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Conflicts of Interest Redux 10 (FF7 post-AC AU) - Convolutions of an Evil Mind
madamhydra
madamhydra
Conflicts of Interest Redux 10 (FF7 post-AC AU)
Well, I didn't get to my goal of catching up with the original COI fic by the end of 2011, but I came close (at least for me)! ^_^;

And the moment many of you have been waiting for. Guess who finally shows up! Things really start to diverge from the original COI, but I hope you like it. Enjoy!

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 10
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~11,000
Warnings/Content: mature/dark/disturbing themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

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

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

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


Text Conventions

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

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

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

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

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

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica

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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[ Weapon Facility ]

Although he had regained nearly all his mobility, Cloud forced himself to remain limp and passive as Hojo's monsters -- some type of heavily mutated bipedal long-snouted reptile -- roughly dragged him along the long hallways. With luck, his apparent helplessness would make Hojo careless and overconfident.

Besides there was no reason to resist because Hojo was taking him exactly where he wanted to go.

He hoped there was still time left to stop Hojo's plan to resurrect Sephiroth. Hojo had made it clear that he wanted Cloud to be an eyewitness to Sephiroth's triumphant return. Now the main question was whether Hojo was dragging him along merely to view the work-in-progress, or to witness its final moments.

He had no weapons, no materia. But that didn't mean he was harmless or helpless. Zack had taught him that. He would figure out some way to stop Sephiroth. He had to.

Cloud turned his attention back to Hojo as the scientist continued to ramble in that slimy, smug way of his. However, he soon realized that there was something odd about Hojo's ravings this time around.

The first few times Hojo gloated about Cloud's anticipated role as Sephiroth's puppet, he had taken it as just another of Hojo's malicious attempts to shake his victim's self-confidence.

But instead of coming up with different threats, Hojo kept harping on the same one with obsessive intensity. When a person went on and on like that, it often hinted at some underlying insecurity. But Hojo never lacked confidence in himself, his abilities, or his creations...

...until now, perhaps?

Was it possible that reality had finally penetrated the walls of Hojo's monumental ego? Had Sephiroth's repeated defeats finally shaken Hojo's overpowering confidence in his masterpiece's god-like supremacy?

The fact that other people and events -- Zack's prior attack in the Nibel Reactor, the presence of Tifa and the others in the Northern Crater, Kadaj's inherent incompleteness, even sheer dumb luck -- had contributed majorly to Sephiroth's various losses was probably irrelevant to Hojo. All that mattered to the scientist was that Sephiroth HAD been defeated on multiple occasions and Cloud had been somehow instrumental in every single one of those losses. Cloud, not Sephiroth, had been the one to walk away -- or the case of Nibelheim, crawl away -- from every one of those confrontations.

The idea that Sephiroth -- his supreme creation and masterpiece, the culmination of decades of work with his very own flesh and blood -- was NOT perfect, was NOT unbeatable, had to be unbearable to someone as arrogant as Hojo.

Cloud suspected that Hojo had probably soothed his wounded ego by telling himself that Cloud was also a product of Hojo's own research. Losing to one's own work might be infuriating, but was somewhat acceptable, if only barely.

But that feeble consolation had apparently been blown out of the water by Hojo's sudden bizarre conviction that Cloud had been the subject of someone ELSE's secret experiments. Experiments Hojo knew nothing about and therefore could not take credit for. So, to Hojo's twisted brain, Cloud no longer counted as Hojo's work, but rather a competitor's rival product.

Talk about insane professional jealousy!

And to make things even worse for Hojo, that rival product apparently performed BETTER, at least in combat, than his own. After all, a 3-0 record spoke for itself.

Cloud was now only guessing, but he suspected that Hojo, unwilling (or perhaps unable) to cope with the idea that Sephiroth's combat preeminence might be in doubt, had somehow become fixated on establishing Sephiroth's complete dominance in another way, one in which Cloud could not possibly pose a challenge.

So all the time Hojo had been accusing Cloud of denial, of being unwilling to face the 'truth' of Sephiroth's mental domination, Hojo himself was in epic denial of his own shaken confidence in his scientific genius, not to mention his jealousy of other scientists' achievements.

Cunning, monstrous Hojo, the ultimate cause of so much pain and tragedy in this world, was finally showing cracks. And Hojo didn't even realize how obvious it was, at least to Cloud.

Sephiroth had described Hojo perfectly when he had called the scientist "a walking mass of complexes" so many years ago during that fateful hike up to the Nibel reactor.

Cloud felt a sudden reckless desire to laugh aloud, but managed to control the urge. No matter how gratifying it would be to rub Hojo's face in this newly discovered weakness, it was better to save it for later, just in case he needed to goad Hojo into doing something reckless or stupid.

But Cloud's brief moment of satisfaction soon vanished, replaced by other darker emotions as Hojo's monsters hauled him down a long corridor toward a set of heavy steel double doors.

He didn't need Hojo to tell him what awaited him just beyond those doors.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

In the middle of the lab, Hojo halted in front of a massive, transparent cylindrical tank and said, "These creatures of mine certainly have their uses, but they simply can't comprehend the finer points of my work."

"You dragged me out of my cell just so you could have an appreciative audience?" Cloud asked, keeping his body limp and his voice weak.

"Of course. You're intimately involved in all this. It's only fitting that you should see this. Take a look at my masterpiece... REBORN!"

With a grand, melodramatic gesture, he slithered aside to give Cloud a clear view of the human form tranquilly suspended in the glowing green liquid within the tank.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

From the time Reno had told him about Hojo's gleeful retrieval of Sephiroth's cells ... no, from the time he learned whose cell sample had been targeted by Hojo, Cloud had known that this moment would inevitably come. He had known and tried to prepare himself for it.

Even so, a familiar sense of cold, heavy dread filled him as he faced the stark reality of Sephiroth's body slowly but inexorably reassembling itself.

There was no mistaking the long silvery hair which drifted around a face with elegant, yet almost feral features, nor the imposing sleek muscular build and unnaturally pale skin.

The actual resurrection was not yet complete, but the clear intent to return was obvious and unmistakable. It was just as Sephiroth had promised.

I will... NEVER be a memory.

And for a brief weary moment, Cloud wondered if there would ever be a way to truly win this seemingly endless war between them. How many times would Sephiroth return to threaten the world? How many times would he need to confront and defeat this most deadly of enemies?

He already knew the answer. He would do it as many times as necessary.

"Our enemy is all that creates suffering."

Even as he watched, Cloud could see Sephiroth's fully mature body rebuilding itself, starting at the head, working downward and from inside outward. The bones formed first, followed by internal organs and/or muscles, then finally skin.

"Amazing, isn't it?" Hojo said, chortling. "All this progress in just over 24 hours!"

