MadamHydra (madamhydra) wrote,

Conflicts of Interest Redux 9 (FF7 post-AC AU)

Sorry for the long delay! The next chapter is already done, and just required polish and proofreading! ^_^

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 9
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: ~9500
Warnings/Content: mature/dark/disturbing themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

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


-- "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.

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 ]

Tseng uttered a deep sigh of relief as he trudged toward the open end of the drainage tunnel. He paused near the exit to allow his eyes to adjust to the afternoon light, then gathered up his last remaining reserves of energy.

Throughout his long journey out of Healen's convoluted drainage system, he had been acutely aware of precious hours relentlessly ticking by. Uncertainty about his location, the maze-like nature of the tunnels, and even occasional bouts of unconsciousness from what he suspected was a severe concussion had made navigating his way out a nightmare.

But he still didn't have time to relax. Without a working phone or radio, it was vital that he find a way to communicate with the other Turks and give them critical information about Rufus's true kidnappers.

Once outside the tunnels, he oriented himself relative to the Healen Clinic. Unfortunately, he was on the wrong side of a very steep ridge. Climbing that ridge was not an option in his present condition. Grimly, he headed downhill, hoping to find an easier way back to the Clinic.

Exhaustion and injury conspired to dull his usually sharp awareness of his surroundings, so Tseng was caught completely off-guard as a dark man-sized figure crashed out of the bushes and shot him. Repeatedly.

As he lay bleeding on the ground, Tseng heard other voices shouting in a mixture of confusion and surprise.

"What the hell was all that about?!" an aggrieved male voice demanded.

"Hey, better safe than sorry." A second male voice, sounding sullen.

Tseng was vaguely aware of someone walking up to examine him.

"Oh. My. God. You just shot a Turk," the first voice blurted.


"You fucking shot a Turk, you idiot! And not just any Turk! You shot their goddamn leader!"

"How was I to know?! He came stumbling out of the trees and scared the crap out of me!" the second voice said stubbornly.

"And you decided to shoot first, and ask questions later, genius?"

"You heard what happened with that zombie woman and those poor WRO bastards! I don't want to get turned into bloody goo like those guys!"

"You shot a Turk!" the first voice repeated, now sounding panicky.

"You are SO dead, man," a third person announced.

"Look, we can just say the monsters got him," the second voice suggested quickly.

"He's full of bullet holes, you moron!" the first person -- apparently the squad leader -- yelled back.

"Okay, why don't we... um, just stash his body somewhere and pretend this whole thing never happened?"

"Everyone in the whole freakin' area had to hear your freakin' gunfire!"

"So I had a small accident with my rifle?" the second man offered, as sullen defiance shifted into nervousness as the gravity of the situation finally sunk in.

"Accident?! You unloaded an entire clip into him!" the squad leader sputtered.

Tseng hear someone on a radio, demanding a report.

"You hear that? Those Turks KNOW something's going on out here!"

A fourth jittery voice joined the conversation.

"Yeah, and they're going to want answers! I've heard what those Turks do to people! We're not going to cover for you! It was YOUR itchy trigger finger, so it's YOUR damn fault!"

As the whole squad joined the argument, Tseng quietly passed out from shock and blood loss.




[ Weapon Facility ]

Reno watched Cloud's fingers twitch slightly, and knew he was running out of time, in more ways than one. In no way was he an indecisive person, but he was damned if he knew what to do about this mess. And he wasn't talking about being Hojo and his crazy plan to resurrect Sephiroth.

After four years of being subjected to who the hell knew what sort of horrible experiments, it was no surprise that Cloud was seriously screwed in the head. However, Reno certainly hadn't expected a full blown case of multiple fucking personalities.

Reno could understand the 'Cloud thinking he's Zack' thing. While creepy as hell, it made a bizarre sort of sense, given what the two guys probably went through together. Besides, it was probably easier to deal with a fake 'Zack' than with the real Cloud and his damn broodiness.

But as for that other personality? THAT was a very different problem.

In his job as a Turk, Reno had run into plenty of nutcases, and even worked with a few of them. He'd also encountered a shitload of people -- like, a whole Sector's worth -- who hated Turks and wanted revenge for a multitude of real or imagined wrongs.

But the other side of Cloud was on a seriously disturbing level of crazy.

Maybe it was the overwhelming intensity of that hatred. Or maybe it was the way that hatred had unexpectedly popped up out of freaking nowhere.

Cloud didn't like Turks or anything to do with Shinra. Reno got that. Sure, Cloud and the Turks tried to kill each other on multiple occasions. And yeah, he had annoyed or pissed off Cloud plenty of times.

Even so, Cloud's interactions with the Turks generally had a rather professional vibe. Cloud hadn't taken things all that personally, even after the Sector 7 mess. Cloud had a mission to do and the Turks were in his way, simple as that. And when the Turks hadn't been in his way, he didn't go after them.

And after Meteorfall, Cloud seemed perfectly content to let things go. Everyone was busy trying to find their way in an unfamiliar post-Meteor world, so why not let bygones be bygones?

So yeah, it was a pretty nasty jolt to discover that Cloud -- or a part of him, anyway -- was secretly harboring such a vicious, bloodthirsty personal grudge against the Turks. Or anyone else, for that matter. Because there was a big, BIG difference between 'Stay out of my way or I'll kill you' and 'I want to hunt you down and slowly torture you to death'.

Hell, as far as he knew, Cloud hadn't shown that level of vindictive hatred toward even Sephiroth or Hojo!

Reno wished he could convince himself that the whole encounter with psycho 'I hate your guts' Cloud was an aberration, an once-only event triggered by a unique combination of stress, injury, and Hojo's meddling. Or even better, a weird hallucination on his own part. It would have made things SO much simpler.

