. Demons are usually nomadic things, unattached to the land and the people living there, but the way the energy of these few taints their surroundings suggests that they’ve been there for at least several years.  Have they truly sunk so low as to prey on Cloud’s unprotected humans?

The area their energy practically seeps from is one Cloud is very familiar with. He remembers watching the workers from ShinRa build this grand mansion alongside the rest of Nibelheim’s villagers, a strange vague dread creeping in his gut.

Cloud’s land was the first ShinRa had built a reactor on; back then, they’d all been blissfully unaware of what was to come. If he’d known…

But these regrets come too late. They accomplish nothing.

Cloud specifically takes the longer way around, entering the now-decaying mansion from behind rather than the front. Having to avoid his people pains him, but feeling the physical evidence of their disregard will pain him more. He’s close enough now to hear the demons’ voices, an incomprehensible clamor, and follows them unerringly down, down, down a spiral staircase into an eerie basement.

The moment he steps into a green-lit room filled with shelves of probing tools and dusty jars, Cloud is hit with a resounding anguishpainfear, hammering away at his mind until he musters the strength to forcibly shut the lingering emotions and stagger back into the tunnel-like hallway.

Cloud shivers. Whatever— whoever— had been down here had undoubtedly suffered pain beyond measure.

The next room is a simple library, but the books still bear a malevolent aura that has Cloud cringing away. Unfortunately, dealing with any sort of books is not part of Lucrecia’s agenda; Cloud has little energy to spare and too many tasks to complete.

The last room is locked. It’s also where the demons’ presence is the strongest. Thankfully, unless specifically tailored to do so, human constructs are ineffective at keeping gods out, and Cloud simply slips through the door, coming face-to-face with a large black coffin. Removing the lid reveals the pale face of a man asleep, fine-featured and handsome, and Cloud vaguely registers that this is Vincent Valentine, the man who Lucrecia had so fervently begged for forgiveness, before crimson eyes shoot open and—

“Who dares wake me from my nightmare?”

But the clamor peaks to a pained screeching, and Cloud barely registers the man’s words. He resists the urge to cover his ears. It wouldn’t work anyways; their cries are mental. It’s a tumult of pain and fear and desperation, so reminiscent of an animal caught in a trap, injured and helpless and struggling, that his power reacts automatically, reaching out to soothe, to comfort, to dull the pain until the creatures have calmed.

Then it is silent.

The man—Vincent—blinks, seemingly stunned. “How—?”

But Cloud just cocks his head, picking up another faint presence in the silence. It stirs just beneath three others, more earthy and solid, not dependent on human emotion for existence—

WEAPON.

“What the fuck…?” Cloud mutters. All the WEAPONs should be dormant up in the north, not—not in Cloud’s territory— “Is it just a gaia-damned party here now or something?”

A low, raspy chuckle. He’s feisty. Can we keep him?

Vincent frowns deeply, but before he can respond, Cloud crosses his arms and says. “You should be more careful when you speak, WEAPON. Not all of us are as deaf to the Planet as you think.”

The WEAPON’s notice shifts, intrigued. Oh? Did I insult you, little god?

Vincent’s gaze narrows at the term, taking in Cloud and his atypical clothing with wary interest. “You can hear him?”

“‘Him’ and all the other… passengers sharing your body, yes,” Cloud says. “They were very noisy.”

“But you silenced them. My mind has not been this peaceful in…” Vincent pauses. “A long time.”

Cloud shakes his head. “I just took away their pain, at least for a while. All creatures are much nicer when they’re not in pain. Demons are no exception.”

“ … I see,” Vincent says. He doesn’t.

Cloud sighs. “Try speaking to them. They’re calm now. It shouldn’t hurt anymore if you all work together.”

Vincent frowns again as slowly, cautiously, he mentally prods at one of the presences in his mind. It’s clumsy and loud and unfocused, but the beast responds fiercely with a bone-rattling roar directed towards Cloud. It’s a strange mixture of pride and strength and fervent gratitude, and the force of it sends Cloud stumbling a few paces backwards, sensitive ears ringing.

“Well?” Cloud says, but Vincent’s gaze is focused elsewhere, on the hood of Cloud’s fur cloak, where he knows his second set of ears has fallen back to press against the top of his head.

“The wolf ears,” Vincent says, vaguely stunned. “They moved.”

Cloud can’t help himself. He laughs.

-

The next day sees Cloud rapping on the lid of Vincent’s coffin, and the man emerges with narrowed eyes, repeating, “Who dares—” He along with the background clamor of his demons fall silent when he sees Cloud again, though, until he finally says, “You came back.” He looks faintly surprised.

“Yeah,” Cloud says. “Your demons are still unhappy. It’s distracting. I’d like to speak with them directly.”

Vincent’s expression grows dark and shuttered. “I’m afraid you cannot. They only appear when I am…” Angry, he doesn’t say. Terrified. Both. But Cloud doesn’t even have to read his thoughts to see what his eyes so vividly declare. “You cannot,” he says again. “Leave me be.”

“It hurts,” Cloud guesses. “I know. It will for a while; they’re afraid, and aggressive because of it. But demons feed on human fear. You can’t fear them, or they will see you as food to exploit rather than an equal—a companion— to work together with.”

“I—what?” Vincent’s eyes fluctuate between intrigued and confused. “ … Fear? Fear is what makes it so… painful?”

“Part of it,” Cloud agrees. “The rest of it is just acclimation. You need practice.”

“Practice…?” He looks doubtful. “I…”

“I understand that you don’t particularly want to make nice with the demons that you’ve been forced to share your mental landscape with,” Cloud says. “But they’re there now. Isn’t it better to learn how to deal with it instead of trying to shove it down and ignore it? Because that only means that on the few occasions when they do break free—which there will be, you’ve admitted it yourself that they do—you won’t be able to control them.”

“I…”

“I’m here to help,” Cloud says. “Trust me.”

Vincent is silent for a moment, then nods once. Half a beat later, he shudders, bones cracking grotesquely as his body stretches and contorts in ways no man’s should, and the pained keen that escapes his newly-formed muzzle is such a haunting blend of human and wolf that Cloud reaches out reflexively to soothe him.