Barely one day, and what had probably been a tiny cell sample of tissue no bigger than a fingernail had already become the unmistakable form of his worst enemy. The head, neck, upper chest, and shoulders were already complete. As skeletal arm bones were being wrapped in muscle, indeterminate blobs of tissue were coalescing, steadily gaining both definition and texture to become recognizable internal organs which gradually attached and packed themselves into the body's abdominal region.

As he gazed at Sephiroth serenely floating in the tank, the sight of that half-formed body, surrounded by glowing green Mako, jerked his mind into the past, to the moment when he

stood before Sephiroth's chrysalis of materia, the icy hardness of the Black Materia in his gloved hand. He knew exactly what he was supposed to do. He knew, but couldn't stop himself.

Or perhaps he didn't want to stop himself. He was a good boy. Or a good puppet. Whatever. The only thing that mattered was the single irresistible command pulsing in his empty mind.

"Give me the Black Materia."

And even as the black orb slipped into Sephiroth's mako chrysalis and the giant cavern crumbled around him, he could only smile and let himself fall

Cloud forcibly wrenched his mind out of the past and back to the present, shivering with the mental effort it took. Fortunately, Hojo was too caught up in boasting about his scientific brilliance to notice anything his supposedly helpless prisoner did.

"...fascinatingly, the presence of additional Jenova cells did not accelerate the rebuilding process, but instead significantly interfered with it. There seems to be some sort of competition going on between the preexisting S-cells in Sephiroth's body and the newly introduced original Jenova cells."

Hojo gestured grandly. "But that problem was easily resolved. As soon as I placed the cell sample in this unit with only raw Mako and a suitable assortment of basic organic compounds as building material, the reconstruction of Sephiroth's body proceeded flawlessly! Exactly as I, and only I, could have predicted! So much for you and your doubts, Gast!"

A surprisingly spiteful thought crossed Cloud's mind.

Your insecurities are showing, you bastard.

Hojo probably could have continued his ranting for hours, but he was interrupted by a loud siren and flashing alarm lights.

"What is it THIS time?!" Hojo snarled in fury, his triumphant mood thoroughly ruined.

An electronic voice over the building's loudspeakers blared, "WARNING. Primary interlock failure. Mako intake at unsafe levels. Percentage of raw Mako in containment system at unacceptable levels. Possible reactor breech. Secondary safety interlocks initiated. Reactor and pumping substation shutdown will occur in two minutes."

Hojo swore loudly. "NO! Moronic computer!"

The scientist stormed over to a nearby terminal and angrily began punching in a series of commands. Hojo waited impatiently, then hissed at the flashing message on the monitor.

"What do you mean that the interlocks can't be disabled from remote terminals!? The Mako flow must not be interrupted at any cost! I won't have it, you hear me!?"

When the flat synthesized computer voice began reciting a long list of error codes, the infuriated Hojo smashed both terminal and monitor with his tentacles, then stormed out of the lab, leaving a helplessly paralyzed Cloud in the grip of the two reptilian minions.

Or so Hojo thought.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Without any specific commands from their master, the two monsters simply remained where they stood, their large scaly claws firmly clamped on Cloud's arms.

He waited passively for several moments as Hojo's slithering footsteps rapidly faded into the distance before he made his own move.

He might not be up to Tifa's level of technical expertise, but he knew how to handle himself in unarmed combat. In addition to the standard hand-to-hand training that the Shinra Army gave all its recruits, he had learned a great deal from Zack.

That training and knowledge, put together with a SOLDIER's strength, made the ensuing fight both brutal and short.

Cloud suddenly twisted one arm free and used it to toss the monster on his right into a nearby lab table. As it lay momentarily stunned, Cloud pivoted left and slammed his knee into the other monster's gut. Scaly armored belly plates absorbed part of the impact, but not nearly enough. Greenish blood spurted from its mouth as the knee strike ruptured and pulverized internal organs. Cloud finished the beast off by slamming his palm into the underside of the monster's elongated jaw, breaking its neck with a loud crack.

Even before the dead creature hit the floor, Cloud turned to face its companion as the beast scrambled back to its feet. Cloud dodged its lunge and ferocious double claw swipes, then let loose with a series of punishing blows that broke bones and shattered joints. He finished with a kick that smashed the creature's skull apart.

With the two monsters dead, Cloud came dangerously close to going down himself. Leaning hard on a nearby table, he checked his stomach wound and found that it had reopened from the fight. He was bleeding heavily again and there was enough of Hojo's poison still floating around his system to mess up both his stamina and his ability to heal.

Unfortunately, he couldn't take any additional time to recover. If he wanted to stop Sephiroth's return, he had to act quickly before blood loss and shock took him down.

Panting heavily, he ignored the large splotches of blood he left behind as he quickly searched the lab, looking for any sort of weapon he could use. He found a stack of black leather clothing, briefly wondered how Hojo managed to get his tentacles on one of Sephiroth's old uniforms, then shoved it aside. In the end, he had a choice of a crowbar and a pocketknife. He opted for the crowbar. It was crude, but at this point, he didn't give a damn about style as long as it got the job done.

Makeshift weapon in hand, he returned to the large tank where Sephiroth awaited and saw that the reconstruction of Sephiroth's body was continuing at its unnerving pace. The head and torso were now complete, with only the arms and legs left unfinished.

As precious seconds ticked by, he scanned the nearby control panel to find the switches he was looking for. But as his fingers hovered above the buttons, he hesitated as the old familiar fear that he wasn't carrying out his own plan, but rather Sephiroth's, flashed across his mind.

No. He was his own person, no longer a broken and empty shell that Sephiroth could easily manipulate.

Quickly shoving his doubts aside, Cloud took a deep breath and and punched the button labeled 'INLET SHUTOFF', followed by the button labeled 'FLUID DUMP'.

At first the glowing green fluid swirled and seethed, then quickly began to drain away. But as the liquid sank lower and lower in the tank, Cloud's eyes widened in disbelief as the draining liquid revealed a mass of glowing green tendrils trailing out of the inlet holes in the tank's ceiling like a mass of invasive vines.

Undetectable to Hojo's equipment or Cloud's own enhanced eyesight, the wispy tendrils had been perfectly hidden by the raw Mako surrounding them. Now with the camouflaging Mako drained away, the tendrils of green energy were clearly visible as they encased and supported Sephiroth's incomplete body.

After the last of the Mako disappeared down the drains with a gurgle, the tank wall automatically split along vertical seams and the resulting wall sections slid back to leave the front half of the tank wide open.

Cloud warily approached as he examined the swirling tendrils of green energy surrounding Sephiroth. They weren't anything like the dark smoky tentacles of corrupted Lifestream energy summoned by Sephiroth a few weeks ago in Midgar. These filaments were unmistakably the familiar brilliant green of the pure, untainted Lifestream.

