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Conflicts of Interest Redux

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"Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed. "COI Redux" is set after the events of Advent Children/Complete and also incorporates numerous plot points from "Before Crisis", "Crisis Core", and the various FFVII webnovels.

In some ways, COI Redux is very similar to COI. But in many others, it's a very different beast, indeed.

I hope readers of COI will consider the Redux at least as good as the original. New readers, I bid you welcome.

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 1/?
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Pairing/Characters: gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~10,000
Warnings: violence, mature themes (references to abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: Two years after Meteorfall and the WEAPONS have reappeared. As they investigate, Cloud and his friends discover that his relationship to both his old friend Zack and his arch-nemesis Sephiroth are deeper and much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

NOTES:
- The original game and Advent Children/Complete are canonic for this fic.
- Before Crisis and Crisis Core are semi-canonic.
- Individual plot points from all other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., games, OVAs, FFVII webnovels, etc.) may show up.

CREDITS:
- Many thanks to the terrific story "Homesick" by Chris Reaves which provided me with lots of inspiration for the events in Nibelheim. ^_^


CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Redux
A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

Chapter 1: DREAD HARBINGERS


Text Conventions
( ) and / / and / / and { } all indicate thoughts or other types of mental dialogue from various characters

[ ] are miscellaneous date notes, images, or sound effects


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Cid found Yuffie huddled in the shelter of the Shera's deckhouse, looking slightly green-faced as usual. Cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, he walked up behind her and said cheerfully, "I thought you'd be over all this stupid motion sickness stuff by now. Don't you know that it's all in your mind?" Cid spoke with the blithe confidence of a man who had never experienced any sort of motion-related nausea in his life.

She glared at him. "Damn you, old man! I'm NOT imagining all this! What do you think I am, some kind of masochist! Don't you think that if I could just think it all away, I would?" She closed her eyes and took a few deep gulps of air.

"Hell, you look like a beached fish."

"Screw you, Cid. You should thank Nanaki that I'm not spewing all over your favorite boots. That herbal concoction he gave me actually works... sort of."

"Hmph. Did you help yourself to some of his materia while you were visiting?"

"No way! I'm a professional materia hunter and I find my own materia now!" Yuffie was the very picture of offended dignity.

"Yeah, right. Well, I'm keeping a close eye on my stuff so don't even think..." Cid froze, then lunged for the railing so quickly that Yuffie thought that he was trying to jump overboard.

"Hey!"

The cigarette butt fell from Cid's gaping mouth as he stared directly below the airship.

Yuffie started to look uneasy. "Hey, Cid! What the hell's going on!"

He didn't respond.

Yuffie took a deep breath before joining the pilot at the railing. Cid mutely pointed down. She sternly told her stomach to behave and peered cautiously under the airship. A look of stunned disbelief appeared on her face as she instinctively retreated several steps.

"That...that CAN'T be a... a WEAPON!" she sputtered.

Cid continued to stare at the immense, dark shape swimming along the surface of the water.

"What the hell do you think it is, then? A bloody whale?"


Somewhere between the Eastern and Western Continents, the shattered hulk of a cargo ship hit the bottom of the ocean. As clouds of silt billowed up from the seafloor, an enormous green shape disappeared into the watery depths.


.


The Shinra Building had once towered over everything in sight, dominating the skyline of Midgar just as the Shinra Corporation had dominated the Planet. But after Meteorfall, the building had a much humbler profile, much like the corporation - or what was left of it - did.

In the new WRO offices in Edge, Reeve Tuesti struggled to ignore a growing headache as he tried to figure out the quickest way to deliver and administer the cure to Geostigma as many infected victims as possible.

The little spring in Aerith's church was the only source for the healing water. While many victims in the Midgar area were cured by Aerith's healing rains, many others all over the Planet still suffered. Fortunately, the water did retain its effectiveness if removed from the spring, but only for a very short time. So instead of trying to get the people to the church, barrels of the water were being shipped to hospitals and clinics all around the Planet. That way, they could keep the source of the Geostigma cure a semi-secret and prevent people from wrecking the place and possibly destroying the source of the healing water in their desperate search for a cure.

The sickest victims had priority because their lives were at risk. The healthier infected would have to wait. If they were careful, there would be plenty of water for everyone, only not all at once. It would take time.

But many people didn't want to wait for their turn, which was perfectly understandable. Even in its earlier, non-terminal stages, Geostigma was a painful, debilitating disease. And human nature being what it was, there were always individuals willing to take advantage of others' suffering. Reeve had already received numerous reports of fraud as unscrupulous people passed off ordinary tap water as the miraculous Geostigma cure and sold it for outrageous prices.

His intercom buzzed, disrupting his train of thought.

"What is it now? I told you I didn't want to be disturbed!" Reeve said irritably.

His assistant said, "Sir, there's a message from Junon. Extremely urgent."

"Junon? All right, all right..."

Both the annoyance and the color slowly drained out of Reeve's face as he listened to the report from the Junon Commander.

"Please tell me you're joking."

"Sir, I do not joke," the Commander replied primly.

Reeve had been both pleasantly surprised and immensely relieved when many of Heidegger's subordinates, who controlled most of the military resources of Shinra, had decided to ally themselves with him instead of Scarlet.

While the woman had managed to stay on good terms with Heidegger himself, Scarlet hadn't taken similar care with his subordinates. Her ambitious and over-aggressive personality, combined with the rumors flying around about her possible involvement in Heidigger's abrupt disappearance after the Proud Clod incident, left a bad taste in many people's mouths.

Reeve said, "Are you positive?"

"Yes, sir. Transmitting the video footage from the rescue helicopter."

Reeve's expression turned increasingly grim as he watched an all too familiar green form briefly rise from the ocean depths. The picture jerked suddenly as the hovering helicopter swerved away. When the camera refocused on the ocean surface, the Emerald WEAPON was gone.

"The helicopter was responding to a distress call from a cargo vessel, but when it arrived on scene, all they found was a big oil slick and some floating debris."

"Any survivors from the ship?" Reeve demanded.

The Junon Commander shook his head. "We haven't found any. No bodies, either."

No surprise there. The WEAPONS were perfectly capable of one-shotting an unarmored cargo ship.

"Commander, you're going to need to send out recon flights. We've got to locate that thing and find out where it's going. But for god's sake, don't do anything to provoke it!"

The Commander visibly suppressed his urge to make a snarky retort - probably something on the lines of 'Do you think I'm stupid?' - but old-style military discipline prevailed. He merely saluted and signed off.

Reeve closed his eyes. Two bloody weeks after that run-in with Kadaj's crew, Bahamut SIN's rampage, and Sephiroth's reemergence... and now this. Surely humanity deserved a break from the threat of planetary catastrophe and cataclysmic destruction.

But apparently not.

He slouched down in his chair as he pondered the implications of the bad news. The WEAPONs' sole purpose was to eliminate threats to the Planet's well-being - critical threats like Jenova. But with both Sephiroth and Jenova destroyed, there should have been no further need for those deadly juggernauts.

Unfortunately, the whole business with Kadaj and the other Remnants had made it brutally clear that bits of Jenova still existed and that those bits, however small, were more than enough to cause untold amounts of trouble.

How much trouble? No one really knew what Jenova was capable of. The blasted thing was an alien space monster, after all. Could those surviving pieces of Jenova still represent a threat deadly enough to warrant the rebuilding of the WEAPONs?

Reeve was very much afraid that particular question had been answered with a big flashing, "HELL, YES."

As he began rapidly typing in command on his computer, he muttered, "Let's see what we got. I know we have some data on the WEAPONs. Scarlet must have used it in developing the Sister Ray."

His search came up with a few files. Worse than he had hoped, but better than he expected. Despite the destruction of much of the Shinra Building, most of the corporation's database had survived intact.

(Thank goodness for good backup procedures and off-site data storage!)

Reeve had a strong suspicion that much of the important WEAPON data never made it into the official Shinra network in the first place. Knowing Scarlet's greedy, conniving personality, he was certain that she had hoarded the most critical information for herself. With her disappearance, there was little chance of retrieving that data.

Even if they could track her down, there was the problem of getting the blasted woman to cough up the information. Scarlet might be persuaded to hand over the files, but certainly not for free. Scarlet loved to hold grudges and any price she set would be very steep.

Reeve didn't want anything more to do with the ambitious former director of Shinra's Weapons Development division, much less make any deals with her. However, under the circumstances, he might not have a choice.


.


He moved at a brisk pace along an icy path in the mountains. But it wasn't the Nibel mountains. The peaks around him had softer contours and the air, although cold, didn't have the familiar sharpness that made one's throat ache.

He heard some huffing sounds behind him and turned to see a Shinra trooper and a man in a dark suit following him.

A dark suit. Straight black hair, although much shorter than he remembered.

What was Tseng doing up here in the mountains?

For that matter, what the hell was HE doing up here in these mountains with a Turk and a Shinra trooper?

"I know the scenery's gorgeous, but we gotta keep moving, guys!" said a painfully familiar voice.

He turned to see Zack waiting for them further up the path.

The SOLDIER looked a little concerned and asked, "You finally getting tired, too?"

"Ah... no. I just wanted to see how the others were doing," he heard himself replying. His voice sounded different... younger.

"Tseng, you okay?" Zack called out.

The Turk finally caught up with them and said, "I'm perfectly capable of handling the job." The effect of the typical hardass Turk response was slightly spoiled by the panting that Tseng couldn't quite suppress.

The other trooper finally caught up with the group, wheezing audibly.

"Sorry to push you guys so hard, but once we reach that ridge, we'll be within striking distance of our objective in Modeoheim," Zack said, giving the gasping trooper a sympathetic look.

As he watched the dark-haired SOLDIER turn and continue up the steep path, his vision suddenly blurred and jerked, like a camera carelessly jostled out of position.

When his vision cleared, Zack was nowhere in sight. Even as he wondered what the hell had happened, he felt his body turning around to see Tseng... and TWO Shinra troopers.

And even as he tried to make sense of that, one of the troopers pulled up his helmet to reveal a head of spiky blond hair... and his very own face.


The familiar ringtone jolted Cloud from his dream. Momentarily disoriented, it took him several more rings to remember where he was and to track down the source of the persistent noise. Finally locating his phone amid a pile of clothes, he pulled it out and said, "Cloud here."

"Finally! Where the hell have you been?" Reeve demanded.

With a faint sigh, Cloud replied, "I was asleep. What's wrong?"

"Bad news. The Emerald WEAPON is back."

Cloud stared at the phone for a few seconds, then said sharply, "Are you sure?"

"I just got a message from Junon. Our old green friend has been seen happily puttering around in the ocean. And don't tell me that we destroyed it. I know that. I was there, remember?"

Cloud said nothing as he rubbed a hand over his face.

At that moment, Cloud's phone made a different chirping sound. Seeing that this second call was from Cid, he answered, connecting the call to Reeve at the same time.

"Hello, Cid, and Reeve's also on the line."

"Guess what Yuffie and I just saw, guys." Cid didn't bother waiting for their answer. "A goddamn WEAPON!"

In the background, they heard Yuffie yelling, "And we got pictures!"

On his end, Cid shouted back at Yuffie, "Keep it down, girl!" before returning to his conversation with Cloud and Reeve. "We were cruising in the Shera near Wutai when we saw a huge, dark blue shape moving along the surface of the water."

Back in Edge, Reeve's headache started pounding even fiercely.

"Great. That's just great, Cid."

The pilot said suspiciously, "You guys don't seem that surprised. What gives?"

"I just saw some very interesting video footage from Junon. Now it's your turn. Guess what's been seen swimming around out there. One hint. It's big and green." Clutching the phone in one hand, Reeve began to rummage through his desk for that elusive bottle of pain-killers.

"Aw, man. Don't tell me..."

"That's right. And we're pretty sure that it took out a cargo ship that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. No survivors."

There was a thunking noise from Cid's end.

"What's that, Cid?" Cloud asked curiously.

"Oh, that's just Yuffie passing out. You guys tell the others yet?"

"I haven't had the chance." Reeve finally located the bottle, dumped out a tablet, then decided to double the dose.

Cloud had been silent during this interchange, but when he finally spoke, his voice was even and had a decidedly grim edge.

"Given what's happened recently, I'm not entirely surprised."

"What!" Cid bellowed.

"Think about the WEAPONs. What's the sole purpose for their existence?"

"Yeah, yeah. They were created by Gaia as self-defense mechanisms to deal with threats against the Planet...," the pilot said impatiently.

"...namely, Jenova."

"Yeah, and... Oh bloody fuck."

"That sums it up pretty well, Cid," Reeve said.

"You think that shit with Kadaj, and Sephiroth reappearing was enough to set off..."

"Maybe." Cloud began to pace around the bedroom. "I haven't got a clue how long it takes for the Planet to make WEAPONs. For all we know, that process could have started as soon as we destroyed the original ones. We don't know whether the WEAPONs are showing up as a direct response to Kadaj's activities, or responding to whatever caused Kadaj and the others to appear in the first place. What we do know is that the reappearance most likely has something to do with Jenova, one way or another."

"Gotcha." Cid was silent for a moment, then said, "If both Emerald and Sapphire are around, what about Ruby, Diamond, and the others?"

Reeve said, "I suspect we won't remain in ignorance for long. I'll order a chopper to take a look around their usual haunts - the Gold Saucer area for the Ruby WEAPON and up North for Diamond."

"Cloud, do you want us to pick you up?" asked Cid.

"No need. I'm in Kalm and it'll take me less than two hours to get to Edge on Fenrir. Why don't you go pick up Nanaki? I think he's back in Cosmo Canyon. And if Vincent's interested, you'll probably need to give him a ride, too."

"Right. See you in Edge, then."

Before Reeve hang up as well, Cloud quickly added, "Reeve, what about those videotapes we found at Icicle Inn, the ones with Dr. Gast and Aerith's mother? She said something about the WEAPONs."

Reeve said, "I'm ahead of you. I've already sent people up north to fetch them and any other records that might be lying around. Hojo's men did a sloppy job when they cleaned out the place the first time."

"Good thinking. In that case, I'll be in Edge as soon as I can."

"All right, then. I'll try to find some more information on this end."

Cloud closed his phone and stared blankly at it as his thoughts returned to his dream about Zack... or was it as Zack?


Yuffie muttered, "Kalm? Sheesh, I thought Cloud was supposed to spend this day at home with Tifa, Denzel, and Marlene."

"Could've had an emergency delivery to make," Cid said gruffly. "But how the hell do you know so much about Cloud's social plans, anyway?"

She shrugged casually and said, "Girls talk."

"Gossip, you mean," Cid retorted, rolling his eyes.

"It's not gossip! Tifa just happened to mention that they were planning to spend today together." She sighed in annoyance. "Damn, I was sure that after he managed to beat down Sephiroth and Kadaj, Cloud would buckle down and DO something regarding Tifa. Now he's running off again!"

"Look, a missed day together doesn't mean he's trying to avoid her or anything."

"Should've known you'd be on HIS side," Yuffie said with a sullen glower.

Cid blinked, then hastily held up one hand in protest.

"Whoa whoa WHOA! I'm not on anybody's side! I'm just saying that shit sometimes happens and social plans go out the window. Why do women have to make such a big deal about it?"

"Of all the chauvanistic male crap!" She planted her fists on her hips and retorted, "Why are you guys so scared of showing a little commitment to a girl!"

"Commitment! Cloud has been living with Tifa for over an year. The guy would put his damn life on the line a thousand times over to protect her and the kids. How much more committed does a guy have to be!"

Yuffie clapped a hand to her forehead and muttered, "You just don't get it, do you?"

"Get what?"

She shook her head sadly.

"With that sort of attitude, I feel so sorry for Shera..."

"You leave Shera outta this, you little...!" Cid lunged for Yuffie, who gave him an impudent grin as she jumped into the air and did a neat back flip before disappearing into one of the airship's open hatchways.

Cid stomped around in frustration for a moment, then grinned evilly. He marched to the bridge and hit the ship-wide intercom.

"Yuffie, better hang on to your stomach. We've got places to go, things to do! The ride's liable to get a bit rough."

An unmistakable moan drifted back through the intercom.

"And if you mess up my ship, you're damn well cleaning it up!"

"Cid, you bastard! ...urkkk..."


In North Corel, Barret's phone buzzed loudly on the nightstand. Half-asleep, he fumbled around, found it, and muttered sleepily, "Ye-eah?"

"Barret, I've got some bad news."

"Reeve, I've been on my feet for the last thirty hours and you're ruining my nap. So spit it out," the ex-miner growled as he rolled over and flopped back down on his bed.

There was a slight pause before Reeve said, "The WEAPONs are back."

"What the hell!" Barret shouted as he sat bolt upright, his lack of sleep completely forgotten.

"Cid spotted what looks to be the Sapphire WEAPON near Wutai. And a rescue helicopter sighted the Emerald WEAPON near that weird undersea crater not far from Junon. They're back."

"That can't be! They were all blown to hell and gone!"

"I know, but now they're back," Reeve said.

"Shit! All right, then. Do you guys need me right now? I'm supposed to help reopen one of the big coal mines around Corel tomorrow. But if you...," Barret said, starting to get off the bed.

"No, not if you're busy. We've still got an ongoing energy crunch. Getting those mines working again is a top priority. Besides, there's nothing you can really do here in Edge at the moment. We'll keep you updated. So get some sleep!"

Barret disconnected and scowled at the phone. Something told him that Reeve would be calling back soon, and he doubted that the news would be good.


As he waited for his friends to arrive, Reeve made yet another phone call.

"Hello, Reeve," said a cool male voice.

"The WEAPONs are back, Rufus."

"I know."

Reeve sighed, then said, "Why does that not surprise me? How long have you known?"

"I was informed a short while ago. Considering recent events, I'm not entirely surprised by the news."

"You're the second person to tell me that today," Reeve said, a sour note in his voice. "I myself was afraid something like this could happen, but having my worst fears confirmed is still quite a jolt."

"And with those fears confirmed, what is the WRO planning to do about it?"

"The usual. Gather intelligence and try to figure out what the hell's going on. For that, I need to borrow the Turks."

"You want them to gather information for you."

"Yes, but not in the usual sort of way. The Turks are damn good at investigating, but actually, it's their other sort of 'expertise' that I need."

As he listened to Reeve's explanation, Rufus Shinra glanced briefly up at Tseng standing beside him, then over at Reno, who slouched upon a nearby couch. Finally, he said, "Start rounding up the scientists, Reeve. Reno and the others will be at your office within the hour," and hung up.

Reno sat up and said, "So what does the WRO need us for?"

"Reeve wants the Turks to escort a group of scientists out to the Shinra Mansion at Nibelheim. Once you're there, you are to secure the location, then keep an eye on the scientists while they remove every single piece of Hojo's research data and lab equipment from that place."

Rufus lifted an eyebrow as Reno buried his face in his hands and groaned audibly.

It was an interesting reaction from a man who could unflinchingly face off against Jenova-enhanced superhumans with nothing more than a jury-rigged hand bomb and a few smartass remarks.

"You have a problem with that, Reno?" he asked mildly.

The redhead looked up with a scowl. "Hell, yeah. Every single time I've had to guard a scientist, it's been a monumental pain in the ass and I always end up somehow getting the shit kicked out of me! And now you want us to ride herd on an entire pack of them?"

Before Rufus could answer, Tseng interrupted. "Those materials have been sitting there for years. Why the sudden urgency to retrieve them?"

"Until two years ago, no one realized that instead of merely being a fascinating and useful research specimen, Jenova was actually a planetary level threat. And then everyone assumed that Sephiroth's defeat and the destruction of Meteor meant that Jenova was no longer a threat as well."

"Not everyone," Tseng said softly. "You recognized that Jenova was still dangerous, even if no one else did. That's why you had us search for Jenova's head."

"But only because of my experience with the good Dr. Kilmister. Unfortunately, I became too focused on locating that specific piece of Jenova and I forgot that other steps needed to be taken."

"Such as dealing with Hojo's old lab in Nibelheim."

"Exactly. The situation has become even more urgent. Now that the true cause of Geostigma is known, certain individuals are going to realize that Jenova was not completely destroyed and that even the smallest fragment of Jenova contains potential power. The hunger for knowledge and the desire for power, regardless of the cost, will do the rest. For some, the temptation will be irresistible. They're going to start looking for more pieces of Jenova, along with information and equipment that will further whatever crazy research ideas they have."

"Oh, great. You saying that we might end up with a bunch of Hojo wannabees creeping around the place," Reno muttered.

"A great deal of valuble information related to Jenova, Sephiroth, and Hojo's other research projects still lies within the Mansion. Except for a few monsters, there's nothing to stop a sufficiently motivated person from simply taking it. No one's had that motivation for the last two years, but that will soon change. The data and equipment needs to be retrieved and secured immediately. To facilitate that retrieval, Reeve needs people with the right type of knowledge and expertise."

"Which means scientists. Most of whom probably worked for, or with, that creep Hojo at one point or another," Reno said, sounded disgusted. "And of course, they're the ones most likely to get a case of sticky fingers."

"That's why Reeve wants the Turks to supervise this mission. He needs someone to keep those scientists in line, someone that they'll really pay attention to."

Reno suddenly perked up.

"Part of your job will be to protect them from the monsters infesting the Mansion so they can work safely." An icy smile curved Rufus's lips. "On the other hand, if they become uncooperative or engage in unauthorized activities such as theft or concealment, feel free to teach them a thorough lesson - the Turk way."

"Does Reeve know what he's asking for?" the redhead demanded.

"Reeve knows exactly what he's asking for. That's why he doesn't want to use ordinary WRO personnel to play watchdog. As long as you don't actually kill anyone, you have a considerable degree of discretion. Feel free to use it, if necessary."

Reno's mouth curved into a wicked grin.

"Anything you say, boss."


.


Tifa frowned as she gazed out the window at the dusty streets of Edge. Things had been going so well. Sephiroth and his three Remnants had been defeated and a cure for Geostigma had been found.

But more importantly, at least on a personal level, Cloud Strife had come to peace with himself, his dead, and his doubts. Freed from the depression and guilt that had driven him to distance himself from everyone he cared about, Cloud could now think about a brighter, happier future.

Or was she wrong about that?

No, she didn't think so. However, something was definitely troubling Cloud, and being Cloud, he declined to discuss whatever it was with anyone. But to her relief, he wasn't pulling away from her this time around. At least, not yet.

In Aerith's church, standing in that shimmering pool of healing water, he had smiled, really smiled for the first time in months. But in less than two weeks, that quiet happiness was gone, replaced by a strange inner tension.

On several occasions, she had caught Cloud staring out into the distance with a certain somber, pensive look on his face. She wasn't a mindreader by any means, but she could make a pretty good guess as to what - or rather who - Cloud was thinking about.

Sephiroth, of course.

Aside from describing Sephiroth's scheme to exploit the Geostigma, Cloud had said very little about their ferocious battle over the ruins of Midgar. Tifa was certain that much more had been said between the two - personal things, if by 'personal', one meant cruel, malice-filled words cunningly calculated to inflict maximum pain, fear, and turmoil.

On that particular subject, Cloud wasn't talking.

He hadn't been sleeping well, either.

Cloud was a very light sleeper by habit. Like many highly experienced fighters, he could 'tune out' the sounds of harmless ordinary things, like her footsteps or the kids's voices. However, anything abnormal would bring him instantly awake.

And then there were the reoccuring nightmares.

No surprise there, considering all the physical, mental, and emotional trauma he had endured. Cloud's nightmares didn't cause him to yell, scream, or thrash about. No, his nightmares were the quiet kind, with soft, barely audible sounds and tense little body twitches that hinted at the unimaginably painful, horrible things that tormented his sleeping mind.

Cloud never discussed the nightmares. Perhaps he couldn't. Tifa suspected that those nightmares were so terrible, so unbearable, that Cloud's conscious mind flatly refused to recall them.

His recent dreams didn't seem to be nightmares. Still, they clearly bothered him to the point that he had started to work extra long hours, as if he was trying to fend off the dreams with physical exhaustion, which wasn't easy for a SOLDIER...

...or at least, someone with a SOLDIER-level physique.

Even knowing the truth for two years, Tifa still sometimes found it hard to remember that Cloud had never officially become a member of SOLDIER. Certainly, when it came to combat, there was no question that Cloud had the courage, determination, physical ability, and fighting skill to match any SOLDIER, even a First Class.

As for the psychological standards for being a SOLDIER... well, Cloud freely admitted that he had failed the psych tests seven years ago. Reluctantly, Tifa very much doubted that he could meet those requirements now, not after all the things he had suffered through and endured.

Even after living with Cloud for nearly two years, it was impossible for her to tell how much of his behavior was his true personality, how much was unconsciously borrowed from Zack, how much was caused by Sephiroth's manipulations, and how much was caused by the Geostigma.

Part of the problem was that she didn't have a very strong sense of Cloud's personality before he left Nibelheim. As a child and teenager, her strongest impression of Cloud was that of isolated loner, constantly in some sort of trouble with both adults and the other children.

The only time she had really paid attention to Cloud had been during their talk at the water tower, before he left for Midgar. And the only reason she had agreed to the meeting in the first place had been an impulsive desire to defy her over-protective father, who was constantly telling her to avoid that 'troublemaking little runt'.

Still, the teenaged Cloud's earnestness had made an unexpectedly deep impression on her own inexperienced self. She would have liked to become better acquainted with that Cloud, but by the time she realized it, he had already departed for Midgar. So for two years, she harbored the memory of an unexpectedly cute guy who promised to become a SOLDIER, First Class, and her special hero.

Tifa shook her head ruefully. Now, looking back with her adult self, she could so clearly see the desperate need for acceptance and recognition beneath the teenaged Cloud's bold face and fierce determination.

When Sephiroth and Zack had arrived in Nibelheim on their fateful mission, she had been so dazzled with the prospect of meeting real SOLDIERs and heroes, she had basically ignored the ordinary infantrymen who had accompanied the SOLDIERs. One final opportunity to get to know Cloud fully as himself, forever lost amid blood, fire, and the flashing gleam of Sephiroth's deadly sword.

And still, despite all his mental issues and emotional scars, she would pick the present-day Cloud over any other ordinary man or SOLDIER any day.

Which made the current situation so very frustrating. She wanted to help Cloud, but she didn't know how. If only she could get him to open up and talk about it...

Her phone suddenly rang.

"Reeve?"

"I have some bad news. The WEAPONs are back."


.


As he rode Fenrir down the road toward Edge, Cloud struggled to figure out what was going on inside his head. It was a familiar and usually futile exercise.

Given the recent events involving Kadaj and the other Remnants, it made perfect sense if his dreams involved Sephiroth... or rather, if they involved Sephiroth even more than they usually did.

But that wasn't the case. Recently, his dreams had been focused on Zack. Sephiroth figured in those dreams, too, but not at all in the ways he expected. To be honest, compared to his usual types of dreams and nightmares, the recent ones were positively innocuous. There were no mind-twisting revelations, no gutwrenching tragedies. Instead, they consisted of random scenes, fragments of casual conversation, snippets of shared missions, all involving Zack in some way.

But those dreams were still highly unnerving because of the way that his viewpoint kept switching, as if his brain couldn't decide who he should be inside the dream.

He was Cloud Strife, not Zack Fair. It was an incontroverible fact that his conscious mind was perfectly aware of and fully accepted.

But for some mysterious reason, his subconscious, or whatever corner of his brain handled dreams, seemed to have suddenly forgotten that point.

Cloud didn't know whether he should be frightened, angry, or both.


An hour later, Cloud pulled off his goggles and swore fluently. He had travelled the road from Kalm to Midgar hundreds of times and knew it like the back of his hand. It was one of his most regular routes for his delivery service.

So how the hell did he manage to get so thoroughly lost in such familiar terrain?

Sighing, he parked Fenrir and got off the motorcycle as he tried to orient himself. Midgar was clearly visible in the distance and he stood on one of the many rocky outcrops that overlooked the wasteland that surrounded the city's ruins.

Except this particular outcrop had a small patch of distinctive yellow flowers growing on it...

Somehow, even though it was miles out of his way, he was now standing on the outcrop where Zack had died. There was no mistaking that particular man-sized clump of gently swaying flowers, along with the deep gash in the earth where the Buster Blade had previously stood before he had moved it to Aerith's church.

How had he ended up here? And why had it taken him so long to recognize the place?

A blinding flash of white blotted out Cloud's vision, and with it came a sharp, stabbing pain in his skull that drove him to his knees.

... screams... gunfire... clashing blades... Zack fighting against overwhelming odds... if Zack died... had to see it with his own eyes... crawling around the boulder... Zack beating the shit out of Shinra's dogs... hell, he might actually survive the fight... no way... couldn't stand it any more... ouch... something cold and sharp in hand... he's busy... easy target... perfect chance...

/ It's him or me. /

... and I've always been good with a knife.

When the flash faded, Cloud blinked in confusion, then slowly looked down at his hands which, for some strange reason, felt oddly... empty.

Although the sky was overcast, there was no rain and the ground he was kneeling on was dusty and bone dry. But at the same time, Cloud could feel the heavy rain trickling through his hair and the chilly ooze of mud soaking into his clothes.

"Zack..."

He was alone on the outcrop, with only the flowers and the wind for company. Yet he could clearly hear the rasping breath of his best friend as Zack lay dying in the rain and mud.

"...For the... both of us..."

"Both of us?"

"... That's right... You're gonna..."

"You're gonna..."

He felt the weight of Zack's hand on his neck pulling him down, felt his face pressed against a bloodied chest, its normal warmth already fading... felt the wetness of the other man's blood smeared over his right cheek.

In a corner of his mind, he knew that there was no rain. There was no blood. There was no body. But the emotional and sensory memories of that day two years ago were too intense, overriding present day reality.

"... Live..."

"... You'll be... my living legacy..."

But this time, along with Zack's familiar words, a new voice echoed through Cloud's head in disturbing counterpoint.

/ Shut up! /

The smell of Zack's blood was overwhelming. It clogged his throat and made it almost impossible to breathe.

"... My honor... my dreams..."

/ Don't listen to him! /

The Buster Sword wasn't here anymore, so how could he possibly hear it scraping through the mud as Zack struggled to lift it?

"... They're yours now..."

/ Can't you see what he's trying to do! /

God, the physical weight of that sword as Zack pushed the hilt into his hands was nothing, and still it crushed him down.

/ You're giving in without a fight! /

Although this time, there was no one on the outcrop to hear them, Cloud repeated the words he had spoken over back then, the only gift he could give to a dying friend.

"I'm your... living legacy..."

The other voice in his head suddenly rose to a vicious shriek of frustration, rage, and despair.

/ YOU FUCKING SPINELESS PIECE OF SHIT! /

An agonizing pain exploded in Cloud's brain. He jerked to his feet and blindly staggered a few steps, then crumpled unconscious to the ground.


When Reeve notified Vincent of the WEAPONs' reappearance, Vincent had merely replied, "After the incident with the Remnants, I'm not entirely surprised."

Which was the THIRD time Reeve had heard that particular sentiment in as many hours.

When asked if he wanted to join them in Edge, Vincent told Reeve that he and Nanaki had something to investigate first.

"Does it have anything to do with the WEAPONs or Jenova?"

"Maybe," Vincent replied with his customary brevity.

And with that, the call ended.


As he and the others waited in Reeve's office, Cid grumbled, "Where the hell's Cloud? A couple of hours, he says. If I'd had any idea it was going to take him this long..."

Tifa paced anxiously. "It doesn't take 'this long' to get here from Kalm."

She pulled out her phone and tried calling Cloud. Her tension increased visibly as the phone continued to ring. When she was finally bounced to voicemail, Tifa left a terse message asking Cloud to return her call ASAP.

They waited. In the months preceding the Remnant incident, Cloud rarely answered his phone directly, forcing callers to resort to voicemail. But when the message was urgent, Cloud always called back immediately. The fact that he didn't return Tifa's call meant that Cloud was either busy with something really important... or in serious trouble.

"Could've ran into an ambush," Cid said with a frown. "Didn't you tell me that those two silver-haired buddies of Kadaj once ambushed Cloud while he was out on the road?"

Tifa nodded sharply as she impatiently tapped her phone into her palm, her expression tight.

Yuffie suddenly said, "Isn't there a way to locate someone by tracking their phone?"

Reeve stepped to his desk and said, "With the older phones, we could only get a general idea on a caller's location. But the newer phones can be tracked pretty accurately." He gave Tifa a questioning look.

"Cloud's phone is brand new. He lost his old one during one of the fights with Kadaj," she quickly replied.

"The system's still somewhat glitchy, but let's see if I can access it from here. If not, we may have to head over to the communication center and... Ha! Yes, I can."

After working at his computer for several minutes, Reeve said, "Got it." Then he frowned. "That's strange."

"What?" Tifa demanded.

"Cloud told me that he was planning to take the road between Kalm and Edge."

"That's right. It's the one he regularly uses."

"Well, the road goes that way." Reeve pointed at the map he brought up on his wall monitor, with the road clearly highlighted in green. "But Cloud, or rather his phone, is down there." A flashing blue point appeared in the mountains, a good distance from the marked road.

"And it's not moving," Reeve added.

Staring at the map, Cid muttered, "What the hell is he doing off-course like that?"

"Like you said, maybe he ran into ambush or other sort of problem," Yuffie suggested. "Although it's got to be one hell of a mess to pull him that far out of his way."

"Cloud would've called us if he was going to be delayed," Tifa said. "The fact that he hasn't..."

"Then what the hell are we waiting for?" Cid demanded as he headed for the door.

Tifa and the others quickly joined him as he left Reeve's office. By the time they had reboarded the Shera, Cait Sith was anxiously waiting for them on the bridge.


As the airship approached the location that Reeve had pinpointed, Cid scanned the rocky wasteland and muttered, "The damned phone's supposed to be somewhere around here. C'mon, Cloud. Where the fuck are you?"

The deepening shadows from the setting sun made a visual search of the rocky terrain even more difficult. Hopefully Cloud was in the same place as his phone. If he wasn't, they were going to have a hell of a time finding him from the air.

Cait Sith suddenly leapt off Yuffie's shoulder, plastered itself against a window, and yelled, "Over there, at the top of that cliff!"

As the Shera moved closer to the outcrop pointed out by Cait Sith, the others could now clearly see two dark shapes which stood out sharply against the sandy colored ground. One was Cloud's motorcycle Fenrir. The other one, lying completely motionless on his back near the edge of the cliff, was Cloud.

"Can you land, Cid?" Tifa asked anxiously.

"It's tight, but yeah, I can get us down."

Tifa and Yuffie didn't wait for niceties such as landing ladders. Instead, as soon as they were close enough, they jumped and hit the ground running. As Yuffie, with Cait Sith clinging to her shoulders, checked the area for possible threats, Tifa headed straight to Cloud's side. Skidding to a stop beside him, she found to her enormous relief that he was breathing, slowly but steadily. Without touching him, Tifa quickly looked him over for any obvious injuries, but saw nothing.

Still without touching him, she called his name in a quiet, but firm voice.

"Cloud? Are you all right?"

When she got no response, she raised her voice and said sharply, "Cloud! Wake up!" When he remained unresponsive, Tifa tried again and got no reaction.

Tifa had made the mistake of trying to shake Cloud awake from a nightmare... but only once. That time, Cloud had come out disoriented and fighting, which was not a good thing when dealing with someone with the strength and fighting skills of a SOLDIER, First Class.

But this time, she didn't have a choice. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed his right shoulder and shook it hard. At the same time, she prepared herself to duck, dodge, or whatever, if he woke up swinging.

"Cloud!"

Unfortunately, he was well and truly unconscious. Tifa took the opportunity to carefully slide her hand under his back and over his front, checking for any injuries or wounds she might have missed during her visual examination.

"How is he?" Yuffie asked as she and Cait Sith returned from their sweep of the area.

"I can't find anything physically wrong with him. His heartbeat and breathing's normal. But he's out cold and I can't wake him up."

"No sign that's he's been a fight or anything like that?"

"None." Tifa looked over at the other girl and the little robot. "How about you. Find anything that might explain how Cloud ended up like this?"

"Nope. Zilch. Squat. No trace of anyone or anything in the area capable of taking someone like Cloud out," Yuffie replied with a helpless shrug.

Tifa scanned the desolate surroundings and sighed.

"There's nothing we can do for him here. We better get him back to Edge and find a doctor to look at him."


.


Dr. Lawrence Steven was perhaps the most annoying medical doctor Tifa had ever had the misfortune to encounter. He was smug, arrogant, and incredibly condescending. Unfortunately, Steven was the only doctor available at the WRO infirmary at that time of the evening. Despite his personality, the man seemed to know his job, so Tifa gritted her teeth and tried to hang onto her temper.

"Hmmm... fascinating."

The doctor had appeared astonished, almost dumbfounded, when Cloud was first brought into the infirmary, but now Steven was handling his medical duties with enthusiasm. Way too much enthusiasm, in Tifa's opinion.

After taking a blood sample, Steven prodded Cloud's stomach area and muttered, "Fabulous muscle tone." He peeled back both eyelids and peered closely with his flashlight. "And the pupils, even and responsive... hmmm..."

Tifa cleared her throat pointedly and said, "Doctor, you're supposed to find the cause of his unconsciousness. He's your PATIENT, not some chocobo at a livestock sale!"

Without looking at her, he drawled, "Yes, yes, I know. But in order to do that, he first needs a thorough physical examination." The doctor started to unzip Cloud's shirt, then glanced over and gave her a thin-lipped smile.

"As I said, I need to do a complete physical examination. And while the patient may be totally unconscious, he IS entitled to as much privacy as any of my conscious patients. So tell me, would you happen to be his wife?"

Tifa flushed and snapped, "No, I'm not."

"Then I'm afraid I'm going to have to insist that you leave."

As she hesitated, the doctor calmly picked up a phone and said, "Nurse, please ask Orderly Jones to come to Examination Room A? I need some assistance with a patient."

He gave her a bland, condescending smile. When she didn't move, he said, "The longer you stand there, the longer it's going to take me to get started on my exam. In other words, all you're doing is delaying the care that your friend needs."

Tifa glared at him, then turned to stalk out of the exam room. She paused in the door and snapped, "Fine. I'll be waiting right outside."

"You do that."


When the husky male orderly stepped into the exam room, he asked, "You called for me, doctor?"

Dr. Steven shot him a bored look and waved his hand at the test tubes lying on the counter. "Jones, I need you to take those vials over to the lab. And after that, check with radiology and help them find the test results for a Ms. Smith."

"Uh... sure. But are you sure you don't need me here?" Jones jerked his head toward the unconscious blond man lying on the table.

"No, I can manage just fine by myself," the doctor replied in an unmistakable tone of dismissal.

But as Jones turned to leave, Steven casually added, "You might want to take the back door out of here. Unless you want to be interrogated by that very impatient and very angry young woman lurking in the hallway."

The orderly blanched, then took the blatant hint and slipped out the inconspicious back door to the exam room.

Once he was alone, Steven silently locked the exam room's doors, front and back.

He had picked Jones not only for his honest, earnest appearence - the man looked about as dangerous as a newborn chocobo chick - but also for his utter lack of imagination. The orderly would follow his orders to the letter, no matter how long they took. The errands would keep Jones occupied and far away from the exam room for a good long time.

And now it was time to renew his acquaintance with a long lost specimen.


Wavering in and out of consciousness, Cloud became vaguely aware of lying on a cool, thinly padded surface. But it was the sickeningly familiar reek of medical disinfectant that told him he was trapped inside some sort of exam room.

/ ...no... /

Forcing his eyes open, he caught a blurry glimpse of someone dressed in a white labcoat pacing beside the table.

/ ...not this... /

His eyes fluttered closed, but he couldn't block out the sound of a sickeningly familiar nasal voice as it drawled, "Well, what a pleasant surprise. I'd never thought to run into YOU again. Do you have any idea how many plans and lives you managed to totally screw up with that little escape of yours?"

/ ...not again... /

He knew the voice and the unbearable things that always accompanied it. More experiments. More pain. He was drowning in that pain...

The labcoated man continued to pace around the room, apparently unaware that Cloud was now conscious and listening.

"But what should I do about you, hmmm? While killing you right away would be gratifying, I'm not a wasteful man. After all, you're a rare and valuable specimen."

/ ... don't... /

"So, what should I do with you? Now that I've found you again, I don't want to let you slip through my fingers... or worse, have you fall into someone else's hands."

When the footsteps came to a stop next to the table, something deep inside Cloud knotted, whimpering and howling in terrified anticipation.

"Hmmm... on the other hand, there's the slight problem of that overprotective bitch hovering right outside my door. So it appears that the most prudent option would be to wait and pick a more suitable time to retrieve you.

"To think that after two long years, we're going to be able to salvage our research project. I can't wait to let the other members of the team know."

He heard the rustle of cloth, then the sound of phone buttons being pressed.

The doctor was going to tell the others, tell them he was still alive. And once they knew that, they would try to hurt him, crush him, break him down, make him into nothing, just like before...

/ NO! /

A low, terrifying snarl of rage filled the room as Cloud suddenly sat up, grabbed the startled doctor by the throat while simultaneously slapping the phone out of his hand.

As the scientist sputtered and choked in his grasp, Cloud slid off the examination table. He could crush the bastard's throat and spine with no effort at all, turn that sick brain Steven was so proud of into a pretty reddish gray smear across the tiled walls.

Oh, how he wanted to... but not just yet.

Cloud snarled softly, "I couldn't stop you back then. But I can certainly stop you now. Isn't that right, my man?"

Steven squirmed and gurgled, clutching weakly at the gloved hand clamped around his scrawny throat.

Cloud released his grip and let the man drop to the floor.

Wheezing for breath, Steven scuttled backward. "NO! Stay away! Don't touch me!"

Cloud stared down at his old tormentor-now-prey and snarled, "Why should I listen to you? You never listened to me, no matter how much I begged."

Now cornered up against a cabinet with nowhere to go, Steven flung up his hands in a desperate, placating gesture.

"I... I was just doing my job back then... following orders! It was nothing personal, I swear!" croaked Steven through his half-crushed throat.

Cloud cocked his head slightly, as listening to a distant sound. Or perhaps he was reliving a not-so-distant memory. Then, with ominous softness, he said, "She SMILED at my pain. She LAUGHED at my screams."

Steven blinked, then quickly said, "You're absolutely right. She was one sick, sadistic bitch, the type that gets off on watching other people suffer."

Cloud bared his teeth at the terrified man grovelling at his feet.

"You think that I don't remember what you and that bitch used to do to 'pass the time' during those experiments?"

"She... she forced me into having sex with her! Threatened to get me fired!" Steven babbled. "I swear I didn't enjoy a minute of it! I was only trying to keep my job!"

"Why me?"

"Wha... what?"

"Why did you decide to experiment on me?" Cloud asked again and watched as the snivelling idiot actually relaxed at the question.

"Hojo decided... you know, because of the way you managed to defeat Sephiroth in Nibelheim. It was damn impressive for an unmodified human, even with Zack Fair softening up Sephiroth so much for you..."

Cloud inhaled sharply as a reddish haze settled over his vision.

"Zack... always Zack... It's. Always. About. Zack."

"H-huh?"

"Always grabbing the glory. Always playing the big fucking HERO."

"We're friends, right?"

/ You are everything I want to be. /
/ You have everything I want to have. /

/ A SOLDIER, First Class. /
/ Trusted, respected, and liked by everyone you meet. /

/ Against you, I'm nothing. /

/ I never asked you to be nice to me. /
/ I never asked you to be my friend. /

/ I never asked you to save me. /
/ I never asked you to care about me. /

/ I never asked you to die for me. /
/ I never asked to live for you. /

/ I never asked for your damn honor and dreams. /
/ I never asked to be your fucking legacy. /

/ I never asked to have you inside my head. /
/ I never asked to become nothing without you. /

/ I hate you. /

/ I hate EVERYTHING about you. /

Cloud shuddered and grabbed at his head as those last few words seemed to burn their way deep into his brain.

Those thoughts, those feelings... Where were they coming from? They weren't his. Couldn't be his. Zack was his friend.

"We're friends, right?"

He stood, frozen... trembling... torn...

Taking advantage of Cloud's confusion, the doctor scrambled around him and ran toward the main exit of the exam room, his trembling fingers groping for the lock.


Tifa jumped as the doors to Exam Room A burst open, then stared in astonishment as Dr. Steven bolted into the hallway, stared around wildly, then raced past her as if a pack of rabid Nibel wolves was at his heels.

"What the hell!" Tifa sputtered, then charged into the exam room, expecting to find that an enemy or hideous monster had somehow gotten inside. Instead, she found only Cloud, conscious and on his feet, if only barely.

"Cloud?"

"Tifa?" He shook his head tentatively, then had to lean against the exam table to keep from falling over. "What happened? How... how did I get here?"

"Cloud, you better sit down before you fall down on your face." She grabbed for a nearby chair, but he waved it away.

"No, I'm okay."

Tifa snapped, "You are NOT okay. Okay people do not end up unconscious on the ground."

"I... I passed out?"

Tifa rubbed her forehead and said, "What's the last thing you remember?"

He frowned slightly. "What happened? I was on the road from Kalm to Edge, and then..."

When he didn't say more, Tifa gently prompted him with, "And then what?"

"I'm not sure. But I somehow ended up where Zack died. I... think I had some sort of flashback about that day. Except it was... different... somehow. After that, it all goes blank. The next thing I know, I'm here."

He gave Tifa a curious look.

"If I was that far off-track, how did you guys manage to find me?"

She held up his new phone and waggled it slightly before handing it back to him.

"It's amazing what modern technology can do, although I'm not really comfortable with the idea of being tracked via my own phone." Tifa shrugged. "But in this case, I'm glad we could. Otherwise, it might've taken days to find you."

Seeing that Cloud was no longer leaning on the table for support, she added, "You seem to be recovering pretty fast, but I think we should put off the discussion about the WEAPONs until tomorrow."

"I'd rather not wait."

"Are you sure? Maybe we should get another doctor to look at you. If this happens again..."

Cloud shook his head emphatically, wincing only slightly.

"It's probably a result of my hopelessly messed up memories and there's nothing ordinary doctors can do about that. The only ones that might have a clue about what's going on in my head are the very last people I want to talk to."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," she said with a slight smile, then added, "I'm sure that everyone will be thrilled to see that you're back on your feet."

Cloud gave her a wry grin. "Cid probably wants to poke fun at me for getting myself lost like that."

As Tifa led the way out of the infirmary, he asked, "You mentioned something about finding another doctor. What happened to the first one?"

"He ran away."

"Ran away?" Cloud said, looking baffled.

Tifa nodded, "He bolted out of the exam room and took off down the hallway." She hesitated, then added, "You might've accidentally given him a bad scare when you regained consciousness."

"Right."

From Cloud's flat tone, Tifa couldn't tell if he was feeling guilty or skeptical.

As as they approached a door to one of the side offices, it suddenly opened a crack. Both Tifa and Cloud stopped to stare as Dr. Steven first poked his head out, then peered around nervously. He started like a guilty thing when he saw Tifa, then his face went stark white when he noticed Cloud.

His eyes bulging in panic, the scientist jerked his head back into the office and slammed the door. There was the click of locks, followed by the sound of furniture being shoved against the door.

Tifa blinked in astonishment, muttering, "What the hell is wrong with that man?" Turning to Cloud, she added, "I guess you really put the fear of god into him when you woke up."

Instead of answering her, Cloud continued to stare at the closed door and the adjacent name plate.

"Cloud? What's wrong?"

"There's something about him that just bothers me." Cloud took a few deep breaths, and rolled his shoulders in an effort to loosen suddenly tense neck muscles. "I feel that I should recognize him, even though I don't want to." He shrugged. "If that makes any sense."

As they entered the elevator and headed for Reeve's office, she said, "Don't worry about it, Cloud. Hopefully, that's the last time we'll ever see that obnoxious jerk."

(end of Part 1)


.


The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII and its characters are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square Co., Ltd. and legally associated parties. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

Chapter Text

This is Chapter 2 of my massive COI rewrite. I apologize if the writing's a bit dry, but this chapter provides critical set up for a lot of action in the later chapters.

This is an unbetaed rough draft, so if things get too confusing or don't make sense, please let me know. Constructive comments and suggestions are always welcome.

And if any of my readers are wondering... yes, I do know exactly where this epic is going and how it's going to end. I have a 7000+ word outline to prove it. ^_^; It's pretty much unreadable to anyone except myself, but if someone's truly desperate...

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 2/?
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Pairing/Characters: gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~17,000
Warnings: violence, mature themes (references to abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his best friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

NOTES:
- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
- The original game and Advent Children/Complete are canonic for this fic.
- Before Crisis and Crisis Core are semi-canonic.
- Various individual plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., games, OVAs, FFVII novellas and short stories, etc.) may show up.

CREDITS:
- Many thanks to the terrific story "Homesick" by Chris Reaves which provided me with lots of inspiration for the events in Nibelheim. ^_^


CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Redux
A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

Chapter 2


Text Conventions

( ) and / / and / / and { } all indicate thoughts or other types of mental dialogue from various characters

[ ] are miscellaneous date notes, images, or sound effects


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


The Planet's mood had shifted.

At first Aerith worried that by curing the Geostigma plague on her own, she had overstepped some unknown boundary or broken some Ancient protocol. As the Cetra race had withered away, so had their knowledge about the Planet and their relationship to it. She was the last of the Cetra, a half-breed at that, and the only information she had to work with was the few scraps of knowledge that her mother Ifalna managed to pass down to her only child before her death.

During her time in the Lifestream, Aerith had learned much, but she was painfully aware that compared to the true Ancients, she was the most inexperienced of novices.

But the Planet was... pleased... by her successful efforts to cleanse Geostigma from humanity. She felt the warmth of its approval. But at the same time, Aerith had the oddest sensation that she was being 'nudged' aside, almost protectively, like a small child being firmly shooed away to safety so an adult could deal with a serious problem or threat.

She hadn't liked the sensation of being sidelined - even for her own good - when she had been alive. She didn't like it now. Unfortunately, unlike Cloud or her other friends, the Planet wasn't someone she could easily argue with.

A fierce determination now pulsed through the Lifestream, along with something that was close to, but much more complex than mere anger or hatred.

The sense of implacable resolve unnerved her. The Planet now had a firm agenda of its own and would not allow anything to stand in its way.

The reborn WEAPONs, even more powerful than before, were released onto the Planet's surface to hunt and destroy.

And still the Planet was not satisfied.

It wanted... no, needed... something more effective than the gigantic creatures of destruction that were the WEAPONs. Something more precise.

Not mere weapons.

Tools.

She felt the Planet contemplating... remembering... before ponderously coming to its decision.

... as it had been before, now shall it be again...

Aerith had no idea what that meant, but the Lifestream immediately responded to the Planet's unknown will.

... searching... gathering... cleansing... reconstructing...

Elsewhere, she felt something - or perhaps someone - being considered, judged, and... fixed?

... restoring... strengthening... augmenting...

But when Aerith tried to probe the Lifestream for more information, all she got was a kindly, but firm nudge back to her safe little corner.

Apparently, the Planet felt that whatever it was doing was either none of her business or beyond her comprehension.

Well, to hell with being coddled like a child.

If she couldn't find out what was going on directly, there were other, sneakier ways she could use.


.


The stench of rotting flesh in the dark cavern was truly horrible.

Vincent Valentine couldn't suppress a grimace at the overwhelming smell. Beside him, he heard Nanaki huffing audibly as the beast tried to breathe through his mouth instead of his sensitive nose.

"Too late," Nanaki panted.

"Yes."

"Think the Remnants originated here?" Nanaki's speech was unusually terse, again due to the incredible smell.

"Possibly," Vincent replied. He was concise by nature, but the reek was giving him considerable trouble as well.

There was a brief lull in the conversation, broken only by the sound of blackish water lapping at rocks, as they explored the cavern.

"More than three pods," the beast muttered.

The cave had two distinct sections, separated by a tall line of rubble, which led Vincent to believe that the two areas had once been almost completely separated, linked only by the pool of blackish green water.

The front cave section was small and contained three ruptured ovoid shapes that looked like they could have held human-sized occupants. These heavily decayed pods sat in a tight cluster, almost touching each other. The back section of the cave contained a multitude of empty pods in a variety of sizes which showed considerably less decomposition than the three pods in the front.

Nanaki made a low hacking noise, muttered a stifled, "Goin' to puke," then bolted from the cavern.

Vincent could sympathize. It took a lot to trouble him, but the contents of the dimly lit chamber definitely posed a challenge. After one last look around, he followed Nanaki outside.

Far from the cave entrance, they both stopped and spent some time breathing in the icy, but stench-free air of the Northern Crater.

"It looks like the Remnants spawned first and left the area. The things in the back area hatched some time later," Nanaki commented, sitting back onto his haunches.

"Yes, but they're no longer here," Vincent replied. "There's almost certainly some traces of Jenova cells left in that cave. We'll need to sterilize the place."

Nanaki nodded, sniffed the air, then said, "When we're done with the cleanup here, why don't we stop by Icicle Inn and see if Reeve's people have found anything interesting?" He leisurely rose to his feet as his ears swiveled, tracking the monsters trying to sneak up on them.

Vincent raised an eyebrow even as he slid his gun Cerberus from its holster.

"You just want to go snowboarding again."


.


Dr. Lawrence Steven scurried around his office, gathering various important items - credentials, research notes, credit cards, and all the cash he had on hand. He threw them into a duffle bag, along with the spare clothes he kept at work.

It was that Lockhart bitch's fault. She had led him to believe that Specimen C was totally unconscious and non-responsive. Instead, he had woken up as soon as Steven's back was turned. Even worse, the specimen had recognized Steven and immediately tried to kill him.

"Great. Now I've got a physically enhanced, mentally unstable experimental prototype wandering around WRO Headquarters wanting to kill me!"

He needed help. Specimen C had to be recaptured and subdued, not only so Steven could restart his research, but much more importantly, to keep himself alive. However, as his recent brush with death showed, recapturing Specimen C was not going to be an easy matter.

As he rummaged through his desk with one hand, he reached for his cellphone, then remembered that it was lying in pieces back in the exam room.

"Shit!"

Grabbing for the desk phone, he started punching in numbers, then stopped. Who was the best person to call? Roissy was the obvious choice since the woman had been in charge of Project S2. However, Steven had absolutely no desire to help Roissy in any way, not after the way she had blamed him for the two Specimens' escape back in Nibelheim all those years ago and totally fucked up his career.

Who else? There was Montessi, Roissy's long time rival, but she was an even pissier bitch than Roissy. There were also other people on the project, but would they be willing or able to help him? Should he try talking to someone outside the project?

Finally, after several minutes considering his options, Steven made his choice and his phone call.

"Yes?" replied a smooth, contralto voice.

"Hey, it's Steven. You remember me?"

"Certainly. What can I do for you?"

Steven sighed in relief. Yes, this particular scientist, even-tempered and sensible, was a much better choice than Roissy or Roissy's neurotic rival.

"I've uncovered some very important information related to Project S2. But now I'm in trouble and I need help."

There was a brief pause, then the female voice replied, "Project S2. The project was terminated before Meteorfall due to the escape and the subsequent loss of the two experimental subjects."

"Yes! But you see, they got it wrong! I don't know whether someone made a legit mistake or flat out lied, but the reports were wrong!"

"Wrong? In what way?"

"Specimen C survived!"

After yet another pause, the woman replied, "Well, that's certainly an interesting development."

"I'm sure you understand what this means. If we can get Specimen C back into custody, we can restart Project S2!"

"Under the present circumstances, would there be any point in doing so?" the woman replied, sounding mildly skeptical. "The Shinra Corporation, while it still exists, is hardly in a position to sponsor this sort of human research anymore. And I very much doubt that the WRO would be interested, either."

Steven laughed, then broke into hoarse coughing. After catching his breath, he said, "Oh, I think whoever's running Shinra nowadays could be made to see the potential benefits. And it would be easy to keep the project low profile. All I'd need is a lab with good access to Mako, some decent equipment, and a few competent scientists and technicians who can keep their mouths shut. Oh, and some Jenova cells."

When there was no immediate response, Steven added more impatiently, "Look, you know the initial results were extremely promising. It would be a horrible waste to let four years of hard work just slide through our fingers!"

"You mentioned trouble."

Steven sighed, rubbing at his badly bruised throat. "Specimen C has apparently managed to regain a surprisingly high level of cognitive function. He's walking, talking, and even managed to recognize me. Unfortunately. Damn well nearly killed me, but I got away."

"Is he still after you?"

"Not at the moment, but there's no telling when he might get the urge to kill me again. Look, Specimen C might be physically functional, but he's hostile, dangerously aggressive, and mentally unstable. Hell, capturing and locking him away would be doing everyone a public service! But with that enhanced physique of his, he's going to be extremely difficult to subdue. That's why I need your expertise."

"All right. I'll see what I can do. Do you have somewhere safe to hide while I make arrangements?"

"Yeah, yeah. I'll manage something. Just don't take too long, okay?"

"I'll try to expedite things," the female voice said reassuringly.

"My phone's broken, so I'll give you a call when I've settled in somewhere. Later."

After hanging up the phone, Steven smiled. The run-in with Specimen C had left him badly shaken, but he now felt much better. Soon, the situation would be back under control. However, this time it would be HIS control.

He glanced back at the phone on his desk. Should he call Roissy, warn her about Specimen C?

No, let the bitch take her chances.

He grabbed his duffle bag, cautiously checked out the hallway. The area looked clear, so he exited his office and quickly made his way to the elevator lobby.

When the elevator stopped on one of the lower floors, one of his work colleagues entered. Noticing Steven's duffle bag, the man asked, "Hey, you part of the team that's supposed to head out to Rocket Town?"

Thinking quickly, Steven hastily pulled his jacket collar up to hide his bruised throat, and said, "Actually, yes."

"Then you better get out to the upper helipad ASAP if you want to catch your ride. They're going to be leaving in a few minutes."

"Thanks for the reminder. I can't wait to get out of here," Steven said with complete sincerity.


.


As they waited in Reeve's office for an update on Cloud's condition, Cid and the others examined photos of the revived Sapphire and Emerald WEAPONs. They also received the unwelcome report of a strange red tentacle-like object sticking out of the sand on a tiny desert island in the southeast ocean.

Cid muttered sourly, "How much gil you wanna bet it's fucking Ruby?"

"No takers," Yuffie said.

Reeve sighed and said, "Well, I guess that settles it. I think it's safe to assume that the other WEAPONs have also returned. Now the question is what to do about them. Aside from that incident with the cargo ship, which could have simply been an accident, they're not doing anything overtly hostile at the moment. I don't want to provoke them if we don't have to."

Cid jabbed a finger in Reeve's direction. "You've got a pretty good point. Since those damned WEAPONs are supposed to be the Planet's immune system or something, we need to know what made them show up again in the first place. You come up with any news or info about Jenova?"

"Nothing definitive." Reeve got up and started pacing. "I've located a stash of old research records in a warehouse in Midgar. Unfortunately, there are literally hundreds of file boxes. Who knows? The answer we're looking for could be sitting right under our noses... IF we can find it. We're going to need someone to sift through all those documents."

"That's going to take friggin' forever!" Cid objected.

"I know," Reeve replied in grim tones.

"You really know how to cheer a guy up, don't you?" griped the pilot, hunkering down in his chair. "And who's the lucky son of a bitch who has to go through all that shit? 'Cause I'll tell you right now that it isn't going to be me. Hell, I wouldn't have a fucking clue what to look for!

"Yeah, we aren't trained scientists. It'll be way too easy for us to overlook something important," Yuffie added.

The Shinra executive sighed. "Unfortunately, practically everyone who knows anything about Jenova and Jenova-related research got their expertise working with or for Hojo. Probably a good quarter of the surviving Shinra scientific staff were involved, if not active participants, in Hojo's research at some point."

"You're thinking that some of these scientists might still be loyal to Hojo or have their own persona agendas going?" asked Yuffie, throwing herself into an cushy armchair.

Cid flung up his hands and yelled, "Mad scientists! Is that all we've got? A bunch of mad, loony scientists? Isn't there a SINGLE science guy out there who's got his head screwed on straight?"

Reeve held up his hands. "Now calm down, Cid. Over the last two years, I've gotten to know some scientists who have some knowledge about Jenova, but who aren't interested in following in Hojo's footsteps. It's a short list, but they're good people. As for the others, well..." Reeve shrugged. "We'll just have to keep an eye on them. Anyway, I've sent a scientific team to Nibelheim to retrieve any information and equipment still left in the Shinra Mansion. I should've done it a lot sooner but..."

"Wait a sec!" Yuffie protested. "You said yourself that we might not be able to trust a lot of those scientists. So isn't sending them to Nibelheim rather like waving drugs under the nose of an addict?"

"True, but I sent along Reno and the other Turks to keep an eye on them," Reeve said with a crooked grin.

Cid and Yuffie exchanged startled looks, then grinned evilly at each other.

Reeve added, "I asked Rufus if I could borrow them. Rufus agrees that the information and equipment left in Nibelheim should be secured immediately. The Turks are experts at intimidation and they have the willingness to back up their reputation, as we all well know."

"So you're hoping that the Turks and their nasty rep will keep those scientists in line," Cid said. "It'll probably work, although I don't envy them that job."

"Well, at least the Turks have their uses," Tifa said drily as she and Cloud entered the room.

Reeve shrugged, "Reno may be a bit of a sociopath, but he's a professional and very good in his particular line of work." He then turned to Cloud. "I'm so glad to see you back on your feet. You really had us worried. Are you feeling all right now?"

"Yeah. Sorry about the trouble," Cloud said with a slight, apologetic smile.

Cid grinned, then said, "I was wondering if you were going to snooze through this entire mess and leave us with all the dirty work." On a more serious note, he added, "So why the hell did you end up so far off the road to Edge and what the fuck happened to you out there?"

Cloud frowned, then slowly said, "I'm not sure how I ended up there, but that outcrop is where... that's where Zack died. I don't know why, but being there triggered some sort of intense flashback about that day when..." His voice trailed away as he stared out the windows of Reeve's office.

"Must've been one hell of a flashback if it caused you to pass out cold like that."

"Yeah. It was."

Yuffie shifted nervously, then said brightly, "But you're feeling okay now, right?"

"I'm fine." Cloud glanced at Reeve. "You were saying something about sending the Turks and a team of scientists to Nibelheim to retrieve Hojo's research?"

"That's right."

"What about the reactor at Mt. Nibel?" Tifa asked. "Are they going to strip that, too? Because there's tons of weird equipment still in the reactor. It probably wouldn't be too hard to get that machinery up and running again."

Reeve nodded and replied, "I know. However, at the moment we're concentrating on the Mansion because that's where most of the research data is located. Also, the lab equipment in the Mansion is much more portable than the machinery in the Mt. Nibel reactor and therefore much easier to remove or steal. The WRO team will check the reactor for data, but as for the equipment there, we can arrange for its demolition at a later date..."

Reeve's intercom interrupted him with a strident buzz.

"Yes, what is it?"

"Sir, a Dr. Aston wants to report an attack on his facility."

Everyone in the room suddenly came alert and began listening very intently.

"An attack? What kind of attack?" Reeve demanded.

"He refuses to say, sir. He insists upon talking directly with you."

"All right. Put him through. Dr. Aston, this is Reeve. You wanted to speak with me?"

Over the speaker phone, a gruff male voice barked, "Yes. The Archival Specimen Storage Research Unit Building has just been raided by a large group of unidentified monsters."

"Hold it, hold it! The what?"

Aston made an annoyed sound, then said with exaggerated care, "The. Archival. Specimen. Storage. Research. Unit. Building. Has. Been. Attacked. By. Monsters."

"What the hell's this Archival Storage and... never mind. Just tell me what attacked you."

"I told you already. Lots of monsters."

"It would be helpful if you could be a little more specific as to the type and number of monsters."

Dr. Aston said snappishly, "If I could tell you what kind of monsters they were, they won't be 'unidentified', would they? As for the number, I was running for my life, not doing a population census."

Cid rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath, "What did I tell you guys about these Shinra scientists? Flaming assholes, all of them."

Reeve gritted his teeth and said, "All right. You were attacked by entities or creatures unknown. Would you happen to have any idea WHY you were attacked?"

"Look, they just appeared out of nowhere and started tearing up the place."

Reeve took a deep breath. "I see. Are the monsters still there?"

"No. They took what they wanted, then left."

"And what did they take, doctor?"

"I don't know. I'd have to check the inventory."

"Then how do you know that they stole something?"

Dr. Aston sounded as if he was lecturing a group of particularly stupid school children. "When intruders break in, head directly for a specific area, ransack said area, then fly away carrying something, the obvious conclusion is theft."

"And what do you have that's worth stealing?" Reeve was getting noticeably annoyed with the director, and none of his friends could blame him.

Dr. Aston's voice bristled with offended dignity. "I'll have you know that we have some extremely valuable and irreplaceable specimens here!"

Cloud walked over to Reeve's desk and said, "Does your facility contain any samples of Jenova, Dr. Aston?"

"Wha... who the hell are you!"

"Just answer the question, doctor," Reeve interrupted.

"No, of course not! We're only a long-term storage facility," the director said irritably. "Hojo would never allow valuable research specimens like that out of his custody."

"But you do know what Jenova is," Cloud said sharply.

"Of course I do. I'm a senior scientist and facility director, not some junior researcher."

Reeve frowned thoughtfully, then he flicked a quick glance at Cloud. It seemed that their thoughts were running on similar lines because Cloud nodded grimly.

"Where are you located, Dr. Aston?" asked Reeve.

"In the mountains east of the old reactor at Fort Condor, the one that used to have a giant bird perching on it."

"I'm familiar with the area. I'm sending some people out to your facility to investigate. They should arrive within two hours and I expect you to extend them every courtesy."

"Fine."

"Take care of your casualties, but don't mess with the scene any more than you absolutely have to. Reeve out."

"Sheesh! What an asshole!" said Yuffie as she idly juggled a few shuriken.

Cid said sarcastically, "Monsters breaking into a research facility and stealing shit? Now is that friggin' suspicious or what?" Looking over toward Cloud, he noticed the blond frowning.

"What's bugging you?"

"I'm not sure. It's just that..." Cloud hesitated before continuing. "To get a group of monsters to perform an organized raid like the one Aston is describing, a human or human-level intelligence would need to be in control."

Yuffie nodded. "There's materia that lets you control monsters, but only for really short periods of time and only a few at a time. This raid sounds way more complicated."

"So all we know at this point is that someone went through a lot of effort to organize a large scale monster raid just so they could steal something from Dr. Aston's facility," Tifa said.

Cid impatiently rose to his feet. "Look, we can jaw about this for hours, but we're not going to get anywhere by just sitting here. So let's get our asses down to that Archival Storage place and take a look around for some clues."

"Are you really feeling up to this?" Tifa gave Cloud a worried look.

"Don't worry. I'm fine now."

Yuffie suddenly started to giggle, but the giggles soon turned into outright shrieks of laughter.

Cid eyed the ninja sourly and said, "What's so fucking funny?"

She tried to answer, but it took several attempts before she got enough breath back to say anything.

"The name of his facility... hee hee hee... no wonder that jerk never abbreviated it!"

"Abbreviate it? What do you mean, Yuffie?" Tifa said, looking increasingly confused.

"Archival Specimen Storage Research Unit Building... ha ha ha!"

Tifa said in dangerous tones, "Yuffie, I'm about to strangle you!"

Cloud blinked, then choked back a soft laugh of his own, followed by a growing grin on Reeve's face.

"If you abbreviate it... hee hee hee... it comes out... ASSRUB!"

Although the attack on the facility was a deadly serious matter, they couldn't help laughing, snickering, chuckling - or in Cloud's case, grinning slightly - all the way back to the Shera.


.


A pale, painfully thin woman with very short brown hair burst out of the elevator and stomped into the office, her labcoat flapping like stubby wings.

"I don't know why you called me over, but it better be worth my time," she snapped at the elegant black-haired woman sitting behind the desk.

Dr. Nyx brushed a strand of long curly hair behind one ear and replied mildly, "I received a phone call from Dr. Steven. He had some very interesting information to share, Montessi."

"Steven? That moron! You dragged me away from my work to talk about HIM?" Dr. Montessi jeered, stalking impatiently around the neatly organized office.

A unruffled Nyx continued, "He told me that Specimen C is still alive."

Montessi froze in mid-step, then turned slowly toward the other woman.

"You're joking. Steven has to be talking out of his ass, as usual."

"No, in this case, he's not. I've verified it for myself. Specimen C, the prototype for Project S2, is very much alive."

The thin scientist took three rapid steps forward, then slammed her hands down on Nyx's desk.

"Where is he! In a clinic, a hospital? Who has custody at the moment? Can we negotiate with them, or do we need to use other means to secure him?"

Nyx raised a slender hand to stem the barrage of questions.

"He's in no one's custody except his own. If the preliminary reports I've received are accurate, the prototype apparently achieved a normal level of cognitive function within a year of his escape from Nibelheim."

"That's impossible! At the time of the escape, Specimen C was incapable of even the most rudimentary mental activity. In fact, if it wasn't for the link with..."

"I have some security footage from WRO Headquarters that might change your mind," Nyx interrupted, gesturing at a wall screen. She pressed a button on her desk. "This video was recorded just over an hour ago. See for yourself."

On the monitor, an attractive young woman with long dark hair walked down a corridor, accompanied by a young man with disheveled, almost spiky blond hair. He moved easily, clearly alert and aware of his surroundings.

Montessi watched the screen avidly, but made an obvious effort to maintain some measure of objectivity. She said, "The hair and the build certainly match Specimen C, but that's no guarantee. That man on the video could merely have a close physical resemblance."

The image on the screen froze and zoomed in on the blond man's face - more specifically, on his intense blue eyes that glowed with a faint, but distinctive inner light.

Montessi released a long, slow hiss of satisfaction.

"There are no SOLDIERs or experimental subjects on file with a similar physical description," Nyx said, although her comment was probably unnecessary.

"Yes, by god! It IS Specimen C!"

"Cloud Strife."

"What?" Montessi said distractedly.

"The S2 prototype's name is Cloud Strife."

"Whatever," the thin scientist muttered with a dismissive wave of her hand. "The name's irrelevant. What's important is that I have a chance to recover the product of four long years of research. MY research, not Roissy's!"

Montessi's voice started to rise in both shrillness and volume. "She STOLE my ideas and presented them to President Shinra as her own! She got all the credit, not because of her brains, but because of her pretty looks and her willingness to literally whore herself out to whoever's charge! And me? I got stuck doing the scut work, as usual!"

Nyx waited patiently as Montessi started to pace around the room, gesturing furiously as she repeated familiar complaints and grudges.

"And once in charge, what did Roissy do! She tried to play it safe! SHE didn't have the guts to push the limits! But I did! I'm the one who theorized that Phases 1 and 2 could be carried out simultaneously! And just as I was about to proceed to Phase 3, that moron Steven allows Zack Fair and the prototype to escape! All my hard work, gone, thanks to other people's blithering incompetence!"

Nyx said nothing as Montessi whirled to face her, pale and gasping from her outburst. Seeing that Montessi's rant had apparently run its course, she asked, "What are you planning to do now? Because if you're planning to 'recover' Cloud Strife, I strongly recommend that you don't try."

"What do you mean?"

"You are aware of the enormous monster that attacked Edge two weeks ago."

"Of course. No one in the lab could stop talking about it," Montessi said irritably.

"This is some video footage from a news camera that was on the scene."

On the wall monitor, the closeup of Cloud's eyes changed to a scene of chaos as terrified people screamed and ran through the streets of Edge. The camera jerked around wildly as the cameraman dodged both the fleeing mob and falling debris, but settled just long enough to focus on a sleek, powerful black motorcycle and its blond-haired rider as it roared into view.

Montessi and Nyx watched silently as Cloud pulled out and threw an enormous sword, then smoothly caught the returning blade before riding head-on into a massive wave of collapsing wreckage.

Camera motion and dust obscured the video, but when the picture cleared, the it showed the same black motorcycle, now with two riders, emerging unscathed from all the wreckage, then skidded to a stop in the main plaza.

Montessi opened her mouth to say something, but Nyx murmured, "There's more. Keep watching."

The video blurred with static, then cleared once again to follow Cloud as the man leapt effortlessly among towering steel girders, giant sword in hand, as he relentlessly pursued and slashed at the hideous dragon-like monster that flew overhead. From the creature's enraged shrieks and flailing gestures, the sword attacks were clearly having considerable effect on the huge monster. There were other fighters on scene, but Cloud held both scientists' attention as a single fierce strike knocked the monster from the sky and sent it hurtling into the ground.

The image of Cloud lightly dropping onto a girder, massive broadsword in hand, froze on the monitor.

"As you can see, recapturing Cloud will be no easy task." Nyx leaned forward in her chair to emphasize her next words. "And do you know why? Because even from this brief glimpse at Cloud's combat performance, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that Cloud is a fully successful S2 prototype."

"I know! That's why I want to..."

Nyx made a soft sound of exasperation. "Montessi, do you remember the primary goal of Project S2?"

"Of course I do - to create second generation super-SOLDIERs with combat abilities superior to the first generation of SOLDIER, and if possible, Sephiroth. But what does that have to do with recapturing Cloud?"

Nyx rubbed her forehead, then said patiently, "As a Project S2 prototype, Cloud was engineered to surpass the very best of the first generation SOLDIERs - SOLDIERs like Angeal, Genesis, and Zack Fair. Zack defeated both Angeal and Genesis, even before the additional experiments at Nibelheim, so that's why we chose to use him as a baseline for the project."

Seeing that Montessi finally seemed to be listening to her, Nyx continued.

"Do you know how many men the Shinra Army had to use to bring down Zack? Battalions, Montessi, in the plural. With air support. And do you know how many of those men were left standing when Zack finally fell?"

"No."

"Three. Just three of them."

Nyx pointed at Cloud's image on the wall monitor. "That man managed to mortally wound and kill Sephiroth even before he was modified with Mako and Jenova cells. He did it on pure adrenaline." She raised her hand to stop Montessi's protest. "Yes, I am well aware that the earlier fight with Zack wore down Sephiroth considerably. But even so, it's an incredibly impressive feat for an unmodified human. The present day Cloud, as the news video plainly shows, is orders of magnitude stronger. You should know that, because you helped make him that way."

"But there are ways of subduing SOLDIERs. With the right planning, equipment, drugs..."

"And what of the consequences if the slightest thing goes wrong? Why do you think that Shinra sent out SOLDIERs instead of capture teams to hunt down other SOLDIERs? Calm down and think the situation through. There's really no need to rush out and capture Cloud at this point in time. Any questions as to Cloud's capabilities can be answered with less effort and considerably less danger simply through discreet investigation and observation."

Nyx sat back in her chair. "Leave Cloud Strife alone, Montessi. Your work there is done, at least for now."

The other scientist hesitated, then shook her head sharply.

"There are still more experiments to be carried out, other aspects of Project S2 that didn't get tested because the escape!" Montessi protested. "And without a successful Phase 1 prototype like Specimen C as a test subject, we'll never have a chance to achieve the full potential of Project S2!"

Nyx silently pulled a folder out of a drawer, then slid it across the desk.

Montessi read the name at the folder and immediately said, "He's dead."

"As with Cloud, the reports of Rufus Shinra's demise have been greatly exaggerated."

Montessi turned her eyes back to the folder, then picked it up and began to read. When she finished, she slowly lowered it and stared at Nyx with a dreadful sort of hope.

"Brothers?" she breathed.

"The same father, with full siblings as mothers. So, half-brothers and full cousins." Nyx slid two more pieces of paper across the desk. "Note the multiple points of similarity in their genetic profiles."

Montessi studied the test results. "Did President Shinra know that Cloud Strife was his son?"

"Of course he did. Why do you think that he insisted on using Cloud as the initial test subject for Project S2?"

"It says that Rufus had Geostigma. If he has such a negative reaction to Jenova cells..."

"Geostigma is not an accurate indicator of a person's tolerance for Jenova cells. SOLDIERs can contract Geostigma, so there are obviously other factors involved with the disease."

"And where is Rufus now?"

"Healen Lodge, with some of the Turks serving as his bodyguards."

Montessi chuckled, a low rusty sound, deep in her throat. "Turks are formidable, but they're a much more manageable obstacle for a group of competent, well-equipped mercenaries than a second generation super-SOLDIER, hmmm?"

"Especially when most of those Turks are away on various missions." Nyx paused. "As they are, at the moment."

"How... convenient," Montessi purred, then she frowned suddenly. "But that still leaves the matter of finding some Jenova cells."

"I believe that a few samples still exist in various obscure locations. Tracking down the viable ones will take some time, however."

Montessi resumed her pacing, obviously deep in thought. "We can still start work on Rufus immediately. We have to do several rounds of Mako infusion before we can use the Jenova cells, anyway. The lab and the Mako won't be a problem. I already have a place in mind."

"I hope you're not talking about Nibelheim, because that location is being secured by the Turks at this very moment."

"No, no," Montessi said, waving her hand. "Nibelheim's way too obvious. Too many people know about it, and I don't want any interference or interruptions." She looked at Nyx. "I could use you on this project."

"Thank you for the invitation, but I have my own research to pursue."

"Suit yourself. But you're missing out on a marvelous opportunity," Montessi said with a careless shrug, then walked out of Nyx's office without so much as a goodbye or thank you.

Alone in her office, Nyx pulled her long curly black hair into a ponytail, then returned to her computer. Genetic data scrolled rapidly across multiple wall screens - not only for Cloud and Rufus, but profiles of Sephiroth, Zack Fair, Vincent Valentine, Cid Highwind, Tifa Lockhart, Reeve Tuesti, various Turks, and a multitude of others.

Among all the shifting screens of data, one display remained fixed and unchanged.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
JENOVA PROJECT

PROJECT G - Genesis Rhapsodos, Angeal Hewley
~ project terminated ~

PROJECT S0 - Sephiroth

PROJECT S1 - SOLDIER (1st gen)

PROJECT S2 - SOLDIER (2nd gen)
~ PHASE 1 ~ augmentation
~ PHASE 2 ~ replication
~ PHASE 3 ~ assimilation
~ ~ ~ ~ ~


.


The trip to Dr. Aston's facility - they all agreed NOT to use the acronym - took just over an hour. The well hidden facility was nestled in a little valley located surprisingly close to Fort Condor. A tall chainlink fence topped with razor wire enclosed a large number of barn-like structures and a small three-story office building. According to the information from Reeve, the main part of the surprisingly large facility lay underground.

As the Shera descended, the only visible sign of damage Cloud and the others saw was a large jagged hole in the roof of the small office building.

The clearly impatient director - a large, hulking man who looked more like a scruffy dockworker than a senior research scientist - stalked up to them as soon as they disembarked from the airship. Dr. Aston glared at them, clearly not impressed by what he saw.

In a harsh, gravelly voice, the man snapped, "So you're the WRO's investigation team? I'm Dr. Aston, the director of this facility."

Cloud moved straight to the point and said, "What happened here?"

"See for yourself." Dr. Aston waved a ham-sized hand in the general direction of the buildings.

Despite the director's statement, there wasn't anything unusual to be seen from ground level. The most noticeable thing was the pungent aroma of livestock and their by-products coming from the barns.

"So, what do you guys do here at ASS..." Yuffie coughed when Cait Sith, who was riding on her shoulder, poked her. She then continued brightly, "... at this, um... Archival Specimen Storage Research Unit Building?"

Dr. Aston shot the ninja a suspicious look. When she merely gave him an innocent grin, he huffed, then said, "We do research into bioenergy."

Cid looked startled. "Didn't think that anyone was still fiddling around with Mako."

The director coughed, then said stiffly, "Bioenergy as in biofuels, not Mako." With a sour grimace, he added, "As you said, no one, not even Shinra, is willing to fund active research into Mako anymore."

"So what's the difference?" Tifa asked.

"Biofuels are fuels derived from biomass. In our case, gaseous fuels derived from degradable biowaste."

"Biowaste?"

Cid glanced over at Yuffie, then rolled his eyes. "He's referring to manure, crap, shit, and that sort of stuff." He jerked his head toward the barns. "Which explains the livestock and the smell."

"Oh... ooooh." The ninja suddenly made a choking sound that sounded suspiciously like a stifled giggle. "Then I guess that makes the... er, name of this place particularly appropriate."

"Yuffie! Behave yourself!" Tifa hissed, elbowing the ninja sharply.

"And what is THAT supposed to mean?" Dr. Aston demanded, his eyes narrowing dangerously.

Cloud simply shook his head and said, "Never mind. Just ignore her, doctor. Going back to the attack, the only visible damage we've seen so far is the hole in the building roof."

"The real damage is inside. Well, if you're here to investigate, then hurry up and investigate so we can clean the damn mess up and get back to work." He eyed them sourly. "Unlike some people, I don't have time to go jaunting around on airships as I please."

Once inside the building, the damage was massive, but highly focused. The path of destruction led straight from the roof through three floors and into the main elevator lobby on the ground floor. Every pair of elevator doors had been ripped away, leaving gaping entrances to the elevator shafts.

"Sheesh, just follow the copious blood splatter and claw marks," Yuffie said, eyeing the damage.

"Hell, straight in and no messing about, huh?" Cid snorted scornfully. "Monster attack, my ass! This was a fucking surgical strike."

"How many people were hurt in this attack?" Cait Sith asked.

Aston blinked at being questioned by a comical black-and-white toy cat with a gilded crown, but answered, "Five technicians and three support staff died. About the same number were wounded to varying degrees." He shrugged "Fortunately, no one important got killed or seriously injured."

"Only expendable people got hurt, so no big loss to you. I suppose that's one way of looking at it."

Oblivious to Cid's sarcasm, Aston led them through two large metal security doors, now shredded like tissue paper, then into a stairwell.

"As you can see, the monsters used the elevator shafts to enter the underground levels. Three of the technicians died when those monsters severed the main support cables and their elevator car dropped ten floors."

As they descended the stairs, Yuffie whispered to Tifa, "If any of those scientists Reeve sent to Nibelheim are like this moron, those poor Turks are really going to earn their pay."

The group finally emerged into a small lobby area. On one side, from the direction the torn metal curled, the monsters had plainly torn their way out of the elevator shafts. On the other side of the lobby was a massive security door that was mostly eaten away by some powerful acid. Through the gaping hole in the door, they could see a large, sterile-looking chamber filled with floor-to-ceiling transparent cylinders. Surprisingly, the destruction on this floor was strictly limited to the lobby area, with nothing beyond the security door being damaged or even scratched.

Aston gestured at the cylinder-filled room. "This is the high security specimen storage area. As you can see, the monsters came down the elevator shafts, destroyed the security door, opened one of the cylinders, removed the sample inside, and left the same way."

"How does the damn system work?" asked Cid as he entered the inner storage chamber.

"Each sample is locked in an individual security container, each with its own keypad." Aston pointed to a cylinder. "To open any container, you have to enter the proper authorization code."

"How hard is it to break one of these suckers open?" Cid rapped the empty container with his spear and got a dull thunk from the thick plastic.

"You'd run a serious risk of destroying the container's contents if you tried that," Aston replied.

Tifa looked around. "Okay, so who has the codes?"

"It depends on the sample, of course, and who has authority to access it."

"There's only one cylinder open and undamaged, which means that one of those monsters actually typed in a working access code for this specific container."

"Obviously," Aston replied, sounding annoyed.

"Do you know what sort of code was used and what kind of specimen was taken?" Tifa was clearly trying to be patient and accommodating, but it wasn't easy with a man like Aston.

"Do you have any idea how many specimens are stored in this facility?"

"Then why the hell don't you look it up and tell us, instead of standing there like a frickin' statue?" Cid demanded.

Aston glared at the pilot, then snarled, "Fine." With a sigh of disgust, the director turned and stomped over to a computer terminal in the back corner of the room. He typed in a command, then stood back, his arms folded and his face set in a belligerent scowl.

The data on the nearby wall screen read:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
CONTAINER ID: D3-E1-5K9

AUTHORIZATION: Weapons Development Department

*** ACCESS LIMITED TO LEVEL GREEN AND ABOVE

SAMPLE DATE: Day J, Month K, Year 0005
SPECIES: Human
CLASSIFICATION: Probationary Employee, Weapons Development
SUBJECT NAME: Reilly, Nathan

LAST ACCESS: A-B-0009, LEVEL GREEN (shared)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As Cloud and the others continued to stare at the screen, Aston snapped, "Now are you satisfied?"

The only response he received was a darkly suspicious look from every single individual in the room, the silly-looking toy cat included.

"Okay, I'm calling 'behemoth shit' on this," was Yuffie's response.

Tifa folded her arms. "Count me in."

Cid looked at Cait Sith, then back at Aston. "I fucking well know that in Shinra, 'high security' applies to Level Red on up. Level Green? No damn way."

"What are you talking about?" the director blustered.

"No one goes through all this trouble to steal a cell sample from some Joe-slob probie out of Weapons Development!" retorted the pilot.

"You must take us for complete idiots!" Yuffie stalked forward and smacked the wall screen with the back of her hand. "That's not even the right container ID number!"

Tense silence settled over the room as Cloud's friends glared at Aston and the director stared defiantly back.

Without taking his eyes off Aston, Cloud said, "Cait, try the correct ID number for the open container."

The small robot cat bounced over to the computer and did exactly that. In return, he received a loud beep and a flashing red ACCESS DENIED message from the computer.

"No go. The information related to that particular specimen can't be accessed without..." Cait Sith fiddled with the computer. "...without a Level Black passcode from the Science Department or the facility director's permission."

Everyone turned their attention back to Dr. Aston and waited for his response.

The director remained defiant, but he was also showing signs of stress, probably because Cloud and his companions hadn't reacted as he'd expected.

Aston finally said, "The specimens in this facility are Shinra Corporation property. I can't hand out detailed information about valuable company assets to just anyone. And since you're WRO, you don't have proper authorization. You'll have to go through the proper company channels..."

"Enough with this bureaucratic red tape crap!" Cid exploded, losing his last scrap of patience. However, Cloud interrupted his outburst.

"If you're so worried about keeping Shinra company secrets, why did you contact the WRO in the first place? Why didn't you report the attack directly to Shinra?" Cloud's tone was cold and sharp.

"Because he doesn't want Shinra to investigate," Cait Sith said with a surprisingly toothy grin. "I'm guessing that Aston's been embezzling company funds. Or better yet, maybe he's been stealing company property and selling it off in order to line his own pockets. It's always been Shinra company SOP - standard operating procedure - for the investigators to do an independent inventory and audit whenever a security breach occurs. I don't think that's changed in the last two years."

