Chapter 36

The Keystone


The plains north of Nibelheim were filled with the same dangerous creatures as everywhere else. Sparse forests covered sections of the plains like patches of hair on the face of a young man who didn't know how to shave. Despite the strong monsters, it was nowhere near as dangerous as Nibelheim, and the group made great time traversing the plains—until they reached a town located almost smack in the center.

"What in the hell is that? Some kinda weapon? It's all tilted," asked Barret as he gazed up at the massive object located near the town's outskirts. The object in question was something that Naruto had never seen. It was taller than most buildings, shaped like a cylinder with a pointed tip, and had many protrusions sticking out of it.

"Looks like a spaceship to me," Cloud said, arms crossed as he gazed up at the massive contraption. "I've heard Shinra had a Space Program once upon a time. I can't imagine what this thing is doing here though."

"What's a spaceship?" asked Naruto, who had no knowledge of such things. "You mean it's like a missile?"

While the rest of their group stared at him like he said something stupid, Aerith giggled. "A spaceship is a ship with rockets attached to the bottom."

Naruto made a face. "Why would anyone want a ship like that? Can you even safely fly that thing?"

"I don't think you're really supposed to fly it," Aerith said. "The goal of a spaceship is to fly straight up and go into outerspace."

"Outerspace, huh?" Naruto looked up at the sky—a blue so clear he could see for kilometers in every direction. Outerspace was supposedly beyond this blue sky. The stars that painted the sky at night were but a miniscule part of this "outerspace," though Naruto knew very little about the subject. This was the extent of his knowledge.

"What should we do now?" asked Yuffie, stretching her arms above her head. She groaned as the muscles of her back, arms, and shoulders were stretched taut. "Should we stay here for the night, or keep traveling?"

"I don't think we have much choice but to stay here." Cloud frowned and crossed his arms. "We don't have anymore leads on where Sephiroth might be. I think we should stay here for now and gather some information."

"I want to go exploring!" Aerith thrust his hand in the air and shouted. "I'd like to see that spaceship up close!"

"This ain't some kinda picnic," Barret groused. He looked a bit grumpy at Aerith's enthusiasm, though he always looked like that, so Naruto paid it no mind.

It was decided they would split up and ask around to see if anyone had seen Sephiroth pass through this way, though Naruto felt it was a long shot. Still, it was the only thing they could do without any leads.

Naruto, Aerith, and Yuffie ended up in one group, while Cloud, Tifa, and Cait Sith went in another. The remaining group consisted of Barret, Red XIII, and Vincent.

Aerith grabbed Naruto's arm and pulled him along behind her, a beaming smile on her face as she went straight for the giant spaceship on the other side of town. Naruto stopped her every so often to ask the residents about this place. It was apparently called Rocket Town, named after the spaceship tilting on its side like an old man ready to fall over. That was the only thing anyone would really tell him, however. Everyone he talked to said if he wanted to know something about this town, he should ask the "Captain," whoever that was.

"Hey, sensei. Who do you suppose this 'Captain' guy is?" asked Yuffie.

"Don't know, but he's supposedly in charge of the town. That means he's the bigshot here." Naruto looked around at the town. "Though that's not saying much."

"I'll say. This town is a dump," Yuffie agreed.

"Don't be rude, Yuffie," Aerith said.

Yuffie huffed, but her words weren't lies. This town was small, the buildings looked old and lacking in proper maintenance. Naruto glanced at a roof with broken tiles, then turned his gaze toward a moss-covered wall, cracks hidden behind the green flora. Barrels sat outside by the entrance of an item shop, but the barrels were cracked and weathered. A strange smell filled the air, which Naruto thought was the fumes from fuel and something rotten, but perhaps he was being too hard on this town. It might look old, but at least the people seemed content.

They soon reached the spaceship, appearing much bigger now that they were up close. He guessed it was maybe fifteen stories tall. It towered over all the buildings, was covered in rust, and looked decrepit, like it'd fall if someone so much as leaned on it. Because it leaned at an angle, it didn't look as tall as it really was. A single moveable staircase looked like it led to an entrance into the ship.

"Wow… I've never seen a spaceship up close before," Aerith breathed as she gazed up in awe. Her eyes sparkled like emeralds.

"Meh. It's not that big of a deal. Just a stupid rocket," Yuffie muttered, though Aerith didn't seem to hear the girl.

"It is pretty big. This thing must weigh a ton. I can't imagine how much power you'd need to lift something like that into the air," Naruto added.

"I don't either, but I know the rockets underneath it should technically be powerful enough to send it straight into space. I'm not sure it ever happened though." Aerith tilted her head. "Shinra used to have a Space Program, but I can't remember if it ever got off the ground before they turned to other pursuits."

According to the people here, the captain in charge of this town used to be a pilot when Shinra was still interested in their Space Program and was going to become the world's first astronaut, but an accident of some sort caused Shinra to scrap the program. Naruto didn't know how long ago that was. It must have been when Aerith was just a child.

"Other pursuits like researching the Ancients, you mean?" Naruto asked. Aerith's response was to give him a pained smile.

They spent a few more minutes admiring the rusted rocket before leaving. Wandering through the city, the group soon came upon a building with a white picket fence. Cloud, Tifa, and Cat Sith were standing before it, looking at something in the backyard, which turned out to be an old plane painted in faded red.

"Never seen a plane like this before," Naruto said.

"It's called Tiny Bronco," Cloud answered his unspoken question. His eyes glimmered like a child's. "Before the war, Shinra made several plains like this. They were used as bombers during the war with Wutai, but most of them were destroyed. Shinra doesn't make them anymore. I never expected to see one outside of a museum."

"I wonder if we can borrow it," Tifa pondered out loud.

"Even if we could, I'm not sure this tiny thing would fit all of us," Cait Sith muttered.

"True." Cloud nodded. "This plane is a two-seater. We might be able to squeeze four people in, but we'd have to leave everyone else behind."

Naruto had never flown in an airship of any kind before, but he remembered the helicopter that Rufus Shinra had flown in on when they were rescuing Aerith. This vehicle was obviously obsolete, incomparable to the more maneuverable and powerful helicopters, but there was something about the small plane that stoked Naruto's childish wonder. He felt like he understood why Cloud was staring at it with such unabashed awe.

It was kinda cool.

"Um… excuse me, but can I help you people?" a voice asked behind them.

The group turned as one to find a woman in a labcoat standing before them, an uncertain smile on her freckled face. Brown hair pulled back into a tight ponytail behind her head meant her middle-aged face was visible. She wore round glasses that hid brown eyes. When combined with her labcoat, she looked like a typical science type.

"Oh, no. We were just looking," Cloud said, rubbing the back of his head.

The woman stared at him for a second. Then…

"If you would like to use this vehicle, you'll need to ask the Captain for permission. He should be in the rocket," the woman said. It seemed she had seen right through them. Aerith, Yuffie, and Naruto looked at each other. They had just come back from the rocket. "I'm Shera, by the way. You six don't live around here, do you? I don't recognize any of you. What are your names?"

One by one, the six introduced themselves.

"I'm Cloud."

"Yuffie."

"I'm Tifa. Nice to meet you."

"Cait Sith is my name."

"Naruto. It's a pleasure."

"I'm very pleased to meet you. My name is Aerith."

"Hmm. It doesn't seem like you are with Shinra," Shera murmured, cupping her chin. "I had hoped you would be. I thought for a moment that the approval for the reopening of the Space Program had arrived. President Rufus is scheduled to come here. The Captain has been so restless ever since this morning."

Naruto and the others were startled. They didn't think President Rufus would ever bother with a small town like this, and they certainly didn't believe he'd want to reopen the Space Program. The man didn't seem interested in anything other than killing Sephiroth right now. What was a man like that coming all this way for?

Shera soon left them, entering the house. They turned to each other after watching her go.

"This isn't good," Cloud said after a moment. "I didn't realize Rufus would be coming all this way."

"What should we do?" asked Tifa.

"I say we wait until Rufus is here, then assassinate him," Yuffie suggested.

Cloud shook his head and sighed. "I doubt we'll get the chance. Rufus isn't going to come alone. He'll no doubt have elites protecting him. A fight would also cause the townspeople to get caught up in it."

"I don't want to have the blood of innocents staining my hands," Naruto added.

Yuffie shrugged as if none of that mattered to her. This girl was not the type who cared about collateral damage. She was like Barret in that regard.

"What should we do?" asked Aerith.

Naruto thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Let's go talk to this 'Captain.' Shera said he's inside the rocket, so that's where we'll go. Cait Sith, Cloud, and Tifa. Can you three find the others and have them wait at the hotel for now? We'll come back once we've talked to the Captain."

While the others went to the hotel, Naruto, Aerith, and Yuffie went back to the rocket. They climbed up a ladder, then a set of stairs. Reaching the top, they found an entrance that opened before them on rusted hydraulics and walked inside.

Like the outside, the inside was covered in rust. Pipes ran along the walls and ceiling. The ductwork seemed almost half-hazard. He glanced to his left, at a level that appeared to have rusted over from disuse.

A man stood in the derelict hall. His gray hair and the wrinkles around his eyes made it obvious that he was much older than anyone else. He had blue eyes, a five o'clock shadow, and stood with a slouch. His blue jacket and jean pants were wrinkled and had several stains on them. It seemed he'd been working on this ship. Most of the stains looked like oil ones, but a few were obviously from ale.

The man noticed them and turned.

"What are you kids doin' here?"

"We heard the Captain was here," Naruto said.

"Captain, huh? That'd be me. Cid's the name, but everyone just calls me 'Captain.' What do you brats want?"

This Cid character was pretty gruff. The way he spoke without any polite inflections would have put off most people, but Naruto preferred someone who spoke frankly and didn't try to hide who they were behind a facade.

Naruto asked Cid all kinds of questions about the rocket, about President Rufus, and about his dreams. The man seemed more than happy to have a willing ear. He told Naruto about how Shinra developed a lot of new technology during what he called the "meaningless war" and how they switched from being a weapons manufacturer to a Mako company. Naruto learned a lot about Shinra that he'd never known before, including the Space Program.

"It was around that time they came up with the rocket engine. Everyone was so excited about the idea of traveling into space. Shinra put a huge budget into their Space Program and made prototype after prototype before they finally completed Shinra No. 26. That's this beauty right here. I was gonna be the pilot for it, but on the day of the launch, that blasted Shera screwed up everything. The project was scrapped. Damn those Shinra dogs! After they told me about how everyone was interested in space exploration and got my hopes up, they just nixed the entire program like that!"

Cid didn't seem to like Shinra much at all if his rants were to be believed, but at the same time, he seemed to think highly of President Rufus, said the man was just what the company needed—fresh blood with new ideas. But Cid was under the impression that President Rufus wanted to reinitiate the Space Program. Naruto didn't think it would be so simple. He didn't say anything, however, since the man would find this out himself eventually. It wasn't Naruto's place to pop Cid's dreams.

Finally, they got to what Naruto wanted to ask him.

"Can we borrow your Tiny Bronco?"

Cid's eyes narrowed and his face turned red in anger. "The fuck? You outta your mind?! That's my most cherished possession! There's no way I'll let you take it! That's what you came here for, isn't it?! You just want my plane! Not enough that Shinra stole my dreams. Now some punk is trying to steal my airplane too!"

"That's not it," Naruto tried to say. "We just want to borrow—"

"Out! I don't want to hear another word from you! Get out now!" Cid shouted, leaving the group no choice but to retreat.

Naruto, Aerith, and Yuffie traveled to the hotel. There they found the others already lounging inside of the room they had rented out. Tifa looked up from the bed when they opened the door and walked on. Cloud was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, typical of him. Red XIII and Cait Sith, on the other hand, were just lying on the floor like listless animals. Vincent was much like Cloud, though unlike the blond man, he was staring out the window, expression blank.

"Yer back! What did he say? Can we use that plane?" asked Barret, the only one restlessly moving. He'd been pacing before they entered, but now he turned to them with an expectant look on his face.

"It was no good," Naruto said, shaking his head as Aerith and Yuffie sighed in unison.

