Okay, a little late, but I ended up adding all these little bits here and there. But I'm finally finished!

I've pretty much caught up with the original COI. So from now on, it's new unexplored territory! ^_^;

And no, the Planet is NOT a nice entity.

Enjoy!

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 12
Author: Madamhydra
Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Character(s): all
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~8600
Warnings/Content: mature/dark/disturbing themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.) Read at your own risk.
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

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

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

CREDITS:
- Anne Bishop's Black Jewel series, from which I borrowed the explicit ability to "call in" (i.e., summon) and vanish items into some sort of personal hammerspace. It's the only explanation I have for where Sephiroth keeps that damn sword of his. :P

Text Conventions
- ( ) and { } and / and / indicate thoughts, mental dialogue, or languages from various characters
- [ ] are miscellaneous date or location notes, images, or sound effects

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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

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[ Weapon Facility ]

Sephiroth and the Turks prudently moved out of the way as Tifa and the others rushed over to the unconscious Cloud. As they stood off to the side, Reno glanced at Sephiroth.

"You seem to be taking all this stuff about betrayal, mass murder, and destroying the world rather well," the Turk said mildly.

Without taking his eyes off Cloud, Sephiroth's jaw tensed before he said, "As you well know, this sort of behavior is not entirely without precedent."

Reno gave him a cool stare. "Right. So you expected this to happen?"

Sephiroth finally turned to look at the Turk. "Hardly. After what happened to Genesis and Angeal, I anticipated the possibility of going rogue from Shinra. Nothing more." While his face remained impassive, there was an undercurrent of tightly suppressed fury in his voice as he continued. "If I'd had the slightest clue things would turn out this disastrously, do you think that I would have allowed Zack anywhere near me?"

"Zack would've become involved in your epic fuck up sooner or later, and you know it. Who else would Shinra send after you? And as much as he would've hated it, he would've accepted that mission. First, because he was the best qualified to deal with you, one way or another. Second, unlike you, he's not the type to dump the responsibility of killing a good friend on some other poor sod," Reno said in quiet, yet scathing tones.

"Believe me, I am painfully aware of that," Sephiroth retorted in an equally quiet and equally harsh voice.

Reno gazed at Sephiroth, then sighed wearily as he ran his hand through his disheveled red hair. "What's done is done, and there's plenty of blame to go around. Hell, it's not like I'm in any position to throw stones."

He shook his head sharply, then with almost visible effort, shifted his attention to more immediate issues. Glancing over at the still unconscious Cloud, Reno said, "You know, I thought the physical and mental changes in Copies were pretty much irreversible."

Accepting the change in topic, Sephiroth replied, "As far as I know, they are. But Cloud is no ordinary Copy. That much is obvious."

"Oh, I agree that he's certainly not like the Genesis Copies or Angeal Copies I've seen before. When he went into full-on Zack-mode, I would have sworn he was the real thing."

"He IS the real thing," Sephiroth said flatly. "The body may not be his, but the mind and personality controlling that body was very much Zack's."

"And how the hell would you know that?" Reno asked with deceptive politeness.

"I can tell the difference." With Zack now absent, Sephiroth's attitude was no longer patient and encouraging. It was now cold and sharp, very much like his infamous sword. "I suppose you could call it a gut feeling."

Reno made no comment as he turned back to stare at Cloud's unconscious body. He wouldn't put it past Sephiroth to be psychic enough to tell the difference between an original personality and a Copy, on top of whatever weird abilities the guy might have.

"With that matter settled, perhaps you can now satisfy my understandable curiosity." When Reno gave him a wary look, Sephiroth continued, "Why is Zack inside Cloud's body, and not his own, where it rightfully belongs?"

Although Sephiroth's face betrayed no obvious emotion, Reno detected an edge to the other's voice that made it clear that he was not asking, but demanding answers from the Turk.

Reno mildly cursed Zack in his head for bailing out and leaving the rest of them to deal with Sephiroth on their own. But he couldn't really blame Zack, either, for rushing off to keep Cloud from disappearing or whatever.

"Because he's dead," Reno said evenly. "But I think you've already figured that out."

"Did I kill him?" Sephiroth's voice was almost frighteningly neutral. He could have been asking about the weather in distant Costa del Sol.

"No, not directly. But the chain of events you started in Nibelheim eventually got him killed. When Zack tried to stop you at the Mt. Nibel reactor, you fought back and won. Believe it or not, it was Cloud who actually finished you off."

Reno waited, but except for a thoughtful glance at Cloud, Sephiroth showed no particular reaction to learning that Cloud had been the one to strike the fatal blow. However, he was sure that Sephiroth was filing away the information, along with plenty of questions for later. He was also sure that Sephiroth was taking whatever he or the others might say with a hefty dose of skepticism and suspicion. Sephiroth might be willing to accept Zack's words on faith alone, but he certainly wasn't going to extend that privilege to anyone else.

"Anyway, both Zack and Cloud survived the fight with you, although the two of them were in shit poor shape afterward." Reno waited a beat, then allowed his lips to curl into a bitter smile. "And then Hojo showed up in Nibelheim."

Sephiroth's green eyes narrowed. Oh yeah, he knew what Hojo's appearance meant.