"But since we're not from Shinra, Aston would be the one handling the inventory." Tifa smiled tightly.

"Exactly. It would give him a perfect chance to cover his tracks."

"That's... that's a ridiculous and insulting allegation! And coming from a talking toy, no less!" Aston bellowed.

They all ignored the director's blustering.

"I bet he took one look at us and thought that it'd be easy to send us off on some wild chocobo chase!" Yuffie uttered a contemptuous sniff.

Cid snapped, "Well, he's damn well wrong about that!"

The pilot took an angry step toward the director, obviously determined to pound the information they needed out of the man, if necessary. However, Cloud stopped him with an outstretched arm, then turned to Yuffie and said, "Grab his phone."

Yuffie gave the director a quick evil smirk. Before Aston could blink or even twitch a finger, she had neatly pilfered his cellphone - and probably a few other items - from his clothing. The ninja waved the phone tauntingly in front of the man's nose, then tossed it over her shoulder to Cloud.

Cloud caught the phone, flicked open it open, and dialed a number.

"What the hell do you think you're doing!" Aston sputtered furiously.

Cloud merely gave the man a level stare, then said into the phone, "Yeah, it's me. There's a Shinra research facility called ASSRUB - the Archival Specimen Storage Research Unit Building - located near Fort Condor. Its director is a Dr. Aston. The facility was attacked today by a large group of unidentified monsters who broke in, stole a single biological specimen from high security storage, and then left. Information related to the stolen specimen can only be accessed by someone with Level Black clearance from the Science Department or by the facility director. Dr. Aston refuses to cooperate. He claims that as a loyal Shinra employee, he can't give us that information because we don't have the appropriate security clearance." Cloud listened intently for a moment. "That's right, high security biological specimens."

After another pause, Cloud thrust the phone back at the infuriated director.

"He wants to talk to you."

Aston grabbed his phone and snarled, "And what makes you think that I want to talk to him, whoever he is!" He then turn his attention to his cellphone and shouted into it, "I don't know who the hell you think you are but... Mr. President, sir! I thought you were... of course, but... well, yes... I, er... but... uh... I wasn't..."

The director began to sweat visibly as he continued to sputter feebly into the phone.

"No, no! There's no need for that... just a misunderstanding... certainly... absolutely clear... um... yes... I understand, complete cooperation! At once, sir!"

Aston closed his phone, then wilted in obvious and total defeat. He then looked around, as if seeking sympathy, but all he got was cold hard looks from Cloud and the others.

"Ah... yes," Aston muttered, tugging on his sweat-stained shirt collar. "The information about the missing specimen." He walked heavily over to the computer.

A few seconds later, the requested information appeared on the wall monitor. As Cloud and the others gathered around to read it, everyone, Aston included, went very quiet.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
CONTAINER ID: B3-R5-3F3

AUTHORIZATION: Science Department, Director

*** ACCESS LIMITED TO LEVEL BLACK AND FACILITY DIRECTOR
*** LETHAL SECURITY MEASURES AUTHORIZED
*** ACCESS BY OTHER PERSONS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN
*** UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS WILL RESULT IN SEVERE PENALTIES INCLUDING TERMINATION

SAMPLE DATE: Day S, Month T, Year 0002
SPECIES: human, modified (JENOVA PROJECT S0)
CLASSIFICATION: SOLDIER (Special Class)
SUBJECT NAME: Sephiroth

LAST ACCESS: A-B-0009, LEVEL BLACK (Dr. Hojo)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~


.


"Stay where you belong, in my memories."

"I will... never be a memory."


Cloud knew that his friends were all looking at him, tensely waiting for his reaction. In the end, there was only one thing he could think of to say.

"Not exactly subtle, is he?"

Various jaws dropped.

With a shrug, Cloud turned to look at his friends. "Well, it's true. Hojo certainly isn't trying to hide his intentions. Otherwise, he would've ordered the monsters to steal multiple samples to hide his true target."

"You seem to be taking this awfully calmly," Yuffie commented in a mildly suspicious tone.

"I've been half-expecting something like this to happen. Only not quite so soon."

"You keep saying shit like that!" Cid said, sounding half-relieved that Cloud was handling their discovery so well, and half-annoyed for the very same reason.

"I will... never be a memory."

"Sorry, Cid. It has to do with something Sephiroth said to me just before he disappeared."

Tifa's eyes widened. "He threatened to return yet again?"

"I will... never be a memory."

"You could..." Cloud suddenly stopped, then cocked his head slightly. "Did you hear that?"

Startled, the others listened intently, then shook their own heads.

"What was it?" Yuffie looked curiously at Cloud.

"A series of muffled thumps and scraping noises." He paused. "There it goes again."

"I still don't...," Cid began, but Tifa, much more familiar with the sensitivity of Cloud's hearing, waved for silence.

"Can you tell where's it coming from?"

Cloud frowned. "I think the sound's coming from the elevator shafts. There's an odd metallic echo to it." He stiffened slightly. "Something's definitely moving around in there."

"You think some of the damn monsters are still lurking around?" Cid scowled, staring out into the small lobby area.

"Maybe. I'm going to check it out. Tifa, Yuffie, come with me," Cloud said, reaching for one of his shorter swords. He glanced at Cid and the pilot's spear, then added, "Space might be bit tight for you."

"You figure?" Cid said sardonically. "I'll stick around here with Cait. Someone needs to keep a close eye on this Aston character. Watch yourself in those shafts. As you said, space is gonna be really tight."

Cloud gave the pilot a nod and a quick flicker of a smile, then departed with the two women.


Several minutes later, Cid and Cait Sith heard the distinctive click of high heels headed in their direction. They looked around just in time to see a petite woman in a labcoat step cautiously through the severely damaged doorway. Both Cid's and Cait Sith's eyes widened in surprise. Aside from the labcoat, she looked more like a high-end fashion model than a scientist, starting from her perfectly styled mid-length brown hair, right down to the five inch stiletto heels that matched the color of her exquisitely tailored green dress suit.

"What are you doing here, Roissy?" Aston snapped, scowling ferociously at the woman.

"If you're the investigative team from the WRO, I need to talk to you."

"I can handle matters without your interference, doctor." He spoke the last word with a definite sneer. "Get back to your work station!"

Roissy continued to ignore the angry director. "I need to discuss the sample that was stolen today." She glanced at Cid. "Are you in charge?"

"Dr. Roissy...!" Aston thundered.

"Shut the fuck up," Cid snapped at the director. He then turned to the woman and said, "What the hell do you know about that sample? And how did you even know it was missing?"

She smiled grimly and said, "I don't have the security clearance to directly access the specimen's data, but a while ago, I managed to put a flag on it. That flag lets me know when someone opens that particular storage container."

"Do you mean to say that you had the unmitigated nerve to hack into Shinra company files!" Aston shouted, his face turning bright red.

Roissy planted her perfectly manicured hands on her hips. "I don't think you're in any position to be self-righteous, director!"

Aston took a furious step toward Roissy, but was brought up short as Cid planted his hand on the older man's chest.

"Let her talk. I want to hear what she's got to say about that sample." When Aston sputtered, the pilot glared at the other man and added dangerously, "Shut up, or I'll shut you up. Got that? Now butt out of the conversation!"

The director took a deep breath, struggled visibly with himself, then subsided into a sullen silence.

Roissy smirked at Aston before turning her attention back to Cid and Cait Sith.

"I don't have a clue what the original specimen contained, but I can tell you that the specimen the monsters took is a complete fake."

"WHAT?" Cid and Cait gave her an incredulous stare.

"It's a fake," Roissy repeated, then added, "Aston stole the original sample over three years ago and replaced it with a fake sample. So whoever stole the specimen today has junk."

"Junk?"

"Probably porcine mammary tissue. That's what Aston used to make the other fake samples."

"Porcine... what?" Cait Sith looked adorably confused.

Cid puzzled over it for a moment, then started to howl with laughter. "You mean... you mean that Hojo's got nothing but freaking PIG TITS?"

"Basically, yes." Roissy stopped, then it was her turn to look confused. "Hojo? The former director of the Science Department? But I thought he was dead!"

"Long story," the pilot and the robot cat said simultaneously.

"So where the fuck is the real specimen?" Cid demanded.

"Why don't you ask HIM?" Roissy then jerked her chin at the silent director.

"I see." Cait Sith walked over to Aston and stared up at the heavy-set man. "You'd certainly have both opportunity and motive."

Aston clenched his jaw, but continued to say nothing.

"How did you find out about the substitution, Dr. Roissy?" Cait Sith turned to look at the female scientist.

She shrugged. "Several years ago, while I was working in another lab, I ran into some problems with specimen handling..."

There was a sudden series of muffled thumps and crashes off in the distance.

When Roissy stopped in mid-story, Cid casually said, "Don't worry. Our buddies are doing a little pest control. Keep going."

"Ah... all right. At first I thought it was just careless lab mistakes or random computer glitches, but eventually I started to suspect there was more going on. When I got reassigned here..."

"Demoted for incompetence, you mean," Aston said nastily, then subsided back into silence when Cid glared at him.

"When I got reassigned to this facility two years ago, I started to do some investigating on my own. I won't go into the details right now, but I soon discovered that someone was systematically removing the genuine specimens and replacing them with fakes, probably so the real samples could be sold to the highest bidder. By process of elimination, Aston had to be the culprit."

"You lying bitch!"

Roissy reached into the pocket of her labcoat and pulled out a disk. "I've got all the proof right here."

Cait Sith took the disk, then looked up at Roissy. "Why didn't you report your suspicions to Shinra?"

"I uncovered Aston's activities two years ago, just before Meteorfall. After that... well, I just let the matter go."

"Except today, the monsters stole - or tried to steal - one of the specimens Aston substituted," Cait Sith said.

"Exactly. I thought that the WRO should know that the thief - Hojo, you said? - didn't get what he wanted."

"We appreciate the heads-up, Roissy." Cid turned back to the director. "So where is it, Aston?"

"Where's what?" he muttered.

"Do not fucking play games with us. What the hell did you do with the real sample of Sephiroth's cells?"

"Sephiroth? You mean that original sample was supposed to be from Sephiroth?" Roissy interrupted, her eyes wide.

Cid didn't take his eyes off Aston, but merely jerked his head over to the wall monitor. As she rushed off, the pilot repeated his question.

"Where's the fucking sample? The real one."

"I told you, I don't know what you're talking about! That little bitch is trying to frame me!"

"I certainly did not! Just ask some of the lab people here. They'll tell you what's been going on!" Roissy protested from the back of the room.

"Look, I don't know which one of you are telling the damn truth right now!" Cid shouted, drowning out the two scientists as they hurtled accusations and counter-accusations at each other. "The important thing is that Hojo raided this place and killed a bunch of people to get a frickin' sample of Sephiroth's cells!"

He glared at the two now-quiet scientists. "If Hojo now has the real thing, everyone on this Planet has a big fucking problem."

The pilot jabbed a finger at Aston. "On the other hand, if the specimen Hojo stole is a fake, YOU'RE the one with the big fucking problem, Mr. Facility Director."

Aston sputtered an incoherent protest, but fear was clearly starting to replace his earlier bravado.

"Try to pull your damn head out of your damn butt, okay? If Hojo finds out that he's been stuck with a fake - and believe me, he WILL find out - he's going to be coming after you. Because as far as he knows, YOU're the only other person who had access to the goddamn sample!"

"Someone else must've stolen my codes, or hacked the security system!" the director practically wailed. "It wasn't me! I don't know anything about it!"

"Aston, 'some other dude did it' isn't going to cut it with Hojo, and you know it!" Cait Sith planted his paws on his hips. "He's going to ask you where the real sample of Sephiroth's cells are and he will happily torture you until he gets an answer that satisfies him!"

"All... all right. All right!" the ashen-faced man mumbled, rubbing his face in his hands. "I did switch the Sephiroth sample for a fake one three years ago. Someone was willing to pay me a great deal for it. As long as there's the right number of specimens in the right number of slots for the occasional inventory, who would know the difference?"

"Who did you give the sample to?" Cait Sith demanded impatiently.

Aston licked his lips. "Steven. A Dr. Lawrence Steven." He hunched his shoulders wearily. "Look, that's all I know. If you want more information, go ask him."

Cait Sith glanced over at Roissy, and saw a surprising amount of anger in her dark brown eyes.

"Something wrong, doctor?"

She started, then said quickly, "I'm just completely disgusted by Dr. Aston's and Dr. Steven's behavior. That's all."

"Look, the WRO will protect me from Hojo, right? Like you said, he's going to come looking for me. I need protection!" the director demanded anxiously.

"Yeah, yeah. Guess we're going to have to stick you in protective custody or whatever," the pilot said.

"We should evacuate everyone else from this facility, just in case Hojo or his monsters come back. I'll make the arrangements to have them flown to Junon. I don't think Hojo will go after them." Cait Sith gave Cid a meaningful look. "So the regular staff should be pretty safe. In the meantime, we need to track down this Dr. Steven."

Cid's phone suddenly rang.

"Yeah?"

Cloud's answer echoed oddly over the phone. "There's a small critter headed your way, Cid, through the vents. Be careful. It's got acid blood and it sprays."

"Got it."

Quickly stashing his phone, Cid scanned the area and located the four air vents into the specimen storage room, then snapped, "Back it up, guys, away from those vents! Look, don't ask goddamn questions. Just move and shut up!"

Aston and Roissy scrambled to the back corner of the room, along with Cait Sith, while Cid listened carefully. Soon, a faint scraping sound caught his attention. He took a few silent steps over to one of the vents, and waited.

Despite his preparation, Cid almost missed the creature as it lunged through the vent grating and scurried into the room.

The beast was scaly, the size of a small dog, and looked like a four-legged mouth packed with jagged black teeth and which dribbled nasty yellowish slime. It moved fast, chomping viciously at Cid's ankles. He dodged, then smacked the creature hard against the wall with the blunt end of his spear. The impact didn't seem to faze the monster. It flattened, rebounded like a rubber ball, then quickly scrambled back on its feet and charged Cid again. After a few more rounds, he finally managed to pin it to the floor with the back end of his spear.

"Now what?" the pilot muttered as the vicious little beast squealed and squirmed. He could spear the damn thing with the spear's blade end, but he had a nasty feeling that the thing would pop in his face like an acid-filled balloon.

"Cid, knock it out here!" Tifa called out from the lobby area near the elevators. "Yuffie?"

"Whenever Cid's ready! Give me a three count!"

"Gotcha, on three! One. Two. Three!"

Cid lifted his spear and before the monster could attack or scurry away, he whacked it through the damaged security doorway like a ball. The creature squealed as a bright whoosh of flame engulfed and incinerated it.

"Any more of those things?" the pilot said, walking out to join Tifa and Yuffie in the elevator lobby.

"No. There were only four of them, and that's the last one," Cloud said as he dropped out of an open elevator shaft.

"Great. I've got some good news. We might've caught a big break with this whole Sephiroth sample thing."

"What do you mean?" Tifa asked as she pulled off her gloves.

"The one Hojo managed to steal is a fake. Aston apparently swapped out the original sample several years ago and sold it off," Cid said with a grin. "So that sample that Hojo has? Pig tits."

Yuffie blurted, "Are you serious!"

The pilot grinned. "Yeah. Anyway, after explaining what's liable to happen once Hojo finds out about the switch, Aston spilled his guts and gave up his buyer. Reeve's tracking the guy down."

"What about Aston?" Cloud asked as he slid his short sword into the harness on his back.

"Protective custody," Cait Sith explained as he joined them in the lobby. "We're also going to evacuate this place. There's a good chance Hojo will come looking for Aston."

"So you're thinking about using this facility and possibly Aston as bait." Cloud looked thoughtful. "If we can stop Hojo quickly enough... So who did Aston give the sample to?"

"A Dr. Lawrence Steven. He works at the WRO infirmary, but he's now disappeared."

Cloud's head snapped around to stare at the cat.

Tifa exclaimed, "But we saw him less than two hours ago! He's the doctor who examined Cloud when we brought him in!" She rolled her eyes. "Well, he was supposed to examine Cloud, but he ran off in mid-exam!"

Cait Sith blinked, then went silent for a moment. "Hell's fire. It's not in his WRO personnel files, but it turns out that Steven started working as a regular medical doctor just over two years ago. Before that..." Cait Sith slowly looked up at Cloud.

"Yeah?" Cid prompted.

"Before that, he was a researcher assigned to Nibelheim."

Tifa smacked her fist into her palm. "Well, that explains why he ran away!" She turned to Cloud. "He must've recognized you and panicked, for whatever reasons."

"But when we walked by his office, I didn't recognize him. At all," Cloud said, giving Tifa a puzzled look.

"Maybe you didn't recognize him, but he apparently recognized you!"

"And that caused him to dump everything and run?"

"Well, there's an old saying that the guilty often flee, even when no one pursues," Cait Sith said with a shrug. "Regardless of his reasons, we need to find him because he's the only one who knows what happened to that sample of Sephiroth's cells."


From the concealment of the specimen storage room, Roissy stared at the young man with the blond spiky hair.

He was alive. Specimen C, her prized Project S2 prototype, was ALIVE.

The elation she felt completely eclipsed her pleasure at Aston's ruin and her fury at Steven's backstabbing schemes.

The official reports had stated that both specimens were destroyed during a recapture attempt by the Shinra Army. The loss of Specimen Z, the SOLDIER, First Class, was a major blow to the project, but Specimen C, the actual prototype, had been irreplaceable. The simultaneous loss of both men had spelled the end of Project S2.

Roissy continued to watch as the prototype interacted smoothly with the other members of the WRO team. He was calm, coherent, and decisive. Excellent.

When she heard Specimen C - Cloud Strife - mention that he had no memory of Steven, she wasn't at all surprised, given the nature of the project's experiments and his response to those experiments.

Would Cloud recognize her? How would he react if he did? If Cloud didn't remember anything about Steven, someone he had regular contact with, then chances were very good that he wouldn't remember her. But there was no reason to be overconfident, either. It was far better to avoid the possibility of an awkward incident if she could.

Unfortunately, the choice could be taken out of her hands at any moment. Trapped in the storage area with Aston, she had nowhere to go. If Cloud entered the room or she was called out to meet him, there was no way to avoid a confrontation.

But as the conversation in the lobby continued, it seemed that Roissy's recent streak of good luck was holding out.


Cloud said, "Do you need us down here, Cid?"

"Nah. Why don't you guys head on up and start the evacuation?"

"All right." Cloud turned for the stairs, then abruptly stopped.

"Cloud?" Tifa said, looking concerned.

"I thought I smelled something...," he murmured, then shook his head. "Never mind."


The vaguely familiar odor continued to linger in Cloud's nose and nagged at his mind as the evacuation of the ASSRUB facility continued far into the night.

The very faint scent was floral, but not natural, with a hint of animal musk that made the smell subtle, sexy, and complex.

It was expensive perfume, but not as it came straight from the bottle.

This was the scent of a perfume on a living woman.

And although he could not express why, Cloud found it oddly repellent.


.


It was approaching midnight in Edge when someone knocked on the door to Reeve's office. With a sigh, he put down his mug of coffee.

"Come in."

The man who entered was of average height, with pleasant features and short brown hair, athletically built without being heavily muscled. But as he approached Reeve's desk, Reeve saw something that instantly pushed the man out of the realm of the ordinary and into the very unusual.

"You're a SOLDIER."

The man gave Reeve a wry smile. "Yeah. You can change the clothes, but the eyes are a pretty good giveaway." As he and Reeve shook hands, he added, "The name's Kunsel. I'm the guy who got assigned to run up to Icicle Inn and gather up some records."

"Ah, yes. That was quick work. Do you have them?"

Kunsel unslung his backpack and placed it on Reeve's desk.

"There wasn't much. The place has been deserted for decades. All I found were some old videotapes, audio tapes, along with a few papers."

Reeve sighed. "Well, the tapes were probably the most important things. Good work." He glanced up at Kunsel. "Did you have any trouble?"

"Nothing I couldn't handle," the SOLDIER said with a casual shrug.

Reeve chuckled as he sat down, then waved the other man to a chair.

"I was in the middle of a coffee break. Would you like some?"

"Sure. No, I'll help myself," Kunsel said as Reeve moved to rise. "You look like you've had a long hard day, Mr. Tuesti."

"Call me Reeve, please." He eyed Kunsel over the edge of his mug. "How long have you been working with the WRO, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Pretty much from the beginning, right after Meteorfall."

"So you weren't interested in working for the Shinra Corporation anymore and you didn't become a mercenary like other SOLDIERs."

"I thought about the mercenary bit, but it felt kind of pointless. I wasn't interested in mere survival, you know? As for working for Shinra..." Kunsel's normally pleasant expression tightened. "Well, let's just say that I got really disenchanted with Shinra and the way they did business."

"Oh, I understand completely."

"Yeah, as the former director of Urban Development, I guess you would."

Few minutes of comfortable silence passed as they drank their coffee, then Kunsel quietly said, "There's not many of us SOLDIERs around these days and everyone who's left has basically gone their own way." He shook his head, then added in a wistful tone, "After both Angeal and Zack disappeared, SOLDIER was never the same."

"That's odd. I'd always pictured Sephiroth's loss as having the biggest impact on SOLDIER."

Kunsel snorted. "Sephiroth might've been the famous hero that everyone talked about, but Angeal and Zack... well, they were the heart of SOLDIER. After they were gone, SOLDIER was pretty much the same as any other group of professional mercenaries."

The second name piqued Reeve's interest. "A SOLDIER named Zack, you said?"

"Zack Fair. He was one of my best friends. Angeal Hewley was his mentor." Kunsel cocked his head slightly. "Did you know Zack?"

"I might have seen him in passing once or twice around the Shinra Building, but no, I don't think I ever met this Zack personally."

"Oh, you'd remember Zack if you'd bumped into him. I swear, the guy had the uncanniest knack for making friends in the strangest places."

Reeve took another sip of coffee. "The reason I asked was because a good friend of mine was very close to a SOLDIER, First Class, called Zack."

"There's only ever been one Zack in SOLDIER."

"I see." Reeve looked down at his coffee, then put the mug down on his desk. "You mentioned that Zack disappeared. As one of his best friends, I think you should know that Zack died two years ago."

"No question about it?" Kunsel asked sharply.

"None."

Kunsel remained silent for a long moment, then said quietly, "I figured as much. After I learned that Shinra was..." He rubbed his hand over his mouth and sighed heavily.

Reeve watched the other man, wondering how much more he could or should say. Finally, he said, "How much do you know about the Nibelheim Incident?"

"I've heard the official reports. Sephiroth was listed as KIA, killed in action, while Zack and several infantrymen were declared missing in action," Kunsel replied cautiously.

"We both know how accurate Shinra official reports can be," Reeve said with a cynical smile. "The truth is complicated, to say the least, but it can be summarized like this - Sephiroth went insane in Nibelheim and destroyed the town; Zack and one of the infantrymen tried to stop Sephiroth from stealing an alien specimen called Jenova; between the two of them, they succeeded in killing Sephiroth; for their efforts, Shinra handed them over to Hojo."

For the first time since making Kunsel's acquaintance, the man displayed the abilities that marked him as a SOLDIER. In a blur, Kunsel was out of his chair and leaning over Reeve's desk, his hands planted firmly on the tabletop.

"I knew it. I fucking KNEW it! Zack and that infantryman were the two research samples that escaped Nibelheim three years ago, weren't they!" Kunsel turned and paced in front of the desk. "On the run for nearly a year and he doesn't try to get in touch with me even once?"

Reeve started to speak, but Kunsel waved him into silence.

"No, I already know why. The stubborn idiot didn't want to get me or anyone else he cared about into trouble," the SOLDIER said in a voice that held equal amounts of affection and exasperation. "And knowing Zack, he probably died doing something unspeakably heroic!"

Despite Kunsel's seemingly cavalier attitude, Reeve could sense the deep underlying grief. No matter how much a person tried to prepare himself, it still hurt when one's worst fears became harsh reality.

"From the little that Cloud told me... yes, he did. The more I hear about Zack, the more I wish I could've met the man," Reeve said.

"Yeah. Zack was... really something."


.


Still at work in her office despite the late hour, Nyx answered her phone.

"Hello, Roissy."

"Guess who I just saw!"

As Nyx calmly scrolled through the detailed computer report on Cloud Strife, she said into the phone, "I don't have a clue. So please, enlighten me."

"Specimen C, the Project S2 prototype!"

"Wasn't he reported as being killed, along with Zack, two years ago?"

"Yes, but it looks that someone lied about that."

"Shocking. I wonder who and why."

"Probably Hojo," Roissy said bitterly. "From the moment he found out about Project S2, he was looking for an excuse to get it shut down, probably because he was afraid that it would compete with his precious Jenova Reunion research."

"That sounds typical Hojo," Nyx murmured.

"Never mind that. I had a brief opportunity to observe Specimen C and he appeared to be both combat-capable and mentally coherent. Do you understand what that means? I'll need to do additional observations, of course, but it looks like the imprinting and the data transfer process worked!"

"Is that what you intend to do? Merely observe him?"

"At least for the moment." Roissy's tone abruptly shifted from enthusiasm to anger. "Do you have any idea what Steven is up to?"

"Dr. Steven? Why do you ask?"

"Because I've been trying to call that bastard for the last few hours and I'm not even getting his voicemail!"

"Sorry, but I have no idea where he might be or what he might be doing at this moment."

"Well, if he calls you, tell me."

"Of course. Where are you?"

"I'm in Junon. The WRO evacuated our facility after an attack. They think Hojo's responsible and that he might come back."

"So Hojo's not dead?"

"Well, the WRO thinks he's still alive. But I'm not worried about him. Specimen C and his role as a successful Project S2 prototype is my only concern at the moment. There's one last thing you can do for me. Try to find out where Specimen C has been and what he's been doing ever since his escape from Nibelheim. I need the data to determine the effectiveness of the Phase 2 procedures."

"I'll see what I can do, Roissy."

Nyx closed her phone, then paged through the report on Cloud Strife already on her computer screen, pausing at an email from the previous President of Shinra, dated shortly after the Nibelheim Incident.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
From: President Shinra
To: Dr. Nyx

Sent: R-OCT-0002

All phases of Project S2 authorized. Roissy is project head, but I rely on you to keep an eye on things.

Regarding Cloud Strife, no, I don't have any problems with that. I'm interested in results, not a bastard child from a neurotic ex-mistress. He's the best candidate for prototype, so use him. Nibelheim Incident survivors are currently in Hojo's custody, but he'll probably lose interest in them soon enough. I'll have Hojo transfer most of his research to Midgar. He should be out of your hair shortly and Project S2 can proceed unimpeded.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The next series of emails were dated several weeks before Meteorfall.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
From: President Shinra
To: Dr. Nyx

Sent: X-NOV-0007

The final reports I received about the recapture fuckup stated that BOTH specimens from Project S2 were killed. Then why the hell did I just see Specimen C today, running loose with some members of AVALANCHE in the Sector 5 Reactor? I tested him with the Airbuster, and he displayed enhanced combat abilities, so it's no mistake on my part. Get in touch with Roissy and make arrangements to restart Project S2 ASAP. I'll deal with Hojo.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
From: President Shinra
To: Dr. Nyx

Sent: Y-NOV-0007

Enough time has been wasted. Rufus will be brought in from Junon as soon as Project S2 is up and running again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
From: President Shinra
To: Dr. Nyx

Sent: Z-NOV-0007

Specimen C currently in custody in Shinra Building. For whatever reasons, he hasn't made an attempt to break free, even though the Project S2 specs say that he could manage it easily. You did mention possible lag time before the prototype displays peak performance. Regardless, send team to retrieve, restrain, and subdue him ASAP. I don't want a working S2 prototype running around loose in my building.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Cloud's file contained no further communications from President Shinra, but the report was thorough, meticulously tracking Cloud's activities from his arrival in Midgar, the events related to Meteorfall, up to and including the battle with Sephiroth's Remnants two weeks ago.


.


After a brief stopover in Rocket Town for supplies and additional equipment, the Turks and the WRO team arrived in Nibelheim several hours after midnight. The scientists were given a few hours of sleep before being rousted out of bed at the crack of dawn.

The Mansion was dirty, dusty, and deserted except for the rare wandering monster. Reeve had informed the Turks that Cloud and his friends cleared out the vast majority of the monsters infesting the building two years ago. Luckily, few creatures had returned, so the Turks and the two squads of WRO troops that accompanied them had no problems handling the remaining monsters lurking within the old building.

At noon, all the scientists were herded into the Mansion's entrance hall for a lunch break under the watchful eye of the WRO troopers, which gave the Turks a brief opportunity to relax. Elena peered over the balcony, did a head count, then said, "So what do you think, Reno? We haven't had any trouble with them."

"Yet," the redhead said sourly. "There's plenty of time for them to start acting up, so don't let your guard down. Where's Rude?"

"He's down in the basement keeping on eye on the people working in the library. He isn't too happy, either. I don't blame him. That basement is seriously creepy. He tells me there are roomfuls of coffins down there."

"Man, I hate being back in this shithole of a town!"

Looking startled, Elena said, "You've been here before?"

"Oh yeah. Left a seriously bad taste in my mouth," Reno said, his lips twisting into a bitter smile.

Having worked with Reno for two years, Elena understood that his last words were Reno-speak for something that bothered him on a deep personal level. But Reno being Reno, the man would never admit to such a thing.

Without prompting, Reno continued, "The Turks were here for that epic clusterfuck with Sephiroth seven years ago. You wouldn't know her, but Chaise was on-scene for all of it. Rude and I arrived for the cleanup." He gave her a cynical little grin. "Can't let the public know that your famous war hero went batshit psycho and obliterated an entire town. Bad for the company image, you know." He stared up at the dusty chandelier hanging over the main hall.

"I still don't know why, but it was the first and only time I'd ever walked away from an assignment. I could've handled getting rid of the survivors. At least, they would've died quick and clean." Reno mimed a quick pistol shot to the back of the head.

"So what happened to them?" Elena said, barely hiding her shock and surprise.

"Hojo got 'em."

"...oh. I see."

"Yeah. One of the survivors was a SOLDIER Tseng had worked with before. That's probably why Tseng tried so hard to..." Reno shook his head suddenly. "Aw, fuck that. Never mind. Let's just say that I HATE this damn place."

Elena perched herself on the balcony railing and worked on her sandwich as she groped for a less awkward topic for discussion. Finally, she said, "So, who are your picks for potential troublemakers?"

Reno snorted, just to let her know that he could see right through her, before answering her question.

"There are three or four that smell a bit hinky. They're the ones spending too much time fondling Hojo's files. But as for real trouble, just one. What about you?"

She toss him a piece of fruit and gave him a sharp grin. "Pretty much the same. So who's your candidate?"

Reno sprawled back lazily on the stairs and said, "That Steven guy. He keeps trying to sneak off by himself."

"Yeah, I noticed. So what's he up to?"

"Don't know. If he's worked here before, he might be trying to retrieve something he left behind. He sure as hell didn't get on that helicopter and come out all this way just to go sightseeing."


Lawrence Steven had a very good reason for getting on that helicopter at WRO Headquarters - he wanted to get as far away from Specimen C as he possibly could. At the time, the chance for immediate travel to the Western Continent had seemed like a miraculous stroke of good luck. Once at Rocket Town, he could slip away from the group and find a good hiding place, maybe even visit the Gold Saucer on the way.

What he hadn't expected was the mission being run by Turks - and what the HELL were Turks doing working for the WRO, anyway? - and being constantly watched by both Turks and WRO goons.

Even worse, none of the scientists had been allowed off the helicopters at Rocket Town. Now he was back in this armpit of a mountain town called Nibelheim and stuck there good and proper, at least for the immediate future. From his earlier experience in Nibelheim, he knew that getting out of the town wouldn't be easy. The roads were absolutely wretched, infested with monsters, and it was way too easy to get lost without a guide. That made Nibelheim perfect for a secret research lab, but damn inconvenient for him.

And he still didn't have a phone. The local general store did carry a few for sale, but the Turks had warned everyone that no unauthorized communications would be permitted and had gone so far as to confiscate everyone's cellphones. He wouldn't put it past the Turks to do periodic strip and cavity searches to enforce their rules, either.


It hadn't taken long to clear the upper levels of the Mansion. By mid afternoon, everyone had moved down into the basement where all the 'good' stuff was.

Under the Turks' watchful eyes, the scientists were packing boxes of files and disassembling various pieces of lab equipment. Briefly leaving their group of scientists under the watchful eye of a WRO trooper, Elena and Rude decided to take another look around the basement area.

They walked into a chamber with a large motorized winch mounted on the high ceiling. One of the scientists followed them into the room and poked around a bit. Finally he said, "Nothing much in here. Only ordinary mechanical equipment. Nothing worth saving."

"Hey Rude! What do you think that was for?" Elena pointed upward at the winch.

He shrugged. "Hoisting something?"

"Very funny. But what's it doing in here?"

In an apparent effort to impress Elena, the scientist jabbed at a grimy control panel and said, "I think this is the switch that operates it..."

Elena whirled around and snapped, "Don't touch that!"

Unfortunately, her warning came too late. The scientist hit the button and the well concealed trapdoor under Elena's and Rude's feet suddenly sprang open, dumping them into a dark and seemingly bottomless pit.

"OH SHIIIIITTTTT!"


Hearing the yells, Reno dashed into the room with his nightstick charged and ready for action. At first, all he saw was a terrified scientist and a gaping hole in the floor.

"What the...? Rude! Elena!"

There was a faint splash from the depths of the hole, followed by an infuriated female shriek.

"Get us out of here!" she demanded.

"What the hell are you doing down there!" Reno said, moving to the edge of the pit and peering cautiously downward.

"Don't ask stupid questions, Reno! When I get my hands on that moron up there, I'm going to rip his balls off with my bare hands!" she yelled furiously.

In the dim light from the opening above, Elena and Rude found themselves thrashing around in a debris-choked pit filled chest-high with a nauseating mixture of stagnant water, slime-covered bones, and other unspeakably disgusting types of junk. The stench was overpowering.

"I think we've located Hojo's garbage disposal," muttered Rude.

"God, I think I'm going to be sick. Reno!"

Overhead, the two Turks heard a loud series of clanks, followed by some ominous grinding sounds.

"Shit! The winch isn't working. I've got to find a rope and some guys to help get you out of there. Be back in a couple of minutes," Reno yelled down to them.

He hadn't taken but a few steps toward the door when a loud screech from the pit brought Reno running back.

"What's wrong now!"

As she frantically scrambled onto Rude's shoulders, Elena screamed, "Something slimy brushed my leg!"

"How can you tell in all this muck?" muttered Rude.

"Elena, you're a Turk, so show some goddamn backbone! Sheesh!"

"Renoooo!" she wailed piteously up at him.

"I'm hurrying! I'm hurrying!"

Before he left the room, Reno gave the quivering scientist his most psychotically pleasant smile.

"You dropped my teammates into a pit. That makes me unhappy. Sit. Stay."

The scientist nodded frantically and planted himself firmly on a stool.


Back in the pit, Rude said, "Elena, do you MIND?"

She reluctantly slid off his shoulders back into the filthy water. After several minutes, she muttered, "What's taking him so long?"

Suddenly, there was a loud scream from above. Elena started to shout up a question but Rude quickly clamped his hand over her mouth. They both froze as more screams erupted, followed by low, bestial howls and a flurry of distant gunfire.

After her initial jerk of surprise, Elena froze, realizing as long as they were trapped in the pit, she and Rude were easy prey for whatever was rampaging around above. Flattening themselves against the sides to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible, Rude and Elena frantically searched for a way out as the sounds of the fighting got steadily closer.

The pit suddenly darkened as something briefly blocked the opening, then the body - or more precisely, half of the body - of the unlucky scientist Reno had threatened fell on top of them, followed by a shower of warm blood and entrails.

Elena gritted her teeth and remained silent. The desperate screams and gunfire soon faded in frequency, allowing her to pick out the distinctive crackle of Reno's electrified nightstick. The two Turks exchanged grim looks and redoubled their efforts to find a way out of the pit.

The algae and mold made climbing the walls nearly impossible, but the two of them were not about to let a minor detail like that stop them. Reno was up there, outnumbered, probably alone by now, and fighting things that sounded very, very nasty.

As they continued their agonizingly slow climb, the sound of Reno's nightstick abruptly stopped. Unfortunately, the sounds of the attacking monsters did not. Elena and Rude looked at each other, then continued climbing.

Their upward progress came to an abrupt halt about ten feet below the pit's rim. At that point, the rough blocks lining the pit changed to slick, finished stonework that slanted inward at a steep angle as the pit narrowed at the top, making the last few feet impossible to climb. However, after working their way around the edge of the pit, they managed to locate a small side tunnel - actually, more of a sewer pipe than tunnel.

Elena had no trouble climbing into the pipe, but it was a painfully tight squeeze for Rude and his broad shoulders. Leading the way, Elena grimly ignored the disgusting goo oozing between her fingers and started to crawl forward as quickly as possible.


Dr. Lawrence Steven was having the worst time of his life. He had barely escaped getting killed by a rogue prototype, he was stuck in middle of the Nibel mountains with no way out, and now a bunch of damn monsters had popped out of nowhere and attacked, slaughtering everyone in their path.

As he sat on an overturned coffin somewhere in the Mansion's basement, he desperately wondered what the hell to do next. Without a phone, he had no way to call for help. Should he stay put and wait for the monsters to leave, or should he make a run for it?

He was still debating his options when the door to the room slammed open. Screaming in terror, he tried to scramble into one of the coffins, but the monsters grabbed him by the legs. Certain he was a dead man, Steven closed his eyes and waited for the monsters to tear him limb from limb.

"Wait. Bring him here."

The distant voice was heavily distorted, but there was something definitely familiar with the high-pitched yet nasal voice.

After being dragged some distance, he was dumped on the ground and released. Steven cautiously opened one eye, then the other.

"So, Dr. Steven. We meet again."

He couldn't see the speaker, who stood in the shadows of the lab room, but he finally identified the voice.

"Hojo! I heard you were dead!"

The former head of Shinra's Science Research Department cackled softly in amusement. "And so I was. So I was."

"W-what are you doing here in Nibelheim?" Steven blurted, nervously eying the slowly swaying shadowy figure.

"Oh, I came back to retrieve some... information. And... equipment."

Hojo's swaying movements were almost hypnotic. Steven blinked, then said, "What for?"

In a perfectly matter-of-fact manner, Hojo said, "Resurrecting Sephiroth, of course."

With those words, Hojo fully emerged into the light. Steven uttered a startled gasp and stared in horror at the bizarre figure standing before him. Hojo still had a bipedal form but his skin was entirely green and scaly. His eyes were huge, bulging, and faceted like an insect's while his body and legs seemed oddly boneless. Tentacles sprouted from his torso with the two largest serving as Hojo's arms.

"Quite an evolution of shape, eh?"

"How...?"

Hojo giggled, sending his tentacles rippling. "A sudden massive ingestion of Mako-infused Jenova cells. My own private cocktail." He waved a tentacle at a pile of disassembled equipment. "Unfortunately, it appears that my enemies have become too well acquainted with this location. Never mind. I already know of a suitable replacement, complete with its own little Mako reactor."

"You... you're trying to bring Sephiroth back to life!"

Hojo uttered a hiss of annoyance. "Not back to life, for his essence was never truly dead. It merely slumbers in the Lifestream, awaiting a new physical body. A body that I will provide, yessss..."

"But I thought that all your attempts at cloning Sephiroth failed... gawk!" Steven's words ended in a gurgle as Hojo lunged forward, wrapped a tentacle around his throat, and squeezed.

"Because Sephiroth cannot be duplicated! He is unique! That was the essential flaw in my earlier attempts. But reconstructing his body is a different matter. Using the original body as a template..." Hojo's voice trailed off into distracted mutterings as he dumped Steven back on the ground.

"But... but you'd need a sample of Sephiroth's original tissue as a starting point," the terrified man wheezed.

Hojo jerked his attention back to Steven.

"But I already have that. Most of the samples were lost when Meteor destroyed my labs in the Shinra Building. But one single sample survived at the Archival Specimen Storage depository. I retrieved it just today." Hojo held up a slender fluorescent green and yellow cylinder approximately four inches long and an inch in diameter. He fondled the container with his tentacles, his inhuman features contorted in an obscene mockery of parental pride.

Hojo suddenly glared at Steven, who was trying very hard to keep his expression blank. Unfortunately, he failed miserably.

"You seem... skeptical, Steven. You don't think I can accomplish Sephiroth's resurrection?"

"No no! Of course not! I'm not doubting you!" Steven babbled.

"You always were a pathetic liar." Hojo swayed his head back and forth a few times, then added, "So... should I let you live so you can witness my success with your own eyes? Or should I kill you here and now for having the insolence to question my genius?"

Steven scrambled back a few feet, then said, "Wait! WAIT! I know things! Important things that can help you! We... we can make a deal!"

"Oh ho. So you want to... negotiate, do you?"

"Yes! Let me live and I'll tell you everything I know!"

Hojo's tentacles writhed slowly as he pondered Steven's proposal. Finally, he said, "Very well."

Steven started to relax, then froze as Hojo suddenly bared his needle-like teeth at his prisoner.

"Yes, let us negotiate," Hojo cackled, as multiple blade-tipped tentacles rose in front of Steven's panic-stricken face. "Negotiate, as to the manner of your death."

A tentacle slashed downward and blood spurted.


Reno was dimly aware of someone screaming and wondered why the fuck they wouldn't shut up...


.


The fake specimen container lay smashed and broken, its contents splattered against the grimy wall and floor of the lab.

Hojo ignored the quivering lump of raw flesh that used to be a human being and turned his attention to Reno. After fastidiously flicking the remains of Steven's blood and entrails from his tentacles, Hojo reached into the still unconscious Turk's pocket and pulled out Reno's phone.

Scrolling through the contact list, Hojo cackled softly as several names caught his attention.

"Interesting, very interesting." Looking down at Reno, he chuckled malevolently. "You might be of use to me yet."

The mad scientist's gaze turned in the general direction of the sleepy little town situated below the Mansion, knowing that its stupid residents were still oblivious to the bloody events which had just taken place inside. Hojo smiled slowly, exposing row upon row of small, razor sharp, triangular teeth.

Their blissful ignorance would not last long.

So much involving Sephiroth had started here. The destruction of the town seven years ago had heralded his son's first awakening. It was fitting, then, that this town should again serve as a harbinger of Sephiroth's renewed presence.


After completing the evacuation of the ASSRUB facility, Cloud and the others had separated to get some rest and deal with their own errands, while the WRO continued its attempts to locate the elusive Dr. Steven. It was late in the afternoon on the following day when they regrouped at Reeve's office.

Reeve, a phone tucked in the crook of his neck, distractedly waved Cloud and Tifa into his office where Cid and Yuffie were already waiting.

"So, did you take care of Marlene and Denzel?" Yuffie whispered.

Cloud nodded as Tifa whispered back, "Dropped them off in Kalm so they can stay with Elmyra. We don't want to leave them alone in the bar if things get hectic."

"By the way, this morning, I flew over to the Chocobo Farm and picked up some of our Golds. We might need them," Cid muttered as they all watched an increasingly frustrated Reeve make repeated calls to no avail.

Eventually he gave up, putting down his phone with unnecessary force.

"Reeve, did you finally find out where Steven went?" Tifa asked.

"Yes, we know where he went." Reeve sighed. "It took us a while, but we finally managed to track down the last person to speak with him before he disappeared. It seems that Steven managed to talk his way onboard one of the helicopters headed to Nibelheim."

"But that's a good thing, right?" Yuffie dropped into an armchair. "All we have to do is contact the Turks and tell them to grab Steven so he doesn't run off again."

"Unfortunately, it's not going to be that easy. I've been trying to get in touch with the Turks for the last hour and I haven't gotten any response, either by phone or radio."

"The signal reception near Nibelheim can be notoriously unreliable at times." Tifa walked over to Reeve. "It's something about the mountains. And then there's the weather."

"I know that, Tifa. But I still don't like this sudden silence, especially its timing. Up until this afternoon, the Turks and the WRO squads with them were making their regular check-ins just fine. But now that we need to contact them, we can't? Call me paranoid, but I've got a bad feeling about this."

"Contact someone in Rocket Town and ask them to check things out," Cloud suggested.

"Already done. I'm waiting for their report." Reeve got up and started to pace.

"In the meantime, we might as well head on over there." Cid stood up, looked around. "Even if nothing's wrong, we've got to go over there to pick up Steven."

When Reeve's desk phone rang, he grabbed at it and listened intently.

"Yes? Have you managed to make contact?" Reeve's expression suddenly froze. "I see. Are you sure? No, I understand. Thank you."

As Reeve slowly hung up the phone, he looked at Cloud. "You overheard, didn't you? What he said about Nibelheim."

Cloud made a single sharp nod, his expression impassive.

Cid growled, "Well, my hearing isn't nearly as good as Cloud's, so will someone PLEASE tell me what the hell's going on!"

"Nibelheim's burning."

Tifa simply stared at Cloud as he made the stark announcement, no emotion in his voice.

"What!" Yuffie blurted.

"Nibelheim is burning. Again."


(end of Part 2)


Credits: If the Mansion trash pit scene seems familiar, it should be. It was unabashedly inspired by the famous trash compactor scene in Star Wars: The New Hope. ::snicker::


The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

Chapter Text

Here's a song-ficlet inspired by a song by The Irish Rovers, called "Wasn't That a Party?".

It's been rewritten to fit with COI Redux, and with just a hint of seriousness at the end. ^_^

Title: SOLDIERs Just Wanna Have Fun
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 AU (COI-redux-verse)
Type: ficlet
Pairing/Characters: Sephiroth, Zack, misc Turks
Rating: PG-13
Wordcount: ~1700
Warnings: mild crack
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels and sequels belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: Sephiroth has to cope with the aftermath of of a SOLDIERs promotion party. And it's all Zack's fault, of course...


NOTES:
- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
- The original game and Advent Children/Complete are canonic for this fic.
- Before Crisis and Crisis Core are semi-canonic.
- Various individual plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., games, OVAs, FFVII novellas and short stories, etc.) may show up.



~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Could have been the whiskey, might have been the gin.
Could have been three or four six-packs,
I don't know, but look at the mess I'm in,
My head is like a football, I think I'm gonna die,
Tell me, me oh me oh my,
Wasn't that a party?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Dressed not in his customary leathers, but rather his usual sleeping wear of black shorts and tanktop, Sephiroth stood in the entrance area of the SOLDIER quarters and surveyed the sorry sight before him. Normally, he was not one for stress-related tics and twitches, but on this occasion, he couldn't help tapping a bare foot on the polished floor in a slow, ominous rhythm.

Before him stood ten of Shinra's most promising SOLDIERs, a mixture of First and Second Classes. However, 'stood' was an overly generous term. It was more like they remained upright on their feet only by leaning on each other at rather precarious angles. At any second, Sephiroth fully anticipated watching the entire group come crashing to the ground in a heap because one of them leaned just a -little- bit too far in the wrong direction.

SOLDIERs did not get drunk on ordinary alcohol - their enhanced metabolisms usually burned it off much too quickly. Getting inebriated took not only serious work, but considerable ingenuity in the selection of intoxicant. That being said, it was clear that the SOLDIERs in front of him had tackled this difficult task with the same efficiency and determination that they applied to their more professional duties.

In other words, they were completely and utterly zonked out of their minds.

What the HELL had these men been drinking to get them into this state? It couldn't possibly be legal. Sephiroth made a mental note to himself to find out what that substance was.

Just as a precautionary measure, of course.

He raked long sleep-mussed silvery hair away from his face, then glared at the First Class SOLDIER standing... no, -leaning- at the front and center of the group.

"Zack...," he growled dangerously.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Someone took a grapefruit and wore it like a hat,
I saw someone under my kitchen table, talking to my old tom cat,
They were talking about hockey and the cat was talkin' back,
Along about then everything went black,
But wasn't that a party?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Zack merely gave him an innocent grin. That was hardly unusual, but the slow side-to-side weeble was definitely atypical.

"Would one of you like to explain what happened in the chocobo stables?" Sephiroth said with exaggerated patience. "How about you, Fitz? Seeing as how you have chocobo feathers in your hair."

The tall, red-haired Fitz blinked owlishly, then said, "I was getting odds, sir."

"Odds?"

Fitz hiccuped almost daintily before saying in an earnest voice, "Yes, sir. Betting odds. On the blitzball game between the Icicle Bandersnatches and the Corel Cokatolis."

"I see. You were asking Commander Escovar's prize breeding chocobo for blitzball odds."

"Yup. Gave me some nice ones," Fitz replied happily.

"And why did you let the chocobo out of its stall?"

"Because it asked me to," Fitz said, looking a bit surprised that the great General Sephiroth hadn't figured that obvious answer out for himself. "He wanted to visit this sweet chick over in the next stableblock..." Fitz began to make appreciative curvy gestures with his hands.

Sephiroth hastily held up a hand.

"Enough. I've got the picture."


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I'm sure it's just my memory playin' tricks on me,
But I think I saw my buddy cuttin' down my neighbour's tree,
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sephiroth then turned to a short, stocky SOLDIER with dark buzzcut hair.

"And you, Dalmas. Would you care to explain why you hopped over an estate wall, snuck into the garden, and cut down all of Mrs. Palmer's prize topiary hedge with a dinner knife?"

"Uhhhh... it was a dare." Dalmas rolled his eyes in Zack's direction. "Did it in one hit, too."

"Did not!" Someone in the back of the group called out.

"Did too!"

"Did not!"

"Did too!"

"You cheated! You used a steak knife instead of the butter knife!"

"Quiet! Kunsel," Sephiroth said, addressing the protester in the back of the swaying drunken huddle of SOLDIERs. "I'll deal with you later."

His threat turned out to be unnecessary as Kunsel's knees folded and he joined the growing pile of unconscious SOLDIERs on the hallway floor.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Could have been the whiskey, might have been the gin.
Could have been three or four six-packs,
I don't know, but look at the mess I'm in,
My head is like a football, I think I'm gonna die,
Tell me, me oh me oh my,
Wasn't that a party?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sephiroth was perfectly aware of the reason for the drinking party, namely the hard-earned promotion of Zack's friend Matthias to First Class. But he should've known better than to expect that they would settle for a few nice, leisurely rounds of drinks at one of the bars that SOLDIERs tended to frequent.

Definitely should've known better, considering Zack's involvement...


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Old Billy Joe and Tommy, well they went a little far,
They were sitting in my backyard blowing on the siren in somebody's police car.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sephiroth massaged the bridge of his nose with his right hand, took another deep breath, and counted to ten before speaking.

"And in your haste to leave the Palmer estate, you 'borrowed' a police car and went on a little joyride with lights flashing and sirens blaring."

"The cops weren't using it," Matthias said in plaintive tones, "They were too busy sucking down coffee and donuts." He stopped, slowly tilted to the left, then slid bonelessly onto the floor, out cold.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
So you see, your honour,
It was all in fun,
That little bitty track meet down on main street,
Was just to see if the cops could run,
Well, they run us in to see you,
In an alcoholic haze,
I can sure use those thirty days to recover from the party.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sephiroth glared at the SOLDIERs who were still conscious... barely.

"Not content with that escapade, you then proceeded to relieve two Turks of their motorcycles, and had an impromptu drag race with said motorcycles and police car down the highway at speeds exceeding 120 miles per hour. At 2 AM in the morning. Am I correct?"

All he got from the SOLDIERs were sheepish, but thoroughly unrepentant grins.

Yes, totally bombed out of their skulls. And Zack...

Clearly there was no point talking to them any further, even though he hadn't even begun to scratch the surface of their transgressions, including such brilliant events like the rooftop hopping, the water balloon barrage, multiple counts of grand theft chocobo, and freehand paintball sniping, to name only a few.

He sighed, then glanced over at the five Turks standing just inside the door. Two of them looked rather annoyed, while Tseng was trying his best to look stern and impassive. However, he wasn't quite successful at hiding his amusement.

"I'll take the appropriate disciplinary action as soon as they're sober enough to appreciate it. Will that be satisfactory, Tseng?"

Both Sephiroth and Tseng knew that the situation could have turned out much, much worse, considering the number of potentially armed, materia-toting First and Second Class SOLDIERs involved. Fortunately, all the members of Zack's drinking party were very mellow drunks and hadn't raised any fuss when the understandably irate Turks had caught up with the party and 'escorted' them back to the SOLDIER quarters to face their commanding officer who had been rudely roused out of a sound and much desired sleep.

"Since there was no real harm done," Tseng glanced at the annoyed pair of Turks, "That will be adequate. I'll forward the damage reports to you."

"You do that."

Tseng nodded and led the Turks out of the SOLDIER quarters.

By this point, three more of the SOLDIERs had passed out and were snoring loudly on the floor, while the rest looked like they were soon about to join their buddies at any second.

Sephiroth considered just leaving them to sleep their binge off on the hard cold tiles, then changed his mind. He grabbed Zack by the arm and hustled him down the hallway toward Zack's room. Along the way, he ordered the SOLDIERs on night duty to cart their incapacitated colleagues back to their respective rooms.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Could have been the whiskey, might have been the gin.
Could have been three or four six-packs,
I don't know, but look at the mess I'm in,
My head is like a football, I think I'm gonna die,
Tell me, me oh me oh my,
Wasn't that a party?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Upon reaching Zack's quarters, he hauled the younger man into the bedroom area and shoved him onto the bed. As Zack lay dazed and confused on the bedcovers, Sephiroth efficiently removed Zack's boots and stripped him down to his underwear.

"Hmmmm...?" Zack mumbled in vague curiosity.

"Shut up and go to sleep, you idiot."

No, there was no indulgent fondness in his voice. And no, he didn't -mean- to rumple Zack's hair after covering the younger man with a blanket. Seriously.

Zack obeyed, rolling over and burying his face in the pillows, then taking a deep breath that was immediately followed by a contented snore.

Sephiroth gazed down thoughtfully at the snoozing Zack. As First Classes, he, Angeal, and Genesis would, for amusement, sneak into the virtual simulation rooms and try to beat the hell out of each other. The three of them had enjoyed having fun together, but at the same time, they were always conscious of their dignity and position as Firsts.

But Zack was very different. He certainly had his pride, but Zack never allowed that pride to get in the way of doing what he felt was right, even if it meant looking foolish or getting deeply hurt.

Sephiroth now understood why Angeal had chosen to spend so much time and energy mentoring Zack - not merely because the young man was the most talented and promising SOLDIER either of them had ever encountered, but in Zack, Angeal had probably sensed a kindred spirit. On top of that, Zack also exuded a special combination of strength, kindness, an innate sense of fairness, and most of all, a profound sort of sincerity which instinctively drew people and caused them to like and trust him.

Sephiroth had never fully grasped what the term 'great-hearted' meant, but after meeting Zack, he now believed he understood. "Great-hearted" described the younger man perfectly.

Genesis had hungered for recognition as a famous hero, because he craved the prestige and glory associated with the role. Sephiroth's own position as hero had always had much more to do with Shinra's PR department than any heroic intentions on his part. Angeal had possessed the heart of a hero, but in the end, had fallen prey to bitterness, self-loathing, and despair.

Now, standing in Zack's quarters and watching the younger SOLDIER curl up contentedly under the blanket, Sephiroth knew that if there was one person destined to become a hero for all the -right- reasons, it was Zack.

In the morning, he would find a suitably diabolical punishment for this playful drunken rampage. But until then...

"Sleep well, Zack."


The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

Chapter Text

Yet another previously posted sidestory, rewritten to fit in with COI Redux. Elaborates on President Shinra's comment about "a bastard child from a neurotic ex-mistress" in his email to Nyx in chapter 2.

As you might imagine, a mother like this doesn't bode well for Cloud's childhood. ^_^

Title: A Minor Inconvenience
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 AU (COI-redux-verse)
Type: ficlet
Pairing/Characters: President Shinra/OC
Rating: PG-13
Wordcount: ~1400
Warnings: none
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels and sequels belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: President Shinra resolves a minor domestic crisis.

NOTES:
- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
- The original game and Advent Children/Complete are canonic for this fic.
- Before Crisis and Crisis Core are semi-canonic.
- Various individual plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., games, OVAs, FFVII novellas and short stories, etc.) may show up.


[ X-MAR-1986 ]

"But... but I don't want to go! I don't want to leave you!" Tears started to pour down the young, attractive blond-haired woman's face.

"My dear Bliss, I'm afraid that in light of your present condition, you simply cannot keep your present job, nor can you remain in Midgar." President Shinra watched his weeping ex-mistress - and soon to be ex-secretary - with a slight frown.

Clutching a damp handkerchief, she said, "But... but afterward... can I come back?"

"We'll see. Surely, you must realize the awkwardness of the whole situation."

"Yes, but..."

"Strive for some patience, Bliss."

"Patience! But you're not the one who has to sit around for six more months, getting fatter and uglier by the day!"

He gave her a cool, hard stare. "I gave you another option, but you were the one who insists on going through with this pregnancy."

"I know, but..." She hesitated, bit her lip, then whispered, "So... if I get rid of it, will you let me stay?" She stared up at him, her blue eyes full of desperate hope. "I mean, no more baby, no more problem, right?"

He got up and began to stroll around the palatial office, hands clasped behind his back.

"I wish that the solution was so easy. In fact, it would've been that easy if you'd been more discrete. Unfortunately, you've been flaunting your pregnancy and making certain claims - namely, you've boasted to various individuals that I was going to marry you," he said sternly.

She flinched, then blurted, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry, okay? I just got a little carried away! I wasn't thinking straight! I was so happy and I thought that you would be, too! I thought... I thought you loved me!"

"I never made you any promises of that sort, Bliss. On the contrary, YOU were the one who made promises to ME about no complications. Or have you conveniently forgotten that conversation?"

With a sob, she cried, "I know, I know, but I did it because I loved you! I wanted to give you another child, another heir! And why can't you marry me! It's not like you need to get a divorce! Felicity is already dead!"

President Shinra eyed her coldly. "My dear, it simply won't do for me to marry my own sister-in-law less than two months after my wife's death. It raises certain... awkward... questions, especially given the circumstances of that death."

Bliss flinched again as she continued to twist and wring her handkerchief. Refusing to meet his gaze, she whispered, "I... I don't know what you're talking about."

"And then there's the matter of Rufus..."

"Your precious heir Rufus!" She choked out a harsh laugh. "Hah! I bet that brat isn't even yours!"

"Oh, he's mine, just like I know the child you're carrying is mine as well. DNA paternity tests are a wonderful thing, aren't they?" Shinra gave her a cold, thin-lipped smile. "I don't leave things like this up to chance."

She flushed deeply. "I've been completely faithful to you! Unlike Felicity! Why, I could tell you stories..."

"Enough of the mudslinging, Bliss. Your sister's dead and I -know- that Rufus is my child." President Shinra sighed, wondering why he had ever thought that bedding his gorgeous, but unstable sister-in-law was a good idea. "Well, let's put all that aside and deal with the situation at hand."

In a sullen voice, she muttered, "So you're punishing me by sending me away."

"It's not a matter of punishment at all. I'm just trying to do what's best for everyone."

Bliss stamped her high-heeled shoes against the floor like an angry child. "Everyone! What about ME! Why doesn't anyone care about ME!"

"I am thinking about you. Really, it's clear the busy city life in Midgar is too much for someone of your sensitive nature. What you need is some peace and quiet."

"What I need is YOU!" she shouted, lunging at him and clutching at his suit lapels. "You're all I ever wanted!"

He firmly pried her fingers loose and held her away. "Only because I married Felicity and you wanted to steal me away from her."

He dropped her into a chair and said, "You'll be leaving tomorrow, so you'd better start packing. I'll make all the necessary arrangements. You'll be taken care of, whether you choose to keep the baby or not."

In a brief flash of spirit, she snapped, "Of course I'll keep him. He's YOUR son!"

"And perhaps even my heir... if something unfortunate were to happen to Rufus."

Her mouth curling into a sulky pout, Bliss muttered, "Well, it -could- happen. What will you do then?"

He stared back at her and said with casual cruelty, "There are plenty of other beautiful women out there willing to marry and bear the children of the most powerful man on the planet."

She lifted her tear-streaked face and gaped at him.

He loomed over her and said, "Listen to me carefully, Bliss. I'm not going to tolerate any more trouble from you. If you cooperate and behave yourself, you can have a nice, comfortable life. If you don't, there are other ways of handling this situation. Now, have I made myself -perfectly- clear?"

Shinra's cold, dispassionate tone made Bliss wilt. She gulped and nodded quickly.

"Good. Now wipe your face and go pack."

After a few moments, Bliss rose to her feet and stumbled out his office. She faltered when she saw the three Turks waiting for her in the reception area, but two of the dark-suited men grasped her by the elbows and briskly escorted her to the elevators.

The remaining Turk waited until Bliss was out of sight, then turned to his employer.

"What should we do with her, sir?"

"Hmmm... Where to put her?" Shinra tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Costa del Sol? No, that won't work. Too public. Too easy for Bliss to cause trouble." He wandered over to the large map that nearly covered one wall of the reception area and studied it.

After a few minutes, he chuckled and said, "A small company town located deep in the mountains of the Western continent. Quiet, picturesque, and nicely isolated. It'll do."

"And the name of the town, sir?"

"Nibelheim."


The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

Chapter Text

Yet another previously posted sidestory, tweaked to fit in with COI Redux. It's a followup to my earlier sidestory SOLDIERs Just Wanna Have Fun. Sadly, it's not nearly as funny because it's basically my excuse for an info-dump on SOLDIERs, done from a Turk POV. ::sweatdrop::

This new version takes into account all the new stuff we see in the Compilation with respect to Sephiroth's and SOLDIERs' abilities. Sephiroth versus Angeal and Genesis atop the Junon Cannon! Hurrah for 'Cutscene Power to the Max'!

Title: Turk Ed
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 AU (COI-redux-verse)
Type: ficlet
Pairing/Characters: Tseng, misc Turks
Rating: PG-13
Wordcount: ~4300
Warnings: maybe the very faintest whiff of yuri
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels and sequels belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: The more experienced Turks try to educate the newbie in their midst.

A/N: Aside from Tseng, the Turks in this fic are all based on playable characters from Before Crisis - namely Characters (Gun, female), (Rod, male), (Two Guns, male), and (Martial Arts, female).

NOTES:
- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
- The original game and Advent Children/Complete are canonic for this fic.
- Before Crisis and Crisis Core are semi-canonic.
- Various individual plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., games, OVAs, FFVII novellas and short stories, etc.) may show up.


As the five Turks exited the SOLDIER quarters, Garret brushed dark hair from his eyes, then leisurely stretched his arms over his head before glancing over at his petite female colleague.

"Well, all things considered, that went better than I expected, Tasha."

The petite blonde with the chin-length pageboy haircut replied acerbically, "I suppose," but her tone made it plain that she was still annoyed by her run-in with the intoxicated SOLDIERs. "But I don't particularly like being stranded on some grungy street corner and being made to look like a total idiot."

The tall long-haired brunette called Vandal gave Tasha a sympathetic pat on the back and said, "Perhaps, but there's not much you could have done with a pair of First Classes breathing down your neck."

"I know that! We weren't on assignment, so there was no real reason to argue with them. But it still annoys me."

Walking a few steps in front of them, Tseng paused, then said over his shoulder, "You made the correct decision, Tasha. There was no need to risk unnecessary injury over such a relatively trivial matter."

The fifth member of their group muttered under his breath. Mac, a lanky young man with short auburn hair was the newest of the Turks, and still in his probationary period. Vandal was Tasha's usual partner, but the blond Turk had been drafted into showing the newbie around, which probably contributed to her general aggravation.

"Do you have a problem, Mac?" Tseng said.

"Well, yeah, I do have a problem. Is that it?"

Tseng raised a questioning eyebrow.

Mac jerked his thumb in the direction of the SOLDIERs' quarters. "Those drunken bozos steal our rides right out from under our noses, and that's it? We hand them over to their superior officer and just walk away?"

"It was merely drunken mischief, with no significant permanent damage to property or people," Tseng replied calmly.

"So you're saying that all they'll get is pretty much a slap on the wrist?"

The dark-haired Turk called Garret shrugged. "A verbal slap, anyway. I doubt this will go down in their permanent records. SOLDIERs, especially Firsts, can get away with a hell of a lot."

Tseng said mildly, "SOLDIERs are a very valued resource in Shinra. The corporation isn't really interested in their off-duty activities as long as the SOLDIERs do their jobs and obey their superiors' orders."

"And like Tseng said, there's no real harm done. Hell, they didn't even scratch the paint on your motorcycle, Mac," Garret said with a broad grin.

"Although -I- certainly wouldn't like to be on the sharp side of the General's tongue. He didn't appreciate getting rousted out of bed," Vandal commented.

Mac looked unconvinced and complained, "It still feels like a damn copout. I mean, we're Turks, right?"

"And they're SOLDIERs. Not just SOLDIERs, but nearly half of them are SOLDIERs, First Class. So what's your point?" Tasha said irritably.

"My point being is that all you guys have been saying 'No one messes with the Turks' and stuff like that. But this time, you guys seem perfectly happy to stand back and let someone else take care of things." He glared at Tasha. "For example, when those two drunk SOLDIERs showed up and wanted our rides, you just stood aside and didn't raise so much as a finger to stop them!"

Vandal's eyes narrowed dangerously. "And we told you, those two were SOLDIERs. What the hell did you expect Tasha to do? Beat them down by herself?"

Mac bristled angrily and snapped, "Hey, I was there, too! It was two against two, and they were drunk!"

Garret smacked himself on the forehead and rolled his eyes in obvious exasperation. "Two Turks against two SOLDIERs, and First Classes to boot. Man, are you completely nuts? Didn't any of your instructors tell you not to fuck around with SOLDIERs if you can possibly avoid it? Or were you asleep during the orientation lectures?"

Mac hunched his shoulders defensively and muttered sullenly, "I really don't see what the big deal is. If you ask me, you're all acting like you're scared of these SOLDIERs." He turned on Tasha. "Hell, you even let the redhead SOLDIER kiss you!"

Tseng raised an eyebrow. "You didn't mention anything to me about a kiss, Tasha."

"Bite me," Tasha snapped furiously to Mac. When Tseng, Garret, and Vandal continued to stare at her, she gritted her teeth and said, "The idiot was drunk and I was there, okay? He said it was payment for borrowing the motorcycles." She glared at Mac. "He probably would've kissed YOU if you'd been the one standing closer to him."

"I see," Tseng murmured. As Tasha massaged her forehead and gave Vandal a sour look that said, all too plainly, 'See what I've had to put up with?', Tseng answered Mac's earlier comment with a hint of sharpness in his voice.

"Respect and caution are not the same as fear. Tasha was simply following established Turk protocol. Since you weren't in a mission-critical situation, there was no reason to force a possibly hostile confrontation with the SOLDIERs. And the fact they were significantly intoxicated is an even more compelling reason NOT to antagonize them unnecessarily."

"Yeah, you guys were damn lucky that they were simply out for a little bit of fun and games. Trust me, you do NOT want to be around a pissed off First Class," Garret said.

"But I...," Mac protested.

At that point, Tseng's phone rang. Pulling it out, he listened attentively for a moment, then turned to the other Turks.

"We have a developing situation that requires my attention," Tseng said, closing the phone with a snap. "So I'll leave it to you three to educate Mac on the reasons for this particular Turk policy."

"Gee, thanks," Garret muttered.

"Mac, I want an essay on this topic on my desk by 0800 hours," Tseng added.

As their leader departed, Mac found himself the target of the other three Turks's attention.

"You really did sleep through those lectures, didn't you?" Vandal said, her lips curving in a slight smirk.

"That, or all that new materia he's toting has gone to his head." Garret shrugged his shoulders. "A classic newbie mistake."

Tasha said coldly, "Mac, there are three basic principles to remember when dealing with SOLDIERs, especially the Firsts. Try to get them through your stubborn head." She ticked them off on her fingers. "First, try to avoid hostile confrontations with SOLDIERs, unless absolutely necessary to fulfill your mission. Second, it's best to let SOLDIERs deal with SOLDIERs. And third, if at all possible, do not take on SOLDIERs in close quarter combat, especially not one-on-one."

"I'm sorry, but that sounds like bullshit," Mac retorted. "I've seen SOLDIERs and okay, they seem pretty damn fast and strong, but so are we. I mean, I didn't see THAT big of a difference..."

"Then those SOLDIERs you saw obviously weren't even trying," Vandal said impatiently. "Look, we Turks are damn good and damn tough, but SOLDIERs are in entirely different class altogether. The performance gap between a normal Turk and a Third Class SOLDIER is already significant."

Garret jumped into the conversation, adding, "And to make things worse, that performance gap widens a hell of a lot when you start talking about the Second Class and First Class SOLDIERs. And when I say 'a lot', I mean damn near exponentially, okay?"

Tasha glared at Mac and said, "If you want a concrete example of what we're talking about, then think about that little race those SOLDIERs had this evening with the chocobos. They weren't riding the chocobos, mind you. The SOLDIERs were -carrying- them. Over their heads. And you know what? Each of those SOLDIERs ran a lot faster and a lot further holding a full grown chocobo than you or I could unencumbered. While jumping over obstacles, I may add."

Garret stared at the blond Turk for a moment, then burst out laughing. Clutching his stomach, he managed to choke out, "Oh my god! So that explains the grand theft chocobo!"

Tasha said drily, "Well, at least partially. I believe that one of the SOLDIERs said that it was only fair that the chocobos got to ride people for once, or something like that."

"Now are you beginning to understand what you would've been up against if you had gotten into a fight with those SOLDIERs?" Vandal said, talking over Garret's renewed hilarity. "The Turks' policies regarding SOLDIERs is not about being scared of them, but about having a realistic view of a Turk's combat capabilities versus a SOLDIER's."

Sobering up, Garret said, "Seriously, Mac, according to current assessments, in close quarter combat without prep, it probably requires at least two to three experienced and fully equipped Turks to take down a Third Class. And even then, the odds probably aren't much better than 50/50."

"You're kidding me," Mac said, starting to sound unnerved.

"No, he's not kidding. You obviously haven't seen the better SOLDIERs in real action," Tasha snapped. "The odds get much worse with the Second Classes, and you do NOT want to hear the numbers needed to even have a realistic chance against a First Class in a straightforward fight." She paused for emphasis. "An -average- First Class."

Mac glanced around at the other Turks, and saw they were nodding in agreement.

"The SOLDIERs you and Tasha ran into were probably among the best of the First and Second Classes." Vandal said. "From what I've heard, Zack is just about the only person who dares to spar one-on-one with Sephiroth. So no, it's definitely not a good idea to get into a pissing match with those guys if you can possibly avoid it."

Mac thought about that, then suddenly said, "So what about Sephiroth?"

"What about him?" Vandal asked, a little startled.

"How many people would we need to take down Sephiroth?"

Garret took a deep breath, then raked his hands through his dark hair. "Take down Sephiroth?" He glanced uncertainly at Vandal. "Isn't he supposed to be a First Class?"

The long-haired Turk laughed sharply. "Sephiroth, a First Class? That's total bullshit. Whoever ranked him as a First Class was either lying or blind. The General's in a class all his own."

Mac blurted, "You've seen Sephiroth in action?" glancing eagerly between Tasha and Vandal.

Tasha nodded curtly and said, "On a few missions, yes. He's... impressive." She then shook her head sharply. "No, that's not the right word for it. Utterly terrifying is more like it."

Mac's jaw nearly dropped when he heard the icily professional Tasha make such a blunt admission.

"And probably not performing at anything close to full capacity, either. He one-shots full grown dragons without even breathing hard," Vandal said shortly. "As for trying to take the General down with conventional forces or weapons?" She shook her head. "I don't even want to think about it. I wouldn't say that it's impossible, but damn, it would require an incredible amount of planning and preparation. I'm talking complete surprise and a major league trap."

"A massive bomb might do it," Garret suggested.

"That might work, but as for taking Sephiroth down in combat with normal forces? Forget it. It would be an one-sided bloodbath. He'd just slaughter them."

Mac frowned, then said thoughtfully, "Maybe if you got him in a tight space, boxed him in where he wouldn't have room to manuveur or use that enormous sword of his..."

Vandal uttered a contemptuous snort. "Look, Sephiroth doesn't -need- weapons or materia to be deadly. He -IS- a weapon. And as for trying to go after him in a confined space, you couldn't pay me enough to step into that sort of killing zone, even if Sephiroth was barehanded and buck naked. I've seen Sephiroth throw opponents around hard enough to leave imprints - if not outright holes - in concrete. With just a backhanded swipe."

"Uh... okay. How about picking him off from a distance? Maybe a rocket launcher and lots of ammunition?"

"Nice try, Mac. But the rocket launcher wouldn't help. I've seen First Classes block or bat aside rockets and tank missiles. Sephiroth could do that one-handed, without even looking."

"Assuming that you can even come close to hitting him," Tasha said briskly. When she saw Mac listening to all this with wide-eyed fascination, she sighed, then said, "But getting back to the capabilities of regular SOLDIERs, their physical strength is intimidating enough, but it's their speed and agility that's the real killers. The elite SOLDIERs are fast. Very, -very- fast. And they can move like you would not believe."

Garret rolled his eyes and said, "Tell me about it." When Mac gave him a confused look, the dark-haired Turk clarified by saying, "As in 'dodging gunfire pretty damn easily' fast. Just remember that if you ever try to shoot a SOLDIER, especially a First Class, you better be five or six steps ahead of him in your head. Because you're going to have to fire at where you -think- he's going to be and then hope that he runs into the bullet."

Vandal chuckled and said, "Well, there's always the 'spray and pray' method."

Garret gave her a sour look. "Yeah, it might work. But when it doesn't work - which I've heard happens regularly - you're going to have a pissed SOLDIER with three plus feet of cold sharp steel in your face before you know it. Not my idea of fun."

"Seriously? SOLDIERs can dodge stuff like gunfire from multiple machine guns?" Mac said a startled voice.

"Dodge or deflect it. Though I doubt that all SOLDIERs can do it, I'm pretty sure the best of the Second Classes and most of the First Classes can," Garret responded with a careless shrug. "But from personal observation, I can tell you that most SOLDIERs have no problems dodging single shooters, hand gun or assault rifle, and that they're a real pain in the ass to hit."

"That extraordinary reaction speed probably explains why the SOLDIERs prefer to use melee weapons. A SOLDIER with a sword can react faster and better to changing situations than a person shooting a gun," Vandal said. "With a bullet, once it leaves the barrel, you have absolutely no control over what it does. So if your target dodges, there's nothing you can do about it except shoot again."

She held up her gloved clenched fist. "But melee weapons and hand-to-hand combat are different, because you have much more control over your weapon at all times." Vandal suddenly lashed out at Mac's face. He instinctively dodged, only to realize that Vandal had adjusted her aim in mid-strike. He froze, as Vandal's fingertips rested lightly on his throat.

"You see? The same principle applies to a sword, a rod, or other melee weapons."

Behind Vandal's back, Tasha and Garret, both firearm specialists, looked at each other, then rolled their eyes in unison as Vandal went into lecture-mode. Vandal, a trained mercenary before she became a Turk, was perfectly competent with firearms, and as per regulations, carried a gun. But her first love had always been martial arts. The complementary manner of Tasha's and Vandal's different fighting styles had been one of the original reasons for being partners, although by now, they were best friends and more.

"And if you have the enhanced reflexes that the SOLDIERs do, the initial loss in range becomes an acceptable tradeoff for the superior control you have over your attack," Vandal continued. "Besides, guns are not exactly the best defensive weapons."

Tasha watched with resigned amusement as she watched Mac eagerly soak up Vandal's words. Not that it was really necessary. Vandal was preaching to the converted, because Mac already preferred using baton or rod-type weapons, much like Reno.

Eventually, Mac said, "Okay, okay. Now I get it about wanting to avoid trouble with the SOLDIERs. They're are a lot faster and stronger than Turks. Is there anything else I should know about SOLDIERs?"

"Aside from the obviously enhanced strength, stamina, and reflexes, SOLDIERs are incredibly resilient and heal extremely fast. They're highly resistant to most conventional drugs, poisons, toxins, diseases, and magic. Their senses are much sharper than a normal human - sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and all that, so they're damn hard to surprise or ambush. A SOLDIER's low light vision is said to be at least as good as military grade night vision goggles." Garret scratched his head, then shrugged. "I guess that's all the important stuff."

Mac stared at the dark-haired Turk in disbelief. "That's ALL? Shit, are these SOLDIER guys even human!"

"Well, technically they're still human, only augmented," Vandal said with a shrug.

"If becoming a SOLDIER makes you so much better, ability-wise, than why the hell hasn't Shinra given the Turks the same treatment?" Mac demanded, sounding envious.

With a snort, Garret replied, "Probably because we'd all flunk the psych evaluations, one way or another. It's supposed to be a killer." When Garret saw the wary look on Mac's face, he added hastily, "No, no. Not literally, but it's notorious for being a washout special."

"Why's that? I mean, when I joined the Turks, they made me take a bunch of tests, including psych tests. I passed those."

Vandal chuckled. "The Turks are only interested in knowing if you're stable enough to do the job of a Turk. The fact that Reno managed to pass should tell you that there's a lot of leeway there."

When she saw that Mac still looked disgruntled, Vandal added soothingly, "Don't take it personally, okay? It's not like the Turks are second-rate or anything like that. It's just that the Turks and SOLDIER are looking for different things in their people. The Turks are looking for competent, intelligent people with useful skills, while SOLDIER is looking for people who have the right physical compatibility and are mentally stable enough to handle becoming SOLDIERs. Which is apparently a really tricky thing to do, considering how rigorous their screening process is."

Garret added, "Becoming a SOLDIER may have all sorts of perks and benefits, but despite all the company rah-rah, being a SOLDIER isn't all fun and glory. You screw around the human body the way these scientists do, and weird shit is bound to happen. The boosts we Turks get from our materia, that's pretty minor as things go and it's not permanent. I don't know what they do to guys to make them into SOLDIERs, and I'm not sure that I want to know. Whatever it is, it's a hell of a lot more than just a few doses of mako. We're talking about serious physiological changes all around, including brain chemistry and crap like that. And frankly, I like my brain just the way it is."

"SOLDIERs were created to be super-combatants," Tasha said crisply. "On the other hand, as Turks, our main focus is security, intelligence gathering, investigation, and covert operations. We fight, and fight well, when we have to, but that's not our main purpose. A person who has the mindset and skills to become a Turk may not have the right attributes to become a SOLDIER, just as someone who qualifies to become a SOLDIER may not have the right attributes to become a good Turk."

"So what you're basically saying that the Turks are selected for their brains and the SOLDIERs for their brawn?" Mac asked.

As Tasha dropped her face into her hands in exasperation, Garret whapped Mac on the back of the head and said sharply, "Don't EVER make the mistake of assuming that SOLDIERs are stupid or dense, newbie. Some of them are way smarter than you'll ever be and don't you forget it!"

Vandal glanced at her watch. "Look, let's call it a night, okay? Except for you, Mac. You've got an essay to write that's due in a few hours."

Mac groaned and muttered, "Shit, I forgot all about that."

"Then it's lucky that we reminded you."

"Maybe Tseng was kidding," the newest Turk said, perking up hopefully.

"Not a chance," Vandal said with an evil grin. "If Tseng tells you that he wants an essay, then that's exactly what he wants."

"And you better make it good. The first time I wrote a report, he sent it back to me covered in so much red, I thought he spilt an ink bottle over it," Garret said, grimacing.

"AND made you take remedial writing classes," Tasha added.

"Please don't remind me!" the dark-haired Turk moaned.

As they headed back to Turk headquarters, Mac abruptly asked, "Well, putting aside Sephiroth, how would you guys take down a SOLDIER, First Class?"

Tasha said calmly, "The best option? Send other SOLDIERS after him, preferably also First Class. Or better yet, send Sephiroth."

"Okay, other than that. What would you do?"

"If using other SOLDIERs was not an option?" The petite blond Turk looked thoughtful. "Garret had a good suggestion with the bomb trap. But if you wanted to minimize collateral damage, probably the best way would be to use coordinated multiple snipers with armor piercing explosive rounds, then hope that they get him with the first shots and hit him hard enough to keep him down. Because if they don't..."

Vandal tapped her lips thoughtfully. "That might work, assuming that the SOLDIER doesn't detect the snipers or those first incoming shots."

"Detect a sniper shot? How the hell could even a SOLDIER do that? Nobody can possibly be THAT good. I mean, it's not like he's going to hear the shot before the bullet hits," Mac demanded.

"Just like Garret said - SOLDIERs have much more acute senses than normal humans, AND the reflexes to match." Vandal shrugged. "If I remember correctly, the enemy tried a sniping campaign against the SOLDIERs in Wutai, but wasn't too effective. The Wutai side got some Third Classes and maybe a scored a hit on few of the Second Classes, but I don't think they ever managed to graze, much less get a kill, on any of the First Classes or Sephiroth. And FYI, the Wutai are not lousy shots."

"I never said that it was a perfect plan, but it was the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment," Tasha retorted. "And I'd like to see either of you two do better."

"Hey, I got first dibs on the trap idea," Garret reminded them. "No silly fooling around with poison or anything that takes time. Something instantaneously fatal, because you do NOT want to give a SOLDIER even the slightest chance to fight back or escape."

"A massive earth-shattering kaboom, huh?" Vandal grinned at him. "Maybe you've been hanging around with Rude too much."

"Hey! It may not be subtle, but it'd do the job!"

"Well, speaking about not being subtle, I know exactly what Heidegger would do." Vandal's lips curled in a contemptuous smile. "He'd just throw the entire Shinra Army at the SOLDIER and keep throwing the poor luckless bastards at him until they manage to wear the SOLDIER down through sheer numbers."

"And to hell with the casualties, because we have reserves, huh?" Garret made a sour grin. "Yeah, that's Heidegger, all right."


The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.


.

Chapter Text

This is where COI Redux really starts to diverge from the original COI. Hang on and enjoy!

This is an unbetaed rough draft, so if things get too confusing or don't make sense, please let me know. Constructive comments and suggestions are always welcome.

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 3/?
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Pairing/Characters: gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~12,600
Warnings: violence, mature themes (references to abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his best friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

NOTES:
- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
- The original game and Advent Children/Complete are canon for this fic.
- Before Crisis and Crisis Core are semi-canon.
- Various individual plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., games, OVAs, FFVII novellas and short stories, etc.) may show up.
- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".

CREDITS:
- Many thanks to the terrific story "Homesick" by Chris Reaves which provided me with lots of inspiration for the events in Nibelheim. ^_^


CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Redux
A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

Chapter 3


Text Conventions

( ) and / / and / / and { } all indicate thoughts or other types of mental dialogue from various characters

[ ] are miscellaneous date notes, images, or sound effects


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Tseng immediately knew that something was wrong when he saw the sudden tension in Rufus's body as the president listened to Reeve's most recent update. Finally, Rufus said, "I'll contact you shortly."

As Rufus slowly closed his phone, Tseng saw the grim set of the other man's mouth. It was subtle, easily missed by a casual observer, but Tseng had no problem recognizing the signs.

Rufus Shinra was seriously worried.

"What happened?" Tseng said bluntly. Last night, Reeve had given them a brief report on the ASSRUB incident, including Hojo's near-certain involvement. The Turks were combing the Shinra database for any clues as to Dr. Steven's possible whereabouts, but had come up with nothing so far.

"Reeve called to inform me that the WRO has finally located the missing Dr. Steven. He's in Nibelheim as part of the retrieval team."

"And?" Tseng knew that there had to be more, and probably all of it bad.

"Reeve has been unable to reach anyone in Nibelheim. Reno or the other Turks, the WRO squads, the townspeople - no one is answering."

"Radio and phone reception in that area can be erratic."

"Reeve is well aware of that, which is why he sent a team from Rocket Town to investigate. A combination of severe wind conditions and road washouts prevented them from actually reaching Nibelheim itself, but their report states that it appears that the entire town is in flames."

Tseng exhaled sharply, then turned to gaze out the window at the luxuriant greenery surrounding Healen Lodge. Finally, he said, "Nibelheim, burning again. It's enough to make one wonder if certain places are cursed."

"It sounds like you have some decidedly personal feelings about Nibelheim," Rufus observed.

Tseng's voice was tense and unusually harsh. "The Turks arrived in Nibelheim just after Sephiroth's rampage in order to clean up the mess and conceal the disaster. Unfortunately, Hojo accompanied us and issued certain orders regarding the survivors of the incident. Veld, my superior at the time, took personal charge of the operation in order to spare us from having to follow Hojo's orders. All the Turks had to do was turn our backs on the survivors and walk away. And we did." Tseng turned to look at Rufus. "It was a choice I've deeply regretted ever since. I know many of the other Turks feel the same way."

"And so Nibelheim continues to haunt so many of us," Rufus said thoughtfully. "However, regardless of personal feelings, we still need one of our people there."

When Tseng gave him an inquiring look, Rufus added, "I want a first-hand report on what's going on in Nibelheim. And while I feel confident that Cloud and his friends will assist Reno, Rude, and Elena if possible, it would be better if there was a Turk on scene as well."

"Serge and Jade are here in Healen, while Tasha and Vandal are in Mideel. Garret and Mac are in Junon, questioning Dr. Aston. By last report, Cissnei is currently in Gongaga. Which leaves..."

Rufus raised an eyebrow at Tseng's abrupt pause.

"... Chaise, who's doing some research in Cosmo Canyon," Tseng finally said in an oddly reluctant tone.

"Which puts her conveniently close to Nibelheim. Unless there's a problem?"

"Chaise was the Turk who did the initial reconnaissance and advance work for Sephiroth's mission to Nibelheim seven years ago. She was present during the entire incident." Tseng hesitated, then said, "Of all the Turks, she probably had the strongest feelings about the whole event and its aftermath. Those feelings eventually drove her to leave Shinra. She only agreed to rejoin us last year after I made certain reassurances."

Rufus smiled slightly. "About the company's new direction, hmmm?" When Tseng nodded, he said, "Considering her personal feelings, will she agree to this assignment?"

"Since it involves Nibelheim, she'll have understandable reservations. On the other hand, she told me that she left Shinra, not the Turks. And with Reno and the others involved, she'll definitely go."

"Then contact her. I'll make the arrangements with Reeve."


.


In her office, Nyx dialed a number and waited patiently as Montessi's phone rang repeatedly instead of going to voicemail.

"What? I'm busy here!"

