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Conflicts of Interest Redux 8 (FF7 post-AC AU) - Convolutions of an Evil Mind
madamhydra
madamhydra
Conflicts of Interest Redux 8 (FF7 post-AC AU)
Another chapter in less than a month! Woohoo! \^_^/

This chapter is basically all Cloud and Reno. It really helps if you're familiar with Crisis Core, but hopefully it will still make some sense even if you're not.

Comments and criticism always welcome! ^_^

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 8
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~7,500
Warnings: mature/dark themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

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

o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=oo=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o=o

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

Text Conventions

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

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

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

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

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

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica

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

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Scarlet knew she was running out of time. She didn't need Hojo's gleeful cackling to tell her that.

The lunatic didn't need her to control her manufacturing plant, and she was no use to him as a hostage. At any moment, she could end up dead... or worse, given Hojo's apparently insatiable demand for experimental subjects.

As she angrily paced in the small storage room that served as her cell, Scarlet considered her very limited options. Escape and survival were her top priorities. The big question was how to get away from Hojo and his ever-growing horde of living monstrosities.

Unconscious and trapped in that specimen cell, Reno was of no use to her. A real pity, because she needed all the help she could get. And she could always use a nice meat shield.

She was on her own. Fine. She'd make it work... somehow.

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

As awakenings went, this had to be one of Reno's worst. He was stark naked, aching all over, and his mouth tasted like something unspeakable had taken a crap inside it. Beyond pissed didn't even begin to describe his current mood.

He gingerly rotated his left shoulder. It throbbed like hell, but at least it moved the way he wanted. He should probably feel a teeny bit grateful that Hojo had taken the trouble to slip his shoulder back into its socket.

Then again, the crazy tentacled asshole was the one responsible for dislocating his shoulder in the first place.

On top of twisting limbs in ways that nature never intended, Hojo and his monsters had left him with a nasty assortment of bruises and cuts. The worst of the slices and stabs were sloppily stapled and bandaged, so it looked like Hojo didn't want him to bleed to death any time soon.

In any other situation, that might be reassuring... but not when mad scientists were involved. Mad scientists had batshit crazy ideas and loved testing them out on human subjects. And as mad scientists went, Hojo took top prize with honors.

Reno wondered just how long he'd been unconscious. The last clear memory he had was of the phone call to Rufus. Everything after that was one big hazy blur of pain.

After sitting up -- it took several tries -- Reno carefully examined his surroundings, looking for anything that would help get him out of this mess. Unfortunately, he was locked in a large transparent cylindrical chamber, similar to the ones commonly used in Shinra's research labs. The entire cell was smooth and featureless, except for a drain in the floor that was far too small to crawl through, assuming that one could get through the extremely sturdy metal grill.

Being hungry and thirsty would have completed his misery nicely, except it appeared that Hojo had provided several bottles of water and a few basic ration bars. Instead of providing encouragement, the supplies only made Reno more jittery. There was no question that the crackpot definitely wanted to keep him alive and reasonably healthy, which in turn meant that Hojo probably had some seriously fucked up plans for him.

It was situations like this which gave a guy a true appreciation of the phrase 'a fate worse than death'.

Reno tensed as he heard the scuffling sound behind him, then turned to see Hojo standing outside the test chamber. For a long moment, the scientist watched him intently with those creepy, multi-faceted bug eyes, looking for... what?

Refusing to show nerves, Reno drawled, "Your ideas of accommodations suck big-time, Hojo."

The scientist rocked back and forth, quite unfazed by Reno's response. To the contrary, he seemed decidedly pleased. "Excellent. You appear to be your normal rude, impertinent self."

"Any reason why I wouldn't be?" Reno retorted, even as a chill ran down his bare back.

Even though Hojo's mouth was now a sucker-like hole lined with needle sharp teeth, the scientist still managed to twist it into an infuriating smirk.

"Oh, none at all," Hojo replied smoothly, rubbing his chin with a thin tentacle. "I was merely noting that you don't seem overly traumatized by your capture and subsequent... heh, treatment."

"Did you honestly expect me to curl up into a little ball and start whimpering?"

Hojo shrugged and said, "You might be interested to know that we'll be having company in a matter of hours. A special delivery, you might say, of a certain critical component for my primary project."

"And that would be?" Reno said, trying his best to sound bored.

Hojo merely gave him another sly grin and waggled a taunting tentacle. "You'll see soon enough." And with those words, the crazed scientist half-walked, half-slithered out of sight.

Hojo was as good as his word, because some time later -- several hours at Reno's best guess -- Hojo's mutated minions hauled a familiar, blond-haired figure into the lab.

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

After his capture, Cloud had repeatedly slipped in and out of consciousness during the flight from Healen. The initial numbness from the poison had long since faded, only to be replaced by a deep, pervasive throbbing pain throughout his body.

The creatures carrying him finally arrived at their destination during one of his rare lucid moments. He had a vague impression of some sort of industrial facility and the sea, but that was all as the creatures immediately dragged him into a large cavernous building upon landing.

