The hours rolled by in silence, the sun growing lower in the sky. However, as they neared Costa Del Sol, Cloud grew puzzled. The wind picked up considerably, snapping Vincent's cape sharply behind them, and even more strangely, there was vehicle after vehicle pouring out of the town the other way. In the year and a half or so he'd been traveling this route, he'd never seen so much traffic.
They rode into the beachfront town to find it nearly deserted. Windows were boarded up and covered in duct tape, tarp covering the boats, and all the shops were closed except the bar and the inn. When they reached the port, a harried-looking young woman with a clipboard, wearing a WRO uniform hurried over and gestured for them to stop. Cloud came to a halt and rested his tired feet on the pavement. It was then that he noticed there wasn't a single boat in the marina.
"Whoa, wait a minute! Didn't you hear?" the WRO official asked, giving the pair an odd look.
"Hear what?" Cloud blinked.
"There's a tropical storm warning in effect for this area," she replied with a blink.
"That explains the mass exodus," Vincent mused with a chuckle.
"Look, we're just trying to get to Edge. What's going on with the ferry?" Cloud asked. She blinked again.
"The Junon ferry went out of service hours ago, it's far too dangerous out on the water for it to run."
Cloud swore under his breath. The hell was he supposed to do now?
"The storm's projected to hit landfall in a few hours, you still have time to head to Corel—"
"We don't have enough fuel for that," Cloud interjected, glancing down in irritation at the digital display. He was counting on filling up in Junon, since the station here was a still a little too sporadic with its gas supply. He supposed that was the price he paid for not putting a mako tank in.
"Oh. Well, you're in a pickle, aren't you?" She frowned. "They're all out of fuel at the Solmart."
Of course, Cloud snickered to himself. Great, now they were stuck here.
"Is the inn filled to capacity?" Vincent asked. The official shook her head.
"The tourists have pretty much cleared out, you'll get a room no trouble." She gave them a perky, reassuring smile. "Well, I wouldn't worry too much. There's still a good chance the storm could stay at sea, that's why the evacuation was only voluntary. Anyway, I'd better get going. The bar's having a storm party, drinks on the house, and I'm not technically on duty right now. Be safe!" With that, she scribbled on her clipboard and headed off. Cloud shook his head, more annoyed with himself than anything else, and sighed.
"I'm sorry," he apologized to his friend. "It was stupid of me not to check the weather reports, considering the time of year."
"It wasn't your fault, and there's no use fretting now," Vincent said with a shrug. "Finding shelter is our paramount concern now. Let's go to the inn."
Cloud nodded, and smiled in spite of himself. The voice of reason strikes again, he thought with a chuckle. He parked Fenrir in a nearby garage, taking out a couple of blades for good measure, and hoped to every god and the Planet nothing would happen to that bike as he and Vincent walked back into town.
Just as the way too perky WRO girl told them, the inn was deserted, and the tiny handful of guests still staying there were surely off getting drunk. They had a quick exchange with the night clerk at the front desk, and Vincent decided to take a walk while he still could, leaving Cloud alone in the room with his thoughts.
Cloud was bone weary, and irritated with himself for making such a stupid miscalculation, and really just wanting to shower and go to bed. He wasn't terribly concerned about the storm itself. However, after all he'd been through, he thought being done in by a fucking tropical storm of all things would be funny in a twisted sort of way.
He stripped and got in the shower, the hot water washing over him giving him an immense feeling of relief. Cloud knew he should probably call Tifa, but he had too much on his mind, and honestly didn't feel like dealing with her nagging. Of course, that just meant he'd get chewed out worse later, but he couldn't bring himself to care just then.
After thoroughly scrubbing off the grit of the road, Cloud closed his eyes and rested his brow on the cool tile. Perhaps all the brooding on the way from Cosmo was what triggered it, but unbidden, his mind turned once again to the question that had been plaguing him for two years. Why did Vincent come back to the Northern Crater all that time ago, before they killed Sephiroth? Out of the whole group, he had the least reason to. He'd gotten his revenge on Hojo, he'd seen Lucrecia one last time even it was just a specter of the woman he once loved. Cloud remembered how he almost seemed hurt by the assumption he wouldn't come back, and thus never really asked him why. That look he gave Cloud back then was…painful. Was that way he stayed away now? No, it couldn't be something that trivial. It didn't keep him from saving him from Kadaj's gang.