Ignoring Montessi's characteristic rudeness, Nyx calmly replied, "I just wanted to inform you that Roissy is aware of Specimen C's survival."

"WHAT!" Montessi's voice rose to an ear-piercing shriek of outrage.

Nyx winced slightly, but otherwise didn't react to the outburst. "She apparently saw Cloud when he came to investigate a strange attack on Dr. Aston's Archival Specimen Storage facility."

"So what did she say? No, I can guess. She wants Specimen C for herself, that filthy little bitch."

"She expressed definite interest in him, yes. But aside from observation and surveillance, she didn't mention any specific plans for him."

"Oh, I know how her sneaky little mind works. Of course she has plans. She always has plans." Montessi swore long and bitterly over the phone. Finally, she demanded, "Where is she now?"

"Roissy? She said she was in Junon. The WRO evacuated the facility after the attack as a precautionary measure."

"Is she being guarded?"

"I don't believe so."

"Good, good. Then I won't have any problems getting to her."

"How are your own plans proceeding?" Nyx smoothly inquired.

"I hired the perfect people to deal with Rufus's Turk bodyguards and handle my facility security - a group consisting mostly of ex-SOLDIER mercenaries. They're expensive, but probably worth every gil. I don't want Rufus damaged."

"Of course not. He's critical to your work."

"You haven't found anyone else with a genetic profile who might work?"

"Unfortunately, neither Cloud nor Rufus have any close living relatives on their paternal or maternal sides." Nyx glanced briefly at the data on her wall screens. "There are some interesting prospects, but the computer models for Project S2 indicate that Cloud and Rufus are the best possible candidates available."

"Very well. I suppose I'll have to make do with what I have," Montessi said sourly.

"Do you have a timetable regarding Rufus?"

"Rufus should be in my hands within 24 hours. I'll start work on him immediately using the accelerated protocol I developed for Phase 1."

"Within 24 hours? Will your lab be ready?"

"Not entirely, but I only need a basic setup for the Mako infusions. That will give me enough time to bring the rest of my equipment online."

"In that case, I'll forward the drugs and restraint equipment that you requested. I've also included some additional personal safety measures that you might find useful."

"Fine. Do that." And with those terse words, Montessi ended the call.

Nyx put her own phone away and returned to her computer. As she continued to compile and compare genetic data on various subjects, she also considered the current situation between the two other scientists.

Montessi's jealousy and hatred of her younger sister Roissy had grown to truly obsessive proportions over the years. Unfortunately, while Roissy was adept at handling people, especially men, she was dangerously insensitive to her own sister's hostility.

Given Montessi's volatility, the next meeting between the two women could easily prove fatal.


.


Cloud wasn't physically tired. But since he needed some time alone to process all the recent developments, he took advantage of the flight time to Nibelheim to find a little solitude and simply think.

Hojo was back, and his plans were painfully obvious - resurrect Sephiroth, Jenova, or more probably, both of them.

A childish part of Cloud wanted to howl at the complete unfairness of the situation. All the fighting, all the effort, all the gutwrenching sacrifices... And yet the enemy kept finding ways to come back, to wreak more havoc and destroy more lives.

Why did the villains get to return when the heroes didn't? Where was the justice in that?

But life wasn't fair. Cloud knew that with excruciating certainty. If there had been the slightest iota of fairness in the universe, Zack would still be alive, ready and eager to answer the call, step up to the line, do the right thing, and whatever else was expected of a true hero.

Instead, HE was the one left alive. It had been Zack's decision - freely made, unregretted, and so totally in character - to save a friend instead of himself.

"... You'll be... my living legacy..."

So if Zack was no longer alive to be the hero and protect the Planet, Cloud would answer the call in his place. And like Zack, he would do the right thing regardless of the price. Even if that meant having to kill Sephiroth, Hojo, and Jenova over and over and over again...

As Cloud stared out the porthole, he wondered what would be awaiting them at Nibelheim.

Nibelheim... harsh, heartless, hellish Nibelheim...


High heels clicking on stone. The faint scent of musky floral perfume.

"Hojo's gone back to Midgar. Move Specimens C and Z down to the lower labs and begin Phase 1 immediately. And double-check Specimen Z. Make sure he's secure and unconscious."

"Yes, doctor."


"What's your name?"

"Cloud..."

"Heh, not for long. Get ready to kiss yourself goodbye."

"Hey, there's no need to make fun of the poor guy."


"Who are you?"

"... Cloud."

"Wrong answer."

"... no... please... don't... it... it hurts..."

"It's your own fault for resisting so much. Cooperate and the pain will stop. It's your choice."


"Who are you?"

"... I... I... I'll be good... oh god... please... don't..."

"There, you see? If you don't fight us, you won't get hurt. It's as simple as that. You might even end up feeling pretty good. Okay guys, it looks like he's ready for the next procedure."


"Who are you?"

"..."

"What's your name? If you don't answer the question..."

"You know my fucking name! It's Strife. STRIFE. Got that, you stupid asshole!"

"Doctor, the subject is becoming combative."

"Shit, again? Every time I think we've broken him down, he goes and flips out like this. Which means we have to waste time doing it all over again. Dr. Montessi's gonna be SO pissed."


"Who are you?"

"... who?... me?... inside... some... something's wrong... inside... my head..."

"What's your name?"

"... I... I don't..."

"Answer the question. You know what will happen if you don't cooperate."

"... NO!... please... I... I don't know! I don't know!"

"Dr. Montessi, the subject's depersonalization index is not dropping any further, and his dissociative factor is still way off."

"Damn! We're way behind schedule as it is. Lower Specimen Z's sedation level by 0.5 percent and see if the increased neural input accelerates the personality breakdown."


"That's a good boy. There's no need for you to think at all. After all, you're just an empty puppet."

"... not... puppet..."

"Tsk. You there!"

"Yes, doctor?"

"Call Montessi and tell her she needs to work on him some more."

"... no... please... don't..."

"And tell her to stop playing around with him. I want every scrap of resistance and self-awareness in that stupid blond head eradicated for good! You got that?"


"Who are you?"

"..."

"What's your name?"

"..."

"I think Dr. Montessi really overdid it this time. I'm not getting any response, no matter what stimuli I try. He's like... completely gone."

"Don't worry, that means he's just as Dr. Roissy ordered."

"He's supposed to be a complete vegetable?"

"Look, you're good with computers, right? Then maybe you'll understand it better this way. We're only interested in his body - the hardware, so to speak. His mind's just worthless software that's going to be overwritten with a better and more stable program."

"A better program, huh? That's kinda cold."

"As Dr. Hojo always says, there's no room for sentimentality in science. That's something you'll need to learn if you want to get ahead in Shinra's Science Department. Besides, it makes things easier for us if he's just a blank slate."

"A sort of puppet, huh? With Montessi or her sister pulling the strings, no doubt."

"Hell, no. You're way off. Jenova cells are an integral part of the control mechanism, and the two of them haven't got any. Look, I told you it makes a lot more sense if you think about the whole process in terms of hardware and software. We've got a software program - the controlling neural pattern - which has to be encoded in the right language for the hardware - this guy here - to understand. In this case, Jenova cells provide the perfect biological mechanism for both the live data link AND the encoding."

"Okay, smartass. If not the two doctors, who's got the Jenova cells necessary to control this guy?"

"Isn't it obvious? The dark-haired sleeping beauty over there."


"Cloud? Yo, Cloud!"

He jerked awake and turned to see Yuffie standing in the doorway of the Shera's break room, clutching a mug.

"You were really dozing pretty heavily there. Didn't get much sleep last night?" She took a cautious sip from the mug and grimaced.

"I was..." He shook his head. "I was just thinking and must have drifted off. What are you drinking?"

"This herbal brew Nanaki cooked up for me. It helps settle my stomach. Wanna try it?"

"No thanks. Even from here, it smells horrible and probably tastes even worse."

"It's not that bad. You just have to add enough sweetener," Yuffie said before taking another sip. "Anyway, Cid says we're almost at Nibelheim."

"All right."

"So, any interesting dreams during your nap?" Yuffie asked brightly as they both headed toward the Shera's bridge.

He gave her a curious look. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, you were looking a bit tense while you were asleep. And with all that's happened recently with that wacko Hojo chasing after a sample of Sephiroth..." She shrugged, trying to look nonchalant.

Touched by Yuffie's awkward concern, Cloud said, "No, I didn't have any nightmares about Hojo or Sephiroth, if that's what you're asking."

She danced around to face him and waggled an upraised finger. "Hah, but I bet you did dream something! Anything good?"

"Probably not, since I don't remember any of it," Cloud said with a careless shrug.


.


As Cloud and Yuffie arrived on the Shera's bridge, Cait Sith bounced over to them and said, "I just got a message from Rufus. He wants us to meet up with one of his people before heading off to Nibelheim. He was pretty insistent about it."

"Another Turk, huh?" Cid said, leaning against the airship's wheel. "It makes sense, considering that three Turks have already gone missing."

"Any luck reaching Barret?" Cloud asked.

"Nope. Apparently he's way deep in one of those coal mines. No phone reception down there and he isn't due to come up for several hours." The pilot glanced over at Tifa. "So what did Vincent or Nanaki have to say?"

"They think they've located where Kadaj and the Remnants were created. Actually, the term they used was 'spawned'. There was no machinery involved - just a lot of organic-looking stuff." She turned to Cloud. "And it looks like other things hatched out in the same location, but at a later time. I'm betting at least one of them was Hojo, or his clone, or his Remnant, or whatever."

"So what are the two of them doing now?" Yuffie sat down on the corner of a console, still nursing her mug of hot brew.

"Trying to track down other locations with black water, just in case something else nasty is getting ready to hatch. They're working their way south from the Northern Crater." Tifa glanced out the window. "So where exactly are we supposed to pick up this Turk?"

"At the base of the mountains, Cait told me," Cid replied. "The wind's still too damn strong for helicopters."

"But you can get us in there?" Cloud gave the pilot a questioning look.

"Sure. It'll be bumpy, but the Shera's handled worse. But she's not going to be able to stick around, not in those tight quarters. So we'll just zip in and hop off, then let her get clear."

"Whatever works."

Cid gazed out the great glass windows of the Shera's bridge and chuckled. "It's kinda weird to think of Rufus helping to protect the Planet instead of being an ambitious, backstabbing little prick."

Tifa turned around and gave the pilot a startled look. "You know Rufus?"

"Vaguely. Rufus showed up with his dad for the rocket launch - the aborted one that got screwed up six years ago. Had a chance to talk with him a few times. Damn, he was one mean-tempered and power-hungry fucker back then." Cid scratched his head. "On the other hand, the Turk that was Rufus's bodyguard, she was a good sort. Even helped me out of several nasty jams."


.


The Shera paused just long enough for the Turk to climb aboard the airship, then turned to make her way through the treacherous Nibel Mountains, a journey made even more dangerous as darkness fell.

The attractive, tall slender woman walked confidently onto the bridge area, her long dark blond hair pulled up into a high ponytail. She wore the typical black suit of a Turk and carried a shotgun in a special holster on her back.

"Hey, Chaise! Long time, no see!" Cid called out, a big grin on his face. "I still owe you a couple of drinks for all that stuff you did for me back in Rocket Town!"

"It's good to see you again, Cid," the Turk replied with a friendly grin of her own. She then turned to Tifa. "You've grown up into a lovely young woman."

Tifa stared blankly at the Turk, obviously baffled.

"Seven years ago, in Nibelheim. You were looking for your cat in the mountains. We ended up having to jump from a cable car together because of a dragon," Chaise prompted.

"You're the nice lady Turk!" Tifa blurted, her eyes going wide. "The one that asked me to guide Sephiroth and the others to the Nibel Reactor!"

"That's me," Chaise replied with an easy chuckle. However, her smile disappeared as she turned her attention to Cloud. She eyed him somberly for a moment, then said, "It's good to see you, Cloud. I'm especially glad to see you looking so well, both physically and mentally."

Cloud stared at the Turk. He definitely knew this woman, but the memories hovered tantalizingly just out of reach.

Chaise smiled ruefully. "Don't worry about it. After everything you've been through, it's no wonder that your memory's somewhat scrambled."

"...'scrambled' is an understatement," Cloud muttered under his breath. "Chaise," he said slowly, using the name to grab hold of those elusive memories. "That mission involving Professor Rayleigh and the data disk."

The Turk gave him an encouraging nod.

"And after that, you were in Nibelheim. I talked to you the day before the trip to the reactor, and I asked you to..." Cloud suddenly stopped and felt his face burn with remembered embarrassment.

"That's right." Chaise flicked a quick glance over at Tifa.

"Wait a minute!" Tifa said, her eyes narrowed. "You two know each other? Knew each other BEFORE Sephiroth's mission to Nibelheim?"

"Uh... yeah," Cloud said cautiously. "You could say that."

Tifa glared at Chaise and said accusingly, "I specifically asked you about knowing Cloud!"

"Well, at the time I wasn't sure we were talking about the same person," Chaise replied mildly.

"Cloud isn't exactly a common name," Tifa retorted, clearly not buying the Turk's story.

"I asked her not to tell you, Tifa," Cloud said in a near-mumble, then uttered a deep sigh. "For the same reason I kept my helmet on and didn't reveal my identity to you. I didn't want you to know that I..." He shrugged and looked away.

Tifa looked at Cloud, then at Chaise, then it was her turn to sigh heavily. "Oh well. That's all in the past, I guess."

"Hey, guys. Sorry to break up the happy reunion and all that, but Nibelheim's just ahead." Cid pointed ahead, but the gesture was unnecessary.

The town was still hidden by a rocky ridge, but they had no problems seeing the reddish glow as flames consumed Nibelheim for the second time. Hours had passed since Reeve had received the report of the fire, and yet the town continued to burn ferociously, the inferno fed by the swirling mountain winds.


.


Standing in the airship's open rear hatchway, Tifa looked down at the fires raging below and shuddered. One thing made the scene slightly more bearable - this time, the people in Nibelheim were complete strangers. But it didn't matter that the new inhabitants were only actors hired by Shinra. They were still human beings and most likely all dead.

But however bad it was for her, she knew it had to be worse for Cloud, even if he stubbornly refused to show it. For Cloud, this was where the true horror started - the death of his mother, the brutal fight with Sephiroth, Hojo's experiments, and ultimately, Zack's death.

All she saw on Cloud's face was a combination of stoic calm and steely resolve. How long he could maintain that fierce self-control in the face of the terrible things they were certain to find in the burning town and the Shinra Mansion... well, that was an open question.

Tifa heard someone beside her release a long, slow breath and remembered that there was another person who had been in Nibelheim seven years ago.

She glanced at the Turk. Chaise didn't say anything, but merely stared down at the fiery destruction with an impassive expression. But Tifa thought she saw a brief flicker of genuine sorrow and even regret on the other woman's face.

No one, not even Yuffie, had anything to say as the airship dropped them off just outside the town gates.

On the ground, the air was hazy with both heat and smoke. As Cloud led Tifa and the others through the burning wreckage of Nibelheim, the group spread out to survey the destruction, their weapons at the ready. But as they picked their way through the flames, the unnerving lack of bodies soon became glaringly obvious.

Nibelheim was quite a small town but it still contained several hundred people. Adults, elderly, and even children - Shinra had done an extremely thorough job of recreating the town, down to the last detail. After Meteorfall, when the need for the Nibelheim cover-up was gone, many of Shinra's actors had chosen to continue living in the sleepy little town and some new families had joined them.

"Shit, with all the blood on the ground, most of these poor bastards have got to be dead. So where are the damn bodies?" Cid muttered. They were the first words spoken since leaving the Shera.

"I hate to say it, but maybe they were... er, eaten?" Yuffie said as she peered into the flames, checking for any trace of corpses.

They arrived in the middle of the town square, near a crumbled heap of smoldering debris that used to be the water tower. Despite the fierce heat from the fires, Tifa felt chilled to the bone. She didn't want to be here. She didn't want to see this.

A warm gloved hand lightly grasped her left shoulder, steadying her jangling nerves. Tifa turned her head to see Cloud giving her a worried look.

"I can take it." She took a deep breath, centering herself as her old martial arts teacher Zangan has taught her. "Don't worry about me. I can take it."

Cloud nodded, then glanced over to Tifa's right, as if asking a silent question. She followed his gaze and saw Chaise coming up beside them, her shotgun at the ready.

The Turk was all cool professionalism as she shook her head. "Nobody, dead or alive," Chaise reported tersely. "The closest thing I've found to a human remain is a severed finger."

Cloud abruptly stopped as they approached the northern exit out of the town square. Tifa saw a brief look of confusion and uncertainty in his eyes as he stared at the empty, fire-blackened stairs which led up to the Shinra Mansion and the trail toward the Nibel Reactor.

"Cloud?"

"He stood right there, untouched by the flames, unmoved by the carnage, staring at me. Utter contempt. Pure hatred." Cloud's voice was soft, barely audible of the roaring crackle of the fires. "And that person was not the Sephiroth I knew."

In an even quieter voice, Cloud murmured, "That's not right. I wasn't there when Sephiroth turned and walked away. It wasn't me." He abruptly winced, then shook his head sharply.

"Cloud?" Tifa repeated, her voice full of concern.

He sighed, rubbed at his forehead. "My memory's playing tricks on me, mixing what I actually saw and what Zack told me about later."

At the mention of Zack's name, Chaise's jaw clenched briefly, but she said nothing.

"We need to keep going," Cloud said, and headed for the stone steps that separated the Shinra Mansion from the town below. His friends exchanged worried looks, then hastily followed him.

He waited for them just inside the Mansion's gateway. In an eerie replay of the fire seven years ago, the massive building was again left untouched by the fire devouring the town of Nibelheim. Several trucks from the WRO retrieval team were parked in the Mansion's courtyard, but once again, there were no people, dead or alive.

Cloud crouched down to briefly examine the large dark stains on the paving stones, then rose to his feet. Confirming their worst fears, he said, "It's all human blood."

"And still no bodies," Yuffie muttered.

Everyone's eyes followed the trail of dark smears that led from the courtyard to the Mansion's entrance. Cloud glanced at his companions to make sure they were prepared, then turned to follow the bloody trail to the front door. He put his free hand on the door latch, hesitated an instant, then abruptly shoved the doors wide open.

The first thing they noticed was that the floor of the large entrance hall was almost completely covered with a massive stain of dried blood. In fact, there had been so much blood, the carpet had become over-saturated, with some of the excess blood oozing out and collecting into crusty, semi-dried pools along its borders. Away from the smoke outside, the metallic smell was both unmistakable and overwhelming, even to normal human noses.

They all stared around the great hall, stunned by the sheer scale of the carnage.

Between gritted teeth, Chaise said, "Judging from the volume of blood here, it looks like the attackers gathered everyone in Nibelheim, both wounded and dead, in one big pile and left them here, before taking them away."

"Fucking tidy bastards," snarled Cid. "So where are the bodies now?"

The Turk could only shrug.

Yuffie turned and bolted for the open front doors. She skidded to a halt in the courtyard, hunched over, hands clamped over her mouth, as she clearly tried to fight down the urge to vomit.

Tifa didn't join the teenager, but she also had to step outside onto the Mansion's porch to take deep gulps of sooty air.

Cait Sith, who had hopped off Yuffie's shoulders when she'd rushed for the courtyard, carefully sidled around the blood soaked carpet and took a quick peek into the neighboring rooms on the ground floor, while Cloud and Cid tried very hard to NOT look at the horrifically stained floor.

"Cait, find anything?" Cid called out,

"Nothing except a lot of dirt and musty furniture," the cat said as he rejoined them.

"Well, then I guess we better start looking for the Turks and the rest of the WRO team." Cid glanced over at Yuffie, still standing in the courtyard, and Tifa. "Hey, maybe you two should stay out here and keep an eye on things while..."

Without turning around, Yuffie jabbed a finger in Cid's direction and yelled, "No way I'm sitting this one out! I'm not a kid anymore! I can do this. I damn well WILL do this." She finally swung around to face Cid and the others, still clearly nauseous, but at the same time, fiercely determined.

A pale, but equally determined Tifa said, "No need to coddle us, Cid. We need to find out what happened here ASAP. You can't afford to have two of us sitting out and doing nothing."

"She's right," Cloud said, his face set and his voice bleak. "We'll need everyone's help. We've got to go through this place and find out what the hell happened to Reno and the others, including Steven."

Cid shrugged. "Fine. There's six of us, so you wanna do this in teams of two or three?"

"Teams of two," Cloud replied. That way we can cover the most ground. But be careful. Whatever attacked Nibelheim managed to take out three Turks, not to mention two full squads of WRO troops before anyone could make a single call for help."

"Yeah." Cid thought a moment, scratched his head, then said, "Tifa, you and Yuffie take the upstairs. Cloud, why don't you take Cait Sith and check out the ground floor? Chaise and I will start on the basement. You guys can join us when you're done up here."

Cloud gave Cid a sharp glance, but made no objection.


.


The search of the ground floor of the Mansion was quick, but thorough. There were definite signs of disturbance - bloodstains, broken furniture, and weird non-human track marks on the dirty floors - but no bodies.

"A few survivors of the initial attack probably tried to hide, but were all hunted down. Whoever or whatever these attackers might be, they were certainly thorough and efficient," Cloud observed.

Cait Sith nodded. "There's no signs that a serious fight took place here. I know that the retrieval team was supposed to clear the upper parts of the Mansion first, then work their way to the basement. I'm betting that the main action's down there."

"You're probably right."

As they made one last pass through the ground level rooms, Cait Sith abruptly said, "Cloud, are you all right?" The cat hastily raised a paw before Cloud could answer. "No, that's a stupid question under the circumstances. How about this? How are you coping?"

"Can you be a bit more specific?"

"I mean, about this whole thing with Hojo and the possible return of Sephiroth and/or Jenova. That sort of stuff."

After a moment of silence, Cloud quietly said, "At first I was angry because it felt so unfair, almost as if they were somehow cheating. But life isn't fair. Believe me, I've learned that lesson by now." He shrugged slightly. "I have people I want to protect. So if a threat appears, I'll deal with it. And if that threat reappears, I'll just have to deal with it again, as many times as necessary. It's as simple as that."


As Tifa and Yuffie searched the upper floor of the Shinra Mansion, Yuffie asked, "Do you think anyone survived?"

"It certainly doesn't look likely," Tifa replied.

Yuffie pushed aside a broken chair. "What about the Turks?"

Tifa stared at her, then said, "You're really worried about them."

"Well... yeah." Her face red, Yuffie flung up her hands. "I know they were a pain in the ass during the whole pre-Meteorfall thing. But at the same time, they did help save me from that creep Don Corneo. And they walked away afterward, when they didn't have to. Not to mention that they helped Cloud with the Remnants..."

"Don't worry. I understand, Yuffie. Really, I do. I hated the Turks for what happened to Sector 7, but when I later heard about all the things they did to help people as Meteor destroyed Midgar... well, I started to change my mind." Tifa sighed. "And it's not like my own hands are entirely clean, either. Besides, even if I hated Reno and the other Turks, I still wouldn't leave them in the hands of Hojo or whoever ordered this massacre."

Yuffie stared out of a grimy bedroom window toward the burning town. "Seeing this place going up in smoke again has got to be horrible for both you and Cloud."

Tifa joined Yuffie in looking out the window. "Seven years ago, I lost my father and everyone I grew up with. Not because of a natural disaster or an accident, but because of Sephiroth's cold-blooded malice and hatred. This time, except for the Turks, I don't know any of the people who probably died today. But it's the same brutal slaughter and the same heartless malice behind it. It makes me sick and furious just thinking about it!"

Tifa abruptly turned away from the dirty window. "But for Cloud, it's so much worse. I lost almost everyone I cared about in the first massacre, but I also encountered many people willing to help and support me - my old teacher Zangan, the doctor and others in Midgar who nursed me back to health, the people who took care of me and helped me set up the bar. Cloud didn't have anything like that."

The look she gave Yuffie was filled with the sorrow, anguish, and heartache she usually kept well hidden, especially from Cloud.

"Yuffie, for me, that fire seven years ago marked a tragic loss of family and friends. For Cloud... it was the starting point of hell."

After a long moment of silence, Yuffie said, "Maybe I'm being nosy, but has Cloud been having trouble sleeping?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Because when I went to fetch him before we picked up that Turk, he was fast asleep. I had to actually yell at him several times before he woke up. We both know that Cloud's usually a real light sleeper. Most of the time, just opening a door will do it."

"Did he look like he was having a nightmare?" Tifa asked quickly.

"Is he still having the really bad ones?"

"Just after Meteorfall, the serious nightmares were a lot less frequent. Then, within the last year, they started getting worse and coming more often. I now know that was probably because of the Geostigma."

"And after he got cured?"

"In the last two weeks, Cloud has been having... dreams. Nothing like his usual nightmares, but troubling, in their own way."

"Did he tell you about it?" Yuffie stopped short, then held up her hand. "What am I saying? This is Cloud. Of course he won't talk to you, me, or anyone else about something like that. I told you before and I'll tell you again, he's a pain in the ass!"

Tifa uttered a rueful chuckle. "And as -I- told you before and will tell you again, Cloud is Cloud. That's just the way he is."

"Maybe you're right about the dreams. Back on the Shera, Cloud looked a bit stressed out while he was asleep, but it wasn't a nightmare, either. I've seen my share of those. I did try to poke around a bit, but all he said was that if he had been dreaming, he couldn't remember anything about it. Of course, this being Cloud, it could be the truth, or he could be ducking my question."

"I know what you mean, Yuffie. Believe me, I do. Cloud's such an intensely private person, it can be incredibly difficult to know what he's really thinking or feeling at times. And if you try to push him, he won't push back. Instead, he just pulls away. For example, that whole situation with the Geostigma. Not a word. Not a single word or hint of anything being wrong. He just went off to die alone."

Tifa looked around, carefully closed the door to the room they were in, then spoke in a very quiet voice. "For a while, I thought he was acting that way in order to look tough, or to protect himself from being hurt or other people's pity. But I was completely wrong about that.

"It's... how can I put this?" Tifa began pacing as she continued in that same hushed tone, "I really do believe that Cloud has come to peace with himself and his past... on a conscious level. But somewhere deep inside him, there's a part of Cloud... Yuffie, the right to live and exist is something that almost everyone takes for granted. But for whatever reasons, Cloud can't do that.

"That's why I think he keeps so much to himself. All the things he's experienced, the suffering and pain he's endured... he's not being selfish or pretending to be tough. I think he's unconsciously doing what he always does - trying to protect the people he cares about and spare us the burden of knowing about such terrible things."

When Yuffie merely stared at her, Tifa rubbed her forehead and muttered, "Oh hell, maybe I'm just babbling."

"Tifa, do you know what I find the scariest about what you've just told me? The fact that it makes perfect sense, in a horrible twisted sort of way."


Cid started to lead Chaise to the upstairs bedroom which held the secret entrance to the basement, but it was soon clear that the Turk already knew where they were going.

"I guess you really are familiar with this place," Cid commented.

"Like I said, I was here before, during, and after the Nibelheim Incident. So yes, I know the layout pretty well."

When they reached the bedroom, the section of wall that used to conceal the basement access now lay in pieces all over the floor.

"Looks like they broke in here..." Cid stopped abruptly, took a harder look at the debris and said, "No, they broke OUT of the secret passage."

""The roof's intact, so they must have come up from below." Chaise said as she peered into the deep vertical shaft. "The attackers must've found another way into the lower levels."

As they reached the cavernous basement area, Chaise looked at Cid. "So why did you pick the basement for yourself?"

When the pilot merely gave her a bland stare, the Turk said, "I saw that look Cloud gave you. It's pretty clear that you didn't want him down here first."

He snorted, then said, "Never was much good at being subtle, but yeah, I kinda wanted to scope out this damn place myself."

"So I'll ask again. Why?"

Instead of directly answering her question, Cid said, "Back on the Shera, you mentioned that you were glad to see Cloud looking so well, both physically and mentally. And later you mentioned something about expecting his memory to be all messed up. So you've obviously got some idea of the god awful crap Cloud's been through."

"I don't know the specifics, but yes, I have a general picture." She glanced around the sprawling basement complex. "And so much of it happened here."

"Then you'll understand that while Cloud is a hell of a lot better than he was before, his head's still pretty fucked up." Cid tapped his temple for emphasis. "Not his fault, mind you."

"Of course it isn't his fault! It's a miracle that Cloud's capable of functioning at all, considering the shape he was in after the escape from the labs."

As they headed deeper into the basement, Cid shot the Turk a sharp look. "You saw him back then?"

"No, I'd left Shinra before Zack and Cloud escaped from Nibelheim. But Cissnei ran into them and she later told me about it. From her description, Cloud had an extremely severe case of Mako poisoning, never mind the damage four long years of experimentation must have done to him."

"You seem to have some damn strong feelings about the whole thing. Not exactly what I'd expect from a Turk."

Chaise remained silent for several minutes as they continued their sweep through the upper section of the Mansion's basement. Finally, she said, "I was there, in the Nibel Reactor. I was the one who found Zack and Cloud, broken and bleeding, after they managed to finish off Sephiroth. I told them to relax, that I was going to get help for them. I contacted the company, expecting a rescue mission. Instead, Hojo came."

When Cid said nothing, she continued, her voice sharp and bitter. "The Turks, myself included, left Zack, Cloud, and the other Nibelheim survivors with Hojo and just walked away. How's that for cold-blooded professionalism?"

"So you quit working for Shinra because of that?"

"What happened in Nibelheim was a big part of it. But I didn't quit right away. I stuck it out for a few more years," Chaise said with a shrug.

"Lucky for me. I still owe you big for rescuing me and stopping those terrorists who tried to steal my plane and fuck up the original Rocket Shinra No. 26 launch."

"I was just doing my job."

Cid grinned at her. "That's crap, and we both know it." He suddenly moved over to a wall. "I've got bullet holes."

"Same here, along with claw marks and lots of blood near those crates. There was definitely a firefight. It looks like some of the WRO troopers tried to make a stand here, but got swarmed under."

"Yeah, that's what I figured. But where the fuck are the damn bodies!" Cid said with a scowl.

"That's the big question, isn't it? We're talking about hundreds of people. There's got to be a reason why they're all gone."

"Along with whatever attacked them. This place is dead quiet."

"Believe me, I've noticed, Cid."

As they headed for the lower level of the basement, Cid asked, almost casually, "So tell me something. Is Rufus really serious about wanting to protect the Planet, or is he just playing mindgames with everyone?"

Chaise gave him a startled look. "Why are you asking me?"

"I figured that you're the most likely to give me a straight answer. You walked away from Shinra, but you went back. So what changed your mind?" He gave the Turk a long, level stare. "You know what Rufus was like before. He was a ruthless, conniving bastard. Has he really changed?"

Chaise hesitated, then said slowly, "Personality-wise, probably not. But I believe that his overall goals have genuinely changed. So to answer your original question, I think Rufus is very serious about protecting the Planet and making up for what Shinra did. And that's also the answer to your secondary question. If I'd had the slightest doubt that Rufus and the Shinra Corporation were sticking to their old ways, I wouldn't have come back to them."

When Cid's phone rang, he flipped it open and said, "Find anything, Cloud?"

"No. It's clear up here. We'll meet up with Tifa and Yuffie, then head down to join you. How are things on your end?"

"We found plenty of bloodstains, scraps of torn clothes, and a nice set of bullet holes on the upper level of the basement. No bodies, and no Turks..." Cid suddenly stopped as Chaise suddenly raised her hand in silent warning.

"Might have something," Cid whispered tersely into the phone.

"On our way," was Cloud's equally terse reply.

Cid slid his phone back into a pocket, then glanced at Chaise, who pointed toward an open doorway. Cid edged over to the doorway as Chaise readied her shotgun, then they both waited as the soft squishing sounds moved closer.

A muck-covered and clearly exhausted Elena stepped warily through the doorway. As soon as she sensed their presence, she spun and lifted her weapon. Cid and Elena faced off for a long moment, he with his spear poised to strike, and she with Reno's nightstick tightly clenched in both hands.

"Whoa! Hold it! Chill out, girl! It's us! We're here to help!" Cid yelled as Chaise lowered her shotgun.

For a long, quivering moment, Elena didn't respond, then her wild-eyed expression gradually faded as she recognized Cid and understood what he was saying. She slowly lowered the nightstick and sagged limply against the wall in relief.

"Elena?" Chaise said, moving quickly to the other woman's side.

"Who...?" Elena took a few deep breaths, then tried again. "Chaise? What are you doing here?"

"Tseng sent me to help look for you guys. Where's Reno and Rude? And what happened here?"

As Elena sank down onto the floor, she gasped, "You... you haven't seen either of them?"

"No," Chaise replied.

"Damn it!" Elena slammed her fist against the wall in frustration.

"What the fuck happened to everyone?" Cid demanded impatiently.

It took Elena a moment to get her voice under control. A bit incoherently, she said, "I'm not sure. Rude and I got dumped in a trash pit by some idiot. Reno went off to get some rope and some people to pull us out. While we were stuck down there, a whole bunch of monsters attacked the place. I heard the sounds of gunfire and fighting, then a lot of screaming that seemed to go on forever. Rude and I tried climbing out of the pit by ourselves, but we couldn't make it. We finally found a side pipe and managed to crawl into the sewer system."

"So where's Rude?" Chaise crouched beside Elena and began checking her for injuries.

"In the sewer tunnels, we got attacked by a pack of... sahagins, I think. During the fight, part of the tunnel collapsed and we got separated. He was okay, then. We planned to meet up near the trucks and call for backup."

"You hurt anywhere?"

"No. I had some materia and managed to keep myself pretty much healed up. I'm just... REALLy tired. I've been running around those damn sewers for hours!

"I finally found a way back into the basement. I came across Reno's nightstick and lots of blood. No way to tell if the blood's his, though. Oh, and I found a body." Elena looked like she wanted to throw up. "It was in one of the lab rooms. Whoever it was, someone took their time torturing the hell out of him. Or her. Impossible to tell from what's left."

"Any clue as to identity?" Chaise asked as she helped Elena back to her feet.

"I found a torn up WRO labcoat near the body. The name tag said, 'Dr. L. Steven'. Oh, and there was some sort of fluorescent container lying broken on the floor. I backed out of there quick because there was a biohazard sticker on that container."

"Shit!" Cid kicked the wall angrily, then whirled around to face Chaise and Elena. "You realize what this means, right? Hojo knows that the sample he stole was a fake."

"And if that dead body belongs to Steven, that means Hojo almost certainly knows the location of the real sample," Chaise concluded grimly.

Elena stared at them. "Sample? Hojo? What the hell's going on!"

"I'll let Chaise explain it to you." Cid was reaching for his phone, but stopped when he heard footsteps rapidly approaching. "Hey, guys! Over here."

"You found one of the Turks!" Yuffie exclaimed, sounding relieved.

"Well, actually, Elena found us," Chaise said. "Rude survived the initial attack, but we have no idea where he is right now. We still don't know what happened to Reno or the others. We found his weapon, but that's it."

"Elena and Rude were stuck down a pit, so they didn't get a look at any of the attackers. But they were definitely monsters of various sorts." Cid glanced at Elena for confirmation.

"That's right." Elena looked around at Cid and the others. "You think Hojo's responsible for this attack? But he's dead!"

"I'll explain it to you later," Chaise said quickly. She then turned to Cloud. "And I think Elena found our missing Dr. Steven... or what's left of him."


"He's in there," Elena said, jerking her head toward a closed door.

As Chaise remained behind to brief Elena on recent events, Cloud and the others entered the lab room.

"Oh god," Yuffie muttered when she saw the thing lying on the metal examination table.

Tifa grabbed Yuffie by the shoulders and shoved the teenager out the door into the hallway, only to be pushed out herself by Cloud.

"You don't need to see this, Tifa," Cloud said flatly before he closed the door in her face.


The lab room stank of agony and terror. The remains of a human being - now looking more like a mass of very crudely ground meat - lay sprawled across the exam table. Stray bits of the body decorated the floor like grotesque confetti.

After a quick glance at the horribly mutilated corpse, Cait Sith hastily concentrated on examining the broken sample container on the floor and the bloody WRO labcoat lying nearby.

"Well, this definitely matches the other sample containers from Aston's storage facility," the cat said. "And whoever broke it open was seriously pissed off."

Cid joined Cait Sith and bent over to pick up the torn and bloodied labcoat. "You think this belongs to that unlucky bastard?" He jerked his head in the direction of the exam table.

"It's Steven."

Both Cait Sith and Cid turned to stare at Cloud. He pointed at the nearly severed right hand of the mutilated corpse. "See the crescent-shaped scar along the thumb?"

"Looks like an old bite mark," Cid commented.

Cloud shrugged. "Where it came from doesn't matter. The important point is that I saw the same distinctive scar on Steven's hand when Tifa and I briefly ran into him back at WRO Headquarters. It's him."

As they all stared at Dr. Steven's body, Cid's phone rang, breaking the heavy silence.

The pilot fumbled open his phone and snarled, "Jeez! What the hell is it?"

"Captain! Good news!" one of the Shera's officers shouted over the phone.

"We fucking well need it. What's up?"

"Give me that," a deep, exhausted male voice interrupted. "Cid, you find any traces of Reno or Elena?"

"Rude, is that you!"

"Yeah. Well? Have you?"

"Elena's okay, just a bit shaky," Cid replied.

"Reno?"

Cid took a deep breath. "Sorry. No trace of him yet."

"Shit!"

"Look, you stay on the Shera and chill out a bit while we finish up our sweep down here. From the sound of your voice, I'm guessing that you're pretty banged up."

"..."

"So why don't you get yourself patched up and let us handle things. You're not going to do Reno any good if you keel over on us."

"...all right."

As Cid closed his phone, Chaise stuck her head into the lab room. She caught sight of Steven's body, and exhaled sharply. "Okay, that's seriously sick. Hojo's work?"

"Looks like it. We found the missing fake sample from ASSRUB, and Cloud positively identified the body as Steven's."

"How the hell did he manage to do that?" Chaise flicked a quick glance at the mutilated corpse. "Considering that there's nothing left of the guy's face."

"Scar on Steven's hand. But we'll verify with DNA," Cait Sith said.

"Well, if you guys are finished, there's something you need to see out here."

Cloud quickly walked over to join Chaise by the door. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, but Yuffie's discovered something very interesting."

Back in the rough hewn corridor, Cloud and the others looked around, but failed to see any sign of Yuffie or Tifa.

"Where did they go?" Cait Sith trotted back to the main basement area. "Tifa? Yuffie? Elena?"

"Hey, guys! Over here!" Yuffie called out. "Look what we found!"

Following her voice, Cloud and the others headed toward the south end of the basement and found a large metal doorway behind a crumbling wall of brick and stone.

"What the hell? This wasn't here before!" Cid said, staring at the newly revealed doorway and the long hallway behind it.

Tifa stepped out of one of the rooms along the hallway. "That's right. I think Hojo's monsters tunneled into this sealed off area, then broke out through multiple points into the main basement. That's probably how they managed to catch the Turks and everyone else off-guard."

Catching sight of Elena, Cloud said, "Rude's safe. He's on the Shera."

Elena closed her eyes and heaved a great sigh of relief. "Well, at least that's some good news."

"I think he got beat up pretty good on his way out of the sewers, so I told him to stay onboard and get fixed up," Cid said. "He didn't argue, which should tell you something about the shape he's probably in."

Cait Sith said, "Look, another WRO team is on its way, but it's not due to arrive for a few more hours. In the meantime, we need to split up and finish searching this entire basement for any sign of Reno, the rest of the first WRO team, or leftover enemies. Once we know that this place is secure and there's no one left to rescue, then we can take our time going through this new lab area." The cat looked at his companions. "Cloud, why don't you take Tifa and Yuffie and finish the main basement. Cid, I'll go with you and the Turks to check out the new area."


.


Outside the Shinra Mansion, a flying eyeball with wings perched on the sagging roofline of the building, its giant eye methodically scanning the entire area.


Through his spy, Hojo had observed the arrival of Cloud and his companions in Nibelheim with interest. However, he was content to allow them to scurry around without interference. There were many things left to do and preparations to make before he was ready for Cloud.

For example, there was the little matter of a certain red-haired Turk and his employer to deal with.

Hojo smiled malevolently down at his involuntary hostess.

"Scarlet. How nice to see you again. And how kind of you to allow me to 'borrow' your private weapon facility AND your secret little Mako reactor for my new project. Science will thank you."

"Screw you, Hojo!"


.


Cloud, Tifa, and Yuffie quickly worked their way through the northern section of the Mansion's basement. Cloud's eyes lingered briefly on the pair of large tubes standing side-by-side in one of the labs, then quickly shifted his attention before Tifa or Yuffie noticed his distraction.

They ended up in the library. Like the rest of the basement, there were no bodies, but the musty air was heavy with the smell of recently spilled blood. As Tifa gingerly picked up a blood-soaked labcoat, something small and rectangular fell out of a pocket, bounced off her boot, and landed on the floor with a clatter.

She stared at it blankly before realizing what it was - a small digital audio recorder, the type commonly used for dictation. Tifa picked it up and said, "Guys! Look what I've found!"

As Cloud and Yuffie looked on, she carefully turned the recorder over in her hands. The outside was caked in dried blood, but otherwise, the machine appeared undamaged. She glanced at Cloud. "Do you think...?"

"Let's give it a shot."

Tifa hit the play button and cranked up the volume.

The first ten minutes of the audio recording turned out to be nothing more than an equipment inventory. Just as they were losing hope of hearing anything interesting, there was the sound of stamping feet accompanied by someone swearing vigorously.

"That sounds like Reno!" exclaimed Tifa.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
RENO: "What a fucking idiot! Hey! Is there a goddamn rope in this place?"

1ST MALE VOICE: "I'm not sure. Maybe they have some in the trucks, Mr. Reno."

RENO: "Like hell I'm climbing all those stairs. And I told you, it's just Reno. None of that mister crap. You there!"

2ND MALE VOICE: "Sir?"

RENO: "Run upstairs and see if anybody's got a few hundred feet of rope. If not, go into the town and get some. Considering where we are, someone's bound to have some mountain climbing gear. Get moving!"

2ND MALE VOICE: "Right away, sir!"

1ST MALE VOICE: "What happened?"

RENO: "One of those idiot scientists managed to dump my buddies down a trash chute!"

(distant female scream)
(crash)
(running footsteps)

RENO: "What the fuck's going...? SHIT!"
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The next few minutes of the recording were filled with the sounds of shrieking monsters, gunfire, panicked screams, the crackle of an electrified nightstick, punctuated by the occasional obscenity from Reno. The sounds of combat eventually faded away, to be replaced by rustling and shuffling noises, mixed with strange squeaks, chirps, and grunts.

They all recognized the next voice they heard. It was high-pitched, nasal, and despite the odd distortion, quite unmistakable.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
HOJO: "And what do we have here? A Turk, I see. Ah, I recognize that red hair. Carefully, carefully! Don't damage him! I want him alive and intact."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There was a brief pause, then Cloud and the others heard the sounds of a struggle accompanied by someone sobbing and whimpering in terror.

As Cloud listened intently, Tifa muttered, "That certainly doesn't sound like Reno!"

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
HOJO: "Wait. Bring him here." (pause) "So, Dr. Steven. We meet again."

STEVEN: "Hojo! I heard you were dead!"

HOJO: (cackle) "And so I was. So I was."

STEVEN: "W-what are you doing here in Nibelheim?"

HOJO: "Oh, I came back to retrieve some... information. And... equipment."

STEVEN: "What for?"

HOJO: "Resurrecting Sephiroth, of course."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Cloud, Tifa, and Yuffie continued to listen to the conversation between Hojo and the increasingly desperate Steven.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
STEVEN: "Wait! WAIT! I know things! Important things that can help you! We... we can make a deal!"

HOJO: "Oh ho. So you want to... negotiate, do you?"

STEVEN: "Yes! Let me live and I'll tell you everything I know!"

HOJO: (long pause) "Very well." (pause) "Yes, let us negotiate." (cackle) "Negotiate, as to the manner of your death."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They all flinched as the screams started, but soon the sobbing wails and howls of agony faded in volume, as if the recorder was moving away from the source. But although distant, Steven's screams remained clearly audible.

Cloud took the recorder from Tifa, and skipped forward before pressing play again. This time, the distant screams were interspersed with segments of apparent silence.

"Can you pick up anything?" Tifa asked.

He shook his head. "The microphone on this recorder isn't sensitive enough." Cloud repeated the 'skip forward and play' several times until the screaming stopped completely.

"So we don't know if Steven told Hojo where the real Sephiroth sample is," Yuffie said, trying to sound hopeful.

"Oh, I'm sure he told Hojo." Tifa shook her head. "From what I've seen and heard of the man, Steven doesn't have the courage or the willpower to resist Hojo's type of questioning. In fact, I'm willing to bet that Steven told Hojo everything he knew within the first few minutes."

"But if Steven was willing to talk so easily, why torture him like that?"

In a stark voice, Cloud said, "Because Hojo wanted to be sure that Steven was telling him the truth. He's been tricked once before and he doesn't want it happening again. But I think the main reason the torture went on so long is because Hojo simply enjoyed it."

Tifa sighed and brushed her hair away from her face. "Well, this confirms our worst fears."

"At least we know Reno survived the initial attack and was captured alive," Yuffie said.

Cloud gave the teenager a somber look. "That's not necessarily a good thing, especially with Hojo involved."

Yuffie suddenly got a sick look on her face. "You think Hojo's going to... DO... something to Reno?"

Cloud's grim silence was answer enough.


.


Montessi's mercenary team had arrived in the middle of the night and taken up a position outside of the Healen Lodge complex. Several hours later, the observer on watch received a visitor.

"See anything interesting?"

The observer glanced at the leader of the team, a former First Class SOLDIER named Kurt. "Nope. All's quiet down there," the observer replied.

"Where's the target?"

"According to our informant, Rufus should be in the main building. There are only three Turks on-site."

"How's the map the informant gave us? Everything match up?"

"Yeah, as far as I can tell. So when do we move in?"

"Cool your jets, Luxiere. We'll hit them after the sun sets. Our night vision will give us the edge, especially in the underground access tunnels."

"Not that we really need it. Six SOLDIERs against three Turks? That's overkill. Hell, we could do this job with half the people, no sweat."

"Maybe, but our client wants Rufus Shinra, alive and unharmed. So it's best that we hit hard and fast. That'll reduce the chance of an unfortunate accident damaging the merchandise."

Luxiere leaned back against a tree and said, "It feels kinda weird going after a Shinra, you know?"

"What's weird about it?" Kurt replied. "We're mercenaries. We get well paid to do other people's dirty work. It's basically the exact same thing we used to do for the Shinra Corporation. Only this time, we get to pick the jobs."

"I suppose you've got a point."


.


Some time past noon, Roissy opened her door of her temporary apartment in Junon and stared with obvious displeasure at her visitor.

"What are you doing here? Well, at least you ditched the embarrassing labcoat."

Montessi shoved her way past her stylishly dressed sister, then turned to confront Roissy. "I want to know what you intend to do with Specimen C."

"So you know about that," Roissy said, closing the door.

"Yes, I do!"

"God, don't start yelling. I've already got a slight headache."

"Answer me! What are you planning to do with Specimen C!" Montessi demanded.

Roissy rolled her eyes. "Isn't it obvious? I intend to restart Project S2, of course. I know some people who would be very interested in my work."

"Your work... YOUR work!"

"All right, all right. Our work. Now are you happy? It'll take some time to make the arrangements, but don't worry about that. You just stick to the research and let me handle the rest as usual."

"Do the grunt work, you mean, while you take all the credit!"

"I really wish you would stop twisting everything I say," Roissy said with a sigh. "But let's face it, there are certain things that I can do much better than you. Isn't it time you developed a little maturity and learned to accept that?"

"...not this time," Montessi muttered.

"What?" Roissy asked absently as she poured a glass of red wine for herself.

In a louder voice, Montessi said, "I'm not going to let you use me. Not this time."

"What are you babbling about?"

"Project S2 was MINE, until you stole it from me!"

"Don't go on about that again." Roissy took a sip of wine. "Look, it's not MY fault that President Shinra chose me to take charge of the project. He did it because he felt that you lacked the necessary imagination and vision to run Project S2. Besides, your people-handling skills are appalling. I, on the other hand..." Roissy made a languid gesture.

"This time, I'm going to be the one in charge!"

"Whatever. Look, I'm not in the mood to argue with you anymore. We'll talk about this later."

"No, we're going to settle this now." Montessi pulled out a gun and pointed it at Roissy.

"Is this a joke? Put that thing away before you hurt somebody!"

In an eerily calm voice, Montessi said, "I have my own plans for Project S2, and I'm not going to allow you to interfere."

"What do you mean, your own plans?"

"I'm going to create a second Phase 1 prototype so I can proceed with Phase 3."

"What!"

"You heard me."

"Don't be ridiculous! You can't just skip directly from Phase 1 to Phase 3! We NEED the enhanced mental stability of a successful Phase 2 prototype before we can proceed with Phase 3! That's why we need to fully evaluate the current state of Specimen C before...!"

"Shut up! You're such a coward, always trying to hold me back and play it safe! Well, I'm not going to let you stand in my way anymore."

Roissy stepped backward, her right hand fumbling for the doorknob behind her as she finally realized that Montessi was deadly serious.

"Wait, just wait! We can work together on this! You can't handle all of this yourself. You need my help!"

Montessi smiled viciously and cocked the gun. "I need NOTHING from you."

Roissy tossed the nearly full wineglass in her sister's face, flung open the door, and ran for her life.

"Security. Where the fuck is security when you need them!" she gasped as she ran down the deserted hallway. But despite her best efforts to elude Montessi, Roissy soon found herself trapped on a high narrow maintenance platform with nowhere to go.

Without the slightest hesitation, Montessi fired three times and smiled as her sister fell into the water far below.


.


As Elena reported to Rufus, Cid and his team rapidly checked the newly discovered rooms at the southern end of the Mansion's basement. Once they were certain that there were no enemies waiting to ambush them, they went back to do a more thorough search.

"Anything?" Cid called out.

"It looks like a lot of equipment is missing, but there are no signs of fighting or violence. It makes sense with this place being sealed off," Chaise reported. "How about you?"

"The same. Cait?"

The robot cat peered out of an isolated doorway at the far end of a corridor. "Ummm... guys. You might want to look at this."

"What now?" Cid grumbled as he trudged over, joined by Chaise and Elena.

The door led to a short flight of stairs going down into a dimly lit circular chamber. A large metal-bound clear cylinder - easily capable of holding a man-sized subject and surrounded by massive equipment consoles and display screens - dominated the center of the room. Upon closer examination, they could see deep long scratches all over the inside of the cylinder. More old-fashioned computer consoles lined the perimeter of the chamber, while a nearby desk was covered in a chaotic mess of papers, folders, and notebooks.

"Looks pretty much like the other rooms in this area, although the equipment looks a lot older."

Cait Sith stood on the cluttered desk, holding a thick notebook. "That's what I thought at first, until I took a peek into a few of these journals. See for yourself."

Cid took the notebook, and flipped it open to the first page. At first the name didn't mean anything to him, but then it finally clicked.

"Lucrecia Crescent? Sephiroth's mother? This was her notebook? And this is her lab!"

"Keep reading," Cait Sith said urgently.

Cid started to flip pages and immediately understood why Cait Sith was so concerned. The name 'Vincent' appeared repeatedly throughout the notebook. At first, the handwriting was neat and precise. But as Cid continued to turn pages, the handwriting grew wilder and the words more disjointed, hinting at the writer's ever-increasing desperation. The scrawled words "I'm so sorry" began showing up with increasing frequency.

"What the hell? It looks like she was experimenting like crazy on Vincent!" Cid took a deep breath. "And going more than a little bit nuts herself."

"Who's this Vincent?" Chaise asked curiously.

"Are you talking about Vincent Valentine," Elena said. "He's one of your friends, right?"

"Yeah. He had his own run-in with that nutcase Hojo." Cid continued to flip through the notebook.

"And this Lucrecia, you said something about her being Sephiroth's mother?" Elena glanced back and forth between the pilot and the cat.

Cait Sith said, "That's right. The whole story is pretty complicated, so I'll explain it to you later."

"Cid!"

They all turned to see Cloud walking quickly into the room, followed by Tifa and Yuffie.

Cloud held out a blood-covered voice recorder. "You need to listen to this."

"And I've got something for you. Take a look," Cid replied, handing over the notebook in exchange for the recorder.

As Cid, Cait Sith, and the Turks listened to the recording, Cloud, with Yuffie and Tifa peering over his shoulder, quickly skimmed through the notebook.

"Well, now we know that it's definitely Hojo who's responsible for all the shit that happened at ASSRUB and Nibelheim," Cid said after the recording ended.

"And he's captured Reno." Elena's expression was bleak.

Chaise looked equally grim. "Hojo didn't care about what happened to anyone else, but he specifically kept Reno alive and unharmed."

Both women turned to look at Cloud. His reply was brutally frank.

"Hojo may have various reasons for letting Reno live. But in the end, Hojo has only one use for live prisoners."


.


Something poked Reno hard in the side.

"Go away," he mumbled. For some reason, he really did not want to wake up.

He got poked again. Harder. He curled up and tried to ignore it.

Something grabbed him by the throat and hauled him into the air.

That definitely woke him up.

Opening his bleary eyes, he saw... Hojo? Except this Hojo had green scaly skin, all sorts of nasty tentacles, and shit ugly bug eyes. The memories of the basement attack returned like a punch in the gut.

"Oh fuck...," he managed to choke out.

"Hello, Reno." Hojo leaned uncomfortably close to the Turk and smiled, exposing a mouthful of sharp, needle-like teeth.

Reno had always prided himself on keeping his cool no matter the situation, but this time he was in seriously deep shit.

This was probably going to be bad - really, REALLY bad.


"So as it currently stands, Rude and Elena are safe, but Reno and everyone else in Nibelheim, including the WRO team, are still missing and presumably in Hojo's hands," Tseng said flatly as he looked out the window of Rufus's office and scanned the forest surrounding Healen Lodge.

He felt tense and edgy. With recent events, there were plenty of reasons for those feelings, but this particular sensation was familiar.

Someone was watching them.

Just as Tseng was about to order Serge and Jade to do a precautionary sweep of the area, Rufus's cellphone suddenly rang.

Rufus glanced at the caller ID, and went very still.

"What's wrong?" Tseng asked.

"It's from Reno. Or at least, his phone." Rufus opened his own phone and calmly answered, "Reno?"

"Hey, boss. Hojo's back." Reno's voice was hoarse, with a distinct hint of unsteadiness.

"I see. How are you doing?"

"Not so hot... ARGH!"

Reno's agonized scream was loud enough to be clearly heard by Tseng, who was standing several feet away. But before he could say or do anything, Rufus flung up his free hand, commanding him to stillness.

Aside from the visible tightening of his grip on the cellphone, Rufus displayed no other emotional reaction as he rose to his feet and stoically waited out the screaming. When Reno finally went quiet, the next voice he heard was both unpleasantly familiar and not unexpected.

"Hello, Rufus."

"Hojo."

"I'd like to invite you for a visit."

"A visit. And if I choose to decline?"

"But I must insist. In fact, I've already arranged your transportation."

At that moment, the entire building shook as a mob of large winged beasts landed on its roof and began to tear their way inside.


"Fuck, fuck, FUCK! Luxiere, get your ass in gear! We're moving in!"

"What? I thought we were supposed to wait for sunset, Kurt!"

"A whole crapload of monsters just dropped out of the sky and it looks like they're going after Rufus!"

"What!"

"I don't know if they want him alive or dead, and I don't give a shit. He's OUR damn target, so we've got to get to him before they do! C'mon!"


(end of Part 3)


The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

Chapter Text

Ah, finally done with part 4. Whee.

Soooo... tired.

FYI, the stuff of brain chips is not a complete asspull on my part - I lifted that from Dirge of Cerberus (i.e., from the plot of multiplayer portion of DoC that never made it to the US). ^_^;; For those who are interested, you can find subtitled videos of the multiplayer game cutscenes on YouTube.

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 4/?
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Pairing/Characters: gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~17,000
Warnings: violence, mature themes (references to abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his best friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

NOTES:
- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
- The original game and Advent Children/Complete are canon for this fic.
- Before Crisis and Crisis Core are semi-canon.
- Various individual plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., games, OVAs, FFVII novellas and short stories, etc.) may show up.
- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".

CREDITS:
- Many thanks to the terrific story "Homesick" by Chris Reaves which provided me with lots of inspiration for the events in Nibelheim. ^_^


CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Redux
A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

Chapter 4


Text Conventions

( ) and / / and / / and { } all indicate thoughts or other types of mental dialogue from various characters

[ ] are miscellaneous date or location notes, images, or sound effects


.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


.


[ outside Costa Del Sol ]

As the scruffy blond mercenary halted the the truck outside the dilapidated farmhouse, he glanced over at his employer and said, "Maybe Harris should check it out first."

"Fine. Just be quick about it," Montessi snapped. She impatiently glanced at her watch as a second mercenary - this one a stocky brown-haired ex-SOLDIER - hopped out of the back of the truck. The two mercenaries exchanged glances, with the driver giving the SOLDIER an affirmative nod.

The SOLDIER quickly covered the distance between the truck and the battered front door, took a brief peek through a window, then stepped inside. A minute or so later, he exited, raised a single finger, then gave the thumbs-up sign.

"Looks okay, ma'am. She's alone." the driver said.

Montessi made an impatient sound as she exited the truck. With her characteristic quick, jerky stride, she stalked over to the house. As she passed the waiting SOLDIER, she snapped, "Wait by the truck. I'll let you know when you're needed."

Harris eyed the scrawny, mean-tempered bitch of a woman who was his current employer, then shrugged. "You're the boss."

"Exactly so. Remember that and follow your instructions."

As he walked back to the truck, Harris sighed, then muttered, "It's not like we're likely to forget, considering the way she constantly rubs it in our faces every time she opens her mouth."

"She pays REALLY well," the driver said soothingly.

"Yeah, I keep telling myself that."


When Montessi entered the house's main parlor, she stopped short when she saw a tall blond-haired woman with wire-framed glasses standing next to a battered wooden table. Even as she opened her mouth to demand the stranger's identity, the other woman removed the glasses and pulled the blond wig from her head, revealing Nyx's dark curly hair neatly bound up in a compact braid.

"Oh, it's you," Montessi said sourly. "Why the disguise?"

"I find a little caution and discretion goes a long way," Nyx replied.

"Well, do as you please, but don't expect ME to waste energy on trivial matters like that."

"Trivial?" Nyx raised an eyebrow. "Before Meteorfall, Shinra's researchers could act with near-complete impunity. But times have changed. You're no longer operating under the protection of President Shinra and his all-powerful corporation. On the contrary, by abducting Rufus, the Shinra company, or at least the Turks, will become your enemy. Under the circumstances, I recommend trying to maintain a low profile and covering your tracks whenever possible, especially if you want to avoid trouble with the WRO and the Turks."

"I'm not afraid of THEM," Montessi said scornfully.

"It has nothing to do with fear, and more with being able to conduct one's research free of interference."

Montessi waved her hand dismissively. "All right, all right. I get your point. Let's get down to business."

"I have the drugs you require, along with detailed instructions as to selection and dosage regimes," Nyx replied, pointing at a small green crate sitting on the floor next to the table. "As you are well aware, SOLDIERs have an impressive ability to adapt to drugs and toxins. If a chemical compound does not kill them outright, they will rapidly develop a tolerance to it and become resistant to its effects. In the S2 prototypes, this ability to adapt is even more highly developed. The only effective way to overcome this is to constantly change the types and dosages of the drugs used in order to prevent them from building up a resistance."

"I already know all this!" Montessi snapped.

Nyx leaned forward and said with unusual sharpness, "Then you better make sure that your new research staff understands this as well. Constant vigilance is essential when handling SOLDIERs and even more so with the S2 prototypes. If you want to keep Rufus under control, your staff can NOT afford to become complacent. The last thing you want is to have another lab escape like the one from Nibelheim three years ago."

"Don't remind me of that fiasco!" Montessi snarled furiously. "Thanks to that idiot Steven being too lazy to keep up with the required drug protocol, Zack woke up and escaped with Specimen C!"

Infuriated by the memory, Montessi smacked her palm on the tabletop and said grimly, "Well, that's NOT going to happen again. I WILL not tolerate such sloppiness among my staff, even if I have to personally shoot a third of them to get my point across!"

Somewhat satisfied, Nyx then reached down and picked a black briefcase and placed it on the battered table.

"Is that...?" Montessi breathed, her dark eyes glittering in anticipation.

"Yes. This is the neural restraint chip. It is substantially identical to the one already in Cloud, and similar to the ones used in several other Shinra research projects, although with some modifications specific for the S2 prototypes." Nyx unlocked the briefcase, opened it, then removed a small flat plastic holder that was no bigger than a credit or ID card.

Montessi took the holder, admiring the small gleaming electronic chip it contained, then said, "How did you manage to get your hands on one?"

"My contacts managed to locate a few in the ruins of the Shinra Building. Those chips were probably the last production run before Meteorfall."

"And the placement is still in the brain stem area?"

"Correct." Nyx again reached into the briefcase and held up a bulky palm-sized device that resembled a truncated flashlight. "This is the transmitter, keyed to that particular chip. The usual caveats apply, of course. The optimum range of the transmitter is ten yards or less. Because of the power output required, extended use can result in the transmitter burning out. Various neurological issues can affect its effectiveness, so constant testing and recalibration is required for optimum performance, especially for the S2 prototypes." Nyx paused, then added, "I will remind you that these restraint chips are best used as a last, not first, resort for specimen control."

Although Nyx's voice was perfectly neutral, Montessi hunched her shoulders defensively and snapped, "Specimen C deserved it every time!"

Nyx merely looked at her, then continued, "Then I should tell you that although that this transmitter is capable of activating the neural chip in Cloud, I very strongly recommend that you resist the urge to use it against him."

"What's the problem?"

"Because it's been three years since anyone tried to activate that neural chip. There's no telling what condition it might be in. The chip could be seriously damaged, either through external circumstances or by Cloud's enhanced immune system. Even assuming that it does work, there could be unpredictable side effects. If you find that you absolutely MUST use it against Cloud, I suggest that you do so, and then leave the vicinity immediately."

"What for? Once I activate the chip, Specimen C should be incapacitated and quite helpless," Montessi said with a vindictive little smirk.

Nyx allowed a hint of impatience into her voice. "Only if the chip works as designed. Which, as I have just pointed out to you, there's no guarantee that it will. Instead of making Cloud helpless, you might just make him very, very angry."

Montessi continued to admire the neural chip in her hand, turning it so it would catch the light. "You know, I've always wondered, given the existence of this brain chip technology, why President Shinra never authorized its widespread use with SOLDIER or the civilian population. It would have made controlling them so much easier."

"It's just not feasible," Nyx replied with a slight shrug. "Part of the problem is cost and supply - neural chips are complex devices which are very expensive and almost impossible to produce in large quantities. But more importantly, both the implantation procedure and activation of the chip are extremely stressful on a subject. A high percentage of unmodified humans probably wouldn't survive the initial surgery to implant the chip. And even if they did, activating the chip just once would almost certainly destroy their nervous system. While ordinary first generation SOLDIERs would have minimal trouble with the implantation, they still run a significant risk of permanent neurological damage whenever the chip is activated, even with their enhanced physiques."

"So that's why Roissy never bothered to put one of these into Zack."

"That's right. Chemical sedation was considered the safer option," Nyx replied as she returned the transmitter back into its cushioned slot. "Fortunately, that sort of permanent damage isn't an issue with the S2 prototypes."

"How soon can I get this into Rufus?"

"You'll definitely want to wait until after the initial rounds of Mako infusions take effect and the augmented healing abilities begin to kick in. Otherwise, he'll probably die from the procedure," Nyx advised.

"Do you think Hojo put one of these inside Sephiroth? I'm sure HE would be able to physically handle it," Montessi idly mused as she continued to gaze at the neural chip, surrounded by a delicate web of incredibly fine glittering filaments.

Nyx shrugged. "Who knows? Not that it matters now. Even if Hojo had implanted a neural restraint chip in Sephiroth, it wouldn't have stopped his rampage in Nibelheim, considering that the only two people likely to have a control unit for that chip - the President and Hojo - were in Midgar at the time."

"And why don't those damn transmitters have a longer range?" Montessi sent an annoyed glare in Nyx's direction. "Ten yards is far too close for comfort when dealing with a hostile SOLDIER, much less a Project S2 prototype! There has to be SOME way to boost the signal!"

"There's a very fine line between controlling a valuable subject and completely frying his nervous system. A lot of compromises have to be made," Nyx calmly replied, retrieving the chip holder from Montessi and returning it to the briefcase. "I'm afraid that you'll just have to accept that this technology has severe limitations."

Montessi uttered an irritable snort, then took the briefcase from Nyx. "Anything else you want to tell me before I go?"

"I might have a source for a viable sample of Jenova cells." Nyx picked up her blond wig and slipped it back on, followed by the wire-framed glasses. "I'm hoping for more specific details in the next few days."

"Good. Keep me updated," Montessi said as she headed for the door.


Once outside, Montessi headed for the waiting truck, and spoke curtly to the waiting mercenaries.

"I'm done here. Harris, there's a green crate inside the house. Load it in the truck - carefully! - so we can leave. I need to finish my preparations for my new experimental subject."


.


[ Healen Lodge ]

Metal buckled overhead as Rufus shoved his phone into a pocket with one hand and drew his shotgun with the other.

"Those creatures are Hojo's, aren't they?" Tseng said, pulling out his own weapon.

"Yes, that's his idea of a gracious invitation," Rufus replied with a cold smile as he quickly backed up toward the hallway.

Tseng didn't bother to reply, but moved into the hallway first while Rufus kept a wary eye on his office's ceiling and its large picture windows. After checking for intruders, the Turk said, "It's clear."

Even as Rufus and Tseng evacuated the office, something large and scaly attempted to smash its way through the windows.

"The bulletproof glass will buy us some time, but not much," Tseng said tersely. Pulling out his own phone, he said curtly, "Jade, report."

"I'm outside, at the north end, and we've got monsters swarming all over the place!" she responded, nearly yelling to be heard over the panicked shouts and gunfire in the background.

"Hojo sent those monsters to capture Rufus. We're evacuating."

"You want me and Serge to join up with you?" she asked at a more normal volume as she moved to a quieter area.

"Try to distract them and buy more time to get the President clear of the area."

"We're on it," Jade said briskly.

"One more thing. Just before the attack, Hojo called us using Reno's phone. Rufus managed to speak to Reno briefly, before Hojo interrupted."

"How is he's doing?" Jade didn't bother to ask if Reno was okay, since the chances of that were virtually nil.

"He's hurting, thanks to Hojo," Tseng replied tersely. "Knowing what we do about Hojo and the things he's capable of, it's possible Reno has been, or will be, compromised. Do you understand?"

There was a brief, grim silence from Jade's end. "Understood, sir."

"This is merely a precaution. No final decisions will be made without irrefutable evidence."

A hint of relief was evident in Jade's voice as she replied, "Of course, sir."

As he put away his phone, Tseng turned to Rufus. "Hojo's monsters look like they're mostly aerial creatures, so the underground maintenance tunnels are probably our best option. If we can get to one of the remote garages, we can grab a vehicle and slip away while the monsters are still focused on the Lodge."

Rufus merely nodded and headed toward the lower levels of the building. Once in the dimly lit basement area, the two men ignored the obvious floor grating - which was heavily booby-trapped - and headed for a dusty utility shelf. Pressure on a well hidden button caused the shelf and a small section of wall to swing open.

Once inside the tunnel, Rufus finally spoke. "Hojo sent his creatures directly to my location, so either Hojo's had someone spying on the Lodge or he obtained information from a voluntary or involuntary informant."

"I know, We either have a spy, or he forced Reno to talk," Tseng replied, as he led the way, cautiously alert for any sound or sign of possible attackers in the network of tunnels. After a long pause, he added, "Did Hojo say anything about Reno during that phone call?"

"No offers, no deals, and no threats. Hojo was just using him to get my attention," Rufus said evenly.

"And now that he has your attention?"

"I don't know if Hojo has further plans for Reno, but we both know what a person like Hojo is capable of doing to his prisoners."


The pump room was dim and cavernous, with a deep, fast-flowing water channel running through its center that was covered with sturdy metal grates. A large vertical shaft led upward to the open air.

It was also full of very dead monsters.

Tseng glanced quickly at the heavily damaged security grill at the top of the air shaft and said, "Hojo's monsters found a way into the tunnels, but someone got to them first."

"Yes, but who?"

A few of the dead creatures were riddled with bullet wounds, but others had clearly been killed by sword and magic. Serge used a katana, Jade used knives, and both carried materia, but even two Turks couldn't have handled so many monsters on their own.

Rufus stared at a single clean slash that sliced a perfectly straight line through one of the monsters and a thick metal floor pipe before ending in a deep groove in the concrete floor. He lifted his head and his eyes met Tseng's. They both understood the significance of that sort of damage.

"What are SOLDIERs doing down here?" Rufus said quietly. "And where are they now?"

"I don't know. But if they took out the monsters, then it seems unlikely that they're working for Hojo, if that's any consolation."


The lighting sucked. The target was small, moving, and barely visible.

Under the circumstances, it was an impossible shot... for a normal human.


Rufus suddenly gasped and swatted at his throat.

Even as Tseng whirled around, Rufus yanked the small drug dart out of his neck. The two men stared down at the now empty dart, then froze as a SOLDIER with the telltale glowing Mako eyes dropped easily from an upper walkway. Three more SOLDIERs blocked off all the exits to the pump room, while yet another SOLDIER with buzzcut blond hair, the group's apparent leader, sauntered over toward Tseng and Rufus.

Not one, not two, but five SOLDIERs.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tseng saw Rufus sway and barely managed to grab the other man with his free hand as Rufus's knees suddenly buckled.

"Rufus!" Tseng said sharply as the other man sagged heavily against him.

"Don't worry, the drug's not toxic. The dart only contained a strong sedative," the lead SOLDIER said. "Oh, and kindly drop your weapon and kick it over here."

In the face of overwhelming odds, Tseng silently complied. Rufus, however, did not.

"And what do you intend to do with us?" Rufus demanded hoarsely.

The SOLDIER eyed the still armed, but clearly weakening Rufus for a few seconds, then shrugged. "Deliver you to our client. Alive and preferably undamaged, but I'm sure that a few scuffs and bruises are acceptable."

"Sending an entire squad of ex-SOLDIER mercenaries seems... a rather excessive way... to issue an invitation," Rufus commented, his voice starting to slur.

The blond SOLDIER uttered an amused snort. "Yeah, I suppose so. But this is what the client paid for, so that's what the client gets."

"Kurt, what about him?" one of the other SOLDIERs jerked his thumb at Tseng.

"Our client has no interest in anyone except Rufus here, and I don't want to leave any witnesses, Luxiere."

"So we kill him."

"Basically, yeah." Kurt rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "But I might have a use for him after all."

"Like what?"

"I was told to keep this job as clandestine as possible. When those monsters showed up, I thought we were totally screwed. But now that I think about it, they're the best stroke of luck we could've had."

"Say what?" the other SOLDIER blurted.

"We've now got the perfect fall guys for Rufus's disappearance." Kurt jerked his thumb at the dead monsters.

"You mean we're going to let them take the blame?"

"Or rather, Hojo, the guy who sent them after the President. As long as no one else knows of our involvement, everyone will assume Hojo's responsible. And with his reputation, who's going to believe him if he tries to deny it?" Kurt then grinned nastily at Tseng. "And Mr. Loose End would make a nice piece of window dressing."

"So what's the plan?"

"Simple. The loyal Turk bravely, but unsuccessfully, tries to protect his employer from Hojo's monsters and dies in the line of duty."

"A fine... story," Rufus whispered, a dangerous gleam in his drug-glazed eyes.

"It should play pretty good for the other Turks, at least for a while," Kurt said with a smirk. "Okay guys, this Turk only has a gun and materia, so make sure to dump all the monsters with obvious sword marks and leave the others. Not too many, though. He's just a Turk."

Luxiere blinked, then said, "So that's why you had us grab those guns off those dead guards and use them. That's thinking ahead, Kurt."

"Which is why I'm the leader of this merry crew. C'mon, get your asses in gear!"

One of the SOLDIERS easily pulled one of the heavy metal floor grate out of the way, leaving a large gaping hole above the fast-flowing water in the trench, then two of the other SOLDIERs started tossing the dead creatures through the hole.


No time and no way to give a warning.

He could severely injure or even kill Tseng with this plan.

But with five SOLDIERs versus one Turk, Tseng would have NO chance of survival if he did nothing.


As Kurt glanced away to check on the progress of the monster disposal, Rufus burst into motion, kicking the Turk's legs out from under him while simultaneously firing his shotgun at the general direction of the SOLDIERs. Not that Rufus expected to hit any of them, but the distraction bought him just enough time to carry out the rest of his plan.

With his other hand, using every bit of strength he had left, Rufus grabbed Tseng by the jacket and flung the other man through the opening in the floor. The Turk landed in the dark rushing water which swept him instantly from view before the SOLDIERs could react. Only then did Rufus lunge for the hole himself. Not that he expected to make it in his condition, but he tried anyway.

His last reserves of energy gone, Rufus didn't bother to struggle as Kurt pounced and pinned him to the floor, knocked the shotgun from his weakened grip, then flipped him over onto his back.

"I hope you realize that there's a good chance that you just tossed your Turk to his death. No telling what's down that hole. And there's also the little matter of Hojo's monsters crawling all over the area."

Rufus smiled grimly up at Kurt and whispered, "Calculated... risk."

The SOLDIER uttered a grunt that was part annoyance and part reluctant admiration. "Yeah, I figured as much. Well, you've got balls. I'll give you that."

"So what are we going to do now?" Luxiere demanded.

"Thanks to Mr. President here, my plan to dump the blame for his abduction on Hojo has gone from a surefire thing to a fucking gamble. Mr. President is betting that the Turk lives long enough to tell someone what really happened down here, while we're stuck hoping that the Turk doesn't survive to talk."

"You want us to hunt the Turk down and finish him off?"

"No. The longer we stick around, the more likely we'll be discovered and that will really screw things up. I want a quick, clean extraction. Besides, we're still better off than if the monsters hadn't showed up. Like I said to Rufus, there's a damn good chance the Turk will end up dead, one way or another." Kurt rose to his feet. "So let's hurry and get the hell out of here."


.


[ Nibelheim ]

The newly discovered area at the south end of the Shinra Mansion's basement disturbed Cloud in ways that the older areas never had. Some rooms, such as Lucrecia Crescent's lab, stirred nothing inside him except concern for Vincent.

But other rooms... just approaching certain doors was enough to make his head throb with an overwhelming mixture of primal fury, abject terror, and worst and most confusing of all, gutwrenching shame.

With so many distractions, the others were scattered throughout the area, so no one else had yet noticed his odd reaction to those doors. For that, he was grateful. His friends would ask questions - with only the best of intentions, of course - and he had no answers to give them... or himself.

Cloud didn't know why he felt the way he did. All he had were terrible visceral emotions that oozed up from the deepest, darkest depths of his hopelessly screwed up mind and made it almost impossible to think clearly.

Alone for the moment, Cloud stared blankly at the entrance of one of those rooms, torn between a nearly irresistible urge to flee and the equally strong impulse to lash out at something.

Terrible things had probably happened to him inside these rooms, things that had left him profoundly scarred and broken. That was the only logical conclusion. But exactly what those things might be, Cloud had no clue. And when he pushed, searching for memories of what occurred in those rooms, his mind flatly refused to yield up any details.

Frustrated, frightened and yet strangely desperate to learn more, Cloud forced himself to reach for the door switch with shaking fingers. When the door slid open, he caught the briefest glimpse of some sort of examination room, complete with a massively reinforced chair festooned with heavy-duty straps obviously designed to restrain a person with Mako-enhanced strength...

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
...pain... fear... rage...


Helpless.


...WRONGNESS growing inside him...


Hopeless.


...tainted body... warped mind...

Damned.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Chaise walked around the corner and stopped short when she saw Cloud sagging heavily against a wall, his chest heaving with quick shallow breaths.

Even though her approach had been practically silent, Cloud still reacted to her presence, pushing away from the wall and whirling to face her with a blank, wild-eyed stare that held no hint of recognition.

She froze as she took in the tense, coiled posture and clenched fists that indicated that Cloud was deep in the grip of a classic 'flight or fight' response. He was balanced on the razor's edge and could go either way if she did the wrong thing... or if she did nothing at all.

(Damn, was this what Cid was worried about earlier? That something down here would set Cloud off somehow?)

Cloud had behaved normally enough in the library and older areas of the basement, but looking at him now, she recalled Cid's earlier comment about his friend.

"...while Cloud is a hell of a lot better than he was before, his head's still pretty fucked up."

Now the glassy-eyed way Cloud stared in her direction sent chills down her spine. What the hell was he seeing... or perhaps remembering?

As she watched Cloud, she felt a familiar pang of guilt.

(If I'd just helped Zack and Cloud get away after they defeated Sephiroth... if I hadn't call Shinra for help... if I hadn't walked away and left them with Hojo...)

Chaise shoved aside old, useless regrets and concentrated on dealing with the present. She remained perfectly still, not wanting to spook or provoke Cloud in any way. If he bolted, that would be inconvenient and awkward.

On the other hand, if he attacked her... She hadn't seen Cloud fight with her own eyes, but she had heard stories from Reno and the other Turks. If Cloud was capable of fighting anywhere close to Zack's level... throw in irrational fear and rage... well, she'd better be prepared to run for her life.

Keeping her voice calm and even, Chaise said in a conversational tone, "Cloud?"

He flinched visibly.

Unsure of what to make of that reaction - almost as if the sound of his own name was causing him pain? - she took a deep breath and tried another approach.

"Tifa and your friends could use your help."

Cloud blinked and just like the flicking of a switch, his body relaxed and the frightening blankness in his eyes vanished. He shook his head, then gave her a slightly dazed look.

"Chaise?"

"Are you feeling okay now?" she said, finally allowing some of her worry to show.

"I..." Cloud glanced around, taking in the empty back corridor where he stood, raked a hand through his hair, then muttered, "How did I get...?" He abruptly went silent, his lips set into a grim line. Turning back to her, he demanded, "What happened?"

"I'm not sure, but it looked like you were caught in some sort of flashback," she replied cautiously.

He exhaled sharply. "Did I say anything or do anything?"

"No, you just stood there looking tense and agitated, then you snapped out of it."

He cursed softly.

"Aside from the obvious, what's wrong?" she asked.

"You're probably right about the flashback thing."

"Probably right?" she said, raising an eyebrow.

"I can't be sure because I don't remember what the damn flashback was about."

"What, you don't remem...?" Chaise bit her lip. "Sorry, I mean..."

He made a slightly weary shrug. "Can't remember, or won't remember, is probably more accurate."

(What the hell did Hojo and those scientists do to you, Cloud, to scar your mind so badly?) she wondered bitterly. On the other hand, she really didn't want to know. Given that mad scientists like Hojo were involved, she felt certain that the truth would be guaranteed nightmare fuel.

"Well, do you know what triggered the flashback?" Chaise asked aloud.

"Oh yes, I remember that much." He paused, then continued softly, "Things happened inside some of these labs. Specific memories may be gone, but the... feelings... they left behind remain."

(Feelings? Talk about gross understatements. Try 'massive emotional and emotional scars'.)

She stared thoughtfully at him for a moment, then said drily, "Let me guess. You got frustrated with your inability to remember, so you tried to force the issue, and that's what set off that flashback."

He gave her a startled look, then made a rueful shrug. "When you put it that way, I guess it probably wasn't the smartest thing to do."

"No, it wasn't," she said bluntly, then sighed. "Look, Cloud. In my line of work, I've encountered a fair number of people who have been subjected to extreme stress, so I know that it's hardly uncommon for people who have endured traumatic events to have gaps in their memory. The human mind does it to protect itself from things that it's not prepared to deal with. Recklessly trying to override that defense mechanism can end up doing way more harm than good."

"I know that," he said curtly, then looked away. "But it still feels like running away."

She folded her arms and muttered, "Are you always this hard on yourself?" Before Cloud could respond, she continued briskly, "Cloud, I can't begin to comprehend the horrific experiences you've been through. But I do know this - it takes TIME to recover even partially from that sort of trauma. It's only been three years since you escaped from these labs. And during that time, you not only endured and survived things that would have destroyed most people outright, but you managed to save the Planet and defeat Sephiroth multiple times. So you really need to cut yourself some slack, okay?"

Cloud looked a trifle startled, then gave her a faint, rueful smile. "Zack used to tell me the same thing."

"Well, despite his occasional tendency to act the idiot, Zack had a uncanny knack for being right, too."

Before Cloud could reply, they both heard rapidly approaching footsteps.

"Cloud? CLOUD!"

"Yuffie?" Cloud immediately headed toward the sound of her voice, with Chaise at his heels. They rounded a corner and saw Yuffie running toward them.

She skidded to a stop and blurted, "Elena just got a message from the other Turks. Healen Lodge was attacked, and Rufus and Tseng are both missing!"

"The president's missing? How!" Chaise demanded as she and Cloud followed Yuffie at a near-run.

"I don't have the exact details," Yuffie said quickly. "All I know is that it appears that Rufus and Tseng are nowhere to be found and that Hojo is somehow responsible."

"Of course," Cloud muttered under his breath.

When they reached Elena, she was still on the phone, talking quickly, "Yes, we'll head back as soon as we can." She hung up as Cloud and the others arrived.

"What happened to Rufus and Tseng?" Chaise demanded.

"Jade said that a group of monsters appeared out of seemingly nowhere and attacked the Lodge. Tseng told her that Hojo sent the creatures to capture Rufus and that he was evacuating the President to a safer location. When Jade and Serge didn't get any further updates from Tseng, they started searching." She took a deep breath. "In one of the underground escape tunnels, they found several dead monsters and signs of a firefight. But aside from their guns, both out of ammo, there was no sign of either Rufus or Tseng."

Cid, who had just joined them, muttered, "Fuck, that's not good."

Elena continued, "One more thing. Tseng said that Hojo called Rufus using Reno's phone and that Rufus had a chance to speak very briefly with Reno. So at least we know that Reno was still alive and capable of talking at that time."

"Well, that might also explain why Hojo knew about those tunnels and how to find Rufus," Cid muttered sourly.

Elena bristled visibly at Cid's implication that Reno might have given up critical information, but Cid waved her down.

"Hell, I'm not blaming Reno for anything. We all know how that sadistic bastard Hojo worked over that Steven guy, and that was mostly just for shit and giggles. If Reno has info that Hojo specifically wants..." The pilot shrugged.

"Besides straight physical torture, there are plenty of other ways of forcing someone to talk or cooperate. I'm sure Hojo's familiar with all of them," Cloud said, his voice flat.

"Drugs and crap like that?"

Cloud glanced over at Cid. "Or worse," he murmured as he absently rubbed the back of his neck.

Chaise gave Elena's shoulder a supportive squeeze and said, "We get the picture. There's no telling how badly our security arrangements have been compromised. Failing to consider that possibility was a mistake on our part."

"But why would Hojo take the trouble to abduct Rufus?" Yuffie asked impatiently. "I mean, I can understand why he grabbed Reno - he was there, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and all that. But why go through all the trouble to send monsters specifically after Rufus?"

"It could be that Hojo needs Rufus's help to get access to a particular item or location," Elena muttered, her brow furrowed in thought.

"Whoa, I thought Hojo had a top level security clearance," Cid protested. "That's what he used back in that ASSRUB place."

"That's right, but as soon as Rufus was told about the attack at Aston's storage facility, the President had Hojo's security codes purged from Shinra's network ASAP." Elena shrugged. "For various complicated reasons, we're unable to shut off Hojo's access completely, but we've managed to severely restrict his ability to use any Shinra resources."

Yuffie said, "But losing that access just gives Hojo an even bigger reason to get his creepy hands on your boss."

"I know!" Elena snapped, although her anger seemed directed more toward herself than Yuffie. "We didn't expect Hojo to move this quickly or aggressively. And now both Rufus and Tseng..." She pressed a hand over her mouth.

"Even if Hojo still had a working security clearance, Rufus still has his uses," Cait Sith said as he trotted over to join them. "There's bound to be Shinra facilities and computer systems that require special passcodes that only Rufus, as President Shinra's son and/or the current president of the company, would know. Maybe even biometric locks that require the correct fingerprint, retina scan, or even DNA to activate." He glanced speculatively at the Turks and got a slight nod of confirmation from Elena.

Chaise looked at Cid. "We need to get back to Healen Lodge, and your airship is the fastest way to get there."

"Not a problem," the pilot replied with a dismissive gesture. "At this point, anything Hojo does is pretty much our business."

"And WRO business, as well," Cait Sith added. "I just sent your friends in Healen some help because you mentioned that Hojo's monsters are still lurking in the area." He raised his paws and quickly added, "I know that you Turks like to handle things yourselves, but I think the current crisis justifies it. There's no question that Hojo's planning something seriously nasty for everyone, so it's better if we pool our resources to stop him."

"Wait, that doesn't make sense," Yuffie protested. "If Hojo's monsters have already grabbed Rufus and hauled him away, why would they bother to keep hanging around Healen?"

"It could be that Hojo's using those remaining monsters as a distraction to disrupt any search or rescue attempts." Cloud glanced at Elena and Chaise. "And it's also possible that he's using the opportunity to eliminate a potential threat, such as you Turks."

"And that's why I sent some people to help deal with the problem," Cait Sith said.

Cloud frowned. "We need to get to Healen and find out what's going on that end. But at the same time, someone needs to stay behind and continue searching the Mansion for any information that might help us figure out what Hojo's currently up to."

"You guys can head out to Healen and let me handle this end!" Yuffie announced, striking a dramatic pose.

"But we can't leave you here alone!" Tifa objected, running up to join them.

"I won't be alone for long." Yuffie made a casual shrug. "I spoke to Vincent and Nanaki earlier and they're already on their way here. Not to mention that backup WRO team will be arriving in an hour or two, right, Cait?"

"Well, yes. But...," the robot said, acknowledging her point, but still clearly worried.

"Look, I'm used to operating alone, so I can manage by myself for a few hours!"

Tifa tried again. "What if Hojo or his monsters come back?"

"I don't think that's a serious risk. It looks like Hojo got what he came for and moved on," Cloud commented, looking thoughtful.

