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The Devil's Own

by P L Nunn


Chapter Four


At the distant ringing of his phone Cloud came halfway out of the sluggish, lurid nightmare he'd been experiencing. Vaguely he felt the vibration of the thing against his leg where it rested in one of the big pockets down the outside of his trousers. He couldn't quite fight his way out of the mire, though, trapped in a maze of pain and the clogging webwork of - something - that tangled with the conscious working of his brain. Distantly, he felt hands upon his body, patting down his pants legs until they discovered the place where the ringing phone was, then intruding upon the pocket, and letting him roll back onto whatever painfully hard, vibrating surface he was lying upon.

"Hello." A low, rough voice broke the ring tone, then a humorless chuckle. "Sorry, he can't come to the phone right now."

A soft click as the phone was closed, and Cloud momentarily won the battle with his eyelids, lashes opening just enough to see the cell arc through the air and land with a silent little thump on sand. Then it was gone, swallowed up by the movement of whatever it was he was riding in.

He shut his eyes again, tired/hurting/dizzy and let the mire suck him back down.

The fire in sector 5 hadn't been hard to put out. It had been a small one compared to the inferno that had followed Meteor ripping through the city two years plus past. Still, it made residents who woke up to the sound of sirens and the glow of orange flickering outside their windows nervous, those of them that had been here during the cataclysm recalling to vividly the destruction that had cut through the city. But less than an hour after it had started, it was out, so people relaxed and went back to bed and their own personal nightmares.

Tifa didn't have that luxury. Her bed was in a building that at the moment was too filled with the arid scent of smoke to want to venture into for long. The fire had started in the unfinished portion of the warehouse flush with the bar. An electric circuit box had started it . . . well, technically a half dozen rounds of high caliber bullet spray hitting the electric box had started it, but since Barret had been the originator of that spray, she chose to blame the box when explaining the fire to the volunteer fire fighters who had bravely rushed into the warehouse to put the fire out.

Thank god the bastards who'd started the whole mess were long gone. One way or another. Tifa shivered at the memory of waking up with a dreadlocked, tattooed intruder about to slice a ragged knife across her throat. She'd returned the surprise, kicking him square between the legs, then slamming a fist into his face, shattering his nose and giving him another reason to howl. He'd gone out the window after that, helped along by a roundhouse kick. She'd stood there after, breathing hard, shivering as it occurred to her that she'd absolutely seen this guy before.

A month ago in the bar, one of the bunch that had killed Annie and ambushed Cloud near the Pit. Then she'd done something alien to her, she'd panicked, developing an unreasonable concern about Cloud, out there all by his self, and she snatched up a phone and hit the number one speed dial number programmed in.

She got in one ring before the door to her room crashed open slamming into her, knocking the phone out of her grasp and onto the floor with painful little chirp, at which point worrying about Cloud, who could very well take care for himself, seemed a minor concern at best.

All hell broke loose. Barret got into it, rushing into the fray with nothing more than boxers on. Marlene and Denzel woke up screaming and Tifa tore through the rag tag bastards between her and them with renewed vigor, ordering the kids out the window in their room and down the fire escape.

They'd handled it, Barret and herself, taking down a half dozen wastelanders and chasing off the remaining few. The kids living in the warehouse were all clustered out in the street, holding precious belongings in fear that yet another refuge would be taken from them. Tifa did her best to assure them that that wasn't the case now.

7th Heaven's back room and only the southern most part of the adjoining warehouse had taken the brunt of the fire. She had a lot of repair work ahead of her.

"Looks like you've had a little bad luck, Lockhart."

She turned, blinking-smoke reddened eyes and picked out Reno with Rude's big shape behind him, threading through the crowd of fire fighters, curious neighbors and milling children.

"A little early for you to be up, isn't it?" she inquired.

Reno grinned at her, eyes traveling down her body, from the tank top to the panties she'd been sleeping in, to bare legs and soot blacked feet. They hadn't let her back inside to find any decent clothing. She cocked her head, letting him look his fill.

"Now why don't you always dress like this? I'm liking the look on you."

"Man, you can reign it in or get a smack across the mouth," Barret growled, stalking up, grafted metal gunarm gleaming dully, dark skin smudged with patches of soot.

Reno gave him a brief once over, then shrugged and glanced back at his silent partner. "It doesn't look so good on him, eh, Rude?"

If Rude had an opinion he kept it to himself.

"What do you want?" Tifa sighed. "We're a little busy right now."

"Cloud out of town?" Reno asked.

"What's it to you?" Barret took a threatening step forward. Rude shifted, moving a half a step in front of Reno warningly. Reno grinned.

"He's not here," Tifa said wearily.

"Hummp. You'd never guess it, with all this." Reno waved a hand at the bar. "Wastelanders responsible?"

He phrased it in a way that said very clearly that he knew they were. Tifa frowned and nodded, getting the feeling that there was more going here than Reno's morbid curiosity.

"Yeah. The same ones from last month. I'm sure you remember."

