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The Devil's Own

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter nineteen

 

Gongaga was a small inland town. Bigger than it had been before Genova, what with a lot of folks fleeing the larger cities, but still smaller than a lot of western settlements. Gongaga was big on farming and with the materia shortage nowadays, farming was a profitable industry. Profitable enough that there was a small port there now, with a little collection of storage silos and warehouses. Foodstuffs from Gongaga made it all the way across the sea now, as far as Midgar and Kalm. At least according to Cid, who seemed to know just about everything there was to know about who shipped what and where and what profit there was to be had in it.

There hadn't been much to do other than listen to Cid the ride over, other than doze, which was hard to do with turbulence jousting a body this way and that every few moments. The Sierra, Cloud had to admit, gave a whole lot smoother ride than Captain Leanne's Shy Lady.

How Vincent slept the whole trip was beyond Cloud. But he sat there, in the bucket seat across the aisle from Cloud with his lashes flush against pale cheeks from take off to landing almost.

Cloud disembarked happily enough once the ship had settled in Gongaga port. Cid opted to stay and Vincent with him. The Shy Lady was only here long enough to fill half her hold and then it was off around the western coast to Utai to finish it up. Rocket Town was not far out of the way and the captain had agreed to drop Cid and Vincent off on the way there.

"Don't do nothing stupid. And I know it finds you like fleas find a dog, but avoid trouble, if you can." Cid suggested as they parted company on the tarmac. "You know where we'll be at if you need us. I got another little single engine prop, I can probably get in the air with a few hours tinkering if the need arises."

"I've got your number." Easier to agree to ask for help than stand there and argue. Cloud had gotten pretty good at mollifying concerned friends over the last few years.

Vincent stood a few feet beyond, in the shadow of the Shy Lady, eyes as shadowed and unreadable as ever. He inclined his head, acknowledgement of any number of things and said simply. "Be safe."

And that was that. Cloud tromped off into Gongaga town without looking back, looking for chocobo rental. The terrain between Gongaga and Gold Saucer was less than predictable and the few motorized convoys that made the trip were slow going at best. A pair of good chocobo's could be get him there in less than two days time if he kept sleep to a minimum and switched mounts every few hours.

He found a dealer and haggled over the price, which was expected, until he and the old man found a mutually agreeable number. The birds were of good stock, long solid legs and small beady eyes that tracked a man when he moved, sizing him up to see what they could get away with. He picked two and strapped his gear to one and the small riding saddle to the other. The cinch went under small, blunt wings and the reins clipped to brass rings fastened to holes pierced through the chitinous cartilage of the beak. A good rider hardly needed them though, but Cloud didn't know these birds and it was always better safe than sorry when taking off on strange animals into the wilds between Gongaga and Gold Saucer.

He left Gongaga behind long before the Shy Lady lifted off from her spot in port. A good Chocobo could travel at a good clip for a damned long time over inhospitable ground. These were good birds, bred for this terrain.

He was well into the forests north of Gongaga within a few hours, the birds weaving through close trunks and thick foliage like feathered eels. It was a game chocobo's world wide liked to play, to dislodge unwary riders via low hanging branches. A rider had to stay vigilant and duck and weave when they did or end up on his ass with no thing but tail feathers in sight.

He'd switched mounts four times by the time he felt the need to take a few hours rest himself. He stopped by the southern shore of the Dalphan river, as good a halfway point as any. Camp was dried rations, canteen water and his back against a smooth rock for a few hours light doze.

Cloud's internal clock was damned efficient. He roused two hours later, the starlight reflecting off the surface of the river. He geared the birds back up and was on his way. The chocobo's took to the water without hesitation, fine webbing fanning out between their toes as they ran, necks extending as they maintained the speed it took to keep to the surface. It took minutes to cross at this narrow point and they were on the other side. Easier traveling on this side of the river. The forests were scarce, the land flat and increasingly arid. There was nothing but plains land and desert now, between him and the Gold Saucer.

It took another day of hard riding to cross the span of flat dry lands between the river and the outcropping of mountains that backed the Gold Saucer facilities. He bypassed the park itself, the gleaming structure towering in the distance as he headed towards the trolley/parking/storage facility to the east. Even from a distance though, he could see the damage wrought. There was a webwork of scaffolding clinging to the outside of the great dome, as work progressed, patching the hole made by Diablo's massive materia blast. It was the first time Cloud had seen it from the outside.

The trolleys weren't running, the cars immobile at the station with no passengers to transport. There was a great deal of ground activity though, huge construction vehicles carrying supplies to and from the park and the sprawling supply sheds flanking the parking areas.

He'd left Fenrir in one of the covered parking areas, courtesy of the platinum park passport his unfortunate client had provided him. He'd had no idea at the time that he'd be leaving in the most unconventional of manners. A lot of things had happened that he hadn't expected after Gold Saucer.