"He was late to the party, but he wasn't about to let two prime chunks of research fodder slip through his fingers." Before Sephiroth could ask, Reno continued. "No, Hojo didn't directly cause Zack's death, either, as far as I know."

He had to be careful here. Ordinary SOLDIERs' senses could be sensitive enough to serve as damn effective lie detectors, and there was no question that Sephiroth's senses were absolutely top notch. Reno prided himself on being a damn good liar, but with Sephiroth involved, he didn't want to get caught in an outright lie.

And he'd rather not let Sephiroth know that the Turks had essentially turned their backs and walked away at Nibelheim, abandoning Zack and Cloud in Hojo's sadistic hands.

"Zack and Cloud were kept in Nibelheim as Hojo's prisoners for four years after the massacre," Reno continued smoothly. Before Sephiroth could say anything, he went on. "With President Shinra's full knowledge and permission."

"Why?"

Reno gave Sephiroth a pitying look. "Because Zack saw and knew too much, of course. C'mon, Shinra's top war hero goes totally nuts, massacres an entire company town, and tries to steal a super secret alien specimen. You think Shinra's going to let that become public knowledge? And you know that after all the other shit that happened, Zack damn well wouldn't have played along with the coverup and kept his mouth shut."

"So the President had two options: kill him or imprison him," Sephiroth said softly. "And so he chose to give Zack to Hojo."

"Along with the handful of other survivors of Nibelheim. Cloud included." Reno gave Sephiroth a viciously cynical grin. "Hey, it made great business sense. Recycling company resources, right? Not to mention it was an easy way to keep Hojo happy and productively employed."

"Four years in Nibelheim, in Hojo's custody. Then what?"

"Zack somehow managed to break out of the lab and escape with Cloud. They stayed on the run for a year before Zack was eventually tracked down and killed."

"Are you sure about that?" Cid said, standing up and switching his attention from the unconscious Cloud to the conversation between Reno and Sephiroth. "Cloud told us that Zack died, but since his memory tends to be seriously fucked, there's no telling whether that's actually true or not. And besides, Hel knows we keep running into people who die, but don't seem to STAY dead." He looked pointedly at Sephiroth.

"Zack definitely died two years ago outside Midgar," Reno said firmly.

"Did the Turks kill him?" Sephiroth said, the ominous edge in his voice returning.

Reno had no trouble reading the signs. In his restrained, understated way, Sephiroth was seriously pissed off. From their conversation earlier, Reno knew Sephiroth accepted much of the blame for what happened, and justifiably so. But if Sephiroth was looking for additional targets for his anger, Reno knew one thing for certain - he did NOT want the Turks to be one of those targets.

Reno met Sephiroth's cold stare unflinchingly. "Fuck, no! Our orders were to capture him alive, and we were working our asses off to do just that. But after being epically screwed over by Shinra and four years as Hojo's prisoners, Zack wasn't about to allow himself or Cloud to be recaptured by anybody."

"Then who killed Zack?"

"The Shinra Army," Reno answered. "They were under the same orders to capture the escaped Nibelheim specimens alive, but Zack kept slipping through their fingers. Heidegger and his commanders finally got fed up with looking like the idiots they were and sent out their own orders to kill him on sight."

"They sent conventional troops to take down Zack?" Sephiroth said with a slight frown. "And they succeeded? How did they manage that?"

"Wore him down with sheer freaking numbers." Reno's lips curved into a sour smile. "They mobilized every available military unit on the Western Continent. They literally threw an entire army brigade, with full mechanized and air support, at him. And even with those numbers, Zack very nearly finished them off. When the dust finally settled, just over a squad of infantrymen on the Shinra side was left standing."

Sephiroth's icy green gaze shifted and slid over to Scarlet, who blanched visibly. She flung up her hands as if to fend off any blame and quickly said, "Oh no, I did NOT have anything to do with that! I told Heidegger it was a stupid idea to send the regular Army after a top level SOLDIER. But he and those idiotic commanders of his wouldn't listen to me! I warned them that the losses would be huge!"

"I never figured out why the President allowed Heidegger to live after that fiasco, much less keep his place on the board of directors," Reno said. "Shinra's PR guys ended up having to invent some shit-assed excuse about a natural disaster to explain away all the casualties and the disappearance of a sizable chunk of its military forces."

Reno glanced at Tifa and the others. "Because of those losses Zack caused, Shinra's military was stretched pretty thin when you AVALANCHE guys started acting up in Midgar. So you can thank Zack for making things a lot easier for you."

"And the Turks' involvement?" Sephiroth asked in the same dangerously level tone he had used throughout the entire conversation.

Reno shrugged. "We tried to get to Zack before the Army, but the Army managed to pin him down first. By the time we arrived, it was all over. The only things the Turks could do were confirm the bodycount and the identity of the terminated target."

"And you were certain it was Zack?"

"Believe me, we checked, double-checked, triple-checked, and quadruple-checked. Complete DNA analysis, fingerprints, retina scans, you name it, we used it. And yeah, we specifically checked for evidence of cloning and copying. Except for an elevated level of Mako in Zack's system, there were no anomalies. No question, it was Zack Fair."

