Sorry for the long wait, stress is awful for the muse. :P Even if the wait is long, don't give up. I hate abandoned stories so I refuse to let this become one (unless I like, suddenly keel over or something...fingers crossed!)

Two hundred reviews... You guys are so awesome! Each review is loved and replied to (if possible). Thanks so much for giving me the drive to keep writing through stress, trials, and horrible writers' block. Thank you! It's time for "Play the reference"! Here's a hint: it is semi-obscure but one of my favorite lines in a movie. (grins)

Yet another guest reviewer asked a question. No, I haven't thought about the Ultima weapon... although I'm going to have to now (wanders off muttering thoughtfully)

Chapter 14: A Unique Institution

The slick metal tube was warm against Cloud's back. Every few feet, slender plastic panels in the roof of the pipe set off a blinding strobe effect under the pools of sunlight. He thought he glimpsed rungs in the high ceiling of the tube, but the dizzying pattern of light and darkness strained even a SOLDIER's superior vision. Far above him, Aerith's shriek of fear echoed down to his ears. Tifa's cry a short time after was a mix of surprise and defiance. Zack's distant shouts of fury cut off in a yelp, followed by a whoop of excitement.

Cloud rolled his eyes and then frowned at the increase in ambient light. 'The end is near,' a cynical part of his brain intoned just as the pipe ended and he dropped several feet. Bending his knees to absorb the impact, Cloud skidded in a half-crouch a few feet across the coral-pink dust.

"Nice landing!" Yuffie crowed from the shade of a burned out house's remaining wall. The corner of Cloud's mouth quirked up in a slight smile and he accepted the compliment with a short nod.

Aerith's cries echoed with increasing volume from the raised opening. Cloud spun on his heel and caught her waist with his left arm. She wheezed at the action, her eyes widening at her face's proximity to the ground. "Thanks Cloud," she coughed.

The blond nodded down at her once before shifting to the side and catching Tifa's waist in his right arm. With a grunt of effort, he awkwardly hopped back narrowly avoiding Zack's plummeting form. The former SOLDIER First somersaulted through the dirt and rolled against the wall of a dilapidated shed, his head down and legs in the air.

Cloud lowered the gaping pair to the ground and loped over to help his giggling friend to his feet. "What a rush!" Zack laughed, swaying drunkenly and clutching the sides of his head as if it would make the world stop spinning.

"The catch was a little rough on the ribs, but I'm glad he did it," Tifa murmured to her friends, "Zack and his sword would have squished me."

"Indeed," Red rumbled in agreement. "It was not his best landing, I award it a five and a half." The feline cast an amused look over his shoulder only to meet Cait Sith's uncomprehending gaze. His golden eye widened in alarm and he swung his head around searching the dusty, weed-strewn plain. "Cloud, Barret is missing," he announced, the fiery tip of his tail lashing in agitation.

"Huh? He was just here," Yuffie's brows drew down in confusion. "For that matter, where are we?"

Cloud turned from clapping the dust off of Zack's back. His blue eyes narrowed as he surveyed the area. Much like the stalk of mushrooms it mimicked, the Gold Saucer's roots dug deep into the dry, cracked soil. The mushroom caps were so far up they cast no shade against the scorching heat. Cloud scraped his toe against the ashy soil and looked around. To the southeast, a newer block building stood among the few semi intact houses and businesses and the burnt out shells of dozens more.

"I suspect," he said slowly, "that we are in Corel."

"Oh," Cait Sith chimed in, nodding his furry head. "This must be the Corel Prison. I've heard it is surrounded by quicksand on all sides."

Zack's smile lowered to a serious line upon hearing the town's name. "We'd better find Barret." He shaded his eyes and traced the metal fence running from the base of the tower and surrounding the small town. A burly man stood watch at the solitary gate north of them. "Let's see if that guy saw where Barret went," he proposed, leading them to the distant figure.

