Conflicts of Interest Part 5

Shards of Truth

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 5a: Whip Hand

Dr. Montessi awaited them in the infirmary. Unlike their first meeting, she only gave Cloud a brief glance, before pointing to a closed door down the hall.

"Roissy's in there." She glanced meaningfully at Tifa and Cid. "But she insists on talking to you alone."

Tifa gave Cloud an inquiring glance. He shrugged and said, "It's not as if we have much choice."

She nodded sharply. "Fine. We'll wait right out here." Tifa seated in the sitting area nearby. Cid picked out a comfortable chair and propped his feet up on the coffee table.

Cloud glanced at the doctor and said, "Dr. Montessi. After you."

Montessi led Cloud to the door and allowed him to usher her inside. The room was brightly lit, giving him a clear view of the bed. Roissy lay still, her eyes closed.

Cloud frowned slightly. There was an unpleasant organic odor in the air, but it was almost completely covered by the unusually strong smell of antiseptic. He looked at Roissy and quietly said, "Are you sure she's up to this?"

Montessi shrugged. "She's probably just fell asleep waiting for you. Go wake her up. After all the trouble she made, I'm sure she's just dying to talk to you."

He quietly approached Roissy's bed. He stared at her for a long moment.

(I... know her. But from where?)

"Dr. Roissy?"

There was no response. Cloud called her name again, then reached out to give her a gentle shake. But as soon as he touched her shoulder, he knew something was terribly wrong. Her flesh was stiff and cold. Not only was Roissy dead, but she had been dead for several hours.

Before he could react, Cloud heard three quick puffing noises. There was a clacking noise as something hit the wall, then two sharp stabbing pains in his shoulder... unpleasantly familiar pains. Twisting his head to get a look, he saw two tranquilizer darts protruding from his back.

"What the...!?" He glared at Montessi.

The doctor coolly stared back at him. "Don't even try struggling. You should know by now that it's quite useless. That drug was specifically designed to take down people and creatures with Mako-enhanced bodies. And I took the precaution of increasing your usual dosage...."

Cloud felt a growing numbness seeping through his body. He gritted his teeth angrily and said, "My usual dosage? What are you talking about? Why the hell are you doing this?"

Montessi cocked her head slightly.

"You still don't remember? Interesting...."

"Remember WHAT!?"

"Nibelheim, of course. Project (C), Sample B, designated 'Code C'. Or should I call you Strife, Trooper Private second class?"

"Don't... call me... that...!"

"But that's your name, isn't it?"

He stared at her blankly for a minute, then his expression abruptly changed to one of rage and fury. He growled, "You... filthy,... stinking... bitch!"

"Ah, finally starting to recognize me?"

Oh yes, he remembered her now. Cloud snarled and took two steps toward her before his legs buckled. Collapsing to his hands and knees, he hissed, "I'm... going to rip... your goddamn heart... out!"

"Idle threats, just like before. You couldn't do anything to me back in Nibelheim. And you can't do anything now. By the way, you can yell all you want. This room is totally soundproof."

"You're... dead... meat...!" His hands curled into fists, but he was too weak to stand.

Montessi watched him with a cold, malicious smile. It only took a light touch with her foot to nudge him over onto his back. As he sprawled helplessly on the cold floor, she bent over and jerked his chin up, forcing him to look at her.

"Meat? Me? Hardly. That's what you are. Just another useless little chunk of Shinra cannon fodder. And you thought you could become a SOLDIER?" She laughed in his face. "Compared to Sephiroth and Zack, you're nothing. Worthless."

She dumped his head against the floor and stood up. After watching him continue to struggle for several minutes, Montessi frowned and checked her watch. Even though she had nearly doubled the dosage, he was still conscious and fighting the drug. That simply won't do. She contemplated her options. She could give him another dose but it could very well kill him. No, it would be better to keep him alive for the moment... just in case.

Cloud distantly heard Montessi open and close a drawer, then there was a horribly familiar crackling noise.

He could hear something in the room whimper....


"Oh, so NOW you're scared." The savage mockery in Montessi's voice made a reddish haze of rage obscure over his vision.


....then everything went black as an agonizing electrical charge ripped through him.

Montessi nudged Cloud's limp body with her foot. Satisfied that he was quite unconscious, she turned off the shockstick and calmly called for her orderlies.

Part 5b: Icy Resolutions

Tifa was impatiently pacing back and forth in the sitting area. Cid was still in his chair but he couldn't keep himself from nervously drumming his fingers.

"What the hell's taking so long?" she muttered. "He's been in there for over a half hour!"

"I don't know." Cid suddenly noticed that the security guard had apparently multiplied. Where there had been only one, there was now two. And now he caught a glimpse of three heavily armed guards lurking just around the corner. He suspected that there were a lot more of them nearby.

Tifa continued to pace but he caught her adjusting her gloves before she flashed him a quick warning glance. He gave her the faintest nod in return. Cid didn't know what those guards were up to, but he had a bad feeling that he and Tifa were about to find out.

The guards casually headed in their direction. Cid just as casually decided to stand up to throw away his cigarette. His hand tightened on his spear.

Suddenly, a sharp, icy female voice said, "Why are you all gathered here? Return to your posts."

A startled security guard babbled, "Dr. Savois, we...."

"I told you to return to your posts."

The guard opened his mouth to protest, but quickly changed his mind when Savois gave him a cold glare.

"Uh... yes, ma'am."

As the security guards reluctantly departed, Dr. Savois glanced at Tifa and Cid.

"Weren't you just here yesterday? Why are you back?" Savois was a tall, strikingly attractive woman with long, curly, dark red hair and dark green eyes.

Tifa relaxed a bit, but keep a wary eye out anything suspicious. "We're here to speak to Dr. Roissy. We got a message about two hours ago that she wanted to talk to us."

Savois' eyes narrowed. "That's quite impossible."

"Why the hell's that?" said Cid.

"Because I was informed by the infirmary staff that my sister died well over six hours ago."


Tifa sputtered, "Are you sure!?"

Cid and Tifa stared at each other in dismay. The pilot pounded himself on the head. "I'm so fuckin' STUPID! I bet it was all a goddamn trap for...."


Cid whirled and dashed down the hallway toward room Montessi had pointed out. Before Tifa could follow, Savois grabbed her arm in a surprisingly strong grip and stopped her dead in her tracks.

"Who told you Roissy was still alive?"

"Montessi!" Tifa finally managed to wiggle free of Savois' grasp. Reaching the door, she shoved Cid aside and kicked the door down. She ran inside and glanced around wildly.

Cloud and Montessi were nowhere in sight.

Behind her, Savois took two deep breaths, then hit the intercom. "Security. This is Savois. I want a full-scale search of this facility. Top to bottom. Locate Dr. Montessi but do not approach. Repeat. Do NOT approach. Anyone injuring her or anyone with her will answer directly to me."

As she watched Tifa and Cid frantically searching the room, Savois quietly hissed under her breath, "Montessi, you bloody idiot...."


Tifa and Cid found Roissy's stiffening corpse lying on the bed, but there was no trace of Cloud. Cid suddenly bent down and picked up something off the floor. He stalked over to Savois, grabbed her by her labcoat and yelled, "What the hell is this!?"

Savois ignored Cid's rough handling and blandly replied, "It's a tranquilizer dart." She plucked it from the pilot's hand and held it against the light.

"I believe it contains Quadrazin."

"And what the hell's that?"

"An experimental drug that was originally designed to sedate Mako-enhanced creatures." She frowned thoughtfully. "Am I correct in assuming that your friend is -- or was -- a member of SOLDIER?"

"Why on earth do you want to know?"

"Because if he's not, this drug will kill him very quickly and very painfully."

Tifa muttered, "Yes, he's undergone Mako treatments."

"I see. Well, in that case, if he's been hit with a similar dart, there's probably no harm done." Savois discretely tugged her labcoat out of Cid's grasp. "By the way, you should be careful in handling that dart you're holding. If I'm correct as to its contents, even a very small dose is powerful enough to kill an ordinary human being."

Tifa snapped, "What do you mean 'probably no harm done'!? Don't you know!?"

"Actually,... no, I don't."

"Why not!?" shrieked Tifa.

"I told you. This drug was experimental. It performs somewhat erratically. When it works, it's effective and very quick. But there's a small but distinct chance that it won't work. In that case, the drug only leaves the victim in a severely disoriented mental state, but has little or no effect on physical abilities. If your friend is a SOLDIER,... well, that could be a bit of a problem."

Cid flung his arms up and shouted, "ARGHHH! What the hell's going on? And where the fuck is Cloud!?"

Savois raised an elegant eyebrow. "I would think that it's obvious. My moron of a sister has just kidnapped your friend."

Tifa growled, "What is she planning to do with him!?"

The doctor shrugged. "How should I know? I had nothing to do with it. Believe me, the last thing I want is to having one of President Reeve's close friends harmed or injured in any way."


A few minutes later, Savois was questioning one of the security guards who had recently tried to ambush Tifa and Cid.

"Sergeant Kendell, would you explain to me what the hell you and two full squads of security were doing lurking around the infirmary just a few minutes ago?" Savois was tapping her foot ominously against the floor.

The sergeant flinched slightly at the mild obscenity and quickly said, "Dr. Montessi's orders, ma'am. She reported some suspicious characters and ordered us to remove them."

"I see." The security guard nervously shuffled his feet under her hard stare. "May I remind you that the chain of authority in this facility does NOT pass through my sister. With Dr. Aston's death, it passes through me. Is that clear?"

"Ummm. Yes, ma'am."

A security guard rushed up to Savois and the sergeant. "Sir! We've located Dr. Montessi. She's in the secured labs on level five."

Savois said, "Excellent."

Tifa stared at the doctor as Savois pulled the pistol from Sergeant Kendell's belt and expertly checked it for working order. "Hey! Just what the hell are you planning to do...?"

