Cloud sat on the couch in his apartment in Midgar, idly flicking through the TV channels, waiting for Tifa to return from Barret's place. She'd been a while, and he was starting to miss the familiar sound of her voice ringing through the place.
Cloud found it hard to be on his own for long these days. Too much time alone was too much time to think, and memories of the past were eager to rush in and torment when they could.
Cloud sighed and flung the remote control at the far wall, scrubbing at his face with his hands.
The place was too quiet.
He'd been thinking of Aeris a lot this week for some reason. Sometimes the girl's face would just appear in his thoughts or dreams without reason, but this week it had been almost every day.
Sometimes Cloud felt like he was just using Tifa to help his feelings for Aeris subside, if that could ever happen. Tifa loved him, there was no doubt, but he could never work out whether his feelings for her were love or simply need and dependency.
He sometimes wondered if she knew this.
He sat in silence for a while, for once tentatively allowing his mind to roll over the past instead of jerking away from it like he often did, locking it all firmly into a locked box at the back of his mind. He softly wondered that even now, so long after it had all happened, the brutal horror of seeing the frail and gentle flower girl being butchered mere inches away from his very eyes, and knowing that he not only could do nothing about it, but also that it had been a fraction away from being him with a bloodied sword in his sweating palms.
The way her eyes glazed over in shock and pain - then becoming hollow and vacant as the life left her body in a whispering sigh. Even now, Cloud felt tears rolling down his face.
It was unbearable.
"I've got to... do something, got to..." He mumbled to himself, running his shaking hands through his hair. He closed his eyes, but then he saw Sephiroth's blazing mako eyes glaring malignantly at him, stripping his soul bare.
His eyes snapped open, and he found himself trembling. He was still afraid of Sephiroth and though he was dead, he still haunted Cloud in innumerable ways. Cloud cringed inwardly with shame amidst his anguish. He'd never been strong, and he believed that in a way it was his fault that Aeris had died.
He strode into the bathroom and began washing his face. He needed to pull it together before Tifa got back, she'd be worried about him.
He sat on the edge of the bath, taking a deep breath. Wiping his hands on his pants, he looked in the large mirror hanging on the wall. His eyes looked a bit puffy and there were a few dark rings around them, but this was normal for him these days. Ever since the end of the ordeal with Sephiroth, he'd never really been the same. But full recovery from something like that is the stuff of fairy tales.
"And they all lived happily ever after..." Cloud whispered at his own pale reflection, his thoughts passing over all his old friends that had also suffered their lot.
Like poor Cid. Cid alone knew what Cloud felt. He only hoped that Cid had found more peace than he had.
He stood up and made his way back to the living room of the small apartment, but as he passed the front door there was a knock.
"Forgot your keys again, Tifa?" He mumbled as he went to open the door.
He didn't expect to see Cid standing there.
"Oh... Cid. Hi. I was just thinking about you." Cloud said quietly, his body exuding weariness.
Cid was about to speak, but instead stopped to look at Cloud concernedly.
"Hey, you ok, pal? You sure look beat."
"No, I'm fine." Cloud said, straightening his shoulders. "What about you, are you holding up okay?"
Cid couldn't help but smile a little bit as he lowered his head. "Uh, yeah. I'm doin' fine. Look, Cloud... a lot of stuff's happened since we last spoke, and uh... I met an old friend of yours who left somethin' for ya. I made a promise to myself that I'd bring it to ya with someone when I saw 'em again. So, uh - here we are!" He smiled at someone who was out of sight to Cloud who was standing well inside the doorway.
If Cloud had not expected to see Cid when he opened the door, then he definitely did not expect to see Vincent Valentine standing beside him.
Cloud stepped back a step in shock, staring at the tall dark haired man in disbelief. He looked different, sure - No red cloak, no claw, no headband, hair tied back loosely - but it was still Vincent. Even with his hair tied back strands of midnight black hair still fell rebelliously about his angelical pale face.
Cloud couldn't speak, but looked wordlessly in confusion from one to the other.
Vincent cast a gentle, thoughtful glance over Cloud Strife. He'd not seen the blond young man in so long.
Not since... he had been ill.
The last time he'd seen Cloud while healthy, like he was now, was... when Sephiroth had been defeated. So long ago now...
"I... don't..." Cloud stammered, staring at the man with crimson eyes, disbelieving his own.
"It's a long story..." Said Cid gently. "Can we come in? I'm freezing my ass off out here."
It took a long time for them to explain to Cloud what had happened, it took even longer for it to sink in.
He was still mulling it over as they were leaving, he kept staring at Vincent as though he wasn't really there and he was imagining him.
"Cid," Said Vincent in his familiar soft-spoken manner as they were just going out the door. "Have't you forgotten something?"
Cid frowned and opened his mouth, then something dawned on him. "Oh shit, I almost forgot. It's why we came here in the first place! Well, here ya go, bud. It's from you-know-who. We gotta run, we've got a train to catch! See ya!"
"Bye, Cloud." Vincent smiled at him as the bemused Cloud watched them walk away towards the sector station. Then he looked down at a small drawstring bad that Cid had handed to him carefully.
He backed inside and shut the door, taking the bag with him to the sofa. He sat down slowly, turning the bag over in his hands. gradually, he pulled loose the string knot that held it closed and peered inside.
It was a single large white feather.
"Well, that went well!" Cid grinned as he sat with Vincent on their own sofa in Rocket town.
"You didn't tell poor Cloud what it was, Cid." Vincent chided gently.
"Ahh, he'll know." Cid waved his hand dismissively. "Anyway, Cid Highwind is a man of his word. I always keep promises, no matter how useless they are!"
"They must miss each other terribly..." Vincent sighed pensively.
Vincent cuffed Cid lightly on the arm. "Cloud and Aeris."
"Oh, yeah." Cid said seriously. He was quiet for a long moment as they sat in companionable silence. "Vin..?" He asked at length.
Vincent turned his head to look at Cid.
"I've been thinking... now that you're with me, and everything's back to normal, I just wanted to check with you that... well," He scratched his head.
"What is it? "Vincent asked.
"You've got a life now. A proper one. No weird Jenova cells, no illness, no pain, no guilt... you've got back what you had before you met that-- well, before you joined Shinra. Are you sure that.. that you're happy being stuck here with me? I mean, I love you so much and we've been through everything together, it'd kill me to see you leave but I wouldn't stop ya because I know how much you probably want to get out there, to live--"
He was stopped in mid sentence as Vincent's slender hand clamped gently but firmly over his mouth.
"Cid," He began, his face full of seriousness but also tender. "You taught me how to love, you taught me how to care, you taught me how to be happy, and you taught me what it is to live. And when my time was taken away from me, you made the impossible possible, you gave me more. You are the other half of my heart, Cid Highwind, and I cannot live without you." He took his hand away from Cid's mouth and replaced it gently with his lips.
After a gentle kiss, Vincent leaned back again to discover there was a single tear trickling down Cid's face, was full of tenderness. Vincent knew then that their love was so strong that nothing could break it.
Not even death.
BREATH OF LIFE --- THE END