Although now conscious, Cloud found himself in a near-complete state of paralysis, trapped in a body that refused to move no matter how desperately he tried. The sensation of utter helplessness was both familiar and horrible, bringing back flickers of those lost years in Nibelheim... his time with Zack... helplessly watching Zack fight, bleed, and die....

The monsters came to a halt and dangled him in mid-air just like a chunk of meat for inspection. That sensation was also sickeningly familiar. His eyes refused to fully focus, but Cloud still managed to recognize his hideously transformed captor.

"...Hojo," he muttered.

"And so we meet yet again." The scientist tilted his bug-like head and said thoughtfully, "Two years ago, I dismissed you as a complete failure. It appears that I might have been too hasty in my assessment. Apparently, there's much more to you than meets the eye."

"...what?" Cloud's eyelids fluttered closed as he teetered on the brink of unconsciousness. But he fought off the dizziness and forced his eyes back open. As his head lolled uncontrollably, he caught a brief glimpse of Reno, naked but apparently unharmed, in a nearby transparent cell. But he couldn't spare any energy to do more than feel a faint twinge of relief. It took every bit of energy and concentration he had to stay focused on Hojo.

"Those fools at Nibelheim. How dare they engage in unauthorized experiments behind my back!" Hojo hissed furiously, then leaned close to Cloud. "What exactly were they doing with you? What did they hope to accomplish with their research?"

Cloud's weakness didn't prevent him from retorting, "I don't have a clue... what you're blabbering about."

Hojo uttered a derisive snort. "No, I expect not. After all, what would a mere lump of flesh like you know of the grand schemes of scientists? Still, there's no denying that you ARE different from all the other Sephiroth Clones, successes and failures alike. And I intend to find out why."

Cloud tried, but between his own disorientation and Hojo's obvious insanity, nothing the scientist said made any sense to him.

As Hojo paced back and forth in front of Cloud, he muttered, "As a Sephiroth Clone -- and a failed one at that! -- you should, at best, barely reach the physical level of a SOLDIER, Third Class! I specifically designed them that way!"

He halted, then whirled to jab a tentacle at Cloud. "But you! You somehow managed to not only match, but exceed, the performance level of a First Class. You're stronger, faster, and more powerful than you should be. Most baffling of all, you're far more skilled than you should be!"

Hojo resumed his pacing, and said, almost sulkily, "So much so, you dared to challenge Sephiroth and managed to survive."

"I did a lot more than just survive my run-ins with Sephiroth," Cloud said pointedly, then took a deep breath as he fought another wave of dizziness.

In exhausted, incredulous tones, he continued, "Is that why you captured me, Hojo? Out of some crazed sense of professional jealousy? Because you've got some deluded, paranoid notion that your former colleagues went behind your back and managed to create some sort of super-soldier capable of fighting your precious Sephiroth toe-to-toe?"

For a brief instant, Cloud thought that Hojo might slit his throat or throttle him in sheer rage. But instead, the scientist slowly began to giggle quietly.

"It's fascinating that you've managed to recover such a strong sense of identity, unlike every other Sephiroth Clone I've created. That's yet another unique trait that you possess."

Hojo's sucker-like mouth suddenly twisted into a grin of unholy glee. "But it's a trait that will soon become quite irrelevant. Once Sephiroth returns, the niggling issues of identity and free will most likely become entirely moot."

"What are you raving about now?"

"Because in the end, you're nothing more than a puppet."

"I'm no one's puppet," Cloud said in a low, fierce voice.

Hojo smirked, malice oozing from every mutated pore. "Argue all you want, but you can't change the simple, inescapable fact that despite the best efforts of that half-breed Ancient girl, this fine body of your still contains Jenova cells, and it always will. And if a biological entity contains Jenova-based cells, Sephiroth can control it."

Hojo shrugged eloquently. "Whether he chooses to do so or not... well, that's an entirely different matter."

Anger allowed Cloud to push aside the darkness that threatened to swallow him. "You're full of it, Hojo," he gasped. "If Sephiroth could take control me so easily, don't you think he would've done so long ago and spared himself the trouble of repeatedly being defeated by puny mere humans?"

Hojo gestured airily. "I'm sure Sephiroth has his reasons, unfathomable they might be to you or me. However, that's not my concern at the moment."

"And what IS your concern, Hojo?"

"Creating a new body for Sephiroth. Now that you're here, my preparations are complete."

Cloud managed to shake his head slightly. "Why are you so obsessed with resurrecting Sephiroth? Do you think he's going to be grateful? He has nothing but contempt for you!"

"Contempt for lesser creatures is a perfectly reasonable attitude for a god-like entity, is it not?" the scientist said nonchalantly. "And who expects gratitude from a god?"

Hojo made a mocking bow. "I am but a useful minion, here to carry out Sephiroth's will to the best of my ability."

"And that doesn't bother you?!"

