Stones: Chapter 6

Epilogue

 

Cid blinked sleepily, awakened by the motion of Vincent leaving their bedroll.

It had taken longer to return to this place than Cid had planned, but at last they’d had the opportunity to get away and the Tiny Bronco rested on a long gravel bar beside Vincent’s lake.

Vincent himself stood silent on the shore, his back to Cid; his pale skin painted rose-gold with the first colors of sunrise.

Cid propped himself on one elbow, just watching. His other hand slipped beneath the pillow they’d shared, finding the stones Vincent gathered the night before as they wandered the shoreline.

Several times Vincent had stopped, looking at him, his lips parting as if he would speak before shaking his head slightly and walking on. He’d kept his eyes on the path, pausing now and then to choose a water-smoothed stone from among the many scattered there.

Late that night, Cid made love to him with a depth and passion that left both of them exhausted and content. Afterward, Cid spoke of the future; and Vincent had given him the stones he gathered.

Three stones…a solid foundation…shedding the final weight of the past.

I love you

Vincent lifted his face to the rising sun; his eyes closed. Then he walked into the lake.

Several moments passed and Cid was beginning to feel the first stirrings of alarm when Vincent didn’t resurface.

But then ripples exploded upward in rainbows as a pale figure broke the surface and leapt for the sky.

Wings spread to capture the morning and his graceful, joyous movements followed the patterns of rising mist as Vincent danced.

*******

End

Of my reasons for defying reason
Embracing the seasons
We dance through the colors
Both followed and led

The sacred simplicity
Of you at my side

…Vienna Teng: Eric’s Song

**********

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Stones: Chapter 5

Rating: Solid M this chapter

Only when Vincent appeared to be resting somewhat comfortably did Cid feel as if he could finally take a deep breath.
He sagged back against the maintenance shaft in exhaustion; hearing the sound of something crumpling at his lower back.
He reached for it, hoping he hadn’t damaged Vincent’s drawing. As it was, he’d only managed to crease it a bit, but hadn’t stained it with his bloodied clothing.

The picture Vincent had drawn was of Cid himself; sitting by the waterfall after Vincent departed. How long had the gunman stood just out of sight, watching him?
He held the paper in his hand, hoping he hadn’t irretrievably broken Vincent’s fragile trust.

Carefully, he tucked it under the back cover of the blank logbook he’d gifted Vincent. The white stone Cid had given him marked a place within and Cid could see an edge of writing where it was held partially open. He placed the book back in its original position, resisting the temptation to read. He’d already done enough damage without violating Vincent’s privacy.

Cid raised himself to a crouch; pains from sitting in such an uncomfortable position, as well as his injuries making themselves known. If he was going to accomplish anything else before caving from exhaustion, it would have to be soon. He staggered to his feet, swaying a moment before he caught his balance. Considerably more slowly than he had last made the trip, he descended the ladder and went about the business of gathering the rest of the supplies he’d requested from Tifa. He bundled everything in the blanket, tying the corners together. He looped the belt under the knots then slung the bundle behind him as an awkward pack before making his way back up to the catwalk.

A cold sweat chilled him as he rested beside Vincent once more, the trip back up the ladder draining almost the last of his reserves. Still, he owed Vincent better than to leave him streaked with the blood of injuries Cid himself had inflicted. And so he unwrapped the blankets, brought out the canteens he had asked for, glad that the one was still warm to the touch. It wasn’t much, but under the circumstances was better than nothing.
As gently as he would have for a child, Cid removed the brass gauntlet; swallowing hard at the sight of the badly damaged arm it revealed and felt tears prickling at his eyes. He bathed Vincent carefully and washed what he could of his hair where it had soaked up the blood of his wounds.

Only then did he attempt to care for himself. He stripped off his blood-stiffened clothes and found himself less injured than he’d previously thought; aside from the heavy bruising around his shoulder. The antiseptic burned through the places where Vincent’s claws had raked him. Guilt washed over him once more as he realized how shallow the slashes actually were, even as Cid fought him so violently. Those talons were deadly, yet they had barely broken Cid’s skin.
He then washed himself with the last of the warm water from the canteen, berating himself for not thinking to ask Tifa for a change of clothing. He could just imagine the reaction he would get if anyone saw him making his way through the ship wearing nothing but a blanket belted around his waist.

Sighing, he proceeded to move Vincent’s unconscious form to one side so he could spread a clean blanket for him to rest upon. Forcing himself not to pay attention to the sight of Vincent unclothed was difficult; even in his exhausted state of mind. He then gently raised the gunman’s head, removing the stained pillow to replace it with a fresh one from his bundle. A clean blanket then covered the slender body, and Cid felt satisfaction in knowing he’d cared for Vincent as best he was able. He uncapped the remaining canteen, taking a long, welcome drink of its coolness before closing it and placing it near to hand. If Vincent needed water in the night, he didn’t want to be hunting blindly about for it. He merely glanced at the food included in the bundle, uninterested. At least he would have something to feed Vincent if he became hungry. Cid made one last call to the bridge, letting Cloud know he would not be available until further notice and reassuring him regarding Vincent’s condition.

The pilot’s next decision was made for him. He honestly didn’t believe he was able to remain upright and on watch any longer. His body demanded rest; but Vincent might wake and need aid and Cid wanted to be certain he would be aware instantly if such occurred. He crawled painfully beneath the blanket; draping one arm carefully across Vincent below the damaged ribs. He was asleep before his head came to rest on the pillow beside the gunman’s dark one; his last conscious thought that of wondering how he would explain his lack of clothing if Vincent was the first to awaken.

*********

The space where Vincent had lain was empty, but this was neither more, nor any less than Cid expected. He blinked blearily to clear the sleep from his eyes and considered sitting, but after a failed attempt gave it up as a bad idea. He brought his forearm up to rest across his eyes and sighed. His internal clock told him it was the depths of the ship’s night; so there wasn’t anything beyond routine that needed doing anyway and if there had been, the others could handle it.

At least Vincent hadn’t killed him in his sleep.

