Chapter 37

The Temple of the Ancients


Anyone else would have been nervous being surrounded by enemies on all sides. Not Cissnei. If she was nervous, then at the very least, she did not show it. Her expression remained calm even when confronted by Barret's angry visage snarling in her face. The only sign that she might be feeling the pressure was the small trail of sweat rolling down her cheek.

"There's no need to be so angry," Tseng said.

"Shut up, Shinra scum!" Barret roared. "I'm angry because I have to see your smug face, you damn murderer!"

"Well, I guess I can't deny that I'm a murder, but you're no better."

"What was that?!"

Tseng had been the one who dropped the plate on Sector 7, killing who knew how many millions of people. Their blood was directly on his hands. Naruto understood there was no way Barret could let this go, especially when Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie were among those who died.

Tseng's smile was cold. "If AVALANCHE had never made Sector 7 their base of operations, Shinra would have had no reason to drop the plate. I might have been the one who pushed the trigger, but it was a direct result of your actions. I'd say we share equal blame in their deaths."

"You sonofabitch! I'll fucking kill you!"

"Calm down, the both of you," Naruto said, punctuating his words with a burst of killing intent and bloodlust so intense the pair froze. He didn't normally do this, but they needed to stay on track, and they were getting way off of it.

"Sorry about Barret. He can be a hot head," Naruto apologized to Cissnei.

"No, I'm sorry about Tseng. He's been very confrontational toward you and your group for a long time now. I think it's because you're dating Aerith," Cissnei said.

"That so?" Naruto mumbled, glancing at Tseng, who saw the look and turned his head. So this guy had a crush on Aerith and was jealous of him?

Naruto almost smirked.

"Can I ask when you figured out Cait Sith was a spy?" Cissnei asked Naruto.

"You can," Naruto said.

"But you won't tell me, will you?" When all Naruto did was smile, Cissnei sighed. "Right. Well, I suppose I should tell you everything then."

"Cissnei."

Cait Sith looked like he wanted to stop her, but the woman just shook her head and ignored the talking robot cat. She focused almost solely on Naruto.

"Since Sephiroth is an enemy for both of us, it should be fine if we tell them. The truth is, we already found the Temple of the Ancients. We even know Sephiroth is there."

"I figured as much," Naruto said.

"And you were also keeping an eye on us at the same time?" Tifa inquired, not looking happy about this.

Cissnei shrugged. "Your group is considered a dangerous element, though we've stopped focusing on you in favor of Sephiroth. That said, your group has this unusual ability to get in our way, so we needed to make sure we knew where you were and what you were doing at all times."

"Then that time when Rufus came to Rocket Town…" Naruto said in sudden realization.

"We didn't actually want Cid's plane. Our goal was to draw you out and set you on the path to confronting Sephiroth." Cissnei didn't shrink back under Barret's glare or Vincent's cold stare, but she did seem uncomfortable as she coughed into her hand. "We were unable to find the Keystone. We knew Dio had it, but not where he kept it, and Dio does not trust Shinra very much. He would never give us the Keystone."

"Hold on a second… if what you said just now is true, then why the hell did you people shoot down my precious plane?!" demanded Cid.

"I mean… we had to make it look convincing right?" asked Tseng, shrugging.

"Damn you! That plane was my treasure, you bunch of moronic assholes!"

"There is no need to use such foul language. Shinra will reimburse you for the damages."

"Fuck you!"

Cid's angry glare did nothing to phase Tseng, who remained as composed as ever. The man was cool as a cucumber. That was a Turk for you.

"And so you decided to use us because you knew sensei would get the Keystone." Yuffie crossed her arms and nodded several times. It was hard to tell if she was annoyed by the Turks or proud of me. "Pretty devious of you. All this time, we thought we were using you, but it turns out you were really using us."

"I-I wouldn't say I was using you…" Cissnei muttered. She didn't look like she appreciated Yuffie's words.

Naruto now understood why Shinra had sent Cissnei here instead of someone else more suited to intelligence gathering. Her purpose had never been to find the Keystone. It was to dull his sense of reasoning. He was sure everyone in Shinra knew that Naruto and Cissnei had an unusually friendly relationship, and Rufus had decided to use that, predicting how Naruto would react.

He almost sighed in admiration.

Rufus's actions were almost ninja-worthy.

Almost.

"It seems Shinra knows you too well," Aerith said to Naruto with a smug but somehow reproachful look. Naruto laughed and awkwardly scratched his head. He couldn't deny it.

"I can't fuckin' believe this. Getting all chummy with someone from Shinra. The hell are you fuckin' thinking?" demanded Barret.

"Not everyone from Shinra is evil," Vincent said quietly.

As a former Shinra employee, his words carried a lot of weight. He knew the truth behind Shinra as a former Turk. Even Barret could not say anything to refute the man's words.

Of course, just because not everyone working for Shinra was evil didn't mean the company itself wasn't malignant. They performed human experiments, created powerful super weapons, and have committed a number of atrocities that would have gotten them the death sentence if they lived in Konoha. Orochimaru would have loved to work for this company.

"Right now, what we should be thinking about is what to do with our current knowledge," Cloud suddenly said before anyone else could.

"Cloud is right," Naruto agreed. "We know where Sephiroth is, and we know Shinra is keeping an eye on him. What we need to do now is figure out what we should be doing." He looked at Cissnei, Tseng, and the still silent Elaina. "I'm assuming you have a plan to confront Sephiroth, but you need some extra firepower, which is why you're coming to us?"

Cissnei opened her mouth to speak, but Tseng beat her to the punch. "Not quite. We already have a powerful warrior under our employ. Our original plan was to steal the Keystone before you knew what was happening. That plan fell through, however. I should have realized you'd never leave it unguarded. Now that it's come to this, I believe the only viable solution is to work together."

"SAY WHAT?! What makes you think we'll work with goddamn Shinra?!" bellowed Barret.

"Barret, shut up," Naruto said coldly—so coldly Barret didn't even try to say anything. The man stared at Naruto in shock, but his attention was not on any of his companions. It was on the man standing calmly before him in a black business suit. "This powerful warrior you speak of is Sasuke, isn't it?"

"Sasuke? Is that his name? I'm guessing you know him?" Tseng looked curiously at Naruto.

"He and I go way back, though he doesn't seem to remember me." Naruto shrugged. "Now answer the question."

Tseng smiled slightly. "You're correct. The one you call Sasuke is currently at the Temple of the Ancients, keeping an eye on Sephiroth for us, though we've told him not to engage until I give the signal."

Naruto closed his eyes and tried to think this situation over. He didn't trust Shinra or the Turks—though he would be lying if he said he didn't trust Cissnei—but if they worked together, he would be able to work with Sasuke again. Naruto wasn't sure how he felt about that.

During the Fourth Great Shinobi War, Naruto had battled against Sasuke who wanted to destroy everything he stood for. That battle was what had resulted in him being thrown into this world. On the one hand, Naruto was kind of grateful since he got to meet Aerith and Cissnei, but on the other hand, Sasuke was someone who had ultimately spurned his hand and tried to make the entire world burn in the fires of revenge.

Naruto hated Sasuke.

But he also thought of Sasuke as a brother.

This entire situation is so complicated. I sometimes wish I could go back to the days when I didn't have to worry about shit like this. Dammit. What should I do?

Naruto felt his brow creasing as he wrestled with his inner torment. Should he work with Sasuke again? Part of Naruto wanted to kill the man. He wasn't the naive fool he used to be, the one who forgave every atrocity because they used to be friends, rivals, and students who trained under the same sensei. Now he had true friends who cared about him, a woman who loved him, and a world to save. He didn't have time for sentimentality toward a man who had scorned his help every time it was offered.

By that same token, it seemed like Sasuke was now employed by Shinra for some reason, though Naruto did not know that reason. How did they even get a guy that insane and revenge bent to follow their orders? It was a complete mystery.

As Naruto struggled to figure out what he should do in this situation, Aerith reached out and touched his hand. The warmth from her fingers spread through his arm and straight to his chest. He glanced at the woman as she stared at him with a smile, like she had every confidence in him, like she knew he would make the correct choice.

Naruto breathed in, then breathed out.

"We'll work with you… for now."

"WHAT?!" Barret shouted.

"I know how you feel, Barret, but we might as well use Shinra and the firepower they can bring," Naruto said. "Sephiroth is a strong enough enemy that I'm not sure we can defeat on our own. What's more, it sounds like Shinra is going to fight against him even if we work with them or not. It would be better to work alongside them than work separate from them. Could you imagine what would happen if we got in each other's way and Sephiroth escaped because of that?"

"Well… that's… goddammit! I hate it when you're right," Barret growled. He looked like he wanted to shoot someone in the face.

"I think it's a good idea too," Cloud agreed.

"Not you two!" Barret cried out.

"I hate Shinra," Tifa said. "But I hate Sephiroth more. If working with Shinra is what's required to kill Sephiroth, I'm willing to work with them."

"Tifa?!"

"The only thing I care about is learning to be a ninja from sensei," Yuffie added.

"I'm also fine with forming a temporary alliance with Shinra," Red XIII added.

As the others began adding their support for the idea, Barret's mood shifted between astonished, betrayed, and angry. He looked like he couldn't decide how to feel about all this. However, while he might be a hot headed man who hated Shinra with a passion, he had become much more reasonable as of late. Finally, he threw his hands in the air.

"Fine! Fine! Let's work with these cock sucking bastards!"

"I've never had someone call me a 'cock sucking bastard' before," Tseng mused.

"If we're going to work together, then I have one stipulation," Naruto said.

"And what would that be?" asked Tseng, crossing his arms. He seemed more amused than anything. Naruto rarely dealt with Tseng, so he couldn't tell what this man was thinking. Outside of Cissnei, the people who Naruto had the most dealings with among the Turks were Reno and Rude, who were often the recipients of his pranks.

Naruto grinned as he pointed to Cissnei. "I get her."

"… Huh?" asked Cissnei like she hadn't understood.

"Very well," said Tseng.

"Huh?!" Cissnei turned to Tseng like she had betrayed him.

"Do your best, Cissnei," Elaina said encouragingly, speaking for the first time.

"WHAT THE HELL, YOU TWO?!"

Everyone spent the night at the Gold Saucer and left the next morning. Tseng led their group to the vehicle they had used to reach the Gold Saucer, a large military-grade truck with enough space in the back for a dozen infantrymen. Naruto and the others were loaded up in the back. Of course, because he had requested her presence, Cissnei was with them.

"You really enjoy screwing with me, don't you?" asked Cissnei.

"I do," Naruto agreed with a nod and a smile.

"Don't agree with me so easily," Cissnei grumbled.

"It can't be helped." Aerith shrugged. "Messing with you is fun."

"Not you too!"

Naruto was sitting on one bench with Aerith, Cissnei, Yuffie, and Vincent. The other side was taken up by Barret, Cloud, Cid, and Tifa. Red XIII was on the ground. Cait Sith was no longer with them, but instead in the front with Tseng and Elaina. His purpose as a spy had been served. Naruto wondered what would happen to him… it? He wasn't sure he could assign Cait Sith a gender since it wasn't even alive.

I'm pretty sure the person controlling him is a man though…

"I still can't believe we're gonna work with fuckin' Shinra. Damn it all! They're our enemies! Our whole goal has always been to destroy Shinra, so why are we getting so chummy with these fuckers?!"

Barret was grumbling to himself, though his grumbles were more like the roaring of a bear. Cloud and Tifa could do nothing more than grimace as they put up with the man's complaints.

Everyone understood how Barret felt. Even Naruto understood his feelings. Shinra had been Barret's enemy for almost a decade now. He had dedicated his life to defeating them, funded AVALANCHE for that purpose. Then his group had all been killed when Shinra dropped the plate on Sector 7, and now he was being asked to cooperate with that same corporation?

No one would be able to deal with that calmly.

Naruto believed the fact that Barret was willing to work with Shinra at all was a testament to the man's ability to put the greater good first.

He would never say that out loud, of course.

"Sorry you have to get chummy with us," Cissnei said, though her tone was dry and sarcastic.

"Tch!" Barret clicked his tongue.

"Where are we heading?" asked Vincent.

