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Conflicts of Interest Redux 11/? (FF7 post-AC AU) (part 1 of 2) - Convolutions of an Evil Mind
madamhydra
madamhydra
Conflicts of Interest Redux 11/? (FF7 post-AC AU) (part 1 of 2)
Sorry for the long delay, but after living in a tiny apartment for nearly two decades, I finally got around to buying my first home. Yay, space!

This was a particularly tricky chapter because I really wanted to make it believable both in characterization and plot. At this point, I'm too tired to fiddle with it anymore. So here it is. Feel free to comment or nitpick. I'll appreciate any comments and criticism you guys may have.

Chapter 12 is basically finished. After a little polishing and proofreading, it should be out in the next day or two.

Enjoy!

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 11 (part 1 of 2)
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: ~11,500
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?

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

CREDITS:
-- Anne Bishop's Black Jewel series, from which I borrowed the the explicit ability to summon and vanish items into some sort of personal hammerspace. It's the only explanation I have for where Sephiroth keeps that damn sword of his.
-- Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, in particular Aral Vorkosigan's quote in the book "Komarr": "Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself."

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

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[ Weapon Facility ]

"Uh... hi, guys?"

The sheepishly uttered words set off an eruption of shouts and questions from nearly everyone in the lab, all of which could basically be summarized by the three simple words, "What the fuck?!" Only Sephiroth remained completely silent as he stared at the dark-haired man standing before him.

Zack Fair winced and tried to wait out the verbal barrage. But when it showed no sign of abating, he finally bellowed, "QUIET!"

The cacophony of voices subsided in the face of the surprisingly authoritative tone in the dark-haired SOLDIER's voice. Only Yuffie continued to sputter out questions.

"But Zack, how the...!"

Glancing at her, he responded in the harassed tone familiar to sorely beleaguered older siblings everywhere.

"Yuffie, not now! I'm kinda busy at the moment!"

She blinked and to the others' surprise, shut up.

"Now wait a goddamn minute!" Cid shouted. "Just WHO the hell are you?! What's going on?! And what the fuck just happened to Cloud?!"

Raking dark hair back from his forehead, the target of Cid's questions grinned wryly and said, "Some of you guys already know me. But for those who don't, I'm Zack. As for Cloud, he's out of commission for the moment. So I'm afraid I'm going to be the one doing all the talking."

Before Cid could interrupt, Zack quickly added, "As for what's going on, I'm not entirely sure myself. I was minding my own business when I was suddenly... grabbed... hijacked... whatever, handed a heap of irritatingly vague information, then dumped here. So excuse me if I'm babbling a bit, but I'm trying to process all this on the fly myself."

Zack's tone was friendly and cheerful, but at the same time, stubborn and fiercely determined.

Cid scowled and scratched his head. "Zack. Why does that name sound vaguely familiar?"

"Zack, as in Zack Fair, SOLDIER First Class," Cait Sith said quietly, and got an affirmative nod from the person in question.

"Considered by most to be second only to Sephiroth himself in SOLDIER," Scarlet added, her surprise shifting to avid curiosity. She glanced at Cid and added, "You might have heard about him while you were in the Shinra military."

Tifa said softly, "He was Cloud's best friend, the one that helped him escape from Nibelheim."

"Hell, you mean he's THAT Zack? The one who...." Cid stopped short at Tifa's warning look. "Okay, so a bunch of you guys recognize this guy. That doesn't answer my other questions about what just freakin' happened to Cloud!"

Addressing Tifa's side of the room, Zack said, "Cid, Tifa, I know you all want answers and you want them right now. I'll do my best to give them to you. But I'm asking you to be patient and let me do it in my own way. Yes, I know I'm asking a lot from you guys, but there's someone else here who needs to know what's going on even more than you do."

They all looked over at Sephiroth, who said nothing but continued to watch 'Zack' with unnerving intensity and an impassive expression that gave nothing away. But at least there were no overt signs of hostility or insanity.

