Conflicts of Interest Part 4

Conspiracies of Silence & Omission

By Madam Hydra

Last modification date: 10/09/98



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

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


Author's notes:

WARNING: Violence, Adult language and subject matter.

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


Text Conventions

( ) are character thoughts

/ / and // // are mental dialogue

[ ] are miscellaneous images or sound effects


Part 4a: Sharp Edges of the Past

Just after sunrise the next day, Red went looking for Cloud. The beast found his friend in the back yard, indulging in a little early morning sword practice. He watched as Cloud moved easily through a complex series of blocks and attacks, wielding the huge Buster sword like it was a twig. When Cloud finished the exercise, he was barely breathing hard. He shouldered the blade and walked over to the bench where Red was waiting.

"Why are you using that old sword for practice when you have the Ultima Weapon?" the beast asked in a curious voice.

Cloud smiled and said, "I like the variety. It keeps me on my toes. Besides, it's not good to overspecialize. You never know when you're going to get stuck with something else. It's always good to have options."

Red reached out a paw and tapped the lethal-looking combat knife lying on the bench.

"Is that why you also carry this?"

"Yeah." Cloud picked up the knife, tossed it into the air. As it fell, he effortlessly snagged the spinning blade in midair and slid it into its sheath on his back in a single fluid movement. He then picked up a whetstone and methodically started to work on the Buster sword. His more powerful weapons never seemed to require sharpening, but the Buster sword frequently needed to be honed to the proper edge.

Red found the rasp of stone on steel an oddly soothing sound. "That sword...."

Cloud's hands stopped moving. "Yes. This was Zack's. I think it was some sort of family heirloom. But the sword he actually used was considerably more powerful. It was more on the lines of my Crystal Sword or Ragnarok. I think Zack said his sword was called 'Blood Scythe'. I wonder whatever happened to it...." His voice trailed off, then he tapped the Buster Sword. "But this sword was a gift from his uncle so he took it with him wherever he went."

"May I examine it?"

"Sure." Cloud held out the Buster Sword. Taking the hilt in his jaws, Red grunted with effort. Even with his massive shoulders and jaws, he definitely felt the effort required to hold the length of the sword parallel to the ground.

He gently dropped the sword back into Cloud's hands and said, "I didn't realize it was so heavy. You make it look very easy."

Cloud stared down at the dull dark metal of the sword. "Yeah. If it wasn't for the fact that I've got the same sort of body as a SOLDIER, I'd have problems just carting it around, much less using it." He picked up the huge blade and twirled easily it with one hand.

He resumed his work with the whetstone. "So what's up, Red?"

Red scratched behind an ear, then said quietly, "I wanted to discuss certain parts of your past."

Cloud gave him a quick, sideways glance but continued working on the Buster Sword. "Let me guess. You've got questions about what happened in Nibelheim."

"Or to be more precise, what happened after the first destruction of your hometown." Red shook his head sadly. "If being razed to the ground once was not bad enough... to have it happen twice...."

"Go on." Cloud's words were clipped and short, but there was no hostility or reluctance in his voice.

"And I wanted the chance to speak to you alone."


Red looked a bit uncomfortable. "I hate to say it but Tifa...."

Cloud smiled faintly. "Tifa gets a little overprotective of me sometimes. I've noticed."

"Does it bother you?"

"Bother me? Why should it?"

Red's flame-tipped tail twitched. "Well, I don't have too much experience in that area but in Cosmo Canyon, young men often get annoyed when they think females worry too much about them.... They apparently think that it reflects poorly on their masculinity."

Cloud snorted softly. "Yeah. That's probably true. But no, it doesn't bother me. It's... sort of nice to have someone who cares enough to worry about me and how I feel."

Red frowned. "But surely your mother...."

"Oh yeah, Mom worried about me, but she was never quite with the program, so to speak."

The beast cocked his head slightly. "Pardon?"

"She wasn't what I'd call... very perceptive. I mean, she was pretty good dealing with the obvious, physical things. Was I getting enough to eat? Was I hot or cold? Was I sick? That sort of stuff. But she never really understood me on the inside. If I said I was lonely, she'd say that I just needed to find some nice playmates. And when I was older, she'd say that I only needed a nice girlfriend. It was so simple to her. She never told me how I could get the other kids to like me... or how to get a girl to care...." Both his voice and the rasp of the sharpening stone faded into silence.

Red tipped his head up to look Cloud eye to eye. "If the situation wasn't so serious, I wouldn't press the issue. But given how matters stand,...."

"I know, Red. I'm sure you're not asking just to be nosy. And I really wish I could help you."

Red found the quiet trust in Cloud's voice oddly humbling. The beast bowed his head and whispered, "Yes. I'm sorry...."

Cloud reached out and gently rubbed behind Red's ears. "Don't be. It's only fair that you guys should know what you're getting into. The more you understand, the better for all of us. And... I'm sorry I pushed you and Cid so hard about.... Call me a coward, but I really needed to know that... things... would be handled if worst comes to worst."

Red snorted. "Cloud, of all things on this Planet I could call you, 'coward' would be among the very last."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence." The young man took a deep breath, then said, "Part of the reason I don't like to talk about my past is because I don't remember many details. And when I do remember.... You see, I do recall things. There's just one big problem."

"Which is?"

"Those memories often don't stay."

"Excuse me?" Red's brow wrinkled in confusion.

"A lot of times, things will come back to me in a flash, but they don't stick around. They come... and then they go."

Cloud put down the Buster Sword and started to pace nervously.

"Do you realize what that means, Red? It means that I'm still hiding from the truth. I'm still lying to myself. How can I hope to be honest with my friends if I can't even be honest with myself!"

He came to an abrupt halt and spun to face the patiently waiting beast. "After my experience with the Lifestream, I thought that I was strong enough to face my real past. But I found out soon enough that I wasn't. There are things that I still can't face or accept."

Cloud looked away. "What's worse, Red? Not remembering at all or remembering and then forgetting again?"

"Don't take your inability to remember as a sign of weakness. Sometimes there ARE things and events that are simply too much to cope with. You need to give yourself time...."

"Red, somehow I've got a feeling that time isn't going cure my particular problem. It might help, but we don't exactly have time to spare here. This mess with the WEAPONS and those Jenova creatures could turn really ugly at any moment. Can I really afford to take time out just to sort out the junk in my head?"

"You seem to think that a personal problem automatically means that it's a trivial problem."

A wry grin appeared on Cloud's face. "God knows that it's not trivial to ME, but when compared to what could going on with the Planet and what kind of craziness Hojo might be up to...."

Red said earnestly, "Cloud, don't underestimate your own importance or value. Cid was right. You had a great deal to do with our success against Sephiroth. And yes, we may be in another battle to save the Planet, but I don't think it's necessary or right to ignore the needs of the individual in the process. We are your friends. We're here to help you. And that includes taking up part of the burden and the responsibility in order to give you some breathing room if you need it."

The beast walked up to Cloud. "Part of your problem is that you're so busy being worried about others, you forget to be worried about yourself. Be fair to yourself for a change. Treat yourself with as much consideration as you treat others."

Red hesitated a bit before continuing, then he took a deep breath and plunged on. "Stop blaming yourself for what happened with Sephiroth and Aeris. It wasn't your fault. You didn't consciously choose to let Aeris die. You didn't consciously choose to help Sephiroth. Forgive me for being so blunt, but don't let yourself get bogged down in trying to atone for a supposed sin like Vincent has."

Cloud chuckled weakly. "I hope I'm not quite that bad."

"It's good that you recognize the problem, at least. No, you're not that bad. Yet."


Red watched his young friend pace slowly back and forth. Finally, Cloud said softly, "I'll try to keep that in mind."


Although he certainly didn't consider Red inferior in any way, Cloud admitted to himself that it was somehow easier to unburden himself to the four-footed beast than to another human being.

"Red, I've blocked out so much. I can remember growing up in Nibelheim pretty clearly. But after that? I've got holes in my memory that you could drive a truck through. And the stuff that I do remember? I suppose the truth's in my head, somewhere... but it's buried so deep, there's no telling if I'll ever find it. My memories are such a hash between the stuff I wanted to be true... the stuff Zack told me... the stuff Sephiroth shoved in my head.... Even now, I don't how much of me is stolen from Zack."

He glanced briefly at Red, who was listening intently with pricked ears.

"You see, during all that time in Hojo's lab, Zack was there. He'd talk to me whenever he could. Important stuff, silly stuff, anything he could think of. I think it was the one thing that kept me from totally losing all grip of reality. The problem was... when things got really bad, it was easier to pretend to be someone else than deal with the pain. There were times when I hated the inside of my own head and body so badly...." He shuddered.

Cloud abruptly stopped pacing and shook his head as if to free himself from the memories. He then turned to Red and blurted, "And why have I forgotten so much of the two years BEFORE Nibelheim? My time as a Shinra trooper?"

"Probably because it contradicted the past that you gave yourself."

