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The Devil's Own

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter One

 

Cloud woke up to a racket of indeterminable cause coming from downstairs. His first reaction, before sleep had even cleared from his brain, was to roll and grab for the hilt of his sword. But the sword wasn't there and he wasn't on his bedroll on hard ground, but in a bed in a room over the bar where a man didn't need to keep weapons at hand when he slept. At least he tried to keep telling himself that. He caught himself mid-roll and took a precious moment to clear his head and recognize the noise and the booming voice drifting up from below as friend not foe.

Barret. Back after two months of field work scouting out new sources of fuel for a world deprived, for the most part, of the old one. Now that ShinRa wasn't drawing raw mako from the planet anymore, more traditional sources of power were needed. Fossil fuels, for one, were making a big comeback, a dozen or more small companies sprouting up and frantically scouring the planet for pockets of oil and coal. ShinRa didn't have the monopoly anymore, and though the greatly reduced corporate monster had its claws into the new thirst for oil, it was also rumored that its researchers were busily developing alternate means of energy.

If Cid, Vincent and Yuffie had still been around, they could have had a rousing little reunion that didn't involve the battling of megabeasts and the salvation of cities. But Yuffie had taken off soon after she'd returned with Cid to 7th Heaven yesterday with Cloud's cut, claiming to have business in Utai. Cid and Vincent had left much later in the night, after a good amount of beer and whisky on Cloud and Cid's part and a great deal of patient silence on Vincent's. With the gil from Yuffie's venture in hand, Cid had a few upgrades he wanted to make to the Sierra and there seemed an unspoken agreement that Vincent might make the run with him.

Cloud had gone to bed a little bit drunk and because of it, a little bit nostalgic over the departure. His head was clear this morning though, and the aches and pains of the last few days seemed to have vanished. His metabolism was extraordinarily fast at healing ills, one of the rare benefits of having been the subject of ShinRa experimentation. ShinRa Soldiers were nothing if not durable. And the special Soldiers, the ones that had the Jenova element mixed up with their own genetic make-ups, well, they were downright eerie in the things their bodies were capable of.

Cloud didn't like to think about it. He couldn't help it sometimes when cuts and wounds that should have taken weeks to disappear, melted away in a matter of days. The slice on his throat was gone this morning. Almost as if it had never been there. As if it had indeed been a figment of his nightmares.

But it hadn't and he frowned at himself in the mirror over the bathroom sink as he reminded himself of that uneasy fact. He took a very quick shower, pulled on a faded T-shirt and a pair of jeans and walked downstairs with beads of water still dripping from the ends of unruly hair. Barret was surrounded by a group of children, all clustered about a table, scattered with various treasures he'd collected during his trip. There were bits of polished rock, odd little carvings, a few rather interesting fossils, trinkets Barret had picked up in the towns and settlements he had passed through, little jars of jams and preserves and candied fruits and nuts that the kids were always ravenous for. Marlene was in high spirits, glued to the big man's side, asking to hear the story about how he'd found this trinket or that one.

Cloud wandered to the table and glanced over the heads of the kids to the assorted treasure-trove. Barret grinned at him, seemingly well pleased with himself.

"Kicked ass on this job." Barret answered the question Cloud hadn't asked. "Got a damned big commission, plus a bonus from Bigtooth Company for securing that field. Had to fight off the competition, too." He held up one thickly muscled arm and displayed what looked to be a healing bullet wound through the meaty part of the biceps. "I earned that bonus."

Cloud half-smiled at the proud way Barret showed off his battle scars, like a kid back from the playground with a bloody nose and victory over the bully that had given it to him.

He left Barret to the mercy of the kids, bypassing the prospect of coffee and a free breakfast at the bar in favor of spending a little of the hard earned gil he'd kept for himself at the aftermarket parts shop he liked to frequent up in sector 4. In cleaning Fenrir's carb yesterday he'd discovered a little more wear on the atomizer and needlejet than he was comfortable with, considering the hard usage he put the bike through, and the banjo union on the fuel inlet could probably use replacing if he was going back in.

Contentedly contemplating a morning browsing in the chop shops and a peaceful afternoon working on Fenrir, Cloud strolled among the rest of the pedestrians on their way to work or busily attending to errands along the central avenue that wound around the hub of Midgar. The public railway which used to be the quickest route between sectors, still wasn't up and operational after the cataclysm. It might never be again, if big money wasn't thrown at it, and who had big money these days, with ShinRa down to bare bones and no cohesive government stepping in to take its place.

Midgar was on its own. But the people survived, as people tended to do, even without the all powerful guiding hand of ShinRa to tell them how to do it.

ShinRa was stirring though, especially with Rufus back from the brink of death after the miraculous cure of the geostigma. There was more of a ShinRa presence in the upper sectors nowadays, at least that was the word that trickled down to the slums. That seemed to cheer the middle-class folks, who craved the assurances, and more importantly, the protections ShinRa security could offer. The city had gone without a cohesive law enforcement arm for over two years now and there were simply some sections of town you didn't go unless you were prepared to put your life on the line. The wealthier sectors had hired private security. The poorer ones, like sector 5 where Tifa had reestablished 7th Heaven, made due with freelancers, ex-ShinRa security, low rent muscle and the god's own luck. Merchants, Tifa among them, paid monthly for a full time crew of security that loosely tried to uphold the peace, even if the majority of the city's laws had gone out the window, along with the ruling class.

And though Cloud couldn't have cared less if Rufus Shinra fell off a cliff tomorrow, he supposed a modified ShinRa government was better than the total anarchy that a city the size of Midgar would eventually fall into without some sort of political structure. God knew who else was equipped to tackle the job.

He got coffee in a styrofoam cup from a vendor and a piece of sweet, crisp bread, and consumed it as he walked. Someone bumped into him hard in passing and it was only by the sheer grace of infallible reflexes that he avoided spilling hot liquid on his T-shirt. He glanced back, glaring as the man who'd collided with him proceeded on without even a backwards glance. But he caught a glimpse of profile and a flash of a stark, black lined tattoo from beneath the swaying fringe of a leather shoulder guard. The face meant nothing, but the tat struck a distant chord of memory. A snake consuming its tail, coiled around a three pronged blade. He stood there staring for a moment, long after the man had melted into obscurity with the morning crowd.

It wasn't an official Soldier symbol, but he was sure he'd seen its like back when he'd been drawing a check from the Company. He couldn't recall where or what it represented, and the lack of memory irked him, but then again, there were a lot of things that still remained in a fog from those years. He licked off the drop of coffee that had spilled onto his hand from the collision, pushing the question from his mind. No use dwelling on a thing that had absolutely no impact upon him, and would only frustrate him with its elusiveness.

Neon signs and dangling exhaust pipes, disenfranchised motor cycle chassises, shining chrome wheel wells and various other cannibalized parts decorated the outside of Hoytt's Hog Heaven. Inside the place was crammed to overflowing with what at first glance seemed to be towering walls of junk, but upon closer inspection were viable parts, either refurbished to perfection or waiting to be tackled by Hoytt himself. The man was a mechanic of mythic proportions. If it ran on two wheels, he knew it inside and out, could tune it, sup it up, modify it, repair it, paint it, or do whatever else an imaginative customer might require.

Without him Fenrir wouldn't be half the bike it was and Cloud was halfway in love with the skinny, bearded, incense smelling Hoytt, because of it. The man was a moterbike guru.

He weeded his way past accumulated parts, parked bikes, and cartons of various scavenged stock. There was a much scuffed, very cluttered counter at the back, and beyond that, a garage where Hoytt could usually be found.

