Chapter 5: Break-In

Cloud lay back in the thick, comfortable bed in one of the upstairs bedrooms of Aeris' house. While Elmyra had mentioned that it was a guest bedroom, the fact was that their house only had two rooms, and it seemed Aeris' room was next to this one. Cloud appreciated that her mother had offered him her room for the night, but he remembered, after dinner, Elmyra had pulled him aside.

"I know Aeris will go with you to Sector Seven, if need be," she had said quietly the previous evening. "Both you and I know how dangerous Sector Six is. Please . . . Do everyone a favor and leave early, before she wakes up?"

Cloud had agreed to Elmyra's request. He could brave Sector Six by himself and he honestly didn't want to involve Aeris anymore than she already was. So, he had taken a short, restive nap, the kind that all soldiers learned to undergo during training, and awoke early in the morning, well before Aeris would have gotten up. The mercenary rose slowly, blinking away the last lingering bits of sleep, but he paused as he rose, remembering the last time he had slept in a bed quite this comfortable.

"Look how you've grown. Such a handsome young man. I be the girls never leave you alone now . . . ."

"Not really . . . ."

"I'm worried about you. There are a lot of temptations in the city. I'd feel a lot better if you settled down with a nice girlfriend."

"I'm all right, Mom."

"You should have an older girlfriend, one that can take care of you. I think that would be perfect for you, you know."

"I'm not interested right now, Mom . . . ."

Cloud closed his eyes and banished the memory as best he could. He couldn't be thinking about home right now; if he continued down this line of thought, he'd only dredge up worse memories, and that was the last thing he wanted.

It was edging toward the beginning of the day, and Cloud knew that Aeris would be getting up soon. As quietly as he could manage, the mercenary rose and got dressed, pausing only to check the wounds he had suffered the previous day, and saw that they were almost gone, thanks to his regenerative abilities. Once he had donned his bracer, shoulder-guard, boots, and sword, the mercenary quietly edged open the door leading out of the upstairs. Moving slowly, with almost painful delicacy and precision, the mercenary edged out of his room and past the bedroom Elmyra and Aeris were sharing that night. He listened intently for any sign that he had been detected, but the mercenary heard nothing coming from the second bedroom as he moved past.

Without any further hesitation, Cloud slipped past the door, down the stairs, and drifted away into the early-morning slums, unheard and unnoticed.

"Tifa, you damn well know I don't like this," Barret snarled. The bunker underneath her bar was filled with the pungent scent of grease and gun oil as Barret prepared his chain-gun for battle.

"We don't have much of a choice," Tifa responded, shaking her head. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared straight at Barret. "We know all about Corneo, and how dangerous he really is. We also know exactly what his weaknesses are."

"Which is the exact damn reason why I'm not lettin' you walk in there by yourself!" Barret countered violently. He slammed a meaty fist down on the ammunition table, shaking half the bunker.

"It's the only way we're going to get him to talk," Tifa replied, trying to calm Barret down. It didn't work.

"No, Tifa, its not," he grunted, standing up. She watched him open the port on the back of his gun, thread the first round of his ammunition belt into the port, and close it. "There is no fuckin' way in hell I'm letting you walk alone into some dirty piece of shit kingpin's house - especially when his whole fuckin' business involves hurtin' women!"

Barret cocked the bolt on his gun-arm and threaded an ammunition belt around his waist.

"There ain't much I hate more than Shinra," he snarled. "But if there is one, it's pimps."

"Barret, we won't be able to get any information out of Corneo if you pump him full of twenty millimeter rounds," Tifa said with a sigh, and shook her head as Barret strapped on body armor.

"And if you go in there, you're as likely to get raped as get him to talk," Barret replied. "Tifa, they know who we are and where we are, and if you go in there he'll know exactly who you are. And I'm not thinkin' that any piece of shit criminal like Corneo is watchin' us for a good reason. I'm gonna find out what he knows and why he wants to know more about us."

Barret finished strapping the armor on and thumped his chest loudly. Tifa considered arguing with the huge, angry man, but finally relented. Barret was right, after all, and while she could look after herself, it was a bit too risky going after Corneo alone. She followed him as he approached the pinball machine elevator and the pair rode it up into the bar, where the rest of the rebel group was waiting. Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie were seated at the bar, each cradling a drink in their hands, while Marlene was behind the bar, cleaning up.

"Alright, listen up," Barret barked to the rest of his small band of rebels, and they looked up at the roar of his voice, snapping out of the melancholy stupor they had been in after the spy's execution.

"Me an' Tifa are headin' over to Sector Six soon as the patrols have pulled out," Barret continued. "Gonna see about this "Corn" jackass and take care of business. I'm wantin' you all to keep an eye out for any more spies or anything else weird going on while we're out, okay?" Biggs, Jessie, and Wedge nodded immediately.

"We'll have the entire sector watched, boss," Jessie assured Barret. "If anything happens, we'll let you know." Barret nodded, patting the cell phone underneath his vest.

"Papa, what time will you be home?" Marlene asked, and Barret paused, thinking. Finally, he shook his head.