"Sure. I still have Cloud's sword. I look at it every night and . . well . . ah . . , " He snapped his mouth shut, rather regretting that choice of words, Tifa thought. One got the feeling Rude rolled his eyes behind his black shades before looking up at the shadows of the beamwork high overhead.

"ANYway." Reno coughed and continued. "Wanna take a ride uptown?"

"Why?" Tifa asked suspiciously.

"'Cause I like getting girls in their panties in the back seat of my car."

"That's it, I'm gonna kick your ass," Barret growled.

Tifa laid a hand on his meaty fist and forestalled the violence.

"What's uptown?"

Reno shrugged, casting Barret an amused glance. "The boss."

"Ah. And this has to do with . . . this?" She waved a hand at the scorched bar?"

"It just might."

He became aware again by degrees. First of the pain at his wrists, then the burning ache of shoulders, the two combined almost drowning out the duller throb in his side. The blood beneath his temples pounded, slow and steady and deafening. Cloud forced his eyes open and blinked up at his wrists above his head, encircled by thick metal cuffs laced through the lowest link of an industrial size, rusting chain that disappeared into the shadows above. His feet just barely touched earth, which accounted for the ache in shoulders and wrists. How long he'd been hanging there, he could only guess.

Where he was, was also in question. Before his head even cleared enough to take in the details of the chamber, he smelled the acrid tang of a great deal of rusting metal, of human waste, of sweat and blood.

He arched his aching back, stretching to get his toes on the floor and relieve some of the pressure off his arms, gently testing the durability of the manacles that bound his wrists and finding them quite adequate for the task.

It was a bunker, he thought, following the line of ceiling into shadow. An old one, long abandoned from the look and the smell of it. Probably a ShinRa outpost dating back - - God, before he'd ever dreamed of joining the ranks of Soldier. Claimed now by less fastidious dwellers.

The floor was littered with debris, and a large grate lay not too far from where he hung, covering what could have been a platform lift. The faint impression of graffiti marred the pock-marked walls, years and years of it, suggesting this place had been a haven to miscreants for quite a while. There was a ramp leading up to a big set of closed metal doors, the size of which suggested this bunker had been used for large equipment. There was a door, half off its hinges leading deeper into the bunker, but no other outlet.

The pack gathered around the shadows of the walls, milling about luridly flickering scrapheap fires that made the shadows dance like demons upon the walls. He could hear the hum of their talk now that his head had cleared. The harsh sound of their laughter as they spoke among themselves, separated into little sub-groups, lurking and waiting, like any pack, for the commands of their alpha male.

The tactical part of his mind took account of their numbers, dozens of them, mostly men, but a few females in the group, all of them dirty and the worst sort of desperate. The sort of desperate that took away a man's morals and his inhibitions and let him commit atrocities without a second thought.

Like their leader. But Diablo wasn't desperate, he was simply deranged.

Cloud recalled the blade impaling the child, covered in her blood as it pierced him. Remembered Diablo's pale eyes as he'd done it. He flinched, cringing at the crimson clarity of that memory.

He must have made the chain clank as he rotated, trying to take in his surroundings, for their attention drifted towards him, and interest shifted through the shadows like a virus. They sauntered towards him, the boldest of them. He narrowed his gaze, glaring a warning as they came near, circling him, like a pack sizing up wounded prey.

A few of them touched him, taunting his helplessness, pushing him so that he lost his precious toe hold footing and spun in his chains. He hissed, no bleating lamb to any slaughter, and lashed out with his foot, catching a sneering, one eyed man dead in the throat with the heel of his boot. Most of the others watched the man fall, unsympathetic as he grasped ineffectually at a crushed windpipe.

"Son of a bitch." One of them surged up to him with a drawn blade, more interested in retaliation than concern for the dying. "I should slice open your belly and let your guts spill out for that. Teach you a fucking lesson."

Cloud felt the press of blade through his sweater. He could probably twist and take this one out too, but hobbled as he was, the others would take him down.

The issue ended up moot. The bandit staggered backwards, yanked off his feet and swung around by a grip on the back of his neck. The knife he'd held was out of his hand and slicing down the center of his face before he registered its removal. Cloud had barely seen Diablo's approach out of the shadows, but part of that sluggishness on his part he preferred to blame on drugs and blood loss.

"Did I say he was mine?" Diablo yelled at the room at large. "Did I say any but me could lay hands to him?" He shook the man in his grip for emphasis, but there was nothing left to acknowledge Diablo's claim, the power of Diablo's slash with the knife having cleanly cleaved the man's head down the middle.

Diablo threw the knife aside, face livid, and grasped the bloody edges of the man's face, pulling the halves apart with a audible cracking of bone. Blood still pumped and pulsed, the brain dead but the heart getting in those last few beats before it quit.

"Are there worms in your skull, Tyree?" he asked, digging his fingers into the mangled mass of brain. The pack stared with horrified fascination, the weaker backing away in the face of his madness, the worst of them grinning in anticipation of what would happen next.