He was there now working on a monster of a desert bike. Cloud made a circuit of it admiringly. The engine alone was a beast of massive proportions.

"Nice." Cloud ran fingers across a shining chassis and Hoytt looked up from the other side, only just noting he wasn't alone.

"Oh. Hey, man. Isn't she a beaut? She could give Fenrir a run for the money, eh?" Hoytt's eyes were perpetually large pupiled, most likely from whatever mood altering substance he packed his hand rolled cigarettes with. Cloud shrugged, something bordering of paternal pride over his bike disagreeing with that assumption.

"I'm overhauling the carb. I need a few parts."

"Sure thing." Hoytt wiped grease streaked hands on filthy overalls, and rose. "New or rebuilt."

"New if you've got them." Cloud told the man what he needed and Hoytt, knowing that Cloud would settle only for the best of the best when it came to his bike, brought out the high quality stuff. Cloud didn't bother to dicker over the price. For one, being a regular customer, Hoytt wouldn't screw him over, for two, Cloud wasn't much for bartering. He handed over the gil, and hung around a while longer, watching Hoytt work his magic with the desert bike engine.

An hour later, he was on his way back towards sector 7. He went straight for the garage and sat to work disassembling the carb that he had spent a good portion of the day yesterday putting back together. It was work he enjoyed though, and the day sped by, the work going quickly since all the pieces and parts were sparkling clean.

It wasn't quite dusk when a harassed-looking Tifa slid the garage door open and stalked inside.

"Those idiots!" she complained without preamble. She didn't seem agitated to the point that he thought he'd need to draw a weapon to help solve her idiot problem, so he simply sat on the canvas next to the bike, waiting for further clarification.

"Bobo and Beaver got into a fight with the bouncers up at Landmine's and came out on the losing side. They've called in sick and it's an hour till the Friday night rush starts."

Bobo and Beaver were 7th Heaven's weekend muscle. The bar was relatively quiet on weeknights, but on Friday and Saturday nights when folks had paychecks to burn and workweek tensions to release, the place boomed. And being closer to the slums and the dead zones than higher sector establishments, Tifa got a rougher trade. It had gotten worse since the cataclysm, what with the lack of proper law and the desperation of a population striving to simply survive without mako energy to make their lives easier. No doubt Tifa was pulling out her hair. She could lose more than she made if the bar got trashed. Even with bouncers, there was usually a brawl or two. Bobo and Beaver were generally slow and stupid, as far as Cloud was concerned, but big enough to man handle and intimidate the run of the mill trouble-causing patron and toss the conflict out onto the street before it got too bad inside.

"Barret's agreed to do door duty. Please, please, please could you work the inside tonight? Free drinks. My eternal gratitude. Unless you're still feeling out of sorts from the venom . . .?"

He would have agreed without the bribery. The concern about the venom made him cringe.

"Let me wash up."

"You're okay?"

He gave her a look and she held up both hands in a peacemaking gesture. "'Kay. 'Kay, sorry I asked. Grouch." But she smiled and left with a lighter step.

He left his work where it was, extracted one of his smaller swords from where the lot of them were nestled inside the side panels of the bike, and slid it into a leather sheath. He doubted he'd need weaponry to deal with any problem that walked into 7th Heaven, but he hated to be unprepared, regardless. He'd stow the sword behind the bar along with the rest of the more dangerous weapons that Barret would check at the door. Tifa allowed in the small stuff, what barkeep who wanted to keep her clientele wouldn't in this day and age? But she drew a line at weapons of mass destruction, the types of things that could take out a room full of people in a few heartbeats. At least among patrons that she didn't consider bosom buddies.

He walked down the narrow street to the bar's back entrance and went upstairs, showered and changed into black jeans and the black, sleeveless sweater that was his favorite. He didn't bother with the shoulder guard, since he wouldn't be wearing the sheath across his back. He came down the back stairs, where Tifa had boxes of booze, glasses and chairs in need of repair stacked against the wall. There were already a dozen or more patrons in the bar and Tifa and her extra counter help were drawing beer from the tap and pouring shots from bottles of amber and clear booze.

Cloud stowed the sword under the bar, next to somebody's automatic machine pistol.

Tifa gave him a nod and a smile, inclining her chin towards the beer tap in inquiry. He shook his head. He didn't need to start drinking this early or he'd be wasted before the end of the night. His body might be uncannily fast, strong and adept at healing wounds, but nothing ShinRa's bloody scientists had ever done to him had helped him hold his liquor any better than the next man. Tifa could drink him under the table if she tried, but that talent sort of came part and parcel with owning a tavern.

He took a seat on one of the barstools, his back to the bar. The front door was propped open, letting in cool evening air. Barret was perched on a stool just inside, legs propped upon a crate, looking more intimidating than both Bobo and Beaver combined with his bulging muscles, his glower and the dull metal of the gatling gun grafted onto his right arm. He nodded to Cloud, giving him a broad, white toothed grin.

Barret was an old hand at the bouncer thing. He'd been helping Tifa out for years, even back when Avalanche had been working full tilt to bring ShinRa's mako draining reactors to a standstill. Sometimes, Cloud figured Barret knew Tifa better than he did, regardless of having grown up in the same hometown, but then Cloud wasn't much of a people person and despite all appearances, despite the gruff exterior, Barret was.

When the distant sound of factory horns dully pierced the evening air, the city drew in her breath, waiting for the expulsion of men and women onto its streets. The lamps outside the bar were just beginning to flicker on with encroaching darkness when the patrons began trickling in. The noise grew, as men called to acquaintances, as stories and jokes were exchanged, as drinks were called for, chairs scraped across the floor, gil clinking as it changed hands, the clacking of glass mugs, the sloshing of liquid and the simple movement of men and clothing and buckles and boots upon the floor joined together to make a symphony of harsh sound.

Another Friday night at 7th Heaven. A few weapons were checked, but most of these men had only smaller knives, billyclubs or cheap, single shot handguns for self-protection, if anything at all. It was the late crowd that would bring trouble with it, the gang-bangers and predators that made weekend bar-hopping and trouble-making a regular routine.

A few neighborhood whores sauntered in, Annie among them, for drinks and laughs in between johns. Cloud sipped on his first beer of the night and stoically endured being hit on by Annie and the startlingly well-endowed friend she'd come in with. They went away eventually, drawn by the lure of paying customers.

There was a commotion at the door, loud protestations about the weapons check by a group of newcomers that clustered outside the open bar door, way blocked by Barret's thick arm. He could hear snippets of foul language and not all of it came from the mouths of the would-be patrons. He was about to saunter over and give Barret a little back up, when somebody caved, and with collective grumblings, a dangerous assortment of weaponry was handed over. Cloud did go over then, to help deposit the lot of it behind the bar. There were some scavenged, rebuilt, hi-tech weaponry, assault rifles, machine pistols, a gunblade and an old wicked four-foot double-edged saber that actually had materia filling one of the niches in its hilt. A valuable piece.

"That's not here when I leave, blood'll spill." A wiry, rat-faced man gave Cloud a meaningful stare. His companions laughed, a low ripple of dark amusement that hinted that the treat was not an idle one.

Cloud didn't bother with a reply, simply dumping his load on the bartop for Tifa to stow away behind it. She gave him a slight frown, her gaze following the newcomers as they moved like a pack across the bar, bullying a group of factory workers away from the round table in the far corner.

Her concern was not unwarranted. There were half a dozen of them, and from their clothing, and the sort of weaponry they carried, they were probably wastelanders come into the city for a little hell-raising. Gangs of such men roamed the desert preying on caravans and travelers, surviving on what they stole, taking pleasure in fear and havoc. ShinRa used to send out periodic patrols to cull their numbers. There was no one to quell their activities now, save competent bodyguards and well-armed merchants. Cloud had run into their likes on many occasion during the course of transport jobs and thus, done his own small bit in curbing their numbers.

