First of all, I love my reviewers, every one! If you have an FFN account I try to reply... Guests are loved but replies are harder...

One of my guests gave an awesome review with lots of questions... but they were a guest so I could not reply via PM. As you (Guest) surmised, answering all your questions *would* spoil the story, but yes, I have plans (rubs hands together in sinister manner). As for why Cloud didn't buy the villa... Unless I did some utterly insane grinding (or used cheat codes), by this point in the game I didn't have enough gil to buy the villa. Fear not, they will own the villa before the end of the story!

Secondly, (addressed to all) I wrote the opening scene before I refreshed my memory of how the area actually looked. Frankly the way I changed things makes more sense and is more amusing so don't kill me for twisting canon...er... more than I already have (grin)


Chapter 13: Shinra's Best Recruiter

On the second day of travel through the Corel Mountains they finally reached the Corel Reactor. Barret glared down at the spindly building that perched across an old mining pit like an enormous metal spider. The old metal stairway zig-zagged down the side of the cliff to the web-like metal grating over the seemingly bottomless pit.

"Why are there tracks leading into the reactor?" Aerith asked as they skirted the building and reached the cart rails.

"They are the old tracks from the coal mine," Barret replied. He led them past a fork in the rails and through a small canyon. The other set of rails swooped and curved around and above the more sedate tracks they followed.

"What is up with those tracks?" Tifa asked, her brow furrowed with confusion.

"It does not seem the most efficient path for transporting coal," Red mused.

"It wasn't built for coal," Barret muttered. "About a decade ago, Danny Olero decided he was gonna build roller coasters. Lemme' tell ya', that guy was a piece work. He-" Barret's laugh cut off. The tracks reached a river crossing, but the raised bridge barred their way. "Aw damn," he cursed, slapping his forehead.

Zack scanned the bank of the river and asked, "Where's the gate house?"

"Over there," Barret muttered, pointing to a small structure on the other side of the deep water.

High above, the make-shift roller coaster's tracks crossed the rough waters. "It looks like that's the only way across," Tifa stated, shielding her eyes as she peered through the old wood supports to the rails above. A stiff breeze blew down the canyon and the structure groaned and swayed. One by one they turned to look at their blond leader.

Feeling the weight of several gazes, Cloud slowly turned from the river to meet their expectant gazes. He shook his head and sighed heavily. Before Zack could open his mouth, the blond started back up the tracks to a point where the rails crossed.

He paused at the junction and studied the old coaster track. Brushing his boot on a wooden support, he grimaced at the reddish, dusty clumps that broke off. The wood was rotting, fabulous. Planting his right foot on the rusty rail, he gingerly put his left foot on the crumbling wood. It squealed in protest and a dusting of wood chips rattled through the supports to the canyon floor.

Slowly, but with increasing speed and confidence, Cloud followed the ascending track. After a few dozen yards, he stopped using the rail entirely and jogged lightly across the dusty wooden beams.

Far below, Yuffie called up to him, waving her arms cheerily. Cloud stopped, waved once, and then blinked, looking down between his feet. There was something wedged in the struts several feet below. He squinted, trying to make it out. The boards under him squealed once more and then snapped.


Tifa yelped and her eyes went wide. Her gaze flicked through the warren of worn cross beams hunting for the falling blond. She finally spotted him when he snagged a beam and swung onto it.

Beside her, Aerith released a shaky breath and clutched Tifa's right shoulder tightly. "That was scary," she whispered. "I feel bad for making him go now."

"What's he doing?" Yuffie asked, frowning up at the man.

Cloud inched along the crumbling beam and then stretched his arm out to snag the weather-stained pouch. Once he had it firmly in hand, he scrambled down the supports to join the rest of the party. The moment his boots hit the lower track, he shook the pouch open and inspected the contents. A golden star amulet with soldered star-shaped accents fell into his palm.

