FFVII - Conflicts of Interest (Part 1)

Last major revision: 10/09/98
Last modified: 02/10/99

Comments & Criticism welcomed and appreciated.

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CONFLICTS OF INTEREST:

A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra
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PART 1: DREAD HARBINGERS
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Disclaimer:

All rights and privileges to Final Fantasy VII and its characters belong to Square Co., Ltd. The characters of this series are used without permission for the purpose of entertainment only. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original characters are the creation of the author. All copyright privileges to these characters are reserved for the author.

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Author's notes:

WARNING: Violence, Adult language and subject matter.

This is a CONTINUATION - ALTERNATE REALITY Final Fantasy VII fanfic. It contains major SPOILERS for the game.

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Text Conventions

( ) are character thoughts

/ / and // // are mental dialogue

[ ] are miscellaneous effects

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Cid found Yuffie huddled in the shelter of the Highwind II's deckhouse, where she sat looking slightly green-faced as usual. Cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, he walked up behind her and said cheerfully, "I thought you'd be over all this stupid motion sickness stuff by now. Don't you know that it's all in your mind?" Cid spoke with the blithe confidence of a man who had never experienced any sort of motion sickness in his life.

She glared at him. "Damn you, old man! I'm NOT imagining all this! What do you think I am, some kind of masochist!? Don't you think that if I could just think it all away, I would?" She closed her eyes and took a few deep gulps of air.

"Hell, you look like a beached fish."

"Screw you, Cid. You should thank Red that I'm not spewing all over your favorite boots. That herbal concoction he gave me actually works... sort of."

"Hmph. Did you help yourself to some of his materia while you were visiting?"

"I don't ALWAYS steal from you guys!" Yuffie was the very picture of offended dignity.

"No, but you certainly try. Well, I'm keeping a close eye on my stuff so don't even think...." Cid froze, then lunged for the railing so suddenly that Yuffie thought that he was actually trying to jump overboard.

"Hey!"

The cigarette butt fell from Cid's gaping mouth as he stared directly below the Highwind.

Yuffie started to look uneasy. "Yo, Cid!"

He didn't respond.

"What's goin' on!?" Yuffie was hopping up and down with impatience. Cid mutely pointed down. The young ninja sternly told her stomach to behave and peer cautiously over the railing. A look of stunned disbelief appeared on her face just before she hastily backed away from the rail.

"That...that CAN'T be a... a WEAPON!?"

Cid stared at the immense, dark shape swimming along the surface of the water. He muttered, "What the hell do you think it is, then? A bloody whale?"

---------------------------

Somewhere between the Eastern and Western Continents, a Shinra submarine filled with terrified crewmen hastily scooted out of the path of the enormous green shape that slowly cruised just above the sea floor.

---------------------------

The Shinra Building used to be over seventy stories, towering over everything in sight and dominating Midgar just as the Shinra Corporation dominated the world. But after Meteor demolished the upper twenty floors or so, the building now had a much humbler appearance, much like the corporation itself did.

In the new President's office on the 42th floor, now the top floor of the Shinra building, Reeve struggled to ignore a pounding headache as he tried to work up a feasible energy budget for the city. It was a thankless task. All the Mako generators in the city were non-operational and the old sources of power were nowhere as efficient. Just as he had figured out a complicated three-way shuffle to satisfy the energy needs of four different sectors, his intercom buzzed. He abruptly lost his train of thought.

"What is it now? I told you I didn't want to be disturbed!"

His assistant said, "Sir, there's an important message from Junon."

"Junon? All right, all right!"

Both the annoyance and the color slowly drained out of Reeve's face as he listened to the report from the Junon Commander.

"Please tell you you're joking."

"Sir, I do not joke," the Commander replied primly.

Reeve had been pleasantly surprised and immensely relieved when Heidegger's subordinates, who controlled most of the military resources of Shinra, had chosen to support him instead of Scarlet. While she had managed to stay on good terms with Heidegger himself, it seemed that Scarlet hadn't been nearly as careful with his subordinates. She had apparently stepped on a few too many toes. Her blatant ambition had not played well, either, especially with the rumors flying around about her possible involvement in Heidigger's sudden disappearance.

Reeve said, "Are you POSITIVE?"

"Yes, sir. Transmitting the videotape."

Reeve shivered as an all too familiar green form slowly drifted into view, then the picture skewed wildly as the submarine scrambled out of the monster's way.

"All right, try to keep an eye on it but for god's sake, don't do anything to provoke it!"

The Commander visibly suppressed an urge to make an impertinent remark -- something on the lines of 'Do you think I'm stupid?' -- but military discipline prevailed. He merely saluted and signed off.

Reeve closed his eyes. Ten months. Ten measly months of peace and quiet after the Planet had nearly been obliterated by Meteor. Surely humanity deserve a break from the threat of catastrophe and utter destruction? A chance to regroup and rebuild?

Apparently not....

He slouched down in his posh chair. Why had the Emerald WEAPON reappeared? After all, the WEAPONs' sole purpose was to eliminate threats to the Planet's well-being -- critical threats like Jenova. But all four WEAPONs had been destroyed. And with Jenova itself gone, why would the Planet bother resurrecting the WEAPONs?