The sentry's skin was a deep brown from the punishing sunlight. He scratched the stubble on his sweaty chin and narrowed his eyes at them. "This is a restricted area, ain't nobody passin' without Doc-Mr. Coates' permission."

Ignoring the odd slip, Zack folded his arms and snorted, "The fence isn't even five feet tall. What's to stop us from climbing over?"

The man smirked and spat a glob of mucus on the fence. It hissed, bubbled, and dried into a crusty, khaki splotch on the hot metal.

"Er, right," Zack murmured, eying the hot fence warily. "Anyway, have you seen our friend? He's a big guy, dark skin-"

"No one gets through without permission and no one's passed me today," the man interrupted, waving Zack off.

Cloud shook his head, his eyes tracing the massive pipes snaking in and out of the dusty soil and converging on the base of the tower. "He must have headed into the town," he theorized, shuddering lightly as he passed the burnt shell of a home. Tifa slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow, averting her eyes and trying to push aside her own memories of Nibelheim's fate.

Before they reached the more intact portion of the town, they rounded a semi-intact house and found Barret standing over the prone form of a crimson-spattered man. "Barret!" Aerith gasped, "did you-?"

He rolled his eyes, waving his right arm. "I still got my Atomic Scissors, I can't shoot a damn rat much less a person."

"Right," she said, cheeks red.

"Lissen guys," Barret said, shuffling his boots in the fine, pinkish dust. "There's somethin' here I gotta do."

Cloud appraised the man quietly, and then asked, "How can we help?"

Barret raised his eyes to peer intently at his companions. They returned his look levelly and waited for him to speak. "Alright," he sighed scrubbing his fingers through his sweat-damp hair, "I'll tell ya', but not here. Follow me, I think I know a place we can talk."

A few apathetic faces peered out from the windows of the buildings they passed. Sometimes a man or woman would stand before a doorway, improvised weapons in hand as if expecting them to attack. After a few blocks, the cracked dirt road opened into an open space.

A man with a dazed expression laughed wildly and ran in circles until he spotted the party. Giggling madly, he circled them and dogged their footsteps. Growling in frustration, Yuffie shoved her hand in Cloud's pouch, a yellow materia blazing on her Carbon Bangle. With a wordless bellow, she clocked him with a stuffed moogle, sending him flat on his back in the dirt.

"Yuffie!" Aerith cried in horror. "Did you just use your Throw materia on that... damaged man?"

The ninja scowled, folding her arms at the various expressions of shock, "What? He was freaking me out!"

Barret snorted and pointed to a lightly charred house on the edge of the square. Not far past it a pair of Shinra semis sagged on their crumbling axles. "That house was our meetin' hall. Gimme a sec to clear out any vermin," he ordered, stomping up the stairs and yanking the door open.

Aerith tilted her head to the side, one eyebrow raised, "How long does he think it will take to search such a small house? Not to mention, I thought he said he couldn't shoot a rat. What is he-"

A filthy man with a violet Mohawk flew out of the house to land at their feet with a pained yelp. Barret's heavy footsteps clomped back to the door. The inmate whimpered and crawled under the cab of the nearest semi.

"Come on," Barret grumbled, swinging the door wide. "Let's get this over with."

True to Aerith's words, the house was tiny. Books and shattered china littered the warped floorboards and broken shelving. Light charring aside, it looked more like the building suffered a terrible earthquake than a fire. They gathered in a rough circle, waiting for someone to break the silence.

"You said you had a task to complete," Cloud prompted in a low voice. "It has to do with who really shot those people in the Golden Saucer, doesn't it?"

Barret's frown deepened and then he nodded. "I already told you how I lost my arm. I lived with a prosthetic for a while, but when Marlene was startin' to walk, I realized that she ain't got no future if Shinra keeps suckin' the planet dry."

He shook his head sharply and paced across the creaking floorboards. "I went to a doctor and traded my prosthetic for a gun. The doc told me another man had the same surgery."