But what the hell was the Lifestream was doing inside Scarlet's factory? And even more baffling, why was the Lifestream wrapped around Sephiroth like a protective cocoon? Or perhaps a better description would be 'egg', from the way Sephiroth floated freely inside it.

He could understand if the Lifestream was trying to imprison Sephiroth or interfere with his return. But that wasn't happening. If anything, the reconstruction of Sephiroth's body within that glowing green shell seemed to be going faster, not slower.

As he watched muscle and skin reform inside the pocket of Mako, Cloud couldn't escape the feeling that the Planet, far from being hostile, was actually helping Sephiroth.

Which had to be a crazy idea, because why would the Planet want Sephiroth to return to life? It just didn't make any sense!

Desperately confused, physically exhausted, struggling to fend off multiple types of shock, Cloud failed to notice the glowing green tendrils stealthily creeping across the floor toward him. When he did notice, he instinctively recoiled, but it was too late to escape.

The Lifestream reared up and lunged at him with a swiftness that put a Midgar Zolom to shame. He tried to dodge, but the tendrils whipped around his limbs. Completely ensnared, he could only watch helplessly as the Lifestream pumped its potent energy into his flesh.

The crowbar fell from slack fingers with a clang as he collapsed to the floor. He was dimly aware of his body jerking and convulsing as the incandescent Lifestream tore through his body. A scream built in his throat, but couldn't escape as his jaws locked together.

Cloud knew what direct contact with the raw energy of the Lifestream could do to a person. But more importantly, he knew what it would do to him.

He knew what was coming. The voices, memories, and emotions of untold numbers of dead souls would pour into him, drowning him, obliterating his consciousness, his sense of identity and self.

He tried to resist, to protect himself. It made no difference. The Lifestream, the essence of the Planet, was inexorable, its power irresistible.

What it wanted, it took.

And this time, it specifically wanted Cloud Strife.

However, instead of the maddening cacophony of innumerable spirits invading his mind, there was only one.

And this spirit -- so strong, so warm, so comforting -- he knew it better than his own.

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[ the Shera ]

Kunsel stood in the hold of the Shera and eyed the small group of gold and black chocobos calmly nibbling on a few last greens.

"So you're planning to ride the chocobos through the cave to Scarlet's escape tunnel?"

"Even at a flat out run, it would take us well over a half hour to reach the actual entrance to the escape tunnel on foot." She grinned slightly. "And let's face it, most of us aren't great long distance runners. But these birds can cover ten kilometers, regardless of terrain, in ten minutes or less, even if we ride double."

"And you'd be saving all your energy for dealing with Hojo and his bunch. No, it makes perfect sense. But are these birds going to okay with caves?"

As she confidently patted one of the spectacular gold chocobos, Tifa said, "They won't be thrilled about it, but they'll do fine. They've been through a lot with us."

"And after you reach Scarlet's factory?"

"We'll turn them loose and send them back out. As I said, they'll tolerate being underground, but they'd much rather prefer to be in the open air. The Shera can pick them back up. Or if that doesn't work out, they're smart enough to head for the closest 'safe' place they know, which would be Rocket Town. Shera, the person, will take care of them until we can retrieve them."

She glanced at Kunsel, who was making friends with the black chocobo.

"I know that everyone wants to join us down there, but...."

He shrugged. "Sure, but we all understand. Best to have a backup team on call, just in case. Although Jade's not happy about Rude being the only Turk going along with you. I think she's worried that Rufus and Reno will lose out if you guys get stuck with making a choice between rescuing them and rescuing Cloud."

Tifa made an impatient noise. "Of all the.... We are NOT going to abandon Rufus or Reno at the slightest hint of trouble, if that's what she's worried about! Do you think that I'd use any cheap excuse to leave them behind in Hojo's hands?!"

"Not me, but you know Turks. When it comes down to it, they just don't trust outsiders, especially with the welfare of their boss or their fellow Turks. And to be honest, you guys have plenty of reason to hold a serious grudge against Shinra and the Turks."

"We're dealing with Hojo. I wouldn't leave a.... I mean, I'm prepared to rescue Scarlet, of all people, from Hojo!" She exhaled sharply, then added, "Besides, Rude will be coming with us and he's definitely got Reno's and Rufus's welfare foremost in mind."

"Believe me, that's the only thing keeping Jade up here on the Shera instead down on the ground with you," Kunsel said with a grin.

He glanced up at the big-boned black chocobo beside him, its eyelids half-closed in lazy contentment. "So, why don't you introduce me to this bunch?"

"The big black male beside you is Angel."

"Angel?" Kunsel said, raising an eyebrow as the big bird responded to its name with a laconic click of its beak.

"Cloud raced them, so he got to name them," she said. "Those two gold chocobos over there are Essai and Sebastian."

Kunsel froze in mid-neckpat and stared at her. However, with her attention on the last chocobo, Tifa failed to notice his odd reaction to the names.

"And this fancy gold with the reddish cast to his feathers is called Gen, with a 'g'."

"Gen," Kunsel said carefully. "Would that happen to be short for something else?"

Tifa gave the SOLDIER a startled look. "Actually, yes. Genesis, I think, but no one uses that. Cloud frequently calls Gen a big drama queen, probably because he loves to strut and strike elaborate poses to impress everyone."

She ruffled the gold chocobo's feathers, then chuckled as Gen snorted and immediately began preening. "But despite that attitude of his, he really is a good bird at heart."

When Tifa headed back to the Shera's bridge, Kunsel lingered for a moment longer to take another thoughtful look at the four chocobos in the hold.

Essai and Sebastian. Genesis. And he damn well knew from what -- or rather, WHO -- the name 'Angel' had come from.

It would have been perfectly natural for Cloud to name those birds after important people in his own life.

So why the hell were all these chocobos named for important people in Zack's life?

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o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

Inside a factory on a seaswept cliff, gleaming green tendrils of the Lifestream carpeted the floor of a laboratory and draped the interior of a now dry tank. Within that tank, held suspended in midair by a gleaming web of filaments was a large egg-shaped object which held a human form floating inside. On the floor nearby lay a cocoon-like mound, its contents completely obscured from view.

And in another lab on the opposite side of the world, perfectly hidden by the Mako surrounding it, a complex network of Lifestream energy enveloped a motionless figure.

For the men ensnared within the Lifestream's implacable embrace, great changes awaited.

For the first, emotions and memories willfully sundered and discarded now returned to their rightful owner.

For the second, a heroic spirit poured into a perfect vessel.

And for the third, long dormant powers carried within the ancient blood awoke and stirred for the first time in centuries.

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o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

He could interfere.

The Planet, though powerful, was far from subtle. Its intentions, painfully obvious.

