Once More, With Feeling... – Chapter 53: Carrying On

Summary: Things escalate quickly in Nibelheim.

Author: Illusor Meaneld

Rated T: for Descriptive violence and injuries, No Adult Situations, No Cussing.

Disclaimer: I did not create, and do not own the characters from Final Fantasy 7. They are owned by Square-Enix, and I am simply borrowing them for my own (and hopefully your) enjoyment.

Cloud led the two SOLDIERs to the bowl like cliff that surrounded 'old' Corel. It wasn't as deep as the scars he'd explored of Barret's old hometown. They hadn't mined quite as far around the edges of the reactor, and the fire hadn't done any good for the stability of the geology and ecology. But it was amazing to see it thrive, with the dense crown oaks surrounding him. When they reached the steeper rock Cloud pulled up his mount.

"Alright, listen carefully, this is where riding a green chocobo, and riding a yellow is massively different. Remember to lean forward on your bird, as flat as you can make it, and hold onto the straps. Don't squeeze them, but stay steady."

He turned to the nearly cliff-steep ridge and urged his bird on. She ruffled her feathers, put her head down and leaped onto the stone. The one piece of green anatomy he hadn't quite got around to explaining in detail earlier, was that they lacked the alula feathers most flight birds boasted. Instead, as his two companions would quickly learn, they had a single feathered digit with a sturdy claw on the end. Rather like a thumb, and on particularly steep ridges would almost 'climb' with their wings. It was a rather… unique… riding experience. He couldn't resist a grin when he heard a high pitched squawk of alarm behind him, one that had NOT come from a bird, and also hadn't come from a particular Second Class SOLDIER either.

"You never said they had fingers!" Came Genesis' horrified shout, "Or that they climb!"

Cloud laughed, "How did you think they traveled over mountains?" He called back.

"Maybe flying?!" the Lieutenant snarled,

"That's the Black Chocobos, at least a little bit, but the best flyers are the Golds." The blond explained with a grin,

"There's GOLD ones?" Zack piped in, sounding awed. "I've never even heard of those!"

"I haven't ever seen a wild Gold, but I know how to breed them." The blond returned.

"As fascinating as this is," Genesis grunted, his knuckles white on the handle of his harness. "I would rather not fall off my beast." Cloud chuckled as he led them to the top of the rim, once the birds had settled into a more horizontal posture, the time-traveler gazed intently over his surroundings, it was both familiar, and utterly alien. Lacking landmark scars and the passage of time, and yet the smells and sounds of the seasons were the same. He inhaled the clean air, and noted the positions of the stars in the sky. He oriented his bird mostly north, gazing over the sinuous line of mountain ridge, nodding decisively to himself.

"Stay on your birds, but give them their heads. They'll know how to follow me." Cloud advised quickly. He put his hands to his mouth one more time, issuing an echoing bird-like whistle, and then set off. A quick glance over his shoulder showed the other two men had followed his advice, and all four birds, including the one with the packs who was lead-tied to Cloud's own, were moving with impressive speed along the top of the ridge. This was why the blond could believe the Chocobo Sage's theory about elemental affinity. The animals ran so spryly along the narrow rocky point, they didn't lose speed or seem to falter, and even a yellow bird might have been hard-pressed to match their sheer agility. Only magic truly explained that level of balance and stamina. He shook his head with another grin, and settled as expertly as his inexperienced younger body would permit. He was probably going to be very sore in the morning. He decided ruefully, as he felt the young muscles in his legs trying to adapt to this unusual exercise. I wonder if I can get a few chocobos back in Midgar somehow… He didn't know yet where he could possibly keep them… they wouldn't fit into Reno's apartment. Let alone where he could actually ride… He sighed, wouldn't hurt to look into it at least, no matter how implausible it sounded at first.