Naruto explained how the conversation with Cid went. Hearing that they had been rejected outright angered Barret, who roared and attempted to go find Cid and give the man a piece of his mind, but he was stopped by Tifa and Cloud grabbing his arms to keep him from heading out. None of them wanted to have this violent man attempt to convince someone as seemingly belligerent as Cid to do something for them. It would never end well. If anything, their situation would worsen.

That didn't mean Barret was going to calm down. The profundity of his anger was not something that could be settled so easily.

"Damn that bastard! Who the fuck does he think he is?! I oughta pump his ass full of lead! Mother fucking shit stain fucker!"

Naruto watched as Barret turned red in the face from shouting and swearing. He was impressed by how many different ways the man could curse.

"What should we do now?" asked Tifa.

"It's clear Sephiroth isn't on this continent." Cloud tapped his index finger against his forearm. "According to the map, Rocket Town is the last town located on this continent. There's nothing beyond this point."

"Which means Sephiroth has no reason to be here," Naruto agreed.

The world of Gaia's population was centered on Midgard, which had somewhere around 15.5 million citizens—almost ninety percent of the world's population. All that remained outside of Midgard were a handful of small towns and cities. There were probably less than a million people located throughout the rest of the world—places like the Gold Saucer where the wealthy went to vacation notwithstanding.

"We could always steal the plane," Yuffie suggested. "It would be easy for a ninja. What do you think, sensei? It's a good idea, right?"

"It is not a good idea," Aerith chided.

Yuffie huffed and placed her hands on her hips. "Oh yeah? And why not?"

"Because not all of us are ninja, and if we steal something from someone who hasn't done anything to us, we'd be no better than Shinra," Naruto answered.

"I was just gonna say stealing is wrong," Aerith sighed.

Naruto grinned. "I have a more practical way of thinking than you."

"Since when is theft considered practical?"

"Since always. There are times when you have to steal if you want to survive. How do you think street urchins manage to live despite not having any family to care for them?"

Naruto and Aerith began openly flirting with each other, causing the others to grimace a little. The only one not doing so was Yuffie, who looked like she had swallowed a lemon as she stared at the two—not that they noticed.

Before the two could get really into their flirting, however, a knock sounded at the door, causing them and everyone else to turn. Naruto went over and opened the door to find Shera standing on the other end.

He stared in surprise.

"Shera, what can I do for you?"

"I saw you leaving the rocket and thought I'd talk to you. Did you talk to the Captain? What did he say?" she asked, anxiously wringing her hands together.

"It was no good."

Naruto shook his head. He didn't explain what happened between him and Cid, but Shera seemed to understand the man well enough that she didn't need any further explanation.

"Um… I'm sorry. Could you all come back to the house? I'd like to speak with you some more," Shera said.

While they didn't see what speaking with this woman would get them, everyone followed her out of the hotel. They might not gain anything from this. On the other hand, they would gain nothing from moping in their hotel room. Besides, this woman seemed connected to Cid, which meant she probably had some insider information that could help them convince the obstinate man to lend them his airplane.

The inside of Shera's home was tidy but cluttered, like everything had its place and was organized but there was simply so much stuff it looked full. Models of planes and rockets sat on desks and shelves. It seemed flying really was Cid's passion. Naruto even saw what looked like a miniature representation of a plane engine sitting on a drawing board.

Everyone arrayed themselves around what seemed like a kitchen and dining room combined into one. Shera busied herself making them all tea. She dumped some tea leaves into a pitcher, filled it with hot water, and let it steep. While she did that, Naruto decided to address her.

"What did you want to talk about?"

"Before that, please don't be mad at the Captain. I know he can be hard to handle, but he's a good person at heart."

"You call that asshole a 'good person?'" asked Yuffie, incredulous.

Shera flushed but pressed on. "The only reason he acts this way is because his dream of going into outer space was crushed. It was… all my fault that he was unable to achieve his dream. If it wasn't for me… if I hadn't been so stupid… then the Captain wouldn't be like he is now."

Shera proceeded to inform them about what happened in the past, about how she had been worried about the oxygen tanks and decided to check on them right when the launch was happening. Cid had stopped the launch just as the rockets were firing off, pushing the emergency stop to avoid burning the woman to a crisp. That had resulted in the rocket tilting as it was.

"After that, the Space Program was scrapped and the launch was canceled," Shera ended her tale of woe. "It's my fault the Captain's dream was destroyed… that's why I decided to live my life for him. His dream was crushed in exchange for my life, so my life belongs to him."

Hearing her story, Naruto could understand why Cid would become such a bitter and angry person, and he could even understand why Shera decided to live her life for him. That didn't mean he approved, however. He just understood their reasoning.

"That's a sad story and all, but Cid is still an ass," Yuffie said.

Aerith nodded. "I understand he's angry, but I don't think that gives him the right to take his anger out on others."

Cloud and Tifa nodded in agreement, and even Cait Sith and Red XIII seemed to agree with them. The only one who seemed touched by the story was Barret. The man was sniffling in a corner of the room, trying to mask the fact that he was crying. Naruto guessed that, as a macho kinda guy, this sort of tragic tale got to him.

Before they could continue this conversation, the door opened with a bang and Cid walked into the room. He stopped, took one good look at them, and narrowed his eyes.

"The hell are you people doing in my house?" he asked.

"Ah. I-I invited them over," Shera admitted.

"Fuck, Shera, you just gonna invite a bunch of people you don't know over for no reason?! What the hell are you thinking?!"

"I-I'm sorry…"

"Shit. Fine. Do whatever you want. I'm going to tune up the Tiny Branco. I don't have time to deal with this."

The man marched right past them, exiting through the backdoor, which slammed shut with a loud bang. Shera flinched.

"What a pleasant man," Yuffie said sarcastically.

As the group sat around, Naruto wondered what they should do now. They needed to leave this continent somehow, but it didn't look like they'd be able to fly off it, which meant they might need to find a vessel traveling to one of the other continents and book passage. The problem was there weren't many ships that did cross continental travel. What few did only went between the main continent and this one. So few population centers existed on the other islands and continents that it simply wasn't worth traveling to them.

Before Naruto could come up with an answer, Cid raced back into the room, looking excited.

"Shera! Shinra has arrived! Prepare our best tea!" He then glared at Naruto and the others. "The rest of you, get out! I don't want you mucking up this meeting! Go on! Scat!"

While everyone was upset by the man's belligerent attitude, none of them said anything as they left the house through the backdoor, which led to the backyard with the Tiny Branco. They stood under the shade of the airplane. It wasn't big. Naruto wondered if they would even be able to use a plane like this when there were so many of them.

Ha! We'd probably have to stand on the wings.

Naruto imagined himself, Yuffie, and Cloud standing on the wings as Aerith piloted the plane. Tifa would probably sit in the co-pilots stea. Meanwhile, Barret, Cait Sith, and Red XIII would have no choice but to cling onto the wings for dear life. He almost snorted when he thought of how loudly Barret would be yelling if they were to do something like this. Unfortunately, now was not the time to dream up such a scenario.

"Shit! We can't afford to stand around with Shinra here! God damn it! We need to go in and blast those mother fuckers!" Barret snarled.

"Don't be stupid," Cloud said. He had wandered over to the fence and was peering around from a hiding place. "There are Shinra soldiers everywhere. Just look. I even see members of SOLDIER here. There's no way we can fight our way out of this."

Tifa placed a hand on Barret's arm. "There will be other opportunities. Let's just wait for them to finish their business and leave."

Barret growled, but he didn't disagree with Tifa, opting to stomp toward the Tiny Bronco and lean against it. The young brunette sighed in relief at this.

"WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN YOU'RE NOT RE-INITIATING THE SPACE PROGRAM?!"

A loud shout from inside the house caused them all to turn toward the door. Naruto and Yuffie were the first to rush over. Naruto crouched down and opened the door a click, pressing his ear against it with Yuffie as the others came over. His ears were particularly sensitive. He was more than capable of hearing the heated conversation happening inside the horse.

"I can't believe you got me all excited for nothing!" Cid was saying. "If you didn't come here to re-launch the Space Program, then what the hell did you come here for?!"

"I want to borrow the Tiny Bronco."

"That's Rufus' voice," Naruto said.

Barret growled at the name, but Naruto paid him no mind and listened further as the man continued talking.

"We're going after Sephiroth, but it seems like we've been going in the wrong direction. But now, we think we know where he's headed. However, we have to cross the ocean. That's why we want your plane…"

"It sounds like Rufus has the same idea we did," Tifa said.

"So it's pretty much confirmed that Sephiroth isn't on this continent," Aerith muttered.

Naruto nodded in agreement, but he also wondered why they needed Cid's Tiny Branco. Didn't Shinra have much better equipment, or was there something about this small plane that trumped their current airships? He didn't understand. However, in an effort to learn more, he leaned into the door again and paid close attention to everything being said.

"Fuck! First the Airship, then the Rocket, and now the Tiny Bronco. Shinra took outer space away from me and now you want to take the sky from me too?!" Cid shouted at Rufus.

Rufus snorted. "You seem to forget it was because of Shinra Inc that you were able to fly in the first place."

"WHAT?!"

"Palmer, go and prepare the Tiny Bronco for take off."

"Yessir!"

"Now, listen here, you little shit! Don't you touch my Tiny Bronco!"

The sound of footsteps thumping against the floor grew louder. Naruto saw through the crack a tiny and rotund man approaching them. That was Palmer. He wasn't alone either. Several members of SOLDIER were also present, carrying the traditional broadswords and decked in armor similar to Cloud's.

Suddenly, Naruto met the red eyes of someone. Was that… Sasuke? He blinked. Then the person he thought he had seen was gone. Had he imagined it?

There was no more time to think. Naruto closed the door before they could see him and stepped away.

"It looks like we have no choice but to fight," he said to the others. "The moment Palmer and his group come through this door, attack them."

Naruto had made a decision. Since it seemed like Shinra was going to take the Tiny Bronco anyway, he would take it for himself.

There were four guards with Palmer when he walked out of the door, two in front and two behind. Each was dressed in the uniform of a SOLDIER. Black pants and turtlenecks, a pair of shoulder pads, and vambraces along their forearms. They carried the standard swords instead of a big butter knife like Cloud.

Their senses were sharp. The SOLDIERs noticed the group before even leaving the door, drew their blades, and closed ranks around Palmer, who peeked at them through the gap left by his guards. He was a fat man with beady eyes, a thick chin, and a khaki business suit. Naruto thought he looked like a monkey in a suit.

"You… who are you people?! What are you doing here?!"

"That's a stupid question," Barrett growled. "We're taking the Tiny Bronco."

Naruto frowned at the guards. Meanwhile, Palmer was staring at them with something akin to suspicion.

"Have I met you people before? You look familiar…" His eyes suddenly widened. "AH! I remember you now! You were at Shinra HQ when Sephiroth attacked! Guards! These people are enemies of Shinra! Kill them!"

"Tch!"

Naruto had been hoping to get the jump on this fat man and his guard detail, but that was no longer possible.

"Aerith, shake them up!"

At his command, Aerith swapped out her current materia for one with the Quake skill, which she didn't hesitate to use, slamming her staff into the ground and generating a localized earthquake that knocked one of the SOLDIERs off balance. The others leapt away when they sensed the attack, one of them taking Palmer to safety. A loud whir echoed around them followed by the sounds of machine gun fire as Barret pumped the one SOLDIER full of lead. He went down in a spray of blood.

Naruto withdrew a kunai from his pouch and threw it at the SOLDIER who rescued Palmer. The kunai was knocked away with a single swipe of the man's sword, but Naruto used that time to close the distance between them. He spun around, his leg encased in wind, and slammed it into the SOLDIER.

"GYAAAAAAH!"

Palmer screamed as he and his protector went flying, but the SOLDIER managed to twist his body and land on the ground. He set Palmer down and stood protectively in front of the man. At that exact moment, Naruto appeared before him, swirling Rasengan in his hand. He thrust it forward. The attack slammed into the SOLDIER's sword, then tore through it like it was made of paper. Naruto's attack continued on to slam into the SOLDIER and rip apart his protective armor.

The man went flying away from Palmer. He landed meters away on the ground.

He didn't get back up.

"Eeeek! S-spare me!" Palmer shouted, cowering before Naruto.

