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The Devil's Own

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Seven

 

Cloud couldn't sleep during the flight. He tried, his body urging him that way out of sheer exhaustion, but his mind rebelled, rehashing every miserable thing that had happened during the last few days - - making connections to miserable things years past, contemplating things that hadn't happened yet, but might, and swirling it all together in a mix that made his heart thrum in his chest and his gut churn.

Vincent seemed to doze. Slouched across from him with his arms crossed under his cloak, chin on chest and face entirely hidden from view between the high collar and the fall of midnight hair. He hadn't said a thing since he'd questioned Cloud and Cloud was grateful for that since hiding things from Vincent was like hiding them from himself, only harder, because Cloud had become relatively good at self-denial over the years.

Cid talked a great deal during those two hours from Gold Saucer to Costa Del Sol. Most of it was complaint and bitching about his planes and Vincent wandering off when a man needed him and close-mouthed kids that drew trouble like electro-magnetic generators. He cursed a lot, but Cloud figured most of that was the pain killers wearing off a little and him having to move the bum arm more than he ought, piloting the little transport.

After a while, you learned to ignore Cid during his rants. To just tune him out and focus on your own troubles. It didn't get Cloud any closer to sleep. And then Cid was yelling back at them that they were coming up on Costa Del Sol and to hold on to their asses, 'cause he was coming down fast and low outside of town to avoid the wrong sort of attention from folks who might wonder why a ShinRa transport wasn't sporting a ShinRa crew.

Despite the warnings, the landing was a gentle one, in the dunes maybe a half mile outside of town.

Costa Del Sol had always been a laid back, resort sort of town, but there was no denying the choice coastal location, and shippers had taken advantage. ShinRa had an established port there, one of their two big western stops for ocean travel between the continents. The civilian ports had grown as well, and all manner of cargo made its way through Costa Del Sol. It was inevitable, with that growing traffic, that the quaint little beach resort would not stay as laid back and relaxed as it had once been. Oh, it still strived for that idyllic atmosphere. No shipping businesses were allowed within Old Costa Del Sol, no buildings constructed that did not meet with the local aesthetic, which meant that most of the warehouses and port authority buildings had been built on the far side of the port, across the dunes and away from the cobblestone streets and quasi-thatched roofs that topped sandstone buildings in the beach resort.

It didn't mean the town didn't get business from sailors and dock workers and ShinRa personnel, which meant that new 'acceptable' businesses had to crop up. New inns, taverns and beach front eateries and shops and entertainment's that sprang up under palm-frond awnings along the boardwalk. Cloud had been here a dozen times in the last few years, making deliveries, and had seen the growth in progress. It was no surprise to him, trudging up the beach from the dune where they'd landed, to see the boardwalk expanded half a mile and lit with the festive lights of business open for night tourists.

There was a band playing on one of the decks in front of a restaurant. A rhythmic, tropical-sounding music that had the patrons swaying in their seats or outright dancing. Whatever trouble Cid had heard about on the radio, hadn't seemed to dampen these folk's evening.

They walked the boardwalk down the beach front, weaving around cafe tables that had spilled out onto the plank thoroughfare, avoiding gleefully drunken, half-naked tourists with festive, umbrella decorated drinks in their hands.

They bypassed the newer establishments and headed for the older part of town. You could see the lights of the port from there, and hear the occasional deep-throated whistle of a ship's horn coming in out from sea. The ShinRa lighthouse/control tower was a flashing beacon in the dark sky way down the concrete and metal docks that had obscured the beach on the port side of town.

"We ought to go check out what sort of transport is down there," Cid said wearily. "If we're lucky, there's a ShinRa airship making a stopover. Not as fast as the Sierra - -" He shrugged, "but better'n takin' a cruise."

"We don't all need to go," Vincent said, stopping on the red sandstone patio outside one of the older inns. "Neither one of you is up to prowling the docks with any sort of stealth tonight."

"Yeah, says you," Cid grumbled querulously, still out of sorts with Vincent. Cloud let Cid do the arguing, frankly not up to it at the moment. He stood there while Cid bickered and Vincent responded in monosyllables. He felt his mind start to wander again and snagged it with an in-drawn breath and the realization that the sword was getting damned heavy on his back. A bed was an attractive thought.

"Cid. Shut up," he muttered, getting a narrow-eyed look from Cid for the interruption. "Let him go. Let's see if they have rooms."