"I would think that it's obvious. Montessi has obviously lost her mind. I'm going to stop her before she makes a bigger mess of things."

With those words, Savois turned and briskly walked down the hallway with the security squad trailing behind her.

Tifa and Cid exchanged startled looks. Cid whistled softly, then muttered, "Humph. That's one SCARY lady." He reminded himself to never turn his back on Dr. Savois.

Tifa nodded in agreement as she and Cid ran after Savois.

Part 5c: Just Desserts

Everyone reached the laboratories on level five. Savois raised her hand for silence. The hallway turned dead quiet.

Sergeant Kendell said softly, "The security camera shows the man on an examination table in the furthest room. Montessi is standing to the right of the door in the front room."

Savois nodded coolly. Tifa had only took a few steps toward the door when Savois firmly pushed her aside. The doctor slipped off her high-heeled shoes and kicked the sturdy door open with no apparent effort. As soon as the door sprang open, she leveled her pistol at her sister.

Montessi whirled around in surprise, scalpel in hand. "Savois!"

"And what the hell do you think you're doing?" Savois sounded distinctly annoyed.

Montessi laughed a bit wildly. "Oh, sister, if you only knew!"

"What I know is that you seemed to have taken up kidnapping as a hobby."

"What's a minor thing like that in the quest for scientific knowledge?"

"Oh please, you sound exactly like that idiot Hojo. You better not have injured him."

"It doesn't matter to me if he lives or dies."

"But it matters to me. I don't need the trouble, nor do I need President Reeve throwing a fit because you managed to injure or kill his friend."

"You're a coward, that's what you are. You like playing things safe." Montessi made the last word sound like an obscenity.

Savois gave her sister a bored look. "Don't give me that old argument again."

Tifa finally managed to squeeze her way into the room. "Cut the crap! Where's Cloud!?"

Montessi glared at Tifa. "That's none of your concern!"

"You kidnap my friend and you call it none of my concern!?"

"Friend?" Montessi snorted. "You must be desperate indeed if you consider a worthless coward like him a friend!"

"Where do you get off call him a coward, you bitch?" snarled Cid.

"What else would you call a sniveling little runt? You should have heard him begging for mercy!" Montessi retorted.

"Why you...!" Several of the security guards edged nervously away from Tifa, who was nearly glowing with rage.

At that moment, some over-enthusiastic security guards shoved their way into the room and basically got in everyone's way.

Savois snapped, "You idiots!"

Montessi took immediate advantage of the commotion. She bolted through the security door at the back of the room and slammed it behind her. Cid ruthlessly swiped the clueless security guards from his path with the blunt end of Venus Gospel. The heavy security door was locked, but three hard slashes ripped it open. Cid charged through the doorway into the neighboring lab room, only to see Montessi disappearing through another security door at the opposite end of the room.

He muttered, "Shit!" and set off after her with Tifa at his heels.


Before the security could follow Tifa and Cid, Savois held up her hand, stopping them in their tracks.

"But ma'am!"

"He's their friend. Let them have the first chance to deal with the problem." She gave them a nasty look. "Besides, you'll only get in the way. Again."

Some of the security people began to sweat nervously.


Montessi led Cid and Tifa on a merry chase through the lab level. Each time she went through a door, she gained a bigger lead. It took fractions of a second to lock the security doors, but it took much longer for Cid to break them down. The pilot was starting to wonder just how big the damn level was.

As he and Tifa approached another door, there was a muffled crash and a series of faint pounding noises from the other side. Cid's spear slashed, Tifa kicked, and the door thudded to the floor. The doorway opened onto a smaller lab room. Remembering the strange noises, Cid took a wary step through the door, but he couldn't see any trace of Montessi. Suddenly, just as the pilot caught a flicker of motion in the corner of his eye, something slammed into Cid and sent him flying. He hit the nearby wall with a crash, then slid limply to the floor, out cold.

Cid never had a chance to see his attacker, but Tifa did. She screamed, "Cloud, what are you DOING!?"

Cloud stood over Cid, gasping for breath and swaying unsteadily on his feet. He didn't respond to Tifa's question. He merely watched at her, eyes narrowed in a hostile, drug-glazed stare. Cloud didn't seem to recognize her at all.


But in its dark, murky hiding place, someone had no problem recognizing Tifa Lockheart. No problem at all.

/ Stupid lying sluttish little BITCH...! /


(Oh no! What the hell has Montessi been doing to him?)

Tifa took two quick steps in his direction. The sudden movement turned out to be a bad mistake. He may have looked wobbly on his feet, but he certainly wasn't helpless. Or harmless. Cloud snarled and lashed out with his fist... very hard and very, VERY fast. Even with her training and experience, Tifa barely managed to dodge the blow.


His first attack might have been just an instinctive response to Tifa's rapid approach. However, Cloud's lightning fast follow-up -- a vicious kick and punch combination -- definitely was not. It was much too precise.

It was only by sheer luck -- and the fact that Cloud was probably doped to the gills -- that Tifa avoided getting seriously injured. He was not holding back. That last attack had missed her by fractions of an inch and had turned a sturdy storage cabinet into so much scrap metal. Tifa could just imagine what that strike would have done to her if it had connected.

(YIKES!!! He's so FAST! And strong!)

She hastily scrambled out of range. Cloud didn't pursue her. Instead, he stood wavering on his feet, his chest heaving. She saw his eyes dart rapidly around the room like a wild animal searching for an escape route.

Since Cloud almost always used his sword in battle, Tifa had never had an opportunity to judge his unarmed combat skills. But when he slid into a fighting stance with the practiced ease of an expert, Tifa knew she was in serious trouble. Not only was Cloud faster and stronger than she was, she had a nasty feeling that his technique was as good -- if not better -- than hers. And in the confined space of the lab, she had no room to maneuver.

She automatically took up a defensive stance, warily watching him. (Where the hell did Cloud get this good? I didn't think that Shinra trained its troops that heavily in martial arts....)

Maybe... just maybe... she could take him down. He might have the enhanced body of a SOLDIER but he was obviously trying to fight off whatever weird drugs that bitch Montessi had used on him. And she had a few special techniques Zargan had taught her... but if she screwed THOSE up, someone could easily die....

(What I'm thinking of? This is Cloud! There's got to be another way!)

From the doorway, someone softly murmured, "Don't try it." Tifa recognized Savois' voice instantly. The doctor continued, "If you keep that up, you're only going to make him feel more threatened. If he really goes after you, you're dead."

(Savois' right. Trying to use force is only going to make this mess worse.)

Tifa dropped her hands and assumed the most relaxed, non-threatening pose she could manage, she said softly, "Cloud...."

At first, she was afraid that she wasn't getting through to him at all. She repeated his name, always in that quiet, soothing tone, until she saw a slight change in his eyes... a faint flicker of recognition.

She tried to approach him but the move made him tense visibly. She backed up to give him more room and to give him time to sort out his surroundings. Finally, he frowned slightly and muttered, "Tifa?"

"That's right. It's just me. Tifa. You remember me, right?"

"I... what... where...?"

"Yes, Cloud. You're safe now. I'm here. I'm not going to let anyone hurt you. Trust me."

Cloud gave her a confused look, then slowly sagged to his knees. Tifa dashed to his side just in time to catch him in her arms as he passed out. As she frantically examined him, Tifa discovered that he didn't seem to have any obvious injuries. That still left the question of what Montessi had done to him....

She jumped as two loud gunshots went off behind her. Tifa whirled to see Savois standing over her sister's body, holding a smoking gun. Without any visible emotion, Savois said, "You should be more careful. She could have easily cut your throat." With her foot, Savois nudged the scalpel lying on the floor near Montessi's outstretched hand.

A stunned Tifa looked up at Savois, who appeared totally unmoved by the fact that she had just shot her own sister dead.

"Yes?" Savois raised an inquiring eyebrow.

"Your... your sister... you killed...."

Savois' lips thinned. "Montessi was high-strung and over-excitable. It wasn't totally unexpected to have her go over the edge like this." The doctor shrugged.

Cid groaned quietly, then rolled over on his back.

"What the hell hit me?" he mumbled.

Tifa mumbled back, "Ummm. Cloud did."

"What? What did he do a dipshit thing like that?"

"You startled him. He wasn't thinking clearly...."

"So what's new?"

"Cid!" Tifa sounded outraged.

"Oh, for god's sake, Tifa! You know what I mean. Don't yell. My head can't take it."

Savois walked over to Cid. He yelped as she firmly checked him over, especially around his upper body. Finally, she said, "I think you've got a slight crack in your cheekbone. It looks like you may have pulled a few neck muscles and chipped your shoulder blade. Your healing materia should take care of those injuries with no problem." She gave the pilot a cool stare. "You're lucky he was holding back. He could have easily broken your neck."

"You call this holding back!?" Cid winced in pain as he struggled to his feet.

Savois stood up and looked at them. "You really don't know much about SOLDIERs, do you? You have no idea what you're dealing with." She shook her head. "I'll go order a stretcher for your friend."

Still gingerly holding his face, Cid sputtered, "Now hold it...!"

Savois smoothly added, "Given what just occurred, I think that he should be under observation for at least a few hours."

The pilot glanced at Tifa. She glanced down at the unconscious and now dangerously pale Cloud. "Surely a cure spell...."

Savois shook her head. "That would probably work. But considering the severity of his reaction, I would strongly recommend that you just let him sleep it off. It'll only take a few hours."

The doctor walked over to Cloud and glanced down at him, then suddenly frowned. Kneeling beside Tifa, she grabbed Cloud's chin and pulled back an eyelid.

Tifa yelled, "Hey!"

"He has Mako eyes. How did that happen?" The doctor glared at Tifa.

"What? Do you know Cloud?"