"So the doctor told you he performed the same surgery." Zack shrugged. "I'm going on a limb and guessing you think the other guy's the true criminal here. I get that, but why do you have to talk to him so badly?"

"The man was Dyne," Barret hissed.

"The doctor told you that?" Cait Sith gasped. "What ever happened to patient confidentiality?"

Ignoring the feline's outburst, Aerith's face softened with understanding. "Did you ask the doctor for a way to contact him?"

Barret shook his head. "Dyne coulda' gone anywhere from there, so I didn't ask. If this is Dyne, I wanna talk to him, find out why he killed all them people."

"And if it isn't Dyne?" Tifa asked.

"Then I'mma beat the crap outta him for layin' the blame on us!" Barret roared waving his arms. "Hell, even if it is Dyne I might give 'im a piece of my mind for getting' us dumped down here!"

A murmur of agreement filled the small room. Yuffie popped up from her crouch and hummed, "So we're just staying to beat up the guy you took a fall for?"

"Technically, we all did," Cait Sith quipped. "Though only Zack got a score," he added with a dramatic pout.

A corner of Barret's grim frown twitched just touch towards a smile. Tifa stroked the Sylvester cat's black ears in silent gratitude as they left the small house. "So how are we going to find him?" she asked, voicing the question they all held in their hearts.

"Considering the demeanor and words of the sentry, I propose we seek out Mr. Coates," Red suggested.

Zack frowned for half a second and then a slow smile spread on his face. "I agree. How do you recommend we find him?"

A speculative gleam lit in the lion beast's golden eye and he tilted his head with a toothy grin. "The man should be easy enough spot," Red huffed. "Like most human alphas, he has hired allies." His flame tipped tail flicked to a heavily muscled pair guarding the entrance to one of the nearby semi trailers. The two bald men flexed in sync on either side of the entrance to the semi trailer.

Aerith snickered and elbowed Tifa jerking her chin from the pair of guards to Cloud with an impish smile. The martial artist blinked, and then her eyes twinkled as she remembered Corneo's guards, she smothered her giggles with a gloved fist. Cloud shot the pair a warning look and Tifa had the grace to throw him a guilty smile.

Barret frowned at the trio in confusion before snarling at man in a blue jumpsuit babbling about chocobo racing. The stranger yelped and jumped aside. Barret stalked up to the pair of bodyguards and scowled.

Before Barret or Zack could say anything, Cait Sith shuffled up and waved cheerily at the pair. "Good afternoon gentlemen! We're here to pay our respects to Mr. Coates!"

Still in sync, the pair drew back in shock at the Mog-riding, talking cat. They faced each other and seemed to hold a conversation solely of flexing muscles and facial twitches.

Zack slapped his hand over his face and growled at the grinning feline, "Now we'll never get in!"

"Relax!" Cait soothed, waving a gloved hand at Zack. "I'll read our fortune to prove it to you!" He capered on the mog's head, spun in a circle and stopped with his hands raised. "Good fortune is on our way! After a bitter-sweet reunion, you'll obtain the object of your quest. Barret's lucky color is white!"

Zack sputtered, reaching for the cat just as the bodyguards spun to face the party. "Well if you're here to pay your respects, we'll let you in," they finally said. Aerith giggled at the former SOLDIER's wide eyes and slack jaw.

The shade of the trailer was a relief after the blistering desert sun. An old, yet fit looking man stepped from behind a divider at the rear of the trailer. Despite his blindingly tacky, lime-green suit, he seemed normal enough. The fluffy white hair that would normally lend itself to a grandfatherly appearance fell flat under the clinical light in his eyes.

One by one his slate-gray eyes raked over each member of the party, visibly judging and cataloging something Cloud couldn't begin to interpret. He didn't like Coates, and from the nervous shifting of the rest of the party, he wasn't alone. When he finished his silent assessment, Coates spoke, "So you want to leave the prison do you? The only way you can leave is to win at the chocobo races, and no one gets to race without the," he paused, lips curling with distaste before continuing. "Without the boss' permission. Unfortunately for you, the boss hasn't been in a good mood lately."

