"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. "COI Redux" is set after the events of Advent Children/Complete and also incorporates numerous plot points from "Before Crisis", "Crisis Core", and the various FFVII webnovels.

In some ways, COI Redux is very similar to COI. But in many others, it's a very different beast, indeed.

I hope readers of COI will consider the Redux at least as good as the original. New readers, I bid you welcome.

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 1/?
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Pairing/Characters: gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~10,000
Warnings: violence, mature themes (references to abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: Two years after Meteorfall and the WEAPONS have reappeared. As they investigate, Cloud and his friends discover that his relationship to both his old friend Zack and his arch-nemesis Sephiroth are deeper and much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

NOTES:
-- The original game and Advent Children/Complete are canonic for this fic.
-- Before Crisis and Crisis Core are semi-canonic.
-- Individual plot points from all other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., games, OVAs, FFVII webnovels, etc.) may show up.

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


CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Redux
A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

Chapter 1: DREAD HARBINGERS


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

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


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

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

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Cid found Yuffie huddled in the shelter of the Shera's deckhouse, 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-related nausea 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 Nanaki 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?"

"No way! I'm a professional materia hunter and I find my own materia now!" Yuffie was the very picture of offended dignity.

"Yeah, right. Well, I'm keeping a close eye on my stuff so don't even think...." Cid froze, then lunged for the railing so quickly that Yuffie thought that he was trying to jump overboard.

"Hey!"

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

Yuffie started to look uneasy. "Hey, Cid! What the hell's going on!?"

He didn't respond.

Yuffie took a deep breath before joining the pilot at the railing. Cid mutely pointed down. She sternly told her stomach to behave and peered cautiously under the airship. A look of stunned disbelief appeared on her face as she instinctively retreated several steps.

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

Cid continued to stare at the immense, dark shape swimming along the surface of the water.

"What the hell do you think it is, then? A bloody whale?"


Somewhere between the Eastern and Western Continents, the shattered hulk of a cargo ship hit the bottom of the ocean. As clouds of silt billowed up from the seafloor, an enormous green shape disappeared into the watery depths.


.


The Shinra Building had once towered over everything in sight, dominating the skyline of Midgar just as the Shinra Corporation had dominated the Planet. But after Meteorfall, the building had a much humbler profile, much like the corporation -- or what was left of it -- did.

In the new WRO offices in Edge, Reeve Tuesti struggled to ignore a growing headache as he tried to figure out the quickest way to deliver and administer the cure to Geostigma as many infected victims as possible.

The little spring in Aerith's church was the only source for the healing water. While many victims in the Midgar area were cured by Aerith's healing rains, many others all over the Planet still suffered. Fortunately, the water did retain its effectiveness if removed from the spring, but only for a very short time. So instead of trying to get the people to the church, barrels of the water were being shipped to hospitals and clinics all around the Planet. That way, they could keep the source of the Geostigma cure a semi-secret and prevent people from wrecking the place and possibly destroying the source of the healing water in their desperate search for a cure.

The sickest victims had priority because their lives were at risk. The healthier infected would have to wait. If they were careful, there would be plenty of water for everyone, only not all at once. It would take time.

But many people didn't want to wait for their turn, which was perfectly understandable. Even in its earlier, non-terminal stages, Geostigma was a painful, debilitating disease. And human nature being what it was, there were always individuals willing to take advantage of others' suffering. Reeve had already received numerous reports of fraud as unscrupulous people passed off ordinary tap water as the miraculous Geostigma cure and sold it for outrageous prices.

His intercom buzzed, disrupting his train of thought.

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

His assistant said, "Sir, there's a message from Junon. Extremely urgent."

"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 me you're joking."

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

Reeve had been both pleasantly surprised and immensely relieved when many of Heidegger's subordinates, who controlled most of the military resources of Shinra, had decided to ally themselves with him instead of Scarlet.

While the woman had managed to stay on good terms with Heidegger himself, Scarlet hadn't taken similar care with his subordinates. Her ambitious and over-aggressive personality, combined with the rumors flying around about her possible involvement in Heidigger's abrupt disappearance after the Proud Clod incident, left a bad taste in many people's mouths.

Reeve said, "Are you positive?"

"Yes, sir. Transmitting the video footage from the rescue helicopter."

Reeve's expression turned increasingly grim as he watched an all too familiar green form briefly rise from the ocean depths. The picture jerked suddenly as the hovering helicopter swerved away. When the camera refocused on the ocean surface, the Emerald WEAPON was gone.

"The helicopter was responding to a distress call from a cargo vessel, but when it arrived on scene, all they found was a big oil slick and some floating debris."

"Any survivors from the ship?" Reeve demanded.

The Junon Commander shook his head. "We haven't found any. No bodies, either."

No surprise there. The WEAPONS were perfectly capable of one-shotting an unarmored cargo ship.

"Commander, you're going to need to send out recon flights. We've got to locate that thing and find out where it's going. But for god's sake, don't do anything to provoke it!"

The Commander visibly suppressed his urge to make a snarky retort -- probably something on the lines of 'Do you think I'm stupid?' -- but old-style military discipline prevailed. He merely saluted and signed off.

Reeve closed his eyes. Two bloody weeks after that run-in with Kadaj's crew, Bahamut SIN's rampage, and Sephiroth's reemergence... and now this. Surely humanity deserved a break from the threat of planetary catastrophe and cataclysmic destruction.

But apparently not.

He slouched down in his chair as he pondered the implications of the bad news. The WEAPONs' sole purpose was to eliminate threats to the Planet's well-being -- critical threats like Jenova. But with both Sephiroth and Jenova destroyed, there should have been no further need for those deadly juggernauts.

Unfortunately, the whole business with Kadaj and the other Remnants had made it brutally clear that bits of Jenova still existed and that those bits, however small, were more than enough to cause untold amounts of trouble.