Unfortunately, both his brain and his guts told him that Cloud's rage was merely a symptom of a very deep long-term mental issue that was not about to go away on its own.

And Cloud's state of mind was damn critical. The Turks could handle a lot, up to and including a fucking WEAPON, on their own. But if Hojo and Sephiroth were set to go rampaging all over the Planet, Shinra and the Turks would need as much help as they could get.

And no matter how much the idea of relying on someone else stuck in Reno's throat, Cloud was probably the only guy around who stood a decent chance of going toe-to-toe against Sephiroth, if the bastard returned again.

The problem was that the very strength and fighting ability that made Cloud such a valuable asset in any fight against Hojo and Sephiroth would also make Cloud a major threat if he suddenly decided to go Turk-hunting with a vengeance.

Reno wondered if any of Cloud's buddies had a clue what was brewing inside their friend's head. He didn't think so.

There were types of mental shit that one could work with or work around, but not this type of craziness. You couldn't ignore a murderous grudge like that, even if you weren't the target. A person consumed with that much hatred would be too fucking unreliable. You would never be able to fully trust the guy to toe the line or watch your back properly. A person like that would gladly throw anyone under the bus without hesitation, not to mention sacrifice everything else, just for the sake of his revenge.

Tifa and Cloud's other friends might have their quirks, but they certainly weren't stupid. If they knew, they wouldn't be able to trust him the way they did.

And there would probably be signs, hints of something 'off'. When someone held a grudge so intense, that hostility usually crept into everything that person said or did. People -- well, normal people -- just couldn't keep that sort of hatred and rage out of the other parts of their lives.

Sure, he knew one or two guys -- hello, Rufus! -- who had the self-control and mental discipline to completely hide such intense emotions for the sake of some convoluted long-term scheme. However, despite his undeniable bravery and stubbornness, the Cloud he knew just didn't have anything like the cold-blooded calculation and mental discipline Rufus had.

Which was a good thing, actually. One Rufus on this Planet was more than enough.

Besides, Rufus's hatred had always been of the cold, patient sort. Cloud's grudge was completely different -- the hatred ran way too hot, and was way too impatient. A person just couldn't hide something like that.

Unless that person was unaware those feelings existed.

Unless those feelings had become somehow completely 'separated' from the person's normal self.

Or in other words, some sort of alternate personality.

Okay, so he was apparently the only person who had a bloody clue about the weird mental time bomb Cloud was carrying around in his head. But now after uncovering this deep, dark secret, what the fuck was he supposed to do about it, if anything?

Should he tell Cloud about this hidden crazy side, or about the Zack thing? Yeah, he could see that conversation going down really well.

The last thing Reno wanted was to have Cloud completely flip his shit, one way or another. He certainly didn't want Cloud to fall into some paralyzing, angst-ridden depression as he did when Kadaj kidnapped all those kids from Midgar. On the other hand, just mentioning the possibility of psycho-Cloud's existence might be enough to make that personality resurface. And that would be really, really bad.

Of course, this was assuming that the normal, sane Cloud would be in control long enough for Reno to bring up the subject. Because if the psycho-Cloud was in the driver's seat when Hojo's paralyzing toxin finally wore off, this Turk would be in a shitload of trouble.

Despite what some people might think, Reno had a healthy regard for his own neck and definitely wanted to keep it in one piece, thank you. The only thing worse than getting trapped unarmed in a cramped space with a crazed, homicidal alter-ego Cloud was getting stuck in the same situation with an insane Sephiroth.

No, scratch that. There was a very slim chance that an insane Sephiroth might consider him not worth the trouble of killing. And if that didn't work, at least Sephiroth would kill him quickly. Psycho-Cloud, on the other hand, would not only do his best to kill him, but would probably do it in some horribly painful way for pure sadistic fun times.


But before Reno could make a decision, he heard a shrill, penetrating female voice. Specimen cells were generally soundproof, but they also came with a built-in intercom system that allowed researchers to communicate easily with their subjects. From the echoes and distortion, it sounded like the woman's voice came from outside the lab, somewhere down the hallway or even an adjacent lab area.

Through the intercom, he could hear the woman as she argued furiously with someone. He couldn't make out most of her words, but her tone made it clear that she was seriously pissed off. He only caught the occasional word -- "facility", "bastard", etc. However, another term came up repeatedly in the conversation and caught his attention.

"...DeepGround...!" the strident female voice said in a tone of bitter complaint and accusation.

Suddenly, there was a rapid series of gunshots -- a large caliber handgun, to Reno's experienced ears -- followed immediately by an enraged howl of pain. Then came a whole cacophony of crashing and pounding noises, accompanied by bestial screams from other sources.

Even as Reno wondered what the fuck had just happened, Scarlet -- Shinra's former Head of Weapons Development, presumed dead in the Meteorfall disaster -- dashed into the lab and slammed the door shut behind her. After locking the door, then barricading it with a nearby cabinet, she propped herself against the wall, panting heavily.

Scarlet still wore flashy, over-sequined evening gowns, Reno noted sourly. However, instead of the lethal stiletto heels she usually favored, this time she was barefoot. She was also clutching a small, but powerful looking pistol.


She whipped around, then gave him a sharp, thin-lipped smile.

"Reno. Finally awake, I see." She shoved long blond wisps of hair away from her face and smirked as her eyes scanned his naked body from head to toe. But even as she blatantly ogled him, she was busy reloading her gun.

"So that's what you've been hiding underneath those Turk suits." Her smile widened into an outright leer as her eyes settled on a point just below his waist. "I never realized how impressive your... 'equipment' was."