Reno let that information settle in before continuing. "And before you ask, Tseng ordered us to destroy his body to keep it out of Hojo's hands."

"But what about Cloud?" Cid demanded.

"We didn't find any sign of Cloud at the scene. But then again, we weren't exactly looking for him. Our intel at the time said that Zack was traveling alone." Reno was pretty sure that the last bit had probably been Cissinei's doing, either at Zack's request or on her own initiative, in order to obscure the trail for the Army.

"Standing and fighting doesn't make sense. Why didn't Zack simply stay on the run?" Sephiroth asked.

This time it was Tifa, still kneeling on the floor beside Cloud, who answered. "He could have, but he didn't. Because he had someone he wanted to protect." She placed her hand gently on Cloud's head, then looked up to meet Sephiroth's eyes.

Reno half-expected Sephiroth to make a sarcastic or resentful comment on the lines of "I hope he was worth it." But surprisingly, Sephiroth said nothing. Well, the guy was pretty familiar with how Zack's mind worked.

"Fuck. Cloud mentioned that Zack died fighting off a Shinra ambush. He didn't mention that ambush involved an entire goddamn brigade!" Cid muttered, looking both startled and impressed.

"Brigade?" Nanaki said curiously. "Just how many people are we talking about here?"

"Thousands," Cid replied flatly.

"The reports I uncovered only mentioned half a battalion or so," Cait Sith commented, sounding equally impressed.

"No surprise there. Heidegger and the Army were downplaying the 'incident' like crazy. You can bet there was a lot of ass-covering going on in those reports," Reno said cynically.

"Seems like a damn wasteful way to get rid of one single guy," Cid said in disgust.

"The standard procedure would've been to send other SOLDIERs after Zack," Scarlet said with an irritated shrug. "But Heidegger nixed that option."

"Of course he refused," Reno retorted. "For one thing, the men most qualified for a hunt-and-destroy mission against Zack would have been the older, more experienced SOLDIERs. But they're also the guys most likely to have personal ties to him. Hell, he trained with, or helped to train, most of them.

"As for the newer post-Nibelheim SOLDIERs." Reno turned to Sephiroth. "Between the mass desertions and its top four SOLDIERs going rogue and/or missing, Shinra seriously geared back on the whole SOLDIER program. Fewer candidates got accepted and Shinra didn't go nearly as far with the SOLDIER enhancements as they did before the Nibelheim incident."

"So with a lack of trust in the older SOLDIERs, a lack of confidence in the newer ones, and a blind hunger for glory, Heidegger chose to use the regular Army to kill Zack and to hell with the casualties," Cait Sith said bitterly.

"That's Heidegger for you," Reno drawled.

"What was Hojo doing with Zack and the other survivors during those four years?" Sephiroth said.

"Using them in his new research project."

"Creating Zack Copies?"

"Not... exactly. A different sort of Copy," Reno replied, his expression turning cautious.

When Sephiroth continued to stare at Reno, the Turk glanced over at Tifa and the others, then raised an eyebrow questioningly.

Cid finally threw up his hands and said, "Oh hell, since Zack's out of the picture, I guess we're the ones stuck with the job of telling him what happened. Might as well start doing it now."

"Have it your way." Reno then turned back to Sephiroth and said, "Hojo tried to turn Zack, Cloud, and the other survivors into some sort of Sephiroth Copies. Except he called them Clones, for some screwy reason known only to himself."

For the first time, they saw Sephiroth blink.

"Copies. Of me."

"Yeah, you. Apparently to prove some weird-ass theory of his involving not-your-damn-mother Jenova," Cid said.

Sephiroth took a deep breath. "Putting the issue of Jenova aside, if Hojo was trying to make Zack and Cloud into Copies of me, how did Cloud become a Copy of Zack?"

Surprisingly, it was Reno who answered with a derisive grin. "Because a bunch of other scientists at Nibelheim were running their own super-secret research project behind Hojo's back."

"You're fucking kidding me!" Cid blurted.

Yuffie jumped to her feet and smacked her hand on her forehead. "No, Reno's right! I found a note in the basement of the Shinra Mansion that mentioned something about a special research project that needed to be completely hidden from Hojo! They even cooked up fake data and reports as part of the coverup!"

"Hollander?" Sephiroth's question made no sense to Tifa and her friends, but Scarlet and the Turks knew exactly who Sephiroth was talking about.

Reno shook his head. "Hollander was Hojo's big competitor for the Science Director job. Considering the way Hojo kept meticulous tabs on Hollander and his associates, I seriously doubt anyone with serious connections to Hollander or Project G could've gotten assigned to the Nibelheim labs."

"Look, I'm still not clear on all this Copy stuff you guys keep going on about," Cid complained loudly. "Much less what this Hollander character has to do with it."

Reno said impatiently, "To make a long story short, Hojo had a long-time rival called Hollander, who cooked up something he called Project G which used Jenova cells to produce two prototypes, Angeal and Genesis. Maybe you heard something about them? Hell, you were in the Shinra military yourself."