No sooner does he lift his arms, though, does the beast jerk back, lamplight-yellow eyes wide and pupils dilating to slits, another whine leaving his mouth even as it contorts into an animalistic snarl, demonic instinct struggling to take over. But the way his eyes track Cloud’s every movement, terrified, is distinctively human, and Cloud knows that that, at least, is all Vincent.

“Don’t be afraid,” Cloud says, gently but firmly, bringing his hand to rest on his snout. He very carefully doesn’t wince when the beast twists away, lightning-quick, and knife-sharp teeth dig into his arm. “It’s fine. Don’t be afraid. You won’t hurt me. I know you won’t. I’m fine. You’re fine.”

He keeps up the stream of low, soothing words until slowly, gradually, the beast’s jaws loosen, then release Cloud’s arm completely. “There you are,” he says, a proud smile tugging at his lips. The beast whines and begins licking at the gold-colored blood welling up from his arm, but Cloud flicks his hand, and the wound seals. “See? Not a scratch.”

The beast moves on to nuzzle at Cloud’s cheek, and Cloud laughs, ruffling his fur affectionately. “You’re just a big sweetheart under all that snarl, aren’t you? What’s your name?”

A low, gentle growl.

“Galian,” Cloud repeats. “Nice to meet you, Galian.”

Galian rests his head on top of Cloud’s own with another content rumble before his form shudders, and Cloud finds himself with an armful of very disoriented human.

“What…” Vincent looks a tad shaken and very confused, but no worse for wear, and Cloud counts it as a huge success. But he can feel the usual exhaustion creeping up on him like an ever-present parasite, and he pulls away.

“I have to go,” Cloud says, “but I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Vincent blinks. “Tomorrow—?”

“Tomorrow,” Cloud confirms even as he makes his way for the door. “It’s a promise.”

-

Vincent doesn’t know what he’d expected when a fierce blond man had stormed into his room and disturbed his slumber, but certainly not for him to earn the moniker of a god from Chaos, and even less for him to calm Vincent’s demons and coax them all into working together. The so-called god’s laugh is as beautiful as what glimpses of his face Vincent is able to catch beneath the snarling wolf head that serves as his hood, but far gentler than what his tattered, battle-worn attire suggests. It softens his entire demeanor from something guarded and confrontational and lights him radiantly from the inside out, and the first time, Vincent had been struck with the most irrational of thoughts that this is no human, no god, but an angel sent to lift him from his state mired in sin.

He’d dismissed it quickly then; angels do not exist. Vincent has learned this lesson well.

But even after Vincent has reconciled with all his demons—Galian, Death Gigas, Hellmasker, and even Chaos—the god returns time and time again, gifting him with gentle smiles and kind words that he in no way deserves. And Vincent can’t help but doubt.

One day, the god turns to face him from his perch beside him on the ledge of his coffin. His face is shadowed by his hood as ever, though these days the wolf’s snarl seems much less fierce, as if dependent on his mood. Then Vincent watches the ears perched on top twitch as they often do, and decides it’s hardly the most unreasonable conclusion to reach.

“I’ve never introduced myself to you, have I?” the god asks.

“No,” Vincent answers cautiously. “I’d assumed the tales of names holding power to be true.”

The corner of the god’s mouth quirks up. “Oh, believe me, they are very true. But I can’t have you calling me ‘the god’ in your thoughts all the time, now can I?”

Vincent masks his shock. Can he hear his thoughts? Unwittingly, his mind immediately circles back to what he’d been thinking of mere moments earlier—

The god quickly holds up a hand. “I’ve been blocking your thoughts out most of the time. It becomes much harder if you project them at me, and impossible if you address me directly with my real name, but—well, that’s not important for now. Just call me Cloud, okay?”

“Cloud…?” Vincent’s brow furrows. How unusual. “Is there any… significance?”

The god’s— Cloud’s— mouth turns upward again. “Not much. I’ve just been told a lot that I have an affinity for… cloudy weather, you could say.”

Vincent nods, content to not ask any further. “I am—”

“Vincent Valentine,” Cloud finishes for him, head cocking in a manner not unlike the creature whose fur his cloak is made from. “I know. Lucrecia sent me.”

Vincent jolts, sitting up straighter. “Lucrecia—! Is she all right?”

Cloud looks solemn. “As ‘all right’ as she can be, I guess. She tried to take her own life, but the experiments… well, I’m hoping that with JENOVA’s death, she can finally find peace. I’m fulfilling her last wishes. She… begged for your forgiveness.”

Vincent is silent for a moment, taking the time to mourn. But the need to atone for one’s guilt is understandable, and the inability to do so even more so. He can only hope alongside Cloud that Lucrecia finds her peace.

But this new piece of information, at least, has things settling in place. Cloud is here at Lucrecia’s behest, not because of anything Vincent has or has not done himself—

“Hey,” Cloud says sharply. “Look at me. I’m here because I want to be, not just because of Lucrecia. I could have just woken you up, delivered her message, and left. All she wanted was for you to know that she was sorry.”

Vincent ducks his chin lower to hide his expression. “Why did you choose to stay, then?”

Cloud sighs, tilting his head back to stare up at the ceiling, paint cracked and peeling. “I’ll admit I came here first to kick the demons I could sense out of my territory. I don’t take well to beings terrorizing my humans. But you turned out to be part of my mission. And now… you’ve all managed to grow on me, I guess.”

“ … All of us?” Vincent’s demons stir in interest. They’ve all grown fond of the strange, friendly god who soothed them, who taught them all to coexist painlessly, who treats them not as things to be feared but equal, intelligent beings in their own right.

Cloud nods, and he seems almost—embarrassed. “They were… crying. They were crying and in pain and needed comfort, trapped as they were, and I—I’m not… I’m not stone-hearted, okay? They reminded me a lot of—I’m used to… well. I thought I might be able to help, at least a little bit. And… I do honestly like your company. All of you.”

“Is that so?” Vincent murmurs. “Thank you, Cloud.”

“No need to thank me,” Cloud says hastily, and there’s a definite red tinge to his cheeks, now. “You deserve to be able to heal and come to terms with yourself after all that’s happened. I just gave you the chance. You did the rest yourself.”