As they were racing, Cloud made mental notes on the changes to the landscape, most of the mountain faces further from 'Old Corel' were barely different from his memory, a distant roar of water as they sped past a bay reminded him of Lucrecia's cave, and he smiled softly to himself. That would have to be handled later. The night-time hours cast interesting shadows on the peaks of mountains and the dusky grey-green foliage tinged silver in the light of the nearly full moon. The only sounds now, were the wind through feathers and the scratching thump of clawed feet striking stone. His two followers had fallen silent behind him as they progressed.

The moon had almost reached its Zenith in the sky when Cloud spotted the ominous silhouette of the Shinra mansion below them. He knew that his hometown, currently still housing the friends and family he'd grown up with, sat further beyond. The lights of the houses were completely obscured by the thick trees and stone. He drew his mount up, and whistled sharply. The other three animals skidded to a halt, warking excitedly, they fluttered their wings to dispense the heat from their long run, and fluffed their feathers to resettle them. A distant howl echoed through the mountains, followed by a handful more of eerie mournful cries. Zack and Genesis both sat more upright at the noise, and Zack frowned a little nervously,

"Are the wolves really six feet tall? That's what Reno said." He queried in concern.

Genesis snorted, "Mere nonsense."

At the same time Cloud replied, "Yep. More or less."

There was a short pause as two pairs of glowing eyes whirled on the time-traveler.

"Really?" Zack asked in horror,

The Lieutenant's eyes narrowed, "I have faced wolves in the past, they were not as you're describing."

Cloud stifled a grin. "Nibel Wolves, like Nibel goats, are taller than most people at the shoulders. Nibel dragons are about twice as high, but much bulkier all around. Closer to ten times the weight of a wolf, and I've seen wolves over eight hundred pounds."

"Dragons?!" Zack squeaked.

Another pause, "I was not aware that dragons were among our possible monster encounters."

Cloud shook his head with a smile. "That's because they're not. They don't come down this far or they'd have burned the mansion down a long time ago." His smile faded slightly at the unbidden memory of a burning town, but it had been a very long time ago for him. He shook the visual off with long practice. "Come on, let's go tuck the chocobos away and let them eat, drink, and recover. They're going to have another long run tonight, and they're going to need the rest."

He let them down into the secluded valley that housed the infamous Shinra Mansion, around the back and tucked out of view was a seldom-used stables. It was the matter of a few moments to shuffle the four animals into a relatively serviceable stall, at which point the blond consolidated the bird food he'd brought from all three bags. After making sure the trough was appropriately clean, he sprinkled in a healthy portion of greens and food into it. The pumps for water still worked and he filled up the barrel. The birds laid into it gratefully, chirping as they munched away. Standing and stretching, Cloud grunted softly, he was sore already! Tomorrow was going to be particularly unpleasant. Gone were the days he could ride a bird or bike all day long with nothing more than the trail-dust for his trouble. Ah well, he'd just have to keep building up the strength and endurance of his tiny young body.

He led the others, who were unusually quiet as they gazed into the forest warily, up to the mansion proper. It was only once they were safely inside its walls that the silence was broken.

"Ah-choo!" Zack sneezed noisily, sending whirling dust up as he shook himself. "Blech! It's so dusty!"

"Cleaning up after themselves has only concerned Shinra when a scandal was involved." Cloud returned dryly, but he tucked a hand over his own face with a grimace. The place smelled exactly as musty as it always did.

Genesis snorted, "Disconcertingly accurate." He murmured with mild humor.

The blond led the way upstairs to the study that sat next to the observatory. He bee-lined for the massive safe set almost center in the room. Behind him the First Class made a sound of dismay at the state of the books tucked into the stale room. He began muttering in irritation about the neglect.

"All right, lets see if I remember this correctly," the time-traveler hummed to himself, making sure he was wearing gloves before dusting off the combination spinner for the lock. He leaned closer, and with an intake of breath, summoned up the hard-memorized code.

"Right, thirty-six, … left, ten, … right, fifty-nine, … right, ninety-seven." He muttered aloud as he spun the lock. His hearing was no longer acute enough to hear the warning beep of the timer, but he remembered well the penalties for moving too slowly. After a moment of pause he did make out the barely audible click of the lock disengaging, and sighed in acute relief that no one had changed the combination. Or had it just always been that? Regardless, he slid open the old door, creaking with the beginning of rust on the hinge, and gazed inside eagerly. It only took a second for him to bark a harsh curse, words Tifa would have smacked him for saying in front of impressionable youths.

