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The Devil's Own

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter three

 

It took no time at all to cross the Coral range and reach the bountiful plains to the northwest where home lay. A few hours and Sierra was touching down on the landing strip just outside Rocket Town, her big engines slowly revving down to a dead stop, her cargo hatch easing its way down to the tarmac as eager crew waited to touch the sweet ground of home port.

It was a quaint little town, a settlement built up around what used to be a ShinRa launch facility and a ShinRa rocket that had been the best hope of a lot of folks, Cid foremost amongst them, to get a chance at space. 'Course, that plan had gone bust, as so many high ideals tended to do, and the rocket that the town had been named for had sat unused and untended, save by a tenacious few, for years, until ShinRa had decided to pack it full of huge materia and send it into the atmosphere against the Sephiroth summoned Meteor. Another major failure that had done nothing but deprive the town of its namesake.

Them was the breaks, as Cid so often told himself when he was deep into his drink and sulking over lost opportunities. At least he'd been able to scavenge the remnants of the scaffolding of the launch pad to use towards the skeleton of Sierra's big hanger.

His land side maintenance crew, all part-timers who held regular jobs in town, had come jogging up the trail from the village when the ship had appeared over Rocket Town's skies. A good number of townsfolk came too, come to see what he'd brought back with him this trip. He always tried to pick up cargo that would appeal to Rocket Towners on his homebound runs. He'd sell it for a modest profit or sometimes use it to trade for services rendered.

He exchanged a few greetings with folk on the ground and left the rest to his crew chief to deal with. It was close to dusk and the lightening bugs were out already, flaring up across the field. The hanger was a big dark cave off to his right, only the barest of weak bulbs flickering here and there under its roof. He didn't have plans to drag the Sierra into it this run, not having any overhauls in mind and maybe having to head out again in a few days if Cloud called for a ride home.

Vincent had drifted down the cargo ramp somewhere among the confusion of disembarking crew and ground crew boarding. He didn't see him again until he started the walk down slope from the airstrip to the village and then Vincent simply melted out of the semi-darkness to match Cid's pace down the dirt path.

"I was thinking a nice steak for dinner. Grill it out in the backyard." Cid stuffed his hands into the pockets of his leather pilot's jacket. "I've a taste for some red meat."

"Very red." Vincent gave his assent and Cid grinned, knowing his peculiarities when it came to food.

"Bloody," Cid agreed. He'd stop by the butcher's on the way home, and pick up some beers. It was good to be home.


He woke up with more room in bed than he'd gone to sleep with, and lay staring up at the purple shadows of the ceiling with an arm flung out across the space that Vincent had occupied not more than a few hours past.

"Goddamnit," he murmured, experiencing that familiar little curl of fear that this was one of those absences that would stretch for weeks or months. That Vincent had just got up and left without a word because it was easier that way and the urge had been too strong to stay and make proper good-byes.

Damned if Cid knew why he put up with it, save for the fact that he'd grown accustomed to having the unpredictable bastard around, even if it was only some of the time, and he had long ago figured out that Vincent was a slave to some of his darker instincts. That sometimes the man just couldn't help acting the way he did.

His fears were alleviated somewhat when he saw the long red scarf that Vincent used to keep his hair back, hanging off the foot of the bed banister. Vincent might sometimes up and leave quickly, but he never, ever left traces of himself behind. Cid heaved himself up with a sigh, looking around in the darkness for his boxers and finding them on the floor near the foot of the bed. It was a practical room, with hand carved wooden bed big enough for a man to stretch out in, a simple chest of drawers for a man's belongings, a desk for a man to work late at night if the urge came upon him, and shelves upon shelves of books, and models, parts and components and various other things that had caught his eye over the years. It wasn't a cluttered room, or a cluttered house, by any means, but it spoke boldly enough of the man who lived there. He pulled on his trousers and found a T-shirt that didn't smell too bad, snatched a pack of smokes and walked through the night dark house.

The moon was out, clear as a silver-plated bell high over the hills to the east. That's where Vincent would be, taking in the scent of the night out where there were no townsfolk and no village sounds or village influences. He'd escaped there before on occasion, when he'd come home with Cid.

Cid grabbed one of the staves by the front door on his way out. Beasts wandered close to town out of the plains or down from the hills some nights, drawn by the lure of padlocked livestock, and a man would be a fool to stroll out in the wilds without something other than fallible mortal flesh to protect himself.