He waved a dismissing hand. "Now be on your way, I'm a very busy man."

The muscled men outside the trailer dashed in and escorted them outside. "We weren't even asking about that!" Yuffie raged when her momentary shock wore off.

Zack snorted and rolled his eyes, "No kidding. I don't know about you guys, but I'm calling that 'permission' to go through the gate to the outside."

"Sounds good ta' me," Barret growled and spat towards the trailer. Hampered slightly by enemy encounters and thieves, they wove through the ravaged town.

"These thieves have some sort of drug problem," Aerith mused after one encounter. "That's the fourth one to steal some of our Loco Weed."

Tifa snorted and relaxed her stance when the thief's smoke screen cleared. "You might be right." She lifted her gaze towards the gate and hissed. The gate hung open with the sentry crumpled to the ground nearby. Rivulets of crimson ran from his temple into the dirt.

"Damn it Dyne!" Barret howled, stomping past the fallen man and into the blistering wasteland.

"Zack, keep up with him!" Cloud snapped.

"On it!" the raven-haired man crowed, loping after the burly man with all but Cloud and Tifa behind him.

Cloud crouched by the fallen sentry, placed two fingers along the man's throat and frowned. He swiped his gloved fingers through the sticky fluid on the man's face and rubbed it against his thumb, a crease forming between his brows. Tifa watched silently, chewing lightly on her bottom lip. He raised his fingers to his nose, sniffed once and then jerked back, blue eyes wide.

"What is it Cloud?" Tifa cried as the man leaped to his feet and sprinted into the desert after their friends. Cloud shook his head and put on another burst of speed. Following Cait Sith and Red XIII's distinctive prints in the dirt, they circled a crevasse and wove through a junk yard of old cars. Barret's raised voice and the sound of gunfire reached their ears as they finally caught up.

A weathered man with a modified rifle on his left arm limped toward Barret, his lips twisted in a strange expression. "Well that's a voice I haven't heard in a while," he sneered. "Somehow I knew we'd meet again, we had the same operation after all."

"How did he know that?" Cait Sith hissed to Yuffie. "That doctor has some serious confidentiality issues!" Cloud snorted lightly and clapped Zack on the shoulder, his breathing a little heavy from his dash in the heat.

"Should we interfere?" Red XIII asked, his golden eye narrowed in concern as Dyne declared his intent to destroy everything, starting with Barret.

"Not only is it Barret's fight, we shouldn't need to," Cloud replied. Dyne shot Barret in the torso and Aerith shrieked.

The large man flinched, clutching the site of impact. A breath later, he gaped at his crimson coated fingers, his brows raised in confusion. "The hell?" he shouted.

Dyne paled, shaking his head in denial. "It can't be... You're too strong for me." He pulled a gold chain over his head and tossed it to Barret. "Give that to Marlene. My hands are too stained to hold her, besides, she was just a baby and won't remember me." Dyne limped to the edge of the cross marked crevasse. "Don't ever make her cry," he ordered, spreading his arms and tilted back over the edge of the cliff.

"Dyne!" Barret howled, falling to his knees. "You and me were the same, my hands ain't any cleaner."

He stared blindly at his crimson coated hand.

"Barret!" Aerith cried, "Your chest!" She reached out to inspect the wounds but Cloud caught her hand.

"It's not blood, don't touch it," the blond commanded.

"'S what I wanted to ask him," Barret slumped his shoulders and then waved at the red splatters coating the rocks and walls nearby. "Kinda looks like paint," he mused numbly.

"It is paint," Cloud confirmed, "Paint mixed with Dream Powder. I think Dyne panicked out when you didn't fall asleep." He narrowed his eyes at the man. "Did you pick up a Headband somewhere?"