Not that Cid would have blamed him. Adding what he had discovered about Vincent to what he already knew; the pilot considered. To his knowledge, the gunman had never transformed in the presence of the team before now; or if he had, no one had witnessed it and made the connection between the creature and Vincent. If Vincent chose to hide this aspect of himself, Cid couldn’t blame him…Cid knew enough about Cloud’s past to appreciate the gunman’s probable mindset, but it at least meant Vincent retained some measure of control over when the transformation happened. The battles they’d faced thus far together had all involved Vincent using his abilities as a superior marksman, and those abilities were impressive indeed. The man got the job done.

So…apparently Vincent had not yet felt the need to call upon whatever the creature was that Cid had seen.  This in turn implied Cid would not need to be concerned about a Hojo-induced, genetically-altered monster running loose on his ship. The pilot would have to ask Nanaki what he’d noticed about Vincent; the being from Cosmo Canyon had senses to call upon which humans simply didn’t share.
But Red would surely have made mention if he’d seen anything, wouldn’t he? And Cloud…another possible source of information. He knew at least something about the genetic tampering Hojo was so obsessed with…damned if it wasn’t confusing.

Cid could have chased these thoughts endlessly, but they were just the facts as he knew them. He weighed what he felt against what he had learned and knew it made no difference. Vincent was what he was, and Cid would be damned if he would dismiss him as a freak. Some things were worth fighting for, and Cid wasn’t going to give up without a battle. Whether Vincent felt the same, or if he would ever trust Cid again after the damage the pilot had inflicted upon him remained to be seen; but all that could be done was to wait for whatever happened next. They had to start somewhere.

A small sound distracted Cid from his thoughts and he listened closely; following it to its source. He sat up painfully, turning to face the direction from whence the noise had come.

Vincent sat behind him, his knees drawn up under his chin. His arms were wrapped around his legs, hugging them to himself. The bandages upon the gunman’s arms were gone. Cid was thankful the low-level materia had done its job, but wondered how it had worked so quickly. More mysteries…

Vincent was wedged as tightly into the far corner between the railing and bulkhead as he could manage, almost as if he were trying to make himself as small as he could. His dark hair fell about him in a curtain, blanketing as much of his body as possible from Cid’s gaze. The jeweled eyes stared across the space separating the two of them; filled with the deepest sorrow Cid had ever seen. The shame he had seen in Vincent’s expression when they were at the waterfall had returned; and over it all lay a sense of hopelessness.

Many thoughts crossed Cid’s mind in rapid succession.

This was not how it was supposed to have been.

Not in this sad little corner that defined Vincent’s place in the world.

It was supposed to happen somewhere beautiful; a place worthy of what Cid felt for him.

Cid dreamed of sitting with Vincent on the deck at sunrise, his toolbox open to reveal what he gathered beside their waterfall. Had dreamed of giving the stones to Vincent, watching as he tossed the weight of words over the side one by one. Had dreamed of taking him to back to Vincent’s lake, making love to him for the first time on its shore as the sun rose to paint the water the color of his eyes.

All these things, and more…but all that remained was here… and now.

Cid moved slowly; pausing to light the candle on its dented little saucer before reaching for the stone marking the pages of Vincent’s journal.
He let the book fall closed without ever having glanced at the page; letting him know his secrets were safe, feeling Vincent’s eyes following his every movement.

Cid did as he had done before; placing the smooth white stone in Vincent’s hand and gently closing his fingers around it. For a long, breathless moment he held the gunman’s gaze, telling him without words that the stone’s meaning had not changed.

Tears started in the jeweled eyes, hung upon his night-dark lashes before falling to splash upon the damaged arm still tightly wrapped around his knees. Cid gently claimed that hand also, drawing Vincent back to the blankets and into his arms. He held him there, the dark head upon his shoulder; determined to be Vincent’s strength until he could reclaim his own.

When Vincent at last raised his head to meet Cid’s eyes, there was hope reflected there…and the beginnings of desire.

Cid buried his hands in the black silk of Vincent’s hair, his fingertips caressing his crown as he lowered his head to place a soft kiss upon the upturned lips. Vincent’s eyes drifted closed, leaning into the touch, claiming another, deeper, the moment their lips parted.

Desire burned into a bright spiral of hunger; and Cid gave himself fully to the need awakened the day he first held Vincent in his arms. He touched, tasted, caressing the beautiful face, kissing his way down the line of Vincent’s throat. The dark head fell back, an almost inaudible humming the gunman’s only voicing of his need to be seen; to be held, to be anchored within something he had yet to fully understand. Cid’s fingertips gently traced the path of Vincent’s scars; his lips following, apologizing for the wounds he had inflicted, accepting even the years-old damaged places of the slender body as being beautiful in his sight.

Vincent’s hands clutched almost desperately within the pilot’s bright hair, his body vibrating with the flames Cid was igniting everywhere his touches traveled. Cid’s hands and lips sculpted his very being; discovering the mystery, initiating a wholeness; leading him along the path to a life beyond mere existence. Cid’s touches were everywhere, claiming as he gave, his lips at last closing around Vincent to bring the truth of his feeling to the fiery core of his being. The humming rose to a keening cry as Vincent’s very essence was demanded of him; bringing him to the brink of a high and sacred place, yet not allowing him to fall. The touch drew away, slowly, and Vincent’s eyes fluttered open.

Cid’s gaze met and held his own, never breaking their contact as he drew Vincent to rest upon the full length of his body. The blue eyes held a depth of trust that made Vincent’s tears threaten to fall anew; until he was shaken to the core of his being by the motion of Cid’s thighs opening in silent entreaty.

A day would come when they might play the roles of dominance, but this day was for healing, for finding the way to a place of belonging. Vincent made a small sound of protest; silenced by the heat of another kiss as Cid claimed his lips; his hands slickened by whatever Cid had found in the medkit to ease their joining, and a spark long buried blazed anew.

Vincent’s renewed keening broke in a shuddering breath as work-roughened hands prepared, then guided him to sink himself within the warmth of Cid’s body.