He lit a smoke as he walked, following no particular path, simply heading towards the gentle hills and the sparse sprinkling of trees that graced them. Why the hell he was out aimlessly wandering the night looking for a creature that blended seamlessly with it was beyond him. Sometimes a man just acted the fool for reasons that went beyond ken.

He topped a swell of earth with grass up to his calves. There were a few straight-boled trees about, and a good deal of chunky rock, poking their heads out of the fertile earth. Big slabs of gray slate that had no business being out here, save that something had hit the mountains miles east of Rocket Town two years back when all shit had broke lose and debris had scattered for miles. So the plains outside of town got a smattering of slate mixed in with the grass. The folks at home were lucky nothing that hit the town. The piece of rock he propped one boot upon now would have flattened a house. He flicked the butt of his cigarette onto it, and used his boot heel to grind it out. He was digging in his back pocket for the pack when he noticed Vincent at his shoulder.

"SonofaBITCHmotherfucker!" Cid took a startled crabstep backwards, heart pounding in his chest. Vincent melting in out of nowhere was going to be the death of him one day. "Goddamnit, I told you not to do that. Make some fucking noise when you come up on a man."

"Why did you come?" Vincent canted his head questioningly. His hair was like ink in the darkness, strands of it networking across the pale skin of his face.

"Because . . . well." Cid took a deep drag, scowling. "Don't fucking know, so don't ask me. Can't a man want a little fresh air without having to write a dissertation?"

Vincent lifted a dark brow, mouth twitching.

"Not even gonna ask what you're doing out here." Cid tapped out a cigarette and placed it firmly between his lips, then planted his ass on the rock and lit it, sucking in smoke like much needed oxygen. Vincent sat down next to him, a hand's breadth away. He offered nothing.

Cid snorted after a few minutes and decided silence was okay, too,

But then Vincent surprised him, by saying in a very soft voice.,

"Cid. You were followed."

"Wha- -?" was about all he got out before Vincent was shoving him hard to the side and it was only later, as he was rolling to his knees, sputtering in indignation that he realized that those popping cracks he'd heard were bullets hitting the stone where they'd been sitting. He cursed, sweeping the darkness for the shooter, then cursed more when dark figures rushed out of the night, moonlight glinting off the dull metal of armor, and the brighter glint of blades.

More gunfire, quick, pop pop pops, and he flinched, ducking and bringing up his stave to ward off the descent of a jagged blade, even as he realized that the bullets weren't flying his way, that there were flashes out there in the dark that were likely Vincent's doing. He had no time to look and find out, more than occupied with the two shadow-faced goons that were trying to eviscerate him.

He was good with the staff. Had had a damned lot of practice over the years, but he was off his balance and rattled and one of them got past his guard enough to score a slice along his arm from wrist to elbow. He cursed and slammed the end of his staff hard against a shin bone and one of the men howled and staggered, giving Cid the chance to back up a step and avoid the other one's attempt to slice his throat. He jammed the sharp end of the staff into the man's gut, playing for keeps if that's how they wanted it, and twisted it brutally. That man fell, squawking in pain, on his way to a quick death if the fates were kind. If not . . . well, you got what you gave.

The other one took off, fleeing into the night. Cid took a few steps after him, but the sound of gunfire distracted him and he turned to try and track it down, but there was nothing visible out there but shadow. When he turned back around the man was gone.

"Sonuvabitch." He started trotting in the direction he'd thought he'd heard gunfire. Saw one body on the ground, then another. Bandits by what he could see of them in the dark. What the hell had the world come to, bandits this close to Rocket Town?

"You're bleeding."

And there was Vincent, calm as the day was long, melting out the night, gun reholstered. The only way could you tell he was on edge were his eyes, blood red beginning to overwhelm the amber.

"Aw . . shit." Cid twisted his arm to see. Blood dripped off his elbow, slow and warm. "Where the hell did they come from? Just what the town needs is bandits holing up in the hills."

Vincent stared in the direction of Rocket Town. "It held purpose. This attack."

"The fuck . . . purpose? Other than lifting our wallets?"

Vincent shook his head, glanced at Cid with a frown that was darker and moodier than usual. "We should go back, so you can tend to that."

"Yeah." Cid shook blood off his hand and started walking.

They were still a good ways from town when Cid noticed the orange glow of fire. Something in his belly flip flopped and he started jogging, white-faced and cursing under his breath.

It wasn't the town that was burning, but the hanger. He topped the last gentle rise out of breath and sweating and saw Sierra burning. His heart dropped into his gut. Vincent caught his arm as he stopped there, swaying so bad from a sudden bout of light-headedness that he had to bend over for a moment and lean on his knees.