Scarlet, like Hojo, loved to wind people up. So Reno suppressed any impulse to cover himself and gave her the finest predatory smirk he had.

"Darling, it's the stuff that dreams are made of." When Scarlet raised an eyebrow, Reno added in a dangerously polite voice, "Now, if we're done with the foreplay, will you quit admiring my assets and open this fucking cell?"

Scarlet snorted, but quickly located the control panel for the specimen chamber and began jabbing at the keypad.

"What the hell are you doing here, anyway?" Reno demanded.

As she continued to busily push buttons, he replied, "This manufacturing facility belongs to me. It was doing nicely until Hojo decided to take over and use it as his new monster factory. Or hatchery, god only knows. And I'm afraid to even guess what the hell he's been doing in the lower levels."

Scarlet slammed her palm against the console in frustration. "Shit, it's passcoded and I don't have time to deal with it. As much as I admire that cute ass of yours, I'm more concerned with saving my own butt."

"Then do something! You can't just leave us here!"

"Sure I can!" she retorted instantly. But when she saw that Reno was no longer alone in the cell, she frowned and said, "Isn't that... Clod, or something like that?"

"Cloud," Reno replied testily.

"Yeah, whatever." A calculating look crossed her face. "Is he alive?"

"Yes, but...."

"Is he still hooked up with Reeve and his old AVALANCHE buddies?" she rudely interrupted.

"Yes, but...."

"Is he going to live?" she interrupted yet again.

"He's in bad shape -- poisoned and gut wounded, but he's stable. Physically speaking, at least," Reno said with a shrug.

"Good. Make sure he stays that way."

"Not you, too! I'm a Turk, not a freaking medic!" Reno yelled, flinging up his hands in obvious irritation.

"It's not like you've got anywhere to go or anything better to do. Look, I don't have time to sit and chat, seeing as how I just emptied a full clip of ammo into Hojo's face." She waggled the pistol in her hand meaningfully.

"Was that him howling just now?" Reno asked.

"Yeah. Didn't even come close to killing him, more's the pity, but it was enough to disrupt his psychic control over those monster minions of his and allow me to get away. Now I've got to find a nice, safe hiding spot and place a very important phone call to Reeve and the WRO. With luck, we'll all get the hell out of here in one piece."

Without another word, she bolted out the back door of the lab.

Less than a minute later, a mob of Hojo's monsters smashed down the barricaded front door to the lab. Reno blandly watched as they stampeded right back out of the room in hot pursuit of Scarlet.


He spun around, cursing himself for getting too distracted and turning his back on Cloud -- something he had sworn NOT to do after his encounter with Cloud's nastier, Turk-hating side. Thankfully, normal Cloud seemed to be in charge this time around.

Cloud lifted his head a bit and said in a startled voice, "Did I just see Scarlet go by? Or was that just another hallucination?"

"Nope. She was really here, the damn bitch, sequins and all."

Cloud blinked. "What is she doing here in Hojo's lair?"

"The place apparently belonged to her until Hojo decided to stage an unfriendly takeover. She's understandably pissed about that." He glanced down at Cloud. "How are you feeling?"

Cloud sighed and managed to lift his hand enough to rub at his face, although it took visible effort.

"It looks like I've got some movement back. Still can't think straight."

Reno walked over to Cloud and said casually, "Do you remember when we first met?"

"Sure. Aerith's church in Sector 5. You tromped all over her flowers. Why do you ask?"

"Just wondering," Reno drawled, sitting down beside Cloud.

"Really." Cloud gave him a level stare, then said in a weary tone, "Reno, I may be many things, but I'm not stupid. I know when I'm being tested. Did something happen when I was unconscious? Did I say or do something disturbing?"

"Depends on your definition of disturbing."

"Reno...," Cloud said, with a definite hint of annoyance.

Up until that very moment, he had been debating what to say to Cloud, if anything. Unfortunately, at this point, pretending complete ignorance wasn't going to fly.

"Fine, fine. You said some stuff about Zack," Reno said in a nonchalant tone.



"You... knew Zack?" Cloud sounded both startled and a little uneasy.

Seeing the still woozy haze in Cloud's eyes, Reno realized that this would probably be his last opportunity to get some candid, unfiltered information out of Cloud, who was under normal circumstances as chatty as a rock. So he decided to take the plunge and ask a few potentially explosive questions.

"Before I go into all that, can you tell me about the time you first met a Turk. Not me. Any Turk."

Cloud's glowing blue eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"I'm not trying to blow you off. Just answer the question, then I'll tell you what I know about Zack Fair, SOLDIER First Class."

Cloud shrugged a bit stiffly, then said, "It was on a mission while I was still an infantryman. She was a female Turk called Chaise."

"Long dark blond hair in a fancy ponytail, uses a shotgun?"

"That's her. The mission had to do with protecting a professor from... AVALANCHE?" Cloud frowned in confusion. "Not Barret's AVALANCHE. A different AVALANCHE, with... Ravens? Not the birds. Humans... no, former humans, transformed into...?" Before Reno could say anything, he shook his head in bewilderment, then continued, "I saw Chaise again a year or so later, during the Nibelheim mission."

"You remember meeting Chaise in Nibelheim?" Reno said casually.

"Yeah. Before the trip to the reactor, I, um...." Despite all the blood loss he'd suffered, Cloud still managed a pretty respectable blush. "...asked her for a small personal favor. She was nice enough to agree."

"Did you ever see her again?"


Reno tensed slightly, but Cloud was concentrating too hard on his own memories to notice.

"I saw her just a few days ago."