"I'm a ninja, Tifa. I know when to fight and when to run, okay? Besides, I'm fully loaded with materia, just like you and Cid."

After the fight at the ASSRUB facility, all of them - even Cloud - were carrying some materia. With Hojo on the loose, they needed to be prepared for anything.

Tifa flung up her hands. "All right, all right. You just be careful and don't do anything stupidly reckless!"

"Yuffie, if Vincent's coming here..." Cloud hesitated, glancing back in the direction of Lucrecia's abandoned lab.

Her earlier flippant attitude vanished and Yuffie said somberly, "I know, that stuff about Lucrecia and her research on him. As I said, leave that to me. I'm sure he won't like it, but I think he needs to know. Better to tell him straight off than have him trip over it on his own."

"Now that's settled, let's get this damn show on the road," Cid said tersely, leading the way out of the basement.


.


[ Weapon facility ]

Hojo was annoyed. While Rufus was hardly essential to his plans, the man would make a very useful tool. Unfortunately, the new president of Shinra was proving unexpectedly elusive.

However, when the flying spy-eye he left in Nibelheim showed Cloud and his companions racing off back toward the Eastern Continent, Hojo cackled softly in amusement. Hurrying back to Healen to hunt down his creatures and rescue Rufus, no doubt.

Really, so-called heroes could be so predictable. All you had to do was wave a crisis in front of them, and you could lead them around like an idiot chocobo drooling after a handful of gysahl greens.

Which is exactly what he had done to the fool Vincent. All it had taken was a few minor signs of distress from his precious Lucrecia and the idiot had rushed off to confront him. It had been a nice two-for-one deal - he had disposed of a severe annoyance AND obtained a new, interesting research specimen.

Cloud and the WRO could scurry around Healen and slaughter his monsters to their heart's content. The equipment he retrieved from Nibelheim would soon be up and running, then it would be time for Cloud. His pawns were already in place, awaiting his command.

Satisfied that things were proceeding well - if not exactly according to plan - Hojo decided to turn his attention back to the interesting little side project he'd recently developed. Hojo rubbed his tentacles together in anticipation as he watched the fist-sized black blobs oozing around the small specimen cage on the counter, then he headed toward the cell containing his captive Turk.


.


[ Nibelheim ]

As she waited for Vincent and Nanaki, as well as the backup WRO team, to arrive, Yuffie occupied her time with further explorations of the newly discovered areas of the Shinra Mansion's basement. While the older labs, such as Lucrecia's, were cluttered with copious piles of notes, as if the researchers has stepped out unexpectedly and never returned, the newer lab areas were much tidier. Someone had obviously taken considerable time and effort to clean out the rooms, although she still managed to come across a few interesting documents. Among those papers was a crumpled memobook, full of hastily scribbled comments and random observations that apparently hadn't made it into a formal lab report or research notebook.


... implantation of modified DG chip in designated brain stem location complete. S2 prototype displays satisfactory response to initial activation and no evidence of neuro damage. Notify Dr. M. Schedule calibration ASAP.

"Brain implant? Ouch, that sounds seriously nasty."

She flattened out yet another crumpled piece of paper which read:


... S2 prototype in yet another display of extreme aggression, both physical and verbal... killed three guards before being subdued... conveyed increased concerns (re: possibility of personality fracture) to Dr. M but was ignored yet again... must strongly disagree, given such aggression highly inconsistent with documented temperaments of both host and neural imprint donor...

And yet another page read:


... Dr. R sent message that Hojo due to arrive for inspection tomorrow... all traces of Project S2 hidden... replace Specimens C and Z in S-Clone lab for viewing... need to cook up some plausible data for Hojo's review...

Yuffie uttered a huff, then muttered, "A bunch of Shinra scientists hiding research from Hojo, and in Nibelheim of all places? Well, that's certainly ballsy of them."


... prep monthly progress report for Pres. Shinra. (re: S2)... heard more rumors of another possible candidate...

"Well, if they had the personal support of the President of Shinra, I guess it starts to make a little more sense."


... still worried about anomalous behavior of S2 prototype... resistance INCREASING, not decreasing with severe behavior modification treatment... think Dr. M too personally involved (viewed as challenge?) to see obvious warning signs... if unchecked, behavior mod might cause irreparable damage to prototype... might need to go over M's head and talk to Dr. R...

There was quite a bit more in the grubby little memobook, but Yuffie forced herself to tuck it away into a belt pouch for later review. While the tantalizing scraps of information about this mysterious S2 project set her natural curiosity burning, any further investigation would have to wait. Whatever this super-secret project was, if Hojo didn't know about it, then it wasn't very likely that it would provide them with any clues about Hojo's current plans.

But as Yuffie returned to Lucrecia's lab, she couldn't help wondering what the hell the mysterious "S2" involved. She knew about Project S which produced Sephiroth. Since the Shinra Company wasn't completely loony about how they named their projects, there was a good chance that this Project S2 was somehow related to Project S and therefore Sephiroth.

"But that doesn't make sense!" Yuffie muttered, tugging at her hair. "Sephiroth was Hojo's pet project. If S2 had something to do with Sephiroth, then why go through so much trouble to hide it from Hojo, of all people!"

Frustrated, she kicked at one of the dusty computer consoles in Lucrecia's lab, then nearly jumped out of her boots as something sparked and lights started to flash. As she cautiously approached the now activated computer, a static-blurred holographic image of a long-haired brunette woman in a labcoat appeared in front of her.

The woman looked familiar, but where... "That woman in the crystal cave, the one Vincent identified as Lucrecia, Sephiroth's mother!" Yuffie whispered, her eyes going wide.

But unlike the woman slumbering in the crystal cavern, the holographic Lucrecia, while undeniably beautiful, also looked exhausted, as if worn down by a terrible burden.

"Vincent, right? Have you come to check up on me?"

The flickering form of Lucrecia sighed heavily, then closed her eyes as if struggling to summon the energy to continue.

"I will leave a copy of my records here for you, Vincent. Though I cannot imagine what help they might be, if any at all. Just remember..." The holographic Lucrecia stared at the ground, her shoulders shaking as she buried her face in her hands. "I am so sorry."

"Lucrecia!"

As the hologram vanished, Yuffie saw Vincent standing in the doorway, his crimson eyes wide with shock as he stared at the now empty space between him and Yuffie.

She coughed, then with a sheepish grin, Yuffie said, "Uh... hi there, guys."

"Hello, Yuffie," Nanaki said, appearing behind Vincent as the other man stalked into the dimly lit lab.

Vincent ignored his companions, instead reserving his attention for the quietly humming computer and the other equipment filling the lab, especially the large clear cylinder which dominated its center.

"You got here way sooner than I expected," Yuffie half-whispered to Nanaki.

"We made good time through the mountains," the beast replied, just as quietly.

"Yuffie, what's going on here?" Vincent demanded sharply. "This lab. That hologram of Lucrecia."

"Ah... well, I'm not sure myself. Hojo's attack led us to a previously sealed up area of the basement and when we took a look, we came across... this." Yuffie waved her hand at the dusty lab equipment. "Given how old this stuff is, it's probably unrelated to whatever Hojo's currently cooking up. But it certainly has a lot to do with YOU, Vincent."

Yuffie took a deep breath, then picked up Lucrecia's lab notebook and held it out to him.

"I think you should take a look at this."

It didn't take long for Vincent to skim through the notebook and reach the same conclusions that Cloud and the others had.

"So Lucrecia... experimented on me," he finally said as he closed the notebook. A bitter smile touched his lips. "Just like Hojo."

Yuffie could only shrug uncomfortably.

He placed the notebook almost gently on the computer console, then said, "You're right. Lucrecia's... research... doesn't appear related to Hojo's current activities. And if it's not, we don't have time to deal with it right now. What's done is done. Stopping Hojo is our most important priority." He shrugged, then grimly stalked out of Lucrecia's lab without another word.

Yuffie and Nanaki stared at each other, then they both sighed.

"That went about as well as I expected," she muttered.

"Well, this is Vincent you're talking about." Nanaki shook his head. "Unfortunately, he's right. We need to concentrate on the present and on finding information that will help us stop Hojo before he does more harm. From everything you've told us, we're already several steps behind him."

"We know he wants to resurrect Sephiroth," Yuffie muttered. "He's already looted this place for the equipment he needs. After torturing Steven, Hojo probably knows where to get that sample of Sephiroth's cells. What else does he need?" She suddenly snapped her fingers. "A mad scientist's lair!"

When Nanaki blinked at her, she grinned nastily, "Well, you can't run all that crazy equipment Hojo stole from a hotel room or off a wall outlet. I mean, just take a look at this place!"

"You're right. Hojo would need a secure location with lots of electrical power and probably large amounts of Mako."

"Bingo! So we're talking about a military or research facility, right? Which is probably why he abducted Rufus. If the Turks are right about shutting down Hojo's security codes, he has to find another way to access whatever he needs."

"While there probably aren't that many locations that meets Hojo's requirements, especially regarding the Mako, we still don't have the time to check out every single one. If we can figure out exactly what Hojo stole from here and how he plans to use it, perhaps we can narrow the list of possible locations to something workable," Nanaki said thoughtfully, his flaming tail flicking slowly from side to side.

Yuffie's phone chirped and when she answered, a brisk, no-nonsense female voice said, "Shalua Rui of the WRO. Commissioner Reeve sent me along with a team to assist you in securing the information here at Nibelheim. We've just arrived in the town. Where are you?"

"We're in the basement of the Shinra Mansion. To get there, you have to go to the second floor and..."

"I know how to reach that location. Once the team has secured the perimeter, I'll be right down."


.


[ the Shera ]

The hours spent onboard the airship as it raced back across the ocean toward Healen were both stressful and not particularly productive. Elena and Rude tried to rest after their experiences in Nibelheim, but failed miserably. The only reason that Rude wasn't pacing the airship's bridge like Elena was because Tifa had personally threatened to knock the badly wounded male Turk unconscious if he didn't stay off his feet.

The status reports from the Lodge were not encouraging. Aside from the progress on the monster cleanup - slow but steady - everything else was negative.

No leads on Rufus or Tseng. As for Reno...

"So Tseng said that Reno was compromised?" Cait Sith said, from his perch on top of one of the bridge consoles.

"Possibly compromised," Chaise replied, emphasizing the first word. "It's always a risk when someone is captured. And when the captor is someone like Hojo..."

"You've gotta hope for the best, but prepare the worst," Cid muttered as he deftly exploited the ocean air currents to speed them on their way to Healen.

Chaise gave the pilot a steady look. "Exactly. And now with Rufus and Tseng missing as well, and probably in Hojo's custody..."

"Things just got a helluva lot worse."

Chaise nodded grimly.

"What exactly do you mean by 'compromised'?" Tifa asked the Turks.

Elena shrugged jerkily. "It covers a lot of things, ranging from giving up important information to active cooperation with the enemy. Basically, anything that adversely affects the company's goals or your assigned mission."

"So what happens if the Turks considered someone 'compromised'?" Tifa pressed.

"It varies, of course," Elena replied evasively. "But depending on the particular situation and how much damage was done, the consequences can be... severe."

"You Turks can't possibly blame Reno for talking under torture!" Tifa protested.

Cloud, who had been silent for most of the trip back to Healen, suddenly spoke up.

"Tifa, I don't think that Elena and the other Turks are worried about Reno talking or even cooperating under... conventional... duress," he said somberly.

"Conventional duress?" Tifa asked, looking slightly confused.

"Normal physical or even psychological torture."

"Like there's anything normal about beating the crap out of someone," Cid muttered. "But yeah, I get your point, Cloud. Physical pain, scaring the fuck out of a person, the sort of shit that Hojo did to that Steven guy."

"Reno, Tseng, and Rufus are tough. I'm sure that they can withstand that sort of pressure, at least in the short term. As Turks, Reno and Tseng have probably had training on how to withstand hostile interrogation." Cloud glanced at Chaise, who gave a slight nod. "As for Rufus, he's one of the most strong-willed and gutsiest people I've ever met."

"That's certainly true," Cait Sith murmured.

Cloud's gaze moved over his friends and the Turks scattered around the Shera's bridge before he took a deep breath and continued.

"From the precision of the monster attacks on the storage facility and at Healen, I think it's clear that Hojo now has at least some ability to mentally control his creatures. I'm not sure how, but I suspect that Hojo's most likely using Jenova cells to do it. But if not Jenova cells, he's got SOME way to psychically manipulate living organisms and turn them into his puppets."

Tifa inhaled sharply.

Cloud continued in the same unnaturally even tone, "And if he can do that with monsters, he can probably find a way to do the same to human beings. If he hasn't already done so."

Tifa glanced sharply at Elena, who stared out the airship's giant bridge window, her fists clenched, then over toward Chaise who had a stony expression on her face, before turning back to Cloud.

"So you think that Hojo's planning put Reno, Rufus, and Tseng under some sort of... mind control?"

Cloud shrugged, a tense twitch of the shoulders. "It's hard to guess what someone as crazy as Hojo will do, but it's a very strong possibility. He has the tools, the expertise, and being the sadistic control freak that he is, he's certainly got the hunger for it."

"We're talking about the Sephiroth clone experiments all over again," Cait Sith muttered.

"Except instead of Sephiroth pulling the strings, it will be Hojo who's their puppetmaster."

They all fell silent as everyone on the Shera's bridge wrestled with the horrifying possibilities.


.


[ Healen ]

Cid's airship arrived in Healen a few hours after midnight, but portable lights provided ample illumination. Many of the buildings showed signs of heavy battle damage and the bodies of strangely mutated monsters still littered the ground, while teams of both WRO troopers and Shinra security patrolled the area, clearly on edge.

When asked, one of the troopers pointed out the leader of the WRO team, who stood near the main building, his back toward them as he supervised the removal of one of the larger monster corpses with a good-sized excavator.

As Cloud took a few steps off to the side in order to examine the remains of one of Hojo's new creatures, he casually called out, "Stuck with cleanup duty again? This is really starting to become a habit."

The breezy, teasing tone in Cloud's voice was so unusual that it prompted Tifa and several other of his companions to give him startled looks.

Without turning, the man shrugged and replied just as casually, "Well, at least I'm not a walking trouble magnet like you, Za..."

The man suddenly stiffened, then whipped around to look behind him. The WRO team leader was a brown-haired man of average height, average build, and pleasantly attractive appearance. The only thing that distinguished him from thousands of other similarly nondescript men was the glowing Mako eyes that unmistakably marked him as a member of SOLDIER.

"...ack." The SOLDIER's voice trailed off as his gaze settled on the distracted Cloud and the fully assembled broadsword, with its unique width and point, clearly visible on Cloud's back. He took a few steps forward, then said in a uncertain voice, "Do I... know you?"

Still absorbed in examining the creature's corpse, Cloud absently replied in that same uncharacteristic easy-going tone he used before.

"What are you talking about? Of course you know me, Ku..."

It was Cloud's turn to abruptly go stiff and silent before jerking his head to stare at the other man with shocked blue eyes. He slowly turned to face the SOLDIER walking up to him.

As the two men exchanged silent, almost spooked stares, Cait Sith scurried up and hastily said, "Cloud, this is..."

"...Kunsel," Cloud said tersely. "I know."


Oh, he knew the man, all right. The problem was that he knew and remembered too much about this Kunsel person... way too much.

He knew that Kunsel preferred cold Junon beer, liked obscenely hot and spicy food, enjoyed all sorts of booze, except for the nasty green wine - served with fruit on a stick - that was a touristy favorite in Costa del Sol.

He knew that Kunsel had a taste for busty brunettes, which meant that Tifa was right up his alley.

He knew that Kunsel was a morning person who liked to sleep with a pillow over his head and wrapped in blankets like a mummy, but could also snap wide awake in an instant.

He knew that Kunsel loved the smell of Aerith's flowers, even if they made him sneeze.

And he knew that Kunsel had refused to believe the official Shinra reports of the Nibelheim Incident and had been willing to risk anything and everything to help his best friend.

But he didn't merely know... things... about the man.

He had memories. Not memories of Zack telling him interesting tidbits about a good friend, but just like so many of his recent dreams, memories from a first person point of view. As if he had been there, living through the actual events...

...which was completely impossible, because he wasn't Zack.

But no matter how much he told himself that, he still remembered sitting up late into the night, lending a sympathetic ear - and an expensive bottle of good whiskey - as Kunsel grumbled about a breakup with his latest girlfriend...

He remembered sharing letters from home, joking about his parents' constant urgings to 'find a nice girl and settle down'...

He remembered remember drunkenly leaning against an equally intoxicated Kunsel and facing a grumpy Sephiroth who had been rousted out of bed - and who did NOT sleep naked, no matter what Sephiroth's crazy fan club said! - by equally cranky Turks in the middle of the night after a truly epic promotion party for one of their buddies...

...oh, the hangover from that one... but SO totally worth it.

He knew Kunsel, knew the man as a person knows a best friend or brother, right down to the annoying, but endearing little personal quirks...

... and at the same time, he also knew that before this moment, he had NEVER once met the man in person.


Cait Sith blinked, then hastily continued the increasingly awkward introductions. "Kunsel, this is Cloud."

The SOLDIER glanced sharply at the robot cat. "Cloud? That guy you said became close friends with Zack?"

Cait Sith nodded.

Kunsel turned his attention back to Cloud, his gaze focusing on Cloud's eyes. "I thought I knew the entire SOLDIER roster pretty well, but I'm not familiar with your name."

Kunsel's mild tone made it clear that he was not making an accusation, but Cloud still reacted to the other man's words as if they were. He flinched, as if he had been physically slapped, then looked away.

"I was never in SOLDIER." Cloud's tone was flat and stark.

"Then why do you have..."

Cait Sith hastily interrupted again. "He was..." He paused, then glanced at Cloud, clearly uncertain just how much to say. Finding no help in Cloud's blank, frozen expression, the cat finally said, "He was the infantryman that accompanied Zack in Nibelheim and confronted Sephiroth in the Nibel Reactor."

Kunsel blinked, then blurted, "You're the other research sample that escaped with Zack?"

"Yes." Cloud's reply was brutally curt and sharp enough to cut glass.

"So I guess that explains the Mako eyes," Kunsel murmured. When Cloud made a slight nod, he continued, "Reeve said that Zack was killed two years ago. Since the escape took place three years ago, that means the two of you were on the run for nearly a year."

"Yes."

"Then why didn't he...?" Kunsel blurted, then stopped and shook his head. "Never mind."

"'I don't care if you've made an enemy out of Shinra. I'll always be waiting for you to come back. Just make it back alive, buddy. Promise me.'"

While Cloud's face remained tense and shuttered, his voice as he spoke contained a wealth of quiet, but warm affection that was, again, quite unlike the much more stoic Cloud his friends had come to know and expect.

Kunsel stared at Cloud in astonishment. "Where did you get that?"

Cloud blinked as if coming out of a brief trance, then in his usual reserved tone, he said, "Zack got your email messages. He treasured and kept them, even if he never replied. They meant a lot to him, just knowing that even after all that time and everything that happened, someone still cared."

"Of course I cared! Zack was my best friend!" Kunsel snapped.

"Which is exactly why he didn't get in touch with you. He didn't want to get you involved in... well, calling it a mess would be a massive understatement."

Kunsel glared at Cloud, then sighed. "That damn heroic idiot."

For the first time, Cloud's expression relaxed slightly as he heard a familiar mixture of exasperation and fondness in the SOLDIER's tone.

Kunsel clearly wanted to ask more questions, but Cloud's discomfort - along with Cait Sith's anxiety and the Turks' obvious impatience - made it clear that this was not the time to further explore Cloud's history with Zack.

Instead, Kunsel said, "I think we've got a lot to talk about, Cloud. But right now, we've got way more pressing business to deal with." He jerked his head toward the two Turks approaching them.

Elena, dressed in work overalls borrowed from one of Cid's crewmen, made quick business of the introductions of Jade and Serge, then moved immediately to the most important issue.

"Any news about Rufus or Tseng?"

The black-haired Jade smiled bitterly. "Unfortunately, no. But we're still looking for any clues."

Elena glanced over at Serge, who, instead of looking like his usual immaculate self, was distinctly torn up and dirty.

"Are you okay?" she asked in obvious concern.

He lifted his left hand to push his glasses up, then winced. "I got mobbed and took a few hits from monsters who packed some nasty poison. But I'll manage, thanks to the doctor that came with the WRO team." He gestured more carefully at the woman who was headed in their direction with a long brisk stride.

"Guys, this is Dr. Nyx. She's one of the scientists I mentioned to you a while back," Cait Sith said. "She's currently the scientific liaison between the Shinra Corporation and the WRO."

The tall, black-haired woman in a labcoat halted in front of Cloud and the others, and gave them a pleasant, if distracted nod. "Hello." She turned to Jade. "I've finished the examination of all the human remains you found. None of them match Rufus Shinra or Tseng."

All the Turks seemed to relax a little.

"The number of pieces made it somewhat difficult, but I've tentatively identified those remains as three of the Shinra personnel you indicated were missing. Which leaves six of your people still unaccounted for."

"Six? And you're sure they're not among the wounded or the dead," Jade demanded.

Nyx nodded. "Quite sure. We've identified all the casualties, based on the list you gave me. Which brings me to the next topic. I've managed to stabilize the most severely wounded, but they'll need to be medevaced to WRO headquarters immediately. Several of these creatures are naturally venomous and the Jenova-induced mutations have made them even more so. They're going to need significantly more medical treatment than I can give them here."

Serge said, "I'll handle that. Doctor, if you'll come with me?"

"That reminds me that I need to take another look at those wounds of yours, Serge. Frankly, you shouldn't even be on your feet, much less running around like this."

"It can't be helped," the Turk replied indifferently.

"Serge, add Rude to that list of people who need to be medevaced," Elena said.

He gave the blond Turk a sharp look, then nodded. "Got it."

Nyx gave Cloud and the others another courteous, but distracted nod, then accompanied the Turk as he headed off.


.


[ Weapon facility ]

Back in Scarlet's - now his - lair, Hojo glanced irritably at the beeping console, then reluctantly turned away from the unconscious Turk on the examination table. As his minions dragged Reno back to his cell, Hojo turned his attention to the monitors and smiled.

His equipment was finally on-line and ready. Now all he needed was Cloud.

The trap was set, had been set from the moment his creatures had descended on Healen. This time, he wasn't relying on brute force. Killing SOLDIERs was not that hard, but subduing them while keeping them alive and intact was always a tricky proposition.

And he very much wanted Cloud alive and intact. Especially after all the trouble that particular specimen had caused both him and Sephiroth.

Yes, Cloud would make a very nice resurrection day present for his son.

Subjects with Jenova-enhanced physiques were difficult to capture and control, but he knew, better than anyone, how to exploit the few vulnerabilities they had.

The next step would take all his concentration. Monsters were easy to control, but humans were much harder, especially when using the very crudest of prototypes.

But with more experimentation, it would definitely become much easier. It was doubtful that he would ever be able to control humans with the ease and precision that Sephiroth could, but then, Sephiroth and his abilities were unique.


.


[ ? ]

When Rufus next became aware of his surroundings, he almost wished he had remained blissfully unconscious.

He found himself encased from neck to toes in a snug full-body straitjacket with his arms firmly strapped across the front of his body and his legs tightly bound together. Numerous straps and buckles ensured that he was utterly immobilized in a kneeling position, and also secured the gag that had been forced between his teeth. He was also completely naked underneath the straitjacket.

Not a good sign.

The hum of computers and equipment surrounded him, while from the corner of his eye, Rufus caught a glimpse of various people in labcoats scurrying busily around the low raised platform where he knelt, secured in place with still more straps. His captors were clearly taking no chances and he wondered why they had gone so overboard with the restraints.

"Doctor, he's awake."

"Good. Ungag him, then get out," a curt female voice commanded.

Someone moved behind him, fumbled a moment, then pulled the gag away.

As he worked his aching jaw from side to side, the footsteps of the other people receded until he was alone with the woman speaker.

"Rufus Shinra, I'm Dr. Damia Montessi."

He lifted his head to see a thin woman with very short brown hair and cold dark eyes. She might have been reasonably attractive if it weren't for the hostile, defensive attitude that surrounded her almost like a visible aura. The doctor stared back at him, her hands crammed into the pockets of her labcoat.

"From what I heard just before I passed out, I gather you're not working with Hojo."

She uttered a contemptuous snort. "Hojo! As if I'd work for that overrated fool!" Montessi cocked her head slightly. "So he's still alive? Interesting. I'd heard he died two years ago during Meteorfall."

"It's complicated, but yes, he's apparently back."

The fact that Montessi was not associated with Hojo was going to be a big problem. Until Tseng managed to contact the other Turks, they would be working on the reasonable, but mistaken, assumption that Hojo was responsible for his abduction, which in turn meant that any prospective rescuers were most likely looking in the wrong places for him.

"Well, it doesn't matter if Hojo is alive or not." She stepped forward, grabbed the sturdy collar of his straitjacket, and twisted. It tightened like a choke-chain around his throat as she pulled his face up, then leaned in until their faces were mere inches from each other.

"Understand this - I'm the only person in control here. I make all the decisions as to your treatment and your fate. Is that absolutely clear, Rufus?"

"Yes," he rasped as the pressure against his windpipe increased.

She gave him a thin-lipped smile as she released her grip on his collar and stepped back. "Excellent. If you keep that in mind, things will be much easier for you."

As he caught his breath, Rufus knew he had to be very careful in handling this woman. Dealing with the mercurial Kadaj had been tricky enough, but this Montessi promised to be far worse. She might be the head scientist in charge, but she was also dangerously insecure, the sort of person who would treat the slightest criticism as a personal attack and would lash out accordingly. If he openly defied her or otherwise antagonized her, she would definitely make him suffer dearly for the slightest perceived insult.

Keeping his tone as neutral as he could under the circumstances, Rufus said, "I gather that from my current condition, you didn't abduct me to have a friendly conversation or engage in polite negotiation."

"Indeed, you are not here because your wealth, connections, or influence. Your only value to me is as the next test subject for Project S2."

"Project S2?" Fortunately, Montessi seemed like the talkative sort of mad scientist who enjoyed boasting about her achievements. If he could keep her talking, he could learn more about her plans as well as hopefully buy himself some more time. Besides, trapped inside a straitjacket as he was, he wasn't in any position to escape.

"Project S2 is the logical extension of the Jenova Project."

The mention of Jenova sent a chill down Rufus's spine and confirmed his worst fears about the nature of the experiments Montessi was planning to carry out on him. But he forced the dread down and locked it away. Fear and panic would be counterproductive.

"The initial purpose of the Jenova Project was to create human hybrids with an Ancient's power, based on Dr. Gast's mistaken belief that Jenova was an Ancient, one of the legendary Cetra." She shrugged. "In retrospect, it was an understandable mistake, since it was later discovered that the entity generally identified as Jenova is actually an Ancient merged with the alien life form which was the true Jenova."

"But that didn't stop the research."

"Of course not! That revelation merely resulted in a minor shift in the goals of the Jenova Project and all its subprojects. Instead of trying to create human-Cetra hybrids, the research was redirected into developing ways of infusing humans with Jenova's power, which ended up being equally, if not more, useful to Shinra. For military applications, at least."

Montessi propped her hip on a computer console. But even as she sat, her fingers restlessly drummed on the computer and her right foot swung in twitchy little arcs.

"Hollander developed Project G, which ultimately ended in failure when the G-type subjects experienced uncontrollable degradation. Hojo led the much more successful Project S which produced Sephiroth. The project was so successful that it lead to Hojo becoming Head of the Science Department."

Montessi irritably twitched a shoulder. "That first project should be more properly called Project S-Zero, because it produced what I consider the zero-generation SOLDIER Sephiroth, who was an outstanding success on almost every level. Except one."

She smiled at Rufus, apparently relishing the opportunity to lecture an appreciative, although involuntary, audience.

"You see, Project S-Zero had one major flaw - Sephiroth and his abilities could not be duplicated. And believe me, Hojo tried. Sephiroth's birth mother inconveniently disappeared without a trace shortly after he was born. Whether she ran away or was prematurely terminated by Hojo is unknown, but that meant that the most obvious means of creating another Sephiroth was no longer available. Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, cloning - you name the technology, Hojo tried to use it to duplicate Sephiroth and failed miserably. How infuriating that must have been for him!" she said with a malicious snicker.

"I can imagine," Rufus commented blandly.

"Since Project S-Zero had reached a dead end, Project S1 was created to find a more feasible way of mass-producing enhanced combatants for Shinra, using the information gathered from Hojo's earlier work with Sephiroth. Project S1 resulted in the first generation SOLDIERs - perhaps not nearly as strong as Sephiroth, but still far superior to normal human soldiers. But more importantly, the SOLDIER process could reliably produce a significant number of enhanced fighters. There were limitations, of course. Suitable candidates with the right combination of physical traits and mental stability were relatively rare. And even with the best candidates, the physiological modifications could only be pushed so far."

Rufus already knew quite a bit about the Jenova Project, along with the creation of Sephiroth and SOLDIER, from the Shinra company files, but he gave no hint of it in order to encourage Montessi to ramble on.

"Which brings us to Project S2," she said.

Rufus's mind flashed back to his conversation a few months earlier with Dr. Kilmister, the scientist who had first discovered the link between Sephiroth and Geostigma.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Mr. President. I would like to have a look at Jenova. Where is it?"

"Unfortunately, I don't know of its whereabouts, either."

"Order your subordinates to find it."

"Let me think about it."

"I hope you make a decision soon. Long ago, Professor Hojo rejected a project I proposed. Even now I'm itching to give it a try. I think we might be able to create something beyond Sephiroth."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

He had arranged for Kilmister to conveniently turn up dead the very next day, but the scientist's words had stuck a chord in Rufus, solidifying his determination to find and secure the last fragments of Jenova. Not for Rufus's or Shinra's benefit, but in order to prevent anyone else - especially mad scientists or Sephiroth's Remnants - from getting their hands on those fragments.

"You're trying to create someone stronger than Sephiroth," Rufus said flatly.

Montessi rose to her feet and walked forward to stand in front of Rufus, appearing mildly impressed by his deduction. "Exactly. The purpose of Project S2 is to create a second generation SOLDIER - a super-SOLDIER capable of matching, or even surpassing, the mighty Sephiroth in both physical abilities and power."

She resumed her restless pacing as she continued, "President Shinra, your father, had always been interested in developing better weapons, both mechanical and biological. But after the Nibelheim Incident, Hojo showed no interest in creating an improved SOLDIER. Instead, he became obsessed with his precious Jenova Reunion Theory and his Sephiroth Clones, as he liked to call them. Sloppy terminology, if you ask me," she said with a contemptuous sniff. "Because of Hojo's lack of interest, your father turned to other researchers like myself to pursue the goal of creating this new and improved second generation super-SOLDIER."

"While certainly interesting, this still doesn't explain why you specifically need me," Rufus replied with deceptive calm. "Because if you're planning to put me through some version of the process used to create SOLDIERs, I would like to offer two pieces of information about myself that might change your mind."

Montessi raised a thin eyebrow. "And they would be...?"

"First, Shinra routinely evaluates everyone for Mako sensitivity. If you have a complete copy of my Shinra medical records - and I assume that you do - you will see that I consistently scored extremely poorly on that test. One of the doctors even called me outright allergic to Mako. Second, as of two weeks ago, I was suffering from Stage 4 Geostigma, which would imply that I have a rather poor tolerance of Jenova cells."

He shrugged the best he could, considering that he could barely move in the tight straitjacket encasing his body.

"Given that the process of creating a SOLDIER requires both large infusions of Mako and the use of Jenova cells, I would consider myself an extremely poor candidate for such a procedure."

"An excellent try, Rufus, but it won't work." Montessi smiled thinly, then raised a finger. "In response to your first point, Mako sensitivity and Mako tolerance are not the same thing. A person can be acutely sensitive to Mako while simultaneously having an extremely high tolerance for it. Shinra only tests for Mako sensitivity because it's a quick, easy, and relatively safe procedure. On the other hand, the only accurate way to measure Mako tolerance is to pump the subject full of Mako and see what happens, which makes the test time-consuming, expensive, and frequently fatal. Besides, for the purposes of my experiments, your Mako sensitivity is actually a very promising sign."

Montessi lifted a second finger. "As for your second point, having Geostigma is not an accurate indicator of a person's tolerance for Jenova cells. The 'wild' Jenova cells which cause Geostigma are quite different from the Jenova cells we scientists use in human experimentation. The latter are usually subjected to special treatments which ensure that the human body accepts the Jenova cells instead of rejecting them."

Rufus made a slight nod of his head, acknowledging the validity of her counter-arguments, then said, "But that still leaves the open question about my tolerance for Mako, doesn't it?"

"You're quite wrong there." She picked up a folder from a nearby table and waved it in his direction. "Based on your genetic profile, our computer models predict that you should be able to endure extremely large doses of Mako without exhibiting undesirable side effects. And before you ask, the accuracy of those computer models were completely validated by the experimental data from the first prototype for Project S2."

"And what happened to that first prototype?"

Montessi's dark eyes gleamed. "Are you afraid, Rufus?"

"Reasonably concerned, I would think."

"Don't worry," she replied with a dismissive hand wave. "The first prototype, Specimen C, is still alive and functioning extremely well."

"Specimen C?"

Montessi smirked. "You might know him better as Cloud Strife."

Rufus took a slow, measured breath, then said, "Cloud, a prototype super-SOLDIER. That would explain... a great deal."

"Specimen C was the first working prototype of Project S2 and the initial results were highly promising. Unfortunately, he escaped just as we were preparing to run more detailed tests. Four long years of hard work, lost because of that idiot Steven's incompetence!"

Montessi started pacing again, her labcoat flapping in response to her angry gestures. "Steven managed to ruin everything! The commotion caused by the escape and recovery attempts attracted Hojo's attention, and you can imagine his reaction when he found out what was happening right under his nose!"

"You mean that Hojo was unaware of your research? How did you managed to hide the Project from him for so long?"

"It was pathetically easy! We just pretended that we were working on the Sephiroth Clone project just like he ordered and sent him a steady stream of falsified reports. As long as people weren't careless when Hojo showed up for his rare inspections, he was completely clueless!" Montessi replied with a sneer. "Of course, once he found out about the Project, he was determined to shut it down. Afraid of the competition, no doubt! Hojo talked Heidegger and Scarlet into using the Shinra Army to hunt down and kill the escaped S2 specimens instead of trying to recapture them. Zack died, but Cloud managed to survive and escape, so Hojo made it look like both specimens had died in a botched recapture attempt."

She stopped, then whirled to face Rufus. "I told your father that the loss of Specimens C and Z didn't mean the end of the Project. After all, there was a second, equally viable candidate still alive and conveniently on hand." She gave Rufus that now familiar thin, nasty little smile.

"I assume you're referring to me."

"Exactly so. However, despite my protests, the President still chose to shut down Project S2, at least temporarily. Not from any paternal feelings, you understand, but he was concerned with the lack of conclusive test data with respect to the first prototype."

Rufus saw the malice in Montessi's cold eyes and knew she was hoping to see some signs of shock, distress, or perhaps even outright denial of his father's involvement from him. But he knew the man far better than Montessi ever could. Refusing to waste a valuable and limited resource - in this case, Rufus - on a potentially worthless research project was a decision entirely consistent with his father's personality and far less shocking than the idea of his father shutting down a major weapons project merely out of some deeply buried sense of parental affection.

Rufus now understood why his father had been so willing to overlook his son's many transgressions, including outright betrayal and treason, in the five years between the Nibelheim Incident and Meteorfall. Rufus had funded and aided Fuhito's terrorist organization - the original AVALANCHE - in hopes of seizing control of the Shinra Company from his father. Those plans had been uncovered by Veld, the Turks' former leader, but instead of punishing or even killing Rufus for his schemes, his father had simply shipped his errant son off to a very comfortable house arrest in Junon.

No, his father's restraint hadn't been the result of mercy or sentimentality. He had simply wanted to keep Rufus alive and well for Project S2. How typical of the man.

Despite his intent not to antagonize the highstrung and unstable Montessi, Rufus refused to fake the emotional misery that the scientist so clearly wanted from him. So he met her hungry stare with a cool level stare of his own and said nothing.

Montessi finally uttered an irritated huff, then said, "So disciplined. So self-controlled. So very annoying."

When he remained silent, she continued, "But that's why I think you'd make such a promising research subject for Phase 3."

"Phase 3?" Rufus wasn't sure why he was bothering to ask. Still every bit of information was potentially useful... IF Montessi's experiments left him with a mind capable of remembering any of that potentially useful information.

"Ah yes, I didn't explain that part. Project S2 itself has three phases. Phase 1 involves physical augmentation to levels far beyond those achievable with ordinary SOLDIERs. But while Phase 1 is important, the true potential of Project S2 lies in Phases 2 and 3!"

"In what way?"

"Phase 2 involves the transfer and replication of neural data - in other words, copying the thoughts, emotions, skills, memories from one subject to another. In this case, we attempted to transfer the neural data of Specimen Z, Zack Fair, one of the best first generation SOLDIERs Shinra ever produced, into the body of one Cloud Strife, a common infantryman and failed SOLDIER candidate with a mediocre performance record."

"And the purpose of that would be...?"

Montessi smiled smugly. "It allows us to separate the physical and mental requirements for becoming a SOLDIER."

When Rufus continued to look blank, she sighed impatiently, then said, "I told you before that good candidates for SOLDIER are rare because it's difficult to find people with who meet all the necessary physical and psychological requirements. But if we have the ability to overwrite a host body's mind with someone else's neural data..."

When she looked expectantly at him, Rufus said slowly, "You could pick people with the best physical traits without any concerns about their mental fitness, then simply... replace... their minds with a mind of proven stability, complete with fighting skills and combat experience. Just like reprogramming one of Scarlet's war machines, except you're doing it with living organisms."

"Transferring one subject's attributes to another subject has been attempted before. Hollander tried to use the G-type prototypes, but his process only produced inferior degraded copies of the originals. MY process is far superior because the resulting product retains the best aspects of both the host body AND the neural pattern donor."

"What happens to the original mind of the host body?"

Instead of answering his question directly, Montessi said, "Just as the human body's immune system naturally rejects the presence of foreign contaminants, the human mind tries to maintain its own integrity by rejecting foreign thought patterns. But as I mentioned before, there are ways to coax a human body into accepting Jenova cells. Similarly, there are ways to... persuade... a human mind to accept someone else's neural patterns."

This time, Montessi's smile had a particularly chilling edge.

"All you have to do is convince your subject that the alternative is far, far worse."

Rufus didn't know what could possibly be worse than being taken over by someone else's personality and memories, but he had the sick feeling that Montessi wasn't talking about mere theory or hypothetical scenarios. His fears were confirmed when she continued her little lecture.

"That's why Cloud was a perfect subject for Phase 2. He was already emotionally fragile and severely traumatized by the events in Nibelheim, on top of his pre-existing psychological weaknesses. It should have been an easy matter to break him down and make him into an empty puppet-like vessel - the perfect blank slate upon which to superimpose Zack's neural patterns.

"However, things didn't go quite as planned." Montessi uttered an irritated huff. "Cloud turned out to be a surprisingly stubborn subject, and it took quite a lot of time and effort before I managed to eradicate whatever capacity he had for resistance or disobedience. It was a... fascinating... little project on its own."

Rufus had never been a particularly emotional or sentimental person, and he had learned early on to suppress any such tendencies in order to avoid his father's unrelenting scorn. But even so, Rufus felt the muscles throughout his body tense from the effort of hiding his growing revulsion as he listened to Montessi's casual description of how she deliberately raped and destroyed Cloud's psyche. Although the scientist hadn't gone into explicit details, Rufus understood quite clearly what was left unsaid - Montessi had undoubtedly systematically tortured Cloud for four years with the express intention of breaking him down completely... and she had equally clearly enjoyed every moment of it.

Rufus didn't have any particular feeling, positive or negative, for Cloud, aside for an appreciation for the man's obvious fighting abilities. But it wouldn't have made any difference if Rufus had utterly despised Cloud. In an odd way, it was interesting to discover that he, Rufus, did in fact have limits on what he would do to achieve his goals. Physically killing someone was one thing, but no one should have to endure the type of suffering Cloud did while in Montessi's custody. It was far too easy to picture the terrified teenager Cloud must have been, desperately but futilely struggling to hold on to his sanity and sense of self in the face of the scientist's merciless assault.

It didn't help that he was also acutely aware that Montessi was perfectly capable of doing the same to Rufus himself, whether in the pursuit of science or merely on a vicious whim. Given enough time and the right sort of pressure, anyone could be broken.

"Shall I tell you something else interesting, Rufus?" Montessi's memories of her sadistic experiments with Cloud seemed to put her into a positively mellow mood. When he didn't respond, she smiled and said coaxingly, "Don't you want to know why you and Cloud are so important to Project S2?"

"I'll admit to being somewhat curious." Rufus was pleased that he managed to keep any trace of his disgust and anger out of his voice and off his face.

"It all comes down to genetics. When we started Project S2, we first used test subjects who passed the physical requirements for SOLDIER. Unfortunately, none of them made it past even the first round of Mako infusions." She shrugged. "Gross physical mutations, brain damage, the usual sort of thing. The entire project was about to be scrapped as a failure when one of my associates discovered that individuals who had certain rare combinations of genes would make perfect candidates for S2 - they would have extremely high sensitivity combined with equally high tolerance for Mako, as well as superior compatibility with Jenova cells."

"And you're saying that Cloud and I are the only people who have these rare genes." Although it took enormous effort, Rufus managed to keep his tone calm and non-confrontational. While it would have been much more satisfying to vent his true feelings about Montessi and her precious research, Rufus knew that he was in a far too vulnerable position to indulge in such a dangerous luxury.

"Perhaps not the only ones - statistically, there should be other potential candidates in the human population - but the two of you are the only - as well as the best - candidates that we know of. And do you know why BOTH of you have these rare genes?" She paused, her lips twisted into a smirk and her dark eyes glittering with malice, then continued before he could say anything. "It turns out that the former Director of SOLDIER, Lazard Deusericus, wasn't the only bastard your father produced."

A brief moment of silence, then Rufus said evenly, "So you're saying that Cloud is my illegitimate half-brother."

"You don't look that surprised." Montessi looked slightly disappointed.

"Of course not, given my father's sexual appetites. For all I know, Cloud and Lazard are just two of many illegitimate children he left behind."

Montessi waggled an admonishing finger. "Oh, but you see, Cloud is not just an ordinary bastard half-brother. His mother and yours were sisters, which makes him your first cousin on the maternal side. The only thing closer, genetically speaking, would be full siblings or identical twins. But unfortunately for us, you and Cloud are each an only child, and there are no close maternal or paternal relatives left alive."

She tapped her chin thoughtfully. "A pity that Cloud's mother died in the Nibelheim Incident. Combined with your father's sperm, we could've used her to breed even more candidates for the Project."

"In that case, I'm surprised that you didn't consider breeding Cloud or me," Rufus said, in a mild tone that barely hid his steadily growing loathing for the scientist.

"But we did consider it," Montessi casually replied. "The problem was finding a suitable female subject. Without the right maternal genetic component, we'd merely be diluting the desired gene line."

"I would have thought there was an obvious candidate for that role."

"Oh, you mean that half-breed Ancient girl? What was her name? Aeris? Aerith? I thought so at first, too, but it turns out that her genetic profile is all wrong," Montessi said with a dismissive sniff. "Just as well. Hojo had his own plans for breeding that girl and he probably would've thrown a fit if she mysteriously turned up pregnant on her own."

Rufus remained silent for a long moment, then said, "Did my father know about Cloud?"

Montessi burst into harsh, raucous laughter. "Did the President know! Of course he knew all about Cloud! He was the one who dumped Cloud's pregnant mother in Nibelheim when she threatened to become a public embarrassment for him! And when someone asked him about using his own son as an experimental test subject, did you know what he said? In the President's very own words, 'I'm interested in results, not a bastard child from a neurotic ex-mistress.'"

Rufus's jaw clenched slightly, but his voice remained steady. "He would say something like that."

"You don't seem the least bit surprised."

He finally gave Montessi an icy, razor thin smile of his own. "My father was a cold, ruthless, ambitious man who never allowed anything to stand in the way of getting what he wanted. He obviously thought that Project S2 would help him do that. So the fact that he was willing to use his own flesh and blood to maximize the Project's chances of success doesn't surprise me. At all."

Montessi looked mildly impressed with his response, even somewhat approving. "Fair enough." She hit an intercom button and barked, "Get back in here."

Rufus felt his throat go dry. He had just run out of time.

As several scientists rushed back into the lab, she said, "Unfortunately, Zack escaped with Cloud before we had the opportunity to fully evaluate the effectiveness of Phase 2. However, I'm quite certain that it did work to a significant degree."

Montessi began pacing again as her staff began wheeling in ominous-looking pieces of equipment.

"You see, at the time of the Nibelheim escape, Cloud was essentially catatonic, a mindless puppet who possessed the physical abilities of a second generation SOLDIER but with no will of his own. Various sightings over the following year indicated that he was STILL in that condition right up until Zack's death, which occurred a few weeks before Cloud reappeared in Midgar."

She watched with satisfaction as Rufus absorbed the information. "That's right. In the space of less than a month, Cloud Strife somehow transformed from a comatose vegetable to a fighter skilled enough to successfully participate in terrorist activities, fight his way both in and out of the Shinra Building while easily defeating experienced SOLDIERs and Scarlet's war machines along the way. And in the following weeks, he managed to become strong enough to effectively battle WEAPONs and even Sephiroth."

"And you attribute all this to Project S2? To the presence of Zack's neural patterns in Cloud's mind?"

"How else would you explain it?" she said, looking smug.

Obviously, he couldn't and they both knew it.

Montessi nibbled avidly on her thumbnail. "Believe me, when I finally to get my hands back on Cloud, I'm going to be very interested in finding out just how much of his current mental structure comes from the original Cloud, and how much of it is replicated from Zack. Quite a bit of the latter, I should think."

Rufus glanced at the busy scientists and technicians in the room, then turned back to Montessi.

"So, are you planning to give me the same treatment as you did with Cloud?" His voice was cold, devoid of emotion.

Montessi looked surprised. "Oh no. I have no intention of wasting you on a rehash of Phase 2. For one thing, Zack's unfortunately dead so we don't have a suitable pattern donor at the moment." She suddenly grabbed Rufus's chin with her cold fingers. "You're going to be my test subject for Phase 3."

"And what does that involve?" he said between gritted teeth.

"Assimilation." Montessi nearly purred the word. "The perfect fusion between the human body and materia. Hojo tried it and failed miserably, so he claimed it was impossible. He was only partially correct. It IS impossible to fuse materia into an average human being."

"What happens if you try?"

She released his chin and shrugged indifferently. "Since materia is essentially highly concentrated Mako in solid form, Hojo got the usual results one gets with acute Mako toxicity - severe brain damage, gross physical mutations, and/or death. However, Hojo gave up too soon. He failed take the logical next step and try using an non-average human being. Or better yet, a super-human being."

Montessi's eyes glittered with a fanatical light. "Think about the possibilities! Materia is the condensed knowledge and thoughts of the Ancients. In their crystallized form, humans can only use the merest fraction of the information they contain. But if we can fuse materia into a human being, that individual could potentially access ALL the knowledge and wisdom locked away inside that materia! No more fumbling around with materia crystals in order to cast spells. And who knows? We might even be able to recover much of the long lost knowledge of the Ancients this way."

"And you honestly believe I'm the right candidate for this sort of experiment?"

"That's right. Like Cloud, you are capable of surviving the physical augmentation necessary to form a compatible host for materia. But unlike Cloud, you have the mental strength and discipline to handle a potentially massive influx of psychic information. Probably."

"What if you're wrong and I can't handle it?"

"I suggest that you try very VERY hard. Otherwise, you're going to end up as a gibbering idiot like Hojo's earlier test subjects, and that really would be a terrible waste of that very fine mind that you have."

Rufus caught a glimpse of technicians wheeling in several carts loaded with a variety of sinister medical instruments and inhaled sharply. In particular, a cart holding several huge syringes - each nearly the length of his forearm and filled with glowing green liquid - caught his attention.

"I suppose you have no intention of giving me a choice about this."

"None whatsoever," Montessi said cheerfully.

Rufus could see the researchers began to place the large syringes full of glowing green liquid - Mako, most likely - in an arc-like arrangement within a large metal frame.

"Assuming that everything goes to plan and you succeed in transforming me into a non-insane super-SOLDIER with at least some powers of the Ancients. What then?"

"Then you'll help me recapture Cloud for further study. I'm far from finished with him," Montessi nonchalantly replied.

Rufus stared at her, mildly stunned by her sheer audacity. "Under the circumstances, what makes you think that I'd agree to cooperate with you in any way?"

Her lips curved into a cold, cruel smile. "Oh, don't worry, Rufus. I have some VERY effective ways of keeping my experimental subjects in line. Cloud learned this the hard way. You will, too, soon enough."

She abruptly stepped back and made a sharp slashing gesture. Before Rufus could react, one of the scientists deftly crammed the gag back in place between his teeth. As the strap holding the gag tightened painfully around his head, Montessi said, "Instead of trying to resisting, you should be thanking me for giving you the opportunity to rediscover the lost legacy of the Ancients."

He could only glare furiously at her. Then his head was pressed down and locked in place with yet more straps hooked to the collar around his throat to force him into a fetal position. He felt cool air hit his back as someone peeled open the back of straitjacket, exposing his spine. Rufus jerked involuntarily as cold fingers touched a spot near the base of his skull

"Is the array fully loaded?"

"Yes, doctor."

"Good. The first one goes here, between the C7 and T1 vertebrae, then one after every third vertebrae," Montessi ordered.

Rufus sensed, rather than saw, the metal frame slide in place around him so that the arc of massive Mako-filled syringes were perfectly positioned above his spine, even as more straps were wrapped around his body, immobilizing him even more completely.

"Due to your sensitivity to Mako, you're going to feel the first few infusions quite a bit," Montessi said. Rufus couldn't see her face, but he was certain that she was wearing a thoroughly sadistic grin.

The sting of the needles went unnoticed as icy green fire poured directly into his spinal column, then flooded outward along the network of nerves. He would have screamed but lost the ability as all the muscles in his body locked into one massive spasm. As both his mind and vision filled with green fire, Rufus felt his consciousness shatter into glittering fragments and tumble into the brilliant glowing abyss.


(end of Part 4)


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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.


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Chapter Text

Just a short side-story containing some background information for the COI Redux-verse that I cut from the main story. It's not essential, but it provides some interesting hints and background for the main plot.

Title: WRO Security Report "Cult Activity"
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: oneshot; side story
Pairing/Characters: gen
Rating: PG-13
Wordcount: ~1450
Warnings: mature/dark themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: An internal WRO security report concerning certain fringe groups.

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NOTES:
- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
- The original game and Advent Children/Complete are canon for this fic.
- Before Crisis and Crisis Core are semi-canon.
- Various individual plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., games, OVAs, FFVII novellas and short stories, etc.) may show up.
- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".

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CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Redux
A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

WRO Security Report "Cult Activity"

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To: Commissioner Reeve Tuesti
From: WRO Security Operations

Dear Commissioner Reeve,

As per your request, the WRO security department has compiled a report regarding possible suspicious activity among the Planet-worshipping cults, in particular with respect to the source of the Geostigma cure (aka "The Sector 5 Church" or "Aerith's Church").

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Background

Various sects have venerated the Planet as a living (and possibly sentient) entity for many centuries. Historical records indicated that the practice was widespread in ancient times, but decreased in popularity as more organized and sophisticated religious groups emerged. Up to thirty years go, these Planet-worshipping sects were typically tolerated by the general public, although often dismissed as "nature nuts".

When the Shinra Corporation began commercial Mako extraction, the Planet-worshipping sects objected vigorously. In response, President Shinra ordered a systematic PR campaign depicting the sects in the most negative light possible - e.g., rabid environmental extremists, outright lunatic cults, etc. The derogatory term "Planethugger" is a legacy of that PR campaign and is still widely used today to refer to individuals deemed too outspoken about their reverence for the Planet.

As the Shinra Corporation consolidated its position as the paramount commercial, military, and political entity in the world, it continued its smear campaign against the so-called "Planethuggers" who stood in the way of technological progress and economic prosperity. The practice of Planet veneration essentially became an underground activity and/or was limited to obscure fringe religious groups (i.e., "cults") or eccentric scholars (e.g., Cosmo Canyon).

Several militant eco-terrorism groups emerged to oppose Shinra's perceived exploitation of the Planet - e.g., both incarnations of AVALANCHE - but all failed to find popular support among the public.

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Meteorfall

After the dramatic manifestation of the Lifestream during Meteorfall and its role in destroying Meteor, the idea of the Planet as a living, sentient entity has become widely accepted by a large portion of the population. Veneration of the Planet has regained significant popularity and social acceptance. Correspondingly, the number of groups catering to such beliefs has risen sharply.

Aside from the common belief in the Planet as a god-like entity, the views of these groups or sects vary widely. Some believe the Planet to be an all-wise benevolent nurturing spirit, others consider the Planet to be unconcerned with mere humans, while yet others hold the view that the Planet is a stern, wrathful god prepared to smite humanity for its many sins. The last view has become much more common with the appearance of seemingly incurable Geostigma plague, which many people, even non-worshippers, view as some form of punishment from the Planet.

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The Great Gospel Incident

In view of the widespread despair and dread caused by the Geostigma plague, it was wholly predictable that many people would interpret the recent Geostigma-healing rain (aka, "The Great Gospel") to be a divine sign from the Planet. Exactly what sort of sign - a gesture of forgiveness, a response to desperate prayers, or even stranger things - depends on the particular group one speaks to.

It was also predictable that the more fanatical sects (i.e., "cults") would become fixated on the source of the "The Great Gospel". Their obsessions became so great that WRO troops recently had to be deployed to stop the reoccurring riots among the rival "cults" which each claimed "ownership" of the Sector 5 Church area (see Attachment A, a summary of violent incidents in Sector 5 within the last two weeks)

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The Cetra

Our agents have noted that within the last few months, references to "the Ancients" and "the Cetra" have become increasingly common among many of the Planet-worshipping groups, especially among the more cult-like sects. Prior to this time, these groups seemed almost entirely ignorant of the existence of the Cetra, which is understandable since that knowledge was heavily restricted by Shinra.

It is unclear who has been spreading the information regarding the Cetra. The most likely source is one or more Shinra employees, either for financial gain, spite, or because of some personal epiphany.

The commonly accepted view among the Planet-worshippers depicts the Cetra as the 'Chosen of the Planet' - i.e., superhuman beings who, unlike ordinary humans, had a special mystical connection to the Planet. Again, the precise nature of that mystical connection varies widely depending on the particular beliefs of any given group. Some believe the Cetra as healers, nurturers of all living things, while others believe the Cetra to be deadly warrior-minions serving the Planet.

By itself, the relatively sudden appearance of the Cetra in the belief systems of the Planet-worshipping sects would not be viewed as a security threat.

However, our agents have uncovered disturbing treads among the more militant Planet-worshipping "cults".

Various individuals in these militant "cults" have started to aggressively preach that the Planet is preparing to reclaim its rightful dominion over all things living upon it. They also predict the return of the Cetra (as servants of the Planet) to aid in this "reclamation".

Some particularly fanatical individuals in these "cults" have gone so far as to claim the ability to "hear the voice" or "know the will" of the Planet. Some have gone so far as to claim at least partial credit for "The Great Gospel" and the cure for Geostigma. It is unclear how many of these individuals are merely delusional and how many are deliberately lying to increase their credibility or status.

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Summary

While the majority of the Planet-worshipping groups are nonviolent and cooperative, the increasingly belligerent rhetoric of the more extreme "cults" leads most of our analysts to believe that there is significant potential for violence or terrorism against others - whether rival sects or the general population (whom they would likely to view as 'non-believers' or 'heretics').

There is already compelling evidence to indicate that devoted "true believers" from these militant "cults" have infiltrated various influential groups and organizations, including the Shinra Corporation (see Attachment C, regarding possible sabotage of Shinra company assets) and the WRO itself (see Attachment D, regarding suspicious computer activity in the WRO network).

The WRO security department will continue monitoring the situation and notify you as to further developments.

Sincerely,
WRO Security Operations


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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.


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oOo

Chapter Text

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 5/?
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: partially for content, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Pairing/Characters: gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~6,000
Warnings: mature/dark themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his dead friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

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AUTHOR NOTES:
- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
- The original FFVII game and "Advent Children/Complete" are canon for this fic.
- "Before Crisis" and "Crisis Core" are semi-canon.
- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".
- Various plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., "Dirge of Cerberus", "Last Order" OVA, FFVII web novellas, etc.) may show up.

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CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Redux
A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

Chapter 5

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Text Conventions

( ) and { } and / and / indicate thoughts, mental dialogue, or languages from various characters

[ ] are miscellaneous date or location notes, images, or sound effects


.


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Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica

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[ Montessi's base ]

Luxiere was seriously bored.

Even though the most recent report from Kurt's sources indicated that the team leader's scheme to blame Rufus's abduction on Hojo was working beautifully, Kurt had insisted on conducting security patrols both inside and outside Montessi's secret base.

Luxiere understand the reason for the patrols, but felt that Montessi's own security goons could handle the job. The Turks weren't a threat because they were currently busy chasing after Hojo, so he didn't see why Kurt insisted that Luxiere and his fellow mercenaries had to participate in the patrols as well.

Still, he wouldn't put it past Kurt to do spot checks to keep his people on their toes, so Luxiere went through the routine of checking various lab areas and keeping an eye out for anything suspicious.

He swiped his ID card and walked into the main lab. The lone scientist in the chamber turned to give the SOLDIER a brief look, then resumed his work on an equipment panel. Luxiere vaguely recognized the thin, labcoated man - Kurt had insisted that the mercenaries familiarize themselves with Montessi's staff for security reasons - as a Dr. Hutton, a senior researcher and one of the few people authorized to be in this particular area.

More to fill up time until his shift ended than actual curiosity, Luxiere asked, "So what are you doing?" as the scientist consulted his clipboard for the third time in as many minutes.

"Trying to keep all this equipment operating properly." Dr. Hutton glanced briefly at the large, liquid-filled tank that dominated the center of the room. "The experiments we're running are complex and highly sensitive. Even with the best equipment available, constant monitoring is necessary."

A slight ripple of motion within the clear tank caught Luxiere's attention. Reluctantly, he turned his head to look at the near-naked body of Rufus Shinra suspended inside the glowing green liquid. A moment later, he saw the reason for the arm and leg restraints as a sharp, convulsive shudder wracked Rufus's body.

Poor bastard.

Uneasily eyeing the taut tendons and straining muscles clearly visible along Rufus's neck and body, Luxiere blurted, "That doesn't look good. Are you guys sure that Dr. Montessi knows what she's doing?"

The scientist gave Luxiere a cold, thin-lipped smile. "Oh, rest assured that things are proceeding exactly as planned with Rufus Shinra."

His skin now crawling, a thoroughly unnerved Luxiere gave Hutton an insincere grin and quickly left the lab.

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Dr. Hutton waited for the lab door to close and relock behind the hastily departing Luxiere before speaking aloud.

"SOLDIERs." He then turned his head and spat precisely. "Jenova-tainted abominations."

The scientist returned to the open panel, with its complicated network of wires and pipes, and picked up his tools. The constant need for maintenance, while perfectly true, merely served as camouflage for his real task.

All of Shinra's Mako-handling equipment contained numerous failsafes and protective features to ensure that raw material from the Lifestream did not mingle with the highly refined Mako used for power or research. But instead making sure those mechanisms were working properly, he was busily sabotaging or bypassing all those carefully designed safeguards.

The path was now open for the Planet to collect what was owed.

Once he was finished, nothing short of a full equipment tear-down would reveal his modifications to the system. That sort of inspection could not occur while Montessi's experiments were running, and there was no way that the bitch would tolerate such a delay.

An hour later, the scientist packed up his tools, replaced the cover to the last console, and smiled at a job well done. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his cell phone and transmitted a simple prearranged text message.

TASK COMPLETE. FOR THE PLANET.

As Dr. Hutton turned to leave the lab, he paused next to the glowing tank. The doctor's pale narrow eyes glittered with malice as he stared at the helpless form of Rufus Shinra.

"For years, the Shinra family raped and pillaged the Planet, draining its lifeblood for the sake of profit. You then dared to engage in blasphemous experimentation with the Calamity and created abominations to protect your power."

Hutton's lips curled in a malevolent smile.

"The time has come to make full payment for your family's sins. Your father may be dead, but you won't escape so easily."

And with those words, the scientist left Rufus alone in the darkness.


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[ Corel ]

"Yo, Barret! Look what we found!"

"If it ain't a good fat seam of coal, I'm not interested!"

"No, I mean it! You've gotta take a look!"

Barret cursed under his breath, then stomped back down the tunnel toward the source of the shouting. Even before he arrived at the mining face, he knew that the men had been right to call him over. The tunnel was filled by an eerie greenish glow that definitely did not come from the artificial lights.

Shoving his way through the cluster of miners, he found himself staring at a large mass of crystallized Mako. Embedded within that green glassy material was a dark chunk of unidentified matter - rock or crystal, he couldn't tell - which had an eerie resemblance to a stubby curved branch.

"Is this stuff what I think it is?" a burly miner called Kendall said, warily tapping the green mass with a hammer.

"Yeah. Crystallized Mako."

"What's it doing here, stuck in the middle of a frickin' coal seam?"

"Like I'd know?" Barret growled irritably. "But we're not that far from the Corel Reactor and Shinra built those reactors in places where there was lots of Mako, so..." He shrugged.

"This thing's in the middle of one of our best-producing coal seams! So what do we do about it? Take it out or leave it?" Kendall asked.

One of the other miners said, "Just so you know, Barret, a lot of the guys don't much fancy the idea of mucking around with Mako, crystallized or not. The stuff gives me the creeps." A mutter of agreement ran through the group.

"But working around it will be a right pain in the ass," Kendall objected.

Barret scowled. He didn't want to deal with yet another hassle in the mine, not when all sorts of weird shit was happening on the surface. Reeve had urged him to finish up his work in Corel, and he had promised to help these men get the coal mine fully operational. At the same time, he didn't like being out of touch for so long when Tifa and the others might suddenly need him. Finally, he said, "Look, let's sit down, grab some lunch, and try to work out the best thing to do."

As Barret and the miners headed back to the informal canteen area, one man - a former materia prospector who had joined the miners because he was desperate for some decent pay - remained behind and greedily eyed the mass of crystallized Mako protruding from the rock wall and the dark inclusion embedded within it.

Places with natural Mako springs and crystallized Mako, such as those around Nibelheim, were prime materia hunting territory. Unfortunately, those same areas were always crawling with ferocious monsters, which made them far too dangerous for a lone materia hunter to tackle.

But there were no monsters in these mines and that strange dark inclusion - prime materia, he was sure of it - was sitting there for the taking. Even after Meteorfall, there were rich people willing to spend loads of gil in order to pick up an fancy chunk of materia. Most of them didn't have the power or skill to handle a powerful materia, so it usually ended up as pretty decoration for someone's home or office.

He glanced quickly over his shoulder to make sure he was alone, then pulled out his tools. Between eating lunch and arguing about what to do with the crystallized Mako blocking their prize coal seam, he probably had a good hour or more before anyone returned to the site. If he worked fast, he could be out of the mine with his prize before anyone knew he was gone.

Or he could buy himself even more time with a mild bit of sabotage. Nothing serious, of course. Just something that would strand the others in the mine for a few hours...


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[ Nibelheim ]

If it hadn't been for the white labcoat, Yuffie would have never pegged Shalua Rui as a scientist. The black and maroon midriff-baring leather halter and matching microskirt, combined with strappy blue stiletto heels, were much more suited to a woman in a very different line of work. The presence of an apparently missing left eye and the sleek metallic prosthetic left arm wasn't enough to fully correct that impression, and even lent the woman a rather exotic air.

However, the fact that Shalua was packing a hand cannon that even Vincent would envy was a pretty clear sign that she was not someone to be taken lightly.

"I'm Shalua Rui. And you would be Yuffie Kisaragi, Vincent Valentine, and Nanaki," she said in a cool, no-nonsense tone as she looked over Yuffie and her companions. Even the presence of a large, talking furry beast with a flame-tipped tail didn't seem to faze the woman. "As I said before, Commissioner Reeve sent me and a WRO team to assist you here."

"Thanks, we could use any help we can get." Yuffie meant that, sincerely.

As they headed toward the basement's library, Shalua said, "I was rushed out here with a minimal briefing. What happened to the first team?"

"Hojo and his monsters got them. You saw the blood stains upstairs?"

Shalua nodded grimly. "Well, that explains the size and the armament of the military escort Reeve sent along."

"From that, we think that the Nibelheim townspeople and the first WRO team are probably all dead. Unfortunately, Hojo didn't leave behind any bodies, except for one."

"Who?"

"Dr. Lawrence Steven." Yuffie stopped at the door leading to the room with Steven's severely mutilated body and opened it so Shalua and the others could look inside. Although clearly an experienced agent for the WRO, Shalua still went pale when she saw what Hojo had done to the body. Nanaki turned his head away in disgust and Vincent's reddish eyes glittered coldly.

After Yuffie closed the door, Shalua exhaled sharply, then said, "So except for the Turks, there are no survivors."

"As far as we know. Elena and Rude escaped by pure luck, but Hojo got Reno."

Nanaki said, "Shalua, Hojo removed a lot of equipment from the labs here in the Mansion's basement. We need your help and scientific expertise to put together a list of what was taken and to figure out what it might be used for."

She nodded and took a brisk walk around the area. A few minutes later, she said, "Right off, I can tell you that Hojo didn't take much."

Nanaki's ears pricked up. "Yes?"

"Most of the equipment that appears to be missing is actually lying around in pieces on the floor. This suggests that Hojo probably already has a location capable of handling Mako. But not one set up for biological research or experiments."

"Why?"

Yuffie grimaced slightly at Vincent's curt tone, but said nothing. The revelation that his cherished Lucrecia had been involved in the experiments on him had put Vincent into an understandably crappy mood.

Shalua merely gave Vincent a cool look, then replied, "Because he didn't take heavy equipment like pumps, condensers, or that sort of thing. He took items you need for a specific type of research." She reached out and tapped a countertop with several conspicuous dust voids. "Things like analytical instruments, data and file storage, probably a few specialized computers."

"So what sort of location should we be looking for?" Nanaki asked, cocking his head thoughtfully.

"My best guess? A factory or production facility that either has a small-scale Mako reactor of its own or maintains large stockpiles of Mako. Another possibility is an engineering or military weapon research installation with the same ability to handle Mako."

Yuffie brightened and said, "Well, there can't be too many of those places around!"

"True, but the list is longer than you'd think and knowing the Shinra Corporation, half of them will be top secret in one way or another."

"Oh, I think we won't have too much trouble getting Shinra to give up that information," Nanaki said with a gruff chuckle. He then gave Shalua a courteous dip of his head and added, "Thank you for giving us a good starting point."

"No problem. As for what Hojo's specific plans are, I can't make any useful suggestions until I have a chance to sift through whatever papers he left behind."

"He left a lot. A whole library full, in fact. Documents, recordings, lab reports, you name it," Yuffie said.

Shalua sighed. "Wonderful. Well, I'll do what I can, as quickly as I can. I might need to consult with some other experts in this area."

"Who? And why aren't they here?" Vincent asked bluntly.

"Because Henri Bevalle is too old and most of the other scientists aren't cut out for this sort of field work." Shalua shrugged, then waved her right hand at the formidable gun tucked in its holster under her prosthetic left arm. "I, on the other hand, can take care of myself in an emergency. Don't worry. I know what I'm doing."


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[ Healen ]

Near the main clinic building, Cait Sith perched himself out the way to watch the joint Shinra-WRO recovery efforts. At the same time, back in Edge, Reeve spent his time thinking about the incident between Cloud and Kunsel. He had expected the meeting between the two to be awkward, but he certainly hadn't expected it to be THAT awkward.

The almost guilty way Cloud had reacted when Kunsel hadn't recognized him as a SOLDIER was unfortunate, but hardly unexpected. Even now, after everything he'd done and accomplished, it seemed that Cloud still faulted himself for presuming to impersonate a SOLDIER.

Which was stupid, of course. Cloud had never made a conscious, deliberate decision to lie about being a SOLDIER. And even though Cloud was never an official member of Shinra's military elite, he was certainly a match for any SOLDIER Shinra ever hired.

Reeve was pretty sure that Cloud understood that on an intellectual level, but he also knew that mere facts wouldn't overcome whatever lingering feelings of guilt and even shame that Cloud seemed to have about his mistaken identity.

Not that Cloud made a public show about it. On the contrary, the man was so close-mouthed about his feelings and whatever problems he might be having - witness the whole episode with his Geostigma - it sometimes made Reeve's teeth hurt to watch Cloud pretend that everything was fine, thank you.

Reeve in Edge and Cait Sith in Healen sighed in unison. While Reeve wished that Cloud would open up and let others help him, he also recognized that there would be no quick fixes or miracle cures for his friend. Cloud was trying, and trying hard to work through his issues, to stop hiding behind those adamantine emotional barricades of his, but it would take great deal of time and effort to overcome the emotional and mental scars created by years of torture and trauma.

Even better than Reeve, Tifa knew that. She knew it and was prepared to do whatever she could to help Cloud heal. It was a hard road that would definitely require every bit of inner strength and patience she could muster, but if anyone was up to the task, it was Tifa.

"Sorry, but I think I really stepped in it with your friend Cloud."

Cait Sith jumped at the unexpected sound of Kunsel's voice and nearly fell off his seat. As he settled back into place, he turned to look at the SOLDIER standing beside him.

"It wasn't your fault. But if you really think an apology is necessary, wouldn't it be better if you apologized directly to Cloud?"

With a wry smile, Kunsel replied, "I would, if I could find him. Your friend took off to do a solitary recon of the area before I could say another word to him."

Cait made a rueful grin of his own. "He just needs some time to settle himself. His meeting with you was quite a shock."

"To him and me both," Kunsel muttered.

Ah, yes. There was no question that Cloud's verbal - no, call it what it really was - personality slip had been seriously unnerving, both to Cloud and everyone who had witnessed it.

In that brief moment, Cloud had effectively been someone else. The mental transformation had been so complete, so convincing, that Kunsel had been caught completely off-guard by that other personality, one the SOLDIER clearly knew well.

Zack Fair, SOLDIER First Class.

The casual exchange of greetings between Kunsel and Cloud displayed all the signs of a close, long-standing friendship... until each man abruptly realized that he was actually talking to a total stranger.

"About Cloud and the way he acted..."

Cait made a nod of understanding. "Not just saying things your friend Zack would say, but speaking and acting in the exact same way as Zack would."

"Yeah." Kunsel looked like he was about to elaborate on that theme, but changed his mind. Instead, he said, "To be honest, it was seriously spooky."

"Believe me, no one was expecting that sort of response from Cloud," the cat muttered. "And no one was more spooked by what happened than Cloud himself."

"Really?" Kunsel said, raising an eyebrow.

The cat hesitated, then said, "Look, I gave you the basic outline about what happened during the Nibelheim Incident, how Zack died, Meteorfall, and all that."

"Uh-huh. Including how Sephiroth went insane, how he was mostly responsible for Geostigma, the way he keeps coming back like a bad gil, and why everyone's now desperately trying to hunt down Hojo." Kunsel smiled drily. "But there's obviously a lot that you didn't tell me."

"Damn right," Cait Sith muttered. Reeve had given Kunsel a thorough briefing on the events related to the Jenova Project, Sephiroth, and Hojo, but only in the most impersonal, factual way. He had avoided giving specific details about Cloud and his various personal issues because it hadn't been relevant to Kunsel's understanding of the current crisis.

However, in light of what had just happened, it was probably better if Kunsel knew a bit more. He had taken the time to investigate the SOLDIER, not only to verify his claims of being Zack's close friend, but to also get a better idea of his personality. What Reeve had discovered was a smart, competent fighter who could be relied upon to be sensible and keep his mouth shut.

Kunsel folded his arms. "Reeve..."

"Under the circumstances, call me Cait Sith, please."

"Okay, Cait. To be blunt, I'm about to go crazy with questions and curiosity. How and why did Cloud pull that damn near perfect Zack impersonation? And why do I make him so uncomfortable?"

Cait was aware of Kunsel waiting patiently as he tried to figure just how much he needed to say. Finally, he replied, "Cloud's my friend and normally I wouldn't violate his privacy by discussing his... complicated... past with a relative stranger. But given that you're probably going to be working with us a lot AND your prior relationship with Zack, I think it's best that you understand why Cloud sometimes acts the way he does."

"What you really mean is that you don't want me to think that Zack gave his life saving a jerkass. Is that it?"

Cait winced and wrinkled his nose.

Kunsel waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Don't worry about that. Zack obviously thought that Cloud was worth rescuing, and I'm not going to second-guess that decision. Besides, from what you told me, Cloud's already managed to save the Planet at least twice over, so it seems that Zack's opinion of Cloud was spot-on."

"Try telling him that," Cait griped, rolling his eyes. "Okay, to put it simply, Cloud was - and unfortunately still is - really, really screwed up in the head and it's all the fault of Shinra and their merry pack of mad scientists."

Kunsel snorted. "Well, I figured that much out when you told me that he was one of Hojo's research subjects for FOUR years. I imagine that even Zack himself ended up a bit messed up after going through all that." He tapped his temple meaningfully.

"Maybe, but Zack still managed to come out of the ordeal pretty much intact. Cloud... not even close. By the time Zack got him out of Nibelheim, he was pretty much in a total vegetative state due to a severe case of Mako poisoning. That's not even counting whatever horrific experiments Hojo and his crew put him through. By his own admission, Cloud's memories of that time are extremely confused and disjointed, to put it mildly."

"No surprise there. Mako poisoning will do that to you."

"No one really knows what happened in the year between their escape from Nibelheim and Zack's death." Cait exhaled heavily. "What I do know is that after a year or more in a catatonic stupor, Cloud snapped out of it just in time to see Zack die at the hands of Shinra's military."

Kunsel looked away. "...shit."

"I guess the shock of losing Zack - the man who rescued him from hell, protected him, took care of him, and was his only friend in an overwhelmingly hostile world - was simply too much for Cloud's already damaged mind to handle. So he coped the only way he could, by taking on, at least partially, Zack's identity and memories."

"So you're saying that Cloud thought that he was actually Zack?" Kunsel said, frowning thoughtfully. "And that's why he suddenly started acting like Zack just now?"

"No, it's a bit more complicated than that. Cloud still called himself Cloud, but replaced his own memories of being an ordinary Shinra trooper with Zack's stories about being a SOLDIER." Cait hastily added, "He wasn't pretending. Cloud really believed that he was a SOLDIER First Class, who had done everything Zack had actually done. And since he seemed to have all the physical and combat abilities of a SOLDIER - no thanks to Hojo's experiments - people didn't have any reason to question his statements about being a SOLDIER."

"Yeah, but at some point, you guys obviously figured out the truth about Cloud's identity."

"Eventually." Reeve decided to gloss over the details of Sephiroth's vicious mind games with Cloud, the resultant catastrophic mental breakdown, and Cloud's struggle to find his true self. Instead, Reeve merely said, "The truth can be utterly devastating, especially when it comes from your worst enemy."

He was glad to see that Kunsel was smart enough to work out all the nasty implications of that statement.

"That bad, huh?" Kunsel's voice was almost painfully neutral.

Cait Sith nodded. "But despite all that, Cloud still managed to pull himself together and lead the fight against Sephiroth and Jenova. The point I'm making is that Cloud is an amazingly strong person to have survived everything he's been through. But at the same time, he's also suffered a lot of psychological damage, to say nothing about all the emotional baggage he's carrying around."

"Uh... yeah. I got that." Kunsel exhaled heavily. "Well, considering all the shit Cloud's gone through, a little identity trouble is perfectly understandable."

Cait Sith twiddled his paws, then said, "You asked why you made Cloud so uncomfortable. I'm sure you've already guessed part of the answer."

"Sure. Survivor's guilt," Kunsel said. "Practically anyone who's been through combat has experienced it. Cloud's here and Zack isn't. Zack could've escaped Shinra on his own, but he chose to stay and protect Cloud at the cost of his own life. I suppose that's why Cloud feels somehow responsible for Zack's death, but..."

"You're perfectly right. And because he feels responsible, Cloud expects you, as one of Zack's closest friends, to feel the same way."

"He blames himself, so he expects me to blame him? Why the hell would I do that?" Kunsel demanded impatiently. "Like I said before, it was Zack's decision to stick with Cloud, Zack's choice to face off against a whole damn battalion to protect him. I'm not about to hold Cloud responsible for what Zack - the lovable idiot - chose to do. Besides, it wasn't as if he could've done anything to stop Zack. He was in a damn coma the entire time!"

"Well, you know that, I know that, and even Cloud knows that. But sometimes no matter how hard you try, facts and logic can't override feelings," Cait said, lifting his paws in a resigned shrug.

"The other part of the answer is because of Cloud's continuing memory problems," the cat continued. "Despite figuring out and accepting his true identity, I think it's still hard for Cloud to tell what memories belong to him and which memories actually belong to Zack."

"Ah... so that's why Cloud was so spooked when he suddenly went 'Zack' on everyone."

"That's right. Don't mistake me - Cloud cared deeply for Zack and I'm sure he still does. But at the same time, Zack also represents one of Cloud's greatest failures and his own weaknesses. So you can hopefully understand why you, with all your associations with Zack, would make him tense and uncomfortable."

"Well, shit." Kunsel raked a hand through his hair. "In that case..."

Cait Sith shook his head sharply. "You don't need to avoid or tiptoe around Cloud. If he notices you doing that, it'll only make him feel worse about the whole situation. He doesn't want or need pity. I'm pretty sure that from Cloud's point of view, he's the one who's feeling uncomfortable, he's the one with the problem, so he's the one who has to deal with it on his own."

Kunsel uttered a dry laugh. "Stubborn, independent, and proud, huh?"

"More like stubborn, private, and stoic as hell," Cait Sith corrected mildly. "But that's Cloud for you."

The cat lifted his arms and stretched. "As I said before, the only reason I'm telling you all this is because I want you, as one of Zack's closest friends, to understand Cloud a little better, and... well, give him a little space if he does or says something weird. Because, I assure you, he's not doing it deliberately or trying to play mind games with you."

"And you also wanted me to know that there's no point pushing Cloud for answers about his behavior because there's a good chance he doesn't have any."

"Aye, there's that."

Kunsel gave Cait a long, considering look. "You've spent a lot of time thinking and worrying about him, haven't you?"

Cait Sith in Healen and Reeve in Edge both shrugged.

"What can I say? He's my friend."

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As Kunsel stood beside Cait Sith, he thought about what Reeve had just told him. Emotional trauma and identity issues definitely explained a lot about Cloud's Zack-like behavior during their first encounter.

But it didn't explain everything.

It hadn't only been the words and the tone that tricked him into mistaking Cloud for Zack.

For that brief moment, Cloud had actually smelled like Zack.

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"Actually, there's something else I need to discuss with you." Kunsel said. "It's about Aerith's church."

"Is the security detail in Sector 5 having problems?" Cait Sith asked, giving the SOLDIER a worried look.

"Not... exactly."

"Then what's wrong?"

"You know that the pool of water inside Aerith's church contains strong traces of Lifestream energy."

"Yes, but that's hardly unexpected, given its unique healing properties."

"The pool itself appears to be stable, but the science team monitoring the site reports alarmingly elevated Lifestream readings around the church."

"How bad?"

"High enough to warrant Level 2 HazMat gear for anyone staying in the area for more than a few hours. If the situation doesn't stabilize, the scientists say that they might have to go to Hazard Level 3," Kunsel said grimly.

"What! Only the hottest parts of Mako reactors get rated Level 3!" Cait protested.

"From what I've heard, the whole area surrounding Aerith's church is literally starting to glow green."

"And how widespread is the phenomena?"

"A radius of about a hundred meters or so, centered around the church building," Kunsel replied. "The good news is that the affected area seems to be fixed in size. In other words, it's not getting bigger."

"Thank goodness for small favors. The last thing we need is for all of Midgar to dissolve into a massive lake of raw Mako," Cait muttered.

"There's more. The scientists also say there's a sharp dropoff in energy levels once you're outside the affected area." Kunsel paused, then added, "Unnaturally sharp. Almost like a drawn line."

"Damn! That probably means that someone's actively manipulating the Lifestream around Aerith's church."

"Yeah. But who? Or what? And why?" Kunsel demanded.

Cait yanked his ears in frustration. "Those are the big questions, aren't they? And while I'm clueless at the moment about the 'why', I have a few nasty candidates in mind for the 'who' or 'what'."

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(end of Part 5)


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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.


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oOo

Chapter Text

Cloud's reactions might appear a bit... skewed. Yes, I know. Yes, it's deliberate. ^_-

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 6/?
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~6,800
Warnings: mature/dark themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his dead friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

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AUTHOR NOTES:
- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
- The original FFVII game and "Advent Children/Complete" are canon for this fic.
- "Before Crisis" and "Crisis Core" are semi-canon.
- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".
- Various plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., "Dirge of Cerberus", "Last Order" OVA, FFVII web novellas, etc.) may show up.

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CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Redux
A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

Chapter 6

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Text Conventions

( ) and { } and / and / indicate thoughts, mental dialogue, or languages from various characters

[ ] are miscellaneous date or location notes, images, or sound effects


.


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Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica

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[ Healen ]

The WRO military squad was halfway through their sweep of the outbuildings on Healen's northernmost edge when the power and lights finally came back on.

"Sweet!" one soldier said with obvious relief. No one liked the nerve-racking chore of clearing storage buildings and warehouses in the dark with only flashlights, and this particular mission had the added joy of Healen's lush greenery which provided convenient cover for all sorts of hostiles, including nightmarish critters intent on chewing off people's faces.

"Can it, guys. We've still got a job to do," the squad leader said sternly.

The soldiers continued their search, systematically working their way through the squat buildings arranged in a rough semicircle around a paved courtyard area. The night sky was just starting to lighten along the eastern horizon when they heard the low, pitiful moan.

As one, the entire squad tensed and readied their weapons as a door to the last building slowly creaked open and a young woman slowly staggered into view. Under the glare of the harsh exterior floodlights, she looked terrible, with bruises clearly visible against pale skin, and her clothes all torn and bloodied. Long brownish hair that had once been neatly put up in a bun now formed a tangled curtain in front of glassy, unfocused hazel eyes.

With her arms clutched over her stomach, the woman stumbled forward a few steps on bare, badly cut feet, then sagged to her knees.

"...h-he...elp...me...," she whimpered, even as she began rocking back and forth.

The WRO troopers quickly lowered their weapons and ran forward toward her.

"It's okay. We've got you," one of the soldiers said in a soothing tone as he crouched beside her.

Another trooper glanced over at his squad leader and whispered, "Who do you think she is, sir?"

"From that dress suit, probably a member of the clerical staff. I heard several of them were unaccounted for."

As the squad leader radioed for medical assistance, the woman continued to moan hoarsely.

"...ple...ease...it...huuuurts..."

"Help's on the way, lady." The trooper reached out and gently tugged at the arms she continued to hold protectively around her abdomen. When she resisted, he said coaxingly, "C'mon. Relax. I just want to see where you're hurt... Whoa!"

The trooper turned to his squad leader and blurted, "Tell the medical team to hurry up. This poor lady's seriously pregnant!"

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In Healen's medical clinic, the black-haired, katana-wielding Turk known as Serge put away his phone and turned to Dr. Nyx, who was preparing preliminary assessments for the patients awaiting transport to the better equipped medical facilities at WRO headquarters.

He said, "One of the WRO teams reports finding a survivor, one of the secretarial staff. Brown-haired, in her mid-twenties, no ID on her."

Nyx checked her list of missing Shinra personnel, then nodded. "That description matches an Elsa Foster. Any specifics on her condition?"

"No details, aside from the fact that she appears severely traumatized. They've requested a medical team for assistance," Serge replied.

As Nyx began pulling up the woman's medical records, the Turk added, "She's pregnant on top of whatever injuries she might have."

"So there's a possibility of a miscarriage as well," Nyx murmured as she scanned the data scrolling across the monitor.

As he watched the doctor, Serge heard Elena and Jade talking to Rude in a room down the hallway, their voices terse and angry.

Everyone was on edge after Hojo's bloody raids on the ASSRUB facility, Nibelheim, and now Healen. But for the Turks, it wasn't fear but barely controlled fury that prevailed. Not only had Hojo captured Reno, he had gone after Rufus. And while it wasn't confirmed, every hour that went by without any word from Tseng or the President turned the possibility of them being kidnapped by Hojo into a near-certainty.

With his uninjured left hand, Serge reached under his glasses to rub at the bridge of his nose, a rare gesture of frustration and stress for him.

Hojo's involvement - sick, sadistic bastard - added extra layers of urgency to the search for Rufus, Tseng, and Reno. The Turks were all too familiar with the type of monstrosities Hojo was capable of creating, and they already had plenty of experience putting many of those creatures down.

Serge fervently hoped that he and the others wouldn't be forced to use that expertise on the President or their fellow Turks.

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Tifa wasn't surprised that Cloud had taken off on his own. It was his usual way of dealing with troubling issues, and that habit was unlikely to change in anytime soon.

And what happened during his encounter with Kunsel went far beyond 'troubling'. Cloud might be used to having forgotten memories suddenly resurface without warning. But to have those memories completely override his own personality... well, she could only guess how profoundly disturbing the experience must have been for him.

Tifa had known Zack Fair only briefly, but during their short acquaintance in Nibelheim, the SOLDIER First Class had left an indelible impression on her. Bright and cheerful, friendly and confident, Zack had been a striking contrast to the intimidating Sephiroth or the dour menfolk she had grown up with. And from what she could remember, Cloud's... impersonation?... mimicry?... of Zack had been spot-on.

Even as she worried about Cloud and his present state of mind, thinking about Zack caused Tifa to feel a faint pang of regret. Her last meeting with the SOLDIER in the Nibel reactor had been painful, angry, and bitter. It hadn't been Zack's fault that Sephiroth had gone completely insane and murdered virtually everyone she'd known. He had simply been the most convenient target for her fury and grief.

As for Cloud, there wasn't much she or anyone else could do except give him some time to work things out for himself. Oh, she could push, but Tifa knew from experience that too much pressure only caused Cloud to become even more withdrawn.