Diablo let the man drop to the floor at his feet. There was a dull splat as gray matter hit cement. Diablo licked the gore off one finger, then turned to Cloud with mad, wild eyes and raked the nails of one hand down the side of his own stubbled cheek, scoring four bloody gouges.

"He didn't have worms in his head," he said. "They're in mine! Crawling inside my skull . . . and all they whisper about is YOU!"

He reached that bloody hand towards Cloud, little bits of brain and gore still clinging to his fingers and Cloud recoiled as much as a body could in his position. He'd seen bloody things in his life. Miserable, terrible things that still haunted his nightmares, but Diablo was making his stomach curl a little right now, making the remnants of the last thing he'd eaten consider coming back up the hard way. Diablo caught hold of his

sweater, stepping close enough so that Cloud could feel the warmth of the man's breath on his cheek. The man was unarmed, and had stripped off his jacket and the pieces of mismatched armor he'd worn and was down to a dirty white wife-beater, black., old-style military trousers and the leather bands around wrists and forearms that the armblades attached to. There was thin chain around his neck from which dangled multiple dogtags. Five or six sets of them at least.

"I should kill you." Diablo wound his stained hand in Cloud's hair, forcing his head back, baring his throat. "Should just slit your throat and be done with it . . . ." He pressed his mouth to Cloud's neck, teeth grazing the skin over the big vein, then he pulled back a little, grimacing, cords of muscle trembling in neck and shoulders as if he fought some internal battle. He brought his other hand up and the fingers bit into the sides of Cloud's neck, cutting off the flow of blood beneath his jaw. A few seconds and he'd be unconscious, and a few seconds after that and he'd be dead.

Cloud didn't stop to think, just reacted out of reflex, bringing a knee up sharp and hard and almost scoring a direct hit, but Diablo was too fast and shifted, taking the brunt of the impact upon his thigh. He let go though, with a snarl and a back-handed slap that sent Cloud spinning in his bonds. A blow to his side, almost over the wound from Diablo's armblade, and Cloud gasped and saw stars over a red-tinged explosion of darkness. It only lasted a precious moment, that black distance from the hurt, then he was back and all the aches with him.

There were jeers and catcalls from the sidelines, cries of encouragement to keep going, to feed their bloodlust.

"The hole! Put him in the hole!" some of them cried and Diablo cocked his head, a slow grin spreading across his thin lips. He nodded and lifted a hand.

"They want entertainment. You need a lesson in humility. Lets see how long you can last before you can't fight anymore, boy."



The grate on the floor covered what might have been once a vehicle maintenance bay. The bay beneath it, once the big lift had been lowered was maybe 18' x 24' and some 12' deep. It was black as pitch down there, and the smell of rust and dried blood was overpowering.

They triggered the sputtering mechanism that rolled the grate back into the floor, uncovering the bay. Cloud had not made it easy on them, getting him down into that dark unknown. He'd fought it tooth and nail, as best a man could with wrists manacled together and too many enemies to count ready to swarm in and overwhelm him. They manhandled him to the edge of the bay and shoved him over, and he took one of them with him, twisting so that unfortunate ended up on the bottom when they hit ground. Then he scrambled to his feet, ready to make a leap for the edge that he knew he could make, even chained as he was and came up short against a wall of living, leering human flesh looking down at him from around the rim, all of them sporting weapons of one sort or another. So he stood there, breath coming fast and harsh, scanning the lot of them narrowly as the grate slid back into place, sealing him in. The man he had dragged in with him, cursed and called up to his fellows for succor, but no one heeded his pleas.

A key hit the floor by Cloud's feet and he looked up to find Diablo standing on the grate overhead, grinning down.

"If you last the day, I'll give you water."

Cloud stared up silently, not moving for the key.

Diablo crouched down, elbows on knees, head canted in amusement. It was chilling how fast the utter madness left his eyes to make him seem nothing more than a normal murderer.

"I wouldn't waste time if I were you."

Something grated behind him. The man in the bay with him whimpered, pulling out a belt knife. There was a door. A thick metal thing that had been wielded shut along the top, but the bottom half had been cut through forming a tunnel that led to sheer blackness. Cloud crouched, eyes on that darkness and captured the key. He fit it into the lock of one manacle and the cuff clicked off. The leather of his glove had protected his skin somewhat, but the wrist still felt bruised to the bone.

Something blurred out of the tunnel, a scuttling of multiple legs and hard shell across metal. Cloud leapt back, only one hand free of metal cuffing, and the thing shot under him like an arrow towards the other man.

The wastelander barely got an arm up in time to shield his face as the beast fell upon him, rearing up on its lower legs and ripping into tender human flesh with a half dozen claw-tipped legs and a maw full of poison-filled teeth that protruded from within the protection of a multi-hinged inner carapace.

It was a desert viperpede, deadly poisonous and lightning fast. One of many vicious beasts that dwelled within the western drylands. They were not solitary creatures.