How much trouble? No one really knew what Jenova was capable of. The blasted thing was an alien space monster, after all. Could those surviving pieces of Jenova still represent a threat deadly enough to warrant the rebuilding of the WEAPONs?

Reeve was very much afraid that particular question had been answered with a big flashing, "HELL, YES."

As he began rapidly typing in command on his computer, he muttered, "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."

His search came up with a few files. Worse than he had hoped, but better than he expected. Despite the destruction of much of the Shinra Building, most of the corporation's database had survived intact.

(Thank goodness for good backup procedures and off-site data storage!)

Reeve had a strong suspicion that much of the important WEAPON data never made it into the official Shinra network in the first place. Knowing Scarlet's greedy, conniving personality, he was certain that she had hoarded the most critical information for herself. With her disappearance, there was little chance of retrieving that data.

Even if they could track her down, there was the problem of getting the blasted woman to cough up the information. Scarlet might be persuaded to hand over the files, but certainly not for free. Scarlet loved to hold grudges and any price she set would be very steep.

Reeve didn't want anything more to do with the ambitious former director of Shinra's Weapons Development division, much less make any deals with her. However, under the circumstances, he might not have a choice.


.


He moved at a brisk pace along an icy path in the mountains. But it wasn't the Nibel mountains. The peaks around him had softer contours and the air, although cold, didn't have the familiar sharpness that made one's throat ache.

He heard some huffing sounds behind him and turned to see a Shinra trooper and a man in a dark suit following him.

A dark suit. Straight black hair, although much shorter than he remembered.

What was Tseng doing up here in the mountains?

For that matter, what the hell was HE doing up here in these mountains with a Turk and a Shinra trooper?

"I know the scenery's gorgeous, but we gotta keep moving, guys!" said a painfully familiar voice.

He turned to see Zack waiting for them further up the path.

The SOLDIER looked a little concerned and asked, "You finally getting tired, too?"

"Ah... no. I just wanted to see how the others were doing," he heard himself replying. His voice sounded different... younger.

"Tseng, you okay?" Zack called out.

The Turk finally caught up with them and said, "I'm perfectly capable of handling the job." The effect of the typical hardass Turk response was slightly spoiled by the panting that Tseng couldn't quite suppress.

The other trooper finally caught up with the group, wheezing audibly.

"Sorry to push you guys so hard, but once we reach that ridge, we'll be within striking distance of our objective in Modeoheim," Zack said, giving the gasping trooper a sympathetic look.

As he watched the dark-haired SOLDIER turn and continue up the steep path, his vision suddenly blurred and jerked, like a camera carelessly jostled out of position.

When his vision cleared, Zack was nowhere in sight. Even as he wondered what the hell had happened, he felt his body turning around to see Tseng... and TWO Shinra troopers.

And even as he tried to make sense of that, one of the troopers pulled up his helmet to reveal a head of spiky blond hair... and his very own face.


The familiar ringtone jolted Cloud from his dream. Momentarily disoriented, it took him several more rings to remember where he was and to track down the source of the persistent noise. Finally locating his phone amid a pile of clothes, he pulled it out and said, "Cloud here."

"Finally! Where the hell have you been?" Reeve demanded.

With a faint sigh, Cloud replied, "I was asleep. What's wrong?"

"Bad news. The Emerald WEAPON is back."

Cloud stared at the phone for a few seconds, then said sharply, "Are you sure?"

"I just got a message from Junon. Our old green friend has been seen happily puttering around in the ocean. And don't tell me that we destroyed it. I know that. I was there, remember?"

Cloud said nothing as he rubbed a hand over his face.

At that moment, Cloud's phone made a different chirping sound. Seeing that this second call was from Cid, he answered, connecting the call to Reeve at the same time.

"Hello, Cid, and Reeve's also on the line."

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

In the background, they heard Yuffie yelling, "And we got pictures!"

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

Back in Edge, Reeve's headache started pounding even fiercely.

"Great. That's just great, Cid."

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

"I just saw some very interesting video footage from Junon. Now it's your turn. Guess what's been seen swimming around out there. One hint. It's big and 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. And we're pretty sure that it took out a cargo ship that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. No survivors."

There was a thunking noise from Cid's end.

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

"Oh, that's just Yuffie passing out. You guys tell the others yet?"

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

Cloud had been silent during this interchange, but when he finally spoke, his voice was even and had a decidedly grim edge.

"Given what's happened recently, I'm not entirely surprised."

"What!?" Cid bellowed.

"Think about the WEAPONs. What's the sole purpose for their existence?"

"Yeah, yeah. They were created by Gaia as self-defense mechanisms to deal with threats against the Planet...," the pilot said impatiently.

"...namely, Jenova."

"Yeah, and.... Oh bloody fuck."

"That sums it up pretty well, Cid," Reeve said.

"You think that shit with Kadaj, and Sephiroth reappearing was enough to set off...."

"Maybe." Cloud began to pace around the bedroom. "I haven't got a clue how long it takes for the Planet to make WEAPONs. For all we know, that process could have started as soon as we destroyed the original ones. We don't know whether the WEAPONs are showing up as a direct response to Kadaj's activities, or responding to whatever caused Kadaj and the others to appear in the first place. What we do know is that the reappearance most likely has something to do with Jenova, one way or another."

"Gotcha." Cid was silent for a moment, then said, "If both Emerald and Sapphire are around, what about Ruby, Diamond, and the others?"

Reeve said, "I suspect we won't remain in ignorance for long. I'll order a chopper to take a look around their usual haunts -- the Gold Saucer area for the Ruby WEAPON and up North for Diamond."

"Cloud, do you want us to pick you up?" asked Cid.

"No need. I'm in Kalm and it'll take me less than two hours to get to Edge on Fenrir. Why don't you go pick up Nanaki? I think he's back in Cosmo Canyon. And if Vincent's interested, you'll probably need to give him a ride, too."

