Chapter 11

Before, Yuffie had just felt bad for the people of the slums. But over the past few days, she'd developed a tiny bit of respect for them. Their city still sucked and she'd never want to live there, but they weren't like the people in Junon, and maybe they were different from the people topside, too. They lived with the earth beneath their feet, and it meant something to them. They didn't want to abandon it.

She got that. She could respect that. It was no Wutai, but even Wutai had its flaws, and somehow that just made it more important to her. She wanted to make it better. Maybe they wanted the same for Midgar.

But boy was that going to take a lot of work. Being back here now... she was starting to understand what Aeris meant, about it being hard to hear the Planet. She felt distant from the gods, in a way she hadn't even in Junon. At least there, she was near the ocean.

She'd heard people say that the sight of the ocean made them feel small and insignificant. Yuffie had never gotten that. Midgar though... Midgar made her feel small.

The No. 4 reactor loomed at her back, making its presence known somehow even when she wasn't looking, and rising up on either side were the outer walls of the plates. It was too long a stretch, even interrupted in places by pipes and maintenance catwalks and Midgar's highways, and she felt like she was staring down the gullet of some immense monster, like it had already swallowed her whole without even noticing.

She tried looking down, but seeing the slums all stretched out below didn't help with the problem of scale. Midgar had swallowed them, too.

"You okay?" Barret asked, coming up beside her.

"Still not a fan o' this city, that's all," Yuffie said. She turned around to lean her back against the railing, deciding the reactor was the lesser evil right now. A knot of men in Shinra uniforms stood near the reactor's entrance--but they were ex-Shinra now, and Wedge stood chatting with them as if he knew them. Maybe he did; that was kind of the point of having him along, right?

"Yeah, I get that," said Barret. "Lotta good people here, but plenty to hate about Midgar."

"I get why it's hard for people to leave it, but it feels... I don't know, sick or something."

"You hear it, too, huh?"

"What?"

"The Planet," Barret clarified. He turned, gesturing towards the reactor. "Gettin' close like this... You hear it cryin' out."

Yuffie hesitated. "I guess so. I think, it's more like I can feel it, in my gut. Midgar's like this great big empty void, and the reactors are just... heavy."

"Heavy," Barret repeated, nodding thoughtfully. "Sounds about right."

Yuffie glanced at him. "You tell Aeris, that you're hearing it now?"

He shook his head. "First picked up on it when we went back to Corel... Been a lot goin' on. Besides, I figure it ain't much yet."

"Yeah, but she gets excited about that stuff. You didn't see her when I took her up Da-chao that one time." On learning that Yuffie went there to listen to the gods, Aeris had suggested they try to listen for her ancestors, the way Aeris had listened to hers back in the City of the Ancients. Aeris had always been a lot more sure about what Yuffie was hearing, about what she could hear. "I guess it makes her feel less weird or something."

"An' how 'bout you?" Barret wondered. "Talkin' it out with Aeris help you feel any better 'bout hearin' from your god? Still seemed kinda unsure about it the other day."

Yuffie fidgeted. "Well, that's because... I didn't wanna say it in front of everybody. It's about my mom, too. That's personal."

"Your mom, huh? You mean that dream o' yours?"

Yuffie nodded. "Everything's connected, right? The gods are part of the Planet... part of the Lifestream... That's where Mom is. When Leviathan spoke to me, it came from her. All this time she's been trying to tell me... We'll replenish the rivers of Wutai, and then, everything'll be okay."

"Yeah..." Barret was regarding her thoughtfully. "How was it, talkin' to your mom?"

How had it been? Aeris had been right, when Yuffie had first talked to her, that she hadn't had enough time to process it. It was this amazing thing, to be able to see her mom, talk to her mom, after all this time. It made her feel seen. The doubts she had, about whether her mom would be proud of her, they weren't gone, but they'd eased.

It can be hard, too, I know, Aeris had said.

Yuffie hadn't been old enough to form clear memories of her. So, if she seemed different in the Lifestream from how she remembered, was it because she was remembering wrong? Or because Kasumi's own memories were slipping away, changing her a little at a time? She wondered if that was happening to Aeris's mom, too. She hadn't thought to ask. Or, maybe she hadn't wanted to know yet. She'd just gotten her mom back, in a way, and she didn't want to know if there was a time limit on that.

Of course there was a limit. But she didn't want to know.

"...it was weird," Yuffie admitted at last. "It was her, and she knew me... She knows me. But... she seemed different, too."

