A gunblade swept a slice-arc line in the sand, crash-flaring to connect with that tungsten Buster Sword. Two slitting hits like a scorpion tail and the gunblade flicked backhanded, then spun-sliced in a flying circle to sheer sparks off the blunt side of that big weapon. Cloud had never used the sharp edge once. A harrowing wind-up bash from that big blade sent Wedge Slade toppling across the ground.

Cloud relaxed out of combat-mode and went to the kid, who slumped on the ground with his elbows on his knees.

"You're holding back," he said as he picked him up by an arm. "I know you can do better. What's eating you?"

A big sigh from a little kid. "Man, I'll never be as good as you. Even if I get kinda good, it still won't be good enough."

"For what? For you?...Or for me?"


Cloud smiled, and ruffled the kid's shag of brown hair.

"SOLDIER isn't what it used to be. They're not commandos anymore."

"But it's my dream, like yours was."

"You'd be joining a chain-gang. Best to go to school and follow your own dreams, not your country's, not your parents', and definitely not mine."

Wedge's shoulders fell to his feet, his confidence in his boots. Cloud just smiled and hit the kid's chin up. Then, he rested a hand on his shoulder.

"But whatever dream you do decide to follow, if you fight with all your heart and keep working hard, you will get it. I promise."

That did it. A small smile crept across Wedge's face. Cloud spun his massive sword over his shoulder and they walked back toward the tavern together from the dried up baseball field they trained in.

"I've never seen you actually use that sword," Wedge commented. "Why do you hit with the blunt edge?"

"Dunno, personal preference I guess."

"Can I try swinging it around someday?"

"Tsh, if you can lift it, you can have it."

"Practice over already?" A challenger appeared.

Tifa leaned on the chainlink fence with a leering look in her eyes. She wore her black-jean knee shorts that were slit at the sides Muay-Thai style, and at her belt were holstered her weapons of choice: two katanas. A mean glint of mischief crossed Cloud's eyes.

"For him, at least. But lessons are always ongoing."

A smirking smile, and Tifa started over to him in a slow, taunting stride.

"A SOLDIER once told me that you can only fight the way you train. You have to practice constantly."

And those two katanas flew from her belt, but they weren't ordinary swords…they were made of wood.

Cloud flashed a mean smile, and his own sword flew to his hands.

"Couldn't agree more."

They rushed akin to a planet exploding, Tifa hitting her swords off the ground to launch herself at Cloud. Her mahogany practice sticks bashed his tungsten blade back at him—she was hitting for flesh not sword. She flew at him with flurrying slip-jabs that he whirled in a windmill arc to deflect. He didn't let up for a second. After all, he'd taught her those moves.

Wedge sat in the bleachers chewing bubblegum when Biggs happened by.

"Man, they're really goin' at it," Wedge commented.

"Naw, they just flirtin. Take notes small fry. Girls love it when you rough'em up."

The agile swords came up in a leap, avoiding Cloud's downward slash, and drew a crossing swipe along the big blade's torso. The Buster Sword came up to draw an X in the air, forcing Tifa to duck and dodge around to Cloud's side. She slipped in with a cross-slice, but found Cloud's sword had followed the momentum around to knock her harmlessly aside.

In a quick flash, Cloud made a cocky play—he sheathed his sword. Tifa charged in, one sword following the other, but Cloud grabbed one wrist then the other and turned her about, wrapping both arms around her and hugging her close to his body. He clutched her in a firm grasp, pinning her arms at her sides and effectively ending the fight.

"You jerk!" she spat. And he laughed.

Then, a slow clap from the gate, and a goateed man in a Zuit-Suit stepped onto the field. He adjusted his RayBands shades and flashed his piece from his belt.

"So sorry. Don't mean to interrupt, but there's business to attend to."

Back at the tavern, Tifa sat with the man counting out the register and the month's profits. Itemized receipts lay stacked to one side along with payroll and "vegetable spoilage" quotas. Cloud leaned against the wall with his arms folded, while the man looked over their notes and shook his head.

"You're short."

"What?!" Tifa's eyes flew wide.

"By about $1000 gil. Where's the rest?"

"No, the rent is all there! The same amount it was last month."

"It went up."

Cloud and Tifa exchanged urgent glances.

"…We weren't informed."

"Donny didn't tell you?"

"No, we never received any notice. Could you explain the new charges to us?"