"Right. See you in Edge, then."

Before Reeve hang up as well, Cloud quickly added, "Reeve, what about those videotapes we found at Icicle Inn, the ones with Dr. Gast and Aerith's mother? She said something about the WEAPONs."

Reeve said, "I'm ahead of you. I've already sent people up north to fetch them and any other records that might be lying around. Hojo's men did a sloppy job when they cleaned out the place the first time."

"Good thinking. In that case, I'll be in Edge as soon as I can."

"All right, then. I'll try to find some more information on this end."

Cloud closed his phone and stared blankly at it as his thoughts returned to his dream about Zack... or was it as Zack?


Yuffie muttered, "Kalm? Sheesh, I thought Cloud was supposed to spend this day at home with Tifa, Denzel, and Marlene."

"Could've had an emergency delivery to make," Cid said gruffly. "But how the hell do you know so much about Cloud's social plans, anyway?"

She shrugged casually and said, "Girls talk."

"Gossip, you mean," Cid retorted, rolling his eyes.

"It's not gossip! Tifa just happened to mention that they were planning to spend today together." She sighed in annoyance. "Damn, I was sure that after he managed to beat down Sephiroth and Kadaj, Cloud would buckle down and DO something regarding Tifa. Now he's running off again!"

"Look, a missed day together doesn't mean he's trying to avoid her or anything."

"Should've known you'd be on HIS side," Yuffie said with a sullen glower.

Cid blinked, then hastily held up one hand in protest.

"Whoa whoa WHOA! I'm not on anybody's side! I'm just saying that shit sometimes happens and social plans go out the window. Why do women have to make such a big deal about it?"

"Of all the chauvanistic male crap!" She planted her fists on her hips and retorted, "Why are you guys so scared of showing a little commitment to a girl!?"

"Commitment!? Cloud has been living with Tifa for over an year. The guy would put his damn life on the line a thousand times over to protect her and the kids. How much more committed does a guy have to be!?"

Yuffie clapped a hand to her forehead and muttered, "You just don't get it, do you?"

"Get what?"

She shook her head sadly.

"With that sort of attitude, I feel so sorry for Shera...."

"You leave Shera outta this, you little...!" Cid lunged for Yuffie, who gave him an impudent grin as she jumped into the air and did a neat back flip before disappearing into one of the airship's open hatchways.

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 damn well cleaning it up!"

"Cid, you bastard! ....urkkk...."


In North Corel, Barret's phone buzzed loudly on the nightstand. Half-asleep, he fumbled around, found it, and muttered sleepily, "Ye-eah?"

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

"Reeve, I've been on my feet for the last thirty hours and you're ruining my nap. So spit it out," the ex-miner growled as he rolled over and flopped back down on his bed.

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

"What the hell!?" Barret shouted as he sat bolt upright, his lack of sleep completely forgotten.

"Cid spotted what looks to be the Sapphire WEAPON near Wutai. And a rescue helicopter sighted the Emerald WEAPON near that weird undersea crater not far from Junon. They're back."

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

"I know, but now they're back," Reeve said.

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

"No, not if you're busy. We've still got an ongoing energy crunch. Getting those mines working again is a top priority. Besides, there's nothing you can really do here in Edge at the moment. We'll keep you updated. So get some sleep!"

Barret disconnected and scowled at the phone. Something told him that Reeve would be calling back soon, and he doubted that the news would be good.


As he waited for his friends to arrive, Reeve made yet another phone call.

"Hello, Reeve," said a cool male voice.

"The WEAPONs are back, Rufus."

"I know."

Reeve sighed, then said, "Why does that not surprise me? How long have you known?"

"I was informed a short while ago. Considering recent events, I'm not entirely surprised by the news."

"You're the second person to tell me that today," Reeve said, a sour note in his voice. "I myself was afraid something like this could happen, but having my worst fears confirmed is still quite a jolt."

"And with those fears confirmed, what is the WRO planning to do about it?"

"The usual. Gather intelligence and try to figure out what the hell's going on. For that, I need to borrow the Turks."

"You want them to gather information for you."

"Yes, but not in the usual sort of way. The Turks are damn good at investigating, but actually, it's their other sort of 'expertise' that I need."

As he listened to Reeve's explanation, Rufus Shinra glanced briefly up at Tseng standing beside him, then over at Reno, who slouched upon a nearby couch. Finally, he said, "Start rounding up the scientists, Reeve. Reno and the others will be at your office within the hour," and hung up.

Reno sat up and said, "So what does the WRO need us for?"

"Reeve wants the Turks to escort a group of scientists out to the Shinra Mansion at Nibelheim. Once you're there, you are to secure the location, then keep an eye on the scientists while they remove every single piece of Hojo's research data and lab equipment from that place."

Rufus lifted an eyebrow as Reno buried his face in his hands and groaned audibly.

It was an interesting reaction from a man who could unflinchingly face off against Jenova-enhanced superhumans with nothing more than a jury-rigged hand bomb and a few smartass remarks.

"You have a problem with that, Reno?" he asked mildly.

The redhead looked up with a scowl. "Hell, yeah. Every single time I've had to guard a scientist, it's been a monumental pain in the ass and I always end up somehow getting the shit kicked out of me! And now you want us to ride herd on an entire pack of them?"

Before Rufus could answer, Tseng interrupted. "Those materials have been sitting there for years. Why the sudden urgency to retrieve them?"

"Until two years ago, no one realized that instead of merely being a fascinating and useful research specimen, Jenova was actually a planetary level threat. And then everyone assumed that Sephiroth's defeat and the destruction of Meteor meant that Jenova was no longer a threat as well."

"Not everyone," Tseng said softly. "You recognized that Jenova was still dangerous, even if no one else did. That's why you had us search for Jenova's head."