"If that's the case, those memories should be coming back to me. But they're not." He started pacing again.

"I don't know. A sensible starting point would be to examine your own Shinra personnel records."

Cloud halted again and frowned. "Why the hell didn't I think of that before?"

Red said nothing aloud. (Perhaps you were afraid to, my friend.)

Cloud had apparently come to the same conclusion. He inhaled sharply and grimaced. "Hell, I'm such a coward...."

Red pounded his forepaw on the ground. "Cloud! Don't be so hard on yourself! It's only natural to avoid experiences you know are painful. Your time in Shinra's army could hardly qualify as the happiest period in your life. For example, when you failed to become a SOLDIER, I'm sure it was a terrible disappointment...."

Cloud went very still, then he slowly said, "I don't remember."


He turned to Red and said softly, "I don't remember how I felt." He spoke tentatively, as if cautiously feeling his way over uncertain ground. "I know how I ought to have felt. If I had been so hell-bent on becoming a SOLDIER and failed, it would only make sense that I'd be disappointed and angry, right?"

Red nodded.

"But... I don't consciously REMEMBER feeling anything like that." Cloud shook his head.

"When Sephiroth and Hojo were both playing their vicious little mind games with me, do you know what bothered me the most? It wasn't the idea that I was a Sephiroth clone. It was the thought that I was a failure. I think that hurt most of all. I wasn't good enough... I was worthless.... Those feelings ate at me so badly.... It made the possibility that I was just a creation from Hojo's sick imagination seem like nothing. I don't know. On a subconscious level, I must have remembered the disappointment and the sense of failure... and hated it."

Cloud's voice dropped to a bare whisper. "By the time those two were through with me, I think I would have done anything... absolutely anything to avoid being a failure again... to accomplish something... even if that meant being a someone else's damned puppet."

Red softly growled some obscenities under his breath. (If this is what it's like inside Cloud's head, it's no wonder he's desperate to forget everything,... including his time as a trooper in Midgar. No matter what Grandpa said, this could be a case where truth does more harm than good.) He nudged Cloud sharply to snap him back to reality.

"What...?" He grimaced. "I guess now you know why I don't like poking around in my own head very much."

"It's perfectly understandable, Cloud. There's been such pain in your life, both physical and mental...."

Unconsciously echoing a distant voice -- or perhaps memory -- in his mind, Cloud murmured very, very softly, "But life IS pain...."

Even with his acute hearing, Red couldn't quite catch the words. "What did you say?"

Cloud blinked. "Oh, nothing important."

He sighed, then turned to pick up his Buster sword.

"Where are you going?"

"We probably need to get going. I also want to see if Reeve's had a chance to locate those personnel records."

Red said, "I'll go wake up the Tifa and the other ladies. You might ask Reeve if he's received any more reports of mysterious attacks or unusual sightings."


Cloud walked around to the porch and found Cait Sith still powered down in a sleeping pose. He gently tugged on the little cat's tail.

"Time to wake up."

Cait Sith bolted upright, saw Cloud looking at him, and promptly toppled off his Mog with a little squawk of surprise. The next thing the little cat saw was Cloud crouching beside him with a concerned look in his eyes.

"Are you okay?"


"Reeve, did you get ANY sleep last night?"

"Um.... Sort of." The robot cat rubbed its head.

"Listen. We're all worried about Reno and the cell sample and all that other stuff, but you've got to take better care of yourself. You're not going to do anybody any good by running yourself into the ground." Cloud picked up Cait Sith and plopped it back onto of the Mog's head.

"Thanks. I'll try to remember that." The little cat dusted itself off and straightened its hat.

"I really think you need some help back in Midgar. Have you talked to the Turks?"

The little cat fidgeted nervously. "Well, Elena was telling me last night that she and Rude were more 'hand-on' sorts of people. I think they'd prefer to stick with you guys."

"Then who else...."

Cait Sith waved its paws in a dismissive gesture. "No need to rush. I think I can manage for another day or so."

Cloud shrugged. "If you can handle it, fine. But don't be afraid to ask."

"Sure thing," Cait Sith chirped.

Cloud was about to step off the porch, then stopped. "By the way, did you get around to pulling the Shinra personnel files on me and Zack?"

Back in Midgar, Reeve froze as frantic thoughts zipped through his brain. Watching the thoughtful, concerned look on Cloud's face, Reeve did the only semi-sensible thing he could think of.

He lied his ass off.

Cait Sith cheerfully said, "Sorry, I got a hold of Zack's file late last night, but I haven't managed to locate yours just yet. It could have gotten misplaced somehow. Don't worry. I'll track it down eventually."

Cloud looked half disappointed, half relieved. "Okay. About Zack's file, did you find anything useful?"

"I'm haven't really had a chance to look at it. There's a lot of stuff in his file, not even counting the cross-references to classified missions and whatnot. It'll take me a while to make any sense out of it."

"Let us know if you come up with any possible leads. We'll be leaving right after breakfast."

"No problem-o." The little cat robot gave Cloud an airy wave.


In Midgar, Reeve leaned back into his chair and uttered a low, drawn-out sigh of relief.

(God, I hope that lie doesn't come back to haunt me.... Twenty four hours at the most... just enough time to do a little investigating....) Reeve had absolutely no intention of letting matters drag on any longer than that.

(Cloud's been lied to and jerked around enough... He needs to know the truth. But... I'm not looking forward to that job, especially if the file's right.) Considering how unnerving and upsetting HE found the file, Reeve could just imagine Cloud's reaction.

(No time to waste.)

Reeve yelled for his personal assistant. "Max, get in here!"

"Yes sir?" Max replied in a bright, cheerful voice.

The Shinra exec gave his assistant -- who was definitely a morning person -- a sour look, then shoved two lists of names at him. "I want you to locate the people on these lists. If they're alive, I want to talk to them ASAP. I don't care what it takes."

"When do you want it...."

Reeve gave Max a somber look that instantly shut the assistant's mouth.


Max babbled, "Right away, sir!" and scurried off.

Alone in his office, Reeve started scanning the disk containing Cloud's evaluation for the SOLDIER program. He stared at the file directory for a long moment. It looked like most of the data files were psychological tests measuring this mental index and that emotional parameter.

(Shit! I can barely make heads or tails of all this psycho-babble. But who the hell can I get to help me interpret this garbage?)


Part 4b: Sibling Rivalry

Dr. Orienne Roissy slowly opened her eyes and squinted at the bright overhead lights.

"You're awake." The female voice beside her bed was flat and unemotional.

She turned her head slowly to see her sister Montessi standing by her bed. Roissy whispered, "Where... where is he? The blond man...?"

Montessi curled her lips in an expression of utter contempt. "Isn't that just like you? You stupidly manage to fall down an elevator shaft and the only thing you can think of is a man."

Roissy weakly snarled back at her sister, "Hardly. You have no idea what's really going on."

"Then pray, enlighten me."

Her sister laughed weakly. "He's alive. Hojo lied to me. He told me Cloud was dead."

Montessi managed to hide her dismay when she realized that her sister knew that 'Code C' was still alive. She frowned and said, "Well, sister. It seems that your brains have been thoroughly scrambled by that fall. You're not making any sense."

Roissy smirked. "Shall I tell you a secret, sister dear?"

"What could you possibly know that would be of interest to me?"

"Oh, I think you'll be very interested, indeed. Wouldn't you like to know where that last sample of Sephiroth is?"

Montessi acidly replied, "I don't need you to tell me that. It's probably in Hojo's slimy hands at this very moment."

"Wrong, wrong, wrong! Poor little Cloud has it." The injured woman uttered a smug little giggle.

"What!? Are you sure? How do you know that?"

"Oh, I'm quite positive. I made SURE there was no way for him to lose it." She giggled again, then burst into an incoherent child's song that had something to do with Mogs and nuts.

Montessi tried to interrupt her sister, but failed. She was forced to wait impatiently until Roissy stopped singing, then gave her sister a narrow-eyed stare. "You mean you put it...."


"What a moronic thing to do!"

Roissy muttered petulantly, "How the hell did I know he was going to scurry away like a little mouse?" Her fingers danced and skipped across the bedsheets.

Montessi said nothing as an idea began to take form.

Roissy continued, "Although you better watch yourself if you bump into him. He doesn't like us very much. He's become a naughty, naughty boy. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know... just the way I like them!" Roissy snickered deliriously.

"Does Savois know?"

"No. Not yet." Roissy yawned and muttered, "I can't wait to see her face when I tell her."

"Don't worry about it." Montessi deftly adjusted her sister's pillow. "I'll take care of informing her... in good time."

When she was through, Montessi checked to make sure that her sister had stopped breathing, then tidied up the bed.