"She's one with the Planet now," Barret reasoned. "Gotta be a whole other experience... She seem like she's at peace an' all?"

"Yeah. I mean, she was worried about the Planet, but she was calm."

Barret nodded thoughtfully. "Hope she don't hold it against me, gettin' you into all o' this."

"How's that something you did?"

"Well..." He scratched his head. "I was still in charge o' things, back when you joined up. Coulda told ya to get lost after Junon."

"Yeah, right. You needed me too bad and you knew it."

"I ain't sayin' I regret it. Just, uh... don't wanna be in hot water with your mom. 'specially if she's a god o' water?"

It was a dumb joke, but Yuffie snorted in spite of herself. "I think you're okay."

"Good." Barret grinned back at her, but the moment passed, and he lapsed into a contemplative silence. "Y'know," he said at last, "Marlene's been thinkin' 'bout her mom some, too, these days."

"Yeah?" Yuffie wondered. "I guess... she wants know where she came from and stuff?"

"That's a part of it. Think she's also realizin' our little family ain't exactly the normal situation."

The normal situation. Yuffie hadn't had that in a long time, but she'd had it. A mom and a dad who'd both loved her, at least when she was little. She wasn't sure how she'd have felt about it if she'd never known her mom at all, but as bad as things were with Godo now, those hazy memories were good ones. She'd wanted something like that again. That's why she'd wanted Barret for a dad.

"So... how's Jessie feel about it?" she ventured. "I mean, since you guys are hooking up now... She even wanna be a mom?"

"Hell..." Barret shook his head. "I don't even know if that's where we're all headed. I know Jessie loves 'er, an' she'd be up for it, but I ain't gonna tell Marlene who she oughtta think of as her mom. I mean, if anyone's been that to 'er, it's been Tifa."

"No wonder your landlady's confused."

"Heh. An' she don't even know about you bein' my daughter."

Yuffie faltered at that. It was just some lighthearted remark, but...

Barret looked at her askance. "What? You ain't rethinkin' that now, are ya?"

"No, no," Yuffie said quickly. "I'm not gonna bail just 'cause you've got the weirdest family tree ever. It's just..." She wanted to say it. She thought it'd be okay, in the end, but Barret wasn't always chill about things right at the start, and Yuffie felt herself bracing for some kind of outburst. She took a deep breath. "What do you know about, like, trans stuff?"

"Trans stuff?" he repeated.

"Like, transgender?"

"Oh, uh... Well, I knew some folks like that here in Midgar. Can't say as I understand it exactly, but they're just folks. Ain't got no call to tell 'em how to be."

Yuffie chewed on her lip. "Yeah..."

"What's got you thinkin' on that?" Barret asked, and she avoided his eyes on her. "...you tryin' to tell me somethin'?"

"I'm not saying I'm like..." She almost said Vincent, but she didn't think Barret knew about that, and she was pretty sure she wasn't supposed to go around telling people. "I mean, I'm not a guy. But I don't think I'm a girl either."

"Awright," said Barret, and he scratched his head, frowning like he was trying to wrap his head around that. "Oh! So, uh, 'daughter' ain't the right word, is that it?"

Yuffie shut her eyes briefly in relief. He didn't have answers for her, but it was no big deal. She didn't want it to be a big deal. "...Mom just called me her 'child,' you know? It, um... it felt right."

Barret slung an arm around her shoulders and tugged her close--but just for a second, not long enough for her to feel the need to shrug out of it. Wedge and the others weren't paying them any attention, and Yuffie was glad it went unnoticed.

"So, you got anybody to talk to 'bout this?" Barret asked her. "I, uh... I can listen an' all, but it ain't exactly somethin' I got personal experience with."

"Um... There's one guy I know. Sort of." Vincent might've put her onto the idea, but he wasn't exactly a talker, and his perspective wasn't the same as hers.

"Well, they got a whole community here. Think Cloud might be able to introduce ya, actually. If you want."

Yuffie threw him a quizzical look. "Cloud?" Come to think of it, he'd been kind of weird about keeping his shirt on at Costa del Sol.

Barret lifted his hands, palms up. "I ain't sayin' that's his deal or not, but he an' Zack definitely know somebody."

"I don't know... Talking to some stranger about it..."

He shrugged. "Up to you. Just thought I oughtta mention it."

"Yeah, thanks."

"So's it a secret for now? You told anybody else?"

"Jessie knows. Um... Vinny, too."

Barret raised an eyebrow. "Thought you didn't like 'im?"