"But only because of my experience with the good Dr. Kilmister. Unfortunately, I became too focused on locating that specific piece of Jenova and I forgot that other steps needed to be taken."

"Such as dealing with Hojo's old lab in Nibelheim."

"Exactly. The situation has become even more urgent. Now that the true cause of Geostigma is known, certain individuals are going to realize that Jenova was not completely destroyed and that even the smallest fragment of Jenova contains potential power. The hunger for knowledge and the desire for power, regardless of the cost, will do the rest. For some, the temptation will be irresistible. They're going to start looking for more pieces of Jenova, along with information and equipment that will further whatever crazy research ideas they have."

"Oh, great. You saying that we might end up with a bunch of Hojo wannabees creeping around the place," Reno muttered.

"A great deal of valuble information related to Jenova, Sephiroth, and Hojo's other research projects still lies within the Mansion. Except for a few monsters, there's nothing to stop a sufficiently motivated person from simply taking it. No one's had that motivation for the last two years, but that will soon change. The data and equipment needs to be retrieved and secured immediately. To facilitate that retrieval, Reeve needs people with the right type of knowledge and expertise."

"Which means scientists. Most of whom probably worked for, or with, that creep Hojo at one point or another," Reno said, sounded disgusted. "And of course, they're the ones most likely to get a case of sticky fingers."

"That's why Reeve wants the Turks to supervise this mission. He needs someone to keep those scientists in line, someone that they'll really pay attention to."

Reno suddenly perked up.

"Part of your job will be to protect them from the monsters infesting the Mansion so they can work safely." An icy smile curved Rufus's lips. "On the other hand, if they become uncooperative or engage in unauthorized activities such as theft or concealment, feel free to teach them a thorough lesson -- the Turk way."

"Does Reeve know what he's asking for?" the redhead demanded.

"Reeve knows exactly what he's asking for. That's why he doesn't want to use ordinary WRO personnel to play watchdog. As long as you don't actually kill anyone, you have a considerable degree of discretion. Feel free to use it, if necessary."

Reno's mouth curved into a wicked grin.

"Anything you say, boss."


.


Tifa frowned as she gazed out the window at the dusty streets of Edge. Things had been going so well. Sephiroth and his three Remnants had been defeated and a cure for Geostigma had been found.

But more importantly, at least on a personal level, Cloud Strife had come to peace with himself, his dead, and his doubts. Freed from the depression and guilt that had driven him to distance himself from everyone he cared about, Cloud could now think about a brighter, happier future.

Or was she wrong about that?

No, she didn't think so. However, something was definitely troubling Cloud, and being Cloud, he declined to discuss whatever it was with anyone. But to her relief, he wasn't pulling away from her this time around. At least, not yet.

In Aerith's church, standing in that shimmering pool of healing water, he had smiled, really smiled for the first time in months. But in less than two weeks, that quiet happiness was gone, replaced by a strange inner tension.

On several occasions, she had caught Cloud staring out into the distance with a certain somber, pensive look on his face. She wasn't a mindreader by any means, but she could make a pretty good guess as to what -- or rather who -- Cloud was thinking about.

Sephiroth, of course.

Aside from describing Sephiroth's scheme to exploit the Geostigma, Cloud had said very little about their ferocious battle over the ruins of Midgar. Tifa was certain that much more had been said between the two -- personal things, if by 'personal', one meant cruel, malice-filled words cunningly calculated to inflict maximum pain, fear, and turmoil.

On that particular subject, Cloud wasn't talking.

He hadn't been sleeping well, either.

Cloud was a very light sleeper by habit. Like many highly experienced fighters, he could 'tune out' the sounds of harmless ordinary things, like her footsteps or the kids's voices. However, anything abnormal would bring him instantly awake.

And then there were the reoccuring nightmares.

No surprise there, considering all the physical, mental, and emotional trauma he had endured. Cloud's nightmares didn't cause him to yell, scream, or thrash about. No, his nightmares were the quiet kind, with soft, barely audible sounds and tense little body twitches that hinted at the unimaginably painful, horrible things that tormented his sleeping mind.

Cloud never discussed the nightmares. Perhaps he couldn't. Tifa suspected that those nightmares were so terrible, so unbearable, that Cloud's conscious mind flatly refused to recall them.

His recent dreams didn't seem to be nightmares. Still, they clearly bothered him to the point that he had started to work extra long hours, as if he was trying to fend off the dreams with physical exhaustion, which wasn't easy for a SOLDIER....

....or at least, someone with a SOLDIER-level physique.

Even knowing the truth for two years, Tifa still sometimes found it hard to remember that Cloud had never officially become a member of SOLDIER. Certainly, when it came to combat, there was no question that Cloud had the courage, determination, physical ability, and fighting skill to match any SOLDIER, even a First Class.

As for the psychological standards for being a SOLDIER... well, Cloud freely admitted that he had failed the psych tests seven years ago. Reluctantly, Tifa very much doubted that he could meet those requirements now, not after all the things he had suffered through and endured.

Even after living with Cloud for nearly two years, it was impossible for her to tell how much of his behavior was his true personality, how much was unconsciously borrowed from Zack, how much was caused by Sephiroth's manipulations, and how much was caused by the Geostigma.

Part of the problem was that she didn't have a very strong sense of Cloud's personality before he left Nibelheim. As a child and teenager, her strongest impression of Cloud was that of isolated loner, constantly in some sort of trouble with both adults and the other children.

The only time she had really paid attention to Cloud had been during their talk at the water tower, before he left for Midgar. And the only reason she had agreed to the meeting in the first place had been an impulsive desire to defy her over-protective father, who was constantly telling her to avoid that 'troublemaking little runt'.

