MadamHydra (madamhydra) wrote,

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COI - chapter 8 snippet!

Argh! The more I learn about Dirge of Cerberus and Crisis Core, the more I realize that COI is definitely going to be majorly AU. Oh well, that won't stop me from borrowing ideas from AC, DoC, and CC as I see fit. ^_-

::cough:: Rufus ::cough:: Tseng ::cough::

Well, for anyone who's interested, here is a moderate-sized snippet from Chapter 8 -- I'm guessing barely the first 1/4 of the chapter and probably much less. Some of you may have already read the first sections, but the last few sections are entirely new.

Naturally, this is an incredibly rough snippet, but I would appreciate any comments and/or suggestions you might have.

So if you're still interested in COI, enjoy!


As they confronted the monstrous alien entity called Jenova-CORE, Cait Sith caught a fleeting glimpse of Sephiroth's face. There was no fear, of course. What startled Cait Sith was the sheer unrelenting hostility that radiated from the ex-general. Staring up at Jenova, Sephiroth's lips were set in a hard, razor thin line and his narrowed green eyes glittered with an icy fury that bordered on outright loathing.

And standing in front of Sephiroth, Cloud radiated the same cold rage and unyielding animosity. But unlike Sephiroth's stony expression, Cloud's lips were curved slightly upward in a chillingly vicious smile.

Two former archenemies now stood together, clearly united -- at least at this moment -- by their mutual hatred of Jenova.

Cait found the sight both deeply reassuring and unnerving.


Sephiroth recognized the face instantly. Its eeriely beautiful image, just like its seductive mental whisper, lurked within every one of the fragmented and jumbled memories he had of the past six years. Even now, he could sense Jenova's mental touch scrabbling at the edges of his consciousness as it tried to worm its way back into his thoughts. But, instead of instilling a sense of blissful security and purpose, the unmistakably alien presence now only roused feelings of anger and disgust.

(No way, bitch. Not THIS time.)


The tense confrontation with Jenova-CORE could have lasted much longer, but the steadily escalating whine from Sapphire WEAPON soon reminded everyone that there was a third player on the field. As the sound grew to a bone-rattling level, the air around the WEAPON began to waver and shimmer ominously just as a blue-white glow began to appear between its gaping jaws.

Jenova-CORE pivoted with eerie fluidity to face the looming WEAPON. In a gesture oddly reminiscent of the ice goddess Shiva, the towering alien creature languidly lifted its right arm and pointed an inhumanly long finger at its enemy. Black talons gleamed dully as a dark red nimbus appeared around the fans of quivering tendrils on the creature's back. The dark red energy intensified, then abruptly flowed into its torso and collected around its extended hand.

It didn't take a genius to realize that the totally exposed catwalk was not the place to be when the firework show started. Cid Highwind had been called many things in his life, but 'utter moron' was not one of them. The great Sephiroth might very well survive getting buried under several billion tons of rock, but it was pretty damn unlikely that anyone else would. Cid wasn't in the mood to try the experiment.

The pilot bellowed, "SHIT!!! They're gonna open fire! Get your butts in gear!"

The shift in Jenova's attention and Cid's warning jerked Cloud and Sephiroth out of their near-trancelike state. Only then did Cloud realize just how closely they were standing together. Cloud hastily stepped away, but not before giving Sephiroth a quick baffled look before the two men whirled and joined the others in their dash for the dubious safety of the exit.


Out in front of the others, Scarlet dashed down blood-splattered hallways, skidding around corners with Yuffie and Red close to her heels. Finally, she ran into a familiar-looking storage room.

As the others piled into the room behind her, Scarlet flung open the door to the escape tunnel. Tifa gasped out, "What about the security checkpoints? We don't have time to...." As she spoke, another tremor rippled through the floor, sending little bits of ceiling pattering down on their heads.

Scarlet snapped, "If you used the damn codes I gave you, the checkpoints should remain deactivated." With those words, she hiked up her sequined gown, jumped through the hatchway, and took off down the tunnel.

"Hell, that woman can really move," muttered Barret.


As the others headed down the tunnel, Cid and Red waited tensely for Cloud and Sephiroth to join them. The two men arrived just in time, as behind them, the hallway and part of the storeroom collapsed without warning, then slowly tumbled sideways down into a huge cervasse that abruptly opened in the rock. Through the billowing dust and debris, the pilot and the beast could make out the motionless figures of WEAPON and Jenova-CORE, their respective destructive energies still increasing in intensity. Neither creature showed any immediate signs of firing, but when they eventually did....

(Oh shit, this is going to be BAD,) Cid thought with a sinking feeling in his stomach as he felt his skin prickling from the backwash of power.

But just as Sephiroth reached the hatchway, the ex-general suddenly heard a soft voice whisper in his mind.

{ ....Sephiroth... child.... }

And it *wasn't* Jenova.

Caught off-guard, Sephiroth abruptly halted and started to look behind him.

Although he had been running in front of Sephiroth, Cloud somehow sensed the other man's hesitation and reacted instantly. Without the slightest warning, Cloud smoothly pivoted, grabbed Sephiroth by the belt and collar of his coat, then heaved him through the open hatchway. The startled ex-general crashlanded into the equally startled Red and Cid on the other side of the hatch.

On the bottom of the resulting heap, the unfortunate Cid wheezed furiously, "Damn it! Save the world... fight WEAPONs... eat Yuffie's cooking... and I'm going to die... getting sat on... by Sephiroth!? Get... the... fuck... off... ME!!!"

As the others tried to disentangle themselves, Cloud bounded through the hatchway. As he started to slam the hatch door shut, he saw something that made his guts tighten into roiling knot. Huge slits were slowly opening up amid the frilly masses of tissue around Jenova-CORE's lower body. As the slits widened, a sickly yellowish liquid that reminded Cloud of bloody urine started to gush forth. Suddenly, a very dark purple, almost black, pulsating mass bulged out of one of the newly opened orifices in an obscene semblance of childbirth. Similar eruptions were taking place in the numerous other slits.

