MadamHydra (madamhydra) wrote,

Conflicts of Interest Redux 13/? (FF7 post-AC AU)

Sorry for the long wait. I got distracted by Real Life and too many video games (::cough:: Minecraft ::cough)

I apologize if this chapter is not nearly as polished as it should be, but I felt that it was better to get the damn thing posted and done with so the story can keep moving forward.

The usual caveats apply -- very rough draft, unbetaed, etc. Still, I hope you enjoy this part and I'll do my best to resume semi-regular updates. ^_^;;;

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 13
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: ~11,000
Warnings/Content: mature/dark/disturbing themes (e.g., offensive and/or obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.) Read at your own risk.
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.

-- Anne Bishop's Black Jewel series, from which I borrowed the the explicit ability to summon and vanish items into some sort of personal hammerspace. It's the only explanation I have for where Sephiroth keeps that damn sword of his.
-- Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, specifically Aral Vorkosigan's quote in Komarr: "Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself."

Text Conventions

( ) and { } and / and // indicate thoughts, mental dialogue, or other 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





[ Weapon factory ]

It seemed that regaining his sanity had done nothing to impair Sephiroth's fighting ability. Tifa reluctantly admitted that it was probably a good thing, but the sight of that sinister blade carving effortlessly through Hojo's monsters still made her nerves twitch. There were too many bad memories associated with that weapon, both from Nibelheim and the Forgotten City.

Tifa knew that she should be grateful that Sephiroth was on their side, at least for the moment. Without his help, escaping the factory before the WEAPONs' arrival wouldn't have been easy. Not impossible, but certainly harder, especially with Cloud out of commission. But with Sephiroth clearing their way through the creature-infested factory, they didn't have much to do except for carrying Cloud and staying out of trouble.

That gave Tifa time to observe their former nemesis in action and think hard about both the past and the present.

Nine years ago, during that fateful hike up Mt. Nibel, her younger self had been impressed and dazzled by Sephiroth's overwhelming power. Back then, she had been too inexperienced to understand that it wasn't his strength alone that made Sephiroth so dangerous, but rather that strength combined with incredible skill. Not a single motion was wasted as he fought, every bit of force precisely controlled and perfectly applied.

How much of that fighting ability was inborn talent and how much of it was training, she didn't know. But Tifa knew that Hojo's research had produced exactly what the Shinra Corporation had wanted -- a supremely deadly and efficient killer.

And although she hadn't really noticed it as a teenager, Zack had been just as deadly and efficient as Sephiroth on that trip up to the Nibel Reactor, despite their very different fighting styles and personalities.

Thoughts of Zack immediately brought her attention back to Cloud. Not 'just' a Sephiroth Clone, as if that wasn't bad enough, but apparently some sort of Zack Copy as well, if Reno's theory was right. No matter how much she wanted to believe that the Turk was wrong, the whole Copy thing explained far too much about Cloud's behavior and abilities.

As she followed Sephiroth, carrying Cloud slung over her shoulder like an over-sized package, she was acutely aware of his slow, even breathing. One would think he was merely sleeping instead of being profoundly unconscious. But this was no normal sleep and she could only make wild guesses as to what was going on in Cloud's head at the moment.

What the hell REALLY happened to Cloud at Nibelheim? Just how much of Zack did he carry inside him, and just how much influence did Zack have over Cloud?

She had used up so much energy worrying about Sephiroth's lingering effect on Cloud. Who could have imagined that it would be a dear friend who might pose the greatest threat to Cloud's well-being?

She had only met Zack in-person briefly during those last tense days in Nibelheim, before Sephiroth had emerged from the Mansion to drown her world in blood and fire. For much of that time, Zack had been too concerned with Sephiroth to pay much attention to her. But even with all the distractions and stress, Zack had been friendly and patient as she pestered him for details about SOLDIER and Midgar, even as he worked to keep the people in Nibelheim calm during Sephiroth's ominous absence.

However, it was what happened later, after the escape from the hellish labs of Nibelheim, that gave Tifa the best insight into Zack's character. It wasn't the escape itself, or even that epic final battle with Shinra's military outside Midgar. What impressed her the most was the incredible loyalty and dedication Zack had shown in taking care of a helpless, catatonic Cloud for months while on the run.

Cloud rarely talked about Zack. She wasn't sure whether it was because he found the subject too painful, or whether it was because he couldn't remember much from that time. But from the little he said, it was clear that Cloud had been very much aware of Zack during his long catatonic haze. Zack's unwavering devotion and support had anchored him, however tenuously, to reality and prevented his damaged psyche from shattering completely.

She herself had experienced a small taste of what it must have been like. Taking care of Cloud after his terrible breakdown in the Northern Crater had left her utterly drained, both physically and emotionally, after only a few days. And that was in the safety of Mideel AND with the help of an experienced medical staff.

Zack had done it alone, while being constantly hunted by Shinra, for nearly a year.

That, far more than his obvious bravery and skill in combat, told Tifa all she needed to know about Zack and convinced her that he would never knowingly harm Cloud.

The interaction of Zack and Sephiroth had only strengthened her belief in Zack's essential character and fundamental honesty. That was the primary reason she was willing to believe him when he said that the Planet had somehow 'fixed' Sephiroth and that Sephiroth's help was essential for saving the Planet.

The question of whether Zack was actually right was still up in the air. Of course, there was no proof that he was wrong, either.

The Planet was in danger, Hojo was running amok, there were far too many questions, not enough answers, and no time to uncover the truth. Typical.

The only thing she felt confident about in the whole mess was that Zack meant well. Unfortunately, she also knew the even the best intentions couldn't prevent horrible things from happening. If Reno was right about Copies being taken over by their originals....

Tifa pushed her worries about Cloud and Zack aside for the moment, and concentrated on their other major problem. Now that they had a seemingly cooperative Sephiroth on their side, what the hell were they supposed to DO with him?


The person in question had just dispatched yet another pack of slime-dripping monstrosities with a deceptively casual swipe of his blade. After Scarlet had given him a quick briefing on Hojo's limited ability to psychically link to the Jenova-infected creatures, Sephiroth had apparently gone into some sort of high efficiency slaughter-mode, presumably to minimize the chance of the creatures sending a warning to Hojo.