He could insinuate himself into that body, so carefully rebuilt by the Planet. He could taint it, corrupt it, wear it, just as Hojo intended.

But that would be too obvious, too simple, and far too predictable.

He could interfere.

But why should he, when the Planet, in its own ponderous, heavy-handed way, was doing all the work for him?

The Planet itself would ensure that Cloud would never, EVER escape the memory of him.

Let the Planet return his past self to the living. Let the Planet fill that body with the fragments of himself he had cast aside.

Far better than mere dreams or whispers in the dark, his past self would serve as a perfect, constant, inescapable reminder for Cloud.

I will... NEVER be a memory.

Each encounter with his past self would force Cloud to not only remember, but to acknowledge the existence of his present self.

So let the Planet make its new Chosen stronger and more powerful.

For Cloud's strength was his strength.

As Cloud remembered, he remembered.

As Cloud endured, he endured.

As Cloud existed, he existed.

Nemesis. Bane. Calamity.

The dark shadow forever coiled in the heart of the Lifestream, waiting to strike when least expected.

The World's Enemy.

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[ Western Continent ]

Cid and the rest of the group stood at the entrance to the cave system that hid Scarlet's secret access tunnel. Tucked underneath a large, overhanging cliff and surrounded by rocks and greenery, the ten foot wide opening was hidden from all but the most careful of searchers.

"I'm sure glad that Scarlet told us exactly where this damn entrance was. We could've searched these canyons for weeks before finding the friggin' thing. Where the hell's Vincent?" Cid muttered, peering around.

"He went on ahead," Nanaki and Yuffie said, as they both pointed into the cave.

"Typical," Cid muttered. "Stupid to think that he'd sit around waiting patiently for us, especially with Hojo involved." He grinned sourly at Yuffie. "So why aren't you in there with him?"

"They drew straws," Nanaki said drily.

"And I lost." Yuffie scowled suspiciously. "I think Vincent cheated."

"You tried to cheat first. He was just better at it." Nanaki's tone was bland, but the quivering of his fur ruff told his friends knew Nanaki was trying to fight back a chuckle.

"But I'm supposed to be the sneaky one!" Yuffie retorted, sulking visibly, even as she idly twirled her favorite oversized shuriken around her finger.

"What about the Shera?" Nanaki asked.

"She'll stay on this side of the ridge. Hojo's monsters are likely to spot her if she gets any closer. According to Scarlet, the weapon factory's located on a seaside cliff that's about ten kilometers that-a-way." He gestured vaguely toward the northwest.

Cid glanced at the cluster of gold and black chocobos calmly standing nearby and making their characteristic 'kweh' and 'wark' noises. As he started to say, "Okay, so who...."

"Dibs!" Yuffie yelled, jumping up and running for the gold chocobo called Gen.

"Yeah, whatever." Cid said as he pulled out his phone. "Hey, Kunsel, you and the Turks comfy up there in the Shera?"

"We're fine. You sure you can't use us down there?"

"I'd love the extra company in kicking Hojo's ass, but it's better to keep you guys in reserve if things get messy."

"Just call us if you need backup or pickup, Cid."

"Sure thing. Remember once we head underground, we'll probably lose contact with you guys and Shera until we hit the factory itself, so don't panic if you don't hear from us for a while."

Kunsel chuckled. "Got it. We'll be listening for you. Good luck."

After the SOLDIER hung up, Cid glanced around him and said, "You guys ready?"

Everyone, old friends and Turk alike, either nodded or called out affirmatives. They had all taken advantages of the travel time from Healen to make careful preparations with their weapon and materia loadouts.

Cid hauled himself up on the gold Essai while Tifa mounted Sebastian. Cait Sith hopped up behind Yuffie as she sat astride Gen. For this run, Nanaki would do just fine on his own four legs, which left Rude as the odd man out.

Tifa held her hand out to the Turk and said, "Come on. Let's go."

Rude pushed up his sunglasses and hesitated visibly before grabbing hold of Tifa's hand. He jumped up easily onto the chocobo and sat down behind her.

"Umm... not too heavy?" the Turk muttered as the gold shifted restlessly from foot to foot.

"No," she said with a laugh. "Compared to riding double with Barret, carrying you will be a breeze."

The Turk said nothing, but paid unusual attention to settling the backpack he carried into place.

"Hey, Rude. You're going to have to hold onto Tifa more tightly unless you want to fall off," Yuffie said in an innocent, sing-song voice.

"Yuffie, this isn't the time!" Tifa said with an exasperated glare at the younger woman.

"Are you girls are through chatting?" Cid asked sarcastically. "Yes? Then let's fucking move out!"

"I was just trying to be helpful!"

"Shaddup!"

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

The trip through the caves went off without a hitch. Within a few minutes, they arrived at the security bulkhead that marked the actual beginning of the access tunnel into Scarlet's factory. After they dismounted and sent the birds on their way, the group stood, staring silently at the massive steel bulkhead.

Or rather, they stared at the Galian Beast-sized hole in the bulkhead.

As one, they all slowly peered through the gaping opening at the tunnel interior, which was filled with smoke, showers of sparks, and thoroughly wrecked machinery. Even as they watched, a heavily damaged gun turret gave up its fight with gravity and fell off the wall with a loud clang, while somewhere further down the tunnel, a speaker feebly chirped a staticy "unauthorized...bzzzzz... presence detected....".

"Impressive," Rude noted in a neutral voice.

"Yeah, Vincent can get that way when he's sufficiently riled up," Cid said drily. "And he's got plenty of reason to be pissed at Hojo. Don't worry, he won't get too carried away. He knows that we need to meet up with Scarlet and grab her intel first."

True to Cid's words, they found Vincent leaning against the wall at the far end of the escape tunnel, his reddish eyes glittering in the subdued lighting.

"Ready?" was all he said as he placed his clawed gauntlet on the small, well-built metal hatchway that led into the weapon facility proper. Tifa quickly entered the security code that Scarlet provided into a nearby keypad and the door opened soundlessly, revealing a dark, medium-sized storage room.

Yuffie and Nanaki moved in first, scouting out the crate-filled area. Once they confirmed that they were alone, the others quietly joined them. Cid opened the door leading out of the storage room, eyed the empty corridor suspiciously, then said, "Where are we supposed to meet up with Scarlet again?"

"In another storage area, up two floors, on the east end of the factory," Cait Sith replied.

"Basically, clear on the opposite side from where we are. It would be," Cid said sourly.

"Well, that's why Scarlet needs our help to get out of here."

"Yeah, yeah. Tifa, give her a call and let her know we're here. I just hope that Scarlet's right about Hojo not noticing if we take out a few of his monsters. If she's wrong, it's going to get messy really fast." He glanced back at the others. "C'mon."

