MadamHydra (madamhydra) wrote,

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Conflicts of Interest Redux 3/? (FF7 post-AC AU) (part 1 of 2)

This is where COI Redux really starts to diverge from the original COI. Hang on and enjoy!

This is an unbetaed rough draft, so if things get too confusing or don't make sense, please let me know. Constructive comments and suggestions are always welcome.

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 3/?
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Pairing/Characters: gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~12,600
Warnings: violence, mature themes (references to abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

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


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

-- Many thanks to the terrific story "Homesick" by Chris Reaves which provided me with lots of inspiration for the events in Nibelheim. ^_^

A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

Chapter 3

Text Conventions

( ) and / / and // // and { } all indicate thoughts or other types of mental dialogue from various characters

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


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

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

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica


Tseng immediately knew that something was wrong when he saw the sudden tension in Rufus's body as the president listened to Reeve's most recent update. Finally, Rufus said, "I'll contact you shortly."

As Rufus slowly closed his phone, Tseng saw the grim set of the other man's mouth. It was subtle, easily missed by a casual observer, but Tseng had no problem recognizing the signs.

Rufus Shinra was seriously worried.

"What happened?" Tseng said bluntly. Last night, Reeve had given them a brief report on the ASSRUB incident, including Hojo's near-certain involvement. The Turks were combing the Shinra database for any clues as to Dr. Steven's possible whereabouts, but had come up with nothing so far.

"Reeve called to inform me that the WRO has finally located the missing Dr. Steven. He's in Nibelheim as part of the retrieval team."

"And?" Tseng knew that there had to be more, and probably all of it bad.

"Reeve has been unable to reach anyone in Nibelheim. Reno or the other Turks, the WRO squads, the townspeople -- no one is answering."

"Radio and phone reception in that area can be erratic."

"Reeve is well aware of that, which is why he sent a team from Rocket Town to investigate. A combination of severe wind conditions and road washouts prevented them from actually reaching Nibelheim itself, but their report states that it appears that the entire town is in flames."

Tseng exhaled sharply, then turned to gaze out the window at the luxuriant greenery surrounding Healen Lodge. Finally, he said, "Nibelheim, burning again. It's enough to make one wonder if certain places are cursed."

"It sounds like you have some decidedly personal feelings about Nibelheim," Rufus observed.

Tseng's voice was tense and unusually harsh. "The Turks arrived in Nibelheim just after Sephiroth's rampage in order to clean up the mess and conceal the disaster. Unfortunately, Hojo accompanied us and issued certain orders regarding the survivors of the incident. Veld, my superior at the time, took personal charge of the operation in order to spare us from having to follow Hojo's orders. All the Turks had to do was turn our backs on the survivors and walk away. And we did." Tseng turned to look at Rufus. "It was a choice I've deeply regretted ever since. I know many of the other Turks feel the same way."

"And so Nibelheim continues to haunt so many of us," Rufus said thoughtfully. "However, regardless of personal feelings, we still need one of our people there."

When Tseng gave him an inquiring look, Rufus added, "I want a first-hand report on what's going on in Nibelheim. And while I feel confident that Cloud and his friends will assist Reno, Rude, and Elena if possible, it would be better if there was a Turk on scene as well."

"Serge and Jade are here in Healen, while Tasha and Vandal are in Mideel. Garret and Mac are in Junon, questioning Dr. Aston. By last report, Cissnei is currently in Gongaga. Which leaves...."

Rufus raised an eyebrow at Tseng's abrupt pause.

".... Chaise, who's doing some research in Cosmo Canyon," Tseng finally said in an oddly reluctant tone.

"Which puts her conveniently close to Nibelheim. Unless there's a problem?"

"Chaise was the Turk who did the initial reconnaissance and advance work for Sephiroth's mission to Nibelheim seven years ago. She was present during the entire incident." Tseng hesitated, then said, "Of all the Turks, she probably had the strongest feelings about the whole event and its aftermath. Those feelings eventually drove her to leave Shinra. She only agreed to rejoin us last year after I made certain reassurances."

Rufus smiled slightly. "About the company's new direction, hmmm?" When Tseng nodded, he said, "Considering her personal feelings, will she agree to this assignment?"

"Since it involves Nibelheim, she'll have understandable reservations. On the other hand, she told me that she left Shinra, not the Turks. And with Reno and the others involved, she'll definitely go."

"Then contact her. I'll make the arrangements with Reeve."


In her office, Nyx dialed a number and waited patiently as Montessi's phone rang repeatedly instead of going to voicemail.

"What? I'm busy here!"

Ignoring Montessi's characteristic rudeness, Nyx calmly replied, "I just wanted to inform you that Roissy is aware of Specimen C's survival."

"WHAT!?!?" Montessi's voice rose to an ear-piercing shriek of outrage.

Nyx winced slightly, but otherwise didn't react to the outburst. "She apparently saw Cloud when he came to investigate a strange attack on Dr. Aston's Archival Specimen Storage facility."

"So what did she say? No, I can guess. She wants Specimen C for herself, that filthy little bitch."

"She expressed definite interest in him, yes. But aside from observation and surveillance, she didn't mention any specific plans for him."

"Oh, I know how her sneaky little mind works. Of course she has plans. She always has plans." Montessi swore long and bitterly over the phone. Finally, she demanded, "Where is she now?"

"Roissy? She said she was in Junon. The WRO evacuated the facility after the attack as a precautionary measure."

"Is she being guarded?"

"I don't believe so."

"Good, good. Then I won't have any problems getting to her."

"How are your own plans proceeding?" Nyx smoothly inquired.

"I hired the perfect people to deal with Rufus's Turk bodyguards and handle my facility security -- a group consisting mostly of ex-SOLDIER mercenaries. They're expensive, but probably worth every gil. I don't want Rufus damaged."