Vincent couldn’t breathe; couldn’t think. He could not see, but the urgency to move, to claim this pure aliveness fed his instinct to gift this all-encompassing wealth of feeling to the one who rose in perfect trust to meet him.

At the last, when they lay quietly entwined once more, something in Vincent’s heart broke free of the place where it had lain buried so long in the darkness.

****************

And of course I forgive
I’ve seen how you live
Like a phoenix you rise from the ashes
You pick up the pieces
And the ghosts in the attic
They never quite leave
And of course I forgive
You’ve seen how I live
I’ve got darkness and fears to appease

…Vienna Teng: Eric’s Song

Stones: Chapter 4

It almost felt like flying.

In Cid’s mind, the experience happened painfully slowly, despite knowing how fast his plummet was truly occurring.

Plenty of time for his mind to provide a deluge of thoughts, memories and regrets.

Almost idly he wondered what had attacked them, and if the others were aware of the danger. He twisted in midair; bringing himself to look upward where the silhouette of his airship was rapidly dwindling. Looking for, and hoping not to see what he dreaded most; Vincent falling somewhere near him. In this position, he at least did not have to watch Death coming for him and was quietly thankful. He knew what happened when a body fell from such a height; at least the pain would be a thing of mere moments, quickly over.

So many things he wanted to say…

A whispered goodbye; the only chance he would ever have to voice what he held within and Cid closed his eyes, giving himself over to the inevitable.

The breath was driven from his lungs; a strange vertigo and nausea accompanying the sensation of being jerked abruptly upward as claws closed around him. He opened his eyes upon a nightmare, glowing yellow demonic eyes and fangs mere inches from his face. Leathern wings struggled to keep himself and the winged horror aloft, despite the drag of their combined weight.

An instant’s hesitation was lost to shock before Cid exploded into action. In his mind, the death awaiting him below was much preferable to ending up as a meal for the thing which held him in its clutches. He fought with everything he had, though weaponless, knowing he could not win; but he could at least keep the thing distracted long enough to hopefully take it with him. He spit out the foul results of the damage his teeth inflicted; and thought he heard the satisfying crunch of broken bones as he brought a knee up with all the force he could manage into the thing’s torso. A short but powerful punch to the face followed and his attacker keened with the pain of it; its grip faltering. Another kick connected close to the area along the ribs the pilot had injured and won him his freedom.

He fell anew.

Only to be snatched from midair once more, this time in a manner that left him face downward with his arms pinned to his sides. The creature struggled in its flight; its breathing raspy and uneven. Cid felt wetness upon his back, and hoped he’d done some real damage to the thing. Their ascent was jerky, uneven; as the demon that held him brought him slowly upward, back toward his airship. Even in the position in which he was held, the pilot managed to twist his head around enough to see more winged, demonic forms swarming as shadows across the ship’s moonlit framework. The creatures bore little resemblance to the one that had grabbed Cid, but they were bad enough. More mutations…escaped from Gaia knew where.

Barrett’s gun blazed and he glimpsed Cloud’s sword; light bouncing off the edge of its downward arc. Tifa and Yuffie fought back-to-back, holding their own. Nanaki slashed and snarled with a fury as savage as the creatures attacking them. Cid twisted and turned, feeling the creature’s claws breaking his skin, raking along his ribs. His gaze searched frantically for Vincent; but the gunman was nowhere to be seen. Nor did he hear the deep, triple voice of Cerberus and he knew he surely would have if Vincent was present and still able to fight. Cid went limp in the creature’s grasp, a part of him no longer caring as he closed his eyes in misery, thinking of Vincent’s shattered form upon the jagged peaks somewhere far below.

In doing so, he had no warning or chance to roll with the impact as he was abruptly released; dropping several feet to the deck. He felt the fall dislocate his shoulder and spared a moment’s gratitude for not having broken his neck. His breath had been once more driven from him but he rose, staggering into the fray to reach the demonic presence of the creature that had captured him and then landed clumsily only a few feet beyond. Its great wings sagged around its body as it braced upon what passed for hands and knees, bleeding from the wounds Cid had managed to inflict.
If the thing thought it was going to share Cid or any of the others as a banquet among its winged friends, it had another think coming.

The area where they fought was just beyond the bridge, backlit from the great windows. Cid was grateful for Barret having the presence of mind to grab his lance when he raised the alarm and the pilot snatched it from him with a quick nod of thanks, dodging the litter of nightmarish bodies as he struggled to remain upright on the blood-slickened deck.
Whatever the creature was, it’s greater size gave the appearance of being the leader of these monsters; and Cid was determined to take it down before it could recover and regroup the others. He skidded to a halt before it, raising the Venus Gospel to strike with his good arm.

The creature merely looked at him in that long, suspended moment; the intelligent eyes filled with pain. Cid could not help but shudder at what he saw in that gaze.

And then it disappeared.

Momentarily startled, Cid blinked, staring at the place where it had been but a moment before; but then a warning yell from Cloud brought him twisting about to skewer another demonic form bearing down on him from above.  Still, he kept a wary eye for the creature’s sudden reappearance as the demonic bodies piled up around the team or were flung over the railing.

As suddenly as the attack had come, it was over; the remaining creatures fleeing into the darkness.

Cid gave himself a moment to catch his breath before he began taking stock of the others’ status. They all appeared to be on their feet, but there was still no sign of Vincent.
Barked questions as to his possible whereabouts produced no answers and Cid ignored his own orders regarding injuries to begin a frantic search, hoping he would be wrong in his earlier fears. There was no trace of the gunman on the outer decks; but Cid refused to accept what his mind told him; that his search would prove fruitless.

Running back the way he had come through the outer corridors, he burst onto the bridge; snarling over his shoulder for Cloud to take control of the airship as he sprinted toward the engine room. Cid doubted any of the creatures made it inside, but he paused in his search just long enough to trade the Gospel for its shorter version, one intended for close quarters. If Vincent were anywhere on the ship, his hideaway was where he would be. Cid had covered only a few feet of interior corridor beyond the bridge before he was confronted with smears and red spattering on walls and floor. Dread built in him as he doubled his pace, for the blood trail led unerringly in the direction Cid himself now traveled. He never slowed as he ripped a medkit from the wall in passing.