The lot of them wore leathers and mismatched bits of armor, all of it patched and scuffed from usage. There was scarring on skin as well, not all of it incidental. Patterns and symbols were burned, cut and inked into exposed flesh, making them seem all the more feral than the normal folk inside the bar.

But other than intimidating their way into the best booth in the bar, they didn't seem intent on causing trouble, only occasionally making loud comments about the lousy choice of music on the jukebox, or about the watered down quality of the liquor. After a while, Cloud gave up giving them his full attention.

"Watered down, my ass." Tifa grumbled from behind the bar, as she sat a newly filled mug of frothy beer on the counter next to him. "How would a bunch of desert rats like them know good quality booze, anyway?"

Cloud half smiled at her indignation, and sipped from the beer to hide it. Tifa took the quality of her product seriously.

"Its been a good night, so far," she said, taking a moment to lean on the countertop and catch her breath. "I'll be able to line up some help for tomorrow night, so you won't have to sit here among all these people all night again. You know, you haven't said a word to anybody, me and Barret included, all night. It wouldn't hurt to talk once in a while. You know, share opinions, tell stories, ask questions. Respond with actual yes and no's instead of mute nods."

He put the mug down, considered shrugging or giving her a mute nod in response, but didn't particularly want a continuation of the lecture. "Are you trying to improve my social skills? It's a futile task, you know?"

She grinned at him, which made his heart patter a little faster and triggered the fight or flight instinct that usually cut in when she got under his defenses.

"Oh, I know. But I'm a sucker for hopeless causes. Oops, gotta go." Someone was calling for service down the bar. The noise level in the taproom dropped a few levels as the present song that had been blaring from the jukebox ended.

There was a squeal from deeper in the room. High pitched and feminine, sounding more of surprised hurt than riotous exclamation. There was a low ripple of male amusement, a nervous shifting of the more honest patrons as the scent of trouble trembled in the air.

Annie was sandwiched between the legs of one of the wastelanders at the corner table. Another few men had moved around, boxing her in, shielding whatever they were doing from the rest of the room. Now Annie was usually up to most things a man might invite her to do, but she knew better than to ply her trade in the bar and Cloud had never heard her cry out in pain.

He slid off the stool, moving through the crowd, slipping past men more interested in their drinks and the friends close at hand than they were at what was happening in the rest of the room, or simply studiously ignoring it. The jukebox speakers blared the opening chords of a fast and furious song. The sort of song you put on earphones and pushed your body or your bike to the limits to. The conversation level rose as people had to lift their voices to be heard over the music.

He heard a faint, scared moan, barely audible over the jukebox. Saw one of the men across Annie with a lit lighter in his hand and her moan turned into a cry. Cloud didn't even break stride. Simply caught the man with the lighter by the back of the neck and propelled him two steps into the wall. Face first. The man howled like his nose had been broken, which was quite probable, but Cloud kept his hand on the back of his neck regardless, pressing the wastelander's face to the wall. There was a surge of indignation from his fellows, The man sitting closest lunged up, producing a bone handled switch blade and slashing at Cloud.

Cloud caught his wrist, twisted until it was either release his grip on the blade or risk a broken wrist, and deftly relieved the man of the blade. He flung it up with a flick of the wrist and it embedded in the wood of one of the ceiling rafters.

"You son of a bitch." The man with the switch blade was the same small, rat-faced one who'd warned Cloud about misplacing his materia-laced sword.

"Let her go," Cloud said softly.

Annie was teary-faced, her blouse open, loose string where buttons had been ripped off, dangling. There was a red, blistery burn on her breast, near one big nipple, that she quickly covered as she pulled the edges of her shirt together.

"What?" the man who still held her between his legs drawled. "She's a whore. What do you care what she does for a few gil?"

"I don't do that," Annie cried, but low and embarrassed and probably very scared.

"Ha. As if we'd pay good gil for a dried up old has-been like you." Another one, sporting long, dreadlocked hair cackled and more laughter followed as they shoved her away.

"Hell, I'd pay him to spread his legs before I'd waste money on you, bitch."

Annie knew when to stand and flirt and when to retreat and now was the time for the later. She stumbled away, clutching her blouse.

"You're out," Cloud said, letting go of the man he'd pinned to the wall and taking a step backwards. "Find someplace else to amuse yourselves."

"What? She come to us, looking for a good time. Not our fault she didn't like what we give her," a young one taunted.

They all had that same lean, hungry look. The youngest might have been sixteen, seventeen. The oldest was at least forty. His earlier observation that they moved like a pack was solidified now. They had the eyes of wolves. They moved like pack hunters, hemming in their prey, cutting off escape as they'd done with Annie, as they were trying to do to him, a few of them casually shifting about to stand behind him, a subtle intimidation in the prose of their bodies that would have made most men reflexively step further into the circle of their influence without even realizing they were putting themselves deeper into the fire.

Cloud didn't move, eyes slowly traveling over the ones in front of him, pausing on the man in the farthest corner, the one man that hadn't made comment or laughed out loud, but had sat leaning with his chair back against the wall, idly rolling a half smoked cigarette between long fingers, watching everything. If the others were ravenous desert wolves, this man was a tundra beast with pale blue eyes and short cropped black hair laced with silver. He radiated a quiet danger, the sort that was hard to pick up on until it was too late and he had his teeth at your throat.

"Damned if you ain't a pretty one." The man behind him, tall and smelling of sweat an beer leaned in over his shoulder, inhaling, drawing his attention from the wolf in the corner. "Clean, too. What'll you do for a little gil?"

Cloud might have let the comment slide, if the bastard hadn't put a hand on his arm, daring to violate a very prickly personal space. Sometimes a body reacted without the mind actually directing it what to do. Sometimes life and death situations called for simple action without thought attached. The indignation had barely registered, before Cloud's accoster was crashing onto the table, the impact of his weight overturning it and scattering mugs and ashtrays. Someone came at him with a small boot knife and got a fist in the throat for his efforts. He had two more of them down and moaning, before Tifa's screaming and Barret's big body wading into the mass of scattering non-combatants broke through his battle instincts.

"You mother fucker . . . ," somebody was gasping, maybe the one with the broken nose. "I'll see you dead . . . I'll fuck your corpse . . .."

There were a chorus of guttural threats, but Tifa had a big double-barreled crowd pleaser she kept behind the bar, in her capable hands and Barret had thrust his body into the center of the mess, gatling gun arm prominently displayed.

"Take it down the street, boys," Tifa suggested.

"He started it," Rat-face sneered. "Why don't you send him out with us and us and him'll settle our problems in private?"

"Because I don't want to have to clear your bleeding bodies off the street come morning. Now calm down and clear out."

Violence trembled in the air, but the man in the corner forestalled it, finishing off his drink and rising. "You heard the lady. The night's young, eh, boys?"

The hairs on the back of Cloud's arms stood up, every instinct he possessed screamed danger before he even noticed the tattoo gracing the lean, hard muscle of the man's upper arm. Snake consuming itself, wrapped around a death dealing blade.

Cloud looked up in surprise, meeting eyes so pale a blue they were almost silver and knew as sure as he knew the earth was under his feet that this man dealt death for a living. He wanted his sword in his hands, and Tifa and Barret not standing there witlessly while a killer stalked amongst them. Wanted to recall where he'd seen that tattoo and what it represented, because somehow, someway he knew it represented the heart of this man, who he had encountered twice in one day.

