Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters, who are the property of Capcom and Square-Enix, respectively.

Synopsis: If you've played Dirge Of Cerberus, and you got the secret ending, you'll have an idea of what I'm planning. If not, you'll figure it out soon enough:)

Author's Note: Finally, Vincent is reunited with his friends. Beta'd by Littlehouseinthewoods.


Chapter Nine

A thunderious roar was all the warning Cloud got before a large blue blur dropped out of the air beside him. Acting on instinct, he whirled around, both swords raised for a fatal strike. His mako-blue eyes widened briefly, and he found himself lowering his weapons, a grin spreading across his too-young features. He watched with relief and not a little amusement as three people--whose garb marked them as some kind of soldiers--slid shakily off of Galian Beast's back.

Cloud couldn't help but chuckle as he nodded once in their direction, his bright gaze immediately finding Vincent's. That dog-like snout drew back, a long tongue lolling out of one side of its fanged mouth, in what passed for the Beast's smile. Cloud returned it before turning away, secure in the knowledge that Vincent would guard his back, no matter what might come.

Thank Gawd! he thought fervently. Vincent was alive and well and with them once again. It was time to end this.

The lights from the stalagmite formations had suddenly brightened a short while ago, and that had already helped them in their battle with the seemingly endless multitude of Umbrella monsters. The creatures--B.O.W.s, Redfield had called them--had been weakened significantly by the increased luminescence, and was making them that much easier to kill.

He lifted both swords and took a few steps to his right, slashing at the winged abomination that hovered just out of Tifa's reach. The length of The Hardedge and the Buster Sword gave him all the range that he needed. He closed both of the enormous blades in a scissor-like motion, and the monster dropped to the ground in two gory pieces. His wife sent him an all too familiar look, an endearing mixture of gratitude, exasperation, relief, and love, before moving on to the next monster.

Cloud could feel Vincent at his back, the odd sensation of fur brushing against his cloth-covered skin, intermittently moving away and drawing close as he fought. His mako-enhanced senses picked up the sounds of low growls and claws rending skin, and he allowed himself a small smirk. Not much could stand up to Vincent in his human form, let alone once he'd transformed into one of his alter egos. He had a feeling that this battle wasn't going to last much longer, which was fine by him. He had a few things to say to his distant, stoic friend that simply couldn't be said in the midst of battle.

He cut his way through the remaining monsters as quickly as he could, all the while taking note of the barrage of gunfire from both S.T.A.R.S. and Barret. While he could deflect bullets with one or both of his swords, it made it damn near impossible to fight anything else while doing so. Luckily, his own battle experience--along with that he had so unwittingly drawn from a dying Zack--was more than enough to keep him out of the path of those whizzing projectiles.

Cloud pushed all thoughts of his long-dead friend from his mind, knowing better than to dwell on the past, and all the things he couldn't change. For two years after Meteorfall, he had punished himself for his perceived failures. He had withdrawn from life, hiding in Aeris' church, hurting those who cared for him. After that final battle with Kadaj and Sephiroth, he had sworn to never again let his guilt get the better of him. While it was still there and probably always would be, he wouldn't let it dictate the course of his life. Those he had failed were gone, and he couldn't bring them back. It was enough to know that they watched over him from the Lifestream, and that he had long ago been forgiven. He wouldn't ask for any more than that.

Vincent slashed through one of the larger monsters, grunting as it flailed out with one claw-tipped wing in retaliation. Those sharp appendages sliced a trio of wounds into the fur-covered skin Galian's torso, cutting a little too easily through the spiral-shaped armor protecting it. He roared with pain and rage and grabbed the beak-tipped skull with one massive hand, crushing it into a bloody pulp. The bird-like body dropped to the floor in an ungraceful heap of decayed skin and hollow bones, and he turned away with an intense, animalistic feeling of satisfaction.

While he might hate the fact that he shared his body with four demonic beings, some dark portion of his psyche reveled in the power those beings bestowed upon him. Unfortunately, he only had so much time before the transformation would begin to drain him. If he didn't reverse the change soon, it would be forced on him, and that was something to be avoided at all costs.

With a mental sigh, he slashed his way to a relatively safe part of the room. He heard Cloud call his name, concern apparent in his smooth voice, but Vincent couldn't speak to reassure him. He could only draw a deep breath and command the Galian Beast to withdraw. The demon within howled its displeasure, but resisted for only a few moments before giving way.

Vincent ignored the unpleasant tingle along his spine, the surreal sensations as his DNA restructured itself, as his body changed until only he remained. He immediately drew Cerberus and launched himself back into fray. He found himself fighting alongside both Leon and S.T.A.R.S. as they cut down the already dwindling number of monsters. Cloud and the others were fighting on the other side of the cave, using the teamwork which had been so successful against Sephiroth and Jenova three years before.