Reeve suddenly grimaced. Of course there could be some deadly planetary threat that he simply didn't know about. They had all assumed that Jenova was gone, but there was no real proof. And who really knew what Jenova was capable of? The blasted thing was a space alien, after all. It was just possible that Jenova could still exist -- and still pose a threat deadly enough to warrant the rebuilding of the WEAPONs.

There was no real way to know for certain. Reeve knew of only one person who might have known what the Planet 'thought'....

And Aeris was dead.

He uttered a wistful sigh as his fingers danced across his keyboard. "Let's see what we got. I know we have some data on the WEAPONs. Scarlet must have used it in developing the Sister Ray. And I can't forget those videos we found up in Ifalna's house at Icicle Inn." He made a mental note to have someone retrieve them.

His search kicked up a few files. Worse than he had hoped but better than he expected. Fortunately, most of the Shinra database had survived Meteor and the demolition of the Shinra Building intact.

(Thank goodness for all those tedious backup procedures.)

Unfortunately, Reeve suspected that much of the real data on the WEAPONs never made it into the official Shinra network in the first place. Knowing Scarlet, she probably kept the most important information for herself. Now that she was in hiding, there were virtually no chance of getting a hold of that data -- for free.

He had no desire to make any deals with Scarlet. But depending on how the WEAPON situation developed, he might have no choice.

---------------------------

    He stood at the bottom of the Northern Crater. Sephiroth had finally been defeated. Not just once, but twice. Now all they could do was wait and hope that Holy could save the Planet from Meteor. His friends headed for the surface and he turned to follow them.

    Then he felt the mocking laughter in his head.

    Sephiroth was still alive, somewhere in that pit.

    He suddenly felt himself being torn away and pulled downward as Tifa's cries faded far behind. At the end of his strange, twisting journey, he looked down to see Sephiroth in his human form, blade in hand... waiting for him.

    Cloud narrowed his eyes. In his mind, there was no hatred or fear -- only steely determination and purpose. He had to finish it, no matter what the cost. That was all.

    They stared at each other across their swords, then he could concentrate on nothing else except launching the most lethal and relentless series of blows he was capable of. He couldn't afford to hold anything back -- not with an opponent of Sephiroth's skill.

    He refused to even think about how or why he might have the slightest impulse to hold back at all.

    As he leapt into the air for the final, deadly slash, Sephiroth looked up at him. Green Mako eyes locked gazes with blue Mako eyes for a single endless moment.

    Something stirred in the back of Cloud's mind -- a sense of impending victory... but a victory that would come at a heavy price.

    // Do it. //

    Cloud slammed the blow home, then leapt back. He watched Sephiroth stagger... watched him struggle to lift the Masamune... and watched as Sephiroth's body failed him.

    As brillant red blood trickled down Sephiroth's pale face, Cloud's nemesis slowly lifted his head. Ice green eyes widened in stunned disbelief as he stared at Cloud. Suddenly, Sephiroth smiled ever so slightly and whispered a single, inaudible word... just before his broken body exploded in a flare of light.

    // Seph.... //

---------------------------

A badly disoriented Cloud awoke with a start. It took him a minute or so to remember where he was and to track down the persistent buzz. He finally located his phone and mumbled, "Cloud here."

"Finally! Where the hell have you been?"

"I was...sleeping. What's wrong?"

Reeve said, "Bad news. The Emerald WEAPON is back."

"What!? Are you sure?"

"I just got a message from Junon Sub base. The green monster was seen happily puttering around the bottom of the ocean. And don't remind me that we destroyed it. I know that. I was there, remember?"

"Damn it," Cloud muttered.

At that moment, Cloud's phone buzzed again. Frowning slightly, he answered, connecting the caller to Reeve at the same time.

They both heard Cid growl, "Guess what Yuffie and I just saw, guys." He didn't bother waiting for their answer. "A goddamn WEAPON!"

Yuffie loudly yelled in the background, "And it's no mistake! We got pictures!"

Cid yelled back at Yuffie, "Keep it down, girl!" before returning to his conversation with Cloud and Reeve. "We were cruising in the Highwind II near Wutai when we saw a huge, dark blue shape moving along the surface of the water."

"Great. Just great." Reeve's headache started pounded even fiercely.

The pilot said suspiciously, "You don't seem that surprised. What gives?"

"I just got a message and some video footage from Junon Sub base. Now it's your turn. Guess what's swimming around at the bottom of the ocean. One hint. It's green." Clutching the phone in one hand, Reeve began to rummage through his desk for that elusive bottle of pain-killers.

"Aw, man. Don't tell me...."

"That's right."

There was a thunking noise from Cid's end.

"What's that, Cid?" Cloud asked.

"Oh, that just Yuffie passing out. You guys call the others?"

"I haven't had the chance." Reeve finally located the bottle, dumped out a tablet, then decided to double the dose.

Cloud said, "All right. Reeve, could you contact the others?" He paused thoughtfully. "Even if the WEAPONs aren't actually attacking, they're moving around. That doesn't sound good."

