Chapter 26

Aeris winced.

Her hand had slipped - again. That would be another five minutes more work, just to repair the damage she’d caused. It wasn’t long, but how many times in the last week had it happened?

She and Bugenhagen were attempting to prepare the Core alone. They were the only Cetra about, and, thus, the only ones who could operate the machinery. But he’d also said that this was a task meant for dozens of men, trained professionals, and she believed it. And JENOVA’s attack had damaged some of the Core’s systems, making the task even longer and harder.

Her body, sore from two weeks of lifting and carrying more than she ever had in her life, had not taken well to this new phase of the preparations.

And it was so hard to concentrate!

No matter what Bugenhagen told her, she couldn’t stop worrying. Why were the Destined Ones taking so long? Surely something had gone wrong! What if they couldn’t find the -Heirs- in time? What if...

What if they couldn’t find anything? What if they were dead?

The brother she’d never known she’d had, and... Sephiroth.

She shook her head.

She had to concentrate. Bugenhagen said that there was little time, and these little mistakes were adding up. She had to trust that the Destined Ones would do their duty - certainly, they were far more capable of it than she was of hers. And she would not fail them.

But her other fears continued to intrude. Bugenhagen was, for the most part, still the kindly old sage she remembered from years past. But increasingly, as his temper grew short, his patience worn thin by the monotonous Core preparations, another side of him came to the fore. The side that had so shocked her weeks before, when he’d spoken of what he would sacrifice to see the Convergence completed safely.

It could be just a reaction to the stress, the waiting. Aeris fretted, and he spoke of sacrifice.

But the more she saw that side of his nature, the more she wondered if that wasn’t his true self, and the kindly old man just a ruse. Just as the Story of Planet Life had been a ruse.

If it was, what had the Destined Ones walked into?

Aeris shuddered, and immediately regretted it when her finger slid across the screen. Another mistake.

She sighed.

How easy it would be to slip into paranoia, to imagine shadows and deceptions that would lead to the deaths of her friends and loved ones, and even the worlds themselves.

She didn’t really believe all of that nonsense. It was just her worry talking, worry because it had been so long since the Destined Ones had left, worry because she wanted to be at Sephiroth’s side.

Her fingers traced lines over the flat surface of the touch pad, moving bits of damaged data into place, just as Bugenhagen had told her to. The preparation program was represented rather like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and Aeris had found herself actually quite good at working with it - she’d always enjoyed puzzles when she’d lived in Midgar, never imagining how useful the experience would be.

And then, the entire screen was full.

Another section accounted for.

Her finger moved down to the button at the bottom, careful not to move any of the data packets. A button press, and it was on to the next set.

Losing herself in the monotony of the work had been Aeris’ only escape from worry, and she’d learned to do it fairly well. Her fingers brushed across the screen seemingly of their own accord, allowing her to slip into a blissful routine.

Until the shaking began.

At first, she noticed it only as a slight vibration, making it harder for her to work with the images on the screen, and she frowned.

But her frown turned into a gasp when a tremor shook the Core, nearly throwing her from her seat. "Bugenhagen!" she cried, praying that the older Cetra would know what was happening.

He was at her side in an instant, a grin on his lined face. He moved with a sudden youth and vigor, seemingly restored by what was happening. "It is nothing to fear, little one," he said, his grin widening. "This is no danger to us."

"But what is it?" Aeris asked.

Bugenhagen chuckled. "It is the beginning. The beginning of the end of this age."

She shook her head. "I don’t understand."

"It is the beginning," he said, "of the Convergence."