Savois snapped, "I'm familiar with every single candidate that went through the SOLDIER program ever since it started. And he certainly wasn't one of them." She drummed her fingers on the floor before suddenly snapping her fingers.

"Ah, now I remember. Strife. Cloud Strife."

"You DO know him!" said Tifa.

"I know that he was refused as a SOLDIER candidate."

"How can you possibly remember...."

"I have a very good memory."

Cid stared to Savois. "Maybe a little observation time wouldn't be a bad idea for Cloud. Besides, I think we need to have a long talk, doc. Right, Tifa?"

She glanced at Cloud and Savois, then nodded slowly. "All right. But I'm not letting Cloud out of my sight."

"Perfectly understandable." Savois gestured for the stretcher.

Part 5d: Expertise

They ended up in a small sitting area that had an observation window into the adjacent room. Through the window, Tifa had no problem keeping an eye on Cloud. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully enough. His sword rested in the corner, after being found by one of the now-helpful security guards.

After some brief introductions, Savois folded her arms and said, "I would appreciate it if you'd tell me how Cloud Strife ended up with a SOLDIER's body. That certainly didn't happen through official channels."

Cid scowled. "How can you tell?"

Savois shrugged. "Besides the obvious glow in the eyes, there are much more subtle signs,... but an expert can tell right away."

"And you're an expert?"


"Why are you making such a big deal outta this, Savois?"

The doctor sighed in exasperation. "Because I know he doesn't meet the qualifications for the SOLDIER program. At least, he didn't when he applied... oh, about... six or seven years ago."

Cid stared hard at her. "Hey, just how old are you?"

"Is that really pertinent?"

"Like hell it is! How long were you involved with SOLDIER and this Jenova crap!?"

Savois shrugged. "I was a graduate student under Professor Gast when Jenova was discovered. I did my doctorate on a procedure that used a combination of Mako infusion and Jenova cells to enhance strength, dexterity, and physical abilities. With some fine-tuning, that procedure eventually became the process used to create Shinra's SOLDIERs."

Tifa rapidly back-calculated. "But... but that makes you at least fifty years old!" She stared at the doctor who looked as if she couldn't be any older than her mid-thirties.

Savois dryly replied, "I'm well preserved."

"You must be...," muttered Cid.

Tifa sharply asked, "Doctor, what did you know about Hojo's Jenova experiments and Sephiroth?"

"Most of my expertise is related to the SOLDIER program. However, I was aware of Hojo and Gast's prenatal modification project which produced Sephiroth. I also know that Sephiroth was Hojo's son."

"Then how could you possibly not know about what was going on in Nibelheim...?"

Savois coolly interrupted Tifa's outburst. "Unlike both my sisters, I was never assigned to Nibelheim. I had certain... philosophical differences with Professor Hojo, so I ended up in Midgar, supervising the SOLDIER program while he puttered around with his various other Jenova-related experiments.

The doctor folded her arms and said, "Now that I've established that I've been intimately involved with the SOLDIER project ever since it started about thirty-one years ago, will you please tell me what happened with Cloud Strife? Because he certainly did not go through the SOLDIER program."

"Hojo," Cid said flatly.

Savois inhaled slowly, then said, "Hojo... the damn fool."

Tifa said, "Dr. Savois, why are you so interested in Cloud?"

The doctor sighed. "Just what do you people know about the SOLDIER program and process?"

Cid said, "Not much. Only that it was Shinra's way of producing an elite corps of supersoldiers. People ended up physically enhanced. That's it."

"Do either of you know why the SOLDIER screening program is so selective?"

"Nope." Cid glanced at Tifa who shook her head.

"Very well. I'll explain this as simply as I can. The SOLDIER conversion process is very stressful, even under optimum conditions. And if the candidate is not capable of handling that stress, the transformation process can become extremely traumatic. That can result in all types of mental problems."

Tifa said uneasily, "Really? Like what?"

"Oh, a wide variety. But the most common are problems such as paranoia, homicidal mania, manic-depressive syndrome, amnesia, post-traumatic stress disorders, personality fragmentation,...."

As Savois calmly continued with her list, Tifa began to look absolutely ill.

When the doctor noticed Tifa's expression, Savois said, "Excuse me. Is there something wrong?"

"N-no. Go on."

"That's why the candidate selection process is so rigorous. The SOLDIER process will work on virtually anyone. However, the combination of Jenova cell injections and Mako infusions tends to aggravate any pre-existing or latent mental and emotional problems. The results can be... unfortunate."

"You don't say," muttered Cid.

"Most candidates were rejected on the basis of psychological evaluations, not physical problems. The last thing Shinra wanted was to have mentally unstable supersoldiers running loose."

"I can see why they might consider that a problem," said Tifa in faintly sarcastic tones.

"Ah... yes. You were the ones who faced Sephiroth. Then you know what I mean."

"Sort of."

"I think I've already mentioned that I had certain disagreements with Hojo. Well, I was rather vocally opposed to Dr. Gast and Hojo's prenatal modification experiment -- the infusing of an unborn fetus with Jenova cells and Mako."

"Oh, you mean Sephiroth!"

"Correct. The problem with their approach is that there's no way to pick and choose a suitable candidate. You just have to take genetic potluck. I wasn't the least bit surprised that Sephiroth eventually snapped. It was probably inevitable, considering that he got half his genes from Hojo."

Savois sighed. "Dr. Gast and I... well, we agreed to disagree on the subject. Hojo didn't take my criticism so kindly, so he made sure I stayed as far away from Nibelheim as possible."

Cid chewed on his cigarette. "Okay, but that still doesn't explain...."

"I was just getting to that. With the screening tests I helped develop, the occurrence of side effects from the SOLDIER process approaches one percent... one in a hundred. Without screening, the probability of severe mental side-effects increases substantially."

"How substantially?" Tifa whispered.

"About 75% for the general population, although it can be higher with certain aggravating factors."

"Are you saying that three out of four ordinary people would go crazy...."

Savois frowned. "I prefer to avoid the term 'crazy'. It's such a judgmental term. I simply mean that there's a better than even chance that some severe mental problem will occur."

(Dear god, if she's right, that would explain a lot....) Tifa sank down slowly into a convenient chair and buried her face in her hands.

"Tifa...." Cid shook his head, then turned back to Savois. "So you must have known most of the SOLDIERs."

"Yes. Since I was conveniently located in Midgar and had expertise in the subject, I ended up handling most of the medical support for SOLDIER."

"Then... you must have known Sephiroth."

Savois sniffed in annoyance. "Yes. An undeniably brilliant man, but difficult and demanding. He had no patience for the inadequacies of others."

(Look who's talking!) Cid smiled sourly. "Did you also know a SOLDIER called Zack?"

For the first time, Savois' smile and voice were devoid of mockery or sarcasm. She chuckled softly and said, "Yes. I did."

"How well did you know him?"

"Fairly well on a casual basis. Sephiroth preferred not to deal with Shinra's scientific division, so Zack usually ended up acting as a go-between. It worked out for the best. He was much easier to deal with than Sephiroth."

Looking at Savois, Cid had to admit she was one hell of an attractive woman... even though she was almost twice HIS age. "Anything going on between you two?"

Savois' eyes narrowed. "You're a blunt man, Captain Highwind."

The pilot simply shrugged. "Whatever."

"No. We occasionally had lunch together. That was it. Although, I'll freely admit that I wouldn't have minded a somewhat closer relationship. He was an attractive, charming young man."

"No problems robbing the cradle, hm?"

She chuckled, "The opinion of fools don't interest me."

Cid abruptly switched topics. "Did you know a Dr. Stephen?"

Savois sneered. "Now there's a fool if I ever saw one."


"Not only was he incapable of innovative thinking, he was sloppy and careless." She made it sound like a mortal sin. "And he had an unpleasant tendency to put his hands where they didn't belong." She smiled grimly. "He tried it with me. Once. He ended up being my sister Roissy's lover, which might tell you something about her tastes and her judgment. I believe he was Heidegger's second cousin or something like that."

"Well, he's dead."

Savois didn't even bat an eyelash. "Small loss."

Cid snorted, then said, "Doc, I forgot to ask the first time we were here but the high security cell sample containers...."


"Do they all look the same?"

"Yes. They're all fluorescent yellow and green."

Cid grimaced. "Can't exactly miss that, can you?"

"They're supposed to be highly visible, Captain."

"Would the contents be labelled?"

"Of course. With the type of biological samples we handle here, instant and accurate identification is necessary. And before you ask, the labels and containers are both tamperproof."


"Meaning that once a container's been sealed, you can't remove the sample without leaving obvious traces. Similarly, you can't change the container's labelling without destroying the container itself."

"You know what's missing, right?"

Savois frowned slightly. "Apparently a cell sample from Sephiroth."

"So anyone picking up the damned container could instantly tell...."

"....that the sample inside was Sephiroth's. Unless they were totally illiterate."

"Hmmmm." Cid glanced again at Tifa. She seemed oblivious to his conversation with Savois. Instead, she kept staring through the observation window at Cloud with an intensely worried look on her face.

"Uh, Tifa? Tifa!"

"Huh? Oh,... sorry, Cid. I wasn't paying attention. What were you saying?"

"Don't worry about it. I'll be back in a few minutes."

Tifa didn't even bother asking why he was leaving. "Sure... no problem." Her gaze drifted back to Cloud.

Cid grabbed Savois and pulled her out of the room.

"Excuse me, Captain?"

"I've got a few more questions to ask you. And Tifa's got enough on her mind."



Once they had moved some distance away, he asked Savois, "Just one last thing, Doc."


"If you don't use Quadrazin to knock out SOLDIERs, what do you use?"

The pilot calmly exhaled a long stream of smoke as Savois stared at him. "Is this in reference to your friend, Captain?"

"Just answer the goddamn question."