Seeing this man cower before him made Naruto hesitate, which gave Palmer enough time to pull a gun out of his business suit and aim it at Naruto. He tried to pull the trigger. A loud whoosh echoed around him, and quite suddenly, Palmer found the gun was no longer in his hand—no, that wasn't it. He no longer had a hand.

"Wha…?"

"Sorry, but I don't have time to play with you," Naruto said.

Before the man could register what happened, Naruto flicked a kunai at the man. Yet it was blocked just before it became embedded into his head. A person had appeared before Palmer, a man with spiky black hair, crimson eyes, and a blank expression.

"Oh ho! You saved me! No wonder you're President Shinra's favorite guard! Now go! Kill this man!" Palmer shouted.

"Sasuke," Naruto said with a grumble.

"Hmph. I don't know who you are, but you are going to tell me how you know that name," Sasuke said.

Naruto backpedaled as Sasuke rushed forward, Sharingan eyes spinning. Naruto bit his lip as the world around him distorted. The Genjutsu Sasuke tried to place him in was broken almost before it could form. He raised his kunai and blocked Sasuke's attack, but then his opponent tried to kick him in the chest.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

Several clones appeared around Naruto as he jumped back and went on the attack. Sasuke narrowed his eyes as they came at him all at once, dispatching each of them one by one. While he was busy dealing with Naruto's clones, the real one went ahead and swapped his materia for a wind one, then thrust out his hands behind him.

"Fuuton: Reppusho!"

Using the resulting force to increase his speed, Naruto rushed toward Sasuke and slammed into the man with a kick. Sasuke blocked the attack. However, the force of the kick was powerful enough to snap the bones in his arm. He was lifted off his feet and flew backward. He landed on his feet in a low crouch, skidding along the ground. His left arm was now useless and dangled limply by his side, but he didn't seem to care about his injury.

"Chidori!"

Sasuke replaced his current materia and generated a field of lightning that surrounded his right hand. He rushed toward Naruto and thrust his hand out, but it was blocked when Naruto generated a fierce gale from his palm and met the attack headon. The wind from his hand negated the lightning field. This did not stop Sasuke, however, and he rotated his body to land an axe kick on Naruto's shoulder.

"Nggg!"

Grunting as his shoulder throbbed in pain, Naruto attacked Sasuke with equal ferocity, landing a punch on the other man's chest. The attack was powerful enough that Naruto thought he heard a snapping sound. That could have been his imagination though. Sasuke didn't seem to react in a manner that indicated he was injured, and in fact, he fired several lightning senbon that Naruto was forced to dodge.

As the two traded attacks, Naruto found Vincent out of the corner of his eye making his way over to Palmer. The man didn't even seem to realize someone was coming over to him, so focused was he on the battle between Narito and Sasuke. Before the man could notice Vincent, the red-cloaked individual pointed his shotgun at Palmer's head and pulled the trigger. Everyone stopped fighting and paled. Even Naruto grimaced as the man's head was blown wide open.

Palmer flopped face down onto the ground. Blood spilled from the gaping hole in his head.

Clicking his tongue as he realized he had lost, Sasuke slammed a smoke bomb into the ground and leapt backward. The smoke cleared when Naruto used a wind jutsu to blast it away. However, Sasuke was gone.

He's probably still close by. I want to finish my battle with him, but I can't afford to right now.

The others had finished their respective battles. Aerith and Tifa were standing over the SOLDIER they had fought, and Cloud had finished off his enemy. The other members of their group had stayed back to avoid making the battle more chaotic.

"Let's get that plane started and get out of here," Naruto ordered.

Even though he said that, none of them knew how to start the Tiny Bronco. The group climbed onto the small plane. While Cloud sat in the pilot seat with Tifa on his lap, Naruto and Aerith took the co-pilot seat. Red XIII, Cait Sith, Barret, Vincent, and Yuffie were forced to climb onto the wings as Cloud began flipping switches at random.

A loud, sputtering cough echoed from the Tiny Bronco, followed by the engine roaring to life. Rumbling shook the plane with tiny vibrations as the propellers located on either side of the wings began spinning.

"I think I got it working!" Cloud shouted, excited.

"Good. Now get us moving!" Naruto commanded.

Cloud grabbed the steering wheel and maneuvered the plane, which broke through the picket fence and raced through the town.

Rufus and his men rushed outside of the house, noticed the commotion, and turned to find the object they wanted racing toward them. Cid was in their midst. Naruto thought he had been arguing with Rufus. While the others dove out of the way, Cid raced toward the airplane and leapt on. He almost fell. Red XIII quickly latched his tail around the man's waist as they continued picking up speed.

"Fire!" a voice from somewhere behind them shouted.

The plink of bullets bouncing off the Tiny Bronco's hull echoed around them. Cait Sith screamed in shock and Cid swore like a sailor. The only one on the wings not panicking was Yuffie, who stood up and spun the large shuriken in her hands to protect them from bullet fire. Sparks flew as bullets struck her spinning shuriken.

Before they could get far, Sasuke appeared on the hull. Naruto slipped out of the co-pilot's seat and engaged the man in combat before he could attack Yuffie, who had been his first target. Sparks flew as they engaged in battle with kunai. They seemed evenly matched at first, but Sasuke's previous arm injury gave Naruto a small advantage, and he used it to slip a kick into Sasuke's ribs. The man grunted as he was punted off the plane. He crashed into the ground, rolled across it, and looked up as Naruto blew him a raspberry.

Naruto felt a momentary weightlessness as he slipped back into the co-pilot seat. They were gaining altitude. Just as he thought they were about to make it scott free, something slammed into one of the propellers. An explosion echoed around them. Sparks and smoke billowed from the propellor as it stopped.

With one of the propellers blown out, the Tiny Bronco listed to the side, unable to maintain balance, and began its erratic descent.

"Shit!" Cid swore. "We're going down! Everyone, hold onto your britches and don't piss in them!"

Nobody said anything about Cid's crude language. Naruto gritted his teeth as the shaking of the plane rattled his teeth. The intense vibrations made him worry the Tiny Bronco would shake itself apart. He wished there was something he could do, but the ocean was getting closer and closer. Aerith, sitting on his lap, held onto him tightly.

"Brace for impact!" Cloud shouted.

Naruto and Aerith were nearly thrown off their seat as they struck the water, which sprayed everywhere to create a thick mist around them. Someone was screaming, but he couldn't tell who. As the water died down, allowing him to see again, Naruto checked on the others.

Cloud and Tifa were in a similar position to him and Aerith. Cloud had a firm grip on Tifa with one hand and was grabbing the cockpit with the other. Barret was clinging to the left wing alongside Yuffie. Red XIII, Vincent, and Cid were on the other side. The only person he didn't see was…

"Aaaaah! Help! Help! I can't swim!"

Everyone turned to find Cat Sith and his giant moogle flailing in the water several meters away. With a sigh, Naruto stood up with Aerith in his arms, set her down, and jumped into the water to save their comrade.

"It's no good. She's not gonna fly anymore," Cid said at last.

Several hours had passed since their escape from Rocket Town and Shinra's forces. No one had chased after them during that time, but Naruto had kept his guard up just in case. Cid was hanging over the side and had his face buried in an open hatch to look at the engine. Everyone else was sitting around him as he worked.

"Can we use it as a boat?" asked Cloud.

Naruto leaned over to whisper into Aerith's ear. "If all we needed was a boat, then what did we need the Tiny Bronco for?"

Aerith giggled. Cid was fortunately not paying attention to them as he, red-faced, closed the hatch to the engine, growling and snarling in anger.

"Fuck! Do whatever you want! Not like it matters now anyway."

"What will you do?" asked Tifa.

"Dunno. I'm done with Shinra, and I've given up on that blasted town."

"What about your wife, Shera?" asked Aerith.

"Wife?! Ha! Don't make me laugh. Just thinking about marrying her gives me the chills!"

So they weren't married? Naruto wasn't surprised. He didn't think there had been even a hint of romance in the relationship between Cid and Shera, just from what he could see based on the few interactions he saw between them.

"What're you guys gonna do?" asked Cid.

"We're going after a man named Sephiroth. We'll have to get Rufus someday, too," Cloud said.

Cid stood up, face covered in grease, and looked at everyone present. He looked like a mad scientist who'd just had a disastrous experiment explode in his face. Despite that, he wore a broad smile, though that made him look even madder.

"I don't know anything about any of that, but what the hell! Sign me up!" he said.

"Naruto?" Cloud looked at him.

Naruto stood up from where he was sitting with Aerith and Yuffie, held out his hand, and grinned. "If that's what you want, then welcome aboard."

While Naruto had welcomed Cid into the group, it wasn't like there was any choice. They were adrift in the middle of the ocean. Even if he didn't want to join them, it wasn't like Cid could just up and leave, and he must have known that.

"Glad to be aboard, numbskulls," Cid said with a laugh.

"Numb… skulls?" Yuffie said with a pout.

"Yeah. Anyone stupid enough to go up against Shinra has gotta be a numbskull! I like it!" Cid placed his hands on his hips, threw his head back, and laughed.

Barret looked disgruntled. "We ain't numbskulls."

Aerith wandered over to the end of one wing, knelt down, and began swirling her finger in the water. She didn't seem to care about this conversation. Tifa and Yuffie joined her.

"So, where are we headed? Just to be clear, Rufus wanted the Tiny Bronco so he could head to this place called the Temple of the Ancients. Apparently, it's pretty hard to reach by boat and regular planes don't have enough fuel to fly all that way."

The words caused Aerith to freeze, but she quickly recovered and continued playing with the water. Tifa and Yuffie didn't notice. Naruto did, however, and he resolved to ask about it once they had their destination in mind.

"Guess that's where we're going. Do you know where the Temple of the Ancients is?" he asked Cid.

Cid scratched the back of his head. "Dunno. That idiot president was telling me he was heading in the 'wrong direction,' but it's not like I know what he meant by that. Maybe it's off this way?"

"So you don't even know where we're supposed to be heading," Barret growled. "That's just great!"

Naruto crossed his arms and sighed. "Let's just get to land for now. We can try and find some information about this Temple of the Ancients. Considering the name, I can only imagine what we'll find there."

Temple of the Ancients. The name brought to mind a temple filled with knowledge of the Ancients, the people who came before them and lived in harmony with the planet. Perhaps it even contained the secrets of the planet. There was no telling what they would find in a place like that. Profound secrets. Ancient knowledge. A weapon that could be used against humanity. If Sephiroth was really heading there, they needed to find this place soon and stop him.

"Leave the driving to me," Cid said as he hopped into the cockpit. "We won't be able to fly, and we can't go into deep waters, but we should be able to move through shallow sections of the ocean."

Naruto left the steering to Cid and directed him on where to go. Since their goal for now was just to reach dry land, they quickly went back the way they had come and found a sandy shore to park the Tiny Bronco on.

It was night by the time they arrived. That meant they had no choice but to set up camp, cook some food, and get some sleep.

Their party was huge now, so they needed three tents to fit them all. Naruto and Aerith now shared a tent with Cloud and Tifa. At the moment, however, everyone was sitting by the fire and debating on what they should do.

"I believe we should head for the Gold Saucer," Cloud said. "If we want information, the best place to get it is somewhere a lot of people gather. The Gold Saucer has people from all over the world. Surely one of them would know about the Temple of the Ancients."

"I think you're right," Naruto agreed. "Does anyone else disagree."

"Not me. Che. I don't even care anymore. I just wanna hurry up and find Sephiroth," Barret said.

"I think it's a good idea," Aerith agreed.

"You can leave gathering intelligence to me," said Yuffie with a grin.

"What do you think, Vincent?" asked Naruto.

Vincent looked up from where he'd been staring at the fire. "Why are you asking me? I've been sleeping these past several decades. I have no idea what's going on anymore."

"I guess so."

Everyone else agreed that heading to the Gold Saucer was their best bet for finding the information they wanted. The group soon broke up after eating. Cid, Barret, and Red XIII traveled into one tent. Cait Sith, Yuffie, and Vincent went into another one. Cloud and Tifa also retired soon, leaving Naruto and Aerith alone.

"You know something about this Temple of the Ancients, don't you?" he asked into the silence.

Aerith tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "What makes you say that?"

"The way you acted when you heard the name."