"So, could you hold off on your questions until I have a chance to explain things to him?" Zack said, a bit plaintively.

"You want to explain stuff... to Sephiroth?" Cid said incredulously.

Zack nodded earnestly.

"Why the fuck do you want to do that?"

"Because THIS time, I think he's willing to listen."

"I'm not sure who you think you are, but never mind that for the moment. What makes you think that Sephiroth's going to believe YOU?" Cid demanded.

Zack shrugged, with an air of dogged determination, and perhaps just a touch of weariness. "As long as there's a chance to change things for the better, I have to try."

As Cid uttered a neutral "Hmph," Cait Sith said, "You want to change things. In what way?"

"If this works out, Sephiroth and you guys won't HAVE to be enemies. Do you guys want to repeat the events of the last few years over and over again? Destruction, death, and all that stuff? Because that's exactly going to happen if big changes don't occur."

From Zack's tone, he was not making a threat, but stating a grim inevitability.

"And you think you can make that work. With HIM?" Cait Sith said with understandable skepticism, pointing at Sephiroth.

"I don't know, but...."

"....you feel that you have to at least try. Okay, we get that," Cid muttered.

"At least we're making progress," Zack said wryly.

"But Zack, what about...," Tifa started, but she was unexpectedly interrupted by Reno.

"I know you guys are all worried about Cloud, but I think we really need to hear what 'Zack' here has to say."

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

Reno had attributed Cloud's Zack-like behavior as Mako-induced identity confusion, then pushed the matter aside. Sure, it was a bit creepy, but not exactly dangerous, when compared to the real nastiness lurking in the depths of Cloud's fucked up psyche.

On their way to rejoin the others, he had managed to slip Rude a little more information about Cloud's deeply buried and virulent hatred of the Turks. But the possibility of being overheard by Cloud's furry red buddy Nanaki prevented him from giving Rude the full details.

Now Reno was mentally kicking himself for carelessly assuming that Cloud's Zack-like behavior was merely an accidental result of the torture and Mako poisoning Cloud had suffered.

Seeing Cloud physically transform into Zack right in front of his eyes changed everything.

If what he now suspected was true, Cloud's mental issues were no accident or chance by-product of his traumatic experiences as a test subject in Nibelheim, but rather involved something much more deliberate and disturbing. Cloud wasn't merely confused about his own identity or delusional. Somehow, in the years following the Nibelheim incident, Cloud had somehow become a COPY -- in big fucking capital letters -- of Zack.

Now Hojo's repeated ravings about Cloud being involved in unauthorized experiments made way too much sense, and not in a good way.

Given the way Hollander and Hojo had cooked up Genesis Copies, Angeal Copies, and Sephiroth Clones, why wouldn't some other crazy nutjob get the bright idea to create a Zack Copy as well? After all, barring Sephiroth, Zack was pretty much the very best SOLDIER around.

But who? It probably wasn't Hojo, given the crazed scientist's obsession with discovering the source of Cloud's ability to defeat Sephiroth and his fury at the thought of someone messing around with his test subjects behind his back.

There were other possible explanations, of course, but all bordering on the ridiculously convoluted. Sure, Hojo was a sneaky, lying, scheming bastard, but any other explanation Reno could come up with required a level of playacting that he didn't think the insane Hojo was capable of anymore. He didn't completely dismiss those other possibilities, but the Zack Copy theory seemed to make the most sense under the circumstances.

As Copies went, Cloud was pretty damn good, based on the physical appearance alone. But the real clincher was the personality, which was spot-on. Disturbingly so. If he hadn't witnessed Cloud's transformation for himself -- and the fact that he KNEW Zack was dead -- he would have mistaken Cloud's Zack Copy for the real thing.

Reno then remembered the most important aspect of any Jenova-based Copy. In the end, that Copy was controlled by the will and desires of its original, regardless of whether that original was alive or dead. The hound-like Angeal Copy that had lurked in the rafters of Aerith's church years after the original Angeal's death was proof of that.

