MadamHydra (madamhydra) wrote,
MadamHydra
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COI - Zack, dark and dangerous

Yup, yet another random COI fic drabble which I've been working on for several months.

Unbetaed and unspell-checked, so expect rampant errors and occasional incoherence. ^_^;;

Type: Final Fantasy VII - COI fic drabble
Author: madamhydra
Rating: R (profanity, mature themes)
Status: rough draft 11/08/2005
Summary: Reno goes to view his sister's body and has an very interesting discussion with Cloud, during which we find out that: (1) Zack has his own mental/emotional issues to deal with; and (2) why it's not good to get on Zack's bad side. Also, a little touch of Strife here and there. ^_^

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The Shinra Mansion and the Reactor at Nibelheim couldn't be left unguarded, especially the Mansion with all its secrets. On the other hand, stationing a full-sized military garrison in the town itself didn't seem a good idea, either. Aside from attracting undesirable attention, Reeve didn't like the idea of so many strangers wandering around a place that held way too many dangerous secrets.

They were only now beginning to realize just how important the research complex at Nibelheim was. It wasn't the facility's physical size that proved the most intimidating, but the sheer volume of research conducted. The place was much larger than any of them first expected, with at least three full basement levels underneath the Shinra Mansion, and possibly more. Individually, each level wasn't that large, but when added together, there was more than enough space for all sorts of depraved experiments. And there were plenty of those sorts of experiments with often seven or eight projects running simultaneously.

And every sickening, disgusting square foot would have to be searched, documented, and picked over for clues, because the secrets lurking beneath the Shinra Mansion could very well spell the difference between victory or defeat, survival or disaster, in their inevitable confrontation with Hojo and the newly resurrected Jenova-CORE. It promised to be a horrible but necessary task, one that no one deserved, especially Cloud, Vincent, and Tifa. Surely Nibelheim held enough painful associations without adding even more. But there was no question that somebody had to do it, and soon.

The situation was further complicated by the lack of reliable information about the laboratory and its activities. Between all the various deadly incidents -- Sephiroth's rampages through Nibelheim and Shinra HQ, the summoning of Meteor, just to name a few -- many of the Nibelheim lab staff were either dead or missing. And of the survivors who could be located, most were extremely reluctant to talk. Many remained silent from guilt, fear, greed, or most likely a mixture of all the above.

However, with the application of a few incentives and a little judicious pressure, the few ex-staffers Reeve managed to locate became a little more cooperative. What he learned only reinforced his initial impressions of that horrid place.

However, at the moment Reeve's main concern was to secure Nibelheim and make sure that Hojo didn't run off with more equipment or data.

Reeve couldn't blame the military for its lack of enthusiasm to take on this mission. The scene of multiple bloody massacres, a town twice burnt and razed to the ground -- if there was a place that could be said to be god-forsaken and accursed, Nibelheim was it. And yet through all the carnage and fire, the Shinra Mansion had somehow survived, hiding an seemingly endless series of dark, gruesome secrets. It was enough to make even the most hardened, unimaginative trooper nervous and skittish.

He eventually settled on setting up a guard perimeter around the whole area and blocking access to the town center and the Mansion. Fortunately, the rough terrain made that task relatively easy. The Nibel Mountains were nearly inaccessible by ground, except by a narrow, barely passable road on one side and a hazardous passageway through convoluted, monster-infested caverns on the other. Unpredictable mountain winds made an aerial approach tricky under the best conditions, and downright suicidal at night or bad weather. Even Hojo had lost close to a quarter of his monsters during his recent raid on Nibelheim to such environmental hazards even before reaching the town. Not that Hojo cared, of course.

The security perimeter wasn't a perfect solution, by any means. Reeve doubted that conventional forces could do much against a serious attack by Hojo's minions, but at least they could keep the more mundane intruders away in addition to watching for any suspicious activity.

But even as he sent out his orders, Reeve couldn't help wondering about the missing Nibelheim staffers. Were they actually dead or merely hiding? And if they were hiding, why?

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Reno didn't bother to turn around as Cloud and Tifa stepped onto the deck of the Highwind II. As they approached, he merely said, "I want to see my sister."