Two heads popped up from where they were exploring the room. "What's wrong?" Zack cried in alarm, loping up to peer over the smaller boy's shoulders.

Genesis returned the dusty bug eaten book he'd been perusing and stalked over more serenely. "What seems to be the problem, Cloud?"

"The key isn't here." The blond explained with a scowl. "This is where I found it in the future."

"Ah, so it is not there… yet."

"Does that mean we failed the mission?" Zack drooped morosely.

"No." Cloud sighed, "It just means I'll have to pick the lock… and that might take a while." He felt the sudden pinch of time, they had to finish this as quickly as possible, and the missing key was an unfortunate setback. Something else glinted in the back of the safe however, and the small blond swiped it deftly into one of his pockets before closing the safe door once more. Genesis raised an intrigued eyebrow, having apparently noticed the stealthy theft, and the time-traveler shook his head with a grimace, 'later' he mouthed. Though how he long he was going to be able to put off the Lieutenant depended entirely on whether or not he'd seen what Cloud had taken. He'd never met anyone as enthusiastic about Materia as this SOLDIER First was, with the possible exception of Yuffie. The major difference between them was Yuffie's kleptomaniac obsession with stealing Materia, vs Genesis' ambition to master them. Of the two, he definitely preferred the Lieutenant's method, but the little ninja girl had grown on him after a few decades, and certainly after he'd learned how to keep her from picking his pockets.

He led them through the hallways to the master bedroom, and activated the 'secret' door, stepping back to avoid the inevitable cloud of dirt.

"OOooh! Secret doors! So cool!" Zack whispered excitedly,

"Why, pray-tell, are you whispering?" The Lieutenant asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Well, we're sneaking in right? So we gotta be quiet?"

"Inobservant as usual," The older youth snorted, "The heavy layers of barely disturbed filth certainly indicate the likelihood of habitation."

"Just monsters, Zack." The blond interrupted smoothly. "Keep your eyes out when we get to the sublevels, but there shouldn't be any people." Wide eyed, the black-haired young man nodded. They proceeded down the wooden stairs carefully, they were a little worse for wear, though despite their appearance they'd been sturdy enough under Cloud's feet in the future. Still, a little caution never hurt. It was only a short jaunt down the rough cavern hallway. The little piles of bones from monster meals were still strewn around, but there was nothing down here a couple SOLDIERs couldn't handle.

"Yeck, this place is creepy," the Second Class said with an audible shudder. "Are those bones?" his voice rose a little.

The auburn-haired SOLDIER stepped forward, crouching down to analyze, "They are from some sort of slain monster." He explained. After a glance over to refresh his memory, Cloud nodded.

"Looks like the bones of a Ying-Yang, I'm surprised both skulls are still together."

"A what?" Zack cocked his head in confusion, not unlike the 'puppy' he was often compared to.

"I am also unfamiliar with this monster." The Lieutenant admitted with passive curiosity.

"It has two heads, and an expanded torso. One half is good at magic, and the other physical attacks. You need to be careful which head you dispose of first." Genesis nodded thoughtfully, and Zack straightened nervously.

"We'll protect you, Cloud!" he declared with earnest determination.

The blond smiled fondly, "I'm sure you will." He turned to the doorway set into stone walls built right into the rock of the tunnel. "This is it," he explained quickly, and reached into his pack for the lock picking tools he'd hoped he wouldn't need. He crouched down as close to eye level to the lock as he could and got to work. The door here was old, and dusty. Worn with time, though thankfully not rusty. It took him a minute just to clear dirt and debris from the pins with his tools, he vaguely remembered having to jiggle the key a bit too the first time. After that it was a matter of carefully feeling out the intricate pieces of metal, and where time had tarnished them. After several minutes of fiddling, he heard Zack kicking around and sighing loudly in boredom behind him. Then a few moments later he heard the unmistakable sound of the Second Class performing his favored squats.

