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The Devil's Own
The ride back to Midgar was tense and vastly uninformative. Tseng admitted nothing more than the declaration that Rufus Shinra wanted a word with Cloud about their 'mutual' problem and left it at that. So there they sat, in a ship full of ShinRa Blues, watching them with unveiled suspicion and oft times outright hostility. Apparently Blue memory was long and they held grudges as a collective, since Cloud didn't personally recognize any of the faces of the airship contingent. Not that he necessarily would, having done a lot of damage to a lot of ShinRa property and personnel during the years after his separation from Company interests.
So he sat there, with his sword propped against the wall next to his seat, pretending that the tension wasn't playing with his nerves, while Vincent, to all appearances, dozed across the aisle from him, and Cid wandered the ship, regardless of ShinRa suspicions, examining the mechanics of it from the inside out.
Tseng didn't discourage any of it, including Cid's curiosity, and sat placidly in one of the padded bucket seats at the front of the passenger section, surreptitiously aware of everything. Cloud didn't particularly dislike Tseng, not like Reno or some of the Turks that actively got on his last nerve. Tseng was a professional down to his bones and did his job competently and without banter. If he'd failed in a few of his missions some years back, well, it was because he had been up against insurmountable odds - - Sephiroth being an obstacle that very few people were equipped to deal with - - it was understandable. As long as he didn't get in Cloud's way, Cloud was prepared to co-exist with the man. Of course, co-existing with Rufus ShinRa, if there was an agenda in the works, might be more of a difficulty and Tseng was an extension of Rufus's will.
If Rufus was going to give him headaches in addition to the migraines that Diablo's insanity was causing him, then there were going to be problems.
It was dark, the day eaten away by travel, by the time they reached Midgar. The airship landed outside the city, on a relatively new airstrip cut into the dry land surrounding it. It was not exclusively a ShinRa strip, though there was little enough air traffic to utilize it that wasn't Company oriented, so when they disembarked, they weren't entirely at the mercy of Tseng for a ride to the city. Cid knew a few people, being one of the few independents that utilized the field, and hitched them a ride down the mile-long paved road that lead to the outskirts of sector 2.
"The president wants to talk to you," Tseng reminded Cloud, when it was clear they were parting company.
"I've got things to do first," Cloud said and Tseng frowned, not liking the notion of anyone putting trivial, personal business above Rufus's wants. Or maybe just not liking the idea of telling Rufus that somebody hadn't jumped when he called.
"Don't be too long."
Cloud shrugged, not particularly caring if Rufus had to wait a day or so. Then he hesitated, needing to know what he hadn't asked and what hadn't been offered during the trip over. "Has he been spotted this side of the ocean?"
Tseng damn well knew who, but he lifted a brow as if in question, and returned Cloud's silent shrug. "Talk to the President."
"Informative son of bitch," Cid muttered, when they'd started walking towards the row of warehouses and import/export offices.
"It's doubtful he knows," Vincent said quietly. "Even if he had Sephiroth's unique abilities, it's doubtful Diablo could have traveled here faster than we did."
Sephiroth's unique abilities. Cloud shivered, clenching his teeth. He didn't want to think about it. He wanted to think about the little niche he'd carved out for himself and considered home and more importantly the people that made it a haven, which meant heading for sector 7 without detour and finding out for himself just what had happened.
They rode into town on the back of a delivery truck half loaded with crates bound for Big Market Square. It took them past old walls and the new construction of Sector 4 where they hopped off and made their way on foot the rest of the way. The sky was dark but the city was alive with lights in the early part of the night.
At one point Vincent was with them and the next he was simply gone, vanished in the neon-lit shadows. Cid cursed and muttered to himself, but otherwise kept walking, pace undisturbed. It bothered Cloud more than Cid, the unexpected disappearances and appearances, but that, he thought, was more because he was uncomfortable with the notion that his defenses, his innate natural instincts, could be so easily bypassed.