"Are you sure?" Cloud said quietly.

"Yeah, I'm sure."

"But why put yourself through something like that?" Tifa said. Despite her usual antipathy toward the Turks, and this Turk in particular, she couldn't help feeling sorry for Reno. "She's dead and Hojo's responsible. Isn't it enough?"

Reno turned sharply.

"No, it isn't," he snapped curtly. The Turk pushed himself away from the railing and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. "This is something I need to see with my own eyes. She was my sister. My TWIN sister."

Tifa looked away, clearly unsure how to deal with a Reno who was clearly hurting.

Cloud noticed that Reno was looking at him with a hard, angry gleam in his green eyes, although he was pretty sure that he wasn't the target of that anger. The Turk claimed that he wanted to 'see' his sister, but Cloud doubted that was the whole truth. However, since Reno obviously wasn't in the mood to discuss the topic further in Tifa's presence, Cloud didn't pursue the issue.

He nodded slightly, acknowledging Reno's unspoken request/demand, and merely said, "All right. I'll tell Reeve to notify the guards."

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After arriving above Nibelheim, the airship hovered above the closest patch of level ground and dropped a ladder. Once down, Cloud and his companions gazed at the still smouldering ruins of the town before splitting up to handle their individual tasks. Over various and occasionally vigorous objections, Reno and Cloud were going into the Mansion alone. The Turk made it abundantly plain that he did not want anyone else, least of all Tifa, hanging over his shoulder during what promised to be a deeply personal and painfully emotional experience. He had even firmly rejected the company of his fellow Turks.

Cloud had not objected to Reno's demands. He knew that Reno had tons of questions and the Turk deserved answers. Whether Cloud could give the other man the answers that Reno both wanted and needed remained to be seen, but Cloud was willing to try. He was all too familiar with this particular sort of emotional loss, and the hatred, rage, but perhaps more importantly, the guilt that went along with it.

Under normal circumstances, the Turk probably would have shrugged off his kidnapping as just another occupational hazard, and billed Reeve accordingly for it. But what Hojo did to Reno's sister pushed things to an entirely different level. Screw professional detachment -- this was now -personal-, as in the 'I want to slowly eviscerate my enemy with my bare hands and stomp their guts into the ground with a sadistic grin' type of personal.

Cloud could sympathize entirely with that sentiment, especially in regard to Hojo. And because of that feeling, he was prepared to go back into the Mansion and sift through his fractured, nightmarish memories.

Curiously, the two other people who were most directly and personally affected by Hojo's activities in the Mansion -- Vincent and Sephiroth -- had been notably silent during the sometimes intense discussion about their proposed visit to the Mansion's basement labs. Vincent continued to be lost in his own dark, brooding thoughts. Sephiroth didn't even attempt to invite himself along, most likely because he knew what everyone's reaction to that idea would be. He had merely given Cloud a long thoughtful stare before turning his attention back to the status reports on the various WEAPONs.

Cloud and Reno said nothing to each other as they walked through the square, past the charred wreckage of the town's solitary inn, stepped over the twisted remnants of the Mansion's heavy iron gate, then finally mounted the stairs to its front door. Side by side, they shoved open the heavy double doors and entered. Ignoring the stench and the stains left by the most recent massacre, they descended down the rickety wooden spiral into the basement. Finally, they stood outside the newly uncovered doorway that led to the Project B laboratory.

"Are you ready for this?" Cloud said, glancing at the Turk.

Reno took a deep breath, bracing himself for the sights to come. Rude and Elena had done their best to prepare him for what lay behind those seeming innocuous lab doors, but Cloud's grim expression warned him that nothing could adequately describe what he was about to see. He rolled his shoulders and neck slightly, as if preparing himself for battle, then replied with stony determination.

"Yeah. Let's do it."

Cloud nodded, then pushed open the door.

They stepped through the antechamber, with its sinister steel examination tables. Reno's lips thinned at the sight of the obviously well-used restraints and at the overwhelming clinical coldness of the place, but he said nothing.

