Chapter Sixteen

"You may as well sit the fuck down, Mr. Vice President, or whatever you are. It's gonna be a long goddamn ride."

Rufus turned around and gave the captain of the Highwind a cool glare, though the man only shrugged and took another drag on his cigarette, his complete lack of concern apparent. Only an hour into their trip and they had already managed to form a mutual dislike for one another. "Ain't much to see out in the dark like it is now, anyway."

"I guess not." Rufus returned the apathetic shrug and left the front window, making his way to the in-flight board room. He was surprised to find Aerith there, sitting pensively at the table with her hands folded. The wonderment from earlier was gone - she'd been the first to rush onboard the Highwind when it'd docked, clearly thrilled at the opportunity to fly on Shinra's state of the art propeller driven aircraft. Now troubles had caught up, leaving Aerith pensive, almost sullen. It didn't seem like her at all.

"I still don't see why you're so troubled over all of this. Shouldn't you be happy? If Sephiroth and the Cetra are in cohorts, doesn't it mean the planet itself is on our side?" A slight smirk tugged at the corner of his lips. She raised her head and gave him a remarkably unimpressed look, though she matched his insouciant tone effortlessly.

"Our side? I'm not too sure what you mean by that, Mr. Vice President."

"I think I mentioned at some point that I'm the President."

"Oh, that's right. I keep on forgetting." Aerith gave a big, exaggerated shrug, and it was just slow enough for him to know she was mocking him. Though he wasn't sure what else to say about her, he definitely respected her spirit. Things didn't seem to be going her way; he could tell it by the troubled look she couldn't quite manage to hide and the worry furrowing her brow. Despite that, the girl still had an edge, at least enough to take whatever Rufus said in stride. A hard nut to crack, though he liked to think that maybe he did have some leverage over her now that she had confessed to her own confusion. Ancient or not, she barely knew more than he did.

"It's strange. All these years we've been hearing about how Shinra's reactors are destroying the Planet. But seems like the Cetra have found a use for them now, huh? Anyone with principles wouldn't side with an ally whose methods are completely against their own values, right? But doesn't seem like your ancestors feel that way. They might be as selfish and opportunistic as us humans. So much for being guardians of the planet." Rufus didn't need to say any of this, of course. Aerith was already aware of the contradictions, clearly, and bringing it up again only counted as so much needless cruelty. But Rufus couldn't help but be satisfied. The years his father had spent chasing this girl had yielded not a single tidbit of useful information or data, but here she was, willing to lead him right to the threshold of something literally beyond the imagination of any of Shinra's other hopelessly short-sighted and stupid executives.

Aerith didn't acknowledge his taunts. She never did - and yet today she was still uncharacteristically serious, only sitting and looking at her own hands in silence. He wondered if she was pondering her own helplessness, and a moment later her dour mood made his thoughts turn inwards, too, towards the lingering suspicions in his own mind.

Taken alone, her confession didn't mean much, nor did it reveal anything Rufus hadn't guessed. It was obvious Sephiroth had something on his side that went beyond even the supernatural power granted to all SOLDIER first class specimens. The fact that all those charming old legends and empty mysticism about the Cetra somehow being innocent protectors of the Planet weren't at all close to reality didn't surprise Rufus either, especially after being raised among the large-scale gathering of cutthroats and vermin that made up the upper echelons of Shinra Electric Power Company. He'd long since learned that no one with power was innocent. But the implications hidden just beneath the surface of Aerith's tale were disturbing.

"How do we know that it isn't just Sephiroth who's manipulating the Cetra, and not the other way around?"

"We don't. We don't really know anything."

"But you know a lot more than what you told me earlier." Rufus pointed out. Aerith lowered her eyes for a moment, before looking at him with a surprisingly direct expression on her face.