Barret blinked in confusion and then realization dawned. He shifted cross-legged and pulled up his right pant leg. The white cloth of the Headband peeked over the top of his boot.

"You put a Headband on your ankle?" Zack cried, his jaw slack with shock.

Barret shrugged. "I didn't know what it was. Some girl gave it to me on the ship from Junon. I landed wrong coming outta the slide-from-hell and needed something to wrap my ankle and it worked."

"So you put a Headband on your ankle?" Zack repeated, his eyebrows climbing toward his hairline.

"Hell man, we can't all be SOLDIERS, felines, ninja, or whatever the hell you are," Barret aimed the last at Cait Sith.

"Hey, I'm a feline... sort of," the robotic cat protested.

"Just drop it Zack." Cloud murmured to Zack as he shook his head. "It saved Barret from having to attack Dyne and at least that's one piece of guilt Barret won't have to carry from this mess." Zack huffed but nodded.

"I guess this means we've got to go back to Coates then, doesn't it?" Yuffie mused, her lips drawn down in disgust.

Aerith and Tifa laid their hands on Barret's left and right shoulders respectively. Tifa squeezed his shoulder and said, "Let's go Barret, when we finish this mess with Shinra and Sephiroth, you can deliver that locket."

The large man snuffled once, scrubbing all traces of tears from his face. He gazed solemnly at the rough wooden crosses. "Good-bye Dyne." He nodded at the others and led the way out of the junkyard.

When they reached the gate, the collapsed sentry was gone and a new man stood guard. Red hair poked from beneath the blue bandana on his head and his chocolate-brown eyes lacked the hard edge of most of the sentries. He stared at the red drying across Barret's chest and grimaced. "Aw man, you folks ran into Dyne, didn't you? I hope he didn't freak you out too much, he hasn't been the same since the old town of Corel burned down."

Barret's face crumpled and Aerith stroked his arm before somberly stating, "I'm afraid he's dead."

"Dead?" The young man yelped. "You killed him?" Barret seemed to collapse on himself, his fist clenched in a mixture of pain and sorrow.

"Hey! We didn't lay a hand on him," Zack shouted. "He just shot Barret, freaked out, and then jumped off a cliff."

The sentry slumped in relief. "Oh thank God!" He breathed, pulling out a PHS, dialing, and putting it to his ear. "Yeah, it's me by the northern gate. Yeah, bring the life-preserver and rope, Dyne threw himself in the well again... Yeah, you should probably let Doctor Coates know too. Thanks."

"What?" Yuffie said in a flat voice.

He flinched, realizing he wasn't alone and then grimaced. "Ah crap, I'm going to get written up for this when the doctor finds out."

"Methinks the tales of Corel Prison were not entirely accurate," Cait Sith mused, drawing a startled look from the man. "Fear not, good sir! If you clear up the situation, we will not report your slip up."

He hesitated, and then nodded. "Okay, but we've only got a minute or two until Jackson and Gray come to pull Dyne out of the drink."

He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Long story short, for the most part Corel Prison is actually a mental institution under the direction of Doctor Coates. In exchange for funding, Dio uses us as a drunk-tank. When the drunk is sober enough to win a chocobo race or at least give a decent showing, he lets them go. Every once in a while he'll toss someone more dangerous down here, so in order to protect ourselves and our patients, we pretend to be tougher than we actually are."

He tugged on the gold earring in his ear and it came off with a light snap. "See, it's a clip-on."

Cloud hummed and nodded his head. "That... strangely makes sense. But what about Dyne?"

He perked up like a praised school child, "Ah, Dyne is one of my favorites. Most of our people are little more than comatose but Dyne still has fire. He loves acting more than anything else. Lately he's been playing the 'boss' of the prison. Most of the orderlies played along with his 'killing' them but he regresses when people who don't know what he's doing fail to play along. I developed the mixture of paint and Dream Powder for his paint-ball gun. Strange as it sounds, the play acting helps him calm down."

