Chapter 13

Aeris took a deep breath and tried again to lift the heavy panel.

And again, it did no good.

She understood why she and Bugenhagen couldn’t ask for the help of the Cosmo Canyon villagers in repairing the damage to the Core facility, but that didn’t make it any easier to do it without them.

Neither she nor Bugenhagen were particularly strong, and he’d insisted that the sensitive equipment shouldn’t be pushed about by magic. Not that Aeris was entirely sure she knew how to use her spells to move it anyway.

And so, she tried once again, and this time managed to yank the panel out.

She nearly stumbled and fell, because her last attempt must have loosened it, and she wasn’t prepared for its weight.

"You must be careful," Bugenhagen said, with unerring timing. He hadn’t even looked up from his own work. "We may not be able to replace this equipment with the Core facility in its present state."

Aeris carefully set the panel down.

The sound of it, soft as it was, got Bugenhagen to turn around.

She took another deep breath. "Will they be all right?" she asked.

"The panels?" The old Cetra chuckled. "Oh, they’re tougher than they look-"

She looked down at the stark metal floor of the room. "I mean Se... the Destined Ones."

"Ah." Bugenhagen floated over beside her. He lifted her chin. "If those four cannot deal with whatever seeks to harm them, little one, then there is nothing two Cetra civilians such as ourselves could do."

"I suppose you’re right," she said. But his words did little to convince her. After all, Bugenhagen had lied to her friends in AVALANCHE, even to her.

The Study of Planet Life, the book he’d written to inspire such groups to oppose ShinRa... what the book described as a natural cycle, was, in reality, an artificial one, created by the Cetra as a source of power. Since she’d first awakened in the Core facilities, she’d suspected that the book was wrong. But if Bugenhagen was himself a Cetra... it was intentionally wrong.

What had it meant, then? She’d been willing to give her life to protect a Planet she believed to be one all-encompassing life form. Would she have done the same for a power plant, differing from the ShinRa Mako Reactors only in that it did not leak the toxic ‘Lifestream’ into the outside world?

And if Bugenhagen would deceive human allies, deceive Nanaki and the people of Cosmo Canyon, who called him Grandfather, even deceive another Cetra, why not do the same to the Destined Ones?

"Sephiroth has the -Menace- within him," she said. "Can the Destined Ones ‘deal with’ that, too?"

"As long as his will remains strong," Bugenhagen said, "it is perfectly safe. It makes him strong, stronger than any human, any elf, any Cetra... or any Esper. I believe he could destroy all the other Destined Ones, were he so inclined. But he is not."

"You speak of it as though you know him," Aeris said.

"I have eyes, little one. They may not be all they once were, but they are more than adequate to see that in Sephiroth is a power that the -Menace- cannot feed upon, cannot grow strong from. He has purged himself of the weapons of the -Menace-, you see. He does not hate his enemies, he does not fear death, he does not resent or question his place in the world. What has the -Menace- to cling to?"

Aeris looked down again. "Is he then... without emotion?"

She didn’t believe that. If he was, he would never have risked all to save her from Zalbard in Burg’s town square. He would not be fighting to save the worlds, for he would have no reason.

"What do you believe?" Bugenhagen asked.

She shook her head. "No. He feels. He just... controls his feelings. I know it."

"Precisely. He is strong, as he was once weak." Bugenhagen turned back toward the machine he was repairing. "That strength will save us all."

"And... my brother?"

Bugenhagen paused. "So, you recognized it," he said.

She nodded, then felt foolish, for he could not see her. "Yes."

"The Leader troubles me, little one. There is much pain in his heart, much rage. If it were he who had the -Menace- within him, I am sure we would already be dead. Fortunately, he does not." Bugenhagen did not turn. "We can only pray that he comes to terms with himself before he must take his place as Leader."

"So it is true..." Aeris whispered. She’d only half believed it, once the moment and the stream of memories had passed. She had a brother.

"It is. Did you truly believe that we Cetra were ready to turn over to a human the place of Leader?" He chuckled. "All was prepared, till this was the most likely probability. A self-fulfilling Prophecy, as best we could make it."

"How long have you known?" Aeris asked. She bent down and picked up the panel again, finding it not so difficult to lift when it was not embedded in a casing.

"About young Rufus? Since your parents came to the Canyon seeking my aid in saving him from his father, twenty four years ago."

Aeris nearly dropped the panel.

"Why didn’t I tell you before? I suppose that is what you want to know. Tell me, little one, what would you have done if you’d known? Thrown your arms around him and called him brother? And he the president of ShinRa, leader of your enemies. Ho, you would have been shot on sight!"

"You should have told me," Aeris said.

Again, she couldn’t quell her uneasiness. Was Bugenhagen telling them everything? Were Sephiroth, Rufus and the others really safe? Was there really nothing she could have done to help them?

"Perhaps in ten thousand years I will listen to your should-haves, little one. I have seen an empire collapse around me, watched a people retreat into their own decadence until they could hide in it no longer and had to sunder their worlds, stared the -Menace- in the eye, watched all that I knew be torn down, and I will not see another tragedy like that." Bugenhagen’s gentle demeanor had slipped. He sounded tired, yes, but he also sounded angry. When he looked up from the panel this time, it was not to comfort, but to reprimand. "I will not, Aeris Gainsborough. No matter what, the Convergence must be accomplished. If you not knowing of your brother, if the people of this world believing in Planet Life, if my own death and that of a million others is required, I will do what must be done."