"I should have known you'd see that." Aerith sighed and leaned into him. Her warmth was more impressive than the fire. "I only know a little bit. Mom told me about the Temple of the Ancients once before. This was back when she and I were being used in experiments by Shinra. Mom didn't know much about the Temple of the Ancients, but she did tell me there was only one way to activate its mysteries."

"What way is that?" asked the curious Naruto.

"We need to find something called the Keystone," Aerith said.

It hadn't been long since they last visited the Gold Saucer, but so much had happened that it felt like months to Naruto, who stared at the entrance getting bigger as he and the others sat in the lift.

"Never thought we'd come here again," Barret grunted, arms crossed as he tapped his foot incessantly against the lift floor. Naruto hoped he wouldn't punch a hole through it.

"The Gold Saucer is the best place to gain information on the Keystone," Cloud said. He also had his arms crossed, but his expression, his entire countenance, was much calmer than Barret and his nervous fidgeting.

Naruto nodded. "Exactly. A lot of people come and go from the Gold Saucer, and quite a few of them are well-connected or have traveled across the world. This is the best place to look for information on obscure artifacts belonging to the Ancients."

One might not think a gambling/entertainment resort would be a good place for information gathering, but Naruto understood a basic truth. Rich people had more information than poor people, and they tended to frequent places like the Gold Saucer, a consequence of being filthy rich and no idea what else to spend their money on.

The lift soon set down and the group disembarked. Among all the people in their party, the one who reacted the most shocked was Vincent. He had been sleeping for decades and probably didn't know anything about the Gold Saucer. While he tried to be discreet about it, his eyes were darting all around the interior as their lift was pulled in, taking in everything with curiosity.

They paid the necessary fee to get in, found themselves a hotel to stay the night at, and convened in the food court.

Naruto, Aerith, and Yuffie stood in line at the Jack and Mack. It was a burger joint that sold… well, hamburgers. It wasn't as good as ramen, but Naruto had yet to find a ramen stand anywhere in this world. Shame that. As they were standing in line, the person in front of them accidentally backed up and bumped into him.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said.

"It's fine. Don't… worry… Cissnei?"

Naruto stared in shock at the familiar face, who stared back at him, equally shocked. Her familiar wavy red hair vaguely reminded him of streamers in the wind and her doe-like brown eyes would have reminded most of a fawn, but he knew she was not easily frightened nor someone he could underestimate. She wasn't dressed in her typical Turk suit, but fetching casual wear. Naruto almost had trouble tearing his gaze away from her bare thighs.

"N-Naruto!" Cissnei shouted in shock, then noticed his companions. "And Aerith! What are you two doing here?!"

Yuffie growled and crossed her arms. "What about me?"

"Um… who are you?"

"You mean you don't even know my name?!"

While Yuffie despaired upon the realization Cissnei didn't even know who she was, Naruto smiled awkwardly and answered the girl's question. "I suspect we're here for the same reason."

"Urk." Cissnei looked like she had swallowed a lemon. "I should have known you'd also know about the Keystone."

"And I should have known Rufus would send the Turks to find its location," Naruto replied.

"Have you managed to find any clues about the Keystone's whereabouts?" asked Aerith.

Cissnei deadpanned. "You know I can't tell you that."

"You can't?" asked Aerith, eyes going wide.

Cissnei looked away. "Of course not. And don't give me that look. It doesn't work on me."

"Then why are you looking away?"

If Cissnei was here, then the other Turks were probably around somewhere as well. He wasn't sure he wanted to run into the others right now. He especially didn't like Tseng since that ass had designs on his Aerith. Fuck him. Anyway, while Naruto didn't want to see the other Turks, he did want to poke fun at Cissnei.

"Wanna have lunch with us?" he asked.

"Huh?"

Naruto scratched the back of his head and grinned as three voices simultaneously expressed their incredulity at his suggestion.

"Have lunch with us. We can catch up."

"You realize we're enemies, right?" asked Cissnei, torn between amusement and resignation.

"Really? I always thought of us as frenemies."

"What is that?"

"A friend who is also an enemy."

"You think that's us?"

"Isn't it?"

Cissnei wasn't able to answer him negatively, and since she couldn't, she remained silent. It was true that Naruto and Cissnei weren't traditional enemies. They didn't hate each other, shared some common interests, and actually got along pretty well. Were their circumstances different, they might have even become friends.

"Well… I don't know…"

"I think you should join us," Aerith said at last.

"Eh?"

Cissnei squeaked when Aerith wrapped her arms around the redhead's left one.

"I agree."

"Eh?!"

She squeaked again when Naruto came up on her right and did the same.

"Wait a minute, you two! I'm on the job right now, so I can't—"

"I see. Your job involves getting burgers for everyone in the Turks. I hadn't realized you'd switched positions from badass to secretary."

"I haven't! This is my lunch!"

"So you admit to being on a break."

"Ugh! You two…"

Naruto and Aerith shared a grin as they moved in line with the now resigned Cissnei, who found herself unable to escape and incapable of defending herself. All the young woman could do was hang her head in defeat. Meanwhile, standing behind them was Yuffie. The teenager was crying as she watched the trio enviously.

"I-I've been completely forgotten. How could you, sensei…?"

Naruto ordered ten hamburgers for himself. All of them were different. The Gold Saucer's Jack and Mack had a lot of hamburgers he had never heard of like the Choco Chili Burger and the Spicy BBQ Dipper. He felt the need to try them all. Variety was the spice of life and all that. It would have been a travesty against the gods if he didn't at least try every burger he could.

Cissnei stared at his tray full of meaty goodness with envy as they walked.

"I have no idea how you can eat so much."

"I have a high metabolism?"

"Why does that sound like a question?"

"Naruto has always had a big appetite," Aerith said with a smile. She had two burgers herself, but they were just normal singles. "Mom always had to make several extra servings for him, and we never had anything leftover. I was afraid we'd go broke for awhile."

"Was I really that bad?" asked Naruto.

"You were awful."

"Well… my bad."

"You three get along so well. Oh. Don't mind me. Please, feel free to just ignore everything I say and talk amongst yourselves," Yuffie grumbled behind them.

"Thanks. We will," Naruto said.

"I wasn't being serious!"

They soon arrived at the long table where the rest of their members were sitting. Vincent and Cid had gotten some kind of yakisoba dish. By contrast, Cloud and Barret were eating what looked like pure meat. Cloud's looked like a red stew. Tifa was having a pizza and Red XIII was eating a steak on the floor. Everyone looked up when they came over, their eyes immediately straying to Cissnei.

"Who is this?" asked Barret, eyes narrowed. "Why's she look so familiar?"

"Everyone, this is Cissnei. You may remember her from Gongoga. She's with the Turks," Naruto introduced.

"What?!"

Barret shot to his feet and aimed his gunarm at Cissnei while Cloud stood up and grabbed the handle of his sword. Red XIII crouched low and growled like he was going to pounce. Even Tifa seemed wary. The only ones who didn't react was Vincent—who just seemed calm most of the time—and Cait Sith.

"The hell are you doing with a Turk?!" demanded Cid.

"Don't worry. She's on break," Naruto said.

"That doesn't make it any better! She's the enemy!" Barret shouted.

"It's fine. Cissnei and I go way back." Naruto balanced his tray on one hand and pulled Cissnei into a one-armed embrace, startling the girl. "She and I have had many a tryst."

"A tryst, huh? Is that what you call our fights?"

"I hope that doesn't mean you've been cheating on me, Naruto."

Aerith and Cissnei spoke at the same time. Cissnei was giving him a sidelong glance, while Aerith raised a single eyebrow.

"Of course not," Naruto said. "I'd never cheat on you. I just mean that Cissnei and I have a history together."

"Well, you're not wrong," Cissnei muttered with a sigh.

While everyone else was still wary around Cissnei, Naruto ignored them and directed the young woman to sit down. He ended up sitting between her and Aerith, and Yuffie sat on Aerith's other side, looking more put out by the minute. She was actually pretty cute when she was upset. Seeing her like this made Naruto want to tease her more. Ah. But now wasn't the time for that.

Everyone except Naruto and Aerith acted awkward during lunch. They didn't know how to deal with Cissnei, and Cissnei seemed unable to deal with them, but she also had to put up with Naruto's constant stream of chatter. After lunch, she tried to leave, but Naruto pulled her back down.

"Cissnei, I know we're technically enemies, but you know I've never thought of you as one, right?" he asked.

The words made Cissnei look away. "I… am aware of that, yes. Though I can't fathom why."

"Because you're cute, probably," Aerith said with a sigh. She placed her cheeks on her hands. "I can't believe my boyfriend finds other woman attractive. Am I not good enough?"

"You are. I just can't help but enjoy teasing Cissnei. It's fun."

"I feel like I'm being treated as a pet."

"Hmm. Well, I guess I can see why you'd enjoy teasing her."

"You too, Aerith?!"

"Anyway," Naruto continued as he pointedly ignored Cissnei's squawking. "My point is I don't think we need to be enemies right now. In fact, I think you should work with us. We're both after the same thing, after all."

"Are you fucking serious?!" Barret stood and bellowed. "You wanna work with Shinra?! With a Turk?!"

"Yes," Naruto said with a shrug.

Cissnei frowned. "You know why I can't do that. Even if we are after the same thing, we're still enemies in the end. Once the Keystone is found, we'll become enemies once again."

"Maybe," Naruto said. "But first we have to find the Keystone. Tell me, have you had any luck yet?"

"Er… well… no," Cissnei admitted bitterly.

Naruto's knowing smile pissed her off. "None of us know where the Keystone is, so there's no point in us fighting right now. I think it would benefit us both if we worked together to discover the Keystone's location. After that, we can go back to being enemies. Come on. It's not like you've been having any luck finding it so far. You really have nothing to lose, do you?"

Cissnei glared at Naruto. "I hate you sometimes." She sighed, shoulders slumping. "But you're right. We haven't had any luck. I also think people are wary of us because we're Turks. No one is willing to speak with us, and the few who do get really nervous and don't give us any useful information." Her shoulders drooped further. "Very well. I'll work with you for now."

"Now wait just one damned minute!" Barret growled before Naruto could say anything. "There's no way I'm working with Shinra scum!"

"Then don't work with her," Naruto said coldly. "Cissnei is working with me. You go and find information on your own."

Barret gawked at him. Cissnei, on the other hand, blushed at how defensive Naruto sounded. It was almost like he was her boyfriend defending her against a person's unjust accusations.

Aerith shook her head and sighed. "The things I do for love."

Cloud leaned over to Tifa. "Hey, Tifa. Is it just me, or does it look like Naruto is in the process of building himself a harem?"

"So I'm not the only one who sees it?" Tifa asked, relieved. "Thank goodness. I thought I was the only person who noticed."

"You're not." Cloud shook his head, looking somewhere between disgruntled and awed. "Do you think he's aware of what he's doing?"

"Doubtful. Naruto is smart, but he's also an idiot."

"Agreed."

There were many ways of gathering information. Reconnaissance, observation, interrogation. These were the fundamentals that all ninja were taught from a young age. Scouting the area and gathering clues based on what was and wasn't there, observing a target to learn their personality and patterns, and interrogating people to get what you want. Naruto kept all this in mind as he, Aerith, and Cissnei traveled through flocks of people.

The three of them were dressed to the nines.

Naruto had bought himself a very nice, very orange suit. It was a darker shade than what he normally wore. Crisp, clean, and with sharp creases, it was the kind of suit that wouldn't look out of place on a business tycoon or some other important government official. He thought he looked rather sharp. Even Aerith and Cissnei had complimented him on his choice of clothes.

"So who are we supposed to talk to here?" asked Cissnei as she walked beside him. She had one arm around his, acting as his escort alongside Aerith, who had her arms around his other arm.

"Anyone who looks important, or someone wearing foreign clothing," Naruto said as Cissnei reached out a hand. A passing waiter bearing a tray with wine glasses let her snag one of the crystalline cups. Inside was a pale pink liquid, a rose wine that smelled lightly of flowers and strawberries.

Cissnei was wearing a deep burgundy gown that went down to her ankles. A slit ran up one side, periodically revealing her lean leg as they walked. Another gap ran down her back, stopping just before it reached her butt. She dressed up well. Even her hair had been styled into artful curls that framed her face and highlighted her most beautiful features, like her small nose and deep eyes. She could have passed for a famous actress. Even the light touch of blush on her cheeks enhanced that which already existed.