Barret grimaced, "And the cliff?"

"Like I said, he hasn't been the same," the man sighed. "He usually finds an excuse at least once a week to make a dramatic declaration and jump off the cliff. Luckily for us, the only cliff in the area is over our reservoir so he only gets wet." He laughed and shifted nervously. "Freaking out new people by jumping off the edge is one of his favorite activities."

A pair of large men in the typical "rough" uniform jogged up, one with a well-worn rope and the other carrying a life-jacket and preserver. He stiffened his spine, pulling himself back "in-character" and glared at all of them. "Move along now!"

Barret shook his head and straightened his shoulders. "Much as these last few days have sucked, I feel lighter." He jerked his head towards the town. "Let's talk to the 'doc' and get outta here."

Barret stomped up to Coates and growled, "Send us up."

Coates narrowed his eyes at the burly man and then hummed thoughtfully, "Interesting."

With a light shiver, Cloud realized why the man unnerved him. The cold, calculating look reminded him too much of Hojo's clinical, unfeeling gaze. Cloud's eyes snapped back in focus when the doctor spoke once more. "Of course, in order to leave, you will have to successfully race a chocobo-"

"That's where I come in!" A woman's voice chirped from the entrance.

Coates fought a grimace before schooling his features once more and waving his right hand towards the woman, "This is Ester, despite her... unique choice of apparel she is the best manager you'll find down here."

"Aw, you're making me blush!" She declared, covering her cheeks with her white-gloved hands. She was painfully short despite her six-inch red heels, her head not quite even with Aerith's shoulder.

"I wonder if they're related," Yuffie whispered to Tifa, pointing from Coates garish green suit to the woman's blinding magenta dress matched with a red neck scarf and for some reason, a white apron.

A chocobo feather perched in her honey brown hair in a rather amusing attempt to add some height. She waved a blue jockey ticket, looked over the party and hummed, "So which of you is my racer?"

Zack bounced in place, his glowing amethyst eyes shining. Cloud chuckled and nodded. Zack snatched the slip of paper with a laugh.

"Before you pick though," Ester piped up, her voice tinged with embarrassment. "We've had an influx of racers lately and our only available bird is... Blackie."

Coates snorted, "Seems you're stuck for a while. Why don't you step into my office for... consultations?" His white teeth gleamed against his dark tan.

"No thank you," Aerith stammered, whirling to face the petite woman. "What is wrong with Blackie?"

Coates snorted something suspiciously sounding like "what isn't?" but Ester gave a weak smile. "The poor girl had some nasty riders and she tends to... well the race track is around the Gold Saucer and there aren't any rails so... She earned the name 'Black Widow'."

"You would be crazy to race her," Coates sneered. "She's killed almost a dozen riders and maimed several more. Dio should have disposed of her but he refuses to do so."

Ester shifted, face abashed, "If you don't want to race her I'll totally understand, you'll just have to wait a few days for our birds to recover their stamina."

"It seems our misfortunes have yet to end," Red XIII sighed, settling on his haunches. "I suspect the one we pursue will not face such inauspicious delays."

"You do it Cloud," Zack burst out, handing the jockey ticket to him. "Good luck!"

Cloud scowled back, and then a slow smile spread across his face. "Alright, but while I'm gone, there are some things you all need to do." He pulled one of Zack's blank pages from his pouch and scribbled a list of instructions. "These should be easy compared to racing on a chocobo with a body-count, right?" His blue eyes cut into Zack like a razor.

"Heh, heh... right..." Zack laughed weakly, taking the list.

"Good. I expect them to be complete when I return," Cloud ordered, his voice flat. He followed Ester from the trailer as Zack skimmed the list.

The former SOLDIER paled gave a weak laugh, "Well guys, looks like we have work to do. Aerith, prep your Enemy Skill materia. Tifa, Yuffie, you've got some stealing to do."

