Title: Blood Brothers 5/5
Fandom/Pairing: Final Fantasy VII - Zack/Cloud
Rating: PG this section for fantasy violence
Final word count: 36, 155 *dies*
Cloud spent the better part of the next week skulking impatiently through the streets of Cosmo, practicing his sword drills and driving Cid right up the wall with his restless edginess.
“About bloody time,” the aeronaut declared disgustedly, when Nanaki finally brought word that Bugenhagen was ready. “Watching this idiot twitching around all over the place is enough to give me a heart attack.”
“I have not been twitching,” Cloud protested automatically, hands tugging impatiently at his sword harness.
Cid snorted at him. “Kid, you’re so jumpy right now you’d probably splatter all over the room if I came up behind you and said ‘boo.’”
“Well,” Nanaki interrupted diplomatically, curbing a smile. “In the interests of everyone’s continued well-being, I suppose we’d better get going then. Are you ready for this?” he asked, turning to Cloud.
Cloud shrugged. “No,” he answered baldly. “But I don’t think I’m ever going to be, so that’s alright.”
“It’s a hard thing to be ready for,” Vincent agreed unexpectedly. He stood, hefting his crossbow in one hand. “Let’s go.”
The mood was tense and heavy as they filed out of Bugenhagen’s house, their weapons glinting in the sun. The streets of Cosmo were quiet, the usual scattering of families, workers and ribald street vendors conspicuously absent.
“Where is everyone?” Cloud asked after a moment, tension riding taut and sharp across his shoulders. Their footfalls echoed loudly in the unnatural silence.
“It’s safer for them inside,” Nanaki answered. “Just in case the city’s protective magics suffer while Grandfather is concentrating on the curse-molding. Not that it’s likely to happen of course,” he remarked, the rumble of a purr threading fond and proud between the words. “But Grandfather doesn’t want to leave anything to chance.”
“Yazoo and his brothers,” Cloud realized suddenly. He stumbled to a halt in the middle of the street, sick dread curling in his stomach. “If the village isn’t protected they’ll-”
“Ignore it completely most like,” Cid interrupted, hooking a firm hand around Cloud’s nape and dragging him onwards. “It’s you they’re after, remember? They won’t look twice at the villagers.”
“Marela’s skivvies, kid, stop trying to take on the whole world by yourself!” Cid glared at him, his tone somewhere between irritated and reassuring. “Look, if they show up, Vin, Nanaki and I’ll take care of ‘em, okay?” He gestured with his spear for emphasis, his heavy scowl practically daring Cloud to object.
“Ah, here we are,” Nanaki spoke, before Cloud could try anyway. “And right on time it appears.”
They were outside the village now, in a wide hollow some distance beyond the river’s west bank. An intricately-detailed magic sigil sprawled across the mostly level earth, larger than Bugenhagen’s house and gleaming starkly white against the red stone.
“M-neth,” Cid swore, shifting back onto his heels to eye the size of the circle. “How big is Bugenhagen expecting this beastie to be anyway?”
“The more powerful the curse, the more dangerous the monster it conjures,” Vincent remarked, the first thing he’d said since leaving Bugenhagen’s house. His eyes shifted gravely towards Cloud. “This is likely to be a difficult battle.”
Cloud shrugged, almost casually. “I figured as much,” he told them, aiming for flippant and not failing nearly as miserably as he’d expected to. “No low-level curse could have gotten the best of my brother.”
“Should’ve known you’d say something like that,” Cid muttered. “It’s not like you talk about anything else, fuck.” He shook his head. “Hope this brother of yours doesn’t come back as dopey for you as you are for him or I might have to strangle the both of you on sheer principle.”
Nanaki chuckled, a raspy, purring sound. “They are blood kin, Cid, and they’ve been apart for a long time. I have no doubt that Zack would be just as single-minded were he the one here instead of Cloud, but they’ll probably settle once they’re together again.”
“I damn well hope so,” Cid groused. He hefted his spear higher and stumped away, Vincent trailing him silently.
Cloud didn’t follow, too busy being shocked into sudden, frozen stillness by the frightening implications of Nanaki’s words.
Zack? Here instead of him?
