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Conflicts of Interest Redux 7 (FF7 post-AC AU) - Convolutions of an Evil Mind
madamhydra
madamhydra
Conflicts of Interest Redux 7 (FF7 post-AC AU)
With these shorter chapters, the story is progressing more slowly than I expected, but hopefully the chapters will be coming out more often. ^_^;

And for those who are wondering, Sephiroth will be showing up in person with the next 2-3 chapters. So hang in there!

Enjoy!

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 7
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~8,900
Warnings: mature/dark themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

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

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AUTHOR NOTES:
-- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
-- The original FFVII game and "Advent Children/Complete" are canon for this fic.
-- "Before Crisis" and "Crisis Core" are semi-canon.
-- The additional Turk characters that show up in this fic are based on the available player characters for "Before Crisis".
-- Various plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., "Dirge of Cerberus", "Last Order" OVA, FFVII web novellas, etc.) may show up.

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Text Conventions

( ) and { } and / and // indicate thoughts, mental dialogue, or languages from various characters

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



.





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

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

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica

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.





[ Healen ]

While Kunsel wasn't up to Cloud's level, the man had a clean, efficient fighting style and plenty of skill, so Cid was grateful for the SOLDIER's unexpected help in clearing Hojo's monsters off the Shera. He didn't know Kunsel's rank in SOLDIER, but from this fight alone, Cid could tell that the other man was better than the other First Class SOLDIERs he and the others had encountered two years before.

As the two of them were disposing of the last few creatures, Kunsel's cellphone rang.

"Reeve? What's...?" Kunsel glanced over at Cid. "He's standing right here... sure, just a sec."

The SOLDIER activated the speakerphone function so Cid could also clearly hear the urgency in Reeve's voice.

"Cid! We've got big trouble!"

"Tell me about it! The Shera just got mobbed by a bunch of monsters. Hojo's, I bet. And...."

"That wasn't the only surprise Hojo left for us. Cloud's been abducted and Tifa is missing!"

"What the FUCK?!" Cid bellowed, drowning out Kunsel's quieter, but no less furious curse.

"I'm short on details at the moment. All I've got is a panicky report from some WRO survivors around the northern edge of the Healen area. Kunsel, I need you to grab Cait Sith and check it out ASAP. He'll brief you on the way. People in hazmat gear will be following."

"On it," the SOLDIER said. Without another word, he stashed both sword and phone, jumped off the airship, and hit the ground running.

In the meantime, Cid's own phone rang. He grabbed at it and demanded, "Reeve?"

"Cid, while you were fighting onboard the Shera, did you see any monsters leaving the area? The survivors reported that Cloud was carried off by a large dragon-like creature."

"Yeah, I did. Actually, there were several groups of critters, but they all took off in different directions."

"Most of them were probably decoys, to keep us from following the right one."

Cid was only half-listening to Reeve. He was thinking about the puzzling chunk of ground flesh oh-so-conveniently fouling up the Shera's engines... then everything fell into place.

"Hojo, you sly, sick son of a bitch!" Cid snarled under his breath.

"What are you talking about?" Reeve demanded.

"He made sure we couldn't chase after Cloud, even if we knew which group of monsters to follow! That engine malfunction I was checking on? I'm now pretty sure that it was caused by some of Hojo's monsters crawling into the machinery!"

"How bad is the damage, and how soon can you get the Shera running again?"

"Nothing permanent, but it's going to take time to pull the engines apart and clean all the gunk out of them. A couple of hours, at least. Under normal circumstances, more of a hassle than anything else. But in this case.... And what the hell did you mean by 'hazmat gear'?"

"From what I can tell, Hojo managed to set off some sort of poison and/or acid bomb. It knocked Cloud out cold. Everyone else got their flesh melted right off their bones."

"What the... MELTED?"

"Yes. The survivors kept babbling about pools of bloody sludge."

"Holy shit! What about Cloud?"

"Whatever the black stuff was, it didn't have the same flesh-melting effect on Cloud or any of Hojo's own monsters. Which makes perfect sense if Hojo wanted Cloud captured alive. Cid, Hojo could've killed Cloud right then and there. But he didn't. I think that both you and I know what that probably means," Reeve said grimly.

"Yeah. What about Tifa?"

"When the beast carrying Cloud took off, the turbulence from its wings scattered the poison all over the place. Those survivors were inside a warehouse, but still got hit hard. Most of them have severe chemical burns to their skin, lungs, and eyes. That should give you some idea how potent that poison is."

Reeve took a deep breath, before continuing. "As for Tifa, she was outdoors, fully exposed, when that all happened. The survivors think that they heard a scream coming from the surrounding woods. And that's all I know at the moment."

"Fuck!" Cid furiously kicked the closest monster corpse. "Do you need me down there?"

"Not at the moment. Concentrate on getting the Shera up and running. She's the fastest transportation we've got and we're going to need her."

"Have you told the guys at Nibelheim about Cloud?"

"Not yet. I want to get more details before I contact them. I don't want to distract them just yet. Besides, I already have something important for them to do."

"Like what?"

"Checking on Barret." Before Cid could ask, Reeve hastily added, "I don't think it has anything to do with Hojo. Some sort of mine accident or cave-in at the coal mines. Minimal injuries, but I want someone to make sure the rescue's going smoothly. Since Nibelheim is a lot closer to Corel...."

"We've all got our jobs to do, then. But shit, Reeve! That fuckhead Hojo's been five steps ahead of us all along. And it's seriously pissing me off!"

"Tell me about it." Reeve's tone, although quieter, was just as angry as Cid's. "Unfortunately, judging from the evidence Vincent and Nanaki found up north, Hojo's probably had weeks, if not months, to plot his schemes. So unless we catch a lucky break, I'm afraid we're stuck chasing after him."