"Why should it? My only desire is to observe the progress of my ultimate research project. And it's quite the fatherly thing to do anything, sacrifice anything, to see that one's child reaches his full potential, is it not?"

"I'd like to hear you say that as Sephiroth shreds you to pieces," Cloud said coldly.

The scientist laughed nastily. "Bluster all you want, while you still can. Once Sephiroth returns and asserts his rightful authority over you, I think your attitude will become much more compliant. Then I'll be able to study you at leisure. However, work before pleasure."

Still paralyzed by Hojo's drugs, Cloud could do nothing as the monsters abruptly flung him onto the nearest lab table and pinned him down securely. Their grip tightened painfully as without warning, Hojo lashed out with a razor-tipped tentacle, driving it deep into his captive's abdomen.

Cloud uttered a choked gasp that quickly turned into a strangled gurgle as blood flooded his mouth. In the background, he vaguely heard Reno shouting furiously.

The scientist ignored the Turk's curses as he probed and prodded deep inside Cloud's body.

"Where is it? It has to be in here!" Hojo muttered in growing frustration as whatever he sought eluded him.

Hojo's poisons had not only stripped Cloud of any ability to move, but after the initial numbness, had made an already hypersensitive nervous system even more so. Cloud could only gasp futilely, choking on his own blood as the agony of being gutted and the horrible sensation of Hojo's tentacles slithering and sliding around his internal organs intensified to excruciating levels.

Even a SOLDIER's enhanced body could cope with only so much abuse. Between the physical trauma, the blood loss, the pain, and Hojo's toxins, Cloud finally and mercifully passed out.

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

Trapped in the transparent chamber, Reno could do nothing but swear and glare furiously at Hojo as the madman continued to dig around in Cloud's guts. Finally, the scientist halted his rummaging, then with a triumphant cry, pulled something out of Cloud's abdomen with a loud, wet sucking noise. Reno couldn't immediately identify the blood-smeared object, but it was obviously valuable, judging from the careful way Hojo cradled the palm-sized item in his tentacles.

Hojo ignored the limp, unconscious Cloud and quickly moved to a nearby sink to rinse off the blood so he could inspect his prize. Once clean, Hojo carefully inspected the small transparent cylinder, then chortled in obvious satisfaction.

Noticing the Turk's fierce stare, Hojo grinned madly and said, "The last and most essential component for the construction of Sephiroth's new body -- a pristine sample of his original cells."

Reno stared incredulously at the sample, then at Cloud.

Hojo, apparently euphoric over the successful retrieval, said, "Ah, yes. How did the sample get into an escaped lab specimen? It appears that some enterprising Shinra employees decided to indulge in a little personal profiteering. The director of the storage facility decided to swap this sample of Sephiroth's cells for a researcher's sample of Jenova cells. That fool Steven took his new prize to Nibelheim, but one of my surprise visits evidently caught him off-guard and he panicked. So he hid this sample container where no one would think to look." Hojo casually gestured toward Cloud, who continued to lie motionless and bleeding on the counter.

"So what, all that crap about secret experiments on Cloud was just a big pile of behemoth shit?" Reno demanded in disgust.

"Not at all. I captured him because of the sample. But now that I have him, I fully intend to uncover the reasons for his various anomalies."

In response to Hojo's gesture, the hulking monsters that had previously restrained Cloud now picked him up and callously dumped the injured man inside the test chamber with Reno.

Reno swore and quickly knelt down beside Cloud. Between Hojo's mauling and the monsters' clumsy handling, it was a major miracle that the poor guy's intestines weren't spilling out all over the damn floor. Sure, SOLDIERs were tough and survived nasty injuries that would kill normal humans ten times over, but a gut wound like that was a bit much to deal with, even for them. And that was on top of whatever the fuck Hojo did to totally incapacitate Cloud in the first place.

He had to give points to Cloud for snarking back at Hojo, despite his weakened condition. That line about the professional jealousy had been damn good.

But the later bit about puppets and mind control shit... now that was seriously creepy. And it was impossible to know how much of what Hojo said was true, and how much was a vicious attempt to screw with Cloud's head.

Reno reached out to inspect the other man's wounded abdomen, then quickly jerked his hand away.

Cloud's blood BURNED his flesh like acid.

Hojo, hearing Reno's involuntary yelp of pain, returned to the test chamber as the Turk hastily used Cloud's pants to wipe as much blood off his hand as he could. As Reno was examining the the peeling skin of his palm and fingers in disbelief, the scientist uttered a tsking noise and blandly commented, "It appears he absorbed more of the toxin than I anticipated."

Reno glared at Hojo. "What sort of fucking toxin turns a guy's blood into acid?!"

Hojo ignored the outburst and continued to mutter, "For the specimen to not only survive such a heavy toxin load, but even be conscious and coherent... fascinating."

"You consider poisoning the crap out of a person merely fascinating?" Reno said sarcastically, having regained control over his anger. Since Hojo seemed to get off on provoking outrage, the obvious response was to stay cool.

But it wasn't easy.