"Getting bored with nothing to do?" Reno said, huffing slightly as he jogged beside her.

"It's nice to have someone else do the hard, dirty work for a change," Tifa replied drily.

The Turk smirked. "Oh, with Sephiroth leading the way, all we have to worry about is keeping up and not slipping in the gory mess he leaves behind."

She gave Reno a quick glance. "How are you doing?"


Which meant that the Turk was struggling hard, but doing his best to hide it. She had no idea what he had endured while in Hojo's custody, but she was certain that the experience had been incredibly stressful, if not outright horrific.

But there wasn't much they could do for Reno at the moment. The cure spells they had could heal basic wounds, but they couldn't much for physical and mental exhaustion. More than any of them, the Turk desperately needed some downtime to heal and recover, but there was no chance of that until they escaped.

They all skidded to a halt when Sephiroth stopped his relentless advance and held up his hand in silent warning. Carefully moving forward to stand beside him, Tifa peered through the nearby viewing window and saw the problem. The next area was a giant multi-level storeroom filled with tall stacks of crates and barely lit catwalks running in all directions. In other words, it was the perfect location for an ambush. To no one's surprise, the entire place was crawling with monsters.

"Wonderful," Yuffie whispered. "Noww what? Go through or go around?"

"We can't go around unless you want to waste valuable time detouring around half the factory," Scarlet snapped even as she kept her own voice down. "And there's too many of us and too many of them to sneak through without detection. Even with Sephiroth here leading the way, we're just asking to be separated and picked off."

"Maybe, but we can't afford to stand around and waste time twiddling our toes, either." Yuffie said, looking annoyed. "So instead of talking about what won't work, how about suggesting something that will?"

Before Scarlet could reply, Sephiroth interrupted them with an abrupt, "Stand clear."

"What are you planning to do?" Tifa demanded.

Instead of answering her, he flung open the heavy double doors leading onto a walkway encircling the upper level of the warehouse area. Before the monsters could react, he vanished Masamune, and with both hands now free, he cast a spell.

Or to be more precise, he cast two spells in unison. The already potent ice and wind spells swirled and intertwined, growing almost instantly into a massive ice storm that was far more powerful than the mere sum of its individual spell parts. Within seconds, everything in the entire storeroom, including the monsters, was both frozen solid and encased with a thick layer of glistening ice.

The magical storm dissipated almost as quickly as it had appeared, leaving the cavernous warehouse still and mostly silent, except for the occasional soft pops and squeaks of settling ice.

A visibly startled Scarlet blinked, took a deep breath, then said, "Well, that solves one problem. Now, if we can just get across all this ice without someone breaking an ankle...."

Sephiroth's only response was to raise his right hand and make a flicking gesture. An eye-searingly bright fireball shot forth from his fingers toward the exit at the far side of the storeroom, neatly vaporizing the ice and incinerating every obstacle in its direct path while leaving the surrounding area unscorched and still frozen.

No one said anything for a moment, then Reno broke the quiet with a dry, "Impressive." He glanced at Sephiroth. "Especially without using any materia, as far as I can tell."

Sephiroth tipped his head slightly, as if to acknowledge Reno's remark, but said nothing as Tifa and the others continued to stare at him with a mixture of shock, respect, and even a little dread.


What the others didn't know was that Sephiroth himself was just as startled, even shocked, as the others were.

With hard work, an expert could learn how to cast very basic spells without materia. An expert, with enough practice and depending on the materia, could simultaneously cast mid-level spells. On various occasions, he had done one or the other.

But no one that he knew of -- not Genesis, not Zack, not himself -- could dual-cast high-level area-of-effect spells without the assistance of materia. And as for a single person combining those spells to form something even more powerful....

But that's exactly what he had just done.

And it had been both instinctive and effortless.

While Sephiroth and Angeal were less inclined to use spells in combat, Genesis had been the one to focus most heavily on magic. That was purely a matter of personal preference and fighting style, and not an issue of inferior magical ability on Sephiroth's part.

He had always been one of the best, if not the best, at using magic and had never encountered a materia he couldn't quickly master. But in the end, he had still required materia to cast effective spells just like any other person.

That was no longer true. The critical spell knowledge previously provided by materia had somehow become an intrinsic part of him.

The realization unsettled him, although he was careful not to show it. Something had changed within him. Whether it was some residue of that lost time after Nibelheim, or whether the Planet had done something to him while restoring his sanity, he didn't know.

In what other ways had he changed, or been changed?

But now was not the time to ponder that question. He turned his attention back to Tifa and the others.

They were intimidated by him, certainly. Afraid of him, probably. But unlike so many others, they didn't falter in the face of that intimidation or fear. If even half of what he had heard from Zack and Reno was true, these people had not only encountered him at his psychotic, genocidal worst, but had possessed the courage to confront him repeatedly.

It appeared that Zack's confidence in Tifa and her companions was well-placed. Good.

"Shall we go?" he asked them politely.


On the opposite side of the facility, Rude paused, then suddenly announced, "Hojo's on the move."

Both Cid and Vincent halted in mid-run and turned to stare at the Turk, who had been tracking Hojo's location via the data pad Scarlet had given them.

"So where the hell is he now?" Cid demanded.

"He's left the reactor level." Rude tapped and swiped at the pad, then added, "He's headed back up to the main control room."

"Fine," Cid said impatiently. "Now where do we go?"

"A left at the next intersection takes us to the closest stairway. No elevators, I assume," Rude replied.

"They're fucking deathtraps. Stairs it is."




[ Cosmo Canyon ]

The petite, auburn-haired young woman glanced at her watch, then rose from her chair in the library. As she gathered up her research papers, the female student sitting next to her whispered, "Leaving already, Cissy?"

"I've got a few shopping errands to run," she murmured in response, slinging her backpack over her shoulder.

Her female acquaintance probably would have continued chatting, but the grumpy scowls and annoyed glares from the other library patrons quickly silenced the other woman. Instead, she gave a quick farewell wave, then returned to her studies.