Cloud shuddered, cold despite the steady sunlight overhead. Being a Cloud without a Zack was bad enough. The idea of a Zack without a Cloud didn’t even bear thinking about.
He roused himself with an abrupt shrug, meeting Nanaki’s expectant smile blankly. “Sorry, what?”
Nanaki tilted his head pointedly towards a waiting Bugenhagen. “Go on,” he encouraged. “I think you’ve waited long enough for this.”
Oh. “Thank you,” Cloud said automatically, limbs stiff as he made his way slowly over to where Bugenhagen stood.
“Cloud,” Bugenhagen greeted gravely when Cloud’s steps finally brought him near. “Well met.”
“And you,” Cloud responded tersely.
Bugenhagen smiled at him. “I’d tell you not to worry but, frankly, I’d be more concerned if you weren’t.”
Cloud nodded, not knowing what to say.
An understanding hum and Bugenhagen turned to gesture at the labouriously drawn sigil. “The outer line will act as a barrier during the battle,” he explained. “Neither you nor the curse manifestation will be able to cross it once the spell has been cast.”
“…What if I can’t defeat it?”
He received a commiserating shrug. “Do your best not to let it eat you. Come.” Cloud followed as Bugenhagen led the way into the centre of the circle. The sun was bright in his eyes and Cloud fidgeted, feeling terribly exposed.
Bugenhagen stopped and turned towards him, lifting his hand.
“Let me see your bond mark.”
Cloud stripped off his glove without hesitation, the soft leather falling forgotten to the ground as he extended his arm.
Bugenhagen gripped his hand in surprisingly strong fingers, a thoughtful frown creasing his brow as he studied the dark scar slashed across Cloud’s palm. He plucked a bone knife free from his belt with his other hand and Cloud tensed instinctively, fighting for calm as Bugenhagen pressed the blade firmly against his skin. The edge dug in, just slightly, and Cloud hissed.
“There is no turning back from this point,” Bugenhagen said then, and Cloud met his eyes as levelly as he could. “Do you still wish to attempt this?”
Cloud nodded, feeling his fingers start to tremble. “Yes.”
Bugenhagen’s expression went hard. “There is a very great chance that you’re going to die here. Is that how far you’re willing to go to save your brother?”
“I don’t care about the danger,” Cloud replied honestly, and faltered only slightly before he added, “But I’m not going to die.”
“This is hardly the time for idle boasts,” Bugenhagen remarked reprovingly and Cloud shook his head.
“No. That’s not –” He frowned, grasping for the words. “I can’t let myself die,” he said finally, halting yet sure. “Not even to save Zack.”
A bushy eyebrow arched. “Why ever not?” Bugenhagen demanded. “Isn’t that what you’ve been living for? To see your brother saved?”
“It is,” Cloud admitted softly, swallowing around the sudden lump in his throat. “But if I die then Zack will be all alone, just like I’ve been. I can’t let him suffer like that. Not for anything.”
He was breathing hard, Cloud realized, the harsh rattle of air in his lungs loud against the whistle of the wind. Bugenhagen stared at him, his expression unfathomable.
There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
And then Bugenhagen smiled. “Good answer.”
White-hot pain slashed across Cloud’s palm, the knife’s sharp edge cutting in deep. Dark blood welled rapidly from the wound, pooling in his cupped hand and streaking the edge of the blade.
“By blood you are connected, so by blood let this darkness be called forth,” Bugenhagen intoned, lifting Cloud’s hand high. “And may all be well in the end of things,” he added in an undertone, a hopeful smile glinting in his eyes. Cloud scrounged up most of a smile for him in response.
A twist of Bugenhagen’s hand sent blood spilling over the edge of Cloud’s palm, a swath of red spattering against the sigil-marked earth in thick, heavy drops.
Light blazed through the hollow, setting the whole world aflame in streaks of bronze and white and gold. Bugenhagen’s presence vanished from his side and Cloud squinted through the blinding colours to see the man passing over the sigil’s outer line to rejoin the others. A shimmering wall of blue shivered through the air as he went, arching up from the edge of the sigil and doming high above Cloud’s head, hazy but translucent.
Cloud drew his sword and waited, his heart pounding in time with the pulse of the magic shuddering beneath his feet.