Cloud swung the dangling end of the manacles into the face of the second viperpede that scuttled out of the tunnel, and kicked out against the side of its hard shell as it swerved from the impact. It rolled, multiple feet kicking. If he'd had a sword, any sword, he could have dealt with it easily enough with its underbelly vulnerable -- without one, he hesitated, not eager to taste its venom, not willing to get close enough to get scratched by a stray fang and risk succumbing to a poison that might not kill a man with a boosted Soldier immune system, but would certainly slow him down enough to fall prey to the viperpede's other attacks.

A third one scurried out from the tunnel and Cloud swore, dodging its charge, bouncing off the back wall and coming down feet first upon the second beast which had rolled over onto its feet again. There was a cracking of shell, a shrill chittering which brought the other two running. He jumped over them, landing in a crouch by the mangled body of the wastelander. He found the knife a few feet away and swept it up, but had no time to check for other weapons as the two healthy beasts came at him, the damaged one limping behind.

The knife didn't give him the reach he wanted. There was nothing to do but rely on speed and dexterity. He rotated the wrist with the manacle still dangling from it, and waited for them to come.

The desert around the base of Gold Saucer was flat enough and featureless enough to land a small plane. And after circling the mammoth structure a few times, ignoring the distracted, panicked voice over the radio that he was in a no-fly zone, Cid put the Little Bronco down. Some of the damage was visible from the outside. The sort of large-scale deconstruction that could only be attributed to high explosives or souped-up, material laced weapons.

Cid had snatched a cell phone out the hand of an overweight man in a multi-hued disaster of a beach shirt, his own being still on Sierra, and called Cloud. Vincent, who never made calls as far as Cid knew, was the only one of them that knew the number from memory. Go figure.

It rang and rang and rang until finally it picked up and a voice that wasn't Cloud's issued a curious 'hello'. At which point Cid's telephone manners had dissolved and there was a 'who the hell . . . ?' and 'where the fuck . . . ?' involved before he got informed that Cloud couldn't come to the phone by a voice that didn't sound at all comforting.

It was then they'd decided that they needed to get a little closer look at Gold Saucer and not via the usual slow means.

So here they were, walking across sun baked earth towards the outer perimeter of the dismal, shanty town of a prison that clustered around the massive foot of the amusement park in the sky. It was a prison that didn't need to employ guards or barbed-wire fences, the endless stretch of desert proving ample enough discouragement for prisoners to leave. Walking out into the desert was a sure death sentence.

Today, however there were a multitude of security. Men in Gold Saucer uniforms, even a few scattered ShinRa blues were making a show of force on prison grounds. The rent in the Saucer support tower was visible from the edge of the prison grounds.

"Halt! You can't enter here." A few of the Saucer security rushed up to them, awkwardly holding rifles that were not usually part of their daily equipment. You could just see these kids were not comfortable in the position of armed guards. Hell, they probably worked the kiddie section of Wonder Square on those days that the park wasn't getting its gold-plated ass kicked.

"Ha. Bet that's not a line heard 'round here too often." Cid pulled out a smoke, and Vincent pulled out a high caliber death-dealer which no one in their right mind could doubt he was entirely comfortable with.

"I don't think he likes you pointing those at him," Cid remarked, taking a drag.

They gawked at the muzzle of Vincent's gun.

"You know, I seen that gun put a hole through a twenty-foot ShinRa Battle Mech, I hate to think what'd do to human flesh and bone. Why don't you just take your fingers off the triggers, boys, and point those things at the ground and maybe he'll do the same," Cid suggested.

They decided to take him up on his advice and obligingly Vincent lowered his own gun, but they could still see the long barreled thing in his hand peeking out from the folds of his cloak.

"Good kids." Cid applauded their flash of intelligence. "Now, what the hell went on here? And don't give me any crap about it, neither him or me is the mood to get the run around from you uniforms anymore today. They come through that big assed hole in the wall?"

"Y-yes sir. In and out." One of the guards gestured back nervously. "Inmates said maybe a dozen of them went inside armed to the teeth. Maybe half that number came out and they had ATV's waiting for them out here. They even took some of the inmates with them . . . those that were willing to go out into the desert with them blind, that is."

"You send out pursuit?"

The young guard almost laughed. "Into the desert? It's close to a thousand square miles of . . . nothing out there. No sir, we haven't sent anything."

"Which direction?" Cid asked and one of them lifted an arm and pointed due west. He couldn't have picked a direction that had more desert. Cid shook his head and cursed.

At which point he started as aimless a search as he'd ever undertaken, flying low over endless amber sand and hard packed desert earth, all of it so windswept that even had the desert ATV's left tracks, the dust and sand would have devoured them in no time.

It was hot, miserable flying, with the desert sun biting down so intense that even the wind couldn't keep a man from overheating. The dust swept up high enough in places that both he and Vincent were coated with it. And after hours of searching, they hadn't found a damn thing.

It was close to dusk and he was at the point that if he didn't turn back now and head for Gold Saucer for a refuel, he wouldn't make it back at all. Hell, he might not anyways if he had to keep fighting the head winds out here. He lamented the lack of Sierra where a man could fly over treacherous desert in comfort and style. He grumbled dissolutely to himself, turning the Little Bronco on its wing to start one last sweep before it was too dark to see anything and then heading back.

