Categories > Games > Final Fantasy 7 > Good Night

Good Night

by dreamcatchersfic 1 review

Slash. (Vincent/Cloud) Vincent and Cloud grow closer during the events that lead to the final battle with Sephiroth. (Concrit welcome.) Note: (I realize this is showing up twice for some reason ...

Category: Final Fantasy 7 - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Action/Adventure, Romance - Characters: Barret Wallace, Cid Highwind, Cloud Strife, Tifa Lockhart, Vincent Valentine, Other - Warnings: [!!!] - Published: 2007-01-25 - Updated: 2007-01-26 - 5916 words

"Good Night"

Vincent slogged through the wet ground, swatting at twigs that overhung the path and tangled relentlessly in his hair. The last remnants of the brief summer rainstorm dripped from the leaves to trail under his collar, making a long, slow path down his neck that left him tugging his cloak closer in a vain attempt to stay dry. Mosquitoes buzzed relentlessly around him and, at that moment, he would have gladly traded his gun for bug-killing materia. Instead, he was reduced to taking them out one by one.

He was trying to ignore Cid who was stomping down the trail ahead of him and complaining about rain. And bugs. And trees. And wet socks. His hand fluttered around his holster, then fell to his sides. It wouldn't do to kill the new guy within a day of joining the group. Maybe tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Cloud possessed a magical ability to tune out Cid's creative curses and remained oblivious to the swatting, grumbling, gun-wielding circus behind him. Vincent's eyes burned holes in his back for agreeing to let the gate-crasher join them. Things had been so ... quiet before.

But the rain was finally letting up and the sun showed through scattered openings in the clouds creating small patches of light and shadow. Vincent took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on the dappled scenery, cataloguing the various shades of green and inhaling the earthy smell of moss and loam that had been missing from his life for so long.

That's when he heard Cid grunt. He tore his eyes from a frolicking squirrel just in time to spy the branch let go early. It slapped back towards his face, caught only by his quick reflexes.

Vincent had had enough.

He sauntered up next to Cid, slipped out a foot, and continued sedately ahead as Cid went down in a mucky crash. The day suddenly seemed brighter.

Rising to his feet, Cid sputtered. "You... you..."

Vincent turned back and crossed his arms. "Yes?"

"You did that on purpose, you ... no-good, girly-man, dirty-fighting, vampire wanna-be."

A smile twitched across Vincent's face. "Indeed."

Cid wiped a glob of mud from his brow, flicked it to the side, and held a grimy finger in front of Vincent's face. "I've got one word for you: payback's a bitch." He paused. "Okay, three words."

"I see. Then, as Yuffie might say-" his smile grew sharper with every syllable, "-Bring. It. On."

Cloud finally took note and assessed the commotion. Cid was spitting mud from his mouth, threatening Vincent's manhood, and questioning his ancestry, all in one breath. He finally wound down into a whine. "Goddammit, Vince, I just washed these clothes yesterday."

Cloud's lips drew into a thin line as his eyes darted back and forth. He took a knowing look at Vincent's smirk. He surveyed Cid's muddy clothes. Then he chuckled. It was a small laugh that quirked the corners of his lips up and made him appear younger, lighter than he'd looked in far too long.

Vincent winked in return.

It felt good to lighten the atmosphere. The search for the Temple of Ancients had been a long and dispiriting trek. From the Gold Saucer, to Rocket Town, and now to the island that, with any luck, held their destination. They couldn't find it soon enough for Vincent. He idly picked another twig out of his hair as he walked up beside Cloud.

"Do you think we're getting closer?"

Cloud gave a shrug in return and assessed the area. "I know this place. There's a small glade ahead. We'll camp there. There's a stream nearby if Cid wants to..."

Cid was still sending Vincent dirty looks as he dug mud out of his ear, and Cloud let the sentence trail off with another grin. "I'm feeling the need to clean up, myself."

Vincent wiped a streak of dirt off Cloud's cheek and held up the evidence with a dead-pan expression. "Yes. That's probably a good idea."

After batting his hand down with a playful swat, Cloud grimaced. "That bad, huh?"

"I think it looks rather... cute," Vincent replied.

"Cute?" Cid quit digging his finger in his ear and shook his head as if he hadn't heard right. "Cute? You've got to be shitting me."