Between pills, Reeve muttered, "I find the mere fact that they've been reconstructed plenty disturbing. And to think that they might be hunting for something...."

Cid quietly said, "You guys think this has something to do with Jenova."

Cloud began to pace in his bedroom. "Well, it's an obvious sort of conclusion. Besides, if it isn't Jenova, that means there's a major threat to this Planet that we know nothing about. Personally, I don't know which option is more frightening."

"Gotcha." Cid was silent for a moment, then said, "If the green one's Emerald, I guess the blue one is...."

"Probably Sapphire."

"That leaves Ruby and Diamond unaccounted for...."

Reeve said, "....so far. I'm ordering a chopper to take a look around the Gold Saucer area to see if the Ruby WEAPON's shown up in its old haunts. But even if the desert's clean, Ruby could still be lurking somewhere else. And I don't have a way to see if Diamond's back. The Shinra subs can't get past the shallows up north."

"We'll worry about that later."

Cid said, "Cloud, you're at Fort Condor, right?"

"Yeah."

"You want me to pick you up?"

"I don't think you need to do that. It'll only take me a couple of hours to get to Midgar by chocobo. It's probably better if you picked up Tifa and Red at Kalm. Tifa's got her chocobo but you know how Red feels about riding."

They all chuckled. On more than one occasion, they had been forced to travel by chocobo to otherwise inaccessible locations. The sight of Red awkwardly perched bird-back had been absolutely hilarious and a sight to remember. For his part, Red utterly failed to see the humor of it.

"And if Vincent's interested, you'll probably need to give him a ride, too."

Cid said, "Right. Later, guys," and hung up.

Before Reeve could do the same, Cloud said, "I just remembered. Remember those videotapes at Icicle Inn? The ones with Dr. Gast and Aeris' mother? She said something about the WEAPONs. What ever happened to those tapes?"

Reeve said, "Got you covered. I've already sent some guys up north to fetch them and any papers that might still be lying around. Hojo's men were pretty sloppy when they cleaned out the place the first time around."

"In that case, I'll be at Midgar as soon as I can."

"All right, then. I'll keep hunting for information on this end."

Cloud disconnected and stared blankly at the phone as his thoughts returned to his dream. It lingered, like a strange aftertaste in the mouth.

Why dream about Sephiroth now?

------------------------------------

Yuffie muttered, "Fort Condor? How come he isn't hanging out with Tifa at Kalm?"

"That's none of your business, Yuffie. Give the guy some time." Cid growled.

"Time! Time! That's right, you guys always stick together and protect each other's butts while us girls are left hanging in the wind. How about some commitment here?"

"You're a fine one to talk, you pip-squeak. What the hell do you know about relationships anyway, kiddo?"

"Enough to know that you and Shera...."

"You leave Shera outta this, you...." Cid lunged for the ninja girl. Yuffie gave him an impudent grin as she jumped down the stairs and disappeared into the depths of the Highwind.

Cid stomped around in frustration for a moment, then grinned evilly. He marched to the bridge and hit the ship-wide intercom.

"Yuffie, better hang on to your stomach. We've got places to go, things to do! The ride's liable to get a bit... rough."

An unmistakable moan drifted back through the intercom.

"And if you mess up my ship, you're cleaning it up!"

"Urkkk...."

------------------------------------

In North Corel, Marlene had just left the house to play when Barret's phone buzzed. He fumbled for the PHS and muttered, "Yeah?"

"Barret, I've got some bad news."

"Reeve, I've been on my feet for the last 30 hours and you're ruining my nap. So spit it out."

There was a slight pause before Reeve said, "The WEAPONs are back."

"What the hell!?" Barret rolled over and flopped back down on his bed.

"To be precise, Cid spotted what looks to be the Sapphire WEAPON near Wutai. A Shinra sub nearly ran into the Emerald WEAPON near that weird undersea crater."

"That can't be! They were all blown to hell and gone!"

"I know, but they're back AGAIN."

"Shit! All right, then. Do you guys need me right now? I'm supposed
to reopen one of the old coal mines around Corel tomorrow. But...," Barret said.

"No, not if you're busy. With all the Mako reactors shut down, everyone's in a real crunch energy-wise. Getting those mines working again is a top priority. Besides, there's nothing you can really do here in Midgar at the moment. The WEAPONs are moving around but haven't really done anything to panic about...yet. We'll keep you updated. On your feet for thirty hours? Get some rest!"

Barret disconnected and gave the phone a morose stare. Something told him that Reeve would be calling back soon.

It probably won't be good news.

------------------------------------

As he waited for his friends to arrive, Reeve made one last phone call.

A lazy voice drawled, "Yo."

"Reno, do you remember that conversation we had a while back?"

"Yeah, about eventually having some work for us."

"Well, are you interested?"

Reno chuckled, "Sure, why not? Luckily for you, we happen to be free at the moment. So what sort of dirty work you want done?"

Reeve snorted. "Please! It's not that sort of job!"

"Okay, okay! No need to go spastic. So, what do you want us to do?"

"I want you to escort a group of scientists and techs out to Shinra Mansion at Nibelheim. And I want you to keep an eye on them while they strip every book, every record, and every piece of Hojo's equipment out of that place."