He dropped the chocobo's off at the stables, which catered to any number of rental services. From there he walked across the deserted grounds towards guest parking and storage. There was a bit more life there, a few dozen vehicles parked close to the low roofed warehouse that contained the main covered parking complex. There was a big placard outside the sliding hanger doors proclaiming the auction. He ground his teeth and headed towards the attendants booth near the smaller entrance.

A pimple faced teenager in a short sleeved, yellow and red striped Gold Saucer uniform sat idly digging in one nostril when Cloud walked up. He extended a flyer with his free hand and said without looking up.

"Auction starts at six. Fill out the form and bring it back to register for bidding."

"I'm here to pick up my vehicle." Cloud ignored the form.

The kid sighed, as though it were some great inconvenience to withdraw his hand paper still intact, and dragged his eyes up to look at Cloud.

"I'll need your storage ticket."

The storage ticket was somewhere out in the debris of a desert bunker along with the rest of Cloud's belongings that had been stolen by Diablo's nest of lowlifes.

"I don't have it." Cloud dug in his pocket and pulled out the extra key. "I have the key."

The kid wasn't impressed. "No withdrawals without proper Gold Saucer storage receipts. There's always the auction, man."

Cloud felt a muscle start to twitch in his jaw. He was hungry, he was sleep deprived and there was enough desert dust in his clothing to make his skin itch. It was not a good day, patience wise. The very slight smirk on the young attendants face was the straw that shattered his reserve.

The flat of his boot against the door beside the knob and the bolt tore through the tin of the frame. The attendant yelped, scrambling to his feet as Cloud strode through. He could hear him jabbering into a radio, calling security. Gold Saucer security was no particular threat and he'd deal with the situation when it arose. If it arose at all. Chances were only the barest minimum of security was in attendance, what with the lack of park goers and what there was most likely was at the Saucer itself. He might very well have time to get Fenrir and get out of there before they managed to reach the parking complex.

The kid was trailing after him, crowing about security being on its way, and a lone mechanic in dirty coveralls alerted by the commotion started ambling in his direction. It was a big flat storage garage, but there weren't that many vehicles and they were all clumped together in preparation of the auction. He could see Fenrir between a battered old truck and a roll bar studded all terrain buggy.

He broke into a trot, preferring to avoid actual violence if he could. The mechanic veered to cut him off, but hesitated, getting a good look at the sword strapped to Cloud's back and the expression on his face. Age trumped youth in the arena of common sense, because the man stopped short, a 'this job don't pay enough to get my ass kicked', expression on his face and let Cloud pass on without incident, while the attendant continued to trail along.

Fenrir seemed no worse for wear. Not even a speck of dust marring her chassis. She'd fared better than Cloud these last few weeks. He thumbed open the ignition panel and inserted the key. Triggered the side panel that would sheath his sword and slid the blade home as the teenaged attendant worked up the nerve to approach.

"You're in deep shit. Gold Saucer prosecutes to the full extent of the law, you know?"

"Shinra law?" Cloud swung a leg over the bike. "Good luck with that."

He turned the key and the engine rumbled to life. Familiar power between his legs that calmed his nerves and allowed him a bit of empathy for a kid that might loose his job over this.

The kid put a hand on the handle of the bike, like he had the muscle mass to stop it from moving forward. It was either a really brave move or a really stupid one. Cloud guessed at the latter.

He looked at the offending hand, then up at the kid and revved the engine. The bike inched forward and the kid yelped, yanking his hand back and finally had the sense to take a hasty few steps back.

Cloud didn't waste the opportunity. Tires spinning on concrete, he let Fenrir loose. Through the shattered door with a fraction of an inch to spare. He might have scraped paint on the left exhaust, but it was a small price to pay to be outside with his property intact. Security was on its way up the road from the east, a pair of gold striped vehicles bouncing up the trail from the direction of the Park. Cloud veered north with a burst of speed that there was no way they could match. There was a lot of inhospitable land surrounding the park, a lot of stark desert that a man could loose himself in.

He was okay with the idea of loosing himself for while. A few days away from the crush of the city, or the press of responsibility, the stigma of trouble that had been looming over his shoulder since Diablo had first shown his scarred face. If he headed north, he'd reach Coral in a few days and maybe he could pick up a job there. He had a few contacts with the local couriers and a reputation for risking jobs that saner men would balk at. He'd need a bit of traveling money to get back across the ocean, Cid and Sierra not a viable option for hitching a ride with at the moment.

Gold Saucer was a glint in the distance, the dust of any pursuit far gone in his wake. The Coral Mountains weren't even a haze in the distance. He'd call Tifa in a few hours and let her know not to expect him for a while. The least he could do was relieve her fears. He felt some bit of guilt that he didn't feel the urge to do more.