Part 4c: Reeve's Interlude - Wolf Among Sheep

A half hour after giving Max the lists of names, Reeve received a phone call from a General Claxmore. It was a familiar name to Reeve. Claxmore was one of the old Shinra military officers -- a gruff, but practical sort of man. Reeve owed him a great deal. The General had been one of the first to support him as the new president of Shinra, a move which had undoubtedly influenced other senior members of the Shinra military. Without his backing, Scarlet would probably be in charge of Shinra at this very moment.

"General Claxmore."

"Reeve, your assistant said you needed to speak to me urgently."

"Yes. I have some questions I'd like to ask you about your nephew. Zackary Faelan."

There was a long silence.


"Why?" The question was blunt and sounded none too cooperative.

"It's very important."

"He's dead. He died in the Nibelheim fiasco about six years ago."

Reeve sighed. "General, I have it on very good authority that Zack in fact did NOT die in Nibelheim six years ago."

In a voice touched with sarcasm, Claxmore said, "You wouldn't be implying that Heidegger and Hojo were lying, would you?"

Reeve's eyes narrowed, then he said softly, "General, did Zack contact you recently? Say, within the last year or so?"

"Reeve, why are you asking me about my nephew?"

The Shinra exec decided to take a gamble. He said quietly, "General Claxmore, I'm sorry to tell you that Zack is dead. But like I said before, he didn't die in Nibelheim six years ago. He died just over one year ago."

There was another long silence, then Claxmore said in a very even voice, "Reeve, I don't take it kindly when people try to jerk me around...."

"Listen to me, General. It's the truth. I know what REALLY happened at Nibelheim. I know that Hojo keep your nephew and a friend locked up for nearly five years as his own private guinea pigs. I know that Zack escaped about a year ago...."

"And you're saying that he... died shortly afterward."


Claxmore exhaled slowly. "Well, shit...."

"Zack did contact you, didn't he?"

"....yes. After he escaped from Nibelheim, he called me from Costa del Sol."

"What did he tell you?"

"Not much. Only that maniac Hojo had him locked up ever since Sephiroth destroyed Nibelheim. He told me that he'd just escaped with a buddy. I wanted to help him -- give him protection and a place to hide -- but he absolutely refused. He said that he didn't want me or the family getting mixed up with Hojo and President Shinra."

"Did he say where he was going?"

"Only very generally. I believe he was headed to Mideel. He said something about his friend being really ill. I think he was basically going to drop out of sight until things cooled down. When I didn't hear from him again, I had hoped that he'd gotten away safe." Claxmore's voice sounded old and tired. "I guess he didn't make it."

"No, he didn't."

"So what happened?"

"I'm not entirely sure."

"What? Reeve...."

"It's not a trick. The information I have is... sketchy and confused. The exact details of where and how aren't clear. But Zack IS dead. I'll let you know as soon as I find out anything more."

There was a thoughtful silence, then Claxmore said, "Thanks. But why did you ask me about Zack in the first place?"

Reeve said, "It appears that when Zack escaped from Hojo's lab, he took something very valuable with him. We're trying to locate that item."

"What is it?"

"Sorry, I'm afraid I can't tell you at the moment. But I will say that the item has the potential to be unbelievably dangerous. So if you know anything... if Zack gave you the slightest hint... please tell me now. I can't emphasize how urgent this is."

"I'm sorry. Haven't got a clue. Then again, Zack certainly knew how to keep his mouth shut."

"Is it possible that he contacted his parents in Gongaga?"

Claxmore uttered a sour chuckle. "Hardly!"

"Uh, he didn't get along with his parents?"

"Listen. Zack was like a wolf born among sheep. He was a nice kid but he could be absolutely ruthless. If you were his friend, his loyalty couldn't be matched. If you were his enemy, well,... you could pretty much kiss your ass goodbye. His parents didn't understand him at all. His father wanted him to stay around Gongaga raising whatever crap they grow in that blasted jungle."

"I see. That explains why he didn't contact his parents for so long."

"How did you...?"

"My friends and I visited Gongaga not too long ago. We ran into Zack's parents."

"It wasn't that he didn't care about his parents, but there was no common ground between them. As soon as he was old enough, Zack left for Midgar and never looked back."

"And joined SOLDIER."


"Where he met Sephiroth...."

"That's right." Claxmore sighed.

"And became his second-in-command."

"Rather more than that, I think."

"What do you mean?"

"Even when sane, Sephiroth wasn't exactly a likable person...."

Reeve muttered under his breath, "You're telling me!"

"....but he had a great deal of personal charisma. Big war hero and all that. But in Zack's case, I don't think it had anything to do with hero worship. It had everything to do with respect and friendship. And I don't think it was one-sided, either."

"Oh?" Reeve just couldn't quite imagine Sephiroth being friendly with anyone.

"It wasn't anything obvious, of course. But a smart man can tell. You could see it in the way they worked together."

"When he spoke to you after his escape, did Zack say anything about Sephiroth?"

"Not a damn thing. It was undoubtedly a very painful subject, given that all of Zack's troubles were basically that lunatic Sephiroth's fault. Having your best friend turn on you.... We really didn't have much time for casual chitchat. The last thing he told me was that he thought he had been spotted by some of Hojo's people."


Part 4d: Reeve's Interlude - Canker of the Soul

As Reeve was taking a short break from his investigations, he took another look through Cloud's file. By now, he had accumulated a staggering number of inconsistencies.

(I'm no weapons expert, but even an idiot could tell that Cloud's one hell of a swordsman. Come on. Anyone who can stand up to Sephiroth and survive, much less WIN,...)

On the other hand, according to his file, the young Cloud had failed the basic sword training course not once, but twice. The third time appeared to be the charm since he managed to pass with a lukewarm 'satisfactory' rating. The kindest comments were things like "easily carried away" and "sloppy". One instructor even went so far as to write, "Just give this kid a rifle and get him the hell out of here. I don't want him anywhere near me. The idiot has no business playing with edged weapons."

(So where did Cloud learn to fight? Did Zack teach him while they were prisoners? No. That's damn unlikely. Hojo was crazy but I can't imagine him being stupid enough to allow Zack anywhere near a sword.)

(And will someone PLEASE explain to me how the hell a kid from a backwater town with NO experience with motor vehicles -- aside from a remedial course on truck driving which he barely passed, I may add -- managed to ride an absolute monster of a motorcycle up and down the stairs of the Shinra Building, drive through a plate glass window, land the bike on an elevated roadway, AND beat off the members of Shinra's crack motorcycle unit?)

"Argh!" It was nagging questions like these that made Reeve feel like pulling out his hair.

His assistant stuck his head into the office. "You say something, boss?"

"Shut up and go away, Max...."


For this particular visitor, Reeve conspicuously left his office door wide open. His visitor was an attractive middle-aged woman, but there was a hardness in her eyes that fitted quite well with her occupation. She was the owner of one of the more notorious whorehouses in the old Midgar slums. He couldn't keep himself from smiling when he saw that the whorehouse madam had much better taste in clothes than Scarlet.

"So what happened?"

"The blond, spike-haired punk slashed up one of my girls with a broken bottle."


"I think she made a comment about his size of his prick. She was new on the job, but she still should have known better. Especially with these short guys."


"He completely blew his top. Cut her up pretty good."

Reeve said, "She filed assault and rape charges against him, but they were later dropped. Why?"

"Come on. Surely you know the rules of the game. Do you think the cops cared? And a rape charge? She was just a slum whore and he worked for Shinra. He might have been just a low-ranking trooper, but that's enough. Without any witnesses willing to testify, the girl's word was worth squat against his. Besides, I didn't want trouble when -- not if, but WHEN -- the case against him fell apart."

"But you knew what happened."

"Listen, I didn't see him do anything with my own eyes. What could I swear to? Besides, I saw the way he was looking at her at the police station. I didn't want any part of it."

Reeve sighed in exasperation. "All right. Can I talk to her?"


"The girl who was attacked."

The madam's eyes shifted uneasily. "Uh... no."

"Why not?" He never considered himself to be a psychic but an odd little chill ran down his spine. "What happened to the girl?"

"She left."

Reeve liked to think of himself as a reasonably nice guy, but he had had plenty of opportunity to observe the masters of intimidation and corruption (otherwise known as the Shinra upper management) at work for years. He knew how to play the game.

The Shinra executive gave the madam an icy stare and purred, "Really? How remarkably... convenient."

The woman twitched nervously and muttered, "I don't know what happened to her, okay? She disappeared right after it all happened. Probably got scared of him and ran away. It would have been the smartest thing she could have done. I know the sort... people like him carry a hell of a grudge. I warned her against bringing the damn complaint in the first place, but she did it anyway. She said she wanted to make a point. I don't know why. Hell, she didn't even have any scars."

"Thank you. That will be all."

The madam tucked away the wad of gil away in her purse. "Anytime, sweetheart. Are you sure I can't fix you up with a girl?"

"Thank you, but no. I'm quite sure."


Part 4e: Findings

After a hearty breakfast, Cloud and his friends returned to the Highwind. As the airship headed for Nibelheim, Cloud and Cid were trying to figure out the best way to distribute their forces.