"Of course not. He's critical to your work."

"You haven't found anyone else with a genetic profile who might work?"

"Unfortunately, neither Cloud nor Rufus have any close living relatives on their paternal or maternal sides." Nyx glanced briefly at the data on her wall screens. "There are some interesting prospects, but the computer models for Project S2 indicate that Cloud and Rufus are the best possible candidates available."

"Very well. I suppose I'll have to make do with what I have," Montessi said sourly.

"Do you have a timetable regarding Rufus?"

"Rufus should be in my hands within 24 hours. I'll start work on him immediately using the accelerated protocol I developed for Phase 1."

"Within 24 hours? Will your lab be ready?"

"Not entirely, but I only need a basic setup for the Mako infusions. That will give me enough time to bring the rest of my equipment online."

"In that case, I'll forward the drugs and restraint equipment that you requested. I've also included some additional personal safety measures that you might find useful."

"Fine. Do that." And with those terse words, Montessi ended the call.

Nyx put her own phone away and returned to her computer. As she continued to compile and compare genetic data on various subjects, she also considered the current situation between the two other scientists.

Montessi's jealousy and hatred of her younger sister Roissy had grown to truly obsessive proportions over the years. Unfortunately, while Roissy was adept at handling people, especially men, she was dangerously insensitive to her own sister's hostility.

Given Montessi's volatility, the next meeting between the two women could easily prove fatal.


Cloud wasn't physically tired. But since he needed some time alone to process all the recent developments, he took advantage of the flight time to Nibelheim to find a little solitude and simply think.

Hojo was back, and his plans were painfully obvious -- resurrect Sephiroth, Jenova, or more probably, both of them.

A childish part of Cloud wanted to howl at the complete unfairness of the situation. All the fighting, all the effort, all the gutwrenching sacrifices.... And yet the enemy kept finding ways to come back, to wreak more havoc and destroy more lives.

Why did the villains get to return when the heroes didn't? Where was the justice in that?

But life wasn't fair. Cloud knew that with excruciating certainty. If there had been the slightest iota of fairness in the universe, Zack would still be alive, ready and eager to answer the call, step up to the line, do the right thing, and whatever else was expected of a true hero.

Instead, HE was the one left alive. It had been Zack's decision -- freely made, unregretted, and so totally in character -- to save a friend instead of himself.

"... You'll be... my living legacy...."

So if Zack was no longer alive to be the hero and protect the Planet, Cloud would answer the call in his place. And like Zack, he would do the right thing regardless of the price. Even if that meant having to kill Sephiroth, Hojo, and Jenova over and over and over again....

As Cloud stared out the porthole, he wondered what would be awaiting them at Nibelheim.

Nibelheim... harsh, heartless, hellish Nibelheim....


High heels clicking on stone. The faint scent of musky floral perfume.

"Hojo's gone back to Midgar. Move Specimens C and Z down to the lower labs and begin Phase 1 immediately. And double-check Specimen Z. Make sure he's secure and unconscious."

"Yes, doctor."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"What's your name?"


"Heh, not for long. Get ready to kiss yourself goodbye."

"Hey, there's no need to make fun of the poor guy."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Who are you?"

".... Cloud."

"Wrong answer."

".... no... please... don't... it... it hurts...."

"It's your own fault for resisting so much. Cooperate and the pain will stop. It's your choice."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Who are you?"

".... I... I... I'll be good... oh god... please... don't...."

"There, you see? If you don't fight us, you won't get hurt. It's as simple as that. You might even end up feeling pretty good. Okay guys, it looks like he's ready for the next procedure."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Who are you?"


"What's your name? If you don't answer the question...."

"You know my fucking name! It's Strife. STRIFE. Got that, you stupid asshole!?"

"Doctor, the subject is becoming combative."

"Shit, again? Every time I think we've broken him down, he goes and flips out like this. Which means we have to waste time doing it all over again. Dr. Montessi's gonna be SO pissed."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Who are you?"

".... who?... me?... inside... some... something's wrong... inside... my head...."

"What's your name?"

".... I... I don't...."

"Answer the question. You know what will happen if you don't cooperate."

".... NO!... please... I... I don't know! I don't know!"

"Dr. Montessi, the subject's depersonalization index is not dropping any further, and his dissociative factor is still way off."

"Damn! We're way behind schedule as it is. Lower Specimen Z's sedation level by 0.5 percent and see if the increased neural input accelerates the personality breakdown."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"That's a good boy. There's no need for you to think at all. After all, you're just an empty puppet."

".... not... puppet...."

"Tsk. You there!"

"Yes, doctor?"

"Call Montessi and tell her she needs to work on him some more."

".... no... please... don't...."

"And tell her to stop playing around with him. I want every scrap of resistance and self-awareness in that stupid blond head eradicated for good! You got that?"

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Who are you?"


"What's your name?"


"I think Dr. Montessi really overdid it this time. I'm not getting any response, no matter what stimuli I try. He's like... completely gone."

"Don't worry, that means he's just as Dr. Roissy ordered."

"He's supposed to be a complete vegetable?"

"Look, you're good with computers, right? Then maybe you'll understand it better this way. We're only interested in his body -- the hardware, so to speak. His mind's just worthless software that's going to be overwritten with a better and more stable program."

"A better program, huh? That's kinda cold."

"As Dr. Hojo always says, there's no room for sentimentality in science. That's something you'll need to learn if you want to get ahead in Shinra's Science Department. Besides, it makes things easier for us if he's just a blank slate."

"A sort of puppet, huh? With Montessi or her sister pulling the strings, no doubt."

"Hell, no. You're way off. Jenova cells are an integral part of the control mechanism, and the two of them haven't got any. Look, I told you it makes a lot more sense if you think about the whole process in terms of hardware and software. We've got a software program -- the controlling neural pattern -- which has to be encoded in the right language for the hardware -- this guy here -- to understand. In this case, Jenova cells provide the perfect biological mechanism for both the live data link AND the encoding."