But, no one was stuck down dead, and the other five followed their pack leader obediently enough, even though muttered threats and dire glares were thrown back Cloud's way. Barret returned their weapons at the door and stood glaring at their backs as they made their way down the lamplit street.

The bar settled back to normal, the excitement over, the serious business of drinking and carousing begging to be resumed. A brawl or two was no big deal at 7th Heaven on a Friday night. It was the only trouble that had to be put down this Friday, though. Maybe it was the presence of Barret and Cloud, the reputations of which, any regular knew all too well. There weren't many in Midgar that hadn't heard rumors of things past, things that had effected the city so intimately that she'd never revert to her former, mako-fueled glory. Things that effected the planet . . . but then, people didn't always see past their own front yard. What had happened in Midgar, in front of their own eyes, was what they remembered.

Regardless, the remainder of the night passed without incident. At two past midnight, Tifa made last call and soon after Barret and Cloud helped the last of the stumbling patrons on their way out the door.

Cloud had consumed enough beer throughout the course of the night that the lion's share of his tension over the incident with the wolf pack had dulled. He was buzzed enough to laugh at Barret's crude jokes as they helped with the nightly cleanup. Chairs were stacked atop tables and the floor mopped, while Tifa collected, cleaned and stacked glasses and mugs and wiped down the bartop. Barret consumed one last beer, but Cloud refused the offer, preferring to be able to walk straight and not wake up hungover.

"Thanks a lot, guys. It would have been a nightmare without you, tonight." Tifa sighed, stretching, displaying a fine amount of flat tummy, before sitting down with the cash box before her on the bartop and starting to count out the night's earnings.

"Hey, you know I always got your back, Tifa. Cloud, too, right, kid? Ain't we all always looked out for each other?" Barret laid a thick arm across Cloud's shoulders, very likely a little more drunk than the clarity of his speech suggested.

"Yeah, we look out for each other." Vocal agreement seemed the only thing likely to get him out of Barret's embrace short of violence.

"It's just damn good to be home." Barret sighed, releasing Cloud to go and sit down heavily upon a bar stool.

"It's good to have you home," Tifa said softly, gaze shifting beyond Barret to focus on Cloud. And there it went again, the uneasy little hitch in his chest and made him turn away, wondering just how fucked up he was, that he could gladly find comfort from Vincent's touch and yet the thought of Tifa's scared him silly.

"I've got a few things to finish up on Fenrir," he muttered, retrieving his sheathed sword from behind the bar and resting it on one shoulder.

"Okay. See you tomorrow." Tifa gave him a wistful little smile. Barret shook his head and mumbled something unintelligible into his beer mug.

The air outside the bar was a cool relief, even though it stunk of the city. It was pitch black above, what with the plate and the overpasses and beams that hid up there in the darkness. The streetlamps were dim patches of illumination along the narrow way. The only thing moving in the shadows was the thrashing tail of a cat on a window sill, as it watched something of interest in the alley below it.

He was in the midst of opening the garage door when he heard the patter of feet approaching. He paused, glancing over his shoulder, waiting for the approaching figure to show itself before relaxing enough to retreat into the garage. It was a woman. The abundantly endowed prostitute that had been hanging out with Annie earlier in the night. Even at a distance through the darkness, there were the unmistakable lines of horror on her face.

He shifted his grip on the sword, body reflexively sliding into a state of higher alertness, eyes scanning the shadows behind her. But there was nothing. Just the woman, whose eyes picked him out of the darkness long after he'd discerned her.

"Oh, Gods. Gods. You've got to help me. Please help me. She's hurt. Bleeding . . . so much blood . . . help me!" She staggered to a halt, clutching at his arm, fingers curling in his sweater in her panic, hauling at him to follow her even before she'd finished her hysterical entreaty.

"Who? Who's hurt?"

"Its Annie. Annie. You've gotta come. Please don't let her die."

A cold knot of suspicion formed in his gut of vengeance's taken upon a victim at hand instead of the one out of easy reach.

He let her haul him down the street towards Calamity avenue, the aptly renamed road which led to the worst part of Sector 7. What was left of the buildings there sat at the edge of catastrophe, perched on the lip of a crater filled with the remains of part of Midgar that had caved in upon itself during the destruction two years past. There was nothing there now but a deep Pit filled with wreckage that only the scavengers and junk-misers ventured down to explore.

The Pit was four blocks down, past what had originally been set up as a temporary, razor-wire topped chain-link blockade. Temporary had turned into years, when no one had the time or wealth to delve into the mess.

She didn't take him quite that far, turning down a side street lined with dilapidated public housing, littered with debris and trash that the inhabitants had no inclination to tidy up.

"Does she live down here?" Cloud asked. He'd had no notion. He realized he knew little more about a woman he'd seen in the bar frequently over the last few years, than what he'd heard from Tifa.

"No," the woman gasped, out of breath from the hasty migration here. "But we - you know - do a lot of business here. C'mon. She's here."

They found her in the alcove of a boarded up basement store. The concrete stair well leading down was spattered with dark stains, that could have been anything from oil to blood in the near darkness. The pool of dark around Annie's crumpled form still glistened though, and even though the deep red wasn't visible in this light, other senses confirmed that it was blood.

Cloud ventured down the narrow steps, the woman who'd led him here, remaining on the sidewalk above, whimpering, hands curled over her mouth.

"We gotta help her. Gotta help her. She's got kids," the woman was babbling.

Cloud didn't think help was an option. They'd been thorough, the monsters who had been at her. Most of her clothing was gone, ripped aside so that they could get at her flesh. They'd cut her up badly. Done other things that didn't stand close examination. There were burn marks to match the one she'd gotten in the bar. A great deal of blood on her thighs.

He felt a little curl of nausea. He'd as much as sent her out into the night when he'd ripped her from their grasp the first time, and then let the pack out after her.

They'd taken her a good ways from 7th Heaven. Her friend had come a long ways to find him when closer help had to have been on hand.

He drew a breath, suddenly wanting out of the enclosed space of the basement stairwell. He moved up the steps, stepping past the woman to scan the dark street, the black holes of doorways and windows and alley mouths.

"Why did you come to find me?" he asked.

"She - ? Is she - gone?"

He stared at her, hard. Then nodded.

Fresh tears leaked down cheeks already stained with black mascara. She shook her head, plainly scared.

"Why come looking for me?" he repeated the question.

"Because - -"

Something flashed in the darkness, the spinning shimmer of something deadly. Cloud shoved the woman down the steps where Annie's corpse rested, and dove the other way himself. He heard the grating sound of blade striking stone, but didn't bother to try and track down its landing point. He flung the sheath off his sword, rolling to his feet and bringing the flat side of the blade up even as some sixth sense warned him of the spray of death that approached.

Bullets hit the blade, about the same time he actually registered the pop pop pop of gunfire, jarring his arm. He deflected them, senses going into the sort of hyper-reality that sent the rest of the world into a shadowed haze around the tunnel vision that focused on the threat at hand. He tracked the shooter from the spark of muzzle flare and bounded off an entrance way stoop, to the battered fire escape where the man with the gun perched. He didn't bother aiming for the man, simply sliced through the rusted metal of the platform where he stood and sent the whole thing crashing down. The shooter pushed himself free from the falling wreckage, shooting wildly as he fell, bullets spattering the facade of the old building. Cloud twisted, dodging the spray, bringing the sword up as another one dropped at him from out of the sky.

They came quick, like a pack, no single one of them good enough to even come close to breaching his defenses, but as a group, they drove him backwards, down the street towards the razor-wire fence that cordoned off the Pit.