On the other hand, she wasn't about to let him isolate himself, either. She would make damn sure to remind Cloud that she and his other friends were there to help him deal with his problems, no matter how bad they were.

With that point firmly settled in her mind, Tifa turned her attention back to helping Cait Sith, Kunsel, and the Turks deal with the aftermath of Hojo's attack. While Cid had his hands full with a sudden engine problem on the Shera, she kept herself busy helping wherever she could. For the moment, that meant tending to the walking wounded so that the WRO and Healen medical staff could concentrate on the more severely injured people.

When the report of a survivor came through, followed by an urgent request for medical assistance, Tifa and the emergency medics responded immediately. However, due to the Healen Lodge's rocky terrain, heavy foliage, and scenic winding pathways, it took more time than she liked to reach the area where the female survivor had been found.

The WRO squad looked visibly relieved at their arrival, which was understandable when Tifa and the medics realized that they were dealing with an extremely traumatized and hysterical young woman who also looked like she was about to give birth at any moment.

Tifa stepped out of the way as the medical team rushed forward to deal with the injured woman and spent her time examining the area.

"Did you find anyone or anything else?" she asked the WRO squad leader.

"No, ma'am. We've cleared the buildings twice and even triple-checked the warehouse she came out of. No hostiles and no more survivors," he reported.

Tifa frowned as she surveyed the courtyard and its surrounding buildings. There was something 'off' with the scene, but it took her a while to figure out what was bothering her.

"She looks like a secretary, but this is a storage and utility area. What was she doing way out here?" Before the squad leader could answer, Tifa continued, "I know the obvious answer, that she ran for her life and decided to hide. But how did she get here, and all alone? I mean, look at this place and look at her!"

They both gazed at the steep, thickly forested cliffs that the Healen area was famous for, then at the heavily pregnant woman, still sobbing and rocking, despite the best efforts of the medics to calm her.

"Seems pretty unlikely, when you put it that way. It's a good stiff uphill hike from the main clinic. A woman in her condition would need help to get this far. Could be that one of her colleagues helped her here, then took off without her for whatever reasons."

"Any sign of those monsters? Drag marks? Signs of a struggle?"

The squad leader frowned at Tifa's question, then shook his head. "No, ma'am. There are no indications that the monsters were ever in this area. "

"...clo...ud...clo...ud..."

Tifa turned sharply at the hoarse, tremulous whisper. "What did she just say?"

One of the medics started at Tifa's question, then shrugged. "I'm not sure. Something about a... clue? A clod?"

Tifa walked over and knelt beside the violently shivering woman, who continued to resist all efforts of the medical team to examine her or even move her off the ground.

"...clo...oud...clo...oud..."

"Not 'clod', but 'Cloud'," Tifa corrected the medic quietly. The woman grabbed Tifa by the arm and nodded weakly.

"...fiiind...clooouuud..."

"Cloud? Why would she be talking about clouds?" The medic glanced up at the clear night sky, which was gradually brightening with the approaching sunrise.

Tifa didn't bother to answer the medic. Instead, she reached for her phone.

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Cloud knew that avoiding Kunsel was a cowardly thing to do. But at the moment, the idea of facing the man and everything the SOLDIER represented made his stomach knot.

He had prepared himself for the possibility of anger, scorn, or even hatred from Zack's friends, and had pretty much expected that sort of reaction from them. But he wasn't sure how to deal with the honest confusion in Kunsel's eyes. He knew the other man was full of questions, and as one of Zack's best and most loyal friends, Kunsel deserved at least some honest answers.

Unfortunately, as usual, Cloud was painfully short on answers, especially about what had happened during their first encounter. He couldn't explain why he had spontaneously started talking and acting like Zack. And if he didn't understand why he had suddenly assumed Zack's personality, however briefly, how could he possibly explain it to someone else?

No, that wasn't true.

While he couldn't be certain, he DID have some ideas about what was going on inside his head. The truth was that his uncanny mimicry of Zack, however brief, was just another sign of a growing problem that Cloud had been attempting to ignore since the curing of his Geostigma.

Perhaps it was the immersion in the pool in Aerith's church and the Lifestream energy that it contained, but ever since his fight with Sephiroth, he kept having dreams involving Zack... dreams that came increasingly from Zack's viewpoint and not his own.

He had tried to ignore it, telling himself that the shift in his recent dreams was merely a wierd nostalgic side effect of encountering Zack's spirit.

But his meeting with Zack's friend had changed all that. The sudden surge of Kunsel-related memories he had experienced during that encounter made it shockingly clear that there was something undeniably... different... about those particular memories.

Cloud had naturally assumed that he knew so much about Zack from their time together on the run from Shinra. He would have picked up physical behavior like Zack's body language and fighting style through observation, even though he had been nearly comatose at the time. So it made sense that his intimate knowledge of his friend's past would come from listening to Zack's endless stream of stories and anecdotes.

But stories and anecdotes were just words, secondhand descriptions of past events and experiences. And while the storyteller might include vivid descriptions of sounds, tastes, smells, or even feelings, that's all they were - descriptions and nothing more.

But his recent flood of Zack-related memories were VERY different. They came complete with a full range of physical sensations and emotions associated with them. The familiar sounds and smells of the SOLDIER quarters in the Shinra Building... the fun of playing around with buddies in the virtual reality chambers... the comfort and happiness of being among respected mentors and good friends...

These were places he'd never been, people he'd never met. But he didn't merely know OF them. He KNEW them.

Cloud could think of only two possible explanations. The first was that despite his acceptance of his true identity, a part of his subconscious still stubbornly persisted in clinging to the delusion of being Zack, SOLDIER First Class. In that case, all the associated sensations linked to those 'memories' were merely figments of his imagination, fake details created with the sole purpose of bringing life to Zack's stories and making them feel more 'real'.

As for the second one, it was just as disturbing as the first possibility, and in some ways even worse.

The second possible explanation was that these recent Zack-related memories and their associated sensory details were in fact entirely real, that they were true memories as experienced firsthand by Zack himself... and now those genuine memories were somehow stuck inside HIS head. And how the hell had they gotten there?

Cloud didn't know which possibility frightened him more - that he was again in danger of losing his grip on his real identity, or that there was more of Zack in him than he had ever imagined was possible.

As for trying to find out the truth, the first step was easy enough. All he had to do was work up the courage to ask Kunsel or Zack's other surviving friends to verify or deny various facts from his 'memories'. If they didn't match, then it would be obvious where the problem was - inside Cloud himself and the the part of his mind that was becoming, or always had been, delusional.

But if the factual details did match? What then? That only proved that the physical details of his recent 'memories' involving Zack were accurate. The real test of the authenticity of those 'memories' was whether the inner details - the thoughts and emotions experienced - were true.

Unfortunately, figuring that out was much easier said than done. While other people could confirm the physical, factual details in Zack's stories, they couldn't confirm Zack's state of mind. The only person who knew what Zack had actually thought and felt during those events was Zack himself. And unfortunately, he was dead.

True, the recent battle with Kadaj-turned-Sephiroth and its aftermath showed that Zack was still around, if only in spirit. But that didn't mean Cloud could casually waltz into Aerith's church, start throwing questions at Zack, and expect them to be answered.

And even if Zack's spirit could respond to his questions, what would he, Cloud, do with the answers? Did he really want to know the truth of what was going on inside his head?

"Yes, I do. No more lies. No more secrets. The truth, no matter how much it hurts."

Unfortunately, he couldn't afford to spend time figuring out whether he was merely deluded or somehow carrying a dead friend's memories. With Hojo on the loose, dealing with the mad Jenova-infected scientist, along with trying to find the missing Rufus and Turks, had to be his main priority.

And he couldn't allow himself to be distracted by self-pity or doubt. He had done that before with the Geostigma and virtually everyone - Tifa, Marlene, even Reno! - had called him out on it. People needed him, relied on him, and he would not let them down.

But despite his determination, a niggling voice in Cloud's head whispered, "But what if you're possessed again by Zack's memories, real or fake?"

After his past experiences with Sephiroth and Jenova, the idea of being controlled by someone else's thoughts and will, of being used as a puppet, should have horrified him. The concept DID horrify him, to his very core...

Cloud froze as something stirred in the depths of his mind, a fleeting memory of utter desperation and a fateful decision...

/_There are worse things than becoming a copy of a hero._/

...that vanished just as he became aware of its existence.

But in the wake of that vanished memory, a strange feeling of... relief?... settled over Cloud as his fear and terror faded.

Yes, there was something seriously wrong with him, something that involved possibly losing control of himself. He didn't want that to happen. But if it did... He wasn't afraid, not this time, because unlike the situation with Sephiroth, he didn't have to worry about betraying or endangering his friends. And that realization gave him an almost giddy sense of confidence and security.

And so Cloud found himself answering his own question with a calm nonchalance that startled even himself.

"If I lose myself to those memories, real or fake, it won't change anything. I can trust Zack to do the right thing, regardless of the cost. After all, he IS a hero, and I'm living proof of that."

As Cloud refocused his attention on his immediate task - scouting the area for any remaining traces of Hojo's monsters - his phone rang.

"Tifa?"

"Cloud, we've found one of the missing staff members, a woman. She's alive, but in bad shape, both physically and mentally." Tifa paused, then continued, "Cloud, I think she keeps mumbling your name."

"What? Are you sure?"

"Not absolutely, but that's what it sounds like. Maybe she's just delirious... or she could have something important to tell you."

"Where are you now?"

"Northern edge of Healen. There's a group of storage buildings located along the main ridge," she replied.

"I'll be right there."

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Tifa gave Cloud a relieved smile as he arrived, but it faded when she got a better look at him. Others might not see anything unusual in the confident stride or alert expression, but she could.

She expected the steely determination and resolve in Cloud's eyes. But after the incident with Kunsel, she also expected to see anxiety, tension, and perhaps even a little fear.

But Cloud seemed almost uncannily... calm, almost serene and at peace with himself, which was decidedly strange under the present circumstances.

"He looks like a man who's come to an important decision. One he's not happy about, but one he's comfortable with."

Tifa knew she should feel glad that Cloud wasn't tying himself into emotional knots about the personality shift he experienced with Kunsel. But to be honest, she found it more than a little unsettling because a person should be scared and badly shaken after experiencing something like that.

Unsure of what to make of it, she went forward to meet him and asked very quietly, "Cloud, are you... okay?"

Looking slightly startled at her question, he said, "I'm fine. Why do you ask?"

"You look...?" Tifa's voice trailed away as she struggled to find the right tone. "I just expected you to be a little more upset."

"You mean about what happened with Kunsel?"

"Well, yes."

Tifa expected Cloud to look withdrawn and evasive, something that occurred all too frequently when trying to discuss an uncomfortable topic with him. But this time, he met her gaze steadily, then shrugged.

"I admit it was pretty disturbing and I hope it doesn't happen again."

She waited for him to say more, but when he didn't, she said in a dubious tone, "I... see."

Concern urged her to push for more details. Common sense told her that this was neither the time or place for that sort of personal discussion. It was hard enough to get Cloud to talk about sensitive issues when they were alone. He wasn't about to say anything while surrounded by strangers. Besides, there was the ongoing crisis involving the WEAPONs, Hojo, and Rufus's disappearance to worry about.

As if confirming her own line of thought, Cloud shook his head slightly and said, "We have more urgent things to deal with." He glanced meaningfully at the visibly distraught woman huddled on the ground.

As they both headed back toward the recently discovered victim, the WRO squad leader met them halfway and asked, "Trouble?"

Cloud shook his head, this time more emphatically. "Not that I've heard. What's the story with her?"

Tifa left it to the squad leader to brief Cloud while she returned to the medical team. The young woman - now identified as a junior Shinra secretary called Elsa Foster - continued to stubbornly resist the medics' attempts to examine or comfort her. Tifa sympathized with the obviously traumatized Foster, but also knew that they couldn't leave the poor woman sitting in the dirt. At the same time, they didn't want to be too forceful with her for fear that any additional stress would cause Foster to miscarry or go into premature labor.

As she knelt beside the other woman, Tifa heard the medics discussing the pros and cons of sedating a heavily pregnant and uncooperative patient. Foster remained oblivious to her surroundings, rambling incoherently as she cradled and patted her swollen belly like it was the most precious thing on the Planet.

Tifa still had nagging questions about what exactly happened to the secretary, but that didn't prevent her from feeling a surge of profound pity for the poor woman, so obviously traumatized by the recent attack.

Cloud crouched down beside Tifa, moving slowly in order to avoid frightening Foster further. Before he had a chance to say anything, the secretary lifted her head and fixed her glazed eyes on him.

"...Cloud...," she said in a raspy whisper.

He didn't respond immediately, except for giving the woman an oddly cautious look in return.

"...Cloud," Foster repeated, her voice becoming stronger, her tone more emphatic. She slowly reached out with quivering fingers in his direction.

He didn't react to her appeal, but instead remained very still, his expression a combination of pity and uncertainty.

Tifa frowned. Sickness could make certain people uneasy, but Cloud wasn't one of them. He had taken care of Denzel and Marlene plenty of times with no problems or complaints. Perhaps it was the woman's obvious state of pregnancy that was throwing him off-balance?

Seeing Foster's reaction, one of the medics said, "Good, good. She's responding to you. Maybe you can get her to..."

Without warning, the pavement of the courtyard erupted as a horde of man-sized insectoid monsters exploded out of the ground with clawed limbs flailing and slashing.

Cloud was instantly on his feet, his main sword - the First Tsurugi - drawn.

"Tifa, get her and the medical team to safety!" he shouted.

"Right!"

Even as Cloud drew a second sword with his left hand and charged the approaching monsters, Tifa began herding the medical team toward the nearest building. When Foster still refused to budge, Tifa snapped at the medics, "We don't have a choice. Just pick her up and carry her!"

Glancing behind her, Tifa noted with relief that the WRO soldiers was sensibly staying the hell out of Cloud's way. Leaving the larger, more dangerous mantis-type creatures to Cloud, the squad provided cover for the medical team by picking off the smaller monsters emerging from the nearby undergrowth.

Tifa and the others had almost reached the safety of a sturdy warehouse when a beast with large bony bludgeons for arms shambled forward to block their way.

The monster was the size of a truck, but since it was also slow, Tifa had no trouble taking it down hard. A swift kick knocked a flailing arm-bludgeon aside, leaving the torso wide open for a series of hard punches that sent it staggering. A final stomp on the skull made sure that it would stay down.

She turned to see how Cloud was doing. The mantis-like monsters were intimidating to behold, covered with vicious spines and wielding massive scythe-like claws, but Cloud had dealt with much worse and in greater numbers. With a sword in each hand, he dodged, blocked, and slashed, sending chitinous limbs and greenish blood flying everywhere.

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In Healen Lodge's clinic, Nyx abruptly leaned forward toward the monitor, her eyes narrowing.

"Serge, are you sure about the survivor's description or about her being pregnant?"

With a frown, the Turk said, "That's what the WRO team reported. What's the problem?" He quickly walked over to examine the computer screen for himself.

Nyx tapped the monitor with a short, well-manicured fingernail and said, "See for yourself. There are no records that would indicate that Foster is in the advanced stages of pregnancy."

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From behind Tifa, one of the WRO soldiers shouted, "Hey lady! Get back here!"

She whirled around just in time to see a squad member grab at Foster and miss. The woman had snapped out of her near-catatonic state at the worst possible moment and was now rushing directly toward the area where Cloud and the monsters fought in a deadly dance of slashing steel and raking claws.

As Foster bolted past her, Tifa reached out to stop the other woman. Even as she realized that Foster was moving much too fast for a normal human, much less a heavily pregnant one, Tifa received a backhanded swipe that knocked her completely off her feet and sent her flying into the surrounding woods.

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"Cloud!"

Two female voices shouted his name. One he recognized instantly as Tifa's, the other was unfamiliar.

He turned just as Foster barreled into him. It took just a fraction of a second for his brain to shift gears and realize that the helpless victim had suddenly become a possible threat.

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Far away in his newly acquired lair, Hojo smirked and cackled to himself as he sprung his trap.

Heroes.

SO pathetically predictable.

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Foster's hand clamped down on Cloud's right arm with inhuman strength. Before he could jerk himself free, her other arm stretched into a long muscular tentacle and wrapped itself around his waist. At the same time, her mouth split into a gaping maw lined with multiple rows of needle sharp teeth and her chalky white skin morphed into mottled green scales. As she held Cloud in an obscene embrace, she crooned his name, almost lovingly.

"...Clooouuud..."

Then the writhing scaled monstrosity who had once been a pretty young woman called Elsa exploded in Cloud's face.

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Even before she landed, Tifa began swearing furiously at herself and Hojo.

Not merely an ambush, but a trap. A goddamn fucking trap.

And she had not only walked right into it, but she gotten Cloud caught as well.

"Why didn't I see it before?"

She heaved herself out of a tangle of vines and bushes, spat out a stray leaf, and stormed up the steep wooded slope back toward Cloud.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid! We even talked about the possibility of Hojo being able to control humans with Jenova cells on the flight here from Nibelheim! How could I completely forget about that?"

Tifa was still cursing and fighting her way out of the claustrophobic undergrowth when she heard the explosion. It wasn't particularly loud or powerful. Instead, the muted boom sounded oddly 'wet'.

She quickened her pace, ignoring the sting of branches as they slapped her skin. She was almost clear of the trees when she saw Cloud and the WRO personnel standing in the courtyard, all heavily splattered with a dark syrupy liquid. Roiling black vapor rose from the ominous-looking fluid, flowed down their bodies, then settled into a thick murky blanket of mist that carpeted the ground.

Tifa saw Cloud stagger a few steps, both swords slipping out of suddenly lax hands, then he crumpled to the ground without a word. But as shocking as Cloud's collapse was, that was nothing compared to what happened next. After a brief, stunned silence, the liquid-splattered WRO personnel started to scream and claw desperately at themselves as their flesh simply... melted.

Tifa could only stare, horrified, as she watched chunks of skin and muscle liquify, then slide off bones like hot melted wax. The gruesome process seemed to take forever, but in less than a minute, all that was left of the WRO troopers and medics were skeletons inside intact uniforms sprawled amid pools of reddish... slime.

She gagged, but managed to fight down the urge to vomit, then glanced frantically back at the motionless Cloud, and nearly cried in relief when she saw that the corrosive liquid and vapor hadn't done the same sort of flesh-eating damage to Cloud's body, even though he was lying in the middle of and probably breathing the horrifying stuff.

Having seen what the black mist was capable of, Tifa knew better than to rush recklessly toward Cloud. By now, the ground-hugging mass of toxic vapor had engulfed the entire courtyard, cutting her off from Cloud and trapping the few WRO survivors inside the nearest building.

Tifa called out, "Are you guys okay!"

She recognized the voice of one of the medics as he shouted back in a shaky voice, "Yeah, mostly! Got a couple of people in here with some real nasty burns, though. What the FUCK is that stuff!"

"No clue. Is there a back way out of that building?"

"Don't think so." A pause, a faint murmur of discussion. "No other doors or windows." Another pause. "I'll tell you right now. We are NOT going out in that stuff!"

They had all seen the deadly fog transform human beings into piles of bones and red sludge in a matter of seconds, so Tifa didn't blame the survivors hiding inside the warehouse in the least for not wanting to budge from their refuge. It didn't help that the corrosive mist continued to grow in size as the last remains of the dark syrupy liquid continued to evaporate.

And who knew what the vapor might be doing to Cloud, lying helpless in the middle of that mist...

"Okay, then stay put and call for help!"

She first tried shouting Cloud's name, hoping that she could rouse him long enough to pull himself out of the hellish flesh-eating fog. She thought she saw a slight twitch of a leg, a small quiver of a hand, but he was otherwise completely unresponsive. Still, those tiny motions meant that Cloud was still alive.

"Okay, time for plan B," Tifa muttered. She needed a way to clear the flesh-dissolving fog away from the area, and fast.

"Where's an Aero materia when you really need it?"

Even as Tifa contemplated her options - if she wasn't very careful, the magic she used could interact unpredictably with the mist ands make a dangerous situation even worse - the shadow of something passed over her.

She looked up just in time to see a large dragon-like creature fold its wings and drop with surprising delicacy onto the courtyard. Forced to retreat hastily as the beast's arrival caused a massive ripple in the black mist covering the ground, Tifa noticed that the creature was apparently immune to the effect of the flesh-eating vapor.

"Why am I not surprised? I bet Hojo personally designed this whole ambush from start to finish!"

It landed not on the usual draconic legs, but on eight or more heavily muscled tentacles. Tifa expected the monster to attack Cloud while he was helpless. Instead, it used several smaller tendrils to scoop up the unconscious Cloud, unfurled its massive membranous wings, then launched itself skyward with its prisoner before Tifa could interfere.

As Cloud was hauled into the air, his sword harness, weakened by the corrosive mist, gave way. Tifa only caught the briefest glimpse of the remaining four blades as they fell in a cascade of steel. Even before they landed near Cloud's other two swords, she was gone, running for her life as the gusts from the monster's wings sent the flesh-eating vapor billowing and swirling in every direction.

But even with her speed and reflexes, she couldn't completely outrun the ravaging effects of the deadly fog. Tifa screamed as searing pain washed up the back of her bare legs and arms. And she was not alone, as the agonized cries of wild animals also caught by the lethal cloud echoed in her ears.

Closing her eyes tightly, she jumped blindly toward the sound of flowing water, hoping that the stream or pool would be deep enough to protect her from the roiling clouds of caustic mist that now flooded the woods. Behind her, she heard the fading screams of the remaining WRO members trapped in the warehouse.

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Onboard the Shera, Cid was irritably demanding to know how the hell did something resembling raw ground meat end up inside one of the Shera's engines when the airship suddenly shook violently.

"What the FUCK!" Cid roared as he leapt for the stairs. Emerging onto the bridge, he could hear the deep roar of Chaise's shotgun, mixed with ear-piercing avian shrieks.

"Cid! We've got company!" the Turk yelled over the intercom.

"No shit!" he snapped, even as he grabbed for his spear. "Where the hell are you!"

"Rear loading bay! But they're topside as well, near the engines!" Chaise's last words were nearly drowned out by the sound of her shotgun.

"You got things under control down there!"

"I'm fine! Take out the ones on top!"

As he reached the Shera's topside, Cid caught a glimpse of several groups of monsters, fleeing across the sky in different directions, then he had to concentrate on fending off a horde of giant green and purple wasps.

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Tifa hit the surface of the stream with a splash and dove deep. The water was cold, but she had grown up in the Nibel mountains with their notoriously icy mountain streams. Besides, the chill helped ease the pain from her poison-scalded skin. From underwater, she could see other creatures landing in the stream as they followed her in their frantic attempt to escape Hojo's flesh-melting vapor.

She held her breath as long as she could, then surfaced to take a cautious gasp of air. Relieved to find that the only ache in her chest was from a lack of oxygen, Tifa allowed herself to relax...

...just in time to find herself going over one of the many waterfalls that dotted Healen's landscape.

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(end of Part 6)


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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.


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oOo

Chapter Text

With these shorter chapters, the story is progressing more slowly than I expected, but hopefully the chapters will be coming out more often. ^_^;

And for those who are wondering, Sephiroth will be showing up in person with the next 2-3 chapters. So hang in there!

Enjoy!

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 7
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~8,900
Warnings: mature/dark themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his dead friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

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AUTHOR NOTES:
-- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
-- The original FFVII game and "Advent Children/Complete" are canon for this fic.
-- "Before Crisis" and "Crisis Core" are semi-canon.
-- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".
-- Various plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., "Dirge of Cerberus", "Last Order" OVA, FFVII web novellas, etc.) may show up.

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Text Conventions

( ) and { } and / and // indicate thoughts, mental dialogue, or languages from various characters

[ ] are miscellaneous date or location notes, images, or sound effects

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Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica

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[ Healen ]

While Kunsel wasn't up to Cloud's level, the man had a clean, efficient fighting style and plenty of skill, so Cid was grateful for the SOLDIER's unexpected help in clearing Hojo's monsters off the Shera. He didn't know Kunsel's rank in SOLDIER, but from this fight alone, Cid could tell that the other man was better than the other First Class SOLDIERs he and the others had encountered two years before.

As the two of them were disposing of the last few creatures, Kunsel's cellphone rang.

"Reeve? What's...?" Kunsel glanced over at Cid. "He's standing right here... sure, just a sec."

The SOLDIER activated the speakerphone function so Cid could also clearly hear the urgency in Reeve's voice.

"Cid! We've got big trouble!"

"Tell me about it! The Shera just got mobbed by a bunch of monsters. Hojo's, I bet. And...."

"That wasn't the only surprise Hojo left for us. Cloud's been abducted and Tifa is missing!"

"What the FUCK?!" Cid bellowed, drowning out Kunsel's quieter, but no less furious curse.

"I'm short on details at the moment. All I've got is a panicky report from some WRO survivors around the northern edge of the Healen area. Kunsel, I need you to grab Cait Sith and check it out ASAP. He'll brief you on the way. People in hazmat gear will be following."

"On it," the SOLDIER said. Without another word, he stashed both sword and phone, jumped off the airship, and hit the ground running.

In the meantime, Cid's own phone rang. He grabbed at it and demanded, "Reeve?"

"Cid, while you were fighting onboard the Shera, did you see any monsters leaving the area? The survivors reported that Cloud was carried off by a large dragon-like creature."

"Yeah, I did. Actually, there were several groups of critters, but they all took off in different directions."

"Most of them were probably decoys, to keep us from following the right one."

Cid was only half-listening to Reeve. He was thinking about the puzzling chunk of ground flesh oh-so-conveniently fouling up the Shera's engines... then everything fell into place.

"Hojo, you sly, sick son of a bitch!" Cid snarled under his breath.

"What are you talking about?" Reeve demanded.

"He made sure we couldn't chase after Cloud, even if we knew which group of monsters to follow! That engine malfunction I was checking on? I'm now pretty sure that it was caused by some of Hojo's monsters crawling into the machinery!"

"How bad is the damage, and how soon can you get the Shera running again?"

"Nothing permanent, but it's going to take time to pull the engines apart and clean all the gunk out of them. A couple of hours, at least. Under normal circumstances, more of a hassle than anything else. But in this case.... And what the hell did you mean by 'hazmat gear'?"

"From what I can tell, Hojo managed to set off some sort of poison and/or acid bomb. It knocked Cloud out cold. Everyone else got their flesh melted right off their bones."

"What the... MELTED?"

"Yes. The survivors kept babbling about pools of bloody sludge."

"Holy shit! What about Cloud?"

"Whatever the black stuff was, it didn't have the same flesh-melting effect on Cloud or any of Hojo's own monsters. Which makes perfect sense if Hojo wanted Cloud captured alive. Cid, Hojo could've killed Cloud right then and there. But he didn't. I think that both you and I know what that probably means," Reeve said grimly.

"Yeah. What about Tifa?"

"When the beast carrying Cloud took off, the turbulence from its wings scattered the poison all over the place. Those survivors were inside a warehouse, but still got hit hard. Most of them have severe chemical burns to their skin, lungs, and eyes. That should give you some idea how potent that poison is."

Reeve took a deep breath, before continuing. "As for Tifa, she was outdoors, fully exposed, when that all happened. The survivors think that they heard a scream coming from the surrounding woods. And that's all I know at the moment."

"Fuck!" Cid furiously kicked the closest monster corpse. "Do you need me down there?"

"Not at the moment. Concentrate on getting the Shera up and running. She's the fastest transportation we've got and we're going to need her."

"Have you told the guys at Nibelheim about Cloud?"

"Not yet. I want to get more details before I contact them. I don't want to distract them just yet. Besides, I already have something important for them to do."

"Like what?"

"Checking on Barret." Before Cid could ask, Reeve hastily added, "I don't think it has anything to do with Hojo. Some sort of mine accident or cave-in at the coal mines. Minimal injuries, but I want someone to make sure the rescue's going smoothly. Since Nibelheim is a lot closer to Corel...."

"We've all got our jobs to do, then. But shit, Reeve! That fuckhead Hojo's been five steps ahead of us all along. And it's seriously pissing me off!"

"Tell me about it." Reeve's tone, although quieter, was just as angry as Cid's. "Unfortunately, judging from the evidence Vincent and Nanaki found up north, Hojo's probably had weeks, if not months, to plot his schemes. So unless we catch a lucky break, I'm afraid we're stuck chasing after him."

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In the woods surrounding the ambush site, Kunsel pulled off his glove and cautiously ran a fingertip along a leaf covered in black dust. His flesh stung sharply for an instant, then went numb. But aside from the lack of sensation, he experienced no other symptoms from the remains of the black mist that had so recently blanketed the area.

He glanced over at Dr. Nyx, who stood in the middle of the courtyard safely encased in her hazmat suit. As she directed similarly garbed medical staff as they investigated the contaminated site, other personnel were busy tending to the WRO survivors in the warehouse.

"It's nasty stuff all right, but I've encountered worse," he commented, carefully dusting off his hands and pulling his glove back on.

Nyx nodded. "Our preliminary tests indicate that the toxin breaks down fairly rapidly when exposed to air. In a few days, it should be harmless. But at the moment, it's still strong enough to cause severe chemical burns to ordinary people and animals."

"Any signs of Jenova cells?"

"Not in the toxin itself. There are definite traces of J-cells in the monster bodies scattered around this area, which links them to the creatures in the earlier attacks on Healen and the specimen storage facility. No question that Hojo's responsible for this attack."

The doctor glanced around at the mangled bodies of the large mantis-type monsters littering the courtyard, especially their vicious slashing claws, then added drily, "If he did all this on his own, Reeve's friend Cloud must be an exceptional fighter."

"So I've heard. And from what the commissioner's told me, Cloud's faced off against Sephiroth on several occasions and been the one to walk away."

Nyx raised an eyebrow. "But he's not a SOLDIER, or at least he's not an official member."

"And how would you know that?" Kunsel asked mildly. "I didn't realize you guys in the Genetics Division kept such a close eye on SOLDIER's roster."

Behind the plastic face shield of her protective gear, she gave Kunsel a faintly amused smile. "Since we worked in the background so much, people tend to forget about us. For your information, Shinra's Genetics Division has been collecting DNA data on everyone in Shinra for years, but especially the candidates for SOLDIER."

"Really? What for?" Kunsel said, his curiosity clearly piqued.

"Originally our research group was set up to study the genetic relationship between Ancients and humans, using computer models and such. But the President eventually became impatient with theory and demanded a more hands-on approach to the research. The Genetic Division ended up providing specialized analytical expertise for the entire Science Department, especially for the more prominent research projects."

"Like Project Jenova and SOLDIER?"

"Exactly. That's why I know that Cloud Strife applied several times to the SOLDIER program, but was repeatedly rejected."

"Not a good candidate, huh? Why not?"

"He scored rather poorly on the psychological evaluations," Nyx replied simply. She might have said more, but abruptly held up her hand and reached into a pocket for her phone. She glanced at the screen, then said, "Excuse me, but I'm getting some reports from the lab."

Kunsel left the doctor to her text messages, then turned to question a WRO soldier, also dressed in hazmat gear, emerging from the woods surrounding the courtyard.

"Find any sign of Ms. Lockhart?" Kunsel demanded.

"No, sir. We've found bunches of dead animals. Or what's left of them, anyway. But nothing that might be human remains."

"Then widen your search area. If she's injured, we need to find her ASAP."

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[ Junon ]

In one of the shanty buildings underneath Junon, Roissy read the new text message, courtesy of an anonymous sender, and nearly flung her phone across the room, but the stabbing pain in her left shoulder stopped her.

Instead, she stood in the middle of the neat but dilapidated bedroom, chest heaving.

"What the hell?!" she hissed in fury. "'Cloud captured by Hojo'?!"

She wracked her memory, trying to remember how much Hojo had known about Project S2. Zack's escape from Nibelheim had led to Hojo's discovery of the project's existence. The idea of ANY Jenova-related research going on behind his back had infuriated Hojo. That, and the loss of the only two specimens, had forced the shutdown of the project.

But Hojo had never bothered to learn the exact details of Project S2. Or had something changed? Had it finally dawned on Hojo that the secret research he had so carelessly dismissed all those years ago might have achieved something significant? Was Cloud's capture mere coincidence, or was Hojo suddenly trying to get his hands on HER prototype? HER prototype who could go toe-to-toe with his precious Sephiroth?

If Montessi going rogue on her wasn't bad enough, now that slimy Hojo was attempting to steal HER precious research?

Roissy heard footsteps on the stairs, and hastily sank back down on the bed.

"Uh, Miss Ross? Are you okay?"

Roissy smiled weakly at the young girl standing in the doorway and said, "I'm fine, Priscilla," in a brave voice that made it clear that she wasn't fine at all.

The girl shuffled in place for a moment, then said, "I really think that you need to go up to Junon and get checked out by a real doctor...."

"I am a real doctor, dear," Roissy said sweetly. She put on a frightened expression and said in the most pitiful tone she could manage, "I told you that I'm afraid. Someone up there tried to kill me. If you tell anyone that I'm still alive, they'll surely come after me and try to finish me off!"

She beckoned the girl closer so she could clutch at Priscilla's hands. "You need to keep my presence here a secret from everybody. No matter who comes asking. Shinra, Junon security, or the WRO. Understand?"

"Uh... okay, I guess," Priscilla said hesitantly.

"That's a good girl." She patted Priscilla on the head. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm feeling rather tired."

Roissy felt relieved when the silly girl took the hint and left her alone. She really couldn't take any more of those rambling stories about that stupid Mr. Dolphin. As she lay on the rickety old bed, the injured scientist brooded darkly about Hojo, her sister, and revenge.

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[ Nibelheim ]

In the basement of the dilapidated Shinra Mansion, Shalua Rui, Yuffie, Vincent, and Nanaki steadily worked their way through the piles of papers and books scattered throughout the lab areas.

Unsurprisingly, Vincent took it upon himself to go through Lucrecia's old lab. He hadn't lingered, staying only long enough to determine that its contents didn't involve Sephiroth, Hojo, or Jenova in any significant way.

As for the rest.... It was obvious that Lucretia's involvement in the experiments performed upon his body troubled Vincent deeply. He was even more taciturn and aloof than usual, showing up only briefly to drop off any documents he found.

Since Nanaki's eyes didn't handle printed text too well and his paws weren't designed for handling delicate sheets of paper, he also took on the job of search and retrieval. Whoever had cleared out the newly discovered lab area at the south end of the basement had done a thorough job, so he soon returned to the library in the older, north end of the basement to give Shalua and Yuffie whatever assistance he could.

The documents were being sorted into various piles based on their potential relevance. Yuffie turned out to be unusually helpful because she had apparently acquired a surprising amount of medical knowledge in the last two years. When asked, Yuffie had muttered something vague about researching Geostigma in Wutai and left it at that.

"Hm... background information. Project S. Project S. Reunion Theory. Background. Irrelevant. Sephiroth Clones. Dr. Gast. Project S," Shalua read off briskly, dumping the documents onto the appropriate stacks or shelves.

At the other end of the library, Yuffie was busily occupied doing the same, until she suddenly said, "Hey, I found a few more sheets talking about a 'Project S2' stashed in the big desk."

"Does it have anything to do with Sephiroth or Hojo? Any information on specific locations?" Shalua said in a distracted tone, as she skimmed through another book.

Yuffie quickly flipped through the loose pages. "I don't think so. It mentions some stuff about Jenova cells and prototypes, but there's no mention of Hojo or Sephiroth. No date, either, so I can't tell how it relates timewise. But it would make sense that 'Project S' and 'Project S2' would be related, right?"

"Probably, although it's hard to say. Project Jenova had more offshoots and sub-projects than I ever realized. Find a spot for them and I'll take a closer look later."

"All right," Yuffie said with a shrug, then tensed as Vincent suddenly appeared in the doorway, his expression grim.

"We have trouble."

"What happened?" Yuffie demanded.

Vincent's report was brutally concise -- an ambush in Healen, Cloud abducted by Hojo, and Tifa missing.

"Then what the hell are we waiting for?!" Yuffie yelled, dashing for the door. However, Vincent put out an arm to block her way.

"Rushing back to Healen isn't going to help Cloud or Tifa. Reeve and the others have the current situation under control," he said flatly.

"But...!"

"We need to finish our work here in Nibelheim."

"But...!"

"Cid and the others don't have a clue where Hojo might have taken Cloud," Vincent said bluntly. "Our presence won't enable them to find Cloud or Hojo any faster."

"But...!"

"The information we need might be hidden here in Nibelheim. Even if it isn't, any information we gather on Hojo or Sephiroth may be vitally important. They need us HERE."

Yuffie turned toward Nanaki and said, "C'mon, help me out here!"

Nanaki, his flaming tail angrily whipping back and forth, was silent, then finally said, "Sorry, but I have to agree with Vincent. I think we'd do more good searching for clues here than running off to join Cid and the others."

"BUT...!" Yuffie's voice rose into a near-wail.

It was Shalua who interrupted this time. In a firm voice, she said, "Yuffie, it'll take me forever to go through all these papers by myself. I NEED your help here."

Outvoted, Yuffie let her shoulders sag in defeat, then threw up her hands. "Fine. You guys win. I guess we're stuck here until we get this mess taken care of." She turned to Vincent, just in time to see him walking out of the library.

"Hey! After all that, where the hell do you think you're going?!" she shouted at him.

Vincent paused briefly, glanced over his shoulder at her, and said, "I need to head over to Corel to check on Barret. There's a situation at the mine and he's been out of touch for too long. I should be back shortly."

"Wha...? Barret? Mine?"

But Vincent ignored the angrily sputtering Yuffie and continued on his way.

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After a brief bout of sulkiness, Yuffie had soon returned to work-mode. But her earlier casual mood was gone, replaced by intensely focused concentration and a new sense of urgency.

But it was Nanaki who uncovered the secret stash of reports in the library, crammed into a well hidden wall safe.

"Why were they hidden away like that?" Yuffie wondered aloud as she helped Nanaki pull the papers from the narrow safe and spread them out on a table. "Considering that Hojo and his crew left everything else just lying around in the open."

"I'm not sure. But all these reports were specifically written for Hojo." Shalua picked up one report, its cover smeared with dark, reddish brown stains.

"Is that blood?" Yuffie asked, wrinkling her nose.

Shalua lightly rubbed her finger across a stain and watched little brownish flakes fall off the thick paper cover. "I'm not sure."

Nanaki sniffed at Shalua's fingers and said, "It's blood, but quite old."

"The title is 'Genetic Analysis of Jenova'... oh, wow," Yuffie muttered, as she took the report for Shalua and glanced over the report cover. "You were right about the report being written for Hojo, but this is actually a secret copy sent to Dr. Gast! Look, there's even a handwritten note talking about interviews with Aerith's mother Ifalna!"

"Dr. Gast, the former Head of Shinra's Science Department? Hojo's predecessor?" Nanaki asked, startled.

"That's right. And there's a notation here that this copy was recovered from Icicle Inn!"

As Yuffie rapidly did some math in her head, Shalua said, "I don't understand the significance of all this."

"Damn, the date fits!" Yuffie stared down at the report. "This blood... it's probably Gast's!"

Nanaki poked his head over Yuffie's arm to get a better look. "You mean, from when Hojo and his men raided Icicle Inn, killed Gast, then captured Aerith and her mother?"

"Exactly! Going by the date on this, Aerith would have been barely a month old when this report was 'recovered' from Icicle Inn," Yuffie said, flicking her finger against the stained paper.

"What's the report about?" Nanaki demanded.

"Let's see," Shalua said briskly, grabbing the report. With Yuffie hovering impatiently over one shoulder, Shalua quickly flipped to the summary page.

A few minutes of silence followed, then Shalua said, "Fascinating! According to this, Jenova is a fusion between an extraterrestrial lifeform and an Ancient."

"Well, duh. Calamity from the sky, alien space bitch, and all that," Yuffie said. "We already know all that."

"A fusion between Jenova and an ANCIENT, Yuffie."

"I'm still not sure what the big deal is with...."

"Yuffie, Shalua. I think you should look at this."

The two women turned and peered over Nanaki's furry head as he carefully turned the pages of another, extremely thick document from the hidden stash.

"'Recommended Candidates for Project S'? What the...?" Yuffie muttered.

Nanaki said somberly, "This report discusses the optimum combination of maternal and paternal candidates for producing a viable subject for Project S."

"Maternal and paternal... as in 'mother' and 'father'? Are you saying that we're looking at a report about Sephiroth's parents?"

"His possible parents." Nanaki pointed out a line of text with a careful claw. "For the mother, the recommendation is 'LC'. 'LC', for Lucrecia Crescent." Before Yuffie could say anything, Nanaki said, "I already looked it up in the report's appendices."

"Okay, no surprise there," Yuffie said impatiently. "We already know that Lucrecia was Sephiroth's mother, just like we know that Hojo is Sephiroth's father."

Nanaki shook his head and pointed out two more sections of the summary page. "Not exactly."

"Not exactly?" Yuffie grabbed the report and read the specified paragraphs... then she read them again. And finally, she read them yet a third time before allowing Shalua to pry the paper from her slack fingers.

"Are you kidding me? TWO paternal donors? Not just 'Subject H', but 'Subject V'? 'V', as in...?" Yuffie said, still not quite believing it.

Shalua flipped to the cover of the report, and read the note scribbled on it in Hojo's easily recognizable scrawl. "Yes, 'Subject V' as in 'Valentine'. After multiple failures, it looks like Hojo was willing to do anything to beat this Dr. Hollander, even if it meant mixing his genes with your friend Vincent's."

"But how can a person have TWO fathers?" Yuffie demanded.

"Paternal donors, Yuffie. All it takes is some careful gene splicing, combined with artificial insemination. The technology's been around for decades and has been tried on livestock with limited success. But I've never heard of anyone attempting it on human beings."

"From the note, it looks like Hojo was sure willing to try." Yuffie grabbed her head. "It was hard enough to wrap my head around the idea of Hojo and Lucrecia having sex. But this? I'm not sure if it's better or worse!"

"No wonder Hojo lied about being Sephiroth's father."

"Well, it's not a complete lie, technically speaking," Shalua murmured in response to Nanaki's statement.

Yuffie waved a dismissive hand. "Maybe not, but Hojo sure tried his best to make it appear that he was the sole male donor involved. I'm just surprised he didn't destroy this report to hide his tracks." She uttered a relieved sigh. "And I'm glad Vincent wasn't around when we found it."

"Oh?"

"Discovering Lucrecia's lab and her experiments on him was bad enough. Finding out that there's a good chance that he, however unknowingly, helped to create Sephiroth?" Yuffie winced.

"From that, I'm assuming that you don't plan to show him that report." Shalua's tone was neutral.

Yuffie stared down at her shoes, then eventually said, "I don't really see why we need to. Sephiroth's paternity pretty much seems moot at this point. And it would only make Vincent feel even worse about the whole thing." Yuffie glanced over at Nanaki.

"I suppose you have a point," he agreed with obvious reluctance.

"Fine, then let's find a place to hide this doorstopper before Vincent returns." Shalua eyed the massive report. "I suppose we can just stick it back where we found it."

It turned out that the other reports from the safe were similar in nature to the first two. Some clearly linked Jenova to the legendary 'calamity from the sky', while others contained detailed information on Lucrecia's pregnancy and Sephiroth's prenatal development. In other words, they represented a tidy record of Hojo's lies, schemes, and manipulations throughout the years.

As she crammed the documents related to Sephiroth's parentage back into the safe, Yuffie muttered, "It's a damn shame that Sephiroth didn't have a chance to read any of these reports."

"What do you mean?" Shalua asked as she returned to her sorting.

"Cloud said that Sephiroth went nuts because he believed that Jenova was his 'mother' and that she was an Ancient that had been betrayed by humans. Supposedly everything Sephiroth read in this library supported that delusion. But these reports definitely don't do that and even flat out contradict those crazy delusions of his."

"Do you think this information would have changed his mind or prevented his descent into madness?" Nanaki said curiously.

Shalua added, "Perhaps Sephiroth found these reports, but in his insanity, he chose to ignore them."

Yuffie sighed as she closed the wall safe. "You could be right. But it makes one wonder, doesn't it? What if things had been just a little different and Sephiroth hadn't gone completely bonkers?" She scowled. "Cloud wouldn't have suffered so much, Aerith and so many others would still be alive...."

With a sharp flick of the wrist, Yuffie spun the dial to lock the safe. "Sephiroth sane, and maybe even a good guy. Yeah, I know. What a stupid idea."

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[ Healen ]

Late that morning, several hours after Cloud's kidnapping, amid the rapidly increasing anxiety, anger, and frustration, some good news finally arrived -- Tifa had been found near one of Healen's famous scenic waterfall pools, injured but alive.

When Kunsel, with Cait Sith clinging to his shoulders, arrived on the scene, a medical team was already there, working on Tifa as she lay on her stomach on a stretcher, the backs of her legs and arms raw, blistered, and oozing.

"I kept using my heal materia. It helped, but the blisters kept coming back," she told the medics in an exhausted, but coherent voice.

"Your ride through the waterfall washed most of the corrosive material away. Unfortunately, some of it remained deep in the wounds," the lead doctor said. "Your materia can heal the damage caused by the residual toxin, but it can't eliminate or neutralize the toxin itself. That's why your injuries keep reappearing."

Cait Sith jumped off Kunsel to stand beside Tifa's stretcher and said, "Healen's clinic is very well equipped. Dr. Nyx says that the antidotes they've got here are effective against Hojo's poison. We'll get you and the other WRO guys fixed up in a jiffy."

"Good." She took a controlled breath, then quietly asked, "And what about Cloud?"

Kunsel crouched down beside Cait Sith. "We're looking. Unfortunately, we've had no luck so far."

Tifa closed her eyes briefly, then murmured, "...my fault."

"Tifa, don't...."

"Cloud knew. That pregnant woman. He KNEW there was something wrong, something 'off' about her, but I brushed it off."

"Cloud knew?" Cait Sith exchanged quick glance with Kunsel.

"Maybe not consciously, but he sensed it. And if that wasn't enough warning, she said his name. Several times, clear as day. I should've realized it was a trap right then and there. I should've kept a closer eye on that woman, stopped her from getting to Cloud. But I didn't. I should've been watching his back, but I got careless and I didn't!" Her fists clenched, and the tensed muscles caused the blisters on her arms to tear and bleed.

"Calm down, Tifa!" Cait Sith said firmly, as one of the medics made a tsking sound at Tifa's reopened wounds. "You had your hands full protecting the WRO team. And no one had any idea that Hojo could -- or would -- turn a person into a living bomb. So don't blame yourself for what happened to Cloud."

Tifa merely sighed and closed her eyes.

Cait Sith gestured the medical team to transport her back to the Healen clinic. As Kunsel and Cait Sith watched them leave, Kunsel said, "Is she going to be okay? About what happened to Cloud, I mean."

"I think it's the pain and exhaustion talking. Tifa's a sensible young woman. Once her wounds get treated properly and she gets some rest, she'll be able to think more clearly and put the blame on the person who really deserves it -- Hojo."

Cait Sith gave Kunsel a wry grin. "Now if Tifa had been the one kidnapped instead of Cloud, that would be a different story."

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In the early afternoon, after her initial treatment was complete, Tifa insisted on immediately telling her friends everything she knew about Hojo's ambush and the details of Cloud's abduction. So everyone gathered in the main clinic -- Cait Sith, Kunsel, Cid, and the Turks -- to listen to Tifa and share whatever information they had.

When Tifa finished her side of things, Cid curled his lip and muttered, "That Hojo's fucking smooth. Who'd suspect some poor pregnant woman? Of course everyone's going to fall over themselves to help her and treat her with velvet gloves!"

Elena commented, "And any strange behavior on her part could easily be excused as hysteria."

"So there's no question that Cloud was the intended target of the ambush all along," Chaise said. "Not with the woman calling his name like that." She glanced at her fellow Turks. "I'm starting to wonder if Hojo had more than one target in mind from the very beginning when he attacked Healen."

Cait Sith, sitting on a nearby table, angrily pounded a fisted paw against the table top. "In hindsight, it's obvious. Rufus wasn't merely a target -- his kidnapping was used as bait to lure Cloud here so he could be captured alive and undamaged."

"But why go through so much trouble to grab Cloud?" Elena asked. "Why not just kill him when he's totally helpless?"

"Hojo may be crazy, but he usually does things for a purpose, even if we don't understand it." Tifa said in a tight voice. "He obviously has a use for Cloud, just like he has a use for Rufus, Reno, and anyone else he chooses to capture alive. Experiment, tool, whatever."

"But how the fuck would Hojo know that we'd...." Cid smacked himself in the forehead and answered his own question. "The bastard's somehow got eyes on us. Spies, watchers, whatever. Hojo already knows that if there's big trouble involving him and/or Jenova, we and especially Cloud are sure to come running to investigate."

"Exactly." Cait Sith asked Cid, "Are the repairs on the Shera finished?"

"Yeah, she's up and running just fine. Only problem being that we don't have any frickin' idea where the hell we need to go!"

"Yes, that's definitely a problem," Cait Sith said with a scowl. "I checked and the radar records confirm your report about groups of airborne creatures scattering in different directions away from Healen. Unfortunately, they all soon dropped off the screens so we don't know where any of those groups went."

"Flying low to avoid detection, no doubt," Rude said.

"Yes. We're checking around for any visual sightings, but that's going to take time and lots of luck."

Elena looked at Cait Sith and said sharply, "I don't know about luck, but as for time, time is NOT on our side."

"Don't I know it!" Cait Sith snapped, throwing his paws up in frustration. "If you Turks have any better ideas where to search, I'm open to suggestions!"

Before Elena could reply, Tifa said hopefully, "What about Cloud's phone? We used it before to locate him."

"First thing I tried, but I got nothing." Cait Sith's ears wilted. "His phone could have gotten damaged or lost. Not to mention that the new system's still glitchy as hell and the coverage spotty, especially in remote areas."

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In the utter darkness of Healen's drainage tunnels, Tseng pulled himself out of the fast flowing water onto a narrow ledge and then collapsed, coughing and panting with exhaustion.

As he lay there, trying to catch his breath, he dispassionately assessed his condition. Thankfully, aside from damaged ribs, he didn't have any broken bones. There were plenty of bruises from his rough journey through the pipes, along with what he suspected was a nasty concussion. Since his watch was still working, he knew that nearly 24 hours had passed since Rufus had shoved him into the water.

Tseng pounded a fist against the concrete, ignoring the jolt of pain the impact caused in his sore shoulder and chest.

What the hell had Rufus been thinking?

No, that wasn't fair. He knew exactly what had been going through Rufus's mind back there in the tunnels as they confronted those former SOLDIER mercenaries.

Far from being reckless, Rufus's actions -- shoving Tseng into the water and using himself as a shield in the process -- had been a coldly calculated decision. Unlike Tseng, the president had already been drugged and incapacitated, clearly in no condition to escape. More importantly, the mercenaries obviously needed Rufus alive and unharmed, while Tseng had been marked for immediate termination.

Under those circumstances, Rufus's decision made perfect sense. Someone had to get away and to warn the other Turks about what was really going on. Tseng was the obvious -- the only -- choice under those circumstances.

Unfortunately, that knowledge didn't make the current situation any easier to tolerate. The decision to continue a mission, even if it meant deserting valued companions, was never easy. But for Turks, it was an accepted reality of the job. Only a few weeks ago in Northern Crater, Reno had left Tseng and Elena behind because it had been far more important to keep the Jenova sample out of Kadaj's hands.

The current situation would have been no different... if Rufus had been a fellow Turk. But Rufus was the president, and Turks were supposed to protect the president at all costs, not the other way around.

Somewhere, during the two years since Meteorfall, the Turks had become much more than useful tools or expendable pawns to Rufus. The president had become personally invested in their well-being, just as the Turks had become personally invested in his. While the change in their relationship remained unspoken, both sides understood and valued it.

Tseng gathered his strength and stood. What was done was done. He had no idea who the mercenaries were working for, but it was clear that their mystery client was NOT Hojo. That meant that a new party, with an unknown agenda, was now involved in the current crisis. His primary goal now was to contact the other Turks, who were no doubt working under the mistaken assumption that Rufus had been kidnapped by Hojo and therefore probably looking in all the wrong places for the president.

He tried his phone, but as he expected, it was useless in his present underground location. He would have to physically make his way out of the maze of drainage pipes and get to the surface before he had any hope of contacting the rest of the Turks.

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Later that afternoon, Cait Sith stuck his head into Tifa's room at the Healen clinic.

"Tifa, you asked me about Cloud's swords."

She immediately sat up on the bed. "Yes?"

"The hazmat team's just finished decontaminating them. They're in the lab area two doors down."

"Thanks." Tifa swung her legs off the bed and stood. She was a little wobbly on her feet, and it showed.

"You need more rest," Cait Sith protested.

"Don't worry. I promise I'll take another nap, but only after I deal with Cloud's swords," she said firmly. When the cat continued to frown at her, she added in a quieter tone, "I need to do this, okay?"

Cait Sith started to reply, but cocked his head in a manner that told Tifa that the cat was listening to some sort of transmission. From the way Cait Sith wrinkled his nose, whatever news he received was more on the lines of annoying, rather than serious.

"Damn it! Tifa, I need to...."

"That's fine. You don't need to hover over me. Now shoo!" she said with a slight smile, as she brushed by the cat and headed for the lab room.

There was no missing Cloud's swords, lying on the central lab counter, shining in the bright overhead lights. Six blades, of varying length, and made from materials far stronger than mere steel.

Now that she was alone and didn't have to put on a brave face, Tifa propped her hands on the counter and stood over the swords, thinking hard.

Hojo. A vile, cunning, sadistic mad scientist who was now an equally vile, cunning, and sadistic Jenova-infused monster.

They had warned the Turks about what Hojo was capable of doing to Reno and Rufus. Because of his past history with Hojo, it would be even worse for Cloud, although it was hard to imagine how.

And at the moment, there was absolutely nothing she, nor anyone else, could do to stop Hojo from doing whatever he pleased to Cloud.

Nothing.

"Hojo, you fucking BASTARD," she hissed between gritted teeth. Cursing wouldn't help find Cloud, but she needed some way to express her anger.

Behind Tifa, the door to the lab swung open. She quickly turned to see Kunsel enter and walk toward her.

"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you," he said with an apologetic shrug.

"No, it's all right. What are you doing here?"

"Reeve... I mean Cait Sith... sent me along. He thought that you might need some help."

She smiled slightly at Kunsel's obvious interest in the formidable array of weaponry lying on the counter. Before he could ask, she said, "No, they're not mine. They're Cloud's."

Kunsel blinked. "All of them? The last time I saw him, he was carrying only the one greatsword."

Tifa said nothing. Instead, she merely reached out to pick up the symmetrical primary blade, then calmly began to attach the other weapons to it. Although it took clear effort to handle the longer swords, she worked steadily and confidently, without any fumbling.

First came the hollow, wrap-around blade. When the two saw-edged swords slid into place, the resemblance to Zack's Buster Blade became unmistakable. She finished with the two smaller side blades.

As she rested the fully assembled weapon on the counter, Kunsel released a soft breath.

"Who designed it?"

"Cloud. I don't know where he got the idea, but the design was entirely his. He refers to them as Fusion Swords," Tifa replied.

"And he uses all of them?"

"Yes, singly or in various combinations."

"Dual wielding, huh? That's pretty unusual."

It was Tifa's turn to give Kunsel a curious look. "Now that you mention it, I don't remember encountering any other SOLDIERs who used multiple weapons like that."

"Oh, it's not that we can't do it. I've done it myself on occasion, but only in an emergency. It's a lot harder than you'd think, even for SOLDIERs. I can't recall any SOLDIER who used two swords simultaneously on a regular basis." He paused, then added thoughtfully, "Not even Zack."

"Cloud's not Zack." Tifa's tone was sharp, almost hostile.

Kunsel made a placating gesture. "It was just an observation. I know that Cloud and Zack are two very different people."

"Oh," Tifa muttered, flushing with embarrassment.

"But I also know that Cloud's been through very traumatic stuff, and that he has some... problems... because of those experiences."

Tifa's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Who told you...?"

"Reeve. Not everything," he added hastily, "But just enough to get some idea what's going on with Cloud and how it relates to Zack. He told me mainly to keep me from bugging Cloud for answers he might not have." He gave her a wry smile.

Tifa couldn't find it in herself to blame Reeve for discussing Cloud's background with Kunsel. It made sense, especially if it spared Cloud from having to explain matters himself. She nodded, then said, "I didn't mean to jump down your throat. I know that Zack was Cloud's best friend and meant so much to him, but...." She bit her lip. "Zack's memory... it weighs on Cloud, too. It's like a shadow he can never fully escape."

She looked away. "I know, it probably sounds horribly ungrateful, considering that Zack sacrificed so much to protect Cloud."

"No, I do understand what you mean," Kunsel replied. "Sacrifices -- no matter how heroic, no matter how necessary, no matter how well meant -- always leaves scars on those left behind. It's the price we pay for caring."

"Do you think Zack realized that when he faced off against the Shinra Army?" Tifa said. She felt oddly relieved that she could finally discuss this topic with someone, especially one who knew Zack so well. She certainly couldn't do so with Cloud. And unlike Cloud, Kunsel seemed to have no problems recognizing Zack's faults as well as his outstanding traits. "Did he have any idea what his sacrifice might do to Cloud?"

"Oh, I think he knew. Zack could act like a carefree ditz a lot of the time, but in his own way, he'd been through a lot, even before Nibelheim. He knew that actions have consequences. Dumping some huge emotional load on Cloud would have been the very last thing Zack would've wanted. But in the heat of the moment, when you're out of options...." Kunsel shrugged. "All you can think about is protecting the person you care about. You don't have time or energy to worry about what happens afterward."

Kunsel sighed quietly. "And Zack always was an impulsive, hot-blooded, seat of the pants sort of guy. Not so great in the long-term planning department." Then, in a more somber tone, he added, "Or at watching his own back outside of a fight." He looked at Tifa. "What about Cloud?"

"What?"

"What sort of person is he?"

"Ah...." Taken off-guard, Tifa struggled to find something to say, without revealing too much. "He's... ah, private. Keeps things to himself, even when he shouldn't. He thinks and worries, often too much for his own good. Uh...."

As she continued to hesitate, Kunsel hastily raised his hand and said, "Never mind. I didn't mean to put you on the spot like that. Reeve told me enough to get a basic understanding of Cloud. As for the rest, I guess I'll find out for myself when we get him back and kick Hojo's ass."

Tifa took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders. "Right. We need to focus on rescuing Cloud and the others. Everything else can wait."

Kunsel glanced back at the assembled Fusion Sword, and said, "So, now what? Don't tell me that you're intending to cart this beast of a sword around until Cloud comes back."

She snorted. "No. Swords aren't my thing. We'll take it back to the Shera."

Tifa had handled the complete Fusion Sword before and even then, it had taken definite effort. Now, barely recovered from Hojo's toxic attack, just lifting it a few inches off the counter made her arms tremble. However, she wasn't going to allow mere exhaustion to prevent her from putting Cloud's swords in what she considered their rightful place.

"Tifa, may I?" Kunsel gestured to the massive assembled blade. "You're still recovering and Cait Sith did send me along to help."

She hesitated, then nodded with obvious reluctance as she lowered Cloud's sword back onto the lab counter.

Using both hands, Kunsel picked up the complete Fusion Sword.

"Completely put together like this, it feels just like Zack's Buster Sword. Not just the weight, but the balance, too." He glanced back at Tifa, who was obviously relieved to see him handle Cloud's sword with respectful care instead of casually swishing it around.

"You know, I was pretty impressed when I saw how all those different blades fit together to form something that looked so much like the Buster Sword. But now that I'm actually holding it, I finally realize how much work it must have taken Cloud to not only get just the shapes right, but also the balance as well. Not just the final assembled sword, but each individual sword and all the possible combinations in-between. Damn. Consider me as impressed as hell."

Tifa watched the SOLDIER rest Cloud's sword on his shoulder, then grinned slightly, both amused and gratified by Kunsel's reaction.

"Once we get back to the Shera, I'll introduce you to Fenrir."

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After visiting the Shera's hold and helping Tifa stash Cloud's swords carefully away in Fenrir, Kunsel prepared to return to Healen's clinic. Tifa, claiming she felt more comfortable onboard the Shera, was resting in one of the spare crew quarters.

In the hallway near the exit, he found Cid leaning against the wall, arms folded, waiting for him. The pilot's expression was not exactly hostile, but not exactly friendly, either.

Slightly confused, Kunsel patiently waited for Cid to say something.

Finally, Cid sighed and said, "Look, I know Tifa's a good-looking young woman, and you're a friendly guy who's got eyes. But you'll want to watch your step with her... if you know what I mean."

Kunsel blinked, still confused, then his jaw dropped as he finally figured out what Cid was hinting at.

"Wait, you think I'm trying to hit on Tifa?" Kunsel sputtered.

"Aren't you?" Cid shot back.

"No, I'm not!"

When Cid gave him a skeptical stare, Kunsel snapped, "Look, I enjoy a pretty lady's company as much as any other guy. But I do NOT poach. And I sure as hell wouldn't try to put the moves on a woman when her significant other has been kidnapped by a crazed scientist. What kind of creep do you take me for?!"

The SOLDIER raked a hand through his hair, took a moment to regain his temper, then heaved a long sigh.

"I can't deny that Tifa's my type. But I've pretty much figured out from the get-go that she's all about Cloud."

"Fine. As long as we're clear about that," Cid muttered. "So what the hell were the two of you getting so chatty about down in the hold?"

"Admiring Fenrir, of course," Kunsel said with an easy grin. "That motorcycle's a beautiful piece of work, especially with those built-in holders for all those swords."

Then in a more serious tone, he added, "And she wanted to know more about Zack, mostly because he had such a big influence on Cloud's life. I guess she's trying to distract herself while we're forced to sit around and wait."

"Makes sense, I suppose. I'm about to climb the damn walls as it is." Cid kicked a bulkhead for emphasis.

"So, do you have to pull the 'big brother' act often?" Kunsel said in an amused voice.

Cid snorted and rolled his eyes. "Nah. This is the first time. Unlike a certain ninja girl I could mention, I usually TRY to keep my nose out of other people's personal business."

"Then why me, and why now?"

"Tifa's a smart girl and she's worked in bars for years. She knows how to handle guys and warn them off, either nicely or with her fists. But at the moment, with Cloud missing like this, Tifa's probably not paying as much attention as she normally would."

"Ah."

"So I figured that it'd be better to get things spelled out clearly now, instead of waiting for something to get fucked up at a critical moment because someone's feeling butt hurt or jealous."

"Is Cloud the type to get butt hurt or jealous over Tifa?" Kunsel asked, perking up with interest.

Cid gave the SOLDIER a startled look. Finally, he said, "Butt hurt, no. Jealous? Hell if I know. And I was talking about YOU, smartass."

When Kunsel gave Cid an innocent 'who, me?' grin, the pilot said in decidedly grouchy tones, "Cloud likes to keep things to himself, and Tifa's the same way. If you're that curious about what's going on between them, why don't you ask her yourself?"

"No, I'd rather not," the SOLDIER drily replied. "She really doesn't like questions about Cloud's emotions or state of mind, especially from strangers."

"Congrats, you get points for being observant." Cid gave the SOLDIER a little mock salute.

"She's rather protective of Cloud and his privacy."

Cid uttered a noncommittal grunt.

"And apparently she's got good reason to be."

When Cid gave him a suspicious look, Kunsel said, "Cait Sith gave me a brief rundown on Cloud's past and some of the resulting complications."

Cid looked both surprised and annoyed. "The cat's usually not that much of a blabbermouth."

"Make no mistake. That little talk certainly wasn't for my benefit, but rather for Cloud's. Cait thought I needed to know that Cloud has very good reasons for acting the way he does, and asked me to give him some space." Kunsel cocked his head slightly and said with a rueful smile, "Am I going to have this same conversation with every one of Cloud's close friends?"

"If you're going to ask nosy questions about him, you can bet on it."

"Tifa's not the only one who's protective of him."

"Cloud's one of the best guys I know, even if he's got some screws loose." Cid straightened away from the wall, and dusted off his pants. "Now that we've got all that stupid personal crap out of the way, we can get back to the important stuff, like trying to find where the hell Hojo's taken Cloud."

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(end of Part 7)

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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

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oOo

Chapter Text

COI Redux Sidestory - Confidential Report on Genetic Origins of Jenova (FF7 post-AC AU)

This is just a quick side-story for COI Redux-verse. More background material for the main COI Redux story, but it does have major implications later on in the plot.

Title: Confidential Report on the Genetic Origins of Jenova
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: oneshot; side story
Pairing/Characters: gen
Rating: PG-13
Wordcount: ~1700
Warnings: none
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: An internal Shinra research report on the genetic origins of Jenova.

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NOTES:
-- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
-- The original game and Advent Children/Complete are canon for this fic.
-- Before Crisis and Crisis Core are semi-canon.
-- Various individual plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., games, OVAs, FFVII novellas and short stories, etc.) may show up.
-- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".

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CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Redux
A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

Confidential Report on the Genetic Origins of Jenova

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[ cover letter attached to report ]

To: Dr. Gast (Icicle Inn, Northern Continent)
From: anonymous sender

Dear Dr. Gast,

I hope you're doing well on your post-retirement travels and research. Cosmo Canyon sounds like a fascinating place to study. Many of your former colleagues and subordinates miss your steadying presence in the Science Department. After Hojo's appointment as the new head of the department, the feel of the place has changed dramatically, and not for the better.

Knowing your interest in the background of the Jenova specimen, I'm sending you this recent report from the people over in the Genetics Division. Although not particularly relevant to my own work, I hope you find it useful and enlightening.

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Report on Genetic Origin of Jenova

Date: Day__, Month__, 1984

To: Dr. Hojo, Head of Science Department
From: Genetics Division

This is a summary of our findings with respect to a detailed genetic analysis of the Jenova specimen.

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Background

In 1959, your predecessor, Dr. Gast, discovered the lifeform later named as Jenova in the Northern Crater and identified the specimen as an Ancient (i.e., Cetra). Eight years later, the Jenova specimen was transferred to Nibelheim for additional study.

In the 1970's, the Shinra Corporation initiated the Jenova Project, with the primary purpose of combining human and Jenova genes to produce human-Cetra hybrids with significantly enhanced physical, mental, and psychic abilities. Two differing approaches were tested, resulting in Sephiroth (Project S, led by yourself) and Genesis/Angeal (Project G, led by Hollander).

However, as work on the Jenova Project continued, several researchers began to question the true nature of the Jenova specimen. In particular, Dr. Gast, had second thoughts about his initial identification of Jenova as an Ancient, and went so far as to suggest that Jenova could be an extraterrestrial entity and not native to this world. Gast left Shinra in 1980, ostensibly to retire, but in reality, he continued to privately pursue his interest in Jenova and the Ancients.

The debate as to whether the specimen known as Jenova is either an Ancient or some sort of space alien persisted even after Gast's departure. The standard physiological and cellular examinations of the specimen yielded inconclusive results.

An accurate and definitive identification as to the true nature of Jenova has become critical, as it will significantly affect the direction and goals of any further Jenova-related research, especially the Jenova Project and its sub-projects.

Therefore, on direct orders of the President, the Genetics Division of Shinra's Science Department has undertaken a detailed genetic analysis of Jenova's DNA to resolve this issue.

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Results of Genetic Analysis

Upon extensive investigation, it has been determined that the all cells within the Jenova specimen (i.e., "J-cells") actually contain three distinct types of DNA.

The first type (aka "C-type") shares a significant number of gene sequences and markers with present day humans. However, there are also numerous differences, which would indicate that C is either an extinct subspecies and/or a distant ancestor of present day humans.

The second type (aka "X-type") is viral in nature. While aggressively compatible with the DNA of present day humans, it appears to be unique -- i.e., it has no discernible connections or analogues to any known living or extinct organism on this planet.

The third type of DNA (aka "J-type") is recombinant DNA resulting from a fusion of C-type and X-type DNA.

This recombinant J-type DNA makes up the bulk of the Jenova specimen's DNA, while the amounts of pure C-type and pure X-type are extremely low. The exact ratios of the three DNA types vary significantly depending on the sample location within the Jenova specimen.

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Conclusions

Since it has been long rumored that present day humanity is related to, or descended from, the Ancients, it is a reasonable hypothesis that the C-type DNA comes from an Ancient. This might explain the general humanoid female appearance of Jenova.

Similarly, the X-type DNA, being highly distinct from our planet's known ecosystem, may be reasonably called "extraterrestrial" or "alien" in origin.

Therefore, although not fully supported by scientific evidence, it is the conclusion of this department that the Jenova specimen found by Dr. Gast in the Northern Crater is neither an Ancient, nor an alien creature, but rather a fusion of both.

Furthermore, given the aggressive viral nature of the X-type DNA, it is highly likely that the specimen known as Jenova is in fact an Ancient "C" who was infected by an unknown alien virus "X".

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Implications for Further Research

As previously discussed, one of the original goals of the Jenova Project was to produce human-Ancient hybrids with the psychic powers of the Ancients.

Unfortunately, the presence of contaminating alien DNA makes Jenova unsuitable as a starting point for producing a true human-Ancient hybrid.

Therefore, in order to fulfill the initially established goal of the Jenova Project (i.e., producing a human-Ancient hybrid capable of locating "The Promised Land"), acquisition of an uncontaminated source of Ancient DNA is strongly recommended.

However, given the preliminary results from Projects S and G (especially with respect to improvements in physical and other combat-related abilities), experimentation with the J-cells holds considerable potential with respect to the development in the area of bioweapons -- in particular, the modification of humans to produce bioaugmented combatants for military applications.

Sincerely,
[ name illegible ], Genetics Division

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[ handwritten comments on report summary page ]

Great to have objective, scientific evidence to back up Ifalna's stories! Some of the things she told me about the "Calamity from the Skies" and the Ancients sounded more like ancient folktales instead of history.

This report only confirms everything she's told me about Jenova and its role in the destruction of the Cetra. My dear Ifalna has tried so hard to keep the Ancients' lore alive, but it's still depressing to think about how much of their history and knowledge has been lost, distorted, or simply made up over the centuries.

Note 1 to self: During next interview session, follow up on Ifalna's comments about different castes in ancient Cetra society.

Note 2 to self: Fetch herbs for Ifalna, which she says will help her morning sickness. Also, milk, kumquats, and chocolate.

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oOo

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[ handwritten note on bloodstained report cover ]

This report and other restricted documents (LEVEL YELLOW access and above) recovered February 27, 1985 from Icicle Inn.

As a former Shinra employee, Gast shouldn't have had access to these documents, so there must be a leak in the Science Department. Dr. Hojo and the Investigation Division (Turks) have been notified and appropriate measures taken.

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oOo

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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

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oOo

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Chapter Text

COI Redux Sidestory - Proposals for Project S (FF7 post-AC AU)

Another short side story containing background information for the COI Redux-verse. ::innocent whistle::

Title: Recommended Candidates for Project S
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: oneshot; side story
Pairing/Characters: gen
Rating: PG-13
Wordcount:
Warnings: mature/dark themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: An internal Shinra report about possible candidates for Project S.

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NOTES:
-- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
-- The original game and Advent Children/Complete are canon for this fic.
-- Before Crisis and Crisis Core are semi-canon.
-- Various individual plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., games, OVAs, FFVII novellas and short stories, etc.) may show up.
-- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".

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CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Redux
A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

Recommended Candidates for Project S

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Date: Day__, Month__, 1977

To: Dr. Hojo, Science Department
From: Genetics Division

Several months ago, President Shinra authorized two separate projects directed at creating a human-Ancient hybrid using the cells from Jenova (i.e., "J-cells") -- Project G (headed by Dr. Hollander) and Project S (headed by yourself).

Project G uses an indirect, multi-stage method to introducing Jenova cells into the fetal subject.
According to the information provided, Dr. Hollander has already successfully completed the first stage -- i.e., the injection of Jenova cells into subject G (aka "Gillian") -- to produce Jenova-modified human cells (i.e., "G-cells") and is proceeding to stage two of Project G which involves exposing fetal subjects GR (by injection) and AH (natural reproductive inheritance) to G-cells.

In constrast, Project S favors a much more aggressive approach involving direct pre-natal injections of Jenova cells into the developing fetus. Unfortunately, Project S has encountered significant setbacks -- namely, initial attempts with experiment subjects resulted in 100% fatality rates of both mother and fetus within the first three months of pregnancy, with gross fetal deformities and clearly observable mental aberrations in the mothers.

In order to avoid a repeat of those earlier failures and maximize the chances of a successful outcome for Project S, you have requested a detailed genetic analysis of prospective maternal and paternal candidates for Project S.

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Compatibility Issues

Based on prior research on the effect of Jenova cells on human subjects, it is well established that compatibility with Jenova cells varies significantly between individuals. It is also well established that female subjects appear to be much more sensitive to the presence of Jenova cells, showing much more pronounced reactions at a given exposure compared to male subjects. Previous work by the Genetics Division has determined that this variability is due to highly complex interactions between human DNA and Jenova's DNA.

Using pre-existing data and detailed genetic analysis of the unsuccessful subjects S0-001 through S0-008, we have developed a computer model of compatibility between human DNA and Jenova DNA. (For more details, see Appendices D-G)

Using this computer model, we are now able to evaluate the compatability of both maternal and paternal candidates with Jenova cells (and therefore their suitability for Project S). We can also extrapolate with a reasonable level of accuracy the compatibility score for a fetus from any given set of maternal and paternal candidates.

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Comparison Between Project G and Project S

Based on documents you kindly supplied us regarding Dr. Hollander's Project G (source unknown), we have determined that subject Gillian has a compatibility score of ~33%, with fetal subject GR having a predicted score of ~42% and fetal subject AH having a predicted score of ~56%. At this point in time, all reports indicate that both mothers and their respective fetuses appear healthy and are developing normally.

As indicated above, scores of 30-60% range appear to be perfectly adequate for the purposes of Project G. However, due to the much more aggressive approach proposed for Project S (i.e., direct exposure to Jenova cells), it has been calculated that the fetal subject MUST have a compatibility score exceeding 70% to have any chance of surviving full term.

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Results - Maternal Candidate

Regarding female candidates, candidate LC is clearly the best choice, with a score of ~65%, which far exceeds the next best candidates who have compatibility scores ranging between 30-40%. (see Table 14)

Candidate LC's excellent compatibility with Jenova cells also provide a high probability that she will be able to tolerate the Jenova cells that will inevitably be transferred from the fetus during pregnancy.

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Results - Paternal Candidate

Selection of the optimum paternal candidate turned out to be unexpectedly complex. Candidates H and V have virtually identical scores -- H at 63% and V at 62% -- with all others rating well below 40%. (see Table 41)

However, despite Candidates H and V both having high compatibility scores, neither a LC/H or LC/V pairing results in the 70+% score required to ensure fetal viability for Project S. (see Figures 35-37).

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Conclusion and Recommendations

While using a single paternal candidate would naturally be preferred, it is clear that in this case that such an approach is woefully inadequate.

However, further calculations indicate that using a combination of DNA from both Candidates H and V would produce LC/(H+V) offspring with a potential compatibility score of 85-90%. (see Appendix 24 and Figures 58-60, in particular with reference to genetic markers J3, J23, J2A, J32)

Additional calculations were attempted for the addition of a third paternal candidate, but the possible complications (e.g., lethal genetic interactions, lack of predictability) far outweighs the relatively minor benefits.

Therefore, for the purposes of producing a viable fetus for Project S, it is our recommendation that a recombinant H+V male genome be generated (using guidelines set forth in Appendix 39), which can then be used in the form of sperm to fertilize egg cells from candidate LC using standard in vitro or in vivo procedures.

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Sincerely,
[ name illegible ], Genetics Division

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oOo

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[ scrawled note on summary page ]

Lucrecia agreed to my proposal, of course. The woman's scientific curiosity is insatiable.

Will order in Valentine for 'precautionary' physical exam as excuse for fresh sperm sample.

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oOo

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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

oOo

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Chapter Text

Conflicts of Interest Redux 8 (FF7 post-AC AU)

Another chapter in less than a month! Woohoo! \^_^/

This chapter is basically all Cloud and Reno. It really helps if you're familiar with Crisis Core, but hopefully it will still make some sense even if you're not.

Comments and criticism always welcome! ^_^

 

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 8
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~7,500
Warnings: mature/dark themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his dead friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

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AUTHOR NOTES:
-- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
-- The original FFVII game and "Advent Children/Complete" are canon for this fic.
-- "Before Crisis" and "Crisis Core" are semi-canon.
-- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".
-- Various plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., "Dirge of Cerberus", "Last Order" OVA, FFVII web novellas, etc.) may show up.

Text Conventions

( ) and { } and / and // indicate thoughts, mental dialogue, or languages from various characters

[ ] are miscellaneous date or location notes, images, or sound effects

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Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica

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Scarlet knew she was running out of time. She didn't need Hojo's gleeful cackling to tell her that.

The lunatic didn't need her to control her manufacturing plant, and she was no use to him as a hostage. At any moment, she could end up dead... or worse, given Hojo's apparently insatiable demand for experimental subjects.

As she angrily paced in the small storage room that served as her cell, Scarlet considered her very limited options. Escape and survival were her top priorities. The big question was how to get away from Hojo and his ever-growing horde of living monstrosities.

Unconscious and trapped in that specimen cell, Reno was of no use to her. A real pity, because she needed all the help she could get. And she could always use a nice meat shield.

She was on her own. Fine. She'd make it work... somehow.

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As awakenings went, this had to be one of Reno's worst. He was stark naked, aching all over, and his mouth tasted like something unspeakable had taken a crap inside it. Beyond pissed didn't even begin to describe his current mood.

He gingerly rotated his left shoulder. It throbbed like hell, but at least it moved the way he wanted. He should probably feel a teeny bit grateful that Hojo had taken the trouble to slip his shoulder back into its socket.

Then again, the crazy tentacled asshole was the one responsible for dislocating his shoulder in the first place.

On top of twisting limbs in ways that nature never intended, Hojo and his monsters had left him with a nasty assortment of bruises and cuts. The worst of the slices and stabs were sloppily stapled and bandaged, so it looked like Hojo didn't want him to bleed to death any time soon.

In any other situation, that might be reassuring... but not when mad scientists were involved. Mad scientists had batshit crazy ideas and loved testing them out on human subjects. And as mad scientists went, Hojo took top prize with honors.

Reno wondered just how long he'd been unconscious. The last clear memory he had was of the phone call to Rufus. Everything after that was one big hazy blur of pain.

After sitting up -- it took several tries -- Reno carefully examined his surroundings, looking for anything that would help get him out of this mess. Unfortunately, he was locked in a large transparent cylindrical chamber, similar to the ones commonly used in Shinra's research labs. The entire cell was smooth and featureless, except for a drain in the floor that was far too small to crawl through, assuming that one could get through the extremely sturdy metal grill.

Being hungry and thirsty would have completed his misery nicely, except it appeared that Hojo had provided several bottles of water and a few basic ration bars. Instead of providing encouragement, the supplies only made Reno more jittery. There was no question that the crackpot definitely wanted to keep him alive and reasonably healthy, which in turn meant that Hojo probably had some seriously fucked up plans for him.

It was situations like this which gave a guy a true appreciation of the phrase 'a fate worse than death'.

Reno tensed as he heard the scuffling sound behind him, then turned to see Hojo standing outside the test chamber. For a long moment, the scientist watched him intently with those creepy, multi-faceted bug eyes, looking for... what?

Refusing to show nerves, Reno drawled, "Your ideas of accommodations suck big-time, Hojo."

The scientist rocked back and forth, quite unfazed by Reno's response. To the contrary, he seemed decidedly pleased. "Excellent. You appear to be your normal rude, impertinent self."

"Any reason why I wouldn't be?" Reno retorted, even as a chill ran down his bare back.

Even though Hojo's mouth was now a sucker-like hole lined with needle sharp teeth, the scientist still managed to twist it into an infuriating smirk.

"Oh, none at all," Hojo replied smoothly, rubbing his chin with a thin tentacle. "I was merely noting that you don't seem overly traumatized by your capture and subsequent... heh, treatment."

"Did you honestly expect me to curl up into a little ball and start whimpering?"

Hojo shrugged and said, "You might be interested to know that we'll be having company in a matter of hours. A special delivery, you might say, of a certain critical component for my primary project."

"And that would be?" Reno said, trying his best to sound bored.

Hojo merely gave him another sly grin and waggled a taunting tentacle. "You'll see soon enough." And with those words, the crazed scientist half-walked, half-slithered out of sight.

Hojo was as good as his word, because some time later -- several hours at Reno's best guess -- Hojo's mutated minions hauled a familiar, blond-haired figure into the lab.

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After his capture, Cloud had repeatedly slipped in and out of consciousness during the flight from Healen. The initial numbness from the poison had long since faded, only to be replaced by a deep, pervasive throbbing pain throughout his body.

The creatures carrying him finally arrived at their destination during one of his rare lucid moments. He had a vague impression of some sort of industrial facility and the sea, but that was all as the creatures immediately dragged him into a large cavernous building upon landing.

Although now conscious, Cloud found himself in a near-complete state of paralysis, trapped in a body that refused to move no matter how desperately he tried. The sensation of utter helplessness was both familiar and horrible, bringing back flickers of those lost years in Nibelheim... his time with Zack... helplessly watching Zack fight, bleed, and die....

The monsters came to a halt and dangled him in mid-air just like a chunk of meat for inspection. That sensation was also sickeningly familiar. His eyes refused to fully focus, but Cloud still managed to recognize his hideously transformed captor.

"...Hojo," he muttered.

"And so we meet yet again." The scientist tilted his bug-like head and said thoughtfully, "Two years ago, I dismissed you as a complete failure. It appears that I might have been too hasty in my assessment. Apparently, there's much more to you than meets the eye."

"...what?" Cloud's eyelids fluttered closed as he teetered on the brink of unconsciousness. But he fought off the dizziness and forced his eyes back open. As his head lolled uncontrollably, he caught a brief glimpse of Reno, naked but apparently unharmed, in a nearby transparent cell. But he couldn't spare any energy to do more than feel a faint twinge of relief. It took every bit of energy and concentration he had to stay focused on Hojo.

"Those fools at Nibelheim. How dare they engage in unauthorized experiments behind my back!" Hojo hissed furiously, then leaned close to Cloud. "What exactly were they doing with you? What did they hope to accomplish with their research?"

Cloud's weakness didn't prevent him from retorting, "I don't have a clue... what you're blabbering about."

Hojo uttered a derisive snort. "No, I expect not. After all, what would a mere lump of flesh like you know of the grand schemes of scientists? Still, there's no denying that you ARE different from all the other Sephiroth Clones, successes and failures alike. And I intend to find out why."

Cloud tried, but between his own disorientation and Hojo's obvious insanity, nothing the scientist said made any sense to him.

As Hojo paced back and forth in front of Cloud, he muttered, "As a Sephiroth Clone -- and a failed one at that! -- you should, at best, barely reach the physical level of a SOLDIER, Third Class! I specifically designed them that way!"

He halted, then whirled to jab a tentacle at Cloud. "But you! You somehow managed to not only match, but exceed, the performance level of a First Class. You're stronger, faster, and more powerful than you should be. Most baffling of all, you're far more skilled than you should be!"

Hojo resumed his pacing, and said, almost sulkily, "So much so, you dared to challenge Sephiroth and managed to survive."

"I did a lot more than just survive my run-ins with Sephiroth," Cloud said pointedly, then took a deep breath as he fought another wave of dizziness.

In exhausted, incredulous tones, he continued, "Is that why you captured me, Hojo? Out of some crazed sense of professional jealousy? Because you've got some deluded, paranoid notion that your former colleagues went behind your back and managed to create some sort of super-soldier capable of fighting your precious Sephiroth toe-to-toe?"

For a brief instant, Cloud thought that Hojo might slit his throat or throttle him in sheer rage. But instead, the scientist slowly began to giggle quietly.

"It's fascinating that you've managed to recover such a strong sense of identity, unlike every other Sephiroth Clone I've created. That's yet another unique trait that you possess."

Hojo's sucker-like mouth suddenly twisted into a grin of unholy glee. "But it's a trait that will soon become quite irrelevant. Once Sephiroth returns, the niggling issues of identity and free will most likely become entirely moot."

"What are you raving about now?"

"Because in the end, you're nothing more than a puppet."

"I'm no one's puppet," Cloud said in a low, fierce voice.

Hojo smirked, malice oozing from every mutated pore. "Argue all you want, but you can't change the simple, inescapable fact that despite the best efforts of that half-breed Ancient girl, this fine body of your still contains Jenova cells, and it always will. And if a biological entity contains Jenova-based cells, Sephiroth can control it."

Hojo shrugged eloquently. "Whether he chooses to do so or not... well, that's an entirely different matter."

Anger allowed Cloud to push aside the darkness that threatened to swallow him. "You're full of it, Hojo," he gasped. "If Sephiroth could take control me so easily, don't you think he would've done so long ago and spared himself the trouble of repeatedly being defeated by puny mere humans?"

Hojo gestured airily. "I'm sure Sephiroth has his reasons, unfathomable they might be to you or me. However, that's not my concern at the moment."

"And what IS your concern, Hojo?"

"Creating a new body for Sephiroth. Now that you're here, my preparations are complete."

Cloud managed to shake his head slightly. "Why are you so obsessed with resurrecting Sephiroth? Do you think he's going to be grateful? He has nothing but contempt for you!"

"Contempt for lesser creatures is a perfectly reasonable attitude for a god-like entity, is it not?" the scientist said nonchalantly. "And who expects gratitude from a god?"

Hojo made a mocking bow. "I am but a useful minion, here to carry out Sephiroth's will to the best of my ability."

"And that doesn't bother you?!"

"Why should it? My only desire is to observe the progress of my ultimate research project. And it's quite the fatherly thing to do anything, sacrifice anything, to see that one's child reaches his full potential, is it not?"

"I'd like to hear you say that as Sephiroth shreds you to pieces," Cloud said coldly.

The scientist laughed nastily. "Bluster all you want, while you still can. Once Sephiroth returns and asserts his rightful authority over you, I think your attitude will become much more compliant. Then I'll be able to study you at leisure. However, work before pleasure."

Still paralyzed by Hojo's drugs, Cloud could do nothing as the monsters abruptly flung him onto the nearest lab table and pinned him down securely. Their grip tightened painfully as without warning, Hojo lashed out with a razor-tipped tentacle, driving it deep into his captive's abdomen.