"Indeed, a normal SOLDIER would have exhibited much more severe symptoms, which only proves that this one's no ordinary Sephiroth Clone. Physically speaking, of course." He looked at Reno and cackled softly. "No need to worry. His body seems to be coping quite well with my specially designed toxin, and his immune system will probably purge or neutralize it soon enough. It will be an excellent test of his recuperative abilities."

"Has it occurred to you that he just might bleed to death before that happens?" Reno retorted.

"He won't die so easily," Hojo said dismissively. "And I'm confident he's endured worse. But if you're so concerned...." The scientist rummaged in a nearby cabinet and returned to toss a small emergency medical kit into the cell.

As the kit rolled to a stop at Reno's feet, Hojo said, "Since you're so kind to volunteer, I'll hold you responsible for his care." With those words, Hojo glided out of the lab, giggling madly.

Reno sank down to the floor the chamber, looked at the still bleeding Cloud, then shook his head in rueful disbelief.

"Great. Just. Fucking. Great."

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

The corrosive effect of Cloud's blood prevented Reno from getting a good look at the wound. In the end, all he could do was carefully clean off and bandage the injured area. Hopefully Hojo was right about Cloud's recuperative abilities being able to handle whatever damage there was to his internal organs. Fortunately, SOLDIERs were pretty damn resistant to normal infections, so that was one thing they probably didn't have to worry about.

That left the massive blood loss and the nasty case of poisoning, but there was precious little that Reno could do at the moment.

Several hours passed before Cloud showed any signs of regaining consciousness.

"You know, patching you up is getting to be a habit," Reno said drily as Cloud's eyelids fluttered open.

"...Hojo?" Cloud's voice was a hoarse whisper.

"He's off doing his crazy crap. It's just you and me in here."

"What... what did he do to me?" Cloud's brow furrowed anxiously.

Reno cocked his head slightly. "He didn't put anything in, if that's what you're worrying about. He was busy trying to take something out."

"Out? What...?"

"A sample container of Sephiroth's cells. Apparently, it's the last thing he needs to build Sephiroth's new body, or so he says."

Reno watched Cloud's blue eyes widen in horrified shock.

"How...?"

"How did it get inside you?" Reno repeated Hojo's story, then added, "So apparently you've been carting that thing inside you for... oh, the last three years or more."

Cloud, who had listened to Reno in taut silence, closed his eyes then suddenly uttered a single breathy sound that might have been a bitter bark of laughter.

"I... seem to have a real talent for this sort of thing."

"'This sort of thing?'"

"For expediting catastrophe. I'm the one who handed over the Black Materia to Sephiroth. And now I'm the one who's just handed Hojo the key to Sephiroth's resurrection."

Reno wondered if it was Cloud's injuries, Hojo's toxin, or a combination of both that was making the usually close-mouthed man suddenly so talkative. Cloud himself seemed to realize the oddness of his own behavior and bit his lip, as if to forcibly stop himself from blurting out more personal comments.

In the meantime, Reno said acidly, "I may be a little slack in the personal responsibility department, but I think you're going way overboard with the guilt here. Because getting massively poisoned, dragged halfway across the world, and nearly fucking eviscerated by a crazy tentacled mutated freak hardly qualifies as carelessly 'handing' anything over to Hojo!"

Cloud opened his eyes and gave Reno a startled stare.

"Look, you didn't know that you had the damn sample. No one had a clue except for the guy who stuck it in you. How Hojo found out, I don't know and don't care. All I care about is finding a way out this fucking mess, hopefully before Hojo finishes resurrecting Sephiroth!"

"...I suppose you have a point. Stopping Hojo is the most important thing right now."

"Hurrah, you're going to be reasonable this time around instead of wallowing," Reno said sarcastically.

"Wallowing?" Cloud muttered.

"Yes, wallowing in misery instead of doing shit."

Cloud took a careful breath, then said, "Unfortunately, I'm in no condition to do anything at the moment."

"Still can't move, huh?" Reno said, eyeing Cloud's motionless body. "Not surprising. That poison Hojo gave you was one nasty piece of work." He reached out and very carefully touched the blood-soaked bandages on Cloud's stomach, then winced.

As he quickly wiped his finger clean, Reno said, "Your bloodstream's still carrying enough of that crap to burn my skin. Although it's not nearly as bad as it was a few hours ago. I guess Hojo was right about your body being able to handle and neutralize it."

"And you believe him?"

"In this case, yeah. He wants you alive and kicking, not only because he wants to hand you over to Sephiroth, but because he really wants to see what makes you tick."

Cloud's expression went frighteningly blank for a long moment, and Reno remembered that he was talking to someone who knew way too much about being victimized both by Sephiroth and Hojo.

He felt a tinge of relief when Cloud finally blinked and his expression lost that eerie 'not there' look.

Several minutes of silence passed and Reno was starting to think that the other man had passed out again, when Cloud suddenly spoke.

"I never got around to thanking you and Rude for taking care of Tifa and me after Loz's attack in the church."