"Okay, smartass. If not the two doctors, who's got the Jenova cells necessary to control this guy?"

"Isn't it obvious? The dark-haired sleeping beauty over there."


"Cloud? Yo, Cloud!"

He jerked awake and turned to see Yuffie standing in the doorway of the Shera's break room, clutching a mug.

"You were really dozing pretty heavily there. Didn't get much sleep last night?" She took a cautious sip from the mug and grimaced.

"I was...." He shook his head. "I was just thinking and must have drifted off. What are you drinking?"

"This herbal brew Nanaki cooked up for me. It helps settle my stomach. Wanna try it?"

"No thanks. Even from here, it smells horrible and probably tastes even worse."

"It's not that bad. You just have to add enough sweetener," Yuffie said before taking another sip. "Anyway, Cid says we're almost at Nibelheim."

"All right."

"So, any interesting dreams during your nap?" Yuffie asked brightly as they both headed toward the Shera's bridge.

He gave her a curious look. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, you were looking a bit tense while you were asleep. And with all that's happened recently with that wacko Hojo chasing after a sample of Sephiroth...." She shrugged, trying to look nonchalant.

Touched by Yuffie's awkward concern, Cloud said, "No, I didn't have any nightmares about Hojo or Sephiroth, if that's what you're asking."

She danced around to face him and waggled an upraised finger. "Hah, but I bet you did dream something! Anything good?"

"Probably not, since I don't remember any of it," Cloud said with a careless shrug.


As Cloud and Yuffie arrived on the Shera's bridge, Cait Sith bounced over to them and said, "I just got a message from Rufus. He wants us to meet up with one of his people before heading off to Nibelheim. He was pretty insistent about it."

"Another Turk, huh?" Cid said, leaning against the airship's wheel. "It makes sense, considering that three Turks have already gone missing."

"Any luck reaching Barret?" Cloud asked.

"Nope. Apparently he's way deep in one of those coal mines. No phone reception down there and he isn't due to come up for several hours." The pilot glanced over at Tifa. "So what did Vincent or Nanaki have to say?"

"They think they've located where Kadaj and the Remnants were created. Actually, the term they used was 'spawned'. There was no machinery involved -- just a lot of organic-looking stuff." She turned to Cloud. "And it looks like other things hatched out in the same location, but at a later time. I'm betting at least one of them was Hojo, or his clone, or his Remnant, or whatever."

"So what are the two of them doing now?" Yuffie sat down on the corner of a console, still nursing her mug of hot brew.

"Trying to track down other locations with black water, just in case something else nasty is getting ready to hatch. They're working their way south from the Northern Crater." Tifa glanced out the window. "So where exactly are we supposed to pick up this Turk?"

"At the base of the mountains, Cait told me," Cid replied. "The wind's still too damn strong for helicopters."

"But you can get us in there?" Cloud gave the pilot a questioning look.

"Sure. It'll be bumpy, but the Shera's handled worse. But she's not going to be able to stick around, not in those tight quarters. So we'll just zip in and hop off, then let her get clear."

"Whatever works."

Cid gazed out the great glass windows of the Shera's bridge and chuckled. "It's kinda weird to think of Rufus helping to protect the Planet instead of being an ambitious, backstabbing little prick."

Tifa turned around and gave the pilot a startled look. "You know Rufus?"

"Vaguely. Rufus showed up with his dad for the rocket launch -- the aborted one that got screwed up six years ago. Had a chance to talk with him a few times. Damn, he was one mean-tempered and power-hungry fucker back then." Cid scratched his head. "On the other hand, the Turk that was Rufus's bodyguard, she was a good sort. Even helped me out of several nasty jams."


The Shera paused just long enough for the Turk to climb aboard the airship, then turned to make her way through the treacherous Nibel Mountains, a journey made even more dangerous as darkness fell.

The attractive, tall slender woman walked confidently onto the bridge area, her long dark blond hair pulled up into a high ponytail. She wore the typical black suit of a Turk and carried a shotgun in a special holster on her back.

"Hey, Chaise! Long time, no see!" Cid called out, a big grin on his face. "I still owe you a couple of drinks for all that stuff you did for me back in Rocket Town!"

"It's good to see you again, Cid," the Turk replied with a friendly grin of her own. She then turned to Tifa. "You've grown up into a lovely young woman."

Tifa stared blankly at the Turk, obviously baffled.

"Seven years ago, in Nibelheim. You were looking for your cat in the mountains. We ended up having to jump from a cable car together because of a dragon," Chaise prompted.

"You're the nice lady Turk!" Tifa blurted, her eyes going wide. "The one that asked me to guide Sephiroth and the others to the Nibel Reactor!"

"That's me," Chaise replied with an easy chuckle. However, her smile disappeared as she turned her attention to Cloud. She eyed him somberly for a moment, then said, "It's good to see you, Cloud. I'm especially glad to see you looking so well, both physically and mentally."

Cloud stared at the Turk. He definitely knew this woman, but the memories hovered tantalizingly just out of reach.

Chaise smiled ruefully. "Don't worry about it. After everything you've been through, it's no wonder that your memory's somewhat scrambled."

"....'scrambled' is an understatement," Cloud muttered under his breath. "Chaise," he said slowly, using the name to grab hold of those elusive memories. "That mission involving Professor Rayleigh and the data disk."

The Turk gave him an encouraging nod.

"And after that, you were in Nibelheim. I talked to you the day before the trip to the reactor, and I asked you to...." Cloud suddenly stopped and felt his face burn with remembered embarrassment.

"That's right." Chaise flicked a quick glance over at Tifa.