Cid mumbled something that was most likely a curse under his breath, turned the narrow stare on Vincent and growled, "Be back within a goddamned hour or I come out lookin' for you, understand?"

Vincent inclined his head, something in his eyes suggesting a smile might have crossed his lips behind the shield of his collar.

Vincent melted into the night and Cid stood there staring at the darkness for a moment. Cloud pushed through the swinging double doors of the inn, letting Cid come to terms with whatever problem he was having with Vincent on his own. The lobby was small and empty, save for one sleepy clerk dozing off behind the counter. He'd stayed here before. It didn't much matter that the carpets were worn or the lacquer chipping on some of the teak fixtures. It was cheap and clean and didn't get the tourist trade the newer places did.

"I need a couple of rooms." He fought the urge to lean on the counter. If Vincent planned on sleeping at all, he figured he'd do it with Cid. If he'd been less wiped out, he might have felt a little sting of envy over that. As it was, if Vincent slumbered hanging from the ceiling like a big red bat, he couldn't have cared less.

"We've got one double," the clerk said, yawning. "And that's only because the guests who were staying there got nabbed by the constable for drunk and disorderly. Something happened down at the Saucer, I hear and we got a big influx of folks that were booted out and are on their way home."

"A double's fine."

"Any trouble kicked up in town, 'cause of it?" Cid clomped up behind Cloud, using his lance as an overlong walking stick.

"A lot more drunks, a few more brawls," the clerk said. "But that's about it."

Cloud exchanged a look with Cid. If Diablo had been through here, he'd likely have brought trouble that the town would have talked about for weeks after. Which meant either he'd gotten a hold of his sanity and had made a quiet passage or more likely, he hadn't gotten here yet, if he was planning on making Costa Del Sol his departure point for the eastern continent at all.

It almost would have been better if he had come through and left a smoking trail. At least then Cloud would have known where he was. Not knowing made a sick little knot in his gut.

"200 gil a night for the room," the clerk said. Cid paid, grumbling about overpriced resort town room rates. Cloud took the room key and started for the antiquated elevator with its manually sliding wrought iron cage door.

Third floor. Room 318. His boots were overloud walking down the plank wood hallway. Or maybe it was just him, being oversensitive, suddenly feeling out of place in a sleepy hotel hallway.

It was a corner room, with one seaside window and one overlooking the street in front of the hotel. It smelled a little of booze and cigarette smoke from the previous occupants. The hotel staff had gotten around to making the beds, but hadn't aired the room out yet. Cloud opened the seaside window first thing and leaned there staring out at the inky blackness that represented the ocean.

"You take the shower first." The bedsprings squeaked as Cid eased himself down on one of the beds. Cloud glanced over his shoulder at him, and Cid waved a hand, urging him towards the small bath. "Go on, you smell like you've been wallowing in blood n' guts."

Which, in a way he had, after that night in the pit at the desert outpost. He sighed, and started in on the buckles that secured his shoulder sheath, easing it off, sword intact with a relief from weight that almost felt like sexual gratification. He arched his back, rotating his shoulders and the ache hit him like a fist in the back. Like several fists, zeroing in on the bruises and the half-healed cuts and the hollow hurt of the through and through Diablo had scored in his side. If he sat down to take off his boots, he wasn't sure he could get back up without embarrassing himself, so he leaned against the door frame to the bathroom and pulled them off, one by one and dropped them outside the door.

Once inside, behind the shield of the door, he allowed the stiffness to show a little more, wincing as he shrugged the sweater off, and bent to step out of his pants. The shower was a box in the wall with frosted glass on the outside panel. There was a narrow wooden bench against the back wall. He stepped in and turned on the water, not caring that it took a few moments to warm up. It was water and it sluiced across his skin washing away the blood and the grim and the other things that stained him. He took a rag and the bar of coconut-scented soap and scrubbed at his skin, determined to get rid of the subtle stench that Sephiroth - - no, Diablo, had left on him. Not all of it would come, even though he'd opened scabs with his efforts. Part of it was on the inside, twining up with the shadow reek of Sephiroth that had always lurked inside him. That bit of poison that had always kept him from being entirely comfortable with life after Meteor . . . that had kept him from being entirely sane.