Whatever one might say about Zack's hot-blooded, gung-ho nature, the guy was undeniably a 'hero' right down to the core, one who radiated loyalty, trustworthiness, honesty, and good intentions for everyone to see.

Sephiroth -- well, a sane Sephiroth -- would definitely recognize those qualities. And although Reno knew he shouldn't make any assumptions about this Sephiroth's sanity, at least this Sephiroth wasn't obsessively babbling about Jenova or 'Mother' like Kadaj and the rest of that silver-haired crew.

If Cloud was a 'true' Zack Copy... if this Sephiroth was sane enough to respond to that Copy as he did with the original before all the shit in Nibelheim....

Fuck, it just might work.

Reno glanced over at Rude. And in that brief exchange of looks, he knew that his old friend had come to the same conclusion.

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

Before Cid or the others could protest, Reno nonchalantly added, "Rude already told me about what happened in Healen and Hojo's sick new tricks. I get that you might be skeptical about what I'm saying. So if you don't want to listen to me, you might consider listening to Rude, because he pretty much agrees with me."

"I don't think that giving 'Zack' an opportunity to talk to Sephiroth first will hurt us," the bald Turk said. "Dealing with Sephiroth, one way or another, is our main concern. It's to everyone's benefit if we can resolve the situation without outright conflict."

"I agree," Scarlet said firmly. "Isn't it better to talk things out if we can? Sephiroth hasn't tried to attack us, so maybe he's in the mood to listen to reason."

"Coward," Yuffie said as she gave the ex-Shinra exec a contemptuous glare.

"I'm being pragmatic, you twit," Scarlet retorted.

"Reno, are you seriously considering cooperating with Sephiroth, Reno?" Tifa said with a frown. "Are you saying that the Turks are willing to overlook what happened to Tseng and President Shinra, just like that?"

Without hesitation, he replied, "Hell yes, and Tseng would be first in line to kick my ass for letting personal feelings interfere with a mission. I think everyone here, Scarlet included, has a vested interest in keeping the Planet, and by extension everybody on it, alive and well. Like it or not, Sephiroth's staring us in the face and we've got to deal with him somehow. So if there's a legit possibility that we can get him to cooperate with us, or at least not actively interfere, I'm all for that."

The Turk gave her a long, level look. "So tell me, Tifa. Are you willing to put aside past stuff for the greater good? Or are you going to let your grudges fuck up this opportunity to get out of this mess without killing each other?"

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Reno knew that he was being a bit of a hypocrite with Tifa. Okay, maybe more than a bit, but he didn't really care. To be honest, he was very much a firm believer in payback, with plenty of interest. But there was a proper time and place for that sort of shit. Now wasn't it.

Besides, payback was pointless unless you targeted the correct offending party. Whether this Sephiroth was the right target remained to be seen.

So if he had to lie his fine Turk ass off to Tifa in order to get her to play along with Zack's suggestion, that was perfectly fine with him.

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

It was Tifa who looked away first. Finally, she said to Reno, "So you trust... 'him'?" as she jerked her chin in Zack's direction.

"I didn't say that. But I'm willing to listen to what he has to say and give him a chance to say it in his own way. Which is all that he's asking for at the moment," Reno said reasonably.

"Gee, thanks for the rousing endorsement," Zack muttered grumpily.

Reno smirked back. "No problem. Glad to help."

Rude turned to address Tifa specifically. "I understand your concern, but if what we suspect regarding Cloud is true, there's nothing we can do about it right now."

"You mean that you know what happened to Cloud?" Tifa demanded.

Reno shook his head sharply. "Suspect. It's complicated and now's not the time to get into it." As she started to protest, he tipped his head toward Sephiroth meaningfully and said, "Let's deal with one crisis at a time."

Zack jumped back into the conversation. "I'm honestly not trying to trick you, stall for time, or whatever. It's quite the opposite. I really want to help you guys the best I can, and I don't want anyone here to get hurt, especially when it's not necessary. Not you. Not Sephiroth. All I'm asking is that you hold your questions and listen while I tell him how he ended up here stark naked. C'mon, don't you think he at least deserves THAT?"