"Huh, a Star Pendant. I wonder how that got up there?" He shrugged and pocketed it before jogging back to the rail junction, his White Cape flaring from his shoulders.

"Damn it," Zack muttered, crossing his arms and pouting. "I want treasure senses."

Barret rolled his eyes at the well-worn complaint but Yuffie perked up. "Say what now?"


It only took a few moments for Cloud to return to the broken section of the track. He easily hopped over the hole and continued along. A few yards later, he spotted the gleam of another item and froze in place, trying to plot a course down.


"-it's a really weird skill, but totally awesome," Zack finished explaining with an awed head shake. Aeris yelped behind them. "There he goes again," the former SOLDIER muttered, watching the blonde snatch something from another cross-beam.

"That is so awesome!" Yuffie crowed, bouncing on her toes. "Do you think he will teach me?"

Zack snorted, "If he was teaching anyone, he'd teach me first."

A speculative light entered her eyes. "Won't share his secrets eh? I'll just have to watch and learn."

Cloud dropped among the party, opened the grayish pouch and peeked inside. His eyes widened and he pulled a six-foot Wizard Staff from the fist-sized bag. Barret's jaw dropped and he slapped his face, dragging the hand slowly down his cheek with a muffled curse. The blond shot him a commiserating half-smile and twirled the ruby-topped staff once.

"It isn't as strong as your current staff," Cloud told Aerith, inspecting the three single slots near the horned base. "Looks like it has double materia growth, but fewer slots."

"Ah, I'll stick with my current one," Aerith said with a shrug. "Might as well hang on to it for later though."

Cloud nodded, inserting it into his bottomless pouch like some stage magician. He froze, feeling an intense gaze on his back. He peered over his shoulder. Yuffie studied him intently attempting to mimic a scientist with a fascinating specimen, but ended up looking more like she was about to sneeze. Not bothering to ask, he shrugged and dashed back to make his third attempt to cross the rails.

Shortly after passing the two holes he grimaced and picked up a dusty Transform materia. He tossed it in his bag and walked on. A patch of track creaked under foot. For a moment, he tensed to jump to safety and then shrugged, letting himself fall.


"I can't watch any more!" Tifa moaned, covering her eyes. Moments later, Cloud swung safely down, his hair spikier than usual and his glowing, blue eyes crinkled with laughter.

"So what did you find this time?" Zack asked, folding his arms and quirking an eyebrow at the blond.

Cloud laughed and ruffled his hair back in place. "Nothing. That time was just for fun." He turned and dashed back to the track junction.

Zack gaped at his friend's back and Yuffie eyed the distance, stroking her chin. "Works for me!" She chirped. "I wanna try too!"

Barret snaked his arm around her waist, stopping her. "Oh no ya' don't!"

"But you let Cloud do it!" she whined, kicking at his shins with her heels.

"We didn't let Cloud fall, he chose to," Tifa snarled, whirling on the girl, her whiskey colored eyes flashing.

"Remember young one, what a SOLDIER considers 'fun' may be deadly for the more mundane," Red murmured in a placating tone.

Yuffie stopped thrashing and gave him a blank look. She rolled her head back to look up at Barret.

He released her and grunted, "Unlike hair-for-brains over there," he jerked his thumb at Zack who stuck his tongue out in response, "you ain't a native speaker so I'll forgive ya'. Short 'n simple: Shinra pumps SOLDIERs with all sorts of stuff that makes 'em hard to kill."

Yuffie nodded, and waited for him to continue.

He flicked his gaze to the top of the rails as the blond passed on his fourth attempt to cross. "Before we met you 'n Red, Cloud took a swan dive offa' the Midgar plate that made that look like fallin' outta bed."

"Oh..." Yuffie blinked rapidly, and then her eyes widened. "Was that why you made him climb the girders to Upper Junon?"

"Pretty much," Barret confirmed with a shrug. "That 'n like Red told ya' SOLDIERs can take a harder beatin' than most of us."