"It's no big deal," Reno said with a shrug.

Cloud turned his head toward Reno -- the only movement he was capable of -- and said in the same quiet tone, "Most people wouldn't touch someone with the slightest hint of Geostigma, much less bandage a person with openly oozing sores."

That was unfortunately true. Even trained doctors and nurses balked at treating Geostigma patients, afraid of contracting the once-fatal disease themselves.

"I've had lots of practice," Reno replied casually.

"With Rufus." Cloud's words were a statement, not a question.

"Yeah."

More silence followed before Cloud murmured, "Rufus's Geostigma, how bad was it?"

"Stage 4." And that had been an optimistic assessment. If it hadn't been for the healing rain, Rufus probably wouldn't have lasted another month. He didn't know how bad Cloud's case of Geostigma had been. He suspected that it had been quite advanced, even though Cloud had shown relatively few outward signs compared to others.

Reno ruefully observed that Cloud wasn't the only one being unusually talkative, and he didn't have Cloud's excuse of being poisoned or badly injured. However, talking about anything -- even personal shit -- was better than just sitting around bare-ass naked, waiting for Hojo to show up and pull even more insane crap.

On the other hand, Cloud clearly needed rest more than anything else.

"You should try to get some sleep and let your body finish off that poison."

Cloud glanced at him, then replied, "I'd... rather not. Especially now."

Reno eyed Cloud, then blandly asked, "Nightmares?" It didn't take a genius to figure that one out. Hell, if being Hojo's prisoner for just a few days was enough to seriously screw with his own nerves, he really did NOT want to know the sort of nightmares Cloud suffered after his years with Hojo.

"You... could say that," Cloud admitted with obvious reluctance.

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

Cloud didn't know whether it was a deliberate or accidental side effect of Hojo's poison, but he was aware that he was losing the ability to think coherently. His thoughts were starting to slip and slide into chaotic knots where the past and the present, reality and delusion, became hopelessly tangled together.

He almost never remembered specific details from his nightmares, but he was intimately familiar with the sick fear and dread that they left behind. And in the aftermath of the worst nightmares, lying there in the darkness and silence, he often found himself wondering if all the events of the last several years had really occurred, or whether they were merely an elaborate imaginary world constructed by a tortured, broken mind desperate to escape a unbearable reality.

At those times, the best way to prove to himself that he wasn't still trapped in the labs or locked within a unresponsive shell of a body was to simply move.

Most of the time, all it took was a brief walk around the Seventh Heaven or the streets of Edge. At other times, when the dreams and the dread were particularly bad, he would get on Fenrir and ride out into the night.

But now the freedom to move, that simple but effective way of anchoring himself in the reality of the present, was denied him. Not only was he almost completely paralyzed, but he was a prisoner once again. A prisoner of Hojo, a sadistic monster eager to 'examine' Cloud in order to indulge his scientific curiosity and soothe his ruffled professional pride.

He shied away from thinking about Hojo's threats about Sephiroth and his ability to control him. At the moment, he couldn't deal with THAT possibility on top of everything else.

As long as he stayed conscious, he had a slim chance of maintaining his hold on reality. But if he passed out and lost control in his present condition, he would almost certainly lose track of what was 'now' and what was 'then'....

...and in the process, lose himself as well.

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

"Okay, sleep's a bad idea." Reno ran a hand through rumpled red hair. "So, mind telling me how you ended up here?"

Cloud blinked, but instead of answering Reno's question, he abruptly asked, "Have you seen any sign of Rufus or Tseng here?"

Reno stared, then said slowly, "Why the hell would you ask that?" Even before he finished the question, his mind was already racing through the nasty implications of Cloud's question.

Cloud took a slow, measured breath. "After the massacre at Nibelheim, Hojo's monsters attacked Healen. During the fight, the rest of the Turks lost contact with Rufus and Tseng."

"That doesn't mean anything. In the case of a serious attack, Tseng would've evacuated Rufus to a safer location. It's standard protocol in these sorts of situations."

Cloud shook his head slightly, and explained about the scene in the tunnels, the presence of the dead monsters, as well as Rufus's and Tseng's discharged weapons.

"Fuck!" Reno muttered, thinking furiously. With that sort of evidence, no wonder everyone assumed that Hojo had captured the two men. There was only one problem....

"No, I haven't seen any sign of the two of them," Reno said grimly. "Which might not mean anything. But Hojo hasn't mentioned anything about capturing them, either. And it's hard to imagine him passing up an opportunity to gloat about getting his hands on Rufus."

"If Hojo doesn't have them, who does?"

Reno could only think of two reasons that Rufus and Tseng would disappear. First, and the most likely, because they'd been captured by Hojo or maybe somebody else. On the other hand, it could be some sneaky scheme on Rufus's part to mislead the WRO and Cloud's buddies. He hoped that it was the latter, but there was no way of knowing.

"I forgot to tell you. Elena and Rude, they're okay. They managed to evade Hojo's monsters at Nibelheim. We took them back to Healen when we went to investigate Hojo's attack there."