Something glinted in the distance. He lifted a hand to wipe the film of dust off his goggles and squinted. Yes, damn sure was something shiny reflecting the last rays of the setting sun.

"Vin," he shouted over the engines and the roar of wind. He looked over his shoulder to see if Vincent had heard and got a nod in response. He swept by low and still almost missed it.

If it weren't for the beat up old pickup he might have flown right past and never noticed the little desert community. His spirits sunk. There were no parked ATVs, no sign that this was more than what it looked. A struggling little outpost of life that against all odds had sprung up in the desert.

But still, if there were people here and the trickle of smoke issuing from one sandstone dwelling suggested there were, they might be able to offer information that the idiots at Gold Saucer didn't know.

He landed on the hard packed, desert ground and taxied right up to the collection of small, dwellings. The huts themselves, and there were only six of them, were made of sandstone, with round tops and sides that made them look like desert igloos. There was a central well that must have been deeper than hell to reach water in this arid place, but water it apparently provided for there were little mesh shaded herb boxes alongside a few of the huts that had greenery actually thriving in them. Also shaded by mesh tarps were an assortment of junk, scavenged auto parts, rusty oil tanks and barrels, crates of mish-mash that could have come from anywhere.

The people that emerged from the desert igloos were small and brown, their skin leathered and tough-looking from a life under the unforgiving sun. They were astonished to see Cid and Vincent exit from the plane, the quartet of children that appeared with the adults scampering over to examine Little Bronco.

It looked like at least four generations of family here, the great great granddad teetering out last, rheumy eyes almost invisible behind folds of wrinkled skin.

"How you folks doing?" Cid offered greeting, then waved a hand back towards the plane and added. "Was sort of surprised to see your little settlement way out here in the middle of nowhere."

"Nowhere?" the old man croaked. "No one is nowhere. We're simply in a somewhere so vast that city folks can't fathom."

"Ah . . . yeah, guess so." Cid glanced at Vincent who had developed a vaguely amused non-expression on the visible portion of his face.

"You are the first strangers we've seen here in many, many years," the old man said.

"You sure about that?" Cid asked. "'Cause we were hoping that somebody here might have seen some activity 'round abouts recently. Men in ATVs. Shady looking fellows as likely to cut your throat as look at you?"

The villagers looked amongst themselves worriedly, and one of the younger men stepped forward. "No one who is not of the desert can travel this deep into her depths, not even the bandits that roam her edges . . . not unless they come from the sky as you did."

Great. Just great. What a waste of time. "Well . . . thanks then, for your time. I don't suppose you have any fuel to sell?"

"We might have a barrel to spare, for the right amount of gil," the old grandfather said, a trader's smile creasing his face. He indicated the covered junk area and the row of much used barrels sitting there.

Cid began bargaining with the old man who was obviously, despite his advanced age, the final say in any village matter. They settled on a price, which just about emptied Cid's wallet. But as a result they were invited to share the evening meal and stay the night, which suited Cid fine, since he wouldn't have to start over from scratch again way back at Gold Saucer. When he went over to inspect the barrel of fuel, Vincent was already there, staring at something half buried under layers of other junk.

"Look," he said softly and Cid leaned forward to see what had snagged his attention. It was a big metal plate with an outdated ShinRa military logo along the top -- they'd redesigned their tactical forces symbol a couple of times over the years since this one had been in use. Beneath it in faded, peeling paint were the words, 'Desert Outpost 3'.

"Hey, what's this to?" Cid asked one of the young men who was helping wrestle the fuel barrel out from under the tarped area. The young desert dweller looked and shrugged blankly.

After he'd filled the Little Bronco's fuel tanks, and everyone had filed inside the biggest of the sandstone igloo's for dinner, he asked the old grandfather about the ShinRa placard. The old man sat sipping at the bitter tea the women served after a dinner of cactus mash and roast desert snake, his attention seemed to wander, as if he'd forgotten the question altogether, but then his focus snapped back and he said. "Almost half my life has passed since the men with their machines and their weapons tried to carve out a place in this desert. Even with their fancy gizmos and machines this land was too great for them to conquer. It drove them out, as it drives out most and they left bits and pieces of themselves behind."

"But they built an outpost?"

"They tried."

"And it's still here?"

The old man shrugged. "The desert consumes everything in time. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is not."

"Where?" Cid leaned forward.

"Thirty years ago is a long time. The desert changes and so do its paths and the features of its face. I do not know."

"Can you give me a direction? A general distance. Four days walk. Ten. Twenty?"

The old man thought, scratching a mostly hairless head. "To the southwest of here. Many days walk for a man not used to the passions of the desert."

It was a viable clue. Certainly a direction to scour come morning, since they hadn't any better option in mind.

They were extraordinarily generous, the people of this little familial village, giving over the smallest of the stone igloos for their guests to use. The women giggled shyly and averted their eyes as they ushered Cid into the cool darkness. A cloth curtain covered the doorway and the two small round windows. There was a tiny fire pit carved into the stone at the back of the hut, but it was dark, wood being too precious a commodity here to waste on fire simply for light's sake.