Elena looked up in surprise at the horrified look on Reno's face.

"Oh crap! You want us to baby-sit a bunch of geeks!? Man, this WILL cost you!" Reno's voice took on a definite whine. "Come on, Reeve. Please tell me you're joking."

In a quiet voice, Reeve replied, "I'm deadly serious, Reno. I want a disinterested party to make sure that none of these guys start getting weird ideas. The last thing I need is some half-wit scientist getting delusions of grandeur. There's a great deal of information related to Jenova, Sephiroth, and Hojo's other classified projects in the Mansion. Security's practically nonexistent. Do you get my drift?"

Reno grimaced. "Yeah. How come Shinra didn't move all that stuff already?"

"I don't know. As scientific research, it would have been Hojo's responsibility. But for a scientist, he could be incredibly absentminded and sloppy."

The Turk exhaled slowly. "All right. We'll do it. When do you want to start?"

"As soon as possible."

"Reeve, what's the big rush?"

There was a long pause, then the Shinra executive said, "I've been planning to do something like this for a long time. Unfortunately, something nasty has suddenly come up. I need every scrap of Hojo's information I can get my hands on and I need it NOW. Although...."

"Although...."

"I'm afraid that we're already too late."

"Get your technogeeks together. We'll be there within the hour."

After Reeve hung up, Reno looked at Elena and Rude. The two Turks had been playing a lackadaisical game of poker, but now both looked very curious. She asked, "What's up? You said something about baby-sitting?"

"Yeah. Reeve's got an urgent job for us."

"And...."

Reno smiled sourly. "We get to pick up Hojo's garbage."

"Oh, yuck."

"Come on, guys. Time's a wastin'"

------------------------------------

Tifa frowned thoughtfully at the rain drenched scenery surrounding Kalm. Actually, she didn't have too much to complain about. After Meteor had been destroyed and all the immediate chaos had settled down, both she and Cloud had taken up residence in Kalm Town -- unfortunately, not with each other. That didn't mean that they had gone their separate ways. Far from it. They frequently traveled together either to visit friends or to hunt down the occasional troublesome monster. Kalm was really more a base of operations than a home.

Despite the constant travel and activity, Cloud actually seemed content. She had been pleasantly surprised at the change in him after Sephiroth's destruction. Tifa had never quite realized just how oppressive the bastard's mere existence had been to Cloud. But with that dark, haunting presence gone, he had lost much of the edgy broodiness that had bothered her so much during their first meeting in Midgar, when she had found him sitting outside the train station. For the first time in years, Cloud had fully emerged from Sephiroth's shadow and Tifa liked what she saw.

But it also puzzled her a great deal.

Cloud had been right. Her experiences in the Lifestream made her realize that she had never really known him, never really played with him, never really spoken to him.... Their meeting at the water tower just before his departure for Midgar had been her first and only chance to really speak to him one-on-one. Although she had been nice enough to him -- that was to say, not actively cruel -- she had basically ignored him. He had simply been the kid on the fringes, alone and unwanted. The kid that the adults always yelled at. The kid that the other kids always picked on.

So when had he changed from a loner to a leader? Where had Cloud acquired that quiet confidence and assertiveness? Where did he get the inner strength to overcome Sephiroth's brutal domination and manipulation? Somehow, she couldn't quite see him developing up those abilities while working for Shinra. They were hardly the sort of traits that Shinra would want to encourage, at least in their regular troops. He freely admitted that he had been nothing more than a common trooper -- in his own words, just another grunt in the field. It wasn't as if he had been some hotshot officer on the fast track to the top.

What was even more amazing was her recent realization that much of his transformation had occurred right before her very eyes. She could still remember the sullen, mercenary young man she had met at the train station just under a year ago -- a man who cared about money first and everything else a distant second.

One year.... It felt like a lifetime.

But only a few short weeks later, with Meteor hovering overhead and Sephiroth lurking beneath their feet at the Northern Crater, Cloud had become the trusted leader of their odd little group -- the man whose encouragement and leadership successfully guided them into and out of battle with the most evil and powerful being on the Planet.

What had happened in those seven years since their secret meeting at the water tower? She was intensely curious but was equally reluctant to pry. What few details he let slip hinted at dark and terrible things. With the shaky state of his memory, it was probably better to let sleeping dogs lie. Cloud had managed to reach a tenuous peace with himself. Destroying that fragile inner peace was the last thing she wanted to do.

Tifa sighed. Things were okay but life was far from perfect. Perhaps the most important problem was that her relationship with Cloud seemed stalled at the 'close platonic friend' stage. And it wasn't Cloud's fault. Well, not exactly his fault.

There were times where she would catch him staring out into the distance with a wistful look on his face. It was a look of sadness, regret, loneliness.... It wasn't too hard to figure what -- or rather who -- he was thinking about.

Aeris.

When the Lifestream had emerged to save the Planet from Meteor, she had thought that Cloud had reconciled himself to Aeris' fate. But now it appeared that he still grieved deeply for the flower girl.

