[Shattered] Ice 09

Chapter Nine – Starting Over

Cloud’s eyes widened considerably. He had never thought that Vincent would ever actually intend to hurt him or even draw his weapon. He took an unconscious step back, releasing his hold on the other man’s shoulder. He put up his arms in surrender since even he couldn’t survive a hit in the temple from one of Vincent’s powerful guns.

In turn, the former Turk had his eyes shut tightly, waging a battle inside himself. His body shook slightly, muscles jumping beneath the flesh of his face and looking like the slightest thing might set him off.

“Vincent, I think–”

“They tell me to kill you,” the former Turk interrupted in a voice barely above a whisper. The gun wavered in his grasp, his eyes still closed. “They tell me to pull the trigger.”

Everyone in the inn and bar had turned their attention to the pair. Most held their breath in anticipation, guessing that blood would be shed at any moment. Even more edged their way to the door, not wanting to be caught in the crossfire.

–He insulted you; he must die. He doesn’t know what it means to fear you. Wouldn’t his blood look nice splattered along the walls?–

–In fact, everyone’s blood would look better out of their bodies rather than in.–

–Kill him; kill them all! Let them know your pain! Show them our true power!!–

Vincent shook his head, trying to get rid of the screaming voices of the demons within him. He didn’t understand why they chose this moment to suddenly start making suggestions all at once. It seemed lately that they had gotten louder and stronger in him. Usually, he could drown them out, ignore them, or even make them stop. It wasn’t working, and his limbs began to shake with the effort.

He tried to force his body to move, heading for the stairs. Maybe if Cloud was out of sight the anger that was building in him would cease and so would the bloodthirsty mutterings of the demons. Cloud was infinitely infuriating but certainly didn’t deserve the brunt of their afflictions. It took nearly all of his control to rein them in, a problem he hadn’t had before. What had changed?

It was then that the innkeeper decided to play the hero. Where he had dug up the sudden courage from… well, even the balding heavyset man was unsure. He had never been an audacious man in his life, which was the reason why he decided to become the owner of an inn and not an adventurer. Still, to protect his livelihood and family, the innkeeper dredged up some semblance of bravery and trod nervously up towards where Vincent and Cloud were standing, the blond at gunpoint.

“Excuse me, sirs, but I cannot have this sort of behavior in my inn,” the man mumbled, clearing his throat nervously. His dark brown gaze darted between the two as he wrung his hands together, plainly hoping they would not turn their ire towards him.

Vincent’s eyes snapped open at the unfamiliar voice, causing him to falter slightly in his attempt to talk down the bloodthirsty demons. Cloud maintained his own concentration. Taking that brief second of distraction as the only chance he would get, he sprang forward, pushing away Vincent’s gun arm and tackling the gunman in the same moment. The gun went off as the former Turk squeezed reflexively, the bullet skimming Cloud’s cheek, barely avoiding the innkeeper before slamming into the wall behind them.

The innkeeper stared at them, rather horrified, backing away quickly. His face had paled considerably. Perhaps he should have left well enough alone. At the sound of the gunshot, the rest of the patrons decided that it was time to go and scattered. He abandoned the bar and registration desk to his violent patrons and chalked it up to something for the damnable insurance to pay for. It had to be worth something.

Meanwhile, Vincent and Cloud crashed to the floor, the blond landing on top. The thinner Vincent was crushed beneath Cloud’s small but more bulky weight. The gunman’s head slammed into the thick floor, momentarily making him see stars. He groaned in pain as the gun clattered out of his hand, sliding across the floor, completely useless. His fingers twitched, mourning the loss.

Cloud was the first to regain his senses, straddling the ex-Turk and immediately grabbing hold of his arms. He slammed both appendages down forcefully against the wooden, alcohol-stained planks of the floor. He had a feeling that the gunman was much stronger than him, but he knew he had to do something. There had been a wild look in those crimson eyes that Cloud did not trust.

“Uhhnn…” Vincent groaned. His head was pounding, and his vision was blurry. He could still hear them: Death Gigas, Hellmasker, Chaos, and Galian Beast. However, it seemed their voices were dimming, just barely. The cackles became vague echoes, the urgings of blood-lust fading to light pangs of hunger that slowly wilted away.

“You better pray to whatever you serve that I don’t kill you now,” Cloud snarled, not appreciating what had just happened in the slightest. He painfully squeezed on the gunman’s arms, slamming the wrist and claw down on to the floor to enunciate his point.

Vincent groaned as his head spun. “Let me go.”

Cloud scoffed. “I’m not that stupid. There’s no way in hell I’m going to let you anywhere near your gun.”