Cloud looked affronted. "Are you saying I'm not?" Then he blinked. "What am I saying?" He turned to Vincent with a huff and mumbled under his breath, "Not cute."

Vincent held up his hands. "If you say so."

Sticking his finger back in his ear, Cid idly mused, "Well, he ain't ugly, I gotta give him that. The hair's a little weird, but still..."

Cloud was right back to being affronted. "My hair isn't weird."

"Then it's settled. You're cute," Vincent said.

"No! Wait. I mean..." A confused sigh, and he gave up and changed the subject with relief. "The glade. Ahead. We have to set up camp." He nodded and set off walking at a good clip.

Cid, having moved from his ear to pulling clumps of mud from his hair, followed after, shaking his head and mumbling, "Weirdest damn conversation ever."

A short walk up the trail and the glade was there, just as promised. It was a small break in the seemingly never-ending forest and a welcome spot of sun-dried grass, a refuge from the lingering drips from the trees and the mud that sucked at their boots. Vincent unloaded the pack from his aching shoulders and offered a small olive branch to Cid. "I'll set up camp. You and Cloud can go first."

"Damn skippy, you'll set up camp."

Cid's look of righteous indignation had Vincent holding back another smile. "Go. Before I change my mind." He cocked an eyebrow. "It was your turn, after all."

Cid huffed and grabbed the soap and shampoo from the pack to trudge down a trail in the direction of the stream.

Picking up his supplies, Cloud stood quiet for a few seconds. "Thanks," he finally said.

"My pleasure."

"Cid seems like a good guy. Just a little ... rough around the edges."

They shared a smile at the understatement, and Cloud raised a quick hand before heading towards the stream.

Vincent treasured the brief moment of silence as he staked the tent. It was a large military-style tent that Cloud had purchased from a Corel vendor, a young man made old from the trials of poverty. Cloud had paid twice what it was worth. It was just his way, and Vincent's respect for him grew more each day.

He laid out the bed-rolls and trailed his hand slowly over Cloud's. With a shake of his head, he let out a breath then exited the tent to join the others.

A short walk brought him to the stream, running slow and lazy through the landscape and dotted with willow trees bending down to trail lightly in the water. Cloud and Cid had already waded out waist-deep.

Vincent watched from the bank as Cloud dunked his head and flicked his hair back. The harsh spikes were gone, slicked back by the weight of the water. Cloud dragged the palms of his hands down over his face and shook the drops from his hair as water trickled down his chest, showcasing hard abs and well-defined pecs. The travels had honed his body to a razor's edge, a machine built to kill, animal and soldier alike.

It wasn't the first time he had watched Cloud. He was a natural leader, younger than all of them, yet possessing a determined quality that made you believe, if anyone could beat Sephiroth, it would be Cloud.

The silent interlude was interrupted by a shout from Cid as he snuck up behind Cloud and threw an arm around his neck. He took him down under the water with a yeehaw of sheer, evil joy. Cloud sputtered to the top with challenge blazing in his eyes. Cid may have been older. Cid may have been taller. But he was still no match for Cloud.

Cid went down under the water in turn, in a froth of bubbles and a flailing of arms. Cloud's biceps flexed as he held Cid under, before finally letting go with a triumphant whoop.

Vincent had taken a seat on the still-wet ground and was leaning back against a tree. A little dampness was worth the view. His eyes roved over Cloud's body. There were no soft curves to bring up painful comparisons with Lucrecia. Just the strength and power of someone who could keep himself alive in any situation.

Broad shoulders narrowed to slim hips. An expanse of pale skin, usually covered by the uniform, was now revealed. A light trail of hair on his stomach led down into the water.

Vincent adjusted slightly.

Cid had recovered from his dunking and was palming shampoo into his hair. "Hey, Vince, you coming in or you too busy brooding?"

"Yeah, you should jump in. The water's great," Cloud called out as he swam towards the bank in a lazy crawl.

Vincent avoided his gaze by deliberately closing his eyes. "In a bit."

A splash of water landed across his face. He peeked an eye open to find Cloud taunting him, ready to scoop another handful his direction.

There was no way Vincent was standing up right now. He simply closed his eyes again.