Still, the teenaged Cloud's earnestness had made an unexpectedly deep impression on her own inexperienced self. She would have liked to become better acquainted with that Cloud, but by the time she realized it, he had already departed for Midgar. So for two years, she harbored the memory of an unexpectedly cute guy who promised to become a SOLDIER, First Class, and her special hero.

Tifa shook her head ruefully. Now, looking back with her adult self, she could so clearly see the desperate need for acceptance and recognition beneath the teenaged Cloud's bold face and fierce determination.

When Sephiroth and Zack had arrived in Nibelheim on their fateful mission, she had been so dazzled with the prospect of meeting real SOLDIERs and heroes, she had basically ignored the ordinary infantrymen who had accompanied the SOLDIERs. One final opportunity to get to know Cloud fully as himself, forever lost amid blood, fire, and the flashing gleam of Sephiroth's deadly sword.

And still, despite all his mental issues and emotional scars, she would pick the present-day Cloud over any other ordinary man or SOLDIER any day.

Which made the current situation so very frustrating. She wanted to help Cloud, but she didn't know how. If only she could get him to open up and talk about it....

Her phone suddenly rang.

"Reeve?"

"I have some bad news. The WEAPONs are back."


.


As he rode Fenrir down the road toward Edge, Cloud struggled to figure out what was going on inside his head. It was a familiar and usually futile exercise.

Given the recent events involving Kadaj and the other Remnants, it made perfect sense if his dreams involved Sephiroth... or rather, if they involved Sephiroth even more than they usually did.

But that wasn't the case. Recently, his dreams had been focused on Zack. Sephiroth figured in those dreams, too, but not at all in the ways he expected. To be honest, compared to his usual types of dreams and nightmares, the recent ones were positively innocuous. There were no mind-twisting revelations, no gutwrenching tragedies. Instead, they consisted of random scenes, fragments of casual conversation, snippets of shared missions, all involving Zack in some way.

But those dreams were still highly unnerving because of the way that his viewpoint kept switching, as if his brain couldn't decide who he should be inside the dream.

He was Cloud Strife, not Zack Fair. It was an incontroverible fact that his conscious mind was perfectly aware of and fully accepted.

But for some mysterious reason, his subconscious, or whatever corner of his brain handled dreams, seemed to have suddenly forgotten that point.

Cloud didn't know whether he should be frightened, angry, or both.


An hour later, Cloud pulled off his goggles and swore fluently. He had travelled the road from Kalm to Midgar hundreds of times and knew it like the back of his hand. It was one of his most regular routes for his delivery service.

So how the hell did he manage to get so thoroughly lost in such familiar terrain?

Sighing, he parked Fenrir and got off the motorcycle as he tried to orient himself. Midgar was clearly visible in the distance and he stood on one of the many rocky outcrops that overlooked the wasteland that surrounded the city's ruins.

Except this particular outcrop had a small patch of distinctive yellow flowers growing on it....

Somehow, even though it was miles out of his way, he was now standing on the outcrop where Zack had died. There was no mistaking that particular man-sized clump of gently swaying flowers, along with the deep gash in the earth where the Buster Blade had previously stood before he had moved it to Aerith's church.

How had he ended up here? And why had it taken him so long to recognize the place?

A blinding flash of white blotted out Cloud's vision, and with it came a sharp, stabbing pain in his skull that drove him to his knees.

... screams... gunfire... clashing blades... Zack fighting against overwhelming odds... if Zack died... had to see it with his own eyes... crawling around the boulder... Zack beating the shit out of Shinra's dogs... hell, he might actually survive the fight... no way... couldn't stand it any more... ouch... something cold and sharp in hand... he's busy... easy target... perfect chance....

// It's him or me. //

.... and I've always been good with a knife.

When the flash faded, Cloud blinked in confusion, then slowly looked down at his hands which, for some strange reason, felt oddly... empty.

Although the sky was overcast, there was no rain and the ground he was kneeling on was dusty and bone dry. But at the same time, Cloud could feel the heavy rain trickling through his hair and the chilly ooze of mud soaking into his clothes.

"Zack...."

He was alone on the outcrop, with only the flowers and the wind for company. Yet he could clearly hear the rasping breath of his best friend as Zack lay dying in the rain and mud.

"....For the... both of us...."

"Both of us?"

"... That's right... You're gonna...."

"You're gonna...."

He felt the weight of Zack's hand on his neck pulling him down, felt his face pressed against a bloodied chest, its normal warmth already fading... felt the wetness of the other man's blood smeared over his right cheek.

In a corner of his mind, he knew that there was no rain. There was no blood. There was no body. But the emotional and sensory memories of that day two years ago were too intense, overriding present day reality.

"... Live..."

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

But this time, along with Zack's familiar words, a new voice echoed through Cloud's head in disturbing counterpoint.

// Shut up! //

The smell of Zack's blood was overwhelming. It clogged his throat and made it almost impossible to breathe.

"... My honor... my dreams...."

// Don't listen to him! //

The Buster Sword wasn't here anymore, so how could he possibly hear it scraping through the mud as Zack struggled to lift it?

"... They're yours now...."

// Can't you see what he's trying to do!? //

God, the physical weight of that sword as Zack pushed the hilt into his hands was nothing, and still it crushed him down.

// You're giving in without a fight!? //

Although this time, there was no one on the outcrop to hear them, Cloud repeated the words he had spoken over back then, the only gift he could give to a dying friend.

"I'm your... living legacy...."

The other voice in his head suddenly rose to a vicious shriek of frustration, rage, and despair.

// YOU FUCKING SPINELESS PIECE OF SHIT!!! //

An agonizing pain exploded in Cloud's brain. He jerked to his feet and blindly staggered a few steps, then crumpled unconscious to the ground.


When Reeve notified Vincent of the WEAPONs' reappearance, Vincent had merely replied, "After the incident with the Remnants, I'm not entirely surprised."