“I cannot breathe,” the gunman stated breathlessly, his voice taking on a slightly desperate tone. His chest felt tight, constricted, and he was still dizzy from the knock to the head.

–Just like before, ne, Vincent?– There was a dark chuckle, echoing across his subconscious. –How does it feel to have another man on top of you? Holding you down, forcing you to bend to his will?–

Vincent shook his head. He couldn’t listen to their taunts; he couldn’t let them get to him.

“How do I know you won’t go all ballistic on me again?” the blond countered.

Despite all that, Vincent couldn’t stand it. Cloud was too close, simply too close. He felt trapped, his back against a metaphoric wall, and like a wild animal, his teeth were going to bare soon. “You are just going to have to trust me.”

“That’s not a good enough reason. You just tried to shoot me.”

The gunman trembled. “It’s the only one I have.”

“What’s going on, Valentine?”

Crimson eyes shuttered as Vincent looked away, taking a deep shuddering breath that did nothing to calm his body. It was merely too much.

“Nothing. I am handling it.”

Or at least he would be, as soon as he could get away, perhaps sate their bloodlust with that of the surrounding monsters. So long as he didn’t harm another human being

Cloud snorted. “Right. And the bullet in the wall agrees with you.”

“If you hadn’t tackled me, I wouldn’t have fired,” the other man countered through gritted teeth.

“If you hadn’t pulled the gun in the first place, I wouldn’t have tackled you. Now, what the hell is going on?” Mako-enhanced strength squeezed at Vincent’s arms, and a spark of pain shot through his body as bones ground together. If Cloud wasn’t careful, he might actually harm the gunman in his irritation. Yet, the pain only served to increase the strength of the demon’s voices.

–He hurts you, doesn’t he? And you like it. Just like when that man put his hands on you.–

“Get off me.” Vincent growled in a low tone, his body shaking beneath Cloud’s hold. He thrashed beneath the blond, the demons within beginning to speak to him, taunting him with cruel words and haunting jibes that did nothing for his sanity.

“No,” Cloud denied as he shook his head, blue eyes raking over the strange expressions on the gunman’s face. He had never seen such emotion in the normally impassive man, and the sheer perniciousness of them frightened him. Terror, anger, and hate all swirled together as crimson eyes flashed.

–This is where you belong, you dirty whore,– another voice hissed, and Vincent shuddered, a low strangled moan escaping from his mouth. –Used, abused, just a plaything for stronger men to break and own.–

Vincent strained at the hands that pressed his own into the floorboards, eyes rolling up into his head. Slithering darkness bore down on his mind, filled with the taunting laughter of the demons. They delighted in this, his weakness, hoping to exploit it, to take over his body for their own use. Why they had chosen such a moment, he didn’t understand. It took nearly all of his will to fight them off, enough so that he had scarce physical strength to remove the overbearing presence of Cloud.

“Get. Off. Me.” He gritted his teeth as he spoke, glaring furiously at the stubborn ex-SOLDIER above me. A sharpened canine pierced his lip as he felt the first flex of the demon’s power shoot through him.

–You like it. You enjoy it, ne Vincent? You want him to hurt you, take you, make you bleed.–

“No!” The denial was torn from his throat, guttural and inhuman. Cloud’s eyes widened in surprise at the flash of fear and hatred he caught in the face underneath him, moments before he was literally thrown backwards. He went through a few tables before he skidded against the wall, boots digging furrows into the inn floor. He crashed painfully, his head cracking against the wall with enough force for him to see stars.

Bleary eyes looked through a haze of pain to see Vincent struggling jerkily to his feet, almost as if someone else was controlling his body. He hadn’t even gone for his discarded gun either, shoulders rolling as his lips curled over his fangs. Growls resonated in his throat, but his gaze was locked on the floor, a tiny thread of blood dribbling down his chin from where he had bitten his lip.

“What the fuck!”

The loud proclamation caused Cloud’s gaze to focus elsewhere, to the top of the stairs where Cid was descending, shocked blue eyes taking in the scene. Vincent, however, didn’t even seem to notice the blond’s arrival. The gunman trembled where he stood, seemingly lost to the conscious world.

Cloud groaned, shaking his head to clear away the dizziness as he took a step forward, his back aching from the collision. “Cid, watch it. He’s–”

“He’s what?” the pilot demanded, the stairs creaking as he came down. “You’re fucking tryin’ to kill each other!”

A whine from the gunman immediately drew both men’s attentions. A gloved hand clenched and unclenched as the fingers of his claw clacked together, producing a morbid and bloodthirsty sound.

