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The Devil's Own

by P L Nunn


Chapter 10


Reno was highly confident of his own abilities, truly he was. He was skilled at what he did, fast, durable and had the ability to think lightning fast on his feet. He had every bit as much confidence in Tseng. But walking into what they were walking into, even armed to the teeth, with body armor on under their suits - - well, it was simply suicidal. He wished it were Rude at his side instead of Tseng, because even though he knew Tseng was a force to reckon with, he didn't know Tseng's moves like the back of his hand and didn't trust Tseng to know his almost the moment he did.

They rode out in one of the company trucks, a big, black all-terrain vehicle with tinted, bulletproof windows and armor plating beneath a shiny paint job. All of which wouldn't mean squat against a high power materia blast, or a dead-on blow from an enhanced super-soldier. The back-up teams had already positioned themselves, out in the darkness between Midgar and the scattered camp that had set itself up out in the parched, rocky land surrounding the city. The riff-raff had the advantage to be sure. More rocky terrain to hide snipers, more cover if it came down to a firefight. Just damned more of them than he felt comfortable with, two against a hundred.

They stopped two hundred yards out from the edge of the wastelander perimeter and got out, calm seeming as you please, to stand in front of the truck and wait for response. They'd seen them coming, of that Reno was pretty sure. He caught the glint of a lot of hardware nestled up in the rocks, a lot of firepower targeted in on the two of them from the shadows. A lot more right out in the open, as the wastelanders sized them up. It was cool out here in the middle of the night, but Reno still felt the trickle of sweat run down his neck. He didn't dare give away his nerves and look at Tseng to see if there was any sign of discomfort there. If the bastards out there didn't see it as a sign of weakness and take advantage, then Tseng sure as hell would.

There was some sort of concerted movement out there, the gunning of engines, the wheel spinning departure of vehicles out in the blackness beyond the wastelander camp, circling round maybe, to get a better vantage or to check out what Reno and Tseng had brought with them. Oh, well, they weren't expecting the bastards to think they were fools. If they came upon their backup team, either the shit would hit the fan or it wouldn't. That all depending on Diablo, who hadn't shown himself yet.

There was some yelling from the camp, some catcalls, some insults flung, the wastelanders not being a particularly disciplined group. The fact that Diablo had gathered this many larcenous nomads and bandits together as quickly as he had was nothing short of miraculous. To expect him to have complete control of them was beyond expectation.

A couple more vehicles started up, spitting up a cloud of dust as they cut out towards their position. Reno lowered his lashes against the glare of headlights, and kept his hands placidly at his sides. He could reach a weapon quickly enough if he had to.

They got dirt and rocks spit at them as the little beat-up ATVs spun to a stop yards from the front of their truck and a half dozen raggedy men piled out, bristling with scavenged weaponry, faces and bodies dark and scarred from the desperate lives they led.

"You two lookin' for a good time?" One of the wastelanders sneered, sawed off S-19 automatic in his hand. They snickered, circling like a pack of dogs. Reno lifted a brow, mouth quirking up in a 'come ahead' smile that held nothing of pleasant invitation. He let his body relax, leaning back a little against the hood of the truck, letting these dogs know clear enough that their threat was an inconsequential one.

"We're here to extend an invitation to Diablo," Tseng said matter-of-factly, like he was ordering coffee with his breakfast. "Let him know the President wishes to talk."

"The president!" They laughed. "What's he want to talk to that pencil dick for, huh? More fun to use the two of you for target practice. See how well company grunts bleed."

They laughed more at that, dark eager humor that hinted that letting blood was not an uncommon game with them.

Tseng just kept staring, impervious to their taunts. One of them walked right up to him, leaning a hand on the grill of the truck and laying the barrel of his gun against Tseng's chest.

"Boss must not give a shit about you two, huh, to send you out here, pretty as you please."

Tseng didn't respond, but Reno felt the tension, saw Tseng's head dip out of the corner of his eye, a moment before Tseng caught the barrel of the gun and slammed it back into the face of the wastelander who was testing him. Reno moved on his own, disregarding what Tseng was about in favor of seeing to his own welfare. He caught the wrist of the man who was swinging a spiked club at his own head and delivered the toe of his boot into a vulnerable crotch. He ripped the club out of the man's grip and flung it underhanded into the face of one of the one by the who was bringing up a gun.