"I thought you might ask. Follow me." She led Cid to a small alcove, pulled opened a drawer, and extracted a small briefcase. It was about the size of a large dictionary. She flipped the case open. Inside, Cid saw what appeared to be a compressed air pistol and a few packages of tranquilizer darts.

"Use this." She held up her hand before Cid could say anything. "Considering what's happened today, I'm sure you're not inclined to trust me. Fine. I have no problem with that. Have each of the darts independently tested if you like. Any semi-competent doctor or chemist can do that. The drug name and everything else is all in the records. You can ask President Reeve for the standard SOLDIER medical files. Check it out for yourself. However, there are several things that you should know."


Savois held up one finger. "First point. This drug should be quite safe for your friend. However, if Hojo deviated substantially from the standard procedure for producing SOLDIERs... well, there might be complications."

She held up a second finger. "Second point. These darts will definitely knock out a SOLDIER, even a berserk one. However, the drug is slow. Depending on dosage and placement of the darts, it could take anywhere from one to five minutes to take effect. In that time, the target can still do a lot of damage. Remember that. And if he has healing materia and uses it before the drug kicks in, you'll be exactly where you started."

Cid frowned. "You've got nothing faster?"

Savois shook her head. "Sorry. Your two options are either a fast, dangerous drug like Quadrazin or a slow, safe drug like this. The choices are very limited. The presence of Jenova cells causes lots of unpredictable drug interactions. The best way to handle it is to use a mixture of several drugs, but that's a job for experts. An amateur trying something like that can easily end up killing their target or just making things worse."

"What about using materia?"

"Sleep spells and similar things will work... sometimes. SOLDIERs typically have a higher resistance to those types of spells. I'm not sure whether it's from the Mako infusion or the Jenova cells... maybe both. The degree of resistance varies with the person and the situation. Some can be basically immune. Unfortunately, a life-or-death combat situation is not a good time to find out."

Cid gave Savois a cynical look. "So tell me... why are you being so damn helpful, doc? What's in this for you?"

She smiled coolly. "Because you're friends with the new president of Shinra. He happens to be the man holding the purse strings for research money. I've spent my life working on the SOLDIER program. Now that access to Mako power has been cut off and the SOLDIER program terminated, I'll need to find something else socially and politically acceptable to work on. The last thing I want is to have Reeve cut off this facility's funding because I wasn't cooperative. So it's purely self-interest. That's all."

Cid nodded thoughtfully.


Tifa stared at Cloud as he slept and nervously chewed her fingernails.

(Savois could be wrong... or she could be lying.... But it all fits....)

There had been such anger... almost hatred in his eyes.... He hadn't been holding back at all when he had attacked her.

(Damn you, Hojo! It's all your fault, really. You created Sephiroth... you did this to Cloud... it all comes back to you. Why won't you just die? What will it take to make you stay dead!?)


Part 5e: The Unknown Jenova

Back in Nibelheim, Red and Yuffie had settled into the basement library to read through whatever papers and notebooks they could find. Cait Sith sat in the corner, unmoving and quiet. When Yuffie heard Red mumbling irritably to himself, she wandered over to investigate.

Yuffie said, "What's wrong, Red?"

The beast sat back and rubbed its eyes. "I'm afraid I'm not terribly suited to reading for long periods of time. My people rely more on an oral tradition, not written words. And Hojo's handwriting is absolutely atrocious! I wish he wrote half as neatly as Grandfather Bugenhagen."

"Lemme take a look at it." She picked up the notebook.

"I appreciate the offer, Yuffie, but I'm afraid you don't have the scientific background to make sense of it."

Looking at the notebook, she winced. Red had been right about Hojo's handwriting, not to mention that there were all sorts of diagrams with circles and arrows going all over the place. It looked like chocobo tracks... drunk chocobo tracks at that.

"Ugh. You understand this garbage?"

"I'm afraid I do. You know that Cloud said that Hojo's Project (A2) and Project (B) were complete failures."


"Well, in this notebook, Hojo finally figures out the reason why things weren't working."

"So what happened?"

"At least for Project (A2), it's a surprisingly simple explanation. He was using the wrong type of Jenova cells."

"Huh!? There's another type?"

"There are actually two different types of Jenova cells. One type are the so-called 'ordinary' Jenova cells. They're only compatible with...." Red carefully flipped a few pages with an extended claw. "Ah, yes. They're only compatible with adolescent and post-adolescent humans ONLY."


"The second type was discovered by Dr. Gast, who called them 'Jenova-core' cells. They were apparently quite distinct from the other Jenova cells. He used these special Jenova-core cells in his experiment with Lucrecia. The result of that experiment was Sephiroth. However, Dr. Gast didn't tell Hojo anything about finding or using the Jenova-core cells."

"Wow. So that's why Dr. Gast's experiment worked and Hojo's didn't."

"Exactly. Hojo used ordinary Jenova cells when he was trying to duplicate Gast's work." Red sighed heavily. "Those cells were not compatible with human fetuses. All the babies died and the women with them."

"Shit! He has to kill off nearly twenty women before he figures out he's doing something wrong!? What an asshole! But if Hojo finally managed to find out about these Jenova-core cells, why didn't he just get some more and use them in his experiments?"

Red chuckled softly.

Yuffie scowled, "This isn't what I'd consider a funny topic, Red!"

"On the contrary. I've found Hojo's dilemma very amusing."


"He didn't use the Jenova-core cells because he couldn't."

Yuffie looked baffled.

"Hojo didn't learn about the Jenova-core cells until he found some of Dr. Gast's old notes. That was about two or three years ago. By that time, the only source of those special Jenova cells no longer existed."


"Dr. Gast extracted those cells from a very specific spot in Jenova's body." Red seemed uncharacteristically amused. "The head."

Yuffie stood still for a long moment, then a big grin slowly appeared on her face. She started to snicker and choked out, "But six years ago, Sephiroth went wacko and hacked off Jenova's head. No more head, no more Jenova-core cells, no more baby Sephiroths.... Oh my god! Hojo must have thrown an absolute FIT when he found out!"

"Exactly. He probably had the lab walled up in a fit of rage."

After she managed to stop laughing, she said, "Why didn't Hojo use Sephiroth's cells? Wouldn't they contain some of those special Jenova-core thingies?"

"Apparently not. According to Hojo's notes, the Jenova-core cells in Sephiroth's body had somehow altered or mutated. After testing...."

Yuffie grimaced and muttered, "I can guess how he did THAT."

Red coughed and continued speaking. "After extensive testing, Hojo concluded that Sephiroth's cells were basically toxic to human life. They would eventually kill any human they were injected into. The same mutation or genetic quirk was probably responsible for Hojo's inability to use Sephiroth's own cells to produce a real clone."

"Whoa...." The ninja girl abruptly noticed the somber expression on Red's face. "What's wrong, Red? That's good news, right? No clones and all that jazz?"

"I suppose...."

She crouched down beside the red-furred beast. "C'mon, Red. Talk to me."

He looked at her and said, "I was just thinking... really, it's quite foolish of me."

Yuffie made an encouraging noise.

"The mutation in the Jenova-core cells means that Sephiroth was a genetic dead-end. With Gast's death at Hojo's hands, the knowledge to produce more of Sephiroth's kind was lost... so there would never be any siblings for him. With the incompatibility of Sephiroth's cells with humans, there would never be any children. Sephiroth was unique. Alone."


Red hunched his shoulders. "It's just that... I suppose that I'm one of a kind too."

Yuffie stared at him, then suddenly flung her arms around the startled Red and gave him a big hug.


She leaned back, wiped at her eyes, and sniffled a bit. "Sure... you might be one of a kind, you silly furball... but you're not alone, okay? What are friends for?"

Red cocked his head, then he grinned at her. Gently patting her knee with a forepaw, he murmured, "Thank you very much." He glanced to the side, then whispered, "You better wipe your eyes and blow your nose unless you want Barret to know you've been crying."

"Oh shoot!" Yuffie jumped to her feet and ran off to the far corner of the room where she pretended to be terribly busy flipping through papers.

Red ruefully shook his head and resuming the tiresome task of trying to make heads or tails of Hojo's lab notes. A few minutes later, Barret stomped in.

"How're you doing?"

Red said, "We're making slow but steady progress. How about you...?" His voice faded when he saw Barret's grim expression. "Did you find something in that lab area Elena uncovered?"

"Nope. Not a damn thing. We're pretty sure that it was used for Project (B) stuff, but it's been cleaned out recently. Really recently."

"How recently?"

"Within the last couple of days."

Yuffie jumped up and yelled, "WHAT!? But that place was bricked over! There's no way that wall could be only a few days old!"

"They didn't use the door. They tunneled down from the surface into the back of the lab and completely cleaned it out. The tunnel was dug within the last two days... three at the most." Barret pulled a fresh, green leaf out of his pocket. "We also found stuff like this scattered inside the lab."

"So the lab's empty?"

"There's not a damn thing left. No paper, no equipment,... nothing."

Yuffie clenched her fists. "Why that sneaky old bastard! Hojo must have ordered that tunnel dug just so he could snitch all that equipment without anyone knowing!"

Barret nodded. "Yeah. If Spike hadn't specifically told us to look for those damn labs, Hojo would have gotten away with it."

"Just how much was taken? Could you tell?" said Red.

"I'm just guessing, but from the marks on the floors and the walls, I'd say there was a hell of a lot of stuff. Truckloads."

The ninja girl said, "Hey.... That lab was supposed to be for Project (B), right?"

"That's what Cloud said." Barret shrugged.

"Project (B) was Hojo's attempt to directly clone Sephiroth, right? That's probably why Hojo needed that particular equipment!" Yuffie started pacing. "I bet that all that gear is being installed in one of Scarlet's weapon plants at this very moment! Once Hojo finds that missing cell sample of Sephiroth, he's going to have his cloning setup ready and waiting!"