The young woman stepped out into the streets of Cosmo Canyon, stretched her arms, and took a deep breath of the warm dry air. The main Cosmo Canyon library had network access, but most of the records she needed were only available on paper. So although she enjoyed the intellectual challenge of her research, it required spending hours cooped up indoors with dusty old documents.

She was generally known as Cissnei -- although she answered to the far more casual 'Cissy' at the moment -- but that wasn't her real name. That real name she kept strictly for herself. Only once had she been tempted to share it, but the moment had slipped away, never to be regained.

After her 'separation' from the Shinra Corporation, she eventually ended up in Cosmo Canyon. It had been the ideal location -- quiet, isolated, and a place where people asked few personal questions. It was also relatively close to Gongaga, which was important to her for personal reasons.

Over the last two years, she had split her time between Cosmo Canyon and that small town in the jungle. But now there was no longer a reason for those frequent visits to see Zack's parents.

They had died within a few days of each other, both deaths being mercifully quick. The examining doctor had indicated natural causes, although she suspected that living for years amid the ruins of a Mako reactor had probably contributed to their premature deaths. At least they hadn't died slowly and painfully from Geostigma, so that was something to be thankful for.

She would miss the old couple very much. In many ways, just as Zack had teasingly warned her, she had become a daughter to them and they had become the parents she never had.

A few months after Meteorfall, she finally told them what happened to Zack. Or rather, she told them an extremely whitewashed version of what happened to him -- simply that Zack had died on a special mission for Shinra and the company had lied about it for all these years for security reasons. Which was perfectly true, as far as it went.

The burial of his parents marked the end of the chapter labelled 'Zack' in her life. The last of the loose ends were now conveniently tidied away by death.

She snorted softly, knowing that the last thought was her Turk training at work. She shoved the lingering sadness back into its little mental box and started for her favorite corner market. There was a nice red wine on sale and perhaps she would splurge on some hornbeast steak.

On the way, she noticed a young man in typical student garb stagger out of a bar. With a professional eye, she determined that he was no threat to her and continued on her way.


The drunken student called Gregory meandered his way into a nearby alleyway and nearly tripped over another person half-sitting, half-sprawled on the ground. This being Cosmo Canyon, the narrow alley was relatively clean and dry -- nothing like the damp, trash-filled alleyways in the Midgar slums -- but it wasn't the sort of place to take a nap.

He leaned down and gingerly shook the other man's shoulder, then blinked in surprise when he recognized the other person's pale, sweaty face.

"Hey, Dano? Where the hell have you been these last few days? Unless you have a really good excuse for missing your mid-term presentation, you're going to fail this semester SO bad...."

The man on the ground groaned and roused slightly.

Finally noticing Dano's heavily stained clothes and the dark patches on the visible portions of his skin, Gregory hastily backed away and frantically wiped his own hand against his shirt.

"Shit, don't tell me you've got Geostigma!"

Dano mumbled something incoherent.

Gregory, his drunken concern for his friend rapidly transforming into equally drunken panic for himself, edged away even further from the apparent plague victim.

"Uh... you stay right there. I'll go get some help and they'll fix you right up. Yeah, I've heard they've got a cure for Geostigma nowadays."

When Dano uttered a louder, obviously pained moan, then feebly groped in his direction, Gregory hesitated, then sighed heavily. "Okay, okay." He moved toward the sick man and stuck out his hand. "C'mon. Let me pull you up."

Dano grabbed the outstretched hand with surprising strength. But instead of struggling to his feet, he began to pull his fellow student down until Gregory's face was nearly level to his own....

"Hey, watch it!"

...then Dano bit off Gregory's right arm with a horribly distended, obscenely fang-lined mouth that stretched literally from ear to ear.


Cissnei had only gone a few steps when she heard the shrill scream from the alleyway. Even as her right hand reached instinctively under her jacket, she whirled just in time to see the drunken student she had just passed stagger out of the alleyway, blood spurting from his right shoulder where his arm used to be.

The young man managed only a few steps into the street before collapsing from shock and blood loss. Lying on the ground, the injured man stared into the alleyway with wide, terrified eyes as he continued to alternately wheeze and scream hysterically.

Someone or rather something stalked out of the alley onto the street. It had probably once been human, but that humanity was quickly disappearing as limbs stretched and twisted into viciously clawed appendages. Its head swelled like a balloon to accommodate the multitude of extra eyes and mouths that sprouted all over it. And from each mouth, a long tentacle-like tongue protruded and flailed at the air. The drops of spittle from those tongues immediately began to steam and eat away any surfaces they touched.

As bystanders panicked and ran away screaming, Cissnei found cover in a nearby doorway and coldly assessed her options.

With one hand, she tossed her backpack aside. With the other, she pulled out a metal bar-like shape. A practiced flick of her wrist and it unfurled into a comfortably familiar giant four-pointed shuriken.

The monster chose to ignore the petite woman emerging from the neighboring doorway, focusing instead on the wounded prey wallowing in blood and terror in the street.

That was its fatal mistake.




[ Weapon factory ]

In the main control room, Hojo watched the approach of the WEAPONs with interest, and perhaps even eagerness. Yes, things were working out perfectly.

He glanced at a nearby monitor, checking the progress of the neural data upload. A few more minutes. After that, the WEAPONs could wreak whatever destruction they chose. He would be far beyond their reach.

Sephiroth would also survive. Of that he had no doubt. As long as the phenomena called the Lifestream existed, so would Sephiroth.

As for Jenova-FLESH, it might survive its confrontation with the WEAPONs. But given the forces arrayed against it, probably not. Either way, the battle would produce useful data.

So while certain factors necessitated significant changes to his plans, they were hardly insurmountable obstacles.

As for the main issue that had been interfering with his research, that would be dealt with soon enough.

It was a mistake for a scientist to become too physically involved in his projects. A certain degree of objectivity was required to properly oversee one's experiments. However, with Jenova cells inside his own body, Hojo had discovered that achieving that necessary objectivity became impossible.