“Vince?” Cid asked, daring to take a step towards the ex-Turk, who seemed to have gone completely bloodless, his already pale face nearly as white as the steadily falling snow outside.

“Don’t touch me!” the gunman snarled, eyes suddenly snapping open as he jerked away, movements sluggish and erratic. “Don’t! I… can’t!”

The words cut off in his throat. His eerily red eyes flashed brightly, brimming with some unknown power. The air around him began to pulsate, taking on a dark almost black look. It started to gather around close to his body. He grinned at them, showing elongated and pointed teeth.

The naked blood lust and destruction had Cloud shivering unconsciously. He knew on sight that it could only be the fault of Hojo. His suspicions had been on target. There was something to be feared in Vincent Valentine.

And that something was trying to get out.

“Cid! Get back!” he ordered, face turning grim as he reached behind him, for the sword sheathed on his back. If he had to, he would do whatever it took to stop Vincent. Yet, all the while, his mind was screaming at him in a voice that suspiciously sounded like Barret.

See I told you so. He really is a &%$#& fucking vampire.

Cid backed away from Vincent, not liking the eerie crawl of some unknown power that raced along his spine. If it weren’t for the inhuman gleam in the gunman’s crimson eyes, he might have believed that it was just his limit break activating as a result of the brief scuffle with Cloud. But never before had it taken this long nor had Vincent ever attempted to resist. No, this was something else entirely.

Wind began to whip around the inn’s bar, tossing stools against the wall and knocking photos of old Icicle from their hangings to crash raucously to the floor. Intangible tendrils of power lashed through the room, completely invisible to the naked eye. A low, chilling laugh emerged from Vincent’s mouth where his fangs continued to elongate, causing Cid’s skin to crawl as he backed away, inching towards Cloud. The mocking chuckled continued unabated as slim shoulders twitched and rolled. Vincent’s hands clenched at his sides, blood dripping to the floor where emerging claws sliced into his skin.

“What the hell’re we goin’ to do?” the pilot demanded, completely at a loss for ideas. He despised how his knees were beginning to tremble at the vicious onslaught of something that was swelling inside the small room, causing the floor beneath them to shudder and creak.

Cloud grimly gripped the handle of his Nail Bat. “Whatever it takes,” he replied, never taking his eyes off of Vincent. He didn’t want to have to kill the gunman, sensing that this was something beyond Vincent’s control much like himself when it came to Sephiroth. Nevertheless, he wouldn’t allow anyone to be harmed either. He had very little options.

“Do you have any status altering materia?” Cloud asked suddenly. Perhaps if they could put Vincent to sleep or slow him down, they wouldn’t be forced to harm him.

Cid scoffed as he reached for the Viper Halberd strapped at his back, glad that he had decided to grab it when he heard the disturbance before he came downstairs. “You know I don’t equip that pansy shit,” he retorted, backing away when a fierce whip of power slapped in his direction, nearly slashing him across the cheek.

The ex-SOLDIER cursed lowly as he shook his head at the pilot. He only equipped for offense as well. He didn’t have anything either. The power seemed to be growing to a crescendo around Vincent, filling the room and crushing against Cloud’s chest, making it difficult for him to breathe. The air seemed to pulse and writhe, gathering around the gunman like a black hole, and his body jerked in non-reassuring motions.

The two blonds exchanged a look, fully preparing to take down their companion. Yet, all of the sudden, he let out a fierce growl and pounced, his speed far greater than they had ever witnessed before. Cloud barely had time to react, twisting his body out of the way to avoid the aggressive strike. Vincent flew past him, boots sliding across the floor as he whirled around, red eyes blazing with barely restrained fury. He shifted his position and attacked again, this time elongated claws meeting the force of Cloud’s Nail Bat with a jarring clang.

The swordsman had to grit his teeth against the superior strength, but Vincent continued to slash at him. Cloud was forced to weave his blade about to block each successive blow, unable to help his slow retreat backwards. He cast about frantically for something to aid him, some way to stop the crazed gunman that didn’t involve blood shed.

His silent prayers were answered when the pilot took it upon himself to jump onto Vincent’s back, wrapping an arm around the gunman and attempting to restrain him. The other man bucked and snarled, enraged by the blond on his back as he tried to remove his unwanted passenger. Cloud took that opportunity to dart forward, and the Nail Bat flashed and twisted in the air as the blunt end struck Vincent across the head, delivering a sound blow to the gunman’s forehead. He let out a fierce shriek, a raw mixture of beast and human, his entire body going rigid as the strange swirling energy gathered about him and exploded. Cid was thrown from his back. The pilot crashed against a table, shattering it beneath him as Vincent crumpled to the floor, crimson eyes rolling into the back of his head.