The Lieutenant groaned in disgust. "Your attention span is literally less than five minutes." He sneered, shaking his head. "Pathetic."

"What? No, I'm exercising, there's nothing wrong with that." The other boy frowned.

"If you can't behave with decorum. You'll never make First."

"I can if I need to." Zack growled back, sounding even more irritated at Genesis ensuing snort.

"Children, Children," Cloud chided, raising his voice slightly and adopting a particularly patronizing tone none of his rescued orphans could ignore. "Play nice." He could feel their incredulous gazes on his back, and the blond smiled as he twisted his lock picks finally into the correct configuration, and the door opened with a click. "There now, all done, no need to fight." He continued in amusement.

"I outweigh you by at least double, Cloud, and you know I do not hesitate to utilize my every advantage."

The blond nodded in acknowledgement of this point, then simply shrugged. "That aside, the door is now open. So we can proceed with the plan." He gestured expansively to the doorway in question, and nudged the door open further with his foot. "I'll go first." He turned to precede the others into the room when a leather gloved hand suddenly griped the back of his shirt like an iron bar. A blur of blue and black shoved past him, bashing the door open noisily, it bounced off the far wall and swung nearly closed again, almost faster than the time-traveler's unenhanced eyesight could follow. Finally a hand darted over his shoulder and pulled the door completely shut with a bang then held it in place firmly.

It actually took Cloud a full stunned minute to make sense out of what had just happened. Had Genesis just? … Tossed Zack in the room alone? "Uh." He said ineloquently, "What the planet are you doing?" He wanted to sound disapproving, but honestly he just came across as perplexed as he felt. He tried to move towards the door, but the SOLDIER behind him adjusted his grip quick as lightning, and the immovable band of his arm was firmly around the blonde's chest. Cloud couldn't help the instinctual writhe to test for weaknesses, his near century of battle experience jumping in before he could think. But Genesis, as he'd stated before, was enhanced. A SOLDIER First Class, and that meant he'd have less luck of squirming free than a kitten. They at least had claws. Which admittedly, the blond already knew on an intellectual level. He'd been enhanced himself and had helped raise a whole slew of orphans. And he'd absolutely enjoyed gently but inexorably pinning them when they got too rowdy. He'd just never had the same done to him. It was… a bizzare sensation, halfway between demeaning, and endearing with the almost gentle firmness of the grip. "Genesis." He tried reasonably. "This isn't the plan. I need to explain things carefully."

Genesis chuckled softly, "This can be plan 'B' then."

"This is not plan 'B'." The smaller boy grumbled, finally convincing his body to relax in the other man's arm. "This was not anywhere in the plans."

"Cloud? Genesis?" Zack whined from the other side. "What's going on?"

"Yes Genesis, please answer the question?" the time-traveler prodded patiently,

"Little Zack, why don't you try to wake our new friend? I'm sure you would be more than up to the task." Genesis diverted with suspicious amiability.

"Uh… okay?" the younger boy piped. "How do I do that?"

The blond, still held firm, sighed heavily. "He should be in the center coffin."

"Coffin?!" came the alarmed yelp,

"He is our ally, surely it's safe." The Lieutenant purred, smirking.

"It should be safe." Cloud admitted a little begrudgingly, "I really should be the one in there." He added more softly to the Lieutenant. They both listened to the sound of Zack plodding reluctantly further inward.

"You are not expendable." Genesis said, in what could have been mistaken as a soothing tone, too quietly for Zack's enhanced hearing.

"Zack isn't 'expendable' either." The blond growled,

"But he is a SOLDIER, and more than strong enough to handle himself. Whereas if your delicate and breakable little form were placed unduly in the line of fire, and something unfortunate were to happen… well, who could possibly replace you?"