Aerith turned from watching Cloud's progress over the river. She pursed her lips at the Wutaian and asked, "Why did you think we sent him up?"

Yuffie shrugged and scratched the back of her right leg with her left foot. "I thought you picked him because he'd already survived electrocution."

Tifa wrenched her gaze from Cloud and gaped at the girl in horror. At the stunned silence and horrified looks from the others, Yuffie sheepishly laughed. "Um, I'm guessing that's not the reason for his hair then." Her brows drew together and she pointed up at Zack's spiky mess. "So he uses a ton of gel like this lug?"

"Hey!" Zack whined, "lay off my hair!"

"No," Tifa shook her head. "Cloud's hair is all natural."

Yuffie's jaw dropped the exact moment the bridge crashed down. Totally ignorant of the atmosphere, the object of their conversation trotted across the bridge to join them. Yuffie slowly turned to face him, her mouth closing and her eyes narrowing thoughtfully.

Arms held stiff behind her, she dashed to him and scrambled up his back. Cloud yelped as she sat on his shoulders and ran both hands through his hair. "What are you doing?" He cried weaving drunkenly on the uneven footing as he tried to regain his balance with her added weight.

"Wow!" she giggled, patting one of his spikes and gleefully watching it spring back in place. "It is natural, and so soft too!" She buried her face in his hair and rubbed her cheeks against it.

Feet firmly planted, Cloud scowled and swiftly bent at the waist. The girl shrieked and pitched over his head. Before she suffered a painful landing on her back, Cloud caught her under her armpits, her legs swinging like a pendulum. The moment she caught her breath, she looked over her shoulder at him, eyes sparkling. "Can we do that again?"

"No," Cloud said flatly and dropped her. She landed in a crouch and spun on her heel to face him. The blond ran his hands through his mussed hair, returning it to its normal shape. "Let's move on," he muttered, rolling his eyes at Zack's amused expression.

About a quarter of a mile later, the rails from the defunct roller coaster crossed the tracks one last time and curved down into the river. Cloud paused at the crossing and looked up the hillside. Eyes widening at the action, Zack nudged Yuffie with his elbow. The blond flicked his gaze to Aerith and Tifa, then muttered, "Not worth it."

He pointed to the rails that entered the river and announced, "I'm going to look down there a moment, you guys wait here."

Zack waggled his eyebrows at Yuffie and she shot him a toothy grin. Once Cloud left their view, they scrambled up the crumbling concrete facing. A nest rested in a hollow between the natural cliff and the concrete. Four fuzzy chicks peeped ear-piercingly loud inside the nest.

"Where's the treasure?" the Ex-SOLDIER asked, wincing at the noise.

Yuffie's eyes widened and she pointed into the nest. "Look! Phoenix Downs!"

Aerith cooed over Zack's shoulder, "Awww, how cute!"

Tifa peered over Yuffie's shoulder at the chicks and then at the young Wutaian. "You aren't planning to steal from those chicks are you?" She frowned at the two would-be thieves.

Yuffie snorted and snatched up the glowing feathers, "Seriously? You are lecturing me on stealing from monsters?" She stared pointedly at the martial artist's Steal materia.

"They aren't monsters, they're babies!" Aerith protested.

A Cockatolis screeched above them and dove in for the attack.


Cloud followed the curve of the rails down the slope. The tracks disappeared into the deep, smoothly flowing water. Near the bank, a mine entrance dug into the hillside, completely invisible from above. Wary of possible monsters, Cloud lightly gripped the handle of his Force Stealer. The faint breeze off the river eddied in the entrance and brought the chemical scent of gasoline, oil, and black powder. He relaxed slightly. A gurgling belch and a man's drunken laughter sounded from the dark shaft. Grimacing, Cloud stepped inside.