Silence fell like a blanket, the rushing wind having completely disappeared with Vincent’s slip into unconsciousness. Cid groaned as he shook his head, emerging from the destroyed table. He seemed unharmed, other than the bits of wood that still clung to his clothing. Cloud breathed a sigh of relief, scrubbing a weary hand across his face as he stared down at the unconscious Vincent. One thought was prevalent on his mind.

“What the hell just happened?” he questioned, absentmindedly voicing his wonderment aloud.

Cid shot him a look, clearly unamused. “How the fuck should I know?” he demanded crossly, quickly doing a body check to confirm his uninjured state. “Is he dead?”

Keeping his sword at the ready, Cloud crept close to the crumpled gunman. He knelt down and reached out, looking for a pulse. Vincent was alive but unmoving. His breath rose and fell steadily, and color was gradually returning to his complexion, almost as if the events of the last few minutes had never happened at all.

“He’s out cold,” Cid commented in surprise, though he was still somewhat wary, keeping a safe distance. Despite his anger, the pilot still believed that there was some humanity inside the dark-haired man. What had happened just wasn’t natural.

He had been shocked when he heard the disturbance from the second floor, and he had been even more astonished to find his leader and his once-lover seemingly on the verge of killing each other. He didn’t know what had happened in the short time he had been gone, but he was surprised to see the two reacting so violently. Then, on top of it all, Vincent started acting like he was possessed by some blood-thirsty beast.
Cid was very well aware of Vincent’s strange additions in the form of limit breaks, but never before had he seen them actually attempt something out of battle. He hadn’t even realized that they were anything but under the gunman’s control. Irritation with Vincent’s treatment of him was giving way under concern for the man’s health. It was all beginning to make more sense to him, in a strange, twisted sort of way.

Cloud frowned. “I don’t understand,” he muttered, running an aggravated hand through his blond spikes. He resisted the urge to grab and pull out of sheer exasperation. Mako eyes darkened with anger. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t just kill a man in cold blood. Yet, Vincent was dangerous, exceedingly so, and he didn’t know if it was entirely the gunman’s fault or Hojo’s alone.

That would be like admitting Sephiroth wasn’t to blame for Nibelheim, and Cloud didn’t know if he could do that. Despite what he remembered and felt in his heart about the silver-haired General, with the death of Aeris, he could only harbor a burning hatred and desire for revenge.

“We need to get him out of the common room,” the pilot responded, finally putting away the Viper Halberd. He glanced at his leader, noting that the blond seemed to be struggling internally. “We can’t let the townsfolk see him. They might try to go after him with fire and pitchforks.”

Cloud shook his head. “It might not be that far from the truth.”

The pilot paused mid-kneel, in motion to scoop the unconscious gunman into his arms. “The fuck?” he asked, turning a glare onto the younger man as he hefted Vincent into his arms. The former Turk might have been taller than him, but he barely ate anything was actually quite lanky under all those dark clothes.

“He’s dangerous, Cid,” Cloud countered, sheathing his blade. “You saw for yourself. What if that turns on us?”

“He’s never attacked us before!” the pilot argued, already heading for the stairs. “You want to just abandon him? Leave his crazy ass behind in Icicle or sumthin?” He began to ascend, assuming Cloud would follow him as he intended on taking Vincent to their room. When the gunman awoke, Cid was determined to get some answers out of him, provided he had some to give.

He didn’t know why he felt the need to speak up for Vincent. It wasn’t as if they had officially reconciled and become friends just yet. Still, he was growing weary of all the backstabbing and accusations that seemed to float around in their group. If it wasn’t Barret sending everyone suspicious glares, then it was Reeve treading softly for fear of being sent out alone with a band of assassins after his head.

Besides, compared to Cloud’s insanity, Vincent’s wasn’t really that surprising. Everyone of their damn group was loopy in one way or another, himself included for daring to lust after a former Turk with an icy exterior.

“He did tonight!” Cloud snapped. “I can’t trust that he won’t do that again! You even said it yourself. He’s crazy!”

Cid narrowed his eyes. “And so are you, but you don’t see none of us plannin’ on ditchin’ your traitor ass either, do ya? It wasn’t him who gave the Black Materia to Sephiroth,” he spat.

The ex-SOLDIER winced, a bit surprised by the sheer voracity in the pilot’s words. When had Cid become Vincent’s knight? It made very little sense to the swordsman.

“That was a low blow, Cid.”

The pilot snorted. “It’s the damn truth. Maybe you should think before you start opening your big fucking mouth. Now, open the *@#& door for me. I can’t get it myself.”