He had a gun out then, an automatic pistol that packed a helluva lot more power than the antiques these bastards carried, and swung it around to cover the remaining pack, but Tseng had one of them by the throat, his own sleek pistol pressed firm against the man's eye socket.

"Deliver the message."

"Message delivered," a low voice drawled from out of the darkness behind the ATVs. Tseng shoved the wastelander away from him, lowering his gun hand minutely, narrowing his eyes as a tall, broad-shouldered figure strolled towards them, silhouetted against the glare of headlights. The photo Rufus had in his files was an old one, but the man was still recognizable as the steel-eyed, grim-faced, Genova-enhanced assassin in the personnel record. Just more lines, more scars and eyes that had gone from hard-assed military to manic psychopath.

The hairs on the back of Reno's arms stood up. Instinct said, take a step backwards - - instinct said run like fuck but bravado had always held a firmer hold on him than common sense. This was not a nice man. Not a sane one. And dangerous as hell.

Diablo walked past his men, who shuffled to get out of his immediate path, shifty eyes glued to his movements. He stopped an arm's length from them, gave Reno an up and down, then turned his attention to Tseng.

"They posed a good question. Why should talking with Rufus Shinra interest me?"

"Isn't that why you came?" Tseng asked. "To see the president?"

"To see the president," Diablo echoed and his mouth twisted in a parody of a smile. "That's one way of putting it. Would that I could have seen his daddy, before he died. But the old man's little boy will have to do."

"Rufus Shinra doesn't have a problem with you. He didn't initiate the experimentation that made you what you are."

"Really? He have anything to do with the execution of my team?"

"No," Tseng said, straight faced and God, but wasn't that a bald-faced lie if ever there was one. "Why not hear what he has to say, if it benefits the both of you?"

Diablo canted his head, maybe contemplating the most entertaining way of taking them out, maybe listening to whatever voices talked to him in his head. Maybe Tseng picked up on that, and Tseng, being Tseng used it.

"We can help you with problems you might have. With unwanted - - intrusions. The President is willing to deliver a good will offering that I guarantee you will want."

"Good will?"

"Cloud Strife came back to town."

Reno felt the surge of power in the air, and something seemed to flash, pale and bright in the shadows of Diablo's eye sockets. Like Cloud was a trigger word with this psycho, or more likely with the psycho that lurked under the surface; and no matter what issues Reno had with Cloud, he felt a momentary little pang of revulsion, giving him up to this unpredictable bastard. Reno shivered and flexed his fingers on the gun, wishing Rude were out there somewhere to watch his back instead of a lot of faceless company grunts.

"All right," Diablo growled. "Maybe I'll play his little game."

Tseng inclined his head. "Excellent. He'll meet you at the - - "

"No! He doesn't set up the meet. There's an old deep-cell escape bunker out past the city south of here that used to lead out from the sector six sub-basement. You know the place? Where Rufus's daddy used to keep the worst of the worst of his pet projects. We'll meet there, an hour from now or not at all. Bring whatever backup you feel comfortable with, but you try me and I go for the Shinra brat first and foremost and the rest of you are gravy."

"Understood," Tseng said, no hesitation and turned without anything further to walk around to the driver's door of the truck. Reno pocketed his gun and went for the other side, and even as they were backing up to make a turn and get out of there, he kept expecting to get hit from behind with something big enough to tear them apart. It never came.

They had to track down Tifa and Barret in the dead of night to tell them the news. Barret had been at the bar, and Tifa in the ShinRa donated safe house with the kids. Frightened kids who'd for the most part had never had much trust to begin with, burned out of the shelter they'd found and afraid they'd loose more than that. Cid didn't want to tell them what lurked outside the city limits, didn't have the finesse it took to word it in a way that wouldn't make matters worse. He'd leave that up to Tifa, who was damned and determined to see them somewhere safe until this mess blew over.

