MadamHydra (madamhydra) wrote,

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Conflicts of Interest Redux 6/? (FF7 post-AC AU)

Sorry, chapter 6 took longer than I expected, but I had to do a fair bit of tweaking.

While hopefully not OOC, Cloud's reactions might appear a bit... skewed. Then again, in this fic, he IS majorly screwed up. ^_-


Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 6/?
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~6,800
Warnings: mature/dark themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

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


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


A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

Chapter 6


Text Conventions

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

[ ] are miscellaneous date or location 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





[ Healen ]

The WRO military squad was halfway through their sweep of the outbuildings on Healen's northernmost edge when the power and lights finally came back on.

"Sweet!" one soldier said with obvious relief. No one liked the nerve-racking chore of clearing storage buildings and warehouses in the dark with only flashlights, and this particular mission had the added joy of Healen's lush greenery which provided convenient cover for all sorts of hostiles, including nightmarish critters intent on chewing off people's faces.

"Can it, guys. We've still got a job to do," the squad leader said sternly.

The soldiers continued their search, systematically working their way through the squat buildings arranged in a rough semicircle around a paved courtyard area. The night sky was just starting to lighten along the eastern horizon when they heard the low, pitiful moan.

As one, the entire squad tensed and readied their weapons as a door to the last building slowly creaked open and a young woman slowly staggered into view. Under the glare of the harsh exterior floodlights, she looked terrible, with bruises clearly visible against pale skin, and her clothes all torn and bloodied. Long brownish hair that had once been neatly put up in a bun now formed a tangled curtain in front of glassy, unfocused hazel eyes.

With her arms clutched over her stomach, the woman stumbled forward a few steps on bare, badly cut feet, then sagged to her knees.

"," she whimpered, even as she began rocking back and forth.

The WRO troopers quickly lowered their weapons and ran forward toward her.

"It's okay. We've got you," one of the soldiers said in a soothing tone as he crouched beside her.

Another trooper glanced over at his squad leader and whispered, "Who do you think she is, sir?"

"From that dress suit, probably a member of the clerical staff. I heard several of them were unaccounted for."

As the squad leader radioed for medical assistance, the woman continued to moan hoarsely.


"Help's on the way, lady." The trooper reached out and gently tugged at the arms she continued to hold protectively around her abdomen. When she resisted, he said coaxingly, "C'mon. Relax. I just want to see where you're hurt.... Whoa!"

The trooper turned to his squad leader and blurted, "Tell the medical team to hurry up. This poor lady's seriously pregnant!"


In Healen's medical clinic, the black-haired, katana-wielding Turk known as Serge put away his phone and turned to Dr. Nyx, who was preparing preliminary assessments for the patients awaiting transport to the better equipped medical facilities at WRO headquarters.

He said, "One of the WRO teams reports finding a survivor, one of the secretarial staff. Brown-haired, in her mid-twenties, no ID on her."

Nyx checked her list of missing Shinra personnel, then nodded. "That description matches an Elsa Foster. Any specifics on her condition?"

"No details, aside from the fact that she appears severely traumatized. They've requested a medical team for assistance," Serge replied.

As Nyx began pulling up the woman's medical records, the Turk added, "She's pregnant on top of whatever injuries she might have."

"So there's a possibility of a miscarriage as well," Nyx murmured as she scanned the data scrolling across the monitor.

As he watched the doctor, Serge heard Elena and Jade talking to Rude in a room down the hallway, their voices terse and angry.

Everyone was on edge after Hojo's bloody raids on the ASSRUB facility, Nibelheim, and now Healen. But for the Turks, it wasn't fear but barely controlled fury that prevailed. Not only had Hojo captured Reno, he had gone after Rufus. And while it wasn't confirmed, every hour that went by without any word from Tseng or the President turned the possibility of them being kidnapped by Hojo into a near-certainty.

With his uninjured left hand, Serge reached under his glasses to rub at the bridge of his nose, a rare gesture of frustration and stress for him.

Hojo's involvement -- sick, sadistic bastard -- added extra layers of urgency to the search for Rufus, Tseng, and Reno. The Turks were all too familiar with the type of monstrosities Hojo was capable of creating, and they already had plenty of experience putting many of those creatures down.