Goddamnit. Goddamnit! He shook off Vincent's hand, eyes stinging from either sweat or - God help him - emotion, and started running full out for the airstrip.


It took them an hour to kill the last of the flames. High octane fuel had the tendency to burn hot and fast and it was only thanks to the grace of good luck that tanks had been running close to empty after crossing the sea and flying halfway across the western continent. If they'd have been full, the whole ship would have gone up in one mother of an explosion.

As it was, the big aft engine was scorched black, metal twisted and ragged from heat and the initial explosion. The massive turbine propeller had landed about a fifty feet away, sitting upright, two of the blades having pierced the earth.

Cid sat with his crew chief and one of the ground crew who'd been here when the engine had blew, all of them fighting to catch their breaths and rest overtaxed bodies. He had a cigarette between his lips, but he hadn't the energy yet to reach into his pocket for the match needed to light it.

It was a cryin' shame, the mangling of a fine piece of craftsmanship like the Sierra, but it could have been worse. The explosion hadn't done much more than surface damage to the aft hull next to the engine. From just sitting hear eyeballing the exterior damage, he figured there might be some salvageable sections of the damaged pod. He have to wait until the engine had cooled down good and proper, and have a look inside to see whether the small scale machine shop here in Rocket Town could handle the project. He had spare parts lying about, but not an entire engine pod.

"Goddamned the luck." His voice was hoarse, from exertion and prolonged and very loud cursing. A nice cool beer about now would have been a miraculous thing. He hadn't seen hide nor hair of Vincent since he'd started hell bent down the slope towards his burning ship. He hadn't had the time to really notice till now. Chances were Vincent had gone back into the hills on the heels of the bandits that had attacked them. He couldn't blame him, Vincent being better suited to hunting down human vermin than putting out flames. He bitterly hoped the thieving bastards got to meet the demons under the veneer of Vincent's humanity up close and personal.

"Capn'! Capn'!!" One of his younger ground crew came galloping towards him from around the opposite side of Sierra. The boy was red-faced and panting.

"What now?" Cid finally started fishing for his matchbook.

"Capn', we think we found a bomb in the other engine. O'malley thinks it might have a dud ignition switch."

Cid stopped in mid-grope, cigarette falling from slack lips.

What the fuck was going on here?


Cloud came awake at the ringing of his cell. One quiet little ring and it went silent. He lay for moment, staring up at the darkness of the plank ceiling overhead, waiting to see if whoever had called would try again.

The windowless room gave him no indication what time it was, but his body's internal clock suggested that it was early morning, an hour or two before he might normally rouse.

With his contact absent and himself marooned for the time being in Gold Saucer, there was nothing that pressed for his attention enough to warrant getting out of the not terribly uncomfortable bunk and prowling the theme park. He might as well allow himself the luxury of lazing about until the sun had fully risen.

The quiet phone bothered him. It wasn't as if he would have bothered to answer it if it had rung a proper amount of times, but at least the folks that generally called him habitually left messages if they had anything of import to relay.

The phone was in one of the side pockets of his trousers which lay across the back of the chair, just within his reach, so he stretched out an arm and fumbled with the buckle one handed, then snagged the slim little cell out and flipped it open, looking at the number of the last incoming call.

7th Heaven. Tifa. She always left messages. Always. But maybe, she'd misdialed, realized her mistake and severed the connection. That was more than likely the case. It was what he would have done.

He tossed the phone onto the desk and settled back, folding an arm under his head and shut his eyes determined to find just a little more sleep.

It occurred to him, as the minutes dragged by, that Tifa's phone manners were by far better honed than his own. Tifa practiced courtesies that it never occurred to him to offer. Maybe it had been Barret, hitting the wrong speed dial number with one of his big fingers. Or one of the kids playing on the phone.

He sighed and rolled onto his side, fluffing the pillow.

It was awfully early to be up and making calls.

He sat up and reached for the phone, dialed the number of the bar and got a busy signal. Okay, so it had been a misdial and whoever had done it was on the phone now with the intended recipient of the original call. He was being particularly unreasonable getting antsy over this.

Still, he was up now and the likelihood of getting back to sleep was slim. If his contacts took their time getting here, all he had to look forward to this morning was breakfast and finding that all elusive spot in Gold Saucer that was noticeably devoid of the repetitive music, bouncing park mascots and hyper active children.