"You know," Cid said, some while later, having apparently gotten over his pique, "they went after Tifa and Barret, me and technically Vincent - - I hope the little girl is okay and the cats."
It hadn't occurred to Cloud to worry about Yuffie. She was as elusive as any good thief and very seldom in one place very long. Red XIII was also a less than ideal target, prowling the vastly untraversable canyons and drylands around Cosmo Canyon more than he dwelled in the company of human-kind. Cait Sith and ultimately Reeve were relatively untouchable, at least by the means Diablo had employed against his other comrades, having the not unimpressive might of the World Restoration Organization as a shield.
It took close to an hour to reach Sector 7, what with pedestrian detours around overpass construction and the not always coherent growth of roads around places in Midgar that had been utterly decimated. Two years and they'd barely started chipping away at the worst places, but progress was being made. Another ten might see the city devoid of a lot of the signs of Meteor's impact.
Finally they reached familiar territory, with its more familiar class of night-life loitering on the streets. When they got to 7th Heaven the neon sign was dark and the door locked. Cloud could smell the lingering acrid scent of smoke. The facade of the bar didn't seem to have taken smoke damage, but as his eyes wondered up and over to the adjoining warehouse/dormitory, he noted a few of the upper windows blackened with fire damage.
Cloud had a key to the front door, but it had disappeared with his gil and anything else in his pockets, when he'd been in the desert outpost. He banged on the door for a fruitless few minutes, while Cid wandered down the street a bit, staring up at the warehouse.
"Hey, Cloud," he beckoned, standing under the streetlight at the corner. "There's something going on down by your garage."
Indeed there was. One truck was backing into one of the unused loading dock doors next to Cloud's little workshop, and another, more familiar one with a load of building supplies, waiting with lights on in the street for its turn.
He started walking down the narrow street towards them, and somebody must have seen him, because there was an abortive beep of the horn and the driver's door was open and Tifa was out, pelting down the street towards him. She tackled him, arms about his neck and reflexively he put hands on her back to steady them both. She smelled of sawdust and sweat, her hair in a ponytail at her neck, thick workman's gloves on her hands, jeans and a sweatshirt in lieu of her more familiar attire.
"Why didn't you call sooner?" she complained against his neck.
He didn't get the chance to answer, because as she was loosening her hold and stepping back, he got hit from the other side by Barret's big hand slapping him on the back, then yanking him in for a brief, if not breath-stealing embrace.
"Yo, Cid." Barret pushed Cloud aside and started towards Cid with a hand extended.
"Did you see?" Tifa asked, waving a gloved hand towards the warehouse.
"Only what was visible from out front."
She scowled, wiping a strand of hair back with a thick-gloved finger. "It's worse on the inside, but not widespread. The structure's sound, thank the gods, but we've got a lot of work to do before we can move the kids back in. The older ones are helping out with the repair."
"Where are the kids?" he asked, having noted a distinct lack of them around.
Tifa shook her head wryly. "You're not gonna believe it. After I talked to Rufus, well he offered to help. I wouldn't have believed it or accepted it, but the kids needed a place that wasn't smoke clogged and he said he had the lease on a building not too far from here and offered to have cots brought in and whatnot. I couldn't turn him down just for old times sake. I've got people I trust there, watching over them, but I don't think he's trying to pull anything this time. At least not with the kids. He also gave me a discount on supplies." She indicated the trucks she and Barret had been driving.
"Sounds like he's tryin' to butter somebody up," Cid remarked, joining them in the company of Barret. Barret snorted, signifying his agreement on that assumption. "Guess you'll find what the end cost of all this generosity is when you go and see the bastard, eh kid?"
"He wants to see you?" Tifa asked, frowning.
"Was his airship that gave us a lift 'cross the pond in record time," Cid said.
"Barret said he talked to you," Cloud said.
"Yeah. He mostly wanted to know if you'd spoken to me about this ex- Soldier- - the one that came into the bar that night. You hadn't, so I couldn't tell him much. He told me a few things. Are they true?"