Which was the THIRD time Reeve had heard that particular sentiment in as many hours.

When asked if he wanted to join them in Edge, Vincent told Reeve that he and Nanaki had something to investigate first.

"Does it have anything to do with the WEAPONs or Jenova?"

"Maybe," Vincent replied with his customary brevity.

And with that, the call ended.


As he and the others waited 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 Kalm."

She pulled out her phone and tried calling Cloud. Her tension increased visibly as the phone continued to ring. When she was finally bounced to voicemail, Tifa left a terse message asking Cloud to return her call ASAP.

They waited. In the months preceding the Remnant incident, Cloud rarely answered his phone directly, forcing callers to resort to voicemail. But when the message was urgent, Cloud always called back immediately. The fact that he didn't return Tifa's call meant that Cloud was either busy with something really important... or in serious trouble.

"Could've ran into an ambush," Cid said with a frown. "Didn't you tell me that those two silver-haired buddies of Kadaj once ambushed Cloud while he was out on the road?"

Tifa nodded sharply as she impatiently tapped her phone into her palm, her expression tight.

Yuffie suddenly said, "Isn't there a way to locate someone by tracking their phone?"

Reeve stepped to his desk and said, "With the older phones, we could only get a general idea on a caller's location. But the newer phones can be tracked pretty accurately." He gave Tifa a questioning look.

"Cloud's phone is brand new. He lost his old one during one of the fights with Kadaj," she quickly replied.

"The system's still somewhat glitchy, but let's see if I can access it from here. If not, we may have to head over to the communication center and.... Ha! Yes, I can."

After working at his computer for several minutes, Reeve said, "Got it." Then he frowned. "That's strange."

"What?" Tifa demanded.

"Cloud told me that he was planning to take the road between Kalm and Edge."

"That's right. It's the one he regularly uses."

"Well, the road goes that way." Reeve pointed at the map he brought up on his wall monitor, with the road clearly highlighted in green. "But Cloud, or rather his phone, is down there." A flashing blue point appeared in the mountains, a good distance from the marked road.

"And it's not moving," Reeve added.

Staring at the map, Cid muttered, "What the hell is he doing off-course like that?"

"Like you said, maybe he ran into ambush or other sort of problem," Yuffie suggested. "Although it's got to be one hell of a mess to pull him that far out of his way."

"Cloud would've called us if he was going to be delayed," Tifa said. "The fact that he hasn't...."

"Then what the hell are we waiting for?" Cid demanded as he headed for the door.

Tifa and the others quickly joined him as he left Reeve's office. By the time they had reboarded the Shera, Cait Sith was anxiously waiting for them on the bridge.


As the airship approached the location that Reeve had pinpointed, Cid scanned the rocky wasteland and muttered, "The damned phone's supposed to be somewhere around here. C'mon, Cloud. Where the fuck are you?"

The deepening shadows from the setting sun made a visual search of the rocky terrain even more difficult. Hopefully Cloud was in the same place as his phone. If he wasn't, they were going to have a hell of a time finding him from the air.

Cait Sith suddenly leapt off Yuffie's shoulder, plastered itself against a window, and yelled, "Over there, at the top of that cliff!"

As the Shera moved closer to the outcrop pointed out by Cait Sith, the others could now clearly see two dark shapes which stood out sharply against the sandy colored ground. One was Cloud's motorcycle Fenrir. The other one, lying completely motionless on his back near the edge of the cliff, was Cloud.

"Can you land, Cid?" Tifa asked anxiously.

"It's tight, but yeah, I can get us down."

Tifa and Yuffie didn't wait for niceties such as landing ladders. Instead, as soon as they were close enough, they jumped and hit the ground running. As Yuffie, with Cait Sith clinging to her shoulders, checked the area for possible threats, Tifa headed straight to Cloud's side. Skidding to a stop beside him, she found to her enormous relief that he was breathing, slowly but steadily. Without touching him, Tifa quickly looked him over for any obvious injuries, but saw nothing.

Still without touching him, she called his name in a quiet, but firm voice.

"Cloud? Are you all right?"

When she got no response, she raised her voice and said sharply, "Cloud! Wake up!" When he remained unresponsive, Tifa tried again and got no reaction.

Tifa had made the mistake of trying to shake Cloud awake from a nightmare... but only once. That time, Cloud had come out disoriented and fighting, which was not a good thing when dealing with someone with the strength and fighting skills of a SOLDIER, First Class.

But this time, she didn't have a choice. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed his right shoulder and shook it hard. At the same time, she prepared herself to duck, dodge, or whatever, if he woke up swinging.

"Cloud!"

Unfortunately, he was well and truly unconscious. Tifa took the opportunity to carefully slide her hand under his back and over his front, checking for any injuries or wounds she might have missed during her visual examination.

"How is he?" Yuffie asked as she and Cait Sith returned from their sweep of the area.

"I can't find anything physically wrong with him. His heartbeat and breathing's normal. But he's out cold and I can't wake him up."

"No sign that's he's been a fight or anything like that?"

"None." Tifa looked over at the other girl and the little robot. "How about you. Find anything that might explain how Cloud ended up like this?"

"Nope. Zilch. Squat. No trace of anyone or anything in the area capable of taking someone like Cloud out," Yuffie replied with a helpless shrug.

Tifa scanned the desolate surroundings and sighed.

"There's nothing we can do for him here. We better get him back to Edge and find a doctor to look at him."


.


Dr. Lawrence Steven was perhaps the most annoying medical doctor Tifa had ever had the misfortune to encounter. He was smug, arrogant, and incredibly condescending. Unfortunately, Steven was the only doctor available at the WRO infirmary at that time of the evening. Despite his personality, the man seemed to know his job, so Tifa gritted her teeth and tried to hang onto her temper.

"Hmmm... fascinating."