"He was just kinda there. You know how he does that statue thing." A lie, but for Vincent's benefit. She could totally be nice sometimes. "Anyway, he's weird, but... he did kinda save my life, I guess."

"Yeah... I'm with you on that. Never thought I'd say it, but I'm glad we picked 'im up."

Yuffie nodded her agreement, her mouth twisting at the memory of that creepy old basement. She'd been so sure back then that she didn't need or want anything to do with him. Maybe making snap judgments was a bad habit of hers, but at the same time, she kind of missed the certainty.

Their phones chimed a simultaneous alert (Jessie had done some weird thing about sticking Yuffie's in rice for a while, and it was working again), and they checked them for the first update from Reeve.

"Here we go," said Barret, but it wasn't exactly a leap into action. Just a lot of waiting, and dread.

It was still hard to shake the feeling that this was her fault. That lingering feeling that she'd messed up hung over everything, and she wished the fight would come to them. If she could be the one to stop the Shinra, maybe it'd make up for being the reason they were coming. Maybe she could feel like a badass again, like Yuffie fucking Kisaragi, larger than life and larger than Midgar.

Her fingers itched for a weapon that wasn't there--they didn't make shuriken in Midgar. Reeve had gotten her some replacement materia, and she at least had a Wutai-made short sword from what she'd given Zack, but it wasn't the same. She felt off all over. She didn't even have her own clothes; she'd borrowed some from Jessie so she wouldn't have to keep wearing that awful Shinra uniform.

She was glad Barret was there. She knew Tifa had put them together because he'd been worried about her, and so for the sake of her ego she'd never say it, but she was glad.

And then came the message from Tifa, and then Zack. Shinra forces at the reactors on either side of them, and Yuffie gripped the hilt of her sword, listening for an approach. Any minute, they'd show here, too, right?

Wedge and the soldiers' conversation had hushed. Several minutes passed, and the next sound to interrupt the quiet was nothing more than another text alert.

"Reno says it's the No. 5 reactor?" Barret read aloud, incredulous. "There some reason to trust that two-faced asshole?"

"Well..." Yuffie's gut reaction on seeing the message had been to believe it, but she wasn't sure exactly why. Barret was right, the guy was the opposite of trustworthy. He'd been pretending to help them out all this time just to feed intel back to Rufus...

Wedge hurried across the catwalk to join them. "What do you guys think? Could he be telling the truth?"

"Hell no!" said Barret. "If he knew all this time, why'd he tell us now? Guy only wants us leavin' our post."

"You think he's that loyal to Shinra...?" Wedge wondered. "He's been with us all this time."

"Yeah, as a spy."

"I don't know..." Yuffie said, feeling like she was starting to put it together. He hadn't been spying out of loyalty.

Barret arched an eyebrow at her. "What, you think he suddenly gives a shit?"

She shook her head. "No, I'm not saying that. But Reno's out for himself, right? If he speaks up now to give us the wrong reactor, it's a bad play. It's just gonna piss us off, and it doesn't help Rufus that much more than if he kept his mouth shut."

"I don't think Rude'd be too happy with him either," Wedge put in.

Yuffie nodded. "And I think Rude's the one person he actually does give a shit about." She'd seen it; Tseng hadn't cared, but Reno had actually been worried that time they'd taken Rude and Elena prisoner.

"You got a point," Barret admitted, "but... Hell, Reno?"

It was a hard thing to bet on. If they left their post, and it really was just what Shinra was counting on, and then they set the bomb here... It'd be another screw-up, and one there was no coming back from. What if she was going off a gut feeling again, and her gut was all wrong?

Another text drew their attention. From Jessie this time, saying she and Cloud were on their way to the No. 5 reactor.

"Looks like Jessie's buying it, too," Wedge observed.

"An' she ain't no idiot..." Barret rubbed a hand over his beard and then let out a brusque sigh. "Awright. Wedge, you tell those ex-Shinra to stay on alert, we're gonna go back up Aeris an' Zack."

Wedge grabbed one of the soldiers as a navigator, and before long they were hurtling out of the employee parking lot in the same car that had brought them there, Yuffie unfortunately and miserably in the back seat with Barret.

Why the No. 5 reactor? she wondered. Had Shinra found out about the refugee groups that gathered below it to go to Wutai? Her stomach lurched, and the thought got away from her.

The sun was setting in the west, over the ruins of Sector 7. The light seemed to catch in the polluted air and set the city ablaze. How much brighter would it be in an explosion?