"I see several people who fit that description," Aerith said, pointing at someone not far away. "He looks like he's not from this continent. And that guy over there. His suit probably costs more than a regular Shinra employee makes in a year."

Naruto followed Aerith's delicate finger to look at where she was pointing. There were, indeed, two people who looked like they would be good marks. One of them was a man with a thick beard, dark skin, and a turban on his head. Naruto thought he might be from a desert somewhere. The other was a white man with sharp, defined features, a suit that put Naruto's to shame, and a gorgeous blonde woman hanging off his arm.

Like Cissnei, Aerith was dressed in a gown that revealed the splendor of her figure and face. The light green gown complimented her eyes. It was a sleeveless ensemble, allowing all to notice how slender her arms and delicate her hands were. While Cissnei's was long, hers stopped just before the knees. A pair of simple but expensive slippers adorned her small feet. Rather than an actress, Naruto thought she looked like a model.

"Cissnei, do you recognize either of those two?" asked Naruto.

Cissnei looked at the pair, then nodded. "The one in the turban is Mustaf Salim. His family used to be powerful tycoons in the oil business, but their business went under after Shinra discovered Mako. I've heard he changed business from oil to art. He's well-known in many circles for collecting and selling everything from classic paintings to statues."

"And the other one?"

"David Kuso," Cissnei answered immediately. "He works for Shinra in foreign acquisitions. Because his work involves travel, I've only met him once. I doubt he even remembers me. In either case, either one of those people may have information on what we're looking for."

She didn't explicitly state they were after the Keystone, perhaps because she didn't want anyone who might be listening to know what they wanted. The walls had ears and all that. It was possible they weren't the only people looking for this item. At the very least, Naruto knew Sephiroth probably wanted it for himself.

"Let's go and introduce ourselves," Naruto decided. As he spoke, Naruto caught a glimpse of Yuffie slipping through the crowd. Her shimmering silver gown made her stand out in the crowd and drew quite a few eyes to her. The girl would go up to wealthy-looking men and flirt with them, but that was all a pretext to rob them blind. He hoped she remembered what they were here for.

The first person Naruto introduced himself to was David Kuso. Cissnei was also a Shinra employee, so they had something in common, and he used that as a way of inserting himself into a conversation with the man. Unfortunately, he didn't seem to know anything about the Keystone. Naruto subtly directed the conversation to unusual artifacts from the Ancients, but David seemed to know nothing about that.

"I'm not surprised he didn't know anything," Cissnei said after Naruto finished making small talk with the man. "He might be in charge of acquiring items from outside Shinra's sphere of influence, but items belonging to the Ancients are rare and often considered top secret. He's not ranked high enough in the hierarchy to know about them."

"Well, that's unfortunate," Naruto said with a sigh.

"Guess that leaves Mustaf," said Aerith.

Sadly, Mustaf didn't know anything either. Worse still, the man was a lech. Not only had he kept staring at Aerith and Cissnei, but he'd even reached out and subtly tried to grope the women's rear ends. It seemed the man didn't know what it meant to have tact. Naruto nearly broke his fingers, but he settled for simply inflicting some pain, which was enough to deter the man from further assault attempts.

Naruto, Aerith, and Cissnei went around to visit several more people, but none of them seemed to know anything about the Keystone. Even a man called Hals, who seemed to be a researcher studying the Ancients, had not known anything about it.

Almost an hour after they began attending the party passed. Naruto found himself standing near a wall, away from the mass of people. A table next to him bore many different types of finger foods like bite-sized sandwiches, various danishes, and cheesecake squares. The cheesecake squares were pretty delicious. Naruto almost groaned as the creamy cheesecake melted on his tongue. It was rich and decadent. Standing beside him, munching on a sandwich, was Aerith.

Cissnei had left to report to her superiors.

"I guess no one here knows anything," she said.

"Yeah," Naruto sighed.

"Do you think Barret and the others are having more luck?"

Barret, Cloud, Tifa, and the other members of their group were not attending this function for high society, but were instead checking out local dives and bars. Aristocratic social functions like this provided different information than bars and low-class dives. It was never a good idea to discount either place as a potential source of information.

"I suppose that depends on what kind of people they find there," Naruto said. "It's possible they discovered something we haven't. It's also possible they've had the same lack—or lack thereof—as us."

Since Barret didn't want to work with a Turk like Cissnei, Naruto had him search other locations where people gather, and because he didn't want the man getting into trouble, he'd had Tifa and Cloud go with him.

He did hope the three had found something because it looked like his luck was running dry over here.

"Naruto? Is that you?"

Turning, Naruto and Aerith found a mountain of a man dressed in a refined business suit that did nothing to hide his muscles walking toward them. He had black eyes, black hair, and a mustache. His skin was a dark tan. Naruto almost didn't recognize this man since he almost never wore business suits, but it wasn't long before he realized who the person addressing him was.

"Dio," Naruto greeted with a smile. "It's been some time."

"That it has. Ha ha. I haven't seen you since that debacle with Dyne."

It hadn't been more than a month since Naruto and his group left the Gold Saucer. In truth, Naruto never expected they would come back this way so soon.

"How have you been?"

"I've been the same as always."

Dio grabbed three glasses of wine from a passing waiter, giving one to Aerith, another to Cloud, and keeping one for himself. He held out his glass. Naruto and Aerith got the hint, tapping their glasses together. Dio took a drink.

"I heard you two are looking for artifacts left behind by the Ancients," Dio continued.

Naruto saw no reason to lie to this man. "That is true. We're currently looking for a specific artifact of the Ancients, though we haven't had much luck."

"Maybe you could help us find it," Aerith suggested.

Dio gave her a small smile. "I probably could at that. I do not mean to brag, but I have a large collection of various odds and ends, including artifacts that once belonged to the Ancients. I even recently acquired something called the Keystone from an old man living in a hut by the river. I don't think he knew what he had in his possession, but I could tell right away that it was special." Dio paused. "I can see that interests you two. Is this what you are after? The Keystone?"

"What would you do if I said it was?" asked Naruto carefully.

He was a little wary of this man, who was far too sharp for his own good. Most people couldn't look past the wall of muscle. To everyone else, Dio probably seemed like an eccentric showman, but Naruto understood how intelligent this man was.

Dio grinned as he took another sip of wine. Naruto frowned at the delaying tactic, but decided to drink his own wine, which was sweet and light. It tickled his taste buds. Aerith seemed to enjoy it as well. Fortunately, she did not have enough to get herself wasted. He didn't want something like that happening again.

"I might be willing to part with it," Dio said at last.

"And what would that cost me?" asked Naruto.

"Heh heh heh. You know me well. Nothing in this world is free, and what I like more than anything is to be entertained, so I want you to entertain me."

Naruto licked his teeth behind his mouth and pondered what the man meant. There were many forms of entertainment here, and it was safe to say this man wanted him to use one of those methods to entertain him. Could it be Chocobo Racing? No. Dio liked those, of course, but he couldn't see that being what this man wanted from him.

"How are we going to entertain you?" asked Aerith.

"Don't worry, it's nothing too difficult," Dio said, chuckling like he'd won the lottery. "You two haven't had a chance to test out my Battle Arena, have you? I want you to show me your fighting skills. Just you, boy. I got to see a little of your talents up close when you were here before, but I'd like to see just how powerful you really are. I'm expecting a good fight!"

So that was it. Naruto knew only a little about the Battle Arena, but it was a place where competitors fought against monsters captured from all around the world. There were no safety measures put in place, so death was a very real possibility there. It was, in essence, a blood sport.

"You waited until Cissnei left to speak with me on purpose, didn't you?" Naruto asked at last. Dio said nothing, and he sighed. "All right. I'll put on a good show for you, but don't blame me if your other competitors run out of monsters to fight."

"Ha ha ha! That's what I expected you to say. Come on, boy! It's time you showed me what you're made of!"

Dio turned around and began walking away. Aerith and Naruto glanced at each other, then followed after the eccentric man.

Dio led Aerith and Naruto to the Battle Arena, which looked like a massive castle from times long past. Naruto caught a glimpse of spires rising to the ceiling as they walked up the steps and entered the arena's main room. There were already several dozen people milling around, though all of them stopped when they caught sight of Dio—they must have known who he was.

Without a care for the eyes on him, Dio led Naruto and Aerith to the reception desk, where a young woman stood with a bright smile.

"Mr. Dio, it's rare to see you make a visit like this," she said.

Dio grinned. "Today's an exceptional day. I have a fighter here who I am interested in. I'd like to personally sign him up for our trials."

"That can certainly be done." The young woman turned to Naruto. "I assume you are the person who will be taking part in the trials?"

"Seems that way," Naruto said, shrugging.

"In that case, I'll need your name and age. You'll also need to sign this form. Don't worry. It's just to let us gain plausible deniability in the event you are crippled or even killed. Now, please sign here. Here. And here. There, all done. Please go into the waiting room over there and wait for your name to be called."

The woman had Naruto sign several slips, which he thought looked a lot like the permission slips he'd signed during the Chunin Exams—the ones that basically stated Konoha wasn't responsible if he died. He signed them without a care. Then he turned to look at the archway that led into what he presumed was the waiting room.

"Good luck, boy!" Dio slapped Naruto on the back.

After giving the man an aggrieved smile, Naruto began walking. Aerith tried to follow him. Dio stopped her, however.

"Only fighters are allowed in the waiting room. Come with me. You can use the VIP seating to watch the battles."

Aerith looked conflicted for a moment, but then she nodded and followed Dio through another door. On the other hand, Naruto found himself wandering into a modest room with several lockers and two long benches traveling lengthwise across the floor.

Since he didn't have anything else to do, Naruto went over to the first bench, laid down, and decided to get some rest until it was time for him to fight.

The VIP seats were located far above the arena's main seating area. It was inside of a small capsule-like space hanging from the ceiling, and the only way to reach it was by a special elevator accessible only to Dio and a select few VIPs.

Aerith was fairly used to pomp now, so she didn't bat an eyelash when they entered a lavish room decorated with all manner of strange art. She glanced at a bust of what appeared to be a warrior with chiseled features and a mohawk. Perhaps this was one of the people who had fought with distinction in the Battle Arena. There was similar artwork decorating the walls, corners, and ceiling. At the other end was not a window like she expected, but a massive television that allowed her a perfect view of the arena floor, where a young woman with dark skin was facing off against what looked like a giant spider.

"What do you think?" asked Dio.

"It's an interesting room," Aerith allowed.

"I was expecting you to sound much more impressed." Dio seemed depressed for a moment, but then he shrugged. "Oh, well. At least I'm getting to watch something interesting. Come. Sit down and order some food. Everything here is on me."

"Oh, thank you."

Aerith didn't much care for the decorations, but she was famished. The finger foods from that pompous party had not been enough to fill her up. Naruto was probably even worse off. That man ate like a horse.

She sat down on a comfy armchair before the television and tapped some buttons on the armrest to pull up a menu. She stared at the hovering menu before her. There were a lot of options. Some of the foods being presented were ones she had never heard of, but she quickly found something she knew she'd like and made the order. Beside her, Dio was also sitting down and ordering some food.

A ripped dude who looked like he belonged in a bodybuilding contest entered the room several minutes later carrying a massive platter of all the food they ordered. Aerith couldn't help but gawk at the man's bronzed body, covered in shiny oil. The glistening muscles were so gratuitously displayed that she found her horrified eyes drawn to them like moths to a flame. It was like a train wreck. Even though she wanted to look away, she couldn't no matter how hard she tried.

"For you, ma'am," the man said in a deep baritone.

"Oh… um… thank you," Aerith said as she accepted her food with great uncertainty.

"I see you appreciate muscles as well," Dio said with a grin.

Aerith just gave him a weak smile.

Dio began telling her all about his love for showmanship and fighting as they ate, and Aerith pretended to listen, nodding along and adding comments when appropriate. She really didn't want to hear this muscle-obsessed man talk. She didn't have a choice, however, since she was only here because of his good graces.

Ugh, I just want to get out of here and have sex with Naruto.

Aerith would not call herself sex obsessed, but she wouldn't deny that she loved being intimate with her boyfriend. She felt connected to him when they were one like that. It was something she hadn't experienced with anyone else, not even her first love.

