Another Chapter is here!

Enjoy!

"So this is it?" Crimson asked as she sat among the reassembled group, minus Kunsel and Cid. The former was on his way to Midgar to investigate the Deepground, and the latter decided to go to sleep, rather than dealing with the 'boring talking' as he called it. To her the Keystone looked like an ordinary sphere of stone that took up the majority of her palm.

"It is," Aerith said. Extending her hand, she brushed the surface with the tip of her fingers. "I can understand it with a glance, like I can with materia."

"Then we're fortunate to be ahead of the curve for once." It was pure luck that Dio had been the one to have it, and was willing to let them borrow it. "Now we need to decide what to do next. Letting Sephiroth get his hands on it is unacceptable."

Tifa offered the first suggestion. "We can grab the Black Materia for ourselves and use it to blackmail Shinra."

"Blackmail them into what?"

"Admitting everything they've done publicly, for one." She crossed her arms as she looked down at the Keystone. "Johnny was talkative before we saw him off. He gave me a lot of insight into what's going on in Midgar and what Heidegger is putting the people who signed up for the program through. He's taking advantage of them for slave wages. It's not right."

"It's not, but to make a threat you need to be willing to carry it out," Crimson said. "Aerith already said that it would only cause destruction on a massive scale, and that's provided you had the energy to use the materia."

"They don't know that," Barret said. "All they know is that everyone's gunnin' for what we got."

"I'm sure by now they've built up a profile on most of us. They'd know that we wouldn't do something like that."

Nanaki took a few steps forward and cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should simply destroy the Black Materia to prevent anyone from using it?"

"It would be the most efficient thing to do," Vincent added. "Without it, Sephiroth can't do whatever it is he has planned and Shinra won't get their hands on it. The last thing they need is another weapon after the Huge Materia from the Corel Reactor."

"I don't think that's possible," Aerith said. "There would be no need to seal something dangerous away if you could destroy it."

Crimson found herself agreeing with them both. Removing it from existence entirely would be the best course of action. But if they couldn't in the past, then what were the chances they could do so now? Then again, if the Temple is secure without the Keystone…

"Aerith, are you sure there's no way to get the materia without it?" she asked again, to be certain. Aerith confirmed that much with a nod. "Then what if we destroy the Keystone instead?"

That caught the majority by surprise, though it was Barret who spoke. "What are you on about?"

"If no one can get to it without this, then it'll remain out of everyone else's hands. Dio will probably be angry at the loss of something he paid so much for, and I hate shoving his generosity back into his face after his doctors saved my life, but we can buy time this way."

"That's working on the assumption that they don't find another way into the Temple," Tifa said. "If we destroy it then all we'd be doing is locking ourselves out. It's better to keep it with us, even if we don't use it."

"And if we carry it on us then we risk the chance that they'll take it from us," Crimson countered. "Right now we're the only ones aware of where it is. If we can't break it then we can toss it in the ocean. Something this small would never be found once it hits the bottom, even with a submarine."

"After what happened with the train, we can't underestimate what they can do," Tifa said to that. "Chances are they'll find some way to track it down anyway and we'll be blindsided."

As they kept arguing their points, Yuffie grew increasingly annoyed by the meaningless back-and-forth. Eventually, she decided to make her opinion known… by grabbing the stone out of Crimson's palm and placing it into Aerith's hands.

"Since the temple belongs to her people and this is her job, Aerith should be the one to decide what to do with it," the kunoichi said. "It's not like anyone else will find it without her or the map we've marked, right?"

Crimson thought about it for a moment before sighing. "… You're right." She turned to Aerith. "It's your mission and your people's artifact. It's your call what we do with it, not mine. Since we're not going anywhere for tonight, you can take the time to decide."

Aerith cradled the Keystone, only giving a slight nod of her head to acknowledge what was said. The group dispersed from Crimson's room after that to enjoy the time they had before they departed in the morning. The only one that remained behind was Cloud.

"You were quiet," she said. "Is something on your mind?"

"Just thinking for a bit," he said. "Not that there was anything I could add there, except maybe you were being a little too hasty in deciding to destroy it. Tifa was right in that instance. If Sephiroth managed to find out about it before Aerith, he could likely find a way that bypasses the seal."

"You might be right." She stretched her arms and legs before sighing. "It's just rare that we've had any sort of advantage after we lost Hojo. It's only a matter of time before something else blindsides us, so I want to make sure we can face them on our terms since our troubles seem to be piling up."

"All we can do is prepare ourselves for when the battles do happen." He turned towards the door and stood silent again, as if contemplating something deeply. Then he turned back to Crimson. "…When's the last time you've eaten?"

"Not for a few hours."

"Then do you want to come with me to get something to eat?" he asked. "We can talk there if things are bothering you that much. I might not be able to help much besides listening, but I've been told it's better than simply holding in all your problems."