Vincent watches his reaction closely and frowns. Somehow, the idea of Cloud not wanting to be thanked, not knowing how to react to being thanked, has something in his gut twisting angrily. All his demons—the agreeable ones, at least—rumble in agreement. Chaos, ever the contrarian, just radiates a strange sort of smug amusement. Vincent doesn’t want to make Cloud uncomfortable by pushing the subject further, though, so he simply says, “I see.” Normally he would not probe into Cloud’s private affairs, but he finds himself casting about for a different subject of conversation, asking, “What do you do when you are not… here? You have many… godly duties, of a sort, I presume—”

But Cloud shakes his head. “My people—the people of Nibelheim—they stopped believing. So I… can’t do much to directly help them anymore.” At Vincent’s questioning look, he explains, “Gods draw power from those who worship them. Offerings, prayers, even just stories… as long as we remain in the memories of men, we are eternal. But lately, people have given up the old ways in favor of relying on ShinRa and their new technology. Humans are prideful, after all. They dislike being forced to depend on a god’s goodwill to survive. It’s not a… bad thing, I guess—change in and of itself never is, especially since most gods have—had—recently been growing… remiss in their duties. Humanity's quality of life is definitely more consistent this way, but…” Cloud seems to wilt slightly, suddenly exhausted. “I’m the only one left, now.”

“The only one—the others are all… dead?” It seems strange to refer to a god as dead, but—

“As dead as pretty much anything can get,” Cloud agrees. “Once a god has faded, there’s no going back. No body left behind or anything.”

“What saved you, then?” Vincent says.

Cloud looks a bit rueful. “I’m not very traditional for a god. Like I mentioned, they adopted a very hands-off approach the past few centuries, but I’m… I've always spent a lot of time here, with my people and my animals and my land. So I got by surviving off the traces of my own power left behind, for a while. Eventually, even I thought I was… But a dying wish is powerful. In a way, Lucrecia saved me. I owe her.”

Vincent hums thoughtfully. “I see. So you are safe from fading away now?”

“I’m not nearly as powerful as I was before,” Cloud says. “I have to sleep a lot, now. And there are so many problems… But I’m trying my best.”

“I see,” Vincent says again. "Problems?” 

“The local wildlife’s being weirdly aggressive, and that just… isn’t supposed to be happening. Not after…” He grasps at his sleeve-covered left arm in a seemingly unconscious motion.

“After…?” Vincent prompts gently.

Cloud drops his arm quickly. “It’s… not a very interesting story.”

“Is it one of your legends?” When Cloud simply shrugs in response, Vincent adds, “If it is, I should like to hear it.”

“Well,” Cloud says, a bit slowly, “a long time ago, Nibel wildlife thought humans were weak. Easy prey. I was a new god then. I had no idea what I was doing, and we were losing more and more people with each passing season… So I struck a deal. If I could prove that we were worthy of their respect, they’d leave us be.” Cloud’s silent for a moment, hand drifting back towards his left arm. “They sent a wolf.”

Vincent’s eyes follow the movement. He’s never seen that arm uncovered, but he's also never seen— “They took it. Your left hand.”

“Yeah. They said if I could brave putting my hand in a wolf’s jaws, if I could suffer it being bitten off without crying out, I was a god representative of a people worthy of any creature’s respect. It was an exchange. My hand and a display of courage for my people’s safety. The other gods all ridiculed me for making such a supposedly poor deal—called it permanently maiming myself for no good reason—but… it was worth it. But now…"

Vincent nods. These kinds of transactions are sacred; it makes sense that god or not, Cloud can never reclaim what he has freely given up for something in exchange. “When I first arrived here, I was warned of the local wildlife’s viciousness. Perhaps your people lost your protection when they forsook you.”

The corners of Cloud’s mouth turn down. “Wolves respect strength, but once they’ve accepted you as one of their own, they never forget. They’re… special to me. No, something must be seriously wrong. I’ve been investigating; I think the substances leaking from the reactor are driving them mad. JENOVA may be dead now, but as long as her taint runs in the groundwater, this will never end.”

Vincent’s eyes narrow. Another sin to add to ShinRa’s list. Not that the people of Nibelheim deserve Cloud’s blessing anyways, not when they’ve forsaken him like this, but it seems everything still ultimately leads back to ShinRa—

Cloud yawns. “It’s hard to keep up when I get tired so easily now, though. Sorry, but I think I’m going to go take a nap…”

Vincent pauses, suddenly realizing he has no idea where Cloud goes when he is not here, with him. “Where do you sleep?” Do gods have a place where they go away to rest? But if the others are all dead, where does that leave Cloud? Does he get lonely?

“There’s a nice cave up on Mt. Nibel,” Cloud says. “I’ve been staying there for convenience, since it’s so close to the reactor—”

“A cave?” Vincent can’t be one to speak, he sleeps in a coffin in a basement, but a cave… Cloud deserves to rest on something more comfortable than a stone floor. His coffin, Vincent decides, is at least lined with a soft velvet, and is a fair bit better than the floor of a cave. “You come all the way down here often.”

“Yes?” Cloud says, sounding faintly uncertain.

“Sleep here.” Vincent stands and gestures at his open coffin, the lid resting against the wall of the room.

Cloud’s lips part in surprise. “Your coffin? But it’s…” He trails off as he gestures vaguely at it. “It’s yours.”

“Is it against some form of godly etiquette?” Vincent asks dryly.

“No,” Cloud says. “No, but…” He trails off, then shakes his head. “Never mind.”

“You will be safe. I will keep watch.”

“For spiders, maybe,” Cloud says, just as dryly. “The door’s locked. Who’s going to come in?” But he begins unlacing his boots compliantly. “You’re usually asleep when I’m not here, right? We can share. I’ll feel bad if I steal your spot.”

Vincent's thoughts grind to a halt. “We… Will we fit?”

Cloud tugs his hood off, revealing a head of soft, sunshine-bright hair, and Vincent catches a wry, laughing look in his vivid blue eyes. “You’re thin as a gnawed bone. Of course we will.”

“Oh,” Vincent says, a bit helplessly. Cloud is even more beautiful than the lower half of his face suggests, fine-featured with wide, expressive eyes, sky-blue and bright with amusement.