It wasn't that she hated Aeris. Far from it. She had developed a strong liking and respect for the girl during their brief time together. Tifa had mourned her cruel death at Sephiroth's hands as much as the others. But she couldn't deny that she resented Aeris at times, just as she also resented that instant, mysterious bond that the flower girl had with Cloud. It was a bond that apparently still existed for him.

Tifa loved Cloud. And she was pretty sure that he cared about her. However, Cloud's lingering feelings for Aeris made it impossible for her to discuss her true feelings with him.

Maybe she was just being greedy, but in the contest for Cloud's heart, she didn't want to be the winner by default, simply because she was the one still alive. Tifa hated being second-best.

"The Highwind's here." She started as Red XIII's low rumble interrupted her thoughts.

Climbing aboard, Tifa was pleasantly surprised to find Vincent already on board. He acknowledged her and Red's presence with a slight nod, then retired to his usual secluded spot toward the back of the bridge. Yuffie had actually staggered out of the Highwind's hold to greet her. As the ninja girl made her appearance, Cid took a deep puff on his smoke and cheerfully said, "Exciting ride, hm? I always wanted to see how the Highwind II would handle without the motion dampers on."

Yuffie gave him a malevolent stare and snarled, "I'll get you for this, Cid!" With those words, she fled the bridge.

As usual, Vincent said nothing about that exchange. However, he did raise his eyebrows slightly. Cid shrugged carelessly and put on an innocent look that fooled no one as he headed the Highwind toward Midgar.

---------------------------

As he rode north, Cloud pondered the fairly comfortable life he had managed to make for himself -- and the two things that disturbed that new life.

The first was the quiet, subdued sensation of sorrow and loss that had haunted him ever since the destruction of Meteor. It wasn't anything like the fierce, heart-wrenching grief he had felt as he helplessly watched Aeris die at Sephiroth's hands. Instead, it was like a mild, persistent ache in his soul -- a wound that lingered and would never quite heal properly.

It wasn't a crippling sort of pain. It could be endured. And he would endure it. No more running away. No more denials of an unpleasant reality. He had lost himself inside an illusionary world of lies and fantasies once before -- and look how Sephiroth had used that weakness to break him.

Never again.

Aeris had returned to the Planet. He should be glad. She had reached her Promised Land, a place where no one could frighten or hurt her. He would simply have to accept that she was forever lost to him.

But it was the dreams that bothered Cloud most of all -- dreams that came with increasing frequency. Considering the types of experiences he'd been through in the last several years, he would have expected plenty of nightmares. But most of his dreams were nothing of the kind.

His conscious mind could not -- or would not -- recall any specific details. But Cloud could clearly remember the feelings and emotions linked to those dreams -- feelings of laughter, of camaraderie, of friendship and trust....

They were GOOD dreams, almost to the point of seductiveness. Cloud found that deeply troubling. The dreams were the only time he felt truly whole. He hungered after that feeling so badly. But he had learned to fear what he desired. So many times before, he either lost what he had desired most or the desirable thing had turned out to be a bait for a trap.

And there was another aspect about the dreams that bothered him. By their very nature, they hinted at a terrible loss.

There had been someone that he had known. Someone he had been very close to. Someone who almost certainly had been his very best friend....

....and someone he had utterly forgotten.

-----------------------------------

An hour later, Cloud glared out from under his rainhood and swore. This was utterly ridiculous. He and his friends had crisscrossed the world untold number of times in their quest to save the Planet from Sephiroth. They had hacked their way through trackless jungle, crossed burning deserts, sailed over unmapped oceans, hiked into the very bowels of the earth....

So how the hell did he manage to get lost riding from Fort Condor to Midgar? On a gold chocobo, no less. He prayed that Cid won't find out, otherwise he'd never hear the end of it.

"Where on earth am I now!?" he shouted at no one in particular.

Nikki, his gold chocobo, stamped its foot in annoyance, as if to deny any involvement in their current predicament.

Cloud grinned and stroked the chocobo's neck. "Sorry, didn't mean to imply that it was your fault."

He and his mount soon found themselves on a rocky outcrop. To his relief, he saw the great city of Midgar spread out below him.

(Well, better late than never.)

Dismounting, he stepped closer to the edge to get a better view of the city.

(Weird. Without the Mako reactors running, Midgar looks a lot dimmer than it did back then....)

    [ flash ]

Cloud looked around in confusion before slowly looking down at his hands. For some strange reason, he had been expecting -- and dreading -- the sight of blood. But there was nothing on his hands except plain, ordinary rainwater.

He shivered. He had to get away from here. Something deep inside was screaming that there was something horribly wrong with this place. He took a quick step toward his chocobo and heard a loud crack under his feet. Startled, Cloud glanced down.

At first, he thought that it was just a branch, then he abruptly realized that he stepped on a bone. A human bone. He quickly located found the rest of the body nearby. The scraps of flesh on the bones and the strands of black hair still clinging to the skull told him that the corpse had probably been lying there for a year, maybe less.

Curiosity made him take a closer look. Many of the bones were broken and not by accident. The breaks were far too clean. The skull told a similar tale. Apparently not content with practically cleaving the person's head in half -- probably with a sword or an ax -- someone had literally hacked the poor bastard apart.

