Chapter 5

Yuffie didn't mind Costa del Sol. It was still a Shinra town, but not in any obvious way, once you left the harbor. It was like the people who lived here never put much thought into who kept their lights on, so if somebody besides Shinra and something besides Mako took care of that for them, they'd be just as happy.

Not that complacency was a great thing, but it was practically a breath of fresh air after all the blind, jingoistic loyalty that permeated Junon.

And then there was the ocean. Not marred or blocked from view by any military base, but right there in front of you. The sun had set a while ago now, and the sea glittered darkly in the deepening twilight.

Funny how she felt so disconnected from the water on boats. Only here on the beach did she feel again like it was trying to tell her something. Rivers feeding the ocean. A half-remembered message lost in the moment of waking.


She turned at the sound of Jessie's voice and pulled herself together quick enough to dodge the attempted hug.

"Ahh, what is this," said Jessie, "birthdays only?"

"Sounds good to me," said Yuffie, and she kept a wary eye on Barret as he approached behind Jessie.

"Hi, Yuffie," said Wedge, apparently the only one of them with manners. "I hope we didn't keep you waiting too long."

"Nah," she said. "There're worse places to wait. Anyway, did you bring that Huge Materia down with you or is it back on the ship?"

"I've got it," said Jessie. "I had a feeling you'd be more interested in that than dinner with us old farts."

"Speak for yourself, I'm not old," said Wedge, and Jessie stuck her tongue out at him.

"Those Shinra soldiers clear out o' here?" Barret asked her, glancing up and down the beach.

Costa del Sol was still plenty warm to Yuffie, but it was cooler than the summer months, and it wasn't attracting quite so many tourists. Maybe everything going down with Shinra had had its impact, too. Either way, even the few tourists had left the beach come sundown, and they had it to themselves.

"Yeah, they took off hours ago," Yuffie confirmed. "Aeris told me you guys had already made it to North Corel, so I figured there wasn't any reason to tail them."

Barret nodded. "I expect not. We'll just let 'em waste their time."

Jessie caught Yuffie's expectant look before she had to prompt her again, and she carefully eased a huge hunk of green crystal out of her bag. Yuffie accepted it with both hands, and the weight of it stunned her for a second.

Not the physical weight--it was about as heavy as it looked--but the weight of everything locked up inside of it.

Regular materia wasn't really a source for magic, Yuffie understood that; it was more like instructions, everything the Ancients had learned in order to cast a particular spell compressed into a little orb that fit in the palm of your hand. Like someone building you a machine to do something really complicated, but all you had to do was push a button.

This was different. There was so much knowledge compressed into this hunk of crystal that Yuffie couldn't pick out the individual threads. It was full of thoughts, almost alive in her hands. She shook her head, handing it back to Jessie.

"Kinda makes me dizzy," she admitted.

"Right?" said Jessie. "There's so much packed in here... Hopefully Aeris can make some sense of it."

"Yeah," Yuffie agreed, though she couldn't help her disappointment. She'd thought it would've cleared something up for her.

Jessie caught something in her expression and clapped a hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry about it so much. If Aeris can figure it out, I'm sure you'll learn it from her in no time."

"So," said Wedge, "does this mean we're finally eating? I've never had seafood before."

"Never?" Yuffie repeated incredulously.

"The farm's not exactly ocean-front property, and you've been to the Midgar slums. Would you trust the fish there?"

Yuffie was inclined to agree with him on that one, but Jessie was rolling her eyes. "You're just a big wuss. I've eaten plenty of slums seafood, and look how not dead I am."

Barret had already turned to lead the way towards the restaurants, but over his shoulder he said, "Didn't you get food poisoning that one time in Wall Market?"

"Once!" she said. "That was one time. And we don't know for sure it was the octopus."

Wedge grimaced and exchanged looks with Yuffie behind their backs.

"I like octopus," Yuffie confided privately, "but you're right. I would not have it in Midgar."

Costa del Sol cuisine, on the other hand, wasn't half bad. Nothing like what Yuffie could get back home, but a decent choice for someone's first experience with seafood.

There were rooms up on the Highwind that they could've spent the night in, but Yuffie didn't like the way the ship bobbed even at rest, and it wasn't hard to persuade the others to pay another visit to that cheap-ass inn they'd stayed at before. She tried not to put too much thought into why Barret and Jessie in particular warmed to it, or why the normally frugal pair shelled out for separate rooms.