"What do you think?" Cid asked Vincent when the women had finally scurried off to their families and their own bed mats.

"I think there was a time that ShinRa strove for preeminence everywhere."

Cid kept waiting for a more pertinent answer and Vincent finally sighed and gave it. "There are few destinations for men who head into the desert. By all accounts these men seemed to have an agenda and perhaps a goal. This ShinRa outpost is as good a place to start as any."

"Glad you agree on that." Cid pulled off his shirt and ran a hand over the sweat-stiffened hair on his chest. "What I wouldn't give for a Goddamned bath."

"They left water," Vincent said and Cid followed his indication to find a basin in the shadows filled with about a gallon of fresh water. There was a folded cloth next to it. He sighed and went over, splashing water on his face and running wet hands through dust stiffened hair.

"You gotta wonder," Cid said, as he ran the wet cloth across his chest, whistling a little in appreciation as water trickled down his belly. "What sort of bad-assed bastards these guys are, to have taken down Cloud. The kid ain't exactly a pushover."

"No," Vincent agreed, a shadowy, motionless figure staring out one of the small round window.

"You just gonna stand there, or you wanna share some of this water while it's still clean?"

Vincent canted his head, as if that question took deep consideration, but then he started unbuckling the fasteners to his cloak and hung it from a hook by the door that Cid hadn't even seen in the near dark. Without the red of the cloak, he might have melted right into the night, black shirt, black pants, black hair. Sometimes a man needed to get his hands on such insubstantial things to make sure they didn't fade away.

Cid snagged the fabric of Vincent's shirt, drawing him a step closer. Close enough to brush his own stubbled cheek against Vincent's oddly smooth one and take in the clean scent of gun-oil and the bitter tea they'd had with dinner and the hint of the incense they'd burned in the central igloo, but not so much the odor of sweat and effort that a normal human man couldn't help but exude after a day like today. But then, Vincent hadn't been normal in a long, long time.

Thirty years ago ShinRa had had that base. Even back then the Turks had been wrapped up tight with ShinRa military dealings, and Cid had to wonder if Vincent had heard first hand about these desert bases back then, when he'd still been fully human and a member in good standing of the Turks.

"You remember anything about these bases?" Cid pulled the red bandanna from Vincent's head, liking the way the unrestrained hair tended to slide over Vincent's pale face.

Vincent shrugged, not liking to share those memories of his past. "Yes."

"Yes?" Cid started working at the buttons at the high neck of Vincent's shirt and Vincent stood there, looking past him, and let him. "You never mentioned . . ."

"It was a long time ago. It never occurred . . . until I saw the placard."

"You ever go out there?" Cid reached bare skin. Fine, pale throat and chest. Cid leaned in and pressed his lips against the hollow between Vincent's collar bones and Vincent shuddered, flesh and blood hand reaching up to rest on Cid's bare shoulder.

"No. I just heard . . . rumors."

Cid lifted his head, one arm around the small of Vincent's back, under the shirt and against bare skin. It kept them close when Vincent had that vague look that hinted he might want to get some distance. "What kind of rumors?"

"Before ShinRa started its human testing, they experimented on beasts . . . if the Jenova element drove the majority of its human subjects mad, imagine what it did to the animals."

"Yeah, I think I've come across my share of souped-up nasties to figure that one out."

"They needed out of the way places to store the successes . . . and the failures. It wasn't so much the desert that drove them out, as the inability to control their charges."

"Great. That explains why this place has more than its fair share of particularly nasty beasties." He got Vincent's shirt the rest of the way unbuttoned and ran his flattened palm up his tummy and across his chest, pausing to graze his thumb across the baby soft flesh of one flat nipple.

"You wanna take this off?" His other hand touched the leather, buckles and hardware at Vincent's waist. One thing you didn't do was touch Vincent's guns and Cid could respect a man's peculiarities with his weapons.

Vincent assented, reaching down to unbuckle the strap at his thigh, then the big buckle at his waist, then he draped the gun belt, gun and all on the table next to the basin. Then it was safe to get to his pants, to feel the outline of half hard cock beneath the thick material of his fly, to squeeze hard enough to make Vincent gasp and press himself up into Cid's grasp.

Cid grinned, thoughts of altered ShinRa beasts getting shuffled aside in favor of more basic needs.

They went about it in the no-nonsense way required in a strange place with strangers in the next hut and no idea how much time for real privacy they might have. They got Vincent's pants mostly off and Cid's around his knees, which was as much undressing as they tolerated before staggering onto the sleeping mats and collapsing in a tangle of limbs. He got Vincent onto his elbows and knees and mounted from behind, one hand tangled in Vincent's long hair, the other firm about his waist, fingers forming a fist around his cock. That was the only part of Vincent that was really hot, the rest of his skin as cool to the touch as if they were fucking in an air conditioned room instead of a hut in the middle of the desert - - well, his cock and the tight grasp of his insides surrounding Cid's own desperately thrusting flesh. Which only went to show you that thinking during sex was a bad idea, because dwelling on the temperature of Vincent's body pushed him over the edge and into climax and he spurted like a kid on his first backseat adventure.