He shuddered, seeing a thin mix of blood in the water at the bottom of the stall, spiraling down the drain with the rest. He looked down his body, slick and a little pink from the heat of the water and saw a trickle of red leaking from the wound in his side, the one Diablo had made - - how many days ago? Two, three? It couldn't have been more, could it? The water and his scrubbing had broken the scab there as well. He'd had worse wounds by far, but this one plagued him in a different way, with the memories of the child's shocked face as she died, probably not even feeling the blade that pierced her - - of Diablo forcing his way inside for the first time, his arm blade no less devastating than - -

God. Cloud hissed, shaking his head hard, wet hair clinging to his face, blinding him to the physical but not the nightmare images that insisted on surging up in his mind.

Stop it. Stop it!! He slammed his forehead into the tile under the shower head and leaned there, blessedly seeing nothing but bright lights for a moment. His knees shook and somewhere in the back of his mind the idea of sliding down the slick tile and sitting there under the spray of hot water until his skin melted off was vaguely appealing. But then Cid would get in a snit for having to wait for his own shower and Cloud would have to listen to those complaints for the rest of the night.

He pushed himself away from the wall, cut off the water and snagged one of the big towels on the rack next to the shower stall. He dried off half-heartedly, hair still wet and dripping down his back, skin still slick in places. It didn't matter the warmth of the room would eat the moisture up. He wrapped the towel around his hips, grabbed up his pile of clothing and left the bath accompanied by a gust of steam. He dropped the clothing on the floor next to the bed and collapsed onto it, not bothering to pull back the covers.

God, but the pillow was sweet soft, even if it was slowly dampening, soaking up the wetness of his hair.

"Better be some damned hot water left." Cid grumbled and Cloud found that complaint amusing for some reason and let his lips twitch into a smile before he dropped into darkness.


Straight from the shower, Cid lit a cigarette by the window, leaning against the frame and blowing smoke out into the cool ocean air. What a relief, nicotine in his lungs and the dust off his skin. Like Cloud, he'd hesitated donning dirty clothes so soon after getting a body clean, so he wore a towel or two. One around his shoulders and one wrapped around bony hips. Granted, he didn't wear it as well as the kid, having hairy legs and knobby knees and a forty-plus year old body. The years did things to a man that tended to knock ego down a peg or two. Vincent never complained.

He didn't finish the cigarette, finding the draw of the bed more intense than the need for every last lung full of smoke. He stubbed it out on the sill and flicked the butt out the window, then cradling his bad arm, ambled towards the second bed. He eased himself down, sighing as the springs gave just a fraction under his weight. Nothing like a nice, firm mattress to soothe a man's sore back.

He sat there, leaning over his knees and stared at Cloud. The kid had sprawled into bed and fallen asleep where he fell. Smooth, golden skin was sporting a lot of bruising and scrapes. Deeper cuts here and there that looked like claw marks. The kid had gone through the ringer all right. Little wonder he was out before his head hit the pillow.

Cid felt a sympathy that went bone deep, the ache of his own pain and exhaustion dragging him down. He was too goddamned old for this traipsing around fighting gangs of lunatics. He'd had the security of Sierra and a good business and a look what happened. It was enough to make a man shed a tear and he might have, now that he had a moment to rest, save that Vincent might show up at his elbow with no warning, or the kid might wake up, and damned if he would be caught at it.

He eased himself back, careful of the cast-covered arm, and stared at the lazily turning spokes of the ceiling fan. What he ought to be doing was finding a phone and making a call to Rocket Town to see what progress they'd had with the engine. If they needed parts, then he ought to be hunting down sources and arranging delivery. He had some favors out there that could be called in.

He shut his eyes for a second, having no intention of sleeping until Vincent showed back up, then blinked them open, disoriented, at a hand on his shoulder.

"What the - -?"

Vincent held a metal finger up to his lips for silence and Cid momentarily froze thinking danger, but then it sank in that Vincent didn't have a gun out, and his eyes were a redolent amber instead of demonic red, so lunatics were probably not outside the door.

"A ShinRa airship from the East refueled here this afternoon, headed for Gold Saucer. It will be back through tomorrow to refuel for the return trip," Vincent said softly.

Cid pinched the bridge of his nose, then ran a hand through hair that was bone dry, which meant Vincent had been longer coming back than the hour he'd promised. But, beggars shouldn't be choosers, so Cid let it slide in favor of curiosity as to what sort of transport they were talking about. "Troop carrier? Supply delivery? What?"

"I don't know. We can find out when we slip aboard her tomorrow."