Barret shook his fists in the air. "Goddamn it!"

Red growled, "So we're just going to have to find that sample first!"

The black man bellowed, "But we have no fucking clues where to look! Hojo's probably got a hell of a lead, especially if that Stephen guy told him something important!"

"Where are the Turks?" said Red.

"They're on the surface, searching around the tunnel entrance."

Yuffie was venting her anger and frustration by pacing and kicking things out of her path. As she sent a small book skittering underneath the huge desk, the book knocked a few stray papers into plain view. Her eye caught a glimpse of some familiar looking handwriting. She pounced on the papers. Still sitting on the ground, she quickly skimmed through them, then let out a warwhoop of triumph.

"What the hell are you screeching about, girl?" Barret yelled angrily.

"I found them!"

"Found what!?"

"The reports about Zack and Cloud's escape!"

There was a wild scuffle as everyone grabbed for the papers.

Part 5f: Reunited

Busy with her own thoughts, Tifa missed the first subtle signs of returning consciousness in Cloud... the faint twitch of a eyelid... the slight wrinkling of the forehead. But when he rolled over on the bed, she gasped, then ran into the next room. She waited anxiously as he continued to stir.

Cloud slowly open his eyes. There was a faint look of panic as he quickly glanced around the room, but he relaxed as soon as he saw Tifa standing by his bedside.

"Tifa...?" He tried to sit up.

"Take it easy!" She immediately pushed him back down again.

"What the hell happened?"

She frowned. "Don't you remember?"

Cloud's eyes suddenly widened in shock. "Dr. Roissy! She was already dead... for hours! Then Montessi... damn her." He reached up and absently kneaded his shoulder.

"Will you be okay if I leave you alone. I need to tell Cid you're awake."


Tifa ran out into the hallway. Looking around, she saw Cid and Savois talking down the corridor.

"Cid! Cloud's awake!" She quickly disappeared back inside the room.


The pilot was about to follow her when he noticed Savois looking at her watch.

"What the hell's your problem?"

The doctor frowned. "Your friend recovered very quickly. He should have been unconscious for at least three or four hours. By my best estimate, it's been less than two hours since he was drugged."

Cid shrugged and headed down the hall. "Hey, that's good for him."

Savois said sharply, "Is it? It may be good for your friend, but maybe not so good for you if you have to use this." She held the case with the tranquilizer gun and shook it slightly.

He grimaced. "Shit." He found a notepad and scribbled a hasty message. "Have someone take that damned case and this note up to the Highwind."

She nodded. "I'll drop by to check on your friend in a few minutes."


When he walked into room, Cid was relieved to find that Cloud seemed to be perfectly coherent, if understandably confused. Hiding a sigh of relief, he leaned lazily against the wall and said, "Glad you're back with us. And here I thought Tifa was the only one into that hand-to-hand stuff."

"What do you mean?" Cloud looked startled.

"Oh, the healing materia took care of most of it but you came damn close to cracking a few of my bones when you slammed me into a wall."


Tifa glared at Cid. "It wasn't your fault, Cloud. You were badly confused by that drug Montessi used. When Cid rushed into the room, you accidentally slugged him."

The pilot muttered, "Accident, like hell!"

Cloud flushed with embarrassment. "Oh. Sorry about that, Cid."

"Like she said, it's not your fault. Besides, I was careless. I should've seen you coming. But how are you feeling now?"

"All right, I think. What happened to Montessi?"

Cid grinned sourly. "Dead. Apparently her sister shot her when Montessi tried to sneak up on Tifa and stab her in the back with a scalpel."

"Sister? Which sister?"


Cloud murmured softly, "The ice queen...."

"The what?"

The young man's attention was jerked back to Cid. "That's what one of the technicians said. He called Savois 'the ice queen'."

"She sure as hell doesn't look like no ice queen, but it's a pretty good description of her personality. Not a lady to be messed with."

After a quick knock, Savois entered the room. She stopped near the door and watched Cloud with a very neutral expression on her face.

"Savois!" The first word out of Cloud's mouth surprised everyone, even himself.

The doctor looked a little startled, but she quickly hid her surprise. "I'm glad to see that you've recovered from your involuntary nap. How are you feeling?"

Cloud gave her a sheepish grin and rubbed the back of his neck. "Uh.... I'm feeling a bit woozy and I've got a slight headache, but other than that...."

"It's quite normal." Savois stepped closer and lifted her hands. "Do you mind if I take a closer look at you?"

"No." To his surprise, Cloud realized that he really didn't mind Savois touching him. Actually, the precise, impersonal touch of her fingers seemed oddly familiar.

After a quick examination, Savois stepped back and said, "Well, you seem to be in excellent health and I can't find any lingering effects from the sedative Montessi gave you."

Tifa said, "So he can leave?"

"Certainly. There's no reason for him to stay. However, if the dizziness and the headache don't clear up after a hour or so, let me know. Oh, and for your information, one of my associates tells me that they took a closer look at my sister Roissy's body. She didn't die from injuries from the fall."

"Then what...?"

"She was suffocated, probably with a blanket or pillow."

"You think that Montessi killed her?" said Tifa.

"I'm not certain, but she was the attending physician. And she was apparently the last to see her before one of the orderlies reported her death."

Cid pounded his fist against the wall. "I'll bet Roissy told her sister something important and Montessi killed her to keep that information a secret while she set up her trap for Cloud."

"We may never know for certain."

Savois shrugged, then gave Cloud a long, thoughtful stare,... as if she was searching for something in his face or expression. Strangely enough, while Montessi's scrutiny had made him jittery and nervous, Savois' gaze didn't bother him at all. He cocked his head slightly and gave her a curious look.


She shrugged, then reached into her labcoat pocket. She pulled out a card and handed it to Cid. "President Reeve ordered us to provide you with all possible assistance. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any more questions."

Savois gave Cid and Tifa a quick, meaningful glance, then disappeared out the door.

Tifa said curiously, "Cloud? How did you know that was Savois?"

Standing up, he muttered, "I'm not sure. I must have seen her somewhere before. She seemed kinda familiar to me."

As Cloud was busy rearming himself and checking his gear, Tifa pulled Cid into the hallway and whispered, "Are you going to tell him about...?"

The pilot looked at her. "You talking about what the doc said about the side effects with the SOLDIER program."


Cid ran his fingers through his hair. "Aw hell! Probably...."

Tifa opened her mouth to object, but he raised his hand. "Listen, Tifa. You can't protect him, especially against something like this. Cloud really needs to get a better idea what's going on in his own head."

"But Cid...." She clenched her fists. "I don't want him to worry about...."

"Come on, girl. Cloud already knows that his brain's all fucked up! Don't you think he hasn't figured most of this out by now? Hiding what Savois said won't make his problems go away!"

Tifa said bitterly, "And even if he knows, exactly what good is that going to do?"

"I don't know." He shrugged. "We could always ask Savois for more information."

"Don't tell me that you trust that woman!?"

"Hell, no! Are you crazy? But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't pay attention to what she's saying. And if her credentials check out, she's probably got the most experience with this SOLDIER stuff."

"I still don't like it!"

"Kiddo, nobody said you have to like it. You just have to deal with it."

Tifa might have continued arguing, but the sound of an opening door cut the conversation short. As Cloud joined them, he said, "C'mon guys. Let's go pick up the others."


As they headed toward the Highwind, Cid and Tifa told Cloud the little they knew about Montessi and her attempt to abduct him.

"So what did hell did she want with me? What could Roissy have possibly told her?" Cloud asked irritably.

Cid snorted. "Hell as if I know. Maybe she thought you might know where that damn cell sample was. She was looking really flaky and babbling about some grand 'quest for scientific knowledge'."

Cloud grimaced. "Sounds just like Hojo. Anything else?"

"Aside from unloading some other crap and yelling at Savois, Montessi didn't really say much."

"And now she's dead and we'll probably never know!" Cloud clenched his fists in frustration. "How come it seems that every time we run into someone who might know what happened to that damn sample, they end up dead?"

Tifa muttered, "Sounds way too convenient to me...."


On the bridge of the Highwind, Tifa glared at Cid, then stomped off.

"What's wrong?" asked Cloud.

Cid muttered, "Because there's some more stuff you probably need to know. According to her, Savois was pretty involved in the SOLDIER program. Apparently, she knew Zack pretty well, too."

Cloud looked surprised. "Really? How did that happen?"

Cid told Cloud pretty much everything about Savois' intimate connection with the SOLDIER program, although there a few uncomfortable things the pilot skimmed over. The only part Cid completely left out was his private discussion with Savois.

(There's no point in bringing that up... at the moment.)

Cloud wearily rubbed his hand over his face. "So.... Savois knew Zack pretty well and she even recognized me." He leaned against one of the consoles and muttered in a resigned voice, "That stuff about the SOLDIER program... that's not much of a surprise. And the criteria for SOLDIER selection couldn't have been that much of a secret, either. It makes me wonder what the hell I was thinking of back then. How could I be so blind not to realize that I had absolutely no chance of making it into SOLDIER? If it weren't for that maniac Hojo and his crazy experiments...."

"Yeah." Looking uncomfortable, Cid groped for a change of topic. Finally, he recalled something that had been nagging at him.

"Cloud, this Savois woman. She says that she was a scientist who's worked on the SOLDIER project for the last thirty years. But I've got to tell you, she's really got some slick moves. Maybe she's telling the truth about her scientific background, but I also bet she's got some military experience, too."

Cloud looked up. "I don't see how that could be, but you might ask Reeve to check her story. You can't take anything these scientists say at face value."

Before they could pursue the topic any further, Cloud's phone rang.

"Yeah? What's up, Red?"

"We have some good news and some bad news."

"Okay. What's the good news?"

"We finally located those reports related to your escape from Nibelheim."

"Where were they?"