Cloud couldn't tell what sort of monstrosity Jenova-CORE might be spawning and frankly, he really didn't want to know. Just as hideous newborn limbs started to flail in the air, he slammed the hatch shut and shoved the massive locking bolts into place. By that time, a furious Sephiroth was back on his feet.

The silver-haired man snapped at Cloud, "Was that really necessary!?"

He glared at Sephiroth and snarled back, "Get this through that stubborn skull of yours. There's no way I'm leaving you behind anywhere close to that *thing*. You're coming with us, even if I have to fucking well carry you!"

"You think you can?" Sephiroth retorted in dangerous tones.

"I'm going to bloody well give it my best shot THIS time around!" Cloud shot back, his fists clenching.

"What the hell do you mean by THAT?" Sephiroth growled back.

"Meaning that I should've known better than to leave you alone in that damn Shinra Mansion when I KNEW something seriously weird was going on inside that stubborn skull of yours!"

On the brink of unleashing a scathing response, Sephiroth froze, his eyes widening in surprise even as Cloud stalked over to confront him. Jabbing the other man's chest with a finger as if to emphasize his point, Cloud continued on in the same coldly furious snarl.

"In fact, now that I think about it, I probably should've helped Hojo stuff you in a straitjacket and hauled your damn ass the hell out of Nibelheim! With my bare hands if necessary!"

Cid and Red watched in baffled fascination as Sephiroth stared down at the fuming Cloud with a startled expression. To their total shock, in response to Cloud's blistering outburst, Sephiroth merely blinked, then shrugged in what was clearly a semi-placating gesture.

"Fine. I won't argue the point. I've already told you that I'd accompany you."

"Good! Then bloody well don't forget that. And quit listening to mysterious voices inside your head!" With those words, Cloud turned and stalked off down the tunnel.

Sephiroth exhaled slowly, then turned to see Cid and Red, who first stared at each other, then at him in stunned amazement.

Belatedly regaining his composure, Sephiroth raised a thin eyebrow and said in his most quelling manner, "Yes?" as if daring them to make any comments or ask questions before he turned to follow Cloud.


The return trip through the tunnels turned into a footrace through a nightmarish obstacle course, complete with falling rocks the size of trucks, bottomless chasms that opened up without warning underfoot, and clouds of dust that blinded and choked. As they continued their mad dash through the nearly pitch black caves, the violent shaking of the earth gave them a pretty good idea of the ferocious battle that was undoubtedly raging between the enhanced Sapphire WEAPON and the newly resurrected Jenova-CORE.

A wide crack tore across the tunnel, but before they could jump the new obstacle, their side of the tunnel abruptly sank a good thirty feet straight down before coming to a bonejarring halt.

"Shit!" growled Barret as he pointed his light toward the near vertical rock face that now obstructed their escape route. More obscenities poured from his mouth as the rock slab on which they stood began to tip precariously and nearly sent them sliding into the narrow, but potentially bottomless cervasse opening up at the base of the sheer rock face. Even as they struggled to keep their footing, their section of tunnel sank even more, narrowing the gap between the tunnel roof on their side and the tunnel floor on the other side of the cervasse. A few more feet and their escape would be entirely cut off.

Scarlet didn't even hesitate. The woman had already jumped the slowly widing gap in the floor and was already clawing her way up the rock face, with Yuffie only a few feet behind her.

As his companions followed suit, Red stiffened, his ears pricking up in alarm.

"What is it?" Tifa said frantically.

"I hear water!"


"Lots of water. Coming this way very, very quickly!"

"Are you sure?" the brunette asked, even as she started climbing herself.

Sephiroth listened intently, then nodded shortly. "He's right. Feel the air current?" By now, they could all feel a faint breeze coming from behind them. "It's from the water pushing the air in front of it."

"Where the hell is it coming from!?" Barret demanded.

"All of this seismic activity could have diverted an underground stream or perhaps cracked a lake bed. It could be the ocean, for all I know. The source is not important. Getting out of here is!" the ex-general snapped impatiently.

Cid rolled his eyes and muttered, "Great! Now what?"

Tail lashing, Red said urgently, "Climb and keep moving! If we're lucky, most of the water will get diverted into all these chasms!"

"And if we're not lucky?" Cid muttered as he began to haul himself upward.

"Just climb!"


Most of the party made it up the steep rock face without too much difficulty. Soon only Cloud, Sephiroth, and Barret remained on the sinking section of tunnel. Unfortunately, Barret, having only one usable hand, was finding the climb rather difficult. By this time, the faint rumble of moving water had become a growing roar. Losing his patience with the other man's clumsy efforts, Sephiroth climbed up behind Barret, grabbed a hold of a booted foot, and heaved the large man up and through the steadily narrowing tunnel opening with nonchalant ease.

"What the hellll...!!!" howled Barret as he landed with a thud.

As Cloud and Sephiroth followed the disgruntled miner through the gap, they heard the sounds of battle further down the tunnel. They raced down the passageway to find Cloud's friends beating off a swarm of small land worms. The beasts were the size of a man's arm and basically harmless, but the sheer number of the creatures made progress through the tunnel almost impossible. Even as Cloud and Sephiroth caught up with them, the rest of the party was desperately trying to fight their way through the writhing, slithering mass.

Prodding a dead worm with his foot, Sephiroth frowned slightly, then said, "These look like they're newly hatched...."

Cloud finished, " where's the adult?"

Suddenly, the roof of the tunnel caved in and a huge, mature land worm nearly landed on their heads.

As Elena prepared to shoot the wildly thrashing beast, Red bellowed, "No! No shooting! There's gas!"

She sniffed, then shook her head sharply. "I don't smell anything!"

Barret snapped, "Gas itself don't got no odor, at least to human noses! But if Red says there's gas, bet on it, Turk!"

Elena blanched at the thought of a gunshot setting a underground gas explosion and hastily stuffed her gun back into its holster. The others did the same, hastily sheathing their own weapons, well aware that a blade striking rock could cause a potentially lethal spark.