He barely gave the door to the engine room time to slide halfway open before he was through it, his eyes searching frantically among the shadows.

But he had found what he was looking for.

A thin ribbon of red trailed down the side of the boiler directly underneath Vincent’s hideaway; and as Cid watched, another drop fell to join what had already dripped to the floor.
He dropped his lance and was across the room and up the ladder in a seeming instant; despite having to climb one-handed. He raced along the narrow catwalk, heedless of his own safety and the considerable drop beneath him should he make a misstep.

Vincent lay curled small as a child in his blanket, a blanket dreadfully marked as the red stains seeped through.

Cid crashed to his knees; reaching desperately to uncover Vincent, to find if he still lived.
Underneath, the gunman’s clothing was little more than rags. Cid’s hands faltered; shaking as he stripped the remains of it away to discover the extent of his injuries.

A ragged breath from the gunman rewarded Cid’s rough handling. The pilot made a sound somewhere between a sob and a sigh of relief; forced himself to slow down, his hands becoming gentler in their insistent search.

Vincent was terribly bruised; his ribs obviously broken, his skin tattered with injuries. Vicious wounds had ripped through muscle to the bone, all but tearing chunks from the small body; and Cid loosed a low, keening sound as he uncovered more than a dozen of them. The pilot’s mind reeled in sudden, terrible clarity with the shock of what he saw before him.

Oh, Vincent…what have I done?!!

Cid knew what he had seen, but his mind veered away from it; he would think about what it all meant later. The creature and Vincent were somehow one and the same…and the thing Vincent had transformed into hadn’t hurt him in retaliation for what Cid had done; even when it had every chance. Cid shook his head to clear it. This was Vincent before him; he’d be damned if he would let him down.

Sparing only a moment from his task, Cid fumbled for his PHS, letting Tifa know Vincent had been found. He also requested her to bring certain items and leave them outside the engine room door, but for no one to enter under any circumstances. After he had spoken with her, he made quick calls to Cloud and Barret, giving coordinates to bring the airship to another of their secluded hideaways, knowing they could manage. Yuffie, Tifa, and Nanaki were to patrol the ship, making sure everything else was secure. Cid continued to work on Vincent’s wounds while he waited to hear from Tifa; applying antiseptic and bandaging where he could. He was doubly grateful for Vincent’s unconscious state as he grabbed the needle and silk thread from the kit; bracing his shaking, almost useless hand to assist the task of awkwardly sewing with the other, trying not to think of the new scars he’d caused.

The pilot had managed to close the worst of Vincent’s wounds when Tifa called to let him know her task was complete. He thanked her quietly; earning himself a surprised silence in return before the connection closed. When he at last finished, he risked leaving Vincent for a moment to gather the things she had brought.

His shoulder was an agony now, swelling; he knew he had waited almost too long to tend it. He went to one of the large metal support posts and wrapped the belt Tifa had brought around it, testing for length. He then strapped the wrist of his damaged arm to the post, cinching it as tightly as possible; curling the hand into a fist to insure it wouldn’t slip through. He took a deep breath, dreading what was to come as he aligned his body. With all his weight behind the motion, Cid threw himself back abruptly and forcefully; almost fainting from the pain as he felt the shoulder joint slip back into place. Sweating and cursing, he waited for his vision to clear; satisfied. The healing materia he had was limited in its abilities and he surely wasn’t going to waste it on himself when Vincent needed it more.

********

TBC

Stones: Chapter 3

The Highwind was well underway again early the following morning.

Cid sat with his feet up, making appropriate notations in his logbook, but his mind was not truly upon the task at hand. He read back over what he had written to confirm the details, but found himself pausing between words; recalling the day before.

Dusk was almost upon him when he’d finally made his way back to the airship. He’d risked full darkness to accomplish the task he had set for himself; knowing he would not have another chance before they departed. He then stood for several long moments beside the stream, taking a last look around.

One day, he would return here. Who he was and what he wanted had come fully to his realization in this place and he wanted to pay some small tribute to that awakening.
He bent down, retrieving what he had come to collect before leaving the pool once more to its peace and memory.

************

Cid blinked, bringing himself once more into the present. He gazed absently upon the book in his hands and the words scrawled upon its page before coming abruptly to a decision. He closed the logbook with a snap and allowed his feet to thump to the deck.

Offering no explanation to the bemused expression of his crewman, he set the helm to autopilot and called Barret to the watch.
What he wanted to accomplish wouldn’t take long, but he needed to make a stop at his cabin first to retrieve the item he needed before proceeding onward to the engine room. Vincent’s assigned task for the day would keep him in the cargo bay while Cid accomplished his plan and the pilot would be well away before the gunman’s return.

Cid left his small gift upon Vincent’s folded blanket; smiling as he beheld the white stone nestled within the teacup Vincent had claimed. He’d turned to leave when a fluttering piece of paper near his feet caught his eye. It was held to the side of the maintenance shaft with a small chip of magnet; arranged so it would be at Vincent’s eye level if he were lying down.
Cid couldn’t make out the series of lines and colors from where he was standing so he knelt to get a better view; feeling rather ashamed of himself for his curiosity.
When he rose to his feet once more, his smile was even more pronounced. He turned and went back the way he had come; exiting the engine room and making his way to the bridge.

If anyone noticed Cid’s uncommonly good mood that day, they made no mention of it; merely enjoying it while it lasted.

**********

Despite what he had seen in Vincent’s picture, he was confused; therefore Cid found himself more restless than usual. He felt, however, that seeking out Vincent would probably be the worst thing he could do. The events of the past days had shaken his sense of himself; and for the first time in his life, Cid literally wondered what to do next. Waiting for a given situation to resolve itself was not within his experience, not when he could charge in and set things to rights with what was for him, a minimum of effort.
Anyone caught in his path in this time of redefining himself soon came to the conclusion that Cid was, in summation, a force of nature; forever in motion.

When the pilot stood by the stream, everything had seemed so clear; his path laid out before him, destination firmly in sight. That was before.