An empty beer bottle skittered away at his inadvertent kick. The mine shaft only went in a few yards. A mouldering bulldozer filled the back wall of the round chamber. The chipped yellow paint was speckled with leprous blotches of rust. An overweight man sprawled across the splitting leather of its seat. A half-empty bottle dangled from his lax fingers. Thick stubble shadowed the man's pouchy cheeks.

He blinked blearily up at Cloud and then saluted with his raised bottle. It was a struggle to keep his "friendly smile" from turning into a sneer of disgust. Cloud scooped up a Power Source, Mind Source, and Tent from among the collection of empty bottles and held the bluish bottle up. "Do you mind if I take these?"

The man squinted, trying to focus his gaze on the object and then shrugged. "You a collector or something?" He snorted. "I s'pose I can spare it. One less person to trick."

"Trick?" Cloud narrowed his eyes at the man while tucking the items in his pouch.

The drunk laughed and slapped his thigh. "Ah it's great! I put notes in the bottles and throw 'em in the river. They wash out to sea and some poor sap'll run around try'in ta' find and save me!" He roared with more laughter.

"Er, right."

"'Course I don't give 'em my real location," the man snorted wagging a thick finger, his eyes slightly crossed. "I give 'em the numbers offa Gertrude here and tell 'em that's where they need to go ta be a hero." He pointed to a string of numbers on the bulldozer. Without even consulting a map, the blond recognized the coordinates for Midgar.

A small part of him thought it would be a painful irony if Shinra's best recruiter was a drunk man pranking people. Another belch thundered through the cave. The drunk lurched to his feet and then uttered one of the most dangerous phrases Cloud ever encountered: "Hey, ya' wanna see sumthin' neat?"

Instincts suddenly on high alert, Cloud's eyes widened as the sloshed man pulled out a lighter and weaved towards a crate of blasting caps. The blond plastered a strained smile on his face and demurred, "I'd love to, but I'm afraid I have another commitment." He whirled and sprinted away.

He came to an abrupt stop when he reached the track interchange. Barret and Red XIII stood to the side while the girls helped Zack scrape stone flakes off his arms and hair from a partial petrification. As they worked, Aerith scolded the doleful looking SOLDIER while Yuffie and Tifa fought their laughter.

"Next time Cloud says something isn't worth it, I'm going to listen," Zack muttered to Yuffie. She snickered and skipped to Cloud's side, proudly handing him ten Phoenix Downs. The corner of his mouth twitched in a slight smile as he pocketed the shimmering feathers. Clapping one of Zack's dusty shoulder pauldrons, Cloud led the party on.

They followed the tracks for miles, fending off dozens of monster attacks. The setting sun dyed the sky an angry orange as they limped across a massive rope bridge into North Corel. Zack's normal energy faded under the soot and burns from Bomb suicide explosions. Aerith nodded in his arms, her legs coated in stone as the Soft worked to reverse her petrification.

Yuffie giggled drunkenly as she patted her crackling locks. She and the static-fluffed Red XIII suffered multiple Thunder Kiss attacks from Needle Kisses. The normally placid feline muttered a snarled litany as he bitterly chewed a clump of sapphire-blue wing feathers. They all nursed one injury or another and their frayed tempers were more than ready to burst.

High-strung and angry at the excess of monster attacks, only Barret was unsurprised at the angry reception and bitter accusations at the town entrance.

"You've got a lotta nerve coming back here!" One man spat. The gray coverall-suited man's fist didn't get higher than his shoulder before Tifa straight-punched him through the wall of a nearby tent.

Snarling, she grabbed the man's companion and gritted through her teeth, "I don't care what your deal is, but we're tired, sore, and angry. Show us where we can sleep and I'll let you keep your teeth."

The man's wide eyes flicked to the twitching legs sticking out of the hole in the tent and he nodded frantically.

"Good," she snapped, grabbing his shoulders and spinning him around. She clutched a fist-full of the fabric behind his neck and barked, "March!"