Even as he fought alongside those who belonged in this world, he couldn't help but watch his friends--his family--fight with a nostalgic pang. While they hadn't been separated for than a handful of hours, he had missed them horribly. And as much as he hated the fact they might now be trapped here because of him, he was glad to know that he was no longer alone.

He felt something hit his back and immediately whirled around. He saw a flash of auburn hair, heard a high cry of feminine distress, and reacted instinctively. He grabbed Claire with his gauntleted hand, careful not to pierce her with the sharp golden talons, and yanked her away from the creature that was snapping at her with its bird-like beak. He lifted Cerberus and fired, unloading all seven bullets into its head.

It fell to the ground, its cranium destroyed, and looked to woman who already struggling against his hold. He quickly released her, scanned the area for more monsters, and holstered the empty gun. Her vivid blue eyes narrowed on his, and he was suddenly aware that her S.T.A.R.S. companions were all gazing him with wide eyes. "Are you all right?" he asked, ignoring those wary stares.

"Yeah," she snapped, those cerulean eyes flashing as she looked from him to the corpse and back again, "I'm fine."

He inclined his head once, relief filling him as Leon approached from his right. The blond was smiling as he came to a halt beside him, his bright blue eyes showing relief.

"Claire's a little impulsive," he said, rolling those eyes. "Thanks, for saving her from herself, Vincent."

Claire snorted. "Don't start, Leon. I'm not some helpless little--"

"Vincent!"

Crimson eyes widened dramatically as Vincent spun around, one hand going to the butt of the weapon he'd only just remembered was empty. However, there were no more creatures, no unexpected attacks save Yuffie's. The young ninja threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck in a stranglehold, her slender body shaking against his. He stumbled back a few steps before regaining his balance, his arms encircling her automatically. It took him a few moments to realize that she was speaking, but he really couldn't say that he was surprised. It was a rare moment when Yuffie Kusaragi wasn't speaking.

"Damn it, Vincent! What did you think you were doing? Leaving me alone like that in the crater, taking on Genesis by yourself." She paused, but only to frown up at him as she took another breath. "You scared the hell out of me, Vincent Valentine! Don't you ever do anything like that again! You got that? I'm the greatest ninja in all of Wutai! Why the hell did you think you needed to protect me, anyway?!"

Vincent could only gaze down at her as emotions he'd never thought to feel again churned turbulently inside of him. He whispered her name and dragged her back to him, his arms tightening of their own volition. He turned his face into the fine silk of her sable hair, unable to release her as he knew he should. He could only close his eyes as he struggled to find the calm that he had learned so painfully during his thirty-year slumber.

It eluded him, only one thought surviving the avalanche of emotion she had so unwittingly drawn from him.

Mine.

It was echoed by each of his four demons, Chaos' thunderous assertion of possession the most terrifying of all. It reverberated through his skull, and for just a moment, the demon's emotions mingled with his own. It was enough to show him that Chaos truly considered Yuffie to be his--theirs--and that he would do whatever it took to keep her, regardless of what Vincent had to say about it.

He shuddered and Yuffie shifted against him, her hands running through his hair, as she sought to comfort him. "Hey, it's all right," she told him in a surprisingly soothing tone.

"We're here, Vincent. We're right here with you. You're not alone anymore, okay?"

Vincent drew a deep, shaky breath and forced his unwilling arms to his sides. She released him slowly, her every movement screaming reluctance, and took a very small step back. Her beautiful ebony eyes locked on his, and he was stunned by the depth of the emotions he saw in her. "Yuffie?" he questioned haltingly.

She blushed, deep rich color flushing her tanned skin. "Vincent, I--"

"Hey, coffin-boy!" He gazed at her for a moment longer before tearing his gaze from hers. His ruby eyes focused on Cid as he and the others approached. The pilot's faded blue eyes suspiciously moist as he came to a halt before them. "You okay, Vince?" he asked in a more somber tone.

Vincent could only nod as the other man set a hand on his shoulder. Cid didn't say anything more, merely squeezed his shoulder reassuringly and stepped aside. Barret came next, swaggering towards him as he transformed the Missing Score back into his prosthetic hand. The bronze-skinned man stopped a few feet away, lifting his square chin in an all too familiar gesture of defiance.

"You're late, bitch."

He smiled a little at the typically belligerent delivery of those words, though the collar of his cloak hid the gesture. "Barret," he greeted evenly, relieved to hear that none of his clamoring emotions were evident in his voice, "I could say the same of you."

