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The Devil's Own

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter two

 

The customer was one of the new elite. One of the up and coming entrepreneurs that had come into their own when ShinRa lost its monopoly on . . . well, almost everything. Whether he was in fossil fuels or industry, Cloud didn't know. Didn't really care, as long as the gil was good.

It was. The half that was offered up front was better than the total payoff of the last three jobs combined. Even for a rush job that would end up taking him across two continents and the Inner Sea, it was more than Cloud would have charged himself if he'd gotten around to quoting a fee to the man, before the man made an offer of his own. A stroke of good luck that he hadn't opened his mouth sooner and cheated himself out of a goodly amount of gil.

Besides, getting away from Midgar would be a good thing. Even though there had been no ramifications from the wastelanders and their ex-shadow ops leader, Cloud couldn't shake the feeling of unease. It was like waiting for the hammer to fall and he hated it. Hated the constant little niggling worry that lurked in the back of his mind, making him jumpy and tense over nothing. Despised the all too frequent nightmares.

New nightmares. He would have welcomed a return of the old ones; Sephiroth and the claustrophobic shadow of a ShinRa lab being familiar torments that he had learned to deal with over the years. The new ones woke him up in the middle of the night sometimes, cold sweat on his body, heart trying to pound its way out of his chest. The new ones involved people he loved, bloody and mutilated and left for him to find. Himself bumbling blindly in the dark to strike back, fumbling moves that should have come second nature to him, crumbling under the malicious silver blue stare of the wolf who hunted him. Sometimes the wolf, the psychopath with the snake tattoo, did turn familiar, silver eyes melting into green ones that just screamed, 'Did you doubt me?', before he could claw his way out of the dream.

But nothing ever came of it in the real world. And after a month, Tifa gave up doubling her muscle on weekend nights, and stopped starting every time the bar door opened to admit a new patron. She urged him to put it behind him, though how she guessed he still fretted over it was beyond him, for he certainly didn't share the content of his nightmares with her.

Yes, getting out of Midgar would help.

If it hadn't been a rush job, with a promised bonus if he got back to Midgar with signed documents from his client's soon to be business partner in record time, he would have gone west to Junon and caught a lift across the sea on a cargo ship and then gone cross country to the meet. As it was, he took a chance that a faster mode of ocean transit was on this side of the water and made a call . . .


The pack of smokes was almost empty and there was at least an hours worth of work before the shipment was off-loaded and a man desperate for nicotine could take a break and go hunt down a new pack in the budding village of New Mideel.

Cid Highwind rotated aching shoulders and eyed the patch of daylight at the opening of the Sierra's cargo bay. The village was a half hour's walk through the forest that loomed over the edge of the clearing that he habitually used for a landing field. The new town had sprung up within eyesight of the ruins of the old one, which was not much more than a water filled crater in the middle of the forest, bristling with the skeletons of what used to be a quaint little village. Granted the water in question glowed with the essence of the planet's lifestream, but uninhabitable was still uninhabitable. He'd been flying in heavy supplies off and on for the last few years. Building materials that the industrious folk of Mideel couldn't produce on their own from the raw fodder their lush forests provided. Farming equipment for the new crops that had sprung up on the northern tip of the island, things that came in easier by air than by sea, since the chain of islands Mideel occupied was surrounded by shallow reefs and allowed deep bodied cargo ships no safe route in to dock.

They paid him half of what he usually charged, partly because the people of the island weren't rolling in gil, and partly because he felt some shared sympathy with the misplaced townsfolk, having been in old Mideel himself when the town was flattened.

Cid hefted a crate onto the pallet the Sierra's forklift waited to take down the cargo ramp to the waiting array of chochobo drawn wagons, and rusty pick-up trucks of the locals. He straightened, stretching a sore back and wiped sweat from his forehead. There was another stack of crates to be off loaded and he was already wishing for a break somewhere in the shade with a smoke and a beer and the prospect of a nice long nap. He needed to hire a few extra hands. Young muscle with strong backs more suited to this sort of heavy lifting. But Cid was nothing if not thrifty and strong backs that were trustworthy demanded big paychecks and he was already footing a crew of five, including bridge hands and mechanics. He'd damn well help with the cargo work if it saved him gil.

There was another strong back aboard at the moment, that Cid hadn't seen hide nor hair of since they'd sat down, but Vincent didn't do manual labor and Vincent especially didn't do manual labor in the middle of a hot island day with a crowd of interested natives milling about in curiosity. Vincent disliked crowds more than he disliked bright, sunny days bereft of secretive shadows. Shadows and secrets were Vincent's forte.

The fact that he was here, on Sierra, in Cid's company, was curious. Not that he didn't seek out Cid on more occasions than he sought out other members of the human race, it was just that after they'd met up in Midgar after Yuffie's disastrous little foray into the venom bug cave, he'd stayed with Cid a few days before predictably needing his solitude and disappearing. And then, unpredictably, he'd showed up again in Junon when Sierra had been picking up supplies, not a week and a half later. Usually it was a lot longer than that, before Cid got a call. Or more likely, Vincent just appeared, silent and needing that bit of human contact that he felt most comfortable getting from Cid.

And then he'd left again, restless as a cat on the prowl and like a roaming tom, reappeared a week later, more troubled than usual and intractable as hell.

You couldn't really accuse Vincent of being moody since . . . well, since he was mostly melancholy all the time. Mood swings for him would have meant going into cheerful, chatty mode and the likelihood of that happening was about as high as Cid striking oil. He took comfort in Cid's bunk and Cid was glad to give it, but he wasn't much for confiding his troubles, other than to say that something more than the usual comfortable and familiar sins were disturbing his nightmares. Cid didn't press it. That would have only driven Vincent away and besides, Cid had been around long enough, had lived through enough of his own crises to understand that a man needed privacy in some things. That sometimes just silent companionship was more comfort than bearing the secrets of a wounded heart.