Cid grunted, hoping like hell that slipping aboard didn't entail a fight, because none of them - - well - - discounting Vincent and maybe Cloud - - were up to it.

"Why don't you lay down and get some rest?" He patted the mattress next to him. The bed was bigger than his bunk on Sierra and God knew they'd shared that enough times without getting in each other's way. Vincent glanced over him to Cloud, who hadn't moved much since he'd fallen asleep.

"I think I'll clean up a little," Vincent said softly, gently laid his human hand on Cid's cast, before rising and heading towards the bath with a quiet swish of cloak. Vincent had a thing for cleanliness, which was odd since the man didn't sweat that Cid had ever noticed, didn't sprout stubble or emit body odor like any normal human being. He wasn't normal, of course, but - - well, Cid didn't dwell much on that.

Cid lay there for a while, listening to the muffled sound of water through the door. He glanced at Cloud, who hadn't stirred, glanced the other way to the little wicker table next to his bed and the mostly empty pack of smokes and almost made a grab for them. But no, Vincent wasn't much for the smoke and he wasn't ready to go stick his head out the window to scratch a not-too-insistent nicotine itch. Better to get up and skulk up to the bathroom door, and hover on the outside of it with his shoulder on the frame, wondering if Vincent would resent the intrusion. Vincent liked his privacies. He liked his little seclusions and his secrets and he liked Cid because Cid didn't pry into them and because Cid knew when to back off and give a man space.

He rapped softly on the door anyway and there was a moment or two before the water shut off and it opened. Vincent looked out at him from the crack, a slice of pale skin from his face to his pants, the hair around his face and shoulders a little damp, the long ends clumping together here and there and clinging to his skin.

Pretty, Cid thought. Pretty patterns of black hair on skin that held too many pale, pale tracings of old scars.

"You busy?" Cid inquired and Vincent lifted a dark brow, mouth quirking a little. He stepped back and let Cid push the door open enough to slip inside of the small bathroom, and pull it shut behind him. Vincent's cloak, scarf and black shirt were hanging neatly from the hook on the back of the door. His gun belts were on the closed toilet top. He was using a wash rag and the sink instead of the shower. God knew the reasoning.

"Its not a bad shower," Cid said, leaning against the sink.

Vincent shrugged, standing there under the glare of an incandescent light bulb, bare-chested, basically unarmed and antsy because of it, even if it was only Cid in the room with him.

"I regret," Vincent started to say, not quite meeting his eyes. "Your arm."

"Not your fault. Plane met ground. Boom. I'm lucky I all busted was the arm."

Vincent shook his head. "No, I should have been . . .."

"What, with me? Yeah, it mighta been nice sharing the pain with somebody else, but you damn well couldn't of stopped it. If you wanna regret taking off like a bat outta hell without telling me why - - really why - - that you can regret."

Vincent's amber eyes snapped up to him, narrowed, but there was something mournful almost beyond the surface emotion.

"You wanna tell me how you knew about that place?" Cid asked, because that place, that bunker in the desert was at the root of the problem. He'd been evasive with the answer before and Cid was tired of not knowing exactly what the hell was going on.

"No," Vincent said.

"No?" Cid repeated. "Okay then, let me give it a shot. You weren't no Turk when you became aquatinted with that bunker or another one like it. You were a guinea pig. Close?"

A spark of anger flashed in Vincent's eyes, and amber burned to orange around the pupil.

"And that bastard Hojo or another like him played mad scientist and contributed to the long list of things they did that fucked you up? Warm?"

"Hojo was - - selfish - - with his pet projects. It was only ever at his hand or his direction that I was - -" Vincent swallowed and the eyes went full red, the pupil stretched long like a cats. " - - fucked up, as you say."

Cid stood there and waited, wishing for that cigarette he'd passed by earlier, nerves tingling with agitation he was either picking up from Vincent or honestly coming by, frustrated that he hadn't had an up close and personal hand in Hojo's demise.

"Yes, I saw firsthand . ..," Vincent started to say, then took a breath and looked past Cid at nothing, gathering his thoughts. "There was another such lab on Goblin Island which they did destroy. I assumed the others were similarly disposed of. It would have been the - - responsible thing to do, but I suppose ShinRa had other problems to occupy its resources. Other priorities."

"Yeah, what'da they care what gets out to cause a ruckus 'mongst the poor souls who're living out here in the desert."