Vincent was avoiding him, Or so it seemed.

Usually, the two would cross paths several times on any given day, but no longer. If Cid chose to appear in the area where the gunman was assigned, Vincent vanished. Cid could still feel the jeweled eyes upon him at times when he went about his own necessary duties; but he caught no glimpse of the man himself. He wandered in the engine room, tinkering about with things that didn’t need adjustment simply to be near him; but Vincent remained unwilling to reveal his presence.

**************

They made port and Cid spent two full days personally overseeing repairs and taking on supplies.

It was a welcome diversion. The pilot never fully trusted his ship in another’s hands where maintenance was concerned and it gave him the opportunity to vent the worst of his frustration. He sweated and swore; bruised his knuckles and scraped his arms digging into the heavy work, falling exhausted into dreamless sleep at the end of the day. He had chased Cloud and the others away for shore leave while he worked; leaving himself alone on the Highwind at night with his thoughts. He had no idea if Vincent had chosen to accompany the others, but the big airship seemed to echo with a deeper emptiness than the mere absence of her crew. Cid hadn’t ever been deliberately non-vocal when it came to sparing others his moods; but some things were just too personal. He didn’t want a well-meaning Tifa or anyone else asking questions about why he’d chosen to spend his nights on the floor of the engine room with only a pillow, a blanket, and his despondency. If there was a silent presence standing beside him as he tossed and muttered in his restless dreams, it seemed to have gone with the morning.

Even after the Highwind was airborne again, the pattern of Vincent’s reclusiveness continued. The pilot began to doubt; both himself and what he thought they had shared at the waterfall. Cid fully expected Vincent to depart as suddenly as he had arrived in their midst; the fact that he hadn’t yet only serving to make him feel as if he were living on borrowed time.

Cid couldn’t blame him. Why, after all, would Vincent want him? It was time to face the fact he’d somehow misread the mystery that was Vincent; seeing something deeper than actually existed in the companionship they’d shared. Cursing himself for a fool, he hauled his toolbox from underneath the ledge where he’d stored it since the night at the stream; went out into the night and prepared to dump its contents over the side.

Cid Highwind didn’t cry. Why, then, did he feel a trickle of wetness upon his face as he stood at the railing?

Something in his eye. He knew better than to be out there at night without his goggles down. Yeah. That was it. Damn bugs…

The toolbox sat at his feet, forgotten as he stared into the darkness. He reached down without turning and was startled when his hand brushed something other than the handle he’d expected. Instead, he found his hand encountering the tattered hem of Vincent’s cape.

The pilot stood, slowly, giving himself time to bring up a hand, wiping the tear away under the pretense of scratching the side of his nose. Still, he felt Vincent would see through the ruse. Cid doubted the man missed much.
He didn’t know whether to be relieved at Vincent’s reappearance after he had hidden away for so many days, or to brace himself for a confrontation. Cid found himself adrift once more; weary.
A long moment passed before he raised his head, daring to meet the gunman’s gaze.

Vincent’s eyes held confusion…and trepidation. It came to Cid suddenly that the gunslinger may have had doubts of his own; a thing the pilot had not expected as he chased his own thoughts in endless circles over the past days.

So many questions he wanted to ask…but the one foremost in his mind went unvoiced.

Are you as scared of me as I am of you?

Something of his thoughts must have shown in his expression. A black-gloved hand reached out, hesitantly; stopping before making contact. The fingers curled, began to pull away.

Before Vincent’s hand could fall back to his side, it was captured in Cid’s larger one; betting everything on one roll of the dice. It was brought to lips where a kiss was placed tentatively in the palm. Still holding gently, Cid brought Vincent’s hand to his chest, capturing it against his heart. Only then did he allow his eyes to seek the ruby-jeweled eyes, finding them closed. A tiny smile hovered on Vincent’s face as he increased the slight pressure of his hand; as if to better feel Cid’s heartbeat.

They held this stance for many long moments before Cid drew Vincent against his chest, their hands still captured between. The wind from the airship’s passage swirled Vincent’s hair around them; the strands tickling Cid’s nose. He found himself indulging in his first genuine smile in days. He laughed; causing Vincent to draw back, surprised. Cid in turn made a show of rubbing his nose with his free hand as if it were itching him to madness; grinning. When a full smile appeared on Vincent’s face in return, Cid’s breath caught in his throat. Before he realized, he had pulled Vincent against himself once more, placing a soft kiss upon those smiling lips.

The hand Cid held captive suddenly escaped, the fingertips coming to rest against Vincent’s mouth, as if he could not believe what had just occurred. The gunman blinked before the beautiful eyes slowly raised to meet Cid’s once more; their expression filled with wonder and surprise.

Then Vincent did something completely unexpected. His hand came away from his mouth, reaching up to wrap around the back of Cid’s neck and promptly pulling his head down for another.

They were still locked in their embrace when something hit them with tremendous force from the side, breaking their embrace. Cid bore the brunt of the hit and grabbed for the rail with one hand to regain his balance while reaching for Vincent with the other.

He almost succeeded.

Before he found himself falling through empty space.

**************

TBC

Stones: Chapter 2

Late that night, Cid was once again in the engine room, toolbox in tow. He set it down rather gently on the floor, and went about quietly unpacking the contents.
First came a large towel, which he spread out beside the box. It had seemingly served as padding for what was underneath; for a teapot followed, as well as cups. Next came two saucers and forks, along with more small containers. One revealed small cakes, the other, fresh berries. These, Tifa had gathered from nearby while the others worked on repairing the airship.

Cid could feel eyes upon him as he spread out what he had brought. He placed the cakes on the saucers, covering them with the berries. When he had finished, he picked up one of the saucers and turned around; his gaze directed toward Vincent’s hiding place. He smiled; extending the saucer in silent invitation and waited.

Long moments went by before he was rewarded. Vincent appeared silently from behind the maintenance shaft and stood gazing down. His response was the same as before; his gaze flicking from the saucer to Cid’s face, as if reading his intent. Then he simply slung one leg, then the other over the railing, and drifted down to the floor.