"What?" Reno said, startled.

"Rufus asked her to join us when we went to Nibelheim after Hojo's attack. I didn't remember her at first, but she reminded me about our earlier meeting in Nibelheim and the... um, personal favor."

As Cloud continued to ramble about their most recent visit to the mountain town, the search for the Turks, and Chaise's involvement, Reno listened, his racing thoughts concealed by a mildly bored expression.

Cloud's demeanor was perfectly calm, almost friendly, as he discussed the same female Turk who he had, only a few hours ago, called a traitorous bitch, to put it mildly. And now as Cloud spoke, there was no hint of anger or hatred, resentment or bitterness, toward Reno, Chaise, or any other Turk.

What had the other, psycho-Cloud said about remembering?

"I remember. HE doesn't, but -I- do. I remember EVERYTHING."

Now Reno felt pretty sure that the 'he' mentioned was the Cloud everyone knew. That Cloud didn't appear to have any memory of encountering Chaise in the Nibel Reactor or of Hojo's arrival after Sephiroth's apparent death. Reno wasn't sure where that particular observation got him, but he filed away the information for later.

"Okay, now tell me what you know about Zack," Cloud murmured, still clearly exhausted.

As agreed, Reno began discussing his own experiences with Zack. He kept things casual, a little vague, skimming over the specifics of the missions.

Except that Cloud just as casually filled in many of the gaps in Reno's stories. Compared to the confusion he had shown in dealing with his own memories, Cloud's knowledge of Zack's activities with the Turks bordered on the outright uncanny. The people, places, events -- Cloud knew the details almost better than Reno did himself.

As a test, Reno deliberately flubbed a minor detail or two, completely trivial events that only he and Zack would know about. For example, the time Reno had been frogged and nearly eaten by a hungry snake....

Cloud, his expression oddly blank, his tone pleasantly conversational, caught and corrected the mistakes, apparently unaware that he had shifted from talking about Zack in the third person to talking AS Zack in the first person.




After her encounter with Reno, Scarlet wasted no time heading for her saferoom. She ran as fast as she could, glad she'd kept up her morning cardio workouts. She jumped over a railing onto an obscure catwalk, made a sharp right turn into a small utility alcove, hit a nondescript wall section in a complicated pattern, then jumped through the opening revealed by a sliding panel. Slamming the panel shut behind her, Scarlet paused to catch her breath, then scurried down the cramped access tunnel on hands and knees. At occasional intervals, she opened up hidden keypads and typed in codes, then hurried on her way.

Finally, she tumbled head first into her saferoom, which also served as the backup security center. After entering a few final commands in the main console, she collapsed into a chair, gasping for air as the security monitors around her sprang to life.

When she located Hojo in one of the labs, still staggering around in obvious pain, Scarlet scowled. The crazy scientist had managed to survive getting blown to bits by Cloud and his friends, so she hadn't expected her gun to do any permanent damage. Still, it was annoying as hell to see the gaping wounds in Hojo's head and neck visibly closing.

Her camera scan through the facility confirmed her worst fears. Hojo's damned monsters were everywhere and all her escape routes to the outside were cut off. Fortunately, her encounter with Reno had given her an idea for getting out of this mess.

Scarlet reached inside a small cooler unit and pulled out a bottle of wine. Uncorking it and knocking back a few deep chugs without the benefit of a glass, she laughed and said, "Well, Cloud, it's about time you paid me back for all the trouble you've caused me. You're going to be my ticket out of this hellhole. Cheers!"


As Scarlet relaxed for the first time in days, she brooded about how Hojo had totally fucked up her comfortable post-Meteorfall life.

The weapon facility had been one of her best-kept secrets. No trace of it appeared in Shinra company records. After Meteorfall, instead of staying with Shinra, she had decided to go into business for herself.

She'd spent the months following Meteorfall retooling the facility into a small, but efficient factory for various types of weaponry. But just as she started to rake in the profits, Hojo managed to screw up everything by paying her a surprise 'visit'.

Scarlet snickered softly to herself. Hojo might fancy himself a brilliant scientist, but he was also an idiot. He had forgotten that she wasn't merely a corporate executive or weapon engineer. She not only designed all sorts of weapons, but she also knew how to use them.

And unlike Reeve, she didn't mind getting her own hands dirty.

So when a giggling Hojo had dragged her out to demand the codes for the Mako reactor's safety interlocks, she had been carrying an ace up her sleeve. Or a pistol up her skirt, to be more precise, because Hojo totally forgot to have her searched.

Her screaming rant at Hojo had provided the perfect distraction. All her practice hours at the firing range and the outrageous amounts of gil spent on her custom designed wardrobe had finally paid off, allowing her to grab the small but extremely powerful handgun strapped to her thigh, then empty the entire clip right into Hojo's scaly face at point blank range.

Now THAT had been satisfying.

She still didn't know why Hojo wanted to shut off the safety interlocks. Do that, and raw mako would flood the entire containment system, which in turn would cause a power imbalance that could blow the entire plant, Hojo included, sky high. That would be just fine with her, except for the small matter of getting blown up herself as well.

However, all things considered, she was in pretty good shape at the moment. She had a safe place to hide, with plenty of food, water, and weapons. Despite the damage caused by Hojo's creatures, she still had considerable control over much of the factory's systems and equipment, including a few working battle robots.

Scarlet emptied half of the wine bottle, then put it aside. She desperately wanted a nap, but that would have to wait. The sooner she contacted Reeve, the sooner she'd get out of this mess.




[ Healen ]

It was dinnertime and everyone had gathered in one of the smaller dining halls in the clinic. However, no one was much interested in eating. Instead, they shared what little progress they had made after a full day of searching and investigation.