One last set of doors and they stood in the center of Hojo's grotesque collection of corpses. His suspicions were right -- mere words could not do justice to the hideous reality of that chamber and its sickening display of maternal and fetal bodies. Reno stared silently at the rows of paired specimen cylinders lining its walls, each dimly lit from within and glowing like obscene floor lamps. When his gaze settled on the tube containing the body of his sister, Reno took two quick involuntary steps toward it, then abruptly stopped.

The two men said nothing for a very long time as Reno stood and stared at Regis' pale, naked, mutilated body. The silence was only broken by the faint hum from the scattered equipment and Reno's harsh breathing hissing from between clenched teeth.

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Cloud backed up several steps, giving the Turk the time and the space the other man needed to get a grip on his seething emotions. He certainly wouldn't blame Reno if the other man took out his frustration in an explosive display of fury, just as Vincent had. But no matter how momentarily satisfying it would be to wreck huge chunks of Hojo's laboratory, that sort of physical destruction wouldn't accomplish anything meaningful. It wouldn't bring Reno's sister back to life and it would do little, if any, harm to Hojo.

If simply blowing up this damn Mansion could bring the dead back to life and/or really fuck Hojo over, he would have done it a long, long time ago, and to hell with escaping....

Cloud was relieved to see that Reno seemed to share his view on the subject. Despite what people said about redheads and short tempers, Reno was not letting his anger control him. He was doing the opposite. Instead of letting his temper explode and wreaking unproductive havoc, the Turk was channeling his rage into something more useful. Cloud knew that type of hatred intimately -- hatred that was cold, deadly, relentless, and if need be, endlessly patient.

Back at the weapons plant, he had wanted, just like Vincent, to stay behind and hunt down Hojo, to gut the sick bastard once and for all. But the situation had simply been too chaotic, with too many ways that Hojo could slip through his fingers. If he had been alone, he might taken that risk, gambling that he could find Hojo before the bastard escaped or before the entire cliff collapsed on his head.

But he hadn't been alone, and he wasn't prepared to carelessly endanger his friends's lives merely to satisfy his own hunger for revenge. They would all have plenty of opportunities to risk their lives without taking stupidly reckless chances. Besides, he wasn't that desperate. Not at this point of the game, anyway. He would get another chance at Hojo. Cloud was sure of it.

So he leaned back against a wall and gave Reno the opportunity to deal somewhat with both the reality of his sister's fate and his own emotions. But to be honest, Cloud needed the time to steady himself, as well.

This place played havoc with his self-control, and his emotions and reactions became almost frighteningly unpredictable. There were too many horrific memories here. They assaulted him continually, like a neverending horde of skeletal fingers clawing at the edges of his mind. It didn't matter how fragmented and jumbled those memories were. They didn't need to make sense to tie his guts in knots or leave him feeling sick and shaken to the core.

The best he could strive for was a precarious state of numbness that would hopefully keep those memories at bay long enough so he could function and do whatever was necessary.

And yet, despite knowing how badly this hellhole affected him, Cloud had still agreed to accompany Reno and do his best to answer the Turk's questions... if he could. He had been partially motivated by his sympathy for Reno, but there had been another reason for wanting to have a long, private talk with the Turk. If only he could remember what it was....

Finally, Reno broke the silence and spoke in a voice that was very close to his usual drawling, nonchalant tone.

"Now I know why that mother-fucker always had that sly, shit-faced smirk on his face every time we bumped into each other."

Cloud nodded grimly. "Yeah, Hojo definitely gets off on those sort of sick secrets. Knowledge is his favorite toy and his favorite weapon, all rolled into one."

"Speaking of knowledge...."

".... you want to know what really happened to your sister," Cloud finished.

Reno whirled to face Cloud and growled, "Don't you think I have a right to know?"

"As Tifa said, she's dead and Hojo's responsible. That's a fairly accurate summary of the situation," Cloud murmured.

"It's not enough." Reno grinned -- a feral, mirthless baring of teeth. "Normally, I'm not the sort of guy who sweats the details. But this time, it's personal. As personal as it fucking well gets. So deal with it. I want to know what happened here so I can take payment out of Hojo's scaly, bug-eyed hide, with mucho interest added."