"It's a feeling I have. Something I can sense from the Planet… something I can sense from listening to their voices. They've changed. They're not like they should be. I can hardly ever hear my mother's voice anymore... I'm worried." Aerith didn't come out and say it, but Rufus almost pitied her for being so certain in her parent's infallibility that the mere thought of them being manipulative, lacking any kind of principle and possibly spineless was disturbing to her. She didn't look willing to say anything more, though Rufus didn't mind. He rose to his feet, thinking it was probably best to leave her to her thoughts and retire for the night. They wouldn't be landing on the Northern Continent until morning, and if she didn't say another word it didn't matter. He had what he needed, anyway.

"I'm glad you're agreeing to do this," Aerith said, just before he left the room. Rufus paused.

"You have to know this trip isn't just for you."

"...It's pretty obvious, yeah." She returned to her usual self in a flash, her tone light but her words cutting. "You were saying something earlier about how anyone who works with someone whose values are completely at odds with their own doesn't have any principles? Well, sometimes we really don't get to choose these things."

Rufus just looked at her for a moment, though by now he had learned to take her insults in stride. She wasn't trying to make fun so much as stating the very obvious: here they were, traveling to this supposed City of Ancients, her with thoughts of probing into the true nature of whatever it was that ailed the planet, and Rufus with thoughts of conquest and a lifelong desire to find for himself the one thing his father had dreamed of and yet never grasped. Their goals really were completely at odds.

"You said something earlier about how neither my father nor I would ever find the Promised Land, but you're leading me right to it, aren't you?" Rufus remarked, after a moment. It was almost pathological, how neither he nor Aerith ever wanted to give the other the last word.

"...It may not be what you want. Not anymore. It might not be what anyone wants." Aerith was never smug, never satisfied over the fact that she knew what he didn't, and the look on her face gave Rufus second thoughts again before he had to push them aside. But even as he went to his own quarters and irritably sat at a private desk, too wired to sleep and staring blankly at the wall across from him, he kept on thinking back to the disquieting feeling he'd encountered in Junon, just before meeting Sephiroth for the first time - that all the Mako Reactors, SOLDIERS, and money in the world couldn't hold back whatever was lurking just beyond the edges of darkness.

"So Chocobo-head. What's our next move?"

"Just wait for my signal."

Cloud didn't exactly plan. The elders at Cosmo Canyon were going to give her the lecture to end all lectures for falling in with him, but if they really were going to pull this one off without a hitch, Yuffie had the feeling they wouldn't really care. At the end of the day, a downed reactor was a downed reactor, and judging by the half-hungry half-crazy look in Strife's eyes, Yuffie was certain Shinra's empire was going to have one less leg to stand over when the sun fell.

The rest of her ninja waited, sprawled out over several hundred yards, hiding in the bushes and virtually invisible. They were just south of the reactor, amidst the wilderness near the train tracks. A lot of craziness surrounded them, mutated creatures exposed to the mako and driven past the point of nuts and galloon after galloon of toxic mako sludge, and just thinking about the pure insanity of the morning drew her attention to Strife again. He seemed to be waiting for something, though it was hard to tell what. Down below, the Corel Reactor looked lightly guarded.

"Is Shinra really this incredibly stupid?" Yuffie asked, after a moment. Strife obviously saw what she did, though he dismissed it with a shrug.

"Looks like we're going into a trap, actually. You might wanna turn back. Things are going to be dangerous."

"Well, duh. We're invading a mako reactor, Chocobo-head." Yuffie remained cool, nonetheless, all poise and bravado even if this was beyond anything she and the other ninja had even dared consider. In her mind this niggling doubt that sounded suspiciously like her father's voice cautioned that there was a difference between bravery and recklessness and that she had flung herself right from one to another, but then Yuffie thought about how her father had died and felt some of her exhilaration fade into something colder.

Strife must have seen the sudden change on her face and mistaken it for fear. "This isn't like Nibelheim. That reactor just spewed out monsters, and no one gave a damn one way or another about the town. But this one's more important to them. Newer, too. Shinra won't let it go without a fight."

"You're tellin' me this like I'm not already aware of it, Chocobo-head."