Aerith wondered what Naruto would look like if he wore a speedo like the one that other man had been wearing. The image that appeared within her mind almost made her drool. Unlike the muscle-bound brute who could have passed for an ogre, Naruto's body was not bulky and disgusting. His muscles were toned from years of training, his frame sleek—streamlined even. He had an athletic frame that possessed very little excess. Yes, he would probably look delicious in a speedo. And now that the idea was firmly planted in her mind, Aerith decided she would one day make this dream of hers a reality.

"Looks like Naruto's battle is about to start," Dio said suddenly.

Aerith turned her attention to the television to see that, indeed, Naruto was walking onto the arena floor.

"Now that the normal matches are over, we have a special treat for all of you! Our sponsor, Mr. Dio, has taken an interest in a young man with a talent for combat and has requested this man display his prowess for your viewing entertainment. How will he do against the horde of monsters arrayed against him? Will he survive? There is only one way to find out! Ladies and gentlemen! I give you our combatant: Naruto Uzumaki!"

The crowd roared as Naruto entered the arena floor through a large archway, though he couldn't tell if it was approval, or if they just wanted to see blood. He grinned and waved anyway. Since he had been asked to put on a show, that was what he planned to do.

Unlike many of his companions, Naruto didn't wield any visible weapons—even his kunai were small and relatively unnoticeable. He probably didn't look like much to these people.

"And now it's time to bring out the monsters! Let the battle begin!"

As the announcer shouted some more, a door on the other side of the arena opened. Half a dozen monsters of the same type rushed out. Clawing forward on four double-jointed legs, covered in leathery skin, and sporting a pair of sharp front teeth, they looked almost like if someone crossbred a rat with a lizard. A stench like BO drifted from the creatures. Green fumes wafted from their mouths. Poison? Acid? Naruto didn't know, but he had no intention of finding out.

Naruto did not give these creatures a chance to attack him and instead went on the attack. He had already inserted some lightning materia into his arm and fired a condensed burst of lightning that struck the first creature on the nose, lighting it up like a fireworks display. While the first enemy was paralysed, Naruto switched out lightning for wind, swinging his arm and sending a sharp blade that sliced the second creature in half.

Running forward, Naruto removed a pair of kunai from his pouch, wielding them in a reverse grip as he leapt into the air. He flipped over the head of one creature, which opened its mouth and released a stream of green goop. It missed. Splashing against the ground, the goop hissed and steamed. That was definitely acid. Now knowing he needed to be mindful of whatever acid sacks were located inside their bodies, Naruto landed on one of the creatures and plunged his kunai into it, the blade extending to several feet as he channeled the wind element through it.

Blood exploded from the creature as its insides burst. Naruto leapt off the monster just as two others turned and launched acid at him. The acid missed him but struck the already dead monster, melting its corpse into a puddle. That acid was pretty strong. If it hit a person, there was no doubt they'd be killed. It would melt right through them.

Switching his wind materia out for fire, Naruto slammed his hand into the ground, unleashing a wave of intense flames so hot even he began to sweat. The fire wave swept across the arena floor and slammed into the rodent-like creatures. Squeals of pain erupted all around him. Naruto once more switched out fire for wind, then threw a kunai coated in a wind blade at one of the monsters. It impaled the creature's forehead, then passed through its body and emerged from the other side.

Three were dead, which meant there were only three left.

The remaining three tried to surround Naruto and launch acid at him. He was too nimble, however, and hopped away from the attacks, spinning around and closing the distance between him and one of the creatures. It didn't stand a chance. Naruto slammed his foot into the monster's nose. His kick was so powerful the monster was launched into the sky, flying in a parabolic arc before it struck the ground, bounced once, then went still.

Naruto had broken its neck with that kick.

None of the other monsters stood a chance. Naruto made short work of them, using a combination of kunai, taijutsu, and ninjutsu. The first one had its head removed by a wind blade and the second one was impaled through the heart when Naruto spun around and stabbed it with his wind-coated kunai.

"Ladies and gentleman! I cannot believe what I am witnessing. In less than five minutes, this one man has defeated six Lizard Rats! This has to be a new record!"

As the crowd cheered, Naruto raised his hand and waved.

"That's how you do it, Naruto! Kick their butts!" Aerith cheered as her boyfriend demolished the Lizard Rats. Dio was grinning beside her.

"I knew there was something special about that boy. I've never seen anyone as strong as him." The man crossed his arms and nodded like he'd come up with the most incredible idea ever conceived. He seemed inordinately pleased with himself.

"My boyfriend is amazing," Aerith confessed with pride, puffing out her chest. She was not really interested in blood sports like this, but even she couldn't help but be pleased with how impressive a display her boyfriend was putting on. Of course, she was already aware of Naruto's strength. If you were to ask her, she would tell you there wasn't a single person on this planet more powerful than Naruto.

"He is very impressive, but this is just the beginning. I want to see how far he can go." Dio pressed a button on his armrest, which connected him to someone. Static crackled from the other end like it was having trouble receiving their signal. "I believe it's time you bring out the other monsters."

"Yessir."

"This has been an impressive showing by our newcomer!" the announcer blasted over the speakers. "I believe everyone can see now why Mr. Dio had this young man enter the Battle Arena. Never in all my years have I seen someone who possessed such strength, speed, and unique materia. I'm sure everyone can agree that this has been an entertaining battle—but it's not over yet!"

Naruto listened with one ear as the announcer continued to talk, choosing to use this time to scan the crowd. He didn't recognize anybody. That didn't surprise him.

"It's time to bring out the other monsters! I hope you're all ready to see more of what makes Naruto Uzumaki tick! Let's ruuuuumble!"

The gates opened again. Naruto turned around as a dozen monsters appeared from within, some bounding forward on four limbs, others walking on two, and one of them even flying. The flying one was a wyvern, a creature with thick scales, a long tail, two wings, and the head of a dragon. It looked vicious, but it wouldn't be the most dangerous monster in this battle.

One of the creatures at the front of the pack snarled at him—a massive biped with disjointed limbs, craggy brown skin, and what looked like a shell on its back. It reminded Naruto of the turtlemen he fought in the sewers beneath Don Cornero's mansion, except this one was massive. It easily towered at least a meter over Naruto in height. He couldn't even begin to guess how much this thing weighed, but it was obviously the most powerful monster within this group.

A pair of Dire Wolves leapt around the creature, bounding toward Naruto, who remained where he was. They pounced, tearing his body limb from limb with claws and teeth—or that's what should have happened.

Naruto disappeared in a puff of smoke.

"TSUIN RASENGAN!"

The real Naruto appeared behind the Dire Wolves and slammed a pair of Rasengans into their spines. Twin howls of pain echoed around the arena as the pair were slammed into the ground hard enough to crack the arena floor. They didn't get back up. They were dead.

Naruto didn't stick around after killing the first two monsters, choosing to leap back and avoid the acid being spit from some type of plant monster. It was fairly large, though not as big as the ogre-esque turtleman, with a bulbous head that sloshed with acidic liquid. Some dripped out of the bulb, struck the ground, and melted right through it with a hiss.

He would have gone after this creature, but the baddest enemy in the group had finally reached him. Wielding a club, it swung its weapon with all its strength, the air whistling loudly as it was rent. An attack like that would have killed a normal person if it struck. Nevermind breaking their body—they'd become nothing but a stain on the ground.

"RASENGAN!"

Naruto didn't dodge. He slammed a Rasengan into the club. The ground beneath him cracked and his knees buckled, but the club shattered. Before the surprised ogre could recover, Naruto leapt, Rasengan still in hand, and smashed the jutsu into the monster's face. Gore splattered all over as Naruto drilled through it. He landed back on the ground as the corpse wobbled, kicked the thing's shins out from under it, then watched as it fell onto the plant monster, squashing it flat.

Naruto took a deep breath in, breathed out, then exploded into action. He jumped into the air as the wyvern tried to attack him with its tail. A spike protruded from the end, shaped like a hook. It would be painful to get stabbed with that. Landing on the creature's back, Naruto pulled out some ninja wire and slung it around the monster's neck. He held the wire in both hands, tightened his hold, and manipulated the wire to both strangle and direct where the wyvern would fly.

Gurgling noises echoed from the wyvern's mouth as it tried to suck in oxygen that would not come. Naruto narrowed his eyes as he directed the wyvern to fly right into a Bagnadrana, a type of four-legged dragon with green skin, a horn jutting from its forehead, and another one sweeping backward. The wyvern plowed into the creature, impaling its neck with a sharp beak. As the dragon released a death cry, Naruto slammed a Rasengan into the wyvern's back, killing it.

Cheers echoed from all around him as the crowd went wild for his fighting prowess. They were having a blast. He could see the excited smiles even from this distance, and that made him grin. He felt like he was back in the Chunin Exams, showing everyone what he was worth, proving that he wasn't the loser people made him out to be.

Naruto was no longer the same brat he had been back then. He was more mature, having been forged into a warrior through the fires of combat and war. The enemies he had fought were fearsome, the ideals he clashed with had made him question himself, and he had eventually lost the spark that he derived from combat. Now it felt like he was getting those feelings back. It was an exhilarating feeling he'd nearly forgotten after so long.

Still wearing that smile, Naruto turned toward the remaining six monsters. He would put on a grand show for these people.

It perhaps went without saying, but Naruto won, defeating all the monsters that appeared before him with strength, panache, and showmanship. The crowd had gone crazy for him. Even the announcer was screaming his head off at some of the maneuvers Naruto pulled during combat.

After the battles were finished, Naruto entered the main reception room of the arena to the cheering of a massive crowd. There were a lot more people now than there had been when he first entered. Naruto rubbed the back of his head as the cheers washed over him. He didn't know what to do in this situation, though part of him wanted to play up the crowd's jubilation.

"Naruto!"

Before he could do just that, a figure burst from the crowd. It was Aerith. She ran over to him, leaping forward as though to pounce. Naruto caught the girl within his arms and spun around to avoid injuring her. As he set the auburn-haired woman back on her feet, Aerith embraced him for all he was worth, laughing.

"That was amazing! I didn't realize you were so strong!"

"Yeah. Well, you know. I haven't needed to show off some of those moves since coming here."

It was more like he couldn't. A few of the things Naruto had done were dangerous to do when surrounded by allies. They were attacks specifically meant to be used in one versus many fights and were just as likely to injure an ally as an enemy.

"I guess you really don't need any of us if that's how strong you are."

"That's not true. Battling in a group makes things easier for me. I don't have to use such dangerous tactics to win."

The crowd settled down and a section parted to admit Dio through. Naruto and Aerith, still in each other's arms, looked at the man as he walked up to them, grinning like he'd won the lottery.

"That was a magnificent showing! Ha ha ha! I knew I was right about you. You're an incredible warrior. How would you like to fight here as one of my main attractions?"

"No thanks. I only did this because of our deal."

Dio nodded. "I figured as much. In that case, follow me."

Naruto and Aerith followed Dio as he led them away from the Battle Arena, through a series of corridors, and into a large room that looked like a vault or some kind of museum for unusual artifacts. Several pictures hung from frames on the wall. All of them depicted burly men and women who were maybe Dio's family. Naruto didn't know. There were also a number of pedestals, upon which various artifacts sat. Some of them were things he had never seen before, but there were a few that looked like special materia, models of ships and cars, and in the center of it all was an object that stood out.

The first thing Naruto noticed about it was its vibrant glow. It gave the object a luminescence that made it appear transcendent, like something that didn't belong in this world. He at first thought it was materia, but that wasn't the case. Larger than any materia he had ever seen, the silvery object had strange glyphs transcribed onto its surface. He couldn't make heads or tails of it, but Aerith stared at the object with something akin to reverence.

Dio went up to the object, grabbed it, and presented it to Naruto.

"This is what you wanted, right? The Keystone? It's yours for now, though I would appreciate it if you returned it after you are done."

"I'll do my best," Naruto said as he took the item from Dio's hand. With this, they had the object they needed to enter the Temple of the Ancients and confront Sephiroth.

Naruto and Aerith returned to the hotel to discover that everyone else was already back. Yuffie was none too pleased when she discovered that the two had gone off on their own, but she and the others became shocked when Naruto presented them with the Keystone. None of them knew what to say for the longest time.