Vincent could imagine Cloud's confusion in the silence that followed. It had been a small move, but one that strained at the bounds of their easy camaraderie, and regret took hold of Vincent's mind. But Cloud didn't push and soon splashed back out towards Cid.

The two continued their hijinks. Vincent stayed on the bank. He opened his eyes just as they were wading to shore to gather their belongings. They didn't bother to get dressed in the damp, dirty clothes, so Cloud was standing naked, his bundle in his hand, as he met Vincent's eyes. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." Vincent tried to look anywhere but at Cloud.

"Are you sure? You seem a little-"

Cid thankfully interrupted. "He always looks like that. The man just needs to unclench a little. I'm going to start the fire."

Cloud waved distractedly as Cid left, a frown on his face as he furrowed his brow at Vincent. "Okay. I'll see you back at camp, I guess."

Vincent cleaned up quietly, replaying the incident in his mind as he washed, but unable to think of anything he could have done differently.

When he returned to camp, the sun was setting, casting a soft welcome glow over the site. Cid was piling wood on the fire while Cloud was nearby stringing a rope to drape their still-wet clothes on, having been discarded for dry clothes from the pack. The rest of the contents were scattered haphazardly around the tent, and it could be considered yet another camping site except for the small touches of their mission that punctuated the scene. Vincent's holster, now draped over the line. Cloud's scabbard leaning against the tent. Cid's spear shoved into the ground, a sure sign that this was not a camp to be messed with. It felt... homey.

Of the three, life on the road was probably easiest for Vincent, having little from previous years to compare it to. It caught him by surprise how much this trip had changed his view the world. There was more to life than darkness and silence. More to the world than the inside of a box. His life was expanding ever further with every foray he took with Cloud. It should have scared him, but it didn't. What scared him worse was the thought he may have put a road bump, however slight, in his friendship with Cloud.

A slight breeze picked up and Vincent shivered and pulled his cloak closer as he folded his legs to sit by the yet-unlit campfire.

"How is it going?" he asked Cid.

Cid was flicking a lighter and holding it under the tinder. He flicked the lighter again. And again. "Light, you little sumbitch. I said /light/."

He yipped and sucked on his finger when the wood flared to life under his hand, a welcome flicker that held the promise of warmth. Mumbling around his finger, he let out a grunt of satisfaction. Two seconds later, he pulled his finger from his mouth to blow frantically at the campfire, too little, too late, as the small flame fluttered out around the wet wood.

"I see," Vincent said simply.

Cloud eyed him and nodded in Cid's direction. "Think we should help him?"

Vincent remembered Cid tying pink bows in his hair as he slept the night before in a seemingly never-ending quest to drive him insane. He had woken to the sight of one particularly large bow hanging down in front of his face. At the moment, helping Cid was that last thing on his list. He opened his mouth to protest but was drawn in by Cloud's small smile. He was relieved to see his slight from before had apparently been forgiven. The world righted itself.

"Do I have to?"

A quick kick against his leg and a grin was his answer. "I won't make you do anything. Couldn't if I tried."

Vincent looked out from behind a veil of hair. "You might. If you asked nicely."

The look he got in return was worth it. Cloud opened his mouth. Then shut it. Then turned a light pink. Cloud probably had no idea how much his cheeks pinked on the rare times he was teased. The light tinge made Vincent want to tease him more.

Instead, he stood up and slapped his thighs. "I'll do it. For you."

A half hour, three men, and a more than a few swearwords later, the remains of their slightly burnt frog legs lay scattered to the animals. Cloud crawled into the tent and stretched out on his bedroll, rubbing his hand over his stomach. "Ahh, frogs. That's the only way I can stand them. Nice and crunchy."

Vincent smiled as he followed in behind Cid and curled up in his own bedroll. Cloud's frog-hate seemed so uncharacteristic that it never failed to amuse him.

They had unconsciously settled on their sleeping positions the night before: Cid, then Cloud, then Vincent. It was an easy closeness for Vincent. There weren't many people he felt comfortable being that close to, and Cloud was one of the few.

A few crickets braved the silence, with only the occasional rustling of grass as an animal made its way past. When he could hear Cid's soft snores and Cloud's light breathing, Vincent craned his neck ever so slightly.