The old subway tunnels, she and Barret decided almost simultaneously, the two of them knowing of quite a few old Avalanche hideouts that would serve quite well to protect a bunch on innocents from a conflict that might come sniffing around things associated with Cloud.

"You take them there, get them settled and we'll meet up either at the bar, or the southeast city wall."

"We need to get Cloud." Tifa caught at Cid's arm, grip adamant. She was right of course, the kid lying unprotected in some uptown hospital was just asking for trouble. Trusting Rufus Shinra to see to his well-being when Cloud couldn't see to it himself well, that just sat wrong with Cid. He glanced back at the shadow that was Vincent outside the open door and nodded once.

"Okay, we'll go get Cloud. Take him down with the kids if he's too out of it to argue."

She nodded trusting he and Vincent could see to that task, even though she didn't like leaving it up to someone else. But she had a lot of kids looking to her for protection, for reassurances that she was more capable of giving than Barret, who was as ham-handed with words as Cid.

Which left Cid and Vincent to make their way back uptown, hitching a ride from one of the sector-to-sector buses, which were mostly empty this time of night. It was a pedestrian way to travel and Cid could just feel Vincent's discomfort with it. He figured Vincent could have made his own way through the night dark city just as quick, maybe quicker, but he made the sacrifice of public transit for Cid's sake. Touching.

They got off a couple of blocks from the hospital, and made the rest of the trip on foot, the sidewalks empty of pedestrians, the streets mostly deserted save for the occasional transit bus or security pass that patrolled this part of town 24-7, as opposed to only showing up under duress and during the worst possible scenarios in the low rent sectors. There weren't any gang bangers here, or homeless wondering the streets, living in the shelter of alleyways and doorstoops. That type of undesirable got swept down towards the old city along with the rest of the refuse.

This time of night, the main entrance of the hospital was open, but the lobby dark. Emergencies were directed to the trauma entrance at the side. They went through the front way, having traveled that route before and not wanting to have to wander around the halls lost. There was no receptionist, but there was security. A single guard with a holstered small caliber gun at his side and the look of a man who enjoyed his pretense of authority.

"Sorry, the hospital is closed to the public after hours. Visiting hours are 8 to 6." He had a hand out, palm up to bar their way.

Vincent just sidestepped him, ignoring his presence altogether, and Cid slowed his pace just enough to let the guy turn and direct whatever energy he was going to exert to stop this intrusion against Vincent, instead of Cid's mending body.

"Hey, you can't - -" the guard complained, and almost had a hand on Vincent's shoulder, when Vincent spun, metal clawed hand bunched in the guard's collar as he propelled him back against a pristine hospital wall. Vincent's eyes had that tinge of orange that hinted at a less than placid mood and the guard withered visibly under that baleful stare.

"He don't like to be touched," Cid explained helpfully. "And we ain't here to cause trouble, unless trouble finds us, so why don't you go on back to your coffee break and let us mind our business?"

The guard stammered, eyes fixed on Vincent's, picking up on the not-so-subtle aura of darkness under the veneer, now that it had him fixed in its sights. Cid shook his head, the hairs on the back of his own neck standing up, maybe from what Vincent was exuding, that dark, merciless predator that he knew Vincent could be if he lost control, or maybe just reacting to what was causing it; that being this whole unfortunate situation and the prospect of a lot of innocent blood spilled.

He put a hand on Vincent's arm, and the gaze flickered momentarily to him, and if he'd been a wiser man he'd have snatched the hand back, but damned if he was going to start getting spooked over Vincent's touchier. He increased his grip, urging Vincent to let the guard go and retreat down the hall with him, while the man leaned against the wall gathering his wits.

Vincent went, chin lowered into his collar so that only a slice of his face was visible.

"Just a grunt doing his job," Cid said, punching the elevator button at the end of the hall. Second floor was where Cloud had been. He hoped he still was. Having to harass a new room number out of a nurse didn't sit right with him.

They walked unmolested down the hall to the ward where Cloud had been, and into the dimmed chamber, where one nurse sat the central station, monitoring a pair of patients, who hadn't been there before. There was no sign of Cloud. Well, maybe that was a good thing, the kid having recovered enough to be moved somewhere less critical.