Injecting himself with that cocktail of Jenova cells on the Sister Ray had not been a mistake, but rather an unpleasant necessity. It had served its purpose by allowing him to survive the battle with Vincent and his companions. The resulting physical mutations -- the green scaly skin, the protruding bug-eyes, the sucker mouth, the long tentacles -- were, in his view, merely negligible side-effects.

However, it was the Jenova cells' mental effects, especially the relentless and insatiable urges, which proved to be an unbearable distraction from his true work.

That would end shortly. Once he was no longer confined to mere physical flesh, he would be free to conduct his research as he saw fit.

Just a few more minutes....

The rapidly approaching commotion -- loud gun blasts, the screams of dying creatures -- failed to spoil his good mood.

He had known Cloud's and Reno's associates would come looking for them, but he hadn't expected them to arrive quite so soon. That bitch Scarlet must have contacted them and arranged some sort of deal.

But he would make their premature arrival work in his favor. Let them rescue Cloud and the Turk. He had no desire to lose those two particular specimens to the WEAPONs' wanton destructiveness. He was certain they would prove very useful to him in the future.

As for himself, he didn't need to win this particular confrontation. In fact, it would be better if he lost. But not too easily -- that would make them suspicious -- and not immediately. He needed to buy a few precious minutes for the upload to finish and verify.

As the control room doors gave way with a thunderous crash, Hojo turned to receive his three uninvited 'guests' with a toothy smirk.

He would talk and they would listen. They always did.




Acutely aware that they couldn't waste any more time, Tifa's party headed for the path Sephiroth had seared clear for them in the massive storage room. Once out of the area, Cait Sith said, "How much further to the escape tunnel? The WEAPONs are moving in fast."

Scarlet briefly consulted her data pad, then said, "Not far, if we take a shortcut through the reactor level."

"Isn't that where Hojo is?" Yuffie said with a suspicious frown.

"He's not there now," Scarlet said impatiently. "Look, we all want to get out of here ASAP, and this is the quickest way. Unless you LIKE the idea of fighting our way through several more floors of monsters. Sure, you're letting Sephiroth do all the work, but it still takes time. And as the cat just pointed out, we don't have much time left."

"Fine, we'll do it your way." Tifa shifted Cloud's body to a slightly more comfortable position on her shoulder.

"If we follow this corridor, we'll end up in a maintenance area that leads straight down to the main Mako reservoir and containment area."

Straight down was perfectly accurate because the maintenance hatch in the floor opened to reveal a narrow metal ladder that extended a good five or six stories downward into a massive dimly lit chamber.

Looking down through the opening, Reno smirked and said, "Why am I not surprised? Gotta love those brilliant company engineers."

"What do you mean?" Nanaki said, with an inquiring flick of his flaming tail.

The Turk shrugged. "It never fails. Step into any mako-handling facility built by Shinra and you always find the same thing -- long exposed ladders, narrow catwalks with flimsy guardrails...."

"....all suspended over glowing green pits of death," Sephiroth finished drily. When the others stared at him, he said, "Zack complained about it, too. Frequently."

Yuffie snickered loudly.

"Unfortunately, this means we have a slight problem with Cloud." When Tifa frowned at Reno, he continued, "You're not going to be able to carry him down because you're going to want both hands for that particular ladder."

"Then how are we supposed to get him down there?" Yuffie demanded, glancing at Cloud who lay motionless and unconscious on the floor where Tifa had placed him.

"The solution is obvious," Sephiroth said, cutting short their discussion. "Either I carry him down, or I go first and you drop him down to me. Your choice."

Tifa bit her lip. Given Sephiroth's superior strength, he would have no trouble getting Cloud down the ladder one way or the other. But the thought of handing Cloud over to Sephiroth even for a few minutes made her stomach churn. True, the current sane Sephiroth hadn't done anything remotely suspicious, but she still hated the idea of entrusting him, of all people, with Cloud's safety, however briefly.

As she hesitated, torn between practicality and emotion, Sephiroth said quietly, "Tifa, despite what has happened before, I have no intention of letting Cloud OR Zack come to further harm."

She stared up at Sephiroth, impressed despite herself by the other's stoic acceptance of past acts that couldn't be changed and the grim determination not to allow such things to happen again. Tifa again remembered the intensity of Sephiroth's reaction when she'd called his past self a "sadistic madman".

Sephiroth hadn't been angry or insulted. In his tightly controlled way, he had been genuinely upset at the possibility that he had harmed Zack so cruelly. Which probably explained why Zack had been so reluctant to reveal the ugly details of what happened at Nibelheim and afterwards. Zack, nice guy that he was, wanted desperately to spare Sephiroth's feelings as much as he could. It still amazed her that Sephiroth apparently had normal emotions and feelings that needed to be worried about.

If Sephiroth cared about anyone, it was Zack. And now with Zack and Cloud being so mysteriously and confusingly entwined....

She uttered a heavy sigh. "Let's get this done and over with."


Sephiroth went down the ladder first. He could have made the direct drop easily enough, but it was more prudent to check the strength of the metal platform first. Despite Reno's snide comments about Shinra construction, the platform and the attached walkway turned out to be reassuringly sturdy and wide enough to easily accommodate five or more people walking abreast. It even had decent guardrails.

However, Sephiroth had been right about the 'glowing pits of death'. Similar to other Mako reactors of their experience, vast exposed pools of glowing Mako lurked below the vast network of intersecting walkways and girders.

The others followed Sephiroth down, until only Tifa and Yuffie were left at the top of the ladder. They took a long look at each other. Yuffie raised an inquiring eyebrow, silently asking Tifa if she was sure about this. Tifa made a resigned shrug in response. The two young women carefully lowered Cloud's limp body through the hatchway and on a count of three, they let go.

Without fanfare or dramatics, Sephiroth easily caught the falling Cloud in his arms, then held him as Tifa and Yuffie quickly made their way down the ladder to join them.

As Nanaki peered down at the Mako below them with a dubious expression, Yuffie asked, "Is Cloud okay?"

"SOLDIERs can handle falls like that with no problem," Reno said dismissively. "And Cloud here managed to fall off one of the Midgar plates into the slums and only ended up with a few bruises and scratches."