He had a point. The time-traveler found himself admitting unhappily. In the future, the success of any goal had never hinged so strongly on his survival. It would have been more difficult without him, sure… but in this case, he was the only one who knew what needed to be done to stop the Calamity… and that, smarted. He cursed Genesis softly, and the taller youth laughed in delight at his 'victory'.

The creak of a heavy wooden lid being lifted from place, interrupted their quiet discussion. The blond could barely make out the deep tenor of his old friend's voice, no longer muffled by his dense resting place. Zack's voice was decidedly clearer.

"Hello? Wake up! We're here to rescue you!"

"… I have never seen you before. You must leave." Came Vincent's rumbling bass.

"No wait, we're supposed to help you! Your friend Cloud is just outside!" the younger man protested vibrantly, the blond groaned, dropping his head into his hands.

"I know of no one named Cloud. Let me sleep." Came the return grumble from inside the room. Then a sudden sharp yelp from the Second Class.

"Holy Gaia! The lid moved by itself!" He squawked in alarm.

"Nothing to be concerned about." Genesis crooned encouragingly, "Just wake our new friend. We will fail the mission if he does not come with us."

"What? Fail? But…" Zack trailed off with a whimper, then they heard the scrape of the coffin lid once more, this time followed by a loud cracking crash that made both figures in the hallway jump. "Listen up! Ya gotta let us rescue you! It's important!" the black-haired teen cajoled earnestly.

"Get out." This time Vincent growled, "I have no business with strangers, this mansion is a place of nightmares."

"Eeep! Oh, your eyes are weird…" Zack's hesitant voice tried again, "But Cloud came back from the future to rescue everyone."

"It is too late for me. I am no longer human enough to be rescued."

"N-no longer human?" there was a long pause, "Ack! You're a vampire!"

Cloud groaned again in exasperation. "He's not a -"

"HEEEELLLPPP!" the black-haired SOLDIER shouted in terror, and Genesis swiveled to place his shoulder against the door, an eye blink before the heavy thud of a body bouncing off the inside could be heard. "IT'S AVAMPIRE! IT"S GONNA EAT ME!"

"He's not going to hurt you!" Cloud tried to explain, but he was drowned out.


The blond spat some indelicate curse words, "Calm down!" He tried, to no avail. "Gaia Genesis, what were you trying to do?" He snarled, twisting to look up at his captor.

"HEEEELPP!" Came more shouting, complete with desperate pummeling of the door the Lieutenant was braced against. "DON'T LET IT EAT ME! CLOUD HEEELLLPP!"

"I am supremely confident…" Genesis started, pausing to grunt in effort as Zack body slammed the door again, still shouting in panic. "In Zack's ability…"Another grunt, and the door shuddered, but held under the First Class' enhanced frame. "… To annoy anyone."

"IT'S COMING AFTER ME!" the teenager howled, "IT'S- EEEEEEE!" the last part ended in a shriek, followed by a loud crash, and then eerie silence. The pause only lasted a moment before the wooden door exploded. Genesis whirled to put his back toward the flying debris, shielding the diminutive blond in front of him and curling around him as splinters of wood sliced through the air, the tiny pieces hadn't even had time to hit the ground before the First Class turned again, somehow bringing up the slender sword Cloud had bought him, deflecting away the aimed barrel of a gun that had started pointing through the ruins of the entryway.

The time-traveler was impressed to note that Genesis had not once loosened or tightened his grip, and he was using his sword with his off-hand to boot. "I didn't know you were ambidextrous." He found himself saying aloud without intending to.

"I am full of surprises." Genesis murmured back, his mouth turned up in a smirk.

"Who are you?" Vincent growled through the portal of wreckage. He didn't seem concerned that his gun was pointing away, in fact his brow furrowed in what Cloud recognized as distress as he realized he'd been aiming at a tiny teenaged boy mere moments ago.

"Hello Vincent, I'm Cloud." The blond introduced quickly, he tried to extend a hand, but Genesis twisted him subtly out of reach. "We need your help to get rid of Hojo."

Crimson eyes narrowed, "Hojo, … You have my attention."