He didn't show them any more mercy than they'd shown Annie, and a trail of bleeding corpses littered the street behind him. There were more of them than the half dozen who'd amused themselves at the bar, though he saw glimpses of faces that he half recognized from there. The rat-faced one cackled down at him from the top of a gutted second story building that teetered right on the edge of the Pit, swinging the relic of a materia loaded saber and releasing a surge of fire energy that was laughably weak. Easy enough simply to leap up and let it pass harmlessly by beneath him. It cut a swath through the chain-link fence and dissipated in the pitch darkness of the Pit.

Cloud landed on a cross section of I-beam jutting out over the lip of the pit, part of the remains of the superstructure that had supported the plate which had been the ground of this sector and the ceiling of the sub-sector beneath. He had every intention of launching himself up and taking Rat-face out, but something came at him from street level, faster than he could visually track. Reflexes took over and he launched himself backwards instead of up, narrowly avoiding what might very well have been the oversized lid of a garbage bin.

The distant cackling of Rat-face reached his ears. He shifted his focus, looking for the man that had hurled that big-ass piece of metal. There were a handful of heartbeats of still air, unblemished by the sound of conflict, as the pack leader slipped out of the shadow of a building, as the pack, or what Cloud had left of them, melted out of their niches behind him.

Cloud realized he was in a place he very much did not wish to be, perched upon an untrustworthy beam twenty feet out over the black depths of the Pit. That they'd driven him there on purpose seemed self-evident.

He looked for an out, and the only one that presented itself was forward, but even as he was calculating the easiest way though, a flurry of death was launched at him, en masse.

Gunfire burst loose, and another weak blast of fire materia from the rooftop where Rat-face was. Cloud hissed and leapt to the side towards a barely visible, twisted beam ten feet below his present perch and twenty feet over. He didn't see the pack leader until the man was upon him, faster than any normal, un-enhanced human being had any right being. The dully gleaming edge of an arm blade that extended two foot behind the back of the man's elbow and a foot beyond the fist that gripped the hilt of the weapon, slashed towards his mid-section, followed by a secondary slash from the blade attached the other forearm. He barely brought up his sword in time to block it. The twin impacts were unexpected. The power behind them enough to send him staggering, unprepared as he was for that much strength behind the blows. He had too many years of ingrained reflexes to lower his guard, even as he fought for balance. Better to fall than to leave himself open to those blades.

He recovered, though, and swung the sword fast and low, aiming to take out the man at the knees. He doubted he would score a hit, but being on the offensive gave him some slight advantage. The pack leader jumped and somersaulted backwards, coming down in a crouch with a ear-piecing scrape of metal on metal.

For a split second Cloud met pale blue eyes that seemed almost to glow from within with . . . gods . . . mako fueled madness, then the beam gave way, sheared clear through, and Cloud was falling into darkness. Gunfire followed him and he twisted, concentrating more on avoiding the hail of bullets than finding a safe landing spot. By the time they'd stopped firing, it was too dark to see anyway. Too pitch black to get his bearings and try and save himself by anything more than blind luck.

He glanced off a protruding something and shut his eyes, letting his body instinctively gain its bearing when sight was denied it. He hit something else. Hard. The breath left his body with a bone-breaking impact. He rebounded, scrambling for purchase and half caught himself on something rusty and downward sloping. Pain shot through his chest, distracting him and he lost his hold and tumbled down. Hit something else before the fall came to a sudden, jarring stop.

If not for the pain, he might have questioned consciousness, there in the pitch black. But, how could he not be awake, and feel as much hurt as he did?

Fire came with each breath. It felt as if something inside his chest grated with every stilted intake of air. Ribs broken from that second, hard impact. He shifted his shoulders and bright pain flared behind his eyes.

Fuck.

He lay still, trying to get a grip on the hurt, pushing it into a distant place where it wouldn't interfere with a functioning body. He listened for sounds of pursuit. But there was nothing. Nothing but the faint scratching of rodent claws on rust and the occasional groan of settling debris.

It occurred to him, after a few minutes of agonizing stillness that he still had the hilt of his sword in a death grip. He almost laughed at that involuntary stubbornness. He'd chance breaking his neck in a blind free fall through tangled debris, but damned if his survival instincts would risk letting go the sword.

It would have been nice if he could have lain there, shut his eyes and let his body rest, but the chunk of metal he was stretched out upon was damned uncomfortable. Something, a rivet maybe, was biting into his back. He drew as much of a breath as he was able without shifting cracked ribs, and pushed himself up. He pulled his legs up and hissed at a sharp stinging hurt in his right thigh. He slid a hand down and felt wet denim, a rent in the fabric and a jagged slice in the flesh beneath.

He stared up intently, waiting for pupils to dilate to their widest, for eyes to adjust as much as they were able to this impenetrable darkness. Gradually he began to make out a slightly less dark area of gray above and the bare traces of edges that represented protruding girders, pipes and ragged sheets of metal.

He hefted the sword, regretting the lack of a sheath he could fasten across his shoulders. He'd make do, having no intention of climbing back up out of the Pit without it.

He shut his eyes, settling his mind on a course that ignored the pain, then gathered his stamina and made a leap for the indistinct shape of a beam above him. He caught it one-handed and swung himself up and over to the edge of a twisted plate. Didn't hesitate long enough to see if the thing would shift under his weight before bounding up to grasp the next purchase.

He flung himself over the lip, sword at ready, searching the normal night shadows for sign of attack. But nothing moved along the street, or hid behind accumulated trash or crumbled stone masonry. There was activity down the block though. A vehicle with a steady, dull flashing light atop the cab, a clustering of dark figures about the stair that led down to the basement alcove where he'd found Annie.

It was the law. Or what passed for the law in sector 7. Someone had finally had the guts to report the disturbance. Maybe Annie's friend had called them in. He rested the sword across his shoulder, as unthreatening a pose with it as he could manage without a sheath to slip it into, and limped down the street.

Gods. Now that that his body didn't have the pretense of possible threat to stave off the hurt, it was starting to ebb over him in throbbing, red-tinged waves. He passed a body sprawled against the curb, lying in a pool of night-blackened blood. One of the pack. His doing.

"Hey. You." Somebody more observant than the rest spotted him and a flurry of heads jerked up, searching him out.

"Stop right there. Drop the sword." The orders came out simultaneously as spooked men drew weapons. Sector 7 security couldn't afford the high tech weaponry that ShinRa law used to carry. Oh, they'd scavenged some, bought some off the black market, but mostly they carried older pieces. Drum loaded pistols and billy clubs. The cocking of those old guns was unmistakable.

Cloud sighed, tired and hurting. He had no more intention of dropping the sword that he did his pants, so he stood there, waiting for them to do something other than stand there pointing guns at him.

"Put the weapon down," someone repeated.

"There's another body here. Sliced open from shoulder to hip," a man called from across the street. Cloud didn't look that way. Half the men facing him down did, nervously, then back at him with increased agitation.

"Drop the sword or we shoot, you hear?"

Their uniforms were patched and mis-matched. There were three dead bodies on the street and a mutilated prostitute at the bottom of the stairs. They weren't up to this and they knew it and were scared.

"They," Cloud moved his free hand slowly, unthreateningly to indicate the bodies on the street. "Attacked me. After they'd killed the woman. I was within my rights."

His speaking instead of standing there in uneasy silence, seemed to break the unspoken tension. Seemed to make him more human and less of a murdering wraith out of the Pit.

"You lower that sword, boy," one that might have been in charge said, taking the initiative and moving forward. "This ain't something you just walk away from."