The earth shuddered violently, rocks clattering noisily off one another and shivering past Cloud’s boots. Firefly flickers of black and green knotted and spun through the air, pooling and spreading almost faster than Cloud’s eyes could follow.
There was a shape growing out of those flickers, Cloud realized, his stomach flopping unpleasantly as the shape swelled and surged against the barrier. The outline of something large and looming etched itself into the air and he took a few prudent steps back as those shimmers coalesced all at once, snapping into rows upon rows of glittering red scales and long, dangerously sharp fangs. The wicked snout of a dragon fierce enough to make the one he’d tangled with on the aeroship seem meek as milk loomed a good 20 spans above his head, wreathed in thick, acrid smoke. A pair of beady eyes glared balefully at him from beneath the heavy ridge of the dragon’s brow.
“Holy mother of…” Cloud heard Cid swear and then a massive foot streaked through the air towards him, startlingly fast. Claws as long as Cloud was tall gouged wide, violent furrows in the earth as he twisted aside and Cloud made a mental note not to underestimate the range of those unnaturally long forelegs.
Red flashed and Cloud ducked, dust kicking up beneath his heels as he pivoted away from those razor-sharp claws. The curse-beast roared and struck again, limbs snaking across the sigil-marked earth with blinding speed. Cloud dodged and darted frantically, looking for an opening.
“Hit it already!” Cid bellowed from behind somewhere, and Cloud spared him a dark thought as he twisted in midair, grunting with the effort as claws raked down the edge of his sword with a shower of sparks. He hit the ground with a jarring thump, legs tingling as he pushed off again, swinging hard. His sword glanced harmlessly off one armoured foreleg, the creature’s thick scales affording no purchase for his heavy blade. The dragon’s tail swiped at him and Cloud jumped aside, cursing as wide teeth snapped bare inches from his leg.
“Bastard,” Cloud snarled at it, adrenaline surging. He reached for his magic without conscious thought, knifing a gust of wind across the creature’s foreleg. A thin weal sliced between glittering scales and the dragon howled, staggering back.
Claws streaked forward and Cloud’s foot caught on the uneven ground as he moved, staggering him a moment too long. Pain raked down his arm and Cloud swore as the copper tang of blood filled the air, hot and sharp.
“Be careful!” Bugenhagen shouted, the words half-swallowed in the dust and the crash of the dragon’s limbs beneath the barrier. “A curse-beast’s attacks mimic the wounds of the curse itself! Get hit too many times and you’ll be the one turning into a summons-bound instead of your brother!”
“You couldn’t have warned me sooner?!” Cloud spared a glance at the deep furrow scoring his arm, mouth tightening as it was overlaid with the memory of Zack’s body scored with the same wounds.
The air crackled warningly and Cloud rolled instinctively away, a whoosh of heat soaring past him as a fireball the size of a horse impacted violently against the filmy barrier.
Cloud stared in a mix of shock and exasperation. “Do all dragons breathe fire?” he demanded, leap-frogging around the circle while a barrage of fireballs exploded all around him.
“My goodness,” a voice he didn’t know spoke up suddenly, the strident tone carrying easily over the din of the battle. Cloud risked a glance over his shoulder and felt his face go cold at the sight of Yazoo and two other black-robed figures ambling casually over the rocks, their silver hair gleaming in the light.
“What on earth is going on here?” the one in front asked. His green eyes were sharp with something that wasn’t quite malice. “That looks dangerous.”
The one in the rear, stockier than the other two, pointed a big hand towards Cloud. “Is that our brother, Yazoo?” he asked.
“Yes Loz,” Yazoo answered, the silky purr of his smile enough to send a shudder down Cloud’s spine even at this distance. “Though I do wonder what he’s doing.” Yazoo cocked his head at the first youth. “What do you think, Kadaj?”
The one called Kadaj smiled, slow and sinister. “Let’s ask him,” he decided, dirt crunching under his heels as he started down the path, his brothers at his back. Cloud twisted almost frantically away from the next fireball, the first stirrings of panic tugging at his chest.
“Hold it,” Cid’s voice said then, and Cloud ducked away from the dragon’s tail to see Cid blocking their way, his spear leveled warningly at Kadaj’s chest.