<hr>

 

"He's heading north." Reno put down the binocular, and shaded his eyes from the glare of desert sun with his free hand.

"As planned," Elena said shortly, standing next to him at the edge of the catwalk scaffolding near the top of the Gold Saucer repair efforts.

The wind whipped hair and clothing like it had a vendetta up here, carrying stray bits of dust and sand on its currents. Reno lowered his shades to protect against hurled debris and glanced aside at Elena. She was small and stark in her black suit, flying blonde hair an incongruous component to her all business demeanor.

He squinted back towards the expanse of northern desert and all he could see with the naked eye was the faint trail of stirred dust in the wake of Cloud's bike.

"It's a damn big desert," Reno commented. "You think they're really gonna cross paths or is the boss just pipe dreaming?"

"The Boss only makes sure bets," Elena said darkly, giving him a look, as if he'd been trash-talking Rufus. Gods, but he'd hate to have to work with her full time. But then Tseng was no barrel of laughs himself, so Reno figured they complimented each other perfectly.

"Yeah? Seems to me he's been placing an awful lot of chancy wagers. And sure, if he wins, he wins big. If not - - I wouldn't want to be in his shoes and pay that piper."

Elena frowned, not bothering to answer. All loyalty aside, she had to know he was right. The stakes were damned high in this little gamble and the first lives lost if things went south were more than likely to be those in the first line of defense against Rufus Shinra. Namely the Turks.

"Lets go." Elena started down the catwalk.

"What's the hurry? He's tagged." And Cloud was, a neat little tacking device having been planted on that big bike of his. They could track him anywhere.

She didn't answer that either. Nerves. She was no less tense about this than he was. She just didn't want to talk it out.

They took a service elevator up, to the very top of the saucer structure, where a sleek Shinra transport waited on the VIP landing pad. A squadron of Shinra's finest waited within. No simple Blues, these, but the highly trained specialists that carried out the sort of dangerous tasks that never saw the light of day. No Super soldiers, that lot was an endangered species on its way to extinction, but as close as you could get nowadays. Who knew, maybe ten or twenty of them, along with a Turk or two might even be able to do the impossible and take down an actual Super Soldier. Stranger things had happened. And if the Boss had his way, they were damned close to putting that theory to test.

 

<hr>

 

It wasn't fear that had chased him here, but he had run all the same. Back across the water to escape the growing tumult in his head. The growing pressure from the ghost of that silver haired bastard who had plagued him in life and plagued him more in death. If you could call it death, when a damned wily soul refused to dissipate in the lifestream.

It made him mad. Furious. Made him see red. The corpses of the crew of the company freighter he'd stowed away on during the crossing leaked red inside the shell of their ship. He'd taken his time with them, immersing his arms up to the elbows in red as their screams dwindled, because he knew the snake inside his head found no entertainment in mutilation for the same of mutilation. The snake pursued greater purposes, so the snake thought.

Diablo simply pursued the scent of his own pleasures. And his pleasures were always tinged in crimson. Soaked in it, when blacker moods took him.

He hadn't run in fear from stark lands surrounding Midgar, but from a stubborn desire to deny the Snake what it most wanted. Oh, he'd go back for Strife - - he had to, Snake's desires or no - -because Diablo could never very well let be something that had pricked his interest. But for now, he'd fought the urges and the roiling discontent of the thing inside his head and left the hordes of Rovers that followed him to plague Midgar in his absence.

The deserts of the west had always calmed him to a degree. Always offered stark solace from the monsters that rightfully lived in his head. And there were always those starving souls, living on the fringe of civilized society that would follow him, drawn to his power and his ferocity like moonflies to body heat.

He left of trail of bodies in his wake, from the seaside port he landed to the edges of the great desert that spanned half a continent, the redness this trembling thing that crowded the edges of his vision.

He found the remains of his desert base, but the old ShinRa bunker had been demolished, crumbled in upon itself by some massive internal eruption. There was only a ragged crater in the desert floor now. No sign of the men he'd left behind when he'd crossed the ocean seeking the Snake's agenda. Well, maybe not entirely the Snake's. Diablo could wholly appreciate the notion of Rufus Shinra's intestines sliding through his fingers, slick and warm and pulsing while the man himself twitched, not quite yet dead.

The destruction of the bunker made him angry and if there had been living flesh about, he would have sank his blades happily enough to appease the hunger the rage summoned within. As it were, there was nothing but sand and jagged metal, so he got into his stolen ATV and headed north, remembering a small settlement somewhere abouts within a days drive or so.

He saw the smoke before he reached the village. Smelled the tinge of fire and blood and destruction. The darkness hid a great deal, but smoldering fires made silhouettes of a handful of round huts, of a dozen or so ragtag vehicles scattered around the perimeter of the settlement, of a bonfire in the center of what passed for town and a few dozen figures carousing around it.