"Well, it's not my responsibility if things get ugly. Not this time, anyway. Just don't get in over your head." Cloud moved suddenly, lifting his enormous gleaming sword and placing it at his back before seeming to melt right into the wilderness. He left Yuffie scowling, wondering just who the hell he thought he was, telling her not to get in over his head when he was the one leading a single-man charge against the core of a damn mako reactor. Still, she crossed her arms and waited patiently. The gray sky started to lighten above.

A light yet bitterly-cold wind rose from the mountains above them and wafted down into the little alcove of trees and bushes where they waited, and even if it was just a breeze an otherworldly howl still rose in the peaks and valleys of Corel, doing its best at giving what wasn't a calm morning to begin with a threatening edge. Yuffie started reminiscing, stupidly enough. Now wasn't the place or the time to start getting all sentimental, but for a few moments the only thing she could think of was something her father had told her, way back when she'd only been a child. The eerie howling in the mornings winds that blew down from Da Chao were the spirits of the dead, he'd said, rising up in agony to lament the coming of the morning light, the only power capable of ending their nightly sojourns into the world of the living. For some reason, thinking of that here and now made her shiver, and Yuffie wanted to punch the old man for telling her something so intensely creepy.

The Capital City of Wutai was nothing more than ruins, these days. She wondered if her father was with those spirits now, howling and wailing and regretting all the way into the afterlife the resignation and defeat that had led all of them to their graves. She had more than one reason for wanting to punch the old man.

Behind her, a few ninja shifted into new places. They were drawing into ranks, tighter now, preparing for a concentrated charge. Breaching a mako reactor wasn't so simple as invading a small time Shinra fortress, but Yuffie didn't think now was the time to start thinking things through. They had Strife. He seemed to know what he was doing, though Yuffie couldn't be sure that he wasn't really just completely crazy. Not that it made a difference – sane men made really boring allies.

The first sliver of pinkish-orange light broke across the gray sky. Yuffie's grip on the conformer tightened, and the eerie winds died way too quick to be natural. Corel itself was taking one big deep gasping breath before things went up in smoke. Sure enough, Yuffie felt the shockwave even before seeing the explosion, then a ripple of green energy - an absurdly powerful materia spell - and a plume of fire erupted right from the Reactor's center, burning the afterimage into the lids of her eyes even when she blinked. The explosion set off smaller explosions in its wake, and the entire reactor entrance collapsed in a miasma of fire and spewing mako.

"How's that for a signal, huh?" Yuffie said aloud, lifting her hand as a warning to the rest of the ninja behind her. Not yet. Not yet -

- Black clad Shinra troops flooded the flat area around the reactor, all with swords strapped to their backs, flanked by regular troopers holding riot shields and rifles. This wasn't the usual Shinra idiot parade. Yuffie recognized those uniforms and felt excitement fade and freeze away into something cold and incensed. They were SOLDIERs, a whole flood of thirds and more seconds than she'd ever seen, backs turned to where her ninja waited and preparing to storm their own reactor and draw out whatever was inside.


A rain of morning stars greeted the SOLDIERs and troopers, so pathetic a salvo they hardly noticed it. A second later a cavalcade of explosions ripped their ranks to pieces, and Yuffie wondered why, in all the years of the Wutain War, her father had never considered the simple tactic of tying mako grenades to the end of useless shuriken. She leapt from cover just as the SOLDIER units retaliated with materia blasts of their own. Yuffie went low and charged, her Ninja surrounding her and coming from all sides, all with grim determination written all over their faces. The blasts had taken out most of the troopers and their shields, but Yuffie knew grenades didn't do much to slow down SOLDIERs.

Materia did. Yuffie lit off a row of the strongest spells she could muster using her favorite, an ice materia, then her second favorite, a lightning. The combination was like a very sweet symphony, water all over the place from where SOLDIERs attempted to counter with fire, then lightning rippling out over water and causing a hell of a lot of trouble for anyone on the receiving end. Her father had never stooped to Shinra's level, always used his moldering old weapons and ninjitsu instead of materia, probably knowing all the while that nothing stood against Shinra technology. Stubborn fucking old man, she thought, and plunged the sharp edge of her ninjitsu right into the forehead of a third class SOLDIER before he managed to chop her in half with his sword. It wasn't as big a weapon as she expected. None of them seemed to overcompensate as much as Chocobo-head.