"I dunno, Marlene," he answered, and then gave her a smile. "Not soon enough. Don't worry about me, though, I'll come home sooner or later!" Tifa watched Marlene's happy smile at that promise, and looked to Barret, still amazed by the dichotomy between how he acted around Marlene, and how he acted in combat. Just yesterday she had watched him burn a man alive without so much as flinching, and here he was, smiling and making his daughter smile like any good father. It was almost impossible to imagine they were the same person.

Barret looked away from his daughter, the smile fading, and turned to Tifa.

"Come on, Tifa," he grunted. "Let's go an' shove my little friend up Corneo's ass an' see what comes out the other end." Tifa was about to nod, but then, after a moment, she shook her head.

"Barret, we have to keep this discreet," she said after a moment. "And you going in there gun blazing won't help any. Corneo's men were watching us for a reason-"

"And I wanna know," Barret replied. "So let's go get what we need out of him!"

"Barret, we need to keep this quiet," Tifa repeated, trying to reason with him. "If we go in there and kill all of his men, Shinra will be all over us. How do we know Shinra didn't put Corneo up to this anyway?"

"If he's working with Shinra, then its even more reason to waste him," Barret growled. Tifa adamantly shook her head.

"And if you go? What if Shinra is waiting?"

"Like hell I'd let you go in there by yourself if Shinra's there!" Barret snapped. "Tifa, you ain't talking me outta this. We're goin', and that's-"

Barret's next word came out as a surprisingly high-pitched squeal. Tifa, growing tired of trying to convince the obstinate rebel leader, had opted for a more forceful persuasion, directed between his legs. She winced as he fell onto the floorboards like a meaty statue, clutching his privates with his good arm.

"Barret, you're too stubborn for your own good sometimes," she said quietly, shaking her head, as the rest of AVALANCHE rushed over to their incapacitated leader. She glanced to them as they gathered around the huge man as he rolled on the floor.

"I'll go check it out," she explained. "If it looks like Corneo's a liability, we'll all go back and deal with him."

Sector Five's slums were still awakening that morning when Cloud moved through the village, as unobtrusively as possible. He quickly exited the town and started cutting across the open slum grounds, weaving between fields of debris and refuse as he ran toward the gate between sectors. He soon rounded one last hill of looming garbage, and came into sight of the massive twelve-foot high concrete structure, a long, gray, lifeless wall stretching across the slum, decorated with miles of rampant graffiti. He moved toward the gate, heading toward the switch beside the large sliding metal doors set into the concrete, only active during the daytime hours, but then stopped dead in his tracks as he realized who was standing in front of the doors.

"Leaving a bit early, aren't you?" Aeris asked him, smiling knowingly. She was clearly waiting for him, and judging by the compact rod she was holding - a collapsible staff, Cloud realized, upon closer inspection - she wasn't here to just send him off. He grunted in vexation, knowing immediately that she would be following him to Sector Five, whether he liked it or not.

"I wasn't going to bring you with me," he answered honestly. "I could have handled myself, you know."

"I know," she answered, nodding. "My mom said for you to go ahead and leave in the morning before I woke up, but I'm coming with you now anyway. No argument, okay?"

Cloud finally shrugged, unable to argue with her.

"Fine then. Let's go, then." He put a hand on his sword and moved toward the gate switch. His hand passed over the glowing sensor, and a metallic screech could be heard inside the door, following by the rumbling hydraulics of the machinery as it pulled metal portal apart, opening the passage to Sector Six. The pair moved beyond the huge gate and stepped into the ruined, broken landscape of the region beyond.

Sector Six could best be described as one of Midgar's greatest failures. It had been an effort to build up the ground level to make the city more prosperous and to better the lives of the slum denizens, but the project had fallen victim to an odd alliance of problems: budget cuts, covert sabotage by Shinra officials who didn't want the poor slum denizens to become stronger and richer, and the creeping problem of mutant infestation due to Mako reactor leaks. Shinra wouldn't spare the military force to keep the monsters at bay, and without the money, the project could never be completed. Workers left their jobs without the proper pay, and many also left out of fear of monster attacks without Shinra's protection.

Thus, Sector Six had been written off as a failure over a decade ago, and in the intervening time, the landscape had become a broken, twisted stretch of asphalt, abandoned construction equipment, and dark holes where the dregs of society made their homes. It wasn't the nicest place; in fact, Sector Six was considered the most dangerous of the eight slum sectors, and for good reason. Most people preferred to ride the trains over the plates or even go all the way around Midgar to avoid the ruined landscape rather than pass through the wreckage and debris.

It took a long while for Cloud and Aeris to cross the landscape. The ex-SOLDIER often scouted ahead, his glowing eyes scanning the terrain ahead with practiced awareness, searching for threats. Twice he had to move quickly, drawing his heavy sword as strange mutant creatures, looking like gray, dog-sized insects with whipping tails and wide, gaping mouths, had attacked. Quick, brutal slashes and the liberal application of his boots had eliminated that threat. Toward the end of their trek, he had been forced to go completely around one segment of the landscape.

"What's wrong?" Aeris had asked as Cloud changed directions.

"Mechanized equipment doesn't normally grow spines or walk around on its own, does it?" he had asked, and Aeris' eyes had widened, but she said no more, understanding how bad the Mako poisoning was out here. While it wasn't so terrible as to transform nonliving machinery into living monsters, it did show a marked tendency to mutate creatures into something that would blend in with their surroundings. People passing through Sector Six avoided the supposedly abandoned equipment for good reason.