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Nanaki sniffed the air in the designated meeting area, then nudged Yuffie with his shoulder before padding over toward a large air vent. Yuffie silently mouthed a word and got a confirming nod from her furry companion.

As the others joined them in the deserted storage room, Nanaki and Yuffie flanked the air vent and waited. A moment or two later, Yuffie reached out and rapped lightly on the vent grill.

"Long time, no see, Scarlet."

"Crap, you scared me!" exclaimed a familiar sharp female voice. The grill swung open and Scarlet peered out of the large air duct, shotgun in hand. She was still dressed in the same flamboyant, sequined evening gown that she had been wearing during her earlier video transmission to Reeve. However, she now also wore a fully laden tactical vest and a pair of sturdy combat boots.

"Thanks for nearly giving me a heart attack!" Scarlet said irritably. "You're early!"

"Better early than late, right?" Tifa said. "We would have been here even sooner if it hadn't been for that ridiculously long escape route of yours."

Scarlet curled her lip in contempt. "Well, it got you in here undetected, didn't it?" She then shrugged. "Just as well you're early, I suppose, given what's been going on recently."

Cid turned his head sharply to stare at her. "What the fuck do you mean by that?"

"Not too long ago, Hojo took your buddy Cloud out of his cell and dragged him off to the special lab. You know, the one Sephiroth's incubating in."

"What the hell for?"

Scarlet rolled her eyes. "Why are you asking me? I told you, I can't access the security cameras in that area. All I know is that Sephiroth's in that lab and now Cloud is, too."

"What about Reno?" Rude demanded.

"Still in his cell, stark naked and pissed as hell, as far as I can tell." Scarlet rummaged in one of the copious pockets of the tactical vest and pulled out a small electronic tablet. Her long-nailed fingers danced across the screen, then she held it up. "See for yourself."

"Is that live video?" Cait Sith demanded, peering at the screen which showed Reno alone in the specimen chamber.

"Yes." She fiddled with the tablet some more. "And here's Hojo himself, down on the lower maintenance level. I managed to flush him out of the lab almost immediately after he took Cloud inside. So there's a good chance that he didn't have enough time to do anything particularly nasty to your friend Cloud."

"How did you distract him?" Cait Sith asked.

"By hacking the mako reactor controls." Scarlet smirked. "He might be a brilliant scientist with biologicals, but Hojo's no reactor engineer. With any luck, he's going to be fully occupied for the next few hours trying to sort out the mess I created."

"I sure hope you know what the hell you're doing, Scarlet, because I don't fancy the idea of that mako reactor going kaboom on us," Cid said, scowling at her.

"Relax, why don't you? I have even less desire to go up in a glowing green fireball than you do. I didn't overload the reactor or anything like that. I did the opposite, which seemed to really screw with Hojo's plans, judging from his reaction."

"Fine, now that we've got that settled, what's the best way to get to Reno and Cloud?"

Scarlet hauled a small backpack out of the air duct and pulled out several large sheets of paper. Spreading them out on a nearby crate, she said, "Okay, this is a floor plan of Lab Area A. Reno's being kept here." With a long, dagger-like fingernail, she jabbed at a green 'X' on the map.

Flipping that sheet aside, she continued, "The lab with both Sephiroth and Cloud is located here, in Lab Area C." Scarlet gestured to a large area bordered in red. "This high security corridor is the only way into that section. From the limited view of the security camera, I'm guessing that the equipment holding Sephiroth is somewhere... here." She circled a spot somewhere in the center of the red-bordered area.

"Okay, is there anything else you want to tell us before we get going?" Cait Sith asked.

"Yeah. It would be really nice if you could spare a few guys to escort me out of here right now, but I've got a feeling that isn't going to happen," Scarlet said sarcastically.

"Nope," was Cid's concise reply.

"Didn't think so. So I take it that I'm not leaving until you guys are leaving."

"Basically. Consider it incentive to be as helpful and cooperative as possible."

She gave them a thin-lipped smile, then lifted her right hand to examine her fingernails thoughtfully. "Suppose I tell you that I've got a few more secrets that I'll only give up if you get me out of here first."

"Then I'll tell you to not play any goddamn stupid power games with us," Cid said grimly. "You're in one hell of a bind. You admitted it yourself. Your only realistic hope of getting out of here in one piece is with us. And there's something very important you need to keep in mind, Scarlet."

"Like what?" she drawled.

"Nobody. Fucking. Likes. You."

Spoken with icy precision, the four words came from Rude, of all people, his dark-skinned face set in its usual impassive lines.

Scarlet blinked and actually flushed slightly, while everyone else in the room turned to stare in surprise at the Turk. Cid recovered first and smirked.

"Couldn't have said it better, Rude. Look, we made a deal with you and we'll keep it, as long as you play fair with us. Start screwing around, and we'll squeeze those damn secrets out of you and leave you to Hojo's critters. Don't think that we won't. Your choice."

"Some heroes you are," Scarlet muttered.

Cid shrugged. "Never claimed to be much of one. We're just here to rescue our friends and to keep humanity from being squashed between a rock and a hard place. Which has a good chance of happening if Hojo succeeds in bringing Sephiroth back. Because I have a bad feeling that this damn Planet is out of patience and SERIOUSLY pissed!"

"Which means that if we have to go hardcore on your butt, we will," Yuffie said, a little too enthusiastically.

"Fine, fine! It was just a hypothetical question."

"We don't have time for your stupid hypotheticals, Scarlet!" Tifa shouted.

"It's not stupid to ME." Before Tifa could lash back, Scarlet quickly added, "Look, I get it. No holding back or extortion." Scarlet held up her empty hands. "I've told you everything I know about this facility and Hojo's activities. And I promise to give you my full cooperation until we get out of here."

"Good, because I have an important question for you, Scarlet. Have you seen any sign of Rufus?"

Scarlet's eyes widened at Cait Sith's question, then blurted, "Rufus?! But he's dead, killed by the Diamond WEAPON!"

"He survived," was Rude's curt reply.

"But how...?"

The cat waved an impatient paw. "That's not important, Scarlet. What IS important that he went missing during an attack by Hojo's monsters."

"And you think Hojo captured him?"

"Tseng reported that Hojo was specifically targeting Rufus during that attack. So, have you seen or heard anything that might indicate that Hojo's holding Rufus prisoner here? Or anywhere else?"

Scarlet said nothing as she drummed her fingernails against the wall, apparently lost in thought.

"Hey, are you listening to us?" Yuffie demanded.

Scarlet made an angry hushing motion. "Oh, be quiet! I'm trying to think!" As the others waited with rapidly growing impatience, she finally answered Cait Sith's question.

"Hojo didn't mention anything about Rufus. Then again, that proves nothing because he didn't exactly tell me about Cloud or Reno, either. I haven't seen any sign of Rufus being held here."