Cid grabbed a ride into New Mideel on the back ofone of the cargo laden pick-ups, found a shop keeper with a few packs of overpriced smokes to be had and grumbling over the cost, took both of them, vowing to stock up as soon as he got back to civilization. Two or three of his crew were also in the village, but he'd given them the afternoon off after the off-load, so didn't bother to bark at them to get back to work. He bought a island-brewed beer that had a bit too much fruity flavor to suit his taste and walked the dirt road through the forest back to the clearing where he'd landed Sierra.

He could see her big ass over the tree-line before he reached the edge of the woods and a beautiful ass it was. She used to be a ShinRa airship, pirated and remodeled and revamped and rechristened. She was sleeker, faster, with more cargo space in her belly than the ship she'd been reincarnated from. He'd risked a half dozen abandoned – or mostly abandoned ShinRa military outposts scavenging parts for her. Those two big aft engines had been hell to transport home, but a determined man with a plan was hard to thwart.

With ShinRa down to bare bones and the rest of the world more interested in rebuilding and scrambling to find alternative fuel sources, there wasn't a lot of competition for air-cargo. For air-travel period. Hell, even before Sephiroth flipped his lid and loosed havoc on the world, there hadn't been a lot of folks in the aeronautical field.

Which put him at the top of a very, very small minority.

He'd gone through two cigarettes on the walk back and was contemplating lighting up a third as he hiked up the Sierra cargo ramp and into the long belly of the ship. His crew chief, an ex-ShinRa tech that had happily taken up work in the civilian field, waved him down.

"Call for you on the bridge, Capn'."

Cid grunted and tapped the smoke back into the pack, and the pack back into the band of the airman's goggles that pushed back his short, blonde hair. His fresh-faced, barely out of diapers, back-up pilot/bridge tech, waved a scrap of paper at him nervously.

"Message for you, Captain," the kid said in a voice that couldn't decided whether to pitch high or low. Damned adolescent.

Cid took the paper, looked at the name and the number and lifted both shaggy, blonde brows in curiosity. There was a cell phone in a niche of the arm of the nice, worn pilot's chair. He settled down into cool leather with a sigh, and dialed the number.

 

Most of Sierra's crew quarters were small and cramped, sporting two tier bunks and little else. There was a community crapper and showers were make do in the cargo bay with the maintenance hose. But, being engineer and owner and captain, Cid had splurged and put a little more of the comforts of home into the captain's cabin. The bunk was big enough for two bodies, if they slept close, and there was a watercloset no bigger than it took for a man to stand upright and do his business in one corner, and a set of built-in cabinets in the other and between the two a short padded leather bench. An inset desk with navigational charts and ship's books sat at the end of the bunk, along with a swivel chair bolted to the floor.

There was a porthole over the bench, but the curtain was drawn when Cid opened the door and the small cabin awash in shadow. It took his eyes a moment to find Vincent, barefoot on the floor with one knee drawn up, head tilted back against the metal of the wall, eyes closed.

"Got a bunk and a bench and chair and you sit on the damned floor." Cid shook his head, not surprised. Gods knew why Vincent did some of the things Vincent did, but then again, hell was probably a better place to look for those answers.

Cid turned on the desk lamp, not as content in the dark as Vincent and flopped down onto the bench seat. He pulled off his goggles and tossed them onto the desk, then ran a hand through sweat stiffened hair.

"You been out to the town since we landed?" He didn't think Vincent had left the airship, but he thought he'd ask, anyway, just to prompt an answer.

Black lashes cracked and Cid got a sliver of amber eyes. "No."

"Done a lot since last time I was here. Got a fair amount of new settlers, come to live out here in the boonies. Can't say I blame 'em, considering what shitholes some of the cities are nowadays." He pulled off his dirty shirt and tossed it on the floor by the door. His bare back against the cool leather of the bench back felt good. He closed his eyes, sighing, pushing the need for a smoke away, because though Vincent would tolerate it, he wasn't keen on being cooped up in a small room filled with Cid's tobacco exhalations.

"Just talked with Cloud," he said, eyes still shut, arms stretched out along the bench back, pausing long enough to wonder if that got Vincent's attention enough to make him open those sinful/erotic eyes. He cracked his own open enough to look down at Vincent, who had canted his head a little to the side, waiting patiently for Cid to continue.

Vincent worried over Cloud, more than he worried over Cid. Maybe that was because Cid had never in his life been fucked-up enough to warrant anybody's worry, and Cloud turned being fucked-up into a major art form when he was at his lowest, but still a man couldn't help being a little jealous. Not that he held it against Cloud, Vincent's interest. Cloud didn't ask for it. Cloud didn't ask anybody for anything if he could help it, but without ever really trying – hell, most of the time actively attempting to avoid it – he gathered people's attention like moths to a flame.

A man simply got a bit insecure over his lover of the past few years interest in a too-pretty, twenty-something kid. He knew Vincent had slept with him, had even given it his blessing a few weeks past when Cloud had been out of his head and needed something more than a slap in the face to shake him out of it. And it wasn't like he'd have turned the kid away from his bunk if he'd have come asking. Not that he ever had. After all, Cloud's taste in bedmates or his luck in them was selective to say the least. Vincent for sure. The Soldier Elite, Zack, and if rumors were true, and God knew a man only had rumors to go on with a closed-mouth bastard like Cloud, Sephiroth himself, back before he went completely off the deep end.