They'd trained for this, and probably dreamed of it, too - fighting toe-to-toe with Shinra. Wutain Ninja were the best fighters in the world, bar none. Shinra monsters were nothing against them, but her ninja were also outnumbered by a force larger than any of them could have anticipated, easily taking them five to one. Yuffie grimly disemboweled another SOLDIER with the conformer then leapt backwards, whistling, warning the Wutain ninja to get the hell out of the way. Strife was right. Things were going to get ugly.

Three Wutain ninja came running, and the sickening heavy feeling of mako in the air went from cloying to almost crushing, before another invisible shockwave nearly threw her off her feet. A second later reality itself started rippling around them as her three best spell casters put hands to the glowing red summon materia, and Wutai's own trump card emerged, sinuous and blue-green, the scales of her snake-like body rippling in the half light of early dawn. Beautiful, like always, Wutai's guardian god Leviathan, a weapon that Yuffie knew even Shinra would have loved to have, particularly since so many of their troops had fallen to it during the war.

An immense roar split the morning in half. The SOLDIERs started scrambling, but they weren't fast enough, not even close. A thunderous tidal wave overcame their legs and swept most of them under, trapping them in a maelstrom of swirling water, swords, and allies. None of her fellow ninja were slow enough to be trapped in the spell, thankfully, though Yuffie herself came close enough and had to brace herself against a tree, watching and grinning the entire time, heedless to any real danger. The reactor sat above a scar in the mountainside with glowing mako far below, and as the summon's power grew in immensity the very land beneath it started to erode. This might have been overkill, but Yuffie was far from caring. Wutai had burned. She wanted Shinra to drown.

Its scales gleaming, the dragon twisted around for another attack, planning on wiping out what remained of Shinra resistance. In the blink of an eye, though, something new happened. Yuffie watched a thin sword split the guardian god's skull, seemingly appearing from nowhere. In a flash of silver and black it split apart, cloven in half like it was nothing, blood spewing all over the place now and mingling with the water. Yuffie stared in disbelieving horror as Leviathan fell to the ground, writhed, and disintegrated, the rest of the water flowing away into the canyon and disappearing along with the power of the summon spell.

"...I was right. You're quite a bit bolder than your father ever was."

Neither his voice nor his face had changed. Yuffie dreamed of it all the time, nightmares, surrounded by a burning throne room and watching as a tall, silver-haired SOLDIER killed her father and scornfully tossed the body onto the floor, then turned to her with a cold smile on his face, his eyes over bright with mako and his sword dripping with her father's blood. Childhood had ended on that day. Dreams of stealing materia and harassing Shinra from afar and slowly building up enough strength to topple them turned into the desire for blood and vengeance, to raw burning hatred as intense as the fires that had taken the entirety of Wutai away from her. Yuffie tossed bravado aside and succumbed to rage. Her own father probably wouldn't have recognized her.

The SOLDIER wasn't smiling now. His face was blank even if his eyes seemed to burn even brighter with mako than before, but his reflexes were just as quick. He dodged her first attack and countered with his sword. She blocked the blow and held her ground, casting a high-level lightning spell from her weapon. It was enough to make him leap back. He wasn't stupid enough to take it head on, SOLDIER or not. She dove after him, parrying blow after blow after blow, satisfied to see him on the offensive, grim concentration on his face. Then he cast a spell that she barely managed to block with her conformer, though the raw energy blasted Yuffie backwards. She twisted in midair, managed to avoid his sword, and landed, barely managing to get one foot underneath her in time. He watched her with those gleaming inhuman eyes, speechlessly, then suddenly thrust his hand outwards. He held a small green materia orb in one hand and a spell exploded from it, but it wasn't aimed at her.