But even on solid ground, with the sound of the ocean outside her window, Yuffie slept fitfully. Something gnawed just at the edge of her thoughts. She was missing something.

She gave up on sleeping not long before dawn and left Wedge alone in the room to head outside, back down to the beach. Ahead of her, the sky was growing lighter. She kicked her shoes off and let her toes sink into the sand. The waves came up over her bare feet, the cold water making her shiver.

She stood there a while, and gradually the waves no longer reached her toes. The tide was going out. The ocean, pulling away from her.

The rivers going dry.

Yuffie furrowed her brow. "I don't understand," she said aloud. "Leviathan, what are you trying to tell me?"

Of course there wasn't any answer. Aeris always said the Planet didn't speak with words, and Yuffie guessed Leviathan didn't either, but it sure would make things a lot easier.

A while after the sun had come up over the water, she heard the shuffle of footsteps approaching through the sand.

"Thought I might find ya down here," said Barret. "You kinda got a thing for water, don'tcha?"

Yuffie didn't look at him, but he came to stand beside her, appearing at the edge of her vision. "You noticed, huh?"

"Seems to suit ya," he said. "So, how long've you been up?"

"...a while."

"I can tell you got somethin' on your mind," Barret went on. "I'm happy to lend an ear if you're lookin' for one."

Yuffie's first impulse was to reject the offer. She'd been keeping it to herself for weeks now. At first, she'd tried hard to ignore it in hopes that it would go away, and now that she was looking at it dead on, it kept slipping away out of sight. If she couldn't even pin it down in her mind, she didn't know how she was going to trap it with words.

But staring at the ocean wasn't helping.

"You ever had a recurring dream?" she asked.

"Sure," said Barret. "Ain't usually a good thing."


"You wanna tell me about it?"

Yuffie hesitated. The surf receded, water receding, but the next wave followed, sliding gently ashore. "All the water's gone from Wutai," she said. "Everything turns black and starts breaking apart. And... my mom is there, and she's trying to tell me something, but I can never remember it once I wake up."

"Sounds rough," Barret said sympathetically, "but I dunno that it means anything, 'cept that maybe you're feelin' conflicted about leavin' Wutai."

"Maybe," she said. She couldn't bring herself to explain to him how rare it was for her to dream about her mother. Yuffie had been so young when she'd died, her memories of her mother were indistinct, more like feelings than images. Not like the face she'd been seeing in her dreams, one she knew on sight but couldn't picture now.

"But-- I'm not sure," she went on. "I get this feeling..." What feeling? "I don't know. I keep thinking, Leviathan's trying to tell me something. For some reason I thought the Huge Materia'd make it clearer, but it didn't."

"Well..." She could feel Barret studying her, thoughtful. "You got a real connection to that god o' yours. Ain't none of us could say otherwise. If you got a feelin' in your gut that he's got somethin' to tell you, you're probably right. Just wish I knew how to help you figure it out."

Yuffie nodded. Of course he couldn't really help. But... maybe it did make her feel a little better, hearing him say that it wasn't just her imagination.

"If it's got somethin' to do with the Huge Materia though," Barret went on abruptly, "well, then maybe Aeris could help."

"I'm kinda s'posed to be getting back to Junon," said Yuffie.

"Sash's got it covered for now. Anyhow, a message from a god? Don't seem like we could get much better intel than that."

Finally, Yuffie looked at him.

"Ha! There's a smile," Barret said triumphantly.

"Yeah, okay." Yuffie tried to shrug it off. "Are the others up yet? We still got a job to do."

"Listen to you, all task-focused," Barret chuckled. "They're catchin' breakfast before we head out. We oughtta join 'em."

"Think I'll pass on eating 'til we get there."

"I thought that doodad Cloud gave you was helpin'?"

"Helping," Yuffie emphasized. "And I haven't tried it in the air yet."

"Fair enough. We'll getcha one o' those to-go boxes. C'mon."

Yuffie retrieved her shoes, carrying them loosely in one hand, and she and Barret made their way back across the beach.

"So," she said, "what is it with you people and naming yourselves random words anyway? Sash, Wedge, Rude... Cloud's kind of a weird pick, too."

