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Conflicts of Interest Redux 5/? (FF7 post-AC AU) - Convolutions of an Evil Mind
madamhydra
madamhydra
Conflicts of Interest Redux 5/? (FF7 post-AC AU)
Finally, a new chapter! I've gotten fed up with LiveJournal's character limit and the need to split my chapters for posting, so this chapter's significantly shorter than previous chapters.

Part 6 is also finished and just needs a few tweaks and proofreading before posting, so don't be surprised if another short chapter shows up in a day or two.

And here we go!

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 5/?
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: partially betaed 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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oOo

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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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oOo

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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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oOo

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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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oOo

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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 this woman was not someone to take 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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oOo

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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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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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12 hisses or Hiss in my ear....
Comments
salmastryon From: salmastryon Date: April 15th, 2011 03:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Wohoo!!!! I haven't' had a chance to read it yet but I wanted to say I'm so glad to see this. I bet you are too. :)
salmastryon From: salmastryon Date: April 15th, 2011 03:42 am (UTC) (Link)
hehe Cloud smelled like Zack. :D

Ria is an awesome OC she adds some character to the general scientist and as a voice of authority you could get across the info about what Hojo is really after and doing without doing this long convoluted info dumpe. I love it! Will we see more of her? >.>

Also Luxiere makes me so happy. Incompetent, lazy guards are always a good thing around a person that needs rescuing.

I do love how the plot is thickening. So much in such a small amount of text but it seems much longer. I can't wait for the next part!! (well I can wait, but I'm bouncing on tiptoes for the next part)
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: April 15th, 2011 04:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Shalua Rui is a character from "Dirge of Cerberus", so I can't claim credit for her. And believe me, I wasn't exaggerating the way she dresses or her gun.

FF Wiki entry on Shalua Rui

And here's a YouTube video of Shalua and her gun!

Shalua's game intro at 0:40 onward

Oh, and that psycho-femme with the Russian accent at the beginning of that video? She's Russo. You might want to remember her, too. ^_-

If you read the emails in "Crisis Core", you might be aware that Luxiere is a bit of asshole -- i.e., he wants to pretend to capture Zack in order to get a quick promotion. Jerk.

Edited at 2011-04-15 04:50 am (UTC)
salmastryon From: salmastryon Date: April 15th, 2011 05:24 am (UTC) (Link)
*sniff* No PSP here so no Crisis Core. :`(

Obviously I need to play Dirge of Cerberus though. :)
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: April 15th, 2011 07:33 am (UTC) (Link)
You actually don't need to play Crisis Core or Dirge of Cerberus. Actually, from what I've heard of the game, you probably don't WANT to play Dirge of Cerberus. :P

YouTube has complete cutscenes from both Crisis Core and Dirge of Cerberus -- all you have to do is type the game name and "cutscenes" into the search box. It's like watching a movie. ^_^
kyuu_momo From: kyuu_momo Date: April 15th, 2011 11:29 am (UTC) (Link)
Despite everything I can't help but feel really bad for Rufus. I've always been a slight Rufus fan, so that's also part of it.

I really enjoyed your take on Kunsel and Reeve's explanation. Very well done as usual.

Take care.

(oops forgot to sign in o.o;)
ah well.
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: April 16th, 2011 08:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
It certainly looks like Rufus is in for a bad time, doesn't it. ::evil cackle::

Thanks!
From: ragoloot Date: April 15th, 2011 12:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
Did you heard what Rob Matts said about that?

elvaron From: elvaron Date: April 15th, 2011 03:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
I just caught up with this fic in its entirety, and I just wanted to pop in to say what an amazing piece this is. I've never seen anyone weave the entire Compilation together the way you do - to take all of it and make it believable and add in additional backstory details to make it make sense. Everything that you've crafted for the SOLDIER project and its variations makes absolute sense and makes the Compilation richer for it, and at the same time you have this thoroughly engrossing and action packed plot rocketting onwards. And you write the entire cast and write them well.

I lovelovelove how you've explained Cloud's personality crisis and his sudden transformation from failure into super SOLDIER. And I admittedly have a huge weakness for Rufus abuse. But that aside, your characterisation of him is dead-on perfect, and there are few enough people who write a good Rufus, let alone in a multipart fic of this complexity and with this standard of writing.

Reading this totally made my day. I've loved your work ever since I first came across it in the Saiyuki fandom, and stumbling across this is like Christmas in April. Thank you!
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: April 16th, 2011 09:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm glad you're enjoying the story so far! o^_^o

When I first came up with the plotline of COI, I had all these interesting theories about SOLDIERs, Zack, Rufus, etc. But I got sidetracked and the story floated in limbo for years.

But in those years, Advent Children, Crisis Core, Before Crisis, and Dirge of Cerberus came out. We got to see Zack fully fleshed out as a character, and while he quite different from what I picture, I still fell in love with him all over again -- the adorkable guy! We saw that Sephiroth was actually a nice guy before he lost it in Nibelheim. We got to see what SOLDIERs and Cloud are capable in combat -- whoohoo! And I also fell in love with Rufus and the Turks.

So I'm having a blast weaving stuff from the Compilation together and I'm glad you're having as much fun reading about it!
reilael From: reilael Date: April 15th, 2011 04:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
!!!!! An update! Thank you, FF.net alerts! I'm so happy. Poor Rufus. And hm, the scent thing is v. v. interesting, yes indeedy.

I was just going to say that I can't wait till the next part, but the sad truth is that I can & totally will. Ye gods - I have been reading (variations of) this story for over a decade. Wow.
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: April 16th, 2011 09:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, interesting things are going to be happening to poor Rufus. He's going to develop some useful abilities, but the side-effects are going to be an epic pain in the ass, especially for someone of Rufus's personality.

The smell thing IS interesting, isn't it? ::wink wink nudge nudge::

Yup, over a decade. God, I feel old. x_x
12 hisses or Hiss in my ear....