"Laying on the floor in the back room of the library. We even have Hojo's handwritten 'comments' scribbled all over on them."

"Great going, guys!" said Cid.

Cloud added, "Do they give us some locations?"

"Yes. They're quite specific. From these papers, I think we can put together a fairly accurate guess of your travels." Red paused, then added. "We also now know exactly where Zack was killed."

Cloud took a deep breath. "I see. And the bad news?"

"You know that lab area Elena located?"


"It's totally empty. We think Hojo took all the equipment and papers that he used in Project (B) within the last several days."

"How on earth did he manage that without anyone knowing!?" shouted Cid.

After Red told them about the secret tunnel into the basement lab area, the beast said, "Did you find out anything useful from Roissy?"

"Not really. She's dead."

"What happened?" asked Red.

Cloud sighed and handed the phone to Cid. The pilot drawled, "Oh nothing much. We think that weird chick Montessi killed her own sister Roissy after pumping her for information. Montessi then made a stupid, half-assed attempt to kidnap Cloud...."

Cloud turned a deep red and covered his eyes. "Cid...."

"WHAT!?" Barret bellowed over the phone.

Cloud snatched the phone from Cid's hands, gave him a dirty look and hurriedly said, "I'll tell you guys about it later. About those reports...."

Red said, "Well, unless someone has any other suggestions, perhaps we should start at the end of the trail and backtrack if necessary."

"You mean where Zack died," Cloud said softly.

"Yes. It's a place just south of Midgar."

Cid said, "We'll head to Nibelheim and pick up you guys up."

Cait Sith jumped into the conversation. "I've got a better idea. Why don't we met you halfway? I'll have someone fly us to Costa del Sol. You can met us there. We can save some valuable time."

Red said, "Yes. That way, we can take a look at the location before it gets dark. Otherwise, we would have to wait until tomorrow."

"All right. See you in a few," said Cid.

"We'll be ready."


Hojo's preparations were complete. It was time for the Failure to perform one last service for the sake of science....


Part 5g: Ulterior Motives

Dr. Savois watched the Highwind depart the ESSARUF facility for the second time, then headed back to the lab where Montessi's body was still lying on the floor. In the front room of the lab area, she found a young security guard nervously waiting for her.


"Do you have it?"

"Yes, Ma'am. The video from the security camera for the back lab room and Dr. Roissy's room." He looked slightly sick.

She took the tape from his shaking hands and said, "You are to say nothing about this incident, especially about the actual cause of Dr. Montessi's death. Is that clear?"

"Yes, ma'am."


After the security guard scurried off, Savois walked through the all the broken doors into the back lab. As she knelt down by her sister's body and examined it carefully, Savois was glad that Highwind and that Lockheart girl had been too busy with their friend to pay any attention to Montessi's body.

Her sister had not died from gunshot wounds.

Montessi had been beaten to death... her neck broken, most of her ribs shattered, and her pelvis snapped in two places, not to mention massive injury to various major internal organs.

Savois placed her sister's body in a body bag herself, then had the corpse taken to her lab. As she watched the video from the security cameras back in her office, the scientist frowned in annoyance.

(Montessi, you idiot. You deliberately provoked Cloud, didn't you? I warned you. You weren't dealing with some poor, sick teenager like before. You were facing a young man with all the physical abilities and skills of a SOLDIER... and more. Much more.)

As she impassively watched the videotape of Cloud brutally beating her sister Montessi to death, Savois sat back in her chair and contemplated the current situation.

(Well, it seems that I was a little too optimistic. The implantation wasn't completely successful... yet. The resident personality is still partially intact.)

But it was also undeniable that her project was a substantial success. He had recognized her. And that little grin he gave her... that was familiar too.

She briefly closed her eyes and luxuriated in sheer relief. So many chances for failure,... so many opportunities for disaster....

(Just over three years....) It had been three years since she'd discovered that Zack was still alive as Hojo's prisoner.

Savois' hand curled into a fist.

(Hojo, you bastard....)

It had also been three years since she'd learned that Zack had been dying.

Very, very slowly, perhaps -- he could have easily lived for another five to ten years with every appearance of good health. However, that didn't change the fact that Zack's body was being steadily and inexorably destroyed.

(And that was entirely your fault, Sephiroth. You do take after your father Hojo, contaminating everything you touch....)

It was during those days of anger and fury following that discovery that she had conceived of her grand experiment. It sprang from equally from inspiration and desperation. It was a step beyond what even Hojo could have imagined. Being barred from Nibelheim had only been a minor setback. It had been easy to obtain her sister Montessi's unwitting assistance.

The project had been progressing steadily... until Roissy's idiot lover Stephen managed to let both Zack and Cloud escape.

Zack had died but Cloud had survived, so she had watched and waited. And the longer she observed him, the more certain she was that despite all the interference suffered, her experiment had actually succeeded. Even Sephiroth's meddling and manipulation of Cloud had ended up working to her advantage.

She had continued her observation of Cloud in the months following the Meteor incident, constantly looking for an opportunity to approach him. However, she knew all too well that Cloud would be extremely wary and hostile to any Shinra scientist. So she had continued to wait.

But it seemed that her patience and restraint had been amply rewarded. Montessi's moronic attempt to kidnap Cloud had provided the perfect opening for her. If she played her cards right, she wouldn't have to do anything suspicious at all. Cloud -- or his friends -- would come to her.

Hojo and Sephiroth,... two men whose interference and meddling had nearly destroyed everything she'd worked for. Nearly a year had passed since Meteor. She'd thought she was rid of them forever. Now Hojo was back from the grave and it seemed that Sephiroth was likely to follow. But this time, she was not about to sit back and let them destroy her hard work.


Part 5h: A Momentary Lapse of Reason

The trip over the ocean was the perfect opportunity for everyone to pool their various bits of information. Nearly everyone got a few laughs when Red described all the setbacks and dead-ends Hojo suffered with his Jenova projects. Not that it was a particularly funny topic, but they were all desperate for any humor, no matter how macabre. Even Cloud got some satisfaction out of the story. It was so easy for him to picture Hojo throwing an absolute temper tantrum over the loss of the Jenova-core cells.

By the time that the Highwind II picked up the others and returned to the Eastern continent, it was late afternoon. Following the coordinates on the reports, they headed for the mountains south of Midgar. As the Highwind II came to a stop above the designated spot, Yuffie muttered, "Does this spot look REALLY familiar to anyone?"

Cid glared at the ninja girl. "You damn well know it does. This was the very same outcrop Cloud fell off of just two days ago! Vincent, do you think that body you found...?"

The dark man nodded.

The significance of the location had not escaped Cloud. If he hadn't immediately recognized the place from the air, it certainly looked familiar from the ground. It was the same overview of Midgar that he saw a couple of days ago, through the rain. But aside from the events of that day, the outcrop held no clear memories for him. When he heard Cid's comments, he turned and sharply asked, "What body?"

Vincent glanced briefly at Cid, then said, "Near the edge of the cliff, under some bushes, I found pieces of a human skeleton. It's probably been there for at least a year." He paused, then added, "The skull has black hair on it."

Cloud turned pale. "....Zack...."

"Oh man...." Yuffie muttered.

As the crewmen rolled out a rope ladder, Cid couldn't help but wonder what had brought Cloud to this outcrop two days ago. Had it been sheer coincidence? Or had a feeling or a long buried memory drawn him here?

(Coincidence? Like hell!)

He glanced at the Turks. "Hey! Elena, Rude... you guys mind staying on board to keep an eye on things? Hojo seems to have a goddamn army of monsters at his beck and call. I don't want any weird critters sneaking up on the Highwind...."

The two Turks looked at each other and shrugged. Elena said, "No problem. I have a few phone calls to make. Do you mind stopping by Midgar when we're through? I need to pick up some gear and I'm tired of wearing these crew uniforms."

"Sure, no problem."


Cloud only took a quick glance of the skeleton, but that had been more than enough for him. While the others spread out to search the surrounding area, he remained where he was, well away from the cliff edge and the body. The whole outcrop area made his skin crawl. It was both familiar and unfamiliar, and the inconsistency just added to his sense of anxiety. To compound the problem, Cloud felt an odd, very faint ache in his bones. And there were other things that were bothering him....

As he stared out at the city of Midgar, Tifa walked up behind him. "Cloud, how are you holding up?"

He shrugged. "I'm okay." He then abruptly shook his head. "No, that's wrong. I'm not okay."

Cloud began to pace restlessly. "Why? Why don't I remember this place? Zack, my best friend,... the man who spent five years in hell with me,...the guy who rescued me from Hojo's lab, died here. And I remember NOTHING?" There was a mixture of anger and frustration in his voice.

He stared at Tifa. "It never stops. It's like my mind is like one of those stupid boxes-inside-boxes things. Every time I think I've got my head sorted out, I find another secret. Another sealed box. It makes me wonder what else I've 'conveniently' forgotten."

"Don't push yourself...."

"Tifa, I have to. How can I even think of a future if I don't come to terms with my past somehow? I can't just ignore it." He gave her a somber, thoughtful look.

She shifted nervously under his steady gaze. "Ummm...." Tifa silently berated herself for not being able to say anything more meaningful.

He took a step closer to her and said quietly, "Tifa, I've been wanting to tell you this for some time."


"I'm sorry."

Her head jerked up in surprise. "Sorry? For what?"

"For all the worry,... all the uncertainty,... and all the waiting."

"I... I don't mind. Really."

"I've been afraid to say anything. I still am. I won't blame you for just giving up...."

Tifa looked visibly insulted. "Listen, Cloud.... I'm not a quitter, okay?"

"But..." He ran his hand through his hair in exasperation. "But things are so complicated now... You've got no idea what you're getting yourself into...."

"But I do know!" she protested vigorously.

Cloud gave Tifa a cryptic, sideways look. "Do you? Really?"