Cloud said, "I don't think we're going to find anything useful in the upper floors, so it'll probably be best to concentrate on the basement."

The pilot muttered, "Yeah... where Hojo did all his dirty work."

Cloud called the others over. "Okay, I'll take the library with Red, Tifa, and Cait Sith. Barret, you and Rude take a look through the town. See if you can find any clues that might have survived the fire. Can you handle it?"

He looked Barret straight in the eye. They both knew he wasn't talking about just the search. Barret glanced at Rude, then shrugged.

"Aw, hell. Sure, no problem."

Cloud nodded decisively. "Cid...."

"I guess that means I get Yuffie, Vincent, and Elena. So... what are we supposed to do in the basement? Poke around until we find something interesting? Do you have any idea what the hell we should be looking for?"

To Cid's surprise, Cloud leaned against the railing and said, "Yeah. Keep an eye out for secret rooms."


"Something's been nagging me about the basement every time I've been in it. I've finally figured out what it was."

"Go on."

"It's too small. Somehow... somehow I get the feeling that there's got to be a lot more down there. Hojo had several projects running at the same time. Even if you count the Nibel reactor as part of his work area, the locations we've seen don't add up to nearly enough space."

Cid scratched his chin. "Shit, you're probably right. Hell, the first couple of times we were down there, we totally missed that trash pit Elena and Rude fell into."

"That's right."

The pilot shuffled his feet nervously. "Uh, about the casket room where that Stephen guy...."

Cloud winced visibly. "I don't see any reason to mess around with it for now."

Both Cid and Elena sighed in relief.

As the charred ruins of Nibelheim came into view, Cloud said, "Cait.... Hey, Cait!"

The little cat jumped and spun around on its Mog. "What... oh, sorry. I was just a bit distracted. I'm... sort of busy in Midgar at the moment. Would you mind if I just park myself in a corner while you guys search the library?"

Cloud shook his head. "No problem. You concentrate on those personnel files and we'll handle the stuff on this end. By the way, didn't you say something about cleanup crews?"

Cait nodded. "Yeah. I'll send them in once we're through searching. I don't think we want total strangers trampling around until we've gone through the Mansion with a fine-toothed comb."

Cloud glanced at the assembled people. "Listen up, guys. Try not to miss anything, but remember, we don't have time to waste. We need answers and we need them now."

Cid sucked on his cigarette and muttered, "Something's big's just waiting to happen. I can feel it in my bones."

For once, Yuffie didn't make a crack about Cid and old age.


As Cloud pulled books off the basement library's shelves for Red, Tifa worked her way along the opposite end of the room. She rapped on walls and examined up every little item she came across. It was monotonous work and the room was dark and incredibly depressing. Thankfully, there were no bodies in the library, but the musty air was tainted by the heavy smell of spilled blood. As she gingerly picked up a blood-soaked labcoat, something small and rectangular fell out of a pocket, bounced off her boot, and landed on the floor with a clatter.

She stared at it blankly before realizing what it was... a small, voice-activated tape recorder, the type commonly used for dictation. Tifa picked it up and said, "Guys! Look what I've found!"

As her friends looked on, she carefully turned the recorder over in her hands. The outside was caked in dried blood, but the machine looked like it was still in working order. Prying the lid open, she whispered, "And it looks like the tape's been used." She glanced at Cloud. "Do you think....?"

"Let's give it a shot."

Tifa hit the rewind button and was rewarded with the sound of whirring tape. When the tape stopped, she hit the play button and cranked up the volume.

The first ten minutes or so on the tape turned out to be nothing more than an equipment inventory. Just as they were losing hope of anything interesting, there was the sound of stamping feet accompanied by someone swearing vigorously.

"That sounds like Reno!" exclaimed Tifa.

RENO: "What a fucking idiot! Hey! Is there a goddamn rope in this place?"

1ST MALE VOICE: "I'm not sure. Maybe they have some in the moving trucks, Mr. Reno."

RENO: "Like hell I'm climbing all those stairs. And I told you, it's just Reno. None of that mister crap. You there!"


RENO: "Run upstairs and see if anybody's got a couple of hundred feet of rope. If not, go into the town and get some. Considering where we are, someone's bound to have some mountain climbing gear. Get moving!"

2ND MALE VOICE: "Right away, sir!"

1ST MALE VOICE: "What happened?"

RENO: "One of your fuckin' stupid chums managed to dump MY chums down a trash chute! Now I'm going to have listen to Elena bitch and moan until she gets a hot bath...."

On the tape, there was a distant scream, followed by a loud crash and running footsteps.

RENO: "What the fuck's going....? SHIT!!!"

The next few minutes of the tape were filled with the sound of gunfire, thuds, booms, the crackle of a Nightstick, punctuated by the occasional obscenity from Reno. As time passed, the Turk started to sound seriously out of breath. Finally the sounds of fighting died away. There were only a few rustling and shuffling noises, mixed with strange animal-like squeaks, chirps, and grunts.

An unpleasantly familiar voice, marred with a curious hiss, said, "And what do we have here?"

Cloud turned pale and gritted his teeth.

"Cloud...?" Tifa whispered.

"I'm pretty sure that's Hojo speaking."

HOJO: Ah, it'ss Reno. That red hair iss quite unmisstakable. What a pleassant ssurprisse. Carefully, carefully! Don't damage him! I want him alive and unharmed."

There was a brief pause, then Cloud and the others heard the sounds of a struggle accompanied by someone sobbing and whimpering in terror.

Cait Sith muttered, "That certainly doesn't sound like Reno!"

Cloud frowned as he listened intently. "I don't think so...."

HOJO: "Wait. Bring him here."

There was another pause with more shuffling noises.

HOJO: Sso, Dr. Sstephen. We meet again."

STEPHEN: "Hojo! I heard you were dead!"

HOJO: "And sso I wass. Sso I wass."

They listened intently to the short conversation between Hojo and Dr. Stephen,... a conversation that confirmed their worst fears. Hojo had indeed attacked the ESSARUF facility with the clear intention of using the stolen cell sample to somehow reconstruct Sephiroth. Even worse, the mad scientist already knew about the substitution of cell samples, due to Stephen's careless outburst. Hojo naturally demanded more information. Stephen protested. Finally, the unfortunate Stephen started screaming. His sobs and screeches of agony soon faded in volume, as if the source was moving away from the recorder, but the distant screaming continued on and on.....

After a few minutes, Cloud abruptly turned the tape recorder off.

He propped himself against a table and whispered, "Well, I guess that confirms it. Hojo's back."

Red said, "Cloud, was there really any doubt?"

"Probably not."

Cait Sith anxiously hopped and down. "Did you hear what Hojo said!? He mentioned Scarlet! Damn it, is that woman insane!? How can she possibly think of helping Hojo with his crazy schemes?"

Tifa hissed, "The power-hungry bitch would probably sell her own mother to Hojo if she thought it would give her the slightest advantage."

The robot cat waved its arms excitedly. "I know that! But how can she reasonably expect Hojo to keep his end of whatever deal they've got? Scarlet can't possibly be that stupid or desperate!"

Red growled, "It's grim news indeed, but Hojo's also provided us with a vital clue. We now know that he's headed to one of Scarlet's facilities... one with a Mako reactor. Cait...."

The little cat nodded. "I'll get right on it."

Tifa said, "Well, at least we know Reno survived the attack and was captured alive...."

Cloud gave her a somber look. "I'm not sure whether that's good or bad." He picked up the tape recorder. "I'm going to show this to Cid and Elena. Tifa, you and Red keep searching around here. We might have found an important clue that'll lead us to Hojo, but we need more."


Part 4f: Reeve's Interlude - Comrades in Arms

As he waited for Max to compile a list of any weapon storage facilities or plants that might fit Hojo's very sketchy description, Reeve took a good look at the SOLDIER on the other side of the desk. The man looked scruffy but there was a reassuring air of competency about him. He also looked singularly unimpressed about being called in front of the new president of Shinra.

"Please sit down, Lieutenant... Clancy?" said Reeve.

"Yes, sir." The SOLDIER gave him a laconic salute.

"I have a few questions to ask you."


"You served directly under Sephiroth, correct?"

Clancy sighed and rolled his eyes. They were a nondescript brown but still had the unmistakable Mako glow. He muttered, "Not that again."


The SOLDIER sighed. "If you only knew the number of times I've been asked about that.... Yes, sir. I served under the General for about two years. It was six to eight years ago."

Reeve stared thoughtfully at the SOLDIER. (Curious. After all these years and all that's happened, they still refer to Sephiroth as THE General....)

"All right. However, Lieutenant, I actually wanted to talk about someone else. Another SOLDIER."

The other man raised his eyebrows.

"I have a few questions about Zack."

The SOLDIER's expression suddenly turned a bit wary.

Reeve cocked his head slightly. "Was he your friend?"

Clancy nodded shortly. "Yeah. We were buddies. But Zack had lots of friends."