Diablo cut his engine beyond the furtherest vehicle, inhaling the scent of devastation in the hair. He strapped on an arm blade, slid another blade through his belt and walked towards the celebration. There was a corpse on the ground in his way. An old desert dweller, craggy face smeared with blood. Another few piled against the side of a hut. There was a choked cry from the group around the fire, and a responsive spree of jubilation from the gathering. He recognized faces backlit from the fire. Men of his, who had found entertainments without his guidance. Men of his who gathered around a makeshift scaffold - - what might have been a drying rack for skins - - but now served a different purpose. Bodies dangled. Feet bare inches from the ground, jerking and twitching as they strangled, nooses tight around their necks, faces purple and bug eyed. Men on the ground prodded them as they struggled, spinning them about, slicing them with the tip of blades as they slowly strangled.

His heart pounded, excitement rising at the torment. At the prospect of more when he saw the handful of bound gagged, victims waiting their turn. His cock was hard in his pants. Painfully so. He circled the group to get close, predators so drunk with their own power that they didn't even realize a more dangerous animal was among them. A woman breathing her last breath fixed him with her bulging eyes and something inside him rebelled. Revulsion surged up. Before he knew it, he'd lunged forward, swept out the arm with the blade and three throats were severed clean through, a swift end to suffering.

Diablo screamed in rage, even as the ragged men around him did, robbed of their entertainment. The snake inside him urged him to take out the remaining captives. One fatal materia enhanced stroke would take them all out fast and efficient. The Snake didn't balk at death, only at the needless prolonging of it.

Diablo controlled the urge with an effort of will. Swung around when guns and blades were leveled at him and fixed the fire lit mob with a feral smile. He could take them all out without breaking a sweat, but their deaths at the moment might not serve him so well as their obedience.

"Is this a mistake you want to make, Rifkin?" he asked softly, and the rat-faced little bandit at the forefront of the group blinked in shock. There was only a moment's hesitation before the sawed off shotgun he held was lowered.

"Boss? That you?"

Diablo lifted a brow, not bothering with an answer.

"You've been playing without me."

"Uh, well - - yeah. Gotta eat." Rifkin shifted nervously. Those around him did. Scared. That was clear enough from the scent of them. Vaguely Diablo recalled slicing through their number in a fit of rage. Oh well. They'd either get over it or they wouldn't. He didn't care much either way.

 

<hr>

The village was a smoking ruin behind him when they left next morning, decorated with the corpses of its inhabitants. He had followers again and some part of him was pleased with it. He always had liked playing the role of Alpha dog. Always liked having throats bared to his teeth. The Snake had retreated last night, when he couldn't reassert control. Retreated when Diablo had purposefully made those last kills brutal and slow.

He took them north, away from the Blue patrolled territory surrounding Gold Saucer. When he wanted to confront a force of Blue's it would be on his own terms, with a clear prize behind the wall of flesh. Namely Rufus Shinra. For now there were plenty of small outposts like the one his men had decimated and even a good-sized town or two scattered throughout the vast desert. Plenty of oasis where men gathered out of necessity.

They stopped at one such and robbed a trader of his goods and his life and had a right nice little feast by the deep well in the middle of nowhere. They burned the one traveler's shelter, but the well itself they left intact. Even bandits and madmen held a healthy respect for water out here.

It was long after they'd moved on, and set up camp in the midst of jutting natural sandstone monuments that he felt the sense of - - familiarity - - out there in the vast darkness. It drifted to him, out of the distance like the sweet scent of blood.

He lay on the stone ledge where he'd made his bed above and apart from the pack that followed him and extended his senses like a desert wolf scenting distant prey. His instincts had always been razor sharp, his sense of fear ultra fine - - but this, this feeling made the hairs on the back of his arms stand up and his spine tingle. The Snake inside him stirred, interest sudden and keen. But he pushed that awareness down, and surprisingly enough it retreated with no contest of wills.

It made Diablo grin in the darkness, baring his sharp teeth at what might have been an imagined victory. Or might not. Hard to tell these days. But the awareness was still there - -the trickle of some sense beyond physical that spurred the predator in him.

He chose his gear sparingly. Leather arm sheathes sporting the harnesses for his arm blades. A few other nasties secreted about his person. Not much else. He didn't need it to make a kill. Not a normal one, at any rate. On impulse, he slipped a blade, three-foot katana style, out from the pile of gear next to one of his sleeping followers as he moved through them.

Swords weren't his style. Never had been, but maybe what was out there, stirring his senses wasn't normal. And at the moment, the hunter in him was too motivated to question his choice of weapons.

Instinct pulled at him, driving him northeast. The desert sky was clear enough for the moonlight to make crests and waves of corrugated sand. He was beginning to doubt himself, the validity of his senses when he saw the glow of fire. Orange light secluded by the shelter of stacked shale and sandstone.