In the middle of passing Cloud back to Tifa, Sephiroth said, "Zack's the one who did that. That's how he first met...." He paused for a second, then continued slowly, "...Aerith."

"No, Cloud's the guy who crashed into that church where Aerith grew her flowers. I know because I had the fun of chasing the two of them all over that that damn building," Reno protested.

Yuffie had seen Tifa's expression shift from confused to deeply concerned during this discussion, but when she started to ask what was wrong, Tifa made a quick shushing gesture.

With the comatose Cloud back on her shoulder, Tifa said briskly, "That's not important right now. Let's just get moving again, okay?" With a sharp jerk of her head, she told Sephiroth to resume the point position.

Scarlet consulted her data pad again, then said, "Once we cross this Mako reservoir, we've only got a few more stairs and a short hallway before we reach an escape access. It's not the same one you guys used, but it will get us back to the main tunnel."

They had only taken a few steps when something rumbled far below them. They all scanned the area for new threats, but didn't stop. Instead, they increased their pace. The sooner they were off the dark, dangerously exposed walkway, the better.

A third of the way across, they felt a different but equally ominous rumble.

This time Sephiroth paused, cocked his head slightly, as if listening intently to some distant sound, then quickly glanced upward.

Before anyone could ask him what was wrong, the entire factory shook violently. As the walkway rippled wildly beneath her feet, Tifa staggered and flung out a hand to keep herself and Cloud from pitching over the guard rails, even as Yuffie hung onto her. Except for Sephiroth, who rode the twisting metal with the ease of a surfer riding a wave, everyone else was forced to grab for the nearest railing or support to prevent themselves from being tossed into the Mako far below.

A dark swirling green energy beam suddenly blasted down through the ceiling into the containment chamber, barely missing them, and sliced effortlessly through the heavy steel walkway. The walkway and everyone on it tumbled into the depths of the pit, even as tons of debris from the floors above cascaded down upon their heads.




From the upper level control area, Hojo ignored the shriek of alarms and the shaking of the building as he gazed down at the three men who had just stormed their way into the command center. Focused entirely on him, they ignored the numerous computer screens and the data that scrolled by at an eye-blurring rate.

The scientist greeted them almost jovially. "Ah, Vincent. Here to rescue your friend Cloud, no doubt. And this time with a Turk in tow. Let me guess. Looking for a certain redhead of our acquaintance?"

Vincent said coldly, "You no longer have any hostages to hold against us. That just leaves you to deal with."

Hojo laughed viciously. "You tried to kill me once in Nibelheim, once on the Sister Ray. You failed on both occasions. What makes you think this time will be any different?"

It was Cid's turn to smirk nastily. "Maybe because this time, you've got not just one, but several WEAPONs homing in on you and your pet Jenova thing. And man, they are seriously pissed. Or maybe you haven't noticed?"

"Of course I noticed," Hojo said with a dismissive wave of a tentacle. "And here I was so looking forward to indulging in a little research on Cloud and Reno. Especially Cloud. A pity that I couldn't obtain Rufus as well. He would have provided me with an useful baseline for comparison."

"Baseline?" Cid said suspiciously.

Hojo smiled, exposing his inhumanly sharp teeth. "For your friend Cloud, of course. I would have preferred an identical twin, but under the circumstances, Rufus would be a perfectly acceptable substitute."

"What does he have to do with your crazy plans for Cloud?" Rude demanded.


Just as Hojo expected, they took the bait. He flicked a discreet glance at the progress bar on the monitor as it steadily approached 100%.

All he had to do was keep the conversation going for a little while longer....


Hojo cackled with sadistic amusement. "You mean you haven't realized the connection between them? The answer's been sitting there under the Turks' noses all along," the scientist said smugly.

"With all the trouble he caused you, you mean the Turks never bothered to fully research Cloud's background or check out his Shinra personnel records? Tsk tsk, how shockingly negligent of Tseng."

"What the hell are you talking about, Hojo?" Cid said impatiently.

Leaning against the rail, the lab-coated scientist glared down at them and hissed two words.

"Lazard Deusericus."

"Say what?" Cid snapped.

But Rude recognized the name and inhaled sharply. Vincent and Cid turned to stare at the Turk as Rude said, "What are you trying to imply?"

"Imply? Isn't it obvious? But if it will make it easier for your puny brains to understand, I'll spell it out for you. Your friend Cloud Strife is the late President Shinra's illegitimate child and Rufus Shinra's half-brother."

Cid's jaw dropped. Even Vincent looked visibly startled before he said bluntly, "You forget to whom you're talking to, Hojo. We know you. If you're not spewing outright lies, you're distorting the truth to further your own twisted schemes."

The scientist pressed a tentacle to his chest as if wounded. "Would I lie about such an easily verifiable fact? Making allowances for Cloud's modified physique, the most rudimentary DNA test would confirm his paternity and relationship with Rufus." Hojo seemed to be taking an almost unholy glee in rubbing the revelation in their faces.

Rude shook off his surprise. "So what if Cloud's was President Shinra's illegitimate child? That hardly makes him unique. Given the President's libido, there are undoubtedly more of President Shinra's bastards scattered around the Planet."

"But Cloud Strife IS unique, in that he's not merely Rufus's half-brother, but his cousin on his maternal side as well."

As they continued to stare at him, Hojo added, "You've never seen a picture of Cloud's mother, have you? Her physical resemblance to the late President's wife is extraordinary, I must say. One might easily mistake the two women for identical twins instead of mere sisters."

"And you claim that all this was in Cloud's personnel file?" Rude demanded.

"Indeed it is. If you know where to look, of course. The President personally sealed the most critical data, but I'm sure you Turks have ways of circumventing that."

"You mean that the old man knew about Cloud?" Cid said angrily.

"Who do you think sent Cloud's mother to Nibelheim and personally authorized her rather generous stipend for seventeen years?" Hojo said with a sneer. "Of course he knew. Just as he knew all about the secret experiments at the Shinra Mansion." Hojo's mood shifted abruptly from smug to seriously annoyed.