He was pissed enough about the attack here, the dislocation of the kids and Rufus Shinra sticking his long nose in with gifts that with ShinRa never came cheap, that reasonably going about answering that particular question was beyond him.
He shook his head once, an ambiguous answer at best, because gods knew what slant Rufus had put on things and he wasn't in a place patience-wise to sit down and listen to the retelling, when what he really wanted to do was crack some heads together to work out frustration.
He saw Tifa exchange looks with Cid past his shoulder and ignored the subtle silent communication, walking into the building instead to see for himself the range of the damage.
The others followed him, Barret pointing out things of note. A bloodstain here, accompanied by some half dozen bullet-made pits in the wall. The blackened wall there was the prelude to worse fire damage.
It looked worse than it was, Barret promised and the stone retaining wall between bar and ware house had kept 7th Heaven from going up in flames. Half of the warehouse was untouched, save the lingering smell of smoke. Tifa had great plans for the repair, having every intention of taking full advantage of ShinRa's wholesale supplies. Cloud wouldn't have. Tifa was more pragmatic.
They unloaded the building supplies from the trucks, and sat afterwards in the darkened bar, exchanging stories. Cid did most of the telling from the western continent side of things. Cloud slouched in his chair, drinking more than he should have, but liking the numbness that spread out in the wake of really good, hard liquor.
It was close to dawn by the time they staggered off to find sleep. Cid was out on his feet, drink and exhaustion no good combination. Barret was better at holding his liquor, but not so good as Tifa who stayed behind to clean up the glasses and throw the empty bottles away.
"I was worried. I'm glad you're okay," she said softly, after the others had climbed the stairs and he hadn't quite gotten there yet.
Cloud paused, not knowing how to express the fear he'd experienced at the dead phone line at 7th Heaven, backed up by Diablo's taunts. Not knowing if he even wanted to, because vulnerability came with voicing those feelings. And pain maybe, for the both of them, if he couldn't live up to what Tifa wanted him to be.
"Yeah, me too," he said and climbed the stairs to his room above the bar.
The fire hadn't touched it, but it smelled of smoke. The window had already been opened and the dubiously fresh air of sector 7 wasn't up to dissipating the acrid smoke-smell so soon. Other than the open window, everything was as he'd left it. Clutter around the desk which served as the administrative center for Strife Delivery service. Bike parts that he had taken up to work on up here when the weather got too cold for comfortable work in the garage. Bits and pieces of broken armor and leather belts and buckles. Laundry that had been washed, but not folded, still lay in the basket. It would have to be rewashed to get the smoke smell out. He pulled off his gloves and unbuckled his shoulder guard, laying them on top of the pile of paper on the desk.
He sat down on his narrow bed and contemplated pulling boots off and stripping out of clothes to lie in his own bed, comfortable in the illusion of safety, save for the fact that this place had been attacked a few days prior with no regard to the sanctity of home.
He sat for a long time, watching the darkness began to pale outside his window, true night fleeing with dawn on its heels. He wondered if Rufus was up. If the man wanted to see him bad enough, he'd make the effort.
He grabbed his sword and crept down the hall, avoiding the squeaky spots in the floorboards. Tifa's door was closed. The kid's rooms were empty, even though they'd been untouched by fire. There were still bloodstains on the walls and Tifa liked to shield them from what she could, even though none of them, even the youngest, was innocent of the impact of death. Not after Meteor and Geostigma.
He used the phone behind the bar to let them know he was on his way, and got a cranky reply about the hour. He ignored it and hung up. Got Tifa's keys from the cash register and went out to the old truck. He slid his sword into the passenger side seat, and was about to circle around and get in the driver's side when Vincent melted out of the pre-dawn haze.
"You're going alone?"
Cloud took a moment to catch his breath, giving Vincent a surly look. "I wish you wouldn't do that."
Vincent lifted a brow, no doubt having heard it in crasser terms a hundred times before from Cid.
"Yeah, I'm going alone."
"I have a bad feeling."