She opened her mouth, but the recollection of recent events momentarily robbed her of any words.

"My memories are still all screwed up. There are times I can't even think straight, much less try to sort out my feelings about you, Aeris,...."

The sound of Aeris' name was like a bucket of cold water to Tifa. It completely shattered the fragile intimacy between her and Cloud. She looked away and muttered, "Oh. That's... too bad."

He felt Tifa's abrupt withdrawal. Cloud looked at her helplessly, unable to find the words to bridge the emotional gap that had suddenly opened up between them. He sighed quietly.

(Maybe it's for the best....)


Yuffie glanced behind her to see Cloud and Tifa quietly talking some distance away. She sniffed and muttered, "It's about time!"

Red, his nose to the ground, absently said, "About time for what?"

"About time Cloud got up his courage and said something to Tifa about his feelings!"

The beast looked up at her. "And what precisely is he supposed to tell her?"

"That he loves her, of course! She deserves SOME happiness...."

"Yes, he probably does love Tifa. But what kind of love?"

"What do you mean?"

Red shook his head and patiently answered, "Yuffie, there are many types of love. Love of the body, love of the heart, love of the mind, love of the soul,.... If Cloud's love is different from Tifa's...."

"Okay, okay! I got your point! Sheesh! Well, EXCUSE me for being a romantic!" Yuffie snorted. "So tell me, what the hell are we looking for, anyway?"

"One of those sample cylinders, just like the others in the security room in the ESSARUF facility. About four inches long and about an inch in diameter. Fluorescent yellow and green markings."

"Oh, one of those...."

Barret wandered over to them and said as quietly as he could manage, "Red, do you think Vincent's okay? I mean, after finding out what Hojo was doing with all those women...."

The beast sighed and scratched his ear. "He said he was fine. We'll just have to accept his word for now."

"And what's up with Reeve? He seems so out of it...."

"Don't forget, Barret. In addition to going through all those Jenova and personnel files, he has a great deal of responsibility for running Shinra and Midgar itself. I really do think he needs some assistance on his end."

"Yeah, yeah...," Barret muttered.

Yuffie said, "You noticed, too, huh? Why do I get this feeling he's hiding something important?"

Red glanced at her. "Any reason for that feeling?"

"Nope. Just an instinct, I guess."

Barret muttered, "You mean an instinct for being so damn sneaky...."

"Why you big jerk...!"


Vincent carefully reexamined the skeleton he had found earlier. He picked up numerous small objects lying amid the bones. (Bullets. That matches with the report which said that Zack had been shot while resisting. There's nearly an full ammo clip's worth of bullets here. Typical Shinra overkill.)

That didn't explain the other injuries... the bones that were cleanly sheared into pieces... the huge gash right down the middle of the skull. They weren't the marks of scavengers. Scavengers would have left splintered bone, not such brutally precise cuts.

(No, this was the type of damage deliberately inflicted by a sharp-edged instrument or weapon... an ax or a sword, most likely.)

But that made even less sense. Vincent knew that certain members of the Shinra military carried swords and other bladed weapons... but not many. Swords were a fairly elite type of weapon, generally reserved for highly skilled officers or specialists such as members of SOLDIER or the Turks. Ordinary troopers usually carried firearms.

There was another, even more disturbing, question on Vincent's mind -- one involving the sheer number of cuts and the force required to inflict them. As he ran his fingers along the end of a severed thigh bone, he thought, (Far too many for normal hand-to-hand combat. Any two of these injuries would have been fatal, even for a SOLDIER. So why so many?)

Cid squatted down next to Vincent. "Man, you look like a guy with a serious problem. What's up?"

At first he thought that Vincent wasn't going to reply. Ever since the gristly discovery of Hojo's Project (A2), Vincent had been more brooding and withdrawn than usual. Just being around the guy was like standing next to a ticking bomb. It wasn't a question of 'if' it was going to explode, but a matter of 'when'.

Vincent finally spoke. "Many questions and no answers."


Cloud gradually became more and more uneasy as the minutes slid into hours. Something about the rocky location was driving him crazy. It was a nerve-wracking sensation, like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard... only a hundred times worse. The only other place that had a remotely similar effect on him was the basement of the Shinra Mansion.

Finally, in an effort to distract himself, Cloud took to pacing and going over everything he knew about the cell sample. And the more he thought about it, the more wrong it felt. Frowning, he muttered, "If Zack took the sample, he must have known about its contents. I mean, the contents were written right on the label. So what would he have done with it? The whole thing doesn't... feel right."

// If you have a problem, take care of it.
// Do it right the first time around.
// You don't want it coming back to haunt you.... //

(So... what's the worst thing that could have possibly happened....)

Cloud suddenly shook his head violently and said, "This is all wrong! Something doesn't fit at all!"

"What?" exclaimed Cid and Red together.

Cloud looked at his friends. He said urgently, "It's taken me this long to find the big hole in Roissy's story. Why on earth would Zack bother to steal the sample?"

"To keep it out of Hojo's hands. Any idiot could see that." Barret sounded really annoyed.

But Cloud slowly shook his head. "That doesn't make any sense. Carry it around when there was a definite possibility of getting recaptured? Cait, you said that Zack knew he was being pursued."

Cait Sith said, "Yes,... but he could have stashed it somewhere. I mean, you guys traveled all the way from Nibelheim to Midgar. There would have been plenty of opportunities to find a hiding place for it. No one except for Dr. Roissy knew that it was even missing, so it should have been pretty safe to leave it behind."

Cloud shook his head again and quietly said, "You guys are looking at this the wrong way. You're thinking of that cell sample as some sort of asset for Zack... something valuable or useful to him. Nothing could be further from the truth. It would have been nothing more than a severe liability for someone in his position. He already had to worry about pursuit AND taking care of a helpless invalid. Why take on another, completely unnecessary burden?"

Cid stood up and said slowly, "Go on. We're listening."

"What is the WORST possible thing that could have happened to that sample? Ending back in Hojo's hands, right? And no matter how elusive Zack might have been... no matter how carefully that sample might have been hidden, there would always be a risk that it could be found. There's only one way to make absolutely, positively sure that never happened...."

Red nodded slowly. "By destroying it immediately."


"Maybe Zack took the sample with him because he didn't want Hojo to know it had been destroyed," Tifa suggested.


"Because Hojo would have been angry...."

Cloud interrupted her. "Zack disliked Hojo a lot, but he wasn't afraid of him or his anger. Besides, Hojo already had plenty of samples from Sephiroth. What's one, more or less?"

"Well,... I don't know. Weren't Zack and Sephiroth supposed to be friends? Maybe he couldn't bring himself to...." Yuffie's voice trailed off as she watched Cloud shake his head almost angrily.

"Zack won't have kept something so dangerous just for sentimental reasons. And he wouldn't have wanted -- or needed -- such a grotesque memento. So what possible use could Zack have for that cell sample?"

All he got was blank looks.

"Exactly. None. Zack had NOTHING to gain from taking that cell sample, NOTHING to gain by keeping it, and NOTHING to gain by hiding its destruction from Hojo."

Cid said, "So... are you saying that Roissy's story about Sephiroth's cell sample was just a bunch of bullshit?"

Cloud looked at the pilot. "No. Remember, Dr. Stephen confirmed most of Roissy's story. I'm fairly sure the sample does exist or did exist. But I don't think Zack took it."

Red exhaled slowly. "But... where does that leave us?"

"I don't know. Excluding Hojo, the only people who might have known what the hell was going on were Dr. Roissy, Dr. Montessi, and Dr. Stephen...."

"And they're all dead."

Cloud nodded wearily.

"Could Zack have had some crazy idea of resurrecting Sephiroth himself?" rumbled Barret.

Cloud said firmly, "Absolutely not. Anyone could see that Sephiroth was totally insane. Without any idea what really drove him crazy in the first place, it would've been incredibly stupid to even consider bringing him back to life."

Barret complained, "Hey! I thought he went bonkers when he found out about Jenova being an Ancient or space alien or something!"

Cloud smiled grimly. "Oh, I think there was a lot more to it than that. A LOT more.... He didn't just fall off the edge of sanity. Someone or someTHING damn well kicked him off."

// There are a lot of things that are
// much worse than death.... //

His voice dropped. "For a normal person, the idea of going crazy is bad enough. But for someone who keeps himself under such tight control as Sephiroth, insanity is worse... infinitely worse... than death. Given a choice, I'm sure he would have chosen to die first."

"And if he didn't have a choice?" Red murmured.

"Someone else had to make that choice for him."

"Like who?" said Tifa.

Cloud's voice went very soft. "Me. I did. I made that decision in the Mt. Nibel Reactor... when I tried to kill him." He briefly glanced away before turning back to his friends.

"Besides, the only person who had any sort of expertise in creating a clone would have been Hojo... the VERY last person on this Planet I would have trusted with Sephiroth's well-being."

Red suddenly pricked up his ears. Something subtle had changed in Cloud's speech, but he couldn't quite put his paw on it....

"Can you imagine what sort of devil's bargain Hojo would have demanded for his cooperation? No way. Seph despised Hojo with a passion. I could just imagine his reaction if I'd been stupid enough to make any sort of deal with Hojo...."

Red suddenly stiffened. (Hold it! "If I'd been...."? When did Cloud switch from using third-person phrases like 'Zack', 'he, and 'him' to using first-person words such as 'I'!?)

Cid's cigarette hit the ground as the pilot gaped at Cloud. ('Seph'!? Did he just call that bastard Sephiroth by a bleedin' NICKNAME?)

The stunned looks slowly appearing on the others' faces made it clear that they had also realized something unusual had happened.

[ flash ]


[ flash ]

Cloud suddenly blinked, then winced in pain as he grabbed at his head.

"What the...?" He glanced up to see a shocked and frightened look in Tifa's eyes.

