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The Devil's Own
"Hospital complex?! What do you mean he's at the hospital complex?" Tifa's voice rose dangerously and Cid winced, sourly wishing Vincent was within hearing range, so Cid could disabuse him of the notion that Tifa Lockhart didn't screech. She damn sure sounded like she was getting close to it, at least to Cid's oversensitive ears.
Rufus Shinra, sitting placidly behind his big, shiny-topped desk gave her a sympathetic smile. "Apparently he had taken some serious injury during the last few days. What looked like a sword wound in the side, I believe the medics said. I believe the words 'infection' and 'internal' bleeding were mentioned. He was taken to the new hospital complex in this sector. I'll have someone escort you there immediately, but he may still be in recovery. They had to go in to repair the damage. The doctors can give you the details."
Tifa glowered, hands clenched into tight little fists at her side. Neither she nor Cid were armed, and probably just as well from her look. Tseng stood behind Rufus's chair, stone-faced and ready to move to protect his boss at the slighted wrong flinch on their part. No doubt he was armed to the teeth under that expensive black suit.
"If all this happened hours ago," Tifa said dangerously, voice gone back to low and controlled, "why didn't you bother to call and let us know?"
Rufus canted his head, every strand of silver blonde hair perfectly in place save for one unruly lock that curled over his left brow. He shrugged.
"I did try. Your phone is out of service."
Tifa opened her mouth. Shut it, caught off her balance by that pertinent fact. "Yeah, well - - the fire - -" She shut up, biting her lip, anger fading in the path of worry.
"I assure you, I take Cloud's welfare very seriously, especially in the face of the mutual problem we face," Rufus said. "Let me have someone take you to the hospital."
"We have our own ride," Cid said, taking Tifa's elbow and urging her away from the desk and the serpent behind it. "You just make sure we don't run into trouble when we get there, hear?"
Rufus shrugged, inclining his head. "Whatever I can do to help, my resources are at your disposal."
"Yeah. Sure." Cid would believe that when it jumped up and bit him on the ass.
They got the elevators and rode down, all Tifa's bravado gone now, her face pale and her mouth clenched tight.
"Kid'll be fine," Cid assured her. "You an' me both know he's tough as nails."
"Did he have a wound like that? Like what Rufus said?"
Cid shrugged, feeling that momentary urge to protect the female of the species from worry, before he remembered that Tifa had seen more than her fair share of pain and suffering. She was no wilting flower, this girl.
"Yeah, he had a bad one, through and through on his side. Guess it could have gone bad on him, as much traipsing around as we been doing. He didn't complain about it - - but you know him."
"Yeah, I know him."
They got to the lobby and got a relieved look from the big-shouldered Turk behind the reception desk. Vincent had chosen not to be parted in unknown territory from his guns. He leaned against the wall between reception desk and elevator bank, with very little showing of his face but the red-orange glimmer of his eyes and a hair-trigger air of danger so strong that even Cid felt it. Vincent wasn't happy about standing here in this bright lit lobby, he wasn't happy about Cloud gone missing and there wasn't a soul who passed by that didn't feel it. No wonder the muscle behind the counter was sweating.
Cid's lance was leaning on the wall next to Vincent. He retrieved it and leaned his head close enough to quietly share the details of what they'd learned. Vincent frowned, brows gathering, but didn't comment, pushing himself off the wall and following Tifa with a swirl of cloak and purpose to his stride. Cid shook his head, figuring that any obstacle they did encounter between them and Cloud would likely be in a shit-heap of pain before all was said and done.
The hospital complex was in the same sector and not far, a spanking new building full of marble and gleaming glass that the folks in the poorer sections of Midgar would probably never get to see the likes of in their bleak neighborhoods. There was security at the door, ready to toss out the riff raff, that might have given them trouble save that a couple of Turks stepped in to intervene.
Rude and Reno skulked out of the air-conditioned interior and gave the okay sign, and the guards stepped back and paid them no more heed, not even wondering what sort of artillery was hidden beneath Vincent's cloak.
"We even start to suspect you guys had anything to do with this . . . ." Cid glowered at the two Turks striding behind them down the wide white hall towards recovery.
"We been taking real good care of him," Reno said with that same smirk he always wore that made a man doubt whether he was being honest or sarcastic with hidden meanings about things you could only guess at.
"Made him my personal responsibility," Reno kept up and Rude gave him a brief, dark glower, which the smaller man seemed not to notice. "Y'know, getting him here, making sure the best of the best saw to him."