“Sorry,” the aeronaut said, somehow managing to sound lazy and threatening in the same breath. “But Cloud’s a bit busy right now. Come back later.”
Kadaj’s expression went dark. “Move,” he ordered. “We’re not here for you.”
Cid shrugged, and Vincent and Nanaki shifted forward to flank him on either side. “Well that’s a damn shame, because you’re not getting to Cloud unless you go through us first.”
“Do they want to play with us?” Loz demanded from behind Kadaj. He cracked his knuckles loudly, grinning with a childish sort of delight.
“Come and find out,” Vincent suggested, low and deadly.
Kadaj smiled. “You’re going to regret that,” he purred. Then he attacked.
“Watch out for their magic!” Cloud shouted over his shoulder as Cid parried Kadaj’s blade with the haft of his spear and Nanaki and Vincent blurred forward to intercept the other two. He blocked the next fireball with the flat of his sword, gritting his teeth against the jagged surge of pain up his arm. “Yazoo’s an air affinite so he’ll use wind spells! The other two should be earth and water if they’re really modeled off Zack and – nngh!”
The dragon’s tail caught him full in the side, ribs cracking as he was flung bodily through the air. He crashed into the barrier with a sickening thud, one leg twisting painfully under him as he slumped to the floor. “Ugh…”
“Eyes front idiot!” Cid barked at him, stabbing a quick feint at Kadaj’s head. Cloud struggled to gain his feet, forcing protesting limbs into motion as the dragon reared for another attack. “We’ll take care of these yahoos!”
“Oh you will, will you?” Kadaj demanded, a glint of malevolence scrawling across his face.
Red flashed in Cloud’s vision and he bolted, the dragon’s sharp teeth snapping at his heels. He scrambled across the uneven earth, one eye on the twist of water curling up from Kadaj’s open hand, sharp as any blade. He barely caught the tail end of Cid’s leap as the man dodged, one foot lashing out into a high kick that sent Kadaj staggering.
Magic pulsed and twin swirls of water burst down the length of Kadaj’s sword. “You’ll pay for that,” the water caster promised, his tone grim.
“Not likely,” Cid drawled, careless of the blood running down his temple. He caught Cloud’s eyes over Kadaj’s shoulder and scowled at him. “What the hell you watching me for?” he demanded, shifting his spear. “Pay attention to your own damn fight!”
“Just making sure you don’t kill yourself!” Cloud shouted back, bringing his sword up just in time to avoid being skewered by sweeping claws. He dug his heels in and pushed back hard, sword edge digging in just barely enough to draw blood. The dragon’s instinctive swipe sent him rolling across the ground, dirt stinging in his wound as he came to his feet near the barrier. Beady eyes watched his every move, the creature’s teeth baring in a guttural snarl.
“Looks like you oughta start worrying about yourself!” Cid shouted at him, rushing past with Kadaj in hot pursuit, and Cloud’s teeth clenched into a snarl as he pushed off again, calling on ice this time.
He swung straight at the approaching fireball, the stench of sulfur burning on the air as his ice-wrapped sword carved through the flames. The dragon puffed up for another shot and Cloud dropped down, sending a wall of solid ice shuddering through the air between him and the dragon just in time to avoid being burnt to a crisp. Water pinged rhythmically to the ground as the flames kept coming, ice melting almost faster than Cloud could summon it.
Red flickered beyond the barrier as Nanaki darted past, the beads gone from his mane and his sharp teeth slicked with blood. Yazoo limped grimly after him, wind whirling around him and slicing knife-thin cuts into any part of Nanaki that didn’t get out of the way in time.
“Here kitty, kitty, kitty…” he murmured, crossbow held at the ready.
Heat soaked through the chill under Cloud’s fingers and he tore his attention away from Nanaki just as a particularly violent blast sent fine lines of tension skittering through the ice, furrows cracking loud and warning in his ears. Uh oh.
He vaulted over the top of the wall as it fell, flinging shards of ice at any part of the dragon he could reach. The curse-beast roared and flailed away from the attack, banked fire flaring around the corners of its reptilian mouth. Cloud struck again, laying on thick with his ice-slicked blade, careless of the burning ache in his side.