Cid frowned and scratched his chin. "Now that you mention it, I vaguely recall... weren't they some hotshot SOLDIERs? Some of the female techs used to go all gaga over them. Then they sorta went 'poof' and no one ever mentioned them again."

"There's a good reason for their disappearance. Turns out the whole Project G thing was fundamentally flawed, and the prototypes started to deteriorate. They didn't take it too well and they both went majorly rogue.

"However, somewhere along the way, Hollander figured out that if you transplanted the cells of a Project G prototype into a human or creature, you could basically convert the cell receiver into a Copy of the original cell donor. The person or creature gets overwritten, so to speak, and takes on not only the physical appearance, but many of the special abilities of the original." Reno paused, then added, "The process also allowed the prototypes to psychically manipulate their particular Copies. Those Copies essentially became mere extensions of their original's will."

"In other words, a puppet," Cait Sith said. Even with the robot cat's cutesy accent, the tone was grim.

Tifa said slowly, "So when you called Cloud a Zack Copy, you're saying that you think someone stuck some Zack cells into Cloud and that's what caused him to not only act like Zack, but also assume Zack's physical appearance, as he did just now?"

"Oh, the effects go way deeper than that," Reno said with a harsh laugh. "But you've got the general idea."

"But Cloud is... well, Cloud! He doesn't act at all like Zack most the time! I mean, I knew Zack. I would've noticed!" Yuffie protested, looking shocked.

"How do you know Zack so well?" Tifa said, looking surprised. "And why didn't you mention anything about it before?"

Yuffie rolled her eyes. "I knew A Zack, who was a member of SOLDIER. We weren't exactly buddies, but I ran into him on occasion and I got to know him a bit."

Her voice became wistful and her smile slightly strained. "When Zack suddenly stopped answering my emails, I just figured that he had better things to do with his time." Yuffie shook her head sharply. "Anyway, I didn't tell you guys because how the hell was I supposed to know MY Zack was Cloud's Zack?"

In reply to Tifa's question, Reno said, "I'm not saying that Cloud's the exact same kind of Copy as the Angeal and Genesis Copies. For one thing, Zack wasn't a Project G prototype. But I'm pretty sure the general concept of a Copy applies. I've personally seen and heard enough to convince me that Cloud is somehow carrying a full copy of Zack's personality and memories inside him."

"When did you...?" Tifa started to ask, but Reno ignored the question.

"As for why Cloud hasn't shown any blatant signs of being a Zack Copy before all this, it could be that the Zack part of him was somehow dormant and something triggered it." Reno said, sounding exasperated. "Look, I'm just making educated guesses here!"

"A trigger? Something like... the Planet?" Nanaki said quietly.

When they all looked at him, Nanaki continued, "Well, Zack said that the Planet did something to Sephiroth to ensure he came back 'right'. And that the Planet was 'interested' in Rufus. So it's possible that the Planet somehow did something to Cloud as well..."

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From his earlier chat with Sephiroth about Cloud housing the 'real' Zack, Reno could make a reasonable - if such a word could be applied to a freaky situation like this - guess about what that 'trigger' might be.

People claimed that the Lifestream was this big collection of memories, emotions, and knowledge of everyone who lived on the Planet. If the Planet somehow figured out a way to sort out the sane Sephiroth-bits from the insane Sephiroth-bits, then it seemed equally feasible for the Planet to gather up all the Zack-bits out of the Lifestream and... well, cram them into Cloud.

Bad enough that four years of Hojo's - or whoever's - experiments had completely broken the poor guy's brain. Now there was a good chance Cloud was saddled with Zack's spirit, soul, or whatever.

Getting a ghost with such a strong personality as Zack's stuffed inside one's head would have meant serious trouble with someone with Cloud's fragile psyche. But combine that with being hardwired on the genetic level by mad scientists for that exact purpose...

Pure coincidence or not, that made Cloud a great candidate for being the most thoroughly and UTTERLY screwed person on the damn Planet.

Now Reno couldn't help feeling guilty about his earlier wish that Zack would stay in Cloud's driver seat. The idea of Cloud getting caught up in his own delusion of being Zack hadn't bothered him too much, because that was Cloud screwing himself over.

But the idea of Cloud becoming slowly and inexorably possessed in both mind and body by his best, but unfortunately very dead, friend was very different. It went beyond creepy and into outright nightmarish.

And not only for the obvious reasons.

Because if the Planet was willing to fuck up Cloud so badly for the sake of resurrecting Zack in pursuit of its mysterious agenda - because that was what it was sure starting to look like to Reno - then what the HELL did the Planet have in mind for Rufus?

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"If Cloud IS a Zack Copy... what happens to him now?" Tifa said quietly.

Reno started, then gave her a surprisingly sympathetic look. "As far as we know, a Copy loses all traces of their own identity. It usually occurs right away, but sometimes it takes a while. But soon or later, it eventually happens."

Tifa's face went pale. "But the fact that Zack managed to restore Cloud's physical appearance is a good sign, right?" she said, hopefully. "Doesn't that mean there's a chance of his personality remaining intact?"

Cid glanced at Reno. "What are the chances of that? Realistically?"

"Hell if I know," the Turk said with brutal honesty.