....but the eyes just... wouldn't... stop... staring... at him....

/ Get out of my head! /

The skull slipped from Cloud's suddenly numb fingers as an agonizing pain exploded in his brain. He staggered to his feet, then the rain-softened soil suddenly gave away. He toppled off the steep outcrop, bounced once, and landed heavily on a tiny ledge fifty feet below.

-----------------------------------

In Reeve's office, Cid grumbled, "Where the hell's Cloud? A couple of hours, he says. If I'd had any idea it was going to take him this long...."

Tifa paced anxiously. "It doesn't take 'this long' to get here from Fort Condor."

Reeve said mildly, "Maybe the weather's the problem?"

Cid flung himself down in a comfortable chair. "Come on! Those gold chocobos can run across the bleedin' ocean! You think a little rain and mud's going to bother them?"

Tifa pulled out her phone and tried calling Cloud. Tension mounted as the phone rang and rang. No answer. Finally, there was a click on the other end.

"Cloud, where on earth are you!?" Tifa shouted.

At first there was no answer, then Tifa heard a familiar warble. She stared at the phone in shock.

"Nikki?"

Cid jumped up and yelled, "Who the hell's Nikki?"

Tifa made a quick, shushing gesture and distractedly muttered, "Cloud's chocobo. Cloud!? Cloud!"

There was another fretful warble, followed by a distressed cooing sound... then they heard a very faint groan.

"Oh god! Something's happened to him! Cid...."

"Come on, we can track him from the Highwind." He, Tifa, and the others stormed out of Reeve's office. By the time they had reboarded the Highwind, Cait Sith was waiting for them on the bridge, anxiously rocking back and forth.

-----------------------------------

"The signal's coming from around here. The kid can't be too far away," Cid muttered.

Tifa and the others anxiously peered through the gathering darkness and mist. The temperature was dropping quickly and the rain was getting heavier.

"If we don't find him soon, he could die of exposure." Tifa paced anxiously from one side of the Highwind to the other.

Yuffie tried her best to be reassuring. "Cloud's tough. He won't croak just because of a little bad weather, Tifa."

Tifa smiled weakly but the unspoken thought running though everyone's head was, (But what if he's badly hurt....?).

It was Vincent, as usual, who first sighted their quarry.

"Down there, on the ledge."

Perched on a tiny ledge fifty feet or so below a rocky outcrop was a golden chocobo who was huddled protectively over a still human body. There was a sheer drop of well over a hundred feet on the other side of the ledge.

Tifa whispered, "If he moves...."

Cid pounded her lightly on the shoulder. "Quit thinking about it and let's go get him!"

Unable to land the Highwind in the rocky terrain, everyone went over the side on a rope ladder. Once down on the outcrop, Cid, Tifa, and several crewmembers held a rope as Vincent rappelled down the cliff. It wasn't an easy task. The mud made footing uncertain while the constant rain made the cliff dangerously unstable, with bits of it crumbling off without warning. The chocobo objected loudly as stones and dirt rained down on its head and back in spite of Vincent's best efforts to be careful during his climb.

Fortunately, getting down the cliff was the hardest part of the rescue. Once on the ledge, Vincent simply tossed Cloud on Nikki's back and rode the gold chocobo back up to the top.

They quickly hauled Cloud onboard the Highwind and into the sickbay. After Tifa finished healing him with her materia, Cid offered Tifa a hot cup of coffee and asked, "How's he doing?"

"He had a few cracked ribs, some nasty cuts and bruises. The Full Cure materia's taken care of any physical injuries that he's got. But he's still out cold."

"Must have taken a bad knock on the head going down the cliff."

"That's why I think we should hurry back to Midgar. I want a doctor to take a look at him, just in case."

"We're already underway. Tifa, could you tell me whether all his injuries came from the fall?"

For a moment, she didn't quite understand the question, then she said, "You don't think it was just an accident? You think that he might have been attacked or shoved off the cliff?"

"Come on. The kid's damn quick on his feet. Even with all that mud and junk, it's hard to imagine him just falling off without someone -- or something -- helping him along."

She shook her head. "Stupid.... I should have thought about that myself. But no, I didn't find anything unusual." She paused a moment. "If he was attacked, it must have happened so fast that he didn't have a chance to draw his weapon. It's right there in its sheath." She pointed at the Ultima Weapon, lying on a nearby table.

"Hmph."

Making his way back to the Highwind's bridge, Cid stopped to talk to Vincent. "I saw you looking around at the ground back there. Find anything?"

"No suspicious tracks. But it could have been an aerial creature."

"So did you find anything at all?"

"A corpse."

Cid nearly choked on his coffee. "Why didn't you say...."

Vincent shrugged. "It'd been there for at least a year, maybe more."

"Oh well, in that case...." Cid snorted and shoved Vincent's finding to the back of his mind. He had more important things to worry about.

-----------------------------------

While the doctor at Mideel had been calm and reassuring, Dr. Stephen was smug, arrogant, and incredibly irritating. However, Tifa couldn't argue with the man's medical expertise.

"Interesting." He prodded Cloud's stomach. "Marvelous muscle tone, but typical of SOLDIER personnel. And the eyes.... hmmm.... yes...."

