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The Devil's Own

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter six

 

They were like frickin' desert rats, swarming out of the hazy, heat rippled air, the wheels of their ragtag vehicles stirring up dust and sand in their wake. Bunch of delinquents, shooting and hollering like it was New Saint's day and Cid was the present waiting on the windowsill, only all that was on the inside of the wrapping was blood and guts and organs.

He emptied the little handgun he kept in the cockpit and didn't do much more than piss them off as they circled him, then crouched with his back to the wreck of the Little Bronco with pike in hand and waited for them to get close enough to strike at. He wasn't in good enough shape to venture out after them. Wasn't in good enough shape really, with the busted arm, to do much fighting in any sense of the word, but hell if he was going down without giving some pain of his own back.

They were playing with him. That he figured out right early on in the game. If they had enough ammo to waste shooting into the air, then they had enough to riddle him with bullets from a distance, instead of taunting him up close. That was the one plus in dealing with scum like this, they liked to play with their victims and they took chances doing it.

Stupid chances that got one of them close enough for Cid to slice open with the end of his pike as one of the little much-patched dune buggies rolled past. The unfortunate toppled from the back of the vehicle and instead of getting mad and serious, the others seemed to take enjoyment from the limp body bleeding into the dust, the sound of their laughter just audible over the roar of suped up engines. They didn't even bother swerving to avoid running over the body in their circling of Cid's position.

A shotgun blast peppered the fuselage close to Cid's shoulder and he dove forward, awkward and clumsy trying to protect the damaged arm. He came to his knees almost under the big front wheel of a rusty motor bike and ducked to avoid the swipe of a knife aimed for his head. He rolled and came up again, cursing at the pain and swung the pike at the closest body flashing by. The blade dinged harmlessly off the roll bar of the sand buggy his target was in. His aim was off and his strength sorely lacking. If he'd had full power behind that blow he could have sliced right through that bar and into the flesh it protected.

Impact glanced off his hip from behind, throwing him face forward into the hard, dusty earth. Laughter followed, and a closing of the circle. He could barely see from the dust in the air, or maybe that was his vision doubling. He cursed under his breath, clutching the pike in a sweaty palm, too far away from the plane to reclaim that partial shelter. He kept the pointy end of the pike out in front of him, spinning this way and that trying to keep the most threatening of them in his line of vision, but there was always something at his back.

A boot kicked him between the shoulder blades and he staggered forward, into the path of a three-wheeler. He glanced off one of the big, back wheels and tumbled, hitting the bum arm and crying out as a blinding stab of pain shot up his arm and straight into the space behind his eyes.

He got a knee under him, cradling the arm to his chest, holding the pike out, the shaft buried under his armpit, figuring he was about to go down for good and damned pissed that it would be in the middle of this damned desert with no one the wiser. No one that mattered, that was.

Something gunned into the mix of rag tag vehicles, against the flow of the pack's general direction. There was a screeching impact of metal and another as somebody rear ended somebody else in the dust. Shouts of protest and curses and then a scream that was cut short.

Cid used the pike to push himself to his feet, peering into dust that was clearing as the vehicles stopped. An open-topped, sawed-off truck that he hadn't noticed with the pack before had slammed into one of the sand buggies. It was driverless. Bodies were on the move, men shouting, screaming, guns firing and surprised, surprised they weren't being aimed at him.

He expected to see a flash of red in the mix, a flash of Vincent finally come to find out what had become of Cid. But it was no Vincent who was tearing through the ragtag wastelanders, it was Cloud, who was making a swathe so fast and so brutal that half a dozen men were down before the rest got wise that they'd switched from being predators to prey and scrambled for their rides, spitting sand and dust in their wake as they high-tailed it out of there.

Cid dropped to his knees before the dust even started to settle, letting the heavy pike hit the ground and curling in over his throbbing arm. That last fall had knocked something out of line, grating bone in a way that bone ought never grate. If he didn't have a stiff drink and soon he thought he might pass out.

He heard Cloud skid to the ground next to him, half noticed the puny little curved saber he dropped at his knees, half noted that there was a lot of flesh showing through the rips in Cloud's trousers and the tears in his sweater.