It took four hours of negotiating the terrain, Cloud and Aeris climbing up metal beams, crawling through open sewer pipes, and scaling hills of asphalt and metal. Cloud kept an eye on Aeris but found that, despite her light frame, she was keeping up fairly well with him, apparently used to traversing this difficult environment. They had to often double back on their previous route as the path they took dead-ended, and even Aeris' knowledge of the terrain proved sketchy at times. The terrain was a confused mess, but eventually the pair managed to move beyond the broken highway into more flat and sane terrain.

Shortly after leaving the highway, they came into sight of the Sector Seven gate. Just before the gate was a small, abandoned playground, another part of the renovation project gone sour. At least this bit had been completed and managed to survive the tests of time.

"There it is," she remarked, nodding toward the gate beyond the playground. "That should lead into Sector Seven." Cloud nodded, though a strange sense of regret came over him as he turned to Aeris.

"I guess this is goodbye," he said reluctantly, and she nodded. "Will you be okay heading back by yourself?" Aeris smiled knowingly even as he spoke.

"Oh no!" she exclaimed. "Whatsoever shall I do without a big strong man to protect me?" Cloud blinked at her mock-serious tone, and then managed a chuckle.

"Sorry, I forgot how much longer you've been down here then me," he replied. "How will you be getting back, though?"

"Train, maybe," she replied. "Even though heading up to the plate itself is risky, I'm pretty safe. I have a fake ID, so I'll be fine." She glanced around the playground, and then spotted something, what looked like an ancient slide fashioned after a ridiculously smiling animal face. Her eyes widened in surprise and happiness.

"Oh, I can't believe its still here!" she said, and hurried over toward the slid. Cloud followed her as she circled around behind the structure and climbed up the back, before sitting on top of it.

"I used to play on this thing when I was little," she explained as the mercenary scrambled up the back of the dome-shaped slide and sat down next to her. They were silent for several moments as Aeris peered around the playground from their elevated position, over the desolate slums and ruined landscape. Cloud leaned back and looked up at the plate overhead, seeing the tiny overhead lights of distant maintenance machinery, a strange multicolored starlight display against an ash-gray metal sky. After a moment, he turned his gaze and looked out over the slums, and spotted a brightly lit town a short distance away, beyond a few more trash mounds, the gleaming neon and electrical lights a stark contrast to the grungy and steel-gray and brown garbage. That had to be the Wall Market that Aeris had mentioned earlier.

"What rank were you?" Aeris suddenly asked, and Cloud blinked. It took him a moment to answer.

"In SOLDIER?" he asked rhetorically. He paused, trying to remember, his mind blanking out for an instant as he searched his brain for the memory. Why did he suddenly forget something so important? A moment later, however, the rank popped into his mind, and Cloud tried to suppress the pride rushing through him as he spoke the next words. "First Class. The best of the best."

"First Class?" she echoed wistfully. "I see. Just like him . . . ."

"Just like who?" Cloud asked.

"My first boyfriend," she answered, and Cloud suddenly felt off-balance, as if he was about to drop off the side of the slide, at those words. He managed to catch himself, though, and figured from the way she was looking out over the ruins that she hadn't noticed.

"Were you two . . . serious?" he asked, and she shrugged. Somewhere behind them, they could hear the hydraulics of the gate hissing as they opened, but neither of them paid immediate attention.

"We didn't get very far," she replied, with a wistful smile. "But I really liked him."

"What was his name?" Cloud asked after a moment. "Not very people make into First Class. I probably knew him." She was silent for a moment, and then shook her head.

"It doesn't really matter," she answered. "I haven't seen him for years." Cloud nodded silently as the doors behind them closed once again, and he glanced in that direction. His eyes fell upon someone moving toward the distant market beyond the next trash mound, and his eyes widened.

"Tifa?" he half-whispered, in surprise. He couldn't tell perfectly from this distance, but the slender woman with long brown hair struck a strikingly familiar figure.

"Who?" Aeris asked, looking up in surprise at his sudden words.

"One of my friends," he answered after a moment, standing up. "I think she's headed for Wall Market . . . ."

"That's not good," Aeris said quickly, standing up. "Wall Market isn't a safe place, not with Don Corneo running things . . . ."

"Corneo?" Cloud asked, and she quickly explained the nature of Corneo's dealings in Sector Six as they climbed down the slide and started after the disappearing pair in the distance. Before she was even a third of the way finished, Cloud's face twisted in disgust at the man she was describing, and he began to wonder if they shouldn't pay him a visit and rid the city of his stain.

Tifa had disappeared around another trash mound, and by the time Cloud and Aeris had caught up and rounded the garbage and scrap, she had disappeared into the brightly lit slum town beyond.