Mako eyes narrowed into a glare, but Cloud did as the pilot suggested. “I see your point,” he responded, “but that doesn’t mean I can trust him again.”

“Nobody said you had to,” the Captain retorted as he laid Vincent down on the spare bed in the room. He had to bite back a small grumble of surprise when the “unconscious” Vincent didn’t appear to be quite so. Yet, he pretended ignorance, wanting the gunman to hear what he and Cloud had to say to each other.

The ex-SOLDIER placed the Silver Rifle on the bed stand, having retrieved it from the floor of the inn. “Why do you even care so much?” He observed Cid’s movements with a curious glare.

“I don’t,” the pilot replied bluntly as he moved to sit on his bed. A cigarette was quickly grabbed and thrust between his lips. Seconds later, a thin stream of grey smoke was curling into the air. “I’m just tired of all the fucking bullshit. You’re crazy. He’s crazy. Hell, I must have lost my damn mind to join this group. Something happened to Vince that don’t none of us know nothing about. Can’t blame the guy for taking a trip off the deep end every now and then.”

“Exactly,” Cloud pointed out. “That’s just my point. Something happened to him, and he’s not offering up any details.”

Cid scowled. “I don’t see you explaining why Sephiroth can control you either.” Really, this discussion was getting them nowhere. They kept circling around the same argument and rebuttal. Truthfully, all it boiled down to was that Cloud didn’t trust Vincent, understandable but also hypocritical given the younger blond’s own track record. The pilot sighed, sitting back against the bed as he took another drag.

“He was right.”

“What do you mean?” Cloud questioned.

The older male waved a hand of dismissal. “Ain’t my business to say. But maybe the reason Vince don’t offer up any information is because of the way you’re actin’ right now. Psh, I know I wouldn’t say anything if I already thought you were out to find some reason to hate me even more.”

“I don’t hate him,” he responded softly, a strange look in Cloud’s eyes.

Cid raised a brow. “Oh?”

But Cloud shook him off instead of explaining. He rubbed a hand over his forehead, already feeling the approaching migraine. Why did everything have to be so damn complicated? Who the hell made him leader anyways?

He could just hear Barret now and sincerely hoped that the older man learned nothing of what had happened. Otherwise, they would never get any rest.

“No one finds out about this,” Cloud ordered, easily changing the subject. “I don’t want to hear Barret’s fuss.”

Sky blue eyes narrowed. “And?” Light flared as another puff of smoke curled up towards the ceiling before the cigarette was snuffed out in an ashtray.

Cloud glared. “And nothing. I can’t justify leaving him behind for the same reason that you so blatantly scolded me for. It’s safer for all of us if he is where I can keep a careful eye on him. I decided that from the beginning.”

The pilot regarded him thoughtfully. “What are you going to do then?”

It was Cloud’s turn to shake his head, a sardonic smirk taking over his features. “Do?” he questioned. “There’s really nothing I can do. If this was anything like his limit break, he isn’t going to have a clue about the past few minutes when he wakes up. Not that he would be all that willing to offer up any information in the first place.” He sighed, raking a hand through his spikes again, a gesture he realized with annoyance that was becoming a sign of his aggravation and stress. “For the night, be wary. Just in case.”

“As if I could stop him,” Cid retorted with a dismissive wave of his hand. He had no illusions. Vincent was most assuredly more powerful than him, especially considering whatever the hell that just was. He had been tossed like a damned doll from the force of that power. It would probably be safer if he just ran like hell, and he was tempted to do so.

Cloud sighed. “I’m gong to sleep,” he said as he turned away and headed towards the door. However, he paused, one hand at the knob as a thought occurred to him. “You are welcome to share the floor with Reeve,” he suggested. “If you don’t feel safe, of course.” A smirk made its way to the younger blond’s features.

“I’ll take my chances,” Cid answered darkly.

Clearly amused, Cloud bit back a retort and left, closing the door behind him. Shaking his head in disbelief, the Captain rose and locked it, not even sure of why he did. He moved away from the door and sat back on his own bed. Cid contemplated the day’s events as he slowly stripped down, removing his signature goggles and coat. He took out another cigarette, lighting it quickly. The first had done nothing for his tense nature.

“Those will be the death of you one day, Highwind.” The unmistakable voice of Vincent echoed through the room. The gunman shifted on the bed, pulling himself into a sitting position as he idly rubbed at his forehead with one hand, trying to quell a rising headache.