They followed the man through a maze of ashy canvas tents. A few curious people peeked between their tent flaps. Another angry-looking man growled at Barret as they passed. Red XIII snarled back, peeling his lips from his sharp fangs. The party surrounded their friend and answered dirty looks with murderous glares.

They climbed two ramps to reach the hollow that served as the town's inn. Shifting her grip on the man's clothes so she could look him in the eye, Tifa waved everyone inside. Cloud stood in the doorway, right hand on the hilt of his sword. She rolled her eyes at him and then pulled a wallet out of her pocket and waved it under the trembling man's nose. "I ripped the right arms off 50 Bombs on the way here," she hissed. Her left glove creaked as she tightened her grip on the fabric of the man's shoulder.

"Now I don't know what your deal is with my friend, and I don't really care," she growled, tossing her head sharply and pulling some gil from the wallet. "You tell your buddy that he's lucky to pay for our stay instead of losing his arm too. Got it?"

By this point, the man looked like his head would fall off at the speed he was nodding.

"Good," Tifa purred, flicking the wallet to the ground and releasing him. He collapsed bonelessly to the dirt. She sauntered past Cloud into the inn.

The blond glared down at the white-faced man and murmured, "You should be glad Tifa got to you first; she's the only one of us who fights unarmed." He spun on his heel and followed Tifa. The man's eyes traced the massive sword on Cloud's back and then rolled up in a dead faint.

Inside the rectangular hollow cave, the old man at the scrap-metal desk shot Barret a shocked look. He gave his price, took the money from Tifa and bowed out, promising to bring them a meal.

Barret slumped in the corner and smeared a blackened patch on his Atomic Scissors with one finger. Aerith staggered to his side and patted the large man's shoulder. "We know something is weird here, but we won't force you to tell us."

"No," Barret sighed. "'S better if I tell ya. Then you'll know that I deserve their hate."

"At least wait until morning," Yuffie yawned, curling up against Red XIII's side. "We're too tired to take it in right now."


"So let me get this straight," Zack sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose after hearing Barret's tale. "Everyone agreed to the reactor?"

"'Cept Dyne," Barret agreed with a nod.

"And Shinra burned the town down?" Zack continued, folding his arms.

Barret scowled and nodded.

"You weren't even in town, got your arm shot off by Shinra, and these losers blame you for what happened?" Zack's voice dripped with disgust.

"Er..." Barret blinked, not quite sure how to respond with it worded that way.

"Please don't think to harshly of the young ones," the old innkeeper's voice quavered as he stepped into the room. "We thought it was safer to put the blame on someone beyond reach. We drew the names of folks we thought were dead in order to prevent foolish quests of vengeance."

Barret stiffened. His mouth opened and closed a few times and then he spluttered, "Ya' mean I got the blame 'cause ya' drew my name outta a hat?"

"Well, none of us had a hat, so really it was a bucket, but-" he choked off at the deep growl coming from Barret's throat. Yelping once, he fled.

Barret fumed silently, his fist clenched so tightly it trembled. The others exchanged silent looks, unsure how to proceed. "Damn it," the large man growled, shaking his head. "I ain't gonna beat myself up 'bout this any more. Let's keep movin'."

"Right," Zack nodded and turned to Cloud. "Before we go, is there any treasure for us to pick up here?"

The pseudo-SOLDIER blinked at Zack and Yuffie's eager grins. He scratched his head and sighed. "Just one thing, but it is a little tricky to get to..."

"I'll get it!" Yuffie chirped, bouncing to the rough sheet of metal that served as the inn door.

"Not if I find it first!" Zack boasted, slinging the Hardedge across his back.

Cloud rolled his eyes and snorted, "I'll give you half an hour, then meet back here whether you find it or not."

"Right, may the best man win!" Zack crowed and dashed into the early morning light.

"You mean the 'best woman'!" Yuffie screeched, scampering after him.