"Great," Cloud grunted as they entered the village, rapidly becoming surrounded by hundreds of electrical and neon lights of every shade of imaginable color. There was so much ultraviolet light being given off by the signs and lamps that grass had actually started growing where the people didn't tread as heavily. Vendors could be heard hawking their wares from dozens of tents and stalls, and the streets - which were anywhere between the various buildings and tents that gave enough room to move around - were crowded with people. A few shanty restaurants and diners had been set up, and the customers could be heard within through the thin wood or metal walls. The structures here seemed better made than usual for a slum town, owing to the high degree of prosperity in the area due to the markets. People were everywhere, ranging from the usual ragged slum denizens to the better - or at least more colorfully - dressed vendors and "upper class" of the slums. Cloud though he even sighted off-duty Shinra soldiers and a few people wearing business suits scattered among the sellers and buyers, likely seeking out the illicit goods available in such a place.

All the buildings, people, and confusion made locating anyone very difficult. The pair wandered around the market, searching for the missing pair of rebels, but to no avail. Within twenty minutes after arriving at Wall Market, there was no overt sign of their presence, and Cloud started getting frustrated.

"We'll never find her at this rate," he muttered, and Aeris nodded as they came to a stop outside another shanty diner, this one inside an old trailer. They could hear the bouncer/greeter beside calling for people to come inside.

"Okay, new plan," she replied, thinking for a moment. "Why would she be here? She's probably looking for Corneo, as he does run most of the business around here. If she's looking for him, she'd ask around and try to find him or where he lived, right?"

"You're thinking we should follow her trail?" Cloud replied, and nodded. "Good idea."

"Well, since most of the thugs and bouncers around here probably work for Corneo anyway, I think if we ask them about him, we can find the man himself pretty quickly," Aeris continued. Cloud nodded, and then glanced toward the diner they stood in front of, and the man standing outside of it, waving for people to come in. Without another word, he walked up to the man.

"Hey, man, what's up? You hungry? Good food, just a few gil!" he offered. Cloud shook his head, and then reached into his pocket.

"I need to see Corneo," he explained. "Where is he?"

"Don Corneo?" answered the bouncer. "Only know him by rep, you know what I mean?" Cloud nodded, understanding. Knowledge regarding Corneo's operations was common in the slums, and if the bouncer denied he knew of Corneo, then it would obviously make it look like he was covering for his boss. The man was big, but not stupid.

The mercenary pulled his hand out of his pocket and held up a wad of gil, roughly around five hundred. The bouncer's eyes widened, and he glanced around surreptitiously, before reaching toward the money.

"I dunno, man, its not like everyone around here knows he lives close to the central pillar or anything," the man explained as he took the money.

"How much protection does he have?" Cloud asked, and the bouncer shrugged.

"Not like he's got a small army of personal bodyguards or anything. But everyone knows that." The bouncer pocketed the money. "They've got orders to shoot on sight. I should know, I used to work for him. He's got . . . maybe ten, fifteen guys over there as protection."

"Thanks," Cloud replied, and headed back toward Aeris. She watched him, nodding and smiling approvingly as he came back.

"And here I thought you'd just beat him up and get the information out of him the hard way," she remarked, and he shrugged.

"Money works faster than fists," he replied. "If Tifa is using the same method, she'll be heading for Corneo's mansion or there already. Let's go."

The pair hiked north through the crowds and streets of Wall Market, cutting past the tents and buildings, and finally entered an area with fewer people. The crowds thinned out as piles of random scrap and metal garbage began to loom up on either side of their path. A particularly large mound of metal and machinery was visible next to what looked like a weapons supplier off to their right, and Cloud could swear he saw an open garage door that housed a light Shinra tank, an engineer working over the vehicle to refit it. Idly, he wondered if the engineer worked for Corneo, or was a free supplier.

Cloud dismissed the thoughts as they moved past the mound of cast-off weaponry, and came into sight of what could only be Don Corneo's mansion.

Wall Market consisted of hundreds of vendors and businessmen and dozens and dozens of shops and stalls. There were enough lights in that slum to light up an entire city block, with energy to spare. But Don Corneo's mansion was probably ringed with twice as many lights as all of Wall Market put together. The entire house was a large, two-story structure built in a vaguely Wutaian style, with sweeping architecture and dozens of the slashing, ornate characters of the eastern civilization painted and carved on walls and the main doorway. However, these characters and the architecture seemed gaudy and ostentatious, robbed of their meaning in an effort to make the home look "cool". Carts filled with random paraphernalia littered the grounds before the main doors, seeming like mounds of random objects and souvenirs that Corneo had gathered and had no place to put.

The house itself was a large two-story building, though not a true mansion. Still, the quality of construction and materials were far superior to those of many other houses in the slums, even those others in Wall Market. Solid wood and plaster covered the building, and compared with the usual slum structures, it was a mansion. A single man, wearing a gray suit and with a sub-machinegun slung over his shoulder, stood idly in front of the door. Tifa was nowhere to be found.

Cloud paused, considering the situation, before glancing to Aeris.

"Stay here for a moment," he said quietly. "I'll go check things out." She nodded, and he broke away and walked toward the entrance to the mansion. Aeris watched him move up toward the guard, who did not visibly react at the presence of a large muscular man with a sword nearly as tall as he was. As he started speaking with the man, who answered in a bland, bored tone, however, Aeris heard a faint rustle in the strange grass behind her, and looked over her shoulder. Her large green eyes blinked once in surprise as she found herself face to face with the same woman that she and Cloud had spied earlier. The woman, however, was not paying attention to Aeris, instead looking past her and at the mansion.