"Okay, short version, In order to save the son of Lucretia from Hojo's machinations, we need to eliminate him and those corrupt fools who would continue his work."

"The son of that beloved woman? Sephiroth?" the ex-Turk lowered his firearm and stepped back. "How do you know of these things?"

"Cloud here, is a time-traveler from the future, who's mind was sent back to inhabit his younger body, his goal is to save the world from Calamitous destruction." Genesis summarized.

"Er… yes… that." The blond darted a quick glare at the SOLDIER for the interruption. "In my time, Sephiroth went insane, and we had to stop him. I'm trying to save him this time, and I'll need your help and skills, Vincent Valentine."

"To atone for my sins?" Vincent seemed to ask himself, Cloud had almost forgotten how introspective he used to be. "Too much hope is the opposite of despair…"

"My soul, corrupted by vengeance, Hath endured torment, to find the end of the journey. In my own salvation, and your eternal slumber."

The red-eyed ex-turk paused, almost squinting up at the Lieutenant. "What?"

"My friend, your desire, is the bringer of life, the gift of the goddess."

"Lieutenant Rhapsodos, SOLDIER First Class, and one of Sephiroth's best friends, has an unhealthy obsession with the play LOVELESS." Cloud explained, long-suffering.

Vincent blinked a few times, "I'm afraid I have never heard of it."

Genesis seemed stunned into silence. Cloud tried to stifle a chortle with limited success. "It might have been while you were sleeping. You've been in there for about twenty years."

"Has it been so long? Lost asleep in a world of illusions… Perhaps it is time to redress the balance"

"I appreciate your willingness to help." Cloud said brightly, "Is Zack okay? He's a bit of nut, but he means well."

"He will be fine," the gunman said, then reached a gauntleted hand through the hole in the door and twisted the nob. He pulled open the scant remains and gestured inside, where the SOLDIER Second was curled up against the wall, staring at the ex-turk in silent terror.

Cloud sighed. "Zack, it's okay." He said soothingly, "Vincent isn't a vampire, he's not going to hurt you, he just doesn't age anymore, and I didn't either in the future. It's a side-effect of some of Hojo's experiments."

"He's… not gonna eat us?" the black-haired teen asked in a small voice.

"I promise." The blond affirmed confidently.

"I imagine it would also be of great assistance, if your little rapscallion Turk friend would cease goading you into watching horror films." Genesis added dryly.

Vincent raised an eyebrow, glancing at the teenager. "I'm sorry I frightened you."

"Ah, … er… thanks?" Zack stretched slowly to his feet, but with the time-travelers calm assurance he finally joined the small group, looking at Vincent a little nervously. Once convened, Genesis turned with the tiny blond still in hand and started back down the tunnel to the exit.

"Genesis, I can walk." Cloud scolded.

"I am aware." The Auburn-haired youth admitted with a grin.

"Bahamut! Why are you carrying me?"

"You are a small portable font of wisdom." Came the sly response, "This has the additional bonus of reducing your vaguely irritating propensity to conduct as though rest of us are delinquents."

"Well if you didn't want to be treated like a delinquent..." The blond grumbled.

"Hey Gen! I can hold him if your arms get tired." Zack said eagerly, jogging briefly to walk beside the First Class.

Cloud groaned loudly, covering his face in exasperation. His own enhancements couldn't come soon enough! A glance behind him showed Vincent following, but the blond could see amusement dancing in his crimson eyes. He might even be smiling under that cowl. He supposed he could put up with a few indignities if it buoyed the mood of his old friend this soon out of his self-imposed confinement.

In the end, Lieutenant Rhapsodos carried him all the way back to the stables. A surprisingly quiet trip, there were no sudden attacks from monsters… either they just weren't as prevalent at this time, or something had scared them off for a while. Once they reached the Chocobos however, it was a different story. Cloud's chosen female took extreme exception to Genesis manhandling her rider, and leapt like a viridian ball of fury out of the stall. Despite the wicked claws she boasted, she chose instead to buffet the SOLDIER around the head with her wings. All sharp edges tucked carefully away from the blond she was trying to rescue. Genesis dropped him with a startled squawk, pulling his arms up to protect his head from the unexpected assault. Cloud grabbed the dangling lead she's somehow torn free as fast as he was able and pulled her head around to look at him

"Shhhh… It's okay girl." He soothed, "He didn't hurt me, see?" He produced a couple greens from his pocket, and with a last sideways glare at her nemesis, and a warning 'Kweh' she accepted the bribe and turned her focus to the time-traveler.