"I was lookin' for . . . you." Cid ground his teeth at a wave of pain.

"Let me see, Cid." Cloud tried to pry his fingers away from their protective grip on his broken forearm. Cid wasn't quite willing to let go.

"Goddamnit, Cid," Cloud said softly and Cid looked up at him, at a face with dark circles around the eyes, and bruising and scrapes on the skin. There was a nice set of marks around his throat like he'd come close to being strangled, and worse gashes on his body.

"You look like shit."

"Yeah. Let's get to the shade." He helped Cid up and Cid was happy to let the kid support a good deal of his weight. He slid down against the Little Bronco's fuselage under the shade of the wing and Cloud dropped to his knees at his side.

"How bad are you hurt?"

"My arm. Just my arm busted to hell. Where the fuck did you come from?'

"I saw the plane go down."

"Hunn. Least somebody did. Goddamn it, boy, that hurts!!"

Cid didn't quite jerk his arm away from Cloud's probing fingers, but it took a whole shitload of willpower not to.

"Don't make it worse."

"I'm not," Cloud said softly, feeling along the line of Cid's arm, fingers a helluva lot more gentle than you'd expect, all things considered.

"It's out of line. I'm going to straighten it."

"Aww . . . shit." Cid pressed his back into the plane and shut his eyes, waiting for the inevitable.

It came and it hurt like all kind of hell, but there was some bit of relief afterward, so he could sit there looking at nothing but the back of his eyelids in relative comfort while Cloud resplinted the arm.

"Y'know." Cid murmured, starting to think longingly about tobacco for the first time in a while. "You almost got a woman's touch with this doctoring shit. Light fingers."

Cloud didn't comment, sinking into a deeper slouch, hands on knees, head bowed, in the shade next to Cid.

"You okay?" Cid ventured.

Cloud didn't comment to that either.

"Damn lucky, you being close enough to see me go down. Who the hell were those bozos? What the fuck was it that took my plane down?"

"Wastelanders. High end materia blast."

"No shit. On both counts. Wanna give more details?"

"No." Cloud shifted around to get his back to the plane and leaned there, head back, eyes shut and drawing in the kind of deep breaths a man did when he was on his last leg and trying to gather energy that just wasn't there.

"The hell - !!" Cid swung around the best he could with his arm clutched to his chest. "I got two planes down 'cause o' you, boy. I damn well better get some explanation."

Cloud cracked his eyes open and canted a questioning stare at Cid. "Two?"

"Bastards tried to take me out in Rocket Town. Said something 'bout taking out your backup or some nonsense. Blew one of Sierra's engines. Rat bastard, sons of bitches!"

"You were out here . . . looking for me?"

"Yeah," Cid grumbled. "Was lookin' to save your ass and here you go savin' mine, instead."

Cloud was silent for a time then. "Vincent wasn't with you?"

Cid cursed, long and creatively. "Don't ask me where the idiot is. Out there somewhere." He waved his good arm. "Lookin' to do what, I haven't a clue. Crop circles're easier to read than that bastard. So, why don't you do me a favor, since we're resting against the ruins of the latest favor I done you, and tell me what the fuck is going on here."

Cloud took a breath, swallowing, getting that look he got when he was trying to gather words when talk didn't come easy to him. And he spilled it. Oh, not all, Cid was damned sure that a whole hell of a lot of things were held back from the painful pauses and the reluctant body language. He'd never known Cloud to outright lie, least not when he had an inkling he was doing it, but the stuff he left out was tantamount to mendacity sometimes. Cid had never figured out if it was just he didn't want to burden other folk with his troubles, or if he was simply that closed off.

Nevertheless, even the bare gist of what Cloud was telling him now was enough to make a man get goosebumps. Deranged super-Soldiers on the loose with visions of Sephiroth in their heads. Now if that wasn't scary, nothing was.

"What direction is Gold Saucer in?" Cloud finally asked.

"North east. Probably."

"You're not sure?"

"Do I look like I got a built-in compass? I'm all turned around, but . . . north east is my best bet."

"Which way is that?" Cloud shaded his eyes, looking out over the heat-baked landscape.

The sun was straight up over head, not giving Cid a clue. "Damned if I know, but there's a compass in the dash. Climb up into the cockpit and pry her out."