Serge fervently hoped that he and the others wouldn't be forced to use that expertise on the President or their fellow Turks.


Tifa wasn't surprised that Cloud had taken off on his own. It was his usual way of dealing with troubling issues, and that habit was unlikely to change in anytime soon.

And what happened during his encounter with Kunsel went far beyond 'troubling'. Cloud might be used to having forgotten memories suddenly resurface without warning. But to have those memories completely override his own personality... well, she could only guess how profoundly disturbing the experience must have been for him.

Tifa had known Zack Fair only briefly, but during their short acquaintance in Nibelheim, the SOLDIER First Class had left an indelible impression on her. Bright and cheerful, friendly and confident, Zack had been a striking contrast to the intimidating Sephiroth or the dour menfolk she had grown up with. And from what she could remember, Cloud's... impersonation?... mimicry?... of Zack had been spot-on.

Even as she worried about Cloud and his present state of mind, thinking about Zack caused Tifa to feel a faint pang of regret. Her last meeting with the SOLDIER in the Nibel reactor had been painful, angry, and bitter. It hadn't been Zack's fault that Sephiroth had gone completely insane and murdered virtually everyone she'd known. He had simply been the most convenient target for her fury and grief.

As for Cloud, there wasn't much she or anyone else could do except give him some time to work things out for himself. Oh, she could push, but Tifa knew from experience that too much pressure only caused Cloud to become even more withdrawn.

On the other hand, she wasn't about to let him isolate himself, either. She would make damn sure to remind Cloud that she and his other friends were there to help him deal with his problems, no matter how bad they were.

With that point firmly settled in her mind, Tifa turned her attention back to helping Cait Sith, Kunsel, and the Turks deal with the aftermath of Hojo's attack. While Cid had his hands full with a sudden engine problem on the Shera, she kept herself busy helping wherever she could. For the moment, that meant tending to the walking wounded so that the WRO and Healen medical staff could concentrate on the more severely injured people.

When the report of a survivor came through, followed by an urgent request for medical assistance, Tifa and the emergency medics responded immediately. However, due to the Healen Lodge's rocky terrain, heavy foliage, and scenic winding pathways, it took more time than she liked to reach the area where the female survivor had been found.

The WRO squad looked visibly relieved at their arrival, which was understandable when Tifa and the medics realized that they were dealing with an extremely traumatized and hysterical young woman who also looked like she was about to give birth at any moment.

Tifa stepped out of the way as the medical team rushed forward to deal with the injured woman and spent her time examining the area.

"Did you find anyone or anything else?" she asked the WRO squad leader.

"No, ma'am. We've cleared the buildings twice and even triple-checked the warehouse she came out of. No hostiles and no more survivors," he reported.

Tifa frowned as she surveyed the courtyard and its surrounding buildings. There was something 'off' with the scene, but it took her a while to figure out what was bothering her.

"She looks like a secretary, but this is a storage and utility area. What was she doing way out here?" Before the squad leader could answer, Tifa continued, "I know the obvious answer, that she ran for her life and decided to hide. But how did she get here, and all alone? I mean, look at this place and look at her!"

They both gazed at the steep, thickly forested cliffs that the Healen area was famous for, then at the heavily pregnant woman, still sobbing and rocking, despite the best efforts of the medics to calm her.

"Seems pretty unlikely, when you put it that way. It's a good stiff uphill hike from the main clinic. A woman in her condition would need help to get this far. Could be that one of her colleagues helped her here, then took off without her for whatever reasons."

"Any sign of those monsters? Drag marks? Signs of a struggle?"

The squad leader frowned at Tifa's question, then shook his head. "No, ma'am. There are no indications that the monsters were ever in this area. "


Tifa turned sharply at the hoarse, tremulous whisper. "What did she just say?"

One of the medics started at Tifa's question, then shrugged. "I'm not sure. Something about a... clue? A clod?"

Tifa walked over and knelt beside the violently shivering woman, who continued to resist all efforts of the medical team to examine her or even move her off the ground.


"Not 'clod', but 'Cloud'," Tifa corrected the medic quietly. The woman grabbed Tifa by the arm and nodded weakly.