"Wait a minute!" Tifa said, her eyes narrowed. "You two know each other? Knew each other BEFORE Sephiroth's mission to Nibelheim?"

"Uh... yeah," Cloud said cautiously. "You could say that."

Tifa glared at Chaise and said accusingly, "I specifically asked you about knowing Cloud!"

"Well, at the time I wasn't sure we were talking about the same person," Chaise replied mildly.

"Cloud isn't exactly a common name," Tifa retorted, clearly not buying the Turk's story.

"I asked her not to tell you, Tifa," Cloud said in a near-mumble, then uttered a deep sigh. "For the same reason I kept my helmet on and didn't reveal my identity to you. I didn't want you to know that I...." He shrugged and looked away.

Tifa looked at Cloud, then at Chaise, then it was her turn to sigh heavily. "Oh well. That's all in the past, I guess."

"Hey, guys. Sorry to break up the happy reunion and all that, but Nibelheim's just ahead." Cid pointed ahead, but the gesture was unnecessary.

The town was still hidden by a rocky ridge, but they had no problems seeing the reddish glow as flames consumed Nibelheim for the second time. Hours had passed since Reeve had received the report of the fire, and yet the town continued to burn ferociously, the inferno fed by the swirling mountain winds.


Standing in the airship's open rear hatchway, Tifa looked down at the fires raging below and shuddered. One thing made the scene slightly more bearable -- this time, the people in Nibelheim were complete strangers. But it didn't matter that the new inhabitants were only actors hired by Shinra. They were still human beings and most likely all dead.

But however bad it was for her, she knew it had to be worse for Cloud, even if he stubbornly refused to show it. For Cloud, this was where the true horror started -- the death of his mother, the brutal fight with Sephiroth, Hojo's experiments, and ultimately, Zack's death.

All she saw on Cloud's face was a combination of stoic calm and steely resolve. How long he could maintain that fierce self-control in the face of the terrible things they were certain to find in the burning town and the Shinra Mansion... well, that was an open question.

Tifa heard someone beside her release a long, slow breath and remembered that there was another person who had been in Nibelheim seven years ago.

She glanced at the Turk. Chaise didn't say anything, but merely stared down at the fiery destruction with an impassive expression. But Tifa thought she saw a brief flicker of genuine sorrow and even regret on the other woman's face.

No one, not even Yuffie, had anything to say as the airship dropped them off just outside the town gates.

On the ground, the air was hazy with both heat and smoke. As Cloud led Tifa and the others through the burning wreckage of Nibelheim, the group spread out to survey the destruction, their weapons at the ready. But as they picked their way through the flames, the unnerving lack of bodies soon became glaringly obvious.

Nibelheim was quite a small town but it still contained several hundred people. Adults, elderly, and even children -- Shinra had done an extremely thorough job of recreating the town, down to the last detail. After Meteorfall, when the need for the Nibelheim cover-up was gone, many of Shinra's actors had chosen to continue living in the sleepy little town and some new families had joined them.

"Shit, with all the blood on the ground, most of these poor bastards have got to be dead. So where are the damn bodies?" Cid muttered. They were the first words spoken since leaving the Shera.

"I hate to say it, but maybe they were... er, eaten?" Yuffie said as she peered into the flames, checking for any trace of corpses.

They arrived in the middle of the town square, near a crumbled heap of smoldering debris that used to be the water tower. Despite the fierce heat from the fires, Tifa felt chilled to the bone. She didn't want to be here. She didn't want to see this.

A warm gloved hand lightly grasped her left shoulder, steadying her jangling nerves. Tifa turned her head to see Cloud giving her a worried look.

"I can take it." She took a deep breath, centering herself as her old martial arts teacher Zangan has taught her. "Don't worry about me. I can take it."

Cloud nodded, then glanced over to Tifa's right, as if asking a silent question. She followed his gaze and saw Chaise coming up beside them, her shotgun at the ready.

The Turk was all cool professionalism as she shook her head. "Nobody, dead or alive," Chaise reported tersely. "The closest thing I've found to a human remain is a severed finger."

Cloud abruptly stopped as they approached the northern exit out of the town square. Tifa saw a brief look of confusion and uncertainty in his eyes as he stared at the empty, fire-blackened stairs which led up to the Shinra Mansion and the trail toward the Nibel Reactor.


"He stood right there, untouched by the flames, unmoved by the carnage, staring at me. Utter contempt. Pure hatred." Cloud's voice was soft, barely audible of the roaring crackle of the fires. "And that person was not the Sephiroth I knew."

In an even quieter voice, Cloud murmured, "That's not right. I wasn't there when Sephiroth turned and walked away. It wasn't me." He abruptly winced, then shook his head sharply.

"Cloud?" Tifa repeated, her voice full of concern.

He sighed, rubbed at his forehead. "My memory's playing tricks on me, mixing what I actually saw and what Zack told me about later."

At the mention of Zack's name, Chaise's jaw clenched briefly, but she said nothing.

"We need to keep going," Cloud said, and headed for the stone steps that separated the Shinra Mansion from the town below. His friends exchanged worried looks, then hastily followed him.

He waited for them just inside the Mansion's gateway. In an eerie replay of the fire seven years ago, the massive building was again left untouched by the fire devouring the town of Nibelheim. Several trucks from the WRO retrieval team were parked in the Mansion's courtyard, but once again, there were no people, dead or alive.

Cloud crouched down to briefly examine the large dark stains on the paving stones, then rose to his feet. Confirming their worst fears, he said, "It's all human blood."

"And still no bodies," Yuffie muttered.

Everyone's eyes followed the trail of dark smears that led from the courtyard to the Mansion's entrance. Cloud glanced at his companions to make sure they were prepared, then turned to follow the bloody trail to the front door. He put his free hand on the door latch, hesitated an instant, then abruptly shoved the doors wide open.