It wasn't like scavenging from the Little Bronco would make a spit's worth of difference - she was as dead as a plane could be. Might as well make use of her pieces and parts.

Cloud pushed himself up and took the little curved saber with him as he scaled the fuselage and climbed up to the canted cockpit. He slid back down the side of the plane and dropped onto the sand next to Cid with the little compass in hand. Cid took it, feeling a little pang of loss, and figured out which way they needed to go.

"Thata'way."

"Okay. Let's get moving." Cloud pushed himself up and held out a hand for Cid. There were a couple of vehicles abandoned by the wastelanders. The truck Cloud had come in on had a rumpled hood where he'd rammed into the circling band of wastelanders, but there was a big three wheeler with a padded back seat and big plastic tub maybe a quarter full of water strapped to the back. That was a welcome sight.

"Wait a minute." Cid let Cloud help him up, and stood swaying a moment before his balance kicked in. "That's a crappy little pig sticker you got there. Go check in the Bronco's storage hatch and see if you can't find something better."

Cloud lifted a brow at him, curious, but didn't ask questions. He went to the back of the plane, sporting just a slight limp now that adrenaline had cut out, and after rummaging about in the tumbled contents, withdrew the big-assed sword that Vincent had liberated from Gold Saucer security. Cloud actually smiled, holding the thing almost reverently.

"Cid . . . where did you . . .?" He couldn't finish the thought, swaying all of a sudden and catching himself with a hand upon the side of the plane. He leaned there, shuddering, holding the sword against his body and whether he was having a moment of weakness, or pain or just simple gratitude, Cid couldn't tell.

Cid didn't ask. It was the type of moment a man needed a little privacy during. He turned his back and trudged out to look over the abandoned three-wheeler. The thing stank of sweat and oil. There was a major leak under the engine casing that had spattered the back axial, and Cid hoped to hell it had the juice to get them back to civilization.

"Grab that jug of water and that pack," he directed Cloud once the kid had seemed to pull himself together. The water, well, you could never have too much in a place like this and the pack contained some things from the Little Bronco that he couldn't bear to leave to the desert sun, as well as the few dry rations he'd been able to get at with his arm busted to hell.

"It's going to be bumpy," Cloud commented and Cid tightened his lips, foreseeing a great deal of pain. He had Cloud help him make a sling out of his bomber jacket and wrapped the arm snug to his chest. It would protect it somewhat.

Cloud was right. It was bumpy as hell. It jarred healthy bones. He held on to the various straps and buckles of Cloud's sheath and ground his teeth, cursing during the worst of the treacherous terrain, sweating away more liquid than a body could afford out here in this heat.

Time seemed to stretch on forever, but according to his watch, it was really less than an hour they'd been traveling when they saw the dark exhalation of an explosion in the far distance west of them. Cid was a pretty good judge of distance and he figured forty, fifty miles at the least, which meant it had been a big blast.

Cloud skidded to a stop, shading his eyes to stare at the dissipating cloud of smoke.

"What in hell was that?" Cid asked.

"I don't know - - the outpost maybe. I lost track of which way I came."

"You an me both, kid. You think that crazy ex-soldier - no offense - turned back and took out his hideout?"

Cloud glanced over his shoulder, one brow faintly arched. "I doubt it. I think he's got a purpose and its taking him east."

"Shinra?"

Cloud shrugged. "Rufus's father might have commissioned the experiments that altered him, but it was Rufus that ordered him and his squad taken out."

"Yeah, and combine that with how bad Sephiroth's got it in for Shinra, I guess him heading east to Midgar is a pretty good bet."

They could head back the way of the explosion and see for sure, but it was a damned long ways off, further than Gold Saucer, by Cid's estimation, and they just didn't have the water to be traipsing out in the desert. Common sense said keep heading towards civilization. But in the back of his mind, he kept wondering if Vincent had had a hand in that explosion. And if he had, they were heading in the opposite direction, leaving him out there alone. Or as alone as a man could be with the remnants of a wasteland gang prowling about and god knew what else.