"There was a breeding lab in the mountains north of Nibelheim. One near Junon that may or may not have been destroyed after Meteor. Rumors even of a large facility deep under Midgar. A few others, I think."

"So, then we get our butts in gear after we solve this problem of Cloud's and go and see for ourselves if ShinRa cleaned house. And if not - - we do it ourselves."

Vincent canted his head, eyes fading back to amber. "I could not ask you . ..."

"You didn't ask, idiot. I offered. Difference there. 'Sides which, the Sierra'll be fixed by then, Gods willin', and it'll be no big thing, traipsing around looking."

Vincent didn't answer right away, caught up in looking at his metal hand resting on the white porcelain of the sink, so Cid caught a fistful of black hair and pulled him forward.

"Okay?"

He got a nod, which might have been reluctant or might have just been Vincent's inability to show proper human emotion. Cid pulled him closer to seal the deal, mouth on mouth, a dexterous meeting on tongues, Cid's stubble against the woman-smooth skin of Vincent's chin. That was the only womanly thing about him, body hard and firm against Cid's as he leaned into the thing, pressing Cid back against the door, human hand gripping Cid's good shoulder with a strength that would probably leave marks. The sharp tips of metal fingers touched his cast, then flickered away, skimming down to his bony hip instead.

Cid leaned his head back against the cloak padded door and sighed, deep and thankful, as Vincent sank down before him, pulling the towel loose and rubbing his cheek against Cid's bobbing erection like a cat trying to manipulate supper out of its master. Then he caught it in his mouth and proceeded to rock Cid's world as Cid ground his teeth and dug his fingers into his palms in efforts to keep his mouth shut. Cloud might well sleep through quiet moving about the room and muffled showers, but Cid doubted the kid would snooze through moans, groans and passionate outcries, even if they were behind the bathroom door.

But damned if it wasn't hard not to react, not to pound his fists against the door and cry out in encouragement at the warm, wet pressure around his cock. At soft lips and velvet tongue and the occasional scrape of teeth along sensitive skin and veins. He buried the fingers of his good hand in Vincent's hair, probably not as gently as he might have, tangling his fingers like talons in silk soft strands. Vincent didn't complain. Vincent never did.

And for a few brief minutes there, Cid's shattering mind figured that all he really needed out of life was Vincent's talented mouth and Vincent's warm fingers on his nuts, manipulating and squeezing, pulling, stroking, while his cock thought it was going to heaven under the ministrations of Vincent's mouth.

And damned if Vincent didn't take him there, and he almost lost his footing at the intensity of it, and had to brace his legs on either side of Vincent's knees and grip Vincent's shoulder with his good hand while instinct took over and tried to ram his cock down Vincent's throat in the spasms accompanying orgasm.

Vincent endured it, throat working as he swallowed and then leaning there as the steam went out of Cid's sails and he began to soften, still enveloped in the warmth of a mouth.

After a moment, Vincent pulled back, canting his head up to watch Cid as Cid forced his fingers to loosen their death-grip on Vincent's hair, smoothing it instead. He was spent and he hadn't done a damned thing other than stand there and receive and being on the receiving end without offering reciprocation sat wrong with him. He grimaced, figuring how he was going to work it in this cramped space, with stiff knees and one bum arm.

"It's okay." Vincent got from his knees to his feet with inhuman grace and leaned there with his cool skin against Cid's heated chest for a moment, sharing the slow, steady beat of his heart. It seeped into Cid, that calmness, and his own thudding pulse slowed.

"There's a laundry down the hall." Vincent told him. "Give me a few gil and I'll put your clothes in, and Clouds."

Damned if Vincent couldn't throw a man for a loop, going from breathless sex to mundanity in the blink of an eye. Cid took a breath, gathering his wits and glanced around at the clothing he'd left discarded on the bathroom floor after his shower. Clean clothes wouldn't be a bad thing.

"Yeah, okay."


Cloud woke up groggy, not feeling nearly as rested as he should have, considering that the wan light of early morning lit the room through the two open windows. He ached. His side hurt deep down beneath flesh and muscle, making him want to lay there with his eyes closed and just vegetate while the world ticked on around him. Of course, that option never seemed viable when he really wanted it.