"'Lo there," he started, walking towards here while Vincent stayed planted in the ward doorway. The nurse looked up startled, even as the swinging door at the other end of the room pushed open, admitting the very same doctor that had talked to them about Cloud earlier in the day.

"I'm sorry, but you can't be in here," the nurse said, reflexive dismissal, but the doctor had stopped stock-still, eyes wide, face gone pale and frightened. Vincent caught that guilt/fear before it registered on Cid, and was moving even as the doctor spun and ran back the way he'd come.

Vincent got two steps before security burst into the ward on their heels, summoned no doubt by the first guard. Only this wasn't regular hospital staff, but blue uniformed ShinRa muscle with automatic weaponry swung up and ready to use.

"SonuvaBITCH!" Cid swore and dove for the gaping nurse, sailing over the countertop and taking her down just as gunfire made a mockery of hospital peace and quiet. Vincent, he trusted to take care of himself.

And Vincent did, Cid catching a damned fast flash of red against the bland ceiling of the ward as Vincent drew the idiot's fire upwards instead of down where innocents could be hurt.

This was damned sure not regular hospital policy for censuring visitors ignoring posted hospital visiting hours and that pasty-faced doctor had not run for his life because they'd shown up after dark. Goddamned ShinRa stink. He could smell the stench of schemes and double-dealing so strong it made his nose hairs curl.

He didn't figure he needed to tell the nurse to stay down - - she was cowering in fetal position in the clutter he'd made behind the nurse's station. He stuck a head up and saw two guards down and the third about to join them, without ever a shot fired on Vincent's part. Like the guard downstairs these were just grunts and following orders they had no understanding of. The doctor might know things of interest and he was probably halfway out of the hospital by now. Cid took off after him, figuring Vincent would follow once he was done here.

He slammed through the swinging doors at the end of the ward and into a dimmed hallway that had doors leading off it into rooms with expensive looking equipment and beyond that what looked like offices deserted for the night. He heard the distance echo of footfalls, rapid and diminishing. He pelted down the hallway, making his own clomping echoes and came to a dead end at the door to the stairwell. He yanked it open, and heard the patter of feet on steps. Heading down, he thought.

The doc wasn't in bad shape for a man his age, Cid discovered dourly, as the man made the ground floor door in record time and burst through at a dead run, screaming for security.

Damn. Cid came out afterwards into a better lit hall with a few night nurses blinking in shock at the fleeing doctor, then backing up against the wall as Cid hurtled after him. A big orderly appeared, drawn by the doctor's cries for help, took one look at the retreating white coated doctor, one look at Cid's grungy self and started towards Cid in a threatening manner. Cid shoved a gurney into the orderly and kept going as the man staggered into the obstruction.

The doc was out the fire exit and into the night, and Cid was on his heels, wondering how much time he had before more security came raining down on him. Long enough maybe to find out what sort of guilts drove the doctor to flee like demons were one his heels.

There was an alley outside the fire exit, not the sort of alley you'd find in a lower rent sector, but a relatively clean one, minus vagrants and piled trash and scurrying creatures feeding off human refuse. The doc's stamina was flagging and even though Cid wasn't as fast as he used to be, he had a lifetimes worth of hard work to shore his endurance. He closed the distance, caught a fistful of the doc's white coat and swung him about into the alley wall. The man squealed like a stuck pig and started struggling. He had nothing on Cid as far as dirty fighting went, and Cid jammed an elbow against his throat and slammed the man's head back against the wall.

"Get off of me. Let me go, damn you!" the man screamed hoarsely, still struggling, then quite abruptly the struggles stopped, the man's gaze darting past Cid and fixing, wide-eyed on something behind him. There was terror in that look that wouldn't have come from approaching security. Cid glanced over his shoulder and saw Vincent, half silhouetted against the light from the end of the alley, ragged ends of his cloak flapping and swirling like something alive, the red glow of his eyes burning like demon-fire from the shadows the night made of his face. Even Cid shivered.