"Yeah, you're a real saint," Cid muttered.
The stark cleanness of the place bothered Cid. The echo of their boots in the hallway did, when the staff all padded around silently in soft-soled shoes. They stood out plainly as strangers here, even the two Turks, interlopers among the healers, with their stained clothing, awash with color and darkness amidst the white, white, white. He wondered what they'd do if they saw real pain, if some poor sod broke the code and spattered bright red blood across the pristine floor.
Recovery was a wardroom with a central nursing station that could monitor the patients. There were three beds on either side, and only one of them held a body. Cloud, still and pale under crisp white sheets, wires hooked up to his arm running to a machine that blipped steadily with his heartbeat. Tifa stopped a few feet from the bed, face white, but Vincent walked right up, staring balefully at the machine, before pulling the sheet down and revealing a big square of thick clean bandages on Cloud's side where the worst of his wounds had been, already soaked through a little in the center with red.
"He's an extraordinarily lucky young man," A doctor said, coming from an office at the far end of the room. "The initial wound alone would have killed most people within hours unchecked. The fact that he's been on his feet for some four days with it is frankly one for the books." The man smiled, that fake patronizing smile of a medical man that had been in the business too long and had lost the heart for it he might once have had.
Cid didn't like him. Vincent didn't even look at him, standing over Cloud with the fingertips of his real hand on the skin of Cloud's side at the edge of the bandage.
"When can we take him home?" Tifa asked from behind Cid, voice a little shaky.
The doctor transferred the smile to her, moving around Cid's glower and Vincent's silent lack of attention to stand by her, patting her on her shoulder in a fatherly fashion that made Cid's skin crawl, but Tifa didn't seem to take issue with. "We'll see. I'd like him stationary for a day or two, so all our hard work stitching him up on the inside doesn't go to waste."
"Okay." Tifa nodded.
"Yeah, good luck," Cid muttered. "Once he's up, he won't be staying put."
"He's got a point," Tifa said, flicking her eyes nervously to Cloud. "He doesn't always use good sense when it comes to taking care of himself."
"Not to worry." The doctor assured her. "A little sedation in the pain-killers for the next few days and he'll be content."
Tifa nodded, not having a problem with the notion of drugging Cloud into complacency. Vincent looked up for the first time, a flash of a frown, eyes flicking around the features of the room, the high window on one side, the two nurses at the station, the Turks standing sedately behind them. Then without a word, he turned on his heel and strode out, Rude stepping quickly out of his path to make way.
"Can I stay here with him?" Tifa asked as Cid watched Vincent's retreat.
"Certainly." The doctor patted her hand. "Visitors usually aren't allowed in recovery, but I think we can make an exception for one of you for a few hours. Nurse Gentry can tell you normal visiting hours . . . ."
He tore his eyes off the route of Vincent's escape and looked back to Tifa. "Yeah, sure. You call Barrett if you need us. We'll be back at the bar, I guess."
She nodded gratefully and Cid left her to it, giving the Turks one last warning look that didn't have the impact it could have if Vincent had been there to back him up, then heading for the exit, hoping that Vincent hadn't decided to simply disappear for the duration.
"So, what d'ya think?"
Vincent didn't even shrug in response, until Cid caught his arm and interfered with his progress towards the door.
"I dislike it."
"Yeah well - -" What did you say to that, that wasn't stating the painfully obvious. So instead he asked, "You riding back with me, or what?"
He did get a shrug for that at the curb outside the hospital lobby. The truck was parked across the street in a four level parking garage.
"Could use the company. Case I get turned around in this rat maze of a city."
That decided Vincent. He nodded, and started across the street with Cid on his heels. It was nice and dark and cool under all the concrete and steel of the deck and Cid could almost feel Vincent start to relax, out of the fluorescents and the sunlight.
"The kid ain't got a lot of sense, y'know, S'far as taking care of himself goes. I told him he needed to slow down, to take a breather and heal, but who ever listens to me?"
"I listen. He didn't smell of blood. Before."
Cid lifted a brow and Vincent frowned and explained. "The scent of the walking wounded is . . . unique. Of blood where it . . . shouldn't be."
"Even on the inside?" Cid shuddered a little, marginally creeped out by this line of conversation. Not as much as he would have been a few years ago before he'd become familiar with the darker side of Vincent's reality.
Vincent shrugged again.
"Perhaps not. I don't know. I don't like him there."
"Yeah, well, soon's he wakes up, we'll haul him outta there."
