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The Devil's Own

by P L Nunn


Chapter 12


They were limited in what they could do to him, cowed by Diablo's departing command. Cloud could see the disappointment in their eyes, the one who loomed closest, the ones that had been the boldest in hurting him before. Left unchecked they would have killed him, ripped him apart in group frenzy as their minds became more clouded by drink and drugs, whatever control they possessed eroded by blood and passion and the scent of the kill. Ironic that the maddest dog among them was the one that put a check on their play.

Cloud would have almost preferred the torture to the promise of what gleamed in their eyes now. The taste of Diablo in his mouth left a bitter taste of what was to come. En masse, if he gauged the expressions of the faces ringing him correctly. He had two choices; he could go away, sink into a place inside his head and escape it, or try and force clear-headedness past the shock and endure, hoping a chance would present itself for escape.

No choice really, all things considered. He hadn't reached a point where death was a kinder option than survival, and until then the basest part of his instinct would not let him retreat. Even inside his head.

They circled him, threatening him like back ally gangbangers, some of them shifting erections under their trousers. He ignored them for the most part, while they were taunting but not touching, scanning the uneven jumble of rock towers and boulders that formed the walls of this grotto. The sky was lightening with oncoming morning, but he couldn't see the sun and so couldn't judge where exactly he might be in relation to it.

They moved in then and he stopped trying to figure it out, kicking out when they grabbed at his bound feet, catching a man who'd bent to grasp his ankles in the forehead, before they slammed the butt of a rifle against the side of his head. He reeled, losing control of his limbs for a moment as bright pain blossomed behind his eyes. It gave them the time they needed to get a good hold of his legs and drag him across dry, pebble strew ground to a square of canvas.

One of them fell on him then, and struggled to turn him onto his stomach. There were others crowding in on him, hands on his torso, fingers in his hair. Too close, inciting panic that wanted to spiral into hysteria or sheer unadulterated terror. He clenched his jaw, fighting for some semblance of control, trying with every iota of will power he had not to struggle against them, hoping they'd untie his legs if he didn't resist. Just untie his legs and it would easier for them to accomplish their rapes. And it would give him a fighting chance.

But someone else, several someones took exception to waiting in line behind the man pawing Cloud, and with a chorus of indignant cries, he was pulled off, his right for first go vehemently protested. A brawl ensued, which the others joined, as inclined to fight as they were to fuck, and Cloud lay passively at the foot of it, trying to calm his racing heart, trying to push back the nausea.

A woman knelt down next to him, the one from before, not a threat to her male counterparts and left unmolested as she put hands on him. She wasn't the only woman he'd seen amongst them, but she was the boldest, the least used and broken.

"They'll hash it out soon enough, baby," she whispered, mouth close to his ear, her hands running across his taut shoulders, down his ribs to his hips. "And they'll fuck you raw. Even some o'the one's that don't like boys'll have a go, 'cause that's how men are, y'know. Always out to prove somethin'. 'Cept for Diablo, he don't have to prove nothin'." She shivered a little, obviously finding something in Diablo's bloody insanity to her liking. She licked the side of Cloud's mouth, sucked on his bottom lip, but he kept his jaw clenched, refusing anything else.

"I can taste him," she murmured. "He spilled a load down your throat, didn't he? Lucky boy."

He couldn't help but shiver then, and gag a little at the reminder.

"Get offa him, bitch. I'm first." The big one, the one that Diablo had warned of the boundaries of their treatment of him, advanced and the woman scampered away to hang with the crowd of hungry onlookers, no few of them bloodied from the contest of who got a go at him first. He dropped down hard upon Cloud's chest, considerable weight pressing Cloud's bound arms into canvas-covered rock hard earth. It hurt. The man laughed, thrusting unzipped crotch against Cloud's chin, slapping him once when he bared his teeth and growled low in his throat.

"Little bitch is picky all of sudden on what goes in his mouth," the man quipped to the watching crowd and a flutter of cruel, expectant laughter wafted through the grotto.

"He ain't got teeth between his legs," somebody called and a chorus of cruder speculation and suggestion followed.

Cloud turned his head, letting hair obscure his eyes but the man wasn't interested in looking at his face, just scooted back to crouch over him, big hands biting into his hips as he flipped him over onto his belly, jerking his pants down to mid-thigh, then settling to his knees on the canvas, thighs on either side of Cloud's legs. He heard the slither of a blade sliding from a sheath, glanced up through his hair and caught a sideways flash of the big man holding an eight-inch hunting knife. Instinct said react. Buck the bastard off and put distance between himself and that blade.