"Zack!" Aerith cried in horror. She whirled on Cloud and cried, "Don't you realize they'll tear these people's homes apart?"

Cloud smirked, "Considering the reception they gave Barret, I won't weep too hard."

Aerith blinked and twirled her right index finger around a lock of her hair. Seeing Barret's silent nod of gratitude to the blond, she sighed. "Right. I'll make sure they're back in time," she stated firmly. She hefted her Striking Staff and slipped outside.

An hour later, the scowling Ancient dragged the whining former SOLDIER First back inside.

Yuffie looked up from the mini war she held between the dozen SOLDIER action figures she found and a stuffed kitten. Judging by the disorganized figurines, the kitten was winning.

Red's flaming tail flicked once as he looked up from the "battle". He leveled a flat look on Zack and huffed, "I perceive that punctuality is not one of your strengths."

Zack pouted, the message coming through clearly. "Oh yeah, well where's Cloud?" he returned petulantly.

"He left a minute ago to get the item," Yuffie answered, shoving the figurines in her pouch and hugging the stuffed calico. "Since you're finally back, I'll share what I learned when he gets here."

As if summoned, the sheet metal door scraped across the dirt floor, admitting Cloud and Tifa. He nodded at Aerith and then raised an eyebrow at Zack who laughed sheepishly and scratched the back of his neck.

Tifa shared a grin with Aerith and then turned to Yuffie, "So what was the news you had?"

"Yuffie shifted to lean against Red XIII's furred shoulder. She frowned, balancing the kitten on her left knee and sighed, "Bad news I'm afraid. There's been a lot of snow and rain in the east and the ferry was damaged in the spring floods."

"I suppose it is too much to hope that will stop Sephiroth," Aerith sighed, folding her arms. A grim silence followed her rhetorical question.

Zack's brow furrowed and he volunteered, "When I was a boy, there were special vehicles that crossed the river. We might ask around and see if someone hung on to one."

Barret snorted, "We ain't gonna find one here."

"No," Cloud agreed, "but I think I might know where we can start asking..."


Yuffie dashed off the shiny blue cable car and put her head between her knees wheezing. Cloud and the others disembarked at a much more sedate pace. Cloud grimaced at the man in a rotund chocobo outfit and the massive chocobo-mog mosaic in the small walled plaza. Playful music piped in from speakers along the cartoonish tree walls.

"I have a feeling I'm going to get sick of that music," Aerith muttered to Tifa.

Cloud approached the woman in a short black and pink uniform holding a sign by a massive stuffed chocobo. The eyes of the orange and red entrance stared creepily into the distance. Before he reached her, he froze and pulled out his PHS. He read something on the screen and then pocketed it with a sigh. Shaking his head, he fished out a large wad of gil.

"Cloud-?" Tifa started, her voice uncertain and her eyes wide at the amount he passed to the ticket vendor.

"Whoa!" Zack cried, shaking his head. "No wonder the Gold Saucer's called that if tickets cost that much!"

Cloud rolled his eyes and took the golden card. "Kunsel told me to get the lifetime pass instead of a day pass," he explained wincing at the very flat money pouch.

A strange expression came across Zack's face, "Did you tell him we were here?"

Cloud sighed, shook his head, and waved the others over. Zack scowled at the brush-off, but his expression lightened when Aeith slipped her hand into his. With Cloud's gold pass, they passed through the gate into the Station hub. Seven rainbow ringed holes and a map lined the walls. Yuffie scowled bitterly at the chocobo and mog motif across the floor as she unconsciously stoked the red materia in her bracer.

Cloud assessed the party and then said, "We need to find transportation and this is our best bet. Zack and Aerith, you're together. Tifa will be with me. Barret, Red and Yuffie stay together and meet back here in three hours.


After asking around for a while, Zack and Aerith headed for Wonder Square. Just before hopping into the access tunnel, Aerith touched an envelope in her pocket and smiled.