Cloud undoes the clasp of his cloak, slipping it off his shoulders, before lying down inside the coffin and tucking it over himself like a blanket. “Oh, this is a nice coffin,” he marvels, then holds open a corner of his psuedo-blanket and looks at Vincent expectantly. “Well?”

I, Vincent decides as his legs carry him of their own accord to lie down beside Cloud, am a very weak man.

Cloud’s cloak is softer than he’d expected; he’s never felt a wolf’s fur before, of course, but it had always looked coarse to the touch. However, its texture is thick and rough yet somehow fluffy, pleasant against the skin as Cloud wraps it close around the both of them. The cramped space of the coffin has Cloud curling up close against Vincent’s chest with a quiet, contented hum, and some part of himself that Vincent had thought long frozen over thaws. The urge to tuck the loose strands of Cloud’s messy bangs behind his ears suddenly wells up.

If the people of Nibelheim have abandoned the worship of their god, Vincent resolves, then he will simply have to fill the gap himself.

“Cloud,” he says quietly, suddenly compelled to share his new revelation. But Cloud doesn’t stir, breathing already smooth and even and peaceful. “Cloud,” Vincent says again, and this time, Cloud utters a sleepy sigh and curls even closer. The yearning to stroke his hair, caress his cheek, anything, grows overwhelmingly strong, and Vincent carefully tucks his hands away inside his own cloak. Then he settles down with a sigh of his own, mentally preparing himself to watch over Cloud for however long is necessary.

The next few hours, he knows, are going to be both excruciatingly long and much too short at the same time.

-

The first thing that Cloud notices when he wakes is a gentle carding of thick fingers through his hair, fallen loose from its braid sometime during his nap.

The second thing he notices is that he lies curled up on top of a firm chest, broad and oddly leathery and slightly cool to the touch—not Vincent.

“Death Gigas?” he murmurs, still too drowsy and comfortable to open his eyes, but the low rumble of the chest beneath him is confirmation enough.

The fingers card through his hair again, slow and feather-soft and full of care, somehow precise in their clumsiness, then repeat their motions a few times. Death Gigas seems oddly fascinated with his loose hair; Cloud usually keeps it braided when he has it this long to prevent tangles, and he’s not sure how it got loose earlier, but—

“Wait a minute,” Cloud says, finally opening his eyes and sitting up to face him. “Did you undo my braid while I was sleeping?”

Death Gigas tracks the way some of Cloud’s hair spills over his shoulders, looking almost guilty.

“You… like the way it looks?” Cloud guesses. There’s nothing too special about Cloud’s hair, in his opinion, but it would technically be the first time Vincent or any of his residents have seen Cloud without his hood. When Death Gigas looks even more guilty, Cloud quickly adds, “I don’t mind. But it’s your turn to be out, right? Isn’t there anything you want to do before your time’s up?”

Death Gigas reaches up and gently pats one of Cloud’s cowlicks to lie down flat against his head, only for it to spring back up immediately. He looks delighted.

“ … Okay, then,” Cloud says. “Wanna learn how to braid hair?”

-

As the days go by, Cloud finds himself napping alongside Vincent more and more often. He doesn’t usually feel this comfortable around others, and never enough to leave his cloak out unattended, but for some reason, Vincent makes him feel safe. Maybe it’s the way he never seems to desire anything from Cloud other than his time and attention. Maybe it’s the way he can feel the overwhelming surge of protective affection from his demons whenever he visits. Or maybe it’s the way he seems to genuinely care about Cloud’s wellbeing the way no human ever has—no one ever had the opportunity, before, but now, Cloud finds he doesn’t even mind being weakened the way he is, if it has Vincent greeting him with his usual small smiles and soft gazes and subtle touches of concern.

He’s lived more than long enough to recognize what those looks mean, but for the first time, Cloud doesn’t feel discomfited by them. He’s never felt he deserved the admiration of those who’d claimed him as their muse, no matter how flattering their attentions had been—they’d only ever placed Cloud on a false pedestal as their god, something unflawed and untouchable and only to be worshipped—but Vincent’s seen Cloud at his weakest, his most vulnerable, and still somehow finds something worth loving.

So when he’s woken from his own slumber for the nth time by flashes of Vincent’s dreams, projecting into Cloud’s mind loud and clear— the heat of skin against skin, the silk-smooth brush of sheets against his back, the slick meeting of mouths— Cloud simply settles back, tugs his fur cloak higher around the sleeping man’s chest, and waits.

Eventually, the man stirs, but his eyes when they open are not his usual ruby-red but a cool, poisonous yellow.

As always, Cloud meets the WEAPON’s gaze levelly. “Chaos,” he greets.

And as always, there’s a flash of a strange blend of—surprise? satisfaction?—before it settles into something faintly amused. “Little god,” Chaos greets back. “Not quite the one you were hoping to see, am I?”

Cloud shrugs. “I may not have been expecting it, but it’s good to see you anyways.”

“Oh?” In half a heartbeat, Chaos has Cloud pinned against the floor of the coffin, face looming close enough that his breath is hot against Cloud’s lips. “And you’re not worried about your precious last worshipper at all? Those may be some rather delicious dreams he’s trapped in, but trapped he still is. It’s going to take a while for him to find his way out of this particular devilish labyrinth.”

Cloud blinks up at him. “Oh, so you’re the one responsible for all the dreams lately lately.”

Chaos’s lip curls, exposing teeth just a tad too sharp to be completely human. “He needs all the help he can get. He’s quite… repressed, to say the least.”

“And you’re fine with this?” Cloud asks. “You know I’m nothing grand. Now even more so than before.”

Chaos is silent for a moment. Then he smirks. “You make such a pretty plaything. I’m nowhere near as ignorant as my host is; I’ve seen the way you look at him. The way you so carelessly display your fur around him as you sleep. It’s yours, isn’t it? Yet you make it so easy to simply snatch up. To steal. To possess, completely and utterly.”

“Then why don’t you?” Cloud challenges. “If you know what it means, what it can do, why don’t you just steal it? Possess me?”