Reason told him otherwise.

Just keep still. Just endure, because they weren't going to cut him worse than they already had and risk Diablo's wrath, and bound as he was, he wasn't up to much of an argument anyway.

The man leaned forward, the knife pressed against the back of Cloud's neck, the thick length of his cock pressed against the cleft of his ass. He could feel the bite of belt buckle and buttons, proving the man had only stripped down enough to get the job done.

"You're gonna like this, bitch," the man sneered, loud enough for the onlookers to hear and appreciate his wit. He dry humped a few times for emphasis, before calling for whiskey. Someone tossed him a half empty bottle and he took a swig, before pouring a warm stream of it across Cloud's lower back and onto his ass.

Breath came hard, on the heels of a heartbeat that had started to thud frantically in his chest. God, if he cried out, he'd egg them on - - if he sobbed in utter frustration/rage/terror he'd amuse them and shame himself and he would never, ever give them that satisfaction.

The big body pressed down upon him, the fingers of one hand digging into his buttocks while the man guided his cock in with the other, trying to force his way past clenched muscle and the disadvantage of legs bound tight together.

"Gor, but he's tight as a ten year old virgin." The man grunted laughter, the fat head of his cock trying to force its way past Cloud's defenses. "You stop fighting me, hear, else I'll stick my knife up there and loosen you up permanent like."

"Go ahead," Cloud ground out past clenched teeth, wondering if they heard the tremor he felt in his voice. "Maybe he'll thank you for it and not spill your guts."

The man on his back growled, and a fist drove into Cloud's side. Intense pain spiraled out from his kidneys. The wastelander snatched up the knife he'd dropped to the canvas and slammed the hilt against the side of Cloud's skull. Cloud gasped at the ringing throb from an impact that might have put another man out for the count, but he'd suffered worse, by stronger assailants. He went limp regardless, while the man

pushed himself up and back, far enough to slip the knife through the rope at Cloud's knees, then twisting around to slice through the bonds at his ankles

"Get his pants off and spread the bitch's legs- -" the man barked, pride damaged by his lack of initial success and the snickering opinions of his prowess that wafted through the crowd. He swung one thigh over Cloud's legs to give the men scurrying in to grab at Cloud's ankles room to fulfill the request.

There was a flash of a moment, when the weight was off of his thighs, before the hands could reach out and grasp his legs that he was half way free of restraint. An eye blink of an opening that might have passed him by if whatever was dulling his system was a tad bit stronger, if he'd been just a little to weak from their attentions to make his body move when he desperately needed it to.

He rolled, towards the man waiting to rape him, instead of away, throwing that big body off balance and kicking out with adrenaline-fueled strength at the closest of the one's bearing down on him. His aim was good. Foot connected with chest, a solid impact that sent the man sprawling back into the ones behind him. He kept rolling, right to his feet, barely aware of the pain on the soles of bare feet where they'd burned him after they'd taken his boots. Ignore the pain and maybe survive; an ingrained habit. He slammed into a body making a rush at him, made a leap for the hood of a parked vehicle and rebounded off it, landing badly from either the balance inhibiting way his arms were bound, the pants halfway down his thighs, or the internal weakness that ate at reflexes and strength and totally clear mental processes.

They came after him, a horde of dirty, ruthless animals, spilling over and around the array of parked vehicles. A bullet ricocheted off the armor plating of an old military truck that he darted past and he flinched, cursing himself for hardly being aware of its approach, much less having any active hand in having avoided it. That had been sheer luck.

An explosion made the ground tremble and pieces of rock exploded down, peppering the ground and pinging off the hoods of vehicles. God, where the hell were they aiming? They were crying out behind him, and some of them had stopped the pursuit, staring off to the northwest where something brighter than the sun flared for a moment, and after half a breath, the ground shook with the impact of explosion that hadn't originated from the band of miscreants after Cloud. He dodged into the shadowy crevices with the distraction, and brushed up against a ragged jumble of rocks trying to get his pants up far enough not to trip him during a crucial moment.

There was a rapid-fire blast of gunfire that echoed in the grotto, but not close by. More fire and the growl of engines starting. He sidled out of the crevice and saw the backs of men running for weapons and vehicles. A faint green flare of a materia blast lit up the sky north of him. He shut his eyes for a second, shoulder against the support of a rock, and wondered whom he had to thank for that bit of luck.