"Don't look at me, I didn't name any of 'em. Think 'Sash' is short for 'Sasha' though."

"'Sasha' needed to be shorter?" Yuffie asked dubiously.

Barret shrugged. "Folks like nicknames."

It was at that moment that Yuffie remembered she was talking to someone who'd felt the need to cut 'Tifa' and 'Jessie' down to one syllable, and she threw him a wary look. "You're not allowed to start calling me 'Yuff,' okay? I'll disown you."

"Understood," he said, but he looked more amused than properly intimidated.

Back at the inn, Yuffie sat with the others and joined in their chatter while they ate. She didn't know if she was really doing that good a job at hiding it or if they were being sensitive, but neither Jessie nor Wedge asked what she'd been up to so early in the morning.

For some reason it made her think of Aeris. She heard stuff from the Planet all the time, but she hardly ever let on about it. She even came off as cheerful and optimistic most of the time.

She'd been that way at Yuffie's birthday party. Excited to show her the house in Kalm, teasing her, telling her about the pranks she'd pull on their landlady. It was part of why Yuffie hadn't talked to her, then, about her own misgivings. If something was really wrong, if the Planet was in trouble, Aeris would know. And then Tifa would know and they'd all know.

Aeris wouldn't keep that to herself, right?

They left Costa del Sol shortly after breakfast, and Yuffie reluctantly boarded the Highwind with the others. But, though she wouldn't have trusted her stomach with any food, it kept quiet enough that she managed to stay on the bridge with the others. They passed over the peaks of the Corel mountain range, and then those of Nibel. They landed in the valley north of Nibelheim, and Yuffie was glad they could skip out on that depressing excuse for a town.

She did wonder if Vincent had stopped by on his world tour though. Hopefully he hadn't stayed long.

...nope, no way was she suggesting they go and check his coffin to make sure he hadn't climbed back in. If he wanted to go and sleep away his life in a gross basement, that was his problem. Yuffie wasn't responsible for his terrible ideas.

She remembered the Nibel mountains as a long and arduous climb, but from the valley, it was only a few hours' hike up to the reactor-- or what was left of it.

They had to pass through the same cave to reach it, and a large piece of debris had landed just outside the exit, mere feet from blocking it completely. It narrowed the gap enough that Barret had to edge his way through, his back brushing against the dented Shinra logo. Beyond, the spot where the reactor had stood was now a jumble of burst pipes, brick, and metal plating.

"Damn," said Yuffie. "They really did a number on this thing."

"That's my handiwork, y'know," said Jessie, hands on her hips. "Kinda wish I'd been here to see it in action. Makes a girl proud."

"So, what do you think the odds are the Huge Materia got destroyed, too?" Yuffie wondered.

Jessie scratched her head. "From what you heard, the Shinra seemed to think it was a possibility, right? I've never heard of materia being destroyed, but maybe, if the explosion reacted with the Mako... I don't really know."

"I guess that'd be hard to test, huh?"

"Mm, yeah. We're not really about using Mako, especially not like that. Anyway, we shouldn't need to destroy the stuff. We just need to keep it out of Shinra's hands."

"I know," said Yuffie, "but I was thinking... If the Huge Materia can be destroyed, maybe the Black Materia can be, too."

All three of them looked at her for that, and then Barret let out a breath. "It's a nice thought," he said, "but even if we don't find it here, it's gonna be hard to prove it's 'cause it got destroyed. Coulda gotten blown straight off the mountain."

Yuffie threw a glance towards the edge. If it had gone over, there was almost no way they'd find it. Even the established path through these mountains was pretty maze-like.

"Do we know where the Huge Materia would've been, before the explosion?" asked Wedge.

"Not exactly," said Jessie. "This was the oldest reactor in service, built more than thirty years ago. Even Reeve wasn't too familiar with its design, and Reno said he'd never been here."

"I wonder if Vincent would've known," Wedge reflected.

Jessie shook her head. "Somebody's gonna have to get that guy a phone the next time we can pin him down, but for now we'll just have to take our best guess. I figure, since all the equipment for Mako condensation was there already, it couldn't have been too far from that room with all the pods."

Yuffie made a face. "Ugh, that place was so creepy."

"Well, now it should be less creepy," Jessie offered. "Mostly just a mess."