"We're first going to our ship," Cissnei explained. "We have a vessel that will take us to the Temple of the Ancients—or rather, to the base we've stationed around the temple."

"So you haven't entered it yet?" asked Tifa.

Cissnei shook her head. "It was deemed too dangerous when we realized Sephiroth was there."

"I wonder what he's there for?" asked Naruto as he unsealed the Keystone from within a scroll. He held the object aloft and studied it with furrowed brows. "He can't do anything without this, right? In that case, why bother going there at all?"

Something about this situation didn't seem right. It felt to him like they were playing into Sephiroth's hands by bringing this to the Temple of the Ancients. Surely it would be better to not have this with them. Wouldn't that prevent Sephiroth from succeeding in whatever it was he was attempting to do? Despite this, Tseng had been adamant they needed to bring the Keystone.

It could be that Shinra wants to reap whatever benefits are to be had from this temple. If that's really the case, I'll need to watch out for them just as much as I do Sephiroth. I can't let either one of them gain the secrets inside that temple.

Everything in the Temple of the Ancients was Aerith's birthright. He wouldn't let anyone else have it.

But also… is Sephiroth really even inside? He can't enter without this, so perhaps he only pretended to enter and is secretly waiting for us to open the Temple of the Ancients for him. I really don't think doing this is a good idea. It should be enough to guard the Keystone.

The truck drove along the dusty road, bringing the scent of dirt with it. Naruto stared out the back and watched as the canyon they were traveling through began widening. It seemed they were nearing Costa del Sol. Naruto remembered the first time they had traveled through this location on their way to the Gold Saucer.

Out of the corner of his eye, Naruto spotted Cloud looking a little green. He turned and looked at the man. He didn't seem to have noticed them. His eyes were closed and arms crossed. Anyone else would have assumed he looked calm, but Naruto thought he looked sick.

I shouldn't bring any attention to him. I'm sure he's trying to look cool in front of Tifa.

It took several hours to reach Costa del Sol, but the vehicle drove through the small beach resort town and soon reached the warship that would take them to the Temple of the Ancients. It wasn't as big as the one they had snuck onboard last time, but it was big enough to house several dozen personnel. There was even a launch pad for helicopters.

"All right, everyone. Hop out. We'll take you to the rooms you'll be sharing while you're onboard," Tseng said as he climbed out of the back and opened the door.

They unloaded from the back and found themselves in a garage space. There were more military vehicles lined up, including tanks and automated war machines like the kind they faced while blowing up reactors. Naruto paid attention to none of that as he and Aerith followed Tseng hand in hand.

Why were they hand in hand?

Because Naruto could feel Tseng's irritation.

It was glorious.

There was apparently a lack of space on this vessel, so they did not get a room to themselves, much to Aerith's displeasure. The girls, which meant Aerith, Tifa, and Yuffie, were given their own room to share, while Naruto ended up sharing a space with Cloud.

The rooms were not very big. There was only a single bunk bed located on one side of the room, which was maybe ten by fifteen meters in length and width. A small desk sat at the end of the room. That was it. There was nothing else.

"Are these the kind of rooms Shinra's infantry often uses? If so, being a part of Shinra must suck."

"Members of SOLDIER get better quarters than this," Cloud interjected, looking around with a nostalgic smile. "But, yeah, this is about what you can expect if you're not a member of SOLDIER or one of the Turks." He walked over to the bunk, climbed into the top one, and laid on his back. "We should probably rest while we can."

"I suppose so. You seem awfully used to this," Naruto said as he laid down on the bottom bunk.

"Well, I was a part of Shinra, after all."

"Hmmm."

Naruto closed his eyes and tried to get some rest. It would be a while before they reached the Temple of the Ancients.

Tseng stood inside the ship's command room, staring out the glass viewport. The vessel had set sail not long ago and was on a course toward the Temple of the Ancients. Standing beside him was Elaina.

There were many others working around him. Tseng ignored them. They were doing their job, and so he needed to do his.

Just then, the door opened and Cissnei walked in, looking somewhat putout by something. Tseng wondered if Naruto had done anything to her.

"Your report?" asked Tseng.

"Naruto and the others have been shown to their quarters. Barret complained a lot, but the others were fairly docile."

"As expected. Naruto is very good at keeping his group in line." Tseng nodded to himself. He was jealous of—no, he intensely disliked Naruto for personal reasons, but even he recognized the man's leadership qualities. "Make sure you give them space. Inform everyone they are not to spy on the group. Naruto will know the moment we have people keeping watch, and that could complicate matters."

"Yes, sir." Cissnei saluted, but then she paused. "Are you sure about doing this, sir?"

Tseng smiled. "Are you having second thoughts about the plan?"

"Well…"

"Our job is merely to make sure Naruto and his group are delivered safely to the Temple of the Ancients and assist Sasuke with acquiring whatever secrets are to be had inside. Of course, you will accompany him during this mission. If you're so worried, then watch their backs. President Rufus does not care if they live or die so long as he can kill Sephiroth and acquire the Ancient's knowledge. If you want them to live, make sure you do everything in your power to keep them safe."

"I know that. You don't need to tell me," Cissnei pouted.

"You are dismissed."

"Sir."

Cissnei saluted, turned, and left the command center. Tseng sighed as he looked back out the viewport.

"That young man is quite impressive to have gotten so deep into Cissnei's psyche like that."

"What did you say, sir?" asked Elaine.

"Nothing."

Sasuke walked through the camp, boots crunching against grass, leaves, and twigs. The sound itself was muffled beneath the crackling of fires and the chatter of people underneath him.

"Man, this food sucks."

"Right? It's awful. How could Shinra treat its employees like this?"

"Did you hear about Cissnei? I heard she's been spending a lot of time in Gongaga."

"Same. Wonder what she's doing there."

"And then I said…"

Sasuke stopped in front of one campfire, where a pair of young men appeared to be trading tales of their exploits, though they stopped the moment he gazed at them. Perhaps it was because his eyes were a bloody crimson, but the two froze like they'd been dropped into a tank of ice. Their entire bodies seemed to be seized up. He gazed at them for a moment longer, then snorted and stalked off.

"So that's the President's secret weapon, huh? Scary."

"I thought I was gonna piss myself."

"I'm pretty sure you did."

"What?! No way, I did!"

They had created this camp several days ago after clearing away the surrounding forest. While not very big, the camp boasted the latest in Shinra's technology, which included premade buildings that could be easily assembled. No tents here. All the buildings were made from a man made material similar to concrete but not as heavy or durable.

He soon reached the edge of the camp and gazed at the Temple of the Ancients several kilometers away. It remained unchanged from the last time he'd seen it. Several other officers were standing there, keeping an eye on the temple in case something happened. Sasuke turned to one of them.

"Has there been any change?"

"No, sir."

"I see."

Sasuke grunted but said nothing more. He wondered why he was doing this. Part of him felt like he shouldn't be following Shinra's orders, but every time that thought crossed his mind, he'd get a headache and remember that he was created for this purpose. Shinra was the only home he'd ever known. They had given him everything he had, so of course it was natural to show loyalty toward them.

He walked back into the camp. While heading to the command structure, he saw a commotion happening on the other side. There were a number of people gathered. Sasuke walked over, the crowd parting when they saw him, and he was finally able to see what had captured everyone's attention.

There were several more people in their camp who had not been present before. Tseng, Elaina, and Cissnei were among them, but Sasuke's attention was on the other people. There was a dark-skinned man with a gunbarrel arm, a busty woman wearing white and black, a red wolf dog thing that he'd never seen before, an old man with a spear, a man with crimson eyes and a red overcoat, a cute girl wearing burgundy, a blond man with a gigantic sword on his back, a woman who looked like a ninja—someone from Wutai maybe.

And of course the man who captured most of Sasuke's attention.

It was the blond man who he had fought several times now. This man seemed to know Sasuke, but Sasuke was certain they had never met until their first battle on the ship. And yet…

Why does he feel so familiar?

The group stopped as he walked up to them, the two sides going silent. Many of the members tensed when his crimson gaze swept over them. The one known as Cloud even reached for the buster blade on his back. However, the other blond stepped in front of them all, staring at him with an expression that was… unfathomable. It was a wide smile, but Sasuke could not help but think there was malice hidden behind it.

"It's been awhile, hasn't it… teme?" asked the man.

Sasuke twitched.

Naruto felt so many emotions swirling around him as he faced Sasuke. This man had been a pain in his ass from day one, but they had eventually become friends and rivals, until the fateful day when he left to join Orochimaru. After that, Naruto had done his best to bring back his friend. Nothing worked, however, and Sasuke became more deranged every time they met, until he joined Naruto's enemies and attempted to destroy Konoha.

Now they were standing face to face and he didn't know what he should feel.

"You… how do you know me? We've never met before," Sasuke said.

Naruto narrowed his eyes. Was this a joke? Sasuke didn't remember him? Really? He'd remembered this from their last battle too. It seemed as if Sasuke had no memories of what happened between them, which meant… what? That he'd forgotten? That he had amnesia? Or was he perhaps brainwashed by Shinra?

The people in his party were watching him. Aerith looked concerned. Even Cissnei seemed uncomfortable as she stood on the sidelines, watching him and Sasuke like she was expecting a fight to break out. To be honest, Naruto wanted to fight Sasuke, to beat this asshat who had stubbornly refused all attempts at assistance. But that wasn't what they were here for. Naruto had grown mature enough to understand there were times when he needed to put his own feelings aside for the greater good.

"If you don't remember me, then I guess that's just how little I meant to you. I'm only here because Cissnei requested my help." Naruto narrowed his eyes at Sasuke. "I'll only say this once. Stay out of my way."

"Hmph. I could say the same thing to you. Don't get in my way, loser."

"Still the same bastard as always, I see."

Sasuke might not have remembered him, but it seemed some part of him still had those memories. Naruto wondered if there was a way to get them back. He wasn't sure what would happen if Sasuke did remember everything, though, so maybe it was for the best that he never remembered their past.

"Ahem."

A cough interrupted this confrontation before anything else could happen. Tseng stepped between the pair. He looked calm, but sweat trickled down his scalp, showing that he wasn't as composed as he presented himself. Perhaps he understood that he couldn't stop them if a battle broke out.

"I'm sure you're already aware, but we are currently in the middle of a dangerous operation. I'd rather you two not fight."

Naruto and Sasuke stared at Tseng, then at each other, before looking away. It was a tacit agreement between the two of them to set aside their differences for now. Tseng released a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding.

"Let's go to the main building. I'll let you know what our plan is there."

With Elaina trailing behind him, Tseng began moving to the largest tent in the camp. Naruto and his group, now with Cissnei included, followed the man. Sasuke hesitated but ended up following as well. Once they were inside the tent, the group stood around a table with a holographic map being projected in the air. It was a map of the island they found themselves. An incredibly detailed representation of the Temple of the Ancients was visible on it.

"All of you already know the basics. Sephiroth was spotted entering the Temple of the Ancients not long ago. We haven't followed him, but we have been keeping an eye on the temple to make sure he doesn't leave. I don't know what he is doing there. However, given who this is, nothing good will come from allowing him to remain. We need to take decisive actions and defeat him now."

Sasuke crossed his arms. "You should just send me in. I'll crush that man before he can do anything."

Tseng shook his head. "You're very strong, but you're not that strong."

"Are you saying this Sephiroth is stronger than me?" Sasuke narrowed his eyes, the tomoe of his Sharingan swirling.

Despite this, Tseng met his gaze evenly. "Yes. We've measured both yours and Sephiroth's abilities. Your powers are very strong, but they are still measurable. Sephiroth's are not. Even the most advanced military equipment was unable to measure his power. That's how we know you're not stronger than him."

Sasuke huffed but didn't say anything.

Naruto did his best to ignore Sasuke as he looked at the map. Aerith, Cissnei, and Yuffie stood close by.

"What's the plan?"

"The plan is to have several groups travel inside and search for Sephiroth. According to several ancient texts that survived the destruction of the Ancients, the Temple of the Ancients is like a labyrinth so complex it's nearly impossible to reach the center. Each group will consist of four to five people. Your jobs will be to find Sephiroth. Once you do, contact everyone else and have them converge on your location. We'll only confront Sephiroth after everyone is present."