It was probably a good thing, because Yuffie watched it strike the reactor head-on, creating a rippling wave of explosions, just like Cloud's signal. The Reactor couldn't sustain a third blast, not after Cloud, and Leviathan. It was a high-level spell, Flare, maybe even Ultima, though Yuffie was certain nothing that resembled a human being could just hold a materia in their hand and cast one of those like it was nothing. He could, somehow. The reactor gave way, its supports crumbling, its inner core suddenly blowing sky high with mako, and fire raining down all around them. Yuffie stared in bewilderment as Shinra's reactor fell to ruins.


"-Strife met a little more resistance inside than he expected. I don't think that will kill him, though," the silver-haired man said, after a moment, looking towards the wreckage. The reactor finally gave way, sending a blast of mako energy all around them that nauseated Yuffie almost immediately, though through some miracle she managed to stay upright. It collapsed, tumbling right down into the scar in the mountainside, probably going the same way as the Nibel Reactor. It disappeared into the crevasse, falling downwards into the Lifestream below and probably taking Chocobo-head with it.

"It's enough to send a message though, isn't it? This reactor's worthless. It can be spared." The silver-haired man said, still not even bothering to look at her. He made little sense. He wasn't having a conversation with her, she knew that much, and the fact that he seemed to so casually disregard the fact that she was facing him set off another near blinding explosion of rage inside of her. Yuffie charged.

Maybe she should have listened to her father. He'd learned lessons about restraint and caution the hard way, and Yuffie realized in the blink of an eye that the margin of error here was far too slim for her to learn those same lessons. Effortlessly, the SOLDIER flicked around his blade and Yuffie watched cold steel go right through her midsection and felt it emerge from her back. Shards of her conformer, shattered into probably a thousand pieces by a futile attempt to block his blow splintered against her skin, tearing away flesh and cutting to the bone. Her palms split on the blade as soon as she put her hands to it, stupidly and futilely attempting to pull it out. It became very hard to breathe a second later, and Yuffie's vision began to blur.

"The time for toying around is past," the silver-haired man said, now looking directly at her, his blade like an extension of his own arm. He twisted it just a bit, and Yuffie tasted blood in her mouth. "...I've made too many exceptions, and I've spared too many of you fools. I don't think I've made my intentions clear enough."

He flicked Yuffie off the end of the blade in the same way he'd done to her father, only this time someone caught her a second later before she hit the ground. The other Wutain Ninja began charging at him, rage overcoming their common sense, when they should have acted like cowards and ran instead, and in a matter of moments they too were dying on his blade until there was no one left to charge. Yuffie saw a pair of bright blue eyes looking down at her while he held a restore materia, casting it with his bare hand just like the other SOLDIER. He kept on casting it, too, then savagely tossed it aside and pulling out another one. It was a sweet effort, more than she expected from anyone, but Yuffie wanted him to stop and listen. The spells weren't doing much.

"Yuffie… DAMN IT!" Weird. He didn't make it sound like they'd known one another for less than twenty hours, and for that reason, Yuffie choked and forced words instead of blood out of her mouth, feeling she at least owed him an explanation.

"It was him," she muttered, trying to explain how stupid she was and failing to gather enough breath to do so. "...He... he killed…"

"It's fine. I know." Chocobo-head wasn't really used to comforting people much, she guessed, but despite the fact that he had cut her off when she'd made such an effort to speak, he still laid her down gently even despite his inhuman strength and put his hand over hers for a moment. The look on his face was more kind than cruel, not like those other SOLDIERs. When he looked up, though, she could almost sense his rage.


So that was his name. Yuffie had known it before. She'd seen it in the Shinra papers. Still, hearing Cloud say in that way somehow made it real. It was really obvious that he knew the other man and probably hated him in the same intensely personal way she did. Her vision started to blur again.