"Secret experiments? Oh, you mean the experiments that were apparently going on in Nibelheim behind your back. Yeah, Reno mentioned you were fucking pissed about that. Not used to being screwed over, are you Hojo?" Cid couldn't fight the urge to do a little gloating of his own.

"How dare they! No wonder the Sephiroth Clone project had so many problems! Those traitors were tampering with my research! Falsifying data! Sabotaging my work!" Hojo hammered a fisted tentacle down on the steel railing, severely denting it.

Hojo's voice trailed off into angry mutters. "....yes, the President knew all about their damn research... knew that they were using his own bastard for their experiments... gave them his full approval and funding. It was all part of his scheme to replace Sephiroth. Cloud was to be the prototype, a testbed for Rufus."

Seeing the way Rude stiffened, Hojo hissed softly. "Indeed, Rufus should be grateful that Sephiroth killed off the President when he did. Oh, President Shinra had great plans for his troublesome, but precious heir...."

It was Vincent who refused to be sidetracked any longer. He interrupted Hojo's rambling with a sharp, "All that is irrelevant. What matters now is your plan to resurrect a mad Sephiroth has failed. He's no longer under Jenova's control."

Hojo froze, then smiled slowly, terribly. "As long as an entity carries Jenova's cells, they are subject to its influence. That applies to Sephiroth and it applies to your friend Cloud. How that influence manifests will vary -- one becomes a master and the other becomes a mere puppet -- but manifest it will. This is the reality of Jenova's true power."

The scientist began to rock back and forth, his tentacled arms twitching madly. "What you call 'sanity' is nothing but a state of dormancy, a humble larval stage that precedes the full glory of godhood. All that's needed the proper trigger, and then it's only a matter of time before Sephiroth's true nature reasserts itself.

"Once touched by Jenova's cells, there is no way to escape. None."


That was a lie.

There WAS one way to truly escape Jenova's influence, an admittedly drastic and risky one. But take that escape he would, with the unwitting aid of the ever-vengeful Vincent or the Planet's WEAPONs.

The newly re-established Worldwide Network was the key. That, and Deepground.

For Hojo, death -- physical death -- would only be the beginning.




Still holding on protectively to Cloud, Tifa braced for impact and frantically hoped that they landed on one of the lower walkways instead of falling into the vast pool of Mako. She had endured that experience once before and survived it with her sanity intact. She didn't want to press her luck by trying it again. Of course worrying about Mako exposure was probably pointless given the high probability of being crushed by several floors worth of concrete and steel.

Then she felt her wildly tumbling fall slow and steady, as if someone had cast some sort of feather falling spell. She and Cloud landed on one of the lowest walkways, with Yuffie, Cait Sith, Nanaki, Reno, and Scarlet thumping down near her. Even as she sought cover from the incoming rain of debris, a pale shimmering barrier materialized, neatly deflecting the large chunks of rubble away from the walkway.

As the fall of debris gradually subsided, she peered upward and saw Sephiroth dropping down toward them, sword in hand. As the onrushing air swept his silvery hair back and fluttered the tails of his long black coat, Tifa had a nightmarish flashback to another sword-wielding descent by Sephiroth....

Except this time, instead of the sickening sound of steel piercing through flesh and bone, Sephiroth landed harmlessly in front of them. And instead of that cold, mad smirk that haunted her nightmares, his expression only held a cool curiosity as he took in Yuffie's drawn weapon and Nanaki's fighting crouch.

Apparently she hadn't been the only one to remember that horrible moment in the Forbidden City, only then realizing that she had been clenching her free hand into a tight, battle-ready fist.

There was a long frozen moment as Tifa, Yuffie, and Nanaki stared at Sephiroth, who gazed steadily back at them. But the standoff was broken when Reno swore loudly.

"Bloody hell!"

Yuffie blinked and uttered a startled, "What?"

Reno pointed upward. The mysterious energy beam had torn open the entire ceiling of the Mako reservoir, leaving the containment chamber open to the sky above.

"It's Jade!" the Turk snapped.

"Jade? What she doing up there? Isn't she's supposed to stay on the Shera!" Yuffie asked, looking confused.

"Not Jade the Turk. I'm talking about Jade, as in the fucking Jade WEAPON!"

Except for Sephiroth, who followed at his usual measured pace, they all scrambled over to stand beside Reno to get a better view. There was no missing the huge green insect-like monster that now hovered in the sky above the factory.

"Are you sure? We've never encountered a Jade WEAPON before," Tifa said.

"Maybe you guys haven't, but the Turks certainly have. Count yourselves lucky."

"I thought the WEAPONs weren't due to arrive for at least another twenty minutes or so!" Scarlet said, giving Cait Sith a nasty look.

"That was just a rough estimate!" the cat retorted. "And we didn't have any information about this Jade WEAPON in our database."

"It's one fast and elusive bastard. I'm not surprised that your people failed to detect it," Reno said with a shrug.

"Now what?" Scarlet demanded furiously as the Jade WEAPON soared out of view. But the repeated high-pitched screech of its particular energy weapon, followed by loud explosions, left no doubt as to the WEAPON's intentions.

"It's softening up this place for the other WEAPONs," Cait Sith said grimly.

As they listened to the relentless barrage outside, the Turk said, "Yeah. It obviously has no intention of waiting until its buddies show up."

"So why don't we consider it extra incentive to haul ass out of here before we end up being vaporized or taking a nice long soak in some raw Mako." Scarlet glanced pointedly at the surface of the Mako pool, which was now uncomfortably close to their feet.




[ Montessi's lab ]

Rufus Shinra was drowning in a sea of alien memories.

They were the spirits of the dead, absorbed into and preserved within the great Lifestream of the Planet. Most were mere fragments, vague wisps of emotion devoid of personal identity or awareness.

But among those spirits, some managed to retain a distinct individuality. And of these special spirits, many of them were ancient, members of a culture that no longer existed.

Isolated for so long within the Lifestream, those long dead Cetra now found a conduit -- however unwilling -- to the world of the living.