He stopped the ATV half mile away, and padded across the dust-covered earth on foot. Predator silent, closing in on the kill. He'd always been the best of them, those comrades of his who had been trained to slink through the night to make their silent kills with none the wiser. The most enthusiastic if not the most efficient, because sometimes - - sometimes, he'd gotten carried away with the process. Sometimes the smell of blood, the feel of it, had been a little too addictive.

He circled the outcropping of rocks that formed a shelter around the fire, saw the evidence of a stark campsite. The dark lump of a bedroll. The silhouette of a bike near the rocks. No warm body.

He went tense, night sensitive eyes scanning the rocks around him. A glint of metal against the shadows of a higher outcropping and Diablo sprung backwards, bounding off an edge of rock to find his own high vantage, flinging an arc of materia garnered destruction from one arm blade as he sought higher ground.

Rock exploded, flying shrapnel illuminated by the momentary brightness of the blast. He looked down, through settling dust at the figure of a man with a damned big blade on the ground, untouched by the explosion. Fast enough to avoid the debris of the aftermath.

Laughter burst forth, uncontrollable. Not his senses pricked after all in the dark of night, but the Snake's, which were always attuned to this particular prey. He ought to be annoyed, but the opportunity was simply too precious to hold grudges.

"Must be fate, eh, boy?" He called down and moonlight glinted off narrowed blue eyes below. "You and me meeting out here all alone?"

No response, pale hair, pale skin, dark clothing. Gunmetal dull length of broad blade that most men couldn't have hefted, much less handled with the deft precision of the boy down there. Not so much a boy though, having served the same master he had, once upon a time, having endured the dubious attentions of that master, just like him. Dangerous. Snake's desires notwithstanding, he'd enjoyed these last weeks. It had been a long time since he'd played with something capable of giving back as good as it got. Almost he might regret ending it. Almost.

"Oh, " he purred, summoning the power of the materia embedded in his body, channeling it through the weapon bound materia in his arm blade. "The things I'm gonna do to your corpse."

He flung another blast, wide band of destruction that would harder to avoid and left down in its wake. The kid erupted through the wash of energy, blade or self induced aura of shielding clinging to his body, shedding energy like water, sword swinging up in an underhanded arc that might have taken Diablo's legs off at the knee, if he hadn't twisted, mid-air and blocked the swipe with the edge of an arm blade. Impact jarred his arm and he felt the crick as metal protested and gave way.

He cursed, using the impact to push himself away, landed easily and stared with disgust at the spidery crack radiating out from the chip in his arm blade. He'd had these blades for a good long time and nothing had ever threatened their soundness.

He laughed again, amusement overriding irritation. Leapt out of the way as Cloud came at him, kicking up a wave of dust with the swing of his blade.

Cling. Clang. Clakk! Metal against metal. The jar of flesh and bone when they were close enough that blades weren't an issue. If the quarters had been closer, with no room to maneuver that big sword, Diablo would have happily discarded his own blades, hand to hand fighting one of his specialties. Ripping into Cloud's flesh with his sharp nailed hands would have been uniquely satisfying. Tearing out his heart with his own blood stained fingers, digging into his soft belly. The Snake inside him roiled, surging close to the surface, stirred by the conflict or by the boy or both. Who knew?

Diablo didn't need to force it down. He hadn't the concentration to try. The Snake's instincts when it came to fighting were no poorer than his own. The Snake tended towards offensive, as did Diablo and the Snake was enjoying this.

Cloud came at him, crossed blades, lunged close enough for him to see the boy's face, tense and serious and for a moment, Diablo faded to the background, crowded out of his own consciousness by the squatter in his head.

"Are you even trying, Cloud?" His lips formed the words, independent of his will and they were laced with a calm cynicism that was foreign to him.

Cloud hissed, jerking back, seeing something in Diablo's face that made him flinch. Diablo silently screamed, clawing his way back to the surface.

"Boundaries, motherfucker!!" he roared, raking the nails of one hand down the side of his face, drawing blood.

Cloud stared at him, ten feet distant, as if he were a raging madman. Which made him grin, blood taste in his mouth, despite the irritation.

He tensed, ready to spring back towards Cloud, and something stung his shoulder. He twisted his head; saw the shaft of a small metal dart. Plucked it out and stared, brows drawn in consternation. And then his head exploded.

Or the presence inside it did. Blinding surge of power. Swelling so huge and so fast that Diablo felt as if he were being swallowed whole. He screamed, but even inside his own head it sounded muffled, dwindling even as he dwindled.

And then there was nothing.

 

<hr>

 

Tifa very rarely complained, even when he was being an ass and Cloud loved her for it. It took a lot to get her to the point where letting off steam at him was beyond her ability to control and it had been a while since she'd felt the need to vent. Calling and telling her he was foregoing the trip home in lieu of traveling around the western continent for an unspecified amount of time hardly elicited more than a sigh and a admonishment to be careful. He got more bitching out of Cid.