“My host always wakes up eventually,” Chaos answers, mood souring slightly for the first time. “He’d ruin the fun and return it to you, no doubt. Besides,” he says, smug satisfaction returning full-force, “it’s so much more fulfilling to watch you succumb to your emotions of your own free will. And the day you freely gift your beloved Vincent with your true name, I will be watching. I will be waiting. And I will break you, pretty god.”

Piece said, he closes the tiny gap between their lips, plundering Cloud’s mouth in a rough, devouring kiss. His sharp teeth bite into Cloud’s lower lip, drawing blood, but Cloud only shivers and moans lowly, kissing harshly back.

Cloud feels the shift the moment Vincent wakes up. The kiss softens into something slower, something tender and deep, before Vincent freezes in realization, jerking back as if burned by a hot iron.

For the briefest of moments, Vincent looks terrified, then deathly blank. “ … Cloud.”

Cloud takes a moment to catch his breath, licking away the blood staining his lips. Then he tells Chaos, “You’re a terrible liar.”

“ … I’m sorry?”

“Not you,” Cloud says, unable to suppress the fond quirk of his mouth. “You, Vincent, are just a very poor worshipper.”

“A poor—” Vincent suddenly looks more flustered and confused than Cloud’s ever seen him before. “You heard that? You never said anything—you were asleep—”

“Loud and clear,” Cloud says, trying his utmost to keep the laughter out of his voice. “You were practically broadcasting it to the high heavens. Good thing there’s no one else around to hear it. They’d be jealous.”

“A poor worshipper,” Vincent murmurs, then looks almost crestfallen. “Am I truly so abysmal?”

“Everyone knows that one must worship their god in not only their thoughts, but also in their words and actions. It’s rather stingy of you to have dreams where you worship me like that in your mind, yet withhold your real body, you know.” Cloud sits up, pressing his forehead up against Vincent’s. "But it's okay. I'll teach you to do better."

Cloud can see the gears grinding in Vincent’s mind as he takes a good minute to process, but the moment it clicks, his pupils dilate large and full. “You’ll… teach me?”

“With lots of hands-on demonstration,” Cloud informs him matter-of-factly. “You sure you can handle it?”

“Cloud,” Vincent says, helplessly. “Cloud…” Cloud easily reads the question in his eyes— Is this for real? Or is this only for worship’s sake alone?

Either way, Vincent’s mind whispers to Cloud, I will gladly surrender.

“Vincent,” Cloud says, soft and quiet, no longer laughing. “I don’t do this with just anyone, okay? And I’ve never just… offered it to anyone before, either. This is special. You’re special.”

“I know,” Vincent says, gaze drifting away. “I am the only one left.”

“Not because of that,” Cloud insists, twining his hand into Vincent’s thick, dark hair to draw his attention back. “I know I was joking about it earlier, but… wipe all thoughts of worship out of your mind, okay? For that, just your company was always enough. No, this is about you and me as equals.”

“As equals,” Vincent repeats.

“Yeah,” Cloud says, tugging on his hair affectionately, reassuringly. “Equals. Is that okay with you?”

Vincent simply nods, but the way he finally reaches up to tuck a stray lock of Cloud’s hair behind his ear speaks volumes. Then he blinks in realization. “I do not have… There is no suitable area in here for us to…”

Cloud blinks back. The coffin is too small, yes, but the floor or even the walls seem perfectly suitable to him—

Vincent follows Cloud’s gaze and shakes his head. “No. Those are not fitting for activities such as this, particularly the first time.”

Cloud laughs. Who knew the stoic Vincent Valentine was such a romantic? “What about the forest?” he offers.

“Outside…?” Vincent’s brow furrows. “I have not left this room since I first came to be in it. I do not know if I…” Deserve to leave, he doesn’t say.

Cloud frowns. “You do,” he says firmly, standing. Mirroring their early days, he says, “Trust me.” But this time, he reaches his hand out, an offering.

And just like before, Vincent nods, just once. But this time, he says, “I do,” and takes Cloud’s hand.

-

The next few months pass in a sort of blissful limbo, Cloud showing Vincent what beauty of his land remains untouched by ShinRa’s presence—waterfalls that plunge from the heavens into sprays of white rapids, calm, crystal-clear rivers just beginning to freeze over, turquoise-lit caves full of glittering natural mako springs, cliffs that overlook wide, snow-covered expanses of forest and light up perfectly in the sunset. They always lose a few hours at each new spot, learning each other’s bodies, but Cloud tires easily, now, and often falls asleep soon afterwards. But he always wakes up back in their coffin, Vincent’s cloak tucked warmly around him.

Their travels also see them out looking for Sol and Máni’s pack. Even as their search bleeds into the fourth month, then the fifth, Cloud has faith that their pups, at the very least, are still alive.

Neither of them know how long it’s been since either of them fell asleep; Lucrecia had not bothered to convey that information to Cloud, and Vincent himself shows no signs of visible aging. However, they both know that Vincent’s outward age means nothing. Though Cloud had not paid attention to the specifics of how Lucrecia had resuscitated him—Cloud finds human science that plays with the cycle of life and death vaguely unsettling—it’s easy enough to see that the strings of Vincent’s fate are deeply interwoven with those of his demons. They may not be a single entity, but the lines where each one of them ends and the others begin are irreversibly blurred.

It's nearing the end of winter when the wolves find them rather than the other way around. Cloud’s so used to recognizing them as friend rather than foe that he only vaguely notes in a corner of his mind that they’re being followed until they reach a clearing, and Vincent rests an arm on his elbow, tense and on guard.

“They’ve started circling,” he says.

It takes a moment for Cloud to realize that Vincent is talking about the wolves that have been trailing after them for the past hour or so. Then he holds out an arm, keeping Vincent from moving forward. “Stay still,” he murmurs. “I’ll handle this.”

The wolves are not circling out of any ill intent, otherwise Cloud would have felt it much earlier. Instead, they seem wary, curious, almost confused, most likely perplexed by the combination of Vincent’s demonic energy and whatever faint traces remain of Cloud’s godly powers. So he tugs on his hood, then falls fluidly to stand on all fours, ignoring Vincent’s faint, questioning, “Cloud?”