By the time they saw the towering gleam that was Gold Saucer in the distance, Cid's nerves were in a knot. It was damned useless to get himself worked up every time Vincent up and disappeared on him, because one, Vincent could take care for himself and two, Cid would be a raving madman if he stressed and worried all the times Vincent wasn't within reach. But that was a goddamned brutal desert out there and a man couldn't help but be concerned.

"Damn," Cloud said softly and drew Cid's attention back to Gold Saucer. The tower had been battered last he'd seen it, but it hadn't been leaning precariously. A good portion of the massive foot mangled and just plain gone and the tremendous weight of the structures above were beginning to collapse the support. Cid was no structural analyst, but his basic engineering and common sense told him that if some major shoring up wasn't done and soon, the whole tower would topple. Apparently he wasn't the only one to have come to that dour conclusion, for everything save the shanty shacks of the desert prison, had been cleared away from the left side of the thing and all the activity had backed off for about a two hundred yard radius on the side that common sense said the tower wouldn't topple.

The was a helluva lot more armed presence now than there had been when he and Vincent had been through here. Shinra blue uniforms outnumbered the Gold Saucer security now. And the Shinra blues were armed to the teeth. They were riled up and swarming like worker ants, trying to get a handle on a situation that they'd never had control of to begin with. Big machinery had been brought in, cranes and whatnot that probably were part of Gold Saucer's own construction fleet, and were doing what they could over at the base of the tower. Cid didn't envy those men their jobs.

It wasn't that hard to walk right into the mess. They weren't doing much in the way of setting up a perimeter around the outside, being more concerned with keeping folks out of the danger zone around the foot of the mega structure. There were a lot of civilians in the crowd, and bewildered park employees. All he and Cloud had to do was just walk into the crowd and nobody paid them a moment's heed.

They didn't even need to ask what had happened, it was all people could talk about. A man had come in from the desert. Security hadn't even tried to stop him, but he'd taken out a dozen men all the same. And when they'd come after him with more powerful weaponry, he'd wiped them out and calm as you please and while the survivors were scattering, he'd stood there laughing, gathering power, and aimed one tremendous blast of materia fueled energy at the base of the Gold Saucer and simply disappeared into the confusion as all hell was breaking loose.

Cloud didn't say a thing to that, just tightened his lips and went quiet and emotionless. Cid cursed enough for the both of them. Then cursed some more when someone jostled him and hit the arm. That got Cloud out of his shell. He caught Cid's good arm to get his attention and pointed to a row of temporary tents that had been set up a good ways beyond the danger zone. A couple of them had med symbols.

They wended their way through the crowd towards them, hoping like hell some overzealous security man didn't see Cloud's sword and give them grief over it. They got Cid in line and soon as a nurse with a Shinra symbol on her lab coat took him under her wing, Cloud murmured that he was going to take a look around.

"Fine," Cid shouted back, as the rather manly woman was urging him into the tent. "You just don't go far, hear. I'll kick your ass myself if you cut out on me."


Diablo was heading towards Midgar. Cloud was certain of it. The only thing was, he wasn't entirely sure he cared enough about the state of Rufus Shinra's health to follow in the madman's tracks. If Diablo took out Rufus, Cloud wouldn't lose sleep over it. Hell, it would be just retribution, all things considered. Rufus still had a open-ended hit out on any surviving member of Diablo's squad. If Diablo struck first . . . well, those were the breaks when you played high stakes games.

It wasn't like Sephiroth was going to emerge from the shell of Diablo's body like he had Kadaj, right? There were no more pieces of Jenova out there to fuel that transformation. No more raw material to bring him over the edge between half-life and life. That's what Rufus had claimed at any rate.

Cloud stood watching a group of ShinRa elite's disembark from a short range air transport and shuddered. He couldn't help it, it just came over him like he'd stepped into a current of frigid air. Shinra elite. The best Shinra had to offer these days. Highly trained, highly armed, highly deadly and still the whole unit probably couldn't have lasted more than a handful of minutes in close combat with a super-Soldier like Diablo. Like Sephiroth had been. Like Zack.

Rufus Shinra could surround himself with men like these and Diablo would still get through. His Turks might hold him off a little longer, some of them being uniquely talented, but still they weren't what Diablo was. They couldn't face up to him.