He opened his eyes and sat up, frowning at the stitch in his side, absently touching the crusted edges of the wound. He was naked under the sheet, but his skin was clean and smelled faintly of coconut, which recalled the shower last night and vaguely the trip from it to the bed which he found himself in now. The other bed was rumpled but empty, as was the room. His clothing was neatly folded upon the small table between the windows, his boots on the floor beneath it, his sword against the wall in the corner and his assorted gear stashed on the floor by his boots. Seeing the big sword made him feel better, let him release the curling bud of unease and flop back down onto the soft bed, even if just for a few moments of sheer creature comfort.

Of course laying there, now that he was fully awake, encased in a comfortable mattress and a feather pillow, with a sweet breeze coming in through the windows, made him feel guilty. Like he ought to be up and busting his ass, even though he wasn't quite sure at the moment what he ought to be busting his ass doing, an ocean away from where he wanted to be.

He needed to call Tifa. It had been - - how many days since he'd last tried - - and if she were okay, then she'd have access to a phone by now and if she weren't - - well, he wasn't prepared to accept that possibility just yet. There wasn't a phone in the room, but there'd be one down in the lobby.

He pushed himself up again, striding over to his clothes, which were miraculously fresh smelling and clean, albeit ripped, slashed and torn in places. He dressed, frowning at the particular slash that severed the sweater zipper half way down. The corresponding scratch on his chest was almost healed, but then it had been a shallow one. He buckled belts and strapped on shoulder guard and sheath and slid the sword in last of all. It was considerably lighter than it had been last night when he'd staggered up here. There wasn't a key to the room lying around, so he figured Cid had it, wherever Cid was.

He went down to the lobby, which had a few more people in it this morning taking advantage of the free coffee and donuts set up on a side table by the door. He ignored those and went for the desk. There was a girl behind it this morning and she looked at him, and looked at him again and smiled nervously. He thought it might have been the sword.

"Do you have a phone?"

"There's a pay phone outside." She was still smiling. Cloud could see a phone on the desk behind the counter. Since he had been relieved of his money by the wastelanders and Cid was nowhere in sight, the payphone was not an option.

"Can I use that one?"

She followed his stare to the hotel phone. "Oh, that's not for - - uh - - guest use."

He kept staring at her and her cheeks turned pink and something sort of a like a giggle escaped her. "Well, maybe, for you. It's local, right?"

"No," he said and reached past her for the phone. She didn't try to stop him, just stood there, staring while he dialed the number.

Busy signal. Damn. He stood there frowning at the phone like it was its fault. He hung it up and started again with a different number. Got three digits in and had to wrack his brain for the final numbers. The problem with having a cell with a speed dial was that you never had to remember phone numbers, even when you needed to. He punched in a likely combination and waited.

"Yeah, what?" Barett's deep, annoyed sounding voice barked at him through the ear piece.

Cloud let out a breath, thankful of small miracles. "It's me. Are you guys all right?"

There was a pause on the other end, a gathering of breath for the explosive curse that blared through the ear piece.

"Where the hell are you? We been worrying our asses off here, and you just gettin' around to callin'?"

"Sorry. I've been busy. Is Tifa okay?"

"Tifa's worried and she's pissed. That okay, enough for you, Spikey?"

"It works for me. What happened?"

"Damned wasteland trash is what happened. Come traipsin' in here like they own the place, busting shit up and scaring the hell out of the kids."

"No one was hurt?" Cloud asked hopefully.

He got a snort over the line in response to that. "Bunch of bandit trash was. Kids're okay. That snake uptown was damned interested in a downtown ruckus. Tifa went and talked with him."

"Who? Rufus?" Cloud tightened his grip on the phone, feeling the unease creep back in.

"Yeah, him. So what the hell happened to you?"

"Later. I've gotta go."

"Wait just a damned min - -"

Cloud hung up the phone, pushed it back towards the receptionist without actually seeing her, thoughts centered around several points of growing irritation. He wasn't sure what he was more pissed about; the wastelanders trying their luck on Tifa and thankfully Barett or Rufus ShinRa dragging Tifa more into this mess than Cloud wanted her to be. It was bad enough Cid had been attacked, threatening Tifa and the innocents who she protected just made him want to wreck some havoc of his own. It must have shown on his face, because the girl who'd been about to open her mouth, shut it, the flirty smile fading and found some papers that needed shuffling until he stalked away.