It was enough to make a middle-aged man that had never been anything close to pretty, occasionally lose a little sleep.

"And . . .?" Vincent finally prompted.

Cid closed his eyes again and grinned. "Kid wants a lift across the pond, is all."

Vincent made a soft sniffing sound, as if he'd been expecting something more dire. That was the only sound Cid heard before he felt the tips of Vincent's fingers on his shoulder and felt the brush of Vincent's pants against his knees. He reached up blindly, smile widening as he wrapped his fingers in the cloth of Vincent's untucked shirt, pulling him closer in until he felt the weight of his body straddling his thighs.

Eyes still shut, by feel alone, he worked at the buttons of Vincent's shirt, pushing it off his shoulders as the last bottom popped free of its hole. He felt the fluid movement as Vincent shrugged it off, material sliding over flesh and blood arm on the one side and the warm metal of the unnatural one grafted onto his shoulder on the other.

Cid ran work roughened palms across soft skin that he knew without having to look was the color of moon-kissed snow. He moved his hands up, fingers tangling in long, silken hair and tugged.

Vincent leaned down, resting elbows on the bench back and kissed him. A long leisurely kiss that sent shivers down Cid's spine and sent blood pounding into his suddenly very eager cock. He slipped his hands down the waistband of Vincent's trousers, spreading his fingers out across the firm curves of his ass, kneading and squeezing until Vincent shifted on his lap, pressing against the already constrained flesh in his pants.

That was all he could take, and as more often than not, foreplay was short and sweet between them, he pushed Vincent back far enough so that he could get to the fastening of his pants and free his almost painfully engorged cock.

Vincent looked down at it, rosy tipped and bobbing above the dark, golden hair that grew thick at Cid's groin. He lifted a black brow, fine mouth quirking, as close to a smile as Vincent ever came. One long finger toyed with Cid's dangling dog tags.

"Don't just sit there," Cid complained, one hand gently gripping his cock, the other pulling at Vincent's belt buckle. Amusement glinted in amber eyes. And hunger. Vincent brushed Cid's hand away and unfastened his trousers himself, standing up long enough to push them down and step out of them, revealing long, white limbs, mostly hairless save for the growth between his legs. His cock was full and hard, not as thick as Cid, but long and graceful like the rest of him. God, but all of him was just gorgeous, even the dully gleaming metal arm and like every other time they fucked, Cid could hardly believe his good fortune.

"Lube. Get the lube." Cid couldn't quite reach the cabinet next to the bench. Vincent leaned that way, fetching the required tube out of the place they both knew it was kept, squirting a little on his fingertips and reaching down to coat Cid's cock. Cid banged his head back against the wall at the cool touch.

He grasped Vincent's slim hips, drawing him back towards his lap, and Vincent came with sure confidence, leaning with his belly against Cid's chest as he found the right position, fingers wrapping around Cid's erection as he guided himself down. And just like that he impaled himself, slow and without hesitation, body sliding down the length of Cid's cock until his firm buttocks rested on Cid's hips. Vincent leaned forward, eyes closed, hair falling about his face, pooling on Cid's chest, then he sighed and began to move. Cid's hands roamed his body, teasing Vincent's bobbing cock, squeezing his fine ass. A light sheen of perspiration broke out upon his body, and he fought the urge to simply surge up and slam Vincent onto the bunk behind them, to pound into him like an animal in mating frenzy. But, if Vincent wanted to control the flow of this session, then Cid would endure the lazy pace. Fair was fair since Cid usually played the dominant role.

But he knew how to bring a little more fervor into Vincent's pale face and proceeded to do so, wrapping his fingers around Vincent's long cock and beginning to pump. Vincent's mouth trembled and a little helpless sound escaped. He began to increase his pace to match Cid's hand on his cock, the both of them gasping and thrusting in time.

Cid came with a deep growl, hips straining off the black leather of the bench, fingers tightening into a death grip about Vincent's cock. His balls tightened into what felt like hard little marbles, pulsing at the base of his cock as he spilled his seed.

Vincent came mid-way through Cid's culmination, probably helped along by the no doubt painful grip on his cock. Vincent didn't mind a little pain with his pleasure. Hell, he got off on it and Cid had figured out long ago that any man that made a religion out of the guilts he carried, was more than open to a bit of flagellation, self inflicted or otherwise.

With a gust of discharged tension Vincent slumped forward, forehead on the bench, hair tickling Cid's cheek. Cid leaned his own head back, wanting that cigarette worse than before now and making due with lazily running his hands up Vincent's long back. He was like a drug in a way, making a man ache for him terribly on those long nights when he wasn't around. Which was more often than not, for the most part, but of late . . . well, life had been good.

With a sigh, Vincent swung off him, bending to retrieve his trousers and pulling them on before collapsing gracefully onto the bench at Cid's side. Vincent had a thing about his body and baring it for too long. He had scars on that pale skin, remnants of things done to him a long time ago that hadn't been pretty and hadn't been anything but malicious on the part of the bastard that had used him as his personal guinea pig. Most of them were faded to near invisibility, but Vincent never forgot they were there . . . or the things they represented.

Cid on the other hand, had a very low sense of personal shame. He didn't much care if his happily sated cock peeked out from open trousers, by far more interested in enjoying the euphoric feeling a body generally experienced after really good sex. He sighed, smiling with his eyes closed and lifted a lethargic hand to scratch an itch between lean, hairy pecs.

"Promised the crew the afternoon off. Might as well give them liberty for the night and set out tomorrow."

"Umm," Vincent commented, not asking what Cid figured he wanted to ask.

"Kid said he'd meet us in Junon. It'll take him till afternoon tomorrow to get there from where he was when we talked. I'd just as well slack off here in tropical paradise as there. Well, long as the smokes last."