"There are other people who have claims on Hojo's hide. Vincent, for one."

Reno shrugged carelessly. "I'm sure the two of us can work something out."

With a sigh, Cloud said, "Look, if you're looking for hard facts, I'm not sure I can give them to you. To be honest, my memory of this place is a unholy mess -- how much was real, how much hallucination, and how much outright dementia, I can't tell you. You'd be better off pumping one of Hojo's former lab drones for information. I'm sure Reeve has got a few under lock and key by now."

Reno pinned him with a hard stare. "Yeah, maybe I'll do that. But they can't give me what you can."

"A look from inside the cage?" Cloud said with a derisive snort. "If that's what you want, you'd still be better off talking to someone else. Try Red or Vincent. They both know what it's like to be one of Hojo's experimental subjects, and their memories are lot more coherent than mine. Hell, you've even had first-hand experience yourself."

"Don't remind me. But that's not what I'm looking for." Reno began pacing restlessly, back and forth in front of that long row of glowing specimen cylinders.

As he watched the Turk's feline-like prowl, Cloud wondered at his own perversity. He had already decided to tell Reno everything he could about Hojo and Project B. He had made that decision back onboard the Highwind II when Reno had first demanded to see his sister's body. So why was he now playing coy?

Digging through his memories would be ugly and painful. He knew that, but he had been fully prepared to do it. Or at least he -thought- he had been prepared. Was he being stubborn out of cowardice, fearful of what he might remember?

No, that wasn't it. Somewhere deep inside him, Cloud knew he had the answers that Reno wanted. It was simply a matter of getting the Turk to ask the right question.

The right question?

Annoyed and impatient with himself, Cloud said bluntly, "Then tell me, what's really eating at you, Reno? Besides the fact that Hojo kidnapped your sister, used her for his twisted experiments, and eventually killed her, either directly or indirectly."

"Damn right there's more," Reno growled through gritted teeth. His steps quickened and his hands clenched, as if digging into an imaginary throat.

As Reno continued to pace with increasing ferocity, Cloud braced himself for the impending explosion, either verbal or physical. Soon enough, the Turk abruptly skidded to a halt, then whirled to face Cloud and yelled, "But most of all, I want to know WHY THE FUCK DIDN'T I KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT IT!?"

So that was it.

On the surface, it seemed like a rather stupid question. How could Reno have possibly known? Highly classified research projects were supposed to be... well, highly classified. They were run on a strict, need-to-know basis, and a mere Turk didn't need to know. And while Hojo was a sadistic, megomaniacal bastard, the scientist still had a very healthy sense of self-preservation. However he might gloat about the exploit privately, Hojo would have taken great care to keep Regis Donovan's kidnapping and her resultant fate a secret, especially in view of Reno's formidable and notorious reputation.

But Cloud felt a deeply sympathetic twinge when he heard Reno's question and the barely controlled anguish accompanying it. The question seemed to resonate and echo inside him, as if in some murky corner of his mind, he had asked himself essentially the same, equally heart-wrenching question over and over again.

//Why didn't I realize something was WRONG?//

It was that sympathetic twinge that prodded Cloud into sifting through memories he would much rather leave alone. Almost absently, he said, "The two of you were very close, right?"

In mid-step, Reno froze and gave Cloud a slightly startled look, as if he hadn't expected Cloud to actually pursue the issue.

"Yeah, we were. She was the only member of my family that I could stand." The Turk paused, then added, almost reluctantly. "The only one who accepted me as I am."

"And you were in the habit of 'picking up' things from her. I've heard that it's not uncommon with twins," Cloud continued in the same thoughtful, slightly distracted tone.

Reno shrugged and said, "It wasn't like we were telepathic or anything like that. But yeah, I usually knew if something major happened to her. An accident, a bad scare, that sort of thing. Otherwise, she was just... there." He gestured vaguely, then looked away, obviously uncomfortable with discussing a very personal and very private subject.

"And then she wasn't."