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In the woods surrounding the ambush site, Kunsel pulled off his glove and cautiously ran a fingertip along a leaf covered in black dust. His flesh stung sharply for an instant, then went numb. But aside from the lack of sensation, he experienced no other symptoms from the remains of the black mist that had so recently blanketed the area.

He glanced over at Dr. Nyx, who stood in the middle of the courtyard safely encased in her hazmat suit. As she directed similarly garbed medical staff as they investigated the contaminated site, other personnel were busy tending to the WRO survivors in the warehouse.

"It's nasty stuff all right, but I've encountered worse," he commented, carefully dusting off his hands and pulling his glove back on.

Nyx nodded. "Our preliminary tests indicate that the toxin breaks down fairly rapidly when exposed to air. In a few days, it should be harmless. But at the moment, it's still strong enough to cause severe chemical burns to ordinary people and animals."

"Any signs of Jenova cells?"

"Not in the toxin itself. There are definite traces of J-cells in the monster bodies scattered around this area, which links them to the creatures in the earlier attacks on Healen and the specimen storage facility. No question that Hojo's responsible for this attack."

The doctor glanced around at the mangled bodies of the large mantis-type monsters littering the courtyard, especially their vicious slashing claws, then added drily, "If he did all this on his own, Reeve's friend Cloud must be an exceptional fighter."

"So I've heard. And from what the commissioner's told me, Cloud's faced off against Sephiroth on several occasions and been the one to walk away."

Nyx raised an eyebrow. "But he's not a SOLDIER, or at least he's not an official member."

"And how would you know that?" Kunsel asked mildly. "I didn't realize you guys in the Genetics Division kept such a close eye on SOLDIER's roster."

Behind the plastic face shield of her protective gear, she gave Kunsel a faintly amused smile. "Since we worked in the background so much, people tend to forget about us. For your information, Shinra's Genetics Division has been collecting DNA data on everyone in Shinra for years, but especially the candidates for SOLDIER."

"Really? What for?" Kunsel said, his curiosity clearly piqued.

"Originally our research group was set up to study the genetic relationship between Ancients and humans, using computer models and such. But the President eventually became impatient with theory and demanded a more hands-on approach to the research. The Genetic Division ended up providing specialized analytical expertise for the entire Science Department, especially for the more prominent research projects."

"Like Project Jenova and SOLDIER?"

"Exactly. That's why I know that Cloud Strife applied several times to the SOLDIER program, but was repeatedly rejected."

"Not a good candidate, huh? Why not?"

"He scored rather poorly on the psychological evaluations," Nyx replied simply. She might have said more, but abruptly held up her hand and reached into a pocket for her phone. She glanced at the screen, then said, "Excuse me, but I'm getting some reports from the lab."

Kunsel left the doctor to her text messages, then turned to question a WRO soldier, also dressed in hazmat gear, emerging from the woods surrounding the courtyard.

"Find any sign of Ms. Lockhart?" Kunsel demanded.

"No, sir. We've found bunches of dead animals. Or what's left of them, anyway. But nothing that might be human remains."

"Then widen your search area. If she's injured, we need to find her ASAP."



.





[ Junon ]

In one of the shanty buildings underneath Junon, Roissy read the new text message, courtesy of an anonymous sender, and nearly flung her phone across the room, but the stabbing pain in her left shoulder stopped her.

Instead, she stood in the middle of the neat but dilapidated bedroom, chest heaving.

"What the hell?!" she hissed in fury. "'Cloud captured by Hojo'?!"

She wracked her memory, trying to remember how much Hojo had known about Project S2. Zack's escape from Nibelheim had led to Hojo's discovery of the project's existence. The idea of ANY Jenova-related research going on behind his back had infuriated Hojo. That, and the loss of the only two specimens, had forced the shutdown of the project.

But Hojo had never bothered to learn the exact details of Project S2. Or had something changed? Had it finally dawned on Hojo that the secret research he had so carelessly dismissed all those years ago might have achieved something significant? Was Cloud's capture mere coincidence, or was Hojo suddenly trying to get his hands on HER prototype? HER prototype who could go toe-to-toe with his precious Sephiroth?

If Montessi going rogue on her wasn't bad enough, now that slimy Hojo was attempting to steal HER precious research?

Roissy heard footsteps on the stairs, and hastily sank back down on the bed.

"Uh, Miss Ross? Are you okay?"

Roissy smiled weakly at the young girl standing in the doorway and said, "I'm fine, Priscilla," in a brave voice that made it clear that she wasn't fine at all.

The girl shuffled in place for a moment, then said, "I really think that you need to go up to Junon and get checked out by a real doctor...."

"I am a real doctor, dear," Roissy said sweetly. She put on a frightened expression and said in the most pitiful tone she could manage, "I told you that I'm afraid. Someone up there tried to kill me. If you tell anyone that I'm still alive, they'll surely come after me and try to finish me off!"

She beckoned the girl closer so she could clutch at Priscilla's hands. "You need to keep my presence here a secret from everybody. No matter who comes asking. Shinra, Junon security, or the WRO. Understand?"

"Uh... okay, I guess," Priscilla said hesitantly.

"That's a good girl." She patted Priscilla on the head. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm feeling rather tired."

Roissy felt relieved when the silly girl took the hint and left her alone. She really couldn't take any more of those rambling stories about that stupid Mr. Dolphin. As she lay on the rickety old bed, the injured scientist brooded darkly about Hojo, her sister, and revenge.



.





[ Nibelheim ]

In the basement of the dilapidated Shinra Mansion, Shalua Rui, Yuffie, Vincent, and Nanaki steadily worked their way through the piles of papers and books scattered throughout the lab areas.