Ester talked the whole ride up to the Gold Saucer about racing, the prison, and other random things. Cloud tuned her out until the phrase "Chocobo whisperer" left her mouth. He slowly turned so he fully faced her, body alert and eyes wary. She giggled at his tense stance. "Silly Cloud. I'm not going to eat you. Most of us aren't like Priscilla."

The blond felt the small hairs on the back of his neck rising. Despite her words of comfort, he couldn't believe he was trapped in an elevator with one of the Fan-girls. "The fact that you know about that only-"

"Only proves that Kun—our leader took the time to mention it to me," she cut him off, twittery girlish voice now gone. "Relax, I'm only here to get you out of the Corel Institution and give you some updates. Sorry about Blackie by the way, she really is that dangerous. Dio installed some safety measures under the track but... Our leader seemed rather certain you wouldn't need them though." She peered curiously up at him, hoping he'd reveal what Kunsel meant.

Cloud snorted as the elevator finally reached the top floor. The Golden Saucer's piped in music filled his ears and a part of him missed the dusty silence below. Ester flicked her eyes to the floor near one of the racing display computers meaningfully and then chirped, "I'm going to get Blackie entered in a race. Feel free to socialize."

A man in a red coat, white jockey pants and a black hat perked up. "Blackie? You're riding the Black Widow?" The racers playing cards at a nearby table silenced and looked up.

"Yeah, what of it?" Cloud asked slightly distracted by the crimson gleam of the summon materia where Ester not so subtly hinted.

"Well I'll be," Joe grinned, taking his hat off and running his fingers through his long, auburn hair. "Either you've got balls of steel, or you don't know that bird's reputation."

"I've heard," Cloud muttered, rolling his eyes and trying to ignore the wide eyed looks of sympathy from the other racers. "Frankly, I'm not that worried." He truly wasn't. Even if the fall was a bit farther than the drop from Midgar's upper plate, creative application of his white cape could slow him down enough to cover for the extra few hundred feet.

"Well I'll be," Joe laughed. "If you make it through this race, I definitely want to race against you." The man chuckled and tossed a wave over his shoulder as he left. Cloud rolled his eyes and under the pretense of tying his shoes, he snatched up and pocketed the summon materia.

Four notes chimed and a woman announced the race beginning. Casting Cloud nervous looks, the other jockeys slipped out of the room. Ester popped back in, wringing her hands lightly. "Alright Cloud, it's time for you to meet Blackie. He said you'd be fine but..."

"That should be enough," he sighed, shaking his head. "Lead me to Blackie and let's get this over with."

Ester reluctantly nodded and led him down a narrow corridor to the chocobo stalls. Cloud smelled the musk and greens before they reached the complex of stables. They stepped from the hallway into a massive room, much longer than it was tall. A system of ramps ran up the walls to the multistory stables on either side. The woman directed him up two flights to Blackie's stall. Someone taped a hand written "13" in red over the stall number.

"Cute," Cloud murmured upon noticing it.

Ester scowled up at the note, "Damn that Lukas, he knows I can't reach that high. Anyway, don't take that as an omen or anything. If she won't even let you lead her to the gate, we'll call it a bad deal."

A smirk tugged at the corner of Cloud's mouth, "I've already had my fortune read today, and it was a positive one so I'm not worried."

"Alright, here goes!" Ester tugged on a rope, unbolting the top half of the stall's door and pulling it open. Cloud winced at the deep gouges on the inner-side of the door and then peered inside. Only a small window near the back cast any light inside. A warning chirrup emanated from within moments before a large black-feathered head shot from the darkness. The lower stall door rattled from the impact and the black chocobo screeched at Ester.

"Hey," Cloud said softly but firmly. "That's enough." Blackie jerked her head and glared at Cloud. She studied him with one large blue eye before lunging forward, snapping up a beak-full of his hair and yanking him closer.