"That's why I never doubted that she was dead, that she had died in that big train wreck." He whipped around to glare at Cloud. "I just KNEW. She wasn't 'there' anymore." He flung up his hands in exasperation. "Hell, it sounds crazy, but I can't begin to explain it!"

"You don't need to," Cloud said evenly. "I understand perfectly." He knew exactly how it felt to lose that sort of intimate connection to another person. He knew how much it hurt to reach out and only encounter cold, echoing emptiness instead of a familiar, comforting presence. Both of them had experienced that loss, the pain of having such a bond severed. But unlike Reno, HE had been the one to do the severing. Not just once, not just twice, but three times, with his own bloody hands.

He could only hope that there wouldn't be a fourth time....

Reno stared at Cloud for a long moment, his green eyes narrowing thoughtfully, then looked relieved that he don't have to spell everything out in embarassing detail. Instead, he waved his hand at the tube containing his sister's body. "I was so fucking SURE. And then I find out about this! And I didn't know a damn thing!?" He glared around, looking for some way to vent his anger and frustration. He settled for kicking a broken corner of desk hard across the room.

At the same time, Cloud was concentrating, straining to remember something about Project B, about its subjects. What was it about those subjects and the idea of not knowing, not feeling, of being unaware? And why did that combination make him feel both coldly furious and horribly bitter? Slowly, like a man picking his way over dangerously unstable ground, Cloud said, "Given everything you've told me, I think your ignorance of your sister's fate is actually a good sign."

"And how do you figure that?" Reno snapped.

"Because it would mean that she didn't feel a thing Hojo did to her. Which makes her one of the lucky ones. One of the very lucky ones."

Reno stared blankly at him.

Cloud continued in that same deliberate tone even as his head began to throb painfully, "He tried drugs to keep them pacified, but that didn't work. Tried brain surgery, but that's still not enough. To hell with it, why not take the process to its logical conclusion?"

He abruptly went still, then stared up at the preserved corpse of Regis Donovan. In a hoarse whisper, he said, "Reno, you felt your sister die because she DID die. At least the part of her that mattered died."

When Reno scowled in angry confusion, Cloud said, "Brain dead." The pounding in his head grew stronger as he stared at Reno. "And no, not because of the train wreck. AFTER the wreck. And it was no accident."

Somehow, as soon as he uttered those last three sentences, Cloud knew that they were not mere speculation or wild guesses. He KNEW. Somewhere in his head he could hear the echo of Hojo's insufferably smug, snide voice boasting how he had solved the niggling problem with the host subjects of Project B, and other things, like how he, Hojo, had acquired a particularly fine red-haired specimen for his project. And how that woman would make excellent breeding stock for more potential Sephiroths....

Cloud sagged back against the wall and fought down the urge to vomit.

"Are you trying to tell me that Hojo deliberately destroyed my sister's mind and then used her body as a living incubator?" Reno's voice was terrifyingly flat.

Cloud took a few deep breaths, then met the Turk's burning stare. "That's exactly what happened. Now do you understand what Hojo and his sort are capable of doing in the name of 'science'?"

"Brain dead," Reno said in the same cold, utterly flat tone.

"Or close enough to not matter," Cloud said curtly. "When you think about it, it's a near-perfect solution to an annoying problem." In a viciously accurate mimicry of Hojo's pretentious speech patterns, Cloud continued, "After all, there's nothing not more irritating or inconvenient than having one of your host subjects kill herself off in the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy. This way, there's no need to deal with a hysterical, hormonal female who might injure herself, or more importantly the valuable specimen growing inside her."

"And you call my sister one of the LUCKY ones?" the Turk snarled softly, anger finally working its way back into his voice.

Something dark and ugly inside Cloud seethed, then suddenly boiled over. "She was a fucking lot luckier than -I- was," he snarled back. "Be grateful for small favors. At least your sister was blissfully unaware of what was happening to her."

/Lucky bitch./

He pushed away from the wall and slowly stalked toward Reno, fists clenching.

"I would've begged.... Hell, I DID beg to be that fortunate, to no longer be able to think, feel, or remember anything. To simply stop existing! Begged, pleaded, grovelled, you name it! I would have given anything, done anything, to be a total vegetable, to be in the same comfortably mindless state your sister was in! So yeah, from my point of view, that makes her one of the lucky ones!"