Vincent didn't have a reply to that. Just got into the passenger side of the truck and sat there broodingly while Cid maneuvered out of the parking garage.
"The girl's with him," Reno reported. "The doc gave them this whole spiel about how lucky Strife was and how much work they did to repair the damage and other bullshit like that. They bought it. They even went along with the idea of drugging him to keep him quiet for the next few days. The dupes."
"Valentine didn't seem happy," Rude said.
"Valentine never seems anything but morose," Reno shrugged.
"Excellent. You two keep an eye on Cloud and keep me apprised." Rufus steepled his fingers, lightly resting his chin on the edge of finely manicured forefingers.
He wasn't paying them a great deal of attention, thoughts gone elsewhere on things that he might or might not decide to share with them. He had a plan, parts of which he hadn't revealed to all of his functionaries, of that Reno was certain. Maybe Tseng knew, being the boss's number one go to guy, but Reno and Rude were dealing with a lot of shadowy places, getting a lot of orders on the fly and scrambling to carry them out.
Research and development was scrambling, that much Reno knew. ShinRa's number one science guru, since the death of the not entirely sane Hojo, was a guy named Stark, and he'd been having a lot of meetings with the boss the last few days. Reno had heard the words Genova element mentioned more than once. It was no comfortable notion, the boss delving into that mess again. Reno would be the last one to disparage the boss's common sense - - well, maybe not the last - - maybe all it took would be a drink or two and he'd speak his mind without hesitation - - but you'd think Rufus would have learned his lesson. But he'd been up to something with the lab guys ever since the Kadaj thing and Sephiroth's brief resurrection. Granted, if he was up to something with the pieces of Genova that for all intents and purposes the rest of the world thought didn't exist, he had to keep it secret, because ShinRa wasn't the all powerful final word on things anymore and they had to be careful of watchdog organizations like the World Restoration Organization getting wind of potentially threatening projects.
Frankly it scared the shit out of Reno, the not knowing exactly what was coming more so than anything else. If you were gonna deal with Genova enhanced super freaks then you damn well ought to know the details.
"Boss," Reno offered, more because he needed to voice the affirmation for himself than ease Rufus's worries, "he's just one guy, no matter what his DNA's spliced with. We've taken out super soldiers before. We've got the firepower. We spatter his brains before Sephiroth gets the chance to use him and problem solved."
Rufus canted his head, eyes narrowed speculatively, mouth set in a grim line of determination. "No. That would be a problem. If this Diablo's alive, then we know where Sephiroth's influence is, he doesn't move on to find another likely channel back into this world."
"And that's a good thing?"
"That's a very good thing. Because when Sephiroth breaches the barrier and I need him to breach the barrier, I want to know where he is when it happens. "
Not if, but when Sephiroth breached the barrier. Reno didn't like the sound of that. It sent shivers of foreboding up his spine and he wasn't a man who generally fell prey to pre-combat jitters or misgivings about little things like going up against insurmountable odds. He didn't cast a look at Rude, because Rude would never, ever let anything slip in front of the boss. Later, the two of them would talk over this insanity, maybe get a little drunk if time allowed, but end all, they'd do what the boss needed doing or die trying. It was the job.
For the time being, they had Cloud to baby-sit, even if he was under their thumb right securely at the moment. Tifa wouldn't be a problem. Tifa had seen too many friends die to take chances with the ones she had left. All they had to do was have the doctors arrange a little show, come up with a complication or two and she'd fight tooth and nail to keep Cloud right where he was. Which was where they wanted him, unconscious and docile being the only way to truly control Cloud until the time came when the boss needed him functional and dangerous again. Or for whatever else the boss had in mind to use him for, and knowing the convoluted way the boss's mind worked, only God knew what that might be, because Reno didn't have a clue.
Cid caught hold of a dubious handhold and pulled himself up to the precarious outcropping of beam that Vincent occupied. Damned if he had a fear of heights. He was more comfortable in the sky than on the earth, but there was a big damn difference between having a good aircraft around you and sitting out on a naked beam high up on a burgeoning section of new city construction. He looked down from where he clung and saw nothing but the black skeletal silhouette of a high-rise in the process of being built, all beams and girders and unfinished floors that bled down into darkness fifteen stories down.
He shook his head and cursed softly, wondering what madness had overtaken him to attempt this just for a slice of Vincent's company. It was a big enough beam, one of the foundation pieces that was a good four feet wide and sturdy as the earth when you got right down to it, but the wind up here was gusty and the blinking lights of Midgar that sparkled out at them from the shadowy haze of a nighttime city gave his usually infallible equilibrium a run for its money.