"Are you Tifa?" she asked bluntly, and the brown haired woman froze at her words, before looking at Aeris in surprise.

"What?" Tifa paused for a moment, and recognition flicked into her eyes as she recognized who she was speaking to. "Wait a second, I remember you. I think I saw you with Cloud in the park earlier. Right?"

"Yes, that was me," she replied with a nod. Aeris caught something in Tifa's expression and stance as she spoke that, and held up a hand. "Don't worry, we just met. It was nothing."

"Don't worry?" echoed Tifa, surprise etching across her face at the surprising - and subtly embarrassing) remark. "Oh, don't misunderstand. Cloud and I just grew up together. Its not like, you know . . . ." Aeris managed a smile and a nod, and then chuckled lightly.

"Poor Cloud," she remarked, and looked over her shoulder as the mercenary returned from his questioning of the door guard. "Here we are, calling him nothing within earshot." Tifa managed a laugh of her own as the mercenary approached, not seeing her behind the cart. He paused, blinking, as he recognized the sound of her voice, and stepped around the cart quickly, to see the two women giggling.

"Tifa!" he exclaimed, and her face lit up at seeing him again. She took a step toward him, raising her hands, as if to hug him, but then stopped, hesitation striking her for an instant. But it lasted only for a moment, and she continued stepping toward him, instead opting for a rough punch in the chest. The mercenary grunted as he fist smacked into his torso, and he rubbed the spot she had bruised.

"What was that for?"

"For scaring me and making everyone back home think you were dead," she growled, putting her hands on her hips in annoyance. Her features softened a second later, however. "Are you okay? You didn't get hurt, did you?"

"Fifty meter fall," Cloud said with a shrug. "It tickled some."

"Slightly," Aeris added, and Cloud nodded.

"But what are you doing here?" he added. "We thought you were looking for Corneo . . . ."

"I was, but, um," Tifa began, but then glanced at Aeris. She instantly caught the hint, and started to nod, when Cloud held up a hand.

"Don't worry, she's cool. She's no friend of Shinra's. I had to run off some Shinra goons who were after her earlier today." Tifa hesitated, but then nodded, trusting in Cloud's judgment.

"Okay, so when we got back after you fell," she explained. "We found a spy hanging around the bar. Barret squeezed some information out of him the hard way-" she grimaced as she spoke, but didn't explain the particulars of the interrogation "-and he told us Corneo sent him. Barret wanted to kick the door in and take him out in a storm of gunfire, but I wanted to keep a low profile in case he was working with Shinra, so I came here to check things out and see what he was up to." Cloud was nodding as she finished, and was looking back toward the mansion, considering his options.

"Corneo has spies looking after AVALANCHE," he muttered, and then shook his head. "Not good. I'd say we keep quiet and try to sneak in there and see what's happening. But the guard said that Corneo wasn't interested in visitors unless they were women . . . ."

"Maybe we could slip in there," Aeris suggested, glancing to Tifa. "We can question Corneo directly."

"Umm," Tifa began, uncertain about bringing Aeris along, and Cloud understood her hesitance.

"I don't want you two in there without some backup," he began, and Tifa snorted.

"Not that line again," she muttered, crossing her arms over her chest. "Barret was saying the same thing about not letting me go in there by myself. I can handle myself, Cloud."

"I understand where he's coming from," Aeris piped in, nodding. "Corneo has a very bad reputation. Its not a good idea to go in there without some backup."

"Can you fight?" Tifa asked, and Aeris nodded immediately. Cloud, however, seemed unconvinced.

"I'd rather go in there with you two," he explained, but Tifa shook her head.

"How would you get inside? Corneo only wants women, after all."

"Maybe we could have him dress up like a girl?" Aeris commented. Tifa blinked, glanced at the heavy-set, muscular mercenary with his huge sword and ragged clothes, and then back at Aeris, as if seriosuly considering the idea.

Both women then burst out laughing.

"Cloud, dressed like a woman," Tifa said, shaking her head while laughing. "That's something I'd pay to see."

"Not happening," the mercenary muttered, frowning and looking back at the mansion. "We need to get in there, though . . . ." Cloud stood in silence for a moment, and then looked back at Tifa, before grunting.

"I hate to disagree with you Tifa, but I'm not feeling the patience for sneaking around, and I don't want to risk you or Aeris getting hurt. Plus, its not like he doesn't deserve it."

"Wait, Cloud!" Tifa began to say, and she considered stopping him more forcefully, as she had with Barret, but something stopped her. "We need to keep this quiet. We can't just bust in there!"

"Tifa," he said with a smile as he glanced back at her. "Quiet has its place, but this guy doesn't rate it." Without another word, he started toward the door. Tifa hesitated but followed after him, and Aeris quietly brought up the rear, not arguing with the mercenary's unexpected but decisive choice.

Cloud walked toward the guard in front of the door again, this time with two women in tow. The man glanced at the women and chuckled.

"Wow," he remarked as Cloud walked toward him. "That was fast, man."

Cloud didn't reply, instead glancing up at a blank spot on the wall of the building, blinking in surprise. The guard looked up in the direction Cloud was staring, but saw nothing but featureless wall. He glanced back toward Cloud and opened his mouth to ask what it was he was looking at, and saw nothing but a meaty black-gloved fist shooting into his face.