"We don't have time for this!" Tifa shouted, glancing over her shoulder nervously.

Normally, a large landworm would have been easy to handle, being both slow and stupid. But in the tight confines of the tunnel, its sheer bulk became a formidable threat as the panicked creature thrashed about wildly. Thankfully, Red's hastily cast ice spell froze all the worms just long enough for the party to slip by. They didn't take time to congratulate themselves but kept running down the tunnel.

Out of the corner of his eye, Red caught a glimpse of Cloud wincing, as if the blond was trying to fight off a nagging headache. Running beside Cloud, Sephiroth had a similar tense, faintly strained expression on his face. Red didn't have to guess at the source for their discomfort. No matter how irritating he found the psychic 'stench' of Jenova's presence, it had to be much worse for both Cloud and Sephiroth.

After their third encounter with a panicked subterreanean monster, Cloud yelled, "Yuffie, hold up!"

The ninja girl dragged Scarlet to a skidding stop, and turned to face the others.


"This isn't working! If we have to keep getting slowed down like this, we'll never get out of here before this damn tunnel collapses on us," Cloud said quickly.

Barett added, "Yeah, and if we hit another friggin' gas pocket, we could all smother or go boom before we know it!"

Cloud nodded sharply. "That too. We'll be more exposed, but I think we'll have a better chance above ground. At least we'll have more room to spread out and manuveur. Right now, we're like fish in a barrel."

Reno grimaced as a series of rumbles sent chunks of rock pattering down on their heads, then said, "I'm with you. It's just too risky down to stay down here. I say we take our chances on the surface."

"Scarlet! How far to the closest tunnel exit?" Cloud snapped.

"A little less than a half mile, I think," she gasped, leaning against the wall and trying to catch her breath.

"Then what the fuck are we standing here for!" Cid shouted as they all resumed running.


Unfortunately, bad news was waiting for them at the escape tunnel.

"What do you mean it's blocked!?" Tifa yelled.

"Cave in. See for yourself if you don't believe me," Scarlet snarled back.

"Damn it!" Tifa kicked, hard. The hatch dented but didn't budge. "All right. Then where the next one?"

Scarlet shook her head quickly. "At least two miles. And there's no guarantee that it won't be blocked or jammed as well. These tunnels weren't designed to stand up to this sort of crazy shaking!"

As if to illustrate her point, the tunnel shook violently as another massive shockwave rippled through the rock. There was a brief, strangely ominous lull, then a strong breeze began to blow through the tunnel once again.

"Is that what I think it is?" Yuffie said uneasily.

"Yes. More water coming our way. A lot more water," Red muttered.

Over the persistent grinding noise of shifting stone, they could now hear a distant, but steady rumble that sounded like a rapidly approaching freight train.

"Hell! We'll be flushed away like crap down a toilet!" Cid said with a ferocious scowl.

"A picturesque way of putting it, but a fairly accurate assessment," Sephiroth drily commented.

Yuffie stiffened, then pounced on Cait Sith.

"The bag! The bag of materia I gave you to stash! Where is it!?"

The little robot didn't bother to ask questions, but hastily plunged its paw through an opening in its Mog and pulled out a largish pouch. Yuffie grabbed it and started to rummage through the bag frenziedly.

"What are you doing?" Scarlet demanded.

Without looking up, Yuffie said, "All that water might just save us! Ah! Here it is!" She held up a purplish chunk of Materia.

Cid stared blankly at it, then grinned. "Is that the...?"

"...the Underwater Materia we used with the Emerald WEAPON? You got it!" Yuffie said with a wink.

"How the hell did you...!?" Cid suddenly yelped, instinctively checking his pockets, even though that particular Materia hadn't been in his possession for months. Yuffie just tended to affect people that way.

She hastily interrupted, "The how's not important right now! But this little chunk of purple rock may save our butts! After all, that water's moving a lot faster than we can. If we can't outrun the water, why not use it and let it do all the hard work?"

Understanding dawned on Tifa's face and gave the ninja girl a quick shoulder hug. "Yuffie, that's brilliant! Go for it!"

Elena, unfamiliar to the seemingly reckless way that Cloud and his companions could make split-second decisions, instinctively protested, "You're talking about letting the water to carry us through the tunnel!? But there's miles left to go! We'll drown for sure!"

Cid interrupted, leaving Yuffie free to start the spell.

"That's what this Materia's for. It lets you breath freely underwater."

Reno cut to the chase and said, "For how long?"

Yuffie muttered, "With three people, at least an hour, maybe more. C'mon, c'mon, you slowpoke!" She impatiently jiggled the Materia as it gradually started to glow. "With so many people, I don't know.... I'll try to boost it all I can... might take some serial casting... I can't make any promises."

Cait Sith hastily said, "You can skip me! I don't have to worry about breathing!"

"Right, right... one less person... that's gotta help...," Yuffie chanted under her breath.

"This is crazy! I hope you realize that we could just end up stuck in some dead end tunnel and drown!" Scarlet objected stridently.

Tifa turned on her and snapped, "Listen! It's not like we have any other options, okay!? That water's going to catch up and run right over us any second now! Unless you've got a better idea how to get out of this paranoid deathtrap of yours!"

Scarlet lunged forward until she was almost nose to nose with Tifa, and snarled, "Don't give me that shit! This little deathtrap, as you call it, got you into my plant to rescue your precious friends! So don't you dare to get all high-and-mighty with me, you overhung...!"

Cloud hastily stepped between the two women and elbowed them apart.

"This isn't the time for arguing! Tifa, see if you can help Yuffie." He turned to Scarlet and said sharply, "Well, are you in or out?"

Talking over Cloud's shoulder, Tifa added, "And if you don't like how we handling things, feel free to take your chances alone!"

Barett, who despised Scarlet even more than Tifa, cut into the conversation and said with a nasty grin, "Yeah, one less person means more breathing time for us!"