The doctor had appeared astonished, almost dumbfounded, when Cloud was first brought into the infirmary, but now Steven was handling his medical duties with enthusiasm. Way too much enthusiasm, in Tifa's opinion.

After taking a blood sample, Steven prodded Cloud's stomach area and muttered, "Fabulous muscle tone." He peeled back both eyelids and peered closely with his flashlight. "And the pupils, even and responsive... hmmm...."

Tifa cleared her throat pointedly and said, "Doctor, you're supposed to find the cause of his unconsciousness. He's your PATIENT, not some chocobo at a livestock sale!"

Without looking at her, he drawled, "Yes, yes, I know. But in order to do that, he first needs a thorough physical examination." The doctor started to unzip Cloud's shirt, then glanced over and gave her a thin-lipped smile.

"As I said, I need to do a complete physical examination. And while the patient may be totally unconscious, he IS entitled to as much privacy as any of my conscious patients. So tell me, would you happen to be his wife?"

Tifa flushed and snapped, "No, I'm not."

"Then I'm afraid I'm going to have to insist that you leave."

As she hesitated, the doctor calmly picked up a phone and said, "Nurse, please ask Orderly Jones to come to Examination Room A? I need some assistance with a patient."

He gave her a bland, condescending smile. When she didn't move, he said, "The longer you stand there, the longer it's going to take me to get started on my exam. In other words, all you're doing is delaying the care that your friend needs."

Tifa glared at him, then turned to stalk out of the exam room. She paused in the door and snapped, "Fine. I'll be waiting right outside."

"You do that."


When the husky male orderly stepped into the exam room, he asked, "You called for me, doctor?"

Dr. Steven shot him a bored look and waved his hand at the test tubes lying on the counter. "Jones, I need you to take those vials over to the lab. And after that, check with radiology and help them find the test results for a Ms. Smith."

"Uh... sure. But are you sure you don't need me here?" Jones jerked his head toward the unconscious blond man lying on the table.

"No, I can manage just fine by myself," the doctor replied in an unmistakable tone of dismissal.

But as Jones turned to leave, Steven casually added, "You might want to take the back door out of here. Unless you want to be interrogated by that very impatient and very angry young woman lurking in the hallway."

The orderly blanched, then took the blatant hint and slipped out the inconspicious back door to the exam room.

Once he was alone, Steven silently locked the exam room's doors, front and back.

He had picked Jones not only for his honest, earnest appearence -- the man looked about as dangerous as a newborn chocobo chick -- but also for his utter lack of imagination. The orderly would follow his orders to the letter, no matter how long they took. The errands would keep Jones occupied and far away from the exam room for a good long time.

And now it was time to renew his acquaintance with a long lost specimen.


Wavering in and out of consciousness, Cloud became vaguely aware of lying on a cool, thinly padded surface. But it was the sickeningly familiar reek of medical disinfectant that told him he was trapped inside some sort of exam room.

/ ....no.... /

Forcing his eyes open, he caught a blurry glimpse of someone dressed in a white labcoat pacing beside the table.

/ ....not this.... /

His eyes fluttered closed, but he couldn't block out the sound of a sickeningly familiar nasal voice as it drawled, "Well, what a pleasant surprise. I'd never thought to run into YOU again. Do you have any idea how many plans and lives you managed to totally screw up with that little escape of yours?"

/ ....not again.... /

He knew the voice and the unbearable things that always accompanied it. More experiments. More pain. He was drowning in that pain....

The labcoated man continued to pace around the room, apparently unaware that Cloud was now conscious and listening.

"But what should I do about you, hmmm? While killing you right away would be gratifying, I'm not a wasteful man. After all, you're a rare and valuable specimen."

/ .... don't.... /

"So, what should I do with you? Now that I've found you again, I don't want to let you slip through my fingers... or worse, have you fall into someone else's hands."

When the footsteps came to a stop next to the table, something deep inside Cloud knotted, whimpering and howling in terrified anticipation.

"Hmmm... on the other hand, there's the slight problem of that overprotective bitch hovering right outside my door. So it appears that the most prudent option would be to wait and pick a more suitable time to retrieve you.

"To think that after two long years, we're going to be able to salvage our research project. I can't wait to let the other members of the team know."

He heard the rustle of cloth, then the sound of phone buttons being pressed.

The doctor was going to tell the others, tell them he was still alive. And once they knew that, they would try to hurt him, crush him, break him down, make him into nothing, just like before....

/ NO! /

A low, terrifying snarl of rage filled the room as Cloud suddenly sat up, grabbed the startled doctor by the throat while simultaneously slapping the phone out of his hand.

As the scientist sputtered and choked in his grasp, Cloud slid off the examination table. He could crush the bastard's throat and spine with no effort at all, turn that sick brain Steven was so proud of into a pretty reddish gray smear across the tiled walls.

Oh, how he wanted to... but not just yet.

Cloud snarled softly, "I couldn't stop you back then. But I can certainly stop you now. Isn't that right, my man?"

Steven squirmed and gurgled, clutching weakly at the gloved hand clamped around his scrawny throat.

Cloud released his grip and let the man drop to the floor.

Wheezing for breath, Steven scuttled backward. "NO! Stay away! Don't touch me!"

Cloud stared down at his old tormentor-now-prey and snarled, "Why should I listen to you? You never listened to me, no matter how much I begged."

Now cornered up against a cabinet with nowhere to go, Steven flung up his hands in a desperate, placating gesture.

"I... I was just doing my job back then... following orders! It was nothing personal, I swear!" croaked Steven through his half-crushed throat.

Cloud cocked his head slightly, as listening to a distant sound. Or perhaps he was reliving a not-so-distant memory. Then, with ominous softness, he said, "She SMILED at my pain. She LAUGHED at my screams."