"Yeah, well, Rufus and his thugs don't worry me. And I want him off my back without involving anyone else."
"You're bothered that he spoke to Tifa."
"I'm bothered. This is his fault in the long run. His mess to clean up. I don't want him thinking he can involve me by dragging my friends into it."
"Diablo seems to think the same thing."
"Yeah, well, fuck Diablo."
"Ummm." Vincent's metal hand was on the car door, preventing Cloud from opening it. He put the other hand, the flesh and blood one on the side view mirror, effectively boxing Cloud in. "You feared Sephiroth, but you never ran from him. With this man, you want to pretend the threat does not exist and turn away."
Cloud took a shaky breath, wanting to push past, but frozen in place. He wanted to blurt out that Vincent had no idea what he was talking about, but Vincent very rarely spoke unless there was meaning to what he said. And Vincent nearly always hit at the heart of the matter.
"Cid's upstairs," Cloud said, to divert attention.
"He's dead drunk."
"I've gotta go."
"Why does this fear you have now transcend the one Sephiroth inspired?"
God, where was Vincent's silent, accommodating nature when you really wanted it? He looked away, down the shadowy street with its street lamps fading with oncoming dawn. Vincent's fingers touched his face, a gentle, irresistible touch that forced his gaze back where Vincent wanted it. He shivered, fighting the desire to melt into that elusive touch. If Cid hadn't been upstairs, if Tifa hadn't, Cloud would have liked nothing better than to forget Rufus for the moment and go upstairs and wrap himself in Vincent's calm and just forget.
It couldn't be. Even if Vincent hadn't been otherwise engaged, Cloud didn't like the idea of a habit forming, of using Vincent as a crutch when the world became too much to deal with on his own. When the nightscares came out of the darkness to harass him he damn well needed to fend them off on his own.
"I'm aware - - of my problem," Cloud admitted softly, pressing his cheek for a brief moment into the cup of Vincent's cool hand, then pulling back with a sigh. "Let me go work out some of my frustrations by waking Rufus up at the crack of dawn, then maybe when I come back, I'll have my head on a little straighter."
Vincent lifted a dubious eyebrow, but inclined his head in assent and stepped back, allowing Cloud access to the truck.
The streets were near deserted, only the earliest of the early workers starting to stir or late shifters wearily plodding home. Vehicular traffic was almost nil, so Cloud made good time uptown. He pulled up to the new high-rise that was the unofficial headquarters of ShinRa Corp.
He got out, taking his sword with him, and looked up at the impressive facade with its set of glass caged elevators and its multitude of tinted windows.
"Don't leave that piece of junk sitting on the curb. It spoils the aesthetics of the architecture."
Cloud lowered his glance to the doors fronting the lobby and narrowed his eyes somewhat as Reno proceeded a set of black-suited Turks out of the revolving glass doors. Rude followed through the regular door.
Cloud tossed the keys and Reno caught them reflexively. He smirked then flipped them back to one of the younger Turks to valet to an appropriate spot. Reno made a little sweeping bow and indicated with a swish of the hand for Cloud to enter the lobby.
They crossed towards an interior elevator bank, just Reno and Rude at his back.
"You're not taking weapons up into the boss's private suite," Reno informed him unequivocally.
"I'm not going unarmed," Cloud said with just as little doubt.
"Are you ever really unarmed?"
Cloud canted his head, considering. Well, as long as Reno knew it. He shrugged and handed the blade to Rude, ignoring Reno.
"If I don't get it back I will tear this place apart."
"You'll get it back," Rude said simply, lifting a dark eyebrow behind his shades at the apparent weight of the thing. He went and put it on the shining top of the security desk, then returned to Reno and Cloud. The doors opened and they got in. Reno opened a panel and punched in a security code, and the elevator started its smooth ascent to the top.
The doors opened onto a suite that screamed restrained wealth and elegant simplicity. A wall of windows looked out over a city that the gleaming touch of the rising sun's rays made look deceptively shiny and new.