Cloud couldn't face up to him. He took a breath, stepping back into the shadow of a truck as the elite squad marched past. That last thought had come upon him unawares and it had come with a certain amount of apprehension that he didn't like feeling. But he couldn't shake it. Couldn't shake the trembly nausea he felt in the pit of his stomach when he thought too hard about Diablo, because inevitably everything would boil down to Diablo's breath on his neck and Diablo's body heavy and hard atop his own and himself - - just - - not - - able - - to fend him off.

"Are you okay?" A female voice asked him, a female hand came close to touching his arm and he felt himself reflected in her concern, hunched over, one hand fisted in his hair, the other at his mid-section, nails tearing gashes in the palm of his hand where the glove had been torn.

He straightened, pushing past her concern, striding for a few blind steps into the crowd, before gathering enough wits to settle on a destination. Beyond the spill of people, out into the fringes of the desert were the air transports. They were lightly guarded. Two ShinRa blues to each blocky vehicle. He could get past the security no problem, and he had enough faith in Cid to know that even one-handed, the man could fly them blind.

Even though the fate of Rufus Shinra meant relatively little to him, he needed to get back to Midgar and find out what had happened to Tifa and Barret. Diablo's bragging aside, neither one of them were easy targets. And since Diablo himself had been here targeting Cloud, it was unlikely that his wasteland riffraff had successfully taken down both Tifa and Barret.

But until he saw them, safe and sound, he couldn't shake the nagging little curl of fear in his gut. That and the fact that if Diablo was headed towards Midgar, Rufus Shinra might not be the only call he stopped to make.

He made the circuit of the perimeter the blues had sat up on the western side of the tower base, checking out security and the sorts of long range weapons that might have that would be capable of taking down an airborne target, if the theft of one of their transports was noticed. He could see the puffs of dust along the desert route from the Gold Saucer outbase at the base of the mountains. It wasn't an often used route, since personnel used the air trolleys, but it was the only way for the big equipment to get here. A long trip for a ponderous piece of machinery or transport trucks hauling massive materials.

He wished them all speed, not wishing to see the towering entertainment monstrosity fall. Despite not particularly enjoying the bulk of its attractions, it was a vital center of relief for a world that had seen too much misery.

He tore his eyes away from the mangled base of the tower and started back towards the med-tents. Cid was coming out as he was walking up, a new plasti-cast on his arm and a considerably more pleasant look on his craggy face than he'd had when he entered. God, if they'd shot him full of pain killers it meant flying was out.

"You okay?" Cloud edged up to him warily.

Cid's grin faded a bit. "Yeah, Just feels damned good to have bones aligned back the way they should be. Nurse had nice hands. Smelled good too."

"Tell me you're not high on pain killers."

Cid canted his head at him. "What makes you think that?"

"You were grinning."

"Yeah, I grin sometimes. I laugh. Unlike some folk, I could name. Why?"

"Found some Shinra air transports."

"Yeah? Well, all right." Cid grinned again.

"You are on drugs," Cloud complained.

Cid held up the fingers of his good hand maybe half an inch apart. "Just a little. Don't mean I can't fly."

Cloud took a breath, then another and started heading away, with Cid on his heels.

"Vin's out in that damned desert," Cid said at his shoulder. "Don't wanna leave without knowing he's okay."

Cloud frowned, torn. Getting to Tifa and his friends in Midgar before Diablo reached the city was a driving need. Leaving here and abandoning Vincent to the desert made nausea curl in his stomach. A wave of lightheadedness came over him and he faltered, swaying, and Cid's good hand clamped down upon his arm.

For a frightening moment, vision warped down a looping tunnel that he had little control over and there was nothing to do but lean there against Cid's support until it passed.

"Why the fuck," Cid said and may have repeated the question more than once, but Cloud wasn't sure, "didn't you get yourself checked out by the medics? When was the last time you ate?"

"I don't know."

"Don't know?" Cid's voice rose.

"I don't remember." Cloud extracted his arm from Cid's grasp, wanting them walking again now that the level of Cid's voice was attracting attention.

"Well, fuck, boy. You trying to burn yourself out. You ain't bulletproof, no matter what you think."

"I don't think that."