The ground surged violently underfoot and Cloud tumbled unexpectedly to one knee, a curse catching in his throat as a stray claw raked along his spine, the force splaying him flat out across the torn earth.
“Hahh,” he gasped out, his breath choked. He pushed himself hurriedly upright, feeling the tatters of his shirt clinging wetly to his back as he stumbled across the heaving ground.
Someone was laughing.
Cloud’s head whipped around to where the big one, Loz, was squared off against Vincent, hurling huge chunks of earth through the air like they weighed nothing at all. Vincent was dodging fluidly, his expression calm despite the blood running in his eyes, the arm hanging limp and useless at his side.
“You’re pretty good!” Loz exclaimed gleefully, forearms bunching as the earth heaved again. “Take this!”
The boulder he launched was easily twice his own height, hurtling like a comet straight towards a thin-lipped Vincent.
Who didn’t move out of the way in time.
Dust and bits of rock exploded through the hollow and Cloud was up against the barrier before he realized, heart in his throat as he stared desperately at the space where he’d last seen the man.
“Don’t just stand there!” Cid barked at him from somewhere on his left and Cloud dodged just in time to avoid being gutted in a remarkably messy fashion against the barrier.
“We need to help Vincent!” he bellowed back, back-pedaling as the dragon’s tail lashed past his feet.
“He’s fine!” Cid assured, more blood on his face now than there had been last time Cloud had looked. His spear whirled through the air, deadly and fierce. “Stop getting distracted!”
A furious roar cut off his protest and Cloud gaped as something large and furry burst free from the mass of debris where Vincent had been, mindless and fierce as it barreled straight for Loz. Loz started laughing again, uncomplicated joy splashing across his face as he met the attack head on, grappling enthusiastically.
A whole slew of suspicions and half-evasions snapped into sudden, clear focus and Cloud was shaking his head as he left Vincent to deal with Loz. Fire exploded against the barrier beside him and Cloud skidded on his heels, trading ice for lightning mid stroke as he angled his sword into the softer scales protecting the dragon’s belly. White-blue bolts forked through the contained space and the curse-beast thrashed angrily, blood and burns staining glossy scales to rust.
The world shook with the force of the dragon’s howl, its snaky neck snapping upright as its head reared high. Darkness spooled in the air between its gaping jaws, purple sparks skittering around each other in erratic, expanding circles. The space inside the barrier dimmed perceptibly and Cloud swallowed hard. This was not going to be good.
White light flared and a ball of black magic the size of a wagon hurtled towards him, crackling as it streaked through the air. Cloud leaped frantically away, duck-dodging the creature’s claws as they flashed forward to block his escape. More magic screamed around him and Cloud didn’t get out of the way fast enough – agony howled through him as it clipped his leg, the skin bubbling black and dead beneath the ruin of his trousers.
He threw up a hurried wind barrier and hobbled away, gritting his teeth against the pain. The dragon’s magic tore through his defenses like paper and Cloud flung desperate swirls of ice and wind behind him as he ran, his strength wearing thin.
A sweep of vicious claws raked across his back and he went down in a heap, cracking his head on a rock as he fell.
“S-shit,” he hissed, coughing up blood and feeling the world spin around him. His sword scraped across the ground as he dragged himself shakily to his feet. “I think I’m in trouble.”
“Giving up already?” Zack’s voice asked him suddenly and Cloud nearly collapsed in shock, struggling to keep his focus as an image of Zack shaking his head at a much younger Cloud flashed through his mind.
“I told you I couldn’t do it,” his childhood self gasped, oversized sword hanging limp in blistered hands. “Not by myself.”
The dragon screeched triumphantly, flares of black magic bursting fast and thick through the enclosed space as it moved in for the kill. Cloud wheeled to avoid a driving foreleg and ended up on his knees, breathing hard. “Zack,” he gasped.
Zack grinned with rueful fondness behind his eyes. “Guess I’d better help out then, huh?”
Magic pulsed through his veins, deep and implacable, and Cloud found himself feeling strangely calm as he dragged himself to his feet and leveled his sword at the dragon’s gaping maw.