"Was he good friends with Sephiroth?"

The SOLDIER's expression became quite blank. "They got along okay. Beyond that, I can't rightly say, sir."

"I've heard from other sources that they were actually quite close. Is that an accurate statement?"

Clancy's expression became even more poker-faced, if possible, but he didn't say anything.

Reeve leaned forward a bit and said, "Listen, lieutenant. I need some answers here."

The SOLDIER shifted uneasily. "Uh, sir?"


"If you don't mind me asking,... why are you interested in Zack?"

"I'm afraid I can't be too specific. But I need to understand the type of person he was. I would greatly appreciate your cooperation."

Clancy bit his lip, shuffled his feet, then mumbled his next question. "Is Zack alive?"

Reeve blinked in shock. "Why do you ask?"

"No, no. That was a really stupid question."

"Come on, Clancy. I really want to know why you even bothered to ask."

The SOLDIER scratched his head and sighed. "I heard that the General suddenly reappeared about a year ago. And where Sephiroth was,... well, Zack always managed to show up sooner or later." He looked at Reeve. "Does that sort of answer your question about how close they were?"

The Shinra exec took a deep breath. "Actually, in a weird way, it does."

Clancy leaned back in his chair and said, "Well, you see there's 'close' and then there's 'CLOSE', if you get my drift...."

Reeve choked on his coffee. After he stopped hacking and wheezing, he sputtered, "You don't MEAN...!"

Clancy smacked himself on the forehead and muttered, "Sheesh! What IS it with you Shinra big shots!? It isn't THAT sort of 'close'! And they talk about soldiers having their minds in the gutter... god, you and Hojo both...."

Reeve stiffened. If it had been humanly possible, he would have pricked his ears.

"Hojo? What about Hojo?"

Clancy gave him a suspicious look.

Reeve put his hands on the table and leaned forward. "Listen. I'm not here to smear anyone's reputation. Not Zack and not even Sephiroth's. What's this about Hojo?"

The SOLDIER thought a moment, then shrugged. "Well, it was about a few weeks before everything went to hell during the Nibelheim mission. I don't know what set the crackpot off, but Hojo started snooping around, asking me and my buddies questions about Zack and just how 'friendly' he was with Sephiroth. For a scientist, he sure had sex on the brain."

"So what did you say?

Clancy shrugged. "Nothing. There was nothing to tell him. First of all, it's none of my bloody business. Second, even if we did know anything... not that I'm saying that we did, mind you... we sure wouldn't tell someone like Hojo!"

"Did Zack know about Hojo's questions?"

"Oh yeah, we warned him about it. Zack being Zack,... well, I think he was more amused than upset. On the other hand, he made damn sure that the General didn't hear about it. Man, if Sephiroth had found out what Hojo was doing...." Clancy grimaced.

"That bad, huh?"

Clancy nodded. "Not that he would have started yelling or cursing like General Heidegger, mind you. But believe me, when the General got mad, it was time to do the old 'duck-and-cover' thing and pray REALLY hard."

"So what happened?"

Clancy hesitated briefly. "I don't know exactly. Zack just got this creepy LOOK on his face... one that tells you that somebody screwed up big-time and boy, are they going to be sorry... that sort of look. The next thing I know, Hojo stopped bugging us with those damn questions." Clancy's face turned thoughtful. "They were like that... the General and Zack... watching each other's back, I mean."

Reeve let that percolate through his mind, then he said, "Sephiroth always gave me the impression of being such a loner. It's hard to imagine him needing someone to watch his back...."

"I don't know about the General actually NEEDING anyone, and I'm sure he would have managed just fine by himself but... well, it was just that Sephiroth and Zack seemed to understand each other a lot better than most people. Only an idiot would throw something like that away just because you don't absolutely NEED it. And the General was no idiot."

"Hmmm. Really?"

"Yeah. It's sort of hard to describe." Clancy shrugged. "It's like they didn't need to actually say a lot of stuff aloud because they already had a pretty good idea what the other guy was thinking. They were just... sort of in sync, if you know what I mean. That's part of the reason Zack picked up the nickname 'Sephiroth's shadow'...."

Reeve choked on his coffee again.

"Hey. Maybe you should hold off on that stuff for a while. You're liable to kill yourself at this rate."

"That...(wheeze)...sounds like...(gasp)...a good...(cough)...idea."

Reeve set his cup aside and leaned back into his chair. "You were talking about Zack's nickname...."

"Yeah. You couldn't miss someone like Sephiroth unless you were totally blind. The General was not exactly what you'd call 'inconspicuous'. Zack, on the other hand... well, he sort of had a way of fading into the background if he didn't want to be noticed. A lot of the Wutai fighters found that out the hard way. They'd be so worried about the General, they wouldn't see Zack until too late." Clancy drew a line across his throat and grinned nastily.

Reeve propped his chin on his hand. "Didn't that bother Zack? I mean, always being in the background and forgotten?"

"Not as far as I could tell. Some people are really desperate for attention, you know? They get all spazzed out if people don't like them, respect them, fear them,... whatever. Zack wasn't like that. He enjoyed getting along with people, but if you didn't like him, that was your problem, not his."

"What about Sephiroth? How were things from his side?"

"Now THAT I don't know. I mean, the General always played it cool. He'd talk to you -- even let you argue with him -- if he thought you had something worth saying. But personal stuff... no way. Now, Zack was a hell of a lot easier to talk to than the General. Not that he was a bleeding heart or anything like that, but at least he gave you the impression that your problems meant something to him. The General... well, all he cared about was whether you were capable of doing your job or not."

Clancy snorted. "Hell, the regular troopers -- even some of the SOLDIERs posted away from Midgar -- were all into this big hero-worship deal with Sephiroth... glamorized him and all that sort of crap. The guys that served directly under him... we knew better. The General was one cold son of a bitch... except maybe where Zack was concerned."

"That didn't bother you?"

"Hell, no. Why should it? None of us became SOLDIERs to get our hands held. The General was smart and he got the job done. That's all we cared about."


Part 4g: Bodies of Evidence

After over an hour of fruitlessly searching the basement of the Shinra Mansion, there was a triumphant yell from Yuffie.

"Hey guys! Look at this!"

"What's up, kiddo?" Cid sourly watched the ninja girl bouncing with excitement near the bottom of the rickety spiral staircase.

"This wall's a lot newer than the rest of the basement walls. It's probably only a few years old." She reached out and pulled a brick free of the crumbling mortar with almost no effort. "And it's a sloppy job, too."

The pilot peered closely at the space behind the bricks. "Say, doesn't that look like part of a metal door behind there?"

"Yeah! Looks like someone was trying to hide something."

Cid sucked on his cigarette and murmured, "Whaddya know? Cloud was right."

It took only less than ten minutes to pull enough bricks away to expose a still shiny metal door with an impressive-looking electronic lock. After examining the thing for booby traps, Yuffie took a hard swing with her weapon and sliced the lock open.

Carefully nudging the door open, all they could see was blackness and the sounds of softly running equipment. As their eyes gradually adjusted, they realized that the room was not completely dark. To their surprise, there was a faint greenish light coming from beyond a set of double doors on a side wall. Pushing the door open further, they could see that the room they were standing in appeared to be some sort of examination room, complete with two steel-topped tables. Even more unnerving were the heavy-duty straps attached to each table... straps obviously intended to restrain a human body.

As Elena gingerly tugged on the straps, she said, "What the hell did Hojo need these for? These things could hold...."

The pilot muttered, "....a Mako-enhanced human... or a SOLDIER."

"You mean...."

Before the blond Turk could finish, Yuffie cut loose with a muffled scream.

Cid and Elena whirled to see dim green light streaming through the now open double doors. Vincent was standing utterly still in the doorway while Yuffie peeked around him into the room beyond. The ninja girl had her eyes open wide and her hands clasped over her mouth.

"What the hell...."

Hurrying to the double doorway, Cid and Elena saw that the dim green light in the room beyond came from tall, transparent cylindrical tanks lining two sides of the room. They were in pairs... and they were full. One cylinder in each pair contained the body of a naked woman. Most of the women had some sort of incision on their bodies -- either on their abdomens and/or Y-shaped incisions on their chests.

The other tank in each pair contained something a lot smaller. At first, Cid couldn't figure out what the smaller things were, then his stomach did a slow, twisting flip-flop when he realized that they looked like...

"....babies...," Yuffie whispered in a sick voice. "They look like... some sort of baby!"

Elena hissed, "No way!"

Cid swallowed hard. "She's right. But... I'm not sure what kind. They're all so messed up and deformed, I can't even tell if they're human or not."

As they gazed in disbelief at the gruesome collection, Vincent silently stalked toward the large desk at the far end of the room. Paper rustled as the ex-Turk began to flip through the files and notebooks carelessly scattered on the desktop.

Elena took a few nervous steps into the room, glancing around uneasily, before coming to an abrupt halt in front of a particular cylinder.