"In SOLDIER, we had a special term for unconscious guards," Cloud said as he grabbed stunned man by the front of his shirt. "They were called 'keys.'"

A second later, the door into Corneo's mansion was shattered open as Cloud hurled the unconscious guard through the gaudy wooden portal and strode into the center of the house. He glanced around the room and felt a sudden sense of unease within him. If he had any appreciable fashion sense, than the feeling he was experiencing would have been that screaming in protest at the gaudy interior. Opposing colors shined through bright neon lights, even more eye-hurting than the ones outside. The inside of the building was painted in garish colors, the expensive paneled wood transformed into hideous decoration. The lower level of the house was occupied by the main hallway, which included a staircase leading up to the right to a balcony ringing the entry hallway. Several doors were spaced along this balcony, including one massive, gaudily designed pair of double doors, directly above which was positioned a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. From somewhere inside the mansion, some godawful rap music was playing, seeming to have been custom-composed for the mansion as the verbal equivalent of the visual decadence inside the home.

"My eyes," wailed Aeris as she entered the room, Tifa a step behind her. Both women seemed almost repulsed by the interior of the chamber, and for good reason.

A shout of surprise from the double doors upstairs caught the intruders' attention, and they looked up in time to see them swing open. Emerging from the room beyond came a man who could only be Don Corneo. No one else could have designed this mansion, except the huge, fat slob of a man clad in what seemed to be almost a mockery of royal purple robes. Corneo's eyes were wide with shock, the cheap cigar he was smoking almost falling out of his mouth.Cloud focused on the man's head, amazed to see a solid gold crown on top of the Don's head, and what seemed to be almost a mile of gold and silver necklaces around his neck. The Don's fingers and hands shone with gems and gold as he put his hands on the railing, shocked to see the intruders and his ruined door.

"My door!" the Don screamed, face turning red. "I liked that door! I really did!" He glared at the trio of intruders below, and then glanced toward another door along the balcony, from which were emerging a dozen thugs, clad in brown tank tops and black pants and brandishing sub-machineguns and pistols.

"Kotch!" Corneo shouted at one of the men, apparently the leader of his bodyguards. "These people, they fucked up my door!"

"And that's not all," Cloud answered with a snarl, drawing his sword.

"Wait a second!" Corneo exclaimed, suddenly realizing who he was dealing with. "You . . . You're that guy with . . . what are they called? ROCKSLIDE?"

"Close enough," Tifa muttered under her breath.

"Boss, if its them, then what do you think Shin-" Kotch began, but was cut off.

"Shut up!" Corneo shouted at Kotch. "Waste them! Waste all of them!" He paused, and then glanced at the two women, and a sick, lecherous smile cut over his features. "Um, actually, just kill the glowey prick. I want the women alive." Cloud stared at Corneo for a second, not believing what he had said, and then glanced at Tifa and Aeris, who were equally appalled. Corneo crossed his arms as several of his men leveled their weapons at the mercenary, and the other started down the stairs toward them, weapons in hand but not pointed at the intruders. The ex-SOLDIER turned back toward Corneo, growling to himself, and raised his sword in both hands. He dashed forward, even as the bodyguards up on the balcony opened fire. Bullets stormed down like rain, slamming into the floorboards around him and filling the air with their deafening retorts and flying wooden splinters.

However, the enemy's aim was as atrocious as the interior of Corneo's home, and only one shot struck Cloud, a grazing round that scratched down his back. His muscular legs pumped beneath him, and he crouched for an instant, before leaping up a dozen feet. The bodyguards started raising their weapons to follow him, but not expecting his surprisingly large leap, they stood open-mouthed as Cloud hit the balcony in front of Corneo, slamming down into the wooden platform. The Don yelped in absolute horror and shamed himself, a dark stain running down his expensive pants as he fell back into the office he had emerged from. The guards, shaking off their surprise, turned to pump a river of steel into Cloud, who could not dodge their gunfire in such cramped space.

Almost half of Corneo's guards were firing at Cloud, but the rest were closing in on the two women below. The seven men changed their grips on their weapons, holding them like clubs, and prepared to subdue the apparently unarmed women. They advanced confidently, grinning at the ease of their jobs, weapons ready. Tifa glanced back at Aeris as the flower seller reached into a pocket and pulled out her short, two-foot long rod.

"Watch my back?" she asked, and Aeris nodded confidently. Tifa, knowing she was secure, glanced back at her opponents, and slid into a high guard, both hands raised, weight balanced perfectly. One guard, who had studied a few martial arts in his life, paused, recognizing the stance, and was about to warn his comrades when Tifa jetted forward, leaping at her foes in an eye blink. Before the lead guard had a chance to react, she was in front of him, right leg shooting down into his knee like greased lightning. The thunderbolt shattered his knee, and most of his thigh and calf bones as well, into a dozen pieces, and he fell to the floor screaming. Tifa pivoted on her left leg, her right flying up in a deadly-fast arcing kick into the next guard's face. His head flew aside at an unnatural angle, and over the roar of gunfire above, the five remaining guards could hear the sickening snap of the man's neck. His lifeless body flew a dozen feet away, bouncing across the gaudy floor. As he hit the floor, Tifa heard the sound of safeties flicking off, and weapons moving into more lethal grips.