He wasn’t sure what kind of magic he summoned, but he could feel the glow of it twining down his sword blade, quicksilver darts of red and green and gold and blue that pulsed and shifted like something living. The dragon lunged for him and Cloud sent a massive shockwave bursting free from his sword, shredding through the dragon’s blast of magic. Another blast and the dragon staggered, a massive furrow gouging deep and lethal across its belly.
Blood sprayed in a wide arc, sizzling where it hit the ground, and Cloud vaulted neatly onto one flailing foreleg, feet skidding on red scales as he darted up. He planted his feet on the dragon’s surging shoulders and reversed his sword, raising his arms high.
“Together?” Zack’s voice asked inside him, and Cloud could have sworn he felt the sensation of strong arms caging his waist, a pair of rough, calloused hands joining his on the hilt as, with a mighty swing, he drove his sword straight through the dragon’s scaly neck.
The dragon’s limbs convulsed and Cloud leaped aside as the head thudded heavily to the ground. A swath of blood splashed hotly across his face and Cloud clawed a hand through the scalding mess, blinking rapidly to try and clear his vision.
The sound of the creature’s body hitting the ground thundered like an explosion through the mountains, shuddering beneath his feet and sending the cliffs to shuddering. The body thrashed in the pooling blood for several long moments and Cloud threw up a hurried wall of magic to defend himself while he waited for the creature’s thrashing to cease.
After an interminably long time, all was still.
Breathing heavily, Cloud grounded the point of his sword and watched as the dragon’s body flared with arcane magics, blindingly bright for a split second before the creature simply dissolved, melting into a slick, oily black ooze that make Cloud’s skin crawl. The barrier gave a last faint shimmer and vanished, fading into nothing as though it had never been. Cloud stood there for a long moment, trying to absorb the enormity of what had just happened.
Sounds of fighting jolted him back to reality and he jerked his head up with a start. He hefted his sword again, magic humming through his veins with a spark like Zack’s smile as he stalked determinedly forward.
The three brothers were still widely spread across the hollow so Cloud aimed for the nearest, a bolt of energy flying from his hand and striking Kadaj’s back with enough force to send him tumbling head over heels, a bloody streak smearing behind him as his skin smoked and sizzled.
“Brother!” Loz exclaimed in dismay and Cloud shot past the flare of Vincent’s wings to catch the man in the shoulder, smashing him hard against the jagged rocks behind him. Loz’s breath left in a rush and he crumpled bonelessly to the ground, deathly still.
The twang of a crossbow sliced through the air and Cloud dodged easily, unsurprised to find Yazoo charging recklessly at him, murder in his eyes. He met the wild surge of Yazoo’s power with a wall of solid wind, calm amid the maelstrom battering at him. A single push and Yazoo’s attack shattered, a dozen razor-thin cuts slicing through black robes as he staggered, blood streaking in silver hair.
Cloud eyed him evenly. “I suggest,” he said, as Yazoo stared at him in a mix of horror, betrayal and awe. “That you leave now.”
Kadaj made a sound of outraged protest from where he was splayed out across the ground. “You can’t order us around,” he retorted, struggling to stand.
The point of Cid’s spear pressed suddenly against the bare curve of Kadaj’s throat. Kadaj froze.
Cid grinned down at him, face splashed liberally with dirt and blood. “Looks to me like he already has.”
“But brother!” Yazoo protested. “You can’t…”
“I am not your brother,” Cloud interrupted, slow and clear. “Look to the concerns of your own brothers before coming after me and mine.”
Yazoo’s eyes darted from Kadaj’s supine sprawl to Loz’s unmoving shape. “But–” he started, pinning Cloud with a look of naked confusion.
And Cloud gave him a shrug that was almost a smile. “Even if your bond’s not complete, you’re each others’ most important people,” he told him. “So take care of each other.”
A momentary pause then Yazoo gave a jerky nod and started edging warily towards where Loz lay. The black winged demon that was currently Vincent snarled threateningly but Cloud raised a hand.
“Let them go.”
Cid rolled his eyes. “Unbelievable,” he declared, but the warning melted out of his spine without protest, his spear point tipping down and giving Kadaj ample opportunity to get stiffly to his feet and go over to help Yazoo.