"But you said yourself that the security cameras are down in a lot of areas," Cait Sith said.

She held up an imperative hand. "I haven't finished, damn it! If Hojo captured Rufus and is holding him here, there are only two locations where Rufus might be."

"And you know this because...?" Tifa said with a suspicious stare.

Scarlet turned and angrily slapped a hand down on the crate they had been using as a map table.

"While I was waiting for you to arrive, I did NOT waste my time sitting on my admittedly fine tush, painting my toenails! Instead, I managed to get a big chunk of the security network up and running again, cameras included. Yes, I'm THAT good.

"I used those cameras and some surveillance bots I had lying around to do a through search of as much of this factory as I could, just in case. And I'm telling you that I haven't seen any sign of Rufus being held here.

"This means that if Rufus IS being held here, he has to be somewhere I can't access." She ticked them off on her fingers. "Lab Area C. The mako reactor level. That's it."

"Are you absolutely sure? Because I find it hard to believe that you searched every other possible spot in this entire factory!" Tifa said.

"Of course I can't be ABSOLUTELY sure," Scarlet retorted. "But use your damn brain for once! First, if Hojo went through the trouble of kidnapping Rufus, that means Rufus is valuable to him.

"Second, Hojo may be insane, but he's a scientist to the bone. And as a scientist, he thinks in terms of specimens and experiments. He's not going to stick a valuable research specimen like Rufus inside just any old broom closet! Hojo will want to keep Rufus somewhere where he can easily observe him, just like your friends Reno and Cloud! That means some sort of test chamber or cage for human-sized biologicals, along with all the necessary support and lab equipment! Trust me, those things are going to stick out like a sore thumb inside a manufacturing plant designed for non-biological weapons! Nor can you haphazardly cram that stuff inside a conference room or office cubicle!

"So, based on my expert knowledge of this factory and my familiarity with the way Hojo's mind generally works, it is my professional opinion that if Hojo's holding Rufus here, those are the only two locations where you'll find him!"

After that fairly impressive rant, Cid and the others turned to Rude.

"Rufus is your boss," Cid said. "You buy what she says?"

"It's a logical line of reasoning. At least it gives us a good starting point." Rude gathered his backpack and adjusted his gloves. "Since we definitely know where Reno is, I'll go after him first. I presume the rest of you are headed to Lab Area C, to rescue Cloud and deal with Sephiroth."

"Right. Need an extra hand?"

Nanaki quickly said, "If you don't mind, I'll go with you, Rude."

The Turk nodded, accepting the beast's offer.

Cait Sith said, "After you rescue Reno, meet up with us in Lab C. If we're lucky, we'll have some time to assess Cloud's and Reno's condition, and evacuate them if necessary before things get really dangerous. But depending what's going on with Sephiroth, we might not have that luxury."

Vincent finally spoke up. "What about Hojo?"

Cait Sith looked at Scarlet. "You want to show how cooperative you can be? Then you get the job of keeping track of Hojo. As long as he's busy fiddling with getting the reactor restarted, he can wait."

"That particular control station is as far away from the lab areas as I could manage, which hopefully means that he won't notice what we're doing." Scarlet glanced down at her electronic tablet, then grinned nastily. "He'll need to reinstall the entire operating system or jury-rig a way to bypass the computer controls, either of which will take plenty of time and concentration."

"How do you know that Hojo won't blow his fucking top and start wrecking the place," Cid asked.

"He won't do that. One, it won't help get him the Mako he needs. Two, he's a finicky obsessive bastard. He always wants his equipment working a particular way, and he'll nitpick and tweak until it does."

"Works for me. Sephiroth's our primary target. As for Hojo, it all depends on how the confrontation with Sephiroth goes," Cait Sith said to Vincent with a sympathetic shrug.

They all understood. Dealing with Sephiroth could turn out to be a non-event. Or much more likely, it could become a full scale, no-holds barred battle.

As Rude headed for the storage room door, Nanaki at his heels, Yuffie casually asked Scarlet, "So what did you do to get the Turks so pissed off at you?"

When Scarlet didn't immediately answer, Rude turned his head and said in his usual concise, understated way, "After a certain incident shortly before Meteorfall, Scarlet attempted to persuade President Shinra to have all the Turks -- including Tseng, Reno, and myself -- executed. Fortunately, Rufus persuaded the President that the Turks would be more valuable to Shinra alive."

Yuffie snorted in amusement. "Okay. I can see how that might cause a few hard feelings on the Turks' side."

Scarlet sniffed in annoyance.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

As they headed for Lab C, Cait Sith asked Scarlet, "You earlier mentioned something about a lot of activity going on in the lowermost levels?"

Scarlet's boldly painted lips thinned. "Yes. Like I said before, Hojo's minions have been bringing in both live captives and dead bodies for hours. I can't see what's happening on the reactor level itself, but I can see what's going in and out. Lots of corpses go in, lots of monsters come out. You do the math. What I do know with certainty is that whatever Hojo's doing down there is sucking up raw Mako at an unbelievable rate."

"What about the live captives? You said they were taken to the labs."

"That's right, to Lab B. But by the time I got a look in there, they were all gone. From the blood and other evidence left behind, Hojo definitely did something to them. As for what happened to them and where they are now? You know as much as I do."

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When the door to the lab burst open yet again, Reno whirled around to see Rude and a large furry red beast standing in the doorway. Relief flashed across his face, followed almost immediately by the return of his usual cocky nonchalance.

"Man, what took you guys so long?"

"Sorry," Rude said with a shrug as he tried the control panel. After a few seconds, he gave up and walked over to the oversized specimen chamber holding Reno.

"Stand clear."

Reno quickly backed away to the rear of the chamber as Rude efficiently outlined a door-sized area on the transparent wall with a thin red adhesive cord. After attaching a small detonator, Rude announced, "Fire in the hole."

Everyone shielded their eyes as the thin red cord flashed incandescent white, neatly cutting through the thick plastic of the chamber.

Avoiding the still hot edges of the hole, Reno jumped out of the cell and muttered, "Shit, it's cold! I'm freezing my ass off!"

When Rude simply tossed his backpack at him, Reno rummaged inside and yanked out a familiar black suit, complete with shoes.

"Hey! You even got my favorite undies!"

As he hastily dressed, Reno was aware of Rude observing him very closely.

"How are you feeling?" Rude finally asked.

Reno shrugged. "Frankly, like crap." He looked up from buttoning his shirt. "I'm pretty banged and bruised, but I've had worse." Glancing back at the empty chamber and the large patch of Cloud's blood still staining the floor, he added, "All things considered, I got off pretty lightly."

"And how is Cloud? Scarlet said that Hojo took him away a few hours ago," the large red beast asked.

Reno turned and grinned. "Hey, it's been a while, Nanaki."