"Okay, so if Cloud was somehow turned into some sort of Zack Copy, it had to have happened during those four years at Nibelheim," Cait Sith said. "And from what you said, Hojo didn't know anything about it."

"He found out somehow," Reno said with a nasty little smirk. "Because when Cloud first arrived here, Hojo went off on this rant about unauthorized research at Nibelheim. Research involving Cloud. And man, he was PISSED. He was really looking forward to taking Cloud apart to find out what those other scientists did to him. At the time, I thought Hojo was just being paranoid on top of his usual crazy. But now... well, raving lunatics can still be right about certain things."

"Look, just how many different fucking research projects did Shinra have going on at the same time?" Cid demanded.

"Lots." Reno said, rolling his eyes. "Like you would not believe. If you think that Shinra's Science Department was one big happy research group, you'd be totally wrong. There were factions and in-fighting like you would not believe. Hojo versus Hollander was just the most notorious of the professional feuds that went on."

"Is Cloud the only Zack Copy, or are there any more?" Sephiroth interrupted.

Reno shook his head. "No idea."

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Down in the bowels of the factory, Hojo flipped a final switch and rubbed his hands with satisfaction as the pumps began to chug noisily.

He left the small control room and headed down to the reactor level to evaluate the effects of his efforts to fix Scarlet's sabotage. While nothing was as important as the resurrection of Sephiroth, this other project was still crucial to his plans. And then there was his work with the computer network...

Standing on the catwalk above the glowing reactor pit, Hojo was pleased to see that the recent lack of raw Mako failed to have a significant impact on the growth of the massive entity seething and roiling below the walkway.

Jenova-FLESH.

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The discussion about Cloud, Copies, and the Planet could have continued for hours. But everything was cut short by the ring of a cell phone.

Cid yanked out the phone out of a pocket and said, "Yeah?"

From onboard the Shera, Kunsel replied, "Cid? I've got news that everyone should hear."

Switching on the phone's speaker, Cid said, "Go ahead. We're all listening."

"Uh, guys, if you've got stuff left to do down there, you'd better hurry up and get a move on it."

"Why?"

"I've just gotten reports that several very large objects are homing in on your location."

"Large objects? Fuck, I'm almost afraid to ask, but... let me guess. WEAPONs?" Cid said, his expression decidedly grim.

"Sure looks like it."

"You said several. How many?"

Kunsel's response was blunt. "At least four."

A stunned silence fell over the lab.

Yuffie rubbed her hands over her forehead. "Oh crap!"

Reno said sarcastically, "Well, Zack did warn us that the Planet wasn't fooling around."

"And you're sure they're headed here?" Cid demanded.

"Straight as an arrow," Kunsel said regretfully. "They're coming in fast. So it might be a really good idea to get out of there ASAP."

Cid took a deep breath and said, "How long before they arrive?"

"Less than an hour, and that's a really generous estimate. There's something else you need to know."

"You're going to tell me that there's more bad news. There always is!"

"Sorry, guys. The observers say that these WEAPONs definitely match up to previously known WEAPONs. But they're also about 10-20% bigger and faster than previous estimates. And from a purely subjective standpoint, they look a hell of a lot meaner."

"Meaner?! Are you trying to tell us that the fucking things have somehow gotten more powerful?" shouted Cid.

"Sure looks that way," Kunsel said, still sounding apologetic.

"Got it. Hang on. I'll get back to you once we figure out things on this end."

As Cid ended the call, Cait Sith said, "Well, the original WEAPONs were all destroyed, so it makes sense for the Planet to upgrade."

"Oh great," Cid said. "So you're saying that each time a WEAPON's destroyed, the Planet automatically creates a stronger one the next time there's a threat? And it will most likely keep doing that until the threat stops or the Planet itself is destroyed?"

"So why didn't the Planet do that when Meteor was about to land in our laps?" Yuffie sounded decidedly aggrieved.

Nanaki shook his furry head. "Probably not enough time. Even for a Planet, it would take a lot of time and effort to rebuild something as complex as a WEAPON."

Cid muttered, "Shit, taking down those WEAPONs was hard enough the first time around. If they've been upgraded..."

"Well, that's explains why Zack wanted us to get out of here. This factory is no Junon Fortress. One WEAPON could easily rip this place apart. Four is total overkill. Why the hell send so many?" Scarlet said, then turned to stare suspiciously at Sephiroth. "Unless they're targeting YOU."

They all turned to look at Sephiroth, then Cid abruptly smacked his forehead. "Aw, fuck no. They're not after Sephiroth. The WEAPONs are after Hojo and that damn Jenova fragment Zack mentioned!"

"Now wait a damn minute!" Scarlet protested. "If the Planet wants Sephiroth around - and who the fuck knows why? - doesn't it realize that if it obliterates this factory, it'll do the same to him?"

"I've got a feeling that the Planet had it covered in its own way," Cait Sith replied. "What are you willing to bet that the WEAPONs didn't start actually moving in until after Sephiroth woke up? And it warned Zack, who naturally warned Sephiroth and the rest of us."

"What precisely are these WEAPONs you keep talking about?" Sephiroth interrupted sharply.

Tifa said evenly, "Super-sized bioweapons created by the Planet. They're about... how tall would you say, Cid?"