Rufus Shinra stood waiting, neither seeming sleep-tousled or annoyed at the early morning call. Which lack annoyed Cloud.
"Welcome. Sorry about the tight security, but well, you know the reasons."
Cloud frowned, not particularly feeling up for pleasantries. "Cut to the chase, Rufus. What do you want?"
He took a step into the foyer, while Reno and Rude fixed themselves into place by the elevator doors. Rufus urged him deeper into the room, smiling as though Cloud's appearance had made his day complete.
"I thought you wanted to see me. You called for an appointment . . .?"
"Don't play with me. I've had a bad week. What do you want?"
Rufus sighed, approaching Cloud with only a barely noticeable limp in his stride. He probably could have walked without the aide of the cane, but Cloud supposed he liked to make statements.
"We have a mutual problem. This ex-soldier Diablo is a threat to us all. It seems perfectly clear that we need to pool our resources. He's already proven a regrettable interest in you, so it seems only reasonable to play on that and use it to our advantage."
Cloud almost laughed. Almost. "To your advantage, you mean? If that's all you wanted, then you've wasted your time. You created the problem. You deal with it!"
Rufus sighed again, putting on the face of a long-suffering man. "Don't be naive, Cloud. You know what he is."
"I know what you made him and how!" Cloud snapped, starting to feel self-righteous because the sad thing was he did know how, intimately. And how could he completely despise Diablo for falling to madness because of it when he'd done the same thing himself?
Rufus went to the bar along the wall and studied the various crystal decanters there, chose one and poured himself a drink, then filled another glass and extended it to Cloud. "Just calm down. Have a drink."
"I don't want a drink," Cloud snapped, but he took the glass reflexively, fine booze spilling over onto his hand as he gestured. "I want you to mind your business and let me mind mine!"
Rufus sipped, taking the time to appreciate the flavor of the liquor, then calmly said, "But you are my business, Cloud, because the one thing this Diablo seems to want more than vengeance against ShinRa Corp and me, is you. And we both know why."
Cloud looked away, not wanting to discuss the whys and wherefores of that in hostile company. Hell, he didn't want to discuss it among friends. It made his heart beat a little faster thinking about it, a fine perspiration crawling over his skin.
"He's just an crazy ex-Soldier," he muttered. "Without Jenova cells, Sephiroth is just a bug in his head. You've got plenty of muscle, if he comes your way, deal with it."
"You fool!" Rufus put his own glass down with some force upon the bartop and faced Cloud with narrow, frustrated eyes. "He doesn't need Jenova's cells to make the transformation. He was one of the first. Do you understand? They injected more than enough of the damned raw material into him to start with for Sephiroth's needs."
God. Cloud could feel the thud of his heart in his throat. It was disconcerting. It interfered with his righteous anger. With his thinking. "Then why hasn't he taken over?"
"Why do you think? Your guess is as good as mine. Probably better, all things considered."
"I don't - -" His head was swimming. Thoughts crowding together and rebounding into nonsense. His skin felt hot, sensitive - - numb at the same time.
"You don't look so good, Cloud." Rufus was a wavering figure in white before him. His voice echoed as if from down a long tunnel, he reached out and took the tumbler Cloud was about to drip from numb fingers. "Let me take that."
And that was it. That last grasp on solid reality before he was sliding down a dizzying tube that never seemed to end. He didn't feel the impact with the floor. Couldn't piece together the faint buzz of voice sounds above him. He felt the need to vomit, but that was short-lived, dissipating as complete and utter darkness took over.
Reno stepped forward, not quite sure what had just happened. Rude was on his heels, the both of them quiet, soft on the boss's thick rug. Cloud was a dark-swathed sprawl of limbs against the crisp white of the carpet. Completely limp, utterly dead to the world. Reno couldn't quite grasp how the boss had accomplished it, if the boss had had a hand in it at all.
"Uh, boss - -?" he started to say.