The pilot shrugged, taking another deep puff. “Gotta go one way or another,” he responded flippantly, shooting the dark-haired man a glance from the corner of his eyes. Vincent looked pale and haggard, dark circles under his eyes. He hadn’t noticed it before, given that he always wore that damned headband and the cloak pulled up, but he noticed it now.

Vincent was silent for a moment, seemingly contemplating his words. Cid ignored him as he smoked his cigarette, the nicotine soothing his frazzled temperament. He didn’t have the words to speak, so he waited, having the feeling that Vincent had something to say instead. He had, after all, realized that the gunman was conscious for most of his discussion with Cloud.

“Why?” the former Turk finally asked. The hand slipped down from his face as he eyed the pilot. “Why the hell did you make it a point to stand up to Strife?”

Cid snorted as he began to tug on his boots, working on the laces so that he could remove them. “Y’know, if you didn’t insist on calling people by their last names, they might actually start to warm up to ya a bit more.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Vincent replied lowly. “Why must you be adamant on friendliness towards me? Cloud would have been smarter to do as he wanted, rather than listen to you.”

The pilot puffed on his cigarette, pausing in his movements as his gaze met that of Vincent’s for a moment as he seemed to contemplate the question. “It was the right thing to do,” he answered finally, looking down to finish unlacing his boots. “Cloud’s a hypocritical bastard too arrogant to admit he might be just the least bit afraid of you. He sees himself in you, and that scares him.”

Vincent didn’t respond, finding that the words were surprisingly insightful. Cid really was intelligent. He hid it far too well beneath the bluster and the bad grammar.

“I never said I hated ya, Vince,” the Captain continued, concentrating solely on removing the boots. It was true. While he was angry with Vincent for the man’s treatment of him, he was beginning to see some truths that weren’t visible to him before, namely Cloud’s reaction earlier. That and the occasional self-reviled mutterings that he caught from Vincent’s direction. Nor could he deny the lust that he felt for the dark-haired man. There was something between them, but he could not define what.

“An’ I figured out what you were doin’, too,” the pilot added in for good measure. “An’ it ain’t going to work either. I’m pissed at ya. But I’m still your friend.”

Vincent chewed on his bottom lip for a moment, a frown deepening in his features. “I’m not here for friendship.”

The pilot waved a hand of dismissal, two pairs of boots clunking to the floor as he put out his cigarette. “Yeah, I know. Redemption. You committed a sin. Whatever. But would it kill ya? What ya gonna do after the battle, huh? Go back to your coffin and sleep forever?”

The former Turk furrowed his brow, gaze shifting to the side. “I hadn’t thought about it.” His next words were so quiet that the pilot had almost not caught them. “Monsters don’t deserve friends.”

Cid scowled at the statement, that irritating him far more than Vincent’s strange attempt to kill Cloud or even his coldness towards him. “Don’t be such a dumbass. Ya ain’t that ugly.” He paused, considering something before a definite leer began to creep into his face. He tilted his head to the side as he regarded the other man thoughtfully. “In fact, yer kinda cute, especially when yer pissed off or sumthin’.”

Red eyes darted his direction, almost an accusing stare at the pilot. “I don’t know what game you are playing at Highwind,” he began slowly. “But I assure you, I have no other intentions.”

Cid sat back on the bed, leaning against the headboard as his jaw set firmly, matching Vincent’s glare, stare for stare. “Shiva’s Ice, Vince!” he retorted. “I ain’t askin’ for nothing serious. I’m still pissed as all hell for that fuckin’ cold shoulder, but I’m a grown ass man. I can get past that.”

Dark brows furrowed as the gunman’s gaze shifted to the side. “If you are seeking an apolo–“

“Will you just shut the fuck up; let me finish for once,” the pilot interrupted sharply, one fist slamming down into the mattress, creating a dull thump that wasn’t at all intimidating. Vincent’s eyes snapped up, an almost incredulous expression on his normally impassive face, but he didn’t say anything more.

Pleased that he had finally received the gunman’s fickle but undivided attention, Cid continued, lowering his tone so that he sounded less angry. “Let’s just start over,” he said simply. “I ain’t waitin’ for a sorry that ain’t comin’, and you ain’t likely to explain why you’re choosing to act like an asshole. If you don’t want ta be with me I can live with that, but Kami, it ain’t like you couldn’t use a friend.”

”A friend,” Vincent murmured. It was nearly a foreign concept to him, especially after having joined the Turks. There was his partner, but… Vincent was used to being solitary. As a child, his companions had moved away at a young age, and he couldn’t help being naturally quiet and introverted. It had taken the combined efforts of his childhood friends to draw him out. When not given that prompting, he found it easier to withdraw inwards.