"So the plan is to use numbers to defeat Sephiroth?" asked Naruto.

"Yes," Tseng answered.

"Sounds simple."

"I prefer to keep things simple."

Naruto shrugged as if to say "fair point." He often kept his plans simple since it allowed him to adapt whenever a new variable presented itself.

"When will this operation start?" asked Cloud.

"Tonight," Tseng said. "You're free until then, but I recommend you use this time to get some rest."

That was a dismissal if Naruto ever heard one. Sasuke was the first to leave. The others watched as he stalked out of the building.

"That man… I don't know how to say it, but he feels dangerous," Cloud murmured.

"Hmph!" Barret crossed his arms. "He feels like an asshole to me."

"No. Cloud is right. There is something off about that man, though I cannot put my finger on what," Red XIII said.

Vincent crossed his arms. "He makes me think of a monster in disguise."

Considering Vincent could transform into a monster himself, that was saying something.

Since they had free time, Naruto decided to head outside and get some fresh air. He found a spot several kilometers from the temple. There were some Shinra infantrymen stationed close by with military equipment, but he was far enough away not to bother them. He stared at the massive structure in the distance with vacant eyes.

"So this is where you went, sensei," Yuffie said as she came up to him.

"Yuffie." Naruto turned his head as the girl sat down next to him. "I'm surprised. I expected Aerith to be the one who came to get me."

"Heh heh. That's because I won at rock-paper-scissors." Yuffie proudly puffed out her small chest, but then it deflated as she gave him a concerned look. "But are you okay, Sensei? You seem troubled."

"I am troubled." Naruto shrugged his shoulders. "I'm working with the man who tried to destroy my home, the man I used to think of as a friend. I'm not sure how I feel about that."

"That Sasuke guy, right? So, do you hate him or something?" asked Yuffie. She brought her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, which made her look like a very young girl, though he knew she was at least eighteen.

"… No. I can't forgive Sasuke for what he's done, but I told myself a long time ago that I would never hate. I promised myself that I would follow the path my sensei set for me and stop the hatred from spreading."

"Your sensei?"

"Yes, my sensei. Jiraiya-sensei was a great man with dreams of bringing peace to the Elemental Nations, where I am from. He was unable to do it. However, he passed those dreams onto me. I can't betray them."

It had been a very long time since he'd thought of Jiraiya. As the wind ruffled his hair, bringing with it the scent of grass, he remembered the times he shared with his sensei. The man had been an unrepentant pervert, wrote porn, and slept with any woman who was willing, but he had also been a great man who was strong and followed his ideals to the end. Naruto wanted to embody the good traits his sensei had.

"He sounds like an interesting ninja. I'd like to meet him," Yuffie said.

Naruto sighed. "Unfortunately, my sensei is long dead. He was killed by another one of his students."

Yuffie winced. "Damn. Sorry. Guess I shouldn't have brought it up."

"You're fine. I've made peace with it. Oh."

Naruto paused as he thought of something and unsealed a book from a sealing scroll. It was a simple book with no cover art. Faded and worn, the front cover contained nothing but a title: The Tale of the Utterly Gutsy Shinobi. He trailed his fingers across the worn surface. The scent and feel of old paper brought back memories of his times with Jiraiya.

A curious Yuffie watched on as he handed the book to her. She looked confused as she took it. Seeing this, Naruto grinned.

"On top of being a world class ninja, my sensei was also a writer. I suppose you could say it was his cover. This was the first book he had ever written. I'm told it sold poorly, but my father loved it and named me after the main character in the hopes I would grow up to be just like the protagonist."

"What kind of person was he? The protagonist?" asked Yuffie as she opened the book to the first page.

Naruto's grin became bright and full of vigor as he answered her. "A shinobi who never gives up and vowed to break the cycle of war, conflict, and hatred that filled the ninja world."

Naruto didn't get much sleep even after returning to the group. Just as the sun had finished setting, Tseng came to get them, and they left their small building to join the others. Everyone else was already waiting by the time they arrived. Barret looked very disgruntled as he stood next to an equally annoyed Elaina.

They made their way to the Temple of the Ancients, which looked much bigger once they got closer. It looked a lot like a ziggurat. Surrounded by a hall wall that was crumbling, the temple had multiple levels like a cake and was built in the shape of a perfect square. The faded stone was worn but somehow still standing even after however many hundreds of years. Naruto wondered what kind of magic kept this place intact.

"Is everyone ready?" asked Tseng.

"Why the hell'd you ask such a stupid question?" asked Barret. He still looked disgruntled, but he had calmed down. "You gonna give us more time if we say we aren't? We're here, ain't we? Let's just get this over with so we can go back to being enemies."

Tseng wore a cold smile as he responded. "Very well."

A simple bridge was between them and the temple. After they walked over it, Aerith knelt on the ground and pressed her hands to the dirt. Her expression complex, she appeared to be struggling with something, though Naruto couldn't for the life of him figure out what.

"Aerith?" Naruto asked.

"This temple… this place… it has the knowledge of the Ancients flowing through it. I… I can feel it… like it's pouring into me," Aerith said. "You could become one with the Planet, but you're stopping it with the strength of your will. You're uneasy… but you're also… happy? Is it because I'm here? I'm sorry. I don't understand."

"Aerith, what are you saying?" asked Tifa.

"This woman is crazy," Sasuke muttered under his breath.

"Shut the fuck up, teme," Naruto snapped.

Sasuke clicked his tongue. "I'll shut up when I want to. Fuck you."

Aerith didn't respond as she stood up and ran past the archway. Naruto and the others followed her. As they reached the top, Naruto and his group ran into one of those cloaked figures. Naruto checked his pulse and found one, but it was weak, so weak. He was mumbling gibberish under his breath, but Naruto couldn't understand. He stood up and looked at the entrance, which was nothing but a massive hole in the door.

"Naruto, I want to go inside," Aerith said.

"Right. Let's go," Naruto agreed.

They all stepped inside. The room they found themselves in was filled with golden light from several flames hanging from candelabra on the walls. Naruto found it odd that there were still fires burning. Was this magic or had Sephiroth lit those candelabra? The light cast a pale glow against the walls and illuminated everything. Set on the far side of the room was a pedestal with an altar. Columns lined up on either side.

"This place gives me the creeps," Cid said.

"It's a pretty odd place," Yuffie agreed. "I hope it has some nice treasures."

"Is treasure all you think about?" asked Tifa.

"Of course… not," Yuffie muttered, turning her head.

"What are we supposed to do?" asked Naruto.

"I imagine we need to place the Keystone on the altar," said Tseng.

"All right."

Just like I thought. Sephiroth isn't here, and he hasn't opened this door. There's no way he could have gotten in, which means Shinra is using us to get whatever is inside.

Naruto unsealed the Keystone, walked up to the altar, and set it inside of a small indentation. The altar was just big enough for all of them to stand on it. As he placed the Keystone on it, purple lights glowed along its surface. There was a flash of light that blinded them all, forcing Naruto and the others to shield their eyes.

"The fuck is goin' on?!" Barret suddenly shouted in shock.

"W-we're sinking!" screamed Tifa.

Naruto looked down at his feet and saw that, indeed, they were sinking into the ground, which rippled like water. He tried to pull his feet out, but it wasn't working.

"Naruto!"

Aerith's scream made him look up. She was not far from his location. He reached out his hand as she did hers. Just a little further. Just a bit more. Naruto stretched his arm as far as it would go, but just before they could grab each other, the two of them disappeared into the floor and darkness consumed Naruto's mind.

Aerith felt like her mind was wading through mud. Voices surrounded her on all sides, though they were indistinct and soft, like a bunch of people were yelling at her from across a vast distance. She could not understand what they were saying. Even so, she had the vague sense that she could understand the feelings behind their words.

Opening her eyes, the first thing Aerith saw was the stone cold floor. She blinked. Her vision sharpened as she placed her palms on the ground and pushed herself up with a groan.

"It seems you're finally awake, Aerith," someone said to her left.

Her eyes widened and she looked up to find Tseng staring down at her with a smile that was not unkind, but also kind of sardonic. She looked around after noticing him, only to see that no one else was present.

"Where…?"

"I do not know where we are, but it seems we have been separated from the others," Tseng answered her.

So it was just the two of them? Aerith stood up, her feet wobbly, but she soon regained her posture and balance and looked around. What she found awaiting her was a massive space that seemed to defy all the natural laws. There were buildings built sideways and even some that were upside down. Walkways connected these structures, but there appeared to be no way to reach them. A glance down revealed much the same—hundreds of buildings that were built in defiance of gravity.

"I've already done a preliminary check of the area," Tseng said as she studied their surroundings. "Those archways connect to other archways in different locations. It seems each of these walkways has its own gravitational force. I'm not sure how it works, however."

"The Ancients had complete control over the Planet's natural laws," Aerith said as she calmed down and listened to the voices around her. "That is how they were able to build something like this. We are currently in a subspace created by the Ancients who were in complete union with the planet."

"I don't really understand, but I know something amazing when I see it," Tseng said.

"What should we do now?" asked Aerith.

Tseng shrugged. "Nothing to do but try and find Sephiroth. We might have been separated from our comrades, but our original mission hasn't changed."

Aerith knew that was a lie. The temple had been sealed when they entered, meaning Sephiroth wasn't present, but Tseng was playing this charade for her own safety. If she knew the real reason, he would have no choice but to act.

Well, he probably understood that she had seen through them, but it would be fine so long as they both acted like she didn't know.

"I thought as much." Aerith frowned, then glared at Tseng. "If you try anything, I'll smack you with my stave."

"How harsh. Is that really something you should say to someone you've known for so long? Although that does sound like something you would say."

"Hmph. Let's just go."

Aerith stalked off. Tseng chuckled as he followed after her.

"I can't believe I'm stuck babying Shinra scum," Barret complained as he walked down a long hallway that felt endless.

"I could say the same thing," Elaina said with a scowl. "I can't believe I'm stuck babying terrorist scum."

"Ha! That's just the kind of bullshit I'd expect a Shinra lapdog to say. You fools can't think for yourself. Just spoutin' the bullshit Shinra spews like it's gospel. Open your eyes. Shinra is full of uncaring trash. They're killing our Planet and calling it progress. The Planet is crying out because of scum like you. Makes me sick."

"Your ignorance knows no bounds. Shinra's mako generators have made everyone's lives more comfortable."

"You mean everyone who can afford to pay Shinra's outrageous fees and spouts their dogma." Barret scoffed. "The majority of people can't afford that. You've obviously never been to the slums before. If you had, you wouldn't be saying something so fucking stupid."

"Excuse me?!"

Ever since waking up in this strange place, it had been just him and this blasted woman. They had been arguing from the moment they began their search for the others.

Unfortunately, this blasted temple really was like a maze. They had checked several rooms, backtracked, and ran into Shiva knew how many dead ends. There wasn't a single sign of life aside from them. Even the rooms were bereft of anything they could use to find their way.

"Haaaah, I wish I had ended up with Tseng," Elaina said. "He would know what to do in this situation. Instead, I ended up with a barbaric man whose only solution to any problem is violence."

"Whatchu say?!"

"You heard me."

"Listen here, bitch! The only reason I resort to violence is because your fuckin' boss won't listen to anything else! You lie, steal, and cheat innocent people out of everything they ever had! My hometown was destroyed thanks to you fuckers! My friends, my family, all of them gone! Only my little Marlene survived. Don't talk to me about only being able to use violence. Shinra always resorts to violence when they don't get their way! Fuck you!"

"Ah… sorry," Elaine apologized. She seemed taken aback and unable to say anything else in the face of Barret's tirade—not that she could be blamed. The hatred and rage in Barret's voice would have silenced even Shinra's most vocal supporters.

Barret grunted. "Let's just find the others. The sooner we do that, the better."

They continued traveling down the hall, checking the rooms on either side, but they found nothing until they reached the very end. A large room lay on the other side of the hall. Unlike everything else, this room contained something, a tablet in the very center. Barret walked up to the tablet along with Elaina. It was covered in strange glyphs that were glowing a vibrant yellow.