"Then take care of your damned self, before you break down when you can't afford to be breaking down. If we come across the bastard that did all this, don't expect me to take him out if you're too fucked up to lift that goddamned big sword of yours. When's the last time you slept?"

Cloud cast him a narrow glare and Cid glowered right back, not taking the hint.

"This morning," Cloud said.

"You do it on your own, or somebody knock you into it?"

He refused to answer that, stuffing his hands in his pockets and glaring at the ground before his boots.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," Cid said. "Goddamned kids, thinkin' they're immortal. You look like fuckin' shit, I mention that?"

"You mentioned."

They reached the edge of the perimeter, Cid still grumbling, and studied the dark shapes of the blocky Shinra transports. In another hour the sun would be down. It was already darkening and there was no residual glow from the heights of the Gold Saucer to throw the area below in perpetual illumination.

"Take the one on the end," Cid suggested, strolling that way himself. They bypassed a group of Gold Saucer security who didn't bat an eye at them, then Cid stopped to light a cigarette at the temporary guard rail separating the landing area from the crowd, while Cloud vaulted the fence and scurried into the shadow of the transport, low and fast.

He didn't draw his sword, having no desire to kill the guards. He took them out quickly, dragging the first one back with an arm around his neck and a restriction of air intake that had the man on the ground in less that fifteen seconds. The second he had to get a little more violent with when the man turned to speak to his partner and found Cloud instead. Cloud slammed his head against the landing gear before he could get a cry of alarm out. He dragged the both of them into the shadows beyond the nose of the craft. He spun at the crunch of boots, but it was only Cid strolling up to the craft like he had every legal reason to be there.

Cloud followed him up the ramp and onto the transport. There was a low, narrow walk lined with benches that led to a cramped cockpit. Cid eased himself down into the pilot's chair and started familiarizing himself with the controls.

"We're making some desert sweeps around that base to look for Vincent and I don't wanna hear shit about it."

Cloud stood behind him, looking out the dusty, slanted windshield at the flat, dark expanse of desert. He didn't argue the point. As worried as he was about Tifa and Barret, Vincent's possible trouble was closer at hand.

"All right. This thing is child's play. Go pull the wheel blocks and we're outta here."

Cloud went to do as he was told, moving down the ramp into the shadows and pulling the big wooden blocks out from behind the front wheel. He circled the craft on the desert side and paused to take one cautionary look towards the mulling military presence on the other side of the barrier, just to make sure there was no undue attention directed their way.

No one seemed the wiser. He turned to retreat up the ramp and there was a man at his shoulder. Just there, defying every honed sense he possessed. He was three paces back with his sword out of its sheath before the details registered.

Red cloak, pale skin, calm amber eyes. Cloud took a shaky breath and stood there with the sword still out, not feeling nearly so calm as Vincent looked and trying to come up with adequate words to express his lack of appreciation for the utterly silent method of Vincent's approach.

"Yeah, he does that to me all the time." Cid's voice drifted down from the top of the ramp. He'd obviously come to see what the hold up was and found Cloud facing off against a Vincent who looked no worse for wear considering he'd trekked out of the same dangerous desert the two of them had. "An' though I can understand the need to beat the crap outta him when he does it, you might want to sheath that thing 'fore somebody notices."

Cloud tightened his lips and slid the sword back into its sheath.

"It's good to see you're okay," Vincent said to him. "We were worried."

"Yeah, and I was worried about you, asshole, but does that get me any consideration?" Cid stomped back down to the front of the transport, Cloud and Vincent following in his wake. The whirr of the ramp pulling up and the hatch closing made the floor vibrate softly.

"What happened to you, Cid?" Vincent slid past Cloud to get a closer look at Cid and Cid's bum arm.

Cid said something foul and lit a cigarette. "Shot my fucking . . . . son of a bitch shot down the Little Bronco. Just took her out of the air easy as pie and she's out there all crumpled in this fucking desert."

"And you?"

"I'm sitting here, ain't I? Busted up my arm, as you can see."

Vincent straightened, some small bit of alarm flashing through his shadowed eyes. He looked at Cloud as if for confirmation.

Cloud shrugged, sinking down on one of the benches, wrapping a hand around a support strap in preparation for what would probably be a hasty take off. "I saw him go down. I went to help."