Unsurprisingly, Vincent took it upon himself to go through Lucrecia's old lab. He hadn't lingered, staying only long enough to determine that its contents didn't involve Sephiroth, Hojo, or Jenova in any significant way.

As for the rest.... It was obvious that Lucretia's involvement in the experiments performed upon his body troubled Vincent deeply. He was even more taciturn and aloof than usual, showing up only briefly to drop off any documents he found.

Since Nanaki's eyes didn't handle printed text too well and his paws weren't designed for handling delicate sheets of paper, he also took on the job of search and retrieval. Whoever had cleared out the newly discovered lab area at the south end of the basement had done a thorough job, so he soon returned to the library in the older, north end of the basement to give Shalua and Yuffie whatever assistance he could.

The documents were being sorted into various piles based on their potential relevance. Yuffie turned out to be unusually helpful because she had apparently acquired a surprising amount of medical knowledge in the last two years. When asked, Yuffie had muttered something vague about researching Geostigma in Wutai and left it at that.

"Hm... background information. Project S. Project S. Reunion Theory. Background. Irrelevant. Sephiroth Clones. Dr. Gast. Project S," Shalua read off briskly, dumping the documents onto the appropriate stacks or shelves.

At the other end of the library, Yuffie was busily occupied doing the same, until she suddenly said, "Hey, I found a few more sheets talking about a 'Project S2' stashed in the big desk."

"Does it have anything to do with Sephiroth or Hojo? Any information on specific locations?" Shalua said in a distracted tone, as she skimmed through another book.

Yuffie quickly flipped through the loose pages. "I don't think so. It mentions some stuff about Jenova cells and prototypes, but there's no mention of Hojo or Sephiroth. No date, either, so I can't tell how it relates timewise. But it would make sense that 'Project S' and 'Project S2' would be related, right?"

"Probably, although it's hard to say. Project Jenova had more offshoots and sub-projects than I ever realized. Find a spot for them and I'll take a closer look later."

"All right," Yuffie said with a shrug, then tensed as Vincent suddenly appeared in the doorway, his expression grim.

"We have trouble."

"What happened?" Yuffie demanded.

Vincent's report was brutally concise -- an ambush in Healen, Cloud abducted by Hojo, and Tifa missing.

"Then what the hell are we waiting for?!" Yuffie yelled, dashing for the door. However, Vincent put out an arm to block her way.

"Rushing back to Healen isn't going to help Cloud or Tifa. Reeve and the others have the current situation under control," he said flatly.

"But...!"

"We need to finish our work here in Nibelheim."

"But...!"

"Cid and the others don't have a clue where Hojo might have taken Cloud," Vincent said bluntly. "Our presence won't enable them to find Cloud or Hojo any faster."

"But...!"

"The information we need might be hidden here in Nibelheim. Even if it isn't, any information we gather on Hojo or Sephiroth may be vitally important. They need us HERE."

Yuffie turned toward Nanaki and said, "C'mon, help me out here!"

Nanaki, his flaming tail angrily whipping back and forth, was silent, then finally said, "Sorry, but I have to agree with Vincent. I think we'd do more good searching for clues here than running off to join Cid and the others."

"BUT...!" Yuffie's voice rose into a near-wail.

It was Shalua who interrupted this time. In a firm voice, she said, "Yuffie, it'll take me forever to go through all these papers by myself. I NEED your help here."

Outvoted, Yuffie let her shoulders sag in defeat, then threw up her hands. "Fine. You guys win. I guess we're stuck here until we get this mess taken care of." She turned to Vincent, just in time to see him walking out of the library.

"Hey! After all that, where the hell do you think you're going?!" she shouted at him.

Vincent paused briefly, glanced over his shoulder at her, and said, "I need to head over to Corel to check on Barret. There's a situation at the mine and he's been out of touch for too long. I should be back shortly."

"Wha...? Barret? Mine?"

But Vincent ignored the angrily sputtering Yuffie and continued on his way.

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After a brief bout of sulkiness, Yuffie had soon returned to work-mode. But her earlier casual mood was gone, replaced by intensely focused concentration and a new sense of urgency.

But it was Nanaki who uncovered the secret stash of reports in the library, crammed into a well hidden wall safe.

"Why were they hidden away like that?" Yuffie wondered aloud as she helped Nanaki pull the papers from the narrow safe and spread them out on a table. "Considering that Hojo and his crew left everything else just lying around in the open."

"I'm not sure. But all these reports were specifically written for Hojo." Shalua picked up one report, its cover smeared with dark, reddish brown stains.

"Is that blood?" Yuffie asked, wrinkling her nose.

Shalua lightly rubbed her finger across a stain and watched little brownish flakes fall off the thick paper cover. "I'm not sure."

Nanaki sniffed at Shalua's fingers and said, "It's blood, but quite old."

"The title is 'Genetic Analysis of Jenova'... oh, wow," Yuffie muttered, as she took the report for Shalua and glanced over the report cover. "You were right about the report being written for Hojo, but this is actually a secret copy sent to Dr. Gast! Look, there's even a handwritten note talking about interviews with Aerith's mother Ifalna!"

"Dr. Gast, the former Head of Shinra's Science Department? Hojo's predecessor?" Nanaki asked, startled.

"That's right. And there's a notation here that this copy was recovered from Icicle Inn!"

As Yuffie rapidly did some math in her head, Shalua said, "I don't understand the significance of all this."

"Damn, the date fits!" Yuffie stared down at the report. "This blood... it's probably Gast's!"

Nanaki poked his head over Yuffie's arm to get a better look. "You mean, from when Hojo and his men raided Icicle Inn, killed Gast, then captured Aerith and her mother?"

"Exactly! Going by the date on this, Aerith would have been barely a month old when this report was 'recovered' from Icicle Inn," Yuffie said, flicking her finger against the stained paper.