"So now that we got the Keystone, what are we gonna do?" asked Barret.

Stashing the Keystone back into his pouch, Naruto addressed the question. "We'll rest here for the night. Tomorrow, we'll begin our search for the Temple of the Ancients. I've received a hint from Dio that the temple is on an island somewhere southwest of the eastern continent."

"There are quite a few islands out that way," Cid grunted, crossing his arms.

"Then we'll just have to scour all the islands until we find the right one," Naruto said.

"And what will we do with the Keystone in the meantime?" asked Cait Sith.

"I'll keep it close by. Wouldn't want to risk anyone stealing it," Naruto said.

No one could say anything against that, and so they all split off to do their own thing. Naruto was about to head into his room to get some rest—the fight at the Battle Arena had tired him out—but before he could go, someone blocked his path. If the red cloak wasn't a dead giveaway, then the dark hair and crimson eyes were.

"Vincent? What's up?"

"I need to talk to you in private," Vincent said after a moment.

"All right," Naruto said at last. "We can talk in my room."

Vincent followed Naruto into the bedroom he shared with Aerith. His girlfriend wasn't following him, having already dragged Yuffie and Tifa off to do some girl things—he daren't ask what. Walking over to the bed, Naruto sat down as Vincent leaned against the wall, hand resting lightly on the butt of his shotgun.

"What did you want to talk about?" asked Naruto.

"Cait Sith. There is something strange about that thing. It is supposed to be an automaton, a machine run by programs, but it's far too animated for that. I believe it is being controlled by someone. I also do not believe that person has our best interest at heart."

Naruto nodded, as he had already suspected as much. Cait Sith's entire reason for coming with them was it apparently got an unusual prediction that it didn't know the meaning of, but that was a very threadbare excuse. If this thing had been a simple robot, it would not have even thought about the prediction's meaning.

"I'm pretty sure Cait Sith is being controlled by someone working for Shinra," Naruto confessed.

"If you know that, then why are you keeping this thing with you?" asked Vincent, narrowing his eyes. "Nevermind. I think I know. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

"Exactly," Naruto agreed.

Vincent closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he nodded and stood up.

"I won't tell you what to do, but be careful. Sometimes keeping your enemies close can come back to bite you."

"I know. Don't worry. I'll be careful."

Vincent soon left. When the door closed behind him, Naruto laid back down, closed his eyes, and tried to get a bit of shut-eye. The Keystone rested inside of the pouch attached to his hip.

Naruto woke up to a weight on his hips and soft fingers massaging his skin. He blinked his eyes open to discover a smiling woman with bright green eyes and auburn hair straddling him.

"Aerith… what's up?"

"Let's go on a date."

"Come again?"

Aerith climbed off Naruto as he sat up in bed, stretching his arms. His muscles were a little stiff. The feeling of them stretching taught was pleasant after the several hour nap he'd gotten.

"I want to go on a date," Aerith said again. She crossed her arms. "We haven't been alone together for a long time now."

"That is true…" Naruto glanced at the nearest clock hanging from the wall. It was pretty late in the evening. "I guess we could go on a date. I'm not tired anymore after that nap."

"All right!" Aerith cheered. "Time for our date! This'll be our first one in quite awhile!"

Naruto smiled at the young woman's good cheer. "Let me take a shower first."

There was a restroom attached to the hotel rooms, so Naruto took a very quick rinse, washing off the accumulated dirt and sweat from his battles. Now that he was thinking about it, he'd gone to sleep like this. It was a good thing a maid would come by to change their sheets. He didn't want Aerith sleeping in his stink.

He got out of the shower, got dressed, and exited the bathroom where Aris was already waiting. It looked like she had also changed. Her outfit was no longer the typical pink dress and jacket combo. Now she wore the scarlet dress she had received back when they were attempting to sneak into Don Corneo's mansion. She had even added a touch of makeup, highlighting her brilliant emerald eyes and soft lips.

"You look great. Does this mean I should wear my suit?" asked Naruto.

They had recently bought him a slick suit for attending social functions while acquiring information on the Keystone, since he couldn't dress like a slob while meeting with the rich and famous. It was an outfit Aerith and Cissnei had picked out for him.

Aerith nodded and beamed at him. "You definitely should. That way we can match."

"Okay then."

Naruto peeled off his current outfit under Aerith's watchful eye. He noticed the way her eyes followed him as he stripped until he was in nothing but his briefs, went over to the dresser, and grabbed his carefully folded suit. After putting it on, he turned to Aerith and raised an eyebrow. She clapped.

"You look good. And now that you look good, let's get this date started."

Naruto offered his arm to Aerith, who took it as they left the hotel room. They traveled to the lobby, where they found Vincent sitting with his arms crossed and an emotionless expression on his face—not that this was any different from how he usually looked.

"Vincent," Naruto greeted.

"Going somewhere?" asked Vincent.

"We're going on a date," said Aerith.

"What about the Keystone?"

"Keep an eye on my pouch for me."

Naruto tossed the pouch with the Keystone at Vincent, who looked at it dubiously like he didn't know what to do with it, but Naruto didn't let that bother him as he and Aerith traveled out of the hotel.

The Gold Saucer possessed many different forms of entertainment. From gambling on Chocobo Races to watching plays and going on thrill rides, they had it all.

Naruto let Aerith drag him to their destination, which turned out to be a large auditorium. Everything was free once they bought the tickets to enter the Gold Saucer, so the pair simply traveled down the stairs and found a pair of empty seats. They sat down. There was another couple sitting next to them. When Naruto turned his head to greet the pair, he found two familiar faces staring at him in surprise.

"Cloud. Tifa. You two on a date as well?" asked Naruto.

"Oh! It's good to see you two! We're not interrupting, are we?" asked Aerith.

Tifa gave them a smile as Cloud turned his head, cheeks red.

"You're fine," Tifa said. "I should have expected to see you two at some point. There's no way Aerith would let the chance to go on a date pass."

"Dang right," Aerith said with a nod.

"It looks like the play is starting," Cloud said.

The play was something Naruto would have called very typical. A young princess was kidnapped by an evil dragon. The king requested the aid of the young hero to rescue the princess and slay the dragon. He went on a long journey, braving dangers, having strange chance encounters with unusual people, and making friends. After finally arriving at the castle where the princess was being kept, the hero fought against the dragon and barely won. However, he soon learned that the dragon was just a pawn summoned by an evil wizard who wanted the princess for himself.

"The acting isn't bad, but these people clearly don't know how to fight," Naruto couldn't help but say.

Cloud nodded. "It's obvious that 'hero' has never wielded an actual sword. Swords are heavy and require not only incredible strength to wield, but they have to be swung in a specific way to get the most out of them. This guy's just half-hazardly swinging his weapon around without a care in the world."

"The special effects aren't that good."

"Materia doesn't work like that either."

Naruto and Cloud had many complaints about the execution of the battles, which they had no issue voicing, though they at least had the sense to be quiet while talking so the other guests wouldn't be disturbed. That didn't stop Aerith or Tifa from hearing them, however. The two women glared at the blonds.

"Could you two please be quiet?" asked Aerith.

"Knock it off, you two," Tifa added.

Cloud and Naruto went silent.

"Boys," the pair of women sighed before giggling at each other.

The play eventually came to an end after the hero defeated the evil wizard, married the princess, and lived happily ever after. Naruto thought the ending was too sappy, but he understood sappy endings were the bread and butter of plays like this. No one wanted a sad ending. Everyone wanted to see the hero triumph since that so rarely happened in real life.

Naruto and Aerith traveled out of the auditorium with Cloud and Tifa. Unlike him and his girlfriend, the other two were not arm in arm.

"What are you two going to do now?" asked Aerith.

Tifa smiled. "I was thinking of heading to the arcade to play some games. Do you two want to join us?"

Naruto didn't mind joining the pair, but Aerith shook her head. "No thanks. I want to spend this time alone with my boyfriend."

"Fair enough." Tifa shrugged, then turned to her companion. "Come on, Cloud. Let's leave these lovebirds alone."

"Yeah. Okay."

"Have fun," Naruto said as the pair left. He turned to his excited girlfriend. "And what are we going to do?"

Aerith opened her mouth to say something, but someone else spoke before she could.

"What you two are going to do is tell me why you deserted me at that party."

The person who had spoken was a very contrite Cissnei, arms crossed, prominent pout on her face. No longer dressed in the gown they had bought her, the woman was back in her all black business suit. Naruto absently wondered why the Turks wore suits when they were basically mercenaries. Wasn't it hard to move in those?

"My bad," Naruto said. "Dio wanted to talk to us, so we ended up following him. You were nowhere to be found at the time. That's why we had to leave without you."

"I can't believe you two. You're the ones who dragged me to that party." Cissnei ran a hand through her luxurious brown curls. "Do you realize how long I spent searching for you? I spent at least an hour at that damn party before I realized you two left. Yuffie wasn't pleased either when she realized the both of you were gone."

Naruto had forgotten all about Yuffie. Whoops. It probably wasn't a good idea for a sensei to forget his student. Oh, well. He'd make it up to her by teaching the girl some cool ninja tricks.

"My bad."

"You don't sound all that sorry," Cissnei said with a huff.

"Now, now. Please don't be upset." Aerith wore a congenial smile as she hugged Naruto's arm to her chest, an action that didn't go unnoticed by Cissnei. "Why don't you let us make it up to you."

"And just how do you plan on doing that?" asked Cissnei.

"Hmmm." Aerith hummed and tilted her head, then, in a voice so nonchalant Naruto thought he'd misheard, she said, "why don't you just Naruto and me in bed?"

"Wha—cough, cough—what did you just say?!" Cissnei asked, coughing several times as though she'd swallowed something that had become lodged in her throat.

"I'm kidding," Aerith smiled.

"Jeez! Don't tease me like that!"

Cissnei looked pretty embarrassed, her cheeks stained a dark shade of scarlet.

"Anyway, how about you join us for dinner? That will be our way of making it up to you," Aerith continued.

Cissnei didn't look convinced, but she eventually sighed. "Sure. Why not."

With Cissnei joining them, the duo—now a trio—headed off toward a well-known restaurant.

So much for the two of us having time to ourselves.

Despite his thoughts to the contrary, after she was fed with some good food, Cissnei left them in good spirits. If she found it odd that she was enjoying herself with supposed enemies, she didn't let it show. Perhaps she didn't even realize how much fun she was having.

Once Cissnei left them, Naruto and Aerith decided to try some of the thrill rides. There were quite a few.

The first one they tried was a haunted mansion ride. They sat in a vehicle that looked like a pumpkin and were ferried through a mansion filled with spooky creatures like ghosts, monsters, and other manner of monstrosity. Neither of them were frightened, having fought much worse. Aerith screamed and clung to Naruto anyway. He thought she was using this as an excuse.

He didn't mind.

After the haunted house was an actual roller coaster. Naruto and Aerith stood in line, a towering monolith of metal shadowing them from the lights overhead. Screams could be heard in the distance as one of the vehicles that traveled along the tracks went through a series of loops. Naruto had never seen something quite like this.

"Ooooh! This looks exciting!" Aerith said.

"You think so? I feel like we've gone on more dangerous rides just living. Remember our escape from Midgar?"

"That was different. It wasn't for fun."

"Valid point."

They soon reached the end of the line, presented their ticket to the attendant, and sat down. This vehicle had straps to keep them from falling out of their seats. Naruto wondered if maybe he should stick himself to the seat with chakra… just to be safe. It wasn't like he was scared or anything. Nothing like that. But, you know, safety first and all that jazz.

As Naruto contemplated the merits of sticking himself to the seat with chakra, the roller coaster began moving. The sound of cranking gears was their companion as they traveled up a steep incline.

"Huh? We're kinda high up, aren't we?" Naruto said.

"You scared?" asked Aerith.

"Of course not."

Naruto took a deep breath and steadied his heart. He wasn't scared. He was just curious. That was all. It was nothing more. His heart wasn't racing from fear. Certainly not.

Those were Naruto's thoughts just before the roller coaster swooped down like a rocket. Naruto's hair was blasted out of his face as the wind whipped by him. It felt like his cheeks were being peeled from his mouth. Aerith was laughing beside him as she raised her hands into the air.

