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The Devil's Own
Barret, Cid and Tifa were in the bar when Cloud came down, a bottle of shared whiskey on the table between them. Every eye fixed on him like he was some walking oddity when he appeared. He hated the looks and the expressions of concern, as if he were fragile and wounded and ought to be holed up somewhere licking his wounds instead of going about getting retribution for them.
Tifa stood up, her hands flat on the table, her brows drawn as she took in the gear and the empty sheath on his back. She had a shallow score below her jaw that he hadn't noticed on the way back from the wastes. More of a scrape that a slice, but it made his gut clench regardless, the sight of that small wound, when she could have gotten so much worse.
Vincent had. He could still see Vincent's blood on his hands, could feel the warm wetness of it on his clothes as it leaked from cool flesh. Cloud set his jaw and took the last few steps, sidling past crates they'd moved out from the smoke damaged warehouse.
"Where you think you're going?" Barret demanded, flesh and blood hand stained with the grease and oil he was using to clean the grafted gun arm.
"Vincent?" Cloud asked, not bothering with an answer.
"He's still unconscious," Tifa said. "What are you going to do, Cloud?"
Cloud looked to Cid for a more comprehensive answer to the Vincent worry. Cid shrugged, his arm back in the sling, the dregs of a filterless cigarette clutched between his lips.
"He'll snap out of it. When his demons hit - - specially that one - - takes a lot out of him."
Cloud nodded, moving towards the door. They weren't happy about that, not knowing his intentions. Barret's chair scraped against the floor and Tifa moved to intercept him, fingers latching on to one of the sheath straps and he hadn't a choice to but to hesitate; either that or muscle his way out of her grip.
"Damn it, Cloud!" Her cheeks were red, her eyes angry. Scared maybe. He wasn't sure which; didn't really have the mental energy at the moment, to try and figure it out, when he was having a hard enough time keeping his own demons at bay.
"Where are you going?"
"To the garage to get a sword." That was truth enough.
"And then?" she demanded, not put off by his reluctance to share one bit.
He shrugged and was shoved back against the doorframe by Barret's big hand for that bit of reticence. "We just finished getting our asses shot to hell for you, boy! You damn sure better start lettin' us in on what shit's gonna hit the fan next."
He glared up at Barret, having to tilt his head back against the door to meet the big man's narrow stare this close up. His personal comfort space was shallow at the best of times; today he was feeling particularly sensitive. He'd had too many people, too close to him recently not to react when Barret leaned over and tightened his grip on Cloud's shoulder.
"Back off." He knocked Barret's hand away, and shoved him a step backwards. Tifa laid her hands on Barret's thick arm when he bristled, growling at Cloud.
"Cloud," she said levelly, reasonably. "Whether you want to admit it or not, you're hurt, you're tired and you can't do this alone. Let us do what friends do and help you."
He looked past her, focusing on the slow moving shadow of the lazy ceiling fan.
"The cards are stacked against you, kid," Cid drawled from the table, as interested in the whiskey in his glass as he seemed to be with the standoff at the door. "Hell, it's probably a rigged game, considering the players. Better get smart and start hiding some aces of your own up your sleeve if you wanna break even."
"I'm going to get my sword," Cloud said softly.
"You already said - -" Barret started to say in irritation, but Tifa shushed him with her nails in his arm and he shut up, glowering.
"What sword?" she asked.
"The one Rufus Shinra has."
"Okay." She pulled out her gloves and began putting them on. "So I'll drive then."
"I got the window seat," Barret declared and Cloud shut his eyes for a moment, not sure if he felt trapped or grateful.
"I'm thinkin' if it's just Rufus and some Turks you guys are plannin' on playing with, I'll sit this one out." Cid patted his immobilized arm. "'Sides, I'm a little too drunk to be playing with sharp objects."
Cloud walked down to the garage while Tifa and Barret got the truck. The smell of oils and mechanics made the absence of Fenrir sharper. He could only hope the bike was still safe and sound in the Gold Saucer parking facility. His swords were also decreasing in number. His best pair was in Shinra possession, not the mention the one Reno had appropriated weeks ago when Cloud had been taken into police custody after the first wastelander attack on him. He picked up an old sword. A heavy weapon with a well-worn grip and good balance to the three and half foot blade. Though time and countless battles had scarred and nicked the flat of the metal, the edge was razor sharp though and suitable for his purposes. He slid it into the sheath on his back and walked outside as the truck pulled up with Tifa at the wheel. Barret stepped out and let Cloud slid into the middle. Cloud loosened the sheath and rested it between his legs while he rode.