And thanks to the Planet's tampering, Rufus could do nothing as the memories of places long vanished and of times long past forced their way into his vulnerable mind.


"There MUST be another way!" he protested, struggling to retain his composure.

"We are out of time and out of options. You know that." The response was firm and unwavering.

He whirled away, desperately wracking his mind for any words, any arguments that might shift the other's resolve.

A hand touched his shoulder.

"Look at me."

It was not a command, but a request. Reluctantly, he turned around to face his ruler.

Dressed in her favored black, she bore the long silvery hair, the pale skin, and striking elegant features that were the hallmarks of her caste.

She had been bred to command and it showed in every inch of her. Her mere presence made him want to fall to his knees, but he fought his natural instinct to submit to her will.

"The situation is critical. We must seal the Calamity now, while we still have the strength and resources to do so. And to lure the Calamity out of hiding and into our trap, we must offer the monster irresistible bait."

"But to sacrifice...!"

"Sacrifices are sometimes necessary."

"But we cannot afford to lose you!"

She smiled faintly. "At this point, no one is irreplaceable. My successor is young, but he has potential and is well trained."

"That is not the point!"

"That is exactly the point. I am prepared to pay whatever price it takes in order to defeat the Calamity and save what remains of our people. I am asking so many to risk not just their lives, but their sanity. How can I do any less?"

"A risk of death or even madness is one thing. What you face if we succeed is far worse!"

"The Calamity will not expose itself except for the greatest of prizes. As the leader of the Cetra, I am that prize." It was not pride or arrogance speaking. She was merely stating a fact.

Unable to face her steady gaze, he glanced restlessly around the chamber, not really taking in its familiar contents -- the elaborately carved furniture, the exquisite stonework, the many shelves filled with books, or the weapon stand supporting the long slender sword that stood taller than its mistress.

Finally, she sighed and moved to look out the window. Absently, she placed her hand on the sword as if stroking the head of a favored pet.

"I am... aware... of your personal feelings for me," she said quietly.

Personal feelings they both knew could never be fully acted upon. After all, she was of the ruling caste, while he, as the Council of Healers so pompously complained, was a mere warrior who should know his proper place.

"But I must ask you to put those feelings aside for the good of all."

She asked, when she could have simply commanded his obedience.

And because she asked, he could not refuse her. He took a deep, shuddering breath to steady himself, then bowed deeply.

"As you desire, so it shall be done, Lady Binah."


Dr. Hutton gazed briefly at the test chamber imprisoning Rufus and self-righteously hoped that the young Shinra president was suffering the torments of the damned before returning his attention to the monitors.

The doctor was unaware that inside that test chamber, cocooned and ensnared in the Lifestream's tendrils, Rufus Shinra wept for a long dead Cetra woman and her terrible fate.




[ Weapon factory ]

The surface of the Mako in the bottom of the containment chamber suddenly roiled and seethed. A rancid stench filled the air as large globules of some reddish-purple substance began to bubble to the surface.

"Oh no," Scarlet muttered, going pale as something churned in the depths of the Mako.

"What the hell do you mean 'oh no'? Scarlet, I swear if you're holding out on us...," Tifa said dangerously.

"Remember what I said about Hojo carting all those dead bodies down to the reactor level for some mysterious project?"

"Don't tell me...," Tifa said, staring out as the entire surface of the Mako seem to swell and bulge upward.

"I think we're about to find what Hojo's been doing with all those corpses." For the first time, Scarlet looked truly unnerved and disturbed.

Nanaki's ears went flat and his neck ruff bristled. "Those dark chunks of matter. I've seen and smelled something similar before, in the place where Vincent thinks Kadaj and his companions were spawned."

"I think you're right. They look like chunks of raw Jenova tissue," Reno said grimly.

The surface of the vast Mako pool began to slosh wildly as the level of the Mako began rising upward.

Without a word, Sephiroth grabbed Cloud from Tifa, pointed to the nearest ladder, then leapt upwards. Tifa didn't waste her breath complaining, but raced for the ladder, and the dubious safety of a higher walkway or support.

She didn't bother climbing the ladder in the usual way. Instead, Tifa jumped upward as far as she could go, grabbed a rung, then kicked off for another jump. A quick glance behind her showed her that Yuffie and Nanaki were following her example while Reno and Scarlet were close behind, scrambling upward as fast as they could.

But soon enough, they ran out of places to go. The earlier energy blast and resulting structural collapse had torn away most of the upper level walkways, leaving them trapped deep inside the containment chamber. Sephiroth joined them, still carrying Cloud over his right shoulder.

"I can get him out of here, but what about you?"

"Do you happen to know a nifty flight spell?" Yuffie muttered as she nervously eyed the steadily rising Mako.

But her question was never answered as Scarlet, who had been frantically scanning the factory blueprints, spoke over her.

"I've found a way out. The containment walls on this level are less than a meter of steel alloy, backed by another meter or so of reinforced concrete. On the other side of that wall is an access corridor that leads almost directly to the factory roof and the helipad."

"Didn't you say that the roof was too exposed!" Yuffie protested.

"Well, it is, but you feel that constant rumbling? That's the sound of catastrophic structural failure, thanks to that stupid trigger-happy Jade WEAPON and its fucking energy beams," Scarlet said angrily. "This factory simply isn't made to stand up to that sort of bombardment. The lower levels are probably just a solid mass of rubble by now, and what's left will soon be."

As over-stressed supports groaned and creaked overhead, Nanaki said, "And let me guess, trying to blast our way through that containment wall would not be a good idea."

"Blast, no. But cutting our way through is another matter." Scarlet glanced at Sephiroth. "Can you handle it?"

"Of course," was his confident reply.

She turned back to the others. "Look, I know it's dangerous, but at this point, heading topside is probably our only real option. Unless you prefer being buried alive."

"No thanks. Let's get out of this deathtrap before the other WEAPONs show up and completely flatten this place," Tifa said firmly.

Sephiroth passed the unconscious Cloud back to Tifa, approached the chamber wall, then glanced at Scarlet.