"You been to the Fortress at Junon, Sephiroth?" the pilot asked.

"Frequently."

"Fine, then you'll have some idea of what I'm talking about. When Sapphire WEAPON reared out of the water in front of the Fortress, it was pretty much eye to eye with the Cannon. As for durability, it took a point-blank shot to its head with that Cannon to stop it. Trust me, the other ones were just as big and a lot tougher. And as you just heard, the WEAPONs headed in our direction appear to be the new and improved models."

"I see." An image flashed through Sephiroth's mind, of a great glowing cavern where a massive, serpentine creature lay slumbering behind a great wall of crystallized Mako.

"Cid, do you think Hojo knows about the WEAPONs?" asked Yuffie.

"He'll definitely know soon enough when they show up on his fucking doorstep."

Cait Sith said, "I think we should take Zack's suggestion and leave as soon as possible. We've accomplished pretty much what we intended, although not exactly in the way we expected," the toy cat said, looking at Sephiroth.

"Except for dealing with Hojo," Vincent said grimly.

"I think four WEAPONs have that covered," Scarlet objected. "I vote for leaving, and right now!"

"We need to be sure," Vincent insisted. "He's gotten away too many times. We thought we killed him back at the Sister Ray, but he managed to survive and return. We can't rely on the WEAPONs to finish him off."

Cid sighed. "You've got a point."

"You go ahead. I'll stay behind, head down to the Mako reactor level, and make sure that Hojo doesn't escape again."

Cid scowled furiously at Vincent. "Oh no. You're NOT running off alone. Tifa, you take Cloud and get him the hell out of here. I'll go with Vincent. No, don't argue with me," he snapped, glaring at the other man. "I'm coming with you and that's final."

Before Sephiroth could say anything, Cid shook his head sharply. "Not you. Zack was pretty nervous about having you near Hojo and whatever hellish Jenova crap he's cooked up. I don't know shit about this psychic resonance stuff Zack mentioned, but if it's serious enough for worry someone like him, that's good enough for me. Tifa, I know it sucks balls, but you're going to be stuck with both Scarlet and Sephiroth on your team. You sure you're up to it?"

Tifa stared at Sephiroth, comparing the madman that destroyed Nibelheim and the soldier that had arrived with Zack. She then nodded firmly. "I can handle it."

"Yuffie? You, Nanaki, and Cait Sith tag along with Tifa and watch her back. She's going to have her hands full with Cloud." Cid glanced over at the Turks. "Reno, I can tell you're in shit shape at the moment. No, don't give me any crap. You're going with Tifa."

It said a great deal about the accuracy of Cid's assessment and Reno's condition when the Turk didn't bother to argue. And while he had managed to put up a pretty good front, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the red-haired Turk was in fact hurting badly.

Reno and Rude exchanged glances. Rude turned to Vincent and said, "I'm going with you. I'm inclined to believe Zack when he says that Rufus isn't here, but we need to make sure. And you have a valid point about Hojo."

"Fine," Cid muttered. "Join the damn Hojo-hunting party."

Scarlet smirked at Tifa and drawled, "So now what, esteemed team leader?"

Tifa's eyes narrowed in annoyance, but she managed to remain civil despite Scarlet's obvious provocation. "This is your place. Any recommendations?"

"The helipad would be the fastest evac route, especially if you've got air transport. Unfortunately, it's also totally exposed," Scarlet said. "So the escape tunnel is probably the best option."

"Okay, then let's do it." Cid pulled out his phone again. "Kunsel?"

Onboard the Shera, the SOLDIER replied, "You want us to come and pick you up?"

"No, too risky. I want you guys to stay the hell away from this area. This place is about to become a goddamn battle zone and I'm going to be majorly pissed if you guys get the Shera blown up, because I sure as hell don't want to walk all the way home! Tifa and her group are headed out first. They're going to use the way we came in, so head back toward the cave entrance. She'll call you in for a pickup when she's clear."

"And what about you?"

Cid glanced at Vincent. "We've got some business to take care of first."

"Got that. We'll be waiting." There was some discussion on Kunsel's end, then he said quickly, "Cid, if you're sticking around to look for Rufus, you should know that Chaise just got a message from Healen. Tseng regained consciousness just long enough to tell Elena that Hojo was NOT responsible for abducting Rufus. Apparently, a group of ex-SOLDIER mercs took advantage of Hojo's attack to grab Rufus for some mystery client and framed Hojo for it, believe it or not. That's all Tseng managed to say before passing out again. So there's no need for you to stay behind."

"Thanks for the confirmation about Rufus, but we've got other stuff to do."

"Wha...? Confirmed?" Kunsel said, sounding surprised.

"Long story. Tell you later." Behind him, Cid heard Rude talking to Chaise on his own phone.

"We recovered Reno," the Turk reported to his colleague onboard the Shera. "He's injured, but otherwise appears okay. Contact Elena and tell her to pull all records we have on Zack Fair, SOLDIER First Class, and generate a list of every location he's been since he joined Shinra up until his death. We have credible information that Rufus is probably being held in one of those locations."