"I… can't read this," Elaina muttered.

"I'm not surprised. This tablet is written in the language of the Ancients," Barret grumbled, rubbing his chin. "It says, 'All who stand before me shall be crushed. If you wish to pass through here, prove your worth.'"

"You can read the Ancient's language?!" asked a shocked Elaina.

"We got more important things to worry about than that," Barret said as he turned around and readied his gun arm.

Several creatures had appeared from within the floor, walls, and ceiling. They were monsters unlike anything he had ever seen. One of them was large and had the appearance of a half-man, half-bull monster. Three were flying monsters that had emerged from the walls. The last was just a pair of arms hanging from the ceiling.

"Deal with that strange bull monster while I take the flyers," Barret said.

"Don't order me around! Ugh! Fine. But be quick. Combat isn't my specialty."

Barret didn't pay Elaina any more attention as he crossed his forearm underneath his gunarm, using it for support as he aimed at the flyers and unleashed a barrage of bullets. He grimaced when the bullets pinged off their bodies. It seemed these things were made of something far more durable than simple flesh and blood. One of them swooped down and tried to impale him with its beak-like mouth, but he dodged.

"Fine! Try this, fucker!"

Barret switched from bullets to his charged shot. He charged the power within his gunarm, which appeared inside the barrel as a mass of crackling energy, then released it all in a single burst. The sphere of power slammed into the flying monster and exploded. A shriek emitted from the creature as it burst apart.

"Hell yeah!"

Barret would have celebrated his success, but the other two flyers attacked at the same time. He was able to dodge one but not the other. A grunt escaped his mouth as the monster slammed into him. It didn't penetrate his mesh armor, but he could feel the pressure it put on him as his ribs creaked and groaned.

As he slid along the ground, he wrapped an arm around the beast's neck so it couldn't fly away, pressed his gun into its side, and opened fire. The whir of his gunarm as he unleashed hundreds of bullets into the creature at point blank filled the air. Sparks flew as the bullets struck the hardened surface. While it didn't seem to do any damage, nothing could withstand this kind of assault forever, and the bullets eventually penetrated deep into the monster's flesh.

Barret gritted his teeth as blood burst from inside the monster. Its skin might be hard, but the inside was still soft. The monster soon died as he ran out of bullets, and he dropped it to the ground—just in time to get struck by one of the hands hanging from the ceiling.

"GAAH!"

His ribs creaked with pain as the fist plowed into his chest like a freight train. He stumbled across the ground, but if a little pain was enough to do him in, he would not have been the leader of AVALANCHE.

"TAKE THIS, YOU FUCKER!"

Barret had already loaded his gunarm up with water materia. A large sphere of water blasted from the barrel and took the shape of a spear as it flew forward. It struck the arm, broke through the outer surface, and penetrated deep into its flesh. While the arm couldn't scream, it jerked back like it was in pain. Not one to let such an opportunity escape, Barret reloaded his gunarm and unleashed more fire, pumping the arm full of holes.

He was able to take out the other flyer not long after killing the hand—just in time to hear the scream of pain from Elaina. Turning revealed the woman had become trapped in the grip of the other remaining hand. The bull monster that she had been fighting was still alive and didn't even look injured. On the other hand, Elaina was bleeding from the mouth. She probably had some internal injuries.

"Fuck. Fucking fuck. Why the hell am I helping someone from Shinra?!"

Even as he shouted and cursed, Barret charged all the energy in his gunarm fired another blast that slammed into the giant hand's wrist, blasting it to pieces. The hand fell with Elaina still gripped inside and struck the floor. Elaina grunted in pain, but Barret didn't have time to deal with her.

There was one more enemy in this room.

"Come on, you ugly beast!" Barret snarled as he glared at the bull monster. It seemed to take that as a challenge, for it unleashed a roar and charged at him as he got ready to fire off another blast of energy.

Cissnei and Yuffie were walking down a corridor that looked like every other corridor they had walked down. Cissnei was beginning to think they were going in circles, though she'd been doing her best to keep track of their progress and it didn't seem like that was the case. Was there some kind of magic at work here? She didn't know, but this was the Temple of the Ancients, which meant anything was possible.

"I feel like we're going in circles," Yuffie said at last.

"You too, huh? It seems like that to me as well," Cissnei admitted.

"However, we've taken many different passages, so it can't be that we were somehow turned around. Don't you think that's odd?"

"I do."

The two continued down the corridor even as they agreed with each other. Yuffie was an odd woman, Cissnei concluded. She had been complaining about Cissnei being an interloper who stole away her 'sensei's' attention, but the moment they ended up being stuck here together, she had proposed they work with each other to get out of here. Her pragmatism had been unexpected, to say the least.

Of course, Cissnei wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

That didn't mean she wasn't curious.

After what felt like another hour of walking, Cissnei frowned and stopped.

"I don't think this is working."

Yuffie also stopped and crossed her arms. "You're right. It doesn't feel like we're getting anywhere."

"I believe the first thing we should do is find out if we're really going in circles," Cissnei said as she reached into her bag and removed some lipstick. Walking over to the wall, she drew an X on it, closed the cap, and put it back in her bag. Turning back around, she addressed Yuffie. "That should do it."

"Good idea. Welp, let's get moving."

They began walking again. Cissnei glanced at Yuffie. The other girl noticed her look and turned her head.

"What is it?"

"It's nothing. I'm just surprised you're willing to work with me. Weren't you supposed to hate me?"

"I don't hate you. I just intensely dislike you."

"I'm not sure that's much better."

"But even if I don't like you, that doesn't mean I can't work with you," Yuffie continued. "I'm a ninja. That means being able to put aside my personal feelings and work for the greater good. Sensei taught me that."

"So Naruto taught you that. I can see it. That sounds a lot like him," Cissnei agreed.

"You seem to know quite a bit about Sensei," Yuffie said at last.

Cissnei shrugged. "What can I say? He and I have known each other for several years. I haven't known him for as long as Aerith, but I've known him for a good while."

"I'm jealous."

Cissnei could only release a humorless laugh. She had no idea what Naruto had done to make this woman so enamored with him, but it seemed he had worked his magic on this girl as well. Sometimes she wondered if Naruto was aware of what he was doing. Did he know that his actions had caused her heart to beat harder whenever he was around? Cissnei wouldn't have put it past him.

They went down several corridors, turned another corner, and discovered the X mark Cissnei had drawn in lipstick on the wall.

"I guess that settles it. We've been going in circles this whole time," Cissnei said.

Yuffie cupped a hand to her chin. "Hmm. But we made sure to make our turns down corridors that couldn't possibly lead back here."

"Which means it's probably some kind of magic," Cissnei concluded.

"That was my thought as well." Yuffie nodded as she created a hypothesis. "I think in order to complete this maze, we have to take the appropriate turns. If we fail to do that, we'll be sent back to the beginning."

"I was thinking the same thing," Cissnei agreed.

"The problem is I haven't found any hints to let us know which way we should go," Yuffie said with a frustrated sigh.

This maze had several T-junctions and branching paths. They had been taking them more or less at random, but it seems they needed to go through them in the correct order. Yuffie was right, however. Cissnei also hadn't been able to discover any hints as to which paths they should take.

She looked at the walls, which were flat slats that offered no hints as to which paths they should take, then at the ceiling. It featured murals that looked like it told a story. She could see people who were bowed in worship. What were they worshipping? She didn't know, but perhaps there was some hint there.

"Let's try again," Cissnei suggested.

"Not like we have a better option," Yuffie said with reluctance.

They made their way to the first branching path, which offered three options. There was nothing to let them know which path to take. Cissnei looked at the ceiling again. The murals were still depicting people worshipping something, and they extended to all three paths. She had thought they looked the same at first. Yet the longer she stared at them, the more she realized there was a subtle difference.

"The mural in the middle features one person, the one on the left features two, and the one of the right has three," Cissnei said.

"Do you think it's telling us which path to take?" asked Yuffie. "Maybe it's saying we need to take the middle path since this is the first path."

"It could also be telling us to take the left path since there are two of us," Cissnei said.

"Let's try the middle path first."

"Okay."

They took the middle path, which led to a T-junction. Cissnei once more looked at the murals. It was the same as last time, with depictions of people bowed in worship, but this time it showed off two on the right and three on the left.

"If we follow your previous idea, then we should take the right path," Cissnei said.

"Let's go," said Yuffie.

They took the left path, following it until they reached another branch with three options. This time they took the path with three people bowing in worship, then another path that showed four people. Cissnei and Yuffie continued moving along in this vain before they eventually reached a massive room that looked like a colosseum. It was hard to tell how large this space was, but there were seats lined in up tiers above them.

Standing in the center of this room was a creature that looked like a dragon. Cissnei gawked at the huge creature with poisonous green scales, a body twelve times theirs in length and many heads taller. It had a long neck, a tapered nose, and strong muscles hidden beneath its skin. As she and Yuffie entered the room, the creature stirred. It lifted its head and glared at them as if angry that they dared to disturb its sleep.

"Looks like we've gotta fight this thing." Yuffie unhooked her massive shuriken from her back.

"It certainly seems that way," Cissnei agreed, removing a shuriken from her own back. It was smaller than Yuffie's, covered in red markings, and had four points that stuck out.

"Huh. Didn't realize we used similar weapons," Yuffie mumbled.

"There's a lot of things about me you probably don't know," Cissnei said with a smile.

Whether Yuffie wanted to say something or not would never be known since the dragon attacked moments later, opening its mouth in a roar as it spewed some kind of poisonous green fog.

Neither Cissnei nor Yuffie wanted to find out what that fog would do to them, so they leapt back to gain distance. The two split up, traveling toward the dragon from opposite sides. The creature glared at them. It looked back and forth like it wasn't sure who to attack first. That was when Yuffie struck.

She threw her shuriken with so much strength the weapon produced a loud whistling sound as it flew through the air. It struck the dragon on the side and pierced its hide. The creature roared in pain and tried to slam Yuffie into the ground with its tail, but she deftly leapt to the side, jumped on the tail, and ran up its length until she was close enough to grab her shuriken and pull it out.

At the same time, Cissnei leapt into the air and swung the shuriken in her hand after closing the distance between her and the dragon. She didn't aim for its hide, which was thick and hard to penetrate, but its eyes. Her attack missed when the creature turned away. Her weapon struck the green scales and bounced off.

This did not stop Cissnei from acting. She leapt into the air again, the fire materia on her shuriken glowing a brilliant crimson. Fire leapt from her weapon and slammed into the dragon, which roared in pain as the heat cooked its scales. Unfortunately, this creature had a very high defense. Its scales were thick and strong, meaning the fire only did cosmetic damage.

The two women were forced to retreat when the dragon began spewing out more of that poisonous cloud, which enveloped it as though becoming a shield.

"This thing's hide is tough," Yuffie said.

"My attacks hardly do any damage," Cissnei agreed. "I think we need to find its weakness."

"Where would that be?"

"Its eyes? They are the only part not protected by scales, after all."

Yuffie shrugged. "That idea is better than nothing. Okay. Let's go after its eyes."

The two ran forward together once the poison cloud had dispersed. The dragon tried to attack them again, this time by splitting out globs of poison, but they deftly dodged each attack that came their way. Some of the poison did splash against Cissnei's arm, and she grimaced in pain as the poison ate into her limb. She didn't have time to heal herself, however, and so she continued rushing headlong at the dragon before attacking its eye.

Unfortunately, the dragon seemed rather smart. It closed its eye before her attack struck, causing her shuriken to bounce off its hard scales.

Before Cissnei could recover, the dragon turned and swung its tail at her. She was forced to block the attack, but the power behind it was such that her bones were jared from the force and she was sent flying backward. Her arms felt like they were going to be torn off. Landing on the ground, Cissnei bit back the pain in her arms as she dug her heels into the ground, skidding back for several meters.

Yuffie came in from below. The dragon's eye was still closed, so it couldn't see her. The moment it opened its eye, she struck, sliding her shuriken across its eye and drawing a massive line of blood that splattered against the ground. Rearing back at the pain, the dragon roared at Yuffie, who landed on the ground and leapt backward several times as the dragon fired more poison at her.