Respect was something that had to be earned, and in a single second, Tifa had earned it. The guards, realizing exactly how dangerous she was, started to raise their rifles at her.

A flash of flame shot into one man, a bolt of incineration that cored through his chest and launched him backward, and in the flash of light, Tifa leapt at her foes, left hand slapping down on a rifle to parry it aside while her right leg shattered another guard's face. Tifa spun at the guard whose rifle she had shoved aside and slammed a palm into his temple. The impact shattered parts of his skull, but the real power in the blow dove through the weakened part of his bones, directly into the man's brain and crushing it against the other side of his skull. He fell like a sack of bricks. Behind his falling body, however, was another guard, pistol leveled directly at her chest. He depressed the trigger, and the pistol kicked.

As Tifa was battling the guard in close-quarters melee, Aeris looked for another target. However, her next foe came to her, one guard circling around the melee. Seeing Aeris relatively unarmed, he leapt toward her, intending to club her with his rifle. The weapon's buttstock rose, and Aeris pointed her rod at him. She squeezed the rod, and a faint click could be heard within. The guard suddenly felt a heavy weight slam into his chest as the two-foot long rod became a six-foot-long quarterstaff. He stumbled backward, and Aeris took a quick step forward, shifting her weight, and the staff flew across, the opposite end clubbing him across the side of his head and throwing him off his feet, unconscious by the surprisingly strong blow.

Cloud couldn't avoid the weapons aimed at him, so he didn't bother. He charged straight toward his foes, who, while out of reach of most melee weapons, were well within range of his massive sword. The heavy blade flashed from right to left in a single mighty swing, and two of the bodyguards, trapped on the balcony with nowhere to flee, broke apart like fragile pieces of glass. The sword slammed into the wooden wall as the two men fall apart and to the floorboards, and the soldiers behind them stared in shock. With a flex of his muscles and a ripping, splintering crash of broken wood, Cloud tore his sword free and shot ahead, blade crashing down upon another man, splitting him from left shoulder to right hip.

The rest had no intention of firing as Cloud stormed toward them and tried to flee. But Cloud struck hard and fast, and their fleeing, terrified legs could not save them from his wrath. His sword flew out wide, a body's disparate parts chasing it, and it slashed down again, cleaving another man in half. His left arm shot ahead, grabbing another guard by the wrist, and he spun, spiking the man into the floorboards as if he were a rag doll, following with his boot to the guard's upper back.

The instant before the guard aiming at Tifa fired, she ducked and twisted her body aside. The bullet flew toward her, and then past her, barely missing her body as she danced out of the line of fire. He desperate dodge, however, also cleared the way for Aeris. Behind Tifa, the green glow of Aeris' materia flared up a second time, and flakes of snow began to swarm around her as she pointed her rod at the man pointing his pistol at Tifa. Blue-white light erupted from the small rod and slammed into him, picking him up and launching him away as the magic flash-froze his body, killing him instantly.

Silence filled the interior of the gaudy mansion, punctuated only by the whimpering of the man with the broken leg. Tifa kicked him in the side of the head with her boot, knocking him out, and glanced up to the gore-splattered walkway where Cloud had massacred Corneo's guards. The ex-SOLDIER tapped his sword against the wall, knocking some of the blood off of it, and turned toward the door leading into Corneo's office.

"Let's get this over with," he grunted, and the two women nodded. They started up the steps, carefully avoiding the blood and broken bodies Cloud had left behind, and followed him as he smashed through the door into Corneo's office with a single kick.

The office was worse then the rest of the house put together. The gaudy orange, red, and violet colors, combined with shiny neon lights and the vast overpopulation of Wutai kanji on every surface assaulted the trio's eyes, but they failed to see the madman behind this decorating atrocity. Only a wall of hanging beads barred the way to a room beyond the office, which Cloud promptly defeated with wave of his hands as he passed through the door into Corneo's bedroom.

At least the bedroom was darker, though the gleaming disco ball overhead was annoyingly glittery. The room was dominated by the Don's massive four-post bed, and the bed's owner was cowering under the sheets, shaking violently. Cloud calmly walked over to the criminal and tore the sheets off of him. Corneo screamed in terror and fell back, gibbering in terror.

"Why?" he managed. "Why are you-"

"Shut up," Cloud growled. "We're asking the questions now." He grabbed the front of the Don's shirt with one hand, and lifted his sword with the other. "And if you don't start answering them, I'll chop them off."

"'Them?'" Corneo echoed, and he suddenly squealed in horror as he put his hands over his crotch protectively. "Oh no! Not that! Anything but that! Please! You can take an arm, or a leg, but not the Trouser Titan!"

"Good," Cloud replied, nodding. He didn't release Corneo, however, instead spearing him with those terrible blue glowing eyes of his. "Now, AVALANCHE. Why are you so interested in us?"

"I was ordered to find the man with the gun-arm, that's all, I swear!" Corneo explained.

"Who?" Tifa demanded, stepping up to Corneo's bed, joining in on the interrogation.

"If I tell you I'll be killed!" he responded, shaking his head in fear.