"Kinda makes you wish we'd known about this Huge Materia stuff before Tifa blew it up," said Barret. "But I guess there's no use complainin' about it. Let's get to work."

"Everyone be careful," Jessie warned. "It's only been a few weeks, so there's probably still stagnant Mako somewhere beneath all that. Not to mention the pit that held it."

Barret nodded in agreement. "Gotta watch our step here."

They split up as they left the cave exit; Jessie went with Barret, so Yuffie stuck close to Wedge. She figured he could use someone making sure he didn't trip over something and hurt himself. Except for that time they'd taken over the TV station, she hadn't seen much of him in action. She'd always thought of him as more of a home-base kind of guy.

"So," said Wedge as he helped her lift aside a fragment of railing, "is this anything like how it was when you were going after Sephiroth?"

"Huh? What, picking through a pile of junk?"

"No, I mean... Travelling around the world. Being there when things happen."

So, maybe he didn't really enjoy being the home-base guy, Yuffie reflected. "Uh... I guess, sort of," she said. "We didn't have the Highwind then, so there was a lot more road time. Coming through here was kind of a big deal. It was rough on Tifa." At that memory, something else occurred to her that she should've thought of sooner. Before they'd come here... "Um, how was Barret, at Corel?"

Wedge caught her eye, and thought about it for a moment. "Well... It was obvious he had a lot on his mind, about things that happened in the past, but he didn't let it get in the way of the mission. I think Jessie helped him keep his spirits up, too."

"Yeah..." Yuffie glanced over at them. Jessie had stuck by Barret when they'd come through Corel before, too, even after they dropped the fake dating.

"Don't worry," said Wedge. "They told me yesterday."

"Oh." Yuffie shook her head. "I wasn't gonna bring it up. I don't really--"

A piercing roar interrupted her. Yuffie ducked instinctively.

"Jessie!" Barret shouted, and Yuffie looked up in time to see him tackle Jessie aside as a stream of fire struck. They landed behind a piece of piping, but the dragon's path carried it over them, and the cover was no good anymore. Barret started to yell before Yuffie could get her spell off.

Ice struck the dragon in the chest, interrupting its fire and throwing off its flight. Its wing clipped the nearby spire, and it banked away.

A glance at Wedge told her he had his rifle in hand. "Find cover and keep it distracted!" she told him. Then she sprinted as quickly as she could over the debris field towards Barret and Jessie.

The dragon had already circled around for another pass.

"Incoming flashbang!" Jessie shouted from out of sight. Yuffie clapped her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes shut.

The blast was loud enough even through her hands that it left her ears ringing, but her vision was clear when she opened her eyes. The dragon's vision? It roared, beating its wings wildly to pull itself well clear of crashing into anything, and flew off.

Yuffie scrambled on past the pipe.

"He was shielding me," said Jessie at the sight of her. She knelt beside Barret, who was only now trying to push himself up, his face contorted in a grimace. Tendrils of smoke curled off the back of his jacket.

"Hey, sit still a sec," Yuffie said, dropping down beside them. "I've got you."

She called up her healing magic. Leviathan's power washed over and soothed the burns, and Barret's expression eased.

"Did you see its wing?" Jessie asked her, throwing a glance over the pipe in search of the dragon. "I think this is the same one we ran into before."

"The asshole that almost killed me?" said Yuffie. Her shuriken had taken a fair cut out of that dragon's wing, and it had nearly knocked her clean off the mountain in retaliation. If Nanaki hadn't caught her, she wasn't sure she would've even had time for her life to flash before her eyes.

She realized her heart was racing, and she tried to swallow her fear. This was a way bigger arena; it'd have a harder time throwing her to her death here.

Somehow that wasn't comforting.

"You guys okay?" It was Wedge, picking his way around to join them.

"Yeah," said Barret. He pushed himself to his feet and adjusted his damaged jacket as he looked to the sky. "Don't expect that thing to stay away long enough for us to finish up here, though. Gonna have to do somethin' about it."

"Do you really think we can handle that?" Wedge asked.

"Sure," Barret answered easily. "Just gotta find some better cover."

"That metal plate by the cave is plenty big enough," Jessie proposed, "if we could move it out a little more. Plus that gives us the cave to retreat to."