Crimson's face reflected her confusion at the offer until it clicked. "Are you… asking me out to dinner?"

"I guess." He shrugged. "I don't have an answer for what you told me in Wutai yet, but I feel that this couldn't hurt."

The admission caught her briefly by surprise given his normal disposition. But the surprise gave way quickly enough and she stood up. "Sure then. I wanted to ask how things have been with your memories as well. You've regained a lot of them since Nibelheim, haven't you?"

"I have." His voice wavered somewhat as he said that. "Some good things. Some bad. But they're mine."

"I'm glad then for that much." She set a hand on his arm while wearing a sincere smile. "Let's go then. You can tell me what you feel comfortable with as we eat."

[-oOo-]

'I'm glad then for that much. Let's go then. You can tell me what you feel comfortable with as we eat.'

The sound of the door shutting was the last thing the bug in the room picked up before Elena felt comfortable enough to conclude that was the end of the discussions. She had gone through painstaking efforts to slip them into all of their rooms, linked to the earpiece that she wore while working. As she strode through the bright corridor her mind raced with the implications.

This was big. They had no reason to suspect that the refuge they took in the Gold Saucer had been compromised. That meant everything they said was likely true.

Leaving aside the fact that the Corel Huge Materia had apparently been taken by a third party, whom they incorrectly suspected to have ties to Shinra, this Black Materia sounded like something they could use to trap both the traitor's group and Sephiroth. She needed to contact Tseng immediately. So she made her way to the private bathroom for employees and dialed his number.

[-oOo-]

"'Your report has been received,'" Shelke said, parroting the words being spoken over the phone line. She was strapped into a machine that allowed her to perform a Synapses Net Dive and monitor the Turks communication lines. "'We will prepare an extraction for you and the priority target. Keep your phone on-hand. Tseng out.'"

As the phone call ceased, Heidegger shifted the cigar in his mouth around in thought at what he had learned. He wasn't worried about the revelation of the Huge Materia being taken since he had personally had the files relegated to Deepground hidden so thoroughly that not even the Turks would find it. But the thought of obtaining the Black Materia and the power it supposedly possessed left him… intrigued.

If the destructive magic it possessed was so great that they were willing to contemplate destroying it, by taking it and adding it to his Deepground forces, he would have unparalleled power. He wouldn't have to keep things underground and could move to the surface, usurping Shinra's entitled brat. And then he could deal with all of these rats nibbling at the base of power he stood on once and for all.

Yes, he needed to obtain it for himself. He could let Hojo work out how to manage to use it safely after that. But first he needed to obtain the Ancient.

She was too vital to let slip through his fingers again. But no matter how often they closed in on those rats, they manage to slip away with her. He needed something to force the Ancient to return to his side willingly—and he knew just where to get that leverage.

Next was the matter of the extraction team. They would need to be dealt with to cover their tracks, as well as that Turk on the other end. She'd outlived her usefulness, as their entire division had, and would be the first to go.

Azul was still being fitted with an inherent Barrier by Hojo, who claimed it could bolster his abilities further. Likewise, Weiss and Nero would remain chained up for the moment. They would be his fallback plan to deal with Sephiroth.

That left one other choice, Rosso the Crimson. The woman was unstable, but certainly capable of killing and desired it as much as she yearned to see the outside. Granting her the opportunity to do both would hopefully reel in her behavior as well—it'd be a shame if he had to put down a valuable asset because she was rabid.

"Shelke, bring Argento and Rosso to me," he ordered. "I have an assignment for you three."

"Order acknowledged," the girl said as she disconnected herself from the machine.

[-oOo-]

Soft laughter lingered in the air as Elmyra found herself in a jovial mood, walking towards her home in Sector 5 with Richard. After some thought and her daughter's surprisingly insistent nudging, she had taken that offer of his to go to dinner. The restaurant itself wasn't too fancy, but the chance to experience foreign cuisine had been something of a rare treat that her taste buds still relished.

She was adorned in a modest green dress with a jacket over it, accompanied with a small purse that had only a few trinkets in it that she could manage with losing, if it so happened to be stolen by chance. Not that it happened often, but she did live in the Slums. Even familiar faces became strangers in the dark.

"It's quieter than I imagined," Richard said. He was walking alongside her, dressed modestly as well. However, she could make out a bulge in his coat from where a firearm was holstered. "And I haven't seen many others around."

"Most of those who are homeless take up residence in the rundown Church when night falls," she said. "Monsters that crop up during then avoid the place, so they've become convinced it's a sanctuary of sorts. The locals believe that the flowers that grow there are responsible."

"That's fitting," he said. "If it keeps them safe until some measures can be taken to deal with the monsters, then it lives up to that role. After all, a church is supposed to be a sanctuary in the end, a place where hope and faith are found."