"Oh... my... GOD!!!"

Cid nearly sprang out of his boots. He whirled around and bellowed, "Shit! Did you have to scare me like that!?"

Her arm quivered as Elena mutely pointed at the naked, red-haired woman floating tranquilly inside one of the tanks.


"Look! Just LOOK at her!"

Now that Elena had pointed it out, Cid realized that the red-haired woman seemed sickeningly familiar....

(Nah... couldn't be....)

Elena edged a bit closer to the cylinder and read the label aloud. "Project (A2). Subject 9. Regis Donovan."

Hovering close to Cid for comfort, Yuffie whispered, "Why do I get the feeling I've seen her somewhere before...."

"Donovan is... Reno's last name, " whispered Elena as she gingerly put a finger on the cool glass.

"WHAT!?!?" the others shouted.

"I think... this might be his sister...."

Cid gave the Turk a stupefied stare. "You're fuckin' kidding me...."

Yuffie muttered, "No. Shit, she's right. That woman looks AWFULLY like Reno."

"Did... did you know her, Elena?"

"No. But I do know Reno's last name and the resemblance.... Well, it speaks for itself." Elena's breath caught in her throat. "Just yesterday, Reno was telling me that his sister was some sort of scientist at Midgar University. I don't know anything else. Rude... probably would know."

In a harsh, gasping voice, Vincent suddenly snarled, "How many women did you kill in your attempts to create another Sephiroth!? How many!? DAMN YOU, HOJO!!!" With a furious swipe with his clawed arm, Vincent heaved the entire desk against the wall with a tremendous crash.

From outside the room, Cid could hear Cloud exclaim, "What the hell's going on!?"

Vincent stood glaring at the wreckage of the desk, his chest heaving and his metal claw clenching in barely controlled fury. The dark man then whirled and stalked out of the room. He brushed by Cloud without a word as the blond man ran in with sword drawn.

"You guys okay? Where is Vincent going? What did you...?" Cloud's voice trailed off as he stared at the neatly arranged tanks and their grim contents. He took a long hissing breath, sheathed his sword, and slowly walked into the middle of the room.

He looked around silently for a few minutes, then whispered softly, "This must be... Project (A2)."

Cid said, "How the hell did you know that?" (Especially without reading any of the fucking labels?)

"Hojo probably talked about it while I was a prisoner here." Cloud's voice was eerily calm. "Project (A) was the original prenatal Mako infusion experiment which produced Sephiroth. This is just an extension of that same program. Hojo was hoping to repeat the success of Gast's experiment."

Cloud gestured around the room. "But as you can see, Project (A2) was a total failure."

Elena whispered, "I guess that's why he walled up the lab...."

Cloud nodded. "For some reasons, Hojo eventually decided to quit. Maybe he just got totally fed up with his lack of success. But not until all these women... died."

Yuffie said in an nervous voice, "Are... are they... are you sure they're actually... dead?" She hastily looked around before remembering that Vincent was no longer around. "I mean, Sephiroth's mom Lucrecia didn't exactly... die...."

Elena said, "Sephiroth's mother? What's this about a person called Lucrecia?"

Cid muttered, "I'll explain later." The pilot remembered Lucrecia all too well. The poor woman had lingered in some eerie sort of half-life for decades after Sephiroth's birth.

"Yes." Cloud slowly put his hand on the cool glass of a nearby tank. "There are no viable Jenova cells here."

Cid watched his friend uneasily. Cloud looked like he was in some sort of trance as he slowly glanced around the room. Even the sight of Regis Donovan's body -- and its unmistakable resemblance to Reno -- barely made a dent in his unnatural calm.

"Yuffie?" said Cloud.


"Go fetch Rude, please."

"R-r-right." The ninja girl fled the room, glad for the slightest excuse to get as far away as possible.


"Yes?" The blond Turk was obviously hanging on to her composure with every bit of willpower she could muster.

"Check the area of the stairwell that's directly opposite to this lab."

"Uh... what am I looking for?"

"Another walled up area."

"For what?"

"Project (B), of course."

Elena opened her mouth to ask more questions, then gave up. She quickly trotted out of the room, leaving Cid alone with Cloud.

"What's Project (B)?" Cid's voice was quiet and surprisingly devoid of profanity.

In the same eerily calm voice, Cloud replied, "Project (B) was Hojo's attempt to reconstruct Sephiroth by cloning samples of Sephiroth's own cells. Hojo began the project after Sephiroth... died... six years ago."

Cloud turned to stare distantly at Cid. "Didn't you ever wonder why Hojo had to resort to infusing ordinary people with Jenova cells and Mako to produce 'Sephiroth Clones'? Didn't you ever wonder why Hojo didn't just make genuine clones of Sephiroth?"

"Uh... not really. But now that you mention it...."

"It's because Project (B) was a total failure, just like Project (A2) here." Cloud's voice was detached and totally objective. It was if his words had no personal relevance whatsoever.

"Because of his failures with his other two Jenova projects, Hojo was forced to resort to Project (C) which involved the infusion of adolescent and post-adolescent humans with Mako energy and Jenova cells. Although Hojo called it the 'Sephiroth Clone' project, it was essentially just an intensified version of the tried-and-true method of creating SOLDIERs."

Cid thought, (Project (C).... That was on the labels on those tanks we found in the basement library....)

Aloud, the pilot said, "Why didn't Project (A2) and Project (B) work? After all, Gast and Hojo managed to produce Sephiroth on their very first try."

Cloud shrugged as he continued to look thoughtfully at the woman floating in the dimly glowing liquid. "Jenova is an alien creature. No one knows what kind of biological quirks it might have. For whatever reasons, the direct cloning of Sephiroth didn't work. Thank god. I don't know what I would've done if Hojo had succeeded."

The obvious emotion in Cloud's last words and the slight tic in his cheek were the first cracks in his calm facade. Cid wasn't sure whether he should be glad or worried about it. He took a deep breath and said, "O-kay. If Sephiroth's cells are useless for direct cloning, then why would anyone go through all this trouble to steal a sample of Sephiroth's cells?"

Cloud slowly shook his head. "The direct cloning didn't work back then. It could be that Hojo has finally figured out a way to make the cloning process work within the last year."

"How the hell do you even know for sure that Hojo's responsible?"

Cloud reached into his pocket and pulled out the blood-covered tape recorder found by Tifa. He dropped it into Cid's hand.

"It's Hojo, all right. Listen for yourself."

With chills running up his spine, Cid pushed the play button.


As Cid finished listening to the tape, Rude and Barret ran into the room.

"What the hell's going on!?" said Rude.

Barret waved his gunhand angrily. "Yeah! Vincent storms out of the Mansion like a bat outta hell, then Yuffie suddenly shows up as white as a sheet and starts babbling so badly I can't understand a damn thing she's saying...!"

Both men suddenly did a massive double-take when they finally noticed the contents of the room. They were both struck speechless.

Cloud turned and gestured for Rude to join him. With the Turk standing beside him, he said quietly, "Did Reno have a sister?"

Rude frowned at the unexpected question. "Wha... how did you know?"

"Did you ever see her?"

"Uh... yeah... once or twice. Why are you...?"

"Is that her?" Cloud pointed at the cylinder containing the red-haired body of Regis Donovan.

Rude turned and recoiled in shock. "Holy shit!"

Cloud calmly waited.

"Yeah... that's her. Reno's sister -- his TWIN sister. She worked at Midgar University. But she died in a train crash four years ago."

"Twin sister!? That Turk has a sister!?" blurted Barret.

Cloud calmly continued. "And her body was never recovered, right?"

Rude nodded.

Elena peeked in the door and said, "I found it. Another recently walled-up area."


Cid frowned and said, "How the hell did you know there'd be another lab?"

"It was a logical guess."

"I don't get it, Cloud."

"Hojo was a sloppy and disorganized person, but the Nibelheim lab administrator certainly wasn't. A place for everything and everything in its place. There had to be a lab for Project (B). It was just a question of finding it."

Cloud looked at Cid and the others. "You guys take a look inside that walled-up area and see if you find anything... interesting. And tell Red, Tifa, and Cait Sith about all this." He made a vague gesture toward the neatly arranged tanks in the room, then turned to leave.

"And what the hell will you be doing?" said Cid.

Cloud halted in the doorway and said, "I'm going to find Vincent."

At that moment, a low bestial roar echoed through the Mansion. It was all too familiar.... the voice of Chaos.

Cloud jerked his head in the general direction of the sound. "I need to talk to him... alone."

He turned and gave Cid and the others a thoroughly unnerving stare. "And if I don't get out of here now, I'm liable to start screaming and I might not be able to stop." With those words, he headed for the rickety wooden stairs leading up to the Mansion.


Part 4h: All in the P.O.V.

As soon as he had stepped into the newly discovered laboratory rooms and realized what they contained, Cloud had gone through a massive struggle to keep himself from running far, far away from the grisly scene. In the end, he had reached deep inside himself and found a quiet spot -- a stillness in his mind. The horror was still out there, but it was distant... far away.