The plaza outside the arcade was lit in a bluish shade, hinting at a moonlit night. Once Zack shot out of the tube behind her, she took his large hand and pulled him to a secluded bench. She guided him to sit. In the darkened corner, his confused eyes shone like back-lit amethysts. She rested her hands on his shoulders and smirked down at him.

She slid her hands up his shoulders and cupped his face. "I got your letter," she whispered, resting her left knee on the bench between his legs.

Zack's eyes widened and he paled. "You weren't supposed to get it yet, I wasn't done writ-"

She took her right hand off his cheek and stopped his protest with one finger. "Shh-" she soothed, lifting the finger and cupping his face again. "I think it was perfect." She ducked her head and sealed his lips with her own.

Zack responded with enthusiasm, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her into his lap. Her arms dropped around his neck pulling him closer.

An abashed voice cleared its throat and asked in a strange accent, "Ye wouldn't happen to want your fortunes told, would you?"


"Sorry Cloud," Tifa choked, trying to fight her giggles as she patted his shoulder. "I didn't realize when we split up that I picked the section with chocobo racing."

The blond sighed and looked up at Barret and Red's approach. Yuffie was no where in sight.

"You lost her?" Tifa theorized, biting her lower lip.

"I hoped two watchers would help, but..." Cloud trailed off.

"We kept up with her 'til she caught sight of the hotel," Barret snorted. "That girl's really got a problem with spooks."

Before Cloud could do more than roll his eyes, Zack and Aerith returned with a massive white mog. A caped and crowned Sylvester cat perched on its head. Cloud quirked a questioning eyebrow at Zack.

The taller man scuffed the toe of his boot on the ground, "This is Cait Sith, he followed me home, can we keep him?"

Cloud groaned, palming his face. Tifa's eyes locked on Aerith and Zack's interlocked fingers. She raised her eyebrows at the green-eyed girl. Aerith winked and Tifa squealed, shooting her a double thumbs up. The pair froze, suddenly realizing that all conversation ceased and the males regarded them with mixed bemusement and confusion.

Tifa coughed and asked, "So did you guys find any information?"

"Nothing," Zack mourned, shoulders slumping. He perked up, looking around, "By the way, where's-"

"WHOA!" Yuffie screeched from behind them. "Where did you find that?" She gaped at Cait Sith. She clutched a large stuffed chocobo under her left arm and a half-eaten cotton candy in her right hand. A dozen beaded necklaces hung across her chest and a chocobo hat hung at an odd angle on her head. "I wanna get one! What booth had it?" She squealed, circling the robot.

"Sorry lassie, I'm one-of-a-kind," Cait responded.

Yuffie's eyes bulged at the unanticipated response. She shot Cloud a confused look and remarked, "You seem to attract talking cats of all types don't you?"

Cloud grimaced, but couldn't refute the accusation.

"Hey!" Zack protested, "Why did you play when we're supposed to be finding transportation?"

Yuffie stamped her foot petulantly, "I worked too!"

"Looks like you 'worked' the game booths." Zack folded his arms and glared down at her.

She grinned cheekily, "Hey, I'm good at throwing things. I always make a killing at carnival games before they ban me."

"Two things and some beads ain't a killin'," Barret scoffed.

"Oh, this is just my latest batch," Yuffie shrugged. "I put the rest in Cloud's pouch."

"What?" Cloud yelped, hand going to his pouch. He opened it and peered inside, eyes widening. "When did you-? How did-?"

Tifa leaned over and peeked into the bag. She whistled and reached elbow deep into the pouch. Barret grimaced, but resisted the urge to look away. She pulled out a tiny plush chocobo, cooing over its soft fur. "You can have it if you want," Yuffie offered, beaming at Tifa's grateful smile.

Zack folded his arms and drawled, "You're not really convincing us you worked."