Damned embarrassing thing to happen to a man, but he made the best of it, giving Vincent a two handed finish and pulling them both over onto their sides on the mats afterwards.

"Sitting on my ass all day in the plane, y'know, put me off my game."

"Umm." Vincent lay there in his arms, not seeming to mind and Cid pressed his face into his hair, inhaling the scent of him, content to be here at the moment, even if it was under shitty circumstances.



"I can search better from the ground."

Cid lay there, sated and weary, curled around Vincent's body with the prospect of sleep close on the horizon. It took a moment for Vincent's words to sink in. Even then he took a moment to mull them over, his first conclusion to such a statement being - - well ridiculous - - and looking for the more reasonable meaning.

"Yeah, and I could search better from the sky if I had Sierra. So?"

He felt Vincent sigh. "I want to leave while it's still dark. You go on tomorrow."

"Wha - - have you lost your fucking mind?" Cid pushed himself up, glaring down.

"Not recently," Vincent said quietly, sitting up, canting his head to peer up at Cid through disarrayed hair. "The outposts would never have been easily visible to start with - - with years of neglect the desert will have camouflaged it even more."

"The operative word there is Desert! You can't just wander out there on foot."

"I can," Vincent said simply and reached for his pants.

"Well, fuck if I'm gonna sit here and let you commit suicide, damn idiot!"

"I'll find you if I need you."

"The hell!! How?"

Vincent gave him a look that said very plainly, 'how do I ever find you?' Cid cursed some more. He pulled up his pants and looked for the one boot he'd lost somewhere along the way to the sleeping mat. Found it in the shadows near the mat and bent over to pull it on. When he straightened up, there was nothing but himself and the shadows in the hut. The curtain over the door rippled gently.

"Son of a bitch," he muttered, stomping outside. The round huts were quiet, dark shapes in the night, Little Bronco a familiar silhouette beyond them, and beyond her, nothing but black desert night. Not a sound, not a movement, not a trace of the ghost that had melted into the dark.

Cloud crouched, back to a corner and let his make-shift sword touch ground for the precious moments of peace he had while the current beast paused to devour the flesh of one of an abnormally large sandsnake that had only recently had its head hacked off by the four foot piece of jagged metal frame that Cloud had liberated from the doorway. A

crude weapon at best, but it gave him a reach the knife didn't, and with enough power behind it, it served well enough against beasts.

After wielding it for . . . God, the hours melded together into one long, bloody nightmare . . . his arm was considerably past the shaking phase. Granted the make-shift sword was no less heavy as the one he would have preferred to have, but there was only so long a body could go full-out and not fall prey to exhaustion. The wound on his favored-sword wielding side didn't help. Nor did the stinging of the wounds on his hand, where jagged metal had cut through the thick material of his glove to score his hand. Blood tended to make his grip treacherous.

Carcasses littered the floor, bodies and blood and spilled squishy inside parts made footing a chancy thing in the near darkness. Having the venomous fang of a dead creature rip into his leg would be no less disastrous than a live one.

Cloud shifted the make-shift sword, stretching his fingers to work the cramps out. The thing gorging itself on snake belly looked up, pale eyes finding him in the shadows, bloody maw pulling back in a snarl. At first glance the thing had looked normal, like so many of the beasts he had killed in this bloody pit had seemed when they'd come through that tunnel at him. This one might have been descended from the lean desert wolves that prowled the drylands, but it was larger and broader of chest and fur only sprouted from its body in places, the rest of its muscular body covered in what seemed hard plates of armor-like shell. He'd never seen its like.

The desert wolf took a stiff legged step towards him, head held low, a hissing snarl issuing from its throat. Cloud shut his eyes for a fraction of a heartbeat, gathering strength that had began to fail him hours ago, and pushed himself to his feet, using the wall for support. God, but his legs were rubbery, muscles beginning to tremble in exhaustion.

How many beasts had he killed? How many hours doing it? Ten? Twelve? The faces above were nothing but a blur, their catcalls and slurs had become meaningless background noise. There were much fewer of them now than there had been hours ago. Even the watchers had gotten tired and left to take their ease while he had no choice but fight for his life. Save sitting down and succumbing to the inevitable.

It came at him, a sudden charge and he swung the ragged iron strip like a bat, but his speed was diminished and this beast was fresh and dodged, getting inside his defenses. He let go the make-shift sword and brought the knife up as the thing hit him, paws against his chest. He let himself fall backwards, using his free arm to keep it off his throat. Teeth bit into his arm, even as he sliced at the thing's belly, looking for a soft spot in the shell plating.