It didn't stop him from feeling guilty, because there was work to be done repairing the damage done by wastelanders that would never had targeted the bar in the first place save for him. Wastelanders that might still slink into town looking for trouble. But, then again, maybe not. He and Vincent had whittled their number down and at heart the lot of them were cowards who'd already gotten their asses kicked by Tifa and Barrett once. Without Diablo prodding them into attacking something more dangerous than themselves, they'd stick to shadow attacks on hapless travelers and unsuspecting folks at the edges of town.

And he had to believe that Diablo himself had abandoned the area. The man might be a lot of things and none of them pleasant, but cowardly wasn't one. If he'd been around when they'd made their little foray into the wastelands outside Midgar, he'd have made his presence known.

So after doing his duty and calling home, Cloud pocketed his cell and headed out to commune with the wilderness as he meandered his way north towards Coral.

The wastes out here were a lot starker than the ones surrounding Midgar. Dryer, hotter. A lot longer distance between settlements and the ones there were, were small and rustic to the point of being tribal. Not welcoming of strangers in their midst. There were traveler's oasis' here and there though - - waypoints that offered water and sometimes a nomadic trader with overpriced foodstuffs to offer - - where a body might refill his canteens and get a bit of something not salted or freeze-dried.

There was a good-sized town about a day and half's ride to the northeast. Or so he'd heard. An old desert trading spot that had grown over the decades and managed to escape outside influences. Since Fenrir had needs other than water and fresh fruit, he headed that way, in the hopes of filling her tanks.

Sleep, however was needed, if a man wanted his wits about him, so making camp was more a requirement than an amenity. There was no schedule to keep, and therefore no reason to push himself to the point of exhaustion. So camp it was, in the shelter of a group of wind weathered rocks that looked as if some giant hand had, in a moment of leisure, stacked them one upon the other with haphazard carelessness. There were clusters of these formations dotting the barren landscape and one had to wonder what geological event had created them.

The desert was harsh and filled with predators, men least among them, so a road-wise traveler never let his guard down, even when sleep was upon him. Cloud hadn't always been a light sleeper, but necessity over the years had made him one. It was that trait, that ingrained sixth sense, which woke him before dawn was even a purple haze on the horizon.

It saved him having his throat slashed in the midst of night in all probability, Diablo striking him as the sort of killer that would as soon strike an unarmed, unguarded man from behind, as one prepared to face him head on.

The twist of fate that had put the man on his trail, Cloud could only guess at and curse, but backing down was not an option. He was tired and he was angry and ready to finish this one and for all.

There were no innocents to stay his hand or drugs to dull his reflexes this time, nothing but his blade against Diablo's, his determination against a madman's bloodlust. And when one of Diablo's arm blades snapped - - and that flash of disbelief/anger crossed Diablo's scarred face - - damn, but it felt good. Of course the anger didn't last, replaced by maniacal laughter and the man came at him with renewed vigor, slashing with the one whole arm blade and the jagged edge of the broken one alike.

It was only when he closed in, clashing close enough to see the engraving on the dog tags swinging from Diablo's neck, to see the glint in his eyes, that something changed. That flash of mako green that he saw in his nightmares and a shift in the expression.

Are you even trying, Cloud? Smooth inflection to Diablo's rough voice. Not Diablo at all and it sent shivers up Cloud's spine, knowing who it was. But then Diablo bounced backwards, shaking his head like a dog with a tick in its ear, screaming at himself. Perfect moment to strike, with an enemy waging war with something in his head and Cloud almost took it, save the distraction of a distant flash. A glint of reflection off a metallic surface in the dark vantage of the closest cluster of rocks.

He hardly had time to register it, before Diablo was clutching at his shoulder, fingers closing in on the slim casing of a small dart. There was a look in his eyes, a second of consternation, before his face went tense.

The process was no less gradual this time, than it had been the time before. A sudden vacuum of power, of air almost, like a rapid breath sucked in, and then expelled with enough force to send sand and dust exploding outwards like a million tiny bullets.

Cloud lifted an arm to protect his eyes and when he lowered it, Diablo had been consumed by something much more dangerous.

Sephiroth. Diablo's worn leathers and thread bare tank top, his blood tested weapons all still intact, though they graced a taller body. Long, pale fingers lifted the dart that had taken Diablo and eyes fading from glowing mako green to green flecked blue narrowed, before lifting to meet Cloud's.

Cloud tensed, ready to meet the attack that he knew would come. Waiting for the trigger to launch his own.

Sephiroth flicked the dart away from him and it landed on the dusty earth between them. There was a tiny Shinra logo on the burnished metal. Cloud swallowed, realization dawning. They weren't alone out here. And this confrontation had likely been no random event. This confrontation had been exactly what Rufus Shinra had planned from the get go.