"What's the report about?" Nanaki demanded.

"Let's see," Shalua said briskly, grabbing the report. With Yuffie hovering impatiently over one shoulder, Shalua quickly flipped to the summary page.

A few minutes of silence followed, then Shalua said, "Fascinating! According to this, Jenova is a fusion between an extraterrestrial lifeform and an Ancient."

"Well, duh. Calamity from the sky, alien space bitch, and all that," Yuffie said. "We already know all that."

"A fusion between Jenova and an ANCIENT, Yuffie."

"I'm still not sure what the big deal is with...."

"Yuffie, Shalua. I think you should look at this."

The two women turned and peered over Nanaki's furry head as he carefully turned the pages of another, extremely thick document from the hidden stash.

"'Recommended Candidates for Project S'? What the...?" Yuffie muttered.

Nanaki said somberly, "This report discusses the optimum combination of maternal and paternal candidates for producing a viable subject for Project S."

"Maternal and paternal... as in 'mother' and 'father'? Are you saying that we're looking at a report about Sephiroth's parents?"

"His possible parents." Nanaki pointed out a line of text with a careful claw. "For the mother, the recommendation is 'LC'. 'LC', for Lucrecia Crescent." Before Yuffie could say anything, Nanaki said, "I already looked it up in the report's appendices."

"Okay, no surprise there," Yuffie said impatiently. "We already know that Lucrecia was Sephiroth's mother, just like we know that Hojo is Sephiroth's father."

Nanaki shook his head and pointed out two more sections of the summary page. "Not exactly."

"Not exactly?" Yuffie grabbed the report and read the specified paragraphs... then she read them again. And finally, she read them yet a third time before allowing Shalua to pry the paper from her slack fingers.

"Are you kidding me? TWO paternal donors? Not just 'Subject H', but 'Subject V'? 'V', as in...?" Yuffie said, still not quite believing it.

Shalua flipped to the cover of the report, and read the note scribbled on it in Hojo's easily recognizable scrawl. "Yes, 'Subject V' as in 'Valentine'. After multiple failures, it looks like Hojo was willing to do anything to beat this Dr. Hollander, even if it meant mixing his genes with your friend Vincent's."

"But how can a person have TWO fathers?" Yuffie demanded.

"Paternal donors, Yuffie. All it takes is some careful gene splicing, combined with artificial insemination. The technology's been around for decades and has been tried on livestock with limited success. But I've never heard of anyone attempting it on human beings."

"From the note, it looks like Hojo was sure willing to try." Yuffie grabbed her head. "It was hard enough to wrap my head around the idea of Hojo and Lucrecia having sex. But this? I'm not sure if it's better or worse!"

"No wonder Hojo lied about being Sephiroth's father."

"Well, it's not a complete lie, technically speaking," Shalua murmured in response to Nanaki's statement.

Yuffie waved a dismissive hand. "Maybe not, but Hojo sure tried his best to make it appear that he was the sole male donor involved. I'm just surprised he didn't destroy this report to hide his tracks." She uttered a relieved sigh. "And I'm glad Vincent wasn't around when we found it."

"Oh?"

"Discovering Lucrecia's lab and her experiments on him was bad enough. Finding out that there's a good chance that he, however unknowingly, helped to create Sephiroth?" Yuffie winced.

"From that, I'm assuming that you don't plan to show him that report." Shalua's tone was neutral.

Yuffie stared down at her shoes, then eventually said, "I don't really see why we need to. Sephiroth's paternity pretty much seems moot at this point. And it would only make Vincent feel even worse about the whole thing." Yuffie glanced over at Nanaki.

"I suppose you have a point," he agreed with obvious reluctance.

"Fine, then let's find a place to hide this doorstopper before Vincent returns." Shalua eyed the massive report. "I suppose we can just stick it back where we found it."

It turned out that the other reports from the safe were similar in nature to the first two. Some clearly linked Jenova to the legendary 'calamity from the sky', while others contained detailed information on Lucrecia's pregnancy and Sephiroth's prenatal development. In other words, they represented a tidy record of Hojo's lies, schemes, and manipulations throughout the years.

As she crammed the documents related to Sephiroth's parentage back into the safe, Yuffie muttered, "It's a damn shame that Sephiroth didn't have a chance to read any of these reports."

"What do you mean?" Shalua asked as she returned to her sorting.

"Cloud said that Sephiroth went nuts because he believed that Jenova was his 'mother' and that she was an Ancient that had been betrayed by humans. Supposedly everything Sephiroth read in this library supported that delusion. But these reports definitely don't do that and even flat out contradict those crazy delusions of his."

"Do you think this information would have changed his mind or prevented his descent into madness?" Nanaki said curiously.

Shalua added, "Perhaps Sephiroth found these reports, but in his insanity, he chose to ignore them."

Yuffie sighed as she closed the wall safe. "You could be right. But it makes one wonder, doesn't it? What if things had been just a little different and Sephiroth hadn't gone completely bonkers?" She scowled. "Cloud wouldn't have suffered so much, Aerith and so many others would still be alive...."

With a sharp flick of the wrist, Yuffie spun the dial to lock the safe. "Sephiroth sane, and maybe even a good guy. Yeah, I know. What a stupid idea."



.





[ Healen ]

Late that morning, several hours after Cloud's kidnapping, amid the rapidly increasing anxiety, anger, and frustration, some good news finally arrived -- Tifa had been found near one of Healen's famous scenic waterfall pools, injured but alive.

When Kunsel, with Cait Sith clinging to his shoulders, arrived on the scene, a medical team was already there, working on Tifa as she lay on her stomach on a stretcher, the backs of her legs and arms raw, blistered, and oozing.