The first thing they noticed was that the floor of the large entrance hall was almost completely covered with a massive stain of dried blood. In fact, there had been so much blood, the carpet had become over-saturated, with some of the excess blood oozing out and collecting into crusty, semi-dried pools along its borders. Away from the smoke outside, the metallic smell was both unmistakable and overwhelming, even to normal human noses.

They all stared around the great hall, stunned by the sheer scale of the carnage.

Between gritted teeth, Chaise said, "Judging from the volume of blood here, it looks like the attackers gathered everyone in Nibelheim, both wounded and dead, in one big pile and left them here, before taking them away."

"Fucking tidy bastards," snarled Cid. "So where are the bodies now?"

The Turk could only shrug.

Yuffie turned and bolted for the open front doors. She skidded to a halt in the courtyard, hunched over, hands clamped over her mouth, as she clearly tried to fight down the urge to vomit.

Tifa didn't join the teenager, but she also had to step outside onto the Mansion's porch to take deep gulps of sooty air.

Cait Sith, who had hopped off Yuffie's shoulders when she'd rushed for the courtyard, carefully sidled around the blood soaked carpet and took a quick peek into the neighboring rooms on the ground floor, while Cloud and Cid tried very hard to NOT look at the horrifically stained floor.

"Cait, find anything?" Cid called out,

"Nothing except a lot of dirt and musty furniture," the cat said as he rejoined them.

"Well, then I guess we better start looking for the Turks and the rest of the WRO team." Cid glanced over at Yuffie, still standing in the courtyard, and Tifa. "Hey, maybe you two should stay out here and keep an eye on things while...."

Without turning around, Yuffie jabbed a finger in Cid's direction and yelled, "No way I'm sitting this one out! I'm not a kid anymore! I can do this. I damn well WILL do this." She finally swung around to face Cid and the others, still clearly nauseous, but at the same time, fiercely determined.

A pale, but equally determined Tifa said, "No need to coddle us, Cid. We need to find out what happened here ASAP. You can't afford to have two of us sitting out and doing nothing."

"She's right," Cloud said, his face set and his voice bleak. "We'll need everyone's help. We've got to go through this place and find out what the hell happened to Reno and the others, including Steven."

Cid shrugged. "Fine. There's six of us, so you wanna do this in teams of two or three?"

"Teams of two," Cloud replied. That way we can cover the most ground. But be careful. Whatever attacked Nibelheim managed to take out three Turks, not to mention two full squads of WRO troops before anyone could make a single call for help."

"Yeah." Cid thought a moment, scratched his head, then said, "Tifa, you and Yuffie take the upstairs. Cloud, why don't you take Cait Sith and check out the ground floor? Chaise and I will start on the basement. You guys can join us when you're done up here."

Cloud gave Cid a sharp glance, but made no objection.


The search of the ground floor of the Mansion was quick, but thorough. There were definite signs of disturbance -- bloodstains, broken furniture, and weird non-human track marks on the dirty floors -- but no bodies.

"A few survivors of the initial attack probably tried to hide, but were all hunted down. Whoever or whatever these attackers might be, they were certainly thorough and efficient," Cloud observed.

Cait Sith nodded. "There's no signs that a serious fight took place here. I know that the retrieval team was supposed to clear the upper parts of the Mansion first, then work their way to the basement. I'm betting that the main action's down there."

"You're probably right."

As they made one last pass through the ground level rooms, Cait Sith abruptly said, "Cloud, are you all right?" The cat hastily raised a paw before Cloud could answer. "No, that's a stupid question under the circumstances. How about this? How are you coping?"

"Can you be a bit more specific?"

"I mean, about this whole thing with Hojo and the possible return of Sephiroth and/or Jenova. That sort of stuff."

After a moment of silence, Cloud quietly said, "At first I was angry because it felt so unfair, almost as if they were somehow cheating. But life isn't fair. Believe me, I've learned that lesson by now." He shrugged slightly. "I have people I want to protect. So if a threat appears, I'll deal with it. And if that threat reappears, I'll just have to deal with it again, as many times as necessary. It's as simple as that."


As Tifa and Yuffie searched the upper floor of the Shinra Mansion, Yuffie asked, "Do you think anyone survived?"

"It certainly doesn't look likely," Tifa replied.

Yuffie pushed aside a broken chair. "What about the Turks?"

Tifa stared at her, then said, "You're really worried about them."

"Well... yeah." Her face red, Yuffie flung up her hands. "I know they were a pain in the ass during the whole pre-Meteorfall thing. But at the same time, they did help save me from that creep Don Corneo. And they walked away afterward, when they didn't have to. Not to mention that they helped Cloud with the Remnants...."

"Don't worry. I understand, Yuffie. Really, I do. I hated the Turks for what happened to Sector 7, but when I later heard about all the things they did to help people as Meteor destroyed Midgar... well, I started to change my mind." Tifa sighed. "And it's not like my own hands are entirely clean, either. Besides, even if I hated Reno and the other Turks, I still wouldn't leave them in the hands of Hojo or whoever ordered this massacre."

Yuffie stared out of a grimy bedroom window toward the burning town. "Seeing this place going up in smoke again has got to be horrible for both you and Cloud."

Tifa joined Yuffie in looking out the window. "Seven years ago, I lost my father and everyone I grew up with. Not because of a natural disaster or an accident, but because of Sephiroth's cold-blooded malice and hatred. This time, except for the Turks, I don't know any of the people who probably died today. But it's the same brutal slaughter and the same heartless malice behind it. It makes me sick and furious just thinking about it!"

Tifa abruptly turned away from the dirty window. "But for Cloud, it's so much worse. I lost almost everyone I cared about in the first massacre, but I also encountered many people willing to help and support me -- my old teacher Zangan, the doctor and others in Midgar who nursed me back to health, the people who took care of me and helped me set up the bar. Cloud didn't have anything like that."