Cid almost dropped the saucer in shock, before noticing a glint of something akin to humor in Vincent’s eyes. The expression was quickly gone, but Cid knew what he had seen. His smile broadened when Vincent approached and accepted his offering. Cid sank down to sit cross-legged beside the towel, reaching to pour their tea.

Vincent simply held his plate, staring at what it contained. He finally reached out, poking at a berry with a claw of his brass-covered arm. He speared it, bringing it to eye level, simply looking. Cid watched him in fascination, wondering why such a simple thing should require such scrutiny. At last, Vincent brought the berry to his lips, and a pink tongue darted out, tasting. The berry disappeared in a flash, yet he did not immediately reach for another. Vincent held the berry in his mouth, his ruby-jewel eyes crinkling with something that was almost a smile before meeting Cid’s own.

Cid grinned and plucked a berry from his own plate, popping it into his mouth. His eyes drifted closed, the smile remaining upon his face as he savored its taste. He hummed with the enjoyment of it; pleased not only with the sweetness, but being able to share this simple pleasure. When he opened them again, Vincent was watching him, a faint smile playing about the corners of his mouth.
Cid picked up his teacup, offering a wordless toast.
And so they sat, the low hum of the engines providing music for their simple picnic.
Afterward, they walked out on deck, sharing the view of the stars, still in companionable silence.

Just before sunrise, Vincent curled in the warmth of his blanket; inhaling deeply of the scent of its former owner still lingering upon his pillow, his expression peaceful.

**********

Cid  decided to allow everyone another day of ground time, determined to complete a full inspection of the airship’s exterior. The day had turned uncomfortably warm and he was grateful to be finishing early enough to spend the rest of the afternoon lounging somewhere in the shade. He was giving a final look to the starboard props when he noticed movement from the corner of his eye; a flash of red was just disappearing into the treeline.
Cid had noted a large stream in that direction before they landed, so he decided to follow Vincent and explore the area along with him. At least it would be cooler near the water.

Vincent’s unique tracks were easily followed in the soft earth, and before long Cid reached an area where the trees opened up to reveal a large pool the stream had formed.
Gigantic ferns and moss-covered boulders at the pool’s edge made for an idyllic, peaceful setting and the pilot felt some of his aggravation from recent events begin to melt away.
At the far edge, the stream cascaded from a rock overhang; creating a waterfall that fell from a height of several feet. His view of the fall was partially obscured by one of the tremendous boulders, so he decided to investigate further after he had indulged himself in a bath. The showers aboard the Highwind served their purpose well enough, but such an opportunity for a long soak in the crystal clear water was not to be wasted.
Cid quickly stripped and submerged himself in the chest-deep water; swimming a few lazy strokes toward the center of the pool. He came up shaking the water from his face and hair, wiping it from his eyes. He glanced to the waterfall and froze.

Beneath the cascade with his back to Cid, was Vincent. He stood with his face upturned to the falling water, his long black hair a satin ribbon down his back to his hips. On a rock nearby was Vincent’s clothing, neatly folded. Upon it was a shape of gleaming brass. At least there was one mystery solved; the brass was a gauntlet, rather than a prosthesis. On top of the red cape, Cerberus lay within easy reach.

Cid meant to retreat; to leave Vincent his privacy, but he couldn’t look away.

Vincent’s slender body was as well formed as a dancer’s; beautifully proportioned, his pale skin gleaming like porcelain in the afternoon sun.

If Cid had thought him beautiful before, it was nothing compared to the vision before him now. He found himself unable to breathe, a warmth building in his lower belly, along with a tightening that persisted despite the coolness of the water.

He wanted to bury his hands in that dark ribbon of hair, to touch, to taste, to bear Vincent down into the water, to…

Damn!

Vincent had turned toward him and Cid could clearly see the discolorations on his skin even from this distance though his body was partially obscured by the falling water.
Apparently, Vincent hadn’t come through their last skirmish unscathed after all. Cid had raked the members of his team over the coals on several occasions for attempting to hide or make light of injuries.  The pilot submerged again to swim the remainder of the distance between them; giving himself a moment to cool his wrath.

He resurfaced slowly and found himself staring down the barrels of Cerberus.

Vincent’s expression was unreadable, but his meaning was clear. There was no hint of recognition in his eyes.

Cid stood his ground.

What the pilot had taken for bruising from recent injury was in fact heavy scarring; and the scars were hideous. They were huge; puckered and uneven, obviously very old. Whoever had done this had obviously not cared for the end result; as if Vincent had been sewn up in haste so that no one need be inconvenienced by anything within the man having an opportunity to fall out.

When Cid looked up again, Vincent’s head was turned away, his expression colored by shame. The hand holding Cerberus had fallen to his side, the gun held loosely in his grasp.
Slowly, and with great care, Cid took the gun from him, moving to place it back upon the folded clothing. He paused, thinking; reached down and chose a water-smoothed, gleaming white pebble. Turning to face Vincent once more, he reached for his hand; placed the stone in his palm and curled his fingers around it, holding on.

Vincent still refused to meet his eyes; and Cid reached slowly once more, his other hand gently turning Vincent to look at him, his hand remaining to cup Vincent’s face. Cid’s expression was honest and open as their gazes met; and a single word formed on the pilot’s lips. It was swallowed by the roar of the falling water; but he knew Vincent had understood when those jeweled eyes widened in disbelief.

Beautiful

He stood quietly, allowing Vincent to read his truth. When the ruby eyes blinked in confusion, Cid took the opportunity to gently pull Vincent to himself; closing his arms around him, bringing  the dark head to rest upon his shoulder. The desire Cid had felt earlier was blanketed in something deeper; something profound, as he felt Vincent’s shuddering sigh.

They stood thus for a long while; until Vincent slowly pulled away. He went to dress himself, but Cid noticed the small stone was carefully laid aside and then reclaimed when he was finished. Without looking back, Vincent made his way around the pool and disappeared into the woods in the direction of the ship.

Cid sat on the stone where Vincent’s clothes had lain; watching the falling water as the sun slowly sank to the horizon.