Tifa cleared her throat and said pointedly, "Doctor, you're supposed to checking out his injuries. Quit treating him like he was a bird at a chocobo sale! He's your PATIENT!"

He snorted, "I am well aware of that. However, as I've just noted, he's in superb physical shape. He only has a mild concussion -- it's nothing a little rest won't take care of."

Tifa sighed with relief. The doctor continued, "You, however, are another story. I refuse to be responsible for your condition if you continue to stand around in those wet, ridiculously skimpy clothes."

She flushed angrily. "'Ridiculously skimpy....' Just where do you get off telling me...!"

Standing in the doorway, Cait Sith said, "He's right."

When Tifa glared furiously at it, the Moogle took a wary bounce backward as the cat hastily elaborated. "I wasn't talking about your clothes! I mean, you're exhausted, wet, and dirty. Why don't you grab a quick shower and change? It'll only take a few minutes and he's not going anywhere in his present condition. You're not going to do him any good if you catch pneumonia."

Tifa looked a bit reluctant, then suddenly sneezed twice. She sniffled and said, "Actually, that's starting to sound like a really good idea. I'll think I'll do that." She turned to Dr. Stephen and gave him a warning stare. "I'll be right back."

Pointing at Cait Sith, the doctor said, "That THING's perfectly correct. Your friend's not going anywhere at the moment. Might as well take your time."

Tifa sniffled again and stalked out of the infirmary with Cait Sith bouncing at her heels.

-----------------------------------

Wavering in and out of consciousness, Cloud slowly opened his eyes. He was lying on an examination table....

/ NO! /

...and someone dressed in a white labcoat was standing over him....

/ NO! /

A smug, nasal voice cheerfully said, "As I live and breath. It's 'Code C' from the Nibelheim project! Dr. Roissy will be thrilled to find out that you're still alive and kicking." There was a nerve-grating chuckle accompanied by a sharp prod in his ribs. "You know, she was absolutely devastated when she heard that you and the other guy were killed after your escape."

/ Oh, god... not that voice..../

Fear and loathing churned his stomach. That goddamn voice was the stuff of nightmares. Hearing it always signaled another 'session'... or worse. More 'treatments'.... More pain.... He was drowning in that pain....

"Now that we're alone, let's take a quick look at you."

And then the labcoated figure touched him with those cold, clammy hands of his....

/ Not this time, you pig! /

A low, terrifying snarl of rage filled the room as Cloud suddenly grabbed the startled doctor by the throat and heaved him into a wall. Cloud slid off the examination table with predatory ease, then stalked toward the stunned scientist lying on the floor.

With a vicious little purr in his voice, he said, "Well, this time I'm not tied up, strapped down, or doped to the gills. Not quite so easy to handle now, am I, my man?"

Dr. Stephen scuttled backward. "NO! Stay away! Don't touch me!"

A hot, feral glitter burned in Cloud's Mako eyes as he stared down at his old tormentor-now-victim. "Why should I listen to you? You never listened to me. No matter how much I begged. No matter how much it hurt."

"Don't take it out on me! I was just following Hojo's orders!"

Cloud snarled, "But you enjoyed it, didn't you? You and your damned hands always poking and prying... sticking them where they damn well didn't belong! Treating me like a fucking piece of meat...."

"Come on! It was nothing personal. It was my job to do regular examinations of you and the 'Z' guy... what's his name... oh yeah! That SOLDIER fellow, Zack."

Cloud pounced on the quivering scientist and grabbed his neck. Viciously shaking his victim back and forth, he hissed, "You remember HIS name, but you can't remember MINE!? How come you were always hurting ME and not HIM!?"

In a distinctly nasal whine, Dr. Stephen said, "You can't blame me for that! Of course he withstood the treatments better than you! After all, Zack was a SOLDIER, first class, not to mention Sephiroth's right-hand man and protege. A guy's got to be exceptional to be someone like that! While you....! Hey, I saw the personnel files! It's not MY fault that you were too weak to handle the same sort of treatments. But what do you expect from just a nobody from a hick town...."

Cloud suddenly dumped the terrified scientist on the floor and grabbed at his head as those last few words echoed loudly in his brain.

/ Too weak.... nobody.... Just a nobody.... /

    // Leave him alone! He's a human being, damn it! //

/ No one cares about me..../

    // Hang in there. //

/ I'm losing myself.... /

    // I won't leave you alone. //

/ Get out of my head! /

    // We're friends, right? //

/ Tifa.... /

    // Hope the girl's okay.... //

/ I'm standing right in front of you.... /

    // Why are you hiding from her? //

/ Why can't you see who I am? /

    // Don't you want her to recognize you? //

/ Of course she doesn't notice me.

/ Teasing little bitch....

/ She's damn too busy flirting with Zack....

/ ....and Sephiroth.... /

    // Seph.... //

/ It's all his fault. /

    // It's all my fault. //

/ He destroyed my life. /

    // I could have tried harder. //

/ Zack....

/ Everybody likes Zack.

/ Everybody respects Zack.

/ Everybody trusts Zack.