Scarlet tossed her head angrily and said, "Fine. I'm in. I still think it's a stupid plan, but it's better than nothing."

"Yuffie, how you're doing?" Cloud asked in a tense voice.

"Shit, you know how long it takes this stupid thing to power up!" the teenager moaned in frustration.

Sephiroth, who had been ignoring the commotion involving Scarlet, suddenly turned around and looked meaningfully at Cloud, who stiffened and started listening intently.

"What's up, guys?" Cid said sharply, then felt an unpleasant sinking feeling when he heard Sephiroth's terse, grim reply.

"The fighting's slowing down."

"Ummmm... isn't that a *good* thing?" Elena said uncertainly, a distinct tinge of anxiety in her voice.

"Not in this case," Cloud replied shortly.

"Why do you say that?" Tifa asked.

"Because that slowdown probably means that both Sapphire WEAPON and Jenova are starting to pull out the REALLY big guns," Cid muttered. "Right?"

"Yeah," Cloud said with a sharp affirmative nod.

"The big...!? How much bigger can they get!?" yelped Elena.

"Do you really want to know?" Although quietly spoken, the sudden silence made Cloud's words almost shockingly loud.

Reno said, "Pretend I know squat about these WEAPONs and the Jenova bitch. Go right ahead and scare me." For once, the red-haired Turk was not being snide or sarcastic.

Instead of immediately replying, Cloud said, "Yuffie!"

"Almost there! Still warming up. Stupid rock!" the ninja responded, her brows knitted in concentration.

Turning back to Reno, Cloud said, "The rate of attacks may be decreasing...."

"....but only because the power of each attack is increasing. Oh, great," the Turk muttered.

As if to confirm Reno's words, the uneasy quietness was broken by the most violent shaking yet, bouncing them around the tunnel like pebbles in a can.

"Man, we gotta get outta here NOW, 'cause we can't take much more of that," muttered Barett as everyone picked themselves off the floor.

Despite landing on her butt, Yuffie hadn't lost a beat and was still concentrating ferociously on the Underwater Materia.

As he helped Yuffie off the floor, Cloud continued, "The WEAPONs don't know the meaning of the word 'quit'. Sapphire's not about to let Jenova-CORE get away, even if it has to take out a hefty chunk of continent to do it. And if this upgraded Sapphire really cuts loose, it'll probably make the Sister Ray look like a popgun."

Cid cursed abruptly and smacked himself on the forehead.

"Fuck it! If that happens, Shera and Rocket Town...!"

Cait Sith chirped, "Got it covered! I sent off the warning as soon as I learned the Sapphire WEAPON was headed in our direction."

The pilot heaved a sigh of relief and wiped his brow. "Thanks, Reeve...."

Yuffie suddenly looked up and gasped, "Wutai!"

"Whatcha...?" Barett started, but Sephiroth interrupted him.

"Tidal waves," Sephiroth said. His answer was apparently a bit too succinct because the miner looked totally clueless.

Cloud quickly explained, "The Wutai capital is located in the mountains so it should be okay, but I think there's a bunch of coastal fishing villages. A big explosion here could create a huge ocean wave and wipe them out."

Tifa blurted, "A wave that could reach Wutai...!?"

"Trust me. A tidal wave can cross from here to Wutai with no problem. It'll flatten practically anything manmade," Cloud replied firmly.

Unnoticed by the others, Sephiroth shot Cloud a quick, thoughtful look.

"Don't worry! I'll handle all the warnings! Just keep working on that Materia, Yuffie!," said Cait Sith.

The teenager nodded, sweating visibly with effort as he refocused her attention on the glowing purple chunk in her hands.

Off to the side, Tifa said sharply, "Yuffie, make sure to save some energy for yourself!"

"Yeah yeah yeah...," the teenager muttered, gritting her teeth in concentration. As everyone scrambled to secure their weapons, the breeze became a near gale as the water hurtled toward them.

Cloud looked around quickly, "As soon as she's done, everyone cast whatever barrier spells you can. This is going to be a rough ride."

The others nodded. The protective spells probably wouldn't last very long, but every little bit would help.

There was a flare of purplish light, then everyone's vision got slightly tinged with blue.

"There it goes!" Yuffie said in exhausted, but triumphant tones.

"And here it comes!" Reno shouted.

Out of the darkness, what looked like a solid wall of water thundered toward them with terrifying speed. It slammed into them, scooped them up, and swept them down the tunnel like leaves in a storm drain.

After that, there was only the endless tossing and roiling, being spun head over heels, and the constant battering as they bounced off the tunnel walls, debris, and occasionally each other.

Interlude: Sephiroth

As he was hurtled forward by a swift underground current, deafened by the roar of surging water and blinded by impenetrable darkness, memories of of another wild, turbulent ride flashed through Sephiroth's mind. But that time, instead of being swept away by mere dark, icy water, he had been engulfed in the brilliant torrent of pure incandescent green of the Lifestream.

Like a key opening a door, those memories led to other memories in an ever-increasing cascade of images and sounds and emotions.

He already had some idea of what happened on that last fateful mission to Nibelheim -- the discovery of Jenova, his obsessive quest for 'the truth', the destruction of Nibelheim, and that last confrontation with Zack inside the Mt. Nibel reactor.

But now he began to remember memories of Nibelheim's aftermath. Now the events between his fall into the Lifestream six years past and his reawakening in Scarlet's weapons plant less than a hour ago began to become clear. endless green crystalline dream filled with psychadelic visions of hunger and dying worlds, overlaid with the pervasive, inescapable sibilant murmur of Jenova's voice... a relentlessly seductive whisper that soothed him away his pain and replaced it with ever-deepening madness....

....the joy of a diabolical game played with living playthings....

....and a golden-haired, blue-eyed puppet dancing on the palm of its master's hand.

Part: Hard Landings

The bruising, disorienting ride seemed to last an eternity, but without warning, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Literally.