The transformation doesn’t come nearly as easily as it usually does, but Cloud had already known that it wouldn’t. It’s the first time he’s even attempted it since his powers started waning; it simply hadn’t been a necessary expenditure of energy with how fast he’d been weakening. But keeping his wolves safe, keeping Vincent safe—Cloud sees both as very much necessary. So he pushes the transformation despite the way it makes his bones creak and ache under the strain, until finally, thankfully, everything shifts into place with a pop.

“Cloud?” Vincent says again, sounding rather ironically stunned for a man who undergoes similar transformations on a near-daily basis.

Cloud shakes himself out, making sure everything is settled, then presses his nose reassuringly against the palm of Vincent’s hand. After that, he flicks his ears back and approaches the pack alpha slowly, cautiously, tail tucked low in respect.

The wolves emerge one by one from the treeline, inspecting him with bright interest now that he presents himself as a non-threat. Only the alpha remains wary, curling his lips to expose a few sharp, gleaming teeth in warning.

Cloud whines low in his throat, licking at the alpha’s muzzle. He’s not used to this kind of submissive posturing, but he doesn’t want to fight—not when it means hurting the animals precious to him, and especially not when he’d be relying on Vincent to do most of the work, considering how outnumbered they are.

All we want, he broadcasts with his body language, is to pass through peacefully.

Gradually, the alpha relaxes enough to sniff around Cloud’s scruff. Suddenly, to Cloud’s surprise, his ears perk up and his tail relaxes and begins to wag, hesitantly at first, then almost happily. With the alpha’s approval, Cloud suddenly finds himself surrounded by curious, friendly wolves, each one taking the time to sniff at him in turn.

One of them in particular seems especially enthusiastic, rubbing affectionately up under Cloud’s chin and licking all over his face. Then, suddenly—

“Wait,” Cloud says as he finds himself on his back with his arms full of wolf, in human form once more. The white tufts of fur on her ears and chest— “I remember you— Vár?”

She chuffs a cheerful affirmative, and Cloud peers over the mass of fur obscuring his vision at the alpha, brown-furred, fierce and proud.

“Ullr—!”

Ullr cocks his head and gives an almost puppylike bark, stretching his front legs out and raising his hindquarters in a playful bow.

“Where’s Vör?” Cloud asks, and a third wolf, slate-gray, pushes her way to the front of the crowd. Calm as ever, she simply rubs her face against his in greeting. Cloud rubs back, fondness welling up in his chest, and murmurs, “Thank you for remembering after all this time.”

Most of the pack are either too young to have known him or too old to have lived in the den while he’d slept there, but both their instincts recognizing him as different and their packmates’ actions have them easily accepting him as one of their own. They nudge him excitedly into the woods, conveying things like pack and home, and Cloud would be hard-pressed not to follow. But first he turns back, coaxing Vincent to follow with a reassuring smile.

When Vincent catches up, still wary, Cloud slips his hand into his. “Don’t worry. They’re the pack I was looking for.”

“I’d gathered,” Vincent says. “However, I doubt I will be welcome. Animals do not take well to my demons.”

“My wolves are special. They’ll love you.” When he still looks dubious, Cloud adds, “I love you.”

Vincent stumbles.

“Vincent?” Cloud halts immediately, concerned. “Are you okay?”

Vincent just stares down at him with wide, wide eyes.

“Vincent?” Cloud asks again.

Vincent tugs Cloud close, burying his face in his hair. All he says is, “Thank you.”

But Cloud knows what he means, and he wraps his arms around him in return. “Always.”

-

Vincent still hangs back while Cloud greets Sol and Máni. They’re both much older now, and Cloud has to swallow back a lump in his throat when Máni whines almost disbelievingly when she catches sight of him. Both refuse to let him out of their sight, sandwiching him tightly on either side as they watch the pups gambol about in front of their new den, strategically located about as far as one can get from the reactor without leaving the mountain range entirely.

This leaves Vincent standing awkwardly off to the side, a silent shadow watching over them all—that is, until an especially tiny, fluffy pup, so dark-furred he could almost be black, stumbles over his own feet and lands by Vincent’s sharp-toed boots. Man and wolf stare at each other for a long, extended moment before the pup gives a happy bark and wriggle, scrambling closer until he tumbles over Vincent’s feet.

The look on Vincent’s face as the rest of the pups make a beeline towards their new playground is a sight Cloud knows he will treasure for the rest of his life.

Eventually, though, Cloud does manage to coax the wolves to let them leave, and they begin making their way back down the mountain, back to Nibelheim. Cloud’s beginning to feel the strain from his earlier transformation, but he’s careful to not let on—letting Vincent worry at this point in time won’t achieve much of anything. Not now, not yet, not when everything recently has been so good.

Cloud’s pride ends up being nearly fatal when a dragon, driven mad by ShinRa’s mako, attacks the two of them, and Cloud is in no shape to defend himself. Lacking the power to summon his own swords, he’d picked one up during their travels, and it’d been more than enough for Cloud to take the forefront with Vincent providing cover fire in the few monster skirmishes they’d had. But this time Cloud is too slow, too unprepared, too weak, and the dragon’s claws catch him in the side and fling him away. His head bashes against an outcrop with a dangerously loud crack.

Head spinning, side bleeding sluggishly, Cloud’s vision goes black just as a ferocious roar sounds—not an animalistic roar, but the roar of human machinery, and Cloud knows—

-

Cloud comes to as someone lifts him gently, cradling him like something precious. Hellmasker is silent as always, but his concern is evident in the way he avoids the still-bleeding row of gashes in Cloud’s side, bloody chainsaw carelessly discarded onto the ground. A gloved hand caresses Cloud’s cheek, and Cloud catches it in his, ignoring the way each of his limbs feels like it has been filled with lead. Hellmasker immediately holds him up higher, carefully scanning his face for signs of pain or distress, but Cloud simply smiles and shifts Hellmasker’s mask ever so slightly to press a small kiss to the side of his jaw.

“My hero,” he says laughingly, trying his best to disguise the waver in his voice and the way his vision still blurs to gray about the edges.

Seemingly appeased, Hellmasker nuzzles Cloud’s hair back in his best approximation of a kiss before Cloud finds himself staring up at Vincent’s still-worried face.