"Well what do you guys have so far?" she huffed defensively, sticking the last of her cotton candy in her mouth and tossing the stick in a well concealed trash receptacle.

Barret and Red exchanged abashed looks. "No one wanted to talk to us," Barret admitted.

Cloud flushed and shook his head, "The best we got was advice about river chocobos. We really don't have time or a place for breeding." He raised a brow for Zack and Aerith to speak.

"We heard about some vehicles, but no one is renting," Aerith admitted. "There's a bus, but it just left and won't be back for several days."

"Hah," Yuffie puffed her chest out, beads rattling with the movement. She pulled a notebook from the bulky cover on her left arm. She cleared her throat pompously and reported, "I asked about the buggies you mentioned Zack," she nodded at the former SOLDIER. "It took a bit of digging, but I found someone who has one he isn't using."

Tifa stroked the girl's hair fondly. "Wow, you're amazing! So who is it?"

She beamed at the praise and affectionate touch and then grinned, shooting Barret a meaningful look. "That's the best part. The owner is also the man behind the Gold Saucer. Dio, formerly known as Danny Olero."

Barret's jaw dropped and Zack frowned asking, "Isn't that the guy who made those crazy rails?"

Yuffie smirked and gave him a thumbs-up. "Exactly!" she crowed and waved to the park around them. "It makes sense considering all of this. Anyway, according to my sources, he's usually at the Battle Square."

Yuffie barely finished the sentence before Barret dashed for the tube leading to the arena. Aerith tilted her head to the side in confusion. "What's the hurry?" she wondered, following with the others at a much more sedate pace.

Cloud and the party emerged from the gates at the base of the violet carpeted stairs only to have a hysterical woman pass them, screaming about a shooting. Cloud and Zack exchanged worried looks and dashed up the stairs to the Battle Square. Crimson splattered across the walls and checker tiled floors of the lobby. Barret stood frozen in the midst of the carnage. A woman's whimpers sounded from behind a counter.

A muscular man in an orange speedo strode into the room. The burly security guards behind him couldn't match his bulk. The woman whimpered, "A man with a gun arm..."

The large man's cold, amber eyes flicked from the red-painted walls to Barret's arm. "Toss 'em in the tank," he snapped.

"But he doesn't even have a gun arm!" Zack protested, gesturing to the Atomic Scissors on Barret's arm. Dio snapped his fingers and a half-dozen mechanized sentries joined the soldiers. "Hey!" Zack yelped as a machine swooped in, pinning his arms to his sides.

"Sorry, orders are orders," one of the men replied.

"We didn't do this!" Aerith protested, trembling in the mechanized arms of another machine. One by one they captured the outnumbered party and then marched through the grungy back paths of the Golden Saucer.

Rust coated crowd-rails, yanked from the concrete floor lined the walls of the poorly lit plaza. Stained warning signs hung over the doors of the defunct attraction. Cloud struggled to make out the name under black mold and closure signs but couldn't manage before he was taken inside. Thick, rusting chains hung off the grimy walls and a greenish sludge coated the stone flooring. A huge metal circle dominated the center of the floor. The purplish ring around it read "Gateway To Heaven".

A soldier manipulated a computer on the wall and the doors slid open, revealing a black pit. The mechanized sentry in front of Cloud tossed Red down the hole. The scrabbling screech of his claws along the metal walls faded with the distance.

Cloud's captor walked to the hole, dangling him above the darkness. Hot, dry air blasted from below, this wasn't a gateway to Heaven. If anything, it was a tunnel to Hell. "This is a mistake!" Cloud protested, twisting his head to plead with Dio. "We're innocent!"

Dio raised his arm and turned the thumb down. The bone crushing grip loosened and Cloud fell into darkness.


Thank you so much for your responses last chapter. I'm not certain when I'll get the cut scenes posted, but I have a growing collection of them. XD

When I play the section between Costa del Sol and Corel, I always fall all three times even if I already got the items. Am I the only one who does this?