The big man merely grunted as he stepped back, making room for Reeve, who's swarthy aristocratic features betrayed his concern. "Vincent," he greeted, struggling awkwardly with the shoulder strap of his machine gun, "are you all right?"

"Yes, Reeve." Vincent reached out casually and adjusted the strap with his gauntleted hand, ignoring the other man's surprised look. "You shouldn't be fighting without a Cait Sith unit, though."

Reeve smiled self-deprecatingly at that. "And you shouldn't have let Genesis pull you into that portal," he returned wryly.

"Point taken." Vincent glanced down at Nanaki, whose golden eyes shone luminescently as he sat before him. "It's good to see that you're well, Vincent. We were worried about you."

Vincent crouched down and ran his right hand over Nanaki's flame-bright mane, ignoring Billy's, "What the fuck? It talks?", as he did so. "It is good to see you as well, my friend."

Nanaki made a sound suspiciously close to a purr before ducking his head in an embarrassed manner. He glanced over his shoulder pointedly, watching as Tifa and Cloud drew near. Vincent smothered a sigh and nodded once before rising. Nanaki padded over to Yuffie, who had also stepped to one side to make room for their leader and his wife.

Tifa's brandy-colored eyes ran over him, relief replacing worry in their burnished depths.

She smiled fondly as she drew near, and Vincent returned the gesture freely. He had always admired Tifa Lockheart, whose bravery in battle was only encompassed by the generosity of her spirit. "You gave us quite a scare, Vincent."

"I know," he acknowledged solemnly. She studied him for a moment longer before nodding, her smile gentling as her gaze moved to her husband.

Cloud came towards him with slow, unhurried step that belied the SOLDIER speed Vincent knew he possessed. His vivid blue eyes, which glowed with mako-induced power, held a hint of reproach as he stopped before him. "Vincent," he greeted simply.

"Cloud," he returned, keeping his voice level as he sought the urge to cringe under that admonishing stare. The ex-SOLDIER merely gazed at him, disappointment lurking in those mako-bright orbs, and Vincent slowly dropped his gaze. There was no question in his mind that Cloud had unearthed the secret he had hidden for so long, and it shamed him that the man he admired most knew him for the monster that he truly was.

Cloud watched as the dark gunner lowered his head, breaking eye contact as though ashamed, and sighed silently. Vincent's reaction showed him that he had been right, after all. Not that it mattered to him. He really didn't care that Vincent shared Jenova's mometic legacy with him. It didn't make the former Turk any different in his eyes. All he wanted to know was why Vincent hadn't trusted them--trusted him--with the knowledge.

He waited with deceptive stillness, silently willing the other man to respond. Vincent finally raised his head, those gleaming crimson orbs giving away nothing, and he managed a small half-smile. Vincent had never been one to show his emotions, no matter how strongly he might feel about anything.

He extended his right hand, his youthful features set in solemn lines, in an unmistakable gesture of friendship. Relief flowed through Vincent as he reached out in return, clasping the younger man's forearm in a warrior's handshake. He was shocked when Cloud took a swift step forward and drew him into a tight hug.

"Damn you, Vincent," he muttered fiercely. "If you ever pull another stunt like that again, I'll kick your ass myself."

Vincent let out a startled laugh before putting his gauntleted hand around Cloud's shoulders in return. Cloud squeezed him briefly before pulling away, and Vincent let him go. Neither chose to comment on the uncharacteristic display of affection, instead reverting to more familiar ground.

"You're all right?" he couldn't help but ask, needing what he knew would be unnecessary reassurance. Unnecessary or not, he wanted to hear it from Vincent himself before they moved on. The other man merely nodded silently, not the verbal reassurance he'd sought, but it was enough.

Cloud stepped back, the strangely reckless smile returning. "Alright, everyone, Vincent's back and Genesis is still on the loose. So. . ." the smirk deepened, "let's mosey."

"Oh, Gawd, do you ya have to say it like that?"

Cloud's smile only widened as their friends began to tease him for the less-than-macho colloquialism. Ignoring the din, his gaze flicked to S.T.A.R.S. and their allies. They were talking amongst themselves, their nervous gazes returning to Vincent again and again. Cloud only shook his head, suddenly sure that the other man's shape-shifting ability was the source of their conversation.

His own gaze shifted back to Vincent, whose eyes were locked on Yuffie's upturned face as she stood as close to him as she dared. Even as he watched she lifted one deceptively delicate hand and began to fiddle with the fastenings of Vincent's cloak. Instead of moving away, as he had always done in the past, the other man merely shifted towards her, murmuring something that Cloud--even with his enhanced hearing--couldn't hear.