Actually, Cloud had hoped for just that. He sighed and swung the sword down, resting the tip on the pavement. There was a collective tensing of lawmen at the movement.

"It was wastelanders that did this. There are more of them. Maybe you ought to put out the word to keep an eye out for them."

They looked among themselves, the idea of wasteland bandits in the city causing trouble no doubt one of their frequent nightmares. They didn't get the chance to start muttering amongst themselves, distracted instead by the flashing of more lights from up the street.

It was no beat up truck with jury rigged lights attached to its cab, but a broad ATV, armored and expensive and sporting official Midgar Security logo. Which meant it was under ShinRa employ. A second smaller security car followed, and smartly uniformed city security poured out. They still wore ShinRa blue, even though ShinRa logo had been discreetly removed. Having learned his lessons well, Rufus was being very cautious in sinking his hooks back into Midgar.

"We got a call," the officer in charge snapped. "Of multiple homicides."

The freelance law shuffled nervously, outclassed and intimidated by the hi-tech toys, the spiffy uniforms and the take-no-prisoners attitude.

Cloud wasn't impressed. He'd rather a distaste for ShinRa Blues, they probably had less of a fondness for him, considering how many of them he'd taken out in the past.

"Is that the suspect?" The Blue officer zeroed in on Cloud and a half dozen state of the art guns swung up to target him.

"Says there's a bunch of renegade wastelanders in town. Says they killed that poor woman down there," the security for hire explained.

"Is that so?" The Blue made a small jerking motion with his chin and his men fanned out, surrounding Cloud with practiced precision. "Give over your weapon and this matter will be sorted out at the station."

He leaned on the sword and stared at the Blue officer. "Since when do you care what goes on down in the slums? Aren't there rich folks that need their asses wiped in the upper sectors?"

Little dots of laser scopes peppered his body. He looked down casually, then back up, a faint smile curving his lips.

"Oh, for god's sake." One of the newcomers, who'd remained leaning in the shadows by the second Blue car, pushed himself up and sauntered down the street towards the party.

Cloud didn't even need to see that he didn't wear uniform blue to know that he wasn't one of the so called 'City security officers' He was security all right, but of a much higher, more private nature. The Turks worked directly for the president of ShinRa and those that remained of their number were fiercely loyal to Rufus, for no reason Cloud could figure, other than huge yearly salaries.

"What have you gotten into now?"

Cloud narrowed his eyes, focusing past the Blues to the man in the rumpled black suit that strolled towards him. Familiar sharp featured face and red hair. This particular Turk, Cloud had run into quite a few times in the past.

Reno paused to look down at the body of one of the wastelanders he passed, shook his head, then continued on.

"Y'know, we're trying to keep peace in the city and you go about slicing and dicing. The least you could do is keep it off the streets."

Cloud thought about saying something snarky back, but responding to Reno's taunts was only feeding the beast.

Reno looked over the edge of the stairwell, down to the bloody body at the bottom. He pushed back a few dangling locks of red hair that had escaped the dark glasses that kept the mass of the unruly stuff back from his forehead and whistled softly.

"Slicing up hookers now, are we?"

"Fuck off," Cloud said very softly.

"He says he didn't do her," the sector 7 security captain offered. "Said those guys did it, then attacked him."

Reno glanced over his shoulder at Cloud, then back to the local law. "You believe everything suspects say? Even the ones with bloody blades in their hands?"

There was a renewed rustle of tension at that bald question. Reno smiled, obviously pleased with himself. Cloud wondered what the odds were of getting past the accumulated law and smacking the Turk down, without actually killing any of the freelancers or Blues. He wasn't quite prepared to go slicing into men that might actually have been honest.

Reno's thoughts must have been twisting along those same lines for his smile turned predatory as he brought up a valid point.

"You like living in Midgar, Cloud? You could probably make the slip before any of these bozo's realized you'd gone. But then you'd be a wanted man and there'd be no going back to shack up with Lockheart without putting her in a crapload of trouble. No playing with the little street rats you like so much without endangering all their innocent little lives. I'd think you'd have had enough of being a wanted man, eh? So come on, be a good boy and cooperate, yeah?"

Reno had walked right up to him, fearless, that ridiculously unsupported confidence of his, gleaming in almond-shaped, green eyes. And he was right. Cloud wasn't the same person he'd been a few years ago, solitary and angry and confused. Not that some of those things didn't rear their ugly heads once in a while, some considerably more frequently than others, but he wasn't prepared to throw away the place he'd made for himself quite so easily as he might once have.

"The sheath's over there," Cloud said softly, jerking his chin towards the discarded leather cradle that lay against the far curb.

Reno's smile turned a little more smug, he waved a hand and one of the blues scurried over to retrieve it. The blue came trotting back with it, like a dog to its master and stood behind Reno expectantly. Reno held out a hand and Cloud tipped the big blade forward, letting it fall towards the Turk. Reno caught it, wincing only slightly at the weight of the thing, before passing it back to the blue, who promptly let out a wuff of air at the unexpected acquisition of sixty-five pounds of solid reinforced steel.

"Happy?" Cloud asked.

"Know what'll make me happier?" Reno lifted a pair of cuffs from the belt of the blue officer and dangled them from a forefinger. Cloud looked from the restraints to Reno's smiling eyes with mute animosity.

"Oh, come on, it'll be like one of my little dirty fantasies come to life."

The blues had closed in, a circle of weaponry pointed Cloud's way. He'd relinquished his weapon, his body was one big, throbbing ache, the buzz he'd sported when leaving the bar had turned into premature headache and quite frankly, with the body of a woman who'd smiled at him every time she'd seen him for the past two years, even though he'd hardly ever spoken a word to her, lying bloody and violated only a few steps away, he'd lost the desire to argue.

He gave Reno a narrow look that promised retribution if the Turk pushed things too far and let Reno draw his wrists behind him and snap the restraints into place.

The ride to the sector 7 security headquarters was, in a way, a relief. It got him off his feet and into the relative comfort of the security car, even if he was sandwiched between Reno, who was still radiating satisfaction and a thick-necked blue. Cloud simply laid his head back and enjoyed the ride.

The sector 7 security headquarters had never been as high tech as the richer sector's law accommodations, and after all the trauma Midgar had been through in the last two years, the lack of Mako energy, the lack of proper staffing and most importantly, the lack of ShinRa funding, it had fallen into a great deal of disrepair. It was dingy and cramped and the spit and polish blues that crowded into the squad room seemed uncomfortably out of place.

Since the blues seemed intent on taking over and the local law was more than willing to let them shoulder the burden, the mention of wastelanders making them a little antsy, they turned over the one interrogation room that hadn't been turned into a stock, barracks or junk room, over to the blue in charge.

A blue patrolman unfastened the cuff from Cloud's left wrist and refastened it, right wrist attached to a ring on the top of a metal table bolted to the center of the interrogation room floor. The steel-eyed blue officer sat down opposite him, while Reno wandered in before they shut the door and casually leaned against the wall in the far corner. The Turks had no more interest in a few bodies found in the slums than they did in the Wall Market roach population, so unless there were some other agenda at hand, Reno was in this for simple amusement.

"There are four dead bodies on Calamity Avenue, none of them were armed."

Cloud looked up at that. "Only three of them were mine. They were armed. They killed the woman. Annie is her name. They attacked me. I defended myself. The other wastelanders must have taken their gear when they left. End of story."

The officer made a doubtful sound, and tapped in notes on the ShinRa think-pad he held in his palm.

"Listen, don't I get a call?"

The officer glanced back to Reno, who shrugged, reached into his inside jacket pocket and withdrew a slim cell phone, which he tossed over the Blue's head to Cloud.