Reno leaned over Rude's shoulder and spoke directly to Chaise. "And get someone to track down Cissinei and pump her for anything she might know about Zack. Stuff she didn't mention or fudged in her official reports. You know what I mean."

Cid tuned out the rest of the Turks' conversation and said to Kunsel, "Stay on your toes, and see you later." After ending the call, he turned to his companions. "Okay, guys. You heard the man. We're damn short on time."

Vincent glanced at Scarlet and said, "Where's Hojo now?"

As Scarlet pulled her data pad again and started tapping, Cid grabbed Yuffie and pulled her aside.

"Tifa's going to be fully occupied taking care of Cloud. You be sure to keep your eyes on Scarlet."

"You're more worried about her than Sephiroth?" Yuffie said, surprised.

"Never imagined that I would be saying it, but yeah. She and Tifa don't get along, and Scarlet's only interested in saving her own neck. That makes her more dangerous and unpredictable at the moment. I'm pretty sure that Sephiroth isn't going to cut and run if the going gets tough."

He then glanced at Rude. "You still want to come along? Given what your own boss said, it seems pretty fucking certain that Rufus ain't here."

"There's still the matter of Hojo," Rude said calmly.

"Have it your own way."

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

As Cid's group finished their preparations, Scarlet shouted, "Heads up!"

Without looking, Vincent caught the data tablet she tossed in his direction.

"That contains the floor plans of the entire factory, and I've set it up to access the security cameras so you can track him yourself," she said. "Never thought I'd be saying this to you, but good luck hunting down the miserable scaly son of a bitch."

A brusque wave of the tablet was Vincent's only acknowledgement as he headed out the door, accompanied by Cid and Rude.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

"Is he up to being moved?" Yuffie asked, crouching down beside the unconscious Cloud.

Tifa lifted Cloud's shirt and lightly ran her hand along his unmarked abdomen. "It's not like we have much of a choice about that, but it looks like that big stomach wound we saw earlier is completely gone. And there's no trace of a hole or bloodstains on his clothes, either."

"You think Zack had something to do with that?"

"Who knows?" Tifa said with a shrug. "His vital signs are strong and steady. Except for remaining unconscious, he seems perfectly healthy."

She and Yuffie exchanged looks. They both knew that with Cloud, his physical condition was not the thing you had to worry about.

"Okay, so except for being out cold, he's unhurt. So how are we going to move him? Argh! Where's Barret when we need him?" Yuffie whined.

Looking impatient, Scarlet said, "Why don't you just load him onto Mr. Furry here." She jerked a thumb in Nanaki's direction. "And tie him on, or something?"

Almost before Scarlet finished speaking, Tifa responded flatly, "No way."

At the exact same moment, Reno said, "Seriously bad idea."

As Tifa and Reno glanced at each other in surprise, Scarlet demanded, "Why not?"

Reno spared Tifa from having to explain by saying in a voice brimming with sarcasm, "Excuse me? Do you want to run the risk of someone as strong as Cloud completely flipping his shit? Because considering the sort of crap he's been through, I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's exactly what happens if he wakes up and finds himself all tied up. Or tied down, as the case may be."

As Nanaki winced and comprehension dawned on Yuffie's face, Tifa replied, "As Reno said, a seriously bad idea." She then glanced warily at Sephiroth.

Although Sephiroth had remained silent during the most recent rush of activity, no one made the mistake of thinking this was because of indecision or lack of confidence. No, he was surely observing them closely, assessing their credibility, evaluating their competence, analyzing their strengths...

And looking for weaknesses.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Sephiroth said nothing as he watched Tifa organize the others with impressive efficiency.

She said briskly, "I'll carry Cloud. No, Reno. Cid's right. You're barely on your feet yourself, no matter how hard you're trying to hide it. Concentrate on taking care of yourself so we don't have another person to carry."

"Have it your way," the red-haired Turk said with a shrug, but the pained grimace he couldn't quite hide spoiled the nonchalant attitude.

"Nanaki, Cait Sith. You take up the rear. Scarlet, you're in front of me. Yuffie, behind Scarlet." Tifa turned to Sephiroth with a tight smile. "And you get to be on point, if you feel up to taking on Hojo's monsters unarmed."

The party arrangement - putting the least trusted elements up front where they could be easily watched by those behind - made excellent tactical sense. Although Tifa's main concern was clearly Cloud, she also didn't neglect her responsibilities as group leader.

He glanced at Yuffie. Her body language and movements hinted that the perky young woman had Wutai-style assassin training, which made her a good choice to watch Scarlet and respond to any suspicious activity.

It would have been easy for him to carry Cloud as well as take point. But given the way Tifa tensed whenever he got close to Cloud, he doubted that his offer would be well received.

Instead, in response to Tifa's sarcastic words, he replied, "I can fight unarmed, if necessary. However..."

Tifa tensed, her eyes narrowing in suspicion.

"...I'm not unarmed," he continued in the most deadpan tone he had, then called in Masamune.

Sephiroth suppressed a slightly malicious desire to smile at Tifa's and the others' reaction as his sword answered his psychic summons and materialized with a flare of green energy in his left hand.

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[ Lifestream ]

Satisfied that things were proceeding as planned with the first and second of its newly Chosen, the Planet ponderously focused its attention on the third, and in some ways, the most important.