"I kept using my heal materia. It helped, but the blisters kept coming back," she told the medics in an exhausted, but coherent voice.

"Your ride through the waterfall washed most of the corrosive material away. Unfortunately, some of it remained deep in the wounds," the lead doctor said. "Your materia can heal the damage caused by the residual toxin, but it can't eliminate or neutralize the toxin itself. That's why your injuries keep reappearing."

Cait Sith jumped off Kunsel to stand beside Tifa's stretcher and said, "Healen's clinic is very well equipped. Dr. Nyx says that the antidotes they've got here are effective against Hojo's poison. We'll get you and the other WRO guys fixed up in a jiffy."

"Good." She took a controlled breath, then quietly asked, "And what about Cloud?"

Kunsel crouched down beside Cait Sith. "We're looking. Unfortunately, we've had no luck so far."

Tifa closed her eyes briefly, then murmured, "...my fault."

"Tifa, don't...."

"Cloud knew. That pregnant woman. He KNEW there was something wrong, something 'off' about her, but I brushed it off."

"Cloud knew?" Cait Sith exchanged quick glance with Kunsel.

"Maybe not consciously, but he sensed it. And if that wasn't enough warning, she said his name. Several times, clear as day. I should've realized it was a trap right then and there. I should've kept a closer eye on that woman, stopped her from getting to Cloud. But I didn't. I should've been watching his back, but I got careless and I didn't!" Her fists clenched, and the tensed muscles caused the blisters on her arms to tear and bleed.

"Calm down, Tifa!" Cait Sith said firmly, as one of the medics made a tsking sound at Tifa's reopened wounds. "You had your hands full protecting the WRO team. And no one had any idea that Hojo could -- or would -- turn a person into a living bomb. So don't blame yourself for what happened to Cloud."

Tifa merely sighed and closed her eyes.

Cait Sith gestured the medical team to transport her back to the Healen clinic. As Kunsel and Cait Sith watched them leave, Kunsel said, "Is she going to be okay? About what happened to Cloud, I mean."

"I think it's the pain and exhaustion talking. Tifa's a sensible young woman. Once her wounds get treated properly and she gets some rest, she'll be able to think more clearly and put the blame on the person who really deserves it -- Hojo."

Cait Sith gave Kunsel a wry grin. "Now if Tifa had been the one kidnapped instead of Cloud, that would be a different story."

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In the early afternoon, after her initial treatment was complete, Tifa insisted on immediately telling her friends everything she knew about Hojo's ambush and the details of Cloud's abduction. So everyone gathered in the main clinic -- Cait Sith, Kunsel, Cid, and the Turks -- to listen to Tifa and share whatever information they had.

When Tifa finished her side of things, Cid curled his lip and muttered, "That Hojo's fucking smooth. Who'd suspect some poor pregnant woman? Of course everyone's going to fall over themselves to help her and treat her with velvet gloves!"

Elena commented, "And any strange behavior on her part could easily be excused as hysteria."

"So there's no question that Cloud was the intended target of the ambush all along," Chaise said. "Not with the woman calling his name like that." She glanced at her fellow Turks. "I'm starting to wonder if Hojo had more than one target in mind from the very beginning when he attacked Healen."

Cait Sith, sitting on a nearby table, angrily pounded a fisted paw against the table top. "In hindsight, it's obvious. Rufus wasn't merely a target -- his kidnapping was used as bait to lure Cloud here so he could be captured alive and undamaged."

"But why go through so much trouble to grab Cloud?" Elena asked. "Why not just kill him when he's totally helpless?"

"Hojo may be crazy, but he usually does things for a purpose, even if we don't understand it." Tifa said in a tight voice. "He obviously has a use for Cloud, just like he has a use for Rufus, Reno, and anyone else he chooses to capture alive. Experiment, tool, whatever."

"But how the fuck would Hojo know that we'd...." Cid smacked himself in the forehead and answered his own question. "The bastard's somehow got eyes on us. Spies, watchers, whatever. Hojo already knows that if there's big trouble involving him and/or Jenova, we and especially Cloud are sure to come running to investigate."

"Exactly." Cait Sith asked Cid, "Are the repairs on the Shera finished?"

"Yeah, she's up and running just fine. Only problem being that we don't have any frickin' idea where the hell we need to go!"

"Yes, that's definitely a problem," Cait Sith said with a scowl. "I checked and the radar records confirm your report about groups of airborne creatures scattering in different directions away from Healen. Unfortunately, they all soon dropped off the screens so we don't know where any of those groups went."

"Flying low to avoid detection, no doubt," Rude said.

"Yes. We're checking around for any visual sightings, but that's going to take time and lots of luck."

Elena looked at Cait Sith and said sharply, "I don't know about luck, but as for time, time is NOT on our side."

"Don't I know it!" Cait Sith snapped, throwing his paws up in frustration. "If you Turks have any better ideas where to search, I'm open to suggestions!"

Before Elena could reply, Tifa said hopefully, "What about Cloud's phone? We used it before to locate him."

"First thing I tried, but I got nothing." Cait Sith's ears wilted. "His phone could have gotten damaged or lost. Not to mention that the new system's still glitchy as hell and the coverage spotty, especially in remote areas."

o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~oo~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o

In the utter darkness of Healen's drainage tunnels, Tseng pulled himself out of the fast flowing water onto a narrow ledge and then collapsed, coughing and panting with exhaustion.

As he lay there, trying to catch his breath, he dispassionately assessed his condition. Thankfully, aside from damaged ribs, he didn't have any broken bones. There were plenty of bruises from his rough journey through the pipes, along with what he suspected was a nasty concussion. Since his watch was still working, he knew that nearly 24 hours had passed since Rufus had shoved him into the water.