Over 24 hours had passed since Cloud's abduction, and they still had no good leads on Cloud's or Rufus's disappearance. Cid had made a few reconnaissance flights, which also served to test the repairs to the Shera's engines. Kunsel, the only one who showed any appreciable appetite, had just returned from supervising yet another search of the Healen area. Cait Sith sat in a corner, apparently dozing, which probably meant that Reeve was working his ass off back at WRO HQ. Elena and Rude -- for once, not wearing his sunglasses -- were picking at their food, more interested in the thick stacks of reports they were reading.

As for Tifa, she did her best to rest and recover, even as she debated about telling Denzel and Marlene about Cloud's kidnapping.

Cid stalked into the dining and snapped, "Any damn news?"

"The only thing we can be sure of is that Hojo's NOT in Nibelheim," Kunsel said drily.

"Well, that's something," Cid said sarcastically.

"Besides that, not much. The Turks are trying to narrow down the list of possible locations that Hojo could use as a hideout. The WRO has teams running all over the place tracking down possible sightings of Hojo's creatures."

Cid kicked angrily at the wall. "The Shera can get us pretty much anywhere on this Planet in less than six hours or so. But all that speed means shit when we don't have any idea where the fuck to go." He flung himself down on the nearest chair and said, "Hell, at this point, we might as well pick our target by closing our eyes and sticking a pin in the fucking map! At least we'd be doing SOMETHING!"

Before anyone could respond, Cait Sith jumped back to life and shouted, "Guys! Listen to this!"

Everyone gathered around the cat as it whipped out its phone and activated the speaker so they could all listen in on Reeve's conversation.


"I want to make a deal, Reeve," a familiar female voice replied.

"A deal? What sort of deal?"

"You're looking for your spiky haired friend Cloud, right?"

Cait Sith made sharp hushing gestures so the others wouldn't miss a word of the conversation between Reeve and the former Head of Shinra's Weapons Development Department.

"Go on," Reeve said evenly to Scarlet.

"I know where he is. And I know where Hojo's keeping him."

"So what's the deal?"

Scarlet sighed. "To put it simply, my brains and your brawn. I give you the information you need to rescue your friends, and you get me the hell out of here."


"Both Cloud and Reno."

Elena clamped her hand over her mouth to keep herself quiet. It turned out to be unnecessary because Cait had muted the phone on their end, eliminating any chance of Scarlet hearing the Turks or anyone else except for Reeve.

"Reno's there too?"

"That's right. Reeve, I know this place like the back of my hand. I can get you to Cloud and Reno by the quickest and safest route, all without Hojo knowing. This is my offer. I help you locate Cloud and Reno. In return, you give me an escort out of this monster-infested hellhole. After that, you can call in the WRO, hunt up Hojo, or do whatever the hell you want. Just as long as I get out of here alive and as me, not some weird mutated monstrosity."

"How do we know that you're telling the truth and not trying to lure us into a trap?"

Although they didn't have any video, it was easy to infer Scarlet's eyeroll from the exasperation in her voice.

"Look, I know that we didn't part ways on the best of terms...."

Reeve made an incredulous sound. "You tried to kill us. Repeatedly. With a giant ROBOT."

"Well, that's true. But surely we can put that bit of unfortunate history behind us," Scarlet said smoothly, then sighed heavily. "I'm going to be brutally frank about my situation. I need your help as much as you need mine. Hojo's damn monsters are crawling all over the place. If they catch me, I'm dead or worse. You've got experience at handling this sort of situation and I'm relying on you guys to save my very precious neck. So I've got no motive to screw you over."

"Sure you do, if you're setting us up for Hojo."

"If you're worried about me working with Hojo, don't be. At this point, he is stark raving bonkers. The only thing Hojo's interested in now is his research, as he calls it." Scarlet paused. "Well, he's always been like that, but it's way worse now that no one's there to keep him in line. The only value I have for him is as research fodder. There's no way I'd trust him to keep his end of any deal or promise."

"You could be setting us up just to save your own neck."

"Hojo's far too obsessed with his 'research' to give a fuck about you guys."

"Come on, Scarlet. If you've managed to escape from him, why can't you get away from the factory by yourself? You've got to have multiple backup plans and escape routes. Why haven't you used them?" said Reeve in an decidedly suspicious tone.

Scarlet snarled back, "Because I got damn lucky the first time around and caught him off-guard. That's not going to happen again. I have weapons and I can handle myself in a fight, but I'm just one person. I step outside my hiding hole without backup, and I'm going to get nailed, sooner or later. That's where you guys come in."

"What guarantees do we have that you'll keep your end of the bargain?"

"Don't be an idiot, Reeve. I know that you guys won't leave or let me go until you rescue your buddies. So if I want to get out alive, I have to help you. Look, I'm sending you some video as proof that I'm not lying about Cloud and Reno. Call me back with your answer," Scarlet said before hanging up.

With some improvising, the Turks managed to download the videos forwarded to them by Reeve and get them up on a nearby wall monitor. The videos were all short, with most of them showing scenes of monsters roaming inside or outside of an industrial facility by the sea. The last one was of a lab and clearly showed Reno and Cloud inside a large transparent specimen chamber. Reno, though naked and fairly bruised, looked reasonably okay as he paced impatiently back and forth. However, the same could not be said for Cloud, who lay still and unconscious.

Tifa eyed the large darkish red stains on the floor around Cloud and said quietly, "That's blood. A lot of blood."

"He's hurt bad, all right," Cid agreed. "But alive, judging by the way Reno keeps checking on him."