Cloud uttered a choked gasp that quickly turned into a strangled gurgle as blood flooded his mouth. In the background, he vaguely heard Reno shouting furiously.

The scientist ignored the Turk's curses as he probed and prodded deep inside Cloud's body.

"Where is it? It has to be in here!" Hojo muttered in growing frustration as whatever he sought eluded him.

Hojo's poisons had not only stripped Cloud of any ability to move, but after the initial numbness, had made an already hypersensitive nervous system even more so. Cloud could only gasp futilely, choking on his own blood as the agony of being gutted and the horrible sensation of Hojo's tentacles slithering and sliding around his internal organs intensified to excruciating levels.

Even a SOLDIER's enhanced body could cope with only so much abuse. Between the physical trauma, the blood loss, the pain, and Hojo's toxins, Cloud finally and mercifully passed out.

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Trapped in the transparent chamber, Reno could do nothing but swear and glare furiously at Hojo as the madman continued to dig around in Cloud's guts. Finally, the scientist halted his rummaging, then with a triumphant cry, pulled something out of Cloud's abdomen with a loud, wet sucking noise. Reno couldn't immediately identify the blood-smeared object, but it was obviously valuable, judging from the careful way Hojo cradled the palm-sized item in his tentacles.

Hojo ignored the limp, unconscious Cloud and quickly moved to a nearby sink to rinse off the blood so he could inspect his prize. Once clean, Hojo carefully inspected the small transparent cylinder, then chortled in obvious satisfaction.

Noticing the Turk's fierce stare, Hojo grinned madly and said, "The last and most essential component for the construction of Sephiroth's new body -- a pristine sample of his original cells."

Reno stared incredulously at the sample, then at Cloud.

Hojo, apparently euphoric over the successful retrieval, said, "Ah, yes. How did the sample get into an escaped lab specimen? It appears that some enterprising Shinra employees decided to indulge in a little personal profiteering. The director of the storage facility decided to swap this sample of Sephiroth's cells for a researcher's sample of Jenova cells. That fool Steven took his new prize to Nibelheim, but one of my surprise visits evidently caught him off-guard and he panicked. So he hid this sample container where no one would think to look." Hojo casually gestured toward Cloud, who continued to lie motionless and bleeding on the counter.

"So what, all that crap about secret experiments on Cloud was just a big pile of behemoth shit?" Reno demanded in disgust.

"Not at all. I captured him because of the sample. But now that I have him, I fully intend to uncover the reasons for his various anomalies."

In response to Hojo's gesture, the hulking monsters that had previously restrained Cloud now picked him up and callously dumped the injured man inside the test chamber with Reno.

Reno swore and quickly knelt down beside Cloud. Between Hojo's mauling and the monsters' clumsy handling, it was a major miracle that the poor guy's intestines weren't spilling out all over the damn floor. Sure, SOLDIERs were tough and survived nasty injuries that would kill normal humans ten times over, but a gut wound like that was a bit much to deal with, even for them. And that was on top of whatever the fuck Hojo did to totally incapacitate Cloud in the first place.

He had to give points to Cloud for snarking back at Hojo, despite his weakened condition. That line about the professional jealousy had been damn good.

But the later bit about puppets and mind control shit... now that was seriously creepy. And it was impossible to know how much of what Hojo said was true, and how much was a vicious attempt to screw with Cloud's head.

Reno reached out to inspect the other man's wounded abdomen, then quickly jerked his hand away.

Cloud's blood BURNED his flesh like acid.

Hojo, hearing Reno's involuntary yelp of pain, returned to the test chamber as the Turk hastily used Cloud's pants to wipe as much blood off his hand as he could. As Reno was examining the the peeling skin of his palm and fingers in disbelief, the scientist uttered a tsking noise and blandly commented, "It appears he absorbed more of the toxin than I anticipated."

Reno glared at Hojo. "What sort of fucking toxin turns a guy's blood into acid?!"

Hojo ignored the outburst and continued to mutter, "For the specimen to not only survive such a heavy toxin load, but even be conscious and coherent... fascinating."

"You consider poisoning the crap out of a person merely fascinating?" Reno said sarcastically, having regained control over his anger. Since Hojo seemed to get off on provoking outrage, the obvious response was to stay cool.

But it wasn't easy.

"Indeed, a normal SOLDIER would have exhibited much more severe symptoms, which only proves that this one's no ordinary Sephiroth Clone. Physically speaking, of course." He looked at Reno and cackled softly. "No need to worry. His body seems to be coping quite well with my specially designed toxin, and his immune system will probably purge or neutralize it soon enough. It will be an excellent test of his recuperative abilities."

"Has it occurred to you that he just might bleed to death before that happens?" Reno retorted.

"He won't die so easily," Hojo said dismissively. "And I'm confident he's endured worse. But if you're so concerned...." The scientist rummaged in a nearby cabinet and returned to toss a small emergency medical kit into the cell.

As the kit rolled to a stop at Reno's feet, Hojo said, "Since you're so kind to volunteer, I'll hold you responsible for his care." With those words, Hojo glided out of the lab, giggling madly.

Reno sank down to the floor the chamber, looked at the still bleeding Cloud, then shook his head in rueful disbelief.

"Great. Just. Fucking. Great."

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The corrosive effect of Cloud's blood prevented Reno from getting a good look at the wound. In the end, all he could do was carefully clean off and bandage the injured area. Hopefully Hojo was right about Cloud's recuperative abilities being able to handle whatever damage there was to his internal organs. Fortunately, SOLDIERs were pretty damn resistant to normal infections, so that was one thing they probably didn't have to worry about.

That left the massive blood loss and the nasty case of poisoning, but there was precious little that Reno could do at the moment.

Several hours passed before Cloud showed any signs of regaining consciousness.

"You know, patching you up is getting to be a habit," Reno said drily as Cloud's eyelids fluttered open.

"...Hojo?" Cloud's voice was a hoarse whisper.

"He's off doing his crazy crap. It's just you and me in here."

"What... what did he do to me?" Cloud's brow furrowed anxiously.

Reno cocked his head slightly. "He didn't put anything in, if that's what you're worrying about. He was busy trying to take something out."

"Out? What...?"

"A sample container of Sephiroth's cells. Apparently, it's the last thing he needs to build Sephiroth's new body, or so he says."

Reno watched Cloud's blue eyes widen in horrified shock.

"How...?"

"How did it get inside you?" Reno repeated Hojo's story, then added, "So apparently you've been carting that thing inside you for... oh, the last three years or more."

Cloud, who had listened to Reno in taut silence, closed his eyes then suddenly uttered a single breathy sound that might have been a bitter bark of laughter.

"I... seem to have a real talent for this sort of thing."

"'This sort of thing?'"

"For expediting catastrophe. I'm the one who handed over the Black Materia to Sephiroth. And now I'm the one who's just handed Hojo the key to Sephiroth's resurrection."

Reno wondered if it was Cloud's injuries, Hojo's toxin, or a combination of both that was making the usually close-mouthed man suddenly so talkative. Cloud himself seemed to realize the oddness of his own behavior and bit his lip, as if to forcibly stop himself from blurting out more personal comments.

In the meantime, Reno said acidly, "I may be a little slack in the personal responsibility department, but I think you're going way overboard with the guilt here. Because getting massively poisoned, dragged halfway across the world, and nearly fucking eviscerated by a crazy tentacled mutated freak hardly qualifies as carelessly 'handing' anything over to Hojo!"

Cloud opened his eyes and gave Reno a startled stare.

"Look, you didn't know that you had the damn sample. No one had a clue except for the guy who stuck it in you. How Hojo found out, I don't know and don't care. All I care about is finding a way out this fucking mess, hopefully before Hojo finishes resurrecting Sephiroth!"

"...I suppose you have a point. Stopping Hojo is the most important thing right now."

"Hurrah, you're going to be reasonable this time around instead of wallowing," Reno said sarcastically.

"Wallowing?" Cloud muttered.

"Yes, wallowing in misery instead of doing shit."

Cloud took a careful breath, then said, "Unfortunately, I'm in no condition to do anything at the moment."

"Still can't move, huh?" Reno said, eyeing Cloud's motionless body. "Not surprising. That poison Hojo gave you was one nasty piece of work." He reached out and very carefully touched the blood-soaked bandages on Cloud's stomach, then winced.

As he quickly wiped his finger clean, Reno said, "Your bloodstream's still carrying enough of that crap to burn my skin. Although it's not nearly as bad as it was a few hours ago. I guess Hojo was right about your body being able to handle and neutralize it."

"And you believe him?"

"In this case, yeah. He wants you alive and kicking, not only because he wants to hand you over to Sephiroth, but because he really wants to see what makes you tick."

Cloud's expression went frighteningly blank for a long moment, and Reno remembered that he was talking to someone who knew way too much about being victimized both by Sephiroth and Hojo.

He felt a tinge of relief when Cloud finally blinked and his expression lost that eerie 'not there' look.

Several minutes of silence passed and Reno was starting to think that the other man had passed out again, when Cloud suddenly spoke.

"I never got around to thanking you and Rude for taking care of Tifa and me after Loz's attack in the church."

"It's no big deal," Reno said with a shrug.

Cloud turned his head toward Reno -- the only movement he was capable of -- and said in the same quiet tone, "Most people wouldn't touch someone with the slightest hint of Geostigma, much less bandage a person with openly oozing sores."

That was unfortunately true. Even trained doctors and nurses balked at treating Geostigma patients, afraid of contracting the once-fatal disease themselves.

"I've had lots of practice," Reno replied casually.

"With Rufus." Cloud's words were a statement, not a question.

"Yeah."

More silence followed before Cloud murmured, "Rufus's Geostigma, how bad was it?"

"Stage 4." And that had been an optimistic assessment. If it hadn't been for the healing rain, Rufus probably wouldn't have lasted another month. He didn't know how bad Cloud's case of Geostigma had been. He suspected that it had been quite advanced, even though Cloud had shown relatively few outward signs compared to others.

Reno ruefully observed that Cloud wasn't the only one being unusually talkative, and he didn't have Cloud's excuse of being poisoned or badly injured. However, talking about anything -- even personal shit -- was better than just sitting around bare-ass naked, waiting for Hojo to show up and pull even more insane crap.

On the other hand, Cloud clearly needed rest more than anything else.

"You should try to get some sleep and let your body finish off that poison."

Cloud glanced at him, then replied, "I'd... rather not. Especially now."

Reno eyed Cloud, then blandly asked, "Nightmares?" It didn't take a genius to figure that one out. Hell, if being Hojo's prisoner for just a few days was enough to seriously screw with his own nerves, he really did NOT want to know the sort of nightmares Cloud suffered after his years with Hojo.

"You... could say that," Cloud admitted with obvious reluctance.

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Cloud didn't know whether it was a deliberate or accidental side effect of Hojo's poison, but he was aware that he was losing the ability to think coherently. His thoughts were starting to slip and slide into chaotic knots where the past and the present, reality and delusion, became hopelessly tangled together.

He almost never remembered specific details from his nightmares, but he was intimately familiar with the sick fear and dread that they left behind. And in the aftermath of the worst nightmares, lying there in the darkness and silence, he often found himself wondering if all the events of the last several years had really occurred, or whether they were merely an elaborate imaginary world constructed by a tortured, broken mind desperate to escape a unbearable reality.

At those times, the best way to prove to himself that he wasn't still trapped in the labs or locked within a unresponsive shell of a body was to simply move.

Most of the time, all it took was a brief walk around the Seventh Heaven or the streets of Edge. At other times, when the dreams and the dread were particularly bad, he would get on Fenrir and ride out into the night.

But now the freedom to move, that simple but effective way of anchoring himself in the reality of the present, was denied him. Not only was he almost completely paralyzed, but he was a prisoner once again. A prisoner of Hojo, a sadistic monster eager to 'examine' Cloud in order to indulge his scientific curiosity and soothe his ruffled professional pride.

He shied away from thinking about Hojo's threats about Sephiroth and his ability to control him. At the moment, he couldn't deal with THAT possibility on top of everything else.

As long as he stayed conscious, he had a slim chance of maintaining his hold on reality. But if he passed out and lost control in his present condition, he would almost certainly lose track of what was 'now' and what was 'then'....

...and in the process, lose himself as well.

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"Okay, sleep's a bad idea." Reno ran a hand through rumpled red hair. "So, mind telling me how you ended up here?"

Cloud blinked, but instead of answering Reno's question, he abruptly asked, "Have you seen any sign of Rufus or Tseng here?"

Reno stared, then said slowly, "Why the hell would you ask that?" Even before he finished the question, his mind was already racing through the nasty implications of Cloud's question.

Cloud took a slow, measured breath. "After the massacre at Nibelheim, Hojo's monsters attacked Healen. During the fight, the rest of the Turks lost contact with Rufus and Tseng."

"That doesn't mean anything. In the case of a serious attack, Tseng would've evacuated Rufus to a safer location. It's standard protocol in these sorts of situations."

Cloud shook his head slightly, and explained about the scene in the tunnels, the presence of the dead monsters, as well as Rufus's and Tseng's discharged weapons.

"Fuck!" Reno muttered, thinking furiously. With that sort of evidence, no wonder everyone assumed that Hojo had captured the two men. There was only one problem....

"No, I haven't seen any sign of the two of them," Reno said grimly. "Which might not mean anything. But Hojo hasn't mentioned anything about capturing them, either. And it's hard to imagine him passing up an opportunity to gloat about getting his hands on Rufus."

"If Hojo doesn't have them, who does?"

Reno could only think of two reasons that Rufus and Tseng would disappear. First, and the most likely, because they'd been captured by Hojo or maybe somebody else. On the other hand, it could be some sneaky scheme on Rufus's part to mislead the WRO and Cloud's buddies. He hoped that it was the latter, but there was no way of knowing.

"I forgot to tell you. Elena and Rude, they're okay. They managed to evade Hojo's monsters at Nibelheim. We took them back to Healen when we went to investigate Hojo's attack there."

Reno exhaled sharply, not bothering to hide his relief.

"Thanks."

"Should've told you sooner," Cloud murmured, his voice fading.

Reno shrugged it off. "Want to risk some water? You definitely need fluids after bleeding all over the place, but it's your choice. There's some ration bars, too, but I don't think solid food's a good idea given that stomach wound of yours."

After helping Cloud take some careful sips, Reno sat back as Cloud filled him in on everything that had happened after his own capture. Cloud was obviously trying hard to stay focused and alert, but Reno could see that despite his best efforts, Cloud's mind was starting to wander.

He wasn't outright delirious, but it certainly looked like the combination of Hojo's poison and his injuries had thoroughly blown Cloud's normal internal censors because he was starting to say things that Reno suspected that he would never say to a relative stranger in normal circumstances.

Nothing Cloud said was particularly earth-shattering. Mostly there were random snippets about his life with Tifa and the kids, anecdotes about his friends' various quirks, and the occasional ramble about his delivery work. No interesting stories about sexy times with Tifa, unfortunately.

What Reno learned from all this was that Tifa, his friends, and the kids meant a hell of a lot to Cloud, even though he did a good job of hiding it. Reno had suspected it all along, but it was both decidedly weird and enlightening to get a good look at what went on behind Cloud's stoic, antisocial surface.

But Reno also noticed that everything Cloud said focused on events during and after Meteorfall. As for his childhood or his teenage years, Cloud said not a single word.

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In the end, just as Reno expected, Cloud couldn't fend off unconsciousness any more. Which was probably for the best, because Hojo dropped in twice to gloat over his progress with Sephiroth's resurrection. But when Reno tried to pump him for specific details, Hojo simply giggled.

The scientist seemed both fascinated and annoyed at Cloud's slow, but steady recovery, going so far as to enter the cell and examine Cloud's abdominal wound while muttering about 'anomalous performance parameters'.

When Reno made a sarcastic remark about it, Hojo stared at him for way too long before uttering yet another creepy chuckle. Reno wasn't sure why his pissy attitude seemed to please Hojo so much, but it left him with a nasty feeling that he was missing something important.

Once they were alone, Reno knelt beside Cloud and started to rearrange the bandages ripped away during Hojo's examination. There were clear signs that the wound was starting to heal, but it wasn't completely closed and still oozed a little blood.

"...Tseng... Aerith...," Cloud murmured drowsily.

"What?" Reno was distracted by the tricky job of trying to bandage the open wound of a person whose blood, while not nearly as corrosive as before, still burned his fingers.

"...owe Tseng... for Aerith."

Reno huffed out a breath and said, "Don't tell me you're still holding a grudge over that slap he gave her in the helicopter two years ago."

Cloud's head rolled weakly from side to side.

"...owe him... watching over Aerith...."

Cloud's eyes slowly opened, then... he smiled. It was a strangely familiar little grin, one that Reno was certain he had seen before. But it wasn't Cloud's. For one thing, he couldn't recall ever seeing Cloud smile, much less grin in that easy, sweet sort of way.

"Tseng... kept an eye on Aerith."

"We had orders, you know."

Cloud slowly shook his head again.

"Favor... for me."

Reno froze, then slowly lowered the bandage he held.

"What did you say?"

"Asked Tseng... to protect her... while I was gone. Only person... I could depend on."

Although Tseng never mentioned it, Reno and the other Turks knew that he had personal reasons to keep such a careful eye on Aerith. And yes, there were hints that some sort of personal favor or debt had been involved.

But that didn't make any sense. As far as Reno knew, except for that one brief meeting in the Ancient Temple where the Black Materia had been kept, Cloud had never met Tseng. So how could Cloud, a wanted terrorist at the time, possibly have asked the Turk leader for any sort of favor, much less such a personal one?

Besides, the timing was completely wrong. The Turks had been keeping their eyes on Aerith years before Cloud ever showed up.

What the fuck was going on?

The words, the tone, the facial expressions... they were all wrong for Cloud. But at the same time, they were familiar. He knew this person, and it WASN'T Cloud Strife.

If he didn't know better, he would almost swear that he was talking to....

In a nonchalant voice, Reno said, "Hey, you remember our first meeting?"

It had been in Aerith's church in Sector 5, and had involved falling barrels and a messy little chase in the rafters.

Cloud uttered a soft chuckle and continued in that same dreamy voice, "Sure. Midgar, when those Genesis copies first showed up. Sephiroth and I split up. I ran into you guys in Sector 8. You called me 'Slick' and told me that area was Turk turf. Rude was there, too, along with Tseng and Cissnei."

"Cissnei?" Reno asked in a mild tone, hiding any hint of emotion.

Cloud gave him a confused look... and it was the exact same baffled "Huh...?" expression, complete with that little cock of the head that reminded one of a friendly, but not overly bright puppy dog.

"C'mon, you know. The pretty girl Turk with the long, curly red hair," Cloud protested. "Uses a huge shuriken. Looks great in a bikini."

"You remember seeing Cissnei... in a bikini?"

"Yeah, on the beach at Costa del Sol. A cute yellow and white bikini, with blue trim. Now Tseng, he wasn't wearing a bikini."

"I should damn well hope not," Reno muttered.

Cloud snickered, then gasped in pain. "Okay, not a smart thing to do."

Zack Fair was dead. Reno had no doubts whatsoever about that because he had helped destroy the body, under Tseng's direct orders and personal supervision, in order to keep it out of Hojo's hands.

He went with his instincts and said, as casually as he could manage, "...Zack?"

"Uh-huh?" came the drowsy, but amiable reply.

Reno opened his mouth, hesitated, then said, "Never mind. Go back to... sleep."

"Okay. Wake me in a few hours. Gotta finish that report before Sephiroth...." The words trailed off as Cloud... Zack?... closed his eyes.

Reno sat there beside Cloud and tried to figure what the hell Cloud was doing with a dead SOLDIER's memories and personality.

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Cloud floundered helplessly, lost in the memories of the past and the thoughts of the present.

Whose memories? Whose thoughts?

He couldn't tell anymore.

But amid the chaos, one single moment gleamed clearly... a memory of two voices, and the unending war they had waged inside his mind.

One of the voices was bright, warm, comforting. He didn't mind that voice at all. It was safe. And even though he knew that the voice was slowly destroying him, he didn't mind because it was a gentle, loving sort of destruction. And who would miss a loser like him? He desperately wanted to curl up inside that confident, reassuring presence and sleep forever.

But the other voice in his head, the dark one that sickened and terrified him, would NOT leave him alone. Would not let him go. Like a great ravenous beast, it crouched deep inside him, screaming and raging. It made him feel/think cruel thoughts.

Horrible thoughts.

Monstrous thoughts.

No. Go away. GO AWAY.

The familiar touch of a warm, calloused hand on his forehead quieted the dark, ugly voice, and he would have sobbed in relief if he could. But he didn't even have that much control over his own body anymore.

The good voice was now both inside and outside his head. It said things he couldn't understand, but that didn't matter. As long as it was there and in control, he was safe.

Everyone was safe.

But the bad voice refused to be permanently silenced. Instead, it continued to spew its poison in the darkest corners of his broken mind.

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Reno slowly awoke to the sound of muttered words. He lay for a moment on the hard cold floor, listening to Cloud's quiet voice.

"You walked away."

"What?" Reno said with a sigh. He had barely gotten any rest before or after Cloud's arrival, and a sleep-deprived Reno was a cranky Reno.

"You. Walked. Away."

Reno flopped over onto his back and grumbled, "Hey, that was a matter of mutual agreement. We both had better things to do than have a long, pointless fight in the tunnels under Midgar."

"YOU. WALKED. AWAY. AND LEFT US."

The sudden vicious bitterness in Cloud's voice made Reno snap to full alertness as he realized that Cloud probably wasn't talking about their previous encounters in Wutai or under Midgar.

This was something else entirely.

Reno rolled over, then froze when he got a good look at Cloud's face.

He never thought that he would ever have a reason to be grateful to Hojo. But he was wrong, because if it hadn't been for Cloud being immobilized by Hojo's poison, Reno knew with absolute certainty that he would already be dead in the most painful way imaginable.

"You Turks walked away and left us to Hojo," Cloud snarled, his blue eyes incandescent with hatred and loathing.

Even as Reno continued to stare, Cloud's lips curved in a malevolent smile as he hissed out a single, potent word.

"Nibelheim."

Reno's head jerked back as if the word had been a physical blow. And in some ways, it had been.

Reno had done plenty of dirty work as a Turk. But although he never admitted it to anyone, there were a few things that haunted him. Dropping the Sector 7 plate was one of them.

Leaving Zack and the other survivors of the first Nibelheim incident in Hojo's sadistic hands had been another.

"I remember. *HE* doesn't, but *I* do. I remember EVERYTHING."

Even as Reno wondered who the hell was this other 'he' might be, Cloud continued speaking in that furiously bitter voice.

"In the reactor, that long-haired Turk bitch promised to help us. She promised. Instead, she called in Hojo. THE TURKS FUCKING GAVE US OVER TO HOJO AND WALKED AWAY."

Reno said nothing. What could he say, given that everything Cloud said was basically true... except for the 'calling in Hojo' part. That certainly hadn't been deliberate. Chaise never expected Hojo himself to show up at Nibelheim and take over.

But there was no point in arguing the Turks' version of events, not in Cloud's present mood.

"Years in hell, all because of you. I haven't forgotten what you Turks did. I will NEVER forget."

Cloud's smile widened into a vicious grin.

"Payback's a bitch. And I am *SO* going to enjoy it."

Reno had occasionally wondered what a cheerful or smiling Cloud would look like. Just a few hours before, he had seen Cloud wearing Zack's smile, displaying Zack's friendly personality. While weird and unsettling, it hadn't felt the least bit threatening. It was Zack, after all.

Now he was watching Cloud smile yet again. But this time, he really wished that he hadn't. In his line of work, Reno had seen plenty of slasher grins -- often his own, or his fellow Turks' -- but Cloud's was a true masterpiece of profound hatred, utter malice, rabid anticipation, and pure sadistic joy, neatly rolled into one tidy package.

Holy fucking SHIT.

They continued to stare at each other for a seeming eternity, with Reno barely breathing and Cloud -- or whoever the fuck it was -- almost panting in feverish excitement.

But eventually, the hateful blue eyes closed and the blood-chilling smile melted away, leaving no sign of their sinister presence behind.

Even after Cloud's expression had reverted to that of a normal, exhausted, deeply unconscious young man, Reno made no attempt to get back to sleep. Instead, he kept a wary eye on Cloud and spent his time wondering just how many fucking people, personalities, or whatever were floating around inside Cloud's head.

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(end of Part 8)

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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

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oOo

Chapter Text

Sorry for the long delay! The next chapter is already done, and just required polish and proofreading! ^_^

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 9
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~9500
Warnings/Content: mature/dark/disturbing themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his dead friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

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AUTHOR NOTES:
-- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
-- The original FFVII game and "Advent Children/Complete" are canon for this fic.
-- "Before Crisis" and "Crisis Core" are semi-canon.
-- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".
-- Various plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., "Dirge of Cerberus", "Last Order" OVA, FFVII web novellas, etc.) may show up.

 

Text Conventions

( ) and { } and / and // indicate thoughts, mental dialogue, or languages from various characters

[ ] are miscellaneous date or location notes, images, or sound effects

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Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica

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[ Healen ]

Tseng uttered a deep sigh of relief as he trudged toward the open end of the drainage tunnel. He paused near the exit to allow his eyes to adjust to the afternoon light, then gathered up his last remaining reserves of energy.

Throughout his long journey out of Healen's convoluted drainage system, he had been acutely aware of precious hours relentlessly ticking by. Uncertainty about his location, the maze-like nature of the tunnels, and even occasional bouts of unconsciousness from what he suspected was a severe concussion had made navigating his way out a nightmare.

But he still didn't have time to relax. Without a working phone or radio, it was vital that he find a way to communicate with the other Turks and give them critical information about Rufus's true kidnappers.

Once outside the tunnels, he oriented himself relative to the Healen Clinic. Unfortunately, he was on the wrong side of a very steep ridge. Climbing that ridge was not an option in his present condition. Grimly, he headed downhill, hoping to find an easier way back to the Clinic.

Exhaustion and injury conspired to dull his usually sharp awareness of his surroundings, so Tseng was caught completely off-guard as a dark man-sized figure crashed out of the bushes and shot him. Repeatedly.

As he lay bleeding on the ground, Tseng heard other voices shouting in a mixture of confusion and surprise.

"What the hell was all that about?!" an aggrieved male voice demanded.

"Hey, better safe than sorry." A second male voice, sounding sullen.

Tseng was vaguely aware of someone walking up to examine him.

"Oh. My. God. You just shot a Turk," the first voice blurted.

"Huh?"

"You fucking shot a Turk, you idiot! And not just any Turk! You shot their goddamn leader!"

"How was I to know?! He came stumbling out of the trees and scared the crap out of me!" the second voice said stubbornly.

"And you decided to shoot first, and ask questions later, genius?"

"You heard what happened with that zombie woman and those poor WRO bastards! I don't want to get turned into bloody goo like those guys!"

"You shot a Turk!" the first voice repeated, now sounding panicky.

"You are SO dead, man," a third person announced.

"Look, we can just say the monsters got him," the second voice suggested quickly.

"He's full of bullet holes, you moron!" the first person -- apparently the squad leader -- yelled back.

"Okay, why don't we... um, just stash his body somewhere and pretend this whole thing never happened?"

"Everyone in the whole freakin' area had to hear your freakin' gunfire!"

"So I had a small accident with my rifle?" the second man offered, as sullen defiance shifted into nervousness as the gravity of the situation finally sunk in.

"Accident?! You unloaded an entire clip into him!" the squad leader sputtered.

Tseng hear someone on a radio, demanding a report.

"You hear that? Those Turks KNOW something's going on out here!"

A fourth jittery voice joined the conversation.

"Yeah, and they're going to want answers! I've heard what those Turks do to people! We're not going to cover for you! It was YOUR itchy trigger finger, so it's YOUR damn fault!"

As the whole squad joined the argument, Tseng quietly passed out from shock and blood loss.

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[ Weapon Facility ]

Reno watched Cloud's fingers twitch slightly, and knew he was running out of time, in more ways than one. In no way was he an indecisive person, but he was damned if he knew what to do about this mess. And he wasn't talking about being Hojo and his crazy plan to resurrect Sephiroth.

After four years of being subjected to who the hell knew what sort of horrible experiments, it was no surprise that Cloud was seriously screwed in the head. However, Reno certainly hadn't expected a full blown case of multiple fucking personalities.

Reno could understand the 'Cloud thinking he's Zack' thing. While creepy as hell, it made a bizarre sort of sense, given what the two guys probably went through together. Besides, it was probably easier to deal with a fake 'Zack' than with the real Cloud and his damn broodiness.

But as for that other personality? THAT was a very different problem.

In his job as a Turk, Reno had run into plenty of nutcases, and even worked with a few of them. He'd also encountered a shitload of people -- like, a whole Sector's worth -- who hated Turks and wanted revenge for a multitude of real or imagined wrongs.

But the other side of Cloud was on a seriously disturbing level of crazy.

Maybe it was the overwhelming intensity of that hatred. Or maybe it was the way that hatred had unexpectedly popped up out of freaking nowhere.

Cloud didn't like Turks or anything to do with Shinra. Reno got that. Sure, Cloud and the Turks tried to kill each other on multiple occasions. And yeah, he had annoyed or pissed off Cloud plenty of times.

Even so, Cloud's interactions with the Turks generally had a rather professional vibe. Cloud hadn't taken things all that personally, even after the Sector 7 mess. Cloud had a mission to do and the Turks were in his way, simple as that. And when the Turks hadn't been in his way, he didn't go after them.

And after Meteorfall, Cloud seemed perfectly content to let things go. Everyone was busy trying to find their way in an unfamiliar post-Meteor world, so why not let bygones be bygones?

So yeah, it was a pretty nasty jolt to discover that Cloud -- or a part of him, anyway -- was secretly harboring such a vicious, bloodthirsty personal grudge against the Turks. Or anyone else, for that matter. Because there was a big, BIG difference between 'Stay out of my way or I'll kill you' and 'I want to hunt you down and slowly torture you to death'.

Hell, as far as he knew, Cloud hadn't shown that level of vindictive hatred toward even Sephiroth or Hojo!

Reno wished he could convince himself that the whole encounter with psycho 'I hate your guts' Cloud was an aberration, an once-only event triggered by a unique combination of stress, injury, and Hojo's meddling. Or even better, a weird hallucination on his own part. It would have made things SO much simpler.

Unfortunately, both his brain and his guts told him that Cloud's rage was merely a symptom of a very deep long-term mental issue that was not about to go away on its own.

And Cloud's state of mind was damn critical. The Turks could handle a lot, up to and including a fucking WEAPON, on their own. But if Hojo and Sephiroth were set to go rampaging all over the Planet, Shinra and the Turks would need as much help as they could get.

And no matter how much the idea of relying on someone else stuck in Reno's throat, Cloud was probably the only guy around who stood a decent chance of going toe-to-toe against Sephiroth, if the bastard returned again.

The problem was that the very strength and fighting ability that made Cloud such a valuable asset in any fight against Hojo and Sephiroth would also make Cloud a major threat if he suddenly decided to go Turk-hunting with a vengeance.

Reno wondered if any of Cloud's buddies had a clue what was brewing inside their friend's head. He didn't think so.

There were types of mental shit that one could work with or work around, but not this type of craziness. You couldn't ignore a murderous grudge like that, even if you weren't the target. A person consumed with that much hatred would be too fucking unreliable. You would never be able to fully trust the guy to toe the line or watch your back properly. A person like that would gladly throw anyone under the bus without hesitation, not to mention sacrifice everything else, just for the sake of his revenge.

Tifa and Cloud's other friends might have their quirks, but they certainly weren't stupid. If they knew, they wouldn't be able to trust him the way they did.

And there would probably be signs, hints of something 'off'. When someone held a grudge so intense, that hostility usually crept into everything that person said or did. People -- well, normal people -- just couldn't keep that sort of hatred and rage out of the other parts of their lives.

Sure, he knew one or two guys -- hello, Rufus! -- who had the self-control and mental discipline to completely hide such intense emotions for the sake of some convoluted long-term scheme. However, despite his undeniable bravery and stubbornness, the Cloud he knew just didn't have anything like the cold-blooded calculation and mental discipline Rufus had.

Which was a good thing, actually. One Rufus on this Planet was more than enough.

Besides, Rufus's hatred had always been of the cold, patient sort. Cloud's grudge was completely different -- the hatred ran way too hot, and was way too impatient. A person just couldn't hide something like that.

Unless that person was unaware those feelings existed.

Unless those feelings had become somehow completely 'separated' from the person's normal self.

Or in other words, some sort of alternate personality.

Okay, so he was apparently the only person who had a bloody clue about the weird mental time bomb Cloud was carrying around in his head. But now after uncovering this deep, dark secret, what the fuck was he supposed to do about it, if anything?

Should he tell Cloud about this hidden crazy side, or about the Zack thing? Yeah, he could see that conversation going down really well.

The last thing Reno wanted was to have Cloud completely flip his shit, one way or another. He certainly didn't want Cloud to fall into some paralyzing, angst-ridden depression as he did when Kadaj kidnapped all those kids from Midgar. On the other hand, just mentioning the possibility of psycho-Cloud's existence might be enough to make that personality resurface. And that would be really, really bad.

Of course, this was assuming that the normal, sane Cloud would be in control long enough for Reno to bring up the subject. Because if the psycho-Cloud was in the driver's seat when Hojo's paralyzing toxin finally wore off, this Turk would be in a shitload of trouble.

Despite what some people might think, Reno had a healthy regard for his own neck and definitely wanted to keep it in one piece, thank you. The only thing worse than getting trapped unarmed in a cramped space with a crazed, homicidal alter-ego Cloud was getting stuck in the same situation with an insane Sephiroth.

No, scratch that. There was a very slim chance that an insane Sephiroth might consider him not worth the trouble of killing. And if that didn't work, at least Sephiroth would kill him quickly. Psycho-Cloud, on the other hand, would not only do his best to kill him, but would probably do it in some horribly painful way for pure sadistic fun times.

Wonderful.

But before Reno could make a decision, he heard a shrill, penetrating female voice. Specimen cells were generally soundproof, but they also came with a built-in intercom system that allowed researchers to communicate easily with their subjects. From the echoes and distortion, it sounded like the woman's voice came from outside the lab, somewhere down the hallway or even an adjacent lab area.

Through the intercom, he could hear the woman as she argued furiously with someone. He couldn't make out most of her words, but her tone made it clear that she was seriously pissed off. He only caught the occasional word -- "facility", "bastard", etc. However, another term came up repeatedly in the conversation and caught his attention.

"...DeepGround...!" the strident female voice said in a tone of bitter complaint and accusation.

Suddenly, there was a rapid series of gunshots -- a large caliber handgun, to Reno's experienced ears -- followed immediately by an enraged howl of pain. Then came a whole cacophony of crashing and pounding noises, accompanied by bestial screams from other sources.

Even as Reno wondered what the fuck had just happened, Scarlet -- Shinra's former Head of Weapons Development, presumed dead in the Meteorfall disaster -- dashed into the lab and slammed the door shut behind her. After locking the door, then barricading it with a nearby cabinet, she propped herself against the wall, panting heavily.

Scarlet still wore flashy, over-sequined evening gowns, Reno noted sourly. However, instead of the lethal stiletto heels she usually favored, this time she was barefoot. She was also clutching a small, but powerful looking pistol.

"Scarlet?!"

She whipped around, then gave him a sharp, thin-lipped smile.

"Reno. Finally awake, I see." She shoved long blond wisps of hair away from her face and smirked as her eyes scanned his naked body from head to toe. But even as she blatantly ogled him, she was busy reloading her gun.

"So that's what you've been hiding underneath those Turk suits." Her smile widened into an outright leer as her eyes settled on a point just below his waist. "I never realized how impressive your... 'equipment' was."

Scarlet, like Hojo, loved to wind people up. So Reno suppressed any impulse to cover himself and gave her the finest predatory smirk he had.

"Darling, it's the stuff that dreams are made of." When Scarlet raised an eyebrow, Reno added in a dangerously polite voice, "Now, if we're done with the foreplay, will you quit admiring my assets and open this fucking cell?"

Scarlet snorted, but quickly located the control panel for the specimen chamber and began jabbing at the keypad.

"What the hell are you doing here, anyway?" Reno demanded.

As she continued to busily push buttons, he replied, "This manufacturing facility belongs to me. It was doing nicely until Hojo decided to take over and use it as his new monster factory. Or hatchery, god only knows. And I'm afraid to even guess what the hell he's been doing in the lower levels."

Scarlet slammed her palm against the console in frustration. "Shit, it's passcoded and I don't have time to deal with it. As much as I admire that cute ass of yours, I'm more concerned with saving my own butt."

"Then do something! You can't just leave us here!"

"Sure I can!" she retorted instantly. But when she saw that Reno was no longer alone in the cell, she frowned and said, "Isn't that... Clod, or something like that?"

"Cloud," Reno replied testily.

"Yeah, whatever." A calculating look crossed her face. "Is he alive?"

"Yes, but...."

"Is he still hooked up with Reeve and his old AVALANCHE buddies?" she rudely interrupted.

"Yes, but...."

"Is he going to live?" she interrupted yet again.

"He's in bad shape -- poisoned and gut wounded, but he's stable. Physically speaking, at least," Reno said with a shrug.

"Good. Make sure he stays that way."

"Not you, too! I'm a Turk, not a freaking medic!" Reno yelled, flinging up his hands in obvious irritation.

"It's not like you've got anywhere to go or anything better to do. Look, I don't have time to sit and chat, seeing as how I just emptied a full clip of ammo into Hojo's face." She waggled the pistol in her hand meaningfully.

"Was that him howling just now?" Reno asked.

"Yeah. Didn't even come close to killing him, more's the pity, but it was enough to disrupt his psychic control over those monster minions of his and allow me to get away. Now I've got to find a nice, safe hiding spot and place a very important phone call to Reeve and the WRO. With luck, we'll all get the hell out of here in one piece."

Without another word, she bolted out the back door of the lab.

Less than a minute later, a mob of Hojo's monsters smashed down the barricaded front door to the lab. Reno blandly watched as they stampeded right back out of the room in hot pursuit of Scarlet.

"Reno?"

He spun around, cursing himself for getting too distracted and turning his back on Cloud -- something he had sworn NOT to do after his encounter with Cloud's nastier, Turk-hating side. Thankfully, normal Cloud seemed to be in charge this time around.

Cloud lifted his head a bit and said in a startled voice, "Did I just see Scarlet go by? Or was that just another hallucination?"

"Nope. She was really here, the damn bitch, sequins and all."

Cloud blinked. "What is she doing here in Hojo's lair?"

"The place apparently belonged to her until Hojo decided to stage an unfriendly takeover. She's understandably pissed about that." He glanced down at Cloud. "How are you feeling?"

Cloud sighed and managed to lift his hand enough to rub at his face, although it took visible effort.

"It looks like I've got some movement back. Still can't think straight."

Reno walked over to Cloud and said casually, "Do you remember when we first met?"

"Sure. Aerith's church in Sector 5. You tromped all over her flowers. Why do you ask?"

"Just wondering," Reno drawled, sitting down beside Cloud.

"Really." Cloud gave him a level stare, then said in a weary tone, "Reno, I may be many things, but I'm not stupid. I know when I'm being tested. Did something happen when I was unconscious? Did I say or do something disturbing?"

"Depends on your definition of disturbing."

"Reno...," Cloud said, with a definite hint of annoyance.

Up until that very moment, he had been debating what to say to Cloud, if anything. Unfortunately, at this point, pretending complete ignorance wasn't going to fly.

"Fine, fine. You said some stuff about Zack," Reno said in a nonchalant tone.

"Zack?"

"Yeah."

"You... knew Zack?" Cloud sounded both startled and a little uneasy.

Seeing the still woozy haze in Cloud's eyes, Reno realized that this would probably be his last opportunity to get some candid, unfiltered information out of Cloud, who was under normal circumstances as chatty as a rock. So he decided to take the plunge and ask a few potentially explosive questions.

"Before I go into all that, can you tell me about the time you first met a Turk. Not me. Any Turk."

Cloud's glowing blue eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"I'm not trying to blow you off. Just answer the question, then I'll tell you what I know about Zack Fair, SOLDIER First Class."

Cloud shrugged a bit stiffly, then said, "It was on a mission while I was still an infantryman. She was a female Turk called Chaise."

"Long dark blond hair in a fancy ponytail, uses a shotgun?"

"That's her. The mission had to do with protecting a professor from... AVALANCHE?" Cloud frowned in confusion. "Not Barret's AVALANCHE. A different AVALANCHE, with... Ravens? Not the birds. Humans... no, former humans, transformed into...?" Before Reno could say anything, he shook his head in bewilderment, then continued, "I saw Chaise again a year or so later, during the Nibelheim mission."

"You remember meeting Chaise in Nibelheim?" Reno said casually.

"Yeah. Before the trip to the reactor, I, um...." Despite all the blood loss he'd suffered, Cloud still managed a pretty respectable blush. "...asked her for a small personal favor. She was nice enough to agree."

"Did you ever see her again?"

"Yes."

Reno tensed slightly, but Cloud was concentrating too hard on his own memories to notice.

"I saw her just a few days ago."

"What?" Reno said, startled.

"Rufus asked her to join us when we went to Nibelheim after Hojo's attack. I didn't remember her at first, but she reminded me about our earlier meeting in Nibelheim and the... um, personal favor."

As Cloud continued to ramble about their most recent visit to the mountain town, the search for the Turks, and Chaise's involvement, Reno listened, his racing thoughts concealed by a mildly bored expression.

Cloud's demeanor was perfectly calm, almost friendly, as he discussed the same female Turk who he had, only a few hours ago, called a traitorous bitch, to put it mildly. And now as Cloud spoke, there was no hint of anger or hatred, resentment or bitterness, toward Reno, Chaise, or any other Turk.

What had the other, psycho-Cloud said about remembering?

"I remember. HE doesn't, but -I- do. I remember EVERYTHING."

Now Reno felt pretty sure that the 'he' mentioned was the Cloud everyone knew. That Cloud didn't appear to have any memory of encountering Chaise in the Nibel Reactor or of Hojo's arrival after Sephiroth's apparent death. Reno wasn't sure where that particular observation got him, but he filed away the information for later.

"Okay, now tell me what you know about Zack," Cloud murmured, still clearly exhausted.

As agreed, Reno began discussing his own experiences with Zack. He kept things casual, a little vague, skimming over the specifics of the missions.

Except that Cloud just as casually filled in many of the gaps in Reno's stories. Compared to the confusion he had shown in dealing with his own memories, Cloud's knowledge of Zack's activities with the Turks bordered on the outright uncanny. The people, places, events -- Cloud knew the details almost better than Reno did himself.

As a test, Reno deliberately flubbed a minor detail or two, completely trivial events that only he and Zack would know about. For example, the time Reno had been frogged and nearly eaten by a hungry snake....

Cloud, his expression oddly blank, his tone pleasantly conversational, caught and corrected the mistakes, apparently unaware that he had shifted from talking about Zack in the third person to talking AS Zack in the first person.

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After her encounter with Reno, Scarlet wasted no time heading for her saferoom. She ran as fast as she could, glad she'd kept up her morning cardio workouts. She jumped over a railing onto an obscure catwalk, made a sharp right turn into a small utility alcove, hit a nondescript wall section in a complicated pattern, then jumped through the opening revealed by a sliding panel. Slamming the panel shut behind her, Scarlet paused to catch her breath, then scurried down the cramped access tunnel on hands and knees. At occasional intervals, she opened up hidden keypads and typed in codes, then hurried on her way.

Finally, she tumbled head first into her saferoom, which also served as the backup security center. After entering a few final commands in the main console, she collapsed into a chair, gasping for air as the security monitors around her sprang to life.

When she located Hojo in one of the labs, still staggering around in obvious pain, Scarlet scowled. The crazy scientist had managed to survive getting blown to bits by Cloud and his friends, so she hadn't expected her gun to do any permanent damage. Still, it was annoying as hell to see the gaping wounds in Hojo's head and neck visibly closing.

Her camera scan through the facility confirmed her worst fears. Hojo's damned monsters were everywhere and all her escape routes to the outside were cut off. Fortunately, her encounter with Reno had given her an idea for getting out of this mess.

Scarlet reached inside a small cooler unit and pulled out a bottle of wine. Uncorking it and knocking back a few deep chugs without the benefit of a glass, she laughed and said, "Well, Cloud, it's about time you paid me back for all the trouble you've caused me. You're going to be my ticket out of this hellhole. Cheers!"

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

As Scarlet relaxed for the first time in days, she brooded about how Hojo had totally fucked up her comfortable post-Meteorfall life.

The weapon facility had been one of her best-kept secrets. No trace of it appeared in Shinra company records. After Meteorfall, instead of staying with Shinra, she had decided to go into business for herself.

She'd spent the months following Meteorfall retooling the facility into a small, but efficient factory for various types of weaponry. But just as she started to rake in the profits, Hojo managed to screw up everything by paying her a surprise 'visit'.

Scarlet snickered softly to herself. Hojo might fancy himself a brilliant scientist, but he was also an idiot. He had forgotten that she wasn't merely a corporate executive or weapon engineer. She not only designed all sorts of weapons, but she also knew how to use them.

And unlike Reeve, she didn't mind getting her own hands dirty.

So when a giggling Hojo had dragged her out to demand the codes for the Mako reactor's safety interlocks, she had been carrying an ace up her sleeve. Or a pistol up her skirt, to be more precise, because Hojo totally forgot to have her searched.

Her screaming rant at Hojo had provided the perfect distraction. All her practice hours at the firing range and the outrageous amounts of gil spent on her custom designed wardrobe had finally paid off, allowing her to grab the small but extremely powerful handgun strapped to her thigh, then empty the entire clip right into Hojo's scaly face at point blank range.

Now THAT had been satisfying.

She still didn't know why Hojo wanted to shut off the safety interlocks. Do that, and raw mako would flood the entire containment system, which in turn would cause a power imbalance that could blow the entire plant, Hojo included, sky high. That would be just fine with her, except for the small matter of getting blown up herself as well.

However, all things considered, she was in pretty good shape at the moment. She had a safe place to hide, with plenty of food, water, and weapons. Despite the damage caused by Hojo's creatures, she still had considerable control over much of the factory's systems and equipment, including a few working battle robots.

Scarlet emptied half of the wine bottle, then put it aside. She desperately wanted a nap, but that would have to wait. The sooner she contacted Reeve, the sooner she'd get out of this mess.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

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o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

[ Healen ]

It was dinnertime and everyone had gathered in one of the smaller dining halls in the clinic. However, no one was much interested in eating. Instead, they shared what little progress they had made after a full day of searching and investigation.

Over 24 hours had passed since Cloud's abduction, and they still had no good leads on Cloud's or Rufus's disappearance. Cid had made a few reconnaissance flights, which also served to test the repairs to the Shera's engines. Kunsel, the only one who showed any appreciable appetite, had just returned from supervising yet another search of the Healen area. Cait Sith sat in a corner, apparently dozing, which probably meant that Reeve was working his ass off back at WRO HQ. Elena and Rude -- for once, not wearing his sunglasses -- were picking at their food, more interested in the thick stacks of reports they were reading.

As for Tifa, she did her best to rest and recover, even as she debated about telling Denzel and Marlene about Cloud's kidnapping.

Cid stalked into the dining and snapped, "Any damn news?"

"The only thing we can be sure of is that Hojo's NOT in Nibelheim," Kunsel said drily.

"Well, that's something," Cid said sarcastically.

"Besides that, not much. The Turks are trying to narrow down the list of possible locations that Hojo could use as a hideout. The WRO has teams running all over the place tracking down possible sightings of Hojo's creatures."

Cid kicked angrily at the wall. "The Shera can get us pretty much anywhere on this Planet in less than six hours or so. But all that speed means shit when we don't have any idea where the fuck to go." He flung himself down on the nearest chair and said, "Hell, at this point, we might as well pick our target by closing our eyes and sticking a pin in the fucking map! At least we'd be doing SOMETHING!"

Before anyone could respond, Cait Sith jumped back to life and shouted, "Guys! Listen to this!"

Everyone gathered around the cat as it whipped out its phone and activated the speaker so they could all listen in on Reeve's conversation.

"Scarlet?!"

"I want to make a deal, Reeve," a familiar female voice replied.

"A deal? What sort of deal?"

"You're looking for your spiky haired friend Cloud, right?"

Cait Sith made sharp hushing gestures so the others wouldn't miss a word of the conversation between Reeve and the former Head of Shinra's Weapons Development Department.

"Go on," Reeve said evenly to Scarlet.

"I know where he is. And I know where Hojo's keeping him."

"So what's the deal?"

Scarlet sighed. "To put it simply, my brains and your brawn. I give you the information you need to rescue your friends, and you get me the hell out of here."

"Friends?"

"Both Cloud and Reno."

Elena clamped her hand over her mouth to keep herself quiet. It turned out to be unnecessary because Cait had muted the phone on their end, eliminating any chance of Scarlet hearing the Turks or anyone else except for Reeve.

"Reno's there too?"

"That's right. Reeve, I know this place like the back of my hand. I can get you to Cloud and Reno by the quickest and safest route, all without Hojo knowing. This is my offer. I help you locate Cloud and Reno. In return, you give me an escort out of this monster-infested hellhole. After that, you can call in the WRO, hunt up Hojo, or do whatever the hell you want. Just as long as I get out of here alive and as me, not some weird mutated monstrosity."

"How do we know that you're telling the truth and not trying to lure us into a trap?"

Although they didn't have any video, it was easy to infer Scarlet's eyeroll from the exasperation in her voice.

"Look, I know that we didn't part ways on the best of terms...."

Reeve made an incredulous sound. "You tried to kill us. Repeatedly. With a giant ROBOT."

"Well, that's true. But surely we can put that bit of unfortunate history behind us," Scarlet said smoothly, then sighed heavily. "I'm going to be brutally frank about my situation. I need your help as much as you need mine. Hojo's damn monsters are crawling all over the place. If they catch me, I'm dead or worse. You've got experience at handling this sort of situation and I'm relying on you guys to save my very precious neck. So I've got no motive to screw you over."

"Sure you do, if you're setting us up for Hojo."

"If you're worried about me working with Hojo, don't be. At this point, he is stark raving bonkers. The only thing Hojo's interested in now is his research, as he calls it." Scarlet paused. "Well, he's always been like that, but it's way worse now that no one's there to keep him in line. The only value I have for him is as research fodder. There's no way I'd trust him to keep his end of any deal or promise."

"You could be setting us up just to save your own neck."

"Hojo's far too obsessed with his 'research' to give a fuck about you guys."

"Come on, Scarlet. If you've managed to escape from him, why can't you get away from the factory by yourself? You've got to have multiple backup plans and escape routes. Why haven't you used them?" said Reeve in an decidedly suspicious tone.

Scarlet snarled back, "Because I got damn lucky the first time around and caught him off-guard. That's not going to happen again. I have weapons and I can handle myself in a fight, but I'm just one person. I step outside my hiding hole without backup, and I'm going to get nailed, sooner or later. That's where you guys come in."

"What guarantees do we have that you'll keep your end of the bargain?"

"Don't be an idiot, Reeve. I know that you guys won't leave or let me go until you rescue your buddies. So if I want to get out alive, I have to help you. Look, I'm sending you some video as proof that I'm not lying about Cloud and Reno. Call me back with your answer," Scarlet said before hanging up.

With some improvising, the Turks managed to download the videos forwarded to them by Reeve and get them up on a nearby wall monitor. The videos were all short, with most of them showing scenes of monsters roaming inside or outside of an industrial facility by the sea. The last one was of a lab and clearly showed Reno and Cloud inside a large transparent specimen chamber. Reno, though naked and fairly bruised, looked reasonably okay as he paced impatiently back and forth. However, the same could not be said for Cloud, who lay still and unconscious.

Tifa eyed the large darkish red stains on the floor around Cloud and said quietly, "That's blood. A lot of blood."

"He's hurt bad, all right," Cid agreed. "But alive, judging by the way Reno keeps checking on him."

Before they could discuss the matter further, Scarlet's agitated voice burst from Cait Sith's phone again. Cid, Tifa and the others again clustered around the cat, listening intently.

"Reeve, I need your answer NOW, and it better be a big fucking, 'Yes!'"

"What's wrong?"

"Trouble in all caps. Sending you a picture."

The camera angle was awkward, to say the least, but clearly showed a partially open set of double doors. Past the open doors, Cid and the others could make out part of a large tank filled with glowing green fluid. Suspended within the tank was a blurry pale, humanoid form with long, equally pale hair.

Reeve swore under his breath.

"Is that...?"

Scarlet replied grimly, "I can't be certain, not from this limited angle, but it sure looks like Sephiroth, doesn't it? While I was a prisoner, Hojo kept babbling about resurrecting Sephiroth. I really didn't think that he'd actually be able to do it. No wonder Hojo wanted the override codes for the Mako containment systems."

"Can you get a better view?"

"Sorry, but I can't access any security cameras inside that lab. All I've got is the one in the hallway outside and I can only catch quick glimpses when Hojo or his minions go in or out. For what it's worth, the body -- whoever or whatever it is -- looks incomplete at the moment."

"So we've still got some time."

"I suppose, but I haven't got a clue how much." There was a long pause on Scarlet's end. "I have to say that you don't sound that surprised or shocked about this development, Reeve."

"I'm not."

"You KNEW this was going to happen?" she sputtered. Before Reeve could say anything, she cut him off. "That's not important. Well, Reeve? Do we have a deal?"

"You already know my answer."

"Fine. Give me a call when you arrive and I'll figure a way to meet up with you."

"I already have some WRO forces in the area. They can be there within two hours."

"And do what? Don't be stupid, Reeve," Scarlet said, clearly exasperated. "Even assuming that they don't end up as cannon fodder for Hojo's army of monsters, you DO realize that a frontal assault will only give Hojo time to use Cloud and Reno as hostages. No, just do what you usually do -- put together a strike team and sneak in the back way."

"And is there a back way?"

"Of course there is. There's an underground escape tunnel in the factory which can be accessed via a natural cave system. The best cave entrance to use is the one farthest away, on the far side of a nearby mountain ridge. It'll provide cover for your arrival."

"How far are we talking about?"

"About ten kilometers or so."

"Ten kilometers!" Reeve protested.

"There are several closer entrances, but you'll run the risk of encountering the monsters Hojo's got patrolling the area. The cave path is pretty easy going, but only passable on foot. For guys like you, it shouldn't take you much more than an hour or so to cover that distance, barring monster encounters.

"Don't worry about that part. As you might expect, the actual escape tunnel section is equipped with automated defense systems. Under normal circumstances, I could remotely deactivate those systems so you can walk right in. Unfortunately, there's a minor problem."

"Of course there would be," Reeve said sarcastically.

Scarlet ignored him and continued, "Hojo and his creatures really tore this place apart doing whatever the hell they're doing. The controls for the escape tunnel defense system is just one of the things that got trashed. Their default mode is 'on' and I can't switch them off. Believe me, I've tried. So you're going to have to fight your way through them."

"Marvelous. You make it sound so easy."

"Reeve, I'd simply love to make this a walk in the park for you guys. I really would. But I can't. However, the severed controls mean that Hojo won't receive any warnings when the defense systems eventually go down."

"Well, that's one good thing."

"I have some more good news for you. From my observations, I'm pretty sure that Hojo doesn't constantly keep an active psychic link with all his creatures. My guess is that he can 'set' them with simple commands -- like 'kill all intruders' or 'follow the leader' -- but from what I've seen, he can't control them in any complex manner unless he's in close proximity or concentrating intensely."

"What sort of proximity are we talking about here?"

"A range of a few rooms, at most. Otherwise, he wouldn't have to move around so much to personally supervise them. The important thing is that if you can keep the ruckus down, you can kill off whatever monsters you run into without warning him."

"Okay, that simplifies things quite a bit," Reeve said.

"Yes, thank goodness for small favors. There's something else that works to our advantage. Hojo seems to be running this whole show entirely by himself, so he's got his tentacles full with all the schemes he's got going. I can arrange for a few distractions to keep him even busier. A little creative sabotage here and there, nothing big."

"Every little bit helps."

"I know. A few last details. First, Cloud and Reno are locked inside one of the large clear specimen chambers -- you know the type. I tried the usual override codes, but none of them worked, so you'll need to figure some way of getting them out."

"Anything else we should know?"

"I already told you that Hojo's got a lot of things going on simultaneously, right? I don't have specifics, but whatever he's doing, it requires a lot of human fodder, both alive and dead. He first used my employees, but ran through them in no time flat. He then started sending his monsters out to fetch more. The live captives disappear into the lab areas. As for the dead people, I've seen hundreds -- and I do mean hundreds -- of human corpses being dragged off to the lowermost levels of the factory. Why he needs so many and what the hell he's doing with them, I haven't got a clue except it can't possibly be good. Consider this bit of information as additional incentive to get your asses over here ASAP."

With that, she rattled off the coordinates of Hojo's hideout and the cave entrance before hanging up.

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In the dining room, Cid glanced at the people around him and said, "Tifa?"

"I'm fine and ready to go."

"Kunsel, I'd like you along as backup on the Shera, in case we get in a jam or shit goes south."

"No problem," the SOLDIER said easily.

"I'm going to organize the WRO response," Cait Sith said, then added quickly, "I'll keep it as low profile as possible. I don't want to give Hojo any warning, but I'd like them nearby."

The cat then turned to Elena and Rude. "You Turks work for Shinra, so you're technically under no obligation to follow WRO's orders. But I'm assuming the Turks also want in on the action."

The blond Turk gave him a cold, dangerous smile. "Absolutely."

"How many Turks are we talking about here?" Cid demanded.

"Serge still doesn't have full use of his arm, so he stays here. That leaves me, Rude, Jade, and Chaise," Elena replied, then frowned and turned to Rude. "What about Garret and Mac? They're supposed to be in Junon, keeping on eye on Dr. Aston's people."

Rude shook his head. "They headed out to investigate some possible leads. They're probably at the eastern coast by now."

"Too far out of the way, then, just like Vandal and Tasha," Elena muttered.

Cid scowled thoughtfully. "So that makes four Turks. Then we'll probably have enough to set up a backup team if we need to."

"What about Vincent, Nanaki, and Yuffie? Since they're in Nibelheim, they're much closer than we are," Tifa said. "They could meet us at the cave instead of waiting for us to pick them up."

"Yeah, good idea. They could even scout out the area for us. But I don't want them going in alone. We don't know what sort of surprises or traps Hojo or Scarlet might've set up." Cid looked hard at Rude. "You got a pretty good beatdown in Nibelheim. You sure you're up for this?"

Rude gave him a flat stare. "Try and stop me."

"Just checkin'," Cid said with a shrug.

But even as Elena pulled out her phone to contact the other Turks, the door to the dining room burst open. They all turned to see Chaise standing in the doorway, breathing hard.

"They've found Tseng!"

"WHAT?! Where?" Elena demanded, going very white.

"A few miles from here." Chaise added quickly, "He's alive, but in critical condition. Head and internal injuries, combined with multiple gunshot wounds."

"Shot! By whom?!"

Chaise brushed her long hair away from her face, then said acidly, "Would you believe by a trigger-happy Shinra infantryman on patrol?"

As Elena and Rude stared at her, Chaise continued, "No, seriously. The trooper claims that he heard something crashing around in the bushes, panicked, and fired. He SAYS that he shouted a warning before shooting, but that doesn't match with what the other squad members say. And if that isn't bad enough, from what Jade told me, the whole squad then stood around arguing while Tseng was bleeding out at their feet."

Elena snarled something about idiots and morons under her breath, then rubbed suddenly shaky hands over her face.

It was left to Rude to ask, "Did Tseng say anything?"

"Not that I know of, but it sounds like the entire squad is more interested in covering their own asses than telling the truth," Chaise said in obvious frustration. "Jade and Serge haven't gotten a chance to squeeze more details out of them. Anyway, Dr. Nyx is putting together a medical team and setting up a quarantine so they can evaluate Tseng for possible contamination and treat his injuries."

"Wait a second. What contamination?" Tifa interrupted.

Chaise replied, "After what happened with Cloud and that poor mutated Foster woman, Nyx and the other WRO doctors instituted a new safety protocol to hopefully prevent anything like that from happening again. That's why the very first thing the medical team's going to do is check Tseng for Jenova cells or other abnormalities."

"And if their tests show something nasty?" Cid said curtly.

"Then we all have to figure out a way to deal with the situation." Chaise's tone was cool and flat.

Tifa winced visibly.

Chaise, belatedly glancing around the room, said, "Ah... did I interrupt something?"

Since Elena didn't respond, Rude was the one who answered. "We just got a message from Scarlet telling us where Hojo's holding Cloud and Reno."

Chaise blinked, processing the information. Instead of asking for more details, she simply said, "Okay. What do you need me to do?"

Rude said, "We need people here with Tseng. For protection, and if complications arise."

"Serge's staying, so that's one," Elena said. Although she managed to keep her voice steady and professional, there was no hiding her obvious personal concern over Tseng. "We need more people, not only to take care of Tseng, but to keep searching this area for Rufus. Jade...."

"Elena, you stay here with Tseng," Rude said firmly.

She flushed deeply, then hissed under her breath. "But Reno...."

"I'll take care of Reno." He paused, meaningfully. "You take care of Tseng."

"But you need...."

"I'll have Chaise and Jade with me, as well as Cid and the others. This is not a matter of personal favors. You're needed HERE, as a Turk, to do whatever is necessary in regard to Tseng and his welfare. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Elena met Rude's level stare, gulped, then said steadily, "Yes. Understood."

"Now that we've got all that sorted out, can we get the fuck on our way?" Cid said impatiently.

Rude reached into a pocket and pulled out his sunglasses. Slipping them on, he said, "I need to grab some equipment from my quarters first."

"If you need it, fine. You guys have ten minutes."

As Kunsel nodded briskly, Chaise said, "I'll contact the others and we'll all meet up at the Shera."

As the Turks and Kunsel hustled toward the door, Cid glanced at Tifa and Cait Sith. "Time to get our own asses in gear. We can iron out the rest of the damn details after we're in the air."

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[ the Shera ]

Once onboard the airship, Tifa paced restlessly. "I hope Hojo doesn't get any warning of our arrival, either from Scarlet or any spies he might've left behind in Healen."

Cid rested his hands on the wheel and said, "I doubt it. Scarlet knows we're her best chance of getting out alive, so she's got no reason to betray us. As for Hojo spying on us, I suppose there's a small chance, but I don't think so. He's already got what he wanted -- Cloud and possibly Rufus. He's got no interest in the rest of us."

"I suppose."

He eyed Tifa, then said, "There's no point in trying to tell you not to worry about Cloud, so I won't even bother. But I'll say this much -- Cloud's a fighter. He's not going to lay down and let Hojo or Sephiroth walk all over him."

"I know that." She smiled wistfully. "And if he was up against any other enemy, I would have no problems agreeing with you. But with Hojo and Sephiroth, knowing what they're capable of doing, knowing what they've already done to Cloud...."

A long silence fell between them. They both knew that Cloud was a superb fighter, and probably the strongest currently alive on the Planet. But with Hojo and/or Sephiroth involved, Cloud would need much more than mere physical strength and combat skill. Those two opponents knew of Cloud's emotional and mental vulnerabilities. Hell, the bastards probably created most of them! To make things even worse, they both knew how to exploit the fuck out of these cracks and flaws in Cloud's psyche.

And that was the real worry, wasn't it?

"Well, if Hojo or Sephiroth somehow manage to screw up Cloud's head again, we're just going to have to knock some sense back into him," Cid said calmly.

She snorted, but relaxed enough to sit down.

"By the way, what's up with Barret?" Cid asked. "Wasn't Vincent supposed to check on him?"

"He's all right, just very angry at being trapped underground by a mine accident and missing out on all the excitement," she said drily. "We didn't tell him about Cloud yet. No point in worrying him when he can't do anything about it. The mining people say that it's going to take a few more days to dig Barret and the others out. They don't want to rush things and risk triggering another tunnel collapse."

Cid uttered an annoyed grunt, then turned as Cait Sith, Rude, Chaise and the black-haired Jade arrived on the Shera's bridge. Cid gave them a sharp nod and said, "What did Vincent and the others say?"

"They're leaving Nibelheim right now and will meet us at the cave entrance," Cait Sith replied. The cat then turned to the Turks and said, "Regarding Scarlet...."

"What about her?" Chaise asked, as she checked her shotgun.

"I know we agreed to rescue her, protect her, and evacuate her from the factory. That's exactly what we're going to do. But once we've got her, I want to keep her in protective custody."

She gave Cait Sith a curious look. "Care to explain?"

"First, the WRO has a lot of questions to ask her, especially about certain secret data files. Second, because Scarlet's greedy, manipulative, powerhungry, and therefore as dangerous as hell. If she finds out that Rufus is still President of Shinra AND that he's missing, I wouldn't put it past her to try some sort of takeover in his absence. She's certainly got the ambition and the guts for it."

Chaise exchanged glances with Rude. "You've got a good point. Is that why you didn't ask her about Rufus and Tseng?"

Cait Sith nodded briskly. "That's right. I didn't want to give her any ideas about making a play for the Shinra Corporation. Once we're in Hojo's lair, we'll handle the search for Rufus ourselves."

"Why is the WRO so interested in not only saving Rufus, but protecting his position as President?" Jade asked bluntly, even as she test-drew her knives.

"Because Rufus understands that the Planet is a living entity and that humanity can't afford to run roughshod over it anymore. Scarlet doesn't understand and probably never will. With Rufus in control of the Shinra Corporation, the WRO and Shinra can find a way to work together to rebuild human society in a way that won't harm the Planet."

"And the WRO won't get that sort of cooperation from Scarlet," Chaise said thoughtfully.

"You're Turks. You know what she's like. Scarlet's only interested in power and profit. Her power, her profit. That's why I don't want her running around loose. The last thing the WRO and I want is to have the Shinra Corporation embroiled in a messy hostile takeover. Or worse, a Shinra Corporation run with ruthless old-style Shinra management."

Chaise and Jade glanced at Rude, deferring to his seniority in Tseng's absence. He gave a short nod, then said, "Unless Rufus or Tseng says otherwise, the Turks won't have a problem with the WRO holding Scarlet."

"Thanks for your cooperation," Cait Sith replied, sounding relieved.

"No thanks needed. Just doing our job of protecting the President," Jade replied with a cool smile.

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[ Weapon Facility ]

The door to the lab abruptly opened and Hojo, accompanied by several of his creatures, half-walked and half-slithered into the room.

"Have you been having pleasant dreams?" Hojo said mockingly as he peered at Cloud, who lay motionless on the floor of the test chamber.

Remaining still, Cloud merely glared at Hojo.

The scientist shrugged, then waved at his monstrous minions. Reno, thoroughly pissed off and stressed, briefly considered doing something, just for the hell of it, but then received a sharp warning glance from Cloud. With a mental shrug, he leaned back against the transparent chamber wall and did nothing as the monsters roughly hauled Cloud out of the cell and held him up for Hojo's inspection.

Cloud stared at the large scabbed craters on Hojo's face and neck. "It looks like you ran into something painful," he commented blandly.

Hojo's tentacles twitched in annoyance. "Just a minor inconvenience called Scarlet. My creatures are hunting her down even as we speak."

"So, what do you want now, Hojo?" Cloud said wearily.

Hojo said nothing, but merely stared at his prisoner with a disturbing intensity.

At first Cloud merely looked confused by Hojo's behavior, then his blue eyes narrowed angrily.

"It's not going to work."

Hojo ignored Cloud's words and continued his intense concentration, but finally looked away and shook out his tentacles. "Interesting. You sensed, but remain surprisingly resistant to my influence."

"I told you before. I'm no one's puppet." Cloud's voice was cold, flat, and even.

Hojo slapped Cloud viciously across the face, then smiled, exposing row upon row of needle-like teeth. "Don't be so presumptuous to assume that you can fend off Sephiroth's mental domination so easily. My influence over Jenova cells is far from perfect. However, Sephiroth's ability to command less beings is orders of magnitude greater than mine."

Cloud gritted his teeth, but said nothing.

Hojo shrugged, like a perfectly reasonable man making a perfectly obvious point.

"If Sephiroth chooses to command, you WILL obey. It really is that simple."

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(end of Part 9)

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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

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oOo

Chapter Text

Well, I didn't get to my goal of catching up with the original COI fic by the end of 2011, but I came close (at least for me)! ^_^;

And the moment many of you have been waiting for. Guess who finally shows up! Things really start to diverge from the original COI, but I hope you like it. Enjoy!

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 10
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~11,000
Warnings/Content: mature/dark/disturbing themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his dead friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=oo=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o

AUTHOR NOTES:
-- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
-- The original FFVII game and "Advent Children/Complete" are canon for this fic.
-- "Before Crisis" and "Crisis Core" are semi-canon.
-- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".
-- Various plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., "Dirge of Cerberus", "Last Order" OVA, FFVII web novellas, etc.) may show up.

 

Text Conventions

( ) and { } and / and // indicate thoughts, mental dialogue, or languages from various characters

[ ] are miscellaneous date or location notes, images, or sound effects

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o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~oo~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o

Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica

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[ Weapon Facility ]

Although he had regained nearly all his mobility, Cloud forced himself to remain limp and passive as Hojo's monsters -- some type of heavily mutated bipedal long-snouted reptile -- roughly dragged him along the long hallways. With luck, his apparent helplessness would make Hojo careless and overconfident.

Besides there was no reason to resist because Hojo was taking him exactly where he wanted to go.

He hoped there was still time left to stop Hojo's plan to resurrect Sephiroth. Hojo had made it clear that he wanted Cloud to be an eyewitness to Sephiroth's triumphant return. Now the main question was whether Hojo was dragging him along merely to view the work-in-progress, or to witness its final moments.

He had no weapons, no materia. But that didn't mean he was harmless or helpless. Zack had taught him that. He would figure out some way to stop Sephiroth. He had to.

Cloud turned his attention back to Hojo as the scientist continued to ramble in that slimy, smug way of his. However, he soon realized that there was something odd about Hojo's ravings this time around.

The first few times Hojo gloated about Cloud's anticipated role as Sephiroth's puppet, he had taken it as just another of Hojo's malicious attempts to shake his victim's self-confidence.

But instead of coming up with different threats, Hojo kept harping on the same one with obsessive intensity. When a person went on and on like that, it often hinted at some underlying insecurity. But Hojo never lacked confidence in himself, his abilities, or his creations...

...until now, perhaps?

Was it possible that reality had finally penetrated the walls of Hojo's monumental ego? Had Sephiroth's repeated defeats finally shaken Hojo's overpowering confidence in his masterpiece's god-like supremacy?

The fact that other people and events -- Zack's prior attack in the Nibel Reactor, the presence of Tifa and the others in the Northern Crater, Kadaj's inherent incompleteness, even sheer dumb luck -- had contributed majorly to Sephiroth's various losses was probably irrelevant to Hojo. All that mattered to the scientist was that Sephiroth HAD been defeated on multiple occasions and Cloud had been somehow instrumental in every single one of those losses. Cloud, not Sephiroth, had been the one to walk away -- or the case of Nibelheim, crawl away -- from every one of those confrontations.

The idea that Sephiroth -- his supreme creation and masterpiece, the culmination of decades of work with his very own flesh and blood -- was NOT perfect, was NOT unbeatable, had to be unbearable to someone as arrogant as Hojo.

Cloud suspected that Hojo had probably soothed his wounded ego by telling himself that Cloud was also a product of Hojo's own research. Losing to one's own work might be infuriating, but was somewhat acceptable, if only barely.

But that feeble consolation had apparently been blown out of the water by Hojo's sudden bizarre conviction that Cloud had been the subject of someone ELSE's secret experiments. Experiments Hojo knew nothing about and therefore could not take credit for. So, to Hojo's twisted brain, Cloud no longer counted as Hojo's work, but rather a competitor's rival product.

Talk about insane professional jealousy!

And to make things even worse for Hojo, that rival product apparently performed BETTER, at least in combat, than his own. After all, a 3-0 record spoke for itself.

Cloud was now only guessing, but he suspected that Hojo, unwilling (or perhaps unable) to cope with the idea that Sephiroth's combat preeminence might be in doubt, had somehow become fixated on establishing Sephiroth's complete dominance in another way, one in which Cloud could not possibly pose a challenge.

So all the time Hojo had been accusing Cloud of denial, of being unwilling to face the 'truth' of Sephiroth's mental domination, Hojo himself was in epic denial of his own shaken confidence in his scientific genius, not to mention his jealousy of other scientists' achievements.

Cunning, monstrous Hojo, the ultimate cause of so much pain and tragedy in this world, was finally showing cracks. And Hojo didn't even realize how obvious it was, at least to Cloud.

Sephiroth had described Hojo perfectly when he had called the scientist "a walking mass of complexes" so many years ago during that fateful hike up to the Nibel reactor.

Cloud felt a sudden reckless desire to laugh aloud, but managed to control the urge. No matter how gratifying it would be to rub Hojo's face in this newly discovered weakness, it was better to save it for later, just in case he needed to goad Hojo into doing something reckless or stupid.

But Cloud's brief moment of satisfaction soon vanished, replaced by other darker emotions as Hojo's monsters hauled him down a long corridor toward a set of heavy steel double doors.

He didn't need Hojo to tell him what awaited him just beyond those doors.

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In the middle of the lab, Hojo halted in front of a massive, transparent cylindrical tank and said, "These creatures of mine certainly have their uses, but they simply can't comprehend the finer points of my work."

"You dragged me out of my cell just so you could have an appreciative audience?" Cloud asked, keeping his body limp and his voice weak.

"Of course. You're intimately involved in all this. It's only fitting that you should see this. Take a look at my masterpiece... REBORN!"

With a grand, melodramatic gesture, he slithered aside to give Cloud a clear view of the human form tranquilly suspended in the glowing green liquid within the tank.

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From the time Reno had told him about Hojo's gleeful retrieval of Sephiroth's cells ... no, from the time he learned whose cell sample had been targeted by Hojo, Cloud had known that this moment would inevitably come. He had known and tried to prepare himself for it.

Even so, a familiar sense of cold, heavy dread filled him as he faced the stark reality of Sephiroth's body slowly but inexorably reassembling itself.

There was no mistaking the long silvery hair which drifted around a face with elegant, yet almost feral features, nor the imposing sleek muscular build and unnaturally pale skin.

The actual resurrection was not yet complete, but the clear intent to return was obvious and unmistakable. It was just as Sephiroth had promised.

I will... NEVER be a memory.

And for a brief weary moment, Cloud wondered if there would ever be a way to truly win this seemingly endless war between them. How many times would Sephiroth return to threaten the world? How many times would he need to confront and defeat this most deadly of enemies?

He already knew the answer. He would do it as many times as necessary.

"Our enemy is all that creates suffering."

Even as he watched, Cloud could see Sephiroth's fully mature body rebuilding itself, starting at the head, working downward and from inside outward. The bones formed first, followed by internal organs and/or muscles, then finally skin.

"Amazing, isn't it?" Hojo said, chortling. "All this progress in just over 24 hours!"

Barely one day, and what had probably been a tiny cell sample of tissue no bigger than a fingernail had already become the unmistakable form of his worst enemy. The head, neck, upper chest, and shoulders were already complete. As skeletal arm bones were being wrapped in muscle, indeterminate blobs of tissue were coalescing, steadily gaining both definition and texture to become recognizable internal organs which gradually attached and packed themselves into the body's abdominal region.

As he gazed at Sephiroth serenely floating in the tank, the sight of that half-formed body, surrounded by glowing green Mako, jerked his mind into the past, to the moment when he

stood before Sephiroth's chrysalis of materia, the icy hardness of the Black Materia in his gloved hand. He knew exactly what he was supposed to do. He knew, but couldn't stop himself.

Or perhaps he didn't want to stop himself. He was a good boy. Or a good puppet. Whatever. The only thing that mattered was the single irresistible command pulsing in his empty mind.

"Give me the Black Materia."

And even as the black orb slipped into Sephiroth's mako chrysalis and the giant cavern crumbled around him, he could only smile and let himself fall

Cloud forcibly wrenched his mind out of the past and back to the present, shivering with the mental effort it took. Fortunately, Hojo was too caught up in boasting about his scientific brilliance to notice anything his supposedly helpless prisoner did.

"...fascinatingly, the presence of additional Jenova cells did not accelerate the rebuilding process, but instead significantly interfered with it. There seems to be some sort of competition going on between the preexisting S-cells in Sephiroth's body and the newly introduced original Jenova cells."

Hojo gestured grandly. "But that problem was easily resolved. As soon as I placed the cell sample in this unit with only raw Mako and a suitable assortment of basic organic compounds as building material, the reconstruction of Sephiroth's body proceeded flawlessly! Exactly as I, and only I, could have predicted! So much for you and your doubts, Gast!"

A surprisingly spiteful thought crossed Cloud's mind.

Your insecurities are showing, you bastard.

Hojo probably could have continued his ranting for hours, but he was interrupted by a loud siren and flashing alarm lights.

"What is it THIS time?!" Hojo snarled in fury, his triumphant mood thoroughly ruined.

An electronic voice over the building's loudspeakers blared, "WARNING. Primary interlock failure. Mako intake at unsafe levels. Percentage of raw Mako in containment system at unacceptable levels. Possible reactor breech. Secondary safety interlocks initiated. Reactor and pumping substation shutdown will occur in two minutes."

Hojo swore loudly. "NO! Moronic computer!"

The scientist stormed over to a nearby terminal and angrily began punching in a series of commands. Hojo waited impatiently, then hissed at the flashing message on the monitor.

"What do you mean that the interlocks can't be disabled from remote terminals!? The Mako flow must not be interrupted at any cost! I won't have it, you hear me!?"

When the flat synthesized computer voice began reciting a long list of error codes, the infuriated Hojo smashed both terminal and monitor with his tentacles, then stormed out of the lab, leaving a helplessly paralyzed Cloud in the grip of the two reptilian minions.

Or so Hojo thought.

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Without any specific commands from their master, the two monsters simply remained where they stood, their large scaly claws firmly clamped on Cloud's arms.

He waited passively for several moments as Hojo's slithering footsteps rapidly faded into the distance before he made his own move.

He might not be up to Tifa's level of technical expertise, but he knew how to handle himself in unarmed combat. In addition to the standard hand-to-hand training that the Shinra Army gave all its recruits, he had learned a great deal from Zack.

That training and knowledge, put together with a SOLDIER's strength, made the ensuing fight both brutal and short.

Cloud suddenly twisted one arm free and used it to toss the monster on his right into a nearby lab table. As it lay momentarily stunned, Cloud pivoted left and slammed his knee into the other monster's gut. Scaly armored belly plates absorbed part of the impact, but not nearly enough. Greenish blood spurted from its mouth as the knee strike ruptured and pulverized internal organs. Cloud finished the beast off by slamming his palm into the underside of the monster's elongated jaw, breaking its neck with a loud crack.

Even before the dead creature hit the floor, Cloud turned to face its companion as the beast scrambled back to its feet. Cloud dodged its lunge and ferocious double claw swipes, then let loose with a series of punishing blows that broke bones and shattered joints. He finished with a kick that smashed the creature's skull apart.

With the two monsters dead, Cloud came dangerously close to going down himself. Leaning hard on a nearby table, he checked his stomach wound and found that it had reopened from the fight. He was bleeding heavily again and there was enough of Hojo's poison still floating around his system to mess up both his stamina and his ability to heal.

Unfortunately, he couldn't take any additional time to recover. If he wanted to stop Sephiroth's return, he had to act quickly before blood loss and shock took him down.

Panting heavily, he ignored the large splotches of blood he left behind as he quickly searched the lab, looking for any sort of weapon he could use. He found a stack of black leather clothing, briefly wondered how Hojo managed to get his tentacles on one of Sephiroth's old uniforms, then shoved it aside. In the end, he had a choice of a crowbar and a pocketknife. He opted for the crowbar. It was crude, but at this point, he didn't give a damn about style as long as it got the job done.

Makeshift weapon in hand, he returned to the large tank where Sephiroth awaited and saw that the reconstruction of Sephiroth's body was continuing at its unnerving pace. The head and torso were now complete, with only the arms and legs left unfinished.

As precious seconds ticked by, he scanned the nearby control panel to find the switches he was looking for. But as his fingers hovered above the buttons, he hesitated as the old familiar fear that he wasn't carrying out his own plan, but rather Sephiroth's, flashed across his mind.

No. He was his own person, no longer a broken and empty shell that Sephiroth could easily manipulate.

Quickly shoving his doubts aside, Cloud took a deep breath and and punched the button labeled 'INLET SHUTOFF', followed by the button labeled 'FLUID DUMP'.

At first the glowing green fluid swirled and seethed, then quickly began to drain away. But as the liquid sank lower and lower in the tank, Cloud's eyes widened in disbelief as the draining liquid revealed a mass of glowing green tendrils trailing out of the inlet holes in the tank's ceiling like a mass of invasive vines.

Undetectable to Hojo's equipment or Cloud's own enhanced eyesight, the wispy tendrils had been perfectly hidden by the raw Mako surrounding them. Now with the camouflaging Mako drained away, the tendrils of green energy were clearly visible as they encased and supported Sephiroth's incomplete body.

After the last of the Mako disappeared down the drains with a gurgle, the tank wall automatically split along vertical seams and the resulting wall sections slid back to leave the front half of the tank wide open.

Cloud warily approached as he examined the swirling tendrils of green energy surrounding Sephiroth. They weren't anything like the dark smoky tentacles of corrupted Lifestream energy summoned by Sephiroth a few weeks ago in Midgar. These filaments were unmistakably the familiar brilliant green of the pure, untainted Lifestream.

But what the hell was the Lifestream was doing inside Scarlet's factory? And even more baffling, why was the Lifestream wrapped around Sephiroth like a protective cocoon? Or perhaps a better description would be 'egg', from the way Sephiroth floated freely inside it.

He could understand if the Lifestream was trying to imprison Sephiroth or interfere with his return. But that wasn't happening. If anything, the reconstruction of Sephiroth's body within that glowing green shell seemed to be going faster, not slower.

As he watched muscle and skin reform inside the pocket of Mako, Cloud couldn't escape the feeling that the Planet, far from being hostile, was actually helping Sephiroth.

Which had to be a crazy idea, because why would the Planet want Sephiroth to return to life? It just didn't make any sense!

Desperately confused, physically exhausted, struggling to fend off multiple types of shock, Cloud failed to notice the glowing green tendrils stealthily creeping across the floor toward him. When he did notice, he instinctively recoiled, but it was too late to escape.

The Lifestream reared up and lunged at him with a swiftness that put a Midgar Zolom to shame. He tried to dodge, but the tendrils whipped around his limbs. Completely ensnared, he could only watch helplessly as the Lifestream pumped its potent energy into his flesh.

The crowbar fell from slack fingers with a clang as he collapsed to the floor. He was dimly aware of his body jerking and convulsing as the incandescent Lifestream tore through his body. A scream built in his throat, but couldn't escape as his jaws locked together.

Cloud knew what direct contact with the raw energy of the Lifestream could do to a person. But more importantly, he knew what it would do to him.

He knew what was coming. The voices, memories, and emotions of untold numbers of dead souls would pour into him, drowning him, obliterating his consciousness, his sense of identity and self.

He tried to resist, to protect himself. It made no difference. The Lifestream, the essence of the Planet, was inexorable, its power irresistible.

What it wanted, it took.

And this time, it specifically wanted Cloud Strife.

However, instead of the maddening cacophony of innumerable spirits invading his mind, there was only one.

And this spirit -- so strong, so warm, so comforting -- he knew it better than his own.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

[ the Shera ]

Kunsel stood in the hold of the Shera and eyed the small group of gold and black chocobos calmly nibbling on a few last greens.

"So you're planning to ride the chocobos through the cave to Scarlet's escape tunnel?"

"Even at a flat out run, it would take us well over a half hour to reach the actual entrance to the escape tunnel on foot." She grinned slightly. "And let's face it, most of us aren't great long distance runners. But these birds can cover ten kilometers, regardless of terrain, in ten minutes or less, even if we ride double."

"And you'd be saving all your energy for dealing with Hojo and his bunch. No, it makes perfect sense. But are these birds going to okay with caves?"

As she confidently patted one of the spectacular gold chocobos, Tifa said, "They won't be thrilled about it, but they'll do fine. They've been through a lot with us."

"And after you reach Scarlet's factory?"

"We'll turn them loose and send them back out. As I said, they'll tolerate being underground, but they'd much rather prefer to be in the open air. The Shera can pick them back up. Or if that doesn't work out, they're smart enough to head for the closest 'safe' place they know, which would be Rocket Town. Shera, the person, will take care of them until we can retrieve them."

She glanced at Kunsel, who was making friends with the black chocobo.

"I know that everyone wants to join us down there, but...."

He shrugged. "Sure, but we all understand. Best to have a backup team on call, just in case. Although Jade's not happy about Rude being the only Turk going along with you. I think she's worried that Rufus and Reno will lose out if you guys get stuck with making a choice between rescuing them and rescuing Cloud."

Tifa made an impatient noise. "Of all the.... We are NOT going to abandon Rufus or Reno at the slightest hint of trouble, if that's what she's worried about! Do you think that I'd use any cheap excuse to leave them behind in Hojo's hands?!"

"Not me, but you know Turks. When it comes down to it, they just don't trust outsiders, especially with the welfare of their boss or their fellow Turks. And to be honest, you guys have plenty of reason to hold a serious grudge against Shinra and the Turks."

"We're dealing with Hojo. I wouldn't leave a.... I mean, I'm prepared to rescue Scarlet, of all people, from Hojo!" She exhaled sharply, then added, "Besides, Rude will be coming with us and he's definitely got Reno's and Rufus's welfare foremost in mind."

"Believe me, that's the only thing keeping Jade up here on the Shera instead down on the ground with you," Kunsel said with a grin.

He glanced up at the big-boned black chocobo beside him, its eyelids half-closed in lazy contentment. "So, why don't you introduce me to this bunch?"

"The big black male beside you is Angel."

"Angel?" Kunsel said, raising an eyebrow as the big bird responded to its name with a laconic click of its beak.

"Cloud raced them, so he got to name them," she said. "Those two gold chocobos over there are Essai and Sebastian."

Kunsel froze in mid-neckpat and stared at her. However, with her attention on the last chocobo, Tifa failed to notice his odd reaction to the names.

"And this fancy gold with the reddish cast to his feathers is called Gen, with a 'g'."

"Gen," Kunsel said carefully. "Would that happen to be short for something else?"