Tseng pounded a fist against the concrete, ignoring the jolt of pain the impact caused in his sore shoulder and chest.

What the hell had Rufus been thinking?

No, that wasn't fair. He knew exactly what had been going through Rufus's mind back there in the tunnels as they confronted those former SOLDIER mercenaries.

Far from being reckless, Rufus's actions -- shoving Tseng into the water and using himself as a shield in the process -- had been a coldly calculated decision. Unlike Tseng, the president had already been drugged and incapacitated, clearly in no condition to escape. More importantly, the mercenaries obviously needed Rufus alive and unharmed, while Tseng had been marked for immediate termination.

Under those circumstances, Rufus's decision made perfect sense. Someone had to get away and to warn the other Turks about what was really going on. Tseng was the obvious -- the only -- choice under those circumstances.

Unfortunately, that knowledge didn't make the current situation any easier to tolerate. The decision to continue a mission, even if it meant deserting valued companions, was never easy. But for Turks, it was an accepted reality of the job. Only a few weeks ago in Northern Crater, Reno had left Tseng and Elena behind because it had been far more important to keep the Jenova sample out of Kadaj's hands.

The current situation would have been no different... if Rufus had been a fellow Turk. But Rufus was the president, and Turks were supposed to protect the president at all costs, not the other way around.

Somewhere, during the two years since Meteorfall, the Turks had become much more than useful tools or expendable pawns to Rufus. The president had become personally invested in their well-being, just as the Turks had become personally invested in his. While the change in their relationship remained unspoken, both sides understood and valued it.

Tseng gathered his strength and stood. What was done was done. He had no idea who the mercenaries were working for, but it was clear that their mystery client was NOT Hojo. That meant that a new party, with an unknown agenda, was now involved in the current crisis. His primary goal now was to contact the other Turks, who were no doubt working under the mistaken assumption that Rufus had been kidnapped by Hojo and therefore probably looking in all the wrong places for the president.

He tried his phone, but as he expected, it was useless in his present underground location. He would have to physically make his way out of the maze of drainage pipes and get to the surface before he had any hope of contacting the rest of the Turks.

o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~oo~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o

Later that afternoon, Cait Sith stuck his head into Tifa's room at the Healen clinic.

"Tifa, you asked me about Cloud's swords."

She immediately sat up on the bed. "Yes?"

"The hazmat team's just finished decontaminating them. They're in the lab area two doors down."

"Thanks." Tifa swung her legs off the bed and stood. She was a little wobbly on her feet, and it showed.

"You need more rest," Cait Sith protested.

"Don't worry. I promise I'll take another nap, but only after I deal with Cloud's swords," she said firmly. When the cat continued to frown at her, she added in a quieter tone, "I need to do this, okay?"

Cait Sith started to reply, but cocked his head in a manner that told Tifa that the cat was listening to some sort of transmission. From the way Cait Sith wrinkled his nose, whatever news he received was more on the lines of annoying, rather than serious.

"Damn it! Tifa, I need to...."

"That's fine. You don't need to hover over me. Now shoo!" she said with a slight smile, as she brushed by the cat and headed for the lab room.

There was no missing Cloud's swords, lying on the central lab counter, shining in the bright overhead lights. Six blades, of varying length, and made from materials far stronger than mere steel.

Now that she was alone and didn't have to put on a brave face, Tifa propped her hands on the counter and stood over the swords, thinking hard.

Hojo. A vile, cunning, sadistic mad scientist who was now an equally vile, cunning, and sadistic Jenova-infused monster.

They had warned the Turks about what Hojo was capable of doing to Reno and Rufus. Because of his past history with Hojo, it would be even worse for Cloud, although it was hard to imagine how.

And at the moment, there was absolutely nothing she, nor anyone else, could do to stop Hojo from doing whatever he pleased to Cloud.

Nothing.

"Hojo, you fucking BASTARD," she hissed between gritted teeth. Cursing wouldn't help find Cloud, but she needed some way to express her anger.

Behind Tifa, the door to the lab swung open. She quickly turned to see Kunsel enter and walk toward her.

"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you," he said with an apologetic shrug.

"No, it's all right. What are you doing here?"

"Reeve... I mean Cait Sith... sent me along. He thought that you might need some help."

She smiled slightly at Kunsel's obvious interest in the formidable array of weaponry lying on the counter. Before he could ask, she said, "No, they're not mine. They're Cloud's."

Kunsel blinked. "All of them? The last time I saw him, he was carrying only the one greatsword."

Tifa said nothing. Instead, she merely reached out to pick up the symmetrical primary blade, then calmly began to attach the other weapons to it. Although it took clear effort to handle the longer swords, she worked steadily and confidently, without any fumbling.

First came the hollow, wrap-around blade. When the two saw-edged swords slid into place, the resemblance to Zack's Buster Blade became unmistakable. She finished with the two smaller side blades.

As she rested the fully assembled weapon on the counter, Kunsel released a soft breath.

"Who designed it?"

"Cloud. I don't know where he got the idea, but the design was entirely his. He refers to them as Fusion Swords," Tifa replied.

"And he uses all of them?"

"Yes, singly or in various combinations."

"Dual wielding, huh? That's pretty unusual."

It was Tifa's turn to give Kunsel a curious look. "Now that you mention it, I don't remember encountering any other SOLDIERs who used multiple weapons like that."

"Oh, it's not that we can't do it. I've done it myself on occasion, but only in an emergency. It's a lot harder than you'd think, even for SOLDIERs. I can't recall any SOLDIER who used two swords simultaneously on a regular basis." He paused, then added thoughtfully, "Not even Zack."

"Cloud's not Zack." Tifa's tone was sharp, almost hostile.