"Son of a bitch," he muttered, pissed at being used yet again. Rightfully angry at the trouble Shinra had gone through to bring a monster back into the realm of the living one more time.

He launched himself, not willing to let Sephiroth gain his bearings. Wanting the offensive for once in this damned miserable situation. He brought his blade down brutally and Sephiroth was hard pressed to block the blow, scrambling for footing on loose sand as he raised the whole arm blade still strapped to his forearm. It was not his weapon of choice. Whatever infusion of Jenova laced power that had triggered this metamorphosis, it had not brought him back this time complete with that damned longed murasame that he'd always favored.

Sephiroth was nothing if not adaptable, though. He flung the damaged arm blade and it sailed close enough to Cloud to sever a few strands of wayward hair. Then he grasped the katana in his belt and he was sliding under the reach of Cloud's thicker, longer blade, making a swipe at his legs. Not a killing blow but damned sure one Cloud didn't want to connect. He leapt backwards, summoning the energy of the materia embedded in his sword. He slashed it sideways and a lance of disruptive power tore horizontally above the dust and sand covered desert bedrock.

Sephiroth took the brunt of it, deflecting only a fraction with the summoned force of the materia in the weapon of the man whose body he'd stolen. Off his game a great deal more this time than he'd been the last and Cloud had to wonder how much was due to that 'virus' Rufus had so skillfully manipulated into being delivered.

Raw power not withstanding, there was still sheer skill to contend with. And that was in no way lacking. Not even hesitating to shake off the effect of a full frontal materia blast, Sephiroth came at him, forcing him back with a flurry of arm blade and katana strikes.

"You're working for Rufus Shinra, now?" Sephiroth growled, cyan eyes glinting through strands of silver clinging to sweat dampened skin. He hooked the edge of the arm blade in the hilt of Cloud's sword and shoved him backwards, hard. Cloud twisted, avoiding the slice aimed at his belly by the katana, kicking himself backwards and landing in a crouch to glare.

Being on Shinra's payroll was not an insult he took lightly. "Fuck you."

One silver brow rose, and those long eyes glanced aside, in the direction of the dart he'd discarded. Of course, he'd seen the logo, too. Of course he'd make assumptions. There were things going on behind those eyes that Cloud didn't even attempt to figure out. God knew how Sephiroth's mind worked nowadays. No less chaotic than Diablo's, probably, even if it was a different sort of madness.

"No?" Sephiroth circled, breathing calm and steady. Cloud forced his own to slow, swinging the tip of his blade to follow the predator's dance.

"Then what game is he playing? Was I so missed?"

Cloud clenched his jaw, not in the mood to enlighten the enemy. Sephiroth darted in, a teasing strike that Cloud parried. Testing.

"I missed you." Sephiroth said softly, rich velvet voice that never failed to trigger memories better left in the shadowy past. "More than a great many things. "

"Enough to drive your host into trying to kill me and all my friends. Flattering." There was something - - off, here. Something that he couldn't quite put a finger on.

Sephiroth shrugged. "He was less sane than the last one. More of a taste for blood."

Cloud growled and attacked. Bounded off a jutting ledge of rock and came down hard, slicing a rent into bedrock when Sephiroth rolled out of the way.

They closed, a furious exchange of blows. Sand and dust swirled from the furor of the impacts. Stinging the eyes and obscuring vision.

It made for a dangerous dance.

There was the purr of something that was deeper than the wind, a flare of light that wasn't materia based, and Sephiroth ducked under his blade, hitting him hard, tackling him backwards. The dust sizzled where he'd stood, going electrified. He could feel the edges of it on his skin, hair standing on end. He glared, on his back, Sephiroth's knee digging into his gut, then blinked, making out the dark shape of a craft through the haze of dust, hovering in the air above them. Dull black turrets shifting, tracking them.

"Son of a - -" he shoved Sephiroth off, and the man gave way easily enough, rolling to his feet, lifting his gaze to the airship. Another blast flared forth, electrifying the air, and Cloud threw himself one way and Sephiroth the other in efforts to avoid being caught in the center of it.

An arc of energy sliced upwards, from Sephiroth's vantage in the rocks and smashed into the aft side of the craft. It rocked, swerving north, picking up speed and curving back around, and this time when it came it was with gatling guns blazing, spitting out lead based destruction. It breezed past, tearing up the ground in the process.

Cloud swore, two problems to keep track of now.

Only, one of those problems had knocked him out of the way of that first shot and he was having a hard time fathoming why.

"What's his game?" Sephiroth yelled across the hundred or so feet that separated them. "Facilitating my crossing on the one hand and attempting to gun me down on the other?"