Rufus waved an impatient hand, putting the glass down on the coffee table and straightening. "One way or another, he's going to be of use to me with this Diablo thing." He slammed the butt of his cane onto the carpet, and it made a muffled thump. Not happy then, but whatever he'd done, he had to have planned it from the get go - - hadn't he?
"Put him there." Rufus indicated the long white couch. Reno and Rude obligingly picked Cloud up, Reno at his feet, Rude under his shoulders and dumped him on the couch.
"Careful," Rufus warned. "He's got value as a bargaining chip that can't be replaced. Treat him like fine porcelain."
Yeah, whatever, Reno though with a silent snort. More like the bull in the fine porcelain shop.
"I don't get it, boss. How'd you do it. He didn't drink." He reached for the mostly full glass Rufus had taken from Cloud.
"I wouldn't touch that glass if I were you," Rufus suggested offhandedly. "Not unless you want a long nap."
Reno snatched his hand back. "Oh. Ohhhh! How long's he gonna be out?" Asking how the boss had done it, and not managed to drug himself in the process, would have been a waste of breath. Rufus didn't seem to be in an explaining mood.
"12 hours or a stim shot, whichever comes first. One of you needs to check in with Tseng. He'll update you. The other watch over him, just in case."
"Me. Me!" Reno just avoided shooting his hand up like an overeager school boy. "I'll take Cloud."
Rufus nodded, thoughts elsewhere already, cell phone to his ear as he strode towards the elevators. Rude gave him a grimmer stare, wary suspicion on a normally imperturbable face.
"Just be careful," Rude muttered and Reno grinned at him, settling down on the sofa arm next to Cloud's head.
"How careful do I have to be? He's out like a light, buddy. Unless that crazy ex-Soldier shows up here, we'll have a nice, peaceful morning."
Rude's frown deepened, but he didn't push it, turning on his heel and following Rufus to the elevator.
"Cid, wake up."
Cid swatted at the hand at his shoulder, grumbling unappreciative things under his breath.
"Cid." The hand was insistent.
Cid muttered one last foul epitaph and pried his eyes open. There was sunlight coming in through the slats of mostly closed blinds. The sounds of a city alive wafted in with it, through the open window beyond the shades. He rubbed sleep-crusted eyes and glared balefully up at Vincent. God his head hurt, thanks to all the booze last night. But damn it, a man had to keep up with a slip of a girl if his pride had anything to say about it and that girl could drink. He hardly recalled staggering to bed. He must have been in one of the kid's rooms, because the bed was short enough that his legs hung over the end.
"Cloud hasn't come back yet."
Cid blinked, brain not working well enough yet to connect whatever dots Vincent was spinning. He stared bleakly at Vincent's pale face and after a moment of silence Vincent let out a breath of frustration and expounded.
"Cloud went to meet with Shinra very early this morning. He isn't back."
"Why'd he - - when the hell - - aw, shit, how long?"
Vincent shrugged, looking at the intensity of the light coming in through the window slats. "5, perhaps 6 hours ago."
"Well fuck. And you're just starting to worry?" Cid pushed himself up and had to take a moment as his world reeled sickeningly.
"I was otherwise occupied," Vincent said simply. "I only returned recently and the lot of you, it seems, were sleeping in and failed to notice."
Cid groaned, clutching his head, figuring that Barret and probably Tifa as well were still in the throes of booze-induced slumber. Damn Cloud anyways, for not staggering up to his room and passing out like the rest of them. What the hell had the kid been thinking taking off at the ass-crack of dawn to Rufus Shinra of all folks?
"Well, Damnit, let's go wake the girl. She'll have something to say 'bout this for damn sure, and let me tell you my head's not up to female screeching."
"Tifa doesn't screech," Vincent said softly. "But she will be concerned."
To find out what happens between the end of this chapter and the beginning of the next one, check out the Yaoi doujinshi "Final Fantasy Yaoi" containing the mini story, "Reno's Devil" Where we find out just how bad Reno is and what lengths Rude has to go to, to curb his enthusiasm.
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