He went outside and into the cool early morning breeze whipping in from the ocean. He stood there a moment, letting it ruffle his hair, letting it cool down his initial hot anger while he got his bearings. He hadn't been entirely with it last night when they'd stumbled into town. He located familiar landmarks and oriented himself now. Old Costa Del Sol was where he stood. The docks were south. Where Cid and Vincent were was anyone's guess.

He started walking towards the docks, passing the occasional early riser or surfers hauling their big boards out to catch the morning waves. There were vendors starting to open shop and patio bistro's serving breakfast at sidewalk tables. He realized he was hungry. Very, very hungry. The smells of breakfast brought it on and his stomach complained so vehemently that he felt momentarily lightheaded.

The smell of cigarette smoke interfered with the tantalizing smell of frying breakfast meat and fresh bread and he encountered a bit of luck for the first time in days that didn't encompass escaping death by the skin of his teeth.

"Hey, kid." Cid was sitting under the shade of an umbrella over one of the patio tables, a cup of coffee and a half-eaten plate of breakfast before him.

"You're up early," Cid said, beckoning and Cloud lifted a brow at the irony of that, considering how cold Cid's bed had been.

"What do we know?" Cloud asked, standing just outside the umbrella shade.

"Well, for starters, there's a buffet inside, grab a plate and fill 'er up."

Cloud kept waiting until Cid waggled fingers at him and finished up the dregs of his coffee. "Eat and talk, okay. Send the waiter back with a fresh pot of coffee, while you're at it."

Cloud narrowed his eyes, not liking being put off, but his stomach was in full agreement with Cid and arguing with the both of them would have been fruitless, so he stalked into the bistro and momentarily forgot his irritation at the sights and smells coming from a nicely set up little breakfast buffet. There were two or three sorts of breakfast meats, but he chose sausage grilled with peppers of varying color over eggs, with fresh toasted bread under sharp melted cheese. He got back to the table and there was a fresh cup of dark coffee waiting for him. Cid had appropriated the pot and was happily sipping his black. Cloud liked sugar and cream if he could get it, otherwise, he'd rather avoid the stuff. There was sugar and cream aplenty here, so he doctored his cup while he was eating and listened to Cid report Vincent's findings from last night.

"Is it here yet?" he asked between mouthfuls of sausage and egg.

"Due in soon," Cid said. "Vin's down at the docks somewhere keeping an eye out."

Cloud figured that was about right, Vincent not being much for brightly lit, beachfront breakfast bistros.

"Tifa and Barett are okay," he said. "They got hit though, the same as you."

"Damn." Cid put down his cup and swore a little more, drawing attention from a disapproving woman with two kids at the next table. "This bastard's really got it in for you, huh?"

Cloud didn't feel the need to answer that. It was Sephiroth's memories and Sephiroth's hatreds that were driving Diablo. But it wasn't Sephiroth and that was the important thing.

It was nice just to sit there and eat, to enjoy the flavor of food and not scarf it down like a dog fearing for its last meal. The sausage was spicy and the eggs mellow and soft. It was a good combination. Cid smoked another cigarette while Cloud concentrated on his plate.

Cloud was pretty much done, save for wistful thoughts about the fruit bar, when Cid cocked his head, stood up and shaded his eyes, staring west towards the overcast that shrouded the inland mountains.

"It's not heavy cargo," Cid surmised, before anything was even visible. Cloud discerned the faint sound of engines.

"Turbines," Cid said, tossing the smoke on the ground and squashing it with the toe of his boot. "New ones."

He tossed gil onto the table and started walking towards the edge of town and the bridge that would take them to the road leading down to the docks. Cloud swallowed down the last of his cooled coffee and followed. By the time they'd crossed the bridge out of town the airship had closed the distance, coming in from the south west to avoid over-flying the town. Cid had been right. She didn't have the big belly of a cargo ship, even though her engines looked like they could have handled the weight. She was sleek and shiny, about a third Sierra's size.

"New and fast," Cid said, watching the air ship settle down towards the cleared area beyond the port. The dunes between them and it swallowed the view up then and all they could hear were powerful engines that eventually revved down and were overcome by the more commonplace sounds of ocean born traffic.

No one looked twice at them walking the port. They belonged there was much as any of the other sailors, passengers, dock-workers, merchants or curious bystanders that were out and about this morning. Cid would have blended regardless, knowing the walk and the talk of these sorts of people. Cloud might have gotten looks otherwise. Because of the sword, because of the rips and tears and the half-healed skin under them, because he felt quarrelsome and could hardly ever hide the emotion when it came upon him, because he wasn't quite like the rest of them, could never quite be like the rest of them and he never forgot it and sometimes people sensed the unease in him. Or maybe it was just the sword.