Reno exhaled sharply, not bothering to hide his relief.

"Thanks."

"Should've told you sooner," Cloud murmured, his voice fading.

Reno shrugged it off. "Want to risk some water? You definitely need fluids after bleeding all over the place, but it's your choice. There's some ration bars, too, but I don't think solid food's a good idea given that stomach wound of yours."

After helping Cloud take some careful sips, Reno sat back as Cloud filled him in on everything that had happened after his own capture. Cloud was obviously trying hard to stay focused and alert, but Reno could see that despite his best efforts, Cloud's mind was starting to wander.

He wasn't outright delirious, but it certainly looked like the combination of Hojo's poison and his injuries had thoroughly blown Cloud's normal internal censors because he was starting to say things that Reno suspected that he would never say to a relative stranger in normal circumstances.

Nothing Cloud said was particularly earth-shattering. Mostly there were random snippets about his life with Tifa and the kids, anecdotes about his friends' various quirks, and the occasional ramble about his delivery work. No interesting stories about sexy times with Tifa, unfortunately.

What Reno learned from all this was that Tifa, his friends, and the kids meant a hell of a lot to Cloud, even though he did a good job of hiding it. Reno had suspected it all along, but it was both decidedly weird and enlightening to get a good look at what went on behind Cloud's stoic, antisocial surface.

But Reno also noticed that everything Cloud said focused on events during and after Meteorfall. As for his childhood or his teenage years, Cloud said not a single word.

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

In the end, just as Reno expected, Cloud couldn't fend off unconsciousness any more. Which was probably for the best, because Hojo dropped in twice to gloat over his progress with Sephiroth's resurrection. But when Reno tried to pump him for specific details, Hojo simply giggled.

The scientist seemed both fascinated and annoyed at Cloud's slow, but steady recovery, going so far as to enter the cell and examine Cloud's abdominal wound while muttering about 'anomalous performance parameters'.

When Reno made a sarcastic remark about it, Hojo stared at him for way too long before uttering yet another creepy chuckle. Reno wasn't sure why his pissy attitude seemed to please Hojo so much, but it left him with a nasty feeling that he was missing something important.

Once they were alone, Reno knelt beside Cloud and started to rearrange the bandages ripped away during Hojo's examination. There were clear signs that the wound was starting to heal, but it wasn't completely closed and still oozed a little blood.

"...Tseng... Aerith...," Cloud murmured drowsily.

"What?" Reno was distracted by the tricky job of trying to bandage the open wound of a person whose blood, while not nearly as corrosive as before, still burned his fingers.

"...owe Tseng... for Aerith."

Reno huffed out a breath and said, "Don't tell me you're still holding a grudge over that slap he gave her in the helicopter two years ago."

Cloud's head rolled weakly from side to side.

"...owe him... watching over Aerith...."

Cloud's eyes slowly opened, then... he smiled. It was a strangely familiar little grin, one that Reno was certain he had seen before. But it wasn't Cloud's. For one thing, he couldn't recall ever seeing Cloud smile, much less grin in that easy, sweet sort of way.

"Tseng... kept an eye on Aerith."

"We had orders, you know."

Cloud slowly shook his head again.

"Favor... for me."

Reno froze, then slowly lowered the bandage he held.

"What did you say?"

"Asked Tseng... to protect her... while I was gone. Only person... I could depend on."

Although Tseng never mentioned it, Reno and the other Turks knew that he had personal reasons to keep such a careful eye on Aerith. And yes, there were hints that some sort of personal favor or debt had been involved.

But that didn't make any sense. As far as Reno knew, except for that one brief meeting in the Ancient Temple where the Black Materia had been kept, Cloud had never met Tseng. So how could Cloud, a wanted terrorist at the time, possibly have asked the Turk leader for any sort of favor, much less such a personal one?

Besides, the timing was completely wrong. The Turks had been keeping their eyes on Aerith years before Cloud ever showed up.

What the fuck was going on?

The words, the tone, the facial expressions... they were all wrong for Cloud. But at the same time, they were familiar. He knew this person, and it WASN'T Cloud Strife.

If he didn't know better, he would almost swear that he was talking to....

In a nonchalant voice, Reno said, "Hey, you remember our first meeting?"

It had been in Aerith's church in Sector 5, and had involved falling barrels and a messy little chase in the rafters.

Cloud uttered a soft chuckle and continued in that same dreamy voice, "Sure. Midgar, when those Genesis copies first showed up. Sephiroth and I split up. I ran into you guys in Sector 8. You called me 'Slick' and told me that area was Turk turf. Rude was there, too, along with Tseng and Cissnei."

"Cissnei?" Reno asked in a mild tone, hiding any hint of emotion.

Cloud gave him a confused look... and it was the exact same baffled "Huh...?" expression, complete with that little cock of the head that reminded one of a friendly, but not overly bright puppy dog.

"C'mon, you know. The pretty girl Turk with the long, curly red hair," Cloud protested. "Uses a huge shuriken. Looks great in a bikini."