Scarlet reached into a pouch on her tactical vest and pulled out a lipstick, but no one was inclined to make any snide remarks about it. Consulting the blueprints one more time, she hastily marked out a largish hole, then stepped back. "There's a primary support beam on both the right and left side, so try to avoid them. But you've got a decent amount of vertical clearance to work with."

Cait Sith, who had been keeping an anxious eye on the steady rising Mako level, said, "If we're going to do anything, we better do it now."

The rest of them stepped back to give Sephiroth room to work.

Several precise slashes of Masamune was all it took to dice both the metal and concrete of the containment wall into easily handled pieces. Chucking the last few chunks over the side of the platform, Yuffie dusted her hands, and peered through the narrow door-sized opening into the small access corridor. "Dusty, but deserted. I think we're good to go."

Scarlet scrambled through first, followed by Cait Sith with Nanaki, then Reno and Yuffie. Just as it was Tifa's turn to enter the hole with Cloud, the violently roiling surface of the Mako below them finally erupted.

Fountains of contaminated Mako spewed upward, splattering the platform where Tifa and Sephiroth were standing with globs of glowing liquid, as purplish blue tendrils shot up from the fouled Mako pool.

More and more tendrils appeared, until the containment chamber looked like a forest of alien trees. The tips of the tendrils split and split again, then swelled into globes, giving the appearance of clusters of obscene black fruit.

....then a towering form slowly rose into view.

The creature kept rising as the contaminated Mako streamed off its dark flesh, leaving it covered with an glistening greenish sheen.

A pale, vaguely female torso, both headless and armless, made up the upper portion of the creature. Instead of arms, the creature had masses of blackish purple tentacles which sprang from its shoulders and fanned out behind its torso almost like a great pair of wings. The legs -- if it had any -- were lost amid the frilly mass of dark fleshy tissue that surrounded the lower body. And amid those meaty frills, innumerable ovoid masses pulsed and throbbed.

Tifa and her friends had confronted other fragments of JENOVA before, but the one emerging from the depths of the reactor was much, much larger, rivaling the Planet's WEAPONs in height, if not in sheer mass.

"Hojo must've used all those dead bodies he collected and used them to feed this thing," Tifa muttered, desperately trying to suppress the urge to vomit.

For a long moment, the alien monstrosity stood still, its long tendrils rippling in an almost hypnotic pattern. Then it slowly shifted, turning that vaguely female torso in their direction. The creature had no discernible eyes or ears, but the purposeful manner of its movement told Tifa that it was very much aware of their presence.

She heard Nanaki growling ferociously behind her in response to the utter repulsiveness of the alien creature's psychic and physical stench. In the sky above them, Jade WEAPON shrieked in fury as it sensed the presence of the Planet's enemy.

Blade at the ready, Sephiroth took two quick steps to stand between the Jenova fragment and Tifa. Staring at his back as he stood, so clearly shielding her and Cloud, she said, very softly, "Sephiroth...."

Never taking his eyes off the monster, Sephiroth turned his head slightly and said tersely, "Go," then emphasized the command with a sharp, imperious jerk of his head.


In retrospect, Tifa was never certain whether it was pure luck or something else that prompted her to glance back at Sephiroth before stepping through the roughly hewed hole in the wall. But look back she did, just in time to see Sephiroth wince, stagger slightly, then put his right hand to his head.

She knew that gesture, had seen Cloud do the same thing on multiple occasions. More importantly, she knew what that gesture usually meant.

Acting on pure instinct, she released her grip on Cloud and heaved his unconscious body through the hole at Reno. Ignoring the Turk's startled protest, she whirled and rushed back to Sephiroth, who was now staring blankly in the Jenova fragment's direction.

The only clear thought in her head was,"No, not now! Not again!"

She grabbed his shoulder and shook hard, but got no response. Tried dragging him off the platform, but couldn't get him to budge. His glowing green eyes were not blank, but distant and cold... and growing ever more so by the second.

"Sephiroth! Snap out of it! Don't listen to it!"

She didn't know how she knew -- perhaps it was a subtle shift in his expression or something else -- but she could feel Sephiroth slipping away from her, from them. As she shouted futilely at him, Tifa was distantly aware of Jade WEAPON above her screaming in rage, as if it too could sense Sephiroth succumbing to Jenova's insidious influence.

She had to do something -- anything -- to shake Sephiroth out of his apparent trance. But what could she possibly say or do to bring him back, to make him break free of whatever that Jenova fragment was doing to his mind?

There was only one thing she could think of, and her rising panic make her utterly ruthless.

Tifa grabbed a fistful of Sephiroth's leather coat in each hand and gave him a vicious shake. But this time, she didn't shout at him. Instead, her voice was low and harsh, cutting with uncanny ease through the cacophony around them.

"You bastard, how DARE you do this again? Are you going to let Jenova twist you into its tool without a fight? Are you going to give in to that THING even after everything Zack told you? Are you really that weak?

"Even if you don't give a DAMN about anyone else on this Planet, at least think about HIM. Do you have ANY idea how much suffering he's been through, Sephiroth?


"YOU were the one who betrayed his trust.

"YOU were the one who became a crazed monster who had to be stopped.

"YOU were the reason he spent four horrific years as Hojo's prisoner.

"Because of YOU, he was hunted down like an animal and murdered.

"Do you have any idea how much it must've hurt him to watch you murder Aerith, the woman he loved? To see you torment his friend Cloud for YEARS without being able to do anything to stop you?

"And all because YOU decided to listen to Jenova and buy into its damn lies.

Tifa knew she was being vicious and brutally unfair, but it was the only emotional leverage she had. So she used it for all it was worth, hammering relentlessly at Sephiroth in the desperate hope that something she said would get through.

"And you know what? Despite everything you've done to him, he STILL cares enough to worry about you. To believe in you. To forgive you. To trust that if given the opportunity, you would do the right thing.

"What more do you want from him? How much more do you expect him to endure?

"For everything you've done to him, all the pain, misery, and grief you've put him through, you OWE him.

"So what are you going to do this time, Sephiroth?

"Are you going to make the most of this second chance that HE gave you?

"Or are you going to throw away Zack's feelings and break his heart AGAIN??




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.






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