He took a good long time in the small shower, leaning against the slick, tile wall and letting the endless supply of hot water sluice across his skin. It was the nicest thing he'd experienced since getting here. Regretfully, he shut off the water and dried off, giving his hair a quick pass with a towel, before pulling on pants and sitting down on the bunk to pick up the phone again.

Redial. And a busy signal. He snapped the phone shut and sat there, water dripping onto his shoulders from the ends of wet hair. It was the business line. Tifa never stayed on this long.

A happy little chirping intruded upon the silence of the room. He almost started to flip the cell open before it registered that his phone had never in all its time in his possession had such a regretfully cheerful ring tone.

It was the pink, fish-shaped Gold Saucer beeper, vibrating mindlessly on the desk where he had tossed it. He took a breath and reached for it. It quieted as soon as he hit the message receive button, displaying a number to call to get his message.

He did so and a happy Gold Saucer employee on the other end informed him that his party had arrived and would await his arrival in their suite in the Island Paradise section of the park.

Finally.

It was enough of a distraction to take his mind off the busy signal at the bar. He finished dressing, then pulled the documents he'd been entrusted out of his pack and headed towards the elevators. The park schematic on the lift indicated that the Island Paradise section was one of the new park attractions. It took up a portion of Gold saucer that had been extended out over the desert next to the Battle Arena. The main draw was the huge wave pool, complete with water slides and activities and the tropical beach area with its cabanas, bars, restaurants and beach shops. Great clear skylights let in real sunlight from above during the day and mega wattage artificial lights illuminated the area at night, keeping the fabricated beach perpetually bathed in warm brightness.

The guest accommodations in this sector were the most expensive to be had in the resort. Luxury suites that lined the outer rim of the Paradise dome, each with vast windows that looked down over the million gallon wave pool and palm tree spotted beach.

Cloud's contact, predictably, had arranged the meeting in one of these suites. Even the hallway was high-gil, with lazily spinning wicker ceiling fans, thick carpeting and lush potted plants.

He found the room number and rapped on the door. It swung inward, unlatched. He stood for a moment, hand still raised, the hairs on the back of his arm prickling. He pushed it open and lowered his lashes marginally as the bright sunlight flooding in from the window that made up the whole back wall of the suite hit eyes accustomed to dimmer, interior lighting. The man at the big, lacquered desk before the window was in silhouette. His back to Cloud in a fine, hand carved chair. There was a briefcase on the desk next to him and what looked like paperwork spread neatly out on the desk. The man didn't move, though he had to have heard the knock on the door.

Cloud took a step into the room, a large central chamber with a sunken floor and sliding doors leading off to both the left and right sides.

"Mr. Kanara . . . ?" He ventured, then stopped warily, picking up a familiar acrid scent in the ventilated air. His eyes drifted down, discerning the flare of dark color on the creme colored carpet under the chair and desk. A spreading stain of red so dark it was almost black and more of it sliding slowly down the chair legs.

"Have you called home lately?" A low, hoarse voice intruded upon the quiet death of the room and Cloud hissed out a breath between his teeth, reaching for a weapon that wasn't there, even as he spun. He caught a flash of a face, the flash of tundra pale eyes before the body hit him. Instinct registered other things, like the gleaming length of familiar blades following the line of corded forearms and he twisted to avoid being pierced by the front end of those, but not enough to avoid the bone jarring impact of body against body that launched him backwards, over the desk. He had a split second view of the mutilated form of the man who was pinned there with a shard of metal through the gaping cavity of his mouth to the back of the chair, and then his back, or the business ends of those arm blades, hit inch thick Plexiglas with enough impact to shatter what should have been unbreakable by normal collision. Then he was free falling along with a shower of glass shards and a madman trying to get his hands around his throat, towards the vast surface of the wave pool two hundred feet below.


Hitting the water was no less impactful than breaking through the window. It stole Cloud's breath and there was nothing to replace it with save slightly salty liquid. They'd hit at the deep end, near the big grates that hid the turbines responsible for creating the endless cycle of waves. Cloud caught sight of the massive grate through blue tinted water on his way to the sandy bottom. He'd lost his accoster somewhere along the way, but he hardly had time to appreciate that bit of luck in his desperate bid for the surface. He broke the surface, gasping for precious air, hair a streaming mess in his eyes. Breath still came hard, body still stunned by the twin impacts. Treading water, he swiped the hair back from his forehead, desperately searching for the feral bastard that had attacked him.

Diablo was nowhere in sight. Which meant . . .