"What did you expect, Cloud? Do you think anything has changed?" Listening to him now, Yuffie realized his voice wasn't really like what she expected. He didn't sound smug. He didn't sound satisfied. He didn't sound happy in the slightest, only cold and completely dead. She hated him for it even more, even when Yuffie had never thought it was possible to hate him more than she already did.

"Why did you save Zack and me? Why did you save Aerith? What the hell are you doing now?"

"Only what's necessary."

"Why are you just going along with them?"

"Because it's the way things should be, Cloud."

The air went very cold, but Yuffie knew the feeling was just her. Blood, blood all over the place, warm and gushing, yet still very, very cold. Didn't make sense. Probably didn't need to make sense, now that the entire world was starting to blur and tilt around her. Only their voices seemed clear, but distant – like she was steadily drifting away from them. Cloud's voice came out flat and accusing a moment later.

"Why believe a lie, Sephiroth? You have to know by now you're not an Ancient. You-"

"-I understand things very clearly. Obviously you don't. Zack continues to fight because he doesn't know any better, but you have to know your every move so far has played right into their plans."

Yuffie didn't know what the hell they were talking about. The wind was picking up, though, and she kept on thinking of her father's words, the spirits of the dead, the morning... he was wrong about nearly everything, because all Yuffie could hear right now was the sound of everything in the world dying. Not just her. And it was all going black instead of white - fitting, she'd always thought it'd all end in shadow, that everyone who said you just had to wait for that bright light when things fell to pieces was full of shit.

"Their plans? And what about you? Are you just-"

"- A puppet? No. Don't assume everyone has the same weaknesses you do, or you'll underestimate everything." Sephiroth's voice had changed. She didn't have to see his face to know his expression wasn't pleasant. "Did you actually pity me, Cloud? I heard your voice, just once... amidst all of their madness, even, though I could hardly believe what I was hearing. What made you intervene on my behalf?"

No response. Yuffie wanted to yell at Chocobo-head, somehow. Don't be an idiot. Don't listen to him. It's really obvious he's just fucking with you. Too late. Too much blood and her throat was constricting, her lungs no longer working, her breathing more choking and coughing than inhaling and exhaling.

"...I think I know. A part of you will always cling to me, just like a part of you will never be able to think for itself. No matter what else changes about the world, you never do. You're still a pathetic failure, and you're still better off letting others lead you around than following your own path." Sephiroth paused to let it sink in, and she could almost imagine the smirk on his face at the final rejoinder. "It won't just be Aerith and Zack this time. I'll take everything from you."

But Cloud just brushed it off like it was nothing, and Yuffie felt a grim respect for him, Chocobo-headed though he was. "You already did once, and I survived the first time."

He moved from Yuffie's side almost soundlessly, but a moment later she heard his knees hit the ground. She forced her eyes open and saw only swirls of red and black, but she thought she could make out the dim shape of Cloud hunched over and clutching his head, trembling all over. Yuffie whispered something in his direction, some kind of warning that came out inaudible, but in a moment of clarity she saw Sephiroth was still on his feet - he'd frozen, too, and she watched as he took a step back and fell to one knee, clutching his head. She could see visible decay suddenly, not just her own imagination - the seemingly invincible SOLDIER's skin cracking and sloughing like it was diseased, and rapidly, too, spreading up his neck while he coughed and mako came out. Whatever was happening... whatever the two of them had on their side... clearly didn't want them killing each other.

...didn't really matter. A counter attack came from somewhere. A lion with a flaming tail. Fucking elders at Cosmo Canyon, sending out their own warriors, probably knowing Yuffie was in over her head. Fair enough, she probably was. She saw Cloud get back to his feet and turn towards her with wide eyes. Sephiroth was gone, and so was her chance at revenge. Cloud's expression still seemed a little weird for someone she'd just met, but for a SOLDIER, maybe he was a good guy.