And curiously, the more he shut off his feelings, the better his memory seemed to be. He found himself recalling a surprising amount of information. Where it came from, he wasn't sure, but somehow he knew what he told the others was perfectly accurate.

But finally, even distancing his emotions hadn't been enough. So now he was prowling the upper regions of the Mansion, trying find any sign of Vincent. A gaping hole in a ground floor wall gave Cloud his first clue.


It was easy for Cloud to find Vincent's trail. All he had to do was follow the path of devastation -- shredded vegetation, shattered boulders, uprooted trees... the handiwork of Chaos incarnate. By the time Cloud caught actual sight of Vincent, his friend had resumed human form. Shrouded in the familiar dark cloak, Vincent panted heavily as he perched on a large rock overlooking the burned-out town

Cloud remembered the spot well. It had been one of his favored hiding places. He had spent many hours sitting on that very same rock, staring down at Nibelheim... watching the kids play without him... hearing their laughter.... In the beginning he had wanted so badly to join them... but later on, he'd sit up on this high isolated rock and think about how weak and pathetic those other kids were....

/ ....and dream of what I'd do to the little shitheads when I became strong enough.... /

Cloud shook his head sharply and shoved his childhood memories aside. He stopped a few steps away from Vincent and waited.

The dark man whispered, "I was a cursed fool to think that Hojo would have stopped with Lucrecia! All this time while I was sleeping, agonizing over my failure to save her, Hojo was carrying out his monstrous experiments over and over again. How he must have laughed!"

He turned burning red eyes on Cloud, then suddenly sprang to his feet and pounced. Cloud fought down his instinctive jerk as the cold metal of Vincent's claw clamped around his throat.

Vincent snarled, "When did this all start!? How many women died while I slumbered?"

(You're asking me!? How on earth should I know....) Suddenly, Cloud realized that he DID know. He stared up at Vincent and wondered what he should do. Should he tell the man the truth or should he offer Vincent a comforting lie?

Perhaps Vincent saw Cloud's indecision. In a soft, almost pleading voice, he said, "The truth. Please."

Cloud nodded slowly. Vincent released his grip on Cloud's neck and stepped back.

The spiky-haired young man said, "Hojo started work on Project (A2) about sixteen or seventeen years ago. Once Sephiroth joined SOLDIER at the age of fourteen, he was essentially free of Hojo's direct control. I guess Hojo wanted another... specimen... to play with. I'm guessing he was running at least one experiment a year."

"Sixteen or seventeen years ago.... At least sixteen or seventeen lives...." Vincent snarled quietly. His rage was still simmering just below the surface, but its fury was temporarily exhausted by his recent rampage. He glanced at Cloud and said, "What do you mean about Sephiroth being free....?"

As he stared at the cloud-shrouded peak of Mt. Nibel, Cloud said, "Growing up with Hojo's constant poking and prodding,... getting treated with about as much consideration as a lab rat.... You can't imagine how much he despised Hojo. I think that's why Sephiroth worked so hard in SOLDIER... to make himself strong AND indispensable to Shinra." Cloud looked away. "It was his insurance against getting handed over to Hojo again. I supposed it worked. President Shinra wasn't about lose the services of his best general just to keep Hojo happy. By the time the war with Wutai started, Sephiroth had become dangerous enough and powerful enough to make even Hojo think twice about crossing him."


On the surface, Cloud's voice had been calm enough. However, Vincent was momentarily jolted out from his own fury by the traces of tightly leashed anger in the young man's words... anger that seemed intensely personal. Before Vincent could say anything, Cloud's phone beeped softly.


Part 4i: Lies of Omission

Back in the Mansion's basement, Cid and the others had just finished comparing notes on their respective discoveries. The Turks' reaction to the tape had been mixed. They were glad to know that Reno was alive. Unfortunately, they had realized that it might not be a good thing.

Tifa whispered, "I thought Hojo was sick. But this.... I just can't...." She shuddered.

Red glanced at Cid. "And you said Cloud went looking for Vincent?"

"Yeah. Considering his feelings about Lucrecia,... well, he just totally lost it."

"Do you think Cloud's okay? If Vincent's gone berserk enough to transform into Chaos...."

"I don't know, Tifa. But he's probably the best person to talk to Vincent at the moment."

Tifa took another look into the bodies in the lab. Noticing her pale, sick expression, Cid grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away from the scene.

"Barret, where's Yuffie?" said the pilot.

The large man was stomping back and forth, waving his arms and swearing continuously. "Hell, I don't know! I think she decided that she'd had enough of this hellhole."

Cid nodded. "Tifa, why don't you go find Yuffie, okay?"

Tifa angrily shook her head. "Don't worry about me. I can handle it!"

The pilot stared pointedly at her shaking hands. "Like hell. Get out of here."

Barret muttered, "Working with Turks are better than hanging around this place. I'm goin' to check on Rude and Elena."

Red murmured, "I think they're working on that walled-up door she found."

Barret stomped away, still cursing.

Alone with Red, Cid sighed and lit a new cigarette.

The beast said, "Interesting, isn't it? From what you've told me, it seems that Cloud knows a great deal more than he consciously remembers...."

"Yeah, I got that part. But hell, Red! It was damn scary to see him just shut down his feelings like that! Like what happened here had absolutely nothing to do with him. And you saw those exam tables in that outer room. You don't need straps THAT strong just to hold down some normal human women...." Cid's voice ground to an abrupt halt when he saw Red shudder and twitch all over.

(Shit! You idiot!) He had been so focused on Cloud's odd behavior, he had completely forgotten that Red himself had been Hojo's prisoner and lab specimen for a untold period of time.

"Uh.... Crap, I'm sorry...." The pilot shuffled his feet uneasily.

Red shook his head. "No need, Cid. I won't deny that my experiences as Hojo's prisoner were... unpleasant to an extreme,... but I suppose I was lucky. At least I didn't have worry about my mind...."

"Shit, Red. Don't lie to me! I remember that time at the Gold Saucer. You got all upset because you were scared of going crazy!"

"Oh that...."

"Yeah, THAT!" From the color inside Red's ears, Cid thought that the beast was blushing with embarrassment, but he had no way to be certain with all that fur.

Red grinned a bit sheepishly. "I allowed myself to get panicked with all that talk of tattoos and the odd behavior of the Sephiroth Clones."

"Uh... did Hojo use any of that Jenova crap on you?"

"No. When things settled down after Meteor, I had some tests done. They all turned out negative. It was a great relief."

Cid reached out and thumped Red on the shoulder. "Hell, you could say that again."

"But back to Cloud. I suspect...."


"Remember what he said before? About how he 'borrowed' many of Zack's stories and acted as if they were his own? It's very likely that Zack picked up much of the information on Hojo's experiments, then told Cloud about it."

"I know. But hell, if Cloud knows all this crap about Hojo's Jenova projects, what else might he know? If there was only some way to get at that information...."

Cid suddenly noticed Red looking uneasy... and guilty.

"What's up?"


"Come on, you big hairball. Cough it up. If you know something...."

With extreme reluctance, Red said, "I was reading Grandfather's diaries a few months ago. In them, he talked about several possible ways to enhance memory and recall... there was some mention of certain drugs and some rumors about a materia...." He shrugged.

"Why the hell didn't you mention it before to any of us!? Cloud...." Cid abruptly stopped, even before Red could interrupt.

"Hold it. Let's think about this again...." The pilot exhaled very slowly and stared down on his own wrist, recalling all too vividly his earlier conversation with Cloud on the Highwind's bridge. His stomach churned uneasily.

Red urgently said, "As you've apparently figured out, it's not that simple."

Cid mutely nodded as he remembered how Cloud had discussed his futile attempt to kill himself with almost terrifying calm.

"It's undoubtedly occurred to you that there might be very good reasons Cloud can't remember what happened to him. There ARE things in this world that the human mind is simply not capable of coping with." Red looked up at him. "I missed the first part of your conversation with him on the Highwind's bridge, but if half of what I suspect is true,.... Cid, if he's not ready to deal with them...."

"Oh bloody hell...."

"....the memories could destroy him. Literally."

"So that's why you've kept your mouth shut all this time."

Red lowered his head. "I didn't want him to know. Not just yet. If he found out that there might be ways of forcibly retrieving those memories...."

"He'd probably insist on trying...."

"Exactly. But, Cid... am I really doing the right thing by not telling him?"

"I don't know, Red." Cid wearily leaned against a table.

"It was a simple enough decision back then. After Meteor, there really wasn't a reason to bring up the matter of his lost memories. He seemed to doing fine without them. But now... there are more and more signs that Cloud's memory may contain vital clues to what's going on. Instead of just worrying about Cloud himself, now I have to think about the consequences of not fully exploring every possible source of information we have." Red's ears flattened and his brow crinkled in intense worry.

