Nanaki saw it once, not long before Meteor and Shinra's public fall to disgrace. Cloud was down at the Gold Saucer running his chocobos because of that small island they'd flown over a few days earlier, the one enclosed with mountains and almost hidden in a thick self-contained jungle. The mouth of the cave had glowed faintly even then, shone with the rippling waves of light reflecting on materia. Nanaki didn't like staying around the birds for long, and it unsettled them, so he'd taken the opportunity to wrangle Cid into flying him north over the Nibel mountains, just to explore. He'd missed roaming the land alone and unbothered, especially where Shinra had not settled permanently.
The region was not lush and hospitable; only perfectly flat and dry rocky lands with bone-chilling winds blowing permanently. Night was falling fast, and though it posed him no problem, he'd rather not rest out in such open, barren land. It left him feeling exposed and threatened. He'd caught a whiff of habitation not long before, and he was trying to follow it despite the confusing winds.
Night had truly fallen by the time he picked out the faint, flickering spots of light from a few windows, but even at this distance he could tell it was a broken husk of a village probably almost abandoned. The shadows of the roofs were crooked and jagged, and there were more dark, forlorn buildings than lit ones. He knew his estimate had been right the moment he first stepped on the broken cobblestones of one of the few streets. He was surprised anyone still lived here at all.
He had no intention of finding them. For him to sneak up on any human in the dark was asking for trouble, so instead he entered the first dilapidated building he crossed and sniffed out a dark corner where he could rest in peace. The room was heavy with the stench of rusting metal, dust and a mingle of rotting smells he didn't try to identify too closely. Soft pads silent, Nanaki let his black and white night vision find him a convenient shadow under some staircases.
He had not expected it to be occupied.
The man smelled just like the room, with a heavier stink of time and death. He was curled up in the corner, wrapped in scraps of dirty clothing, his bare feet sickeningly pale from the cold. Nanaki first thought he might be asleep, but then the man –he was old, with features almost lost in a sea of wrinkles—raised his head and fixed filmy, white eyes on him.
"Who are you?"
Nanaki didn't move, pondering. It was ironic that the man was blind, that he could not see what was before him and thus could not be alarmed that he looked like a monster. Actually, the old man didn't look like he cared about him being there at all.
"I'm sorry I disturbed you," Nanaki finally answered. "I was only looking for somewhere to sleep out of the elements." Normally a protruding rock in the wild would have suited him fine. But there hadn't even been that.
The old man shrugged and shuffled a bit. Making place for him under the staircase. "No harm done. What brings you to this place?"
Slowly, Nanaki moved to sit beside the man, careful not to let him touch his fur. "I found the village by accident while traveling."
"You sound foreign," the old man pondered, leaning his bald head back against the wall. "You ain't from here, aren't you." It wasn't a question, and it was clear he meant the whole northern part of the continent.
"I come from farther south. I didn't know there was a village here."
The old man snorted loudly and grinned. "Nobody does. Not anymore."
Nanaki cocked his head to the side. The man's smell was not so hard to block out that it made him uncomfortable, even from this close. "What happened?" He was sure the man was blind, yet those white, lifeless eyes swivelled to the side and looked right at him.
"You awfully curious."
Nanaki shrugged. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry."
There was a moment of silence, but those eyes never wavered. Finally the old man looked down with a quiet chuckle that rasped in his throat. "You feel right. The story's not too long, anyways." The old man took a rattling breath, pushed his hands under his armpits for warmth, and looked forward at nothing in particular. "Used to be Shinra here before. Reactor's still there, even. Functional and all, and us folks had it easy enough cause of it, despite being such a small, lost village in the middle of nowhere. Bowed our necks all proper to the right officials." He snickered. "I say, because we bowed our heads so much, we finally started seeing what was happening at our feet. Land started turning barren and crops failed."
Nanaki had heard that kind of story before. It was inevitable, no matter where you were, so long as there was a reactor pumping enough of the Lifestream away from the planet. Nanaki rested his head on his paws, sighed quietly. He could not even muster anger anymore.
"Where's Shinra now? The village looks abandoned."
The old man snorted again, a sound like paper ripping. "At the reactor. Still works."
Nanaki raised his head in surprise. "But, the village?" Those lights he'd seen were fire, not electricity. How could this have happened if the reactor was still functional?
The man shrugged as if he'd had this conversation often before. "We stopped using mako energy, they stopped caring about the village and let it rot. We say good riddance."
He couldn't help but stare at this old, rugged beggar, and the only thing he could think of saying was: "Why?"
"Used to be a farming village. Life was hard, but we managed and were happy. With Shinra and the land dying we couldn't farm no more. Had to depend on those bloodsuckers more and more." The man shook his head. "We decided we preferred to stop using their energy and paying their taxes so we could be responsible for ourselves again. Have only ourselves to thank for eating every day." The old man held up a corner of his rags. "I'm a beggar, but those who decided to stay manage to scrounge a living even without Shinra. We can be proud of what we have now."
Nanaki shook his head, bewildered, but understanding the man's feelings and admiring this village's resolve. "But your village is in ruins, the land is still barren. Wouldn't it have been better to sacrifice pride after all? You only hurt yourself, not Shinra, since the reactor is still functioning and bringing in money."
The old man barked a laugh, the sound wheezy and sickly. "Not important if we hurt 'em or not, kid. It's about standing up for what you believe in, even if it means getting the cold in your lungs and seeing people you love leave or go hungry more often than not. Not important that it didn't change anything for them. It was about us. What we wanted to be. We didn't want to be their dogs when they destroyed our land."
"You can't farm anymore," Nanaki pointed out, touched and sad for the villagers, and suddenly he didn't understand all that well how people could find the resolve to willingly cut themselves off from Shinra when they had families and didn't know if they'd even be able to feed them afterwards.
He thought of his father, too, and the image of his stoned body imposed itself in his mind.
"We manage," the old man replied simply. "Maybe we're fools. But we're our own fools."