The light grew quickly larger, then they were all hurtled into the open air as the underground stream erupted out of a sheer rock cliff. For a brief moment, horizonal momentum continued to carry them away from the cliff... then gravity took over and everyone found themselves plunging down toward the shimmering surface of a lake several hundred feet below.

"Oooohhhh SHITTTTTT!!!"


As she tumbled through the air, Yuffie knew they were all in trouble. For all she knew, the water below was only a few inches deep.

(Aw man, this is going to hurt SO bad...!)

From the corner of her eye, she saw Cid's Venus Gospel flash brilliantly. The next instant, a bright yellow glow surrounded her and she felt a strange sense of... lightness.

(How the hell.... Wait a sec, wasn't there something about levitation or floating in that bag of experimental materia Cait Sith gave us? Damn, I should have known that Cid would've snatched anything remotely related to flying for himself! The sneaky old bastard!)

As things went, whatever spell Cid used couldn't be considered a total success because they weren't anything close to levitating or floating. Perhaps the materia was too weak. Perhaps Cid had screwed up the magic somehow. However, Yuffie really couldn't blame him, given the circumstances. Freefall is not the best time to experiment with brand new materia. Anyway, it really didn't matter. She could feel her descent definitely slowing and unleashed a happy whoop of relief.

Suddenly her vision went all blurry and dark.

(Damn. I guess I used up too much energy on that Underwater Materia...,) she thought woozily.

Even she passed out, Yuffie tried to figure a way of getting her hands on Cid's new materia. Purely out of habit, of course.

She was out cold even before she hit the water.

Like a carelessly thrown shower of pebbles, they plummeted one by one into the lake which fortunately turned out to be plenty deep. Cid's spell had slowed their fall considerably, but hitting the water still felt like falling off a tall building onto concrete. The impact left most of them bruised and breathless.


Red surfaced with a whoosh, and chuffed hard to clear his nostrils. It seemed that Yuffie's water breathing spell had lasted just long enough. Paddling strongly, he peered around, frantically looking for his companions. He saw a sprinkling of various colored heads bobbling in the chilly water. Off to his right, the silvery head had to be Sephiroth. The redhead was Reno. The gleam to his left was Rude's bald head. Three blond heads... yes, Scarlet, Elena, and Cloud.

To his vast relief, he managed to locate all his companions. But their physical condition remained to be determined. A nearby splash from a falling boulder reminded him that they were far from being safe. Most of his friends were already swimming away from the cliff. However, one or two of them were not moving. He caught a glimpse of Elena and Tifa converging on a limp, dark-haired form floating face down in the water, then heard Tifa shouting Yuffie's name. He hastily started to paddle toward them, then changed his mind and headed for the other unmoving body floating nearby.

(Between them, Tifa and Elena should be able to take care of Yuffie. I better check out the others.)

The sky above them was dark and cloudy, erratically lit with blue-white and reddish flares, mixed with multi-colored lightning flashes. And throughout it all, he could hear the persistant rumble of distant booms and explosions.

As he swam, he checked out their surroundings. They had landed in what appeared to be a newly formed lake surrounded by steep zagged canyon walls. The massive cliff they had fallen from was sheer and nearly smooth, as if a mountain had been cleanly sheared in half.

Maybe that's exactly what happened, mere collateral damage from the battle between Sapphire WEAPON and Jenova-CORE.

It was obvious that Cloud's decision to flee had been right. Sapphire WEAPON's power had grown immensely stronger and who knew how much destructive power the resurrected Jenova-CORE was capable of wielding. Trapped underground with the two implacable jaggernauts, their chances of survival would have approached zero.

He had only paddled a few yards when suddenly, everything went eerily quiet. An ominous stillness filled the air, broken only by the sound of rock crumbling and water sloshing.


From the bridge of the Highwind II, the crew observed the distant lightshow as beams of destructive energy danced back and forth between the WEAPON and Jenova. Without warning, the firing abruptly ceased.

One of the crewmen nervously gripped the bridge railing and whispered, "Is... is it over?"

As if in response to the young man's question, the lights reappeared. Incadescent blue-white fire warred with a baleful reddish purple shimmer. But instead of hurtling toward each other, the energies only continued to intensify in brilliance. Soon, the mutual glare was lighting the overcast sky for miles around.

Eyes going wide, one of the senior officers whirled and yelled at the pilot, "REDLINE THE ENGINES AND GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!! IT'S THE BIG ONE!!!"

The airship spun in midair and bolted for the meager shelter of a nearby mountain range.


Then it happened....

There was a tremendous crackle of energy. The world suddenly looked like a stark film negative, with white turned black and black turned white. Red instinctly braced himself for the explosion to follow. He didn't have long to wait.

Seconds ticked by and then the world seemed to turn upside down and inside out all at once as the seimic shock wave hit their location. Everything -- the water, the rocks, everything -- shook in a massive, convulsive series of heaves. The water in the newly formed canyon splashed wildly, tossing Red and his unfortunate friends up, down, and every which way.

They had no chance to recover because even as the wild shaking slowed, the thunderous crack of the explosion finally reached them. The immense sound hit them like a physical blow as it echoed back and forth between the water and the cloud-filled sky.

Red sputtered as large waves washed over him. As he shook his head, there was a loud grinding sound overhead. Startled, Red looked upward at the cliff. For a moment, he thought the cliff had suddenly swollen or grown... then he realized that it only looked bigger because the entire cliff face -- essentially, half of a mountain -- was crumbling down on their heads.

Red paddled for his life.

Behind him, huge slabs of stone the size of traincars crashed into water. Water boiled and foamed. A particularly massive chunk created a miniature tidal wave that towered over his head. Red dove down as far as he could go to escape the coming impact.

Then the wave washed over him. And for the third time in an hour, he was sent tumbling, head over tail.


The next thing that Cid knew was getting dumped belly down on a pile of rocks by a random wave. He hacked and coughed, spit out a mouthful of muddy water, and dragged in a huge gasp of air. The pilot wearily lifted his head and stared around in a daze before finally realizing that he had been somehow sloshed clear out of the lake and onto the upper edge of the canyon.