Damn. Something solid and intractable caught hold of his ankle, yanking him under before he had the presence of mind to draw a lung full of air. He twisted, kicking out with his free foot and making contact with some bit of flesh. Something hit him, a fist, hard in the thigh, and again, sending fingers of sharp pain up his torso. He contorted, curving his body and slamming an elbow against what might have been a head in the murky depths of the deep end. The grip let go and Cloud kicked for the surface. He reached it and struck out for the side of the pool, where a maintenance ladder led to a ledge that ran the circuit of the water until it reached the shallows at the beach.

He pulled himself up, wet clothing making limbs seem twice as heavy. He turned, scanning the rolling surface of the water and finding a dark head bobbing there, pale eyes following his movements, thin mouth curved into a faint grin. Cloud scowled, eyes traveling up the back wall of the dome to the window they'd crashed through. Several figures peered down out of the jagged break in the window, a motley, ragged collection of men even from this distance. More wastelanders and armed, as Diablo was, when by all rights, none of them should have been able to get a weapon past Gold Saucer security.

He looked back to the water and Diablo was gone.

Fuck.

Cloud started running along the ledge towards the shore and solid ground. Diablo came out of the water at him, as if propelled, armblades wet and glinting in the sunlight. Cloud sprung over the slash at his ankles, and the blades sliced through the ledge behind him with a screech of metal.

He had almost reached the beach when startled screams pierced the air and bathing suit clad people began to scatter as a ragtag group of wastelanders poured out onto the sand from the main lifts. Armed men that raised weapons and fired, bullets hitting sand and water and the metal wall of the dome around the ledge.

Taking on Diablo and his shadow-ops honed skills weaponless was an unfair battle . . . tackling his flunkies was a different story altogether.

He dove across the ten foot section of shallow water that separated the ledge and the beach and hit the sand rolling, came up under the guard of the closest gun-wielding wastelander and slammed the heel of his palm up under the man's jaw hard enough to shatter bone. He was on to the next one before the first man had even crumpled to the sand, deprived the man's limp fingers of the gunblade he'd tried to use on Cloud and turned and fired a shot at the figure rushing towards him out of the surf.

Diablo deflected the bullet with one armblade and slashed the other through the air. A funnel of destruction flared out in its wake. Cloud cursed and dove to the sand, even as heat energy shattered the air over his head, splintering palm trees, beach chairs and a row of cabanas. The screams were louder now as even people far down the beach realized that something was terribly amiss with the idyllic world they'd paid to indulge in.

The material-fueled blast had ripped a crevice in the thick metal of the section wall, jagged metal and spitting conduits revealing what might have been a maintenance tunnel beyond. It was a better escape route than the glass-fronted lifts that would have left him vulnerable to attack from the ground.

He darted towards the rift, sidling past twisted metal and into the red-lit space of the tunnel. He took the left-hand route, running all out along grate covered floors that echoed with his every step. He heard the clatter of pursuit as it entered the tunnel.

He came across a door. The handle wouldn't give. He braced himself against the opposite wall and slammed a foot against it. Again and the lock gave, the door slamming inwards and banging against crates stacked against the inside wall. A storage room from the look of it, with crates of fiber glass armor and fake weaponry. There was a doorless exit with a curtain shielding this back room from whatever was on the other side. Sweeping past that, he found himself behind the sales counter of a park gift shop. The pimply-faced employee gaped at him, starting to complain of his presence behind the counter. Cloud ignored him, sliding across the counter top and hurrying to the front of the shop.

The Battle Arena. He recalled that the new Island Paradise section neighbored this one and it occurred to him that his checked sword, a weapon very much capable of dealing with Diablo's suped-up arm blades, was in the storage facility at the Arena registration desk.

He strode out of the shop, and into the village at the bottom of the Arena stairs. There wasn't much of a crowd here this early in the morning. The people that were here were blithely unaware of any disturbance. Park security was on the alert though, he noted, as several Gold Saucer security personal trotted past, busily whispering into walkie talkies. He kept his own pace sedate enough not to attract their attention, having of a bit of park rule breaking of his own in mind.

It wasn't until he heard screams from the Arena village that he started running for the stairs, skidding around the bronze banister and onto the landing, taking the steps three at a time in his haste to reach the top. There was gunfire from below, but this time it wasn't aimed at him, so he figured the park security had been unlucky enough to try and stop Diablo and his pack's pursuit.

And there was the registration desk, with a frowning girl behind the counter, craning her neck to see what the disturbance was below. She recalled the smile that was supposed to be plastered on her face as he bounded up to the counter.

"Hello. Would you care to enter the Battle Arena as a contestant?"