“Cloud,” Vincent says, frowning. “This isn’t like you. Are you sure—”

Vincent’s voice fades in and out, and Cloud blinks, suddenly confused. He tries to reach up to reassure him, but try as he might, his arm remains limp at his side. Everything around him has slowed down to crawl at a snail’s pace, and Cloud feels as if his brain has been replaced with molasses. He’s exhausted to the bone. “Vincent…?”

“—Cloud? Cloud?”

“Sorry,” he manages to mumble. “I’m sorry…”

“Cloud—!”

-

Cloud wakes up feeling as if he’s just been trampled by a herd of behemoths, stirring with a faint groan.

Curled around him protectively, Vincent is alert in an instant. “Cloud!”

“Ngh,” Cloud says eloquently. “Vincent?”

“Cloud,” Vincent repeats like a prayer, hand cradling Cloud’s face as he drinks him in like a man in a desert, starved for water. Cloud blinks back sleepily, not all there, but still lays his hand over Vincent’s. The man clutches it fiercely in return.

Finally, Cloud pulls himself together enough to ask, “How long?”

“ … A week.” Vincent doesn’t— can’t— get shadows under his eyes, but he looks both exhausted and relieved at once, a man who has shed the weight of the sky.

Cloud shuts his eyes, bitterly scolding himself for making Vincent worry. “I see.”

“Thankfully, your wound healed within a few days,” Vincent says. “What happened?”

“I’ve… been getting off task. I wanted…” Cloud trails off, then shakes his head. He smiles at Vincent, conveying a confident reassurance he doesn’t feel. “It’s all right. I’ll feel better once I get back on track.”

“ … Back on track?”

“Vincent,” Cloud says, taking a deep breath. He’d wished for more time, he truly had, but the Norns are not always kind. “Lucrecia entrusted me with one more task.”

He’s been stalling for much too long.

“Do you know of a child named Sephiroth?”

-

As they stand overlooking the expansive city of Midgar, Cloud turns to Vincent and asks one more time, "Are you sure about this? Raising a child isn’t easy. Not to mention ShinRa’s wrath… That’s not the kind of future I’d hoped for you when I woke you up.”

Vincent inclines his head. “He is Lucrecia’s,” he answers simply.

Cloud nods. It’s the same answer he’s given each time Cloud had asked on the way to Midgar, but Cloud needs to make sure Vincent knows what he’s getting into.

Vincent gives Cloud a probing look. He may not be able to read thoughts as Cloud can, but he’s eerily perceptive, and Cloud knows that he knows that not all is well. “He is also yours, now,” Vincent adds. “Lucrecia entrusted him to you. And wherever you go, know that I will follow.”

Cloud nudges Vincent gently with his side. “That means he’s yours, too. Vincent, I…” Cloud takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Listen, if anything happens to me, I want you to promise me that you’ll look after him.”

“Cloud,” Vincent says, brow furrowing.

“Promise me.”

“ … I promise,” Vincent finally says. “Cloud, are you… expecting anything to happen?”

Cloud shakes his head, careful to not let any of his worries show on his face. “No,” he lies.

“You know I will not allow any harm to come to you.”

Cloud softens, just for a moment. “I know.” Then he firms his resolve, turning his attention back to the task at hand. “Well, ready to go?”

-

Sephiroth’s rescue goes impossibly smoothly; they’d had a plan for avoiding guard rotations, but the few late-night patrols they run into are lackadaisical and distracted, and they find no loiterers lingering in the halls past curfew. The security cameras, despite being several years too advanced, are shockingly easy for Vincent to disable and put on loop. When he shoots Cloud a raised brow, Cloud simply smiles mysteriously and wordlessly coaxes them on.

Vincent’s glad that Cloud truly does seem to be feeling better; he’d perked up some over their journey to Midgar, but now he seems to glow with an inner light that Vincent hadn’t even realized had faded after a month or so into their acquaintance.

Checking the cameras earlier had revealed that Sephiroth is in his room, a tiny, windowless structure of hard steel and whitewashed walls. The boy is asleep—which is to be expected, considering the time—but they’d both caught the flash of bandages underneath his clothing. He must be sleeping off the experiments of the day.

Just the thought of experiments has a flash of white-hot rage shooting through Vincent’s veins, more passion than he’d have thought himself capable of after Hojo’s betrayal—that is, before meeting Cloud. It can’t have been more than five years since Vincent himself was shot; Sephiroth looks no older than about that age. For someone so young to be subjected to Hojo’s tender mercies…

Cloud lays a calming hand on his arm, snapping Vincent out of his thoughts. They’ve reached Sephiroth’s room. Cloud gives him a questioning look before he enters, but Vincent shakes his head. He will stand and keep watch.

Cloud disappears straight through the door, so Vincent can’t hear or see what he says to Sephiroth, but Vincent knows Cloud has a way about him that draws people to him, though he knows Cloud would deny it.

Sure enough, within a few minutes, the steel door slides open with a hiss, and Cloud emerges with Sephiroth clinging tightly to the leather hide of his clothing. Upon catching sight of Vincent, the child inches a tad closer to Cloud, catlike eyes bright with mako peering up at him through his silver bangs.

“Sephiroth, this is Vincent,” Cloud says, laying a gentle but firm hand on Sephiroth’s back. “Remember what I said about him?”

“He is…” Sephiroth looks up at Cloud, then back at Vincent. “Safe.”

Cloud nods, looking quietly pleased. “Do you want to say hi?”

Sephiroth blinks at Vincent slowly, then edges forward and inclines his head. “Hello.”

Vincent nods back. “Hello.”

Sephiroth regards him for another long moment, then says, “Cloud says that you are his.”

Vincent pauses, then looks at Cloud, who turns slightly red as he averts his gaze.

“Sephiroth,” Cloud says, “I thought we agreed that was a secret.”

Sephiroth looks a bit abashed, but plows on steadily. “Did he fix you too?”

“ … Fix?” Vincent gives Cloud another questioning look.

“Cloud touched my head and made the pain go away,” Sephiroth says, then repeats, “Did he fix you too?”

“Ah, I understand now,” Vincent says. “Yes, Cloud took my pain away, too. He saved me.”