“Is this wise?” Nanaki asked, padding quietly up to Cloud’s side as Kadaj and Yazoo slung their brother’s arms over their shoulders and dragged him upright. There was blood running down Nanaki’s flank, Cloud noticed, his front paw torn and mangled.
Cloud sighed. “Probably not,” he admitted. “But they’re not really my enemy, no matter who created them.” He shrugged, a little sheepish. “And I’ve no desire to kill anyone in cold blood when I have a choice in the matter.”
“The Balance indeed,” Nanaki murmured approvingly. Cloud glanced sharply at him, Aeris’ words from months and years ago echoing in his head, and the big cat’s tongue lolled out in a tired smile. “I look forward to meeting the man who matched you well enough for a blood bond.”
Once Loz was hoisted gracelessly between himself and his brother, Kadaj twisted back to Cloud with an angry scowl. “We’ll be back for you,” he warned, a promise. “You belong with us.”
“No we don’t,” Cloud answered gently. “We won’t be beaten.”
A pointed sniff and then Kadaj and Yazoo started dragging Loz slowly away, their footfalls scuffing loudly across the rocks.
Cid limped over to join Cloud and Nanaki, spear cocked rakishly over one shoulder as he watched the brothers go. “You’re insane,” he told Cloud succinctly. Cloud just blinked at him and Cid glanced past him towards Vincent. “Yo Vin. You can come back any time now. The fun’s over.”
A darkly sinister garble of sound answered him and Vincent’s body seemed to fold in on itself, spine recurving and wings sinking into his back, horns and fangs melting into black hair and pale skin until it was just Vincent standing there, fatigued but no visibly worse for wear.
Blood-dark eyes were watchful as they tracked the departing brothers. “You may live to regret that,” he observed, quiet and deceptively calm.
“At least I’m alive to do so,” Cloud answered simply. His side twinged suddenly and he winced, realizing how much everything hurt now that he’d stopped fighting. “Mostly,” he amended. He raised his hand to his face, scrubbing away blood and grime and feeling something ease in his chest at the sight of his bond mark whole and unbroken once more, not even a mark from Bugenhagen’s knife to show where the scar had been.
“Bugenhagen,” he remembered with a jerk, wheeling around and hissing as his back screamed in protest. “Is he alright? I didn’t see…”
A good-natured chuckle interrupted him. “I’m perfectly well, thank you,” Bugenhagen said, stepping forward. His eyes twinkled good-humouredly. “I can shield more than just villages, you know.”
“I’m glad,” Cloud said honestly. His tone went tentative, more hopeful than it had been in years. “Is it… over?”
Bugenhagen smiled. “As far as things go, yes. Your palm would be proof enough, even if I hadn’t seen the curse-beast die at your hands.”
“The curse is gone?” Cloud demanded urgently, and Bugenhagen nodded.
“For good. Your brother’s soul is safe.”
Cloud sagged in relief. “Thank the gods.” He tried to muster up a smile but his leg chose that moment to give out and he staggered, several hands reaching out to keep him upright. “Oh,” he remarked, almost absently. He hurt quite a lot. “I– think I…”
“Need a bath and a month in bed,” Cid declared, reaching to pull the sword from Cloud’s suddenly nerveless fingers. “And I don’t care how eager you are about going back to Midgar and shoving your brother’s soul back where it belongs – I am not dragging your sorry ass all that way just to see the effort kill you. Now come on,” he ordered, hooking a hand under Cloud’s elbow as Vincent did the same on his other side. “Collapse and I leave you here.”
“He’s probably lying,” Vincent offered, as they started their slow, staggering walk back to the village. “He’s not nearly as gruff as he likes to think.”
“Hmph! See if I make you any more goddamn tea.”
Things weren’t finished yet. The brothers would be back and Cloud knew in his bones that the mage wouldn’t be content to leave things like this. War was still looming on the horizon, inexorable and ever-closer, and Cloud would be right in the middle of it. His oath to Rufus would make sure of it.
But right now, bloody and beaten and just barely clinging to consciousness, Cloud couldn’t find it in himself to care.
He was going to have his brother back after all, and there wasn’t anything they couldn’t face together.
They were blood brothers.