"You remember seeing Cissnei... in a bikini?"

"Yeah, on the beach at Costa del Sol. A cute yellow and white bikini, with blue trim. Now Tseng, he wasn't wearing a bikini."

"I should damn well hope not," Reno muttered.

Cloud snickered, then gasped in pain. "Okay, not a smart thing to do."

Zack Fair was dead. Reno had no doubts whatsoever about that because he had helped destroy the body, under Tseng's direct orders and personal supervision, in order to keep it out of Hojo's hands.

He went with his instincts and said, as casually as he could manage, "...Zack?"

"Uh-huh?" came the drowsy, but amiable reply.

Reno opened his mouth, hesitated, then said, "Never mind. Go back to... sleep."

"Okay. Wake me in a few hours. Gotta finish that report before Sephiroth...." The words trailed off as Cloud... Zack?... closed his eyes.

Reno sat there beside Cloud and tried to figure what the hell Cloud was doing with a dead SOLDIER's memories and personality.

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

Cloud floundered helplessly, lost in the memories of the past and the thoughts of the present.

Whose memories? Whose thoughts?

He couldn't tell anymore.

But amid the chaos, one single moment gleamed clearly... a memory of two voices, and the unending war they had waged inside his mind.

One of the voices was bright, warm, comforting. He didn't mind that voice at all. It was safe. And even though he knew that the voice was slowly destroying him, he didn't mind because it was a gentle, loving sort of destruction. And who would miss a loser like him? He desperately wanted to curl up inside that confident, reassuring presence and sleep forever.

But the other voice in his head, the dark one that sickened and terrified him, would NOT leave him alone. Would not let him go. Like a great ravenous beast, it crouched deep inside him, screaming and raging. It made him feel/think cruel thoughts.

Horrible thoughts.

Monstrous thoughts.

No. Go away. GO AWAY.

The familiar touch of a warm, calloused hand on his forehead quieted the dark, ugly voice, and he would have sobbed in relief if he could. But he didn't even have that much control over his own body anymore.

The good voice was now both inside and outside his head. It said things he couldn't understand, but that didn't matter. As long as it was there and in control, he was safe.

Everyone was safe.

But the bad voice refused to be permanently silenced. Instead, it continued to spew its poison in the darkest corners of his broken mind.


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

Reno slowly awoke to the sound of muttered words. He lay for a moment on the hard cold floor, listening to Cloud's quiet voice.

"You walked away."

"What?" Reno said with a sigh. He had barely gotten any rest before or after Cloud's arrival, and a sleep-deprived Reno was a cranky Reno.

"You. Walked. Away."

Reno flopped over onto his back and grumbled, "Hey, that was a matter of mutual agreement. We both had better things to do than have a long, pointless fight in the tunnels under Midgar."

"YOU. WALKED. AWAY. AND LEFT US."

The sudden vicious bitterness in Cloud's voice made Reno snap to full alertness as he realized that Cloud probably wasn't talking about their previous encounters in Wutai or under Midgar.

This was something else entirely.

Reno rolled over, then froze when he got a good look at Cloud's face.

He never thought that he would ever have a reason to be grateful to Hojo. But he was wrong, because if it hadn't been for Cloud being immobilized by Hojo's poison, Reno knew with absolute certainty that he would already be dead in the most painful way imaginable.

"You Turks walked away and left us to Hojo," Cloud snarled, his blue eyes incandescent with hatred and loathing.

Even as Reno continued to stare, Cloud's lips curved in a malevolent smile as he hissed out a single, potent word.

"Nibelheim."

Reno's head jerked back as if the word had been a physical blow. And in some ways, it had been.

Reno had done plenty of dirty work as a Turk. But although he never admitted it to anyone, there were a few things that haunted him. Dropping the Sector 7 plate was one of them.

Leaving Zack and the other survivors of the first Nibelheim incident in Hojo's sadistic hands had been another.

"I remember. *HE* doesn't, but *I* do. I remember EVERYTHING."

Even as Reno wondered who the hell was this other 'he' might be, Cloud continued speaking in that furiously bitter voice.

"In the reactor, that long-haired Turk bitch promised to help us. She promised. Instead, she called in Hojo. THE TURKS FUCKING GAVE US OVER TO HOJO AND WALKED AWAY."

Reno said nothing. What could he say, given that everything Cloud said was basically true... except for the 'calling in Hojo' part. That certainly hadn't been deliberate. Chaise never expected Hojo himself to show up at Nibelheim and take over.

But there was no point in arguing the Turks' version of events, not in Cloud's present mood.

"Years in hell, all because of you. I haven't forgotten what you Turks did. I will NEVER forget."

Cloud's smile widened into a vicious grin.

"Payback's a bitch. And I am *SO* going to enjoy it."

Reno had occasionally wondered what a cheerful or smiling Cloud would look like. Just a few hours before, he had seen Cloud wearing Zack's smile, displaying Zack's friendly personality. While weird and unsettling, it hadn't felt the least bit threatening. It was Zack, after all.