"Cloud? Why would she be talking about clouds?" The medic glanced up at the clear night sky, which was gradually brightening with the approaching sunrise.

Tifa didn't bother to answer the medic. Instead, she reached for her phone.


Cloud knew that avoiding Kunsel was a cowardly thing to do. But at the moment, the idea of facing the man and everything the SOLDIER represented made his stomach knot.

He had prepared himself for the possibility of anger, scorn, or even hatred from Zack's friends, and had pretty much expected that sort of reaction from them. But he wasn't sure how to deal with the honest confusion in Kunsel's eyes. He knew the other man was full of questions, and as one of Zack's best and most loyal friends, Kunsel deserved at least some honest answers.

Unfortunately, as usual, Cloud was painfully short on answers, especially about what had happened during their first encounter. He couldn't explain why he had spontaneously started talking and acting like Zack. And if he didn't understand why he had suddenly assumed Zack's personality, however briefly, how could he possibly explain it to someone else?

No, that wasn't true.

While he couldn't be certain, he DID have some ideas about what was going on inside his head. The truth was that his uncanny mimicry of Zack, however brief, was just another sign of a growing problem that Cloud had been attempting to ignore since the curing of his Geostigma.

Perhaps it was the immersion in the pool in Aerith's church and the Lifestream energy that it contained, but ever since his fight with Sephiroth, he kept having dreams involving Zack... dreams that came increasingly from Zack's viewpoint and not his own.

He had tried to ignore it, telling himself that the shift in his recent dreams was merely a wierd nostalgic side effect of encountering Zack's spirit.

But his meeting with Zack's friend had changed all that. The sudden surge of Kunsel-related memories he had experienced during that encounter made it shockingly clear that there was something undeniably... different... about those particular memories.

Cloud had naturally assumed that he knew so much about Zack from their time together on the run from Shinra. He would have picked up physical behavior like Zack's body language and fighting style through observation, even though he had been nearly comatose at the time. So it made sense that his intimate knowledge of his friend's past would come from listening to Zack's endless stream of stories and anecdotes.

But stories and anecdotes were just words, secondhand descriptions of past events and experiences. And while the storyteller might include vivid descriptions of sounds, tastes, smells, or even feelings, that's all they were -- descriptions and nothing more.

But his recent flood of Zack-related memories were VERY different. They came complete with a full range of physical sensations and emotions associated with them. The familiar sounds and smells of the SOLDIER quarters in the Shinra Building... the fun of playing around with buddies in the virtual reality chambers... the comfort and happiness of being among respected mentors and good friends....

These were places he'd never been, people he'd never met. But he didn't merely know OF them. He KNEW them.

Cloud could think of only two possible explanations. The first was that despite his acceptance of his true identity, a part of his subconscious still stubbornly persisted in clinging to the delusion of being Zack, SOLDIER First Class. In that case, all the associated sensations linked to those 'memories' were merely figments of his imagination, fake details created with the sole purpose of bringing life to Zack's stories and making them feel more 'real'.

As for the second one, it was just as disturbing as the first possibility, and in some ways even worse.

The second possible explanation was that these recent Zack-related memories and their associated sensory details were in fact entirely real, that they were true memories as experienced firsthand by Zack himself... and now those genuine memories were somehow stuck inside HIS head. And how the hell had they gotten there?

Cloud didn't know which possibility frightened him more -- that he was again in danger of losing his grip on his real identity, or that there was more of Zack in him than he had ever imagined was possible.

As for trying to find out the truth, the first step was easy enough. All he had to do was work up the courage to ask Kunsel or Zack's other surviving friends to verify or deny various facts from his 'memories'. If they didn't match, then it would be obvious where the problem was -- inside Cloud himself and the the part of his mind that was becoming, or always had been, delusional.

But if the factual details did match? What then? That only proved that the physical details of his recent 'memories' involving Zack were accurate. The real test of the authenticity of those 'memories' was whether the inner details -- the thoughts and emotions experienced -- were true.

Unfortunately, figuring that out was much easier said than done. While other people could confirm the physical, factual details in Zack's stories, they couldn't confirm Zack's state of mind. The only person who knew what Zack had actually thought and felt during those events was Zack himself. And unfortunately, he was dead.