Steven blinked, then quickly said, "You're absolutely right. She was one sick, sadistic bitch, the type that gets off on watching other people suffer."

Cloud bared his teeth at the terrified man grovelling at his feet.

"You think that I don't remember what you and that bitch used to do to 'pass the time' during those experiments?"

"She... she forced me into having sex with her! Threatened to get me fired!" Steven babbled. "I swear I didn't enjoy a minute of it! I was only trying to keep my job!"

"Why me?"

"Wha... what?"

"Why did you decide to experiment on me?" Cloud asked again and watched as the snivelling idiot actually relaxed at the question.

"Hojo decided... you know, because of the way you managed to defeat Sephiroth in Nibelheim. It was damn impressive for an unmodified human, even with Zack Fair softening up Sephiroth so much for you...."

Cloud inhaled sharply as a reddish haze settled over his vision.

"Zack... always Zack... It's. Always. About. Zack."

"H-huh?"

"Always grabbing the glory. Always playing the big fucking HERO."

"We're friends, right?"

// You are everything I want to be. //
// You have everything I want to have. //

// A SOLDIER, First Class. //
// Trusted, respected, and liked by everyone you meet. //

// Against you, I'm nothing. //

// I never asked you to be nice to me. //
// I never asked you to be my friend. //

// I never asked you to save me. //
// I never asked you to care about me. //

// I never asked you to die for me. //
// I never asked to live for you. //

// I never asked for your damn honor and dreams. //
// I never asked to be your fucking legacy. //

// I never asked to have you inside my head. //
// I never asked to become nothing without you. //

// I hate you. //

// I hate EVERYTHING about you. //

Cloud shuddered and grabbed at his head as those last few words seemed to burn their way deep into his brain.

Those thoughts, those feelings.... Where were they coming from? They weren't his. Couldn't be his. Zack was his friend.

"We're friends, right?"

He stood, frozen... trembling... torn....

Taking advantage of Cloud's confusion, the doctor scrambled around him and ran toward the main exit of the exam room, his trembling fingers groping for the lock.


Tifa jumped as the doors to Exam Room A burst open, then stared in astonishment as Dr. Steven bolted into the hallway, stared around wildly, then raced past her as if a pack of rabid Nibel wolves was at his heels.

"What the hell!?" Tifa sputtered, then charged into the exam room, expecting to find that an enemy or hideous monster had somehow gotten inside. Instead, she found only Cloud, conscious and on his feet, if only barely.

"Cloud?"

"Tifa?" He shook his head tentatively, then had to lean against the exam table to keep from falling over. "What happened? How... how did I get here?"

"Cloud, you better sit down before you fall down on your face." She grabbed for a nearby chair, but he waved it away.

"No, I'm okay."

Tifa snapped, "You are NOT okay. Okay people do not end up unconscious on the ground."

"I... I passed out?"

Tifa rubbed her forehead and said, "What's the last thing you remember?"

He frowned slightly. "What happened? I was on the road from Kalm to Edge, and then...."

When he didn't say more, Tifa gently prompted him with, "And then what?"

"I'm not sure. But I somehow ended up where Zack died. I... think I had some sort of flashback about that day. Except it was... different... somehow. After that, it all goes blank. The next thing I know, I'm here."

He gave Tifa a curious look.

"If I was that far off-track, how did you guys manage to find me?"

She held up his new phone and waggled it slightly before handing it back to him.

"It's amazing what modern technology can do, although I'm not really comfortable with the idea of being tracked via my own phone." Tifa shrugged. "But in this case, I'm glad we could. Otherwise, it might've taken days to find you."

Seeing that Cloud was no longer leaning on the table for support, she added, "You seem to be recovering pretty fast, but I think we should put off the discussion about the WEAPONs until tomorrow."

"I'd rather not wait."

"Are you sure? Maybe we should get another doctor to look at you. If this happens again...."

Cloud shook his head emphatically, wincing only slightly.

"It's probably a result of my hopelessly messed up memories and there's nothing ordinary doctors can do about that. The only ones that might have a clue about what's going on in my head are the very last people I want to talk to."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," she said with a slight smile, then added, "I'm sure that everyone will be thrilled to see that you're back on your feet."

Cloud gave her a wry grin. "Cid probably wants to poke fun at me for getting myself lost like that."

As Tifa led the way out of the infirmary, he asked, "You mentioned something about finding another doctor. What happened to the first one?"

"He ran away."

"Ran away?" Cloud said, looking baffled.

Tifa nodded, "He bolted out of the exam room and took off down the hallway." She hesitated, then added, "You might've accidentally given him a bad scare when you regained consciousness."

"Right."

From Cloud's flat tone, Tifa couldn't tell if he was feeling guilty or skeptical.

As as they approached a door to one of the side offices, it suddenly opened a crack. Both Tifa and Cloud stopped to stare as Dr. Steven first poked his head out, then peered around nervously. He started like a guilty thing when he saw Tifa, then his face went stark white when he noticed Cloud.

His eyes bulging in panic, the scientist jerked his head back into the 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, muttering, "What the hell is wrong with that man?" Turning to Cloud, she added, "I guess you really put the fear of god into him when you woke up."

Instead of answering her, Cloud continued to stare at the closed door and the adjacent name plate.

"Cloud? What's wrong?"

"There's something about him that just bothers me." Cloud took a few deep breaths, and rolled his shoulders in an effort to loosen suddenly tense neck muscles. "I feel that I should recognize him, even though I don't want to." He shrugged. "If that makes any sense."

As they entered the elevator and headed for Reeve's office, she said, "Don't worry about it, Cloud. Hopefully, that's the last time we'll ever see that obnoxious jerk."

(end of Part 1)


.


The Full Disclaimer:

All names, likenesses, and rights of Final Fantasy VII and its characters are trademarks, copyright, and property of Square Co., Ltd. and legally associated parties. 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.