Sleight of Hand

by Tenshi

"I'll flip you for it," Vincent said, with a gallantry he certainly did not feel, standing in the inn room with half-melted snow dripping off his hair, his sodden cloak almost black. He was shivering slightly, enough to make the armored plates on his boots and gauntlet chime with a faint, tinnitus ring.

"Nah, you take it." Cid's gallantry was more genuine, but only owing to the fact that he was drier and drunker, having stopped in the bar downstairs to refill his flask. Cloud was still down there, brooding over a whiskey. The slog up to Icicle Inn had chilled all of them, but Cloud had his own internal ice to warm, and he would be there for hours yet.

Cid wasn't up on any of that bullshit. All he knew was that he was cold and Vincent was colder, and Vincent's precise aim had come between Cid and certain death about ten times out on the tundra. That was more than enough to offer dibs on the hot water.

"Thank you." Vincent began stripping out of his gear, his cloak slapping wetly against the radiator, his holsters hooked neatly on the back of a chair.

"You mind if I smoke?" Cid asked, cigarette already in his teeth, fingers digging in his jacket pocket for matches.

Vincent, busy getting out of his boots, shook his head in a no. Cid made a relieved noise, and the match flared into flame in his hand. He didn't fancy the idea of trudging back down to the bar just for a cigarette. For all Vincent's weirdness, Cid considered, the guy was all right. Ex-ShinRa and still had all that bureaucratic reserve, ex-Turk and still as deadly, but still all right. Good-looking, too. So yeah, maybe he did some weird shit on the battlefield. It wasn't any skin off of Cid's ass, and it had certainly saved it more than once. Cid drew in a breath of sweet nicotine as the end of his cigarette ignited, and watched through the smoke as Vincent peeled out of his jacket and undershirt. So what if Vincent was a ShinRa mistake? Cid was too. Underneath all that, and without all his moping about Sin and Sephiroth, Vincent was ordinary flesh and blood just like Cid was.

That was when Vincent took off his armored left arm and tossed it on the table, along with the rest of his discarded equipment.

Cid boggled. He blinked hard a few times, tried to get his mouth to shut, and only noticed he still held a lit match when it burnt down to his thumb and forefinger. He shook it out with a curse, his heartfelt oaths eliciting an arched eyebrow from Vincent.

"Something wrong, Chief?"

"Nah, nah," Cid said, not sure what to do with his own left hand now that Vincent was suddenly without his. "It's just-- just uh." He squinted at the pointed gold fingers lying tangled up in Vincent's scarlet headband, as inanimate now as his belts and boot-plates. "Has uh, has that always just... y'know. Come off?"

Vincent, shirtless in the bathroom doorway, actually smiled at him. At least, something narrow and warm happened across his summon-materia red eyes. "Seriously," he said, "after everything else you've seen me do, this is the thing that surprises you?" He shut the bathroom door with a grim chuckle, leaving Cid alone in the room with his discarded limb.

For a long time Cid sat on the end of the bed, smoking furiously and staring at Vincent's arm. The room grew darker, the snow drifts blew higher against the windows, and the hiss of the shower made a cozy counterpoint to the howling wind outside. Finally Cid stood up and circled the table as though he was looking for a good place to land. Vincent's arm was like a prickly beetle carapace, and it gleamed coldly in the snowy light from the window.

Cid chewed his cigarette for a moment, and leaned over at last to poke at one of the golden fingers. It clicked down at his touch, tapping down onto the black-gloved palm. Cid pulled a few drags off his cigarette without removing it from his mouth, and studied the relic on the table with furrowed brow. Was it mechanical? Was it magical? Some combination of both? He touched it again; it was cold. Was it uncomfortable to wear? Was it heavy? Vincent wore it so naturally, Cid had assumed it was only armor, not some enhanced prosthetic like Barrett's gun-arm. There had been so little time lately to notice that Vincent slept with it on. He slept with his gun, too, and Cid had taken both for just plain old caution.

Cid had picked up the arm before quite realizing he had done so; it rested across his palms with the fingers dangling limp. Cold, but not as heavy as he expected. There was a single socket at the top, a ring of gauges circled it. Down inside he could see a bluish gleam, but if it was of materia or electronics, he could not tell. He upended it again, and the whole hand apparatus fell back with a jangle of fingers, a stringless marionette's limb, devoid of life.

"If you needed me to lend you a hand, you could have asked."

Cid started, almost dropping the arm, and looked around the room in surprise. He had not heard the shower stop running, had not heard anything, really. Vincent had just materialized out of the bathroom, towel around his hips, hair combed back from his face.

"Motherfucker, you can be too damn quiet," Cid grumbled. "You just took about six years off my life, you know that?"

"If you cared about that, you wouldn't smoke." Vincent reached out to tug the chain of the lamp in the corner. Golden light washed away the cold blue shadows, and Cid realized he was holding Vincent's arm to his chest like a security blanket.

"Uh," Cid said, and wasn't sure what else to say. "It's, um." He waved the arm at Vincent, and the hand flopped around inappropriately. "I haven't seen one like it."

Vincent's black brows lifted, but his expression remained unreadable. "It's a ShinRa prosthetic prototype for SOLDIERS with severe battle damage. One of Hojo's actual useful experiments. Pity he didn't wait for an actual amputee to try it on, and simply made me into one." Vincent held out his truncated left arm, and Cid couldn't help but stare at it. Vincent's arm ended just below his elbow, where an orb of command materia gleamed in a socket of smooth metal. "Would you be so kind?" Vincent said.

Cid looked at the arm, back at Vincent, and swallowed. "I didn't mean to pry," he said.

Half of Vincent's mouth quirked up. "The hell you didn't," he said, and waved his arm with a bit of impatience. "Go on, I know you want to see how it works. Put it on."

Cid tried to take a pull off his cigarette, but it had already gone down to the filter and out. With the caution of a man loading a torpedo, he eased Vincent's arm into place. The connector engaged with a subtle click, a tremor ran through the armored forearm Cid held, and suddenly five sharp fingers were clamped around Cid's own arm in a vise-like grip. The lifeless limb was instantly obedient to Vincent's will, and Cid was dragged forward, ten inches across the carpet, to meet Vincent's gaze.

"Goddamn," Cid gasped, involuntarily.

Vincent's artifical hand released him, only to reach up and delicately pluck Cid's extinguished cigarette from between his lips. He held it up in front of Cid's face, pinned between the points of thumb and finger. Then the claws flickered, too fast for Cid's eyes to follow, and two perfectly severed bits of cigarette filter fell to the rug between them.

"Curiosity satisfied, Cid?" Vincent asked, in a dangerous purr.

Cid was having trouble swallowing. He made a strangled noise that he tried to pretend was noncommittal. This close, he could feel the warmth radiating from Vincent's skin, could see the wisps of steam rising up from his bare shoulders. The line of his lips was a tempting shadow, his eyes gleamed like fresh blood in the snow. Cid was acutely aware of a supple naked torso, the shining weight of Vincent's wet hair, and a single gold claw that was at that moment traveling from the hollow of Cid's throat to his belt buckle.

Cid managed a grin, but it felt far too unstable. Cool metal claws had just slipped inside the band of his pants. "Hey, when a man loses his curiosity, what's he got left worth living for?"

Vincent smiled, his claws made a soft rasping noise, and Cid's belt was suddenly undone. "I can offer a few suggestions."

Vincent's artificial fingers began a slow, lingering demonstration of both their power and their delicacy, and as Cid leaned back against the table with an appreciative groan, his last coherent thought was that sometimes even ShinRa's mistakes were things of beauty.


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