True, the recent battle with Kadaj-turned-Sephiroth and its aftermath showed that Zack was still around, if only in spirit. But that didn't mean Cloud could casually waltz into Aerith's church, start throwing questions at Zack, and expect them to be answered.

And even if Zack's spirit could respond to his questions, what would he, Cloud, do with the answers? Did he really want to know the truth of what was going on inside his head?

"Yes, I do. No more lies. No more secrets. The truth, no matter how much it hurts."

Unfortunately, he couldn't afford to spend time figuring out whether he was merely deluded or somehow carrying a dead friend's memories. With Hojo on the loose, dealing with the mad Jenova-infected scientist, along with trying to find the missing Rufus and Turks, had to be his main priority.

And he couldn't allow himself to be distracted by self-pity or doubt. He had done that before with the Geostigma and virtually everyone -- Tifa, Marlene, even Reno! -- had called him out on it. People needed him, relied on him, and he would not let them down.

But despite his determination, a niggling voice in Cloud's head whispered, "But what if you're possessed again by Zack's memories, real or fake?"

After his past experiences with Sephiroth and Jenova, the idea of being controlled by someone else's thoughts and will, of being used as a puppet, should have horrified him. The concept DID horrify him, to his very core....

Cloud froze as something stirred in the depths of his mind, a fleeting memory of utter desperation and a fateful decision....

/_There are worse things than becoming a copy of a hero._/

...that vanished just as he became aware of its existence.

But in the wake of that vanished memory, a strange feeling of... relief?... settled over Cloud as his fear and terror faded.

Yes, there was something seriously wrong with him, something that involved possibly losing control of himself. He didn't want that to happen. But if it did.... He wasn't afraid, not this time, because unlike the situation with Sephiroth, he didn't have to worry about betraying or endangering his friends. And that realization gave him an almost giddy sense of confidence and security.

And so Cloud found himself answering his own question with a calm nonchalance that startled even himself.

"If I lose myself to those memories, real or fake, it won't change anything. I can trust Zack to do the right thing, regardless of the cost. After all, he IS a hero, and I'm living proof of that."

As Cloud refocused his attention on his immediate task -- scouting the area for any remaining traces of Hojo's monsters -- his phone rang.


"Cloud, we've found one of the missing staff members, a woman. She's alive, but in bad shape, both physically and mentally." Tifa paused, then continued, "Cloud, I think she keeps mumbling your name."

"What?! Are you sure?"

"Not absolutely, but that's what it sounds like. Maybe she's just delirious... or she could have something important to tell you."

"Where are you now?"

"Northern edge of Healen. There's a group of storage buildings located along the main ridge," she replied.

"I'll be right there."


Tifa gave Cloud a relieved smile as he arrived, but it faded when she got a better look at him. Others might not see anything unusual in the confident stride or alert expression, but she could.

She expected the steely determination and resolve in Cloud's eyes. But after the incident with Kunsel, she also expected to see anxiety, tension, and perhaps even a little fear.

But Cloud seemed almost uncannily... calm, almost serene and at peace with himself, which was decidedly strange under the present circumstances.

"He looks like a man who's come to an important decision. One he's not happy about, but one he's comfortable with."

Tifa knew she should feel glad that Cloud wasn't tying himself into emotional knots about the personality shift he experienced with Kunsel. But to be honest, she found it more than a little unsettling because a person should be scared and badly shaken after experiencing something like that.

Unsure of what to make of it, she went forward to meet him and asked very quietly, "Cloud, are you... okay?"

Looking slightly startled at her question, he said, "I'm fine. Why do you ask?"

"You look...?" Tifa's voice trailed away as she struggled to find the right tone. "I just expected you to be a little more upset."

"You mean about what happened with Kunsel?"

"Well, yes."

Tifa expected Cloud to look withdrawn and evasive, something that occurred all too frequently when trying to discuss an uncomfortable topic with him. But this time, he met her gaze steadily, then shrugged.

"I admit it was pretty disturbing and I hope it doesn't happen again."

She waited for him to say more, but when he didn't, she said in a dubious tone, "I... see."