They parked a block and a half away from Rufus's building, got out and walked the rest of the way. There was a lot of security. More than there had been last time Cloud had visited. The street was lined with the black ATV's that Rufus's private security used and there were a lot of Blue's loitering in the area.
If what Reno had told Vincent was correct and Rufus had made some sort of deal with Diablo, then Cloud had to wonder just who they were guarding against. They stopped across the street from the building, and Cloud stared up at the gleaming glass of the penthouse. The two outside glass elevators rose and fell on their tracks, but only went as high as the floor below the penthouse suits. Rufus' private domain could only be reached via the inside elevator and then only by someone with an access key to the top floor. Cloud wasn't in the mood for a polite request for an audience.
He watched one of the glass elevators reach bottom and through tinted glass could see the doors open to the inside lobby and people get on and off.
"If the two of you go into the lobby and get security's attention, I think I see my way in."
"How much attention?" Tifa asked.
"Enough to get them all focused on you. Don't start a war." He gave Barret a look. The two of them against fifty Shinra Security elite and probably a few Turks to boot were not odds he liked if he was going to be occupied elsewhere.
"What? You saying I don't know how to behave in polite company, Spikey?"
Cloud canted a brow at him, a twinge of a grim smile touching his lips.
"We can do it," Tifa said. "Be careful and don't trust him."
He let them stride across the street first, heard Barret's deep voice demanding to see the Corporate Asshole in charge because they had a complaint to lodge. The Blues started moving that way. There was a struggle at the door as security tried to hinder Barret and Tifa's entrance and Barret and Tifa defied the authority and got past the gleaming bronze and glass doors. The blues were all zeroed in on them then and Cloud padded across the street unnoticed, jumped lightly onto the hood of a black ATV and used that to launch himself up onto the top of one of the outside elevator cars just beginning its ascent.
He crouched on the bronze elevator roof, watching the reflection of the elevator flash by on the sun-glazed panes of passing windows. The car stopped repeatedly on its journey upwards. The end of the line was two floors away and above that the smooth bank of glass windows that made up the outer wall of Rufus's penthouse.
Cloud stood, sliding the sword from its sheath, and a few feet shy of the top, he launched himself up and over, swinging the weight of the sword against the thick glass and feeling it shatter inwards under impact backed by his momentum.
He landed easily, boots crunching down on jagged panes of shattered glass. A potted plant had spilled over and brown dirt joined sparkling slivers of glass on Rufus' white carpet. Rufus himself was at his desk, his cell phone halfway to his ear, a momentary mask of shock on his face.
Cloud sheathed the sword in one smooth motion and stalked into the room. Rufus stood, lifting his hands, the forgotten phone still clenched in the fingers of the right.
"Cloud - - Cloud, I'm relieved to see you're - -" Rufus didn't quite get the last of that lie past his lips before Cloud pounced, backhanding him into the wall behind his desk.
A picture bounced off the wall and hit the floor beside him. The cane tumbled to the floor next to the desk.
"Damn it, Cloud - - Wait &endash; " Rufus was trying to push himself up.
"You son of a bitch!" Cloud was on him, hauling him up by the lapels of his tailored jacket. "Tell me why I shouldn't break your neck?"
"Because, then you'd be a murderer." Rufus was trying to get his placid face on, Cloud could see the struggle, but the blood leaking from the side of his mouth and the disheveled stands of hair across his face belied the image of calm collection. "And those two downstairs would be accomplices to murder and you don't want that."
"Fuck you." The frustration and the fury and the shame welled up and he flung Rufus across the room, where he hit the bar and sent glasses tumbling. The elevator doors slid open and figures spilled out, the dark suits of Turks amidst a handful of Blues.
Forget Rufus for the moment and concentrate on the armed problem. He whipped the sword out as he dove away from the spray of bullets one of the Blues peppered the room with. They were as likely to hit Rufus as him, probably more so, all things considered. The windowpane next to the one he'd crashed through splintered as bullets cracked into it.