Cloud caught it with his free left hand, glared meaningfully at Reno and the blue, who seemed not to get the hint for privacy, so he ground his teeth and dialed 7th Heaven's number.

 

The blue got tired of asking questions that Cloud, having answered the first time around, refused to respond to second, third and fourth times. Around the time Tifa arrived, they had put him in a holding cell just off the main squad room, where he sat slumped against the wall on the bunk, ignoring the security personal. Especially ignoring Reno, who kept loitering outside the bars of the cell, trying to get a rise out of him.

He occupied himself, gently ghosting his fingers over the tender area along his left side, examining the breadth of his injury. Definitely cracked ribs, but nothing shifted under his touch, so he doubted the breaks were through and through. The cut on his leg was deep and ragged, but thanks to his genetically enhanced immune system, had already clotted over.

He'd been unprepared for the wastelander's attack, but soldier reflexes were soldier reflexes, no matter how many years it had been since he'd been wearing the same ShinRa blue as the lawmen in the station. He should have wiped the street with the rag tag lot of them. Would have if it hadn't been for their silver-eyed, tattooed leader. He simply had not expected that much speed and that much power from a bandit in from the drylands. He'd been taken off his guard and he'd paid for it. The tat still bothered him, like a commonplace word that eluded his vocabulary, hovering just beyond his grasp.

Tifa marched in ready for battle. He'd told her barest bones of the situation over the phone. He wouldn't have called her at all, save for the fact that being a sector 7 business owner, she contributed to the local law's paycheck and had some small bit of clout because of it, and being the owner of the same selfsame bar the wastelanders had started the trouble in, her word would be considerably better than his. She saw him in the holding cell, narrowed her eyes and zeroed in on the ranking security in the squad room.

Reno perked up a little when she came in, straightening his open lapel a little. There wasn't much he could do with the white shirt underneath. It looked as if it had been slept in.

"Looks like your girlfriend is ready for a fight."

"She's not my girlfriend."

Reno grinned at him and oozed over to the group that had gathered around Tifa. She was doing a lot of hand waving as she talked, occasionally gesturing towards him. She eventually stomped off behind the blue officer in charge and sat down at a desk and began what looked like filing a report.

It took what seemed forever. Even though Cloud couldn't hear what was being said, he could tell from Tifa's expressions that she was frustrated as any sane person would be when butting their heads up against ShinRa bureaucracy and red tape.

When she finally finished, and the blues gathered to confer among themselves, she walked over to press her face against the bars of Cloud's cell.

"I can't believe Annie's dead. She was a good woman, no matter her profession and god . . . her poor kids."

Cloud said nothing, thinking that a few more orphans in Midgar would hardly be noticed, among the vast number of motherless children. All because of ShinRa's greed and Sephiroth's madness.

"And they're being obstinate. There's no reason for them to keep harassing you, when its perfectly clear what happened. They even have a statement from Annie's friend. They have my statement. If I have to drag Barret and every local who was in the bar last night in to back it up, I will."

"That's all fine and good," Reno padded up behind her, leaning a shoulder on the bars and smirking down. "But there's procedure to follow, evidence to process, leads to hunt down."

"Bullshit to make up. People to frame. I know." She returned his smirk with a humorless one of her own.

"You know, Lockheart, I always liked your spunk."

"My spunk's a bit above my cleavage," she said deadpan, and Reno lifted his gaze back up to her face, then glanced to the door when it opened, letting in a cool breeze and a large, bald man.

You could see the gears behind Reno's eyes shifting, his attention to Tifa evaporating as his Turk partner, Rude, shouldered his way into the station. For a big man, he slid through the press of local law and blue's crowded into the small squad room with ease. Unlike Reno, his black suit was perfectly pressed, the shirt under it crisp, white and starched.

Reno sauntered over. They put their heads together and conferred, then Reno cast a frowning glance back towards the holding cell, obvious disappointment on his face. Reno looked as if he wanted to balk at whatever it was that Rude was telling him, but finally caved when the big man gave him a long, silent, over-the-shades look.

Reno sighed and beckoned the blue officer. More quiet conference before the officer barked an order and one of the local law ambled over and unlocked the door to Cloud's cell. The sword, Reno informed him, grasping for the last bit of satisfaction available to him, would have to be withheld for evidence. Despite the rising irritation level, it wasn't his favorite weapon, so Cloud let the loss slide.

"The next time you start acting up," Reno said with acid sweetness. "Disturbing the peace, leaving bodies lying around, I'll personally come and collect all your sharp toys."

Cloud gave him a steady, dead-serious look, ignoring the pull of Tifa's hands on his arm. "You can come and try, any time."

Rude was near the door, emanating the vague impression that loitering here was a waste of his time. It was hard to tell with Rude, who unlike his partner, seemed to own only one set of facial expressions. Cloud started to pass him, then hesitated. Rude, who used few words and chose the one's he did with efficiency, didn't irritate him as much as Reno. It didn't grate making an inquiry of him.

"One of the wastelanders had a tattoo. A snake eating its own tail, wrapped around a three-pronged blade. I think it's Soldier. Do you know it?"

Behind opaque, black glasses, Rude's brows beetled. The corner's of his mouth turned down a fraction. After too long a hesitation he shook his head mutely.

"It's been a damned bad night. Don't fuck with me," Cloud said wearily.

Rude took a breath, shifting his head to stare at some point over Cloud's head. Cloud could see the muscles in his thick neck twitching as if he were experiencing some dilemma. But a mute one. Finally when Cloud had waited as long as his fractured patience would allow and had a hand on the door, ready to stalk out, Rude said softly, "Shadow Ops."

Cloud froze, fingers tightening on the door handle, a shiver of coiling unease trembling in his gut. No wonder Rude hadn't wanted to admit to the association. No one in their right mind wanted to admit that Shadow Ops had ever existed. All Cloud had ever heard were rumors of that elusive, elite strike team, but the rumors had been brutal, and never backed up by any concrete facts, at least none that filtered down to the bulk of Soldier forces.

Rude turned his back to him, refusing to acknowledge the words had ever left his mouth. Tifa's fingers bit into Cloud's arm, urging him out the door before more trouble could descend upon them.

"What was that about?" she asked.

"Nothing," he said and hunched silently in the passenger seat of her beat-up old truck the short drive home. She got a few words of explanation out of him about the incident, but he was distracted and gave abbreviated answers, and she gave up trying by the time they reached the bar.

"Let me off at the garage," he said and when she looked at him questioningly, added, "I need to finish up something on the bike."

She bought that, knowing his Fenrir fetish. He hadn't told her about the ribs, having had enough of being fussed over with the venom bug poison.

"I'll see you tomorrow," h e said in blatant attempt to get her to leave him in peace tonight and return to her bed.

"Okay. We'll talk then. Don't stay out here too late, you look really wasted, Cloud."

He nodded, agreeing to anything as long as it got her down the street and into the dubious haven of 7th Heaven. Away from him and the troubles that might be sniffing at his heals. He didn't want to sleep under the same roof as Tifa and Marlene and Denzel when the pack might be looking for retaliation. When a man with mako mad eyes and a Shadow Ops tattoo led the hunt. They'd killed a innocent woman, lured him out to the Pit and ambushed him all because of a little bit of embarrassment in the bar. What they might do because of three dead friends made him cold inside.

If the bike had been in one piece he might have taken off then and there, drawing trouble with him. But the carb was still laid out in neat order on the tarp next to Fenrir and he honestly didn't feel he had the capacity to finish putting it back together tonight.