Concern urged her to push for more details. Common sense told her that this was neither the time or place for that sort of personal discussion. It was hard enough to get Cloud to talk about sensitive issues when they were alone. He wasn't about to say anything while surrounded by strangers. Besides, there was the ongoing crisis involving the WEAPONs, Hojo, and Rufus's disappearance to worry about.

As if confirming her own line of thought, Cloud shook his head slightly and said, "We have more urgent things to deal with." He glanced meaningfully at the visibly distraught woman huddled on the ground.

As they both headed back toward the recently discovered victim, the WRO squad leader met them halfway and asked, "Trouble?"

Cloud shook his head, this time more emphatically. "Not that I've heard. What's the story with her?"

Tifa left it to the squad leader to brief Cloud while she returned to the medical team. The young woman -- now identified as a junior Shinra secretary called Elsa Foster -- continued to stubbornly resist the medics' attempts to examine or comfort her. Tifa sympathized with the obviously traumatized Foster, but also knew that they couldn't leave the poor woman sitting in the dirt. At the same time, they didn't want to be too forceful with her for fear that any additional stress would cause Foster to miscarry or go into premature labor.

As she knelt beside the other woman, Tifa heard the medics discussing the pros and cons of sedating a heavily pregnant and uncooperative patient. Foster remained oblivious to her surroundings, rambling incoherently as she cradled and patted her swollen belly like it was the most precious thing on the Planet.

Tifa still had nagging questions about what exactly happened to the secretary, but that didn't prevent her from feeling a surge of profound pity for the poor woman, so obviously traumatized by the recent attack.

Cloud crouched down beside Tifa, moving slowly in order to avoid frightening Foster further. Before he had a chance to say anything, the secretary lifted her head and fixed her glazed eyes on him.

"...Cloud...," she said in a raspy whisper.

He didn't respond immediately, except for giving the woman an oddly cautious look in return.

"...Cloud," Foster repeated, her voice becoming stronger, her tone more emphatic. She slowly reached out with quivering fingers in his direction.

He didn't react to her appeal, but instead remained very still, his expression a combination of pity and uncertainty.

Tifa frowned. Sickness could make certain people uneasy, but Cloud wasn't one of them. He had taken care of Denzel and Marlene plenty of times with no problems or complaints. Perhaps it was the woman's obvious state of pregnancy that was throwing him off-balance?

Seeing Foster's reaction, one of the medics said, "Good, good. She's responding to you. Maybe you can get her to...."

Without warning, the pavement of the courtyard erupted as a horde of man-sized insectoid monsters exploded out of the ground with clawed limbs flailing and slashing.

Cloud was instantly on his feet, his main sword -- the First Tsurugi -- drawn.

"Tifa, get her and the medical team to safety!" he shouted.


Even as Cloud drew a second sword with his left hand and charged the approaching monsters, Tifa began herding the medical team toward the nearest building. When Foster still refused to budge, Tifa snapped at the medics, "We don't have a choice. Just pick her up and carry her!"

Glancing behind her, Tifa noted with relief that the WRO soldiers was sensibly staying the hell out of Cloud's way. Leaving the larger, more dangerous mantis-type creatures to Cloud, the squad provided cover for the medical team by picking off the smaller monsters emerging from the nearby undergrowth.

Tifa and the others had almost reached the safety of a sturdy warehouse when a beast with large bony bludgeons for arms shambled forward to block their way.

The monster was the size of a truck, but since it was also slow, Tifa had no trouble taking it down hard. A swift kick knocked a flailing arm-bludgeon aside, leaving the torso wide open for a series of hard punches that sent it staggering. A final stomp on the skull made sure that it would stay down.

She turned to see how Cloud was doing. The mantis-like monsters were intimidating to behold, covered with vicious spines and wielding massive scythe-like claws, but Cloud had dealt with much worse and in greater numbers. With a sword in each hand, he dodged, blocked, and slashed, sending chitinous limbs and greenish blood flying everywhere.


In Healen Lodge's clinic, Nyx abruptly leaned forward toward the monitor, her eyes narrowing.

"Serge, are you sure about the survivor's description or about her being pregnant?"

With a frown, the Turk said, "That's what the WRO team reported. What's the problem?" He quickly walked over to examine the computer screen for himself.