Before they could discuss the matter further, Scarlet's agitated voice burst from Cait Sith's phone again. Cid, Tifa and the others again clustered around the cat, listening intently.

"Reeve, I need your answer NOW, and it better be a big fucking, 'Yes!'"

"What's wrong?"

"Trouble in all caps. Sending you a picture."

The camera angle was awkward, to say the least, but clearly showed a partially open set of double doors. Past the open doors, Cid and the others could make out part of a large tank filled with glowing green fluid. Suspended within the tank was a blurry pale, humanoid form with long, equally pale hair.

Reeve swore under his breath.

"Is that...?"

Scarlet replied grimly, "I can't be certain, not from this limited angle, but it sure looks like Sephiroth, doesn't it? While I was a prisoner, Hojo kept babbling about resurrecting Sephiroth. I really didn't think that he'd actually be able to do it. No wonder Hojo wanted the override codes for the Mako containment systems."

"Can you get a better view?"

"Sorry, but I can't access any security cameras inside that lab. All I've got is the one in the hallway outside and I can only catch quick glimpses when Hojo or his minions go in or out. For what it's worth, the body -- whoever or whatever it is -- looks incomplete at the moment."

"So we've still got some time."

"I suppose, but I haven't got a clue how much." There was a long pause on Scarlet's end. "I have to say that you don't sound that surprised or shocked about this development, Reeve."

"I'm not."

"You KNEW this was going to happen?" she sputtered. Before Reeve could say anything, she cut him off. "That's not important. Well, Reeve? Do we have a deal?"

"You already know my answer."

"Fine. Give me a call when you arrive and I'll figure a way to meet up with you."

"I already have some WRO forces in the area. They can be there within two hours."

"And do what? Don't be stupid, Reeve," Scarlet said, clearly exasperated. "Even assuming that they don't end up as cannon fodder for Hojo's army of monsters, you DO realize that a frontal assault will only give Hojo time to use Cloud and Reno as hostages. No, just do what you usually do -- put together a strike team and sneak in the back way."

"And is there a back way?"

"Of course there is. There's an underground escape tunnel in the factory which can be accessed via a natural cave system. The best cave entrance to use is the one farthest away, on the far side of a nearby mountain ridge. It'll provide cover for your arrival."

"How far are we talking about?"

"About ten kilometers or so."

"Ten kilometers!" Reeve protested.

"There are several closer entrances, but you'll run the risk of encountering the monsters Hojo's got patrolling the area. The cave path is pretty easy going, but only passable on foot. For guys like you, it shouldn't take you much more than an hour or so to cover that distance, barring monster encounters.

"Don't worry about that part. As you might expect, the actual escape tunnel section is equipped with automated defense systems. Under normal circumstances, I could remotely deactivate those systems so you can walk right in. Unfortunately, there's a minor problem."

"Of course there would be," Reeve said sarcastically.

Scarlet ignored him and continued, "Hojo and his creatures really tore this place apart doing whatever the hell they're doing. The controls for the escape tunnel defense system is just one of the things that got trashed. Their default mode is 'on' and I can't switch them off. Believe me, I've tried. So you're going to have to fight your way through them."

"Marvelous. You make it sound so easy."

"Reeve, I'd simply love to make this a walk in the park for you guys. I really would. But I can't. However, the severed controls mean that Hojo won't receive any warnings when the defense systems eventually go down."

"Well, that's one good thing."

"I have some more good news for you. From my observations, I'm pretty sure that Hojo doesn't constantly keep an active psychic link with all his creatures. My guess is that he can 'set' them with simple commands -- like 'kill all intruders' or 'follow the leader' -- but from what I've seen, he can't control them in any complex manner unless he's in close proximity or concentrating intensely."

"What sort of proximity are we talking about here?"

"A range of a few rooms, at most. Otherwise, he wouldn't have to move around so much to personally supervise them. The important thing is that if you can keep the ruckus down, you can kill off whatever monsters you run into without warning him."

"Okay, that simplifies things quite a bit," Reeve said.

"Yes, thank goodness for small favors. There's something else that works to our advantage. Hojo seems to be running this whole show entirely by himself, so he's got his tentacles full with all the schemes he's got going. I can arrange for a few distractions to keep him even busier. A little creative sabotage here and there, nothing big."

"Every little bit helps."

"I know. A few last details. First, Cloud and Reno are locked inside one of the large clear specimen chambers -- you know the type. I tried the usual override codes, but none of them worked, so you'll need to figure some way of getting them out."

"Anything else we should know?"

"I already told you that Hojo's got a lot of things going on simultaneously, right? I don't have specifics, but whatever he's doing, it requires a lot of human fodder, both alive and dead. He first used my employees, but ran through them in no time flat. He then started sending his monsters out to fetch more. The live captives disappear into the lab areas. As for the dead people, I've seen hundreds -- and I do mean hundreds -- of human corpses being dragged off to the lowermost levels of the factory. Why he needs so many and what the hell he's doing with them, I haven't got a clue except it can't possibly be good. Consider this bit of information as additional incentive to get your asses over here ASAP."

With that, she rattled off the coordinates of Hojo's hideout and the cave entrance before hanging up.




In the dining room, Cid glanced at the people around him and said, "Tifa?"

"I'm fine and ready to go."

"Kunsel, I'd like you along as backup on the Shera, in case we get in a jam or shit goes south."

"No problem," the SOLDIER said easily.

"I'm going to organize the WRO response," Cait Sith said, then added quickly, "I'll keep it as low profile as possible. I don't want to give Hojo any warning, but I'd like them nearby."

The cat then turned to Elena and Rude. "You Turks work for Shinra, so you're technically under no obligation to follow WRO's orders. But I'm assuming the Turks also want in on the action."