Too late, though. Far too late. Numbness overcame her, and she couldn't move. Stringing thoughts together became an effort. It was all screwed up, though, not at all what she'd imagined, enough to think that maybe she should have just stuck with thieving materia and harassing travelers. Maybe that would have been more productive. Maybe her father's resignation really had been wisdom. Yuffie smiled wryly and closed her eyes, realizing that after a pitifully short lifetime of recklessly throwing herself at Shinra and hunting the man who had slain her father, she had nothing to show for it but dying in the dirt and watching everything turn to shadows.

Rufus didn't have to see Aerith's face to know the meaning of her sudden silence. It was apparent to him, too. A horrific scene stretched out before them, decay and corruption spread across a twisted and surreal nightmare. A tense, strained couple of seconds passed by, and Rufus turned to look back at her. Aerith was pale.

Behind them, the group of white-clad Shinra scientists and MPs stood blinking, no one certain what to say or do. Even they sensed the wrongness in the situation, but you didn't have to be clever to spot the problem.

"I can't hear their voices." Aerith said, finally.

He hadn't pictured the City of the Ancients like this, anyway. Perhaps it had been sealed for thousands of years on the Northern Continent, but the decay and dust of years didn't account for the utter devastation spread before them. What had once been white cobblestone pathways were now stained with an oozing gray-black slime that seeped from the crevasses between the stones. The forking roads and pathways in the city led to even more decay, the hollowed out skeletons of houses that had long since burnt in some kind of terrible fire and were now casting twisted shadows in the moon light. In the very center of the city a deadened and crumbling ruin awaited, and it was there that Aerith's attention was drawn. She started on her way, paused, then continued without a word.

Behind him, Heidegger scoffed, and Scarlett let out a cackle.

"Not so grand now, is it? This looks even worse than the most godforsaken slum in Midgar."

Rufus didn't particularly enjoy traveling with idiots, but they were entrenched idiots that he couldn't fire without political fallout, so he ignored the two buffoons and followed after Aerith. One of the scientists hesitated.

"Mr. President. I can't attest to the safety of this-"

"-it isn't any worse than reactor sludge," Rufus snapped, then reconsidered. "Is it?"

"This is definitely decaying Lifestream. It's not like the sludge that comes out of the reactors." Another of the scientists had out a small instrument and was waving it over the ground, and even from where he stood Rufus saw its readings were all in the red. "It's never been processed and converted into mako energy."

"What's that even mean?" Heidegger asked. The man was literally as stupid as a pile of bricks.

"It means it's dying all on its own. We're not responsible for this." Rufus filled in, and he started after Aerith again while everyone else digested his words. No - you didn't need to be a genius to realize how chilling those implications were. Rufus didn't like any of this, was even starting to think that stepping into his father's shoes and taking the reigns had been a bad idea from the very start. Aerith disappeared into the center building and he followed, calling out.

"Hey! You're not planning on escaping, are you?" He didn't put it past her, but when the scientists came with their torches, they discovered a one way street. A path through dead twisted trees led to a lake in and a small house at the shore, and Rufus fought to keep from gagging. A heavy, metallic stench not unlike blood rose from the water, and when he grabbed a torch from the nearest scientist and looked down, he saw it was laced with black bile, clearly more detritus from decaying Lifestream. Even Scarlett and Heidegger looked uncertain now, dimwitted though they were.

The small house at the edge of the lake hid a path downwards, with stairs of glass. Rufus saw some of the others behind him hesitate, and Heidegger threw in the towel entirely, turning to walk the other direction. Not that it mattered - unafraid and yet unsettled all the while, Rufus started down the stairs, discomfited by the splinters and hairline cracks he saw in the glass. He barely breathed until he reached the bottom, then exhaled and looked around at what appeared to be a castle in the underground. It bore the visible signs of decay like the rest of the city - its towers had long since crumbled and fell to pieces, and were now just a shadow of what must have been something magnificent, long ago. Rufus passed through the ruins until he came to more deadened water and found Aerith, kneeling on an altar within the lake.

It took him some time to clamber up to the altar, and once there he paused, looking around in consternation, then back down at Aerith. "Is saying a prayer really going to help this?"