Not one to miss an opportunity, Cissnei rushed in from the other side and attacked the second eye. This time she scored a hit. The dragon released a cry of pain and anger, raising its massive limb and bringing it down to squash her flat, but Cissnei wove between each attack as she backed away.

Yuffie attacked next. This took the dragon's attention off Cissnei and onto her, which meant she was free to attack again. Like this, the two traded attacks, whittling away at the creature's defenses and power, until, with a final anguished cry, the creature slumped to the floor, blood pooling around it.

"That took a lot longer to defeat than I expected it to," Yuffie mumbled with a sigh.

"It did, but now its dead, and we can continue moving. Let's hurry and meet up with Naruto and the others."

"I'm with you!"

The two began leaving, but just before they could, loud rumbling caused the room to shake. Cissnei almost lost her footing as she bent her knees. She wondered at first where the rumbling was coming from, but then she turned around and saw something that made her pale. The dragon had shed its first layer of skin. Green scales littered the ground around it, replaced with lustrous white scales. It had stood back up and was glaring at them with crimson eyes.

"Is it just me, or does that thing look stronger than before?" asked Yuffie.

"It's not just you," Cissnei said with a gulp.

With another roar, the dragon unleashed a storm of attacks, and Cissnei and Yuffie once more found themselves locked in battle.

When Naruto woke up, the only person with him at the time was Sasuke. This was a situation he had been hoping not to find himself in. His hatred of Sasuke was a lot stronger than he thought. Naruto thought he could hold in his desire to kill the prick who had caused him so much trouble, but that proved harder than he could have ever imagined.

I promised Jiraiya-sensei not to let myself be consumed by hatred.

The place they found themselves in was a long walkway that seemed to be floating in the sky. There didn't appear to be anything holding this place up, which made Naruto worry the whole walkway would fall with them on it. Despite his fears, nothing seemed to happen, and they continued to walk in oppressive silence.

"Haaah. I cannot believe I am with this prick," Naruto mumbled.

"I heard that."

"Good. I wanted you to hear me, prick. Teme. Bastard."

"I don't understand your feelings toward me. We don't even know each other."

"You mean you don't remember me. I know you just fine."

"So we do know each other from somewhere...I wonder why I can't remember…?"

Sasuke placed a hand to his forehead and furrowed his brow in thought, but Naruto didn't care enough to pay more than a cursory glance. He was still trying to figure out where they needed to go.

They eventually reached something that looked like a glowing pool of water. Neither of them knew what to make of it. Naruto knelt and reached out a tentative hand and touched the water, which caused ripples to spread through it. He thought he could make out images on the surface—a man with long silver hair, arms crossed. He seemed to be studying a mural on the wall. Was that Sephiroth? Couldn't be. Sephiroth hadn't entered this temple, unless…

Did he enter after us?

"Time to get moving," Naruto muttered to himself. He couldn't afford to remain here.

Sasuke followed him silently, studying him, but Naruto did his best to ignore the other man. He was sure he'd do something he would regret if he didn't.

They continued on and eventually made it to the top of this strange, floating walkway, though the archway they walked through led them to what seemed like a maze of doors. Each door appeared to lead to a corresponding door on another level. Naruto tried several doors that only led to dead ends.

Not only did most of the doors appear to lead nowhere, but each one was guarded by a monster called a centaur. It was a creature with a human upper body and horse lower body. He and Sasuke were able to easily kill each one, even though they were not working together. In fact, Naruto went out of his way to avoid helping Sasuke.

The next room they found themselves in looked like a clock on the floor. There were three hands that periodically moved and several doors located at each of the hands' stop points. Like the rest of this place, there was a large hole in the floor that seemed endless. The only way to get across was to wait for the hands to align with their platform and the appropriate door, then walked across.

A voice suddenly spoke out.

"I am the Time Guardian. Ye who seek the knowledge of the Ancients, I control the time, select your path."

Naruto at first just thought they needed to move across it to the other side, but that turned out to be a mistake. It led to a trap where Naruto and Sasuke were forced to fight against a powerful, dragon-like creature. After that blunder, Naruto realized he needed to think about this harder. It was clear this clock room was some kind of puzzle.

Naruto moved the hands many times, only to run into dead ends, rooms with chests, and nothing else. Sasuke remained silently behind him. He didn't appear to care about anything. After almost an hour of frustratingly trying to find the place they needed to go, Naruto and Sasuke ended up in a room with several levels and numerous archways. It made Naruto think of another room they had been in, but this one featured a large door that was locked.

Aerith and Tseng were standing in front of the door.

"Aerith!" Naruto shouted.

"Ah! Naruto!"

Aerith didn't waste time running toward him. She leapt into his arms. While he was hugging her, Sasuke moved over to Tseng.

"Good job making it here. Were there any difficulties?" asked Tseng.

"… No," Sasuke said after a long pause.

"I'm glad you arrived," Aerith said to Naruto. "The others should be here soon too."

"How do you…?"

Naruto had been about to ask her how she knew that, but another entrance suddenly appeared at random and two people stepped through. It was Yuffie and Cissnei. Their clothes were ripped in places and there was dried blood smeared against their skin, but the two were alive. That was all that mattered. Two more entrances opened and another two groups emerged. Barret and Elaina followed by Cloud and Tifa. The last group to arrive was Vincent, Cid, and Red XIII.

"It seems we're all back together," Tseng said.

"What should we do now?" asked Tifa.

"I believe we need to catch that person down there," Aerith said, pointing to a strange looking man with a long beard, dressed in a blue robe, and wearing a thick hat on his head. "He's the soul of the Ancients who stayed here to pass on their knowledge. I've been following him since I got here."

"We've been following him," Tseng corrected.

"I've been following him," Aerith said, stressing herself. "You've just been following me."

Tseng chuckled, though the sound was without mirth.

Since they had a plan, the group briefly split up to try and reach the person down below. They each traveled through an archway, which took them somewhere, but unfortunately, it didn't take them where they needed to be. Naruto eventually found the path needed to take to reach the person, but they had already disappeared by the time he arrived, having gone through another path.

While it was frustrating, the group eventually cornered the figure.

"Nyum. Nyum," the person said as they finally caught him. A loud clicking sound echoed around the room. When the group looked up, it was to see the door had become unlocked and swung wide open.

"Looks like that did it," Barret said with a grunt. "Let's hurry this up and go. I don't wanna be here any longer than I have to."

"Right," Naruto murmured.

They traveled back up to the doorway and entered. The room on the other side was illuminated with torches standing against a wall covered in murals. Human figures stood carrying staves and wearing strange hats on their heads. They didn't appear to be wearing shirts. A star hung in the sky of the first mural, which also featured a temple that Naruto assumed was the very temple they were inside.

"This is the room with the murals," Aerith muttered.

"I wonder what these murals are depicting," Naruto said.

"I don't see Sephiroth here," Cloud muttered, brow furrowed. "Now that I think about it, this place was locked, so there's no way he could have entered. Are we sure he's here?"

"How cold, Cloud. I am always by your side," a voice suddenly said.

"Sephiroth?! Where are you?! Show yourself!" Cloud shouted as she looked around, but none of them could see the man who had spoken.

"Do you see it, Cloud? This mural is incredible. It has given me all the knowledge I need. Everything I need to become one with the planet is here."

"SEPHIROTH!"

Naruto was beginning to get worried about Cloud, who seemed to become unhinged at the sound of Sephiroth's voice. However, he focused on the murals, which depicted very different things depending on which one they were looking at. The one Naruto found most disturbing was the one that showed people holding aloft an object that looked like materia. What disturbed him was the giant sphere falling from the sky. It looked like a comet or meteor.

I have a really bad feeling about all this…

They soon reached the end of the murals. The last one depicted the people in all the previous murals being burned by fire.

Standing before a pedestal at the end of this mural room was Sephiroth, his silver hair gleaming in the fire light. He held the massive sword he was known for in his hand. Cloud snarled at Sephiroth, an inhuman sound, but Aerith stepped forward and glared at the man before the blond could do anything.

"You said you know how to become one with the Planet. How do you intend to accomplish this?" she asked.

"Are you curious, young Ancient?" Sephiroth smiled. "It's quite simple. Do you know what happens when the Planet is hurt? It gathers spirit energy to heal the injury. The amount of energy depends on the size of the injury. Of course, the bigger the injury, the more energy it requires to heal."

Sephiroth lightly swung his sword. Cissnei, Elaina, Tseng, and Sasuke tensed as they brought their weapons to bear, but all Sephiroth did was stab his sword into the ground. The giant sword easily penetrated the floor.

"What would happen if there was an injury so great that it threatened the very life of the Planet?" he asked, but it was rhetorical. "Think how much energy would be gathered!" He removed his sword and laughed at them. "At the very center of that injury will be me. All that boundless energy will be mine. By merging with all the energy of the Planet, I will become a new life form, a new existence. Melding with the planet, I will cease to exist as I am now. I will be reborn as a God to rule over every soul in existence!"

"An injury… powerful enough to destroy the Planet?" Aerith's eyes had widened in shock.

"The murals!" Naruto said suddenly.

Sephiroth grinned. "Behold that mural! It depicts the Ultimate Destructive Magic. Meteor!"

Naruto realized with startling clarity what this man planned on doing. He was going to use a meteor to create an injury so vast the very Planet would be in danger of dying. It would gather spirit energy to heal the world, and Sephiroth would siphon off that energy for himself, becoming a God, an ultimate being with the power of a whole planet at his beck and call.

"I'll never let that happen!" Cloud shouted.

But before he could do anything, Sasuke acted first.

"CHIDORI!"

Lightning erupted from his hand and grew to an incredible length within a split second. It pierced Sephiroth through the chest, and yet even though it looked like Sasuke had killed him, the group was shocked to discover it was no longer Sephiroth impaled on the lightning attack. It was one of those figures cloaked in a black robe.

Sasuke released his technique, and Naruto and Aerith knelt by the cloaked figure. It was a man with pale skin, an emaciated body, and no hair on his head.

He was already dead.

"No good. This isn't Sephiroth," Naruto muttered.

"I don't understand what's going on," Aerith added. She looked scared. "How is he doing this? Is he controlling these people?"

"I wish I knew the answer to that question," Naruto said.

"I hate to interrupt, but we have bigger things to worry about," Vincent suddenly said, pointing at Cloud, who was staring at the mural with the meteor falling from the sky, his shoulders shaking as he laughed.

"Hahahahaha… black materia. Ha ha ha ha… call meteor."

"Cloud! Cloud what's wrong?!" asked Tifa. "Get a hold of yourself!"

What… am I?

Cloud gripped his head in his hands, body shaking, perspiration dripping down his face.

Who… am I?

He fell onto his knees. Several people shouted his name, but he couldn't hear them well, like they were shouting at him from across a vast distance.

"Cloud! Cloud! Get a hold of yourself!"

Right… I am… Cloud…

Through supreme willpower, Cloud was able to pull himself together. He took a deep, rasping breath, then climbed to his feet. Someone else placed their hand underneath his arm and helped him. He looked up to see another blond with similar hair helping him up. Naruto grinned at him.

"Doing okay there?" he asked.

"Yeah. I'm fine. Thanks," Cloud said.

"Good to hear."

Naruto let go of him. Cloud stumbled a little, but Tifa was there to catch him. She looked at him with clear worry in her eyes, but he could only offer a tired smile to reassure her. He felt exhausted. It was a feeling embedded deep within his bones. It felt like he had been fighting a battle inside of himself for several weeks.

"We've learned something awfully disturbing," Tseng suddenly said, pulling Cloud out of his musings.

The older Turk was standing before the mural with the giant sphere falling from the sky. His brows were furrowed as he studied it.

"This must be Meteor."

"It looks like something is falling from the sky," Elaina said.

"That's what a meteor is," Naruto told them. "It's basically a giant rock that falls from the sky."

"This must be magic to summon a meteor from space," Aerith said. "I can see why he would call it the Ultimate Destructive Magic. A meteor falling from the sky would indeed be disastrous. A magic that finds drifting bodies in space, pulls them toward us, and makes them collide with the Planet. Our Planet might get wiped out entirely."