"Good night, Cloud."

Cloud rolled onto his side with a small sigh, but it was only an unconscious response. Soft breathing sounded in Vincent's ear.

They stumbled upon the Temple the very next day. A fortress of brick, it rose from the woods and dwarfed the trees around it. Squatting silent and cold, it raised the hair on the back of Vincent's neck for no reason he could discern.

Vincent felt it was watching them. It was an unusual way to regard an inanimate object, one that had been built by a gentle race in an expression of their devotion to the land, but he couldn't shake the slight aura of menace. The atmosphere was affecting Cloud too, and Vincent could see him frowning while he talked to Cid. Shrugging off the uneasy feeling, he oiled his gun until the rest of the group arrived, pushing any misgivings down into that little part of him where all unmanageable feelings went. A defensive mechanism he had no more control over than breathing.

In a marked change from previous excursions, Cloud had called everyone together to meet in a nearby grove. The assembled faces sent looks back and forth. The unspoken message was clear. This was big. Bigger than the reactor. Bigger than Junon. The normal babble of voices quieted and tension rose to fill its place. Cloud wanted them there for backup. Or worse, triage.

A huddled conference sealed their next move. Cloud, Aeris, and Vincent would enter, the rest would stay close by.

Vincent knew this was Aeris' and Cloud's journey. He was just the muscle. But least he could stay close and do everything in his power to protect them. Pacing outside would have been hell.

He looked back over his shoulder at the ones left behind as he entered through the large temple doors. Tifa's hands were clenched around Barret's arm, while Red stood motionless beside them. Cid stood off to the side with his arms crossed. He met Vincent's eyes with a gruff nod. Even Yuffie held a somber expression. Cait waved his little paw sadly.

It was the last time the group would all be together.

They entered the temple, and events passed by in a haze. Tseng. The maze. The clock. Each event was eclipsed by another, even more horrifying, and there was never time to breathe. Vincent's throat tightened from the stress of being constantly on guard. The few times he tried to speak, it came out rough and hoarse. Silence suited him better anyway, and he let his Winchester do the talking.

But it was the appearance of Sephiroth that dashed any hope that this excursion could have a happy ending.

He and Aeris could only watch as Cloud lost control of his body, and worst of all, his mind. Harsh cries couldn't reach him, no matter how loudly they yelled. Vincent longed to peg bullets in the corporeal figure that taunted them. But shotguns were useless in this war between Jenova's children.

When Sephiroth finally left with Black Materia in hand, Cloud dropped to the concrete as if someone had cut the strings on a puppet. He wasn't responding to Vincent's pleas to wake. And Aeris was gone.

Vincent fell to his knees, and his body shook. He wasn't good at this, wasn't supposed to hold people's lives in his hands. He'd already failed once. And he'd spent the majority of his life avoiding that burden again.

He needed help.

Cloud's body felt cold under his hand as he struggled to slide his phone out of his pocket. It was one of the few times he wished he owned his own phone. The action was too automatic, like the looting of their many dead conquests along the way. That's how Cloud felt: lifeless.

No. Too final, too close to reality to even contemplate. He concentrated on calling the others, trying to hit the right buttons in his haste. Cradling Cloud in his arms, he rocked and counted the seconds until the others arrived.

Yuffie hopped down into the pit first and stumbled to a stop. "Cloud?" She looked too shocked to manage much else.

Vincent looked up, his face tight, his fingers gripping into Cloud's bicep. "Help him."

The circle of friends surrounded them on the temple basement floor. The cold from the concrete was seeping up through Vincent's body, grabbing hold of his hands and freezing his grip. He didn't think he could let go if he tried, and luckily, no one asked him to.

Tifa pulled herself to her feet and drew everyone's attention. "We need to get him somewhere safe." Bunching her hands at her side, Vincent could see her thinking fast. "No place too busy. Or loud." He saw her make up her mind and nod. "Gongaga."

Murmured agreement spread through the group.

"Cid, bring the Tiny Bronco as close as you can." She made a quick appraisal of the group. "Barret, you'll have to carry him."