"You mean he doesn't know?" Cid said with a skeptical scowl.

"I don't think so." Zack said quickly. "Look, I know I'm asking a lot from you guys. But I have to ask it because I don't know how much time we have to chat. There's big trouble on the way, and I'm NOT talking about Sephiroth."

Surprisingly, it was Yuffie who spoke in favor of Zack's request. "As long as Cloud's not in danger, I don't see why we can't give Zack a little time to explain things his way," she said tentatively.

Zack's reply was immediate and sincere. "Yuffie, I wouldn't be asking if I thought it would hurt Cloud in any way. That's the last thing I'd want to do to him."

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

Cait Sith glanced at his friends, checking their reactions. Like himself and Tifa, they were also clearly torn between their concern about Cloud and the cold-hearted, but undeniable logic of the Turks.

Saying no to 'Zack' wouldn't solve any of their problems. If the Turks were right, fixing or reversing whatever was going on with Cloud wouldn't be easy. And as Rude had rightfully pointed out, there was the matter of Sephiroth. They could hardly ignore him or let him wander off on his own while they bugged 'Zack' for answers.

So as much as he hated not being able to do anything about Cloud's... possession, for the lack of a better word, defusing a potential confrontation with Sephiroth had to take priority. Fortunately, this Sephiroth hadn't done anything -- yet -- that could be interpreted as hostile.

Yuffie had already expressed her opinion. Nanaki and Cid nodded their agreement, although with obvious reservations. He turned to Vincent, who had remained silent through the discussion, reserving most of his attention for Sephiroth.

"I think it's already apparent that the Sephiroth standing here in front of us is different from the Sephiroth we've encountered before. What I want to know is how different," Vincent said quietly.

"And Cloud?" Cait Sith's voice was equally soft.

Vincent's expression tightened. "We can't concentrate on helping Cloud until we deal with Sephiroth first."

"Agreed." With that, Cait Sith shrugged and called out to Zack, "Well, go for it."

An obviously relieved Zack gave them a grateful nod, then turned his full attention to Sephiroth, who had remained silent and expressionless throughout the debate.

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The man standing before Sephiroth certainly looked like, sounded like, even smelled like Zack. But the outward physical resemblance was far less important that what he sensed on the inside. Almost before the other man had uttered a single word, there had been instant recognition.

He knew it the same way he effortlessly distinguished the visually identical Genesis Copies from their original, and the same way he knew that despite their very different physical appearances, the Angeal Copies were all connected by a single will and purpose.

The body might belong to someone else, but the person standing in front of him was the real Zack Fair.

Although he was certain this Zack was genuine -- transformed body or not -- there were also definite differences between this Zack and the Zack he remembered. Not so much physically, but the present day Zack had a greater level of maturity than the Zack he remembered, which hinted that this Zack endured more than a few difficult and possibly traumatic experiences.

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The two men stared at each other for a few seconds. Although he had gotten his way, Zack now looked nervous, uncertain how to start. Sephiroth coolly took the initiative.

"What's going on, Zack?"

"It's... really complicated," the dark-haired SOLDIER said with an awkward little smile.

"Then simplify it. A summary will do for now," Sephiroth said. If his nakedness bothered him at all, he certainly didn't show it.

"It's going to be really hard to believe."

"Then convince me." Sephiroth's tone, although still cool, remained surprisingly mild under the circumstances.

"You're REALLY not going to like what you're about to hear."

"I already know that, Zack. It's never a good sign when you dance around a subject this much." The patient, reasonable tone of Sephiroth's voice, combined with the lack of any obvious signs of craziness or creepy references to Jenova allowed the others to relax a little more.

Zack raked his hands through his dark hair, then took a deep breath. "Okay, you asked for it. What's the last thing you remember clearly?"