Now he was watching Cloud smile yet again. But this time, he really wished that he hadn't. In his line of work, Reno had seen plenty of slasher grins -- often his own, or his fellow Turks' -- but Cloud's was a true masterpiece of profound hatred, utter malice, rabid anticipation, and pure sadistic joy, neatly rolled into one tidy package.

Holy fucking SHIT.

They continued to stare at each other for a seeming eternity, with Reno barely breathing and Cloud -- or whoever the fuck it was -- almost panting in feverish excitement.

But eventually, the hateful blue eyes closed and the blood-chilling smile melted away, leaving no sign of their sinister presence behind.

Even after Cloud's expression had reverted to that of a normal, exhausted, deeply unconscious young man, Reno made no attempt to get back to sleep. Instead, he kept a wary eye on Cloud and spent his time wondering just how many fucking people, personalities, or whatever were floating around inside Cloud's head.

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

(end of Part 8)

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The Full Disclaimer:

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

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

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oOo

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6 hisses or Hiss in my ear....
Comments
ladysephiroth From: ladysephiroth Date: August 8th, 2011 02:50 am (UTC) (Link)
......aaaaaannnnd he's snapped :) Good show! Can't wait for the next part ... the iceman cometh!
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: August 9th, 2011 07:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
He snapped long ago, but no one (Cloud included, poor guy) realizes it. ::evil grin::

Poison and traumatic injury just provides an opportunity to lift the lid to give the unfortunate witness -- in this case Reno -- a peek into hell.

Given that the last chapter of the original COI was 20K+ words, it's going to take a few more chapters of Redux (which I'm limiting to 8K or so) to catch up. But never fear, Sephiroth's coming!
salmastryon From: salmastryon Date: August 8th, 2011 04:19 am (UTC) (Link)
Wee awesome!!! :D

*dances around*

poor Reno trapped in the tube with him this time. I liked how Zack gave an appearance as well. :D

I want to cuddle the poor forlorn nice Cloud and keep the bad one away from him.
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: August 9th, 2011 07:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Cloud's pretty much got a full copy of Zack's memories and personality inside him... and they're bleeding through the cracks, so to speak.

And yes, Strife can be quite the scary one, simply because he's so unpredictable and... well, just plain MEAN.

kittychan1986 From: kittychan1986 Date: August 8th, 2011 12:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
I like that Reno is the poor guy who gets the first up close and personal with all three sides. I think it's just a nod to Reno's incredibly bad luck, but I still like it. The discussion of the Turks and their involvement in and around everything that happened was also wonderful, I love that you called him on it, and Reno's memories of Zack and commentary on Cloud is just purrrttt.

Zack was so sweet in this chapter, it was just...nice. Refreshing to see him. Relaxing. I loved this chapter in the origonal and the rewrite has only made it better. Cloud's decent into madness is so wonderfully delightful and Hojo's creepy giggle actually haunts my dreams. It's absolutely amazing what you're able to do here. And I'm just sitting here gleeing because next chapter means Seph. Great job and I'm looking forward to the next bit.
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: August 9th, 2011 08:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
"Before Crisis" and "Crisis Core" gave me SO much more background to work with, not about Zack, but they really fleshed out the Turks as well. It's clear from those two games that the Turks worked closely with at least some members of SOLDIER. We know that Tseng went on multiple missions with Zack, that the player Turk from "Before Crisis" did to. So it's hardly farfetched that Reno, while not a close friend, probably had several opportunities to work with Zack and got to know him in a casual sort of way (i.e., enough to pick up on Zack's behavior, body language, etc.).

As for Zack, it's interesting how much my view of his character has changed. In the original COI, without any real background on Zack to work with, I pictured him as a rather ruthless badass, with him and Sephiroth being more like equals. Then comes "Crisis Core" (also, "Before Crisis") and Zack's depicted as a bit of a dork... a sweet, adorable dork who STILL manages to be an utter badass. Because of that, the dynamic between Zack and Sephiroth in COI Redux has majorly changed, but hopefully for the better, plotwise.

I can totally see why practically everyone likes Zack and go out of their way to help him -- he's so damn sincere, loyal, and trustworthy. And that will be absolutely critical in the upcoming chapters of Redux. ::hint hint::

If you have a chance, look up the song "Born" by Over the Rhine. I think it's a beautiful description of Zack. ^_^

As for poor Cloud, the thing is that this particular descent into madness occurred years long ago (during his years in Nibelheim). Unfortunately, none of the protagonists (including Cloud himself) know about it. Reno now has some idea, but he doesn't have all the pieces of this very convoluted psychological puzzle. ^_-

While there will be tantalizing hints of Strife's existence sprinkled through the next few story arcs -- yes, story arcs, in the plural -- don't expect to see Strife in his full glory any time soon. Think of him as a particularly diabolic timebomb, quietly ticking away, just waiting for the worst possible moment to go KABOOM!
6 hisses or Hiss in my ear....