Kunsel made a placating gesture. "It was just an observation. I know that Cloud and Zack are two very different people."

"Oh," Tifa muttered, flushing with embarrassment.

"But I also know that Cloud's been through very traumatic stuff, and that he has some... problems... because of those experiences."

Tifa's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Who told you...?"

"Reeve. Not everything," he added hastily, "But just enough to get some idea what's going on with Cloud and how it relates to Zack. He told me mainly to keep me from bugging Cloud for answers he might not have." He gave her a wry smile.

Tifa couldn't find it in herself to blame Reeve for discussing Cloud's background with Kunsel. It made sense, especially if it spared Cloud from having to explain matters himself. She nodded, then said, "I didn't mean to jump down your throat. I know that Zack was Cloud's best friend and meant so much to him, but...." She bit her lip. "Zack's memory... it weighs on Cloud, too. It's like a shadow he can never fully escape."

She looked away. "I know, it probably sounds horribly ungrateful, considering that Zack sacrificed so much to protect Cloud."

"No, I do understand what you mean," Kunsel replied. "Sacrifices -- no matter how heroic, no matter how necessary, no matter how well meant -- always leaves scars on those left behind. It's the price we pay for caring."

"Do you think Zack realized that when he faced off against the Shinra Army?" Tifa said. She felt oddly relieved that she could finally discuss this topic with someone, especially one who knew Zack so well. She certainly couldn't do so with Cloud. And unlike Cloud, Kunsel seemed to have no problems recognizing Zack's faults as well as his outstanding traits. "Did he have any idea what his sacrifice might do to Cloud?"

"Oh, I think he knew. Zack could act like a carefree ditz a lot of the time, but in his own way, he'd been through a lot, even before Nibelheim. He knew that actions have consequences. Dumping some huge emotional load on Cloud would have been the very last thing Zack would've wanted. But in the heat of the moment, when you're out of options...." Kunsel shrugged. "All you can think about is protecting the person you care about. You don't have time or energy to worry about what happens afterward."

Kunsel sighed quietly. "And Zack always was an impulsive, hot-blooded, seat of the pants sort of guy. Not so great in the long-term planning department." Then, in a more somber tone, he added, "Or at watching his own back outside of a fight." He looked at Tifa. "What about Cloud?"

"What?"

"What sort of person is he?"

"Ah...." Taken off-guard, Tifa struggled to find something to say, without revealing too much. "He's... ah, private. Keeps things to himself, even when he shouldn't. He thinks and worries, often too much for his own good. Uh...."

As she continued to hesitate, Kunsel hastily raised his hand and said, "Never mind. I didn't mean to put you on the spot like that. Reeve told me enough to get a basic understanding of Cloud. As for the rest, I guess I'll find out for myself when we get him back and kick Hojo's ass."

Tifa took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders. "Right. We need to focus on rescuing Cloud and the others. Everything else can wait."

Kunsel glanced back at the assembled Fusion Sword, and said, "So, now what? Don't tell me that you're intending to cart this beast of a sword around until Cloud comes back."

She snorted. "No. Swords aren't my thing. We'll take it back to the Shera."

Tifa had handled the complete Fusion Sword before and even then, it had taken definite effort. Now, barely recovered from Hojo's toxic attack, just lifting it a few inches off the counter made her arms tremble. However, she wasn't going to allow mere exhaustion to prevent her from putting Cloud's swords in what she considered their rightful place.

"Tifa, may I?" Kunsel gestured to the massive assembled blade. "You're still recovering and Cait Sith did send me along to help."

She hesitated, then nodded with obvious reluctance as she lowered Cloud's sword back onto the lab counter.

Using both hands, Kunsel picked up the complete Fusion Sword.

"Completely put together like this, it feels just like Zack's Buster Sword. Not just the weight, but the balance, too." He glanced back at Tifa, who was obviously relieved to see him handle Cloud's sword with respectful care instead of casually swishing it around.

"You know, I was pretty impressed when I saw how all those different blades fit together to form something that looked so much like the Buster Sword. But now that I'm actually holding it, I finally realize how much work it must have taken Cloud to not only get just the shapes right, but also the balance as well. Not just the final assembled sword, but each individual sword and all the possible combinations in-between. Damn. Consider me as impressed as hell."

Tifa watched the SOLDIER rest Cloud's sword on his shoulder, then grinned slightly, both amused and gratified by Kunsel's reaction.

"Once we get back to the Shera, I'll introduce you to Fenrir."

o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~oo~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o

After visiting the Shera's hold and helping Tifa stash Cloud's swords carefully away in Fenrir, Kunsel prepared to return to Healen's clinic. Tifa, claiming she felt more comfortable onboard the Shera, was resting in one of the spare crew quarters.

In the hallway near the exit, he found Cid leaning against the wall, arms folded, waiting for him. The pilot's expression was not exactly hostile, but not exactly friendly, either.

Slightly confused, Kunsel patiently waited for Cid to say something.

Finally, Cid sighed and said, "Look, I know Tifa's a good-looking young woman, and you're a friendly guy who's got eyes. But you'll want to watch your step with her... if you know what I mean."

Kunsel blinked, still confused, then his jaw dropped as he finally figured out what Cid was hinting at.

"Wait, you think I'm trying to hit on Tifa?" Kunsel sputtered.

"Aren't you?" Cid shot back.

"No, I'm not!"

When Cid gave him a skeptical stare, Kunsel snapped, "Look, I enjoy a pretty lady's company as much as any other guy. But I do NOT poach. And I sure as hell wouldn't try to put the moves on a woman when her significant other has been kidnapped by a crazed scientist. What kind of creep do you take me for?!"

The SOLDIER raked a hand through his hair, took a moment to regain his temper, then heaved a long sigh.