When Sephiroth didn't immediately answer, Zack added, "If you're worried about the proper security clearances, don't be. Believe me, we're so far beyond that, it isn't even funny. Shinra company secrets is the LAST thing we need to worry about here. Besides, these guys already know most of what happened." He gave Sephiroth a pleading look. "Trust me on this. I need to know where to start."

Sephiroth considered, then said, "Arriving in Nibelheim." He paused, then corrected himself. "No, the very last thing I clearly remember is the trip to the Mt. Nibel reactor."

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For Sephiroth, his own words triggered recognition. The blond young man who had so unexpectedly transformed into Zack had been assigned to the mission. The vaguely familiar young woman with long brown hair he now recognized as Tifa Lockhart, the guide assigned to lead them to the reactor high above Nibelheim.

But both Tifa and the blond trooper were clearly no longer teenagers, but rather young adults.

Which meant....

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Sephiroth shifted his attention briefly to Tifa, then glanced quickly back at Zack. The dark-haired SOLDIER nodded somberly.

"That's right. She's Tifa from Nibelheim. Except she's obviously a bit older now. It's been over seven years since that mission to Nibelheim," Zack quietly answered Sephiroth's unspoken question.

Another person might have expressed shock, disbelief, even anger at Zack's statement. Sephiroth didn't even blink. He merely said, "What happened?"

"The mission went bad. Really bad. You remember what happened with Genesis and Angeal, when they learned the truth about Project G?"

"Yes."

"Well, during the Nibelheim mission, something similar occurred to you. Except worse. Much, much worse."

When Zack hesitated, Sephiroth coolly prompted him. "Go on."

"You found out something about your past and... well, you completely snapped."

After a brief silence, Sephiroth said, "What exactly did I do?"

Zack winced before answering. "You slaughtered practically everyone in Nibelheim, then burned the place to the ground."

"And then?" Sephiroth's tone remained dispassionate.

"And then you died."

Sephiroth's voice was perfectly steady as he asked, "Did you kill me to stop me?"

Zack looks both wry and a little bitter. "It wouldn't be the first time I've had to do something like that, right? Well, I certainly gave it my best try. But no, I didn't manage to kill you. You could say that I started the job, but someone else had to finish it."

"But I'm obviously not dead now. So why am I here?" Sephiroth glanced around the lab, saw the familiar Shinra logos on the equipment, and his lips thinned slightly. "Let me guess. Hojo?"

"Well, partially." Zack looked pained. "You see, you died in Nibelheim. But you -- the insane you -- refused to stay dead. You kept coming back. And you kept coming back WRONG."

"Define 'wrong'."

"Ah... um..." Zack then blurted, "Well, basically a 'kill everyone, destroy the world, and become a god' type of wrong."

For the first time since his return, Tifa and the other saw Sephiroth display obvious emotion. Seconds ticked by as Sephiroth stared at Zack, his eyes widening in visible shock.

"I WHAT?" he demanded flatly.

Zack nodded in silent confirmation.

"And how close did I come to accomplishing all... that?"

Zack rubbed the back of his neck, obviously thinking hard. Finally, he said in a rush, "It... uh, took you a while because you were technically dead or dead-ish a lot of the time. But you came pretty damn close to destroying the Planet and made a hell of a try at the godhood bit before you were stopped. As for the 'killing everyone', let's say that's been an ongoing project for you. Compared to that, Genesis didn't even come close. So as far as crazy goes, you pretty much took the prize."

There was another long pause before Sephiroth spoke. "I see. If I keep coming back 'wrong' as you put it, then are you and the others here to kill me again?" The brief flare of shock was over, and his voice had returned to its previous level, dispassionate tone.

Zack quickly shook his head. "No, this time's different. This time, I'm pretty sure you came back RIGHT."

"And you know this because...?"

"I could say that it's just a gut feeling I have. But I won't, because you might be tempted to throw something at me," Zack said with a sheepish grin.

Sephiroth uttered a soft, but unmistakable sigh, which was another first for most of the observers.