"Is that the keycard to that door?" He jerked his chin to the thick, metal barred door behind her. There was a keycard panel next to it, and a keycard dangling from the attendant's neck.

She blinked at him, then started at a nearer burst of gunfire and the shrieking of someone on the stair.

"Never mind." He snatched the card, breaking the thin chain that supported it before she registered his movement, vaulting the counter and striding past her as she was rubbing the back of her neck, trying to figure out what had happened.

"Hey, you can't . . . ."

"If I were you, I'd hide," he suggested, swiping the card. The locking panel blinked green and the door slid open upon rows of metal shelving stacked with checked weapons.


"Where the hell have you been?" Cid was in a damned touchy mood. Exhaustion and having smoked the last cigarette short of walking home and abandoning the mess at the airstrip hadn't much helped improve it.

Vincent appearing at the foot of the scaffolding that they'd set up under the damaged engine without so much as a "Hey, Cid, hope you weren't worried, but I'm back," likened to make him pop a blood vessel.

Vincent squinted up at him, shading his eyes against the morning light, looking none the worse for wear that Cid could tell from first glance. At least not on the outside.

"There were three more of them."

"Yeah?" Cid spat over the side of the scaffolding and glowered down. "The motherless sons of bitches sabotaged my fucking ship."

"I know. I saw one fleeing from the hanger last night."

"No shit? Didn't think to mention it to me?"

"You had other things on your mind."

A man couldn't argue with that. Cid swore under his breath, then tapped the blackened shell of the engine pod with the ten pound wrench he'd been using to loosen the casing. "Fucked her up right bad. Had another half-assed bomb in the other engine, but it didn't blow."

"The ship was a secondary target . . . ."

Cid lifted a brow at that, waiting for the completion of Vincent's thought.

"They were sent after you."

"After . . . ? The fuck you say." He threw down the wrench and climbed down the scaffold so he could get a better view of Vincent's eyes and whatever madness he was sporting. "Why the hell would a bunch of sorry-assed, incompetent hill bandits be after me? Why the fuck blow up my engine? Goddamnit, did you catch one of them?"

Vincent inclined his head. "They weren't expecting me."

"Yeah, well, I hope you acquainted yourself real well."

Vincent gave him a look that spoke volumes on that subject, and Cid doubted any of the ones that had got away were alive to brag about it now.

"They were supposed to make sure there was no one to go back to Gold Saucer . . no one to back up Cloud."

"Cloud? This is about the fucking kid?" Cid waved an angry hand at his ship. He paced a short circuit under the engine, exhausting his extensive vocabulary of foul language, then stopped and glared back at Vincent, who stood patiently waiting for the fit to pass.

"If the shit-eating bastards think they're going to get away with this . . ." he couldn't for the life of him come up with an adequate word for the heart wrenching mess they'd made of his engine, so he waved an angry hand at it instead. "All 'cause somebody's after Cloud . . . they got another think coming."


It occurred to Cloud some time after he'd retrieved his sword, that perhaps continuing to flee the problem would have been a better plan that engaging in a battle with two suped-up, materia-laced weapons in the midst of a towering resort crowded with thousands of innocent bystanders.

There was a rift the size of a small canyon that ran through the floor and up the outer wall of the Battle Arena dome. Bright desert sky showed through the lips of twisted metal. If they hadn't been a fifteen hundred feet up it might have made a handy route of escape. As things stood, Cloud had chosen the less intimidating leap down through the mangled floor to the section below.

Diablo had followed, fast and merciless and just damned . . . good. Good as only a seasoned Soldier could be. Clever and unforgiving and possessing dirty infighting tricks that Cloud never knew existed. And Cloud countered them by instinct as much as skill and managed to keep from incurring mortal injury, though he was bleeding in a half dozen places.

Cloud had the longer reach, but his opponent's twin blades were blindingly fast and incredibly adept at blocking his thrusts and slashes.

They had gone through a partition into the bright, fantastical setting of Wonder Square, and parents and children scattered like dumb herd beasts who'd just discovered predators dropped into their midst. Cloud cursed the luck, having no desire to create the type of destruction he knew the both of them were capable of in such a place where so many innocents might perish. Diablo seemed to have no problem with it, flinging a surge of fire based energy at Cloud. He took the impact head on, afraid that if he deflected it or simply avoided it would wreak havoc among the people cowering at the edges of his peripheral vision. The sword took the brunt of it, but he was still tossed backwards forty feet and into the breast of a great fiberglass cartoon cat. The thing shattered around him, toppling backwards. He fought his way out, body still thrumming from the impact, searching desperately for Diablo.