The blade kept sliding off hard shell and he hadn't the leverage to get the strength behind a blow that would simply piece the armor. Panic and the pain in his arm gave him stamina. He kicked out, dislodging the beast from his body, but not its grip on his forearm. He twisted and teeth tore through the leather forearm protector and ripped into the meat beneath. He cried out, as much from desperation as pain at the thought of his sword arm crippled, and drove the knife up under the jaw attached to his arm. There was no armor plating there, just tufts of fur and the blade sliced up under the soft part of the jaw and into the beast's brain. It dropped, pulling him to the floor with it. He pried the jaws loose from his arm and backed away, eyes on the dark tunnel which would expel something else out for his blood in short order. He held his arm close to his chest, hand over the wound. It was bleeding badly, but his arm seemed to have full function, which meant no tendons or muscles had been ripped. He dragged his jagged iron sword to him and crouched again, shuddering.

Nothing came. The blood continued to flow. They'd taken everything out of his pockets, his shoulder guard, and his sheath before he'd even regained consciousness, so he had nothing to stem the flow of blood. He used the knife to cut a strip off the hem of his trousers while he had the chance and tied it tight around the wound. He crouched there afterwards, rocking a little to keep his mind from blanking out, anything to keep the lightheadedness at bay. But there was a point where a body began to succumb to blood loss and exhaustion and he'd passed that some time past. The next thing through that tunnel or the one after that would have him. He felt it.

Metal grated upon metal and he started, reached for the iron strip, waiting for something to emerge from the tunnel for a few moments before he realized that the noise wasn't coming from the tunnel but from the grate above. He blinked up, vision wavering no small bit, at the renewed number of faces staring down. At the flickering points of torches that made their faces into orange lit monstrosities.

With effort, he pushed himself to his feet and every ache, every strained muscle made itself known. A figure jumped down, landing with predatory grace. Diablo, weaponless and exuding smug confidence.

Cloud clenched his teeth, snarling at the audacity of the bastard. At the jeering, blurred faces above that cried encouragement and found entertainment in this carnage.

Well fuck them all. And fuck Diablo if he thought he had an easy victory coming.

Cloud looked down, letting an overlong fall of bangs hid his eyes. Then he moved, not towards Diablo, but the wall to his right, flinging the long piece of ragged metal as he did. It arced up, slicing through the wall of flesh and blood at the top of the pit wall. Men screamed and Diablo looked that way, and then Cloud was on him, launched off the wall and scoring a deep slice with the dagger, just missing the side of his neck and cutting into the man's jaw from ear to chin. Unfortunate that his aim was high, but he was off his game.

Diablo wasn't off his for more than the second his attention had been drawn to the damage Cloud had caused his men at the edge of the bay. He roared in outrage, fist catching Cloud in the shoulder as he passed, a powerful enough blow to send him to one knee, shaky as he was.

Cloud rolled before he could land another strike, and came up against the unexpected obstacle of a dead viperpede. He'd just missed the poisonous fangs. He scrambled away, but not fast enough to avoid Diablo's lunge at him, or Diablo's weight slamming into him. They both went sliding in the gore that coated the floor and Cloud's back hit the wall near the dark tunnel mouth. Cloud brought the knife up, trying to gut the man on top of him before his strength gave out under Diablo's assault. He got a knee in the groin and fist in the temple that made his vision tilt. It didn't stop him from biting back with the knife and scoring a slice across Diablo's palm.

Diablo snarled his face bloody and twisted, lips pulled back in an animalistic snarl, eyes . . . god, his eyes were not his own, glowing green with mako-fueled madness that Cloud only had the briefest glance at before the man slammed his forehead into Cloud's, filling his head with a shower of lights.

When he fought them away, the knife wasn't in his hand anymore, but against his throat, clenched in Diablo's knotted fist. Diablo's whole body seemed to tremble. In madness, in emotion, in some sort of internal battle that Cloud was not privy to. He shook his head like a dog with an ear infection and when he stopped and finally brought his face close to Cloud's, a certain calmness had come over him.

The knife bit into Cloud's neck and he took a shallow breath, letting his body go lax under Diablo, surrendering with the notion that if he survived this somehow, he'd live to fight another day.

"That's right," Diablo breathed against his cheek. "That's how I like you, Cloud. Submissive. Like you used to be, before we both lost our minds. You will be again. Begging for mercy. Working for it, before the end . . ."*

Cloud blinked, a vague, eerie deja vous whispering across his memory.

And then it clicked. He had heard those words, whispered to him in a nightmare by another man that had held a blade to his throat. A nightmare he'd woken from with a fresh paper-thin score on his neck that with time and rational he had convinced himself he'd done to himself in the throes of nightmare.

"Sephiroth," he said softly.

Diablo's eyes widened, his head jerking the pale blue overtaking the green that had glowed in his eyes.

"Sephiroth?" he roared and jerked Cloud forward only to slam him back against the wall with bone jarring impact. "Sephiroth!! That arrogant bastard! That fucking, brown-nosing piece of shit. Don't talk to me about Sephiroth."

The madness was back in full force, this time driven by a frothing tide of violence that Cloud hadn't the strength to fight.


* See Fever Dreams doujinshi for the Sephiroth nightmare sequence.




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