The pilot sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face and realizing that he could use a shave. “Yes, a friend. So stop wallowing in your little self pity sessions, and start acting a little more friendly.”

“Friendly? Like Shera?”

Cid stared at him, a scowl beginning to take over his features. “Don’t you go worrying about Shera ‘n me or even comparing the two. Jes cuz we disagreein’ over that bald ShinRa freak she likes to sneak around with don’t mean we ain’t friendly. Now how about some explanations?”

“Explanations?” Vincent returned, blinking at the quick change in topic. It appeared that he and the pilot were “friends” now; nevermind that he didn’t exactly remember agreeing to the whole starting over bit, not that it would have stopped Cid in the slightest. Oftentimes, the pilot bull rushed him, leaving him reeling in the wake of the power that was “The Captain.”

Cid waved a hand to encompass all that had occurred in the past twenty minutes. “Downstairs? You trying to kill our spiky haired leader? What the hell happened down there?”

Vincent frowned, entirely unsure how to answer, especially when he wasn’t sure himself. His memory was fleeting and fractured at best. He could recall fighting with his uninvited demonic guests and working to forestall some strange overtaking of his own body. It was a supernatural tug-of-war deep within his mind, and he was completely unaware of whatever had occurred outside of it. He certainly didn’t remember actually attacking Cloud, though the fight that led up the madness was crystal clear.

A vague feeling of helplessness and slight terror accompanied his attempts to remember the previous events. If only Cloud had left him alone, allowed him to seek his distance when he had first tried to leave. Perhaps nothing would have occurred then. His anger and irritation gave ground for the blood-thirst of the demons, and for the first time, one had actually sought to break free. Vincent worried that it might happen again, and he didn’t know if he had the strength to win.

“Truthfully, I am not entirely sure,” he finally replied to Cid’s question after an undetermined moment of silence. “If I even knew half of what had been done to me, if I could even comprehend that creature’s madness.”

He paused, shaking his head. No, Vincent Valentine had no clue what went through the mind of the monstrous Hojo nor how his body had been altered. Perhaps he was no longer human after all.

“But whatever it was… it was not me.”

The pilot was quiet for a moment, his gaze leaving Vincent as he shifted on the bed, scooting down until he was lying prostrate, arms folded behind his head. “Ya scared us, ya know?” he commented, almost to himself more than to Vincent in particular, and he contemplated the ceiling. The gunman didn’t respond, unsure what to say, but that didn’t deter the pilot in the slightest.

Cid sighed, rubbing a hand across the stubble of his chin. “But not because of what ya think. It’s not like I’m afraid to die or nuthin’. I didn’t want to hurt you. I didn’t want to have to kill you.”

Not when he had already started developing something for the gunman. He didn’t know what that something was, whether just raging lust for having been alone for so long, the increased desire for companionship given the same reason, or even the fascination for a man such as Vincent Valentine. He remembered vividly the feeling of Vincent inside him, around him, filling him, and the pleasure that night brought. He burned to experience it again, but given the skittish nature of the gunman, he resigned himself to his fate of only being friends with him.

Vincent was somewhat stunned by the pilot’s admission. He could understand Cid being afraid of him. However, generally feeling guilty for a life he didn’t want to take, especially when it concerned someone as unworthy as himself, the gunman floundered.

“Cid…” he trailed off, uncertain of what he was even going to say.

The pilot waved a hand of dismissal, reaching over to yank the chain on the lamp by his bed and plunging the room into semi-darkness. It was pierced only by the moon light streaming in through the uncurtained window.

“Whatever,” he replied gruffly, a bit unnerved by his admission. “I knew it wasn’t ya, Vince. Hojo fucked with ya, but you ain’t a monster.” He closed his eyes, fully preparing to go to sleep and effectively dismissing the rest of the conversation, even though it was far from over.

Crimson eyes gleamed in the darkness, trying to discern exactly what was on Cid’s mind. Vincent couldn’t help but chew his bottom lip in frustration as he flopped back gracelessly on his own bed. Why was it that the pilot unsettled him like no other? Creeping past his carefully constructed icy facade and shields, making him feel again, craving that warmth of friendship and companionship?

Dammit! Cid made him uncertain, and above all, Vincent couldn’t stand that. It unnerved him, leaving him shaken.

I knew it wasn’t ya, Vince.

Hojo fucked with ya, but you ain’t a monster.

Why in blazes did it mean so much to him to hear those words? Vincent shifted irritably on his bed, turning his back on the now silent Captain and facing the wall. He contemplated the grooves that he could easily see given his night vision. Why couldn’t he just pretend that Highwind didn’t exist? Why didn’t the man have the decency to be suspicious and poke and prod at him like the others? Why did Cid insist on crawling beneath his skin and staying there? Making him crave things he did not deserve?