Nyx tapped the monitor with a short, well-manicured fingernail and said, "See for yourself. There are no records that would indicate that Foster is in the advanced stages of pregnancy."


From behind Tifa, one of the WRO soldiers shouted, "Hey lady! Get back here!"

She whirled around just in time to see a squad member grab at Foster and miss. The woman had snapped out of her near-catatonic state at the worst possible moment and was now rushing directly toward the area where Cloud and the monsters fought in a deadly dance of slashing steel and raking claws.

As Foster bolted past her, Tifa reached out to stop the other woman. Even as she realized that Foster was moving much too fast for a normal human, much less a heavily pregnant one, Tifa received a backhanded swipe that knocked her completely off her feet and sent her flying into the surrounding woods.



Two female voices shouted his name. One he recognized instantly as Tifa's, the other was unfamiliar.

He turned just as Foster barreled into him. It took just a fraction of a second for his brain to shift gears and realize that the helpless victim had suddenly become a possible threat.


Far away in his newly acquired lair, Hojo smirked and cackled to himself as he sprung his trap.


SO pathetically predictable.


Foster's hand clamped down on Cloud's right arm with inhuman strength. Before he could jerk himself free, her other arm stretched into a long muscular tentacle and wrapped itself around his waist. At the same time, her mouth split into a gaping maw lined with multiple rows of needle sharp teeth and her chalky white skin morphed into mottled green scales. As she held Cloud in an obscene embrace, she crooned his name, almost lovingly.


Then the writhing scaled monstrosity who had once been a pretty young woman called Elsa exploded in Cloud's face.


Even before she landed, Tifa began swearing furiously at herself and Hojo.

Not merely an ambush, but a trap. A goddamn fucking trap.

And she had not only walked right into it, but she gotten Cloud caught as well.

"Why didn't I see it before?!"

She heaved herself out of a tangle of vines and bushes, spat out a stray leaf, and stormed up the steep wooded slope back toward Cloud.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid! We even talked about the possibility of Hojo being able to control humans with Jenova cells on the flight here from Nibelheim! How could I completely forget about that?"

Tifa was still cursing and fighting her way out of the claustrophobic undergrowth when she heard the explosion. It wasn't particularly loud or powerful. Instead, the muted boom sounded oddly 'wet'.

She quickened her pace, ignoring the sting of branches as they slapped her skin. She was almost clear of the trees when she saw Cloud and the WRO personnel standing in the courtyard, all heavily splattered with a dark syrupy liquid. Roiling black vapor rose from the ominous-looking fluid, flowed down their bodies, then settled into a thick murky blanket of mist that carpeted the ground.

Tifa saw Cloud stagger a few steps, both swords slipping out of suddenly lax hands, then he crumpled to the ground without a word. But as shocking as Cloud's collapse was, that was nothing compared to what happened next. After a brief, stunned silence, the liquid-splattered WRO personnel started to scream and claw desperately at themselves as their flesh simply... melted.

Tifa could only stare, horrified, as she watched chunks of skin and muscle liquify, then slide off bones like hot melted wax. The gruesome process seemed to take forever, but in less than a minute, all that was left of the WRO troopers and medics were skeletons inside intact uniforms sprawled amid pools of reddish... slime.

She gagged, but managed to fight down the urge to vomit, then glanced frantically back at the motionless Cloud, and nearly cried in relief when she saw that the corrosive liquid and vapor hadn't done the same sort of flesh-eating damage to Cloud's body, even though he was lying in the middle of and probably breathing the horrifying stuff.

Having seen what the black mist was capable of, Tifa knew better than to rush recklessly toward Cloud. By now, the ground-hugging mass of toxic vapor had engulfed the entire courtyard, cutting her off from Cloud and trapping the few WRO survivors inside the nearest building.

Tifa called out, "Are you guys okay!?"

She recognized the voice of one of the medics as he shouted back in a shaky voice, "Yeah, mostly! Got a couple of people in here with some real nasty burns, though. What the FUCK is that stuff!?"

"No clue. Is there a back way out of that building?"

"Don't think so." A pause, a faint murmur of discussion. "No other doors or windows." Another pause. "I'll tell you right now. We are NOT going out in that stuff!"