A second of relief was all he allowed himself. He scanned the area looking for some advantage and found it in a beat up old car that had been jerry-rigged and outfitted to make it wasteland capable. Somebody had welded metal spikes to the sides, and sixteen-inch blades in the hub of the wheel wells that would undoubtedly play havoc with the tires of any vehicle the thing drove up close to. He had another purpose in mind. He skidded over, dropping down to the ground beside the car, scooting up to the jagged blade and hoping to hell he didn't slice his arms to the bone trying to saw through the rope binding his elbows.

He only felt a few stinging cuts by the time the rope was scored through enough to break the remaining strands. He rolled over, onto his back and worked his chained wrists under his hips, got one leg through, and then other without having to resort to dislocating a shoulder to do it. The chain around his wrists wasn't coming off as easy as the rope on his elbows though and he cursed softly when he discovered the small lock holding the links tight together.

Fine. He'd make do. He might not be particularly graceful with it, but he could pick up a weapon and use it if he had to.

The wastelanders were heading north, those on foot weeding around the vehicles that were gunning their way through the narrow passages between rocky outcroppings. Whatever was happening was originating from that direction. Much as he'd like to find out what, he wasn't up to fighting his way through their ranks, which meant finding another, less crowded route of escape.

"Hey!!" someone roared, and a body came at him from between close-parked vehicles. A big man with a hunting knife. Having an affinity for blades, he recognized the knife before he did the man. The son of a bitch who'd been doing his best to rape him before he'd made a break for it. He leaned there against the car and let the man come; ducked out of the path of the blade as the man lunged at him, slow and clumsy, relying on his size and his attitude to freeze a victim with fear, like so many of his ilk.

Even beat to shit and sluggish, Cloud tracked his movements like they were diagramed for him, caught the thick wrist with one bound hand and jerked it up and around, using his attackers own momentum to swing him around and into the side of the rusty old car. The welded-on spikes in the door impaled the body, but not deep enough for a kill. At least not a quick one. The man screamed, shoving himself backwards and falling to the ground, bleeding in half a dozen places from knee to lower torso. Cloud kicked the man hard in the head and the writhing ceased. He bent and retrieved the knife, and had to put a hand to the hood of the car to catch his balance when he straightened and a wave of dizziness passed over him. He shook his head fiercely, trying to fight it off.

Up was the way to go, where he could get a better idea of what was happening, where he could avoid other wastelanders coming at him when his reflexes weren't operating at a hundred percent. The gunfire was persistent, interspaced by the roar of something more powerful. The ground shook twice as he was bounding/scrambling up the tumble of rocks that surrounded this grotto.

Something larger than a bullet whizzed by him when he'd gained the top, and he hit the ground as it impacted behind him, exploding the side of a taller rock tower and sending fist-sized chunks of stone flying through the air. He curled, protecting his head and luck or maybe his capricious guardian angels protected him from getting hit by any of the debris. He got to his feet, and the difficulty of that simple act screamed discord in his head. He hadn't taken that much damage, not nearly enough to account for the bone-weary ache in his body or the sluggish reflexes that made him curl into fetal protection instead of dodge to avoid a batch of mindless rock ricochets. He saw the origin of the fire from his vantage. Two motley trucks behind a narrow band of rocks protruding up from the flat wasteland beyond the tumbled grotto like the fin of a shark. Wastelander vehicles were circling, returning fire, pinning the attackers down, and taking damage in the process. He caught sight of two demolished cars, smoking and belching flames from ignited fuel sources. A third went up in a ball of fire as something whizzed out from the rock shelter below and caught it head on.

Cloud got a flash of a distant figure with what looked like a shoulder- held rocket launcher before the man hunched back down to take cover, another glance of rapid muzzle flash as a bigger form stood up and peppered the circling wastelanders with artillery fire.

Barett. Even from a distance, that broad body was unmistakable, which meant Cid and Vincent were down there and probably Tifa unless they'd knocked her cold and locked her in a closet to keep her away. Cloud felt a little surge of optimism a moment before the sky lit up with a focused materia blast that came close to knocking him off his feet with the backwash and shook the ground like a 4-point earthquake.