********
TBC

Stones: Chapter 1

Cid Highwind had a mystery to solve, and the man hated mysteries. Mysteries tended to be ill-defined, inefficient things; and in Cid Highwind’s experience, inefficiency led to complacency. Complacency led to disaster. Therefore, he suffered no instance of either on his watch, or on his ship.

He hadn’t lived as long as he had under such opposition as he and the other members of the team faced without knowing everything he possibly could about the airship he piloted. From bow to stern, every deck, every quirk of every mechanical device fell under his watchful eye. He took a lot of ribbing about his almost uncanny abilities when it came to knowing the subtleties of his ship, but he just shrugged such incidents off, and went on his way.
Knowing when an engine was heading for a breakdown, or a prop slightly off balance simply by the quality of the hum through the deck plates had saved them all more than once in tight situations.

This was none of those things, but he applied the same diligence to the problem as he would any nuance of mechanical failure.

The problem was the newest member of their team; one Vincent Valentine.

Cid weighed what he knew about the man against what he had yet to discover, finding the enormity of the gap completely unacceptable.
Cloud had filled in the basics. Calling in debts had padded the facts to a certain degree.

Cid now knew the sketchy details of his origins as a former member of Shinra’s Turks; as well as some random information about Vincent being used as little more than a lab rat by Hojo. Being swathed as he was from head to foot in a cape concealing everything of his physical appearance except a small portion of his face precluded any insight in this area, other than the presence of what seemed a mechanical arm. No one other than the silent man’s chosen target ever got close enough to learn otherwise, and by then there wasn’t enough left of them to divulge the secret.

Vincent’s fighting capabilities, which bordered upon the uncanny, were pursued with silent and single-minded dedication. He never disobeyed an order. He was where he was needed, when he was needed, and had saved each of the members of the team from serious injury or death on several occasions. The skill of his marksmanship approached legendary status, even among his former peers.
He never seemed to be injured, of if he was, to recover with the speed of the obviously genetically enhanced.

Questioning Vincent Valentine directly about anything was met with a blank stare, as if he had either not understood the inquiry, or was unable to formulate an appropriate reply. He would merely stare with those uncanny, jewel-toned ruby eyes until the one who had approached him turned away, or instead swiftly disappear if the opportunity presented itself.
Valentine never offered an opinion. Never questioned anything he was told. Never argued, laughed, or even smiled, as far as Cid had been able to determine. Any communication was limited to the fewest words necessary.

The most annoying trait Vincent Valentine possessed, in Cid’s opinion, was his ability to vanish without trace within Cid’s own ship as if he were no more than a ghost; or a figment of their collective imagination.

Valentine had been assigned a cabin as would any other member of the crew upon his arrival, yet no one, to Cid’s knowledge had ever noted him entering or departing from it. He never invited anyone to share his off time, nor accepted any invitation from another, something else Cid had learned early on. The invitation to come by for an evening of cards or a beer had been met with the same, seemingly uncomprehending silence as any other non-vital question presented to him. Cid had only been able to initiate conversation on one occasion. His attempt had been interrupted by a question from a member of the team, and he had looked away for only a moment to deliver a single-word answer. When he turned his attention back, Vincent was gone.

Eventually, after several weeks had passed, Cid took the opportunity under the guise of routine inspection to enter Valentine’s quarters. He was not truly surprised to find them empty; a fine layer of undisturbed dust covering every surface. The room had obviously never been occupied from the day it had been assigned; and Cid felt the first twinges of concern.

Thus it was that Cid found himself back where he had begun; with no more answers than he’d had when he started trying to unravel the enigma that was Vincent. He couldn’t believe he was actually losing sleep over the puzzle; but then again, he was known for keeping odd hours anyway. No one would think it unusual for him to be on the bridge at this hour, and he did enjoy a cup of tea while watching the sunrise.

Idly changing course for the best view of the event, he caught movement in his peripheral vision. Well, now…this was a new development.

The momentum of the airship and the pre-dawn thermals lifted and swirled Vincent’s hair and cloak as he stood at the railing. His head tilted back, eyes closed, his hands resting upon the railing, he was stillness itself in the midst of movement; seemingly listening to something only he could hear. A trick of the breeze, combined perfectly with the angle of his head revealed Vincent’s profile in full for the first time; and Cid was startled to stillness himself; frozen, staring. Vincent was slender, his small frame unveiled as the breeze lifted the cape away from his body. Somehow, Cid had always thought him larger; an illusion gained from observing Vincent’s prowess in battle.

Vincent Valentine was beautiful.

Where had that thought come from?Vincent was male; and guys were well…guys. Not beautiful. No. Not beautiful at all. Cid shifted uncomfortably, frowning, forcing himself to look away. But his gaze drifted back for another look, only to find himself being observed in turn. Their eyes held for several long moments and Cid discovered himself smiling. Then the rising sun burst fully upon the horizon, painting the landscape below in fiery gold and shadow.

Vincent framed in the glow of morning was a picture Cid knew he would remember all his life.

Vincent abruptly fixed his attention upon something below, his head cocked sideways.
They were over the Ancient Forest, and anything noteworthy enough to capture Vincent’s attention merited further investigation. Cid jotted down the coordinates of their position, slowed the ship to hover, and went to join Vincent on deck.

A tiny, shallow lake’s eastern edge was enveloped in a crescent of shadow; the rest bathed in the fierce red of the sun’s early rays. Nothing unusual in itself, but the angle of their observation lent the lake the appearance of a ruby red eye. Cid glanced at Vincent; seeing an expression upon his face for the first time that was more than utter detachment.
His features were softened, a ghost of a smile hovering there. They watched the lake together until the sun rose in full and the illusion faded. Cid went back inside, double checking their position before he went to a small cabinet he had wired with a hotplate for his teapot. He removed two cups from the tiny shelf above and filled them. He didn’t care if the body of water already had a name. It would ever be fixed in his mind by the one he had chosen in those recent moments on deck.

Vincent’s Lake.