Cid rolled over, ignoring the sharp pointed stones digging into his back.

"Shit, what a fucking wild ride...."

"You're telling me?" a high-pitched voice said behind him.


(Just a little more....) Elena told herself as she slowly clawed her way up the sheer rock face.

(Just this last ledge... c'mon girl, you're a Turk! You can do it!)

She mustered the energy for one last convulsive heave, she managed to lift her head over the edge... only to find herself bumping noses with a large red-furred muzzle.

With a startled shriek, Elena instinctively recoiled, then remembered her precarious perch -- namely, a good seventy to eighty feet up a sheer canyon wall. Losing her grip on the rocky ledge, she started to topple backward.

Red hastily lunged forward and grabbed Elena's wildly flailing right hand in his jaws, taking care not to draw blood with his sharp teeth. Digging in with his claws, he held on through her reflexive jerk. It took a moment, but as soon as she recognized him and realized that she was not about to be eaten or mauled, she stopped thrashing and went still. Muscles rippling under fur, he began dragging her back up onto the upper lip of the canyon.

Once she was a safe distance from the edge, he released his grip on her hand and sat down on his haunches to give her a concerned look.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."

Sprawled on the ground, Elena weakly waved a hand in a dismissive gesture.

"No... not your fault... stupid of me... panicking like that...."

"Are you hurt?"

Elena gingerly sat up and said, "Nothing serious. Lots of bruises, mostly." She grimaced suddenly. "Maybe several cracked rib or two. No biggie. Turks are tough." However, the way her breath abruptly hitched spoiled the effect of her bold words.

"There's no reason for you to endure injury." Red cocked his head slightly. "Even if Turks are stronger and faster than ordinary humans."

She shot a sharp glance at him. "What?"

He snorted, in a 'who are you trying to kid?' sort of way.

Elena shrugged a shoulder. "Well, I guess you guys have had plenty of opportunities to figure that little secret out."

"So what did Shinra use on you Turks? Mako infusions and Jenova cells like the SOLDIERs?"

"Nothing like that!" Elena said hastily. "Well, there might've been a little mako, but I can't be sure. But definitely none of that wierd Jenova crap. Which, after what I just saw today, I thank merciful God!" She shuddered visibly. "I think it was just chemicals -- steriods, hormones, that sort of thing. You know, just enough to give the Turks an edge on the street."

"A pretty substantial edge, considering that you Turks are capable of giving us a pretty hard time."

She uttered a weary chuckle. "Maybe a hard time, but you still managed to beat the crap out of us on multiple occasions."

Red grinned back at her, then said, "I have some minor healing materia, which should take care of those ribs, at least until you can see an actual doctor."

"Materia? But where...." Elena then saw the multicolor glint nearly hidden by Red's long ruff. "Oh, thanks."

As Red concentrated and green materia glowed, he said, "I'm a bit surprised that the Turks don't carry healing materia, even a small one."

"We usually do. It's just with all the rushing about, that craziness at Nibelheim, worrying about Reno, and everything else, I guess I just forgot." She sighed. "Tseng would so kick my ass for that stupid mistake."

"You cared a lot about him."

"He was the reason I joined the Turks." Elena gritted her teeth. "That's why I hate the idea of having to work with his murderer."


"Yeah." She tossed her head. "I know Reno made the right choice back there -- it wasn't the time to bring up old grudges and all that. But I can't help hating Sephiroth's guts."

"He's probably pretty used to it by now. And I understand how you feel. We've all suffered losses at Sephiroth's hands, especially Cloud and Tifa." At Elena's inquiring look, Red added, "Sephiroth killed their families during the first Nibelheim massacre. And then there's Aeris...."

An oddly wistful expression flickered across the Turk's face.

"I didn't know her. But Tseng, he... felt... something for her, I think. It didn't stop him from doing his job, of course." Her voice trailed away.

"Aeris had a way about her. A special something that drew people to her." Red sighed heavily, then said, "But the Sephiroth we have to deal with now is rather different from the Sephiroth who tried to destroy the Planet and ruthlessly murdered the people we cherished. That Sephiroth was mad, possessed, or both. This Sephiroth appears to be sane, as far as I can tell. I suspect that we're seeing the legendary Shinra General of six years ago, the great warrior that so many people respected and idolized, before he encountered Jenova and fell into madness."

"He's one cold and deadly son-of-a-bitch," grouched Elena.

"No one's denying that. I have little doubt that he fully deserved his fearsome reputation."

She grinned sourly at Red. "So it's better if he's on our side, right?"

"That's pretty much it. Although I think there's little chance of him joining up with Hojo." He ended with a muttered, "Willingly, at least." When Elena gave him a curious look, he hastily continued, "Sephiroth clearly despises both Hojo and Jenova."

"Whoopie. That's one thing we have in common, I suppose."

"Given recent events, we could use all the help we can get. And frankly, I'm rather nervous about Sephiroth roaming around freely on his own."

Elena flung up her hands. "Okay, okay! I get the point! Just don't expect me to be happy about it."

"Join the club. Tifa in particular holds a tremendous grudge against Sephiroth, for a number of very good reasons. But I really believe that working with Sephiroth is the best choice for now."

"My head agrees with you, but my gut is being more stubborn about the whole thing."

The Turk glanced behind her at what had once been a massive stone cliff, now reduced to barely half its original height. So much rock had fallen into the lake that its water level had risen a good fifty feet or more.

"What a mess. It's a miracle that we got out of there alive." Elena then noticed Red peering around anxiously. "What's wrong?"

"I'm looking for Yuffie. She looked like she was knocked out by the fall."

"You mean ninja girl? I was trying to reach her, but I lost sight of her when the cliff collapsed."

Red's brow furrowed in obvious concern. "Can you walk? I want to start looking for Yuffie right away."

Elena hauled herself to her feet. "I'm okay. No, I'll come with you. I'm sure to stiffen up if I just sit here. Besides, if it weren't for Yuffie, we'd probably all be dead."