He saw Diablo, arm blades extended, disappear down amidst the maze of rocks, heard gun-fire, high powered rounds slamming into rock and imploding, before Diablo sprang up out of the rocks two hundred yards away, deflecting bullets with the deadly arm blades as he rebounded. The source of the fire came up after him like an avenging demon out of the shadows of the tumbled rock maze, guns blazing in both hands.

Vincent crouched atop one precarious rocky spire and fired the long barreled gun in his left hand while the one in his right glowed faintly with gathering energy as he drew on the materia nestled within its frame. Diablo was quicker in the gathering of his energy, and he let loose a blaze of green energy that Vincent launched himself up into the air to avoid. He fired off the materia-laced shot from Cerberus on his upward arc. Diablo leapt back, barely avoiding the blast, but the rock crumbled out from beneath his feet, victim to the impact, even as the rock tower Vincent had perched upon exploded and crumbled. Vincent came down on the edge of the crumbling landslide, disappearing into the shadows of the crevice even as Diablo did and all good sense aside, Cloud scrambled that way himself. Got to the edge in time to see Vincent dart backwards out of Diablo's reach, firing as he did, bounding up the precarious side of the fractured stone edifice with Diablo close behind. He scored a hit, and Cloud saw it coming even as Vincent probably did, when Diablo just stopped defending and put all his energy and speed into closing the distance between himself and Vincent. The bullet tore into his shoulder and other than a flinch of impact, he kept on, slicing out with an arm blade that tore through Vincent's cloak and maybe scored flesh underneath. All of which threw Vincent slightly off his game, just enough to hinder his usual blinding speed and Diablo was on him. Stabbing down with an arm blade, which damn well did sink into flesh that time, and carrying Vincent to the ground under him in a flutter of cloak.

"No!" Cloud cried and ran that way, figuring he could make the leap that would take him across the crumbled crevice between himself and Diablo and Vincent and not particularly caring at the moment if he was at a terrible, miserable disadvantage.

Somebody else reacted first. A true-shot mini-missile that arrowed up from below and caught Diablo dead on in the chest, carrying him two body lengths backwards before it exploded with oddly muffled shockwaves. There was Cid, having covered half the distance between where Cloud had originally seen him and the edges of the rock grotto, taking cover behind the twisted bulk of a wrecked Wastelander vehicle, the rocket launcher still balanced on his shoulder. Cloud could half hear his distant whoop of triumph over the ringing in his ears. Then the air vibrated with gathering power a moment before Diablo propelled himself up and out of the rubble, a car-sized chunk of rock held over his head that he launched towards Cid's shelter. It hit with a sickening screech of metal, throwing up a cloud of dust and debris and there was nothing after but settling dirt and the still prominent sound of conflict.

An inarticulate sound of fury/grief came from Vincent and eyes glowing redder than Cloud could remember seeing, he swung to Diablo, a moment before Diablo released a breath-stealing blast of materia that hit the place he was crouching dead on. The shock waves of this one did pitch Cloud off his feet as the ground gave way beneath him and he slid half a dozen yards down the crumbled incline. He scraped his feet bloody trying to stop the decent and hold onto his pilfered knife at the same time. Something caught him up short, rough fingers digging into his shoulder and flinging him backwards. Rock shards bit into his back when he landed, but he hardly felt the pain, trying to scramble backwards and gain his feet as Diablo padded up the slope towards him. The man's eyes were mako green, his face twisted into something that might have been grim humor, even though blood trailed down his arm from a clean bullet wound high on his shoulder and his body was marked with a dozen small bleeding cuts.

"C'mon," he growled. "Use your little knife on me, boy. Make me bleed."

Cloud glared, wondering what it would take to get through the bastard's defenses. Not a thing he could do with the puny little blade he held, not with the man having shields that could withstand a dead on missile blast or the sort of materia shot that Vincent was capable of with Cerberus.

"No?" Diablo sneered and lunged down, faster than Cloud could presently avoid and plunged the tip of one arm blade into the stone close enough to Cloud's head to sever a few strands of hair.

"When I finish killing your friends, what will you have then?" he breathed against Cloud's throat, teeth grazing the skin of his jaw.

"Son of a bitch!" Cloud ground out, pushing at Diablo's chest. Diablo sat back, staring down at him with canted head and power-infused green eyes. Sephiroth's eyes. Sephiroth's wants and needs and joy at seeing him in this condition with the grief surging up in him hot as new-spilt blood.