Tifa gave the SOLDIER a startled look. "Actually, yes. Genesis, I think, but no one uses that. Cloud frequently calls Gen a big drama queen, probably because he loves to strut and strike elaborate poses to impress everyone."

She ruffled the gold chocobo's feathers, then chuckled as Gen snorted and immediately began preening. "But despite that attitude of his, he really is a good bird at heart."

When Tifa headed back to the Shera's bridge, Kunsel lingered for a moment longer to take another thoughtful look at the four chocobos in the hold.

Essai and Sebastian. Genesis. And he damn well knew from what -- or rather, WHO -- the name 'Angel' had come from.

It would have been perfectly natural for Cloud to name those birds after important people in his own life.

So why the hell were all these chocobos named for important people in Zack's life?

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

Inside a factory on a seaswept cliff, gleaming green tendrils of the Lifestream carpeted the floor of a laboratory and draped the interior of a now dry tank. Within that tank, held suspended in midair by a gleaming web of filaments was a large egg-shaped object which held a human form floating inside. On the floor nearby lay a cocoon-like mound, its contents completely obscured from view.

And in another lab on the opposite side of the world, perfectly hidden by the Mako surrounding it, a complex network of Lifestream energy enveloped a motionless figure.

For the men ensnared within the Lifestream's implacable embrace, great changes awaited.

For the first, emotions and memories willfully sundered and discarded now returned to their rightful owner.

For the second, a heroic spirit poured into a perfect vessel.

And for the third, long dormant powers carried within the ancient blood awoke and stirred for the first time in centuries.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

He could interfere.

The Planet, though powerful, was far from subtle. Its intentions, painfully obvious.

He could insinuate himself into that body, so carefully rebuilt by the Planet. He could taint it, corrupt it, wear it, just as Hojo intended.

But that would be too obvious, too simple, and far too predictable.

He could interfere.

But why should he, when the Planet, in its own ponderous, heavy-handed way, was doing all the work for him?

The Planet itself would ensure that Cloud would never, EVER escape the memory of him.

Let the Planet return his past self to the living. Let the Planet fill that body with the fragments of himself he had cast aside.

Far better than mere dreams or whispers in the dark, his past self would serve as a perfect, constant, inescapable reminder for Cloud.

I will... NEVER be a memory.

Each encounter with his past self would force Cloud to not only remember, but to acknowledge the existence of his present self.

So let the Planet make its new Chosen stronger and more powerful.

For Cloud's strength was his strength.

As Cloud remembered, he remembered.

As Cloud endured, he endured.

As Cloud existed, he existed.

Nemesis. Bane. Calamity.

The dark shadow forever coiled in the heart of the Lifestream, waiting to strike when least expected.

The World's Enemy.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

[ Western Continent ]

Cid and the rest of the group stood at the entrance to the cave system that hid Scarlet's secret access tunnel. Tucked underneath a large, overhanging cliff and surrounded by rocks and greenery, the ten foot wide opening was hidden from all but the most careful of searchers.

"I'm sure glad that Scarlet told us exactly where this damn entrance was. We could've searched these canyons for weeks before finding the friggin' thing. Where the hell's Vincent?" Cid muttered, peering around.

"He went on ahead," Nanaki and Yuffie said, as they both pointed into the cave.

"Typical," Cid muttered. "Stupid to think that he'd sit around waiting patiently for us, especially with Hojo involved." He grinned sourly at Yuffie. "So why aren't you in there with him?"

"They drew straws," Nanaki said drily.

"And I lost." Yuffie scowled suspiciously. "I think Vincent cheated."

"You tried to cheat first. He was just better at it." Nanaki's tone was bland, but the quivering of his fur ruff told his friends knew Nanaki was trying to fight back a chuckle.

"But I'm supposed to be the sneaky one!" Yuffie retorted, sulking visibly, even as she idly twirled her favorite oversized shuriken around her finger.

"What about the Shera?" Nanaki asked.

"She'll stay on this side of the ridge. Hojo's monsters are likely to spot her if she gets any closer. According to Scarlet, the weapon factory's located on a seaside cliff that's about ten kilometers that-a-way." He gestured vaguely toward the northwest.

Cid glanced at the cluster of gold and black chocobos calmly standing nearby and making their characteristic 'kweh' and 'wark' noises. As he started to say, "Okay, so who...."

"Dibs!" Yuffie yelled, jumping up and running for the gold chocobo called Gen.

"Yeah, whatever." Cid said as he pulled out his phone. "Hey, Kunsel, you and the Turks comfy up there in the Shera?"

"We're fine. You sure you can't use us down there?"

"I'd love the extra company in kicking Hojo's ass, but it's better to keep you guys in reserve if things get messy."

"Just call us if you need backup or pickup, Cid."

"Sure thing. Remember once we head underground, we'll probably lose contact with you guys and Shera until we hit the factory itself, so don't panic if you don't hear from us for a while."

Kunsel chuckled. "Got it. We'll be listening for you. Good luck."

After the SOLDIER hung up, Cid glanced around him and said, "You guys ready?"

Everyone, old friends and Turk alike, either nodded or called out affirmatives. They had all taken advantages of the travel time from Healen to make careful preparations with their weapon and materia loadouts.

Cid hauled himself up on the gold Essai while Tifa mounted Sebastian. Cait Sith hopped up behind Yuffie as she sat astride Gen. For this run, Nanaki would do just fine on his own four legs, which left Rude as the odd man out.

Tifa held her hand out to the Turk and said, "Come on. Let's go."

Rude pushed up his sunglasses and hesitated visibly before grabbing hold of Tifa's hand. He jumped up easily onto the chocobo and sat down behind her.

"Umm... not too heavy?" the Turk muttered as the gold shifted restlessly from foot to foot.

"No," she said with a laugh. "Compared to riding double with Barret, carrying you will be a breeze."

The Turk said nothing, but paid unusual attention to settling the backpack he carried into place.

"Hey, Rude. You're going to have to hold onto Tifa more tightly unless you want to fall off," Yuffie said in an innocent, sing-song voice.

"Yuffie, this isn't the time!" Tifa said with an exasperated glare at the younger woman.

"Are you girls are through chatting?" Cid asked sarcastically. "Yes? Then let's fucking move out!"

"I was just trying to be helpful!"

"Shaddup!"

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

The trip through the caves went off without a hitch. Within a few minutes, they arrived at the security bulkhead that marked the actual beginning of the access tunnel into Scarlet's factory. After they dismounted and sent the birds on their way, the group stood, staring silently at the massive steel bulkhead.

Or rather, they stared at the Galian Beast-sized hole in the bulkhead.

As one, they all slowly peered through the gaping opening at the tunnel interior, which was filled with smoke, showers of sparks, and thoroughly wrecked machinery. Even as they watched, a heavily damaged gun turret gave up its fight with gravity and fell off the wall with a loud clang, while somewhere further down the tunnel, a speaker feebly chirped a staticy "unauthorized...bzzzzz... presence detected....".

"Impressive," Rude noted in a neutral voice.

"Yeah, Vincent can get that way when he's sufficiently riled up," Cid said drily. "And he's got plenty of reason to be pissed at Hojo. Don't worry, he won't get too carried away. He knows that we need to meet up with Scarlet and grab her intel first."

True to Cid's words, they found Vincent leaning against the wall at the far end of the escape tunnel, his reddish eyes glittering in the subdued lighting.

"Ready?" was all he said as he placed his clawed gauntlet on the small, well-built metal hatchway that led into the weapon facility proper. Tifa quickly entered the security code that Scarlet provided into a nearby keypad and the door opened soundlessly, revealing a dark, medium-sized storage room.

Yuffie and Nanaki moved in first, scouting out the crate-filled area. Once they confirmed that they were alone, the others quietly joined them. Cid opened the door leading out of the storage room, eyed the empty corridor suspiciously, then said, "Where are we supposed to meet up with Scarlet again?"

"In another storage area, up two floors, on the east end of the factory," Cait Sith replied.

"Basically, clear on the opposite side from where we are. It would be," Cid said sourly.

"Well, that's why Scarlet needs our help to get out of here."

"Yeah, yeah. Tifa, give her a call and let her know we're here. I just hope that Scarlet's right about Hojo not noticing if we take out a few of his monsters. If she's wrong, it's going to get messy really fast." He glanced back at the others. "C'mon."

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Nanaki sniffed the air in the designated meeting area, then nudged Yuffie with his shoulder before padding over toward a large air vent. Yuffie silently mouthed a word and got a confirming nod from her furry companion.

As the others joined them in the deserted storage room, Nanaki and Yuffie flanked the air vent and waited. A moment or two later, Yuffie reached out and rapped lightly on the vent grill.

"Long time, no see, Scarlet."

"Crap, you scared me!" exclaimed a familiar sharp female voice. The grill swung open and Scarlet peered out of the large air duct, shotgun in hand. She was still dressed in the same flamboyant, sequined evening gown that she had been wearing during her earlier video transmission to Reeve. However, she now also wore a fully laden tactical vest and a pair of sturdy combat boots.

"Thanks for nearly giving me a heart attack!" Scarlet said irritably. "You're early!"

"Better early than late, right?" Tifa said. "We would have been here even sooner if it hadn't been for that ridiculously long escape route of yours."

Scarlet curled her lip in contempt. "Well, it got you in here undetected, didn't it?" She then shrugged. "Just as well you're early, I suppose, given what's been going on recently."

Cid turned his head sharply to stare at her. "What the fuck do you mean by that?"

"Not too long ago, Hojo took your buddy Cloud out of his cell and dragged him off to the special lab. You know, the one Sephiroth's incubating in."

"What the hell for?"

Scarlet rolled her eyes. "Why are you asking me? I told you, I can't access the security cameras in that area. All I know is that Sephiroth's in that lab and now Cloud is, too."

"What about Reno?" Rude demanded.

"Still in his cell, stark naked and pissed as hell, as far as I can tell." Scarlet rummaged in one of the copious pockets of the tactical vest and pulled out a small electronic tablet. Her long-nailed fingers danced across the screen, then she held it up. "See for yourself."

"Is that live video?" Cait Sith demanded, peering at the screen which showed Reno alone in the specimen chamber.

"Yes." She fiddled with the tablet some more. "And here's Hojo himself, down on the lower maintenance level. I managed to flush him out of the lab almost immediately after he took Cloud inside. So there's a good chance that he didn't have enough time to do anything particularly nasty to your friend Cloud."

"How did you distract him?" Cait Sith asked.

"By hacking the mako reactor controls." Scarlet smirked. "He might be a brilliant scientist with biologicals, but Hojo's no reactor engineer. With any luck, he's going to be fully occupied for the next few hours trying to sort out the mess I created."

"I sure hope you know what the hell you're doing, Scarlet, because I don't fancy the idea of that mako reactor going kaboom on us," Cid said, scowling at her.

"Relax, why don't you? I have even less desire to go up in a glowing green fireball than you do. I didn't overload the reactor or anything like that. I did the opposite, which seemed to really screw with Hojo's plans, judging from his reaction."

"Fine, now that we've got that settled, what's the best way to get to Reno and Cloud?"

Scarlet hauled a small backpack out of the air duct and pulled out several large sheets of paper. Spreading them out on a nearby crate, she said, "Okay, this is a floor plan of Lab Area A. Reno's being kept here." With a long, dagger-like fingernail, she jabbed at a green 'X' on the map.

Flipping that sheet aside, she continued, "The lab with both Sephiroth and Cloud is located here, in Lab Area C." Scarlet gestured to a large area bordered in red. "This high security corridor is the only way into that section. From the limited view of the security camera, I'm guessing that the equipment holding Sephiroth is somewhere... here." She circled a spot somewhere in the center of the red-bordered area.

"Okay, is there anything else you want to tell us before we get going?" Cait Sith asked.

"Yeah. It would be really nice if you could spare a few guys to escort me out of here right now, but I've got a feeling that isn't going to happen," Scarlet said sarcastically.

"Nope," was Cid's concise reply.

"Didn't think so. So I take it that I'm not leaving until you guys are leaving."

"Basically. Consider it incentive to be as helpful and cooperative as possible."

She gave them a thin-lipped smile, then lifted her right hand to examine her fingernails thoughtfully. "Suppose I tell you that I've got a few more secrets that I'll only give up if you get me out of here first."

"Then I'll tell you to not play any goddamn stupid power games with us," Cid said grimly. "You're in one hell of a bind. You admitted it yourself. Your only realistic hope of getting out of here in one piece is with us. And there's something very important you need to keep in mind, Scarlet."

"Like what?" she drawled.

"Nobody. Fucking. Likes. You."

Spoken with icy precision, the four words came from Rude, of all people, his dark-skinned face set in its usual impassive lines.

Scarlet blinked and actually flushed slightly, while everyone else in the room turned to stare in surprise at the Turk. Cid recovered first and smirked.

"Couldn't have said it better, Rude. Look, we made a deal with you and we'll keep it, as long as you play fair with us. Start screwing around, and we'll squeeze those damn secrets out of you and leave you to Hojo's critters. Don't think that we won't. Your choice."

"Some heroes you are," Scarlet muttered.

Cid shrugged. "Never claimed to be much of one. We're just here to rescue our friends and to keep humanity from being squashed between a rock and a hard place. Which has a good chance of happening if Hojo succeeds in bringing Sephiroth back. Because I have a bad feeling that this damn Planet is out of patience and SERIOUSLY pissed!"

"Which means that if we have to go hardcore on your butt, we will," Yuffie said, a little too enthusiastically.

"Fine, fine! It was just a hypothetical question."

"We don't have time for your stupid hypotheticals, Scarlet!" Tifa shouted.

"It's not stupid to ME." Before Tifa could lash back, Scarlet quickly added, "Look, I get it. No holding back or extortion." Scarlet held up her empty hands. "I've told you everything I know about this facility and Hojo's activities. And I promise to give you my full cooperation until we get out of here."

"Good, because I have an important question for you, Scarlet. Have you seen any sign of Rufus?"

Scarlet's eyes widened at Cait Sith's question, then blurted, "Rufus?! But he's dead, killed by the Diamond WEAPON!"

"He survived," was Rude's curt reply.

"But how...?"

The cat waved an impatient paw. "That's not important, Scarlet. What IS important that he went missing during an attack by Hojo's monsters."

"And you think Hojo captured him?"

"Tseng reported that Hojo was specifically targeting Rufus during that attack. So, have you seen or heard anything that might indicate that Hojo's holding Rufus prisoner here? Or anywhere else?"

Scarlet said nothing as she drummed her fingernails against the wall, apparently lost in thought.

"Hey, are you listening to us?" Yuffie demanded.

Scarlet made an angry hushing motion. "Oh, be quiet! I'm trying to think!" As the others waited with rapidly growing impatience, she finally answered Cait Sith's question.

"Hojo didn't mention anything about Rufus. Then again, that proves nothing because he didn't exactly tell me about Cloud or Reno, either. I haven't seen any sign of Rufus being held here."

"But you said yourself that the security cameras are down in a lot of areas," Cait Sith said.

She held up an imperative hand. "I haven't finished, damn it! If Hojo captured Rufus and is holding him here, there are only two locations where Rufus might be."

"And you know this because...?" Tifa said with a suspicious stare.

Scarlet turned and angrily slapped a hand down on the crate they had been using as a map table.

"While I was waiting for you to arrive, I did NOT waste my time sitting on my admittedly fine tush, painting my toenails! Instead, I managed to get a big chunk of the security network up and running again, cameras included. Yes, I'm THAT good.

"I used those cameras and some surveillance bots I had lying around to do a through search of as much of this factory as I could, just in case. And I'm telling you that I haven't seen any sign of Rufus being held here.

"This means that if Rufus IS being held here, he has to be somewhere I can't access." She ticked them off on her fingers. "Lab Area C. The mako reactor level. That's it."

"Are you absolutely sure? Because I find it hard to believe that you searched every other possible spot in this entire factory!" Tifa said.

"Of course I can't be ABSOLUTELY sure," Scarlet retorted. "But use your damn brain for once! First, if Hojo went through the trouble of kidnapping Rufus, that means Rufus is valuable to him.

"Second, Hojo may be insane, but he's a scientist to the bone. And as a scientist, he thinks in terms of specimens and experiments. He's not going to stick a valuable research specimen like Rufus inside just any old broom closet! Hojo will want to keep Rufus somewhere where he can easily observe him, just like your friends Reno and Cloud! That means some sort of test chamber or cage for human-sized biologicals, along with all the necessary support and lab equipment! Trust me, those things are going to stick out like a sore thumb inside a manufacturing plant designed for non-biological weapons! Nor can you haphazardly cram that stuff inside a conference room or office cubicle!

"So, based on my expert knowledge of this factory and my familiarity with the way Hojo's mind generally works, it is my professional opinion that if Hojo's holding Rufus here, those are the only two locations where you'll find him!"

After that fairly impressive rant, Cid and the others turned to Rude.

"Rufus is your boss," Cid said. "You buy what she says?"

"It's a logical line of reasoning. At least it gives us a good starting point." Rude gathered his backpack and adjusted his gloves. "Since we definitely know where Reno is, I'll go after him first. I presume the rest of you are headed to Lab Area C, to rescue Cloud and deal with Sephiroth."

"Right. Need an extra hand?"

Nanaki quickly said, "If you don't mind, I'll go with you, Rude."

The Turk nodded, accepting the beast's offer.

Cait Sith said, "After you rescue Reno, meet up with us in Lab C. If we're lucky, we'll have some time to assess Cloud's and Reno's condition, and evacuate them if necessary before things get really dangerous. But depending what's going on with Sephiroth, we might not have that luxury."

Vincent finally spoke up. "What about Hojo?"

Cait Sith looked at Scarlet. "You want to show how cooperative you can be? Then you get the job of keeping track of Hojo. As long as he's busy fiddling with getting the reactor restarted, he can wait."

"That particular control station is as far away from the lab areas as I could manage, which hopefully means that he won't notice what we're doing." Scarlet glanced down at her electronic tablet, then grinned nastily. "He'll need to reinstall the entire operating system or jury-rig a way to bypass the computer controls, either of which will take plenty of time and concentration."

"How do you know that Hojo won't blow his fucking top and start wrecking the place," Cid asked.

"He won't do that. One, it won't help get him the Mako he needs. Two, he's a finicky obsessive bastard. He always wants his equipment working a particular way, and he'll nitpick and tweak until it does."

"Works for me. Sephiroth's our primary target. As for Hojo, it all depends on how the confrontation with Sephiroth goes," Cait Sith said to Vincent with a sympathetic shrug.

They all understood. Dealing with Sephiroth could turn out to be a non-event. Or much more likely, it could become a full scale, no-holds barred battle.

As Rude headed for the storage room door, Nanaki at his heels, Yuffie casually asked Scarlet, "So what did you do to get the Turks so pissed off at you?"

When Scarlet didn't immediately answer, Rude turned his head and said in his usual concise, understated way, "After a certain incident shortly before Meteorfall, Scarlet attempted to persuade President Shinra to have all the Turks -- including Tseng, Reno, and myself -- executed. Fortunately, Rufus persuaded the President that the Turks would be more valuable to Shinra alive."

Yuffie snorted in amusement. "Okay. I can see how that might cause a few hard feelings on the Turks' side."

Scarlet sniffed in annoyance.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

As they headed for Lab C, Cait Sith asked Scarlet, "You earlier mentioned something about a lot of activity going on in the lowermost levels?"

Scarlet's boldly painted lips thinned. "Yes. Like I said before, Hojo's minions have been bringing in both live captives and dead bodies for hours. I can't see what's happening on the reactor level itself, but I can see what's going in and out. Lots of corpses go in, lots of monsters come out. You do the math. What I do know with certainty is that whatever Hojo's doing down there is sucking up raw Mako at an unbelievable rate."

"What about the live captives? You said they were taken to the labs."

"That's right, to Lab B. But by the time I got a look in there, they were all gone. From the blood and other evidence left behind, Hojo definitely did something to them. As for what happened to them and where they are now? You know as much as I do."

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

When the door to the lab burst open yet again, Reno whirled around to see Rude and a large furry red beast standing in the doorway. Relief flashed across his face, followed almost immediately by the return of his usual cocky nonchalance.

"Man, what took you guys so long?"

"Sorry," Rude said with a shrug as he tried the control panel. After a few seconds, he gave up and walked over to the oversized specimen chamber holding Reno.

"Stand clear."

Reno quickly backed away to the rear of the chamber as Rude efficiently outlined a door-sized area on the transparent wall with a thin red adhesive cord. After attaching a small detonator, Rude announced, "Fire in the hole."

Everyone shielded their eyes as the thin red cord flashed incandescent white, neatly cutting through the thick plastic of the chamber.

Avoiding the still hot edges of the hole, Reno jumped out of the cell and muttered, "Shit, it's cold! I'm freezing my ass off!"

When Rude simply tossed his backpack at him, Reno rummaged inside and yanked out a familiar black suit, complete with shoes.

"Hey! You even got my favorite undies!"

As he hastily dressed, Reno was aware of Rude observing him very closely.

"How are you feeling?" Rude finally asked.

Reno shrugged. "Frankly, like crap." He looked up from buttoning his shirt. "I'm pretty banged and bruised, but I've had worse." Glancing back at the empty chamber and the large patch of Cloud's blood still staining the floor, he added, "All things considered, I got off pretty lightly."

"And how is Cloud? Scarlet said that Hojo took him away a few hours ago," the large red beast asked.

Reno turned and grinned. "Hey, it's been a while, Nanaki."

"You know each other?" Rude asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Oh yeah. I was one of the guys who captured him at Cosmo Canyon and brought him to Midgar. On Hojo's orders," Reno added sourly. Looking back at Nanaki, he said, "I thought I saw you running around with Cloud during that whole Meteorfall shit, but I couldn't be sure."

"Cloud and his friends released me from Hojo's lab. At first, I only accompanied them in order to get home, but eventually I chose to join their quest to stop Sephiroth." Nanaki hesitated, then continued, "I owe you a great favor for letting me finish the ceremony back in Cosmo Canyon. But my duty to the Planet and my bond to Cloud prevented me from returning that favor. Until now."

Reno shrugged dismissively. "Hey, I understand. Besides, I really didn't do you THAT much of a favor, considering that I handed you over to Hojo for his experiments. Which makes this rescue pretty fucking ironic. "As for Cloud...."

He hesitated, then said, "Yeah, Hojo came by and dragged him off, probably to show him what's going on with Sephiroth."

"I heard about the poisoning, but how did he end up so badly wounded?" Nanaki asked, looking at the large dried bloodstain on the floor.

"You know that sample of Sephiroth's cells that Hojo was hunting like mad for? Guess where it was all this time. Yup, inside your friend Cloud. Seems that the director at that storage facility and his good buddy in Nibelheim were swapping cell samples like fucking trading cards. Except Hojo pulled a surprise inspection and the Nibelheim guy had to hide it quick, so he stuck it inside the nearest specimen."

"Does Cloud know?" Nanaki said with a worried frown.

"Yeah, and he did some angsty wallowing about it. Typical. But anyway, between Hojo rummaging around in his guts and whatever toxic hellbrew Hojo used to take him down, Cloud's not exactly in the best of physical or mental shape." He flicked a quick, inconspicuous glance at Rude, warning that there was a lot more to the story. Rude responded with a barely perceptible nod of acknowledgment.

"Well, now that you're free, we need to meet up with the others in Lab C. That's where Sephiroth and Cloud both are," Nanaki said firmly.

"Sephiroth?" Reno rubbed a hand across his face. "So Hojo wasn't bluffing about all that resurrection crap."

"No, he wasn't. Say what you might about Hojo, he IS a brilliant scientist." With that, the beast padded out of the lab to scout the way.

Once alone, Reno grabbed Rude's arm, leaned in close, and said very quietly, "Watch your back around Cloud."

Rude glanced sharply at him and replied just as softly, "Why? Did Hojo do something to him?"

"Yeah, but it didn't happen here and now. It all goes back to Nibelheim. I don't have time to spell it out for you right now, but there's something seriously FUCKED inside Cloud's head, something even he doesn't know about. And if it ever gets loose, every single Turk alive is going to be in major shit."

Knowing that Nanaki could return any second, Rude nodded once, and didn't press for more details.

As Nanaki reentered the lab, Reno held out his hand to Rude, then waggled his fingers impatiently.

"C'mon. You remembered to bring me matching socks. So don't try to tell me you forgot to pick up a weapon for me."

When Rude and Nanaki exchanged glances, Reno said, "What's the problem?"

"Are you SURE you're feeling... well, like yourself?" Nanaki asked.

"Uh, yeah. And why that particular question?"

"Because of the method Hojo used to trap Cloud. You know that Hojo can mutate normal creatures and mentally control the resulting monsters."

"Uh-huh," Reno said slowly.

"Well, he can apparently now do the same to humans."

Reno inhaled sharply, then glanced over at Rude, who nodded in confirmation. Cloud had been a bit vague about the details of his capture, but he couldn't blame the guy given his condition. No wonder Rude had given him that wary look when he warned the other Turk about Cloud.

Reno calmly dropped his outstretched hand to his side. He certainly felt okay, at least in his head, but this wasn't the time or place to argue about the situation. If he had been in Rude's shoes, knowing about Hojo's nasty new tricks, he would be pretty damn cautious about handing over a weapon to someone, buddy or not, who could suddenly turn into a ravening monster.

Then the other shoe dropped in Reno's head.

"What about Rufus?" he demanded, fists clenching.

"We don't know," came Rude's stark reply. "Scarlet hasn't seen him, but she gave us some ideas where to look. I'll explain on the way."

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Cid and his group came very close to reaching the Lab C area without any major fights, but he regretfully remembered that 'close' only counted in horseshoes and hand grenades. They turned the last corner and skidded to an abrupt halt when they saw the shambling masses of animated vegetation guarding the corridor. Ducking back out of sight, Cid muttered, "Shit! That's blown it! Scarlet, you're sure there's no other way inside?"

"It's a sealed laboratory. It's even got its own independent ventilation system. The air ducts in that lab don't connect with the ducts in the rest of the complex because that's where the chemical weapons are handled."

"Chemical weapons?"

"As in poison gas, corrosives, nerve agents, that sort of thing," Scarlet said with a careless shrug.

"And you were planning to sell this stuff to anyone who could afford it?" Tifa said with an incredulous stare.

"Why not? I've got only limited manufacturing capacity, but the profit margin is huge, especially since no one else is making these types of products anymore."

Before Tifa could respond, Cid cut in, "Never mind. We've got other, more pressing crap to deal with."

Yuffie said, "At this point, I think we're stuck with good old brute force."

"Fine with me. I'm getting fucking tired of tippy-toeing around."

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The strands of the Lifestream that covered Lab C shivered, then began a rapid retreat, their work done. As the tendrils withdrew across the floor, they revealed Cloud, unconscious and unmoving.

The last thing the Lifestream did before it disappeared into the pipes was to gently deposit Sephiroth's naked, completely restored body onto the tank bottom. In less than a minute, all trace of the Lifestream's presence had vanished from the lab.

Sephiroth moved first, slowly pulling himself to his hands and knees. There was a brief pause as he coughed out a few last drops of fluid from his lungs. Then, with long silvery hair streaming over his face, Sephiroth gracefully rose to his feet.

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Several minutes later, the corridor leading to the sinister Lab C was filled with smoke from burning monsters and the stench of the creatures' sap-like blood, but otherwise it was clear of obstacles.

"Scarlet, gimme an update on Hojo," Cid demanded.

She consulted her computer tablet. "We're still clear. Hojo hasn't budged. Just as I thought, he's too busy concentrating on restoring the reactor controls."

"Great."

The group headed down the corridor, led by Cid. They came to a halt in front of the imposing steel doors just as Reno, Rude, and Nanaki caught up with them.

Scarlet glanced at the fully dressed Reno and murmured, "You found some clothes. What a pity."

Reno promptly stuck his tongue out and gave her the finger with both hands.

She sneered at him, then said, "A little gratitude would be in order. If it weren't for me, you'd still be stuck in that stupid test chamber!"

"So bite me," Reno retorted.

"Is that an invitation?"

"EXCUSE ME for cutting in on the chit-chat, but we have something more important to do, like rescuing Cloud and stopping Sephiroth!" Tifa pointedly reminded everyone.

Scarlet's lips pursed in annoyance, but she began entering in her override code on the nearby keypad. The lab door slowly swung open with a soft whoosh of air. They all rushed into the lab and received an very unpleasant surprise.

It probably wasn't the very worst case scenario, but it came damn close.

Cloud was out cold on the floor. The large tank was wide open. And Sephiroth was on his feet.

"Oh shit."

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Everyone automatically went for their weapons, then hesitated.

The Sephiroth they expected to confront was intimidating, immaculate, and utterly inhuman.

However, the Sephiroth they saw, while still undeniably intimidating, was missing the chillingly inhuman aura from their previous encounters. In fact, Sephiroth's reaction to his current situation seemed very human indeed.

And far from being immaculate, this Sephiroth was stark naked, soaking wet, with his hair dangling in a tangled mess in front of his face.

As Sephiroth raked the strands of long dripping silvery hair out of the way, they could clearly see those unforgettable icy green eyes staring warily back at them. But they also saw a very recognizable type of confusion and irritation on that normally unbearably smug face.

At that moment, Sephiroth looked more like a pissed off cat who had been unexpectedly dunked into water than an omnicidal madman with delusions of godhood.

But before Cid and the other could shake off their surprise and go on the attack, Cloud abruptly staggered to his feet. And because things could always get worse, Cloud ended up standing directly in the line of fire between them and Sephiroth.

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Even as he struggled to get his bearings, he was aware of the rapidly spiking tension in the room. To one side of him stood Sephiroth. On the other side was Tifa, Yuffie, Reno, and the others.

He had to do something to defuse the situation before it exploded into full-blown mayhem. And he had to do it NOW.

This time, they didn't have to be enemies. This time, things could be different.

No, that wasn't right.

This time, things HAD to be different. This time, they couldn't afford to be enemies.

They needed to work together. The well-being of the Planet, but more importantly, of everyone living on it depended on that cooperation.

"Our enemy is all that creates suffering."

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Tifa took a quick step toward Cloud, intending to pull him out of the way, but stopped short when he abruptly stiffened. His spine arched and his head went back, as if gasping for air.

Everyone, Sephiroth included, stared as the outline of Cloud's body... flickered... as a ghostly image overlaid and briefly obscured Cloud's own form.

And then, Cloud's body changed.

It gained both inches in height and pounds of muscle. Facial features shifted subtly as blond hair went black from root to tip, and resettled into a different pattern of strands and spikes.

Even Cloud's clothes transformed to perfectly accommodate the additional height and muscle of this new body.

But the person, although different from Cloud, was no stranger, as least not to Tifa and many of the others in the room, judging by their stunned expressions.

Oddly, it was Sephiroth who ended up speaking for the rest of them.

"....Zack?"

Although the question itself had been uttered quite calmly, both Sephiroth's expression and body language contained subtle, but unmistakable traces of surprise, disbelief, and confusion.

In other words, it was probably Sephiroth's personal version of "what the fuck?!"

The tall lean man with glowing blue eyes raked a hand through his black hair, then gave everyone a warm but worried smile.

"Uh... hi, guys?"

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(end of Part 10)

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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

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Chapter Text

Sorry for the long delay, but after living in a tiny apartment for nearly two decades, I finally got around to buying my first home. Yay, space!

This was a particularly tricky chapter because I really wanted to make it believable both in characterization and plot. At this point, I'm too tired to fiddle with it anymore. So here it is. Feel free to comment or nitpick. I'll appreciate any comments and criticism you guys may have.

Chapter 12 is basically finished. After a little polishing and proofreading, it should be out in the next day or two.

Enjoy!

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 11
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~11,500
Warnings/Content: mature/dark/disturbing themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his dead friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=oo=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o

AUTHOR NOTES:
-- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
-- The original FFVII game and "Advent Children/Complete" are canon for this fic.
-- "Before Crisis" and "Crisis Core" are semi-canon.
-- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".
-- Various plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., "Dirge of Cerberus", "Last Order" OVA, FFVII web novellas, etc.) may show up.

CREDITS:
-- Anne Bishop's Black Jewel series, from which I borrowed the the explicit ability to summon and vanish items into some sort of personal hammerspace. It's the only explanation I have for where Sephiroth keeps that damn sword of his.
-- Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, in particular Aral Vorkosigan's quote in the book "Komarr": "Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself."

Text Conventions
-- ( ) and { } and / and // indicate thoughts, mental dialogue, or languages from various characters
-- [ ] are miscellaneous date or location notes, images, or sound effects

 

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Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica

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[ Weapon Facility ]

"Uh... hi, guys?"

The sheepishly uttered words set off an eruption of shouts and questions from nearly everyone in the lab, all of which could basically be summarized by the three simple words, "What the fuck?!" Only Sephiroth remained completely silent as he stared at the dark-haired man standing before him.

Zack Fair winced and tried to wait out the verbal barrage. But when it showed no sign of abating, he finally bellowed, "QUIET!"

The cacophony of voices subsided in the face of the surprisingly authoritative tone in the dark-haired SOLDIER's voice. Only Yuffie continued to sputter out questions.

"But Zack, how the...!"

Glancing at her, he responded in the harassed tone familiar to sorely beleaguered older siblings everywhere.

"Yuffie, not now! I'm kinda busy at the moment!"

She blinked and to the others' surprise, shut up.

"Now wait a goddamn minute!" Cid shouted. "Just WHO the hell are you?! What's going on?! And what the fuck just happened to Cloud?!"

Raking dark hair back from his forehead, the target of Cid's questions grinned wryly and said, "Some of you guys already know me. But for those who don't, I'm Zack. As for Cloud, he's out of commission for the moment. So I'm afraid I'm going to be the one doing all the talking."

Before Cid could interrupt, Zack quickly added, "As for what's going on, I'm not entirely sure myself. I was minding my own business when I was suddenly... grabbed... hijacked... whatever, handed a heap of irritatingly vague information, then dumped here. So excuse me if I'm babbling a bit, but I'm trying to process all this on the fly myself."

Zack's tone was friendly and cheerful, but at the same time, stubborn and fiercely determined.

Cid scowled and scratched his head. "Zack. Why does that name sound vaguely familiar?"

"Zack, as in Zack Fair, SOLDIER First Class," Cait Sith said quietly, and got an affirmative nod from the person in question.

"Considered by most to be second only to Sephiroth himself in SOLDIER," Scarlet added, her surprise shifting to avid curiosity. She glanced at Cid and added, "You might have heard about him while you were in the Shinra military."

Tifa said softly, "He was Cloud's best friend, the one that helped him escape from Nibelheim."

"Hell, you mean he's THAT Zack? The one who...." Cid stopped short at Tifa's warning look. "Okay, so a bunch of you guys recognize this guy. That doesn't answer my other questions about what just freakin' happened to Cloud!"

Addressing Tifa's side of the room, Zack said, "Cid, Tifa, I know you all want answers and you want them right now. I'll do my best to give them to you. But I'm asking you to be patient and let me do it in my own way. Yes, I know I'm asking a lot from you guys, but there's someone else here who needs to know what's going on even more than you do."

They all looked over at Sephiroth, who said nothing but continued to watch 'Zack' with unnerving intensity and an impassive expression that gave nothing away. But at least there were no overt signs of hostility or insanity.

"So, could you hold off on your questions until I have a chance to explain things to him?" Zack said, a bit plaintively.

"You want to explain stuff... to Sephiroth?" Cid said incredulously.

Zack nodded earnestly.

"Why the fuck do you want to do that?"

"Because THIS time, I think he's willing to listen."

"I'm not sure who you think you are, but never mind that for the moment. What makes you think that Sephiroth's going to believe YOU?" Cid demanded.

Zack shrugged, with an air of dogged determination, and perhaps just a touch of weariness. "As long as there's a chance to change things for the better, I have to try."

As Cid uttered a neutral "Hmph," Cait Sith said, "You want to change things. In what way?"

"If this works out, Sephiroth and you guys won't HAVE to be enemies. Do you guys want to repeat the events of the last few years over and over again? Destruction, death, and all that stuff? Because that's exactly going to happen if big changes don't occur."

From Zack's tone, he was not making a threat, but stating a grim inevitability.

"And you think you can make that work. With HIM?" Cait Sith said with understandable skepticism, pointing at Sephiroth.

"I don't know, but...."

"....you feel that you have to at least try. Okay, we get that," Cid muttered.

"At least we're making progress," Zack said wryly.

"But Zack, what about...," Tifa started, but she was unexpectedly interrupted by Reno.

"I know you guys are all worried about Cloud, but I think we really need to hear what 'Zack' here has to say."

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Reno had attributed Cloud's Zack-like behavior as Mako-induced identity confusion, then pushed the matter aside. Sure, it was a bit creepy, but not exactly dangerous, when compared to the real nastiness lurking in the depths of Cloud's fucked up psyche.

On their way to rejoin the others, he had managed to slip Rude a little more information about Cloud's deeply buried and virulent hatred of the Turks. But the possibility of being overheard by Cloud's furry red buddy Nanaki prevented him from giving Rude the full details.

Now Reno was mentally kicking himself for carelessly assuming that Cloud's Zack-like behavior was merely an accidental result of the torture and Mako poisoning Cloud had suffered.

Seeing Cloud physically transform into Zack right in front of his eyes changed everything.

If what he now suspected was true, Cloud's mental issues were no accident or chance by-product of his traumatic experiences as a test subject in Nibelheim, but rather involved something much more deliberate and disturbing. Cloud wasn't merely confused about his own identity or delusional. Somehow, in the years following the Nibelheim incident, Cloud had somehow become a COPY -- in big fucking capital letters -- of Zack.

Now Hojo's repeated ravings about Cloud being involved in unauthorized experiments made way too much sense, and not in a good way.

Given the way Hollander and Hojo had cooked up Genesis Copies, Angeal Copies, and Sephiroth Clones, why wouldn't some other crazy nutjob get the bright idea to create a Zack Copy as well? After all, barring Sephiroth, Zack was pretty much the very best SOLDIER around.

But who? It probably wasn't Hojo, given the crazed scientist's obsession with discovering the source of Cloud's ability to defeat Sephiroth and his fury at the thought of someone messing around with his test subjects behind his back.

There were other possible explanations, of course, but all bordering on the ridiculously convoluted. Sure, Hojo was a sneaky, lying, scheming bastard, but any other explanation Reno could come up with required a level of playacting that he didn't think the insane Hojo was capable of anymore. He didn't completely dismiss those other possibilities, but the Zack Copy theory seemed to make the most sense under the circumstances.

As Copies went, Cloud was pretty damn good, based on the physical appearance alone. But the real clincher was the personality, which was spot-on. Disturbingly so. If he hadn't witnessed Cloud's transformation for himself -- and the fact that he KNEW Zack was dead -- he would have mistaken Cloud's Zack Copy for the real thing.

Reno then remembered the most important aspect of any Jenova-based Copy. In the end, that Copy was controlled by the will and desires of its original, regardless of whether that original was alive or dead. The hound-like Angeal Copy that had lurked in the rafters of Aerith's church years after the original Angeal's death was proof of that.

Whatever one might say about Zack's hot-blooded, gung-ho nature, the guy was undeniably a 'hero' right down to the core, one who radiated loyalty, trustworthiness, honesty, and good intentions for everyone to see.

Sephiroth -- well, a sane Sephiroth -- would definitely recognize those qualities. And although Reno knew he shouldn't make any assumptions about this Sephiroth's sanity, at least this Sephiroth wasn't obsessively babbling about Jenova or 'Mother' like Kadaj and the rest of that silver-haired crew.

If Cloud was a 'true' Zack Copy... if this Sephiroth was sane enough to respond to that Copy as he did with the original before all the shit in Nibelheim....

Fuck, it just might work.

Reno glanced over at Rude. And in that brief exchange of looks, he knew that his old friend had come to the same conclusion.

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Before Cid or the others could protest, Reno nonchalantly added, "Rude already told me about what happened in Healen and Hojo's sick new tricks. I get that you might be skeptical about what I'm saying. So if you don't want to listen to me, you might consider listening to Rude, because he pretty much agrees with me."

"I don't think that giving 'Zack' an opportunity to talk to Sephiroth first will hurt us," the bald Turk said. "Dealing with Sephiroth, one way or another, is our main concern. It's to everyone's benefit if we can resolve the situation without outright conflict."

"I agree," Scarlet said firmly. "Isn't it better to talk things out if we can? Sephiroth hasn't tried to attack us, so maybe he's in the mood to listen to reason."

"Coward," Yuffie said as she gave the ex-Shinra exec a contemptuous glare.

"I'm being pragmatic, you twit," Scarlet retorted.

"Reno, are you seriously considering cooperating with Sephiroth, Reno?" Tifa said with a frown. "Are you saying that the Turks are willing to overlook what happened to Tseng and President Shinra, just like that?"

Without hesitation, he replied, "Hell yes, and Tseng would be first in line to kick my ass for letting personal feelings interfere with a mission. I think everyone here, Scarlet included, has a vested interest in keeping the Planet, and by extension everybody on it, alive and well. Like it or not, Sephiroth's staring us in the face and we've got to deal with him somehow. So if there's a legit possibility that we can get him to cooperate with us, or at least not actively interfere, I'm all for that."

The Turk gave her a long, level look. "So tell me, Tifa. Are you willing to put aside past stuff for the greater good? Or are you going to let your grudges fuck up this opportunity to get out of this mess without killing each other?"

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Reno knew that he was being a bit of a hypocrite with Tifa. Okay, maybe more than a bit, but he didn't really care. To be honest, he was very much a firm believer in payback, with plenty of interest. But there was a proper time and place for that sort of shit. Now wasn't it.

Besides, payback was pointless unless you targeted the correct offending party. Whether this Sephiroth was the right target remained to be seen.

So if he had to lie his fine Turk ass off to Tifa in order to get her to play along with Zack's suggestion, that was perfectly fine with him.

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It was Tifa who looked away first. Finally, she said to Reno, "So you trust... 'him'?" as she jerked her chin in Zack's direction.

"I didn't say that. But I'm willing to listen to what he has to say and give him a chance to say it in his own way. Which is all that he's asking for at the moment," Reno said reasonably.

"Gee, thanks for the rousing endorsement," Zack muttered grumpily.

Reno smirked back. "No problem. Glad to help."

Rude turned to address Tifa specifically. "I understand your concern, but if what we suspect regarding Cloud is true, there's nothing we can do about it right now."

"You mean that you know what happened to Cloud?" Tifa demanded.

Reno shook his head sharply. "Suspect. It's complicated and now's not the time to get into it." As she started to protest, he tipped his head toward Sephiroth meaningfully and said, "Let's deal with one crisis at a time."

Zack jumped back into the conversation. "I'm honestly not trying to trick you, stall for time, or whatever. It's quite the opposite. I really want to help you guys the best I can, and I don't want anyone here to get hurt, especially when it's not necessary. Not you. Not Sephiroth. All I'm asking is that you hold your questions and listen while I tell him how he ended up here stark naked. C'mon, don't you think he at least deserves THAT?"

"You mean he doesn't know?" Cid said with a skeptical scowl.

"I don't think so." Zack said quickly. "Look, I know I'm asking a lot from you guys. But I have to ask it because I don't know how much time we have to chat. There's big trouble on the way, and I'm NOT talking about Sephiroth."

Surprisingly, it was Yuffie who spoke in favor of Zack's request. "As long as Cloud's not in danger, I don't see why we can't give Zack a little time to explain things his way," she said tentatively.

Zack's reply was immediate and sincere. "Yuffie, I wouldn't be asking if I thought it would hurt Cloud in any way. That's the last thing I'd want to do to him."

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Cait Sith glanced at his friends, checking their reactions. Like himself and Tifa, they were also clearly torn between their concern about Cloud and the cold-hearted, but undeniable logic of the Turks.

Saying no to 'Zack' wouldn't solve any of their problems. If the Turks were right, fixing or reversing whatever was going on with Cloud wouldn't be easy. And as Rude had rightfully pointed out, there was the matter of Sephiroth. They could hardly ignore him or let him wander off on his own while they bugged 'Zack' for answers.

So as much as he hated not being able to do anything about Cloud's... possession, for the lack of a better word, defusing a potential confrontation with Sephiroth had to take priority. Fortunately, this Sephiroth hadn't done anything -- yet -- that could be interpreted as hostile.

Yuffie had already expressed her opinion. Nanaki and Cid nodded their agreement, although with obvious reservations. He turned to Vincent, who had remained silent through the discussion, reserving most of his attention for Sephiroth.

"I think it's already apparent that the Sephiroth standing here in front of us is different from the Sephiroth we've encountered before. What I want to know is how different," Vincent said quietly.

"And Cloud?" Cait Sith's voice was equally soft.

Vincent's expression tightened. "We can't concentrate on helping Cloud until we deal with Sephiroth first."

"Agreed." With that, Cait Sith shrugged and called out to Zack, "Well, go for it."

An obviously relieved Zack gave them a grateful nod, then turned his full attention to Sephiroth, who had remained silent and expressionless throughout the debate.

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The man standing before Sephiroth certainly looked like, sounded like, even smelled like Zack. But the outward physical resemblance was far less important that what he sensed on the inside. Almost before the other man had uttered a single word, there had been instant recognition.

He knew it the same way he effortlessly distinguished the visually identical Genesis Copies from their original, and the same way he knew that despite their very different physical appearances, the Angeal Copies were all connected by a single will and purpose.

The body might belong to someone else, but the person standing in front of him was the real Zack Fair.

Although he was certain this Zack was genuine -- transformed body or not -- there were also definite differences between this Zack and the Zack he remembered. Not so much physically, but the present day Zack had a greater level of maturity than the Zack he remembered, which hinted that this Zack endured more than a few difficult and possibly traumatic experiences.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

The two men stared at each other for a few seconds. Although he had gotten his way, Zack now looked nervous, uncertain how to start. Sephiroth coolly took the initiative.

"What's going on, Zack?"

"It's... really complicated," the dark-haired SOLDIER said with an awkward little smile.

"Then simplify it. A summary will do for now," Sephiroth said. If his nakedness bothered him at all, he certainly didn't show it.

"It's going to be really hard to believe."

"Then convince me." Sephiroth's tone, although still cool, remained surprisingly mild under the circumstances.

"You're REALLY not going to like what you're about to hear."

"I already know that, Zack. It's never a good sign when you dance around a subject this much." The patient, reasonable tone of Sephiroth's voice, combined with the lack of any obvious signs of craziness or creepy references to Jenova allowed the others to relax a little more.

Zack raked his hands through his dark hair, then took a deep breath. "Okay, you asked for it. What's the last thing you remember clearly?"

When Sephiroth didn't immediately answer, Zack added, "If you're worried about the proper security clearances, don't be. Believe me, we're so far beyond that, it isn't even funny. Shinra company secrets is the LAST thing we need to worry about here. Besides, these guys already know most of what happened." He gave Sephiroth a pleading look. "Trust me on this. I need to know where to start."

Sephiroth considered, then said, "Arriving in Nibelheim." He paused, then corrected himself. "No, the very last thing I clearly remember is the trip to the Mt. Nibel reactor."

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

For Sephiroth, his own words triggered recognition. The blond young man who had so unexpectedly transformed into Zack had been assigned to the mission. The vaguely familiar young woman with long brown hair he now recognized as Tifa Lockhart, the guide assigned to lead them to the reactor high above Nibelheim.

But both Tifa and the blond trooper were clearly no longer teenagers, but rather young adults.

Which meant....

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Sephiroth shifted his attention briefly to Tifa, then glanced quickly back at Zack. The dark-haired SOLDIER nodded somberly.

"That's right. She's Tifa from Nibelheim. Except she's obviously a bit older now. It's been over seven years since that mission to Nibelheim," Zack quietly answered Sephiroth's unspoken question.

Another person might have expressed shock, disbelief, even anger at Zack's statement. Sephiroth didn't even blink. He merely said, "What happened?"

"The mission went bad. Really bad. You remember what happened with Genesis and Angeal, when they learned the truth about Project G?"

"Yes."

"Well, during the Nibelheim mission, something similar occurred to you. Except worse. Much, much worse."

When Zack hesitated, Sephiroth coolly prompted him. "Go on."

"You found out something about your past and... well, you completely snapped."

After a brief silence, Sephiroth said, "What exactly did I do?"

Zack winced before answering. "You slaughtered practically everyone in Nibelheim, then burned the place to the ground."

"And then?" Sephiroth's tone remained dispassionate.

"And then you died."

Sephiroth's voice was perfectly steady as he asked, "Did you kill me to stop me?"

Zack looks both wry and a little bitter. "It wouldn't be the first time I've had to do something like that, right? Well, I certainly gave it my best try. But no, I didn't manage to kill you. You could say that I started the job, but someone else had to finish it."

"But I'm obviously not dead now. So why am I here?" Sephiroth glanced around the lab, saw the familiar Shinra logos on the equipment, and his lips thinned slightly. "Let me guess. Hojo?"

"Well, partially." Zack looked pained. "You see, you died in Nibelheim. But you -- the insane you -- refused to stay dead. You kept coming back. And you kept coming back WRONG."

"Define 'wrong'."

"Ah... um..." Zack then blurted, "Well, basically a 'kill everyone, destroy the world, and become a god' type of wrong."

For the first time since his return, Tifa and the other saw Sephiroth display obvious emotion. Seconds ticked by as Sephiroth stared at Zack, his eyes widening in visible shock.

"I WHAT?" he demanded flatly.

Zack nodded in silent confirmation.

"And how close did I come to accomplishing all... that?"

Zack rubbed the back of his neck, obviously thinking hard. Finally, he said in a rush, "It... uh, took you a while because you were technically dead or dead-ish a lot of the time. But you came pretty damn close to destroying the Planet and made a hell of a try at the godhood bit before you were stopped. As for the 'killing everyone', let's say that's been an ongoing project for you. Compared to that, Genesis didn't even come close. So as far as crazy goes, you pretty much took the prize."

There was another long pause before Sephiroth spoke. "I see. If I keep coming back 'wrong' as you put it, then are you and the others here to kill me again?" The brief flare of shock was over, and his voice had returned to its previous level, dispassionate tone.

Zack quickly shook his head. "No, this time's different. This time, I'm pretty sure you came back RIGHT."

"And you know this because...?"

"I could say that it's just a gut feeling I have. But I won't, because you might be tempted to throw something at me," Zack said with a sheepish grin.

Sephiroth uttered a soft, but unmistakable sigh, which was another first for most of the observers.

"Zack, be serious."

Although the quirky little smile remained, Zack's tone immediately shifted to somber as he replied, "Seriously, if you'd come back wrong, we wouldn't even be having this conversation."

Sephiroth tilted his head slightly in a silent question.

Zack hastily replied, "Ah, no, I can't take any credit for things working out this time. I'm fairly sure the Planet had something to do with it. Although I'm not sure how. Something about adapting the cure to Geostigma...?" His voice trailed off in puzzlement.

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. "The Planet?"

"Ah, that's the part that needs lots of explanation. But to put it simply, the Planet is alive, and it has an agenda. Bringing you back sane seems to be a big part of that agenda."

"Which is?"

"Haven't got a clue," Zack said candidly. "I only know tiny bits and pieces of what's going on. Aerith's the one the Planet actually talks to."

Ignoring the various gasps and mutters coming from Tifa and her companions, Sephiroth said, "Aerith. Your brunette girlfriend from the Midgar slums? How is she involved in all this?"

Zack winced. "Uh, that bit's going to be kinda awkward to explain."

Yuffie choked and coughed. Loudly.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

It wasn't in Tifa's or her friends' nature to passively stand aside and let someone else take control of a situation. But this time, despite their suspicions about Sephiroth and worries about Cloud, allowing Zack to talk things out with Sephiroth first felt like the right thing to do.

There was no way to miss the obvious rapport between the two men. What she expected from Sephiroth was, at the very best, icy impatience, overwhelming arrogance, and curt demands for information. Instead, what they got was someone who was not only calm and courteous, but who dealt with the tense and obviously anxious Zack with a patience and -- dare she say it? -- a kindness that didn't fit at all with her admittedly biased impressions of Sephiroth.

Zack was clearly far more to Sephiroth than a mere subordinate, fellow SOLDIER, or casual friend. There was a deeply personal connection between them, the special type that came from shared pain and tragedies.

Tifa glanced quickly at Reno and Rude. Instead of surprise and shock at Sephiroth's behavior, they actually looked... relieved. It took her a moment to figure out why.

The Turks were familiar with both Zack and Sephiroth, had probably seen the two men interact on multiple occasions. So for Reno and Rude, Sephiroth's current behavior wasn't strange or unexpected, but rather a return to 'normal', which was exactly what they seemed to be hoping for.

So this was how the original sane Sephiroth acted. Toward Zack, at least.

Tifa was abruptly reminded that Cloud and herself hadn't been the only ones to suffer deeply because of Sephiroth's actions at Nibelheim. If Cloud, who had idolized Sephiroth from afar, had been devastated by his hero's betrayal, how much worse had it been for Zack, who obviously considered Sephiroth a good friend?

And despite Sephiroth's descent into madness, and all the pain that resulted from it, Zack was still willing to reach out, to give Sephiroth a second chance.

It wasn't a naive or blindly trusting sort of offer, either. Sephiroth might not remember Nibelheim and all the horrible things that happened afterwards, but Zack obviously did. In Nibelheim, Zack had recognized Sephiroth's madness, accepted that his friend had become a monster, and in order to protect Cloud, herself, and others, he had tried his best to stop Sephiroth. No fault of his that his best hadn't been quite good enough.

What puzzled her was the way Sephiroth seemed to bear no grudge over Zack's attempt to kill him. In fact, it seemed that Sephiroth fully expected it.

Now that she had calmed down a bit from her first rush of panic over Cloud, she finally saw what Reno, who was far smarter and astute than most people gave him credit for, had evidently figured out right away. That of all the people on this Planet, Zack was probably the ONLY person who could explain the events of the last seven years to Sephiroth and make Sephiroth believe him.

Something told her that what was happening now between Zack and Sephiroth would have a critical impact not just on Cloud's well-being, but everyone on the Planet. In fact, it could change... everything.

That incredible, but tantalizing hope, more than anything, was what kept her and the others quiet as they watched Zack trying to bridge the gaping divide of so much loss, suffering, and tragedy.

And while she remained deeply suspicious about this Sephiroth's supposed inability to remember anything he had done in Nibelheim and afterward, it also made a weird sort of sense. Maybe that convenient gap in Sephiroth's memory was instrumental in allowing the Planet to bring him back 'right' this time.

Then she remembered another important detail. The insane Sephiroth they knew had never bothered to pretend to be anything other than what he was -- a murderous, sadistic, Jenova-obsessed madman.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

Zack had been right on all three counts. It was complicated, it was hard to believe, and Sephiroth really did not like what he heard.

But incredible as it sounded, he found himself accepting it. Perhaps not every detail, but the essence of Zack's story somehow rang true. Perhaps because Zack's story matched his own greatest, most deeply suppressed fears.

Just like Genesis and Angeal, he had apparently uncovered an unbearable secret and gone insane. And just like with Genesis and Angeal, Zack had been the one stuck with the burden of trying to clean up the resulting mess.

It also explained the darker emotions -- the anxiety, the uncertainty, and even the fear -- Sephiroth had seen mingling with the hope and happiness in Zack's eyes. And most of all, it explained the dread Zack tried to hide and the silent plead that went with it.

"Please don't make me do this again."

Zack had killed Angeal, had done his best to kill Sephiroth. If he made it necessary, Zack would try again, regardless of the cost.

He needed to know exactly what happened in Nibelheim. Although he was confident that Zack was telling him the truth as he knew it, it was also obvious that there was a great deal the other man was not telling him.

Zack rarely lied outright. He wasn't particularly good at it and was usually far too honest to hide his feelings convincingly. But he could and would lie by omission.

However, while he appreciated Zack's desire to to spare his feelings, it was far more important that he know the whole truth.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

"What happened at the Mt. Nibel reactor, Zack?"

He actually flinched at Sephiroth's question. "How did you...?"

"Simple deduction. My memory is quite clear up to our arrival at the reactor. So whatever went wrong most likely started at that location. And you're being evasive."

The blatant guilt on Zack's face would have been amusing, if the situation hadn't been so serious.

"You've told me what happened in general terms. Now I need to know the specifics. I need to know how these events happened and why."

When Zack said nothing, Sephiroth didn't lose his patience or his temper. Instead, he cocked his head slightly as he asked, almost gently, "Why are you avoiding the subject? What's bothering you, Zack?"

Zack couldn't quite bring himself to look Sephiroth straight in the face, but his answer, when it finally came, was as heartwrenching as it was brutally honest.

"I'm scared. I'm scared because even after all these years, I still don't know exactly what made you go crazy." Zack shrugged in an uncharacteristically helpless way. "Maybe it was the location. Maybe it was the creatures Hojo created there. Maybe it was what was stored in the Reactor. The stuff Genesis said. The documents you read in the basement of the Shinra Mansion. Something I said at the wrong time, or something I didn't tell you soon enough. It could have been any or all of those things!

"The point is, I DON'T KNOW. All I know with certainty is that something happened to you in Nibelheim which drove you crazy and then everything went straight to hell!" And with those words, Zack lifted his head and finally met Sephiroth's eyes.

Guilt. Pain. A depth of grief and sorrow that mere words could never fully express.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Sephiroth had seen that particular mixture of emotions in Zack only once before.

After Zack's return from Modeoheim. After Zack killed Angeal.

He had hoped to never see such an expression on Zack's face again.

In many ways, the first time Zack had been so hurt was Sephiroth's fault as much as Angeal's. HE should have been the one to face Angeal and kill him. Although he never mentioned it to Zack, Angeal had offered him the perfect opportunity to do so.

Before the events at Modeoheim, Angeal had tracked down Sephiroth and challenged him to one last fight. He had refused. Unable to force the fatal confrontation he so obviously desired, Angeal had departed, but not before leaving Sephiroth with a few final words.

"We're both going to owe him for this."

At the time, Sephiroth hadn't understood what Angeal meant by 'him'. But after Modeoheim, he knew that Angeal was absolutely right. They both seriously owed Zack. Angeal, for forcing Zack to kill him. Sephiroth, for dumping the brutal burden of that death onto Zack's young shoulders.

And because of his seniors' selfishness, Zack would forever bear both the physical and emotional scars of having to kill his beloved mentor.

So afterward, Sephiroth had tried, in his own way, to make up for causing that pain. He couldn't take Angeal's place, but he had promised himself that he would do his best to protect and guide Angeal's cherished legacy.

Well, not only had he broken that promise, he had done so spectacularly.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

"I want to tell you the truth about everything. You deserve that. Trouble is, I don't know what I can say and what I shouldn't say. So I figured if I give you the information in small enough chunks spread across enough time, history won't repeat itself." Zack uttered a small chuckle of embarrassment. "Probably a stupid idea. But it's the best I could come up with."

With a sharp shake of his head, he added, "I won't lie to you, because there's been way too many lies already. But at the same time, there's a lot of stuff that I'm not sure how to tell you. Because yeah, the truth sometime sucks and hurts like hell. And the absolute last thing I want is to do or say something that will make you... break... like you did before."

Silence filled the lab, broken only by the sound of a few stray drops dripping from broken pipes.

"I see," Sephiroth said simply.

With almost a visible effort, Zack shook off his dark mood and said in a considerably brisker voice, "I want to take things slowly, but in case something happens before I get around to explaining everything, there are a few things you really need to know.

"First, Hojo is a conniving, manipulative bastard who has been screwing with your life in more ways than you can imagine. When he's not outright lying, he's twisting the truth to serve his own purposes.

"That leads to the second. Despite everything Hojo said, Jenova is NOT your mother. He's been basically lying his ass off about that for years. Your mother was human. And although she maybe made some bad choices, she cared about you very much. Remember that and don't let anyone, especially Hojo, convince you otherwise.

"Third and the most important. Being different isn't the same as being a monster. It's not the outside that counts, but what's in here."

Zack lifted his left fist and lightly thumped his own chest. "In your heart, that makes a person a hero or a real monster. Honor is what you know about yourself, what you expect from yourself. As long as you hold on tight to that and your dreams, it doesn't matter what anyone else wants to call you."

"Honor and dreams, hm?" Sephiroth said, feeling a sharp pang of nostalgia.

Zack blinked, then chuckled ruefully. "Wow. Now I'm the one giving you lectures about that stuff, instead of Angeal."

"Well, you are particularly qualified," Sephiroth said easily.

Zack blushed, then muttered, "Well, I hope you remember what I said, because it gets really irritating when people ignore me when I try to tell them that they're NOT monsters!"

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

In those three things Zack told him, Sephiroth could already see hints and outlines of the dark secret he must have discovered in Nibelheim.

If Hojo had lied all along and Jenova wasn't his mother, then who or what was Jenova?

Who was his real mother?

And just how 'different' was he?

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Sephiroth glanced around the lab, at Tifa and the others shamelessly eavesdropping on his conversation with Zack. He gestured toward them.

"Do you trust these people?"

Instead of a quick, flippant answer, Zack looked thoughtful. His reply, when it came, was both deliberate and confident. "When it comes down to it, I trust them to try to do the right thing. Turks included." His lips quirked upward in a quick grin. "That doesn't apply to Scarlet, of course."

"Of course," Sephiroth replied drily. He paused, then said, "You once told me, 'Our enemy is all that torments the world, all that creates suffering.'"

"It was Angeal who said it first. It was his honor, the one thing that kept him... well, sane for those last few years. And in the end, it was the reason why he felt he had to...." Zack shrugged. "Anyway, at the moment, Hojo and Jenova are right at the very top of the hit list."

"And what about me?"

Zack's lips curved into a smile that was both worried and hopeful. "I guess that's up to you."

Sephiroth considered that, then said, "All right, then."

Zack blinked and did a double take. "...huh?"

"I said, 'All right'," Sephiroth repeated patiently. "You can explain what happened at your own pace. I'll wait for the answers to my questions until you feel comfortable telling me."

"....that's it?" Zack asked, looking visibly doubtful.

"Did you want me to say, 'No, give me the answers right now, or else?'"

"No! I mean... I just didn't expect... I thought you'd need a lot more convincing," Zack said, cocking his head to one side and looking decidedly flustered.

Sephiroth absently noted that one thing certainly hadn't changed. On Zack, that little tilt of the head combined with a bewildered expression still looked oddly endearing.

"No, I don't. I asked you to convince me, and you did. So, if in your best judgement, you feel it's better to take things slowly, then I'll accept that decision."

Looking massively relieved, Zack said anxiously, "Oh. So... everything's cool between us for now?"

"Yes, Zack, it's cool." Sephiroth's voice was both patient and amused.

"Great!" Zack glanced over at Tifa and the others. "Uh... what about...?"

"Since you vouched for them, I'm prepared to be cooperative." It was Sephiroth's turn to scrutinize Tifa's group. "The question is whether they're willing to return the courtesy."

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

While most of Sephiroth's attention had been focused on Zack, he had also taken careful notice of the other people in the lab room.

He knew Scarlet, along with Reno and Rude of the Turks. However, many of the others were strangers. The middle-aged blond man expertly wielding a spear. The silent, dark-haired man in the oddly fluid reddish cape. The large, but obviously sentient red-furred beast with the 'XIII' tattoo on its shoulder and the ridiculous looking toy cat sitting on its back. The young Wutai woman who looked vaguely familiar, but he was quite sure he had never actually met before.

Interestingly, the Turks appeared allied more closely with Tifa's group instead of Scarlet.

There was something else that united this strange group -- intense suspicion, if not outright hostility, toward him. Which was perfectly understandable, given what Zack had told him about Nibelheim and its aftermath.

But if anyone who could convince this disparate group to work with him, it was Zack.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Zack walked over to Tifa and the others, then said, "Okay, I guess it's your turn. He's willing to meet you halfway. What about you?"

During the conversation between Zack and Sephiroth, Tifa and the others' attitude had shifted from intense suspicion to a mixture of astonishment and bemusement.

"I don't fucking believe it," Cid muttered. Before Zack could object, he continued, "Are you sure THAT," he jabbed a finger in Sephiroth's direction, "is the real Sephiroth?"

Zack looked surprised. "Uh, yeah. Why would you think he wasn't?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe because that guy sounds way too nice to be Sephiroth?" Yuffie said sarcastically.

Zack turned to the Turks and said in an exasperated tone, "Reno, help me out here!"

The redhead snickered loudly. "Believe it or not, before the whole Nibelheim mess, Sephiroth was a consummate professional and reasonably polite person, which is more than I can say about Heidegger or Scarlet."

Scarlet uttered a contemptuous sniff at the Turk's comment.

"And yeah, he could be that nice. To Zack, at least," Reno added with a wicked little grin.

"Huh?" Zack said, his head making that now familiar slight tilt of confusion.

"Don't worry your pretty little head about it, Zack," Reno said, even as he gave Sephiroth a sly grin. "The point is, Cid, that this Sephiroth's behavior is quite consistent with Sephiroth we knew before the shit so epically hit the fan in Nibelheim."

"Reno's right," Tifa said unexpectedly. "I remember now, the way he behaved when he first arrived in Nibelheim. Sephiroth may have been a little curt and standoffish, but he wasn't...." She groped for a less offensive choice of words, then gave up. "He certainly didn't act like a sadistic madman, and worse, back then. That came later."

Sephiroth met Tifa's steady, unwavering gaze, then glanced at Zack, who shifted a bit uneasily.

"The person who did all that wasn't the real YOU...," Zack started to protest.

"Whether I remember or not, sane or not, if I committed atrocities, they are my responsibility," Sephiroth said sharply. "Insanity is no excuse. Honor, remember?"

Zack rubbed his hands over his face. "Yeah, I know. But the details are going to be seriously ugly. You're going to hate it."

"I figured as much, given what you said about my attempts at genocide, planetary destruction, and delusions of godhood." Sephiroth's eyes suddenly narrowed. "Or is there more?"

When Zack didn't immediately reply, Sephiroth turned to Tifa and said evenly, "Sadistic?"

She responded with a surprisingly reluctant nod.

"And worse?"

"....yes," Tifa replied quietly.

Sephiroth took two swift steps forward toward Zack until they were face to face. He didn't touch him, but stared hard at the dark-haired SOLDIER and asked in an ominous tone, "What else did I do?"

Zack met Sephiroth's narrowed green eyes, started to say something, hesitated, then stubbornly clamped his mouth shut.

"So there IS more," Sephiroth said grimly.

"Yeah," Zack muttered, his expression tight and set. Sephiroth waited. Finally, responding to Sephiroth's unspoken question, Zack made a terse little shrug and said, "But not me."

Sephiroth's obvious tension gradually eased. He took a step back and his tone softened. "At this point, the truth is far more important than my feelings. Zack, I'm sure that Tifa and the Turks will be more than happy to fill me in on the relevant details. But I would prefer to hear it from you."

Shoulders sagging, Zack nodded, reluctantly. "Okay, I promise. But later, because we really shouldn't hang around here any longer than necessary." He glanced at the still naked Sephiroth and grinned slightly. "Since it was Hojo's idea to bring you back, hopefully he left some spare clothes for you lying around."

As he watched Zack zero in on a pile of black clothing on a nearby lab counter, Cid irritably asked, "What's with the big rush to leave?"

"Ah ha! Thought so!" Zack rummaged, then began tossing parts of an all too familiar black outfit in Sephiroth's direction. While his hands were busy, Zack answered Cid's question.

"Because the WEAPONs are coming."

"We've handled WEAPONs before," Cid said, as he watched Sephiroth neatly catch the black leather boots casually flung at him.

Zack held up and inspected a black pair of men's briefs with a slight frown, then glanced at Sephiroth.

"How the hell does Hojo knows exactly what sort of underwear you like?"

Sephiroth snorted -- there was no other way to describe the sound of derision and contempt he uttered. "This is Hojo we're talking about. Nothing is off-limits. I wouldn't put it past him to go snooping through my dirty laundry."

"Oh yeah. Right." Zack made a quick grimace of disgust, then tossed the briefs to Sephiroth. As Sephiroth began dressing with smooth precise movements, Zack turned his attention back to Cid and gave the pilot a serious look.

"I know you have fought WEAPONs and won. But you've only encountered them one at a time. Things are different now. Hojo's cooked up something really nasty down below, and believe me, the Planet is NOT happy about that. It wants this place cut out like a bad tumor. And to do that, it's going to use not one, but multiple WEAPONs."

"Wha... multiple?!" Cid sputtered. "Just how many are we talking about here?"

"I'm not sure. Probably enough to completely obliterate this factory and everything for miles around it."

"Damn."

"The Planet's awakening and it's NOT messing around," Zack said grimly.

"That's what I was afraid of," Cid muttered.

Zack eyed the half-dressed Sephiroth uncertainly, then apparently decided to take the plunge.

"I told you that Jenova's not your mother, right?"

As he slipped on the black leather longcoat, Sephiroth said, "Zack, I assure you that I'm perfectly clear on that concept. If Jenova is not my mother, then who is she?"

"Jenova isn't a who, but a what. She... it isn't human. Jenova was the codename given to an alien lifeform that fell from space and was found by Shinra 2000 years later. Basically, it's an extraterrestrial predator that infects, corrupts, and consumes every living thing it encounters. Think of it as a really horrible sort of sentient virus."

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed as he adjusted his shoulder armor. "You mentioned something being stored in the Nibel reactor."

"Yeah. Shinra stored the remains of Jenova at Nibelheim."

"Remains. Then she... it... is dead?"

"Depends on your definition of 'dead'. More like a suspended animation of sorts. Anyway, Hojo recovered a fragment of Jenova. He's been feeding it and making it grow. The Planet wants that fragment destroyed before it becomes a serious threat." Zack sighed. "And there's another reason for my rush to get us out of here. Hojo I'm not so worried about, but I really don't like the idea of you being near anything involving large active chunks of Jenova."

"Because of what happened to me before?" Sephiroth said, pulling on black leather gloves.

"Yeah. Aerith -- or was it the Planet? -- warned me to watch out for some sort of... psychic resonance?" Zack said, looking a bit uncertain.

Sephiroth's tone sharpened slightly. "If Jenova's not my mother, why would there be any sort of resonance to worry about?"

"Uhhh... well, it's kinda...."

"Complicated, and one of those things that you're not ready to tell me yet. So explain it later."

Zack grimaced in apology and hunched his shoulders like a guilty puppy.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Reno had been leaning inconspicuously against a nearby lab counter. Now he abruptly straightened and said, "That's all fine and good. But Rude and I aren't leaving until we find out what's happened to Rufus."

"He's not here," Zack casually responded.

"What?!"

"Rufus isn't here. Hojo doesn't have him."

Reno stalked over to Zack. "How the fuck do you know that?"

"Because the Planet has been keeping tabs on him."

"I don't think I like the sound of that. How, and since when?" Reno demanded.

"I haven't got a clue how," Zack replied. "As for when, I think it was after Aerith's trick with the rain. I don't know what triggered it, but the Planet became 'aware' of Rufus after that."

"Shit. Are you telling me that the freaking Planet's after him?"

"No, it's nothing like that. I don't think it's hostile. More like... interested."

Reno exhaled sharply. "Interested? In what way?"

"I'm not sure." Zack hesitated, then said, "The last impression I got was a bit different, though."

"Fuck, this gets better and better. Different? How so?"

"If I had to put a name to how the Planet currently views Rufus, I'd say... smug."

Reno stared at Zack, then said, "I have to say that 'smug' sounds almost worse than 'hostile'."

Zack nodded sympathetically. "Like I said before, the Planet's got an agenda, one that definitely involves Sephiroth. And from the way it's actively got its attention on Rufus, it probably involves him, too."

"Bloody fucking hell! Why didn't you mention this earlier?" Reno said furiously. "Here I was worrying about rescuing Rufus from mad scientists and now you're telling me that I have to worry about the damn Planet as well?!"

"Reno, there's no point yelling at me. The Planet is making its own decisions now. And except for the vaguest of hints, I have NO idea what the Planet is up to!"

"So if Rufus isn't here, then where the fuck is he?" Reno demanded.

"I'm not sure," Zack replied with a frown. Before Reno could speak, he continued, "But I'm pretty sure it's somewhere I've been before."

"Zack, between your time working for Shinra, then running away from Shinra, you've been nearly everywhere on this damn Planet! You've got to be more specific than that!"

"Look, what I've got was more of a mental impression than a precise spot on a map! Rufus's location just feels familiar and... important... to me. I didn't just pass through that place. Stuff happened there."

"As a clue, it sucks balls. But it's better than nothing, I suppose," Reno muttered.

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"Rufus?" Sephiroth said, looking down at Cait Sith. "As in Rufus Shinra?"

"That's right. He's the current president of the Shinra Corporation. And at the moment, he's missing, if you can't tell."

"What happened to his father?"

Cait Sith grinned toothily at him. "Dead. Two years ago, you slaughtered your way up to the top floor of the Shinra Building and skewered him like a butterfly on a pin."

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With Reno fully occupied with interrogating Zack about Rufus Shinra's whereabouts, Cid took the opportunity to sort out his own thoughts.

He was used to picturing Sephiroth as an insane, utterly ruthless, completely inhuman enemy. But watching this resurrected Sephiroth interact with 'Zack' had been one hell of a revelation. Damn, he just wasn't used to thinking of Sephiroth as a person with normal human feelings.

But he couldn't deny the evidence of his own eyes and ears. This Sephiroth might play the stoic pretty well, but so did Vincent. It was pretty obvious Sephiroth cared about Zack. And to Cid, the way Sephiroth reacted when he thought he had tortured Zack spoke volumes.

If this was the original, pre-insanity Sephiroth, he was nothing like what Cid had pictured him to be. But he was now beginning to undestand why a teenaged Cloud had idolized Sephiroth so much.

But what about Sephiroth's memory lapse? Was it genuine? Or was it just one hell of an act?

It could be some sneaky scheme of Hojo, but that didn't seem likely. Sephiroth, even when insane, did his own thing and had his own agenda. It was Hojo who always scrambled to do stuff for his son, not the other way around.

As for it being some plot of Sephiroth's, the sane Sephiroth just seemed too proud to stoop that low, and the crazy Sephiroth was too fucking arrogant to do it, either.

If Sephiroth's memory loss was genuine, Cid couldn't help feeling a little sorry for the guy. Hello, you wake up buck naked and the first thing a reliable source tells you is that you went batshit crazy, attacked your best friend, massacred possibly thousands of people, and tried to destroy the world. Hell of a way to start the day.

However, that little bit of sympathy he felt didn't mean that he was about to give Sephiroth a free pass on all the shit he'd did. Cid wasn't about to become buddy-buddy with the guy responsible for killing Aerith and torturing Cloud into a full-blown mental breakdown.

Forgive Sephiroth? Hell, no. But maybe they could find a way to work together, as 'Zack' suggested. Even if Sephiroth didn't end up on their side, the mere fact that he wasn't working with Hojo had to count for something.

Their only other choice was to take out Sephiroth here and now. Which wouldn't be easy, especially with Cloud out of the picture. And given his obvious closeness with Sephiroth, there was no telling which way 'Zack' would swing, especially if Cid and the others made the first unprovoked aggressive move.

As for 'Zack', Cid couldn't get over the creepy way he'd taken over Cloud's body. But he also couldn't deny that it was pretty easy -- maybe too easy -- to like the guy, even though he came off as a bit of a ditz at times. Not that mere ditziness made a person any less dangerous or reliable. Just look at Yuffie.

Cid wasn't happy about it, but he had to admit that both 'Zack' and the Turks probably had the right idea. The smartest thing to do would be to join forces with a sane Sephiroth, if they could. While keeping a wary eye on him, of course.

If Sephiroth was telling the truth and proved himself, that was great. If not... well, at least they wouldn't have to go looking for him.

Cid shot a quick glance at Vincent, who had faded into the background, and wondered what the other man saw as he watched Sephiroth so intently. Was he looking for any traces of Lucrecia? Or was he seeing signs of Hojo?

Vincent met his eyes, then nodded slightly.

Nanaki did the same before moving off to listen to Zack and the Turks.

So that was two votes for cooperation, then. That left Tifa, who, along with Cloud, probably had the deepest personal grudge against Sephiroth.

"You okay with this Zack guy's suggestion about working with Sephiroth?" Cid asked as he moved over to her.

"Believe me when I say I'm not happy about it." She glanced over at the Turks, Zack, and then at Sephiroth. "But they're right. If there's a chance we can work with Sephiroth instead of fighting him, then...."

"I know, hard to argue the benefits of that. So you believe Zack?"

Tifa nodded.

"Because of what Cloud told you about him?" Cid said skeptically, but not unkindly. "Because, you know, he isn't exactly the most reliable source of information."

She shook her head quickly. "I'm not relying solely on what Cloud told me. I met Zack myself in Nibelheim. Only briefly, but even then, I got the feeling that he was someone you could trust and rely on. And the events of Nibelheim prove that he's someone who puts his heart into fighting for what he believes in. Even if that means killing a good friend."

"Our enemy is all that torments the world, all that creates suffering."

"Yeah, I get that," Cid said. "Doing the right thing is a big deal for the guy. Sephiroth did say that Zack was qualified to lecture HIM about honor."

He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "I guess that's why Sephiroth's willing to believe him when Zack tells him about seven missing years, going insane, and trying to destroy the world. Because it's Zack who's telling him that story."

He glanced over at Sephiroth, then at Zack who was still being pestered by Reno. "Then all I can say is that we're mighty lucky Zack showed up when he did. Otherwise things probably would've gotten damn ugly. Although I fucking hate the way he did it."

Yuffie sidled over to join Cid and Tifa. "Zack did say that the Planet has an agenda. If it can manipulate things so that Sephiroth came back sane, maybe it's responsible for Zack showing up, too?"

"You think that the Planet somehow messed around with Cloud to make him transform into Zack?" Cid said.

"Well, yeah. I honestly don't think Hojo's responsible for that. He's obsessed with resurrecting the crazy Sephiroth. Why would he bring back someone who wants to keep Sephiroth sane?"

"Even assuming you're right about the Planet being responsible for Zack showing up like this, how the fuck did it happen? And when?" Cid demanded.

"Like I know? I'm just guessing here!" Yuffie snapped irritably.

Before the argument could escalate, Tifa interrupted them. "I don't care how it happened. What I want to know is how to reverse it and return Cloud back to normal."

Cid and Yuffie exchanged mildly embarrassed looks.

"The Turks definitely know something about that." Cid glanced over at Reno and saw that he and Zack had finished their discussion about Rufus. "So let's finish up deciding how to handle Sephiroth so we can move on to figuring out what the fuck's going on with Cloud. Right, Cait?"

"Agreed." The cat glanced around at his companions and got a mixture of nods and 'what the hell' shrugs. When no one voiced any further objections, Cait Sith addressed Zack and said, "Okay, we're willing to give this Sephiroth a chance."

Cid added bluntly. "I don't trust you one bit. But I figure you're not a particular fan of Hojo, either."

Zack uttered an exuberant whoop of relief and pumped his fist in excitement. "YES!"

"Now that we've agreed, would you mind telling us WHY it's so important to work with Sephiroth?" Cait Sith asked.

Calming down, Zack said, "Like I said before, all I have are a bunch of vague hints and impressions. But I'm pretty sure it has something to do with all the loose bits of Jenova that are still floating around."

He stopped to organize his thoughts. "If we think of Jenova as a really nasty disease, then those loose Jenova cells are like pockets of infection spread all over the Planet and throughout the Lifestream. They might be dormant for now, but they're just waiting to flare up and cause trouble."

"You're talking about Kadaj and his crew," Cid said with a scowl.

"Something like that. The Geostigma, too."

"So you're saying that Remnants and plagues could show up again at any time."

Zack nodded. "Getting rid of them one at a time won't fix the underlying problem. Aerith managed to deal with the Geostigma, but there WILL be more monsters and nastier diseases. And each generation that comes along will be deadlier. Or worse, sneakier."

"That's already happening, thanks to Hojo." When the others looked at Tifa, she continued, "Remember that trap he created for Cloud using that parasite inside the poor woman back in Healen?"

"You're talking about an endless war of attrition," Vincent said grimly.

"Well that's just fucking dandy!" Cid glared at Zack. "Okay, you got any bright ideas how to solve the damn problem?"

"I don't, but I'm pretty sure the Planet does. I think it's got some sort of grand plan to deal with all the stray bits of Jenova lying around, one that involves Sephiroth." Zack glanced apologetically at the Turks, "And probably Rufus."

"Whoopee," Reno said in a cold, sarcastic voice.

"And what about Cloud?" Tifa said tightly.

Zack looked startled. "I hope not! With everything he's been through, the last thing Cloud needs is the Planet messing around with him, too."

They all stared at Zack... simply stared at him with varying degrees of surprise, disbelief, and/or shock.

"You... don't know," Yuffie stammered.

"Know what?" Zack began looking decidedly uneasy.

"About what happened to Cloud."

"Cloud? But he's right...." Zack glanced over his shoulder and downward, as if he fully expected to see an unconscious Cloud safely tucked away somewhere behind him.

Sephiroth moved forward. "Is Cloud the blond infantryman who accompanied us to Nibelheim?"

"Yeah." Zack replied distractedly, as he turned around and frantically scanned the lab.

Sephiroth waited a moment, then said, "Zack, you're not going to find him. Or rather, he's right here, but you can't see him."

"Huh?" Zack whirled around to stare at Sephiroth.

"You can't see Cloud, because you're inside him." When Zack continued to stared blankly at Sephiroth, he said, "You're inhabiting his body."

Zack's eyes sought out the closest reflective surface, then turned back to Sephiroth. Pointing at his dark-haired reflection, he sputtered, "But... that's me!"

"He took on your physical appearance."

This time, it was Zack's turn to utter a visibly stunned, "WHAT?!"

It was an unusually somber Reno who dropped the final hammer.

"I don't know what the hell happened during those years in Nibelheim, but it sure looks like Cloud somehow became a Copy. Of you."

Zack's wide blue eyes skimmed over everyone, their various expressions of concern and distress serving as silent confirmation of Sephiroth's and Reno's words.

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Sephiroth watched Zack and thought, "So this is what pure rage looks like on him."

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After a frozen instant, Zack erupted into a ferocious stream of profanity which made Cid's most impressive rants pale in comparison. But he stopped short in mid-expletive, flung up a hand to forestall any interruptions, and closed his eyes. His entire body tensed, as if straining to pick up a distant sound.

"C'mon... I know you're there... don't give up on me now...," Zack whispered under his breath. "Almost... gotcha!" He suddenly relaxed, opened his eyes, and uttered a heavy sigh of relief.

Tifa grabbed his arm, and quickly asked, "Cloud?"

Tapping the side of his head, Zack replied, "He was buried deep and slipping away fast, but I managed to find him." Then under his breath, he muttered, "...barely." He patted her hand and said reassuringly, "Don't worry. I didn't work my ass off to keep Cloud alive and sane only to lose him now."

But despite his confident tone, Zack's tight expression told everyone that Cloud's situation was far from secure.

He then turned to Sephiroth, regret written all over his face. "I'm sorry. I thought we might run short of time, but not this way. I know I promised to tell you everything I know about what happened at Nibelheim and afterward, but...."

"Your friend Cloud is in danger, correct?" Sephiroth said.

Zack nodded miserably, obviously torn between his promise to Sephiroth and his need to help Cloud.

"Then what are you waiting for?"

Zack's head came up sharply. "Because... well, because you're my friend, too, and I can't just leave you alone with them!" He said, waving his hand in the direction of Cid and the others. He then gave them an apologetic look, and hastily added, "Not that I don't trust them, but considering all the bad history that's happened between you guys...."

"While I appreciate your concern, I think I can manage on my own for a while," Sephiroth said drily. When Zack continued to hesitate, he added with surprising gentleness, "You've managed to convince everyone here to keep an open mind about me and to try working together. Which, considering all the things I've apparently done in the last seven years, is quite the achievement. You've laid out the groundwork. Let me handle the rest.

"But...."

"Cloud needs you far more than I do at the moment." Sephiroth made a slight jerk of his chin. "So get going."

Zack flashed a quick grateful smile, then his expression turned wistful and a little sad.

"When you get around to meeting Cloud, try to be nice to him. Please, as a favor to me? He really deserves it."

Sephiroth nodded slightly.

"It's really good to see you -- the real you -- again." Zack gave Sephiroth a brilliant grin that held both joy and relief. "Welcome back, Sephiroth."

He closed his eyes. Almost immediately, Zack's body flickered, shifted, and began to melt into Cloud's shorter, slighter form. Golden blond hair overtook the black, except for a small patch at the nape of the neck. And like with the earlier transformation, the clothing shifted subtly to accommodate the change in height and build.

A few seconds later, the Cloud they knew reappeared. Without opening his eyes or uttering a word, he crumpled silently to the lab floor.

Tifa was at Cloud's side in an instant, rapidly followed by the rest of his friends. As most of them hovered anxiously, she hastily checked his vital signs. Cloud's heartrate and breathing were steady, and there was no evidence of the severe stomach wound they had seen earlier on his body or clothing.

To all outward appearances, Cloud looked as if he was merely sleeping. However, he remained completely unresponsive to their frantic attempts to rouse him.

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(end of Part 11)

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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

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Chapter Text

Okay, a little late, but I ended up adding all these little bits here and there. But I'm finally finished!

I've pretty much caught up with the original COI. So from now on, it's new unexplored territory! ^_^;

And no, the Planet is NOT a nice entity.

Enjoy!

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 12
Author: Madamhydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~8600
Warnings/Content: mature/dark/disturbing themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.) Read at your own risk.
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his dead friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the REAL Cloud Strife?

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AUTHOR NOTES:
-- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
-- The original FFVII game and "Advent Children/Complete" are canon for this fic.
-- "Before Crisis" and "Crisis Core" are semi-canon.
-- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".
-- Various plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., "Dirge of Cerberus", "Last Order" OVA, FFVII web novellas, etc.) may show up.

CREDITS:
-- Anne Bishop's Black Jewel series, from which I borrowed the explicit ability to "call in" (i.e., summon) and vanish items into some sort of personal hammerspace. It's the only explanation I have for where Sephiroth keeps that damn sword of his.

Text Conventions
-- ( ) and { } and / and // indicate thoughts, mental dialogue, or languages from various characters
-- [ ] are miscellaneous date or location notes, images, or sound effects

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Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica

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[ Weapon Facility ]

Sephiroth and the Turks prudently moved out of the way as Tifa and the others rushed over to the unconscious Cloud. As they stood off to the side, Reno glanced at Sephiroth.