He found him across the cobbled street, gripping the arm of a young girl of perhaps twelve or thirteen. His other arm rested upon her shoulder, business side of the arm blade just touching the skin of her throat.

Cloud stood there, breath coming hard and fast, the hand holding the heavy sword beginning to tremble ever so slightly now that he was devoid of motion. It was the first moment of stasis he'd had since Diablo had attacked him in the suite above the wave pool. The first moment where he could put more than two thoughts together that didn't concern fighting for his life.

He'd asked if Cloud had called home. As if the bastard knew there was a need for it. And he stood there now, a twisted smile upon thin lips, lean, lined face too calm and too composed for a man that had just fought through three levels of decimated theme park. As if he'd enjoyed it.

"Let her go," Cloud ground out. He shifted, transferring his free hand to the hilt of the sword, holding it two handed.

"No. I don't think so." Diablo leaned over and pressed his jaw against the girl's plump cheek. Like his short hair, his eyebrows were black, peppered with silver strands. There were the faint lines of pale scarring on his lean, tanned cheeks. More faded scars on his neck and arms. Old scars that didn't seem as much tribal design as battle wounds.

"Why?" Cloud asked, frustrated/angry/tired/confused/scared. "Why are you doing this?"

"Why? Why?" Diablo's voice rose, his face turning angry and feral of a sudden, eyes glowing with inner turmoil. With that same mako-fueled madness that Cloud had seen before. "You tell me, you little shit!! You tell me!! You're the one that asked for it! You!! Not me!"

Cloud stared at him, baffled, at a loss for a reply to that bit of insanity. He shook his head, mute denial of any such thing. Diablo canted his head, the anger fading as fast as it had come, the predator's smile coming back.

"Do you hear the bells?"

Cloud blinked, off his guard. Of course there were alarms ringing now. Keeping the problem secret from its guests had become a moot point, and the whole of the resort blared with warning sirens, loudspeakers directing patrons to move quickly, but calmly to the air-trolley bays for immediate evacuation from the park.

"What?"

Diablo started moving towards him, forcing the girl before him. There was a thin trail of blood trickling down the side of her neck where the edge of the armblade rested. Cloud brought the sword up, eyes narrowed in warning. Diablo simply kept coming, the girl as a shield, until Cloud had to lower the tip of the blade or risk Diablo impaling the child upon it.

"What do you want?" he asked, very softly.

Just as quietly, Diablo whispered. "Don't move, or I might slice her neck clean through."

The girl looked up at him, large wet eyes, tear-streaked freckled cheeks, desperate and terrified and pleading. Cloud clamped his jaw and let the tip of his sword touch cobblestone.

They were close now. Cloud could feel the whisper of the girl's body, the heat of her fear, but it was nothing compared to the hair-raising intensity he felt radiating from Diablo's body. He met those wolf pale eyes, less than two foot distant and lifted his chin, refusing to blink or take the instinctive step away that his survival sense demanded.

Diablo's mouth curved into a wry smile. "You're so pretty," he whispered. "Just like in my dreams."

The girl's eyes widened, her mouth forming a surprised 'O'. Cloud looked down at her in consternation, at the blade protruding from her chest and into his own body. It took a shocked moment for the pain to hit, for him to stagger backwards, wrenching himself free, his left side beginning to throb as flesh and muscle became aware that it had taken damage. He put a hand to his side, above his hip bone and the glove came away wet and bloody. He looked back up, a furious tide of anger beginning to surge in time with the throb of blood/pain and met Diablo's fist full on.


The Little Bronco wasn't as fast as Sierra, not as magnificent a metal beast by a long shot, but she was a trusty little plane that a man who'd had his hands into all of her inner workings could trust to fly him safely across the four hundred miles of grass land, mountain and desert that separated Rocket Town from Gold Saucer.

Truth be told, flying with the wind in his face, his body feeling every quiver and tilt of the plane that supported him, every change in air pressure, every temperamental air current - well, it was invigorating. It took Cid back to his roots.

Vincent didn't much like it, the openness of the little two seater, twin-engine, prop-plane. Granted, he didn't utter a word of complaint, but Cid knew he hated the vulnerability, the lack of any place shadowed and cool to escape to out of the brilliant light of a cloudless day. He just sat hunched in the back seat, between whipping hair and high-collar, a faceless entity occupying space in the plane.