She stared back at him. (Oh my god. Does he have ANY idea what he's just been saying!?)

Cloud looked around the clearing in a daze, then his eyes focused on the skeleton near the edge of the cliff. As the few remaining dark strands of hair clinging to the shattered skull fluttered in the faint spring breeze, his confused expression shifted to a look of near panic.

He felt like he was being suffocated by the emotions stamping through his mind like soldiers on parade -- envy... hatred... rage... dread... then finally, guilt and shame that threatened to suck him down into never-ending oblivion.... But hidden deep beneath the self-loathing and denial -- buried far beyond any hope of conscious recall -- was something even more intolerable....

....a sickening sense of satisfaction and pleasure.

He stumbled back a step and held up his hands as if to fend off some invisible apparition. "No...," he whispered. "That's not.... That wasn't me...."


He flinched at the sound of his name, then abruptly turned and bolted away from the outcrop... away from the source of his pain and terror.

By the time his friends managed to shake off their shock and surprise, Cloud had disappeared deep into the leafy undergrowth.


Cloud wasn't paying any attention to where he was going. All he knew was that he wanted to be as far away from THAT place as possible.

// Running away isn't going to do any good.... //

As soon as he was out of sight of the outcrop, the overwhelming sense of panic and fear rapidly faded. As Cloud finally started to think rationally again, he came to a stop in a large clearing. He leaned back against a tree trunk and buried his face in his hands.

(What the hell am I doing!? Oh god. They've probably think I've totally snapped. And they could be right. Why the hell am I feeling this way? Why does that... place... frighten me so much?)

Just the thought of going back to the outcrop made his stomach churn. And there had been something else wrong even before he started acting like a total idiot....

(Cid and the others were giving me weird looks. How come? I was just telling them why Roissy's story didn't make any sense. So what happened? What did I say or do to make them so upset?)


Tifa had been the first in pursuit. But during the first few seconds of confusion, Cloud had vanished from sight. Fortunately for her, his trail wasn't too hard to follow. She charged through the undergrowth, the others hot on her heels.

Cid muttered, "Fuck it! What the hell brought THAT on? The look on his face...."

Vincent quietly murmured, "As if he was staring into the pits of hell."

Cid glanced at him. "Yeah...." If he didn't feel sorry for the kid before, he certainly did now. He wouldn't forget that terribly wounded look in Cloud's eyes any time soon....

Guilt. Cid was familiar with that emotion. Most fighters encountered it eventually... usually as the guilt of surviving missions when friends and comrades didn't.

(But Cloud looked like he was feeling something a hell of a lot worse than mere survivor's guilt. And what set him off? Was it talking about Zack? Was it this spot? Maybe both? And doesn't that put an interesting new spin on Cloud's 'accident' here....)

Cid found himself seriously wondering if Cloud's fall two days ago had really been an 'accident'. (What if he had freaked out back then? Cloud could have easily plunged off the damned cliff in some crazy attempt to escape... whatever.)

The pilot frowned as a more disturbing possibility presented itself. (Or maybe he tried to kill himself. Hell, we may never know!) He picked up his pace.

"Watch it, Cid! You nearly clobbered me in the face with that damned branch!" Yuffie whined behind him.

"Can it, kiddo! We've got more important things to worry about than your damned complexion!"


Tifa could heard the others some distance behind her, but she was too impatient and too worried to wait for them to catch up. As she fought her way through the tall scrub looking for Cloud, her mind kept drifting back to his last coherent sentences.

(I knew he 'borrowed' a lot of Zack's memories, but the way he suddenly started speaking... it was if he really thought he WAS Zack... or for a brief moment, at least. Didn't Savois something about....)

She shook her head. She had to concentrate on finding him first. The rest of the questions could wait.

Tifa broke into a clearing to find Cloud leaning against a tree at the opposite side of the clearing. Even as she watched, he suddenly buried his face in his hands and shuddered.


As she ran toward him, she heard him mumble, "Why did I...? What have I done? What am I DOING...?"

Alarmed, she stepped even closer. "Cloud!"

He stiffened, then slowly turned his head. He stared at her blankly, his thoughts obviously elsewhere.

"Are you all right?"

Cloud blinked, shook his head as if to clear it. "Tifa, I....."

He made an frustrated gesture and started to turn away, then he jerked his head back around to stare in her direction. Tifa saw his eyes narrow and his body tense. Suddenly, Cloud lunged toward her, one hand grabbing for her while he yanked the Ultima Weapon out of its sheath with the other.

Already rattled by his strange behavior on the cliff just a few minutes AND his vicious attack back at the ESSARUF facility, she instinctively backed out of reach and shouted, "No, Cloud! What are you....!"

Cloud's hand finally closed on Tifa's arm in a brutally hard grip and he started to drag her out of the clearing.


When they heard Tifa's cries just ahead of them, the others all charged in that direction.

They broke into the clearing just in time to see Tifa struggling to free herself from Cloud's grasp. Cloud stood with his weapon drawn, his face was set in an expression which combined fierce determination with unmistakable desperation as he tried to drag her into the surrounding woods.

Yuffie moaned, "Oh no!"

"Cloud!" roared Red.

"The kid's lost it again!" Barret bellowed.

As she continued to struggle, Tifa shouted, "Cloud! Stop it!"

"Damn it, Tifa!" His head whipped around and he glared at her. She was shocked by both the alarm and the utter sanity in his eyes. Only then did she realize that Cloud knew EXACTLY what he was doing. She stopped resisting... but it was too late.

He suddenly shoved Tifa as hard as he could in the others' direction and shouted, "Get back! It's a trap...!"

Cid and the others finally noticed what Cloud had seen rising up among the trees behind Tifa's vulnerable back. What they had all initially assumed to be a dead tree trunk suddenly rippled into motion. The creature opened a jagged mouth and exhaled a thick, roiling cloud of black mist that enveloped him and most of the clearing. He held his breath but as soon as the fine droplets touched his skin, he felt his limbs go weak.

Thrown through the air like a child's toy, Tifa slammed into Cait Sith. As she, the cat, and the Mog desperately tried to untangle themselves, they could only watch in horror as Cloud staggered, coughing and wheezing. The tree-serpent exhaled again. This time, his legs folded and he slowly collapsed.


They all watched as the black mist sank and settled into a shallow, murky blanket that clung to the ground. Any vegetation touched by the dark mist began to wither, blacken and die before their very eyes. But surprisingly, Cloud appeared unharmed and the Ultima Weapon continued to glow brightly as it lay in his limp hand. Tifa tried to run to his side, but she screamed in agony as soon as she stepped into the mist-filled clearing. Angry red sores erupted all over her bare legs. Cait Sith quickly snatched her out of the blackened area before she could collapse face-first into the caustic mist. The Mog pinned her thrashing body to the ground as the little cat dumped a healing potion on the now blackening patches on her legs.

Vincent's first shot blasted the serpent-tree creature's head apart. But another head arose from the nearby trees... then another.... and another. The surrounding brush seemed to erupt as a horde of assorted monsters lunged at them -- and all of these creatures were much more lethal than the puny insectoid creatures they'd encountered at Nibelheim. In addition to vicious creatures like the whip-cats and the poison bats from the ESSARUF facility, there were slimy things that spat caustic goo, flyers with masses of razor-tipped tentacles, short hulking monsters with huge bludgeons for arms,.... In no time, they and the Highwind II were mobbed by attackers from every side.

"Where the fuck did all these things come from!?" Cid shouted.

Fortunately for Tifa, Cait Sith's hasty first aid appeared to work. At least her burns were not worsening.

"Tifa, are you all right!?" yelled Barret.

She blinked back involuntary tears of pain. "Yea... yeah. God, it hurts!" But she didn't let the pain stop her from struggling back to her feet.

Cait Sith said, "Stay back and use your materia! You're in no shape to fight!"

Tifa didn't even bother to argue. She started flinging offensive spells with fierce concentration.


As he hit the ground, Cloud felt his perceptions start to skew. But even as his vision went hazy and sounds blurred into incomprehensible nonsense, he could guess what was going on around him. His friends were desperately fighting for their lives and he could nothing to help them.

A large dark shadow suddenly loomed over him....


Elena was standing by the bridge windows taking a coffee break. Rude was up on deck, playing lookout.

(How long are they going to stay down there? Did they find anything? Hell, is this getting us any closer to Reno? Maybe I should stay behind in Midgar and help Reeve. If I could pinpoint some likely locations that have the right equipment....) She spent the next few moments plotting out some possible computer searches.

The Highwind suddenly shook and rocked. Elena yelped as she spilt hot coffee all down her borrowed crew uniform. Before she could find someone to yell at, there was a loud scream as the body of a crewman plunged past the bridge windows just a few feet from her face.

"Oh shit, not again...," she snarled. There was an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu as Elena checked her gun and materia, then ran for the deck stairs to help Rude.


As they hacked, slashed, shot, and blasted everything in sight, Tifa saw a huge winged creature scoop Cloud up in its tentacles and fly away. She screamed, "NO!!!" but before anyone could stop the kidnapper, the monsters suddenly redoubled their attacks, destroying any chance of catching the creature holding Cloud.

Cid shouted, "Shit! Barret, Vincent! You've got help the Turks get those fuckin' things off the Highwind if we're goin' to have any chance of followin' that bastard!"

Barret grunted and started picking off the aerial creatures swarming the Highwind II.


Precious minutes ticked by as they fought their way clear. But even as they struggled valiantly, Cloud's abductor soon vanished into the distance. By the time the last monster died, the winged beast and Cloud were long gone. All that was left was the Ultima Weapon, protruding from the earth like a lonely memorial to their vanished friend. As Cid and the others silently stared, the reddish light from the setting sun gave the darkened blade an almost bloody sheen.


(end of Part 5)


In part 6,
- Nightmares rule!

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


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