"They'll last," Vincent predicted.

Cid snorted, figuring they might if he took advantage of the down time and slept away the urge for nicotine. He pushed himself forward with a grunt, leaning down to unlace and pull off his boots, then shucked his pants off and transferred his weary body to the bunk, stretching out upon it stark naked and wishing that the porthole would open and let in a little island breeze. Without the big engines working, the ship's air circulation system was inoperable, which meant stuffy cabins.

"I'm taking a nap. Worked damned hard today."

"I see."

Cid cracked an eye. "You can turn off the lamp and go back to meditating or whatever the hell you were doing, if you want. Won't bother me."

"Umm." Vincent rose and switched off the lamp, plunging the cabin back into shadow. But he didn't return to his spot on the floor, instead settling onto the bunk next to Cid, shirtless and barefoot and stretched out formal like on his back, which was the way he usually slept, like he was still in the coffin like box they'd found him in all that time ago, a forgotten experiment left in eternal stasis. Cid would pull him closer later, force a little more human laxness to his limbs when sleep was closer upon him and Vincent's compulsions weren't as close to the surface.

But for right now, Cid simply shut his eyes, content in the quiet company, and napped.

 

It was twelve hours as the crow flies, from the island settlement on Mideel to the coastal town of Junon. And that was with a good tailwind up their ass.

The Sierra crew was up at the crack of dawn, drinking and carousing in New Mideel the night before not impacting their captain's habit of getting an early start. They had picked up a small cargo of sugar and the spices which were Mideel's chief exports and would bring a good price in northern ports of trade. With the profits from the Mideel cargo, Cid figured he might come out a little bit ahead after this job.

They came into Junon late in the afternoon, about an hour before dusk, the Sierra settling down on what used to be a ShinRa military strip atop the old ShinRa outpost above the town of Junon. The ShinRa presence there was muted at best now. They'd striped the most of their high-tech equipment years ago and transferred it to a much smaller base north of here. What was left still bore the marks of numerous attacks by the monster Weapon beast that Sephiroth had summoned to wreak havoc on the world a few years back. After appropriating the big-assed canon that used to loom over the landscape atop the base, ShinRa had pretty much abandoned it as too expensive a project to revitalize. The people of Junon and the flood of homeless folks that sprung up after that last cataclysmic clash between a desperate planet and the destruction that Sephiroth had called down, had been more than happy to make use of abandoned ShinRa property. In two and a half years Junon had grown to be the largest port city on the eastern continent. There were half a hundred boats bobbing alongside ramshackle piers all up and down the waterfront. The bigger bellied ships lay at port at the old deep water ShinRa docks, or waited further out at anchor for a space to open up. Most of them had probably been at sea for four days or more, since that was how long it took to make a surface trip from the nearest western continent port of Costa Del Sol.

Cid felt a bit of smug satisfaction as he surveyed the small shapes of boats from the vantage of the topside airstrip, knowing that Sierra would make the same trip in six hours.

After paying Junon landing fees he and Vincent took the freight elevator down to ground level and Junon town proper. Like most burgeoning port towns it was bustling with activity. The old townsfolk still fished for a living, their weathered old fishing boats crowded in amongst the cargo vessels, but a whole new crop of businesses, warehouses and homes had sprung up.

"Listen, I'm off to see about selling this cargo." Cid stopped to light a cigarette, indicating a row of warehouses down by the port. "Won't be long. There was some bad weather brewing north of here, so it might have slowed Cloud up some."

Vincent eyed the row of newer pubs and eateries that had replaced some of the older, ramshackle buildings that had used to be in this older part of Junon. The lights in front of some of the buildings were starting to come on as dusk deepened. It was almost dark enough for Vincent to feel comfortable roaming about.

"I'll meet you at Pegleg's after, okay? If the kid shows up, he'll look for me there. Knows they got the best whiskey in town."

Vincent shrugged and melted into the shadows in that effortless way he had.

Cid sold his cargo after a lot of argument and bickering over a fair price. He sent word up to his crew where to deliver the goods to and left the port office whistling happily at the profit his spry bargaining skills had earned him.

Pegleg's sat at the wharf end of a long wooden pier. It served decent food and great booze and even though it wasn't much for interior decorating, or exterior upkeep for that matter, it was still a haven for old salts and local villagers. It smelled like grilled fish was on the menu tonight. He could smell the aroma over the ever present bouquet of ale and whiskey and smoke.

Sighing in expectation he scanned the muted guts of the pub for a familiar figure and was just a little bit surprised to see that Vincent was actually here. More often than not, Vincent avoided people places. Granted, he had his back the wall in the booth in the farthest corner of the room, and there was just something about him, that tended to make the other mundane folk in the pub keep their distance. A man had to admit, that with the red bandanna that kept most of his long hair out of his face and the high collar of his cloak hiding the bottom portion of his face, it made those amber eyes of his that sometimes glowed red when he was in temper, seem all the more inhuman.

Cid picked up a quarter bottle of whiskey from the bar keep and took it and a shot glass to the table Vincent had appropriated. Cid didn't even bother to offer to share, knowing very well that Vincent would decline.

"So, no Cloud." Cid stated the obvious. Vincent shook his head.

Cid downed a shot glass of golden liquid and sighed in appreciation. Pegleg's best. Almost better than sex.

Almost.

"So," he said, pouring another shot. "I'll be taking the ship back home after this, 'less you got somewhere else to go?"

It was a clear invitation. A hopeful one. Rocket Town was his homebase, and the town depended upon the business Cid and Sierra brought it. Hell, he'd employed half the town off and on, during construction of the hanger facility and various maintenance work. They'd traded a down and out ShinRa rocket for a sleek airship and none of them seemed less than happy about it. He had a house there, that he'd lived in for the past decade and it was comfortable and familiar and there was nothing he liked better than Vincent under that roof.