Cloud turns even redder, and he coughs slightly. “Anyways. We should get going. I might have pulled a few strings, but ShinRa isn’t going to stay ignorant forever.”

Vincent narrows his eyes even as Cloud begins coaxing Sephiroth down the hall. He’d known that their luck had been unnatural.

“Cloud,” he murmurs when he catches up. “You are not overexerting yourself, are you?”

Cloud gives him a tiny, reassuring smile that does not reach his eyes. “I’m fine, I promise. I just had to get back to fulfilling Lucrecia’s requests—those are what grant gods power, after all.”

“I see,” Vincent says, and does not probe further. But—

Clearly, Vincent’s worship alone is not enough to sustain Cloud. The scare earlier with the dragon is telltale enough. He’s been pushing it out of his thoughts all this time, naive fool that he is, but the question finally crashes into his mind with all the force of a derailed train.

Once Lucrecia’s last wishes are fulfilled… what will Cloud obtain his power from then?

-

Early morning sees them stowing away on the first cargo ship to Costa del Sol. Sephiroth’s long fallen asleep, Cloud’s fur cloak carefully wrapped around him, and even Cloud yawns as they settle down among the shadowy corners behind rows and rows of crates, sides pressed together.

Vincent tucks the cloak tighter around Sephiroth as he lays him down in his lap, then looks up in time to see something both fond and melancholy flash across Cloud’s face.

“ … Cloud?” he asks, a pang of something almost like trepidation clutching his heart. If this is the moment of truth—

“Hm?” Cloud blinks, as if snapped suddenly from his thoughts, and then smiles. This time, it almost manages to reach his eyes. “I was just thinking… you’ll make a good father. I’m glad.”

The ache in Vincent’s chest grows stronger. “Only because you are here to bring out the best in me.”

This time, Cloud’s smile is infinitely sadder. “Of course.” He leans his head against Vincent’s shoulder with a tired sigh.

“Cloud,” Vincent says, the trepidation gripping his heart swelling into full dread, a monster heavier and more terrifying than any of his own. “Cloud—”

“Týr,” Cloud says.

“What?”

“My name. My real one. I’ve always liked Cloud better, but… it’s Týr.”

“ … Týr,” Vincent says, weighing it on his tongue. “Cloud, why—”

“I just… thought you should know,” Cloud murmurs, nearly inaudible as his eyes flutter shut. “Vincent… I’m glad we got to spend this time together. I’m not afraid; change is never something to be feared. I just hope…”

But Vincent never gets to hear what Cloud hopes as the god trails off, breathing smoothing out into something slow and sleepy. Instead, Vincent watches the sun rise in silence, Sephiroth a warm weight on his lap, Cloud an ephemeral one against his side. By the time the cargo ship rocks to a halt, only one weight is left.

Vincent steps outside, cradling a still-sleeping Sephiroth in his arms.

The springtime sun has burned the early morning clouds away; the sky is blue.

-

Vincent looks solemn and distant as they make their way up the mountain, as always, and Sephiroth carefully flanks him so he doesn’t fall off a cliff or walk into a tree or anything else potentially humiliating. He doesn’t say a word, though; the last time he’d commented on Vincent keeping an eye out for the sake of his own self-preservation, Vincent had gone off on a melodramatic monologue on how his immortal body has long transcended any human needs for such preservation.

It’s only around this time of year that Vincent gets so dour, though, so Sephiroth simply supports him the best he can. Despite their mutual emotional reticence and their harrowing life on the run from ShinRa, Vincent is the best caretaker there could be; Sephiroth would have no other. He still remembers how, over a decade ago, a ten-year-old version of him had bravely asked Vincent why the man had always looked so sad whenever he’d looked at him. Vincent had looked stricken, then apologized profusely, vowing to do better.

You are the last thing both Lucrecia and Cloud entrusted me with, Vincent had said. I promised I’d take care of you, and I will, to the utmost of my ability.

He’d told Sephiroth of how he’d come to have him in his care, of why they visit the Nibel range every year despite avidly avoiding the small town of Nibelheim, and Sephiroth had told him in turn of how he still remembers a tired blond man with a braid and sky-blue eyes, vaguely, and how sometimes he still gets dreams of his gentle touch and soft smile. That night, Vincent had held him—or perhaps it’d been the other way around—as Sephiroth had fallen asleep, despite neither of them being very keen on displays of affection.

When they reach the gravesite, Sephiroth is prepared to hang back as usual until Vincent finishes with his intimate conversation with Cloud, then join him for their general offering of flowers, but this time, there’s a figure already standing in front of it, slight in build and fairly short. A teenager, clad in the bulky winter clothing of the local town, hood pulled low and scarf tucked high to keep the cold from the oncoming storm out.

“There’s someone already there,” Sephiroth murmurs, catching Vincent’s attention. “Should we—?”

But Vincent only frowns, eyes narrowed and flashing, and does not respond.

Sephiroth sighs and resigns himself to having to deal with his social interaction for the week. “Excuse me,” he says as politely as he can muster.

The teenager turns and blinks at him, sky-blue eyes and pale, freckled skin the only parts visible of his face. “Oh, sorry,” he says, voice throaty with the Nibel accent. A local, then—one who’s strayed rather far from town. “S’this grave one of yours? I was only paying respects, I swear.”

Sephiroth pauses. He hadn’t thought this far into the conversation. “It’s… all right. This is the grave of someone we know, though, so…”

“I can leave,” he says. “Sorry to bother you. It’s just—no one ever seemed to visit, whenever I was here, so I…” He trails off, clearly embarrassed.

Sephiroth suddenly feels a tad awkward. This random boy from Nibelheim has probably been taking better care of Cloud’s grave than they have. “You… don’t need to leave. We won’t be long. Do you come here often?”

“Whenever I’m in the area, yeah,” he says. “I don’t know, I feel… like this place is special. So I’ve been leaving offerings for Gaia here.”

Vincent, who has been watching them converse with sharp eyes the entire time, suddenly says, “What is your name.”

“Me?” The boy blinks again, looking a tad surprised. “I’m… Cloud Strife. From Nibelheim.”

He pulls down his scarf, revealing a soft smile and a few strands of golden hair curling gently around his cheeks.

“Nice to meet you.”