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Conflicts of Interest Redux 4/? (part 1 of 2) (FF7 post-AC AU) - Convolutions of an Evil Mind
madamhydra
madamhydra
Conflicts of Interest Redux 4/? (part 1 of 2) (FF7 post-AC AU)
Ah, finally done with part 4. Whee.

The parental health crisis continues. At least it's doesn't seem to be getting worse. -_-

Soooo... tired.

As I mentioned before, the stuff of brain chips is not a complete ass-pull 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. ^_^

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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.

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[ 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.

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[ 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."

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[ 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.

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(continued in part 2 of 2)

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1 hiss or Hiss in my ear....
Comments
kyuu_momo From: kyuu_momo Date: October 28th, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
'm running out of way clever ways of telling you how awesome this is. :D

Keep up the great work! ^^
1 hiss or Hiss in my ear....