"All right." Vincent agreed and Cid had to do a doubletake to make sure he'd heard correct. This would be longer than Vincent had stayed with him in a stretch . . . well, ever.

He threw back the second shot and leaned closer to Vincent, eyeing him warily. He'd refrained from asking so far, knowing Vincent valued his privacy above all else, but damn it, a man could only take so much odd behavior and not have to know the root cause.

"Okay, Vin, you're starting to freak me out a little here. Not that I'm complaining about the company, 'cause god knows, I'm not . . . but what the hell is going on with you?"

Black lashes fluttered down over almond shaped eyes and when Vincent lowered his chin deeper into his collar, there wasn't much of his face to be seen at all save for elegant shadows. He was silent long enough for Cid to think he wasn't going to answer at all, for him to pour another shot and consume it without really tasting the fine liquor.

"I don't know." When the answer came, Vincent's voice was lower than usual, tinged with an uncertainty that Cid didn't often hear in him. "There's just . . . a feeling. An ill wind is stirring . . . a storm, but I only feel it in my dreams."

If that wasn't cryptic as hell, what was? But it was Vincent through and through, and more of an answer that Cid had expected, even if it did make a few goose bumps pop up on the back of his arms.

"You think there's trouble coming?" he asked and Vincent lifted his head enough to look at him, brows drawn. So that was exactly what he thought.

Cid canted his head, a thought dawning. "You fearful for me? You thinking you need to stick close 'cause this old man might run into trouble he can't handle?"

"You're not old," Vincent said softly, not denying the rest.

A slow, pleased smile spread across Cid's face. "Yeah, tell that to my aching back, after unloading two tons of cargo yesterday."

The corner of Vincent's mouth quirked, then his gaze fluttered up, attention shifting towards the door. Cid followed his stare and saw Cloud shouldering his way past two dock workers that had paused to engage in debate.

The kid looked tired. Dusty and road-weary, which was to be expected, traveling from Midgar to the Junon coast. No short trip via land, even with that damned big bike of Cloud's. He'd probably been on the road three or four days already and some of those roads, the back ones that would have saved him miles over taking the more sedate, established byways, were rough traveling.

Cloud stopped inside the bar, scanning the room and finding Cid and Vincent at their corner table. He inclined his head slightly, and moved towards them.

He drew stares. Some because of the big assed sword he had strapped across his back, others because . . . well, because the kid was eye-catching. The way he moved, all constrained power and easy grace, the healthy symmetry of a fine, young body. The face, which contrasted with the subtle, dangerous air Cloud radiated, that warned most folk that weren't denser than rocks that no matter how young and pretty the package was, that this was not a man to be trifled with.

Cloud pulled a chair out across the table from them, turned it around so he wouldn't have to loosen the shoulder sheath, and sank down with his elbows across the chair back. There was a spattering of dark water spots on the scuffed leather of the shoulder guard on his left shoulder, a few glimmering little droplets in unruly, wheat blonde hair, which meant they were getting the first taste of rain along the coast from the bad weather brewing northward.

Cid motioned to the barkeep for another shot glass, knowing well enough that Cloud didn't have Vincent's aversion to strong liquor and the kid looked like he could use a shot or two about now.

"Nice trip?" Cid asked, pouring two fingers worth of whiskey into the second shot glass.

Cloud made a non-committal sound and downed the amber liquid, shutting his eyes a moment afterward as the stuff burned a path down his throat. When he opened them again, he glanced at Vincent, a brief turmoil of thought flitting across his face before he turned back to Cid, who was safer territory. "There's a storm following me from the north. Will it delay us?"

Cid stubbed out the butt of his cigarette, casting a sideways glance at Vincent himself and finding probably what Cloud had found, which was no discernible expression at all. Cloud might not be much of a talker, but the kid didn't have the face of stone that Vincent did and it wasn't hard to tell, if you knew him, what was going on behind those sky blue eyes of his. Just then it had been embarrassment. Just a flicker of it, but enough to tell that he was remembering the last time he'd seen Vincent with considerably more self-consciousness than Vincent was experiencing.

"Not unless its one mother of a storm. Don't worry, I'll get you across the pond before sun sets tomorrow."

"Where are you headed?" Vincent inquired.

"Golden Saucer. To meet a man. Deliver some papers."

Cid refilled both their glasses. "I can drop you off by Coral on my way home. If you're gonna be there a few days, you can give me a call and if I'm feeling charitable, I might be up to letting you hitch a ride back Midgar way."

Cloud lifted a brow at him, a faint curve gracing his lips. "You're a prince, Cid."

"Yeah, ain't it the truth. So how's Tifa? Good?"

"Same." Cloud offered up his information in one word increments and when Cid sat there, cocking his head in expectation of more, sighed and added. "Barret's back. Will be for a couple more weeks. He's helping with the bar. Marlene's ecstatic."

"That's good. You ain't had any more trouble, you know, getting loopy with visions of Sephiroth and all that?"

Cloud gave him a narrow look, not appreciating the humor Cid found in the question. He didn't bother with an answer, even though Vincent canted his head a little in interest at the inquiry.

Cid chuckled and split the last of the whiskey between himself and Cloud, not ashamed in the least to give himself the lion's portion. He tossed the liquor down with a gusty sigh and slammed the shot glass, lip down, upon the scarred table top.

"I got refueling to do and maybe a little cargo to buy if I can find a good deal down at the docks, so we're in Junon for the night. You can bunk down on Sierra if you want. You look like you need the shut eye. Lift off's ass-crack of dawn tomorrow."