There were higher places still, more treacherous perches that Vincent could have used for sure and been comfortable on, but he'd come down a bit when Cid had started coming up and that was a kindness that Cid deeply appreciated, not as limber as he used to be. Hell, he'd never been that limber, even in his misspent youth, but then, he didn't have any extra additives boosting the flexibility of his body.
"Quiet up here," he said, because it was, the sounds of city swallowed up by the heights and well, because Vincent was sitting there watching him, all shadows in the dark and unreadable.
They were near the edge of the city, right at the wall that used to run all the way around Midgar, but now only remained in places, being one of the causalities of Meteor that had not been top priority to rebuild. There was a lot of flat dry land out there. A lot of grass land beyond that that had never been much good for farming. There was a small range of mountains to the northwest, but here on the southeast side of the city, you couldn't see them, even from this height. All that was visible out there at this angle was dryland and even that was one big dark blur. The sky was nice though, and he figured that was what Vincent was contemplating. Vast and spotted with stars. Cid could understand the draw of that.
He sat down next to Vincent and dangled one leg off the edge of the beam, trying to be casual about it,
"Cloud?" Vincent asked and Cid shrugged.
"Stable, Tifa says. They chased her out after visiting hours. Only reason she let then, I think, is that she had the kids to check on.
"Unnn." There was disapproval in Vincent's tone, even though he didn't voice complaint. He'd had his say once and was not prone to repeating himself. He didn't like Cloud in a ShinRa facility. He was worried and he was protective and that halfway made Cid a little jealous, but he figured that Vincent would be just as anxious over him, more so maybe, and forced that emotion back. Vincent had a soft spot for Cloud and that was just the way it was and he'd been okay with it for years so no reason to get sensitive now, when the kid was busted up.
"It don't make sense to me, Rufus aiming to double deal us now. Not with the shit-load of trouble likely on its way to do him damage. Seems to me he'd want to take lengths to see Cloud safe and sound, all things considered."
"It would seem that way," Vincent said quietly with that sort of tone in his voice that held more skepticism than agreement.
Cid gave him a look, trying to make out his eyes in the darkness. "You feeling this way 'cause of old times sake or is it something else?"
Vincent sat silent for a long while, then his shoulders moved in a shrug. "A little of both. Perhaps I'm biased."
"You got reason."
Vincent didn't have a reply to that, just sat there closer to the edge than Cid wanted to get, one foot dangling, the other propped up on the edge of the beam. Vincent was remembering things that hurt, reliving painful experiences and guilts that just wouldn't go away. Maybe that was what he did all the times he went off alone to be by himself. Torture himself with memories because he felt it was just payment for perceived past sins.
Cid didn't like it, but there wasn't a whole hell of a lot he could do about it, save maybe the physical stuff, and this wasn't exactly the place for it. He draped an arm across Vincent's shoulder regardless, hooking his elbow about his neck and drawing him back a little to lean against Cid's shoulder. Vincent let him, still silent, still focused on inner things. Cid shut his eyes and inhaled the scent of Vincent's hair, felt the silk soft tickle of it on his cheek and thought about getting Vincent someplace more conducive to physical interaction. Someplace not likely to get a man killed by falling off a beam fifteen stories up.
"Cid," Vincent said, very softly and Cid murmured something on an inhale, a vague question to that query, more interested in Vincent's hair and the solid feel of his body under the cloak. "Hmm?"
"I think he's here."
"Huh?" Cid lifted his face and followed the path of Vincent's gaze out into the darkness of the drylands beyond the city. In the distant darkness there were the tiny pinpoints of light. Dozens of them, maybe hundreds of headlights cutting through the night, coming from a direction that no honest convoy would travel, heading towards Midgar.
"They're out there," Tseng said, no doubt repeating the information for Reno's benefit as he strode into the Boss's office after a quick summons from Cloud-sitting detail. He didn't need to ask who, knowing who Tseng had been on the lookout for. Reno felt a little tingle of anticipation. That adrenaline rush that always came with the foreknowledge of action.
The door to the boss's office was open, and Dr. Stark was leaning over Rufus's desk, pointing out something in a thick file. The boss was listening, concentration marring his brow, nodding here and there as the doc made this point or that. Reno couldn't hear what was being said. Tseng didn't seem to care, standing there waiting patiently for the doc to finish up.
"How far?" Reno asked softly, the silence eating at him.