The blond Turk gave him a cold, dangerous smile. "Absolutely."

"How many Turks are we talking about here?" Cid demanded.

"Serge still doesn't have full use of his arm, so he stays here. That leaves me, Rude, Jade, and Chaise," Elena replied, then frowned and turned to Rude. "What about Garret and Mac? They're supposed to be in Junon, keeping on eye on Dr. Aston's people."

Rude shook his head. "They headed out to investigate some possible leads. They're probably at the eastern coast by now."

"Too far out of the way, then, just like Vandal and Tasha," Elena muttered.

Cid scowled thoughtfully. "So that makes four Turks. Then we'll probably have enough to set up a backup team if we need to."

"What about Vincent, Nanaki, and Yuffie? Since they're in Nibelheim, they're much closer than we are," Tifa said. "They could meet us at the cave instead of waiting for us to pick them up."

"Yeah, good idea. They could even scout out the area for us. But I don't want them going in alone. We don't know what sort of surprises or traps Hojo or Scarlet might've set up." Cid looked hard at Rude. "You got a pretty good beatdown in Nibelheim. You sure you're up for this?"

Rude gave him a flat stare. "Try and stop me."

"Just checkin'," Cid said with a shrug.

But even as Elena pulled out her phone to contact the other Turks, the door to the dining room burst open. They all turned to see Chaise standing in the doorway, breathing hard.

"They've found Tseng!"

"WHAT?! Where?" Elena demanded, going very white.

"A few miles from here." Chaise added quickly, "He's alive, but in critical condition. Head and internal injuries, combined with multiple gunshot wounds."

"Shot! By whom?!"

Chaise brushed her long hair away from her face, then said acidly, "Would you believe by a trigger-happy Shinra infantryman on patrol?"

As Elena and Rude stared at her, Chaise continued, "No, seriously. The trooper claims that he heard something crashing around in the bushes, panicked, and fired. He SAYS that he shouted a warning before shooting, but that doesn't match with what the other squad members say. And if that isn't bad enough, from what Jade told me, the whole squad then stood around arguing while Tseng was bleeding out at their feet."

Elena snarled something about idiots and morons under her breath, then rubbed suddenly shaky hands over her face.

It was left to Rude to ask, "Did Tseng say anything?"

"Not that I know of, but it sounds like the entire squad is more interested in covering their own asses than telling the truth," Chaise said in obvious frustration. "Jade and Serge haven't gotten a chance to squeeze more details out of them. Anyway, Dr. Nyx is putting together a medical team and setting up a quarantine so they can evaluate Tseng for possible contamination and treat his injuries."

"Wait a second. What contamination?" Tifa interrupted.

Chaise replied, "After what happened with Cloud and that poor mutated Foster woman, Nyx and the other WRO doctors instituted a new safety protocol to hopefully prevent anything like that from happening again. That's why the very first thing the medical team's going to do is check Tseng for Jenova cells or other abnormalities."

"And if their tests show something nasty?" Cid said curtly.

"Then we all have to figure out a way to deal with the situation." Chaise's tone was cool and flat.

Tifa winced visibly.

Chaise, belatedly glancing around the room, said, "Ah... did I interrupt something?"

Since Elena didn't respond, Rude was the one who answered. "We just got a message from Scarlet telling us where Hojo's holding Cloud and Reno."

Chaise blinked, processing the information. Instead of asking for more details, she simply said, "Okay. What do you need me to do?"

Rude said, "We need people here with Tseng. For protection, and if complications arise."

"Serge's staying, so that's one," Elena said. Although she managed to keep her voice steady and professional, there was no hiding her obvious personal concern over Tseng. "We need more people, not only to take care of Tseng, but to keep searching this area for Rufus. Jade...."

"Elena, you stay here with Tseng," Rude said firmly.

She flushed deeply, then hissed under her breath. "But Reno...."

"I'll take care of Reno." He paused, meaningfully. "You take care of Tseng."

"But you need...."

"I'll have Chaise and Jade with me, as well as Cid and the others. This is not a matter of personal favors. You're needed HERE, as a Turk, to do whatever is necessary in regard to Tseng and his welfare. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Elena met Rude's level stare, gulped, then said steadily, "Yes. Understood."

"Now that we've got all that sorted out, can we get the fuck on our way?" Cid said impatiently.

Rude reached into a pocket and pulled out his sunglasses. Slipping them on, he said, "I need to grab some equipment from my quarters first."

"If you need it, fine. You guys have ten minutes."

As Kunsel nodded briskly, Chaise said, "I'll contact the others and we'll all meet up at the Shera."

As the Turks and Kunsel hustled toward the door, Cid glanced at Tifa and Cait Sith. "Time to get our own asses in gear. We can iron out the rest of the damn details after we're in the air."




[ the Shera ]

Once onboard the airship, Tifa paced restlessly. "I hope Hojo doesn't get any warning of our arrival, either from Scarlet or any spies he might've left behind in Healen."

Cid rested his hands on the wheel and said, "I doubt it. Scarlet knows we're her best chance of getting out alive, so she's got no reason to betray us. As for Hojo spying on us, I suppose there's a small chance, but I don't think so. He's already got what he wanted -- Cloud and possibly Rufus. He's got no interest in the rest of us."

"I suppose."

He eyed Tifa, then said, "There's no point in trying to tell you not to worry about Cloud, so I won't even bother. But I'll say this much -- Cloud's a fighter. He's not going to lay down and let Hojo or Sephiroth walk all over him."