Those were some worrying words, but Cloud didn't have time to think about them. The temple began shaking. Loud rumbling caused the floor, walls, and ceiling to shake. Someone screamed. Cloud bent his knees and readied his buster sword. Close by, Naruto pulled some kunai from his pouch, while the black haired man, Sasuke, raised a hand that was sparking with lightning.

"What is going on now?!" asked Tifa.

"Is it Sephiroth?!" Yuffie wondered.

But it wasn't Sephiroth. A section in the ceiling exploded, sending debris tumbling to the ground. Everyone scattered. Several chunks of flying debris flew toward Cloud, but he swung the buster sword and cut them down, splitting them in halves that continued sailing behind him.

Naruto sent out several wind blades from his kunai, which sliced into the chunks and cut them apart. Thanks to his actions, Aerith, Tifa, and the others were safe. Cloud looked around for the others and noticed the Turks and that Sasuke character were all leaving the way they had come. He would have shouted at them, but something fell from the ceiling and landed on the ground with an earth-shaking thud.

It was big. Cloud couldn't judge its size accurately, but it was at least ten or fifteen times bigger than any of them. Covered in glistening red scales, the creature before them walked on two hind legs and had two arms that could probably second as legs. Its sloping spine was curved and had spikes running from the base of its neck down to the long tail that extended from its hind end. A pair of large wings sat on its back. The leathery pinions were a mixture of red and gray. Two horns jutted from a reptilian head, and yellow eyes gazed at them with clear ill intent.

A dragon.

A massive red dragon.

"Well, shit. This does not look good," Barret muttered, taking the words right out of Cloud's mouth.

Cissnei followed Tseng, Elaina, and Sasuke as they left the Temple of the Ancients. While the others didn't seem to care at all about what happened to Naruto and his party, Cissnei could not help but look back at the structure.

"Are you worried about him?" asked Tseng.

"What?" Cissnei needed a moment to realize who he was talking about, but when she did, she shook her head. "Of course not. Why would I?"

Tseng shrugged. "I don't know. You tell me."

"I'm not worried about Naruto. I just… don't think it was right for us to use them like that and then leave them once we had what we wanted," Cissnei said. These were of course her honest feelings, but she wouldn't deny that, secretly, she was worried about Naruto. She didn't like the idea of leaving him behind to face that monster.

Tseng sighed. "I understand what you are saying, but don't forget that Naruto and his group are our enemies. We only temporarily allied ourselves with them to accomplish our goal. Now that we have what we want, our two groups have become enemies again. We will have to fight them once more. You should mentally prepare yourself for that moment."

"I know that," Cissnei mumbled.

"That is good. Then I have nothing to worry about. Now come on. We should leave this place."

She began following Tseng again, but she looked back at the temple one more time.

Stay safe, Naruto…

The battle began when the dragon breathed fire at them. The flames were so hot the floor itself turned boiling red and melted. Sweat burst from everyone's skin as they leapt out of the way.

Naruto wrapped his arm around Aerith's waist and jumped back, avoiding the flames, which rushed forward like an angry stampede. The wave of fire slammed into the wall and destroyed it. He grimaced as he realized how powerful that flame was.

"Take this, you bloody monster!" Barret shouted as he unleashed a barrage of bullets into the dragon's hide. The bullets pinged off its surface. Sparks flew as each bullet struck the dragon and bounced harmlessly off. Barret clicked his tongue as he realized his attack had done nothing.

Yuffie ran along the wall, charging water into her weapon through her materia. She unleashed a powerful sphere of water that flew unerringly toward the dragon, but just before it could reach the monster, flames erupted and made the water evaporate.

"What the hell—whoa!"

Yuffie's scream turned into a surprised shout as the dragon tried to wallop her with its tail. She leapt off the wall seconds before she was struck. While she landed safely on the ground, the wall was not so fortunate, and it exploded. Naruto raced forward and cut through some of the debris before it could hit Yuffie.

"Thanks, sensei!"

"Anytime!"

With this thing proving that magic was all but useless against it and bullets were ineffective, Tifa tried to get in close. Darting forward, she wove across the ground as the dragon spat flaming projectiles at her. Each projectile exploded against the ground and expelled enough heat that Naruto could feel it from where he stood. Tifa had to be smoldering, but she continued on regardless, eventually reaching the dragon, where she unleashed a powerful combo with her fists and feet.

Despite putting all of her weight and strength into each attack, the most she got to show for it was slight cracks appearing on the dragon's skin—and it wasn't about to let her continue this assault. She screamed when the dragon stomped so hard on that ground that it ruptured. She stumbled. The dragon used that opportunity to smack her away with its barbed tail.

"TIFA!"

Cloud raced toward Tifa and caught the woman. She had managed to protect herself at the last second by crossing her arms, but they had holes in them from where the barbs had punctured through.

"Cloud… it hurts…" Tifa whimpered.

"Aerith! Can you heal her?!"

Aerith rushed over and knelt next to them. Naruto, Yuffie, and Vincent were keeping the thing occupied. Vincent had transformed into a beast and was rampaging. He slammed into the dragon with so much fury that it was difficult to tell who was the real monster. His power was insane. Blood exploded from the scales on the dragon's chest after Vincent punched it. The dragon roared in anguish.

Then Naruto fell from the sky and slammed into it with a Rasengan. The attack drilled into the dragon's back, grinding against the hard scales, which soon broke underneath the intensely rotating mana. That was all Naruto could do, unfortunately. The dragon exploded with fire that pushed him and Vincent back. Flames and smoke poured from the two as they landed on the ground. The scent of charred flesh filled the room.

Yuffie chucked her shuriken at the dragon before it could finish the two off. While her attack did little damage, it distracted the creature long enough for the pair to retreat and heal themselves with a potion.

"Cura," Aerith muttered as she cast a healing spell on Tifa. The blood dripping from the holes in her forearms vanished as it was sucked back inside her body, then the holes closed up and healthy pink skin appeared. It was like she'd never been injured in the first place.

"Thank you, Aerith," Tifa said.

Aerith smiled. "Don't mention it."

At that exact moment, Naruto was thrown back when a spiked tail slammed into his chest. He groaned and landed on the ground not far from them. Aerith rushed over and cast cura on him, closing up the puncture wounds in his chest. He grimaced and coughed up some blood. He had never expected to get hit by such a powerful attack, but that blasted dragon had taken him by surprise.

"This thing is powerful," Naruto muttered. "And I feel like we're not doing nearly enough damage to defeat it."

"Then what should we do?" asked Aerith.

"I have an attack that I can use to destroy it… but it's very powerful, and it's indiscriminate. We need to get everyone else out of the room, so I can take care of this. I can't have anyone nearby when I unleash this attack."

"I understand."

Aerith stood up and began shouting at Vincent and Yuffie to head back. While Yuffie headed her words, Vincent either couldn't hear or didn't care. He continued his onslaught, releasing a barrage of powerful punches and claw slashes into the dragon like a relentless berserker. This must have been the drawback to having such a powerful ability.

Red XIII rushed forward and bit into Vincent's neck. The attack itself didn't do much damage, but it distracted Vincent long enough for Cid to come over and knock both him and Red XIII backward. The dragon tried to attack Cid. Yuffie raced in and grabbed the old man by the back of his jacket and jumped away. The ground broke as the tail struck it, but Cid and Yuffie were safe.

With Cloud and Tifa's help, Red XIII was able to drag Vincent away. Barret provided the group cover fire as they retreated through the same door the Turks had disappeared through. Aerith and Barret were the last to leave. Once they vanished, Naruto turned back to the dragon, who eyed him with a wariness that told him this creature was intelligent.

"Shiva… I'm gonna need some help," Naruto called out.

"It has been such a long time since you called on me," a voice said, sounding like it came from everywhere and nowhere. "I was beginning to think you had forgotten me."

"You know that's not possible when you stop by every now and then."

"Hmhmhm. Well, you know. I need to make sure you don't forget me."

The temperature plummeted, thick mist appearing as cold and hot air mixed. It swirled around, forming a tornado, from which a shape appeared within—a beautiful and cold woman with icy blue skin. She stood practically naked before him. Yet even as he watched, a garment of glimmering and translucent silver appeared on her body along with a tiara. Her bare feet lightly touched the ground. Ice spread from where her toes touched.

Shiva turned to him and smiled.

"What is it you need of me?"

"Please hold that creature in place."

"A red dragon? I see. This dragon is a guardian of the Ancients. Very well. Holding such a creature in place is well within my capabilities."

The dragon growled at her like it could sense she was a new enemy, but all Shiva did was smile as she waved her hand, creating a wave of cold that swept over the dragon and doused its flames. Naruto shivered, but he didn't let himself get distracted by the cold. On the other hand, the dragon seemed to realize what was happening and tried to race forward. Its movements were slow, however, and it soon realized why.

Ice was crawling up its legs.

Naruto took a deep breath as the dragon struggled to move forward. Shiva held out her hand and prevented it, keeping the monster there with more ice. The plummeting temperature caused him to shiver. Shunting aside his discomfort from the cold, Naruto held out both hands and created a single Rasengan between them. This was not the normal Rasengan he generally used, but the Rasenshuriken, one of his most powerful attacks.

A bell-like screech filled the air as he rushed forward. Shiva's eyes widened as he dashed past her. Then he was skating across the ground on his way to the dragon, which tried to attack him with fire. The flames were snuffed out by a freezing cold breeze before they could be expelled. Shiva certainly was thorough, Naruto thought to himself as he reached the dragon and slammed the Rasenshuriken into the crack that Tifa had created when she punched this monster.

A cry of pain erupted from the dragon as the Rasenshuriken penetrated its flesh. Naruto leapt back as the attack expanded, tearing apart the ground, gouging chunks out of the monster's flesh. Even the powerful scales that protected it from Barret's attacks were nothing against this jutsu.

Of course, the Rasenshuriken was an indiscriminate killing attack. The sphere of wind expanded, destroying the ceiling, the walls, and everything else around it. Naruto had to switch materia and stick himself to the ground with mana to keep from being sucked into the turbulent attack. After the attack tore apart its scales, it began peeling away the flesh and muscle sinew underneath. Blood swirled around the dragon as its muscles were ripped from its bones.

"I believe that is quite enough," Shiva said, suddenly snapping her fingers. At that moment, the quite dead dragon along with the cutting wind created by Naruto's jutsu froze. Naruto could only gape in shock as one of his most powerful jutsu was literally frozen in place.

"Damn. You're amazing," he complimented with a whistle.

Shiva winked at him. "Feel free to praise me more. In any case, I believe I am done here. You are almost out of mana, so I cannot remain on this plain for much longer. Do call me again when you have time."

"Will do."

Naruto waved goodbye as Shiva disappeared, transforming into a cool mist and vanishing. As the woman left, a soft glow emitted from the dragon he had killed. Walking over to it, Naruto studied the glowing sphere embedded inside of the dragon's chest, then pulled it out. It was a red summoning materia.

"Guess I'll keep this," he muttered, sealing the materia away.

He walked past the dragon and toward the altar, which now featured an object hovering in the air above it. It looked like a miniature version of the temple he was in.

"What is this?" he asked himself.

Naruto had no idea what this was, and since he didn't know, he decided to get the expert. He went outside the room. The others were waiting just outside. They all jumped in shock when he opened the door, but he ignored that and gestured for them all to follow him.

Everyone stopped at the entrance when they entered. Their shock was palpable.

"Damn… the hell happened here?" asked Barret.

Cid whistled. "I don't know what you did, but seeing the end result is impressive. Guess that dragon never stood a chance."

"Of course it didn't. That monster was facing my sensei, after all." Yuffie puffed out her chest in pride, as if she was the one who had been complimented.

"Nevermind the frozen dragon. Come over here, you guys. You have to see this," Naruto said, gesturing them past the dragon.

Everyone gathered around the altar, which featured the miniature version of the temple.

"What is this?" asked Cloud.

"I'm not sure, but there's something written on it," Naruto pointed at the writing on the altar. Everyone leaned in to get a closer look.

"Black… materia…" Tifa read out loud.

"Black Materia!"