/ I have nothing.

/ And Zack's got it all.

/ But a few good whacks will soon take care of THAT. /

    // ....!? //

/ Nothing to say now, Mr. hotshot SOLDIER? /

    // .... //

/ Stop it! Stop looking at me! /

    // .... //

/ Get out of my head! /

    // Wish I could.... //

/ What... what have I done? /

    // Don't be so hard on yourself. //

/ I didn't mean to.... /

    // It wasn't really YOU. //

/ Oh god, I'm sorry.... /

    // I'm sorry I couldn't save you.... //

/ You saved my life. /

    // ....from the darkness eating you inside. //

/ Why can't I be strong like you? /

    // Strength isn't the answer for everything.//

    // It sometimes really... hurts... to be strong. //

/ I'm just a murderer.... /

    // I'm a murderer....//

/ I killed my only friend..../

    // I killed my best friend.... //

/ ....because he had everything I desired.... /

    // ....because he became a soulless monster.... //

/ ....because he was everything I wanted to be. /

    // ....because he was going to destroy the world. //

/ I must be crazy. /

    // He was insane. //

/ But that's no excuse for what I've done. /

    // But that's no excuse for what I've done. //

/ I didn't HAVE to do it. /

    // I HAD to do it. //

/ It was the wrong thing to do. /

    // It was the right thing to do. //

/ And that only makes it worse. /

    // But that doesn't make it any better. //

/ I want to be like you. /

    // Just be yourself. //

/ ....want... to... be... you.... /

Taking advantage of his attacker's distraction, the doctor hastily scurried out of the room as Cloud sagged to his knees. He stayed that way for several moments before slowly struggling back to his feet. Grabbing the examination table for support, he stared at the unfamiliar surroundings.

"How did I get here? Oww...!" He winced as he moved his head too suddenly.

Just then Tifa walked into the room, dry and clean after her shower. When she saw Cloud conscious and standing, she ran toward him and grabbed him with a cry of relief.

"You're awake! Are you all right? You had me really worried there! Here, sit down before you fall over. Where on earth did that doctor run off to? Damn it!"

She helped Cloud into a nearby chair, then knelt beside him.

"Cloud, are you okay?"

"Yeah, I... think so. Except for this headache."

"Do you remember what happened to you?"

Cloud frowned slightly and rubbed his forehead. "What happened? All I can remember is... hell, falling off that damned outcrop. God, how totally stupid of me." He grimaced.

"That's it? You just... tripped and fell off a cliff?" Tifa sputtered in disbelief.

"No, that wasn't exactly it. I got off Nikki to take a quick look around. The next thing I know, the ground collapses under my feet. That's about it." He gave Tifa a curious look. "How did you guys find me?"

"We managed to track you there using the signal from your phone. How are you feeling? Everyone else is in Reeve's office but we can put off our meeting until you're feeling better...."

"No, no. I don't want to do that. I'm fine."

"Are you sure? Maybe I should go find that stupid doctor and let him take another look at you."

Cloud hastily shook his head, then winced at the dull throb of pain. "No, don't. Doctors give me the creeps."

Tifa's expression softened. Considering Cloud's experiences with Hojo, it was only natural that he had developed a strong aversion to doctors and scientists in general.

"All right. I'm sure that the guys will be thrilled to see that you're okay."

Cloud give her a wry grin. "They probably want to poke fun at me for tripping over my own feet."

But as they were walking out of the infirmary, Dr. Stephen suddenly popped out from one of the side offices. He nervously asked Tifa, "Is he... is he gone? God, I thought he was about to... EEK!"

His words trailed off into a pathetic squeak of terror as he saw Cloud standing behind Tifa. His eyes bulging in panic, the scientist fled back into the side office and slammed the door. There was the click of locks, followed by the sound of furniture being shoved against the door.

Tifa blinked in astonishment. "What the hell was that all about?" She turned, then jumped when she saw the expression of intense, barely controlled rage and hostility on Cloud's face.

"Cloud, what's wrong? Do you know that man?" she asked.

He tersely replied, "Yes. He was one of Dr. Hojo's flunkies at Nibelheim. He was the one who carried out a lot of the actual... experiments." His fists clenched. "I'd like to pound the crap out of him for some of the stuff he put us through." He took a few deep breaths as he struggled to calm himself.

"Cloud...?"

It took him a minute or two before he could bring himself to respond to Tifa. "No, I'm fine. Really. It's just that I never thought about running into one of THEM." He shivered slightly. "I... don't want to think about it any more, Tifa."

She said quietly, "Okay, Cloud. But I'm here if you ever need to talk about it...."

He gave her a small grin. "Thanks."

"....and I can always help you beat him to a pulp."

Cloud chuckled softly as they entered the elevator and headed for Reeve's office.

(end of Part 1)

**********************************************************************

Sephiroth smiling... that's rarely a good sign.

Cloud's past turns out to be much darker and murkier than anyone ever imagined (like that's any great surprise). But who is this dear friend he can't -- or won't -- remember?

In parts 2-3,

- mad scientists galore...

- object, object -- who's got the object?

- Reno gets carried away while Elena ends in the sewer...

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