Okay, so this was Vincent officially pissed off and not trying to hide it. Cid knew Vincent on a blood hunt when he saw it and stepped aside with one hand still gripping the doc's shoulder so the cowering man could get a good looksee himself. There was nothing like abject fear to make a man spill his guts. And Vincent, on his darker days, was right good at inspiring fear.

Vincent stepped in closer than was his want, invading his own personal space requirements and the black muzzle of Cerebus came up from under his cloak, gleaming and deadly, holding that faint, hair-raising aura of a weapon packed with more than simple man-made armaments. You got that feeling off Cloud's swords big time, off Cid's best lance back when it had been infused with three different types of materia.

Vincent didn't say a thing, just stood there, threat imminent and the doctor started blathering.

"I was just following orders. I swear - - I swear I was just doing what I was told. He wasn't harmed - - wasn't - -"

"Where is he?" Vincent cut into the babble, apparently not caring about the whys and the wherefores, since he'd been suspicious of ShinRa duplicity from the get go. None of the rest of them had been, not enough at any rate, fools that they were.

"I don't know. I swear it, I don't know. I'm just a doctor - - just a doctor - -" the man broke, sobbing. Mercilessly, Vincent pressed the muzzle of the gun hard up under his chin.


"They came and took him away. Less than an hour ago. ShinRa personnel - - ShinRa private security. They didn't tell me anything - - just came and got him."

Meaning Turks. The same damn Turks that had brought him here and been lurking around making sure he stayed put here. And for what? They weren't at odds these days; at least that he knew of. What was Rufus Shinra up to?

That question didn't seem a priority to Vincent. He stepped back of a sudden, the gun disappearing under his cloak, letting the weak-kneed doctor slide down the wall in shock, an embarrassing stain of wet between his pants legs where he'd peed himself.

"Where the fuck you going?" Cid caught at Vincent's arm and Vincent turned his predator look upon him.

"To go and find someone who would know."

"What, and rip it out of him?"

Vincent gave him a flat look, red-eyed and devoid of emotion. "Yes. And I hunt best alone. Don't take chances, Cid."

And he was gone, kiting up the side of the building via one fluid leap to a fire escape landing and then another to the opposite building roof.

"Great. Just fucking great!!" Cid called up at the night sky. "Don't mind me, Goddamnit."

There wasn't a lot of time to make arrangements, if they wanted to keep to Diablo's timetable. Just a call to the boss, and then another to the ShinRa Op's captain out there in the wastes with Reno and Tseng's backup, to get forces on the move and take what precautions could be taken. Not that a whole lot could be taken, given the circumstances and the fact that the boss himself was going to be in the vicinity. If Reno'd had his rathers, he would have pulled all their forces back, let Diablo and his band of miscreants descend upon the meet point and deliver a salvo of city-killer missiles right down their throats. But that was just him. The boss didn't ever reason things out in such simple, straightforward terms. There was always an angle. Always layers under layers of stratagems to be played out.

Got that from his daddy, Reno supposed, but no matter what traits Rufus had picked up from the former president of ShinRa, he was a marginally straighter shooter than his old man. He had a conscience buried somewhere that came out on occasion, where his old man - - well, he'd been a right cold bastard, and Reno knew bastards when he saw them.

They met up with Rufus's convoy halfway there, getting constant reports from the night-dark high-flyers circling the perimeter of Wastelander movement. Damn, but there were a lot of them out there. More than they'd first thought, more nomads wandering in from the wastes all the time. Who they all were was anyone's guess. Bandits and thieves was a given, maybe a lot of deserters from the Genova war who had drifted out into the badlands to escape notice, maybe a lot of folk displaced by the destruction of Midgar, too traumatized and fucked-up to ever trust going back to the city that had sprung up around the edges of the disaster and had turned feral out there away from civilization. Regardless, all of them seemed drawn to Diablo. Drawn to that mad-crazy power like scavenger beasts trailing in the wake of a bad-assed predator hoping to feast off his leavings.