"Zack, be serious."

Although the quirky little smile remained, Zack's tone immediately shifted to somber as he replied, "Seriously, if you'd come back wrong, we wouldn't even be having this conversation."

Sephiroth tilted his head slightly in a silent question.

Zack hastily replied, "Ah, no, I can't take any credit for things working out this time. I'm fairly sure the Planet had something to do with it. Although I'm not sure how. Something about adapting the cure to Geostigma...?" His voice trailed off in puzzlement.

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. "The Planet?"

"Ah, that's the part that needs lots of explanation. But to put it simply, the Planet is alive, and it has an agenda. Bringing you back sane seems to be a big part of that agenda."

"Which is?"

"Haven't got a clue," Zack said candidly. "I only know tiny bits and pieces of what's going on. Aerith's the one the Planet actually talks to."

Ignoring the various gasps and mutters coming from Tifa and her companions, Sephiroth said, "Aerith. Your brunette girlfriend from the Midgar slums? How is she involved in all this?"

Zack winced. "Uh, that bit's going to be kinda awkward to explain."

Yuffie choked and coughed. Loudly.

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It wasn't in Tifa's or her friends' nature to passively stand aside and let someone else take control of a situation. But this time, despite their suspicions about Sephiroth and worries about Cloud, allowing Zack to talk things out with Sephiroth first felt like the right thing to do.

There was no way to miss the obvious rapport between the two men. What she expected from Sephiroth was, at the very best, icy impatience, overwhelming arrogance, and curt demands for information. Instead, what they got was someone who was not only calm and courteous, but who dealt with the tense and obviously anxious Zack with a patience and -- dare she say it? -- a kindness that didn't fit at all with her admittedly biased impressions of Sephiroth.

Zack was clearly far more to Sephiroth than a mere subordinate, fellow SOLDIER, or casual friend. There was a deeply personal connection between them, the special type that came from shared pain and tragedies.

Tifa glanced quickly at Reno and Rude. Instead of surprise and shock at Sephiroth's behavior, they actually looked... relieved. It took her a moment to figure out why.

The Turks were familiar with both Zack and Sephiroth, had probably seen the two men interact on multiple occasions. So for Reno and Rude, Sephiroth's current behavior wasn't strange or unexpected, but rather a return to 'normal', which was exactly what they seemed to be hoping for.

So this was how the original sane Sephiroth acted. Toward Zack, at least.

Tifa was abruptly reminded that Cloud and herself hadn't been the only ones to suffer deeply because of Sephiroth's actions at Nibelheim. If Cloud, who had idolized Sephiroth from afar, had been devastated by his hero's betrayal, how much worse had it been for Zack, who obviously considered Sephiroth a good friend?

And despite Sephiroth's descent into madness, and all the pain that resulted from it, Zack was still willing to reach out, to give Sephiroth a second chance.

It wasn't a naive or blindly trusting sort of offer, either. Sephiroth might not remember Nibelheim and all the horrible things that happened afterwards, but Zack obviously did. In Nibelheim, Zack had recognized Sephiroth's madness, accepted that his friend had become a monster, and in order to protect Cloud, herself, and others, he had tried his best to stop Sephiroth. No fault of his that his best hadn't been quite good enough.

What puzzled her was the way Sephiroth seemed to bear no grudge over Zack's attempt to kill him. In fact, it seemed that Sephiroth fully expected it.

Now that she had calmed down a bit from her first rush of panic over Cloud, she finally saw what Reno, who was far smarter and astute than most people gave him credit for, had evidently figured out right away. That of all the people on this Planet, Zack was probably the ONLY person who could explain the events of the last seven years to Sephiroth and make Sephiroth believe him.

Something told her that what was happening now between Zack and Sephiroth would have a critical impact not just on Cloud's well-being, but everyone on the Planet. In fact, it could change... everything.

That incredible, but tantalizing hope, more than anything, was what kept her and the others quiet as they watched Zack trying to bridge the gaping divide of so much loss, suffering, and tragedy.