Barret nodded, and the four of them hurried back to the cave entrance. Barret and Wedge took either end of the piece of metal and repositioned it a short distance from the cave, allowing them all the space to stand behind it, the mountain at their backs.

They peered around it in the direction the dragon had gone. The others held their guns ready in their hands, and Yuffie unslung her shuriken from her back. This time...

"How long do you think before it...?" Wedge began, but trailed off as the dragon came into view around the side of the mountain.

It didn't seem to see them at first, and instead alighted on the spire on the opposite side of the ruined reactor. It crawled to a cleft in the rock, disappearing partly from view.

"Y'think it lives up there?" said Barret in a low whisper. "Would explain us runnin' into it again."

"I wonder..." Jessie murmured.

"What're you thinkin,' Jess?"

"Well, they say dragons like to hoard shiny things, right? And it hangs out around these ruins. I wonder if it could've done our work for us."

Yuffie glanced at her. "You think it might've found the Huge Materia?"

"Maybe," said Jessie. "If we can get it out of the way, it'd sure be easier checking out that spire than combing through all this mess."

"Better get its attention then," Barret decided. "Y'all ready?"

When they all nodded, Barret opened fire on the dragon. It roared in outrage and turned. Another stream of fire shot from its mouth, but they all ducked behind the metal plate. Yuffie could feel the heat radiating from it, but it kept the dragon's breath from reaching them.

The flames let up for a second, resumed, and then stopped again. Heavy footsteps adjusted its position on the spire, and Yuffie risked a peek around their cover in time to see it launch into the air. It flew towards them and blasted more fire at their position, but the slope was too close at their backs, and it had to bank away without getting a clear shot at them.

Barret fired again at its retreating back, and Wedge joined in. Yuffie grimaced at the gunfire, loud in her ears, and thought she wouldn't have minded if the flashbang had deafened her a little longer.

Amidst the hail of bullets, the dragon didn't go far, but landed atop the debris and folded its wings to protect the delicate membranes. By contrast, its scales were like armor. Not that bullets bounced off exactly, but its skin was so tough they didn't go deep.

The dragon slammed its tail into the broken-off door of one of those pods, launching it towards them. It collided with their shield, knocking it back slightly. If it kept that up, the dragon could force a retreat.

Yuffie retaliated with another ice spell. This time she managed to encase its neck, and when the ice shattered, the dragon staggered back several steps.

"The Mako pit!" Jessie exclaimed suddenly. "We should trap it in the Mako pit."

"And, uh, how exactly are we gonna get it in there?" Barret asked her, ducking back behind the shield as the dragon hurled another piece of debris their way. It smashed against the plate, putting it an unsteady angle, and Barret put his shoulder to it to push it back into place. "If it lives here," he went on, "it's gotta know there's a pit."

"Well..." Jessie said uncertainly.

"We blind it again," Wedge interjected. "If it doesn't want to fly while we're shooting at it, and it can't see where the pit is, then it could work, right?"

Jessie nodded, already reaching for another grenade on her belt. "Yuffie, you ready with more magic? It's not too far from where the pit is, we just need to force it to the right."

"Got it," said Yuffie.

Jessie tossed the flashbang over their cover, and they all braced themselves. As the boom faded, the dragon went on screeching at the assault on its senses. It smashed debris wildly, some of it still managing to strike their shield.

Yuffie opened her eyes and prepared to cast however many ice spells it took to force the dragon into the pit. She took a glance beyond their cover, taking aim. She focused, starting to bring the spell together, but she couldn't help thinking that it would be so much easier if instead of ice--

A deluge of water slammed against the dragon's right flank. The dragon staggered several steps closer to the pit, but startled by her own magic, Yuffie lost focus, and the flow subsided to a trickle. Hurriedly she tried to recapture the feeling, but it had slipped away again, like the week before on the riverbank.

"Yuffie, was that you?" said Jessie. All three of them were staring at her.

"Uh, yeah, I didn't mean to do that," she said. "But lemme try again."

The dragon was regaining its footing, near enough to the pit that it sent a few bricks tumbling over the edge. They struck the walls of the pit as they fell, the sound echoing loudly, but the dragon couldn't hear them.