There was no telling who screamed that first, but everyone seemed surprised. A fierce debate rose up between them. Was this the Black Materia that Sephiroth had just mentioned? Naruto didn't think that was the case since, if it was the Black Materia, he would have no doubt taken it for himself.

"So… what should we do with this?" asked Aerith.

"I say we leave it," said Cid. "Nothing good can come from having this… black whatever in our possession."

"I have to agree with Cid," Vincent said. Naruto didn't know when he had transformed back into a human, but it must have been after he was dragged outside of the room during the battle against the dragon.

"Hang on a minute. I'll ask the temple," Aerith said at last.

She clasped her hands together as if in prayer. Strange lights flooded the room. Naruto felt like something had entered the room, though he couldn't see it. This indefinable, invisible something swirled around Aerith.

No one spoke as Aerith communed with the Temple, or the spirits, or the Lifestream. Naruto wasn't sure who or what she was talking to, but he held his tongue. The lights soon vanished, Aerith dropped her arms to her side, and turned around.

"They said the Temple itself is the Black Materia," Aerith said.

Everyone was so shocked by her words they didn't understand it at first. This entire Temple was the Black Materia? How could that be? It didn't make any sense.

"If this entire temple is the Black Materia, doesn't that mean it's impossible for anyone to take it?" asked Naruto.

"Hmm, it's pretty hard. You see, this is a model of the Temple. And inside it is a device, which gets smaller each time you solve a puzzle. As the model becomes smaller, the temple become smaller too. Until it's small enough to fit in the palm of your hand."

Everyone pondered what she said. Barret cupped a hand to his chin.

"So, what yer saying is that each time we solve a puzzle, the Black Materia will get smaller and smaller, and we can eventually take it?"

"Yes, but there's something you should know," Aerith said. "You can only solve the puzzles while inside the Temple. So, anyone who solves the puzzle will be crushed by the temple."

"That explains why Sephiroth didn't take it," Naruto said.

"I see now." Tifa nodded several times. "The Ancients knew how dangerous this magic was. They didn't want it to be obtained so easily."

"Perhaps we should just leave it," Red XIII said. "If we can't take it, then neither can Sephiroth, right?"

"No. We have to get it. Did you forget about those cloaked figures?" asked Cloud. Everyone froze at his words. "I don't know who those people are, but they seem to have some connection to Sephiroth. We don't know how many there are, but I'm sure there are enough that he can use them to solve these puzzles. It's nothing to him to throw their lives away to get the Black Materia. This place isn't safe."

No one could disagree with him, though Naruto didn't like the idea of acquiring the Black Materia either. At the same time, he felt it would be safer with them than here, where Sephiroth could use those strange cloaked men to do his bidding.

"So what are we going to do now?" asked Aerith.

"We can't ask someone to sacrifice themselves to get the Black Materia," Tifa added.

Cloud crossed his arms and frowned. Even Naruto furrowed his brow as he realized the problem. Yet just as they were considering this, his phone rang. Everyone looked at him. Naruto ignored them and answered his phone.

"Hello?"

"Hey! This is Cait Sith."

"… I'm hanging up now."

"Please don't! I can help you out! You can use my body to get the Black Materia."

Naruto paused when Cait Sith mentioned the Black Materia. "Did you plant a listening device on one of us?"

"Th-that's not important right now!"

"I think it is."

"Please listen to me!"

"Naruto," Aerith said.

He sighed. "Oh, fine. I'm listening."

"Thank you. I believe everything you said makes perfect sense. We can't let the Black Materia remain where Sephiroth can get it. However, we can't ask someone to sacrifice themselves… but my body isn't real. It's just a robotic body that I control remotely. You can use this body for the future of the Planet."

Cait Sith's plan did make the most sense. As a robot, Cait Sith would not technically die if they used him to get the Black Materia. His real self was safely ensconced somewhere in Shinra HQ. Of course, it was specifically because he worked for Shinra that Naruto had never trusted him in the first place, and that distrust had been proven to be the correct choice when Cait Sith tried to betray them.

"How can I trust you?" asked Naruto.

"You can't, but what other options do we have?"

Dammit. He hated it when someone was right.

"Fine. I guess we really don't have any choice."

"Thank you, Naruto. I promise you… this time, I'm not doing this as a Shinra employee, but as someone who wants to save the Planet. I believe you are our best hope. Anyway, I'll be waiting near the entrance. Head there when you can."

The connection cut. Naruto sealed away his phone and looked at everyone else.

"You heard the cat."

"Are we really going to trust Cait Sith?" asked Barret.

"We don't have much of a choice," Cloud said with a sigh.

"I know that, but still…"

Barret seemed reluctant to trust Cait Sith, and Naruto understood since he didn't trust the cat at all, but Cait Sith was also correct.

"There's no point in debating this anymore. Let's just head back to the entrance."

The group left the destroyed room and made for the entrance. When they got outside, they saw Cait Sith standing by his lonesome. He waved at them as they walked across the bridge and approached.

"Where are Tseng and the others?" asked Aerith.

"Didn't I tell you? I'm not doing this as a Shinra employee. Tseng doesn't know what I have planned," Cait Sith said.

"And you're sure about doing this?" asked Naruto.

"I am. It is true that I am a Shinra employee and was sent to spie on you, but after getting to know your group, I know you all fervently wish to save this Planet. I might work for Shinra, but I'm on your side now."

Naruto had no way of knowing if what Cait Sith said were his true feelings. This robotic cat was built and controlled by someone thousands of miles away. He could have been programmed to say those things.

Perhaps Naruto was still an idealist at heart, but he wanted to believe that Cait Sith was being honest. That was why he decided to believe in him.

"Thank you," Naruto said.

"Cait Sith… I won't forget you," Aerith said.

"And neither will I," said Tifa.

"Che. I've already forgotten about your traitorous ass, but, well, you weren't so bad I guess," Barret grumbled.

The others gave their thanks as well, though some of them like Cid and Vincent were even worse at giving thanks than Cloud, whose inability to express himself properly was notorious by this point.

"Heheh. Thank you. Your words mean a lot." Cait Sith paused for a moment. "Well, I'd better get going. Oh! I know. How about I give you another prediction? This one will be accurate this time. I promise."

"Hmmm." Aerith cupped a hand to her chin before, after glancing at Naruto, she reached out and grabbed his arm. "Let's see how compatible Naruto and I are!"

"That'll cost you exactly one date!" Aerith nodded and Cait Sith began shaking the moogle he was on back and forth. The moogle soon disgorged a prediction from its mouth. Cait Sith made an exclamation as soon as he saw it. "Oh, my! It seems you two are perfect for each other! Your stars are perfectly aligned, and you both complement each other. If there was ever a match made in heaven, I imagine you two would be it."

"Hee hee. You hear that, Naruto. We're a match made in heaven," Aerith said with a grin.

Naruto smiled as he slipped an arm around her waist. "I heard."

"I wonder whether we're well-matched," Tifa said to Cloud. Her expression caused him to look away.

"I'm sure we're matched… fine."

Tifa sighed.

"Welp, I'm off! Don't wait up for me!"

Everyone watched as Cait Sith waddled across the bridge and entered the temple. Naruto closed his eyes. If this worked, would they really be one step closer to saving the Planet?

"Be strong, Cait Sith!" Aerith shouted as the robotic cat disappeared.

Heh heh heh. She told me to be strong.

Reeve Tuesti felt an odd sensation in his chest as he controlled Cait Sith.

I feel oddly happy.

He did not understand why he felt this way after what Aerith said to him, but he supposed it was because those were good kids. Unlike President Rufus Shinra, Heidegger, and Scarlet, they were earnestly fighting to protect the Planet. Such unbridled passion and idealism had affected him before he even knew it. Now he wanted to consider himself a member of their group instead of an employee for Shinra.

That must be it…

Through the camera in Cait Sith's eyes, Reeve had finally found what he was looking for—the floating miniature temple. He maneuvered Cait Sith over to it. As he reached the device, he could not help but marvel at how amazing its construction was.

The Ancients really knew how to create things. This is incredibly well constructed. It seems almost a shame to shrink it… but I need to do this for the sake of the Planet.

Reeve made Cait Sith reach out and take the device in his paws.

Naruto and the others remained outside as the temple began rumbling, causing the earth to vibrate beneath their feet.

"What the hell?!" Barret shouted in shock.

Gasps echoed all around him as the others expressed their shock at what they were seeing. Naruto merely narrowed his eyes.

The Temple of the Ancients had become encased in a pitch-black light. Arcs of mana crackled across its surface like lightning racing through storm clouds. Only a few seconds passed before the light began shrinking, the rumbling stopped, and the only thing remaining was the walls that had surrounded the temple.

"Think it's safe?" asked Barret.

"Only one way to find out," said Naruto.

The group made their way past the wall, though they couldn't move far. A gaping hole at least one hundred meters across and who knew how deep was in front of them. A single wrong step and they would have plummeted to the bottom.

Naruto knelt and looked down. Floating close to the bottom was a small object, its pitch-black surface oddly reflective.

"That must be the Black Materia," Cloud muttered.

There was no one else present, which meant it should be safe.

"I'll go and get it," Naruto offered.

"The rest of us will keep watch," Barret offered.

"You hurry up and get that thing," Cid said.

"Will do."

Naruto quickly dropped off the ledge, landing on the ground in a crouch. He stood to his feet and walked over to the Black Materia. He picked it up. It was… cold. A chill raced down his spine as he held the Black Materia. Not only was it cold to the touch, but it felt dark and ominous, like it was something that shouldn't exist. That made him wonder how such a thing came to exist. Had the Ancients created this Black Materia, or had the Black Materia always existed and the Ancients protected it?

"Now that we have this in our possession, Sephiroth can't summon Meteor, right?" asked Naruto, turning around.

Aerith and Cloud had climbed down with him. He glanced at his fellow blond, who was blinking rapidly as he stared at the materia in Naruto's hand. It made him a little uncomfortable. However, he focused more on Aerith, seeking her answer.

"Correct… though I don't think Sephiroth can use the Black Materia as is anyway," Aerith said, tilting her head.

"What do you mean?" asked Cloud.

"To use the Black Materia requires immense spiritual energy," Aerith explained.

"You mean mana?"

"Yes, it has been called that." Tilting her head, Aerith seemed to ponder something before continuing. "The amount of spiritual energy required to activate the Black Materia is far more than any one person can possess. Not even Sephiroth has the power to activate it on his own. The only way to activate it would be to find a place that is heavy with spiritual energy, gather it all, and use it on the Black Materia."

A place that was heavy in spiritual energy… Naruto turned the cold Black Materia, feeling the smooth material. Sunlight reflected off the surface, but rather than making it seem warm, it made the object look even colder. He didn't like holding this in his hands. He'd have to seal it soon. Seal it away so Sephiroth could never get his hands on it.

"A place that's heavy in spiritual energy," Cloud mumbled. "That sounds like the Promised Land."

"Yes, that's exactly it." Aerith nodded. "Only the Promised Land has enough spiritual energy to activate the Black Materia."

"Then doesn't that mean Sephiroth can't use this thing anyway?" asked Naruto. "I mean, he can't find the Promised Land."

"That is correct. Sephiroth is not an Ancient, so he can't find the Promised Land," Aerith agreed.

"Oh, but I already have found it," a voice said from above them.

Startled, everyone looked up to see a man with long, silver hair floating in the sky. His black trench coat flapped in the wind and his hair swayed. Bluish green eyes with cat-like pupils stared down at them. Sephiroth's lips were twisted into a smile.

"Sephiroth!" several shouts echoed.

Yuffie burst into action, sprinting toward Sephiroth and flinging her shuriken, but it was knocked away with a swing of Sephiroth's sword. In the next moment, Vincent fired several rounds from his shotgun. A barrier of magic unfortunately appeared around Sephiroth, blocking the gunfire from both Vincent and Barret, who unleashed their barrage at the same time.

"Pests. Why don't I find something for you to play with?"

Sephiroth tossed something at the group, which transformed into a hideous monster just like the one they had fought back in the ship they had stowed away on. This one looked even uglier than the previous one, however. It looked almost like a tentacle that had been lopped off an octopus, but it was covered in warts, other tentacles, and was at least five times larger than a normal human.