There was a rush of power, something dark and cold that flared over him and left goose pimpled flesh in its wake. It wasn't Diablo or Sephiroth, who both exuded deadly hot flashes of energy. It was something else, that Diablo/Sephiroth must have felt too, because he frowned, jerking the blade out of the stone with a grunt and rising, turning towards the still settling mountain of rubble where Vincent had gone down.

Rock shifted, sand seeped into newly created crevices. Something rose, a tall, odd silhouette. There was a leathery snap as what might have been wings unfolded and Cloud caught the details of something he'd only ever seen once and then under very bad circumstances. Great veined wings. more like those of a reptile than a bird, a flesh/bone crown of thorny protuberances around a shadowy oval of face, the eyes of which glowed like some internal reactor was fusing into overdrive.

"Shit," he murmured because he wasn't certain that thing down there recognized the difference between friend and foe and it was exuding energy of a malevolent sort that had the hairs on the back of his arms standing up.

"Well . . . damn - -" Diablo murmured a split second before the demon that dwelled within Vincent's body ceased to be where it had stood and slammed into Diablo with enough force to send rock gysering out like stone waves on either side as they cut a trench through the slope.

Cloud rolled over and tried to get enough leverage on the crumbly slope to gain his feet, half got there when energy blossomed out, churning red, cold/flames interspaced by zagging currents of materia laced/Jenova enhanced power. The backlash of it shook the world, or at least the little portion of it centered in this fractured grotto. It knocked Cloud off his feet, and back down the newly created slope. He hit bottom and rolled for cover as rock showered down, falling in upon itself. Another blasting reverberation of energy of the destructive sort, but not as powerful as the first concentric wave of it. Then silence, save for the rasp of his own breathing and the settling of rock. Distantly he could hear the rumble of engines, retreating. The pop of sporadic gunfire, also distant.

The demon swooped down, fast enough that its form seemed to flicker like a film with missing frames. It stood there, semi-transparent membrane of wings blocking out the sun, then crouched, talons plunging into Cloud's side, where the old wound was, digging into his insides with a swift searing agony. It was over in a matter of seconds, bloody claws dropping something onto his chest with a small, wet plop. Cloud stared down at the bloody thing, small and oblong, too smooth and regular of shape to be a thing that belonged in his body. The air around the demon sizzled, energy fluxuating, collapsing inwards like dust sucked into a void, and then it was Vincent who crouched there, amber-eyed, slack-mouthed and past his limits. He crumbled, a loose collection of limbs and tattered cloak on the uneven slope next to Cloud.

Cloud lay there, tense and wary, staring up the ravaged cascade of rock waiting for the other shoe to fall. It never came. Diablo didn't appear. After another moment, when he let out pent up breath, the aches began to make themselves known. Hurts he'd been ignoring for too long came crashing down on him and he shut his eyes, biting back a groan.

"Vincent?" It took effort to move his arms and nudge the still figure beside him. No response. His forearm came back with a smear of fresh blood soaked through Vincent's cloak. Or maybe it was his own, God knew he was leaking blood from enough places.

There was the sound of sliding rock somewhere behind him. The grunts of a body struggling up the mess Diablo and Vincent had made of the rocky grotto. He'd really rather have lain there, rocks poking into his back or not, but he made himself roll and push past Vincent's cloak to the holstered gun at his hip. He pulled it out, twisting around to aim at the figures just topping the shattered rise.

Tifa stopped dead, and two men in WRO colors clambered up behind her, rifles raised at the threat of the weapon aimed their way. Tifa slapped down the muzzle of the gun closest to her and Cloud let out a pent-up breath and let his own gun fall.

"You look like crap," she said, forcing a wry smile.

He had to laugh. Almost. It came out aborted and humorless. He laid the gun down, careful of Vincent's most valued possession and dropped his head onto his forearms.

"Goddamnit, don't try and lift the thing . . . dig!" Cid peered up out of a too small hole at Barett's sweating face. He was wedged in a crater made when the gas tank of the car he'd been taking shelter behind had exploded. That was the only thing that had saved his life when the mini-van- sized chunk of rock had come hurtling down upon him. A bum shoulder didn't make digging his way out much fun. He'd only just scratched at the surface when Barett and a bunch of WRO grunts arrived late. They'd been sent courtesy of Reece after they'd gotten him to use the WRO's hi-tech toys to scan the vast area outside of the city to find the damned big collection of Wasteland bandits.