Somebody was screaming to stop firing. Cloud didn't waste time seeing who, just rolled under the spray of bullets and swiped the legs out from under the closest of the Blues with the flat of his sword, then came up and shoulder slammed another back into the alcove with the elevators.
A bullet whizzed by his head, and he spun and deflected a follow up shot with the sword. It was Elena taking a bead on him, standing between him and the bar where Rufus was sprawled. Cloud leapt backwards, landed behind the long white couch and kicked it forward. It bowled over a trio of Blues and Elena had to dive aside to miss getting hit by it. Cloud followed the sofa's route, dodging shots he couldn't reflect and bore down on her.
Elena blocked the sword with her gun, but the blade cleaved through the barrel, ruining the weapon. She kicked up at him, and Cloud avoided the blow, slamming the heel of his hand down against her forehead, causing the back of her head to thunk against the soft pile of Rufus's carpet.
There was a click of a weapon being cocked at his back, the presence of a body and he hissed softly, tensing to spring.
"Stop it!! Everyone stop it, now!" Rufus was leaning against the bar, face flushed with honest anger.
"Drop the sword, Cloud or I put a bullet in your head." That was Tseng behind him.
Cloud lifted his eyes and looked at Rufus. His hands were shaking. It wasn't out of fear or exertion, just sheer frustrated anger. Diablo wasn't at hand. Sephiroth was far enough removed to be untouchable. He needed an outlet for all the helpless rage that had built over the last few days.
"If he tries," he promised softly, "you'll have one less Turk."
"Tseng," Rufus said. "Lower your weapon. All of you, lower your weapons."
There was the soft shuffle of weapons being holstered, of bruised, battered men trying to get themselves together. Most of the Blues were in worse shape by far than they'd been coming in. Elena was dazed and half-conscious. Cloud didn't turn to look at Tseng, just crouched there next to Elena and waited for Rufus to make whatever play he was plotting in that convoluted mind of his.
"I understand your resentment, Cloud. I imagine you're feeling rather ill-used about now."
"You think?" he growled.
"You're looking for retribution. Also understandable. But Cloud, you must understand the need for occasional sacrifices to the greater good."
He wanted to smash Rufus's face in. The urge was so strong that his knuckles cracked on the hilt of the sword. "Greater good?" he asked, a tremor in his voice from the struggle not to act on that urge. "You mean making a deal with the devil to keep him from coming after you?"
"No." Rufus pushed himself off the edge of the bar and limped towards his desk. "I mean for the good of this world. Even you can understand that, can't you, having sacrificed for it before?"
Cloud rose in one fluid motion, and the security rustled around him nervously. Tseng moved past him, positioning himself, gun still in hand between Cloud and Rufus. "Diablo's not a threat to the world. He's a threat to you."
"Sephiroth's a different matter." Rufus dropped down into his chair with a wince of pain.
Cloud glared at him silently, waiting.
Rufus looked past him to the gathered Blues. He waved a hand and snapped. "Out. All of you out."
They didn't actually start moving until Tseng gave them a nod and indicated Elena whom they helped up and supported to the elevator. Tseng himself stayed put and Cloud doubted any order of Rufus's could have shaken him loose from the room.
Rufus dabbed at the blood on his mouth while he waited for the Blues to depart, waited until the elevator door's closed and gave the car enough time to get a few floors away and still didn't speak. Cloud's patience was eroding fast.
"I'd offer you a drink - - you look like you need one - - but I assume you'd be a bit wary after the last time."
Cloud didn't actually remember the last time, but he'd pieced enough together to bristle silently at the reminder and Rufus's cool admission.
"I'm not here to chat."
"No, I don't imagine you are." Now that he had the leisure to do so, Rufus looked Cloud up and down and Cloud's animosity rose another notch at the casual scrutiny. "It seems you're not much worse for wear, all things considered. I had faith in your durability. I also assume, since you seem to be on your game today, that you discovered the capsule?"
It took an actual effort not to touch the wound at his side.
"It wasn't just a sedative. Two years of research based on a decade of field study and supposition went into what you carried to Diablo."
"What I carried - -?"
"There was a virus in that capsule. A very specific, time-released biological weapon designed for a single purpose."
"You infected me with a virus?" Cloud stepped forward, boots crunching on bits of glass, sword tip swinging up. Tseng blocked his clear path to Rufus, expressionless face betraying his nerves only by a twitch in the jaw.