The water grew cold, and that was Cloud's cue to get out. He toweled off and got dressed again, then stepped back into the bedroom. He jumped when he saw Vincent sitting on the far bed, casually reading a newspaper. Once a Turk, always a Turk, Cloud thought to himself with a snicker. Bastards were worse than ninjas.
"I thought you were going for a walk," Cloud chuckled.
"I did," Vincent replied. "I got—"
The wind howled in mid-sentence, and the room went pitch black.
"—a paper I can't read now," he sighed. Cloud frowned. It was just one of those days, it seemed. Well, there had to be candles or something around, all he had to do was go to the front desk and ask. He started for what he thought was the door, and tripped over something pointy. He expected to hit the floor, but stopped in mid flight.
"Maybe you should let me handle it," Vincent's hushed voice sounded deeply amused, and very near. Cloud realized the taller man must have caught him, and he felt warm all over again. Silently cursing himself, Cloud stood up in embarrassment.
"Thanks, but I'm fine."
"My eyes are far better accustomed to darkness than yours," Vincent insisted, and with a cold rush of air, Cloud suddenly found himself sitting alone on the bed. He rolled his eyes and swore under his breath. He was so infuriating sometimes, treating him like a child. Gods, he was just like—
It was an epiphany. Everything made sense to him, now: the almost instant rapport between them, the dull ache when he left, the paradox of comfort and unease he felt around him. Those jumbled mess of feelings came flooding back when he saw him again, in the forest, when all he did was touch his goddamn arm. Cloud almost wanted to laugh at his own stubborn stupidity. He couldn't deny it any longer; it simply wouldn't let him.
That, however, didn't make it right. Cloud sighed, and wished more than anything the feeling would just go away. He was finally at peace, he couldn't—
The familiar scent of roses filled the air, and he felt her voice in his mind again.
"Now you're just being silly. You loved me, and I'm not anything like Sephiroth."
"I know, but—"
"No buts! What difference does it make why you love him, anyway?"
"It's important, Aerith. I accept that I'll always care for Sephiroth, but it isn't fair to Vincent that I'm seeing him as some kind of substitute for the man I lost."
" Don't you see? The fact that you're so worried about it means you're not. Besides, you've had crushes on each other since we found him."
"Oh come on, you can't be that silly. You're pretty, Cloud, and you were the first person he saw in almost thirty years. Why do you think he avoids you so much? 'Cause he's just as stubborn as you are. Geez!"
Cloud turned beet red and squirmed uncomfortably, crawling up to rest against the headboard. How the hell did always she do that?
"But, what about Tifa?"
"Are you guys a couple?"
"Then so what? She didn't care when we were together. And she'd probably be happy that someone else was there to look after you."
"I don't know, Aerith…"
"Gosh, you silly boys. You're both so much alike. Always worrying! Just talk to him, and you'll feel better, I promise."
Soft, flickering light filled the room, and she went silent.
Vincent appeared out of the darkness, holding a small, old-fashioned oil lamp.
"It was the only thing he could spare," he explained, and placed it on the nightstand between the two beds. Cloud nodded, and Vincent turned to walk away. Despite his better judgment, he reached out and grabbed Vincent's claw.
"Don't go," he blurted out. Vincent raised an eyebrow at him.
"Afraid of the dark?"
"Maybe," Cloud said with a nervous laugh. Vincent turned the corner and sat beside him, languishing half-covered in shadow.
"You should be."
There was a long silence. Neither man was an enthusiastic conversationalist, and Cloud simply didn't know where to start. Somewhat surprisingly, Vincent made the choice for him.
"The calm before the storm," he mused rather poetically. "An interesting place to be, is it not?"
"'Interesting' isn't exactly the word I'd go for."
Cloud stared at the spluttering flame dancing in the glass jar, watching the shadows play on the wall out of the corner of his eye.
"It's…kind of annoying, you know? This weird anticipation, where you know something's going to happen, but you don't have any control over it. You have no idea when or how, all you can do is sit back and watch. I hate it."
"It can be discomforting," Vincent agreed. "However, one should make the best of it. There is always something that can be done, no matter how insignificant it may seem in the greater scheme of things."
"Like shining a light in the darkness." Cloud saw the distorted shadow of a claw flicker on the wall, as Vincent gestured at the lamp. Gods, everything was philosophy with him, Cloud thought to himself with a smile. Like a gothic version of those old monks in bad Wutaian kung fu movies, the sort that made their students stand under a waterfall for hours on end.