Reno considered himself a city guy. Tromping around the wilderness wasn't his idea of fun, although he could probably survive if he had do. Tseny, with his 'be prepared for anything' credo, had insisted that his people learn how to deal with obstacles, be they living, manmade, or natural. And Reno and the other Turks had been duly packed off at regular intervals for all sorts of physical training. Despite his incessant griping back then, the Turk was now thankful that Tseng had insisted that he learn how to swim competently.

He was doing just fine until an extra-large wave scooped him up, then slammed him against the rocky edge of the canyon. Stunned and disoriented, Reno could do nothing to prevent himself from getting sucked down by the undertow. He broke the surface just in time to be tossed into the air by yet another minature tidal wave. He was going to be smashed against the jagged rocks, and there was precious fucking little that he could do about it.

(Aw man, this is going to hurt.)

Just as he was bracing for the impact, a steely arm grabbed him around the waist and yanked him clear out of the water. The next thing he knew, he was being carried through the air toward the safety of the canyon rim. It was a bone-jarring landing but definitely better than getting pancaked against a cliff. The arm released its grip and he landed on the ground with a thud. Mopping the water from his eyes, Reno looked up to see his rescuer.

It was Cloud, of course. As he coughed, hacked, and sputtered, Reno irritably noticed that the other man wasn't even breathing hard, despite jumping clear of the roiling water with Reno tucked under his arm like a sack of potatoes.

(I may not be a heavyweight like Barett, but I'm not exactly as light as a feather, either. Am I imagining things, or has he gotten a heck of a stronger since the last time we fought?)

In the Turks's first few battles with Cloud and AVALANCHE, Reno would've ranked Cloud as barely Third Class, certainly no higher. Fighting any type of SOLDIER was never easy and something generally discouraged in the Turks. But in his first run-ins with Cloud's gang, AVALANCHE had barely pulled out a victory. But somehow, Cloud managed to improve incredibly, and in seemingly no time, he was pulling stunts a First Class would be proud of and making it look as easily as breathing. But Cloud wasn't a SOLDIER, at least officially, as Reno had later discovered.

Back then, he had casually wondered how the hell Cloud had gotten those SOLDIER-like abilities. But after all the recent crap with Hojo and Cloud's whacked out ravings, Reno had a nasty suspicion about how Cloud had gotten his mako eyes....

The thought of Hojo and his crazed experiments abruptly brought Reno's thoughts back to his sister Regis.

(Hojo, you fucking...!) The Turk couldn't think of an expletive strong enough, foul enough, to adequately describe Hojo at that moment. Terms like 'bastard' or 'asshole' were far too mild and didn't come remotely close to expressing the appropriate level of sheer loathsomeness.

Back at the weapon plant, when he first heard about what Hojo had done, he had certainly felt anger, but the news hadn't really sunk in. And then, with chaos of Jenova's reawakening and the WEAPON's arrival, he had been too busy running for his life to think about the true implications of his fellow Turks' news.

Now he had the opportunity to think, and the picture in his head was becoming horrific beyond description. Hojo had experimented on his sister. Not merely experimented on her, but had impregnated her with who knew what sort of Jenova-spawned monstrosities.

Now he could feel the rage, the fury, rising like crimson steam somewhere inside his head....

A sudden tap on his shoulder jolted him from his enraged daze and nearly made him jump out of the soggy labcoat he was wearing.

"WHAT!?" Reno snarled, whirling around with his teeth bared, his body poised to lunge.

Cloud swiftly backed up several paces, his expression instantly changing from concerned to sharp and wary, his body alert and ready.

The two men stared at each other for a long silent moment, then Reno abruptly relaxed, sinking back down on the ground.

Rubbing his face with a hand, the Turk snapped, "Are you fucking well trying to give me a heart attack?"

"Sorry about that. I just wanted to know if you were okay."

Now that the brief fury-fueled adrenaline burst was over, Reno shrugged wearily. "Well, that all sort of depends."

Admittedly, it wasn't the most coherent reply, but it seemed to make perfect sense to Cloud.

"How about being physically okay, for starters."

"I'm in one piece and everything seems to working, if that's what you're asking."

"That's good. But what I really wanted to know was.... Reno, did Hojo... DO... anything to you?"

"What? You mean besides cackling like a lunatic and staring at me with those creepy bug-eyes of his?" the Turk retorted testily.

"Do me a favor and don't move," Cloud said, moving closer and pulling off his right glove.

"Huh? What the fuck....!?"

"Just stay still for just a sec." Cloud placed his bare hand on the back of Reno's head for a few seconds, then moved down to the Turk's bare chest.

"Do you mind tell me what the hell you're doing!?"

"Just checking," Cloud replied, a frown of concentration on his face.

"Checking for what?"

"I just wanted to make sure that Hojo didn't sneak you a little surprise. But it looks like you're clean."

"You mind explaining that?"

"Are you sure you want to know?" Cloud said, removing his hand and stepping away.


Cloud exhaled sharply, then said, "Certain types of Jenova monsters can be... parasitic."

Reno stared at him for a long moment.

"WHAT did you say?"


"I heard you the first time," the Turk said, flinging up his hand.

Cloud pulled on his glove, then ran his hand through his damp hair.

"After Meteor, I've been doing various odd jobs for Reeve -- mostly troubleshooting, monster hunts, that sort of thing. During those jobs, I encountered a few of these parasite-type creatures. They're nasty."

"Oh great. Wonderful. You realize, of course, that if I now wake up screaming because of nightmares about creepy monsters bursting out of my chest, it's all your bloody fault!"

"I asked you if you really wanted to know," Cloud replied with a casual shrug.

Reno glared furiously at him, then said, "But you said that I was clean."

"I can't be 100% sure, but yeah, I can usually sense the presence of Jenova cells. But you better get a full physical checkup ASAP and with someone who knows exactly what to look for."

The Turk's eyes suddenly narrowed. "Hey, if I need to be dragged off and poked around by doctors, doesn't that go double, if not triple, for YOU?"