"WHOOOO!"

"AAAAAAHH!"

Naruto's scream was lost to the wind.

"Awwwwww, man! That was fun!"

"Right? I'm glad you enjoyed yourself."

"That roller coaster had so many twists and turns. What a crazy ride. I wonder who came up with something so insane."

"Dio?"

"I wouldn't put it past him, but I don't think he has the know-how to design something like this."

Naruto and Aerith had just gotten off the roller coaster, which the two had loved so much they went on six more times before calling it quits. It had been frightening at first. The lack of control Naruto had over his own movements and the roller coaster's maneuvering had put him off, but that was only for the first few seconds of the ride. He probably ended up enjoying it even more than Aerith had.

"What should we do next?" asked Naruto.

"Hmmm."

Aerith tapped her chin and observed their surroundings as they walked.

The area they were in was still the section with all the rides, which meant there was far more than just the haunted house and roller coaster. This place even had one of those ferris wheel thingies. Many of the rides were ones that couldn't be found anywhere else, including a monorail that traveled throughout the entire park, almost like a tour bus that went through one of Midgard's plated sections.

"How about we go on the monorail next," Aerith suggested.

"All right. I'm kinda curious to see the rest of the Gold Saucer anyway," Naruto agreed.

They hopped into the line for the monorail, which seemed a lot bigger than even the roller coaster ride. It must have been due to the height requirements. Even small kids were big enough for this ride, which meant it appealed to families. There were several dozen families in front of them. Everything from young couples to parents with anywhere between two and six kids—one family even looked like they had twelve rugrats. The mom was having trouble keeping them all from going off on their own.

"Poor woman has it rough," Naruto murmured.

"And her husband doesn't look like he's much help," Aerith added.

"He seems to be enjoying watching her get flustered."

"That reminds me," Aerith began, "how many kids did you want again?"

"I'm fine with just two," Naruto answered immediately. "I'd be happy if we could have a boy and a girl. Of course, the boy will have to be older."

"Hmph. I think we should have a girl first."

"Why is that?"

Aerith placed her hands behind her back, entwined her fingers together, and smiled at him with mischief in her eyes. "Because boys are more trouble to raise than girls. They cause a lot more problems. Having a girl first will not only be good practice, and she'll be able to keep her younger brother in line."

"As a man myself, I'm feeling rather insulted right now."

"Awww. Don't be like that." Aerith patted Naruto's cheek. "These are just the facts."

The line moved as their banter continued and they were soon allowed on the monorail. Because Naruto wanted one they didn't have to share, he let several other people go on before him, paid the attendant a small fee, and took the last car. The attendant had been more than happy to shut the doors with just the two of them inside.

"You are devious," Aerith said as she sat down.

Naruto just shrugged. "I am a ninja, after all."

It was a few seconds before a voice came over the monorail's speakers, warning passengers to remain seated at all times and not move too much. This ride was technically more like a cable car than a monorail since it was being suspended from above by tracks. It was very different from the roller coaster they had ridden before.

With a sudden lurch, the monorail began moving, slowly as though it was a snail. Aerith leaned over to look out the window, then pressed her hands against the glass.

"Wow! Naruto! Check this out!"

Naruto leaned over and set his head on Aerith's shoulder as he looked out the window with her. They were currently elevated high above many of the Gold Saucer's rides. This section was what he would have called the theme park of the Gold Saucer, as it was made almost entirely of thrill and carnival rides. A glance directly below revealed the roller coaster they had ridden six times. One of the carts was climbing the steep tracks.

"That's quite the sight," Naruto said.

"Look! Look! We're getting close to the Chocobo Races! It looks like they are currently racing!"

As Aerith pointed out, they had arrived over the Chocobo Race track. It was a track with interchangeable parts that could be added or removed and was therefore never the same. This was what kept the Chocobo Races interesting and the biggest reason for its success outside of the gambling that took place. At the moment, several Chocobos were running down the tracks, their riders fiercely gripping the reigns of their respective Chocobo. Naruto thought he recognized a few of them.

"This kinda makes me want to race some more," Naruto said.

"Will you?" asked Aerith.

"Not right now." Shaking his head, Naruto slid his arm around Aerith's waist. "We currently have too much on our plate to think about more than what our next move should be. This date is just a small respite from that. Tomorrow, we're going to search for the Temple of the Ancients."

"Mmm. I suppose that's true." Aerith leaned into Naruto's chest as he began stroking her taut stomach through the fabric of her dress. "Haaah. Mmmm. Naruto… was there a reason you made sure we had this car to ourselves?"

"Of course there was. I wanted to enjoy my time alone with you. I don't want anyone who could get between us."

"Haaah. Aaahn. How fortunate. I… mmmm… I don't want anyone… haaah. Ohhh. I don't want anyone getting between us either."

Aerith's delicate moaning tickled his senses as he nibbled on her ear and continued stroking her stomach. The way her muscles twitched under his touch filled him with pleasure. The soft gyration of her hips as he pulled her back and sat down stimulated his crotch.

"Mmm. Haaah. You know… aaaahn… I've never done it… in a moving vehicle before," Aerith murmured.

"What a coincidence. Neither have I. Mmm. I'm very glad this dress is so short."

Because the dress was so short, it was easy for Naruto to flip it up. He reached down and began rubbing her through her panties. Aerith gasped as he applied enough pressure to stimulate her even through fabric. A small wet stain began spreading across white silk. That was the moment when Naruto slipped his hand inside of her undergarments and found the soft warmth of her skin. His finger easily slid inside of her.

"Oooh. Haaah. Mmm. How I wish it was something else filling me up, but this is nice… too. Aaaah."

"You like it when I do this?"

"Yes!"

Aerith's body jerked as Naruto curled his fingers and found a small wall of flesh on the roof of her love canal. He stroked it vigorously, which caused the woman's entire body to shudder and spasm. Her moans echoed around the small car and juices trailed down her crotch and thighs. She became even wetter when Naruto pushed his thumb against the hood of her vagina, found her clit, and stimulated it directly.

"Nnngg! Oh! Oh! I… Naruto… if you do that… I'll—!"

Aerith's eyes went wide and her mouth opened in a scream as she came all over his hand. Her feet, planted firmly on the ground, scraped along the floor as she lifted herself off his lap, her body bucking as she squirted her love juices all over his hand. When her body lost all strength, she slumped against Naruto, who wrapped an arm around her waist and continued to stroke the aroused petals of her vagina.

"Haah… haaaah… Naruto…"

"Yes?"

"I want a kiss."

Aerith didn't wait for him to comply. Once she regained her strength, she maneuvered her body around, straddled his legs, and pressed their lips together. Her mouth was hot. The heat from her mouth caused warmth to spread through him. When her tongue came out to play, he was more than willing to meet it halfway.

Aerith slid her hands down his chest, eventually reached his crotch, and began undoing his pants. She reached into the gap and stroked his already hard length. The feel of her delicate, feather-like touch sent his mind into a frenzy.

"It's so hot," Aerith murmured between wet kisses. "It's burning up."

"If it's burning, maybe you can cool it off?" suggested Naruto.

"I don't think that's how this works, but why don't we try."

Aerith was just about to slide his length into her. The feeling of her wet, puffy lips against his head was killing him with anticipation. Yet just before she could lower herself, his communicator rang—loudly. Aerith was so startled she nearly fell off him. She might have had he not caught her.

"Aagh! Who the hell is calling?! Vincent?" Naruto scowled when he looked at the caller ID and saw who was ringing him up. He accepted the call and put the device to his ears. "You'd better have a damn good reason for calling me!"

"… Are you upset?"

"Damn right, I'm upset! But that's not important right now. What are you calling for?"

"It's Caith Sith. You were right. While you were gone, he snuck into your room and was searching around. I believe he wanted to steal the Keystone."

Because of the seriousness of the situation, Aerith and Naruto were unable to continue where they'd left off. He had expected this to happen at some point. Even so, the knowledge that one of their companions had tried to steal from them killed his erection.

I'm going to break that fucking cat.

They made it to the hotel soon after their ride came to an end. There, they found everyone already gathered. Barret, Cloud, Cid, Red XIII, Tifa, Yuffie, and Vincent were surrounding a frightened looking Cait Sith.

"W-what is this?! I swear I wasn't doing anything suspicious! I was just worried about the Keystone."

"Can it, Cait Sith," Naruto said as he walked over to the group, feeling more than a little irate. "One more lie from you, and I'll smash that fucking cat to bits."

Cloud leaned over and whispered in Tifa's ear. "Looks like Naruto is angry."

She nodded. "He's pretty pissed. Vincent must have called them while he and Aerith were doing something. Look at how disheveled their clothes are."

Naruto ignored them as he stood before the supposed prediction robot. Cait Sith seemed to quiver, but Naruto knew that it was not real. This creature was just a robot being controlled by someone far away from here. He didn't know who was controlling this robot, but he was no longer content to simply observe the situation.

"Who are you really?" asked Naruto.

"W-what are you talking about? I'm just Cait Sith!" the creature said.

"I see. So we're playing this game." Naruto smiled as he put one of his materia into his arm, held up his hand, and created a Rasengan that hovered on his palm. "If this is how you are going to be, then I have no use for you anymore. Goodbye."

"Wait! You're going to kill me?!"

Naruto didn't say anything as he prepared to destroy Cait Sith. This was not merely a threat. He had already been aware that this thing was not their ally but someone from Shinra who had been sent to observe them. Naruto had wanted to discover who was in control of it, but torture wouldn't work on something that couldn't feel pain, and so he had wanted to observe Cait Sith's habits to try and determine who the man behind the cat was. But now that whoever controlled Cait Sith had attempted to steal from him, he no longer cared.

With a thrust of his hand, Naruto prepared to end Cait Sith's life.

"Hold on, Naruto! Stop!"

Naruto stopped his attack mere seconds before Cait Sith's robotic life could be cut short. The creature quivered as if in fear, but Naruto paid no attention to him and turned to look at Cissnei, who had entered the door alongside two other Turks—Elaina and Tseng.

He didn't even need to wonder how they got it. Tseng had a cardkey in his hand. They had either threatened or bribed the receptionist to get it. Well, it didn't matter how they got in.

"What the hell is Shinra doin' here?!" Barret demanded to know as he aimed his gun barrel arm at them. Cloud, Tifa, Red XIII, Yuffie, and Vincent also prepared for combat. Only Aerith and Naruto remained calm.

"Sorry, Cissnei. But as much as I like you, I can't comply. I need to get rid of this dirty, little spy since he won't reveal any of his secrets."

Naruto prepared to thrust the Rasengan into Cait Sith's face once more.

"We will tell you everything! So please calm down!" Cissnei shouted.

Naruto paused again, lowered his arm, and let go of his chakra. Cait Sith slumped to the ground as the blond shinobi turned to Cissnei, Tseng, and Elaina. While Cissnei appeared relieved, Tseng's face was blank. Elaina, on the other hand, looked frightened when their eyes met. Well, Naruto didn't blame her. He wasn't sure what kind of face he was making, but it couldn't have been pleasant.

He crossed his arms. "Go ahead and start talking. I'm listening."


Man, it has been a long time since I've posted anything on here. I'm sorry to everyone who was patiently waiting for this chapter.

A lot has been going on in my life. I won't say much, suffice to say not all of it is good.

That said, I finally got around to writing a chapter for this series. Because of how long it's been, I decided to make this a juicy 20,000 word chapter, which I hope everyone will enjoy.

I've forgotten a lot of what I wrote for this series, but since I am mostly following the canon from the original game, I feel confident there are no serious problems with it.

On that note, because I barely go on FFN anymore, if anyone wants to get in contact with me, your best bets are Twitter and Facebook, which is where I have the biggest presence. You can follow me by searching for the following handles.

Facebook: AmericanKitsune
Twitter: BrandonBVarnell

I don't know when the next chapter will be released. I have to get back to work on my light novels. I'm currently writing Man Made God 004, which is the fourth installment of my RPGlit harem series. It's kinda similar to a Chinese novel I read a few chapters of before quitting because I found out the protagonist rapes several women. Anyway, I'll try to write some more chapters of this when I have more free time.

I hope 2021 is treating you well so far.