He stood with his chest heaving and throat burning as the memories rampaged through his head, memories of when pure agony made rational thought impossible, when one's sense of self evaporated, leaving only maddened desperation, hatred, and envy....

Cloud's muscles quivered with a nearly overwhelming urge to lash out nearest convenient target -- in this case, Reno. He fought back the murderous impulse, forcing himself to step back, turn, and simply walk away.

Minutes ticked by as the two of them silently wrestled their rioting emotions into some fragile semblance of order. Finally, Reno said tightly, "You have a point. It could have been worse. At least she didn't suffer."

Cloud took a few deep, shuddering breaths before speaking. Without turning to look at Reno, he said, "It doesn't make what Hojo did any less horrible or vile. Believe me, he didn't do it out of any twisted sense of mercy. He only did it because he HAD to. I can guarantee that Hojo would have much rather preferred to keep those women conscious and very much aware of their condition."

"Why? Just to watch them suffer?" Reno said in utterly disgusted tones.

Cloud laughed bitterly. "You've got it all wrong. Hojo and his cronies are 'scientists'. He used a sharp flick of two gloved fingers to accentuate the sarcasm. "Every sick perverse thing they do, every torture they inflict, every atrocity they commit, is solely for the sake of their research." He grinned fiercely when he saw Reno's frown. "Don't you get it? Conscious subjects give better feedback. Every bit of data is potentially useful, even if it only consists of agonized screams or snivelling whimpers."

Any hint of amusement, however savagely mocking, disappeared from Cloud's voice as he continued in softer, but no less fierce tones, "That's what they tell you, what they tell each other. But it's all a fucking lie, of course. They hurt you because they CAN. Because there's nothing more intoxicating than having total control over another living being. To make them into your toy or plaything. To literally become your victim's GOD.

Silence settled over them again as Reno's gaze moved slowly around the room, taking in the other specimen chambers and their gruesome contents, especially the hideously deformed fetuses.

"Were all of them like that? Brain dead, like my sister?" Reno's voice was even, but the strain of keeping it that way was obvious.

"The ones here probably were. Otherwise, their pregnacies wouldn't have made it this far."

"Why not?" Reno couldn't stop himself from asking.

"Because the earlier subjects knew what was happening to them." Cloud glanced over at the Turk. "Think about what it means to be utterly violated that way, to have something -other- forced inside you. Something that you know doesn't belong there. Something abnormal and unspeakably alien. And what's worse, you can feel it growing stronger, feel it slowly taking you over in both body and mind. Every instinct is screaming for you to get rid of it any way you can, even if it means ripping open your own flesh with your bare hands."

As Cloud spoke, Reno found himself staring once again at the fetuses accompanying each woman's corpse. These creatures were the result of failed experiments, the by-products of Hojo's mad quest to breed a new Sephiroth. Some of the things looked vaguely human, although with too many or not enough limbs, sensory organs or heads. But others were the spawn of some drug addict's nightmare, a demented mishmash of mammalian, reptilian, and even insect-like traits that included fur, scales, claws, spines, and even tentacles. The idea of those alien monstrosities growing inside these poor women's bodies -- inside Regis's body -- nearly made him retch.

Reno managed, "Yeah, I can see that suicide would be a fucking attractive option."

Cloud smiled coldly, "Oh, it is. But not nearly as easy as you would think, once one's been infected with Jenova cells. The mind might be willing, but the body isn't." He absently rubbed his right wrist. "But with enough persistence and enough opportunities, a lot of the Project B subjects succeeded. Then again, those women weren't nearly as heavily modified as other experimental subjects."

"Like yourself?" Reno said quietly.

"Like myself."

"You said something earlier about drugs and... brain surgery?"

"Hojo tried to stop the self-multilation and suicide attempts with around-the-clock monitoring and intimidation. That was a complete fiasco. He tried physical restraints. He even tried total paralysis."

"How did... no, I don't think I want to know," Reno muttered.