They had all seen the deadly fog transform human beings into piles of bones and red sludge in a matter of seconds, so Tifa didn't blame the survivors hiding inside the warehouse in the least for not wanting to budge from their refuge. It didn't help that the corrosive mist continued to grow in size as the last remains of the dark syrupy liquid continued to evaporate.

And who knew what the vapor might be doing to Cloud, lying helpless in the middle of that mist....

"Okay, then stay put and call for help!"

She first tried shouting Cloud's name, hoping that she could rouse him long enough to pull himself out of the hellish flesh-eating fog. She thought she saw a slight twitch of a leg, a small quiver of a hand, but he was otherwise completely unresponsive. Still, those tiny motions meant that Cloud was still alive.

"Okay, time for plan B," Tifa muttered. She needed a way to clear the flesh-dissolving fog away from the area, and fast.

"Where's an Aero materia when you really need it?"

Even as Tifa contemplated her options -- if she wasn't very careful, the magic she used could interact unpredictably with the mist ands make a dangerous situation even worse -- the shadow of something passed over her.

She looked up just in time to see a large dragon-like creature fold its wings and drop with surprising delicacy onto the courtyard. Forced to retreat hastily as the beast's arrival caused a massive ripple in the black mist covering the ground, Tifa noticed that the creature was apparently immune to the effect of the flesh-eating vapor.

"Why am I not surprised? I bet Hojo personally designed this whole ambush from start to finish!"

It landed not on the usual draconic legs, but on eight or more heavily muscled tentacles. Tifa expected the monster to attack Cloud while he was helpless. Instead, it used several smaller tendrils to scoop up the unconscious Cloud, unfurled its massive membranous wings, then launched itself skyward with its prisoner before Tifa could interfere.

As Cloud was hauled into the air, his sword harness, weakened by the corrosive mist, gave way. Tifa only caught the briefest glimpse of the remaining four blades as they fell in a cascade of steel. Even before they landed near Cloud's other two swords, she was gone, running for her life as the gusts from the monster's wings sent the flesh-eating vapor billowing and swirling in every direction.

But even with her speed and reflexes, she couldn't completely outrun the ravaging effects of the deadly fog. Tifa screamed as searing pain washed up the back of her bare legs and arms. And she was not alone, as the agonized cries of wild animals also caught by the lethal cloud echoed in her ears.

Closing her eyes tightly, she jumped blindly toward the sound of flowing water, hoping that the stream or pool would be deep enough to protect her from the roiling clouds of caustic mist that now flooded the woods. Behind her, she heard the fading screams of the remaining WRO members trapped in the warehouse.


Onboard the Shera, Cid was irritably demanding to know how the hell did something resembling raw ground meat end up inside one of the Shera's engines when the airship suddenly shook violently.

"What the FUCK!?" Cid roared as he leapt for the stairs. Emerging onto the bridge, he could hear the deep roar of Chaise's shotgun, mixed with ear-piercing avian shrieks.

"Cid! We've got company!" the Turk yelled over the intercom.

"No shit!" he snapped, even as he grabbed for his spear. "Where the hell are you!?"

"Rear loading bay! But they're topside as well, near the engines!" Chaise's last words were nearly drowned out by the sound of her shotgun.

"You got things under control down there!?"

"I'm fine! Take out the ones on top!"

As he reached the Shera's topside, Cid caught a glimpse of several groups of monsters, fleeing across the sky in different directions, then he had to concentrate on fending off a horde of giant green and purple wasps.


Tifa hit the surface of the stream with a splash and dove deep. The water was cold, but she had grown up in the Nibel mountains with their notoriously icy mountain streams. Besides, the chill helped ease the pain from her poison-scalded skin. From underwater, she could see other creatures landing in the stream as they followed her in their frantic attempt to escape Hojo's flesh-melting vapor.

She held her breath as long as she could, then surfaced to take a cautious gasp of air. Relieved to find that the only ache in her chest was from a lack of oxygen, Tifa allowed herself to relax....

...just in time to find herself going over one of the many waterfalls that dotted Healen's landscape.


(end of Part 6)




The Full Disclaimer:

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

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




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

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