She was a tough woman. Though tears were threatening to spill, she carried on. Just like Cloud would have wanted her to. Like he would have wanted all of them to. Vincent rose to his feet, and Cloud's head lolled against his shoulder. When Barret slid him from his arms, he wasn't sure if he felt relieved. Or empty.

To fill the void, he put a hand on Tifa's shoulder and squeezed. She gave him a thankful look and followed alongside as they made their way to the plane. Her voice was small. "He's going to be okay, right?"

"Yes. I'm sure he will." He reached out tentatively to hold her hand, and she grasped his back with fervor. When he felt the strength of her grip, he was glad he made the effort.

Her voice strengthened. "Yes, he will, won't he?"

Cid called from the shore. "Get him over here. Let's move, people!"

She squeezed his hand one last time before letting go and hurrying to help with Cloud.

The strain was even affecting Cid, and it showed in the way his words broke. But he kept up a strong front as he piloted the Bronco, with only furtive glances over to the broken figure on the floor.

Tifa was cradling Cloud's head in her lap and running her hand almost frantically over his hair as she murmured over and over, "You're going to be all right."

Vincent caught her gaze and asked for silent permission to sit next to them. She looked up with relief and nodded. This time her tears fell freely. He took off his glove to swipe a few tears off her cheek and settled in next to her, with his arm around her shoulders. They took whatever comfort they could find in Cloud's shallow breaths.

It was the longest trip Vincent had ever been on.

Barret whisked Cloud from Tifa and Vincent's arms as soon as they reached the shore and brooked no argument from the innkeeper when he barged through the door. The shocked owner stood silent while Cloud was hustled into the back room and covered with blankets.

All they could do now was wait.

Vincent spent the time in the forest, taking out his aggression with blazing shots of his gun, pegging frogs in a mindless haze. It was the only thing he could do for Cloud, and he did it with abandon.

With each kill, his rage only grew- and his shots grew wild.

It was Barret who finally found him. He leaned against a tree and watched as Vincent lined another frog in his sights. "The kid's up."

Vincent uncocked the gun and lowered it to his side. "Is he-"

"Yeah, he's okay. Well, as okay as he can be in this fucked up situation." Barret straightened and punched his gun arm into the tree, not even flinching at the shock.

He took a few minutes to stop his shaking and Vincent could see the amount of effort it took him, his face grim, his fingers clenching into a fist. Vincent stood quiet, not sure how to offer comfort. How could he, when he felt the same way?

"He ain't givin' up, you know. He's going through with it. To beat Sephiroth's ass." Barret spoke with a brief tinge of pride. "There ain't no getting off-"

Vincent picked up the rest. "-this train we're on." They shared a small smile, and Vincent holstered his gun. "Can I see him?"

"Yeah, he's already getting ready to go after Aeris. Says he knows where she is." He wrinkled his forehead. "Was asking for you. Guess you guys got pretty close out there tromping around in the wilds, huh?"

He gave Vincent a bristling look that said, "I've known him longer." There was a whole conversation in that look, but it didn't need to be spoken. Vincent could hear the message loud and clear. He was taking Barret's place. But there was a grudging acceptance in Barret's look as he rearranged his world to include Vincent.

"I'm as worried as you are, Barret."

"Good. Thas'all I needed to hear."

Vincent was never good in social situations, but he knew enough to realize they had come to some sort of a truce. However tenuous.

They walked back to the small village, and Vincent had to restrain himself from moving immediately to Cloud's side. He would need space. He was already frowning at Tifa who had clearly been fussing around him for some time already.

Cloud pulled away when he saw Vincent and headed over with determined strides.

"We're going after Aeris. And we're going to do this right. We need supplies that can't be bought at any store, so we're going hunting. I want you and Cid to come with me."

He turned to the rest of the group. "I need you guys to spread out, three to Wutai, three to Mideel." He dug two lists out of his pocket. "Pick up these supplies, and I'll call you with a meeting place." He avoided Tifa's eyes as he picked up his backpack and slung it over his shoulder but turned back one last time. "Don't separate. Stay together. Always groups of three, never alone."

With those parting words, he headed off into the forest, leaving Cid and Vincent to scramble for their supplies and catch up.

Once on the trail, Cid scouted ahead, his spear at the ready, unusually silent and all business. Vincent settled in beside Cloud in the same easy position they'd held through countless forays across the grasslands.