"So whaddya think?" Cid posed the question to Vincent, late that night, back within the confines of his cabin on Sierra. They both lay on the bunk, naked by necessity this time, drenched to the bone from the heavy rains that had swept down upon Junon, almost as if they'd followed Cloud into town. He had minor cargo loaded, the ship was refueled, the crew was onboard catching up on sleep they'd missed in Mideel. Cloud was dead to the world in one of the passenger cabins and his bike was stowed in the cargo bay. All that was needed was a few hours for dawn to breach the horizon and hopefully for the downpour that assaulted the Sierra's outer hull to lessen a little and they'd be off for the western continent. The storm didn't bother him. He could fly over most weather unless it was a typhoon category tempest. Then even Sierra better find a safe haven to wait out the worst of it.

"Humm?" Vincent responded to his inquiry, metal arm dangling off the side of the bunk, flesh and blood one grazing Cid's bony hip.

"'bout the kid, dumbass."

"He's Cloud."

That obvious and purposely obtuse answer made Cid growl and roll over of a sudden, pinning Vincent beneath him. Vincent looked up at him unblinkingly, composed and cool with just a hint of amusement on his pale face.

"He has things on his mind."

"No shit? Cloud? Hard to believe, but don't we all?"

Vincent shifted a little, making himself comfortable under Cid's weight, spreading his thighs a little to make room for Cid's legs. That put their groins flush together and Cid shut his eyes a moment to adjust to the sensation, the need for conversation beginning to seep away in favor of other things. But not quite. Cloud thoughts were still on his mind and the quiet way Vincent sometimes looked at the kid as if he were contemplating deep things that nobody would ever hear voiced in the light of day.

"He a good lay?" It was a question he'd never broached before. Hell, he'd never wanted to hear the answer for the sake of his own self-confidence, but then again, he'd never had Vincent for such a long stretch of time before. Long enough to make a man start feeling possessive and a little bit jealous.

"He's naive," Vincent said, without having to think it over much. "It surprises him when people want him."

Cid snorted inelegantly, finding that irritating and entirely believable at the same time. Sometimes the kid could be absolutely clueless.

"Yeah, but that don't answer my question?"

"Exquisite." Vincent ran long fingers through the hair on Cid's chest, then slid his hand up around his neck to draw him down. "He is exquisite . . ."


The rain chased them across the inland sea. The view from any port was nothing but gray storm clouds pierced by the occasional flare of lightning. It made the airship feel more claustrophobic that Cloud remembered, that lack of proper sky outside the ports. Cloud had a problem with closed spaces. With being locked into a place that there was no easy out of. Maybe it was a throwback to those indeterminable, nightmare days in Hojo's care, strapped down, constrained, experimented on, dissected . . . destroyed . . . that always slipped up on him unawares when the walls started closing in. Maybe it came from earlier days, an unfounded quirk that just was. Regardless, a cramped cabin aboard an airship, ten thousand feet above a storm tossed sea, qualified.

He was relieved when they outpaced the storm and real sunlight flooded the thick ports. Happier still when the mountain range they'd been crossing turned to amber desert, which was a sure sign that the Gold Saucer resort and amusement park was not far away . . . well, not far by air. It was another matter altogether making a land crossing, the facility sitting in the midst of the largest known desert on either continent.

It was a good marketing point, the harshness of the surrounding lands pretty much insuring that any guest that planned to visit for longer than a day, and honestly who made the long trip out here and didn't stay for an extended visit, had to utilize Gold Saucer accommodations, Gold Saucer restaurants and Gold Saucer shops.

Even with a world recovering from near catastrophe, people still flocked to Gold Saucer. He'd even heard rumors that it had been remodeled and expanded, after damages caused by the erupting life stream had caused it to temporarily shut down over two years past. Not that he'd ever been tempted to go back of his own volition. The carnival atmosphere of the theme park worked his nerves, as did the general hyper-gaiety that seemed to run rampart in the place.

After close to a hour's flight, a glimmer of distant metal could be seen through the heat haze of the desert. It was that massive a place, that it could be gleaned from miles away, a shining structure that towered like a behemoth over unlivable land. The Sierra veered north before they got much closer, heading towards the coal bearing mountains of the Coral range, where the main entry port to the park was located. There was only one way in or out of the facility and that was via air trolleys that ran twenty-four seven to and from Gold Saucer.

The Sierra landed on a flat stretch of valley half mile from the air-trolley, and Cloud rolled Fenrir down the cargo ramp, while Cid lit up a smoke and leaned against the big piston powered arm that operated the bay doors.

"Thanks, Cid. I appreciate it." Cloud shaded his eyes against the sun that hovered just above Sierra's bulk.

"Not a problem." Cid grinned at him around the cigarette.

He hadn't seen much of Vincent during the flight over, but then one never did, unless Vincent wanted to be seen. He drifted out of the shadows of the cargo bay now, ragged edges of his cloak rippling in the mountain born breeze. He'd wondered, caught in the tension of claustrophobia-fed nerves, if that absence had to do with what happened last month in Midgar, himself acting the fool over a poison induced nightmare, Vincent calming the hysteria the only way that Cloud had been willing to respond to. And then he'd gone off with Cid, which was tobe expected. And now they stood, together, sharing an unspoken bond that made Cloud feel embarrassed and guilty and just a tiny bit envious.

"Anyway . . . thanks." He swung a leg over the bike, needing to gain a little distance to ease the thrum of abashment that beat in his chest.

"Cloud." Vincent said from the top of the ramp. "Call. When you're done."

