Cloud sped down the country road, the warm summer wind whipping through his spiky blond hair as he rode Fenrir toward the dusty red canyon. It was late in the afternoon, and the mercenary-turned-delivery man was on his way to Cosmo Canyon to deliver a package to the Shildra Inn. It was good to be on the road, he thought to himself, without the fate of the Planet hanging in the balance—for once. His blades rested in their usual chrome scabbards along the side interior of his bike, of course, but he'd had little need of them lately. Cloud idly wondered when he should visit the weapon master south of Gongaga, to get them repaired. They'd taken quite a beating a few weeks ago, after all. So did he, for that matter, he thought with a slight chuckle as the scar above his left eye began to itch.
It'd all happened so quickly, far faster than Cloud had time to process, even with his penchant for brooding. He simply hadn't had time to think about everything that had transpired, and a part of him was afraid of it, of what it might mean. Feelings Cloud had locked away, that he thought he'd buried once and for all, came rushing to the surface. The deepest, darkest desire of his heart had come to pass, and it was taken from him before he could begin to grasp it:
The man he had once loved more than anything had come back to him, for a fleeting moment, and then he was gone.
Cloud could finally admit to himself that there was a part of him, deep inside his soul, that still ached for Sephiroth, still desired him in spite of the death and destruction he left in his wake. That part of Cloud would still love him, despite the pain and despair he caused him, and always would. He had learned to accept it, and was no longer ashamed or guilty about it. Aerith understood. She always did, even when Cloud didn't seem to understand himself. It was why there was nothing to forgive, as far as she was concerned, though it took Cloud a little thinking to see why that was. He chuckled to himself again. Even now, she was two steps ahead of him.
It was just before sundown when Cloud pulled his motorcycle into a tight curve, and rode up a steep incline, then slowed to a halt at the gates of Cosmo Canyon. He pulled his goggles off and sat up, looking high up at the buildings carved into the cliffside. The village looked the same as he remembered it, quiet and peaceful, the red dust of the canyon seemingly clinging to every surface in sight.
Cloud glanced to the side, and saw Nanaki bounding down the stairs, his glowing tail swishing behind him. Cloud smiled, and nodded in greeting.
"Hi Nanaki. How's it going?"
"Fine, actually. I was just off for my evening exercises," his old friend replied. "What brings you to Cosmo Canyon today? A delivery?"
"Yeah, we got a commission from the jeweler around the corner from the phone shop. I'm supposed to bring a package to the Shildra Inn."
"Ahh. It must be for Martiya."
"The innkeeper's daughter. She and Taron from the materia shop are getting married in a couple of weeks, and she's been out of her mind. I stopped by to get some lunch the other day, and had to listen to her crying about how she couldn't fit into her mother's wedding dress. She's driving everyone crazy," Nanaki said with a sigh. He suddenly gave Cloud an apologetic look. "Small town, you know how it is."
"I know what you mean," Cloud chuckled. "I grew up in one too."
"I'll never understand girls. Anyway, the inn's across from the Cosmo Candle," Nanaki said, pointing his muzzle toward the huge bonfire roaring in the distance.
"Thanks, I'd forgotten," Cloud replied. Nanaki nodded, and turned toward the slope leading down into the canyon proper.
"I'm sorry I can't stay, but I need to go finish patrolling."
"It's all right. It was good seeing you again," Cloud said with a wave. Nanaki grinned, and ran off into the distance.
Cloud rode over toward the enormous bonfire known as the Cosmo Candle, pulling around it. He stopped and dismounted in front of a small building carved into the cliff with a green awning hanging out front, and a dusty wooden sign reading "The Shildra" out front. He pushed open the door, and walked inside the inn's common room. A number of people sat chatting at the bar, and most of the long, cafeteria-style tables were occupied with travelers leafing through books while they ate. Cosmo Canyon appeared to be as popular a destination as ever for those studying the cycles of Planetary Life, perhaps even more so after the events of two years ago. It was only natural that people would come here to try and make sense of it all, Cloud thought.
He pulled a small package wrapped in brown paper out of his pocket, and walked up the short flight of stairs to the front desk. A harried looking young woman with dark hair sat behind it, feverishly giving instructions on the phone. With a final string of invectives that would make Cid Highwind blush, she slammed the phone down, and looked up, noticing Cloud for the first time, and looked rather embarrassed.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," she apologized with a nervous bow. "How can I help you?"