The escape bunker would only ever have been found by someone in the know. It was nothing more than a camouflaged hatch in the midst of a series of rocky outcroppings twelve miles from the city. Twelve miles out and the lights of the new city were only memories and the night sky was a vast, opinionless observer to the forces converging on this one forgotten little spot.

Reno got out when Tseng did, jacket heavy with hidden weaponry, the feel of hardware strapped to his leg, and met the Boss' escort as it pulled up in a cloud of dust with Elena at the wheel. Three big black SUV's just like the one Tseng and Reno had arrived in. There were a couple of night-flyers out there, circling silently and loaded down with weaponry, and more ShinRa forces deployed at their backs. The boss hadn't come in unprotected.

Reno saw Rude emerge from the vehicle behind Rufus. His partner glanced his way, nodded once and canted his head to say something to someone still inside the truck. He shut the door then and stood with his back to it, guard stance. Which meant he wasn't moving out with the rest of Rufus's escort towards the bunker.

The comm. unit in his ear was spitting out information. The approach of enemy ground forces, but no word of them already being in position here. Thank you for small favors.

The boss' all-access keycard didn't work on the bunker door, the mechanisms corroded from time and disrepair. They had to pry it open. A breath of stale air drifted out. Tseng motioned men into action and they proceeded into the darkness to scout ahead. God knew what was living down there in the forgotten darkness. After a few moments there was the sound of something kicking in and a low hum preceded the activation of emergency lights along the bottom of the entrance hall. The generators apparently retained some juice, enough at any rate so that they weren't staggering around in the pitch dark with only handheld flashlights to lead the way. The hall lead down immediately, a slanted ramp melting into a small platform with an untrustworthy elevator on one side and a stairwell on the other.

Rufus chose the stairs and his guard took up positions around him. Reno looked over the stair rail down into darkness. The lights barely pierced down there, but as his eyes adjusted, he saw the faint glow of the same emergency lights here and there along the bottom of what appeared to be a large chamber. His flashlight beam wondered across the surface of large, unidentified pieces of machinery, of stacks of crates and barrels. Emergency supplies maybe to outfit the fleeing upper echelon.

Somebody brought down a big portable light, and with the flare of that, a good deal of the chamber came into view. They got the tunnel door open, the one leading further downwards towards Midgar, a path of retreat if they needed it, even if it probably dead-ended in some cave in way down the road. It was better than nothing and they could hold it until reinforcements got to them. He hoped.

"They're coming in. They're coming in." The warning crackled over his earpiece and men scrambled for what positions they could get at to cover the fools standing placidly in the middle of the floor waiting for disaster.

Reno put on his game face and waited.

Soon enough they came. Diablo appearing at the platform at the top of the stairs, scurrying, shadowy forms bleeding through the bunker hatch behind him. He was a perfect target for a dozen ShinRa snipers, but no one took the shot, because the boss hadn't signaled it. He started down the steps, fingers lazily trailing across the rusted railing, and his followers gave him ample room to pass through them, cringing back almost, as if they feared he might turn on them if the mood struck.

Rufus watched him come, leaning casually on his cane, with no more outward sign of nerves than if he'd been meeting with some potential business connection. Tseng and Elena stood on either side at his back. Reno took up a position to the left, where he had a clear line of vision and cover to take advantage of if he needed it.

"So what is it, you think we need to talk about, Shinra?" Diablo padded towards the boss, the one pale figure among a sea of darkness and shadow, gaze fixed upon his goal, ignoring their armed forces as much as he ignored his own. He stopped a few feet away and the boss didn't flinch. Tseng and Elena were too good to reach for weapons, but Reno knew they both wanted to bad. He wanted to.

"You have a misconception about what ShinRa is today, Diablo. May I call you, Diablo?" Rufus watched the madman with placid pleasantness.

Diablo arched a brow.

"We're not the same organization we were before Meteor. The people who initiated and carried out the unfortunate projects that you and others like you were involved with, are long dead. Your hostility is misplaced."

"Really?" Diablo canted his head. The portable light and the shadows made planes of his face seem deeper, the pits of his eyes almost impenetrable. "You're innocent of all your daddy's crimes, huh? Doing charity work now?"