Cloud looked over his shoulder at him, seeing nothing in the portion of Vincent's face that was visible, that hinted at regret or condemnation. He wasn't sure if he planned to take Cid up on his offer of a lift home, but he nodded anyway, simply to appease. Then he started the bike and Fenrir's engines purred to life, familiar, powerful vibration between his legs. Without looking back he left Sierra behind.

The air-trolley facility was a massive sprawl of parking buildings, storage sheds and outbuildings. It was considerably larger than Cloud recalled from his last visit. Teenagers in trademark Gold Saucer character suits waddled here and there, a depressing reminder of the onslaught of such cuteness that waited inside the actual park.

There were an array of chochobo stables for those that had come aback the long legged, domestic, feathered beasts. A gravel paved lot where trucks, bikes and all fashion of mechanized vehicles rested, as well as a covered garage for those folks that wanted a little more security for their rides.

His client had given him a GS platinum park passport, with a reserved room in case he needed to wait for the contact's arrival. He would stand by as witness for the signatures, and give his client a call when the deed was done.

Since he had a pre-paid admission with all the perks, he chose the covered garage facility for Fenrir, not trusting the rain they'd left behind at the coast not to follow him here. He followed a flow of excited people to the trolley station and stood in line waiting while security checks were performed and trolley fees collected.

You could get weapons into Gold Saucer, no trouble. In fact they encouraged it. The only problem was, that you couldn't get hold of them unless you entered the Battle Arena, one of the parks biggest spectator draws, and participated in various grades of mock and not-so-mock tournaments. Anybody that had an interest had to check their weapons at the trolley station security, which as about as high-tech as anything ShinRa had ever come up with in its heyday, so the chances of slipping anything through were next to non-existent. De-weaponed park goers were then free to take the air-trolleys that sped one after another along cables thick as a big man's body from the mountain station to the desert bound metropolis that was Gold Saucer. It was a two hour ride, complete with food service and on-trolley entertainment and gambling. Each seat back had a little mini slot machine so that passengers could start throwing away their gil post haste. The drinks were gratis, as long as you didn't want booze, but the food cost outrageously and wasn't that good to boot.

Cloud checked his sword. He had no intention of entering any battle arena contest, but he felt better with it in the same complex he occupied instead of good bit of desert away. He drowsed most of the trip, slouched in his seat with his legs stretched out under the seat before him, chin on chest.

He woke to the increased chatter inside the trolley as people rose from their seats and migrated to the forward windows to get a better look at the approaching mega structure that was Gold Saucer.

Cloud had seen it before. It was a huge testament to people's desire for frivolity. To their desire to escape the harsh reality of the real world and immerse themselves in the false cheer that permeated everything in Gold Saucer. Well, almost everything. There were certainly entertainments available to those who preferred grittier things.

The air trolley pulled into the gaping clown mouth that opened to the main Gold Saucer admittance area. Lines of adults barely containing or in some cases not containing at all, screeching children, stood in wait at the multiple admission purchasing windows. There was a shorter line for the pre-paid park passes and Cloud gratefully melted into that flow of quieter people. A bubbly voice on a loud speaker happily spoke of new park attractions, of upcoming events and shows and other park activities. A repetative music played in the background.

He gave his voucher over when he'd reached the girl at the ticket counter and she beamed at him as if she were truly happy to see him, just as she'd beamed at the couple before him. He wondered idly how she could hold the expression so long and not cramp the muscles in her face.

"This is a three day premieum pass," she chirped. "You have Gold Saucer lodgings reseverved in . . . let's see . . . oh, goodie, the Happy Pirate sector. Here is your room key card. Your premium pass entitles you to two free Gold Saucers meals a day at any of the fine Gold Saucer restaurants. There are sixteen fantastic Gold Saucer shows playing today and . . ."

He held up a hand before she could start delving into the endless list of activities. "Are there any messages tagged with that room reservation?"

The girl's smile never faultered. She looked down at the cat shaped screen above her keyboard. "Why yes, Mr. Strife, you've got a party coming in tomorrow that wishes to meet upon arrival. If you would like a Gold Saucer beeper, we can alert you when your party arrives?'

"Fine."

He took the beeper, which was pink and shaped like a cartoon fish, and walked through the tunnel to the mania of Gold Saucer proper.

The central avenue of the park had changed a little since his last visit. It was a mammoth dome topped cavern, with all manner of fiber glass sculptures leering down at the people below. Everything from dragons, to angels, to huge chochobos to . . . god, were his eyes deceiving him or had they fit a giant, much cutified version of Ultima Weapon up in the midst of the fiberglass clouds. He shook his head in disgust, letting his eyes drift down to the multitude of fantastic buildings, shops, and eateries that lined what looked to be a authentic cobblestone street. At the end of the long street was a small scale replica of Gold Saucer itself, with an elevator that took guests to the top so that they could look out over the main square.

There were too many people and too many squalling kids, too much jostling and too much overloud conversation, too many ambling, Gold Saucer trademark characters in costume, weaving in and out amongst the crowd, assuming the patrons would appreciate having chubby paws laid on their persons.

He swung the pack with the documents inside along with a few other personal essentials onto his shoulder and decided to find his lodging. If he had to spend a day here waiting for his contact, he needed to do it someplace less chaotic than this.

He found a park map, which guided him to a set of elevators that traveled to the lower levels where most of the parks accommodations were located. The lowest levels were restricted areas, reserved for park maintenance and operation. The attractions were built on the higher levels, some of the wilder rides spanning outside the confines of Gold Saucer itself.

The Happy Pirate section was . . . well, designed to be just that. Stepping off the elevator was like stepping into the belly of a ship. An old ship, complete with weathered wooden walls, ceiling and walk, old ship's steering wheels, fishing net and endless other ancient nautical paraphernalia. The only thing it lacked was the rolling tilt of a ship on sea, for which Cloud was grateful.