It was all Cloud could do not to laugh at the delighted smile that crept across the Wutaian Princess' face. It looked as though Yuffie might get a shot at her Dark Turk, as Cloud had heard her call him more than once. Better Vincent than him, he thought with an amused shudder.

As though sensing his thoughts, the gunner lifted his head and turned towards him. Mako-blue met crimson-red, and any hint of humor faded. He kept his voice low as he said, "We need to talk."

Vincent's enigmatic mask slipped for just an instant before he nodded in agreement. "Yes, we do."

Ignoring Yuffie's overly curious gaze, the blond glanced around the cave-like room. He grimaced slightly at the sight of what had to be a least fifty dead monsters bleeding all over the man-made cavern. "Not here, though," he said quickly, his gaze finding and meeting Redfield's. "Are you ready to move on?"

Chris glanced at Leon, who nodded vigorously. He smiled faintly and replied, "We're ready, Cloud." Narrowed midnight blue eyes moved to Vincent, sweeping over him in a faint frown. "Leon says you're a shape-shifter?"

"Yes," Vincent replied, as though the large blue-furred beast he'd arrived as hadn't been answer enough.

The S.T.A.R.S. captain only studied him for a moment longer before nodding his dark head once. "You'll have to tell me what that's like--later, of course."

Vincent only sighed to himself. "As you wish, Captain Redfield."

Cloud chuckled at the resigned sound and gave him an affectionate thump on the back. Vincent quirked one ebony brow at him, his surprise obvious, and Cloud could only smile self-effacingly in response. He'd just had another one of his 'Zack' moments. Unlike him, Zack had never been shy, and had been known to jump his friends out of the blue and sweep them into bone-cracking hugs for no reason at all. While Cloud wasn't nearly as impulsive as his friend had been, Zack's spontaneity occasionally manifested itself in him in smaller, less suicidal ways.

It didn't happen too often anymore, but it did happen. Otherwise, he never would have intruded on the other man's personal space like that. "Sorry," he said with a helpless shrug.

Vincent only returned his smile faintly. "I wish I could have met him," he murmured sincerely.

Cloud dropped his head for a moment, his golden spikes bouncing with the motion. "So do I," he said at length. "He would have liked you, Vincent."

The gunman merely shook his head at that. "You honor me, Cloud."

The former SOLDIER grinned suddenly, the expression one that was foreign to his normally reserved features. "Shows what you know," he retorted before turning away, his attention focusing on his wife.

Vincent watched as the other man approached Tifa and laced his fingers through hers. A year ago, that never would have happened. Cloud had been so self-conscious around people, even those he considered family, that he would have withdrawn at the first sign of Zack Fair's personality manifesting itself in him. It had taken Cloud a long time to come to terms with the man he shared his mind with, and the displaced blame he had felt for his death.

But he had done so, yet another testament to his astonishingly strong will. Cloud Strife, the lowly Shinra cadet, the only man on The Planet capable of defeating the great Sephiroth. Their chosen leader, who would always put their welfare before his own, no matter what it cost him. Always the reluctant hero, yet a hero, nonetheless. A man Vincent was honored to call 'friend'.

He glanced over his shoulder, where Leon, Billy, and Rebecca waited, their eyes on him, and smiled. He wanted Leon to meet Cloud, of whom the former reminded him of so strongly. He glanced down at Yuffie, squeezed the hand that clung to his cloak so tightly, and stepped away. "I'll be right back," he promised her solemnly.

She frowned for a moment before crossing her arms over her chest. "You'd better be," she retorted with her typical fire.

He only smiled again. "Cloud," he called, slanting the man in question a pointed glance, "I have someone I want you to meet."

Cloud followed that deep red gaze, his curiosity immediately peaked. Vincent was the most anti-social person he'd ever known. He didn't like people, actually hated being around them, although he tolerated them well enough. That Vincent was bringing this man--this stranger--to his attention was a really big deal.

He shared a surprised look with Tifa, who only smiled and released his hand, and stepped forward. "Lead the way, Vincent. I'll follow."

Vincent shot him a strange look, a combination of puzzlement and wonder, before looking away. He found himself leading the other man, whom he had followed without question for so long, to the place where Leon stood with faint confusion. While he was grateful that Cloud was willing to indulge him in this, he didn't quite understand the other man's behavior, nor his odd words.

A mystery best left for another time, he told himself firmly as he came to a halt before his newfound allies. "Leon, I'd like you to meet Cloud Strife. Cloud, this is Leon Kennedy."