"Cloud?" Vincent didn't want to pry, he preferred his own privacy enough after all, but he had to know. "Why won't you let Tifa join you? She's worried."

Cloud's answer was almost like a confession. "I'm worried, too." He continued walking in silence. Minutes later, he picked up his words where he had left off, with a sidelong glance at Vincent. "I'm worried I can't protect her. There's too much-" He waved at the country side they were trekking through. "Too many monsters... And me."

"You're worried you'll hurt her."

Cloud nodded. "Everything goes back to Nibelheim. I can feel it in my bones. And if I-" He paused to gather his thoughts. "If things go ... badly again ... I don't know that I can trust her to do what needs to be done."

The unspoken thought floated in the air between them. Vincent broke the silence. "To kill you, you mean."

"Promise me you'll do it? If I become dangerous?"

Vincent's gut tightened. "I'll do it."

"Good." Cloud searched his face. "I trust you."

There was nothing left to say, so they continued the trip in silence, both lost in thoughts that neither would voice. Instead, they took their frustrations out on any monster that dared get too close. They ended the day covered in grime and awash in animal blood, as well as a generous amount of their own.

When Cloud called a halt, they gathered around the campfire to pool their treasures, with several turbo ethers placed meaningfully in the center. It was a potent reminder of the amount of firepower they would need in their upcoming battle.

Cloud hunkered down on his heels and took in the mood.

"We're going to Wall Market to rest. I'll call the others to meet us there."

Cid pumped his fist. "Now that's an executive decision I can get behind. Good going, kid."

Vincent scrutinized Cloud for any reservations. The only reason he was allowing this luxury was for them, of that Vincent was certain. Cloud was too bound up in going after Aeris and Sephiroth to care about such mundane things as a soft bed or running water.

"Cloud." He kept his voice pitched low. "Are you sure about this?"

He nodded and answered in the same soft voice, "I'm sure," then widened his voice to include Cid. "It's only a little out of our way to Bone Village. We'll spend a day there, then leave for the village the next morning."

Cloud needed the rest more than any of them, but Vincent knew he would spend the whole time in the city stocking supplies and preparing for their trip to the Forgotten City. He made a note to prevent that from happening, come hell or high water.

They pushed on through the night, the moon shining large and high and providing the only light to guide them over rough ground. When they stumbled into Wall Market, even the usual nightlife was quieting down, the streets empty. They walked without words to the inn and said their good nights behind hands filled with muffled yawns.

Vincent paused outside Cloud's room on the way to his own and whispered to the closed door. "Good night, Cloud."

The rest of the group had pulled in even later than they had, but they were all gathered in the lobby the next morning, sorting through their weapons. Vincent searched the bustle of activity for Cloud but knew he'd already be gone. Buying new equipment. Stocking up on supplies. Every move made toward defeating Sephiroth. Then he'd lock himself up in his room.

But Vincent was ready for him.

When Cloud returned, Vincent headed him off at the pass as soon as the new equipment hit the floor. He grabbed Cloud's arm and steered him back out the door, giving him no time to interrupt or question, leaving the equipment for the others to find.

He took a sharp left out of the inn and didn't slow until he reached the bar. The he pushed Cloud between the shoulder blades to enter.

"This isn't funny, Vincent."

"And I'm not laughing."

Cloud narrowed his eyes. "What do you think you're doing?"

"I," Vincent declared with vigor, "am having a drink. Bartender, two whiskey waters." He slung a long leg over the stool and eyed the one next to him.

Cloud shuffled his feet, looked longingly at the drink, then to the door, then back to Vincent's challenging gaze. "Why are you doing this?"

"Cloud, you know Aeris is okay, right?"

Cloud searched his feelings. "Yeah, I think I'd know if anything was wrong."

Vincent nodded. "And we are as ready as we're ever going to be. Everything's in order. There's nothing more we can do tonight."

"I should be-"

"Should be what? Pacing in your room?"

"I need to-"

"You need to sit down and take some time for yourself." Vincent leaned forward intently. "Before you break. You'll be no good to us out there if you're strung so tight you snap."

Cloud started to open his mouth, then abruptly shut it. "Fine," he relented. "But if the world blows up, I'm blaming you."