"What if you can't find a light?"
"There's always a light, Cloud. Some are easy to find, others hidden away so deep they seem nigh impossible to reach. But there is always a light."
Cloud turned his head and saw Vincent staring at him, crimson eyes the color of blood in the dim light. Otherworldly and beautiful, and they couldn't bear the look of his own. Vincent suddenly looked away, his pale visage haunted by something Cloud couldn't understand. It couldn't end like this. The still, small voice within—whether it was Aerith or his own intuition, it didn't matter—told him that the storm was no threat, that everything would be fine. Still, he couldn't leave it like this, regardless of what happened. He had to know.
"Why did you come back?"
"Back then. When I told everyone to find their reason to fight. You never told me why you came back."
"You never asked," Vincent shrugged.
"I'm asking now."
Vincent paused, and began to speak, but shook his head.
"Why does it matter?"
Cloud grunted, and wondered if Aerith got this annoyed with him. He noticed the sound of raindrops pelting the planks of wood that boarded up the window, and a faint rumbling of thunder.
"It just is, okay? What was your reason for fighting?"
Vincent looked up at him, and his eyes suddenly seemed like they were on fire.
"I could not let you walk alone into that dark, forbidding unknown. I knew the others would likely come back, and that you had Tifa there with you. However, nothing in this life is certain; we of all people know that. I was the only variable I could control. Thus, I returned."
"A debt outstanding. Because of you I was able to face the demons of my past. You were there with me. It was the least I could do to return the favor."
Cloud sighed. That's what it always came down to with Vincent, debt and obligation, and nothing more. Why did he even ask? Of course that was the answer he'd give, that's just how he was. Cloud was suddenly, irrationally angry.
"And why did you stay away after that? Debt paid, that's it?"
"Cloud, I'm afraid I don't understand—"
Cloud pulled Cerberus off the nightstand and held it up.
"You got this from Cid. Nanaki says you've been in Cosmo a bunch of times. Barret's seen you. Reeve said he gave you a WRO badge, and you got one of Tifa's ribbons for Aerith. You've seen every last fucking one of us multiple times since then, except me. Am I somehow different from everyone else?"
Vincent leaned across the bed, and closed his hand around Cloud's, grasping the gun.
"Yes," Vincent answered, his voice scarcely above a whisper. He pulled the gun from Cloud's hand and put it back on the nightstand.
"How?" Cloud demanded, but found himself faltering as Vincent shifted his weight, resting against the headboard beside him, and stared down at him. Gods, those stupid, pretty red eyes that stole the anger from him before he could even get it out.
"I…" Then, it was Vincent's turn to falter, and he lowered his head, locks of long black hair draping his face like a curtain. "The fight is over. Sephiroth is no more. You have no more need for me, and it is best for us both if…"
"What the fuck are you on about, Vincent?" Cloud's anger came roaring back. "Of course I need you!" he cried.
There was a great boom of thunder outside, so tremendous it shook the very room, almost as if to emphasize his point. Cloud scarcely noticed it, however. All he was focused on was Vincent's abject, senseless stupidity.
"You saved my life!" he raged. "Kadaj would have fucking killed me if you hadn't shown up!"
"And if another threat shows itself, I will be there to fight alongside you. But, Cloud, please believe me, it would be better if you simply forgot about me," Vincent stubbornly insisted. "I'm dangerous."
"For fuck's sake, you're not dangerous and if you were I don't care!" Cloud screamed in frustration. "Gods, you sound just like…" he stopped himself before he went too far, but Vincent's eyes narrowed on him in a shrewd gaze.
"Sephiroth?" Vincent finished the sentence for him.
"But—how—" he spluttered.
"I'd held suspicions from our very first conversation in the mansion," Vincent began. "However, in the North Cave, when you gave him the Black Materia…that is when I knew. The way you looked at him was not the way one would look at one's greatest foe. You looked upon him as an old lover would, one who longed to fall into his arms. Your very soul ached for Sephiroth to love you again, and in that single terrible moment, it was written all over your face."
Cloud was suddenly left speechless, and he stared lamely at Vincent. He never told anyone about his relationship with Sephiroth, except Aerith. None of them would have understood. However, Vincent knew. All this time, he'd known, and never said a word to the others. There was a crash of lightning, and thunder rolled once more outside. They sat in silence for some time, punctuated here and there by nature's cacophony. Finally, his anger dissipated, Cloud broke it.