"By the Goddess, Cloud" Genesis grumbled, "What's his problem?"

"She was probably one of the lead hen's back in Corel." Cloud explained simply, "So she's territorial, and doesn't like you." He turned around and allowed the bird to groom his fluffy blond hair, "She'd have made a good racer if I could train her not to bite quite so much. Generally it's frowned upon for your birds to take chunks out of the competition, but she's a tough little scrapper." He scratched under her chin fondly as he said it.

"As you may observe," Genesis started wryly, turning to Vincent. "He is not long hindered from his cavalier attitude." To Cloud's surprise, the gunman actually snorted. Admittedly, it was a nice double entendre.

"That's really cool." Zack grinned, seeming to have forgotten his earlier fright. "Which one was mine again?" Cloud obligingly opened the stall, keeping one hand firmly on the reigns of his bird, and pulled out the others, he passed them back to their intended riders. Removing the extra pack from the fourth to offer to Vincent.

"I don't ride." The ex-Turk admitted stoically.

"Neither can they." The blond shrugged, gesturing at the two SOLDIERs who made hilarious indignant noises at the slight. "Don't fret, I'll explain, and I'll lead for the moment." And explain he did, showing the tall immortal how to grip, and warning him not to squeeze too hard with his legs. He led the three of them out and to the mountain edge where they'd originally approached. He patiently watched the black-haired gunman mount, and frown. And gently corrected until he was stable.

"Oh, hey, Vinny." Zack began, flinching slightly from the scowl that nickname brought his way, "Green chocobos can climb! They have weird finger thingies on their wings … its really freaky!" He enthusiastically shared his newfound knowledge.

Genesis sighed in disappointment. "I was anticipating his potential failure to retain his seat. Thank you Zack."

"You're welcome!" the Second Class said brightly, completely oblivious to the sarcasm.

"You are an interesting group." Vincent said softly, and though his tone was almost deadpan, Cloud could tell he was actually enjoying the interplay despite himself.

Once they were all mounted Cloud led them with no incidents up to the ridge. Orienting himself briefly using the stars overhead, he waved to the three followers, "Let's go!" and issued that whistling command through his fingers to tell the chocobos to follow. Once again they were off, with the chill night-time wind blowing over the mountain peaks. Cloud was filled with optimism over the success of the mission, hopefully his future plans would end as well as this one. Though perhaps with a little less improvisation next time.

((Author's Note:

Hey folks! I hope you enjoyed this chapter, I know a lot of you have been eagerly awaiting Vincent's rescue/debut. I've had this chapter planned out for literally years, though it's changed in form from some of my imaginings, ;p (until I realized while sitting down to write this, that it was impractical… Sephiroth was always supposed to be present. … but let's face it. Shinra would notice if he disappeared. ) … Nevertheless, it's an absolute joy to finally share it.

On a different note, I've actually been trying to wiggle in more regular writing time. (you may have noticed the sharp uptick in updates) and I've actually got a few more chapters ready, but to make sure I don't blow through my buffer, I'd intended to post only every 2-3 months, until such time as I can get a rhythm, so you guys don't have to go such a long stretch with nothing from me. I'd increased that to an almost monthly (month and a half?) update due to Covid-19, to help with the stir-crazies of being quarantined. This will be my last month updating so fast, as I'm returning to work full-time. (I've been catching up with my buffer also) My new position might allow me to write at work a little, so we'll see how things go. You should have updates every 2-3 months through the end of 2020 regardless though, so hang in there! ^_^

-Jianre M. A.K.A … Illusor Meaneld.))