Cloud knew. Well, he knew a part of it. But, he didn't have the time to debate with himself the pros and cons of sharing the information with Sephiroth before the gunship was back. It veered towards Sephiroth this time, bullets tearing into the earth. Sephiroth stood his ground in the center of the barrage, deflecting slugs with the arm blade, then launching himself skyward when the ship had passed over. The arm blade sheared through the tail wing and this time the ship wavered and kept wavering, control lost. It teetered in the air, careening west, thin trail of smoke trailing behind.

Sephiroth came down and Cloud was there to meet him, determined to keep his upper hand now that attention could be focused back where it belonged. Sephiroth deflected the blow with the sword, and metal that was cheaper made than that of the arm blade shattered, cracking off near the hilt.

Sephiroth hissed and tossed the ruined weapon. Two blades down and Cloud was perfectly willing to destroy the third and the wielder in the process. He tensed to launch himself and Sephiroth held up his free hand, palm forward.

"Wait." There was a good deal of frustration in the word and though it shouldn't have given Cloud pause, because getting Sephiroth at a disadvantage and keeping him there was the key to survival, Cloud couldn't quite stop himself from hesitation.

"Why?"

Sephiroth shook his head, as if he didn't know the answer himself. Confusion in Sephiroth's eyes was not an emotion Cloud could ever recall seeing, either pre or post Jenova madness.

But, you didn't give an enemy respite. You didn't allow them the time to figure out strategy. Sephiroth had taught him that the hard way. Besides, sussing out motives and driving emotion had never been Cloud's strong suit. He wasn't so much interested in what triggered a man's actions, as he was in dealing with the aftermath.

He attacked with a flurry of blows, which Sephiroth met. But not with the total deft destructiveness that Diablo had possessed. There was the slight awkwardness of a man only just beginning to get a true feel for a weapon. Cloud was a bad opponent for such a learning experience.

Perhaps it was the lack of reach that threw Sephiroth off his game, or the restriction of a blade strapped to one's forearm instead of held fluidly in the hand, but he missed a parry by a fraction of an inch, and barely avoided the edge of Cloud's blade sliding through his side. Balance off he slipped in loose sand and went down, one knee on the ground, the fingertips of one hand. Cloud leveled his blade, ready for a killing blow and Sephiroth glared up at him, pale eyes glittering through paler hair.

He didn't lift the arm blade to block Cloud's sword tip. Didn't move an inch, save for the strands of hair that the wind stirred. So much damned hair, spilling over his back and shoulders like rivulets of silver silk, stark against the black of Diablo's black clothing.

"Go ahead," Sephiroth urged softly. "Don't waste your chance."

Cloud blinked, stands of his own hair clinging to his face. He resisted the urge to lift a hand and brush it back. Distraction would be his downfall. Weakness would. He refused to let the weight of his sword make his arm shake.

Sephiroth moved his free hand slowly, unfastened the bands of the arm blade and shook it free. It lay in the sand next to him, dull, scarred metal that had likely tasted more blood than Cloud had ever shed. Not by Sephiroth's hand though. Though Sephiroth had shed copious innocent blood the stench on the arm blade had a different author.

"I won't," he said, teeth clenched. The point of his blade hovered a bare inch from the notch at the base of Sephiroth's throat.

Sephiroth kept staring, unflinchingly. Waiting. Too calm. Cloud swallowed, silently urging him to lunge forward, to make some aggressive move that would justify putting the sword through this throat. As if he needed more justification than the deeds Sephiroth had already done. The death and destruction caused. Cold blooded killer.

He tightened his fist around the hilt and gathered resolve.

"That's right," Sephiroth said. "It only takes a flick of the wrist. Prolonging it only plays into Shinra's hands."

Cloud blinked. "What?"

"You know. Don't pretend you don't know, Cloud. You're no good at lying." He reached up and grasped the dog tags dangling from the chain at his neck and jerked them free. He held them up by the broken chain, then tossed them into the sand. "Rufus is smarter than his father, I think. More cautious at any rate. What did he do to me?"

"A virus." What did it hurt telling him? "Directed at the Jenova part of your DNA. He doesn't want you dead, he wants you in a lab."

Silver brows drew, lashes fluttered down. The fingers dug into earth. He looked back up finally, and there was placid acceptance in his eyes. "But you want me dead."

Cloud lifted his chin. "You 've earned it."

"Yes, I suppose I have. Go ahead. End it, Cloud."

He lifted his hands to the blade at his throat, lying long fingers along the blunt edge, drawing the tip to his skin. Cloud shuddered, allowing it, and not knowing why. It was just there was something lacking in Sephiroth's gaze that made him want to back up and take stock. He needed that gleam of madness to justify the killing blow. Without it - - it just seemed too much like execution.

 

For the doujinshi version of what happens next, go to theShop, and get your copy of "Devils Own: Sympathy for the Devil"

 

 

 

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