Vincent couldn't help it. He laughed. A rare enough occurrence, but it always seemed to come easier around Cloud. He patted the stool next to him and grew serious. "You need it."

The bar was small, with wood floors and walls, an inviting place that soothed Vincent's mind as the whiskey warmed its way through his blood. Cloud sat quietly beside him, staring down into his drink with his hands cupped loosely around the glass. The bar was almost empty and blessedly silent. Sitting with Cloud was a much-needed break from the bustle and noise of the market and the vendors hawking their wares.

Cloud talked down into his drink, the words coming from nowhere. "I dressed up as a girl here once." He ducked under his bangs and looked at Vincent out of the corner of his eye with the lightest touch of a wry smile. "To save Tifa."

He finished off his drink with a long gulp, no gasp at the harshness, no face made at the aftertaste, and raised a finger to the bartender. Vincent stayed quiet to let Cloud talk.

"It was straight-forward. Kick Don Corneo's ass, save Tifa." He shook his head and lowered his voice to a sigh. "Sephiroth..." He turned his stool to face Vincent. "Will we be able to beat him?"

Cloud looked so young. Vincent wanted to take all his problems away and protect him from a harsh world that only brought more pain. He wanted to tell him it would be all right, that the good guys always won, that the world wouldn't be so cruel as to let Sephiroth prevail. But his experience had taught him otherwise. He couldn't say it.

He shrugged and turned his attention to his glass.

Cloud nodded at the bartender as he placed the second drink in front of him and swiveled his stool back towards the bar. "Yeah," he said. "That's what I thought."

They nursed their drinks in silence, no words spoken until the next round was delivered. Cloud stared down into the amber fluid, then promptly raised his glass. "Screw that. Here's to kicking Sephiroth's ass from here to Wutai."

Vincent found himself smiling. Nothing got Cloud down for long. He raised his glass in return and said with all seriousness, "And to dressing like a girl."

They looked at each other over the tops of their glasses and the silence broke, the last bit of tension draining away. "Hear, hear."

They clicked their drinks and tipped back the glasses, both hitting back down on the bar at the same moment.

Vincent looked over. "Wanna get shit-faced? Potions make great hangover cures."

"You read my mind."

Two hours later, they had reached an unspoken consensus that Sephiroth's name was not to be brought up again, and the talk had ranged from various tales of Cid's antics to the best way to defeat cactuars. But Vincent still couldn't get past Cloud dressing as a girl. "Was it ... awkward?"

Cloud nodded. "Oh yeah, Aeris wanted it to look authentic," his voice dipped briefly at her name but then he brightened back into a small smile, "so I even had to wear this frilly lingerie. I think she just said that to make me uncomfortable." He looked over. "It worked."

"I can't see you ever being a girl."

"Hey. I looked hot."

Vincent laughed. "I don't doubt it." His voice was soft, but he couldn't stop his next words. "But I like you the way you are."

The silence grew after that. Vincent wanted to ... what? Take it back? Add more? He wasn't sure. Instead, he quietly waited for Cloud's response.

"Thanks." It was a soft whisper, but a welcome one to Vincent's ears.

Vincent could feel a subtle sort of electricity in his body, just by sitting next to Cloud, just by knowing that the words were out there hanging between them.

Cloud looked up. "I've never ... I mean, I did once. In boot camp." With a small shake of his head, he ran his fingers over a scarred cigarette burn in the wooden bar. "It didn't go well."

Vincent nodded.

It was easy to change the subject.

"Did you see Cid's froggie voodoo doll?"

Cloud choked around his drink and struggled for a napkin, which Vincent handed over with a straight face.

"It has little mini spears in it," Vincent continued. "Poking out in all directions. He keeps it on his night stand. Says it helps him sleep better."

Cloud sent him a silent thanks, and the conversation meandered to other areas and was kept up through the short walk back to the inn. At the door to Cloud's room, Vincent stopped. Then he nodded and turned on his heel to head to his own.

Cloud's voice stopped him with his hand on the door knob. "Good night, Vincent."

Vincent looked back, as a small burst of hope spread through his body. He gave a simple nod in recognition of what the words meant to him before shutting the door behind him. Once he was alone, a small smile crossed his face. It was enough. For now.

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