"Strife Delivery Service with a package for…" Cloud started, then looked at the small label on the box, "Martiya Lightfoot?"
"Oh the rings, thank goodness!" she sighed with relief. "Yes, I'm Martiya."
"I just need you to sign the invoice, miss," Cloud said as he handed her a slip of paper. She dutifully signed, and he handed over the box. "Thanks, have a good day."
Cloud walked back downstairs, and took an empty seat at one of the tables. He hadn't eaten anything but half a stale granola energy bar since early that morning, and he was famished. He picked up a small menu and browsed through it, nodding decisively to himself, and then a serving girl came around.
"Let me get the biggest freaking cheeseburger you have, well done, please," Cloud ordered. The girl giggled and nodded.
"Anything to drink?"
"Yeah, a cold beer."
She smiled and walked away, and Cloud reached into his pocket for his phone. He'd long since made up his mind that regardless of when he arrived in town, he was at least spending the night before making the trek back to Edge. He normally didn't venture this far out for deliveries, but there was a nice sum of gil involved, and it was nice to get out of the city once in a while. As he pressed the speed dial, he wondered what he would get Marlene and Denzel from the gift shop.
"Strife Delivery Service, Tifa speaking. How can I help you?" he heard a familiar voice say on the other end.
"Hey, it's me. I just made the drop off. Everything okay on your end?" Cloud asked.
"Yeah, things are fine. Barret came by this morning and took the kids to the park. Marlene's all tuckered out, I just put her to bed. She was really happy to see him," Tifa answered, and the waitress brought him a frosty mug of beer and a napkin.
"I bet she was." Cloud frowned as he took a sip, suddenly remembering the time difference between the continents. "Sorry for calling so late, I forgot."
"Don't worry about it. Was the trip there okay?"
"I had a flat tire near Gongaga, but I fixed it, and other than that it was fine. Did any other jobs come in?"
"Nope, looks like the schedule's clear for the time being."
"Good, I'm a bit tuckered out myself. I'm gonna leave in the morning. Do you need anything?"
"Not that I can think of." Cloud heard her pause. "Oh! When you go through Costa Del Sol could you…"
Tifa's voice faded in Cloud's ears, as the door creaked open and a startled hush fell over the room. He was suddenly taken aback by the tall, shadowy figure who crossed the threshold. Vincent Valentine walked quietly into the common room, and he was the last person Cloud expected to see here. His long, silky black hair was slightly disheveled, and he was rather travel-worn, but he otherwise looked much the same as he did the last time Cloud saw him. He rarely saw much of him in the last two years, as the mysterious ex-Turk seemed to come and go like the wind. Cloud smiled, feeling a genuine sense of delight at seeing his old friend again. Vincent had been on his mind quite a bit lately, ever since he saved his life in the Sleeping Forest. However, Cloud hadn't seen him since the celebration in Aerith's church, when the children were cured of Geostigma, and didn't really get to talk to him in all the excitement.
"Cloud? Are you listening?" the voice on the phone asked a third time.
"You must be tired if you're spacing out this much. I wanted to ask, when you go to Costa Del Sol, could you please get me a few bottles of that chili sauce? I ran out today and I need some for the buffalo wings, the stuff around here just isn't the right consistency."
Cloud watched Vincent as he walked up to the bar, receiving more than a few nervous stares.
"Sure, chili sauce, got it. Listen, I'll talk to you later. Say goodnight to Denzel for me."
"Okay. Take care, see you when you get home."
Cloud folded up his phone and put it back in his pocket, then waved his hand in the air. "Hey, Vincent!"
Vincent turned around, and gave Cloud a startled look.
"Cloud?" Vincent blinked, and strode over to the table.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
"I was about to ask you the same," Vincent said wryly. "May I join you?"
"Sure, of course."
Vincent sat down opposite Cloud, with a dramatic flourish of his tattered, crimson cape, and Cloud suppressed a chuckle. Others may have been put off by Vincent's many quirks, but Cloud was amused by them. Besides, sleeping in a coffin for who knows how many years was bound to make anyone a little bit odd.
"So," Cloud began. "What the hell are you doing here, anyway?"
"I was passing through the area, and I needed some supplies," Vincent answered with a shrug. "You?"