"Sure, no problem…Mako prices went up 10% in this past month alone. Ramifications for terrorist groups…" a sly glance in Cloud's direction, which he returned with a stone glare, "…blowing up reactors around Midgar. Donny's had to dish out personal funds just to keep the lights on in parts of lowcity. It's not like the Urban Dev Department cares much about us down here after all. So, we're not just bleeding you for blood, we're hurting too. Everyone's got to tighten the belts."

"We understand. We're totally willing to comply with the new policies, but we don't have an extra $1000 gil lying around without notice. We've been on time and in full with all payments up until now, could you ask Donny if we could have some leniency?"

"Sure, doll. I'll ask. He's probably just going to tack it onto next month's rent though. Best figure out a way to come up with $2000 more gil on the budget."

"That's almost double the rent! How are we going to do that?"

"I dunno, but look," he leaned in closer to her, "the last bartender who held it down here, lets just say she had her ways of getting the job done."

He pinched her chin with a leering look, and Tifa froze. But Cloud stepped forward with a rage in his eyes and grabbed his wrist.

"We run a clean ship here. We'll get you the money. We're done here."

The man ripped his arm back, standing from the table, and the look he and Cloud exchanged could start forest fires. Cloud's cyan eyes glowed neon in Falselight, a byproduct of Mako Infusion, and the telltale mark of an X-SOLDIER. The man adjusted his lapels then and took his leave, Cloud's piercing glare following him out the door.

But when that door shut, the tension dropped, and all hell broke loose.

"How can this be happening? What are we going to do?" Tifa paced wildly while Cloud took a breath.

"Look, calm down, we'll figure it out."

"WHEN? Tomorrow? In three weeks from now when we have to come up with twice what we can barely manage already?!"

"Why are you yelling at me? It's not like I did this."

"Oh no, the fact that you're part of some terrorist group that makes gas prices go up has nothing to do with this situation right now!"

"Hey! I'm not with them! I just run errands! Give me a break!"

Cloud tried to escape to the other room, but Tifa followed him, not letting up.

"Social gang-banging is still gang-banging, Cloud!"

Cloud jumped up to grab the overhang and did ten pullups. Tifa kept nagging him but Cloud shot back.

"Well thanks for the info Ms. Truth-dot-org. Where'd you pick that one up, off a DARE poster?"

Tifa jumped up after him and did her ten at dead-hang. He kept on her while she ignored him, then jumped down and the fight raged on.

Meanwhile, Wedge sat on the sofa playing referee when Barrett came in.

"What's goin' on here?"

"Landlord upped the rent and Tifa and Cloud are on round 10."

"Oh snaps," Barrett sat down like the playoff's were on. "Who's winning?"

"Tifa's up by 5 points, but Cloud's been returning on the defense, so my money's on him. You in?"

"$10 gil?"

They shook on it.

"Disregard me and how hard I work!" shouted Cloud.

"You don't have a job! I need you to get a job, Cloud!"

"You don't even know what I do! What I go through for all of us!"

"I know you come home late every night for more than just business."

"Oh yeah? Well I remember you sitting on SOLDIER's laps in Nibelheim. Why don't you just saddle up and take Donny's advice?"

Barrett and Wedge's eyes flew wide. Ohhhh I can't believe Lil' Mo just went there!

Tifa's brow curled in a dangerous furrow. She pointed at him with a glare that could end the world, but behind that burning gaze tears began to form.

"Listen. I didn't have a mother, and it's not like you had a father, so why don't you think about that before you call me a slut!"

She stormed away crying, fleeing upstairs to her room. Wedge and Barrett cringed from the couch.

"Eek, KO."

Wedge took out his wallet but Barrett waved him off, telling him to give it to Cloud for flowers he'd inevitably need later.

Cloud stood stunned for a moment, then slammed his fist back against the wall. He slunk back, rubbing his hands through his hair, while a heavy sigh escaped him like all he was in life flooding out. Deep down, a man always knew when he was wrong, and it was worst than a Buster Sword to the balls.

At that, Barrett got up and went over to him.

"Listen Mo, ole Barrett's gotta solution to ya mess. Earth First has been protestin' some new energy bill, and they all riled up to do somethin' bout it. I put out a hit on a Mako Reactor, and the funds'll start pouring in."

"Are you nuts? Then you'd have to actually go blow up a reactor, or else they'll never donate to your cause again."

"Thas the whole point brother. You in?"

Cloud took a huge breath, gazing at the floor like he was debating with the devil below.

"…I gotta talk to Tifa."

"She can come too. Two bodies, two cuts. Think it over."

Barrett knocked Cloud's shoulder and left him with an ultimatum hanging like a dead man in his thoughts.


[Received 10 Gil]