It came as no surprise when Vincent had another sleepless night, plagued by those very questions and so many more.

* * *

Outside the room, Cloud stood in mild shock and amazement. He had not originally planned on eavesdropping but was drawn in by the words spoken between the two. He ended up staying just outside, ear cocked to the door as he struggled to decipher their low spoken words and accusations. The occasional sharp voices and arguments had helped some, and now, Cloud found himself more confused than before.

He had thought it odd that the two became close after a rather short amount of time but had never thought for a minute that they had become lovers, even if it appeared to be only the one time. He didn’t particularly care what everyone did in his or her private time, but it was strange. Cid had never struck him as the type to bat for the other team, especially since he shared his home with a woman. Then again, the man did consume a lot of tea.

Of course, he hadn’t that Vincent did either. Wasn’t there some woman he was always muttering about when he thought no one was paying attention to him?

Still, Cloud had learned nothing of what had happened to Vincent. It appeared that not even the man himself knew which presented a problem. Cloud sighed, rubbing a hand over his forehead as the voices inside the room fell silent and the light beneath the door disappeared. He could feel the impeding throb of a headache, hating for not the first time he had been chosen to lead AVALANCHE, though more by default than necessity.

The ex-SOLDIER began to head down the hallway, keeping his steps quiet as he made his way towards his room. He would have to remember to give the innkeeper some extra gil for the damage and loss of income from frightened patrons before they left in the morning. Cloud sighed again, suddenly feeling extremely fatigued.

“Quite an eventful night, if I do say so myself.”

The quiet words immediately brought the blond to a halt, his head whipping around to spot Nanaki. The fire-wolf was sitting in the doorway of the room he shared with Yuffie. It was darkened inside, the faint mumbles of the ninja talking in her sleep drifting out to Cloud’s ears, not to mention the slight rumbling of Reeve and his soft snoring. Apparently, he wasn’t too partial to sleeping on floors, and Yuffie didn’t seem to mind giving him the extra bed in her room too terribly.

“Oh?” Cloud inquired with a raised eyebrow, pointedly staring into the room. “Reeve’s in there?”

Nanaki regarded him stonily. “She offered. It’s not like Reeve’s going to do anything.”

The ex-SOLDIER could concede that much, considering the naked emotion he had seen on the executive’s face when he spoke about his significant other. His male significant other, though the former executive hadn’t elaborated.

“No, I suppose not.” Cloud returned his gaze back to the lion-wolf. “What do you know?”

“Absolutely nothing,” Nanaki replied easily, tail swishing beside him. His head turned to the side, golden gaze falling on the door to Cid and Vincent’s silent room. “Nothing at all.”

The blond sighed, rubbing his forehead. “All right,” he allowed. “What do you think you know?”

It was always tricky speaking to Nanaki. He could be downright enigmatic at times, offering up information in mysterious pieces and leaving Cloud to sort through it on his own. Not that the ex-SOLDIER ever figured anything out. Half the time, he ended a conversation still not knowing what they had been discussing in the first place.

What could have been a smile curved at the corner of the fire-lion’s mouth. “I believe that there is much beneath the surface of the Valentine-Highwind friendship. I know that something has changed in the winds of fate…” he trailed off, his eyes returning to Cloud’s face. “And I know that you’ve been wary of Vincent since day one. Might I ask why?”
Cloud contemplated the question, wondering if he should just explain the truth or keep it to himself. One hand scrubbed through his spikes, again feeling the weariness of the night.

“What kind of man can sleep in a coffin for thirty years and come out looking fresh as a daisy?” he finally asked.

The lion-wolf seemed clearly amused by this. “If that was it, you would have gotten along by now. There’s something else as well.” That golden gaze was almost piercing, unnerving Cloud in its intensity. “You fear him.”

The swordsman should have scoffed. He didn’t fear Vincent per se, but he didn’t trust the man’s time spent under Hojo’s care. Look what had been done to Cloud himself: voices in his head, Sephiroth able to control his body, and the unnatural strength he had never had before.

Instead, however, Cloud just scowled, annoyance plain on his features. “I am not afraid of Vincent Valentine,” he responded lowly. He should have known better than to suspect Nanaki would have anything useful to say to him. “But I am tired, and we have a jaunt through the winter wonderland tomorrow.” He waved a hand towards the fire-wolf before stalking towards his room. “Night.”

Nanaki watched him go, silent as his tail swished before turning around and heading back into his own room, shutting the door quietly behind him

It was always so much fun to goad the humans.

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