Aerith raised her eyes after a moment, her expression grimmer than he'd ever seen it. "I can't hear their voices. They won't respond to me, not a single one. Not even my mother."

"I thought the Cetra were supposed to be Guardians, but this place looks far worse than anything my father's reactors are responsible for," Rufus pointed out, not sure whether he was trying to rub it in or just pointing out the obvious, thinking all the while of what Aerith had said about the Promised Land. She remained silent, before finally getting to her feet, looking uncertain.

"So? Do you have the answers you came here for?" Rufus asked. It came out borderline impatiently, but he was really growing rather agitated by their surroundings. He wasn't the only one. The MPs and scientists were nervously muttering amongst themselves. Surprising him, Aerith managed a wan smile.

"I do." And she had never managed to look as completely alone as she did now, although the look faded swiftly. It occurred to Rufus that whatever her wishes were, she had probably just been presented with final and irrevocable proof that her ancestors had abandoned her completely. He knew that much, even with only half of an understanding of the situation. Aerith sounded tired and a little wry, like she'd finally embraced a cloying truth she had long anticipated. "...It's worse than I thought."

Rufus said nothing for a few moments, before finally he couldn't contain any of his questions. "So now what? What are they planning? What about Sephiroth, and where did he come from? And what do you plan on doing, anyway?"

But the calm resolution on Aerith's face seemed to say it all, that even if she didn't have the answers to the questions, she had decided on her own course of action. "I don't know where Sephiroth came from, but he's just their weapon. I'm worried that he's manipulating them, maybe... but he's not the cause of this."

"So it is the Cetra. He's just their tool. Well, who am I to complain? If he's working for the Cetra, it means they've given me the best kind of gift imaginable. He could subjugate the entire world if he wanted, through fear alone. I won't have to waste money, not like my father always did. And I have the added assurance of knowing the Ancients themselves are on my side."

Aerith just looked at him, her expression unreadable. "...They've turned against every living thing. The planet is dying."

"So they've said for years. The hippies at Cosmo Canyon, the environmentalists, every Shinra detractor, AVALANCHE… all of them. It's still here, though." Still, something in Rufus waited for the other shoe to drop.

"The Planet is utterly terrified, more so than I've ever seen it. Whatever the Planet wants, the Cetra have forgotten. It's weak, too, almost pitifully weak... diseased, I'd say. It has maybe a year to live, if even that."

The scientists, MPs, and Rufus all stared at Aerith. Scarlett scoffed and walked away, muttering about how preposterous this was, and Rufus just stood, looking at her doubtfully and deciding he liked Aerith better when she was being joking and irreverent with him. Such an uncharacteristically serious pronouncement coming from her just didn't seem right, but his mind kept on sifting through images of dead and decaying Lifestream, untouched by Shinra's reactors, evaporating due to no process controllable by humans. It was out of their control, entirely so, and the very thought began to sink in and stir something in his insides. Neither excitement nor dread fully accounted for what he felt. Aerith looked at him for a moment and smiled sadly.

"I'm probably not very useful to you as the last Ancient... the Cetra are guardians of what you'd think of as the Promised Land, but the way they are now... I won't be able to lead anyone there, least of all myself."

Rufus let that sink in, and decided he had nothing to say about it. "...Just what can you do, anyway?"

The calm resolve on Aerith's face didn't change. "No matter what happens this time, I have no choice but to go against their wishes."

1. Next chapter: well, there's not going to be a nine month gap this time. My "hiatus" is officially over… thank you, anyone that's still reading this story after all this time, and like always, thanks to everyone who has reviewed past chapters, everyone who reviews this one, and all the people who have placed this on their favorites and alerts list.

2. I might have already mentioned this in the notes section of another chapter, but I frequently put short status updates in my profile, or at least reminders that I haven't died, forgotten about this story, or flat out quit writing it. At this point, I'm probably being overly optimistic, but now that I have time to write again I will now try to get back to bi-weekly or twice-a-month updates.

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE LEAVE REVIEWS if you do you'll be my hero