And while she remained deeply suspicious about this Sephiroth's supposed inability to remember anything he had done in Nibelheim and afterward, it also made a weird sort of sense. Maybe that convenient gap in Sephiroth's memory was instrumental in allowing the Planet to bring him back 'right' this time.

Then she remembered another important detail. The insane Sephiroth they knew had never bothered to pretend to be anything other than what he was -- a murderous, sadistic, Jenova-obsessed madman.

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Zack had been right on all three counts. It was complicated, it was hard to believe, and Sephiroth really did not like what he heard.

But incredible as it sounded, he found himself accepting it. Perhaps not every detail, but the essence of Zack's story somehow rang true. Perhaps because Zack's story matched his own greatest, most deeply suppressed fears.

Just like Genesis and Angeal, he had apparently uncovered an unbearable secret and gone insane. And just like with Genesis and Angeal, Zack had been the one stuck with the burden of trying to clean up the resulting mess.

It also explained the darker emotions -- the anxiety, the uncertainty, and even the fear -- Sephiroth had seen mingling with the hope and happiness in Zack's eyes. And most of all, it explained the dread Zack tried to hide and the silent plead that went with it.

"Please don't make me do this again."

Zack had killed Angeal, had done his best to kill Sephiroth. If he made it necessary, Zack would try again, regardless of the cost.

He needed to know exactly what happened in Nibelheim. Although he was confident that Zack was telling him the truth as he knew it, it was also obvious that there was a great deal the other man was not telling him.

Zack rarely lied outright. He wasn't particularly good at it and was usually far too honest to hide his feelings convincingly. But he could and would lie by omission.

However, while he appreciated Zack's desire to to spare his feelings, it was far more important that he know the whole truth.

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

"What happened at the Mt. Nibel reactor, Zack?"

He actually flinched at Sephiroth's question. "How did you...?"

"Simple deduction. My memory is quite clear up to our arrival at the reactor. So whatever went wrong most likely started at that location. And you're being evasive."

The blatant guilt on Zack's face would have been amusing, if the situation hadn't been so serious.

"You've told me what happened in general terms. Now I need to know the specifics. I need to know how these events happened and why."

When Zack said nothing, Sephiroth didn't lose his patience or his temper. Instead, he cocked his head slightly as he asked, almost gently, "Why are you avoiding the subject? What's bothering you, Zack?"

Zack couldn't quite bring himself to look Sephiroth straight in the face, but his answer, when it finally came, was as heartwrenching as it was brutally honest.

"I'm scared. I'm scared because even after all these years, I still don't know exactly what made you go crazy." Zack shrugged in an uncharacteristically helpless way. "Maybe it was the location. Maybe it was the creatures Hojo created there. Maybe it was what was stored in the Reactor. The stuff Genesis said. The documents you read in the basement of the Shinra Mansion. Something I said at the wrong time, or something I didn't tell you soon enough. It could have been any or all of those things!

"The point is, I DON'T KNOW. All I know with certainty is that something happened to you in Nibelheim which drove you crazy and then everything went straight to hell!" And with those words, Zack lifted his head and finally met Sephiroth's eyes.

Guilt. Pain. A depth of grief and sorrow that mere words could never fully express.

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

(continued in COI Redux - Chapter 11 (part 2 of 2)



(continued in COI Redux - Chapter 11 (part 2 of 2)

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Current Music: Linkin Park - "New Divide"

2 hisses or Hiss in my ear....
Comments
salmastryon From: salmastryon Date: July 14th, 2012 02:59 am (UTC) (Link)
ooo I'm so excited about this! Unfortunately, I need to go to bed now. I'll read it tomorrow.
ladynero From: ladynero Date: July 15th, 2012 03:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
*squeals and pounces8 trying to hug as many heads as possible*

Hydra! You're okay and alive and WoW! Congrats on the house!
2 hisses or Hiss in my ear....