"You seem to be taking all this stuff about betrayal, mass murder, and destroying the world rather well," the Turk said mildly.

Without taking his eyes off Cloud, Sephiroth's jaw tensed before he said, "As you well know, this sort of behavior is not entirely without precedent."

Reno gave him a cool stare. "Right. So you expected this to happen?"

Sephiroth finally turned to look at the Turk. "Hardly. After what happened to Genesis and Angeal, I anticipated the possibility of going rogue from Shinra. Nothing more." While his face remained impassive, there was an undercurrent of tightly suppressed fury in his voice as he continued. "If I'd had the slightest clue things would turn out this disastrously, do you think that I would have allowed Zack anywhere near me?"

"Zack would've become involved in your epic fuck up sooner or later, and you know it. Who else would Shinra send after you? And as much as he would've hated it, he would've accepted that mission. First, because he was the best qualified to deal with you, one way or another. Second, unlike you, he's not the type to dump the responsibility of killing a good friend on some other poor sod," Reno said in quiet, yet scathing tones.

"Believe me, I am painfully aware of that," Sephiroth retorted in an equally quiet and equally harsh voice.

Reno gazed at Sephiroth, then sighed wearily as he ran his hand through his disheveled red hair. "What's done is done, and there's plenty of blame to go around. Hell, it's not like I'm in any position to throw stones."

He shook his head sharply, then with almost visible effort, shifted his attention to more immediate issues. Glancing over at the still unconscious Cloud, Reno said, "You know, I thought the physical and mental changes in Copies were pretty much irreversible."

Accepting the change in topic, Sephiroth replied, "As far as I know, they are. But Cloud is no ordinary Copy. That much is obvious."

"Oh, I agree that he's certainly not like the Genesis Copies or Angeal Copies I've seen before. When he went into full-on Zack-mode, I would have sworn he was the real thing."

"He IS the real thing," Sephiroth said flatly. "The body may not be his, but the mind and personality controlling that body was very much Zack's."

"And how the hell would you know that?" Reno asked with deceptive politeness.

"I can tell the difference." With Zack now absent, Sephiroth's attitude was no longer patient and encouraging. It was now cold and sharp, very much like his infamous sword. "I suppose you could call it a gut feeling."

Reno made no comment as he turned back to stare at Cloud's unconscious body. He wouldn't put it past Sephiroth to be psychic enough to tell the difference between an original personality and a Copy, on top of whatever weird abilities the guy might have.

"With that matter settled, perhaps you can now satisfy my understandable curiosity." When Reno gave him a wary look, Sephiroth continued, "Why is Zack inside Cloud's body, and not his own, where it rightfully belongs?"

Although Sephiroth's face betrayed no obvious emotion, Reno detected an edge to the other's voice that made it clear that he was not asking, but demanding answers from the Turk.

Reno mildly cursed Zack in his head for bailing out and leaving the rest of them to deal with Sephiroth on their own. But he couldn't really blame Zack, either, for rushing off to keep Cloud from disappearing or whatever.

"Because he's dead," Reno said evenly. "But I think you've already figured that out."

"Did I kill him?" Sephiroth's voice was almost frighteningly neutral. He could have been asking about the weather in distant Costa del Sol.

"No, not directly. But the chain of events you started in Nibelheim eventually got him killed. When Zack tried to stop you at the Mt. Nibel reactor, you fought back and won. Believe it or not, it was Cloud who actually finished you off."

Reno waited, but except for a thoughtful glance at Cloud, Sephiroth showed no particular reaction to learning that Cloud had been the one to strike the fatal blow. However, he was sure that Sephiroth was filing away the information, along with plenty of questions for later. He was also sure that Sephiroth was taking whatever he or the others might say with a hefty dose of skepticism and suspicion. Sephiroth might be willing to accept Zack's words on faith alone, but he certainly wasn't going to extend that privilege to anyone else.

"Anyway, both Zack and Cloud survived the fight with you, although the two of them were in shit poor shape afterward." Reno waited a beat, then allowed his lips to curl into a bitter smile. "And then Hojo showed up in Nibelheim."

Sephiroth's green eyes narrowed. Oh yeah, he knew what Hojo's appearance meant.

"He was late to the party, but he wasn't about to let two prime chunks of research fodder slip through his fingers." Before Sephiroth could ask, Reno continued. "No, Hojo didn't directly cause Zack's death, either, as far as I know."

He had to be careful here. Ordinary SOLDIERs' senses could be sensitive enough to serve as damn effective lie detectors, and there was no question that Sephiroth's senses were absolutely top notch. Reno prided himself on being a damn good liar, but with Sephiroth involved, he didn't want to get caught in an outright lie.

And he'd rather not let Sephiroth know that the Turks had essentially turned their backs and walked away at Nibelheim, abandoning Zack and Cloud in Hojo's sadistic hands.

"Zack and Cloud were kept in Nibelheim as Hojo's prisoners for four years after the massacre," Reno continued smoothly. Before Sephiroth could say anything, he went on. "With President Shinra's full knowledge and permission."

"Why?"

Reno gave Sephiroth a pitying look. "Because Zack saw and knew too much, of course. C'mon, Shinra's top war hero goes totally nuts, massacres an entire company town, and tries to steal a super secret alien specimen. You think Shinra's going to let that become public knowledge? And you know that after all the other shit that happened, Zack damn well wouldn't have played along with the coverup and kept his mouth shut."

"So the President had two options: kill him or imprison him," Sephiroth said softly. "And so he chose to give Zack to Hojo."

"Along with the handful of other survivors of Nibelheim. Cloud included." Reno gave Sephiroth a viciously cynical grin. "Hey, it made great business sense. Recycling company resources, right? Not to mention it was an easy way to keep Hojo happy and productively employed."

"Four years in Nibelheim, in Hojo's custody. Then what?"

"Zack somehow managed to break out of the lab and escape with Cloud. They stayed on the run for a year before Zack was eventually tracked down and killed."

"Are you sure about that?" Cid said, standing up and switching his attention from the unconscious Cloud to the conversation between Reno and Sephiroth. "Cloud told us that Zack died, but since his memory tends to be seriously fucked, there's no telling whether that's actually true or not. And besides, Hel knows we keep running into people who die, but don't seem to STAY dead." He looked pointedly at Sephiroth.

"Zack definitely died two years ago outside Midgar," Reno said firmly.

"Did the Turks kill him?" Sephiroth said, the ominous edge in his voice returning.

Reno had no trouble reading the signs. In his restrained, understated way, Sephiroth was seriously pissed off. From their conversation earlier, Reno knew Sephiroth accepted much of the blame for what happened, and justifiably so. But if Sephiroth was looking for additional targets for his anger, Reno knew one thing for certain -- he did NOT want the Turks to be one of those targets.

Reno met Sephiroth's cold stare unflinchingly. "Fuck, no! Our orders were to capture him alive, and we were working our asses off to do just that. But after being epically screwed over by Shinra and four years as Hojo's prisoners, Zack wasn't about to allow himself or Cloud to be recaptured by anybody."

"Then who killed Zack?"

"The Shinra Army," Reno answered. "They were under the same orders to capture the escaped Nibelheim specimens alive, but Zack kept slipping through their fingers. Heidegger and his commanders finally got fed up with looking like the idiots they were and sent out their own orders to kill him on sight."

"They sent conventional troops to take down Zack?" Sephiroth said with a slight frown. "And they succeeded? How did they manage that?"

"Wore him down with sheer freaking numbers." Reno's lips curved into a sour smile. "They mobilized every available military unit on the Western Continent. They literally threw an entire army brigade, with full mechanized and air support, at him. And even with those numbers, Zack very nearly finished them off. When the dust finally settled, just over a squad of infantrymen on the Shinra side was left standing."

Sephiroth's icy green gaze shifted and slid over to Scarlet, who blanched visibly. She flung up her hands as if to fend off any blame and quickly said, "Oh no, I did NOT have anything to do with that! I told Heidegger it was a stupid idea to send the regular Army after a top level SOLDIER. But he and those idiotic commanders of his wouldn't listen to me! I warned them that the losses would be huge!"

"I never figured out why the President allowed Heidegger to live after that fiasco, much less keep his place on the board of directors," Reno said. "Shinra's PR guys ended up having to invent some shit-assed excuse about a natural disaster to explain away all the casualties and the disappearance of a sizable chunk of its military forces."

Reno glanced at Tifa and the others. "Because of those losses Zack caused, Shinra's military was stretched pretty thin when you AVALANCHE guys started acting up in Midgar. So you can thank Zack for making things a lot easier for you."

"And the Turks' involvement?" Sephiroth asked in the same dangerously level tone he had used throughout the entire conversation.

Reno shrugged. "We tried to get to Zack before the Army, but the Army managed to pin him down first. By the time we arrived, it was all over. The only things the Turks could do were confirm the bodycount and the identity of the terminated target."

"And you were certain it was Zack?"

"Believe me, we checked, double-checked, triple-checked, and quadruple-checked. Complete DNA analysis, fingerprints, retina scans, you name it, we used it. And yeah, we specifically checked for evidence of cloning and copying. Except for an elevated level of Mako in Zack's system, there were no anomalies. No question, it was Zack Fair."

Reno let that information settle in before continuing. "And before you ask, Tseng ordered us to destroy his body to keep it out of Hojo's hands."

"But what about Cloud?" Cid demanded.

"We didn't find any sign of Cloud at the scene. But then again, we weren't exactly looking for him. Our intel at the time said that Zack was traveling alone." Reno was pretty sure that the last bit had probably been Cissinei's doing, either at Zack's request or on her own initiative, in order to obscure the trail for the Army.

"Standing and fighting doesn't make sense. Why didn't Zack simply stay on the run?" Sephiroth asked.

This time it was Tifa, still kneeling on the floor beside Cloud, who answered. "He could have, but he didn't. Because he had someone he wanted to protect." She placed her hand gently on Cloud's head, then looked up to meet Sephiroth's eyes.

Reno half-expected Sephiroth to make a sarcastic or resentful comment on the lines of "I hope he was worth it." But surprisingly, Sephiroth said nothing. Well, the guy was pretty familiar with how Zack's mind worked.

"Fuck. Cloud mentioned that Zack died fighting off a Shinra ambush. He didn't mention that ambush involved an entire goddamn brigade!" Cid muttered, looking both startled and impressed.

"Brigade?" Nanaki said curiously. "Just how many people are we talking about here?"

"Thousands," Cid replied flatly.

"The reports I uncovered only mentioned half a battalion or so," Cait Sith commented, sounding equally impressed.

"No surprise there. Heidegger and the Army were downplaying the 'incident' like crazy. You can bet there was a lot of ass-covering going on in those reports," Reno said cynically.

"Seems like a damn wasteful way to get rid of one single guy," Cid said in disgust.

"The standard procedure would've been to send other SOLDIERs after Zack," Scarlet said with an irritated shrug. "But Heidegger nixed that option."

"Of course he refused," Reno retorted. "For one thing, the men most qualified for a hunt-and-destroy mission against Zack would have been the older, more experienced SOLDIERs. But they're also the guys most likely to have personal ties to him. Hell, he trained with, or helped to train, most of them.

"As for the newer post-Nibelheim SOLDIERs." Reno turned to Sephiroth. "Between the mass desertions and its top four SOLDIERs going rogue and/or missing, Shinra seriously geared back on the whole SOLDIER program. Fewer candidates got accepted and Shinra didn't go nearly as far with the SOLDIER enhancements as they did before the Nibelheim incident."

"So with a lack of trust in the older SOLDIERs, a lack of confidence in the newer ones, and a blind hunger for glory, Heidegger chose to use the regular Army to kill Zack and to hell with the casualties," Cait Sith said bitterly.

"That's Heidegger for you," Reno drawled.

"What was Hojo doing with Zack and the other survivors during those four years?" Sephiroth said.

"Using them in his new research project."

"Creating Zack Copies?"

"Not... exactly. A different sort of Copy," Reno replied, his expression turning cautious.

When Sephiroth continued to stare at Reno, the Turk glanced over at Tifa and the others, then raised an eyebrow questioningly.

Cid finally threw up his hands and said, "Oh hell, since Zack's out of the picture, I guess we're the ones stuck with the job of telling him what happened. Might as well start doing it now."

"Have it your way." Reno then turned back to Sephiroth and said, "Hojo tried to turn Zack, Cloud, and the other survivors into some sort of Sephiroth Copies. Except he called them Clones, for some screwy reason known only to himself."

For the first time, they saw Sephiroth blink.

"Copies. Of me."

"Yeah, you. Apparently to prove some weird-ass theory of his involving not-your-damn-mother Jenova," Cid said.

Sephiroth took a deep breath. "Putting the issue of Jenova aside, if Hojo was trying to make Zack and Cloud into Copies of me, how did Cloud become a Copy of Zack?"

Surprisingly, it was Reno who answered with a derisive grin. "Because a bunch of other scientists at Nibelheim were running their own super-secret research project behind Hojo's back."

"You're fucking kidding me!" Cid blurted.

Yuffie jumped to her feet and smacked her hand on her forehead. "No, Reno's right! I found a note in the basement of the Shinra Mansion that mentioned something about a special research project that needed to be completely hidden from Hojo! They even cooked up fake data and reports as part of the coverup!"

"Hollander?" Sephiroth's question made no sense to Tifa and her friends, but Scarlet and the Turks knew exactly who Sephiroth was talking about.

Reno shook his head. "Hollander was Hojo's big competitor for the Science Director job. Considering the way Hojo kept meticulous tabs on Hollander and his associates, I seriously doubt anyone with serious connections to Hollander or Project G could've gotten assigned to the Nibelheim labs."

"Look, I'm still not clear on all this Copy stuff you guys keep going on about," Cid complained loudly. "Much less what this Hollander character has to do with it."

Reno said impatiently, "To make a long story short, Hojo had a long-time rival called Hollander, who cooked up something he called Project G which used Jenova cells to produce two prototypes, Angeal and Genesis. Maybe you heard something about them? Hell, you were in the Shinra military yourself."

Cid frowned and scratched his chin. "Now that you mention it, I vaguely recall... weren't they some hotshot SOLDIERs? Some of the female techs used to go all gaga over them. Then they sorta went 'poof' and no one ever mentioned them again."

"There's a good reason for their disappearance. Turns out the whole Project G thing was fundamentally flawed, and the prototypes started to deteriorate. They didn't take it too well and they both went majorly rogue.

"However, somewhere along the way, Hollander figured out that if you transplanted the cells of a Project G prototype into a human or creature, you could basically convert the cell receiver into a Copy of the original cell donor. The person or creature gets overwritten, so to speak, and takes on not only the physical appearance, but many of the special abilities of the original." Reno paused, then added, "The process also allowed the prototypes to psychically manipulate their particular Copies. Those Copies essentially became mere extensions of their original's will."

"In other words, a puppet," Cait Sith said. Even with the robot cat's cutesy accent, the tone was grim.

Tifa said slowly, "So when you called Cloud a Zack Copy, you're saying that you think someone stuck some Zack cells into Cloud and that's what caused him to not only act like Zack, but also assume Zack's physical appearance, as he did just now?"

"Oh, the effects go way deeper than that," Reno said with a harsh laugh. "But you've got the general idea."

"But Cloud is... well, Cloud! He doesn't act at all like Zack most the time! I mean, I knew Zack. I would've noticed!" Yuffie protested, looking shocked.

"How do you know Zack so well?" Tifa said, looking surprised. "And why didn't you mention anything about it before?"

Yuffie rolled her eyes. "I knew A Zack, who was a member of SOLDIER. We weren't exactly buddies, but I ran into him on occasion and I got to know him a bit."

Her voice became wistful and her smile slightly strained. "When Zack suddenly stopped answering my emails, I just figured that he had better things to do with his time." Yuffie shook her head sharply. "Anyway, I didn't tell you guys because how the hell was I supposed to know MY Zack was Cloud's Zack?"

In reply to Tifa's question, Reno said, "I'm not saying that Cloud's the exact same kind of Copy as the Angeal and Genesis Copies. For one thing, Zack wasn't a Project G prototype. But I'm pretty sure the general concept of a Copy applies. I've personally seen and heard enough to convince me that Cloud is somehow carrying a full copy of Zack's personality and memories inside him."

"When did you...?" Tifa started to ask, but Reno ignored the question.

"As for why Cloud hasn't shown any blatant signs of being a Zack Copy before all this, it could be that the Zack part of him was somehow dormant and something triggered it." Reno said, sounding exasperated. "Look, I'm just making educated guesses here!"

"A trigger? Something like... the Planet?" Nanaki said quietly.

When they all looked at him, Nanaki continued, "Well, Zack said that the Planet did something to Sephiroth to ensure he came back 'right'. And that the Planet was 'interested' in Rufus. So it's possible that the Planet somehow did something to Cloud as well...."

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

From his earlier chat with Sephiroth about Cloud housing the 'real' Zack, Reno could make a reasonable -- if such a word could be applied to a freaky situation like this -- guess about what that 'trigger' might be.

People claimed that the Lifestream was this big collection of memories, emotions, and knowledge of everyone who lived on the Planet. If the Planet somehow figured out a way to sort out the sane Sephiroth-bits from the insane Sephiroth-bits, then it seemed equally feasible for the Planet to gather up all the Zack-bits out of the Lifestream and... well, cram them into Cloud.

Bad enough that four years of Hojo's -- or whoever's -- experiments had completely broken the poor guy's brain. Now there was a good chance Cloud was saddled with Zack's spirit, soul, or whatever.

Getting a ghost with such a strong personality as Zack's stuffed inside one's head would have meant serious trouble with someone with Cloud's fragile psyche. But combine that with being hardwired on the genetic level by mad scientists for that exact purpose....

Pure coincidence or not, that made Cloud a great candidate for being the most thoroughly and UTTERLY screwed person on the damn Planet.

Now Reno couldn't help feeling guilty about his earlier wish that Zack would stay in Cloud's driver seat. The idea of Cloud getting caught up in his own delusion of being Zack hadn't bothered him too much, because that was Cloud screwing himself over.

But the idea of Cloud becoming slowly and inexorably possessed in both mind and body by his best, but unfortunately very dead, friend was very different. It went beyond creepy and into outright nightmarish.

And not only for the obvious reasons.

Because if the Planet was willing to fuck up Cloud so badly for the sake of resurrecting Zack in pursuit of its mysterious agenda -- because that was what it was sure starting to look like to Reno -- then what the HELL did the Planet have in mind for Rufus?

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

"If Cloud IS a Zack Copy... what happens to him now?" Tifa said quietly.

Reno started, then gave her a surprisingly sympathetic look. "As far as we know, a Copy loses all traces of their own identity. It usually occurs right away, but sometimes it takes a while. But soon or later, it eventually happens."

Tifa's face went pale. "But the fact that Zack managed to restore Cloud's physical appearance is a good sign, right?" she said, hopefully. "Doesn't that mean there's a chance of his personality remaining intact?"

Cid glanced at Reno. "What are the chances of that? Realistically?"

"Hell if I know," the Turk said with brutal honesty.

"Okay, so if Cloud was somehow turned into some sort of Zack Copy, it had to have happened during those four years at Nibelheim," Cait Sith said. "And from what you said, Hojo didn't know anything about it."

"He found out somehow," Reno said with a nasty little smirk. "Because when Cloud first arrived here, Hojo went off on this rant about unauthorized research at Nibelheim. Research involving Cloud. And man, he was PISSED. He was really looking forward to taking Cloud apart to find out what those other scientists did to him. At the time, I thought Hojo was just being paranoid on top of his usual crazy. But now... well, raving lunatics can still be right about certain things."

"Look, just how many different fucking research projects did Shinra have going on at the same time?" Cid demanded.

"Lots." Reno said, rolling his eyes. "Like you would not believe. If you think that Shinra's Science Department was one big happy research group, you'd be totally wrong. There were factions and in-fighting like you would not believe. Hojo versus Hollander was just the most notorious of the professional feuds that went on."

"Is Cloud the only Zack Copy, or are there any more?" Sephiroth interrupted.

Reno shook his head. "No idea."

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

oOo

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

Down in the bowels of the factory, Hojo flipped a final switch and rubbed his hands with satisfaction as the pumps began to chug noisily.

He left the small control room and headed down to the reactor level to evaluate the effects of his efforts to fix Scarlet's sabotage. While nothing was as important as the resurrection of Sephiroth, this other project was still crucial to his plans. And then there was his work with the computer network....

Standing on the catwalk above the glowing reactor pit, Hojo was pleased to see that the recent lack of raw Mako failed to have a significant impact on the growth of the massive entity seething and roiling below the walkway.

Jenova-FLESH.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

oOo

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

The discussion about Cloud, Copies, and the Planet could have continued for hours. But everything was cut short by the ring of a cell phone.

Cid yanked out the phone out of a pocket and said, "Yeah?"

From onboard the Shera, Kunsel replied, "Cid? I've got news that everyone should hear."

Switching on the phone's speaker, Cid said, "Go ahead. We're all listening."

"Uh, guys, if you've got stuff left to do down there, you'd better hurry up and get a move on it."

"Why?"

"I've just gotten reports that several very large objects are homing in on your location."

"Large objects? Fuck, I'm almost afraid to ask, but... let me guess. WEAPONs?" Cid said, his expression decidedly grim.

"Sure looks like it."

"You said several. How many?"

Kunsel's response was blunt. "At least four."

A stunned silence fell over the lab.

Yuffie rubbed her hands over her forehead. "Oh crap!"

Reno said sarcastically, "Well, Zack did warn us that the Planet wasn't fooling around."

"And you're sure they're headed here?" Cid demanded.

"Straight as an arrow," Kunsel said regretfully. "They're coming in fast. So it might be a really good idea to get out of there ASAP."

Cid took a deep breath and said, "How long before they arrive?"

"Less than an hour, and that's a really generous estimate. There's something else you need to know."

"You're going to tell me that there's more bad news. There always is!"

"Sorry, guys. The observers say that these WEAPONs definitely match up to previously known WEAPONs. But they're also about 10-20% bigger and faster than previous estimates. And from a purely subjective standpoint, they look a hell of a lot meaner."

"Meaner?! Are you trying to tell us that the fucking things have somehow gotten more powerful?" shouted Cid.

"Sure looks that way," Kunsel said, still sounding apologetic.

"Got it. Hang on. I'll get back to you once we figure out things on this end."

As Cid ended the call, Cait Sith said, "Well, the original WEAPONs were all destroyed, so it makes sense for the Planet to upgrade."

"Oh great," Cid said. "So you're saying that each time a WEAPON's destroyed, the Planet automatically creates a stronger one the next time there's a threat? And it will most likely keep doing that until the threat stops or the Planet itself is destroyed?"

"So why didn't the Planet do that when Meteor was about to land in our laps?" Yuffie sounded decidedly aggrieved.

Nanaki shook his furry head. "Probably not enough time. Even for a Planet, it would take a lot of time and effort to rebuild something as complex as a WEAPON."

Cid muttered, "Shit, taking down those WEAPONs was hard enough the first time around. If they've been upgraded...."

"Well, that's explains why Zack wanted us to get out of here. This factory is no Junon Fortress. One WEAPON could easily rip this place apart. Four is total overkill. Why the hell send so many?" Scarlet said, then turned to stare suspiciously at Sephiroth. "Unless they're targeting YOU."

They all turned to look at Sephiroth, then Cid abruptly smacked his forehead. "Aw, fuck no. They're not after Sephiroth. The WEAPONs are after Hojo and that damn Jenova fragment Zack mentioned!"

"Now wait a damn minute!" Scarlet protested. "If the Planet wants Sephiroth around -- and who the fuck knows why? -- doesn't it realize that if it obliterates this factory, it'll do the same to him?"

"I've got a feeling that the Planet had it covered in its own way," Cait Sith replied. "What are you willing to bet that the WEAPONs didn't start actually moving in until after Sephiroth woke up? And it warned Zack, who naturally warned Sephiroth and the rest of us."

"What precisely are these WEAPONs you keep talking about?" Sephiroth interrupted sharply.

Tifa said evenly, "Super-sized bioweapons created by the Planet. They're about... how tall would you say, Cid?"

"You been to the Fortress at Junon, Sephiroth?" the pilot asked.

"Frequently."

"Fine, then you'll have some idea of what I'm talking about. When Sapphire WEAPON reared out of the water in front of the Fortress, it was pretty much eye to eye with the Cannon. As for durability, it took a point-blank shot to its head with that Cannon to stop it. Trust me, the other ones were just as big and a lot tougher. And as you just heard, the WEAPONs headed in our direction appear to be the new and improved models."

"I see." An image flashed through Sephiroth's mind, of a great glowing cavern where a massive, serpentine creature lay slumbering behind a great wall of crystallized Mako.

"Cid, do you think Hojo knows about the WEAPONs?" asked Yuffie.

"He'll definitely know soon enough when they show up on his fucking doorstep."

Cait Sith said, "I think we should take Zack's suggestion and leave as soon as possible. We've accomplished pretty much what we intended, although not exactly in the way we expected," the toy cat said, looking at Sephiroth.

"Except for dealing with Hojo," Vincent said grimly.

"I think four WEAPONs have that covered," Scarlet objected. "I vote for leaving, and right now!"

"We need to be sure," Vincent insisted. "He's gotten away too many times. We thought we killed him back at the Sister Ray, but he managed to survive and return. We can't rely on the WEAPONs to finish him off."

Cid sighed. "You've got a point."

"You go ahead. I'll stay behind, head down to the Mako reactor level, and make sure that Hojo doesn't escape again."

Cid scowled furiously at Vincent. "Oh no. You're NOT running off alone. Tifa, you take Cloud and get him the hell out of here. I'll go with Vincent. No, don't argue with me," he snapped, glaring at the other man. "I'm coming with you and that's final."

Before Sephiroth could say anything, Cid shook his head sharply. "Not you. Zack was pretty nervous about having you near Hojo and whatever hellish Jenova crap he's cooked up. I don't know shit about this psychic resonance stuff Zack mentioned, but if it's serious enough for worry someone like him, that's good enough for me. Tifa, I know it sucks balls, but you're going to be stuck with both Scarlet and Sephiroth on your team. You sure you're up to it?"

Tifa stared at Sephiroth, comparing the madman that destroyed Nibelheim and the soldier that had arrived with Zack. She then nodded firmly. "I can handle it."

"Yuffie? You, Nanaki, and Cait Sith tag along with Tifa and watch her back. She's going to have her hands full with Cloud." Cid glanced over at the Turks. "Reno, I can tell you're in shit shape at the moment. No, don't give me any crap. You're going with Tifa."

It said a great deal about the accuracy of Cid's assessment and Reno's condition when the Turk didn't bother to argue. And while he had managed to put up a pretty good front, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the red-haired Turk was in fact hurting badly.

Reno and Rude exchanged glances. Rude turned to Vincent and said, "I'm going with you. I'm inclined to believe Zack when he says that Rufus isn't here, but we need to make sure. And you have a valid point about Hojo."

"Fine," Cid muttered. "Join the damn Hojo-hunting party."

Scarlet smirked at Tifa and drawled, "So now what, esteemed team leader?"

Tifa's eyes narrowed in annoyance, but she managed to remain civil despite Scarlet's obvious provocation. "This is your place. Any recommendations?"

"The helipad would be the fastest evac route, especially if you've got air transport. Unfortunately, it's also totally exposed," Scarlet said. "So the escape tunnel is probably the best option."

"Okay, then let's do it." Cid pulled out his phone again. "Kunsel?"

Onboard the Shera, the SOLDIER replied, "You want us to come and pick you up?"

"No, too risky. I want you guys to stay the hell away from this area. This place is about to become a goddamn battle zone and I'm going to be majorly pissed if you guys get the Shera blown up, because I sure as hell don't want to walk all the way home! Tifa and her group are headed out first. They're going to use the way we came in, so head back toward the cave entrance. She'll call you in for a pickup when she's clear."

"And what about you?"

Cid glanced at Vincent. "We've got some business to take care of first."

"Got that. We'll be waiting." There was some discussion on Kunsel's end, then he said quickly, "Cid, if you're sticking around to look for Rufus, you should know that Chaise just got a message from Healen. Tseng regained consciousness just long enough to tell Elena that Hojo was NOT responsible for abducting Rufus. Apparently, a group of ex-SOLDIER mercs took advantage of Hojo's attack to grab Rufus for some mystery client and framed Hojo for it, believe it or not. That's all Tseng managed to say before passing out again. So there's no need for you to stay behind."

"Thanks for the confirmation about Rufus, but we've got other stuff to do."

"Wha...? Confirmed?" Kunsel said, sounding surprised.

"Long story. Tell you later." Behind him, Cid heard Rude talking to Chaise on his own phone.

"We recovered Reno," the Turk reported to his colleague onboard the Shera. "He's injured, but otherwise appears okay. Contact Elena and tell her to pull all records we have on Zack Fair, SOLDIER First Class, and generate a list of every location he's been since he joined Shinra up until his death. We have credible information that Rufus is probably being held in one of those locations."

Reno leaned over Rude's shoulder and spoke directly to Chaise. "And get someone to track down Cissinei and pump her for anything she might know about Zack. Stuff she didn't mention or fudged in her official reports. You know what I mean."

Cid tuned out the rest of the Turks' conversation and said to Kunsel, "Stay on your toes, and see you later." After ending the call, he turned to his companions. "Okay, guys. You heard the man. We're damn short on time."

Vincent glanced at Scarlet and said, "Where's Hojo now?"

As Scarlet pulled her data pad again and started tapping, Cid grabbed Yuffie and pulled her aside.

"Tifa's going to be fully occupied taking care of Cloud. You be sure to keep your eyes on Scarlet."

"You're more worried about her than Sephiroth?" Yuffie said, surprised.

"Never imagined that I would be saying it, but yeah. She and Tifa don't get along, and Scarlet's only interested in saving her own neck. That makes her more dangerous and unpredictable at the moment. I'm pretty sure that Sephiroth isn't going to cut and run if the going gets tough."

He then glanced at Rude. "You still want to come along? Given what your own boss said, it seems pretty fucking certain that Rufus ain't here."

"There's still the matter of Hojo," Rude said calmly.

"Have it your own way."

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

As Cid's group finished their preparations, Scarlet shouted, "Heads up!"

Without looking, Vincent caught the data tablet she tossed in his direction.

"That contains the floor plans of the entire factory, and I've set it up to access the security cameras so you can track him yourself," she said. "Never thought I'd be saying this to you, but good luck hunting down the miserable scaly son of a bitch."

A brusque wave of the tablet was Vincent's only acknowledgement as he headed out the door, accompanied by Cid and Rude.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

"Is he up to being moved?" Yuffie asked, crouching down beside the unconscious Cloud.

Tifa lifted Cloud's shirt and lightly ran her hand along his unmarked abdomen. "It's not like we have much of a choice about that, but it looks like that big stomach wound we saw earlier is completely gone. And there's no trace of a hole or bloodstains on his clothes, either."

"You think Zack had something to do with that?"

"Who knows?" Tifa said with a shrug. "His vital signs are strong and steady. Except for remaining unconscious, he seems perfectly healthy."

She and Yuffie exchanged looks. They both knew that with Cloud, his physical condition was not the thing you had to worry about.

"Okay, so except for being out cold, he's unhurt. So how are we going to move him? Argh! Where's Barret when we need him?" Yuffie whined.

Looking impatient, Scarlet said, "Why don't you just load him onto Mr. Furry here." She jerked a thumb in Nanaki's direction. "And tie him on, or something?"

Almost before Scarlet finished speaking, Tifa responded flatly, "No way."

At the exact same moment, Reno said, "Seriously bad idea."

As Tifa and Reno glanced at each other in surprise, Scarlet demanded, "Why not?"

Reno spared Tifa from having to explain by saying in a voice brimming with sarcasm, "Excuse me? Do you want to run the risk of someone as strong as Cloud completely flipping his shit? Because considering the sort of crap he's been through, I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's exactly what happens if he wakes up and finds himself all tied up. Or tied down, as the case may be."

As Nanaki winced and comprehension dawned on Yuffie's face, Tifa replied, "As Reno said, a seriously bad idea." She then glanced warily at Sephiroth.

Although Sephiroth had remained silent during the most recent rush of activity, no one made the mistake of thinking this was because of indecision or lack of confidence. No, he was surely observing them closely, assessing their credibility, evaluating their competence, analyzing their strengths....

And looking for weaknesses.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Sephiroth said nothing as he watched Tifa organize the others with impressive efficiency.

She said briskly, "I'll carry Cloud. No, Reno. Cid's right. You're barely on your feet yourself, no matter how hard you're trying to hide it. Concentrate on taking care of yourself so we don't have another person to carry."

"Have it your way," the red-haired Turk said with a shrug, but the pained grimace he couldn't quite hide spoiled the nonchalant attitude.

"Nanaki, Cait Sith. You take up the rear. Scarlet, you're in front of me. Yuffie, behind Scarlet." Tifa turned to Sephiroth with a tight smile. "And you get to be on point, if you feel up to taking on Hojo's monsters unarmed."

The party arrangement -- putting the least trusted elements up front where they could be easily watched by those behind -- made excellent tactical sense. Although Tifa's main concern was clearly Cloud, she also didn't neglect her responsibilities as group leader.

He glanced at Yuffie. Her body language and movements hinted that the perky young woman had Wutai-style assassin training, which made her a good choice to watch Scarlet and respond to any suspicious activity.

It would have been easy for him to carry Cloud as well as take point. But given the way Tifa tensed whenever he got close to Cloud, he doubted that his offer would be well received.

Instead, in response to Tifa's sarcastic words, he replied, "I can fight unarmed, if necessary. However...."

Tifa tensed, her eyes narrowing in suspicion.

"....I'm not unarmed," he continued in the most deadpan tone he had, then called in Masamune.

Sephiroth suppressed a slightly malicious desire to smile at Tifa's and the others' reaction as his sword answered his psychic summons and materialized with a flare of green energy in his left hand.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

oOo

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

[ Lifestream ]

Satisfied that things were proceeding as planned with the first and second of its newly Chosen, the Planet ponderously focused its attention on the third, and in some ways, the most important.

Unlike its first and second Chosen, the one called Rufus would be untainted by the Calamity, thus ensuring that he would answer solely to the Planet.

As it had been eons ago, when those who called themselves Cetra walked the Planet's surface, tending to it, protecting it, and most of all, serving its will.

Now only the Cetra's distant descendants, with their pitifully diluted bloodlines, remained. Even the little Healer, talented as she might be, was far more human than true Cetra. In ancient times, someone of such impure blood would have been barred from setting a single foot inside the hallowed halls of the Cetra Healers.

Pureblooded Cetra no longer existed, but enough of the ancient bloodlines survived to serve the Planet's purpose. Thanks to the Healer called Aerith and her clever solution to the disease called Geostigma, the Planet now knew how to awaken and strengthen the bloodline potential lying dormant in select humans. In time, it would create a new breed of Cetra to replace the old.

New servants. New tools. A new type of WEAPON.

Even the presence of the Calamity's taint within the bodies of its first and second Chosen, the ones known as Sephiroth and Zac-loud, was no longer a frustrating obstacle, but rather an useful factor that would be turned to the Planet's advantage.

Because while the Calamity's cells interfered with the Planet's ability to communicate and control its Chosen, those same alien cells also granted physical abilities and powers beyond those provided by severely weakened Cetra bloodlines and Mako alone. The tradeoff was deemed acceptable.

And even though the Calamity's cells made the first and second of its Chosen vulnerable to its influence, the Planet had taken precautions.

The third of its Chosen would be the most potent of its safeguards.

Sephiroth, Zac-loud, and Rufus.

Ruler, Protector, and Speaker.

A Healer would have been the proper choice for Speaker, but there was only one. And she no longer possessed the physical body necessary to carry out a Speaker's duties.

The one called Rufus would serve as an adequate substitute.

The Planet would make it so.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

oOo

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

[ Montessi's lab ]

Dr. Hutton gazed at the large transparent cylinder holding Rufus Shinra and marveled at the workings of the holy Planet.

Although he could not see any visible evidence of his sabotage, he could sense, ever so faintly, the Lifestream's presence inside the lab. Or more precisely, within the test chamber in front of him.

Before Meteorfall, he had been as deaf and blind to the Planet as all the other pitiful humans around him. But when the Lifestream emerged in all its terrible glory, something awoke deep inside him. While some claimed to receive the gift of visions or hear the Planet's voice, all he gained was a dim awareness of the Planet's overwhelming presence and majesty.

But that awareness, limited as it was, had been enough to convince him that Planet lived and it was the true ruler of this world. He soon discovered that others, both inside and outside of Shinra, had experienced a similar epiphany.

The unenlightened scornfully called them 'planet-huggers', dismissed them as deluded or outright lunatics. But what did they know? Only those who could sense the Planet's power could understand humanity's true place in the scheme of things.

As the pathetic remnants of the Cetra, humans existed to serve the Planet. But instead of carrying out their sacred duty, humanity had instead turned against their rightful lord and master.

To atone for his previous sins as a minion of Shinra, he had volunteered to take on the task of infiltrating Montessi's team and carrying out the Planet's will.

He didn't know why the Planet wanted Rufus Shinra, and it wasn't his place to ask. But if the Planet wanted Rufus, then Rufus it would get.

The first part of his mission had been completed when he bypassed the Mako system failsafes, giving the Planet free and unobstructed access to Rufus.

The second part of his mission was to keep anyone, especially the bitch Montessi, from interfering with the Planet's plans for Rufus. In particular, he was to do whatever was necessary to ensure that Rufus was not exposed to Jenova cells during this critical period.

The latter was turning out to be surprisingly easy. Montessi was fully occupied with the difficult task of hunting down a suitable sample of Jenova cells for her vile experiments. In her absence, he was the one in charge of Rufus's Mako treatments, so it was easy to Rufus totally isolated.

Dr. Hutton allowed a cold smile to curve his lips as he tried to imagine what Rufus Shinra was enduring at that moment as the Planet remade him.

Pleasure? Joy? Pain? Horror?

He rather hoped it was the latter two. As a Shinra, Rufus deserved to suffer for the way his family had exploited and defiled the Planet.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Inside the tank, perfectly hidden by the Mako surrounding it, a complex web of Lifestream energy not only enveloped Rufus's naked body, but sank deep into his flesh and steadily infiltrated every cell.

Despite the chaos engulfing his Mako-poisoned mind, Rufus had a dim awareness of the profound and terrifying changes taking place inside him, sensed the very core of his being gradually being reshaped by the inexorable will of the Planet.

And while powers dormant for untold generations began to awake and stir within him, a fierce, implacable hatred toward the Planet's ancient enemy etched itself deep into Rufus's psyche.

In the best of circumstances, with full control of mind and body, resistance would have been virtually impossible. But as he was now, trapped and vulnerable, mental defenses and self-control shattered by the Mako and Montessi's drugs, Rufus Shinra was completely at the Planet's dubious mercy.

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(end of Part 12)

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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

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Chapter Text

Sorry for the long wait. I got distracted by Real Life and too many video games (::cough:: Minecraft ::cough)

I apologize if this chapter is not nearly as polished as it should be, but I felt that it was better to get the damn thing posted and done with so the story can keep moving forward.

The usual caveats apply -- very rough draft, unbetaed, etc. Still, I hope you enjoy this part and I'll do my best to resume semi-regular updates. ^_^;;;

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 13
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~11,000
Warnings/Content: mature/dark/disturbing themes (e.g., offensive and/or obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.) Read at your own risk.
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his dead friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

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AUTHOR NOTES:
-- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
-- The original FFVII game and "Advent Children/Complete" are canon for this fic.
-- "Before Crisis" and "Crisis Core" are semi-canon.
-- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".
-- Various plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., "Dirge of Cerberus", "Last Order" OVA, FFVII web novellas, etc.) may show up.

CREDITS:
-- Anne Bishop's Black Jewel series, from which I borrowed the the explicit ability to summon and vanish items into some sort of personal hammerspace. It's the only explanation I have for where Sephiroth keeps that damn sword of his.
-- Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, specifically Aral Vorkosigan's quote in Komarr: "Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself."

Text Conventions

( ) and { } and / and // indicate thoughts, mental dialogue, or other languages from various characters

[ ] are miscellaneous date or location notes, images, or sound effects

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Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica

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[ Weapon factory ]

It seemed that regaining his sanity had done nothing to impair Sephiroth's fighting ability. Tifa reluctantly admitted that it was probably a good thing, but the sight of that sinister blade carving effortlessly through Hojo's monsters still made her nerves twitch. There were too many bad memories associated with that weapon, both from Nibelheim and the Forgotten City.

Tifa knew that she should be grateful that Sephiroth was on their side, at least for the moment. Without his help, escaping the factory before the WEAPONs' arrival wouldn't have been easy. Not impossible, but certainly harder, especially with Cloud out of commission. But with Sephiroth clearing their way through the creature-infested factory, they didn't have much to do except for carrying Cloud and staying out of trouble.

That gave Tifa time to observe their former nemesis in action and think hard about both the past and the present.

Nine years ago, during that fateful hike up Mt. Nibel, her younger self had been impressed and dazzled by Sephiroth's overwhelming power. Back then, she had been too inexperienced to understand that it wasn't his strength alone that made Sephiroth so dangerous, but rather that strength combined with incredible skill. Not a single motion was wasted as he fought, every bit of force precisely controlled and perfectly applied.

How much of that fighting ability was inborn talent and how much of it was training, she didn't know. But Tifa knew that Hojo's research had produced exactly what the Shinra Corporation had wanted -- a supremely deadly and efficient killer.

And although she hadn't really noticed it as a teenager, Zack had been just as deadly and efficient as Sephiroth on that trip up to the Nibel Reactor, despite their very different fighting styles and personalities.

Thoughts of Zack immediately brought her attention back to Cloud. Not 'just' a Sephiroth Clone, as if that wasn't bad enough, but apparently some sort of Zack Copy as well, if Reno's theory was right. No matter how much she wanted to believe that the Turk was wrong, the whole Copy thing explained far too much about Cloud's behavior and abilities.

As she followed Sephiroth, carrying Cloud slung over her shoulder like an over-sized package, she was acutely aware of his slow, even breathing. One would think he was merely sleeping instead of being profoundly unconscious. But this was no normal sleep and she could only make wild guesses as to what was going on in Cloud's head at the moment.

What the hell REALLY happened to Cloud at Nibelheim? Just how much of Zack did he carry inside him, and just how much influence did Zack have over Cloud?

She had used up so much energy worrying about Sephiroth's lingering effect on Cloud. Who could have imagined that it would be a dear friend who might pose the greatest threat to Cloud's well-being?

She had only met Zack in-person briefly during those last tense days in Nibelheim, before Sephiroth had emerged from the Mansion to drown her world in blood and fire. For much of that time, Zack had been too concerned with Sephiroth to pay much attention to her. But even with all the distractions and stress, Zack had been friendly and patient as she pestered him for details about SOLDIER and Midgar, even as he worked to keep the people in Nibelheim calm during Sephiroth's ominous absence.

However, it was what happened later, after the escape from the hellish labs of Nibelheim, that gave Tifa the best insight into Zack's character. It wasn't the escape itself, or even that epic final battle with Shinra's military outside Midgar. What impressed her the most was the incredible loyalty and dedication Zack had shown in taking care of a helpless, catatonic Cloud for months while on the run.

Cloud rarely talked about Zack. She wasn't sure whether it was because he found the subject too painful, or whether it was because he couldn't remember much from that time. But from the little he said, it was clear that Cloud had been very much aware of Zack during his long catatonic haze. Zack's unwavering devotion and support had anchored him, however tenuously, to reality and prevented his damaged psyche from shattering completely.

She herself had experienced a small taste of what it must have been like. Taking care of Cloud after his terrible breakdown in the Northern Crater had left her utterly drained, both physically and emotionally, after only a few days. And that was in the safety of Mideel AND with the help of an experienced medical staff.

Zack had done it alone, while being constantly hunted by Shinra, for nearly a year.

That, far more than his obvious bravery and skill in combat, told Tifa all she needed to know about Zack and convinced her that he would never knowingly harm Cloud.

The interaction of Zack and Sephiroth had only strengthened her belief in Zack's essential character and fundamental honesty. That was the primary reason she was willing to believe him when he said that the Planet had somehow 'fixed' Sephiroth and that Sephiroth's help was essential for saving the Planet.

The question of whether Zack was actually right was still up in the air. Of course, there was no proof that he was wrong, either.

The Planet was in danger, Hojo was running amok, there were far too many questions, not enough answers, and no time to uncover the truth. Typical.

The only thing she felt confident about in the whole mess was that Zack meant well. Unfortunately, she also knew the even the best intentions couldn't prevent horrible things from happening. If Reno was right about Copies being taken over by their originals....

Tifa pushed her worries about Cloud and Zack aside for the moment, and concentrated on their other major problem. Now that they had a seemingly cooperative Sephiroth on their side, what the hell were they supposed to DO with him?

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The person in question had just dispatched yet another pack of slime-dripping monstrosities with a deceptively casual swipe of his blade. After Scarlet had given him a quick briefing on Hojo's limited ability to psychically link to the Jenova-infected creatures, Sephiroth had apparently gone into some sort of high efficiency slaughter-mode, presumably to minimize the chance of the creatures sending a warning to Hojo.

"Getting bored with nothing to do?" Reno said, huffing slightly as he jogged beside her.

"It's nice to have someone else do the hard, dirty work for a change," Tifa replied drily.

The Turk smirked. "Oh, with Sephiroth leading the way, all we have to worry about is keeping up and not slipping in the gory mess he leaves behind."

She gave Reno a quick glance. "How are you doing?"

"Managing."

Which meant that the Turk was struggling hard, but doing his best to hide it. She had no idea what he had endured while in Hojo's custody, but she was certain that the experience had been incredibly stressful, if not outright horrific.

But there wasn't much they could do for Reno at the moment. The cure spells they had could heal basic wounds, but they couldn't much for physical and mental exhaustion. More than any of them, the Turk desperately needed some downtime to heal and recover, but there was no chance of that until they escaped.

They all skidded to a halt when Sephiroth stopped his relentless advance and held up his hand in silent warning. Carefully moving forward to stand beside him, Tifa peered through the nearby viewing window and saw the problem. The next area was a giant multi-level storeroom filled with tall stacks of crates and barely lit catwalks running in all directions. In other words, it was the perfect location for an ambush. To no one's surprise, the entire place was crawling with monsters.

"Wonderful," Yuffie whispered. "Noww what? Go through or go around?"

"We can't go around unless you want to waste valuable time detouring around half the factory," Scarlet snapped even as she kept her own voice down. "And there's too many of us and too many of them to sneak through without detection. Even with Sephiroth here leading the way, we're just asking to be separated and picked off."

"Maybe, but we can't afford to stand around and waste time twiddling our toes, either." Yuffie said, looking annoyed. "So instead of talking about what won't work, how about suggesting something that will?"

Before Scarlet could reply, Sephiroth interrupted them with an abrupt, "Stand clear."

"What are you planning to do?" Tifa demanded.

Instead of answering her, he flung open the heavy double doors leading onto a walkway encircling the upper level of the warehouse area. Before the monsters could react, he vanished Masamune, and with both hands now free, he cast a spell.

Or to be more precise, he cast two spells in unison. The already potent ice and wind spells swirled and intertwined, growing almost instantly into a massive ice storm that was far more powerful than the mere sum of its individual spell parts. Within seconds, everything in the entire storeroom, including the monsters, was both frozen solid and encased with a thick layer of glistening ice.

The magical storm dissipated almost as quickly as it had appeared, leaving the cavernous warehouse still and mostly silent, except for the occasional soft pops and squeaks of settling ice.

A visibly startled Scarlet blinked, took a deep breath, then said, "Well, that solves one problem. Now, if we can just get across all this ice without someone breaking an ankle...."

Sephiroth's only response was to raise his right hand and make a flicking gesture. An eye-searingly bright fireball shot forth from his fingers toward the exit at the far side of the storeroom, neatly vaporizing the ice and incinerating every obstacle in its direct path while leaving the surrounding area unscorched and still frozen.

No one said anything for a moment, then Reno broke the quiet with a dry, "Impressive." He glanced at Sephiroth. "Especially without using any materia, as far as I can tell."

Sephiroth tipped his head slightly, as if to acknowledge Reno's remark, but said nothing as Tifa and the others continued to stare at him with a mixture of shock, respect, and even a little dread.

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What the others didn't know was that Sephiroth himself was just as startled, even shocked, as the others were.

With hard work, an expert could learn how to cast very basic spells without materia. An expert, with enough practice and depending on the materia, could simultaneously cast mid-level spells. On various occasions, he had done one or the other.

But no one that he knew of -- not Genesis, not Zack, not himself -- could dual-cast high-level area-of-effect spells without the assistance of materia. And as for a single person combining those spells to form something even more powerful....

But that's exactly what he had just done.

And it had been both instinctive and effortless.

While Sephiroth and Angeal were less inclined to use spells in combat, Genesis had been the one to focus most heavily on magic. That was purely a matter of personal preference and fighting style, and not an issue of inferior magical ability on Sephiroth's part.

He had always been one of the best, if not the best, at using magic and had never encountered a materia he couldn't quickly master. But in the end, he had still required materia to cast effective spells just like any other person.

That was no longer true. The critical spell knowledge previously provided by materia had somehow become an intrinsic part of him.

The realization unsettled him, although he was careful not to show it. Something had changed within him. Whether it was some residue of that lost time after Nibelheim, or whether the Planet had done something to him while restoring his sanity, he didn't know.

In what other ways had he changed, or been changed?

But now was not the time to ponder that question. He turned his attention back to Tifa and the others.

They were intimidated by him, certainly. Afraid of him, probably. But unlike so many others, they didn't falter in the face of that intimidation or fear. If even half of what he had heard from Zack and Reno was true, these people had not only encountered him at his psychotic, genocidal worst, but had possessed the courage to confront him repeatedly.

It appeared that Zack's confidence in Tifa and her companions was well-placed. Good.

"Shall we go?" he asked them politely.

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On the opposite side of the facility, Rude paused, then suddenly announced, "Hojo's on the move."

Both Cid and Vincent halted in mid-run and turned to stare at the Turk, who had been tracking Hojo's location via the data pad Scarlet had given them.

"So where the hell is he now?" Cid demanded.

"He's left the reactor level." Rude tapped and swiped at the pad, then added, "He's headed back up to the main control room."

"Fine," Cid said impatiently. "Now where do we go?"

"A left at the next intersection takes us to the closest stairway. No elevators, I assume," Rude replied.

"They're fucking deathtraps. Stairs it is."

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[ Cosmo Canyon ]

The petite, auburn-haired young woman glanced at her watch, then rose from her chair in the library. As she gathered up her research papers, the female student sitting next to her whispered, "Leaving already, Cissy?"

"I've got a few shopping errands to run," she murmured in response, slinging her backpack over her shoulder.

Her female acquaintance probably would have continued chatting, but the grumpy scowls and annoyed glares from the other library patrons quickly silenced the other woman. Instead, she gave a quick farewell wave, then returned to her studies.

The young woman stepped out into the streets of Cosmo Canyon, stretched her arms, and took a deep breath of the warm dry air. The main Cosmo Canyon library had network access, but most of the records she needed were only available on paper. So although she enjoyed the intellectual challenge of her research, it required spending hours cooped up indoors with dusty old documents.

She was generally known as Cissnei -- although she answered to the far more casual 'Cissy' at the moment -- but that wasn't her real name. That real name she kept strictly for herself. Only once had she been tempted to share it, but the moment had slipped away, never to be regained.

After her 'separation' from the Shinra Corporation, she eventually ended up in Cosmo Canyon. It had been the ideal location -- quiet, isolated, and a place where people asked few personal questions. It was also relatively close to Gongaga, which was important to her for personal reasons.

Over the last two years, she had split her time between Cosmo Canyon and that small town in the jungle. But now there was no longer a reason for those frequent visits to see Zack's parents.

They had died within a few days of each other, both deaths being mercifully quick. The examining doctor had indicated natural causes, although she suspected that living for years amid the ruins of a Mako reactor had probably contributed to their premature deaths. At least they hadn't died slowly and painfully from Geostigma, so that was something to be thankful for.

She would miss the old couple very much. In many ways, just as Zack had teasingly warned her, she had become a daughter to them and they had become the parents she never had.

A few months after Meteorfall, she finally told them what happened to Zack. Or rather, she told them an extremely whitewashed version of what happened to him -- simply that Zack had died on a special mission for Shinra and the company had lied about it for all these years for security reasons. Which was perfectly true, as far as it went.

The burial of his parents marked the end of the chapter labelled 'Zack' in her life. The last of the loose ends were now conveniently tidied away by death.

She snorted softly, knowing that the last thought was her Turk training at work. She shoved the lingering sadness back into its little mental box and started for her favorite corner market. There was a nice red wine on sale and perhaps she would splurge on some hornbeast steak.

On the way, she noticed a young man in typical student garb stagger out of a bar. With a professional eye, she determined that he was no threat to her and continued on her way.

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The drunken student called Gregory meandered his way into a nearby alleyway and nearly tripped over another person half-sitting, half-sprawled on the ground. This being Cosmo Canyon, the narrow alley was relatively clean and dry -- nothing like the damp, trash-filled alleyways in the Midgar slums -- but it wasn't the sort of place to take a nap.

He leaned down and gingerly shook the other man's shoulder, then blinked in surprise when he recognized the other person's pale, sweaty face.

"Hey, Dano? Where the hell have you been these last few days? Unless you have a really good excuse for missing your mid-term presentation, you're going to fail this semester SO bad...."

The man on the ground groaned and roused slightly.

Finally noticing Dano's heavily stained clothes and the dark patches on the visible portions of his skin, Gregory hastily backed away and frantically wiped his own hand against his shirt.

"Shit, don't tell me you've got Geostigma!"

Dano mumbled something incoherent.

Gregory, his drunken concern for his friend rapidly transforming into equally drunken panic for himself, edged away even further from the apparent plague victim.

"Uh... you stay right there. I'll go get some help and they'll fix you right up. Yeah, I've heard they've got a cure for Geostigma nowadays."

When Dano uttered a louder, obviously pained moan, then feebly groped in his direction, Gregory hesitated, then sighed heavily. "Okay, okay." He moved toward the sick man and stuck out his hand. "C'mon. Let me pull you up."

Dano grabbed the outstretched hand with surprising strength. But instead of struggling to his feet, he began to pull his fellow student down until Gregory's face was nearly level to his own....

"Hey, watch it!"

...then Dano bit off Gregory's right arm with a horribly distended, obscenely fang-lined mouth that stretched literally from ear to ear.

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Cissnei had only gone a few steps when she heard the shrill scream from the alleyway. Even as her right hand reached instinctively under her jacket, she whirled just in time to see the drunken student she had just passed stagger out of the alleyway, blood spurting from his right shoulder where his arm used to be.

The young man managed only a few steps into the street before collapsing from shock and blood loss. Lying on the ground, the injured man stared into the alleyway with wide, terrified eyes as he continued to alternately wheeze and scream hysterically.

Someone or rather something stalked out of the alley onto the street. It had probably once been human, but that humanity was quickly disappearing as limbs stretched and twisted into viciously clawed appendages. Its head swelled like a balloon to accommodate the multitude of extra eyes and mouths that sprouted all over it. And from each mouth, a long tentacle-like tongue protruded and flailed at the air. The drops of spittle from those tongues immediately began to steam and eat away any surfaces they touched.

As bystanders panicked and ran away screaming, Cissnei found cover in a nearby doorway and coldly assessed her options.

With one hand, she tossed her backpack aside. With the other, she pulled out a metal bar-like shape. A practiced flick of her wrist and it unfurled into a comfortably familiar giant four-pointed shuriken.

The monster chose to ignore the petite woman emerging from the neighboring doorway, focusing instead on the wounded prey wallowing in blood and terror in the street.

That was its fatal mistake.

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[ Weapon factory ]

In the main control room, Hojo watched the approach of the WEAPONs with interest, and perhaps even eagerness. Yes, things were working out perfectly.

He glanced at a nearby monitor, checking the progress of the neural data upload. A few more minutes. After that, the WEAPONs could wreak whatever destruction they chose. He would be far beyond their reach.

Sephiroth would also survive. Of that he had no doubt. As long as the phenomena called the Lifestream existed, so would Sephiroth.

As for Jenova-FLESH, it might survive its confrontation with the WEAPONs. But given the forces arrayed against it, probably not. Either way, the battle would produce useful data.

So while certain factors necessitated significant changes to his plans, they were hardly insurmountable obstacles.

As for the main issue that had been interfering with his research, that would be dealt with soon enough.

It was a mistake for a scientist to become too physically involved in his projects. A certain degree of objectivity was required to properly oversee one's experiments. However, with Jenova cells inside his own body, Hojo had discovered that achieving that necessary objectivity became impossible.

Injecting himself with that cocktail of Jenova cells on the Sister Ray had not been a mistake, but rather an unpleasant necessity. It had served its purpose by allowing him to survive the battle with Vincent and his companions. The resulting physical mutations -- the green scaly skin, the protruding bug-eyes, the sucker mouth, the long tentacles -- were, in his view, merely negligible side-effects.

However, it was the Jenova cells' mental effects, especially the relentless and insatiable urges, which proved to be an unbearable distraction from his true work.

That would end shortly. Once he was no longer confined to mere physical flesh, he would be free to conduct his research as he saw fit.

Just a few more minutes....

The rapidly approaching commotion -- loud gun blasts, the screams of dying creatures -- failed to spoil his good mood.

He had known Cloud's and Reno's associates would come looking for them, but he hadn't expected them to arrive quite so soon. That bitch Scarlet must have contacted them and arranged some sort of deal.

But he would make their premature arrival work in his favor. Let them rescue Cloud and the Turk. He had no desire to lose those two particular specimens to the WEAPONs' wanton destructiveness. He was certain they would prove very useful to him in the future.

As for himself, he didn't need to win this particular confrontation. In fact, it would be better if he lost. But not too easily -- that would make them suspicious -- and not immediately. He needed to buy a few precious minutes for the upload to finish and verify.

As the control room doors gave way with a thunderous crash, Hojo turned to receive his three uninvited 'guests' with a toothy smirk.

He would talk and they would listen. They always did.

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Acutely aware that they couldn't waste any more time, Tifa's party headed for the path Sephiroth had seared clear for them in the massive storage room. Once out of the area, Cait Sith said, "How much further to the escape tunnel? The WEAPONs are moving in fast."

Scarlet briefly consulted her data pad, then said, "Not far, if we take a shortcut through the reactor level."

"Isn't that where Hojo is?" Yuffie said with a suspicious frown.

"He's not there now," Scarlet said impatiently. "Look, we all want to get out of here ASAP, and this is the quickest way. Unless you LIKE the idea of fighting our way through several more floors of monsters. Sure, you're letting Sephiroth do all the work, but it still takes time. And as the cat just pointed out, we don't have much time left."

"Fine, we'll do it your way." Tifa shifted Cloud's body to a slightly more comfortable position on her shoulder.

"If we follow this corridor, we'll end up in a maintenance area that leads straight down to the main Mako reservoir and containment area."

Straight down was perfectly accurate because the maintenance hatch in the floor opened to reveal a narrow metal ladder that extended a good five or six stories downward into a massive dimly lit chamber.

Looking down through the opening, Reno smirked and said, "Why am I not surprised? Gotta love those brilliant company engineers."

"What do you mean?" Nanaki said, with an inquiring flick of his flaming tail.

The Turk shrugged. "It never fails. Step into any mako-handling facility built by Shinra and you always find the same thing -- long exposed ladders, narrow catwalks with flimsy guardrails...."

"....all suspended over glowing green pits of death," Sephiroth finished drily. When the others stared at him, he said, "Zack complained about it, too. Frequently."

Yuffie snickered loudly.

"Unfortunately, this means we have a slight problem with Cloud." When Tifa frowned at Reno, he continued, "You're not going to be able to carry him down because you're going to want both hands for that particular ladder."

"Then how are we supposed to get him down there?" Yuffie demanded, glancing at Cloud who lay motionless and unconscious on the floor where Tifa had placed him.

"The solution is obvious," Sephiroth said, cutting short their discussion. "Either I carry him down, or I go first and you drop him down to me. Your choice."

Tifa bit her lip. Given Sephiroth's superior strength, he would have no trouble getting Cloud down the ladder one way or the other. But the thought of handing Cloud over to Sephiroth even for a few minutes made her stomach churn. True, the current sane Sephiroth hadn't done anything remotely suspicious, but she still hated the idea of entrusting him, of all people, with Cloud's safety, however briefly.

As she hesitated, torn between practicality and emotion, Sephiroth said quietly, "Tifa, despite what has happened before, I have no intention of letting Cloud OR Zack come to further harm."

She stared up at Sephiroth, impressed despite herself by the other's stoic acceptance of past acts that couldn't be changed and the grim determination not to allow such things to happen again. Tifa again remembered the intensity of Sephiroth's reaction when she'd called his past self a "sadistic madman".

Sephiroth hadn't been angry or insulted. In his tightly controlled way, he had been genuinely upset at the possibility that he had harmed Zack so cruelly. Which probably explained why Zack had been so reluctant to reveal the ugly details of what happened at Nibelheim and afterwards. Zack, nice guy that he was, wanted desperately to spare Sephiroth's feelings as much as he could. It still amazed her that Sephiroth apparently had normal emotions and feelings that needed to be worried about.

If Sephiroth cared about anyone, it was Zack. And now with Zack and Cloud being so mysteriously and confusingly entwined....

She uttered a heavy sigh. "Let's get this done and over with."

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Sephiroth went down the ladder first. He could have made the direct drop easily enough, but it was more prudent to check the strength of the metal platform first. Despite Reno's snide comments about Shinra construction, the platform and the attached walkway turned out to be reassuringly sturdy and wide enough to easily accommodate five or more people walking abreast. It even had decent guardrails.

However, Sephiroth had been right about the 'glowing pits of death'. Similar to other Mako reactors of their experience, vast exposed pools of glowing Mako lurked below the vast network of intersecting walkways and girders.

The others followed Sephiroth down, until only Tifa and Yuffie were left at the top of the ladder. They took a long look at each other. Yuffie raised an inquiring eyebrow, silently asking Tifa if she was sure about this. Tifa made a resigned shrug in response. The two young women carefully lowered Cloud's limp body through the hatchway and on a count of three, they let go.

Without fanfare or dramatics, Sephiroth easily caught the falling Cloud in his arms, then held him as Tifa and Yuffie quickly made their way down the ladder to join them.

As Nanaki peered down at the Mako below them with a dubious expression, Yuffie asked, "Is Cloud okay?"

"SOLDIERs can handle falls like that with no problem," Reno said dismissively. "And Cloud here managed to fall off one of the Midgar plates into the slums and only ended up with a few bruises and scratches."

In the middle of passing Cloud back to Tifa, Sephiroth said, "Zack's the one who did that. That's how he first met...." He paused for a second, then continued slowly, "...Aerith."

"No, Cloud's the guy who crashed into that church where Aerith grew her flowers. I know because I had the fun of chasing the two of them all over that that damn building," Reno protested.

Yuffie had seen Tifa's expression shift from confused to deeply concerned during this discussion, but when she started to ask what was wrong, Tifa made a quick shushing gesture.

With the comatose Cloud back on her shoulder, Tifa said briskly, "That's not important right now. Let's just get moving again, okay?" With a sharp jerk of her head, she told Sephiroth to resume the point position.

Scarlet consulted her data pad again, then said, "Once we cross this Mako reservoir, we've only got a few more stairs and a short hallway before we reach an escape access. It's not the same one you guys used, but it will get us back to the main tunnel."

They had only taken a few steps when something rumbled far below them. They all scanned the area for new threats, but didn't stop. Instead, they increased their pace. The sooner they were off the dark, dangerously exposed walkway, the better.

A third of the way across, they felt a different but equally ominous rumble.

This time Sephiroth paused, cocked his head slightly, as if listening intently to some distant sound, then quickly glanced upward.

Before anyone could ask him what was wrong, the entire factory shook violently. As the walkway rippled wildly beneath her feet, Tifa staggered and flung out a hand to keep herself and Cloud from pitching over the guard rails, even as Yuffie hung onto her. Except for Sephiroth, who rode the twisting metal with the ease of a surfer riding a wave, everyone else was forced to grab for the nearest railing or support to prevent themselves from being tossed into the Mako far below.

A dark swirling green energy beam suddenly blasted down through the ceiling into the containment chamber, barely missing them, and sliced effortlessly through the heavy steel walkway. The walkway and everyone on it tumbled into the depths of the pit, even as tons of debris from the floors above cascaded down upon their heads.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

oOo

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From the upper level control area, Hojo ignored the shriek of alarms and the shaking of the building as he gazed down at the three men who had just stormed their way into the command center. Focused entirely on him, they ignored the numerous computer screens and the data that scrolled by at an eye-blurring rate.

The scientist greeted them almost jovially. "Ah, Vincent. Here to rescue your friend Cloud, no doubt. And this time with a Turk in tow. Let me guess. Looking for a certain redhead of our acquaintance?"

Vincent said coldly, "You no longer have any hostages to hold against us. That just leaves you to deal with."

Hojo laughed viciously. "You tried to kill me once in Nibelheim, once on the Sister Ray. You failed on both occasions. What makes you think this time will be any different?"

It was Cid's turn to smirk nastily. "Maybe because this time, you've got not just one, but several WEAPONs homing in on you and your pet Jenova thing. And man, they are seriously pissed. Or maybe you haven't noticed?"

"Of course I noticed," Hojo said with a dismissive wave of a tentacle. "And here I was so looking forward to indulging in a little research on Cloud and Reno. Especially Cloud. A pity that I couldn't obtain Rufus as well. He would have provided me with an useful baseline for comparison."

"Baseline?" Cid said suspiciously.

Hojo smiled, exposing his inhumanly sharp teeth. "For your friend Cloud, of course. I would have preferred an identical twin, but under the circumstances, Rufus would be a perfectly acceptable substitute."

"What does he have to do with your crazy plans for Cloud?" Rude demanded.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Just as Hojo expected, they took the bait. He flicked a discreet glance at the progress bar on the monitor as it steadily approached 100%.

All he had to do was keep the conversation going for a little while longer....

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Hojo cackled with sadistic amusement. "You mean you haven't realized the connection between them? The answer's been sitting there under the Turks' noses all along," the scientist said smugly.

"With all the trouble he caused you, you mean the Turks never bothered to fully research Cloud's background or check out his Shinra personnel records? Tsk tsk, how shockingly negligent of Tseng."

"What the hell are you talking about, Hojo?" Cid said impatiently.

Leaning against the rail, the lab-coated scientist glared down at them and hissed two words.

"Lazard Deusericus."

"Say what?" Cid snapped.

But Rude recognized the name and inhaled sharply. Vincent and Cid turned to stare at the Turk as Rude said, "What are you trying to imply?"

"Imply? Isn't it obvious? But if it will make it easier for your puny brains to understand, I'll spell it out for you. Your friend Cloud Strife is the late President Shinra's illegitimate child and Rufus Shinra's half-brother."

Cid's jaw dropped. Even Vincent looked visibly startled before he said bluntly, "You forget to whom you're talking to, Hojo. We know you. If you're not spewing outright lies, you're distorting the truth to further your own twisted schemes."

The scientist pressed a tentacle to his chest as if wounded. "Would I lie about such an easily verifiable fact? Making allowances for Cloud's modified physique, the most rudimentary DNA test would confirm his paternity and relationship with Rufus." Hojo seemed to be taking an almost unholy glee in rubbing the revelation in their faces.

Rude shook off his surprise. "So what if Cloud's was President Shinra's illegitimate child? That hardly makes him unique. Given the President's libido, there are undoubtedly more of President Shinra's bastards scattered around the Planet."

"But Cloud Strife IS unique, in that he's not merely Rufus's half-brother, but his cousin on his maternal side as well."

As they continued to stare at him, Hojo added, "You've never seen a picture of Cloud's mother, have you? Her physical resemblance to the late President's wife is extraordinary, I must say. One might easily mistake the two women for identical twins instead of mere sisters."

"And you claim that all this was in Cloud's personnel file?" Rude demanded.

"Indeed it is. If you know where to look, of course. The President personally sealed the most critical data, but I'm sure you Turks have ways of circumventing that."

"You mean that the old man knew about Cloud?" Cid said angrily.

"Who do you think sent Cloud's mother to Nibelheim and personally authorized her rather generous stipend for seventeen years?" Hojo said with a sneer. "Of course he knew. Just as he knew all about the secret experiments at the Shinra Mansion." Hojo's mood shifted abruptly from smug to seriously annoyed.

"Secret experiments? Oh, you mean the experiments that were apparently going on in Nibelheim behind your back. Yeah, Reno mentioned you were fucking pissed about that. Not used to being screwed over, are you Hojo?" Cid couldn't fight the urge to do a little gloating of his own.

"How dare they! No wonder the Sephiroth Clone project had so many problems! Those traitors were tampering with my research! Falsifying data! Sabotaging my work!" Hojo hammered a fisted tentacle down on the steel railing, severely denting it.

Hojo's voice trailed off into angry mutters. "....yes, the President knew all about their damn research... knew that they were using his own bastard for their experiments... gave them his full approval and funding. It was all part of his scheme to replace Sephiroth. Cloud was to be the prototype, a testbed for Rufus."

Seeing the way Rude stiffened, Hojo hissed softly. "Indeed, Rufus should be grateful that Sephiroth killed off the President when he did. Oh, President Shinra had great plans for his troublesome, but precious heir...."

It was Vincent who refused to be sidetracked any longer. He interrupted Hojo's rambling with a sharp, "All that is irrelevant. What matters now is your plan to resurrect a mad Sephiroth has failed. He's no longer under Jenova's control."

Hojo froze, then smiled slowly, terribly. "As long as an entity carries Jenova's cells, they are subject to its influence. That applies to Sephiroth and it applies to your friend Cloud. How that influence manifests will vary -- one becomes a master and the other becomes a mere puppet -- but manifest it will. This is the reality of Jenova's true power."

The scientist began to rock back and forth, his tentacled arms twitching madly. "What you call 'sanity' is nothing but a state of dormancy, a humble larval stage that precedes the full glory of godhood. All that's needed the proper trigger, and then it's only a matter of time before Sephiroth's true nature reasserts itself.

"Once touched by Jenova's cells, there is no way to escape. None."

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

That was a lie.

There WAS one way to truly escape Jenova's influence, an admittedly drastic and risky one. But take that escape he would, with the unwitting aid of the ever-vengeful Vincent or the Planet's WEAPONs.

The newly re-established Worldwide Network was the key. That, and Deepground.

For Hojo, death -- physical death -- would only be the beginning.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

oOo

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Still holding on protectively to Cloud, Tifa braced for impact and frantically hoped that they landed on one of the lower walkways instead of falling into the vast pool of Mako. She had endured that experience once before and survived it with her sanity intact. She didn't want to press her luck by trying it again. Of course worrying about Mako exposure was probably pointless given the high probability of being crushed by several floors worth of concrete and steel.

Then she felt her wildly tumbling fall slow and steady, as if someone had cast some sort of feather falling spell. She and Cloud landed on one of the lowest walkways, with Yuffie, Cait Sith, Nanaki, Reno, and Scarlet thumping down near her. Even as she sought cover from the incoming rain of debris, a pale shimmering barrier materialized, neatly deflecting the large chunks of rubble away from the walkway.

As the fall of debris gradually subsided, she peered upward and saw Sephiroth dropping down toward them, sword in hand. As the onrushing air swept his silvery hair back and fluttered the tails of his long black coat, Tifa had a nightmarish flashback to another sword-wielding descent by Sephiroth....

Except this time, instead of the sickening sound of steel piercing through flesh and bone, Sephiroth landed harmlessly in front of them. And instead of that cold, mad smirk that haunted her nightmares, his expression only held a cool curiosity as he took in Yuffie's drawn weapon and Nanaki's fighting crouch.

Apparently she hadn't been the only one to remember that horrible moment in the Forbidden City, only then realizing that she had been clenching her free hand into a tight, battle-ready fist.

There was a long frozen moment as Tifa, Yuffie, and Nanaki stared at Sephiroth, who gazed steadily back at them. But the standoff was broken when Reno swore loudly.

"Bloody hell!"

Yuffie blinked and uttered a startled, "What?"

Reno pointed upward. The mysterious energy beam had torn open the entire ceiling of the Mako reservoir, leaving the containment chamber open to the sky above.

"It's Jade!" the Turk snapped.

"Jade? What she doing up there? Isn't she's supposed to stay on the Shera!" Yuffie asked, looking confused.

"Not Jade the Turk. I'm talking about Jade, as in the fucking Jade WEAPON!"

Except for Sephiroth, who followed at his usual measured pace, they all scrambled over to stand beside Reno to get a better view. There was no missing the huge green insect-like monster that now hovered in the sky above the factory.

"Are you sure? We've never encountered a Jade WEAPON before," Tifa said.

"Maybe you guys haven't, but the Turks certainly have. Count yourselves lucky."

"I thought the WEAPONs weren't due to arrive for at least another twenty minutes or so!" Scarlet said, giving Cait Sith a nasty look.

"That was just a rough estimate!" the cat retorted. "And we didn't have any information about this Jade WEAPON in our database."

"It's one fast and elusive bastard. I'm not surprised that your people failed to detect it," Reno said with a shrug.

"Now what?" Scarlet demanded furiously as the Jade WEAPON soared out of view. But the repeated high-pitched screech of its particular energy weapon, followed by loud explosions, left no doubt as to the WEAPON's intentions.

"It's softening up this place for the other WEAPONs," Cait Sith said grimly.

As they listened to the relentless barrage outside, the Turk said, "Yeah. It obviously has no intention of waiting until its buddies show up."

"So why don't we consider it extra incentive to haul ass out of here before we end up being vaporized or taking a nice long soak in some raw Mako." Scarlet glanced pointedly at the surface of the Mako pool, which was now uncomfortably close to their feet.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

oOo

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[ Montessi's lab ]

Rufus Shinra was drowning in a sea of alien memories.

They were the spirits of the dead, absorbed into and preserved within the great Lifestream of the Planet. Most were mere fragments, vague wisps of emotion devoid of personal identity or awareness.

But among those spirits, some managed to retain a distinct individuality. And of these special spirits, many of them were ancient, members of a culture that no longer existed.

Isolated for so long within the Lifestream, those long dead Cetra now found a conduit -- however unwilling -- to the world of the living.

And thanks to the Planet's tampering, Rufus could do nothing as the memories of places long vanished and of times long past forced their way into his vulnerable mind.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

"There MUST be another way!" he protested, struggling to retain his composure.

"We are out of time and out of options. You know that." The response was firm and unwavering.

He whirled away, desperately wracking his mind for any words, any arguments that might shift the other's resolve.

A hand touched his shoulder.

"Look at me."

It was not a command, but a request. Reluctantly, he turned around to face his ruler.

Dressed in her favored black, she bore the long silvery hair, the pale skin, and striking elegant features that were the hallmarks of her caste.

She had been bred to command and it showed in every inch of her. Her mere presence made him want to fall to his knees, but he fought his natural instinct to submit to her will.

"The situation is critical. We must seal the Calamity now, while we still have the strength and resources to do so. And to lure the Calamity out of hiding and into our trap, we must offer the monster irresistible bait."

"But to sacrifice...!"

"Sacrifices are sometimes necessary."

"But we cannot afford to lose you!"

She smiled faintly. "At this point, no one is irreplaceable. My successor is young, but he has potential and is well trained."

"That is not the point!"

"That is exactly the point. I am prepared to pay whatever price it takes in order to defeat the Calamity and save what remains of our people. I am asking so many to risk not just their lives, but their sanity. How can I do any less?"

"A risk of death or even madness is one thing. What you face if we succeed is far worse!"

"The Calamity will not expose itself except for the greatest of prizes. As the leader of the Cetra, I am that prize." It was not pride or arrogance speaking. She was merely stating a fact.

Unable to face her steady gaze, he glanced restlessly around the chamber, not really taking in its familiar contents -- the elaborately carved furniture, the exquisite stonework, the many shelves filled with books, or the weapon stand supporting the long slender sword that stood taller than its mistress.

Finally, she sighed and moved to look out the window. Absently, she placed her hand on the sword as if stroking the head of a favored pet.

"I am... aware... of your personal feelings for me," she said quietly.

Personal feelings they both knew could never be fully acted upon. After all, she was of the ruling caste, while he, as the Council of Healers so pompously complained, was a mere warrior who should know his proper place.

"But I must ask you to put those feelings aside for the good of all."

She asked, when she could have simply commanded his obedience.

And because she asked, he could not refuse her. He took a deep, shuddering breath to steady himself, then bowed deeply.

"As you desire, so it shall be done, Lady Binah."

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Dr. Hutton gazed briefly at the test chamber imprisoning Rufus and self-righteously hoped that the young Shinra president was suffering the torments of the damned before returning his attention to the monitors.

The doctor was unaware that inside that test chamber, cocooned and ensnared in the Lifestream's tendrils, Rufus Shinra wept for a long dead Cetra woman and her terrible fate.

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oOo

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[ Weapon factory ]

The surface of the Mako in the bottom of the containment chamber suddenly roiled and seethed. A rancid stench filled the air as large globules of some reddish-purple substance began to bubble to the surface.

"Oh no," Scarlet muttered, going pale as something churned in the depths of the Mako.

"What the hell do you mean 'oh no'? Scarlet, I swear if you're holding out on us...," Tifa said dangerously.

"Remember what I said about Hojo carting all those dead bodies down to the reactor level for some mysterious project?"

"Don't tell me...," Tifa said, staring out as the entire surface of the Mako seem to swell and bulge upward.

"I think we're about to find what Hojo's been doing with all those corpses." For the first time, Scarlet looked truly unnerved and disturbed.

Nanaki's ears went flat and his neck ruff bristled. "Those dark chunks of matter. I've seen and smelled something similar before, in the place where Vincent thinks Kadaj and his companions were spawned."

"I think you're right. They look like chunks of raw Jenova tissue," Reno said grimly.

The surface of the vast Mako pool began to slosh wildly as the level of the Mako began rising upward.

Without a word, Sephiroth grabbed Cloud from Tifa, pointed to the nearest ladder, then leapt upwards. Tifa didn't waste her breath complaining, but raced for the ladder, and the dubious safety of a higher walkway or support.

She didn't bother climbing the ladder in the usual way. Instead, Tifa jumped upward as far as she could go, grabbed a rung, then kicked off for another jump. A quick glance behind her showed her that Yuffie and Nanaki were following her example while Reno and Scarlet were close behind, scrambling upward as fast as they could.

But soon enough, they ran out of places to go. The earlier energy blast and resulting structural collapse had torn away most of the upper level walkways, leaving them trapped deep inside the containment chamber. Sephiroth joined them, still carrying Cloud over his right shoulder.

"I can get him out of here, but what about you?"

"Do you happen to know a nifty flight spell?" Yuffie muttered as she nervously eyed the steadily rising Mako.

But her question was never answered as Scarlet, who had been frantically scanning the factory blueprints, spoke over her.

"I've found a way out. The containment walls on this level are less than a meter of steel alloy, backed by another meter or so of reinforced concrete. On the other side of that wall is an access corridor that leads almost directly to the factory roof and the helipad."

"Didn't you say that the roof was too exposed!" Yuffie protested.

"Well, it is, but you feel that constant rumbling? That's the sound of catastrophic structural failure, thanks to that stupid trigger-happy Jade WEAPON and its fucking energy beams," Scarlet said angrily. "This factory simply isn't made to stand up to that sort of bombardment. The lower levels are probably just a solid mass of rubble by now, and what's left will soon be."

As over-stressed supports groaned and creaked overhead, Nanaki said, "And let me guess, trying to blast our way through that containment wall would not be a good idea."

"Blast, no. But cutting our way through is another matter." Scarlet glanced at Sephiroth. "Can you handle it?"

"Of course," was his confident reply.

She turned back to the others. "Look, I know it's dangerous, but at this point, heading topside is probably our only real option. Unless you prefer being buried alive."

"No thanks. Let's get out of this deathtrap before the other WEAPONs show up and completely flatten this place," Tifa said firmly.

Sephiroth passed the unconscious Cloud back to Tifa, approached the chamber wall, then glanced at Scarlet.

"Where?"

Scarlet reached into a pouch on her tactical vest and pulled out a lipstick, but no one was inclined to make any snide remarks about it. Consulting the blueprints one more time, she hastily marked out a largish hole, then stepped back. "There's a primary support beam on both the right and left side, so try to avoid them. But you've got a decent amount of vertical clearance to work with."

Cait Sith, who had been keeping an anxious eye on the steady rising Mako level, said, "If we're going to do anything, we better do it now."

The rest of them stepped back to give Sephiroth room to work.

Several precise slashes of Masamune was all it took to dice both the metal and concrete of the containment wall into easily handled pieces. Chucking the last few chunks over the side of the platform, Yuffie dusted her hands, and peered through the narrow door-sized opening into the small access corridor. "Dusty, but deserted. I think we're good to go."

Scarlet scrambled through first, followed by Cait Sith with Nanaki, then Reno and Yuffie. Just as it was Tifa's turn to enter the hole with Cloud, the violently roiling surface of the Mako below them finally erupted.

Fountains of contaminated Mako spewed upward, splattering the platform where Tifa and Sephiroth were standing with globs of glowing liquid, as purplish blue tendrils shot up from the fouled Mako pool.

More and more tendrils appeared, until the containment chamber looked like a forest of alien trees. The tips of the tendrils split and split again, then swelled into globes, giving the appearance of clusters of obscene black fruit.

....then a towering form slowly rose into view.

The creature kept rising as the contaminated Mako streamed off its dark flesh, leaving it covered with an glistening greenish sheen.

A pale, vaguely female torso, both headless and armless, made up the upper portion of the creature. Instead of arms, the creature had masses of blackish purple tentacles which sprang from its shoulders and fanned out behind its torso almost like a great pair of wings. The legs -- if it had any -- were lost amid the frilly mass of dark fleshy tissue that surrounded the lower body. And amid those meaty frills, innumerable ovoid masses pulsed and throbbed.

Tifa and her friends had confronted other fragments of JENOVA before, but the one emerging from the depths of the reactor was much, much larger, rivaling the Planet's WEAPONs in height, if not in sheer mass.

"Hojo must've used all those dead bodies he collected and used them to feed this thing," Tifa muttered, desperately trying to suppress the urge to vomit.

For a long moment, the alien monstrosity stood still, its long tendrils rippling in an almost hypnotic pattern. Then it slowly shifted, turning that vaguely female torso in their direction. The creature had no discernible eyes or ears, but the purposeful manner of its movement told Tifa that it was very much aware of their presence.

She heard Nanaki growling ferociously behind her in response to the utter repulsiveness of the alien creature's psychic and physical stench. In the sky above them, Jade WEAPON shrieked in fury as it sensed the presence of the Planet's enemy.

Blade at the ready, Sephiroth took two quick steps to stand between the Jenova fragment and Tifa. Staring at his back as he stood, so clearly shielding her and Cloud, she said, very softly, "Sephiroth...."

Never taking his eyes off the monster, Sephiroth turned his head slightly and said tersely, "Go," then emphasized the command with a sharp, imperious jerk of his head.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

In retrospect, Tifa was never certain whether it was pure luck or something else that prompted her to glance back at Sephiroth before stepping through the roughly hewed hole in the wall. But look back she did, just in time to see Sephiroth wince, stagger slightly, then put his right hand to his head.

She knew that gesture, had seen Cloud do the same thing on multiple occasions. More importantly, she knew what that gesture usually meant.

Acting on pure instinct, she released her grip on Cloud and heaved his unconscious body through the hole at Reno. Ignoring the Turk's startled protest, she whirled and rushed back to Sephiroth, who was now staring blankly in the Jenova fragment's direction.

The only clear thought in her head was,"No, not now! Not again!"

She grabbed his shoulder and shook hard, but got no response. Tried dragging him off the platform, but couldn't get him to budge. His glowing green eyes were not blank, but distant and cold... and growing ever more so by the second.

"Sephiroth! Snap out of it! Don't listen to it!"

She didn't know how she knew -- perhaps it was a subtle shift in his expression or something else -- but she could feel Sephiroth slipping away from her, from them. As she shouted futilely at him, Tifa was distantly aware of Jade WEAPON above her screaming in rage, as if it too could sense Sephiroth succumbing to Jenova's insidious influence.

She had to do something -- anything -- to shake Sephiroth out of his apparent trance. But what could she possibly say or do to bring him back, to make him break free of whatever that Jenova fragment was doing to his mind?

There was only one thing she could think of, and her rising panic make her utterly ruthless.

Tifa grabbed a fistful of Sephiroth's leather coat in each hand and gave him a vicious shake. But this time, she didn't shout at him. Instead, her voice was low and harsh, cutting with uncanny ease through the cacophony around them.

"You bastard, how DARE you do this again? Are you going to let Jenova twist you into its tool without a fight? Are you going to give in to that THING even after everything Zack told you? Are you really that weak?

"Even if you don't give a DAMN about anyone else on this Planet, at least think about HIM. Do you have ANY idea how much suffering he's been through, Sephiroth?

"AND. IT'S. ALL. YOUR. FAULT.

"YOU were the one who betrayed his trust.

"YOU were the one who became a crazed monster who had to be stopped.

"YOU were the reason he spent four horrific years as Hojo's prisoner.

"Because of YOU, he was hunted down like an animal and murdered.

"Do you have any idea how much it must've hurt him to watch you murder Aerith, the woman he loved? To see you torment his friend Cloud for YEARS without being able to do anything to stop you?

"And all because YOU decided to listen to Jenova and buy into its damn lies.

Tifa knew she was being vicious and brutally unfair, but it was the only emotional leverage she had. So she used it for all it was worth, hammering relentlessly at Sephiroth in the desperate hope that something she said would get through.

"And you know what? Despite everything you've done to him, he STILL cares enough to worry about you. To believe in you. To forgive you. To trust that if given the opportunity, you would do the right thing.

"What more do you want from him? How much more do you expect him to endure?

"For everything you've done to him, all the pain, misery, and grief you've put him through, you OWE him.

"So what are you going to do this time, Sephiroth?

"Are you going to make the most of this second chance that HE gave you?

"Or are you going to throw away Zack's feelings and break his heart AGAIN??

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The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and associated works are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square-Enix. The characters and associated materials of these works are used WITHOUT permission for the purpose of entertainment only. The author of this work claims no ownership, part or whole, of the original plot and characters. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.

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