The look she gave Yuffie was filled with the sorrow, anguish, and heartache she usually kept well hidden, especially from Cloud.

"Yuffie, for me, that fire seven years ago marked a tragic loss of family and friends. For Cloud... it was the starting point of hell."

After a long moment of silence, Yuffie said, "Maybe I'm being nosy, but has Cloud been having trouble sleeping?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Because when I went to fetch him before we picked up that Turk, he was fast asleep. I had to actually yell at him several times before he woke up. We both know that Cloud's usually a real light sleeper. Most of the time, just opening a door will do it."

"Did he look like he was having a nightmare?" Tifa asked quickly.

"Is he still having the really bad ones?"

"Just after Meteorfall, the serious nightmares were a lot less frequent. Then, within the last year, they started getting worse and coming more often. I now know that was probably because of the Geostigma."

"And after he got cured?"

"In the last two weeks, Cloud has been having... dreams. Nothing like his usual nightmares, but troubling, in their own way."

"Did he tell you about it?" Yuffie stopped short, then held up her hand. "What am I saying? This is Cloud. Of course he won't talk to you, me, or anyone else about something like that. I told you before and I'll tell you again, he's a pain in the ass!"

Tifa uttered a rueful chuckle. "And as -I- told you before and will tell you again, Cloud is Cloud. That's just the way he is."

"Maybe you're right about the dreams. Back on the Shera, Cloud looked a bit stressed out while he was asleep, but it wasn't a nightmare, either. I've seen my share of those. I did try to poke around a bit, but all he said was that if he had been dreaming, he couldn't remember anything about it. Of course, this being Cloud, it could be the truth, or he could be ducking my question."

"I know what you mean, Yuffie. Believe me, I do. Cloud's such an intensely private person, it can be incredibly difficult to know what he's really thinking or feeling at times. And if you try to push him, he won't push back. Instead, he just pulls away. For example, that whole situation with the Geostigma. Not a word. Not a single word or hint of anything being wrong. He just went off to die alone."

Tifa looked around, carefully closed the door to the room they were in, then spoke in a very quiet voice. "For a while, I thought he was acting that way in order to look tough, or to protect himself from being hurt or other people's pity. But I was completely wrong about that.

"It's... how can I put this?" Tifa began pacing as she continued in that same hushed tone, "I really do believe that Cloud has come to peace with himself and his past... on a conscious level. But somewhere deep inside him, there's a part of Cloud.... Yuffie, the right to live and exist is something that almost everyone takes for granted. But for whatever reasons, Cloud can't do that.

"That's why I think he keeps so much to himself. All the things he's experienced, the suffering and pain he's endured... he's not being selfish or pretending to be tough. I think he's unconsciously doing what he always does -- trying to protect the people he cares about and spare us the burden of knowing about such terrible things."

When Yuffie merely stared at her, Tifa rubbed her forehead and muttered, "Oh hell, maybe I'm just babbling."

"Tifa, do you know what I find the scariest about what you've just told me? The fact that it makes perfect sense, in a horrible twisted sort of way."


Cid started to lead Chaise to the upstairs bedroom which held the secret entrance to the basement, but it was soon clear that the Turk already knew where they were going.

"I guess you really are familiar with this place," Cid commented.

"Like I said, I was here before, during, and after the Nibelheim Incident. So yes, I know the layout pretty well."

When they reached the bedroom, the section of wall that used to conceal the basement access now lay in pieces all over the floor.

"Looks like they broke in here...." Cid stopped abruptly, took a harder look at the debris and said, "No, they broke OUT of the secret passage."

""The roof's intact, so they must have come up from below." Chaise said as she peered into the deep vertical shaft. "The attackers must've found another way into the lower levels."

As they reached the cavernous basement area, Chaise looked at Cid. "So why did you pick the basement for yourself?"

When the pilot merely gave her a bland stare, the Turk said, "I saw that look Cloud gave you. It's pretty clear that you didn't want him down here first."

He snorted, then said, "Never was much good at being subtle, but yeah, I kinda wanted to scope out this damn place myself."

"So I'll ask again. Why?"

Instead of directly answering her question, Cid said, "Back on the Shera, you mentioned that you were glad to see Cloud looking so well, both physically and mentally. And later you mentioned something about expecting his memory to be all messed up. So you've obviously got some idea of the god awful crap Cloud's been through."

"I don't know the specifics, but yes, I have a general picture." She glanced around the sprawling basement complex. "And so much of it happened here."

"Then you'll understand that while Cloud is a hell of a lot better than he was before, his head's still pretty fucked up." Cid tapped his temple for emphasis. "Not his fault, mind you."

"Of course it isn't his fault! It's a miracle that Cloud's capable of functioning at all, considering the shape he was in after the escape from the labs."

As they headed deeper into the basement, Cid shot the Turk a sharp look. "You saw him back then?"

"No, I'd left Shinra before Zack and Cloud escaped from Nibelheim. But Cissnei ran into them and she later told me about it. From her description, Cloud had an extremely severe case of Mako poisoning, never mind the damage four long years of experimentation must have done to him."

"You seem to have some damn strong feelings about the whole thing. Not exactly what I'd expect from a Turk."

Chaise remained silent for several minutes as they continued their sweep through the upper section of the Mansion's basement. Finally, she said, "I was there, in the Nibel Reactor. I was the one who found Zack and Cloud, broken and bleeding, after they managed to finish off Sephiroth. I told them to relax, that I was going to get help for them. I contacted the company, expecting a rescue mission. Instead, Hojo came."

When Cid said nothing, she continued, her voice sharp and bitter. "The Turks, myself included, left Zack, Cloud, and the other Nibelheim survivors with Hojo and just walked away. How's that for cold-blooded professionalism?"