"Why didn't you say anything?" He asked.
"It was not my place," Vincent answered simply. "You had your reasons for not telling us, and I respected that."
"Vincent, thanks. I really appreciate that, more than you know. But I still don't understand why you think you're dangerous to me, or why you think I don't need you."
Vincent raised his hand, as if he wanted to reach out to Cloud, but hesitated. He lowered his eyes, and started to push away, but this time Cloud wouldn't let him. The smaller man reached up and firmly held his friend's chin, forcing him to face him. Cloud gazed at him steadily, and the cool, collected façade of the ex-Turk shattered before his very eyes. Vincent was trembling, his crimson eyes haunted by fear and self-loathing.
"You have known such horror and suffering in your life. I would not add to it."
"I would let you go, as I let her go…"
"And sin again?"
Vincent's eyes grew wide, and Cloud could see the tears begin to form in them.
"I…I don't want to hurt you, Cloud." His voice was broken.
"You won't hurt me."
"If I lose myself, I will. The demons inside me don't care who you are, they don't care that I…" Vincent halted, too afraid to say the words that shone as plain as day in his eyes.
"Gods, you emotard, just shut up, I don't care."
Cloud closed his eyes and leaned up, pressing his lips against Vincent's. He felt him start to kiss back, but then he stiffened, and pushed the blond away.
"Stop it, I can't." Vincent was struggling to keep the tears away.
"Vincent…don't ever tell me that I don't need you," Cloud whispered, taking his tear-stricken face into both hands. "I need you."
"I said stop it!" Vincent growled, and pushed him away again, harder this time. Cloud slapped him dead across the face, and Vincent blinked, more stunned than physically hurt.
"You stop it!" Cloud cried. "Why are you doing this to yourself? All it's doing is hurting you!"
"I deserve it!"
Vincent rushed to his feet, and moved to the door outside, but Cloud was ready for him. The smaller man stood firm, blocking his path, as immovable as Mt. Nibel.
"Get out of my way, Cloud," Vincent said, his tone a deadly quiet.
"Like hell I will."
"Don't do this."
"No, Vincent. That night, in the Sleeping Forest, when we talking about sin and forgiveness…I was only half joking when I told you I'd try it and let you know."
"It works, but it begins and ends with you. No one can forgive you unless you make the choice to forgive yourself. Other people can tell you that you were blameless, that it wasn't your fault…and not one bit of it makes a difference until you try to see it for yourself."
"Cloud…I apologize." Vincent sighed, and Cloud wrapped his arms around his neck, resting his head on his shoulder.
"I'm not Lucrecia, and you're not Sephiroth. I'm Cloud Strife, and you're Vincent Valentine. The only possible way we could repeat our past mistakes is by forgetting that they're just that, in the past."
Vincent wrapped his arms around Cloud tentatively, taking great care that he didn't hurt him with his claw.
"I won't break," Cloud chuckled softly. There was a slight breeze as Vincent pulled him close, enveloping him in his cape. It was that wonderful sensation of warmth and security from that night, the one that he'd dreamed about ever since.
"I'm too old for you," Vincent said softly as he held him.
"Technically, you're only six years older. The time you spent asleep doesn't count."
"You aren't the slightest bit afraid of me?"
"I killed Sephiroth twice. I think I can take an old, sorta-dead Turk."
Vincent shook with silent laughter and pressed Cloud tighter against him, until he could feel his slow, steady heartbeat.
"I'm not dead, Cloud. Not anymore." With that, he leaned down and kissed him, softly at first, and then it blossomed into something fiercely intense. Cloud was powerless to do anything but simply melt into it; it was like nothing he ever felt. He was profoundly disappointed when it stopped.
"I love you, emotard."
"Takes one to know—"
Cloud reached up and kissed him again, tangling his fingers in Vincent's hair. He suddenly didn't feel much like talking. Defeated, Vincent returned the kiss, and they stood there for some time simply drinking in the comfort of one another's company.
"I do love you, Vincent," Cloud said in all seriousness.
"I should hope so. Else I've made a terrible fool of myself for no apparent reason." Vincent kissed the top of his head. "I love you as well, Cloud."
"Doesn't forgiveness feel good?" Cloud smiled.
"I suppose I could get used to it."
Cloud looked up at him, and for the first time he could ever remember, Vincent Valentine was smiling, too.