"Some," Rufus said. "I can help you."

That made Diablo laugh. "You think I need help, boy? I think you got that turned around."

Rufus's smile didn't waver, even when Diablo stepped closer, putting them close enough to feel each other's breath. Elena did reach her hand into her jacket, then and Tseng tensed. God, no doubt every company finger in the room was sweating on triggers at that moment. It wouldn't matter if Diablo decided to take the boss out. Rufus would be dead before any of them could get off a shot.

"You're right," Rufus said. "I need your help. Just as you need mine. I know what's gotten inside you. I know you don't welcome it. Him."

Diablo snarled softly, hand curled in Rufus's jacket so fast that Reno never even saw the movement. Nose to nose with Diablo, growling in his face, and Rufus held up a hand to Tseng, warning off retaliation, and Tseng stepped back unwillingly, a clear signal that everybody else do the same.

"You don't know anything."

"Last year he tried the same thing, and succeeded," Rufus said calmly, on the balls of his feet under Diablo's grasp. "Only then he had a willing partner. He won't go back to the lifestream and how he's holding on, I don't know. Power, I assume. A great deal of power. I don't want that power released back into this world. It's my duty to see that doesn't happen. My burden, you could say, for the sins of my father. We beat him last time, and the body he was using was shattered. He's found a better body."

"You beat him?" Diablo had regained composure. He let Rufus go and the boss took a half step back and shrugged.

"You know who beat him. Can you tell me you didn't go after him because of outside urgings? How long can you hold out, Diablo, before he takes over? And you don't strike me as a man who would care for subservience to another. We can help you. We've been studying the problem for a year now, searching for methods to circumvent him if he tried again."

"You want I should walk into a ShinRa lab and let your white-coated killers have a go at me? You think you're that persuasive?"

"I know you've little reason to trust me. So I've a peace offering. The best weapon I have to use against you, as a sign of good faith and better intentions."

"Cloud," Diablo breathed and a flash of interest glinted in the dark pits of his eyes. Something foreign stirring with interest at the scent of prime bait.

"In good faith," Rufus agreed, smiling while he made a devil's deal and honestly Reno didn't know whether all the stuff he'd said was a hundred percent or not. With all the secrecy and the double-dealing, Reno just wasn't sure. God knew what Diablo, who had a legitimate grudge against him was thinking.

Thinking about getting his hands on Cloud again, most likely, from the look on his face. Maybe him and what was lurking beneath his surface were both dwelling on that possibility and liking it.

"If I wanted to double cross you, do you think I would be giving you Cloud on a silver platter, instead of holding him back to launch at you later?" Rufus reasoned, smooth as silk. Diablo wasn't a tactician. He wasn't a politician. He'd been trained as a killing machine, plain and simple, and maybe he was buying into what the boss was saying, maybe the idea of Sephiroth using his flesh like puppet was getting past the shaky mental defenses of a man on the edge.

"Bring him," Diablo said sharply. "And maybe I'll think on your offer."

Rufus nodded to Tseng and Tseng turned his head marginally to speak into his collar. Diablo stood staring at Rufus while they waited with that under the surface simmering psychosis. Hair-trigger, Reno thought. Just damned hair-triggered and liable to change his mind and go off at any moment with Rufus within arm's reach.

The tension broke with movement on the platform at the top of the stairs. The lurking wastelanders shifted aside, allowing entry to ShinRa ops. Rude strode to the rail and two big guards in body armor followed him, dragging Cloud between them. They'd gotten him dressed again since the last time Reno had seen him, but he was completely out, limp as a rag doll in their grasp. Rude grasped a handful of blonde hair and pulled his head up.

Rufus was an afterthought then, Diablo's attention fully focused on Cloud. He bounded upwards, ignoring the stairs, landing in a crouch on the top rail right next to Rude. Reno held his breath, but Diablo hopped down casually, and caught hold of Cloud's collar, jerking him loose from the two guards. Rude stepped back, out of his way, as he thrust Cloud into the arms of his gathered rabble.

One last look down at Rufus, gauging, then he turned on his heel and strode out of the bunker.




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