"It's another part of Jenova!" Red XIII howled as he raced forward and plowed into the giant monster. He slashed at it with his claws, tearing chunks of flesh off its body. Jenova tried to attack him, but he leapt back, avoiding the tentacles it sent at him. Unfortunately, he couldn't afford the splash of poison that landed on him. With a pained whimper, Red XIII stumbled to the ground.

"Fuck! Not another one of these fuckers!" Barret growled as he forewent unloading a barrage of bullets and instead fired a bolt of lightning that struck the monster in the side. It was enough to knock Jenova off balance, which provided Cid with the distraction he needed to grab Red XIII and pull him to safety.

"Yuffie! Get yer ass over here and heal him!"

"Don't shout at me! I'm coming! Tifa, can you cover me?"

"Count on me!"

Yuffie raced toward Red XIII as Tifa tightened her gloves on her hands and blasted off the ground. She dodged several globs of poison that splashed the ground around her, reached Jenova, and threw a powerful straight punch. The attack was so intense that Jenova's entire body shook. However, it didn't appear to do any damage, and Tifa screamed in shock as she was suddenly smacked hard enough in the chest that she was thrown off her feet.

While the rest of their party were locked in combat, Naruto was facing a different sort of struggle as Sephiroth landed on the ground. He didn't think this was the real Sephiroth. Like the person they had killed inside of the Temple of the Ancients, he was certain this was another one of those cloaked figures. Even so, he could not see a single opening on this man.

"I will be taking the Black Materia now," Sephiroth declared.

"I would like to see you try," Naruto said with a bright smile that didn't fit the situation.

Sephiroth smiled as if he knew something Naruto didn't. "Oh, I won't have to try. In fact, I don't have to do anything."

"What…?"

"CLOUD! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!"

Naruto had only a single second to comprehend the danger he was in. He reacted quickly, shuffling to the left, which allowed him to avoid being killed, but it didn't stop him from being injured. Pain raced through his body as something sliced into him from behind. The massive buster sword glistened with his blood as it retracted after gouging a chunk out of his body. Such was the pain Naruto felt that he dropped the Black Materia before he could seal it.

He turned around to see Cloud staring at his own hands in shock, like he couldn't believe what he had just done. It was enough to convince Naruto that his companion had no idea what happened. However, that just begged more questions.

"Cloud, what are you doing?!"

"I… I don't… what… have I…?"

Cloud dropped the sword, fell to his knees, and grabbed his head. He released a terrible scream like he was in the throws of indescribable pain. Naruto was about to go to his friend, but then he remembered the Black Materia. By the time he turned around, however, Sephiroth had unfortunately picked the Black Materia up. The man was now hovering above them, smiling down at Naruto in triumph.

"I'll be taking this." He turned to the still suffering Cloud. "Good boy, Cloud. I'll see you later."

"Sephiroth?! Wait! Wh-what did you… do to me?!"

It was not clear if Sephiroth heard him, or wasn't listening, but the man flew far into the sky and disappeared.

"Hukkk! Urrrg! Aaaaaah!"

"Cloud?! Cloud, what's wrong?!" asked Aerith.

"What have I done?! I hurt Naruto! I let Sephiroth steal the Black Materia! It's… all my fault!"

"It's not your fault! You need to snap out of it!" Aerith shouted.

Her words had no effect on Cloud, who leapt to his feet and slammed a fist into Aerith's face. With a scream that was half-terrified and half-enraged, he raised his fist like he was going to punch her again, but Naruto rushed forward and slammed an axe kick into the back of his fellow blond's head.

"You need to chill!"

Cloud struck the ground face first and didn't move. That attack had completely knocked him unconscious. Naruto hissed as the sudden movement agitated his wound, but it was already healing, so he knelt before Aerith and looked at her bruised face, cupping it with his hand.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. It looks worse than it is."

Aerith smiled to be strong, but she was clearly shaken. Someone she thought of as a comrade had just attacked her. There was nothing more demoralizing and scary than that.

Naruto didn't know why Cloud had attacked either. The only thing he knew for sure was that this confirmed there was something very odd about their former SOLDIER friend.

An explosion above alerted them to another problem. The battle between their other comrades and Jenova was still going strong.

"We need to deal with that thing," Naruto said.

"You're right." Aerith stood up, dusted herself off, and looked at him with determination. "Let's go."

Naruto scooped Aerith into his arms and, leaving Cloud where he was for now, jumped back up to where everyone else was. He set Aerith down a second later, just in time to slice through an attack sent by Jenova. His wind blade severed the poison blob Jenova had sent at them, though some still splashed against his skin. He grimaced before the wound healed over. Even the poison did not remain in his body for more than a second.

"Everyone! I am going to summon Bahamut! Get back!"

Bahamut was the most recent summon they had acquired after fighting the red dragon inside the Temple of the Ancients. He didn't know how strong this summon was, but he remembered reading a book in Aerith's collection that suggested Bahamut was quite powerful.

His comrades quickly retreated. Jenova tried to chase after them, but Aerith created a barrier with her magic to block the attack. Naruto took a deep breath, placed the materia inside of his arm, and called upon the one it contained.

"Who dares to summon me?"

A voice rumbled across the land seconds before dark storm clouds gathered in the sky. Everyone looked up. Even Jenova stopped fighting to stare at the clouds. Piercing through the clouds was a creature that was very much a dragon. It was big, covered in thick and strong scales, had wings with a massive wingspan of at least a dozen meters, a tail longer than it was tall, and a reptilian muzzle that appeared both majestic and powerful.

The dragon swept its gaze across the group before its eyes landed on Naruto.

"So you are the one who summoned me, eh? How interesting. I did not expect to find an otherworlder who could summon me. You have the scent of Shiva on you. Ah. You are favored by her. Very well. I shall help you this once, but I will expect proper tribute if you wish for my aid again."

This dragon was quite willful and filled with pride. Perhaps that was natural. Naruto remembered reading that dragons were all powerful and prideful creatures, so a summoned dragon would be no different.

"Thank you," Naruto said.

Bahamut snorted, then turned its gaze to Jenova. A disgusted snarl appeared on its face.

"Foul creature from beyond the stars. You have done enough damage to this Planet. Begone!"

Bahamut opened its mouth. Mana gathered in such quantities that it became visible. The purple energy appeared as a small sphere that grew larger as more mana was gathered. Naruto felt a chill run down his spine, a premonition of danger, and he quickly raced backward as the dragon unleashed all that power it had gathered.

It struck Jenova like a bullet, plowing right through the monster, and then struck the ground. An explosion went up. Naruto was knocked back from the expulsion of wind, which slammed into him with the fury of a hurricane. He was lucky, however. Jenova was nowhere near lucky enough to get off with just a few scrapes. Its entire body had been decimated. Even as Naruto warily stood to his feet, the part of Jenova they had been fighting disintegrated. Particles drifted into the air and disappeared.

"I have disposed of that disgusting creature," Bahamut declared. "While I normally require tribute, should you find yourself up against something like this again, I shall allow you to call upon me."

"Uh, thanks."

Bahamut said nothing more as he flew into the air and vanished.

The group returned to the base where Shinra had been stationed, only to find it abandoned. Even the prefab structures were gone, showing how Shinra had gotten out of dodge the moment they had what they wanted. With nothing to spend the night in, the group was forced to use the tents they had bought for long trips.

At the moment, Naruto and the others were standing around the fire. Only two people were missing right now.

"How is Cloud?" asked Naruto.

"He's sleeping. Tifa's taking care of him," Barret grunted.

Naruto nodded. What happened had been traumatizing for him and Aerith, but he imagined Cloud was in even worse shape.

"I don't understand what happened. Why would Cloud attack you?" asked Yuffie.

"Hmm. There is something odd about Cloud," Red XIII said. "I have sensed it for a long time, and I cannot place my finger on it, but he has never seemed quite right to me."

"You too, huh?" Naruto ran a hand through his hair. "There is definitely something strange about him. However, I don't think Cloud is aware of it."

There were a lot of discrepancies in Cloud's character, to the point where Naruto sometimes wondered if the Cloud they were looking at was the real Cloud and not some imaginary figure. The way he sometimes acted, the headaches he occasionally got… it was as if there were two different Clouds.

"What should we do about this?" asked Cid.

"Having someone like that in our party is pretty dangerous," Vincent said. "We may need to cut him loose."

"No, I don't think that would be a good idea. It might make things worse." Naruto shook his head. "We'll keep an eye on him from now on. That's all we can do. However, I would also like to trust Cloud. I believe he is a good person, so we should not cast suspicion on him, but try to help him instead. Aerith?"

"I agree. Cloud is a good person. We should definitely help him," Aerith said.

"Well, I'll do whatever you say. You are the leader, after all." Barret crossed his arms as he spoke.

Since they had already decided on what to do about Cloud, they turned to other matters, namely where they should go from now. Sephiroth had the Black Materia, which meant he would be heading to the Promised Land. Unfortunately, no one knew where the Promised Land was. Even Aerith said it would take awhile for her to find it. Naruto had glanced at her as she said that, at the way she had twirled her hair, though he said nothing.

Night soon came. Since the sun had gone down, everyone decided to get some sleep.

Naruto and Aerith did not have their own tent anymore, but shared one with Yuffie, though they did have their own sleeping bag, much to Yuffie's chagrin. Neither of them would let the girl complain, however. She just had to put up with it.

Naruto didn't open his eyes, but he was disturbed from his sleep when he felt Aerith's warmth leave him. He waited for a moment, then sat up and opened his eyes, eying the flap as it closed behind Aerith. After frowning for a moment, he stood up and walked outside.

"Where do you think you're going?" he asked.

"…"

Aerith said nothing as she stood with her back to him, staff in hand, clearly getting ready to head off without him. Could she feel the frown he was giving her?

"Aerith…"

"Haaaah. I guess it was too much to expect you'd continue to sleep," Aerith mumbled, turning around. "You've always been a light sleeper."

"I'm actually a heavy sleeper. I just can't sleep when you're not with me anymore."

The light from the fire was gone, orange embers fading. Even so, Naruto could see Aerith just fine. She looked reserved but resolved.

"Were you planning to take care of Sephiroth by yourself?" he asked.

Aerith gave him a mirthless smile. "You caught me."

"You realize how stupid that is, right?"

"I'm the only one who can do it."

"Maybe, but that doesn't mean you have to do it alone." Naruto walked over to Aerith and placed his hands on her shoulders, feeling the warmth through her clothes. He stared into her eyes. "Let me come with you. I can help."

"You just don't want to be without me." Aerith batted her eyelashes at him. "Would you miss me that much if I left?"

"I would." Naruto nodded.

"You're no fun to tease," Aerith said with a huff.

"Sorry."

A pause ensued between them. Aerith studied him with a serious expression, then let out a breath.

"You're not going to let me go off alone, are you?"

"Never."

"Even if I said you wouldn't be able to help?"

"Correct. Even if I can't do anything about Sephiroth, I can at least protect you from monsters. It's dangerous to travel on your own."

You bring up a good point," Aerith mumbled. "All right. We'll stick together, just like always."

"Thank you."

Naruto and Aerith didn't remain in the campsite but quietly slipped out before anyone could notice they were gone. They walked through the dense forest. Naruto pushed foliage out of Aerith's way. He didn't know how long they walked, but the sun was beginning to rise by the time they arrived near the shore.

"Of course Shinra took their ship with them," Naruto mumbled. "How are we going to cross the ocean now?"

Aerith placed a hand to her chin. "Hmm. I have heard a rumor that there are chocobos who are capable of walking across large bodies of water, though they can only run across the shallow parts."

"Guess we're gonna go chocobo hunting. By the way, where are we going?"

"We're going to the City of the Ancients," Aerith said, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a pure white materia.


Here is another 20,000 word doozy. I wrote this in-between editing my original stories. Might not have much time to write more FF again for awhile since my work is about to pick up.

I struggled a lot with deciding how canon to make this. Certain things need to happen in a certain way for the plot of the original games to progress, but I always felt like certain parts of the plot felt contrived. This chapter also feels kind of contrived as well. However, while I am not completely satisfied with my writing, I think I did okay.

Hope everyone enjoyed the chapter.