"So you quit working for Shinra because of that?"

"What happened in Nibelheim was a big part of it. But I didn't quit right away. I stuck it out for a few more years," Chaise said with a shrug.

"Lucky for me. I still owe you big for rescuing me and stopping those terrorists who tried to steal my plane and fuck up the original Rocket Shinra No. 26 launch."

"I was just doing my job."

Cid grinned at her. "That's crap, and we both know it." He suddenly moved over to a wall. "I've got bullet holes."

"Same here, along with claw marks and lots of blood near those crates. There was definitely a firefight. It looks like some of the WRO troopers tried to make a stand here, but got swarmed under."

"Yeah, that's what I figured. But where the fuck are the damn bodies!?" Cid said with a scowl.

"That's the big question, isn't it? We're talking about hundreds of people. There's got to be a reason why they're all gone."

"Along with whatever attacked them. This place is dead quiet."

"Believe me, I've noticed, Cid."

As they headed for the lower level of the basement, Cid asked, almost casually, "So tell me something. Is Rufus really serious about wanting to protect the Planet, or is he just playing mindgames with everyone?"

Chaise gave him a startled look. "Why are you asking me?"

"I figured that you're the most likely to give me a straight answer. You walked away from Shinra, but you went back. So what changed your mind?" He gave the Turk a long, level stare. "You know what Rufus was like before. He was a ruthless, conniving bastard. Has he really changed?"

Chaise hesitated, then said slowly, "Personality-wise, probably not. But I believe that his overall goals have genuinely changed. So to answer your original question, I think Rufus is very serious about protecting the Planet and making up for what Shinra did. And that's also the answer to your secondary question. If I'd had the slightest doubt that Rufus and the Shinra Corporation were sticking to their old ways, I wouldn't have come back to them."

When Cid's phone rang, he flipped it open and said, "Find anything, Cloud?"

"No. It's clear up here. We'll meet up with Tifa and Yuffie, then head down to join you. How are things on your end?"

"We found plenty of bloodstains, scraps of torn clothes, and a nice set of bullet holes on the upper level of the basement. No bodies, and no Turks...." Cid suddenly stopped as Chaise suddenly raised her hand in silent warning.

"Might have something," Cid whispered tersely into the phone.

"On our way," was Cloud's equally terse reply.

Cid slid his phone back into a pocket, then glanced at Chaise, who pointed toward an open doorway. Cid edged over to the doorway as Chaise readied her shotgun, then they both waited as the soft squishing sounds moved closer.

A muck-covered and clearly exhausted Elena stepped warily through the doorway. As soon as she sensed their presence, she spun and lifted her weapon. Cid and Elena faced off for a long moment, he with his spear poised to strike, and she with Reno's nightstick tightly clenched in both hands.

"Whoa! Hold it! Chill out, girl! It's us! We're here to help!" Cid yelled as Chaise lowered her shotgun.

For a long, quivering moment, Elena didn't respond, then her wild-eyed expression gradually faded as she recognized Cid and understood what he was saying. She slowly lowered the nightstick and sagged limply against the wall in relief.

"Elena?" Chaise said, moving quickly to the other woman's side.

"Who...?" Elena took a few deep breaths, then tried again. "Chaise? What are you doing here?"

"Tseng sent me to help look for you guys. Where's Reno and Rude? And what happened here?"

As Elena sank down onto the floor, she gasped, "You... you haven't seen either of them?"

"No," Chaise replied.

"Damn it!" Elena slammed her fist against the wall in frustration.

"What the fuck happened to everyone?" Cid demanded impatiently.

It took Elena a moment to get her voice under control. A bit incoherently, she said, "I'm not sure. Rude and I got dumped in a trash pit by some idiot. Reno went off to get some rope and some people to pull us out. While we were stuck down there, a whole bunch of monsters attacked the place. I heard the sounds of gunfire and fighting, then a lot of screaming that seemed to go on forever. Rude and I tried climbing out of the pit by ourselves, but we couldn't make it. We finally found a side pipe and managed to crawl into the sewer system."

"So where's Rude?" Chaise crouched beside Elena and began checking her for injuries.

"In the sewer tunnels, we got attacked by a pack of... sahagins, I think. During the fight, part of the tunnel collapsed and we got separated. He was okay, then. We planned to meet up near the trucks and call for backup."

"You hurt anywhere?"

"No. I had some materia and managed to keep myself pretty much healed up. I'm just... REALLy tired. I've been running around those damn sewers for hours!

"I finally found a way back into the basement. I came across Reno's nightstick and lots of blood. No way to tell if the blood's his, though. Oh, and I found a body." Elena looked like she wanted to throw up. "It was in one of the lab rooms. Whoever it was, someone took their time torturing the hell out of him. Or her. Impossible to tell from what's left."

"Any clue as to identity?" Chaise asked as she helped Elena back to her feet.

"I found a torn up WRO labcoat near the body. The name tag said, 'Dr. L. Steven'. Oh, and there was some sort of fluorescent container lying broken on the floor. I backed out of there quick because there was a biohazard sticker on that container."

"Shit!" Cid kicked the wall angrily, then whirled around to face Chaise and Elena. "You realize what this means, right? Hojo knows that the sample he stole was a fake."

"And if that dead body belongs to Steven, that means Hojo almost certainly knows the location of the real sample," Chaise concluded grimly.

Elena stared at them. "Sample? Hojo? What the hell's going on!?"

"I'll let Chaise explain it to you." Cid was reaching for his phone, but stopped when he heard footsteps rapidly approaching. "Hey, guys! Over here."

"You found one of the Turks!" Yuffie exclaimed, sounding relieved.

"Well, actually, Elena found us," Chaise said. "Rude survived the initial attack, but we have no idea where he is right now. We still don't know what happened to Reno or the others. We found his weapon, but that's it."