"You know each other?" Rude asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Oh yeah. I was one of the guys who captured him at Cosmo Canyon and brought him to Midgar. On Hojo's orders," Reno added sourly. Looking back at Nanaki, he said, "I thought I saw you running around with Cloud during that whole Meteorfall shit, but I couldn't be sure."

"Cloud and his friends released me from Hojo's lab. At first, I only accompanied them in order to get home, but eventually I chose to join their quest to stop Sephiroth." Nanaki hesitated, then continued, "I owe you a great favor for letting me finish the ceremony back in Cosmo Canyon. But my duty to the Planet and my bond to Cloud prevented me from returning that favor. Until now."

Reno shrugged dismissively. "Hey, I understand. Besides, I really didn't do you THAT much of a favor, considering that I handed you over to Hojo for his experiments. Which makes this rescue pretty fucking ironic. "As for Cloud...."

He hesitated, then said, "Yeah, Hojo came by and dragged him off, probably to show him what's going on with Sephiroth."

"I heard about the poisoning, but how did he end up so badly wounded?" Nanaki asked, looking at the large dried bloodstain on the floor.

"You know that sample of Sephiroth's cells that Hojo was hunting like mad for? Guess where it was all this time. Yup, inside your friend Cloud. Seems that the director at that storage facility and his good buddy in Nibelheim were swapping cell samples like fucking trading cards. Except Hojo pulled a surprise inspection and the Nibelheim guy had to hide it quick, so he stuck it inside the nearest specimen."

"Does Cloud know?" Nanaki said with a worried frown.

"Yeah, and he did some angsty wallowing about it. Typical. But anyway, between Hojo rummaging around in his guts and whatever toxic hellbrew Hojo used to take him down, Cloud's not exactly in the best of physical or mental shape." He flicked a quick, inconspicuous glance at Rude, warning that there was a lot more to the story. Rude responded with a barely perceptible nod of acknowledgment.

"Well, now that you're free, we need to meet up with the others in Lab C. That's where Sephiroth and Cloud both are," Nanaki said firmly.

"Sephiroth?" Reno rubbed a hand across his face. "So Hojo wasn't bluffing about all that resurrection crap."

"No, he wasn't. Say what you might about Hojo, he IS a brilliant scientist." With that, the beast padded out of the lab to scout the way.

Once alone, Reno grabbed Rude's arm, leaned in close, and said very quietly, "Watch your back around Cloud."

Rude glanced sharply at him and replied just as softly, "Why? Did Hojo do something to him?"

"Yeah, but it didn't happen here and now. It all goes back to Nibelheim. I don't have time to spell it out for you right now, but there's something seriously FUCKED inside Cloud's head, something even he doesn't know about. And if it ever gets loose, every single Turk alive is going to be in major shit."

Knowing that Nanaki could return any second, Rude nodded once, and didn't press for more details.

As Nanaki reentered the lab, Reno held out his hand to Rude, then waggled his fingers impatiently.

"C'mon. You remembered to bring me matching socks. So don't try to tell me you forgot to pick up a weapon for me."

When Rude and Nanaki exchanged glances, Reno said, "What's the problem?"

"Are you SURE you're feeling... well, like yourself?" Nanaki asked.

"Uh, yeah. And why that particular question?"

"Because of the method Hojo used to trap Cloud. You know that Hojo can mutate normal creatures and mentally control the resulting monsters."

"Uh-huh," Reno said slowly.

"Well, he can apparently now do the same to humans."

Reno inhaled sharply, then glanced over at Rude, who nodded in confirmation. Cloud had been a bit vague about the details of his capture, but he couldn't blame the guy given his condition. No wonder Rude had given him that wary look when he warned the other Turk about Cloud.

Reno calmly dropped his outstretched hand to his side. He certainly felt okay, at least in his head, but this wasn't the time or place to argue about the situation. If he had been in Rude's shoes, knowing about Hojo's nasty new tricks, he would be pretty damn cautious about handing over a weapon to someone, buddy or not, who could suddenly turn into a ravening monster.

Then the other shoe dropped in Reno's head.

"What about Rufus?" he demanded, fists clenching.

"We don't know," came Rude's stark reply. "Scarlet hasn't seen him, but she gave us some ideas where to look. I'll explain on the way."

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Cid and his group came very close to reaching the Lab C area without any major fights, but he regretfully remembered that 'close' only counted in horseshoes and hand grenades. They turned the last corner and skidded to an abrupt halt when they saw the shambling masses of animated vegetation guarding the corridor. Ducking back out of sight, Cid muttered, "Shit! That's blown it! Scarlet, you're sure there's no other way inside?"

"It's a sealed laboratory. It's even got its own independent ventilation system. The air ducts in that lab don't connect with the ducts in the rest of the complex because that's where the chemical weapons are handled."

"Chemical weapons?"

"As in poison gas, corrosives, nerve agents, that sort of thing," Scarlet said with a careless shrug.

"And you were planning to sell this stuff to anyone who could afford it?" Tifa said with an incredulous stare.

"Why not? I've got only limited manufacturing capacity, but the profit margin is huge, especially since no one else is making these types of products anymore."

Before Tifa could respond, Cid cut in, "Never mind. We've got other, more pressing crap to deal with."

Yuffie said, "At this point, I think we're stuck with good old brute force."

"Fine with me. I'm getting fucking tired of tippy-toeing around."

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The strands of the Lifestream that covered Lab C shivered, then began a rapid retreat, their work done. As the tendrils withdrew across the floor, they revealed Cloud, unconscious and unmoving.

The last thing the Lifestream did before it disappeared into the pipes was to gently deposit Sephiroth's naked, completely restored body onto the tank bottom. In less than a minute, all trace of the Lifestream's presence had vanished from the lab.

Sephiroth moved first, slowly pulling himself to his hands and knees. There was a brief pause as he coughed out a few last drops of fluid from his lungs. Then, with long silvery hair streaming over his face, Sephiroth gracefully rose to his feet.

o-=-==-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o-=-=-=-=-o

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Several minutes later, the corridor leading to the sinister Lab C was filled with smoke from burning monsters and the stench of the creatures' sap-like blood, but otherwise it was clear of obstacles.

"Scarlet, gimme an update on Hojo," Cid demanded.

She consulted her computer tablet. "We're still clear. Hojo hasn't budged. Just as I thought, he's too busy concentrating on restoring the reactor controls."

"Great."

The group headed down the corridor, led by Cid. They came to a halt in front of the imposing steel doors just as Reno, Rude, and Nanaki caught up with them.

Scarlet glanced at the fully dressed Reno and murmured, "You found some clothes. What a pity."

Reno promptly stuck his tongue out and gave her the finger with both hands.

She sneered at him, then said, "A little gratitude would be in order. If it weren't for me, you'd still be stuck in that stupid test chamber!"