They trudged past cargo in huge stacks on the docks, waiting to be transported to warehouses or picked up by merchants or loaded onto ships. There were ShinRa blues walking here and there, not nearly as many as there had been years ago before the company had taken a fall along with the rest of the world. Still, Cloud never could quite shake feeling a little nervous walking among them. Old habits.

There was a short road between the dock proper, the stacked cargo and the airstrip. A fueling truck was bouncing along it, towards the settled airship. Cid leaned against a pallet of cargo and stared at it, tapping out another smoke as he did. There was something akin to envy in his eyes and a trace of it in his voice when he spoke.

"Well ain't she a sight. I didn't know they had her operational yet."

Cloud watched and waited silently.

"Mantra Ray class - - well not much a class yet, since she's the proto-type. See those reverse flow turbines? Bastards stole that design from me - - well, maybe not so much stole since I came up with the concept back when ShinRa was footin' the bills, but still, my basic design. I'd trade my left nut for a pair of engines like those."

"The bigger the engine, the better the ship?" Vincent asked and they both started, glaring up to the top of the stack of cargo where Vincent perched.

"Goddamn it!" Cid swore. Cloud took his hand off the hilt of his sword, and wondered if Vincent found diversion in startling people who generally weren't used to be taken unawares.

"So," Vincent surmised, not bothering to jump down and join them. "She seems a little large to hijack."

"Yeah." Cid snorted. And more than likely she'd need more than just one one-handed pilot to fly. "We could just walk up and ask to hitch a ride."

That sounded like a credible idea.

"That works for me." Cloud nodded and started walking towards the airship.

There was a long enough silence behind him to figure that it was taking Cid a moment to gather his wits enough to curse or complain about the course of action.

"Wait just a damn minute . . .," finally got sputtered out. "Son of a bitch, Cloud, you trying to get us in hot water?"

"No." Cloud kept walking. He heard Cid's boots crunching on gravel behind him, and Cid's muttered obscenities. He didn't hear Vincent, but saw the flutter of red and glanced to his side to find him striding there silently, eyes pale amber and amused in the morning light.

He left the gravel road and stepped onto paved airstrip. The ship's sheen was dulled by the coat of precipitation that beaded the hull. All except for the engines which were still hot from use. There were no outright ShinRa logos on the hull, but there was little doubt who had built her and who operated her, especially when they got close enough to see the blues clustered around strip around her.

"Fuck," Cid muttered, finally lighting the smoke he'd had dangling between his lips since Vincent's appearance. Then. "Fuck, she's nice."

The blues saw them and since they didn't look anything close to port personal, they got suspicious, threatening looks on their faces and fingered their weapons. A few of them marched up, ready to exert blue authority.

"This is a restricted area, not for sightseeing. State your business or turn around and clear out."

Cloud canted his head, looking beyond the officer to the assorted muscle behind him. Six blues with various mild weaponry. Who knew how many inside the ship.

"I said, state your business!" The officer had drawn himself up, filled with the self-righteous authority he thought his uniform and a half dozen soldiers behind him gave him. He felt Cid shift a little beside him and to the right. Vincent didn't move at all.

"You're heading back to Midgar." He didn't phrase it as a question. The blue officer's eyes narrowed, his lips curling up in preparation of a disdainful response.

"Stand down, Lieutenant." A smooth voice drifted down from the top of the boarding stair. The blue stiffened and stepped back without hesitation, though there was a faint look of disappointment behind his mask of attention.

They looked up at a man in a tailor-cut black suit. Black shirt, black tie, black glasses and slick, shoulder length black hair.

"Fuckin' Turks. Just what we need.," Cid grumbled.

Not just any Turk, but Tseng, their leader, who was, if Cloud had his rathers, preferable to deal with over a few other Turks he could name.

Cloud walked to the bottom of the narrow gangway and squinted up at Tseng, he was aware of Vincent's silent, still observation, of Cid bristling behind him at the convergence of blues that were probably more intent on seeing they didn't start trouble than initiating violence against them.

"We need a ride to Midgar," he called up and Tseng almost smiled.

"Funny you should ask. I was just having a conversation about you, Strife. Taking you to Midgar would be our pleasure."

 

 

 

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