"Work. I had a delivery to make, and decided to get some rest and a bite to eat." Cloud tilted his head. "By the way, do you want anything? I'm buying."
"Don't be stubborn. You look like you haven't had a decent meal in days."
"Hmph. Who's stubborn?"
Cloud grinned, and the serving girl brought him a platter with a gigantic cheeseburger and fries. Cloud tore into the burger like it was about to leap off the plate, and Vincent was looking at it with undisguised lust.
"Still sure you don't want anything?" Cloud asked with a smirk, in between monstrous bites.
Vincent calmly looked at the waitress.
"May I have a medium cheeseburger, please? And a beer." The waitress smiled and nodded, then walked off. Vincent turned back to face Cloud. "Thank you."
Vincent's food arrived a short time later, and he and Cloud ate in relative silence. Neither was one for making small talk, and they both had rather pressing things to take care of. They polished off their meals, and sat contented.
"I wonder what kind of dessert they have," Cloud finally mused aloud. Vincent blinked.
"How you can even begin to think about that is beyond me. I feel as though I've eaten an entire cow," he confessed.
"Between the two of us, we probably did," Cloud said with a smile. "I guess I'll pass. I'm pretty tired, anyway."
"As am I."
"You have enough for a room?"
"Cloud," Vincent began firmly, "I will not allow you to spend any more gil on me. I appreciate the gesture, but it's entirely unnecessary."
"You're being stubborn again," Cloud argued. "Besides, I owe you."
"Never mind that," Cloud said, "just come on." He left a number of shiny gold coins on the table, and rose to his feet.
"Suit yourself," Vincent conceded, "but at least allow me to pay for half."
The two walked upstairs to the front desk, and Cloud rented a double room as Vincent stood to the side in silence. Martiya, who was still working the desk, gave the odd-looking pair a strange look, but said nothing and merely smiled as she handed Cloud the key.
Cloud unlocked the door, and wearily took his coat off and unbelted his elaborate black leather scabbard, letting it fall to the floor. He collapsed on one of the two beds, suddenly acutely aware of just how bone weary he was. It was nice lying in a soft bed for once, after having spent the previous evening on a hard pallet in Gongaga.
Cloud turned to his side and propped his head up with his hand, as Vincent shut the door behind him. He watched his friend as he removed his cape, folding the tattered garment neatly and placing it on the other bed. Cloud's eyes unconsciously followed the folds and silver buckles on Vincent's leather bodysuit, and he lowered his eyes in embarrassment.
Vincent took off his holster, placing his newly acquired gun, Cerberus, on the nightstand, and sat down on the other bed.
"Where did you get that, anyway?" Cloud asked curiously.
"Cid gave it to me," Vincent replied quietly as he slipped his feet out of his gold plated boots. "He commissioned it from the gunsmith in Rocket Town, for my birthday last year. It was rather unexpected."
"Tell me about it," Cloud said in amazement. "Wow. He's really mellowed out, hasn't he?"
"Indeed," Vincent agreed. "I suppose it's Shera's influence. Love does rather peculiar things to people."
That it does, Cloud thought to himself. He turned over onto his back, sprawling spread eagle on the bed. He was exhausted, his eyelids heavy, and all he wanted to do was sleep.
"My apologies, but I'm in desperate need of a hot shower," Vincent said.
"Go ahead," Cloud said with a yawn. "I'm about to pass out anyway." Vincent nodded, and walked toward the small bathroom, but stopped before he walked inside.
"What are your plans for tomorrow?"
Cloud kicked his boots off, and stretched his tired feet.
"I was gonna grab some breakfast and head out first thing in the morning. Where are you headed, anyway?"
"Nowhere in particular, really," Vincent replied with a shrug. "Why?"
"Want to ride with me to Edge? Marlene would probably like to see you."
Vincent blinked, and perhaps it was a trick of the dim light and his own fatigue, but Cloud thought he was blushing.
"I don't see why not."
Cloud was strangely relieved as Vincent shut the bathroom door behind him. He closed his eyes and sighed a little, wondering why in the world he'd invited him along. Company was nice, though he rarely admitted as such, and he liked the strange ex-Turk well enough. That, however, was precisely the problem. Cloud generally didn't like people, and never really had. It made the odd sort of unspoken bond that had developed between the two all the more confusing to him. And what had happened in the forest...
He shut his eyes, and begged sleep to overtake him, not wanting to think about what it all meant.