"So bite me," Reno retorted.

"Is that an invitation?"

"EXCUSE ME for cutting in on the chit-chat, but we have something more important to do, like rescuing Cloud and stopping Sephiroth!" Tifa pointedly reminded everyone.

Scarlet's lips pursed in annoyance, but she began entering in her override code on the nearby keypad. The lab door slowly swung open with a soft whoosh of air. They all rushed into the lab and received an very unpleasant surprise.

It probably wasn't the very worst case scenario, but it came damn close.

Cloud was out cold on the floor. The large tank was wide open. And Sephiroth was on his feet.

"Oh shit."

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Everyone automatically went for their weapons, then hesitated.

The Sephiroth they expected to confront was intimidating, immaculate, and utterly inhuman.

However, the Sephiroth they saw, while still undeniably intimidating, was missing the chillingly inhuman aura from their previous encounters. In fact, Sephiroth's reaction to his current situation seemed very human indeed.

And far from being immaculate, this Sephiroth was stark naked, soaking wet, with his hair dangling in a tangled mess in front of his face.

As Sephiroth raked the strands of long dripping silvery hair out of the way, they could clearly see those unforgettable icy green eyes staring warily back at them. But they also saw a very recognizable type of confusion and irritation on that normally unbearably smug face.

At that moment, Sephiroth looked more like a pissed off cat who had been unexpectedly dunked into water than an omnicidal madman with delusions of godhood.

But before Cid and the other could shake off their surprise and go on the attack, Cloud abruptly staggered to his feet. And because things could always get worse, Cloud ended up standing directly in the line of fire between them and Sephiroth.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Even as he struggled to get his bearings, he was aware of the rapidly spiking tension in the room. To one side of him stood Sephiroth. On the other side was Tifa, Yuffie, Reno, and the others.

He had to do something to defuse the situation before it exploded into full-blown mayhem. And he had to do it NOW.

This time, they didn't have to be enemies. This time, things could be different.

No, that wasn't right.

This time, things HAD to be different. This time, they couldn't afford to be enemies.

They needed to work together. The well-being of the Planet, but more importantly, of everyone living on it depended on that cooperation.

"Our enemy is all that creates suffering."

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Tifa took a quick step toward Cloud, intending to pull him out of the way, but stopped short when he abruptly stiffened. His spine arched and his head went back, as if gasping for air.

Everyone, Sephiroth included, stared as the outline of Cloud's body... flickered... as a ghostly image overlaid and briefly obscured Cloud's own form.

And then, Cloud's body changed.

It gained both inches in height and pounds of muscle. Facial features shifted subtly as blond hair went black from root to tip, and resettled into a different pattern of strands and spikes.

Even Cloud's clothes transformed to perfectly accommodate the additional height and muscle of this new body.

But the person, although different from Cloud, was no stranger, as least not to Tifa and many of the others in the room, judging by their stunned expressions.

Oddly, it was Sephiroth who ended up speaking for the rest of them.

"....Zack?"

Although the question itself had been uttered quite calmly, both Sephiroth's expression and body language contained subtle, but unmistakable traces of surprise, disbelief, and confusion.

In other words, it was probably Sephiroth's personal version of "what the fuck?!"

The tall lean man with glowing blue eyes raked a hand through his black hair, then gave everyone a warm but worried smile.

"Uh... hi, guys?"

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

(end of Part 10)

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The Full Disclaimer:

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

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

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oOo

Tags: ,

13 hisses or Hiss in my ear....
Comments
salmastryon From: salmastryon Date: January 23rd, 2012 01:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
*squeeee*

*takes a deep breath* Don't have time to read this now. I'll post a reply as soon as I do.
salmastryon From: salmastryon Date: January 25th, 2012 02:15 am (UTC) (Link)
Gah!!! Oh this is soo awesome!

I'm really interested in seeing where this goes now. And peoples reactions once they catch up.

:( Unfortuantely, I've got to wait for next chapter,but I can wait.
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: February 1st, 2012 12:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks!

Yes, the next chapter(s) will be... interesting, to say the least. But I'm loving the chance to working so much interesting stuff from Crisis Core into the conversation.

CC gives a perfect setup that will help make the situation more plausible to many of the characters.

Hopefully you won't need to wait for too long for the next chapter. ^_-
jlsigman From: jlsigman Date: January 23rd, 2012 02:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
*shrieking and flailing*

So, where'd Cloud's soul end up???
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: February 1st, 2012 12:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's exactly where it should be, although I make no promises as to its present condition. *innocent whistle*
sanctumsfw From: sanctumsfw Date: January 23rd, 2012 09:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
You... you ended it right there?????

OMG. Why are you doing this to us?!??

We have all these questions that won't go away now!

(On second thought, this is actually epically good torture. I can appreciate the degree thereof. Bravo!)

Edited at 2012-01-23 10:09 pm (UTC)
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: February 1st, 2012 01:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, I ended on that cliffhanger. I have the sad tendency to be E-VIL that way.

But the next chapter should resolve some of the WTF issues. With some luck, it should be out (relatively) shortly. ^_-
katreal From: katreal Date: January 24th, 2012 06:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
*claws for more*

Completely had not expected Zack ACTUALLY taking over. Bravo. Poor Cloud though.
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: February 1st, 2012 01:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ouch! Ouch! The claws!

Yeah, no longer merely a voice in Cloud's head, but a physical presence. Those Jenova cells have interesting properties, hm?

Yay for more Cloud-torture!
history13041985 From: history13041985 Date: January 27th, 2012 09:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Great chapter! So there three people that the Lifestream did thing. I think that it was Cloud, Sephiroth and Rufus. Now for Cloud, i think it is a little like Vincent , Cloud has Zack in him. But i wonder about who is in control : is it cloud or zack ?
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: February 1st, 2012 01:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yup, you've got the three people.

But as for Cloud and who's in control... remember Montessi's conversation with Rufus, as well as other scenes sprinkled through the story so far?

Let's just say that Cloud's reaction (or lack thereof) to all this is going to spook virtually everyone.
crack_fairy From: crack_fairy Date: February 10th, 2012 11:51 am (UTC) (Link)
*sqees and flails*
can i just say that you are absolutely brilliant? i love all the additional detail in your re-write... my absolute favourite part of the original COI was always where Sephiroth wakes up and the following battle... can't WAIT to see what you've got in store with the next chapter!
(and omfg Zack is back~~~!!)
kyuu_momo From: kyuu_momo Date: April 19th, 2012 11:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Awesome job. (as always)

Let's all start brainstorming ways to kill Hojo... preferably in as painful and violent a method as possible.

Hmmm....



Edited at 2012-04-19 11:28 pm (UTC)
13 hisses or Hiss in my ear....