"Where the hell were you?" Cid demanded, considerably gruffer than the usual tones he took with Vincent.

"I found their base," Vincent said simply, frowning. "You were there?" he asked of Cloud.

Cloud nodded.

"It wasn't your handiwork, the carnage in the bunker." It wasn't a question.

"No," Cloud agreed. "Did you destroy it?"

Vincent put a hand on a hanging support strap as Cid hit the downward thrusters and the ship began to vibrate terribly. If there were shouts of protest from outside they couldn't hear them over the turbines.

"There were . . . things, beneath the surface of that place that needed an end. The seeds of atrocities that should never have been."

"I saw some of them," Cloud said, still feeling the sting of those forced encounters. "I thought they were catching them . . . bringing them there from the outside."

"No," Vincent said simply. "They were not." Then when Cloud kept staring, waiting for something else, he shrugged. "There were levels to that place that the bandits probably never knew of. Abandoned by Shinra along with the things they had spawned, breeding all this time. I imagine they might have captured things that found a way from the outpost. It was remiss of Shinra not to have destroyed the place in their wake. I corrected the oversight."

Cloud wanted to ask how he'd known. How he'd found that base in the vast desert. How he was familiar with the workings of secret Shinra experimental outposts. But he doubted he'd get an answer he liked, so he looked away, down to the dark, featureless end of the transport as the ship rose, veering sharply skyward.

There was some radio garble, a tinny voice asking for flight plan and orders, and Cid simply shut the radio off. It was doubtful they had the resources or the time to deal with one AWOL transport.

Cid sat a course almost due north, only veering east when they got to the Coral mountains and then skimming the eastern edge of them and heading north east over the fertile lands between mountains and coastline towards the coastal port of Costa Del Sol.

"You know this little air bucket ain't got it in 'er to make an ocean crossing. Gonna have to find another way 'cross the pond to the eastern continent." Cid said over his shoulder. "Good thing is, the man you're chasin' ain't going to have any easier way to get over there, either."

The thing was, Cloud wasn't sure he was chasing Diablo. He wasn't sure he wanted anything at the moment other than to insure the safety of his friends. This wasn't like the last time, when Kadaj had had that little piece of Jenova to initiate Sephiroth's crossing from the purgatory he was trapped in and into the realm of the living.

"Are you all right?" Vincent sat down opposite him, elbows on knees.

Cloud blinked, forcing his attention away from the featureless back end of the transport to somewhere around Vincent's general area.

He shrugged, a noncommittal answer to a difficult question.

"He's running on empty." Cid commented from up in the cockpit.

"This man. This Diablo. He beat you at Gold Saucer?"

Cloud tightened his mouth. "No. Yes." Remembering the child the man had used as a disposable shield hurt. "He took away my options."

"Then he's shrewd and merciless."

"Yes."

"And mad?"

"Yes. But, not like Sephiroth mad. Not cold. There's more carnage than calculation to his fits."

"You saw Sephiroth in him?"

Cloud did not wish to talk about his. Vincent's way of comfortable silences was not doing him justice now. Vincent wanted at the heart of the matter and Cloud did not want to revisit it. But to deny it, meant depriving the people who might back him up in a tight spot valuable information.

"Yes. Really, really close to the surface. He wants out. Bad. I don't think Diablo wants to let him. Diablo was never a big fan so I guess that works in our favor."

"Why are you alive, Cloud?" Vincent's amber eyes bored into him and he flinched from the directness of that state. Why was he alive when he should have been at the top of the list of people Sephiroth wanted dead? God knew Diablo held no humanitarian impulses that might have stayed his hand from one more kill. It was a good question. He wished he knew an answer that didn't make him sick to his stomach.

"I don't know."

Vincent nodded, then leaned back on his bench, resting his head against the padded headrest and shutting his eyes. The fact that he was willing to let it go was a gift.

"Two hours till Costa Del Sol, boys," Cid announced from the front. "Might as well relax and catch up on some shut eye while you got the chance, cause I just heard some chatter on the civilian radio band that leads me to think there's something not good going on there. Looks like Diablo got there before we did."

 

 

 

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