That, apparently, was the WRONG thing to say to Cloud. For the briefest instant, Reno was pinned by blue eyes that glittered with terrifying feral intensity. A chill ran down the Turk's spine as he abruptly remembered Cloud's earlier episodes of berserk rage -- berserk, bordering on outright insane.

(Shit shit SHIT!)

Reno didn't know whether that antogonism was directed at him personally or simply the idea, but he didn't dare move or even breath. His fighter's instincts told him that the situation was balanced on a razor's edge.

Cloud abruptly looked away and gritted his teeth, then finally said in a flat tone of voice, "You're probably right."

Reno released a surreptious sigh of relief.

"Don't like the idea, huh?" the Turk said casually.

"I've had bad experiences with doctors."

"Yeah, I know."

Cloud gave Reno an inquiring look.

"Back there in the test tubes. You were... talking. A lot."

After a pause, Cloud said, "Hojo experimented on me for five years after the first Nibelheim massacre."

He left it at that, unwilling to say any more. But it seemed that Reno couldn't leave the topic alone.

"Were all Hojo's experiments like that?"

"Like what?"

Reno gave him an uncharacteristically somber look.

"That traumatic. That painful." The Turk hesitated before finishing. "That... agonizing."

Cloud gave the Turk a baffled stare. He never would have picked Reno as someone morbidly interested in other people's suffering... then with a jolt, he remembered the newly rediscovered labs back in Nibelhiem and their gruesome contents....

... including the corpse of Reno's sister.

Cloud's breath hissed sharply as he retreated a few steps, shaking his head.

"No. Reno, you do NOT want to know more about that project. You don't."

But by his very reluctance to discuss the topic, Cloud had already answered the Turk's question all too clearly.

Reno sat back, took a long slow breath, then another, thinking. Suddenly, he looked up at Cloud.

"You said 'that' project." His earlier exhaustion gone, Turk swiftly rose to his feet. "You know something, don't you? About what Hojo did to my sister and those other women."


"Fuck it! I saw the look on your face! You know exactly what was going on with that particular project!"


Cloud's first instinct was to deny Reno's accusation for all he was worth. Okay, so maybe he did know details about Project (A2), but....

He looked away, staring out over the still roiling lake. No, there was no 'maybe' about it. He did know about the project... far more than he had any right or plausible reason to know. But that information was hopelessly tangled up with too many hellish memories. He had managed -- barely -- to maintain some semblance of control over his emotion when the lab and Hojo's grisly trophies had been discovered, but he simply couldn't do it now, not when the flashbacks triggered by Hojo's poisons were so agonizingly fresh in his mind.

And to top things off like toxic frosting on some diabolical cake, he now had to deal with a resurrected Sephiroth. A sane Sephiroth, perhaps, but didn't make things any easier.

He had managed to put up a bold front with his friends, but the brutal truth was that deep inside, he was scared.

As soon as he had seen Sephiroth kneeling on the bottom of the tank, as soon as their eyes had met, an inexorable sense of connection had settled upon him....

.... like a bloody choke-chain around his neck.

And what frightened him the most about the sensation was the certain knowledge that he was not nearly as afraid of it as he knew he had every reason to be.

That on some deep, visceral level, whatever connected the two of them felt RIGHT.

That, like the last piece of an intricate jigsaw puzzle, something inside his fragmented psyche had finally slid into its proper place.

Wasn't that basically what Hojo had said? That deep down, he -wanted- Sephiroth to come back? That without Sephiroth's presence, he would always feel somehow incomplete?


After getting no response to his repeated questions, Reno finally grabbed Cloud's shoulder and pulled him around. But all his demands for answers evaporated when he saw the glassy look of shock and terror in Cloud's eyes.

That sort of look wasn't caused by nice ordinary fear. No, Cloud looked like a person who just found himself teetering on the brink of something utterly horrifying.

Faced with that, Reno couldn't bring himself to press the issue, even for the sake of finding out what really happened to his sister. After all, Regis was already dead and beyond any more suffering.

Cloud was not.

He hastily released his grip on the other man's shoulder and backed away.

"Uh... let's forget about all this, okay? If you don't want to talk about that Nibelheim crap, that's fine with me." The Turk hastily turned away and began examining their surroundings with intense concentration.

There had to be other sources of information about Hojo's research projects. That Vincent guy sounded like a good place to start. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Cloud, his lungs heaving, covered his eyes with one hand.


Reno's sudden grab jolted Cloud out of the haze of blind, instinctive fear and allowed reason to reassert itself. Furiously berating himself for losing his self-control so badly, Cloud sternly reminded himself that Hojo was a vicious sadistic bastard who loved playing on his victims' worst fears.

He simply could not afford to go to pieces like that. There was too much at stake, and too many people relying on him. He would simply have to find a way to cope with Sephiroth and this... connection... between them.

That, and trust his friends to do whatever was necessary if something went horribly wrong.


The long awkward silence was finally broken when Cloud said, "Reno."

"Yeah?" The Turk glanced back at the other man, clearly still uncomfortable with the situation. But he could see that Cloud's terror had vanished, to be replaced by a look of grim resolve.

"You're right. I do know details about Project (A2). I don't know how or why I know, but I do. And if you really want me to tell you what happened to your sister and those other women, I will. But right now, I can't...." Cloud took a deep, steadying breath. "I promise that you'll get some answers, if you really want them. But give me some time, all right?"

Reno gave Cloud a long, thoughtful stare before speaking.

"Sure. No problem." The Turk hesitated, as if he wanted to say or ask something else, then he simply shook his head. In his more usual nonchalant drawl, Reno said, "So where the hell did everyone else end up?"

"I don't know." Cloud pulled out his phone but only got static. "But it looks like we're going to have to track them down the hard way."

"Terrific." Reno gave the craggy terrain surrounding them a sour look. "Just to let you know, rock-climbing is not my forte."

Cloud grinned slightly. "Don't worry. I can always carry you."

"Fuck you," Reno genially retorted.


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

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