"An inhibitor, more accurately. If you recall, I did ask for your cooperation. You refused."
"You infected me with a Virus?"
"Dormant in you, I promise." Rufus held up his hands. "Designed specifically for one person and one person only. You were simply my delivery agent, so to speak. That is what you do now, isn't it? Deliver goods. This time the merchandise was simply of a biological nature. The infection could have been more clinical, if he'd had allowed us inject it into his bloodstream - - but, well, I doubted the likelihood of that and there were other factors that presented problems with that course of action. The only other way was infect a host that he was likely to get close enough to - - well, with the Sephiroth influences and Diablo's own nature, he does seem to have a perverse interest in you, Cloud. I assume there was physical contact? Any orifice would have sufficed?"
He didn't telegraph his attack. Just went from standing with the sword point a few inches off the floor to slamming into Tseng, before the Turk realized he was on the move. Cloud was on Rufus before Tseng hit the carpet, a fist in the face driving Rufus over backwards in his chair. Tseng was scrambling to Rufus who was sprawling amidst his chair against the wall, too late to stop the initial damage, but willing to put himself between his boss and the attempt of any more infliction. Cloud crouched on top of the glossy-topped desk, glaring down. Rufus was bleeding profusely from a nose that was already starting to swell.
"Son of a bitch!!" Rufus wheezed through the blood, "You think if there was some sure shot I wouldn't have taken it?" Tseng had all his attention, along with his gun, trained on Cloud, so Rufus had to struggle out of the tangle of legs and chair alone. He kicked the chair into the cubby under the desk with more force than needed and stabbed a finger up at Cloud. "Sephiroth needed to be close to the surface for it to take effect, understand? If we'd tried to deliver it from a distance with out knowing he was close, it would have been a wasted effort. I don't give a shit about Diablo and his vendetta - - Sephiroth scares the hell out of me! Can you relate to that, Cloud? Do you get that if he breaks through again we might not be so lucky next time and be able to stop him before he calls calamity down on this world? You stopped him last time and the time before, I know that. You're my best weapon against him, in more ways than one, but he's not stupid. Arrogant, yes, but how many times do you think he'll repeat the same mistake before he starts using different tactics? He already has started using them, or do you think it was Diablo's idea to start attacking Sephiroth's enemies on his own?"
"What makes you think," Cloud breathed softly, "he's coming back?"
"Idiot!" Rufus snarled at him. "Don't pretend to be blinder than you are, just because you'd rather not dwell on unpleasant reality. I'm not so conveniently ignorant of the possibility. We've been working on a way to counter him once and for all if he appeared again. All we need now is for Sephiroth to make the physical transition."
Cloud stared at Rufus in disbelief. "You want that?" Clearly Rufus was as insane as Diablo and Sephiroth. He had to wonder how a patently sane man, like Tseng, could stand there and not flinch at the madness his employer was spewing.
Rufus leaned forward, eyes gone bright and smug with the perceived genius of whatever wild plan he had concocted.
"The virus - - inhibitor if you will - - is dormant in Diablo, just like it's dormant in you, but once Sephiroth makes the transition, it will become active. You might say it works similarly to the healing waters in the old cathedral, zeroing in on certain properties within a biological system and neutralizing them. The more destructive tendencies he inherited from the Jenova persona via its DNA will be defused, neutering him in effect, trapping him in a prison of flesh with no more ability than - - say, your average super Soldier. Not harmless, certainly, but beggars can't be choosers and we can deal with a renegade Solider more effectively than we can deal with a homicidal demi-god with notions of world destruction."
"In theory." Dealing with scientific supposition of the sort that used human beings as lab rats made Cloud uneasy. He didn't want to dwell on how Rufus's researchers had come up with this virus and who they'd tested it on. He shivered at the fact that it was swimming around in his own body, only having Rufus's dubious word that it was harmless to him.
"It's more than theory, Cloud, I promise you that."
"Your promises are worthless."
"It's a different world." Rufus reached out for Tseng's hand to pull him up. The collar of his cream suit was stained with blood, his voice becoming more noticeably nasal as what was probably a broken nose swelled. "You may not like my tactics, but the welfare of this world is where ShinRa's interests lie."