"Elena and Rude were stuck down a pit, so they didn't get a look at any of the attackers. But they were definitely monsters of various sorts." Cid glanced at Elena for confirmation.

"That's right." Elena looked around at Cid and the others. "You think Hojo's responsible for this attack? But he's dead!"

"I'll explain it to you later," Chaise said quickly. She then turned to Cloud. "And I think Elena found our missing Dr. Steven... or what's left of him."


"He's in there," Elena said, jerking her head toward a closed door.

As Chaise remained behind to brief Elena on recent events, Cloud and the others entered the lab room.

"Oh god," Yuffie muttered when she saw the thing lying on the metal examination table.

Tifa grabbed Yuffie by the shoulders and shoved the teenager out the door into the hallway, only to be pushed out herself by Cloud.

"You don't need to see this, Tifa," Cloud said flatly before he closed the door in her face.


The lab room stank of agony and terror. The remains of a human being -- now looking more like a mass of very crudely ground meat -- lay sprawled across the exam table. Stray bits of the body decorated the floor like grotesque confetti.

After a quick glance at the horribly mutilated corpse, Cait Sith hastily concentrated on examining the broken sample container on the floor and the bloody WRO labcoat lying nearby.

"Well, this definitely matches the other sample containers from Aston's storage facility," the cat said. "And whoever broke it open was seriously pissed off."

Cid joined Cait Sith and bent over to pick up the torn and bloodied labcoat. "You think this belongs to that unlucky bastard?" He jerked his head in the direction of the exam table.

"It's Steven."

Both Cait Sith and Cid turned to stare at Cloud. He pointed at the nearly severed right hand of the mutilated corpse. "See the crescent-shaped scar along the thumb?"

"Looks like an old bite mark," Cid commented.

Cloud shrugged. "Where it came from doesn't matter. The important point is that I saw the same distinctive scar on Steven's hand when Tifa and I briefly ran into him back at WRO Headquarters. It's him."

As they all stared at Dr. Steven's body, Cid's phone rang, breaking the heavy silence.

The pilot fumbled open his phone and snarled, "Jeez! What the hell is it?"

"Captain! Good news!" one of the Shera's officers shouted over the phone.

"We fucking well need it. What's up?"

"Give me that," a deep, exhausted male voice interrupted. "Cid, you find any traces of Reno or Elena?"

"Rude, is that you!?"

"Yeah. Well? Have you?"

"Elena's okay, just a bit shaky," Cid replied.


Cid took a deep breath. "Sorry. No trace of him yet."


"Look, you stay on the Shera and chill out a bit while we finish up our sweep down here. From the sound of your voice, I'm guessing that you're pretty banged up."


"So why don't you get yourself patched up and let us handle things. You're not going to do Reno any good if you keel over on us."

"....all right."

As Cid closed his phone, Chaise stuck her head into the lab room. She caught sight of Steven's body, and exhaled sharply. "Okay, that's seriously sick. Hojo's work?"

"Looks like it. We found the missing fake sample from ASSRUB, and Cloud positively identified the body as Steven's."

"How the hell did he manage to do that?" Chaise flicked a quick glance at the mutilated corpse. "Considering that there's nothing left of the guy's face."

"Scar on Steven's hand. But we'll verify with DNA," Cait Sith said.

"Well, if you guys are finished, there's something you need to see out here."

Cloud quickly walked over to join Chaise by the door. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, but Yuffie's discovered something very interesting."

Back in the rough hewn corridor, Cloud and the others looked around, but failed to see any sign of Yuffie or Tifa.

"Where did they go?" Cait Sith trotted back to the main basement area. "Tifa? Yuffie? Elena?"

"Hey, guys! Over here!" Yuffie called out. "Look what we found!"

Following her voice, Cloud and the others headed toward the south end of the basement and found a large metal doorway behind a crumbling wall of brick and stone.

"What the hell? This wasn't here before!" Cid said, staring at the newly revealed doorway and the long hallway behind it.

Tifa stepped out of one of the rooms along the hallway. "That's right. I think Hojo's monsters tunneled into this sealed off area, then broke out through multiple points into the main basement. That's probably how they managed to catch the Turks and everyone else off-guard."

Catching sight of Elena, Cloud said, "Rude's safe. He's on the Shera."

Elena closed her eyes and heaved a great sigh of relief. "Well, at least that's some good news."

"I think he got beat up pretty good on his way out of the sewers, so I told him to stay onboard and get fixed up," Cid said. "He didn't argue, which should tell you something about the shape he's probably in."

Cait Sith said, "Look, another WRO team is on its way, but it's not due to arrive for a few more hours. In the meantime, we need to split up and finish searching this entire basement for any sign of Reno, the rest of the first WRO team, or leftover enemies. Once we know that this place is secure and there's no one left to rescue, then we can take our time going through this new lab area." The cat looked at his companions. "Cloud, why don't you take Tifa and Yuffie and finish the main basement. Cid, I'll go with you and the Turks to check out the new area."


Outside the Shinra Mansion, a flying eyeball with wings perched on the sagging roofline of the building, its giant eye methodically scanning the entire area.


Through his spy, Hojo had observed the arrival of Cloud and his companions in Nibelheim with interest. However, he was content to allow them to scurry around without interference. There were many things left to do and preparations to make before he was ready for Cloud.

For example, there was the little matter of a certain red-haired Turk and his employer to deal with.

Hojo smiled malevolently down at his involuntary hostess.

"Scarlet. How nice to see you again. And how kind of you to allow me to 'borrow' your private weapon facility AND your secret little Mako reactor for my new project. Science will thank you."

"Screw you, Hojo!"


Due to LJ posting size limits, continued in Part 2 (of 2)

Tags: coi-redux, fanfic, ff7, ff7-fic

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