"I know that." She smiled wistfully. "And if he was up against any other enemy, I would have no problems agreeing with you. But with Hojo and Sephiroth, knowing what they're capable of doing, knowing what they've already done to Cloud...."

A long silence fell between them. They both knew that Cloud was a superb fighter, and probably the strongest currently alive on the Planet. But with Hojo and/or Sephiroth involved, Cloud would need much more than mere physical strength and combat skill. Those two opponents knew of Cloud's emotional and mental vulnerabilities. Hell, the bastards probably created most of them! To make things even worse, they both knew how to exploit the fuck out of these cracks and flaws in Cloud's psyche.

And that was the real worry, wasn't it?

"Well, if Hojo or Sephiroth somehow manage to screw up Cloud's head again, we're just going to have to knock some sense back into him," Cid said calmly.

She snorted, but relaxed enough to sit down.

"By the way, what's up with Barret?" Cid asked. "Wasn't Vincent supposed to check on him?"

"He's all right, just very angry at being trapped underground by a mine accident and missing out on all the excitement," she said drily. "We didn't tell him about Cloud yet. No point in worrying him when he can't do anything about it. The mining people say that it's going to take a few more days to dig Barret and the others out. They don't want to rush things and risk triggering another tunnel collapse."

Cid uttered an annoyed grunt, then turned as Cait Sith, Rude, Chaise and the black-haired Jade arrived on the Shera's bridge. Cid gave them a sharp nod and said, "What did Vincent and the others say?"

"They're leaving Nibelheim right now and will meet us at the cave entrance," Cait Sith replied. The cat then turned to the Turks and said, "Regarding Scarlet...."

"What about her?" Chaise asked, as she checked her shotgun.

"I know we agreed to rescue her, protect her, and evacuate her from the factory. That's exactly what we're going to do. But once we've got her, I want to keep her in protective custody."

She gave Cait Sith a curious look. "Care to explain?"

"First, the WRO has a lot of questions to ask her, especially about certain secret data files. Second, because Scarlet's greedy, manipulative, powerhungry, and therefore as dangerous as hell. If she finds out that Rufus is still President of Shinra AND that he's missing, I wouldn't put it past her to try some sort of takeover in his absence. She's certainly got the ambition and the guts for it."

Chaise exchanged glances with Rude. "You've got a good point. Is that why you didn't ask her about Rufus and Tseng?"

Cait Sith nodded briskly. "That's right. I didn't want to give her any ideas about making a play for the Shinra Corporation. Once we're in Hojo's lair, we'll handle the search for Rufus ourselves."

"Why is the WRO so interested in not only saving Rufus, but protecting his position as President?" Jade asked bluntly, even as she test-drew her knives.

"Because Rufus understands that the Planet is a living entity and that humanity can't afford to run roughshod over it anymore. Scarlet doesn't understand and probably never will. With Rufus in control of the Shinra Corporation, the WRO and Shinra can find a way to work together to rebuild human society in a way that won't harm the Planet."

"And the WRO won't get that sort of cooperation from Scarlet," Chaise said thoughtfully.

"You're Turks. You know what she's like. Scarlet's only interested in power and profit. Her power, her profit. That's why I don't want her running around loose. The last thing the WRO and I want is to have the Shinra Corporation embroiled in a messy hostile takeover. Or worse, a Shinra Corporation run with ruthless old-style Shinra management."

Chaise and Jade glanced at Rude, deferring to his seniority in Tseng's absence. He gave a short nod, then said, "Unless Rufus or Tseng says otherwise, the Turks won't have a problem with the WRO holding Scarlet."

"Thanks for your cooperation," Cait Sith replied, sounding relieved.

"No thanks needed. Just doing our job of protecting the President," Jade replied with a cool smile.




[ Weapon Facility ]

The door to the lab abruptly opened and Hojo, accompanied by several of his creatures, half-walked and half-slithered into the room.

"Have you been having pleasant dreams?" Hojo said mockingly as he peered at Cloud, who lay motionless on the floor of the test chamber.

Remaining still, Cloud merely glared at Hojo.

The scientist shrugged, then waved at his monstrous minions. Reno, thoroughly pissed off and stressed, briefly considered doing something, just for the hell of it, but then received a sharp warning glance from Cloud. With a mental shrug, he leaned back against the transparent chamber wall and did nothing as the monsters roughly hauled Cloud out of the cell and held him up for Hojo's inspection.

Cloud stared at the large scabbed craters on Hojo's face and neck. "It looks like you ran into something painful," he commented blandly.

Hojo's tentacles twitched in annoyance. "Just a minor inconvenience called Scarlet. My creatures are hunting her down even as we speak."

"So, what do you want now, Hojo?" Cloud said wearily.

Hojo said nothing, but merely stared at his prisoner with a disturbing intensity.

At first Cloud merely looked confused by Hojo's behavior, then his blue eyes narrowed angrily.

"It's not going to work."

Hojo ignored Cloud's words and continued his intense concentration, but finally looked away and shook out his tentacles. "Interesting. You sensed, but remain surprisingly resistant to my influence."

"I told you before. I'm no one's puppet." Cloud's voice was cold, flat, and even.

Hojo slapped Cloud viciously across the face, then smiled, exposing row upon row of needle-like teeth. "Don't be so presumptuous to assume that you can fend off Sephiroth's mental domination so easily. My influence over Jenova cells is far from perfect. However, Sephiroth's ability to command less beings is orders of magnitude greater than mine."

Cloud gritted his teeth, but said nothing.

Hojo shrugged, like a perfectly reasonable man making a perfectly obvious point.

"If Sephiroth chooses to command, you WILL obey. It really is that simple."


(end of Part 9)




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, ff7-fic

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