Something caustic and profane hovered on Cloud's lips, he bit it back and asked instead. "If you're right and your plan works, what then?"
"Simple. We capture and contain him and as long as he's safely in our custody, trapped in a body of flesh, there will be no swimming of the life stream searching for another host, no more threat from the ghost of the Calamity."
Cloud looked away, towards the grey outline of the new city outside Rufus's windows. Cold wind whipped in from the shattered section, stirring the scattered papers that had once neatly graced Rufus's desk. There was nothing he could say about this madness that would make a difference one way or another. There was too much new and unwelcome information swirling around in his mind to form a cohesive opinion.
He hopped down from the desk, sheathing the sword in one smooth motion. Tseng relaxed marginally. Rufus' mouth twitched in a smile.
"I'm glad you're seeing the reason of the situation - -"
"I don't see anything. Expect a bill for services rendered." He walked towards the elevators, preferring the easy way down. "And I want my sword back."
"It will be waiting for you when you get to the lobby," Rufus promised, pleased with himself despite a bloody face and the wreckage of his suite.
Cloud scowled at him until the elevator doors closed.
They opened again to a wall of Blues guarding the entrance to the elevators from the lobby. There looked like there had been a bit of a tussle, but not a big one. Barret and Tifa were holding their ground by the reception station, returning the glowers of the Blues. Tifa's face lit up in relief when she saw him shoulder his way past the Blues blocking the elevator. No one tried to put a hand on him or a weapon, so he figured word had filtered down from above that all was well, if not forgiven.
Reno appeared from an entrance beyond the desk, scowling, the sheathed sword Cloud had entrusted with lobby security on his first visit, in both arms. Rude drifted in behind him, one arm in a sling.
Cloud took it from him, automatically checking to see if the materia slots had been tampered with. All seemed in order.
"No Valentine?" Reno asked with a sulky cant of the head. "Dare we hope he went down playing in the wastes?"
Cloud hadn't been paying a great deal of attention to what Cid and Tifa's explanations of how they'd managed to find him on the trip home from Diablo's wasteland hideout, but he did remember the bare bones. Vincent had hunted down Reno and Rude and squeezed the information out of them. He could make an educated guess as to where Rude had gotten injured and by whom. Hence Reno's ill wishes towards Vincent. Still, Reno had spilled information that more than likely would cause him trouble if his superiors found out. Information that had benefited Cloud a great deal, even if it had been unwillingly given.
Cloud inclined his head, a silent motion of thanks that could have just as well been for the return of the sword. Reno tightened his lips and shrugged flippantly, moving back to lean against the counter next to his partner.
"What happened?" Tifa moved up next to him as he strode through the forest of Blues for the lobby door. Barret trailed behind, glaring at the tense faces as they passed.
"Later." He wasn't ready to start trying to explain something that still churned with such disturbing uncertainty in his own mind.
"Cloud." She wasn't happy with his reluctance and rightfully so, considering the risk she and Barret had put themselves at playing distraction for him.
"At the bar, so I only have to tell it once. Promise."
When they reached the truck, Cloud unfastened the sheath with the old sword and placed it in the bed. He buckled his favored weapon in its place. Half again as heavy, but the weight felt good. Familiar and reassuring and powerful with embedded materia.
"I'm walking," he said, passing by Barret and the open, bullet-riddled passenger side door.
"What d'ya mean, walking?" Barret yelled at his back.
Since the answer was self-evident, Cloud didn't bother answering. Barret repeated the question to Tifa and Cloud heard her softly tell the big man to calm down, that they'd meet him back at the bar and all would be explained.
As if Cloud knew how to explain this mess. As if he wanted to try. But they deserved the attempt, because who knew what was prowling out there in the wastes, circling the city like wolves on the hunt. Who knew what might be born out there, coming into the world again with a full-set of teeth despite all Rufus's claims to the contrary. Like Rufus had said, even if Sephiroth crossed over with stunted powers, he'd still be a super Solider, and he'd be pissed. If Rufus thought he was going to outsmart him and capture him then Rufus was mad. For all Sephiroth's psychosis, and delusions of godhood, he was still a military genius. If he went down, it wasn't going to be easy, because the only thing that Cloud was confident that Rufus had been dead on about, was that Sephiroth would learn from his past mistakes.
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