With outside help, an opening big enough for a lean man wiggle out of appeared. Cid reached out an arm and Barett latched on and dragged him out. He sat there afterward, squinting up at the big rock that had almost flattened him and shook for a while, waving Barett and the WRO members away while he got hold of his nerves with the help of a little nicotine. Since the gunfire had stopped and there were no careening wasteland vehicles circling, not to mention the high-end materia blasts coming from the jumble of rocks that made up the grotto, he figured he'd missed the hind-end of the battle. Since they were alive, they must have come out on the winning side.

He forced his aching body up at the sound of rocks tumbling and edged around the big rock in time to see Tifa top the rise, supporting Cloud with a shoulder under his arm. He sighed with relief until he saw Barret behind them with Vincent in his arms, all loose limbs and trailing cloak.

He couldn't even come up with an appropriate curse, just spit the cigarette out and started towards them, a strangled curl of dread in his gut.

"It's okay, Cid. He's alive," Tifa assured him.

They staggered down the hill, Barett slipping and sliding with Vincent's weight in his arms, Cloud exhibiting very little of his normal grace. One of the WRO'ers ran up fingers on the earpiece he was listening to.

"Reports are that they're scattering. WRO reinforcements engaged a group of them east of here. Still, there are too many of them to keep track of."

"Well that's just fucking great," Cid grumbled, as Barett made flat ground with Vincent. "Where were those damned reinforcements when we needed them?"

He knew the answer of course. Reeve had done the best he could on short notice. Gathering what troops he could in the Midgar area when the majority of the World Restoration Organization forces were scattered over three continents and God knew how many islands between here and the end of the civilized world.

Cid peeled back blood-soaked material from Vincent's dangling right arm and found a nasty, bone-deep gash. There were other sources of blood, hidden beneath layers of black cloth, but he'd damned sure he'd seen Vincent take worse and still function.

"It was Chaos," Cloud said softly, having separated himself from Tifa's support, standing there bloody and bruised, bare-chested and barefoot. "He went out when it went away."

"Shit," Cid breathed. It had been a damned long time since that particular demon had surfaced within Vincent. "Somebody get the Goddamned truck," he bellowed, angry and scared and covering it with belligerence.

They got their own little company loaded up in Barett's truck, which had survived the assault admirably sans a few dozen new bullet holes.

"Hospital?" Barett asked and Cid snorted, having had enough of hospitals for the time being. Besides which, Vincent wasn't exactly your normal human being. Cid would patch him up with Tifa's help and he'd heal with spooky alacrity once his mutated immune system started kicking in.

Cloud would, too, thanks to a different set of ShinRa alterations, through from the look on the kid's face as he settled down in the back of the truck, there were other infections festering in his thoughts. He'd looked battered and beat to shit when Cid had found him - - or vice versa - - in the desert outside Gold Saucer. There was something else in his eyes now. Something bruised and shaken that went beyond the physical damage so apparent on his body. Like they'd jarred something loose and stomped it to bits while they'd had him and God knew from the look of the injuries and the placement of some of them, they'd been enjoying themselves a little too much with him.

"Is the bastard dead?" Cid asked, the first time he'd ventured that question. He was almost afraid to hear the answer. Cloud flinched a little, lashes fluttering down to hide his eyes for a moment.

"Cloud?" Tifa prompted.

"I don't know. I didn't - - see." He sat there a while, eyes focused on something he turned over and over in his fingers, then. "No. Vincent's transformation took him by surprise. He did the smart thing - - he took off to regroup. I would have. Sephiroth would - -"

He shuddered and held up the thing he was holding. A capsule, no bigger than the end of his pinky, grey and innocuous.

Tifa leaned forward, taking it from Cloud's fingers. "What is it?"

Cloud shrugged, almost touching the source of most of the blood staining his side and belly. The same damn injury he'd sported since they'd hooked up in the desert, only the stitches were busted and it was leaking fresh trickles of red. "It was inside me. Chaos took it out. I don't know how - - "

He trailed off, looking more than a little spooked. Cid could damn well guess how. He'd bet his last gil that it hadn't been there before Rufus Shinra got his hands on Cloud.

"A tracker?" Cid ventured.

"Or a sedative, maybe?" Tifa furrowed her brows. "After all, you didn't put up much of a fight during all this."