Unlike its first and second Chosen, the one called Rufus would be untainted by the Calamity, thus ensuring that he would answer solely to the Planet.

As it had been eons ago, when those who called themselves Cetra walked the Planet's surface, tending to it, protecting it, and most of all, serving its will.

Now only the Cetra's distant descendants, with their pitifully diluted bloodlines, remained. Even the little Healer, talented as she might be, was far more human than true Cetra. In ancient times, someone of such impure blood would have been barred from setting a single foot inside the hallowed halls of the Cetra Healers.

Pureblooded Cetra no longer existed, but enough of the ancient bloodlines survived to serve the Planet's purpose. Thanks to the Healer called Aerith and her clever solution to the disease called Geostigma, the Planet now knew how to awaken and strengthen the bloodline potential lying dormant in select humans. In time, it would create a new breed of Cetra to replace the old.

New servants. New tools. A new type of WEAPON.

Even the presence of the Calamity's taint within the bodies of its first and second Chosen, the ones known as Sephiroth and Zac-loud, was no longer a frustrating obstacle, but rather an useful factor that would be turned to the Planet's advantage.

Because while the Calamity's cells interfered with the Planet's ability to communicate and control its Chosen, those same alien cells also granted physical abilities and powers beyond those provided by severely weakened Cetra bloodlines and Mako alone. The tradeoff was deemed acceptable.

And even though the Calamity's cells made the first and second of its Chosen vulnerable to its influence, the Planet had taken precautions.

The third of its Chosen would be the most potent of its safeguards.

Sephiroth, Zac-loud, and Rufus.

Ruler, Protector, and Speaker.

A Healer would have been the proper choice for Speaker, but there was only one. And she no longer possessed the physical body necessary to carry out a Speaker's duties.

The one called Rufus would serve as an adequate substitute.

The Planet would make it so.

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[ Montessi's lab ]

Dr. Hutton gazed at the large transparent cylinder holding Rufus Shinra and marveled at the workings of the holy Planet.

Although he could not see any visible evidence of his sabotage, he could sense, ever so faintly, the Lifestream's presence inside the lab. Or more precisely, within the test chamber in front of him.

Before Meteorfall, he had been as deaf and blind to the Planet as all the other pitiful humans around him. But when the Lifestream emerged in all its terrible glory, something awoke deep inside him. While some claimed to receive the gift of visions or hear the Planet's voice, all he gained was a dim awareness of the Planet's overwhelming presence and majesty.

But that awareness, limited as it was, had been enough to convince him that Planet lived and it was the true ruler of this world. He soon discovered that others, both inside and outside of Shinra, had experienced a similar epiphany.

The unenlightened scornfully called them 'planet-huggers', dismissed them as deluded or outright lunatics. But what did they know? Only those who could sense the Planet's power could understand humanity's true place in the scheme of things.

As the pathetic remnants of the Cetra, humans existed to serve the Planet. But instead of carrying out their sacred duty, humanity had instead turned against their rightful lord and master.

To atone for his previous sins as a minion of Shinra, he had volunteered to take on the task of infiltrating Montessi's team and carrying out the Planet's will.

He didn't know why the Planet wanted Rufus Shinra, and it wasn't his place to ask. But if the Planet wanted Rufus, then Rufus it would get.

The first part of his mission had been completed when he bypassed the Mako system failsafes, giving the Planet free and unobstructed access to Rufus.

The second part of his mission was to keep anyone, especially the bitch Montessi, from interfering with the Planet's plans for Rufus. In particular, he was to do whatever was necessary to ensure that Rufus was not exposed to Jenova cells during this critical period.

The latter was turning out to be surprisingly easy. Montessi was fully occupied with the difficult task of hunting down a suitable sample of Jenova cells for her vile experiments. In her absence, he was the one in charge of Rufus's Mako treatments, so it was easy to Rufus totally isolated.

Dr. Hutton allowed a cold smile to curve his lips as he tried to imagine what Rufus Shinra was enduring at that moment as the Planet remade him.

Pleasure? Joy? Pain? Horror?

He rather hoped it was the latter two. As a Shinra, Rufus deserved to suffer for the way his family had exploited and defiled the Planet.

o-~-~~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o-~-~-~-~-o

Inside the tank, perfectly hidden by the Mako surrounding it, a complex web of Lifestream energy not only enveloped Rufus's naked body, but sank deep into his flesh and steadily infiltrated every cell.

Despite the chaos engulfing his Mako-poisoned mind, Rufus had a dim awareness of the profound and terrifying changes taking place inside him, sensed the very core of his being gradually being reshaped by the inexorable will of the Planet.

And while powers dormant for untold generations began to awake and stir within him, a fierce, implacable hatred toward the Planet's ancient enemy etched itself deep into Rufus's psyche.

In the best of circumstances, with full control of mind and body, resistance would have been virtually impossible. But as he was now, trapped and vulnerable, mental defenses and self-control shattered by the Mako and Montessi's drugs, Rufus Shinra was completely at the Planet's dubious mercy.

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(end of Part 12)

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The Full Disclaimer:

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

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

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