Ester screamed, the sound echoing in the tall room. Stable-hands, jockeys, and chocobo peered out from stalls in curiosity. Her scream trailed off when instead of crying out in agony, Cloud's yelp of pain turned into a resigned sigh. Blackie chirruped, pleased with his closer location and proceeded to groom his hair. "Why does this always happen?" he muttered, trying to ignore Ester's wide-eyed stare and the hissed whispers of the other witnesses.

Blackie warked and nuzzled the side of Cloud's head before resuming her ministrations. "Yeah yeah, you don't think I groom properly. You and every chocobo I've ever met." Despite his words, Cloud slipped a hand under her head and scratched the corner of her jaw. "I might have to join a later race," he warned Ester. "If it runs how things usually do, she won't be satisfied until my hair is styled to her standards."

"...right," Ester said numbly. "I'll- I'll go arrange things..." She staggered off, dodging questions and amazed onlookers.

"That was awful!" Zack whined from the shade of one of the semi-trailers. He prodded a few singed holes in his uniform morosely as the setting sun painted the column of the Gold Saucer a reddish-orange.

"Quit whinin'," Barret grumbled from a few feet away. "'Least you didn't have ta' hide when your crazy, former friend walked by."

Aerith shot the large man a look of sympathy before she went back to watching Yuffie teach Tifa how to juggle using all the Platinum Bangles they'd stolen. Cait Sith paused in patching a hole in his cape with some thread and a Cactuar needle and smiled at Zack, "Aye they were difficult battles, but we've grown stronger and even gained new skills."

Zack grunted in reluctant agreement and then narrowed his eyes when Red XIII's ears flicked and the lion-beast raised his head to look at the elevator. Zack climbed to his feet and crossed the empty square. Stolen Platinum Bangles, X-Potions, Ethers and Turbo Ethers rattled as Barret helped the girls gather up their pile of stolen supplies. "You know, I'm really loving my Steal materia now," Yuffie confided to Tifa. "I hope mine levels up so I can Mug the monsters instead of just robbing 'em blind."

The elevator opened and Cloud emerged swinging a key-chain on his index finger. He scowled at Zack and snapped, "Not one word about the hair."

Zack clapped his hands over his mouth and nodded, but tears of hilarity trickled from the corners of his eyes. It was painfully obvious that the blond was groomed to chocobo standards. Tifa smiled weakly at him and held open his pouch so they could pour the stolen items inside.

"Dio apologized via letter," Cloud announced, condescension dripping from his voice.

"Coward," Barret snorted, plucking Phoenix Down feathers from Red XIII's headdress and dropping them in the bottomless pouch.

"As reparation, he wrote that Sephiroth is headed for Gongaga and gave me the keys to his buggy." He jingled the keys and approached a pair of heavy metal doors on the more recently constructed block building. With Zack and Barret's help and the painful screeching of rusted hinges, they slid the doors open.

The others stepped inside to inspect the vehicle. Cloud grimaced at the heavy silence from inside and in a pained voice asked, "How bad is it?"

"Oh, it's in mint condition," Aerith responded in a breathy voice, obviously restraining her laughter.

"It's awesome!" Yuffie crowed just as Tifa cried, "It's hideous!" Cloud and Zack shrugged and peeked inside. The eight wheeled monstrosity gleamed in hot-rod red. Golden stars and lightning bolts arced in random patterns from the hood to the twin exhaust ports.

Barret peeked in and slapped his face, dragging his hand down. "That's Danny's car alright."

AN: Yeah, funny story, when I played through the prison, the thieves kept stealing my cash and Loco Weed so they reminded me of druggies. Since it rather fit with the story I decided to share. XD

Originally, I was going to have the number above Blackie's stall be 94, which when read a certain way in Japanese can mean "painful death". Figuring that many people don't read the author's notes, I went with the more American "13". Sorry to all the readers who would have understood/enjoyed the original joke.

Feel free to tell me what you think of the chapter and even predictions for the next ones, you'd be amazed how much inspiration your comments give me!