Like the authentic hallway, the rooms were small and cabin like, with covered ports and craftily hidden modern amenities behind weathered facades. You turned a miniature ship's wheel on the wall to reveal the tiny bath compartment. The top of a slanted ship's desk rolled back and there was a modern keyboard and screen where you could find out anything going on in the park, make dinner reservations at the more popular spots, upgrade your park pass or browse the park gift stores and purchase items without ever leaving the comfort of your room.

Cloud didn't find the cabin particularly palatable. It was too small for one thing, and the cover on the porthole was permanent, hinting that the porthole itself looked out over nothing. He had contemplated sitting in his room and wasting time, but claustrophobia reared its ugly head and set him upon another path.

He pocketed his room keycard, left his backpack on the bed and went in search of wider spaces. In the elevator he hesitated over a wide selections of destinations and decided upon the Battle Arena. It wasn't as much a family oriented section of the park, wasn't usually as loud or as crowded unless there was a feature event, and if he recalled correctly there had been a very good eatery. His stomach reminded his head that it had been close to twenty-four hours since he'd eaten anything more than a handful of bar pretzels and it was long overdue.

He transferred elevators once, and got on the lift for the Battle Arena. From the outside the place gave a convincing portrayal of some massive stone coliseum of old. Around the actual Arena a fake village had been set up, boasting all the shops and restaurants that any good theme park area needed to siphon the gil out of its patrons.

Cloud got a skewer of grilled meat and vegetables and a mug of dark ale from a vendor, using his premium pass and went to consume it on a bench beneath a towering fiber glass gladiator. The crowds entering the Battle Arena were moderate and mostly adult males. Anyone could enter the games for a fee and fight against an array of Gold Saucer beasts or trained park gladiators. The more popular tournaments, the ones that really drew crowds pitted hopefuls against each other and on no few occasions blood was shed and life was lost. But of course wavers were signed before hand, stating very clearly that if you wanted to take your life in your hands to entertain the masses and put gil in Gold Saucer's limitless pockets, that was your right, but Gold Saucer was not responsible for limbs lost, blood shed or life cut short. Very few hesitated in signing their lives away.

He finished his skewer and entered the arena, finding a seat in an empty portion of the spectator stands where he could lean back and prop his boots upon the chair back in front of him. Somebody was down in the central arena, fighting an ice breathing geza lizard. The combatant had two long daggers that he was flailing about in a less than competent manner. He was going to get his ass kicked, but chances were, since this was a park beast, and a low draw afternoon contest, that the handlers would rush out to stop the fight before the poor sod got killed.

He laid his head back and stared up at the shadows of the high, domed ceiling. There was a poor bird fluttering about up there, that had probably gotten in through a ventilation shaft and been trapped. It might survive indefinitely on the scraps of food park goers left behind, but what a miserable life it would lead, never to see the sky.

Vincent had said to call. In the same sort of way Tifa might ask, wanting to know he'd made it to the far end of a job okay, even though she knew damned well that there was less chance of him calling home if there was a problem, than if there wasn't. She still asked. That was the impression he got from Vincent. A faint hint of worry behind a placid mask.

He frowned, watching the tiny speck of the bird flutter frantically from one beam to another. Trapped and desperate. Shutting his eyes, he listened to the distant sounds of combat. The expulsion of geza lizard energy, a man's hoarse scream, the applause of the crowd.

"They'll pull him out before the lizard eats him," someone said, proceeded by the tromping of boots up the stadium steps.

"Yeah, never get any real blood and guts here anymore," someone else complained, as if it were a true shame that more lives weren't ripped out on the arena floor.

Cloud lifted his lashes a little, to catch the passage of the complaining men. They were heading for seats above his own, a rough looking pair in faded leather pants and mismatched pieces of body armor about their persons. If it weren't for the armor, old as it was, he might have taken them for miners come up out of the mountains for a bit of rest and relaxation. They had that hardened look about them. But minors didn't wear armor. Most honest men didn't, that wouldn't expect trouble on a regular basis. He noted in passing, the scarring on the exposed flesh of muscled arms. Decorative mutilation of the flesh in patterns that were not entirely unfamiliar. He canted his head following their ascent, flashes of men in the bar coming back to him. Of the crude, tribal patterns of their scarred arms and faces. Of quicker flashes of the same pattern on the flesh of the pack that had come at him out of the night near the Pit in Midgar.

But it was only his imagination getting the better of him. The chances of seeing members of the same wasteland alliance here on the western continent were next to nill. There were desperate men all over the world, that had turned more than a little feral in their struggle to survive. Bands of mismatched bandits roamed every territory, so these just happened to have similar markings on their skin. He was letting too little sleep and too many nightmares sway his rational.

Covertly though, he noted where they settled, a few tiers above and behind him. It shouldn't have made a difference, if they were what the rational part of his mind insisted they were. But the longer he sat there, with them at his back and himself weaponless, the more his nerves began to twang with unease. Every instinct in his body said don't let an enemy, imaginary or not at your back and there were certain instincts that Cloud simply couldn't ignore.

So he rose, circling the arena as they were supporting the bleeding man out and herding the irate geza lizard into a pen, and appropriated a seat on the opposite side of the stadium, even if it was the crowded side. At least the people here didn't make the hairs on the back of his arms stand up.

He sat through six more fights. And even though some of the contests were mildly entertaining, his attention kept wondering to the rag tag pair on the other side of the stadium. It wasn't until a few hours later, when they finally rose and took their leave that he felt comfortable enough to take his own.

 

 

 

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