"Trust me, you don't," Cloud said grimly. "But those methods only made things worse. Something to do with emotional stress and body chemistry. The presence of Jenova cells made the use of drugs too unpredictable. So Hojo tried to reduce the stress by lobotomizing some of the women."

Reno flinched involuntarily.

"But it seemed even the slightest degree of self-awareness was enough to cause 'fetal rejection syndrome', as Hojo called it." Cloud shrugged. "So he took the next logical step and eliminated the host's mind altogther. It worked."

"But why did Hojo pick my sister!?" Reno yelled, slamming his fist against the wall. "Of all the fucking women on this damn planet!"

"Because she had all the intellectual and physical attributes Hojo was looking for his Sephiroth replacement, or at least the genes for them. As Shinra's director of scientific research, Hojo had plenty of opportunities to scout out promising candidates for Project B."

That made a horrible sort of sense to Reno. Both brains and looks certainly ran in his family.

"Hojo probably had his eyes on your sister for a long time. The train accident just provided a convenient opportunity to grab her."

Reno hissed, "Son of a.... The last time I saw her, Regis mentioned something about a new job involving Hojo...." He suddenly paused, then slowly turn to look at Cloud with an expression that was half bafflement, half dark suspicion.

"Wait a fucking moment. All this happened when you were supposed to a prisoner here. So how the -hell- do you know so much!?"

Startled by the abrupt challenge, Cloud stared blankly at Reno for a moment. How had he known so much about Project B? A sudden sharp pang ran through his skull, making him gasp and wince.

"I'm not... sure. I heard people talk about..." His head began to throb again. "No, wait...." He massaged his forehead with both hands, then looked up at Reno.

"It was Hojo. Hojo told me himself."

Anger boiled up inside Cloud again, but a very different sort from his earlier outburst at Reno. This time it was icy and ferociously controlled.

"I'm not sure when, or even why, but I can remember listening to him boast about it. He lied about a lot of things, but not about this. He was so fucking -proud- of his 'perfect' solution to the problem. So he talked. And all I could do was... listen."

....trapped in a cage, listening to Hojo ramble on and on, forced to hide his utter loathing behind a mask of cool indifference, knowing that the slightest show of distress or outrage would make him dangerously vulnerable....

Reno stared long and hard at Cloud, then suddenly said, "Hold it. So you're telling me that my sister didn't feel a damn thing while Hojo was experimenting on her -- thank god for small favors! But back there at the weapons plant, Hojo made it sound like...."

Cloud smiled grimly. "....like your sister had suffered all sorts of horrible degradation and torture at his hands." He smiled nastily. "I hate to break it to you, but Hojo lied. He lied just to twist the knife and make you feel like shit. He couldn't make your sister suffer -- although I'm sure he would've loved to -- so he tried to make you suffer instead."

Reno snarled, deep and low, in his throat. "That filthy...." He stopped, unable to come up with a suitably vile epithet.

"Consider this. If he can conceive and carry out something this horrific on his own initiative, imagine what he's capable of doing now."

"But what the hell does he want? To become a fucking god or what?"

"Nothing that simple. Hojo seems to be more interested in creating a god than in becoming one himself. I don't know. Maybe it makes him feel superior to a mere god, the power behind the throne, so to speak," Cloud said with a shrug. "He's totally insane, so who knows what's the bastard's thinking."

"I got your point." Reno tapped his Nightstick thoughtfully on his shoulder, then added, "You know, in my line of work, I have encountered my own share of wackos, maybe even one or two with delusions of godhood." He glanced over his shoulder at Cloud. "But this is the first time I've run into someone who could possibly pull it off... or make one huge fucking mess while trying."

"Hojo's the worst, certainly, and the biggest danger at the moment. But remember this. He didn't do this alone. He had plenty of help. People who didn't just stand by, but who actively aided and abetted him in these atrocities. People who thought up and carried out experiments that were just as horrific, if not more so. And they're still out there. Hiding, maybe, but still out there."

In a low, intense voice, Cloud continued, "They're monsters who cause untold misery and suffering. They are the true enemy. Never forget that, Reno. No one and nothing is safe as long as Hojo and his kind exist. No matter what it takes, no matter how long it takes. THEY ALL HAVE TO DIE."