Tseng didn't glance his way, but he answered, just as softly. "Three miles out. Southeast. We estimate a hundred vehicles. They've stopped. Waiting."
"Waiting for what"
Tseng shrugged, not having that answer. Not bothering to speculate.
The doctor straightened up, nervous-like and who wouldn't be, dealing with the stuff he was and breezed out of the boss's office, not taking notice of Reno and Tseng at all, preoccupied and mumbling to himself. Rufus beckoned without looking up, fingertips grazing the still open folder before him. Tseng marched in, and stopped before the desk and Reno sauntered after, on edge. Eventually Rufus looked up and met Tseng's eyes.
"It's a go. Assemble your backup and proceed as planned."
Tseng nodded, turning on his heel and gesturing for Reno to follow with a sharp jerk of his jaw. Reno did so out of reflex, casting the boss one wary glance as he left, feeling very much an outsider in this.
"What's a go?" he asked, in the hall outside the office, out of the boss's hearing. He had a right to know, if he was going to get his ass shot up over it. "What in hell has the boss got planned?"
"We're going to extend an invitation," Tseng said. "For a face to face meeting between the president and ex-Soldier Diablo."
Reno faltered a step, not prepared for that. Damn sure not prepared for that. He opened his mouth. Shut it, half convinced that he didn't want to know the details.
"Just you and me?"
"And a strike squad at our backs. Discreetly."
Discreetly. Meaning under cover and far enough away not to raise alarm, but close enough to get there in time to wipe up the bloodstains of two unfortunate Turks who miscalculated the appeal of their boss's offer to a lunatic ex-super-soldier, black ops assassin. Fantastic.
He wondered dryly what twist of fate had landed him the distinction of accompanying Tseng on this fool's errand instead of Tseng's usual partner, Elena. Maybe Tseng simply valued Elena too highly to risk her neck in a suicide mission. He imaged Elena wasn't too happy about that decision, unless she was occupied with some other vital job for the boss and distracted.
He shut his mouth and followed, thinking about things the boss had let slip, and things the boss had wanted done since Diablo had shown up, gunning for Cloud. The boss couldn't be fool enough to think he could reach some agreement with the man. You didn't deal with crazy people and expect them to keep to deals. You didn't deal with men you'd been trying to hunt down for elimination for years. You wiped them off the face of the planet and that was that. Problem solved.
But then, the boss never did anything without some sort of angle planned, without some sort of face card up his sleeve. And what did they have that might make even a crazy man hesitate and think about parlay? That might make a man infused with the spirit of an even bigger lunatic take pause?
Cloud. The one threat that they knew for a fact Sephiroth would be wary of, the initial target of Diablo's reemergence into the public eye. The boss didn't want Cloud kept in stasis to use as a backup if Diablo got past their defenses, he wanted Cloud as a bargaining chip to get the bastard's attention. A present to garner something akin to trust or good will. And here they were, off to broker the deal.
Damned if the boss wasn't playing high-stakes. If he miscalculated, if things fouled up, they'd have more than Diablo breathing down their necks.
Cloud came awake by sluggish degrees. Just a vague awareness of body at first, a hazy contemplation of lethargic muscles and sickening movement beyond his control. He heard, through what seemed a thick filter, the distant murmur of voices, the slap slap of footpads on a floor, the squeak of wheels. Survival instinct won out over the lethargy and he forced heavy eyelids open and gazed up at the passing squares of fluorescents on a white tiled ceiling. He was on his back, on a gurney maybe, being moved with some haste.
He didn't understand it. Couldn't put the facts together to figure out what he was doing here. Couldn't easily recall what he'd been doing last. Just a big, gaping hole in his memory that refused to clarify.
"Damn it, he's awake," somebody said and a hand caught at his right arm, turning it vein side up and placed the tip of a needle against his skin.
Adrenalin kicked in. Panic. He lifted his other hand, grabbing the white-sleeved hand that held the needle. It seemed to take forever, reflexes dulled, but he was still fast enough to snag that hand before the needle could do more than prick his skin. But then a big hand caught his wrist from the other side, squeezing hard enough to make him loosen his grip.
He could barely focus past the immediate, past the blurring white walls and the waist level view of bodies, but the fingers held strength and were callused, not smooth and soft and unweathered like the touch of medical personal. He didn't have the strength to fight it, when his arm was forced down, didn't have the strength to protest further as the needle pierced his skin and sent whatever it held into his bloodstream. He went down again, fighting it, refusing to succumb to the inevitable until it washed over him and dragged him into blackness.
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