Cloud stared out the back of the truck, obviously not wanting to partake in the theories. He didn't say another word the whole bumpy, hot trip back. And Vincent didn't stir, even when Cid and Tifa started looking for injuries and poking and prodding in the process. They bandaged the worst of the worst with what they had in the field med-kit, but it was too rough a ride for particular work. Cloud wouldn't let them near enough him to doctor any of his hurts, very much to Tifa's disgust. She wasn't shy about calling him a fool for the reluctance, lacking a great deal of her normal tact, but then they'd all been through a damned close fire-fight and come out with wounded on their side, so nerves were stretched taut and politics gone out the window. And maybe she was more than a little frustrated having dealt with Cloud's eccentricities and Cloud's stand-offishness for longer than most women would have had the patience for.

Cid doubted the kid paid her much heed, having that hollow, shell-shocked look in his eyes for the better part of the ride home; the sort of look men got when they'd been pushed beyond their limits.

Cloud helped Barett with Vincent when they got home. The smoke still lingered, and there were a few smoke-damaged patches of black on the walls of the upper level near the back where the bar joined the warehouse beside it, but all in all, it was a haven. They put Vincent in one of the kid's rooms and Tifa went for the extensive med-kit she kept on hand.

Cloud disappeared into his own room and shut the door behind him. Barett went out to confer with their WRO contacts and see what there was to find out about the movement of the wastelanders. That many bandits out and about around the city and there was bound to be fallout. Hell they probably would have been easier to deal with all collected together in one massive rag-tag army. At least then, they'd know where they were all at.

The water sluiced off his body carrying dirt and blood and more noxious filth with it down the drain at Cloud's feet. He couldn't get it hot enough to stop the shivering once it had started. So he stood there, skin turning pink from the hot water, hands pressed to the tiles under the shower head and tried to escape the looping images that kept flashing through his head. He opened his mouth, letting hot water stream in, rinsed and spat and did it again and still couldn't shake the taste of urine and come. His stomach rebelled, nausea rising in the back of his throat. The cramps came so hard that he dropped to his knees in the shower stall and heaved up thin streams of acid-tasting liquid, but nothing more. He hadn't anything in his stomach to expel.

The water washed it away, along with the rest. He heard Tifa knock at the door, a soft inquiry. An apology for snapping at him before, which he didn't quite recall her doing, then she went away. The water turned luke warm. He reached up and turned off the shower. Pushed himself to his feet and looked down at the various abuses on his body. Maybe the capsule had contained some time-released sedative, God knew why else he'd lain there and taken the punishment. He half recalled the fogginess of thought, the sluggishness of body and knew those weaknesses were gone now. Even the various hurts were brighter than they had been before, dulled by whatever had dulled his reflexes. He slapped adhesive bandage patches on the worst of the open cuts so they wouldn't rub raw under his clothing, then pulled on a pair of well-worn, loose black jeans and a black t-shirt with some faded band logo that he'd bought second hand. He searched out clean socks and pulled them on over the burns on his feet, then found an old pair of boots with a patched-over hole in one sole that he hadn't worn for years. The simple act of walking was going to be a sharp reminder of the wastelander's attentions for a few days to come. His best boots were out there in the wasteland somewhere or worse yet on the feet of some worthless bandit and that pissed him off. God knew where his sword was.

No, scratch that. Rufus Shinra would know. Diablo and his pack of degenerates hadn't had it or Cloud would have seen. It was too damned big to miss, which meant it was still in the care of Rufus's security where he'd stupidly left it when he'd gone to see the smug bastard. Cloud might seethe over the loss of a good pair of boots, but he'd tear through heaven and earth to get back his best sword.

Most of his gear was still here. Shoulder guard, gloves, belts, and secondary sheath. He put it on, a piece at a time, pulling the gloves on last, hesitating on the right one as the red welts around that wrist caught his eye. He shuddered, caught off his guard as a new flood of the old memories washed over him. Was aware vividly of the taste again in his mouth like a fist in the face. He staggered to the toilet and dry heaved, and sobbed, dry-eyed, in fury at his weakness.

Focus on the purpose. Focus on the here and the now instead of the past which was over and done with and out of his control. Find Rufus Shinra and get his sword back, first and foremost, because he needed that weapon if he stood a chance against Diablo/Sephiroth. Take down anything that Rufus tried to throw in his way to keep him from coming. Wring the truth out of the son of a bitch - - hell, he wasn't even sure he needed the truth. Maybe just the satisfaction of kicking Rufus's skinny ass would be enough to wash away some of the hurt.




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