Reno stared at Cloud for a long moment. There was no mistaking the anger in the other man's voice. But while Cloud's earlier outburst had been a flash of hot rage, like a smouldering volcano teetering on the verge of eruption, this anger was totally different in its cold deliberate ferocity. It was an anger that was both deeply personal, but at the same time, chillingly detached.

"You really, really hate these guys, don't you?"

Cloud's lips curled into a feral little grin and said pleasantly, "Oh, you have NO idea how much I loathe Hojo and his kind. But don't feel bad. I've had a lot more practice at it than you have."

In a detached corner of his mind, Cloud was aware that he probably sounded like some sort of nutcase himself. But at the moment, he couldn't quite bring himself to care. It felt good to be able to be totally candid with someone for a change.

Reno wasn't stupid. Cloud was talking about cold-bloodedly hunting down and exterminating of not just Hojo, but Hojo's like-minded collegues.

Reno was cool with that.

"You are one ruthless son of a bitch." There was no hint of criticism in Reno's voice, only a mixture of mild surprise and wary respect.

Cloud's lips curled upward. For an instant, the glowing blue mako eyes and the brief flash of teeth exposed by the cold, wolfish grin made it seem as if a great predatory beast had materialized in the gruesome chamber.

"Thanks."

--------------------------------------

Strife felt the already damaged barrier weaken further. He pounded hard against it and felt a savage exultation as a few more cracks appeared and others widened.

Yes....

How long had he been trapped in this limbo? How long had it been since he had been forced to retreat to this refugue-now-prison, betrayed by the very person who owed him the most. Hadn't he coddled, protected, and humored the snivelling brat Cloud at every turn? But instead of gratitude for getting rid of Zack, the ungrateful little beast had stabbed him in the back.

HE had been the one to take the risks, who dared to turn thought and desire into action. And when he had done his best to save the moron from getting totally taken over by that asshole Zack, the pathetic whiner had turned on him, even tried to eradicate and utterly obliterate him....

And HE got called a selfish, murderous monster?

But he had managed to survive. He was a born survivor. Driven to the deepest, darkest recesses of a broken mind, it had taken him a long time to recover and regroup, to pull the scattered remnants of himself back together. But by the time he succeeded, he no longer had a way out. His hiding place had become a prison. And to add insult to injury, the obstacle blocking his way to freedom was the very thing he had tried to destroy.

Zack.

THAT has been the most galling part, to know that the miserable, boot-licking loser has chosen ZACK, of all people, over him!

But why should that surprise him? EVERYONE liked Zack better, even Sephiroth....

A chill touched him. No. He didn't want to deal with Sephiroth right now. Not before he was ready. The last thing he wanted to do right now was attract Sephiroth's attention. Not until he was free and could protect himself.

But how to get out? He had searched long and hard for a chink in the barrier that kept him sealed away for so long, that prevented him from taking what was rightfully his. He knew there had to be weak spots. The trick was to find them.

In the beginning he had found only few cracks, small and temporary. But recently, the barrier had weakened. He had suspected that it had something to do with that Jenova bitch coming back to life. The gaps had grown wider, giving him opportunities where he could slip out, however briefly.

But those measely slivers of stolen time weren't nearly enough. He wanted it all. He DESERVED it all. He didn't want to spend the rest of his existence trapped in some dark, obscure corner of Cloud's mind, ignored and forgotten.

The barrier that kept him from taking rightful control of Cloud's body had taken a hell of a hit when Jenova-CORE had reared her ugly head, but it had held. And despite all the damage, his continued assaults and now the steady erosion caused by Jenova-CORE's awakening, the barrier still remained strong.

But it was getting weaker. Unstable. Vulnerable to attack.

He had the perfect ammunition to bring down dear old Zack. Now it was simply a matter of finding the right opportunity.

He would be free again. And once free, he would take care of the final and most serious threat.

Sephiroth.

--------------------------------------
Tags: coi, coi-fic, conflicts of interest, fanfic, ff7
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