Months past, he might have retreated to the Cathedral, taking solitude in its graceful ruins, in its utter silence, in the melancholy calm of the memories it held for him. But with the healing waters that had sprung up there, it was no longer a private haven. No longer a place he could escape to within the city. So the garage down the street from 7th Heaven had to do.

He washed the blood off his hands. Then went straight for his best blade and its slimmer counterpart, snapping them together with a sharp click and sitting down on the car seat against the wall with the sword propped up against the wall beside him.

He cleaned the wound on his leg, wrapped a fresh bandage around his thigh and lay down with one knee propped up and the other leg hanging off the side of the seat. He wouldn't sleep, he was too wound up for that, but his body ached and his head was throbbing, and a little repose would ease those hurts.

He couldn't stop thinking about the pack leader. Those pale eyes that reminded him of Sephiroth. Sephiroth and those other few elite Soldiers, the ones Sephiroth's age that had gone through the same genetic manipulation that Cloud had, only much earlier, before Hojo and Gast before him had perfected the process. Or at least coming as close to perfection as a flawed project could come.

He only realized that sleep had come upon him unawares when the sharp rapping at the garage door jerked him back to consciousness. There was gray daylight seeping through the cracks around the door, a clear enough testament that he'd passed the night with his guard dreadfully down.

He sat up without thinking, and had to hunch over, breath frozen in his chest as broken ribs clamorously reminded him of their existence. More carefully, he rose, figuring it was Tifa come to check on him, or one of the kids that she'd sent round to remind him he'd promised to check in this morning. He slid the door open and blinked up at a broad-chested figure that was very much not Tifa.

Rude stood there impassively, waiting for Cloud to decide how to handle his presence. Rude was alone, with nothing in his hands save a folder, and Cloud honestly was too sore this morning to wish for anything more than a hot shower and painkiller or two. Confrontation that wasn't absolutely necessary was out of the question.

"What do you want?"

Rude held up the folder. It was blank and black on the outside. Cloud stared at it warily, not moving to take it.

"You want to take a look," Rude finally sighed.

Cloud narrowed his eyes, and took the folder. "What is it?" he asked, without opening it.

"There were seven Shadow Ops members. Five of them are confirmed dead. The other two assumed that way. Look at the files."

Cloud swallowed, the worries he'd been entertaining before sleep had chased them away, crowding back into his mind. He went back to the van seat and sank down, fingers teasing the edge of the folder. He looked back up to Rude before opening it. "Why bring this to me?"

Rude took a moment to answer. "They were the worst of the worst. Sephiroth went mad a long time after they had him. The Shadow ops team . . . they were monsters before Hojo ever got his hands on them. And the company knew it and used them anyway. When Rufus took over, he decommissioned them - - the permanent way. Save for the ones that slipped away. If one of them is alive. Here. I'd like to know."

It was more words than Cloud could ever recall hearing Rude speak in one sitting. It had to have hurt. He opened the folder and stared down at a hardened, unfamiliar face. He didn't bother looking at any of the information. It meant nothing if the face didn't match the one in his memory. He flipped the page and there he was. A younger version maybe, marginally more clean cut, but the same intense, pale eyes, the same quiet, predatory expression. Code name: Diablo. A serial number. No mention of a surname. No mention of a birth place or any other personal data. No list of missions, no rank. The company wouldn't have wanted too many ties to the things this man had probably done and Rude wouldn't have brought him the incriminating stuff. But there was a date. A mention of treatment that had started some twenty years ago.

He had never met this man, yet in many ways they were the same, creations of the company, taken, altered, remade into the men they were. And this man had been taken early on, when they'd still had enough of the Jenova element to be generous in their genetic manipulations, back when they had first realized what they'd achieved in Sephiroth and had only just started their attempts to recreate him. Those early years of disastrous failures that had resulted in nightmarish abominations had to have produced at least a few viable candidates.

"Why were they terminated? Why'd Rufus decide to do it all of a sudden, when he hadn't batted an eye at any of the other bloodthirsty shit the company had pulled before?" Cloud asked.

Rude looked down at the file Cloud had been staring at for far to long, frown deepening. "Why do you think?"

"Sephiroth."

Rude nodded. "They could have gone mad, like him, or ended up his puppets. You'd know firsthand about that."

A muscle jumped in Cloud's jaw. He closed the folder and handed it back to Rude.

Cloud knew all too well how powerful the pull of Sephiroth could be, how with even the slightest thread of connection, which the shared Jenova element provided, he could get into your head and shape your will to his own before you even realized he was doing it. How fighting that magnetic pull, that overwhelming personality was so damned hard . . . .

Even from beyond the grave, Sephiroth had influence as the whole Kadaj incident thoroughly proved. He was a soul that refused to be absorbed into the collective of the life stream. A soul that sought a portal back into the world of the living. He'd found that with Kadaj. And Cloud had sent him back to the lifestream yet one more time.

"Thanks," he said and Rude grunted, turned and left, simple as that. Cloud sat for a long time afterwards, idly running the tips of his fingers across the tender flesh over his cracked ribs, wondering what the chances were of him running into one of the few surviving ex-soldiers in the world, twice in one day. Damned low. Astronomically low.

Which led to the question what interest an ex-shadow ops wetworker would have in him? Cloud's spotty memory notwithstanding, he had been low enough in the Soldier hierarchy that the chances of him ever having contact with an elite covert operative were next to non-existent.

The only reason he'd ever met Sephiroth himself, was that Sephiroth being Soldiers poster boy of the day, was occasionally given legitimate/propaganda friendly missions.

He idly wondered if Zack had known this man. This Diablo. Zack had done a lot of things that he never spoke of. Classified things that he couldn't talk about and not risk company censure. Things he wouldn't speak of because he didn't think Cloud needed to hear them, no matter the other intimate things they spoke of late at night in the privacy of Zack's room.

Cloud rose, faster than he ought to have, but the pain was a welcome method of chasing away nostalgia. He didn't want to think about Zack, because Zack memories hurt.

What he needed was a painkiller, maybe taken with a shot of whiskey. He needed his bike back in one piece and he needed Tifa and Barret on their guard against the reappearance of any of the wastelanders from last night.

Barret was outside with Marlene and Denzel when Cloud emerged from the garage. The kids seemed considerably more enthusiastic about being up and active this morning than Barret looked or Cloud felt. The big man disengaged Marlene's small hand from his fingers and ambled towards Cloud.

"You promised," Marlene whined, trailing behind. Denzel, who was not as brazen, or Cloud suspected, as spoiled, stood waiting hesitantly, a shy, uncertain smile of greeting on his round face. Cloud nodded his way, too distracted for more niceties.

"I know," Barret said, shooing the girl back. "The both of you get candy, but give me a minute for some grown-up talk."

Marlene pouted, but retreated back to Denzel, where she promptly forgot her irritation.

"Tifa said what happened last night. Those bastards got the nerve. Poor ol' Annie," Barret said by way of opening.

"If you see them again . . . take no chances, okay."

Barret frowned. "Think they'll be back?"

"I don't know. Just . . . the leader's ex-soldier, okay? Don't get caught alone, that's all."

"Ex-soldier? No shit? Small fuckin' world, ain't it? He the one that bang you up?"

Cloud frowned, wondering what bruises he was sporting today that hadn't been evident last night. He nodded shortly and left Barret to the children. When he went into the bar to give Tifa the same heads up he'd given Barret, she furrowed her brows and promised to keep an eye out, but hypothesized hopefully that he was being pessimistic and that the whole thing was unfortunate coincidence.

And as the weeks passed with no further incident, he even began to believe it.

 

 

To be continued . . .

 

 

 

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