Leon studied the shorter man--Sephiroth's clone--with unconcealed interest. This was the man that Vincent had talked about with a respect so strong that it bordered on awe. He was shorter than Leon had expected, a good five inches under six feet. He was slender but not too skinny, toned but not buff. His vivid blue eyes glowed even more than Vincent's, which he hadn't thought possible, and actually complimented the unruly blond spikes that sprung from the man's head.

What struck Leon the most was the fine, nearly feminine features. A slightly pointed chin and rather square eyebrows were all that saved him from being labeled 'androgynous'. But, it was a close thing. The reality of Cloud Strife was the last thing Leon had expected after listening to Vincent's terrible, yet fondly spoken, descriptions of the whole Meteorfall thing. The guy looked a damn teenager. If Leon had to guess his age, he'd place Cloud Strife somewhere around seventeen or eighteen. A little too young to have saved his world three years ago!

Cloud saw the disbelief that bloomed in Leon Kennedy's pale blue eyes and fought the urge to roll his own. Yeah, he knew he looked young, but still. . .Ah, the wonders of mako, he thought sourly.

He forced himself to stillness as he returned the perusal with one of his own. Leon was older than him by a few years, he'd guess. Dark blond hair, cherubic features, and--of course--a taller, slightly more muscular build. Taller than his frame, at any rate.

Cloud snorted mentally. Everyone was taller than him, it seemed. At least, this one wouldn't call him Spiky, or rub his head like he was a puppy, or make chocobo comparisons that never failed to piss him off. Leon Kennedy's eyes were mature eyes, old eyes, like he had seen and done things that no one else had. A SOLDIER's eyes, only without the telltale mako glow.

He heard the subtle sound of leather-on-leather as Vincent shifted beside him and winced inwardly. While he and Leon had been engaged in their silent pissing contest, Vincent had been waiting patiently, and probably a bit nervously, for them to make nice. While Vincent would always keep what he was feeling to himself, Cloud knew him well enough to know that his own silence was enough to worry his companion. For some reason he had never quite understood, Vincent actually respected him, fucked-up failure though he was.

Well, he wouldn't let the other man down, no matter how delusional he believed him to be. Cloud smiled a little at the ridiculousness of his thoughts as he extended his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you," he said at last, forcing the shyness from his voice. "You must be really special, to have earned Vincent's respect."

Leon blinked with surprise, his gaze shooting to Vincent's, before meeting his once more. "Uh, thanks," he said, clasping the shorter man's forearm in the same grip he had Vincent's only hours before. "I could say the same of you, Mr. Strife."

Cloud only shook his head, making his golden spikes sway comically, as he dropped his hand. "Call me Cloud," he said, his smile doubling as his enhanced hearing detected Vincent's silent sigh of relief. "After all, you took care of Vincent for us while we were. . . separated."

Vincent saw the quick, exasperated look Cloud sent his way and smiled faintly. "It seemed like the best course of action, at the time."

Cloud's snort was audible this time, even though he chose not to respond to the words. "There are two more," he said instead, his mako-bright eyes moving to Billy and Rebecca. "How about introducing them, too?"

Vincent chuckled, the dark sound one that Cloud rarely heard. "Billy Coen and his wife, Rebecca Chambers. This is Cloud, our leader."

The one he'd called Billy was eyeing him with obvious skepticism, and Cloud just sighed. "I'm older than I look," he stated with irritation, "so don't ask."

"God, I hope so," Billy snapped right back, "or I'd be worried as hell about your world right now."

"Billy." Rebecca sent him a scolding frown before smiling sweetly at Vincent's very attractive commander. "The pleasure is ours, Cloud."

Cloud only nodded and shook her hand, not surprised when she grasped only his hand. Soldier or not, she was female. He gestured to the rest of the group, making introductions as quickly as he could. Now that Vincent had been appeased, he wanted to get the hell out of there before something else happened.

He dug the map out of his supply pack and unfolded it, doing his best not to flinch as both parties crowded around him. Much like Vincent, he wasn't all that fond of people. "We've got more labs here," he said, gesturing to a point beyond the next corridor. "It looks like there are some observation rooms in the corridor itself. I say we check the hall, and then find a place to rest for a while. We've got a lot of notes to compare, now that we're all together."

He looked at Chris, then Leon. "How does that sound?"

Chris only nodded, his expression grim. Leon smiled faintly as he did the same. Neither spoke, which surprised Cloud a little, but he wasn't going to bitch. Until they got a chance to discover what Vincent knew about Genesis and Wesker's plans, the really couldn't move forward. And, he and Vincent really needed to have that talk.

"Then, let's--"

"Say 'mosey' again and I'll kick your spiky little ass," Barret warned in a rumble.

Cloud only laughed and said, "Let's go."