Cid rubbed his forehead. "Well, shit.... I really don't want tell him, either. I guess... if the situation worsens, or if we run out of leads, we might not have a choice but to tell him. However, as long as there are other avenues to pursue, other options open...."

Red nodded morosely, then stiffened. His ears swiveled to his left.

"I know you're there, Yuffie."

Cid spun around and groaned. "Oh hell's bells. Great, that's totally blown it! Little Ms. Motormouth...."

There was a furious gleam in Yuffie's eyes as she marched forward toward Cid. She didn't stop until she was practically stomping on the pilot's toes. Yuffie grabbed his shirt and yanked his head down so they were staring eye to eye.

She angrily hissed, "You moron! Just where do you get off accusing me of something like that? You think I can't keep my mouth shut, huh? Just how stupid do you think I am, Cid?"

The pilot looked startled, then muttered just as angrily back, "You'd better, girl. This is a fucking serious matter!"

Yuffie abruptly let go of his shirt, then stalked a few steps away. "Damn it, he's my friend too!"

Cid flung up his hands and growled, "All right! All right! You made your goddamn point! Just don't go let this crap slip to Tifa or Elena in one of those girl-to-girl talks, okay?"

Yuffie snorted angrily. "What the hell do you want from me? I told you I'll keep my mouth shut about this and I will!"

Red sighed and shook his head sadly. "When I was young, I used to think that only truth and honesty were important. Now that I'm older... that seems to have all changed."

In an eerie chorus, Cid and Yuffie simultaneously said, "That's the real world, Red." The two blinked, then stared at each other in surprise.

The beast chuckled briefly, then his mood turned serious again. "It's hard to figure out what's best for Cloud. A truth which might be intolerable or a comforting lie...?"

"You can say that again," a morose voice said behind them.

The three friends whirled to see a rather depressed Cait Sith standing in the doorway.

Glancing around at the others, Cid muttered, "What the hell? Is this a fucking convention or what?"

Yuffie stared at the little cat and said, "What do you mean by that?"

Cait rubbed its head and mumbled, "Nothing...."

"Did you find any clues to where Hojo might be?" said Red.

"Not yet. Scarlet liked her secrets. She's probably got a bunch of weapon sites that aren't officially listed."

"Then how the hell...," muttered Cid.

"By checking the money trail. She still had to pay the workers, buy equipment, that sort of thing. The problem with that approach is that it takes a hell of a lot longer. But we're working on it."

"So have you found anything interesting?"

"Actually, yes. I just finished telling Tifa, Barret and the Turks about what I found out about Zack."

Cid said, "Yeah. Who was this guy Zack anyway? Aside from all the stuff that happened here in Nibelheim, all I know is that he was a SOLDIER, first class."

Yuffie bit her lip, but said nothing.

Cait Sith sighed. "Zack was quite a bit more than that. Cloud apparently left out some important facts about his friend."

"Like what?"

"Cid, Zack -- or Major Zackary Faelan as he was formally known -- wasn't just another ordinary SOLDIER. By all reports, Zack was one of the most promising SOLDIERs that Shinra ever had. Apparently, Sephiroth could see talent when he saw it. Zack was Sephiroth's aide and second-in-command for nearly four years. They were quite a team... right up to and including the mission to Nibelheim."

"WHAT!?" The cigarette stub fell from Cid's gaping mouth.

Red blinked in astonishment. "Are you sure?"

Cait Sith nodded vigorously.

"Whoa, whoa! Then how come I've never even heard of this guy before?" sputtered Cid.

"When you've got someone as... spectacular... as Sephiroth, I guess everyone else sort of fades into the background. By the way, do you know a General Claxmore?"

The pilot frowned. "I've heard of him. A crusty sort but seemed to be a pretty decent guy. Last I heard, he was appointed to head military ops in the southern regions. But that was years ago."

"You're right. He's also Zack's maternal uncle. I had a very interesting chat with him this morning. I'll fill you in on the details later, but here's the most important thing. Claxmore told me that Zack contacted him just about a year ago from Costa del Sol." Reeve could almost see the light bulbs turning on in his friends' heads.


Red leaned forward eagerly, "Did Zack say anything about the sample?"

"Unfortunately, no. But what he told his uncle basically confirms Cloud's story about being Hojo's prisoners, escaping from Nibelheim, and that sort of thing. Apparently, Zack didn't want to get his uncle involved. Claxmore said that Zack was tense, but perfectly coherent. However, Zack's companion seemed to be pretty damn sick."

"Ah HA!" said Yuffie.

The little cat nodded. "Claxmore said that there was some indication that Zack was trying to take his friend to Mideel. Does that little bit of information strike any bells?"

Red said excitedly, "Because the doctor there was known to have experience in treating Mako poisoning!"

Yuffie whispered, "Cloud...."

"Exactly. Claxmore also mentioned that Zack thought they were being followed."

"So, we know that they were alive at Costa del Sol. Damn it! It's not enough!"

Cait Sith slouched sadly. "I know."

Red said, "Every piece of information helps." With a thoughtful frown, he added, "It's hard to imagine Sephiroth working closely with anyone...."

The little cat coughed. "Actually, from the people I've talked to, Sephiroth and Zack were more than comrades-in-arms... they seemed to actually be... friends."

"Whoa! Now that's GOT to be a load of crap!" said Cid.

Cait Sith shrugged. "That's what I heard."

Cid's phone suddenly chirped urgently. He pulled it out and said, "Yeah?"

"This is Dr. Montessi from the ESSARUF facility."

Cid looked started, "What do you want?"

"I need to speak to your associate. The blond-haired man."

The pilot's response was characteristically blunt. "Why?"

"It involves Dr. Roissy. You DID insist that you be notified if she recovered consciousness."

"So she's awake?"

"Yes. But I must insist that I speak to your associate."

"Hold it a sec." As Cid contacted Cloud, Yuffie ran to tell the others about the call.

Cloud's voice sounded oddly... tight... as he replied. "Yes?"

"Dr. Montessi wants to talk to you."

"Huh? Whatever for?"

"Hell, I don't know. Something to do with Roissy. Why don't you ask her yourself."

"Yes, doctor?" Cloud's voice was uncharacteristically curt.

"Excuse me, I didn't catch your name," said Montessi

Cid snorted and muttered, "Of course she didn't. She was too damn busy staring at him to pay attention."

"It's Cloud Strife."

"I see. Mr. Strife,...."

He interrupted her sharply. "Just call me Cloud."

There was a brief pause, then the doctor sullenly said, "Very well. Mr. Cloud, my sister Dr. Roissy has recovered consciousness. She wants to speak to you urgently."

"What's it about?"

The doctor sounded very annoyed. "I don't know. She refuses to tell me. Roissy says that she'll talk to you and only you. In person. If you are interested, I suggest you get back here as soon as possible. Her condition could deteriorate without warning."

"Hold on for a moment." Cloud cut Montessi out of the conversation, and said, "It looks like Dr. Roissy's ready to talk."

"Well, that's a lucky break for us...," Tifa said.

The pilot muttered, "IF she's making sense."

"She's coherent enough to ask for me specifically...."

"Hell, she must have recognized you in the elevator shaft," said Cid.

In a thoughtful voice, Cloud said, "Dr. Roissy did say something just before she fell... that someone told her I was dead."

Cid growled, "I bet she was referring to Hojo."

Tifa said uneasily, "But what does she want from you, Cloud?"

"I don't know. Montessi says that her sister won't talk to anyone else but me." There was a brief pause. "If she's got any more information about that damned sample,.... We can't pass up any possible leads so I guess I'll have to go. So who wants to come with me and who wants to stay here and keep searching?"

"Count me in," said Cid.

Tifa chimed in with, "Me too."

Red chuckled softly. "I don't think any of us WANT to stay in this place, but there's too much information here. I'll remain here with the others and keep searching for Hojo's lab reports."

In a worried voice, Cloud said, "Will you guys be okay? There's no telling if Hojo or his monsters might come back here."

Yuffie shouted over the phone, "Listen, we can take care of ourselves! Besides, with seven people here, counting Elena and Rude...."

Barret grinned sourly at the mention of the Turks. "Spike, you just get your butt over there and pump Roissy for every bit of info she's got. She might have the key to this whole mess. If she's about to croak at any moment...."

"All right. I'll met you guys at the Highwind in a few minutes."

Cid suddenly said, "Uh, Cloud? You find Vincent?"

Vincent's voice cut into the conversation. "I'm fine, Cid. But I think I'll stay out here for a while."

"Sure thing."

There was a click as Cloud reconnected with Montessi. "Doctor, I'll be there as soon as I can. Contact me if your sister's condition changes or if she tells you anything."

"Very well."

After Montessi hung up, Cloud said, "Cid? Tifa? Let's see if Roissy has anything interesting to tell us."


(end of Part 4)


In part 5,
- MORE scientists... some mad... some not

-------------------------------------------- /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/:E


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