When they touched down in the same mountain valley Sierra had used to land and drop Cloud off the day before, Vincent was out of the plane before Cid had even killed the engines.

"Something is wrong," he said as Cid climbed down from the cock-pit. Cid had figured that himself when he'd made his fly-by over the air-trolley area, before landing,. Granted there were usually a lot of folk coming and going from the park, but the area around the trolley complex was teaming with milling crowds. There was a hell of a lot of traffic on the main road that wound from the Air-trolley area through the most assessable of the Coral mountain passes and eventually to the railway. All of it was heading out, some mass exodus from a park that most folk champed at the bit to get into.

They headed into the fray. Cid had to shoulder his way through the thickest portions of it, past irate parents and squalling brats, angry men and bitching women, all of whom seemed to be yammering about high-handed park security, the chances of refunding of park admission, of park liability, of vacations cut short and more interestingly, of some ruckus that nobody could agree to the details of, that had torn through the park, leaving destruction in its wake and causing the evacuation to begin with. There were talk of casualties, as well.

After a great deal of fighting the outgoing current of the crowd, Cid got to the barricade that had been erected by the Air-trolley entrance gates. A line of beefy, park security goons were keeping people from the in-going platform. The trolley-cars were still coming in and letting folks off, but they were heading back empty.

Cid shouldered his way close, wondering what the chances were of talking his way onto one of those cars. A big slab of muscle held up a hand when he got too close.

"Sorry, sir. The park is temporarily closed."

"What the hell happened out there?"

"Sorry sir, we don't have that information."

"I got a friend that was in the park. How do I find him?"

"Not everyone has left Gold Saucer yet, sir. You can check at the Trolley administration office after the last patron has left and see if what they can do to help you."

"Yeah? I heard talk that you had dead out there. That true?"

"I don't have that information, sir. You'll have to check with administration when the evacuation is complete."

"Yeah, well a lot of help you were," Cid grumbled and turned to complain to Vincent, but Vincent wasn't there and god knew how long Cid had been traversing this crowd alone not even realizing it.

Cat-footed bastard.

There wasn't much else to do then, but canvass the crowd while he waited for Vincent to turn up again. He pieced together a fair bit of information while he waited. Shady-looking guys with weapons that weren't supposed to be in the park. Gun-shots being fired indiscriminately and no few Gold Saucer patrons wounded as a by-product. Guys with swords that could only be material-laced ripping through section after section of the park. Some claimed that one of the new domes had been sheared off the main support trunk of the park and fallen into the desert, but others denied this claim, saying that it had only been greatly damaged. There were a hundred stories from people that were angry now that the fear had faded. He talked to many that fretted over missing friends or loved ones, but the most vocal of those inevitably got claimed by park personnel desperately trying to calm a situation that teetered on chaos.

By the time Vincent got back, hours later, Cid was tired, pissed and jonesing for a drink of hard liquor so bad he could almost taste the burn of it on his tongue. Vincent just showed up again, finding Cid where he'd retreated back to the Little Bronco to take a rest in the shade of the wings.

"Where the fuck . . .?" he started to say, ready to unload his frustrations of the last few hours where they rightly belonged, when Vincent withdrew from the voluminous folds of his cloak, a damned big-assed sword.

Cid looked from the sword to Vincent, then back to the sword again. He remembered to shut his mouth. Weren't many folks that could wield a thing like that, and just standing this close, a man that had been around his share of powerful weapons in his time could feel the hair-tingling aura of materia-laced force emanating from it. Without a doubt, it was one of Cloud's nasty little collection.

"Okay, let me rephrase. How the fuck did you get that?"

"Park security had it."

"Yeah? Park Security where?"

Vincent lifted a brow at him, shrugging. "Gold Saucer."

Cid spat and cursed and gave Vincent a narrow eyed glare. "Well, Goddamnit, least you coulda done is tell me you were heading out there." Damned if Cid had seen him sneak aboard one of the empty trolleys - but then, that was the whole point of sneaking aboard, wasn't it? Not being seen. And Vincent was the master of that skill.

"So I take it, Cloud wasn't there."

Vincent shook his head. "The people who did this, fled. There were a great many bodies left in their wake. Park security is very agitated at the moment, very unforthcoming, but they seemed certain that this weapon wielded by one of the participants of the - disturbance."

"How'd you get it away from them?"

Vincent shrugged again, not bothering with an answer. "It wasn't theirs. Cloud will want it back."

"Shit. If Cloud wasn't one of the bodies out there and he left without his sword - that don't sound good."

"No," Vincent agreed.

 

 

 

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