She raised a skeptical brow towards him at that. "I'm sure you've noticed that faith and hope are rare things down here. Things haven't gotten easier since the Plate Fall, despite what Shinra claims. The only real effort I see being made is the orphanage when I visit, and even then I can't help but have my doubts about its altruistic nature."

On the surface, the orphanage seemed to be above the board when she visited a few times a week. But Shinra was the one who built it. Knowing their role in things, there was never anything good involved below the surface. She was positive that the moment they no longer needed the goodwill it garnered the funding would be reduced or cut.

She sighed. "But enough about them. How are things with Denzel and your mother?"

"They're doing well." He blinked and tilted his head up slightly, so that his nose was in the air. "And I've just noticed that the air becomes richer the closer we get to your home. No doubt due to your daughter's green thumb."

Her smile became somewhat softer upon hearing that. "Yes, the flowers do that. Sometimes it's a blessing, and other times it's a… curse, I want to say."

The choice of words shifted his head to the side slightly, vaguely curious. "How so?"

"It makes me miss her more," she admitted to him. "Every time I catch the scent of clean air and flowers, I recall her face and smile. But she's not there anymore."

"But she does stay in contact, right?"

"Even though she calls me every now and again to let me know where she is and what she's doing, it's not the same. If she's sad about something, I can't hold her and comfort her. If she's happy, I can't smile along with her." She sighed at that. "All I can do is lend her my ears, unable to do anything else besides making sure she has a place to come back to when she finishes."

"I'm sorry you feel that way," he said, the sincerity in his voice loud and clear to her ears.

Elmyra leaned a little closer to him. "That isn't to say I'm not happy for her, before you think otherwise. She's out there exploring the world with people who keep her safe. It's better for her to have that chance instead of living her life entirely surrounded by metal walls and mako… She's meant for great things, after all."

"And what about you?" he asked as they approached her home. "Don't you want to go see the world beyond these walls as well?"

"…Once upon a time, I did." It had been had been so long since she thought about it, but she remembered the talk she had once before with Aerith, before learning of her husband's death. They would have moved to Kalm and lived as a family of three in the countryside. "But my lot in life only goes so far now, and I'm fine with that. As long as Aerith is safe and happy, I am."

"If you want to get out of Midgar, I can make that happen," he said. "Someplace without Shinra's involvement, closer to her. You only need to say where."

The thought of him joking crossed her mind until she saw he was serious. Her hand rose and set itself onto his shoulder gently. "I appreciate the offer, but no thank you. Even if it's not perfect, it's still our home and the memories there are enough."

They loitered there, in front of her house, for a moment. Staring in one another's eyes as something passed between them. But before anything could come of it, the sound of dirt being trodden upon reached their ears from the direction they came.

There was a woman standing there, in a white uniform of military design with streaks of luminescent blue flowing along the sleeves and collar. Her dark hair framed her face with what looked to be a crown, and one of her eyes was covered by an eye-patch. There was a sword on her back.

Richard stepped forward and reached for his weapon, only to crumple to the ground next to her with a pained sound and a bloodied wound on the back his head. Elmyra kneeled down to check on him when the air flickered as a small person appeared and extended a hand between them. A second later, a blade of energy emerged from a handle of some kind to act as a divider between them, the bottom of which had bloodstains on it.

Elmyra didn't focus on the weapon mere inches from her head, the intense glow illuminating her face and ever-present hum of electricity in her ears. Her attention was on the fact that the one holding it was a little girl that had light-blue eyes with an unearthly glow about them. "So Shinra's gone so far now to induct children?"

The girl with short, red hair and pale skin said nothing to that. Instead, the other woman approached them. She stopped short of the three of them, hands behind her back and a calm air about her that belayed the steel on her back.

"My apologies for intruding on your evening," she said. "However, we have orders to take you into our custody, Miss Gainsborough. We are authorized to use as much force as necessary to accomplish that."

"If it's just me you're after, leave him out of this," she said firmly. "I'll come quietly."

The child turned to the one-eyed woman, who nodded her head. Elmyra's chest loosened as the child put her weapon away. "He needs to see a doctor."

"The wound is shallow and the skull isn't cracked," the one-eyed woman said. "He'll be in pain, but he'll live."

"At least wrap the injury and put him in my home then," she insisted. "He's done nothing to warrant being harmed in the first place, let alone leaving him out here on the ground."

The woman looked over him for a moment and something in her eye flickered. She then turned to the girl. "Shelke, see her to the extraction point. I will be there shortly. If a report is requested before I have returned, leave out the… unnecessary details."

"Very well." The girl nudged Elmyra to go forward. "Walk now."

She did so and was led away from her home, unsure if she would ever see it again….