Yuffie concentrated, but this time it was just another ice spell. One of the dragon's feet went down into the pit, and as it flailed, she quickly followed up with a second spell. The impact of the ice against its side forced it too far to recover, and it fell. The dragon landed at the bottom of the pit with a heavy splash, but its cry of pain was quickly extinguished as more debris collapsed on top of it.

It took a minute for everything to settle, and then there was quiet. Barret ventured out from behind the metal plate.

"Didn't think fallin' in Mako was gonna kill it," he said uncertainly.

Jessie stepped out after him, and Yuffie and Wedge followed. They cautiously approached the edge of the pit.

Far below, the dragon lay motionless in the residual Mako, no more than a few feet deep. Loose bricks, cables, and one large pipe had fallen atop it. As they stared down, a few of those bricks shifted and slid off of it into the Mako below, disturbed by its breathing. Not dead.

"I think it's just unconscious," Jessie reasoned, "but who knows for how long. The pit's too narrow for it to fly right out, but I'm sure it'll find a way to climb out eventually, once it wakes up."

Barret nodded and lifted his gaze to the spire. "Let's take advantage of our window while we can."

"Guess that means me," said Yuffie. "I don't know about Wedge, but you two are terrible climbers."

"What?" said Barret. "Would a terrible climber've made it up Gaea's Cliff? 'sides, I've got two hands now."

"Then you can use 'em to gimme a boost."

Barret huffed, but he didn't argue, and they picked their way over to the base of the spire. Barret's help did get her to a decent handhold, and Yuffie started up. Calling him a terrible climber was probably unfair, since this didn't really compare to Gaea's Cliff; anything was an easier climb than that.

Yuffie found her way up into the cleft in the rock, reaching a place where she could stand.

There was definitely a hoard, though most of it was not exactly what Yuffie would call treasure. Colorful but worthless rocks, the bones of other monsters, a collection of gears from inside the reactor, and a solitary Shinra military helmet.

Nestled at the center, though, was a large chunk of blue crystal.

Prepared this time for what it would feel like, Yuffie put her hand on it. Again the jumble of thoughts and words. Actually, she realized, it reminded her of those weird lights up in the City of the Ancients, the ones that seemed to take the unheard whispers all around her and amplify them into a rush of words she couldn't pick apart.

"Find anything?" Jessie called up from below.

"Yeah!" Yuffie called back. "I'm gonna drop it down to you guys!"

Part of her balked at the idea of just chucking it over the edge, but it had already survived the reactor's explosion. If that hadn't so much as put a scratch on it, there wasn't much she could do to damage it.

How did you destroy materia then? Were they stuck with the Black Materia forever?

Yuffie followed the Huge Materia back down from the spire, letting herself drop once she was near enough to the bottom. Jessie had already tucked the huge crystal away in her bag, and she adjusted the strap on her shoulder.

"Do you think..." Yuffie began uncertainly. "Do you think we should get Bugenhagen to have a look at one of these things? You know... while he still can?"

Barret exchanged glances with Jessie. "Well," he said, "ain't exactly a bad idea..."

"But we should check in with Nanaki first," Jessie added. "We should give him a heads up that we're coming, anyway."

"I don't think he'll mind," Yuffie declared, determined not to depress herself. "I bet he could use some real company. I mean, the last person he saw was Vinny." She made a face, and Barret chuckled.

"I guess doom and gloom isn't exactly what Nanaki needs right now," Jessie conceded. "We'll see if we can't cheer him up a little."

"Yeah," said Yuffie.

And of course she wanted to. Of course that was a sincere part of why she'd suggested it.

But it had been her second thought, not her first. She wanted someone to give her answers. Maybe that someone would be Aeris, and maybe not. If it was coming from Leviathan... Well, when it came to Wutai, Nanaki had always understood that better. She wanted him to do that thing where he was weirdly insightful about what was bothering her.

Yuffie wanted him to be there for her, which was backwards, and selfish, like people said she was. She was going to try not to be, when they got there. Maybe they could help each other. Quid pro quo? But that seemed wrong, too.

Before she followed the others back into the cave, Yuffie glanced back at the ruined reactor. That thing had sucked the whole mountain dry. How long before there was any life here again besides that dragon and the mutated monsters it fed on? How was the land supposed to come back from this? Where was that life supposed to come from?

Rivers feeding the ocean. She almost had it.

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