"I'll make it a whole lot worse," Tifa replied. She reached up, grabbed one of the bed posts, and pulled, focusing her ki. The wood splintered and snapped, and the top half of the bedpost broke off. "If you don't talk, I'll rip it off."

"No no no no!" Corneo wailed. "It was Heidegger! Ernst Heidegger of the Public Safety Department! He wanted to know where the gun-armed man was!"

"Shinra!" Cloud snarled, clutching Corneo's shirt even tighter, ripping threads. "Why? Are they planning an attack?" Corneo closed his eyes and wailed in terror.

"If I talk, they'll torture me, they promised! They'll have the Turks rip out my fingernails and my eyes and my teeth and . . . ."

"Too bad," Aeris suddenly said, and extended her rod. "I'll take the most important part off first by smashing it to paste." Cloud glanced at her, surprised by her sudden and unexpected entry into the interrogation. While he didn't believe for an instant she'd actually do it, Corneo, the moron he was, fell for the threat, as his scream of fear attested.

"They're going to crush the entire Sector!" he shouted. "Literally! They're blowing the support pillar holding up Sector Seven and are going to wipe out the entire slum!"

"What?" Tifa exclaimed. "Shinra's going to destroy the whole Sector?"

"Yes! Thank God those fools aren't in Sector Six!" Corneo began to say. "Said they'd drop the entire Sector in the next hour! . . . please don't kill me." Cloud snarled and, deciding that the Don had earned his life at least, released him.

"Thanks," he grunted. Corneo said nothing, wisely understanding that being silent would keep him intact. However, Cloud decided not to let the Don go without parting shot. His right hand balled into a fist, which shot forward and smashed the Don's nose, launching him off the bed and against the back wall.

"Let's get the hell out of here and stop Shinra," Cloud growled and Aeris and Tifa agreed. The trio hurried out of the decadent mansion and back out into the slums as fast as they could.

Alexander Shinra sat back in his chair, cigar smoking in his mouth, as he regarded the video screen in front of him, set into his massive steel desk, and the young blonde man displayed on one of the dozens of video screens here, in the nexus of his network that spanned the entire globe.

"Father, this is an insane plan," Rufus Shinra, Alexander's only son, stated. "Dropping Sector Seven to kill a small band of rebels? Do you have any idea how much this will cost?"

"Very much so," Alexander replied, puffing his cigar. "The costs are worth the extensive benefits we will reap. Midgar will know the true terror that these rebels can inflict, especially considering we're blaming this on them. We've even arranged to let the information slip, so that AVALANCHE will desperately try to save Sector Seven from this catastrophe. Sadly, the rebels were able to destroy the platform through insanely suicidal means. This will be precedent to tighten our control over the slums and increase Mako rates to ensure such a disaster will never happen again."

"One seventh of our Midgar income will be lost!" Rufus responded. "That's almost the equivalent of all of Junon! How can you make up for that?"

"Rufus, you know we've been searching for someone very special, correct?" Alexander said, seeming to change the subject.

"A very special person?" Rufus asked, his tone indicating that he knew just how special this person was. Alexander nodded.

"Neo-Midgar will soon be a reality, son," Alexander said, with a predatory smile. "And once that has been realized, even Midgar will be nothing more than a mere bauble in our crown."

"I see," Rufus muttered, nodding.

"After AVALANCHE is . . . crushed," Alexander said with a widening grin. "No one will dare oppose us, the citizenry of Midgar will be even more loyal to us, and we will tighten our control and profits. Nothing but good will come out of this."

"Still, it seems such a waste, Father," Rufus complained.

"Allow me to handle business here in Midgar," Alexander replied. "You've still got issues in Junon, correct?"

Rufus nodded reluctantly, and the video screen went blank. Shinra stood, puffing his cigar again, as the green-clad, bearded form of Ernst Heidegger strode into his office, smiling like a wolf on the prowl.

"The assault's underway, Mr. President," Heidegger, the head of the Shinra armed forces and one of the three most powerful people in the world, reported.

"The rescue crews are standing by?" Shinra asked, and Heidegger nodded.

"Ready to see what survivors they can pull out of the catastrophe AVALANCHE has inflicted," Heidegger answered with another bout of laughter. Shinra joined in the mirth. He crossed his massive office on the top floor of the huge Shinra skyscraper and looked out over the -no, his - metropolis, continuing to laugh quietly to himself, all the while puffing on his cigar.

Things were looking up.

Obviously,I cut out the entire sequence involving the cross-dressing infiltration of Corneo's lair. While it is amusing, I decided that it was too drawn out and tedious for this story, and it just didn't fit the tone of this part of the story as well. Not to mention that Cloud in drag is a rather silly sight, even for me :P I'm also cutting out the trainyard crawl, mostly because it woukld get in the way of narration and was really nothing more than a sewer and train graveyard filled with random encounters, and served no storyline purpose. I really just want to get on with the action here.

Also, there are no mentions of Squall or any other FFVIII character in this chapter. They will all die in their tanks. I did not edit this chapter's false errors, nor did I copy paste segments from Synthesis because I'm lazy. I am not poking fun at the Iraqi Minister of Information. It is all a Hollywood movie!

Until next chapter...