"I can't deny that Tifa's my type. But I've pretty much figured out from the get-go that she's all about Cloud."

"Fine. As long as we're clear about that," Cid muttered. "So what the hell were the two of you getting so chatty about down in the hold?"

"Admiring Fenrir, of course," Kunsel said with an easy grin. "That motorcycle's a beautiful piece of work, especially with those built-in holders for all those swords."

Then in a more serious tone, he added, "And she wanted to know more about Zack, mostly because he had such a big influence on Cloud's life. I guess she's trying to distract herself while we're forced to sit around and wait."

"Makes sense, I suppose. I'm about to climb the damn walls as it is." Cid kicked a bulkhead for emphasis.

"So, do you have to pull the 'big brother' act often?" Kunsel said in an amused voice.

Cid snorted and rolled his eyes. "Nah. This is the first time. Unlike a certain ninja girl I could mention, I usually TRY to keep my nose out of other people's personal business."

"Then why me, and why now?"

"Tifa's a smart girl and she's worked in bars for years. She knows how to handle guys and warn them off, either nicely or with her fists. But at the moment, with Cloud missing like this, Tifa's probably not paying as much attention as she normally would."

"Ah."

"So I figured that it'd be better to get things spelled out clearly now, instead of waiting for something to get fucked up at a critical moment because someone's feeling butt hurt or jealous."

"Is Cloud the type to get butt hurt or jealous over Tifa?" Kunsel asked, perking up with interest.

Cid gave the SOLDIER a startled look. Finally, he said, "Butt hurt, no. Jealous? Hell if I know. And I was talking about YOU, smartass."

When Kunsel gave Cid an innocent 'who, me?' grin, the pilot said in decidedly grouchy tones, "Cloud likes to keep things to himself, and Tifa's the same way. If you're that curious about what's going on between them, why don't you ask her yourself?"

"No, I'd rather not," the SOLDIER drily replied. "She really doesn't like questions about Cloud's emotions or state of mind, especially from strangers."

"Congrats, you get points for being observant." Cid gave the SOLDIER a little mock salute.

"She's rather protective of Cloud and his privacy."

Cid uttered a noncommittal grunt.

"And apparently she's got good reason to be."

When Cid gave him a suspicious look, Kunsel said, "Cait Sith gave me a brief rundown on Cloud's past and some of the resulting complications."

Cid looked both surprised and annoyed. "The cat's usually not that much of a blabbermouth."

"Make no mistake. That little talk certainly wasn't for my benefit, but rather for Cloud's. Cait thought I needed to know that Cloud has very good reasons for acting the way he does, and asked me to give him some space." Kunsel cocked his head slightly and said with a rueful smile, "Am I going to have this same conversation with every one of Cloud's close friends?"

"If you're going to ask nosy questions about him, you can bet on it."

"Tifa's not the only one who's protective of him."

"Cloud's one of the best guys I know, even if he's got some screws loose." Cid straightened away from the wall, and dusted off his pants. "Now that we've got all that stupid personal crap out of the way, we can get back to the important stuff, like trying to find where the hell Hojo's taken Cloud."

o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~oo~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o

(end of Part 7)



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The Full Disclaimer:

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

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



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oOo

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Current Mood: creative creative

12 hisses or Hiss in my ear....
Comments
crack_fairy From: crack_fairy Date: July 16th, 2011 04:21 am (UTC) (Link)
wonderful writing as usual... looking forward to Sephiroth showing up! that was always my favourite part in the original COI. ^_^
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: July 17th, 2011 02:44 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks! I want Sephiroth on the scene, too! But the proper setup is critical.... ::pout::

If I'm lucky, I'll be fully caught up to (and even past) the original COI by the end of this year. ^_^;

salmastryon From: salmastryon Date: July 16th, 2011 05:21 am (UTC) (Link)
weee!!! :D

I'm fine with shorter chapters it still seems like a lot of stuff is happening anyway. :D
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: July 17th, 2011 02:45 am (UTC) (Link)
Yay! I know that the current parts are a bit dry, but plenty of action will be coming up soon.
ladysephiroth From: ladysephiroth Date: July 17th, 2011 12:13 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes, Kunsel, please to not be poaching on Cloud's turf :)

I'm fine with shorter chapters, can't wait for the next one!!
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: July 17th, 2011 02:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Kunsel's a good guy, honest! He's just burning with curiosity about Cloud and his relationship with Zack.

I have the next chapter half-written, so hopefully it will be out soon. ^_^
kyuu_momo From: kyuu_momo Date: July 17th, 2011 03:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
Excellent as always. :)

Keep up the great work!
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: July 17th, 2011 08:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm chugging away! ^_^;
appleqb From: appleqb Date: July 26th, 2011 03:07 am (UTC) (Link)
I fricken love thus story and I get ridiculously gleeful when ever I see a chapter has been updated. I enjoy this so much and I am absolutely going to keep gushing insteady of saying anything of consequence ^_^ Thank you very much any way.
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: August 7th, 2011 11:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm glad you're enjoying the story so far. ^_^
katreal From: katreal Date: August 3rd, 2011 09:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
I need to find a way to remind myself to check this more often. I come back to find, not only one, but TWO new chapters :D Made my day~

If I remember the original story correctly, it appears as if Sephiroth will be making his appearance relatively soon...I am really looking forward to seeing how it'll be different from the original.

...And now I want to go find the original and reread it now >< I think it's still on FF.net
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: August 7th, 2011 11:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yup, Sephiroth should be making his presence very soon (within 1-2 chapters).

And yes, COI Redux and the original COI are both available on FF.net.

If you're worried about missing a new chapter, you can sign up for fic alerts on FF.net. ^_^

FYI, another chapter is going up within the hour. :D
12 hisses or Hiss in my ear....