Back out on deck, he hesitated. He wasn’t good at idle conversation and from his previous observations, he wouldn’t get much of a response anyway. So be it.
He didn’t ask if Vincent wanted the second cup he had brought; merely extending it to be accepted or declined. Vincent stared at the cup for a long moment, as if it were something he had never before encountered. His jewel eyes flicked to Cid’s then back to the cup. At last he reached for it tentatively, with his black-gloved hand. Cid smiled, nodded. The mechanical arm, gauntlet, or whatever it was remained hidden in the folds of his cloak.
They watched the morning in silence; Cid’s loud, abrasive nature for once laid aside. Instinctively, he somehow knew if he spoke wrongly, Vincent would disappear again.

There was something sad about watching Vincent drinking his tea. Cid’s thoughts conjured the image of someone who seemed to have forgotten there were good things in the world; or, judging from the other’s mostly veiled expression, things beyond his hope of reaching, the simple joys others took for granted.

The empty cabin suddenly made sense to Cid, steeling his resolve to watch Vincent more closely.
In thinking upon himself and the others’ collective eccentricities and outright emotional damage, they were probably the biggest bunch of misfits to ever sail the starry skies. Still, they managed. They should, in all likelihood, have been forever at each other’s throats. Instead they had melded over time into an only moderately dysfunctional, sometimes demented sense of family. Given a chance, Valentine should find his way among them; if he didn’t do anything to deliberately harm anyone. No one should be so alone; no matter who he was.

A plan began to form in Cid’s mind. Move slowly, Highwind; he thought. Steady as she  goes. You may figure him out yet.

*****

Even possessing such volatility as he did, Cid could be stealthy in achieving his ends.
His friends expected his short-fused episodes, adjusting accordingly, knowing them to be not the result of vindictiveness; but rather a necessary venting of stress. Yelling was merely his common method of communication, and was thus taken in stride. So was his tendency to be up and about, prowling and muttering at all hours. Cid was merely being Cid. Thus was his plan set quietly in motion, with no one being the wiser.

He made a point of assigning Valentine’s duties somewhere on the opposite end of the ship from where he would be searching for Vincent’s hideaway, making sure the gunslinger was thoroughly occupied before picking up a toolbox and heading off to the day’s chosen location.

He had searched for days, looking into every nook and unlikely cranny without result beyond a few strands of long black hair and a tiny fragment of red cloth in a shower before finding a single additional clue.

Even so, he almost missed it.

He was in the engine room, tinkering here, adjusting minutely there, when he spied a single, ragged slip of paper behind one of the boilers. He almost tossed it into the nearest bin; determining to have a prayer meeting with those of the team whose job it was to keep the area in pristine condition. Then a partial word caught his eye upon the scrap he held. The script was handwritten, with an elegance entirely in opposition to the humble paper upon which it had been scribed.

Speak to me in silence

Words are stones, weighted upon the soul

Cid reread the simple lines several times before quietly folding the paper and placing it in his pocket.

He made a thorough sweep of the massive room; but there were no other clues. Cid made his way back to the place where he had initially discovered the scrap; thinking.

And looked up.

Far above his head, running the entire perimeter of the room, was a narrow, rarely used catwalk; just wide enough for someone to ascend and overlook the boilers below. His gaze followed its path around the bulkheads to where it disappeared into the shadows behind a maintenance shaft. Cid made his way over to the access ladder; pulled it down, and began to climb.

What he found was a sad little nest; heartbreaking in its sparseness.

The teacup Cid had given him the morning on deck sat beside a small box of basic medical supplies. Beyond it was a single candle, fastened with melted wax to a dented metal saucer. A few crackers and a couple of cookies lay on the edge of the saucer.
Pinned into a scrap of cloth wound with black and red thread was a needle. Tucked further back into the corner was a container of gun oil, and a stash of bullets.
But the most pathetic thing of all was the pillow. It was worn, the edge fraying as if claimed from someone else’s castoff. Peeking from underneath was the corner of a ragged book, with scraps and slips of paper obviously claimed from many sources spilling from inside. Paper like the one he had found. Cid almost reached for the book; but drew his hand back.
He sat in silence a long while, just looking at the rags of Vincent’s life. He reached into his pocket, intending to place the paper he had found with the others in the book, but his hand fell to his side, the paper held loosely in his grasp. At last, Cid refolded it and put it back in his pocket. He rose abruptly; swearing under his breath.

The man didn’t even have a fucking blanket.

He made his way back to the ladder; descended, and left the engine room behind. He went to his own cabin, stripping off his good blanket, and the almost-new pillow. He could always get more for himself from supplies, or from a spare cabin.

Cid placed the bundle on the catwalk close to Vincent’s little hideaway, but did not invade his space again. His gift might be rejected, but maybe it wouldn’t be. He could only wait, and hope.

*********

Two days later, Cid was again on the sunrise shift on the bridge. He lit a cigarette while going about his routine. Distractedly, he fetched his teapot, and reached for a cup. He had almost poured his tea into it when he noticed the slip of scrap paper tucked inside.
He set the kettle down and unfolded the tiny scrap, carrying it over to where the instrumentation gave enough light to read it.

Number three prop blade portside

Thank you

Cid refolded this paper around the first one he had found, and placed them both in his pocket.

He swore; thinking about the crazy maneuvers he’d had to employ to outrun their latest pursuers more than a week before. Something must have happened then. His mind started cataloguing the possible problems as he began searching for a place large and secluded enough to put his big bird down.

************

Cid felt himself break out in a cold sweat when he saw the hairline cracks running along the upper side of the blade between three of the seven prop bolts. Each bolt was the thickness of his wrist, and as long as his arm. If the Highwind had been in a situation to have to make a protracted run for it, there was a very real possibility of the blade shearing completely off.
As it was, with welding, the blade could be mended until Cid could make port for repairs.
Descending for his torch, he wondered how Vincent could have known about a problem that couldn’t be seen from beneath the blade, or when he would have had time to find it. They’d been in the air almost constantly; and Vincent, as far as Cid knew, hadn’t been assigned duties anywhere near the area since the damage would have occurred.

How had he known?