Wedge did the world's shittiest parking job just outside the No. 5 reactor compound, and they all leapt out of the car. They were through the first coded door before Yuffie realized that the soldier they'd dragged along was keeping pace with them. Not a word or a moment of hesitation. She'd always thought of these guys as small fry, nowhere near her level; she would've expected him to run away in this kind of situation.

But he was one of the ones who'd stuck with Reeve. With Midgar.

She wasn't gonna ask his name or anything, but she actually kinda hoped he didn't wind up being cannon fodder.

When they reached the last door, Yuffie could hear the battle beyond it. Muted gunfire and the clang of metal, and something heavy sent tremors through the floor beneath her shoes. Barret and the soldier readied their guns, and Yuffie drew her short sword. Wedge fumbled the code the first time, and Barret swallowed a gruff curse.

The door slid open, but though Barret tensed as if to charge through, he held back at a gesture from Wedge.

Standing dead center at the T-intersection of the bridge beyond was a hulking armored robot on four legs. Its torso swivelled towards the open door, and it opened fire from both its main gun and the machine gun mounted on its left arm. The four of them ducked to either side as bullets pinged off the floor between them.

"Barret, that you!?" came a shout from somewhere beyond the robot. Zack.

"Yeah!" Barret shouted back. "See you saved us some o' the action!"

"Barret," Jessie called from somewhere else, clear on the other side maybe, "Shinra already got inside with the bomb! We've gotta get past this thing!"

"What?" Yuffie said, her heart dropping into her stomach. They were already inside?

Barret glanced at her, then responded, "Just tell me the plan, Jess! Need us to draw its fire?"

"Yeah, keep its attention! Looks like it can't fire directly behind it!"

"Got it!"

"Can't Aeris make a barrier?" Yuffie wondered, trying to lean her head out enough to spot her, but taking in the scene answered the question for her: Aeris already had her hands full. A gun mounted on top of the robot was busted, but its right arm was still trained on Zack's team, a steady hail of artillery fire pelting Aeris's shield. The door into the reactor proper was locked shut, and a pair of soldiers stood working at the control panel, trying to get it back open. The remains of a few smaller robots lay scattered across the bridge, but there was nothing big enough for any of them to use for cover. Aeris couldn't let up her concentration for a second.

The robot whirred, starting to turn back to face Aeris in full, but Barret was the first to lean out from cover, firing back at it. It stopped its motion and another volley came their way. They all ducked back. Yuffie readied a Bolt spell, waited for the lull of a reload, and fired it off. The other three attacked in the moments it stood stunned.

The machine's bulk hid the opposite side of the bridge from view, so Yuffie didn't see Jessie until she was sliding beneath the robot's legs. Cloud must've been close behind, but before he followed her, he leapt up and slammed his sword into the robot's left arm.

Jessie ran for the door, and the soldiers stepped back to give her access.

"Shit," Barret cursed, ducking back as the robot launched another volley. "We gotta get over there. Can't let Jess go in without enough back-up."

"The left arm's not firing," the soldier pointed out abruptly, and they all risked a glance.

"Don't limit its range too much," Barret observed doubtfully. At this distance, the spray of bullets still covered most of the walkway.

Most.

"I'm on it," said Yuffie, as the machine gun hit a reload.

"Hey--!" Barret started, but he was on the opposite side of the door and couldn't reach her quick enough.

Yuffie was through the door in the momentary quiet, and she leapt up onto the outer railing as the gunfire drummed back to life. She snatched her arms in, used to having them out for balance, and she could've sworn she felt something whiz past.

"Yuffie!!" Barret and Wedge both shouted after her, but she was good. She was okay. Out of the line of fire, as long as it didn't turn enough that Aeris and the others were in the clear.

Totally fine, standing on the narrow railing of a bridge that hung over a 50 meter drop into the slums.

What even was the plan here? She'd seen an opening and jumped without thinking.

Yuffie swallowed hard and pushed herself forward. No other option now.

As she came almost alongside it, the torso began to pivot, recognizing her as the nearest target. Yuffie fought down the instinct to jump back but she needed somewhere to go, and in a panic, she leapt forward instead.

She collided awkwardly with the busted left arm. The guns stuttered to life and she flinched, clinging hard, but the robot couldn't turn anything far enough to shoot at itself, and she was on it.

The left arm swung, carrying her with it, and she scrambled up on top of it before it could smash her against the robot's body. Everyone was shouting, she realized, but she couldn't make out what anyone was saying with the gunfire so close in her ears. The robot having turned its back on them, Zack and Cloud were charging it, and Aeris was waving her over.

Yuffie climbed up to the top of the machine and prepared to jump. Beneath her, the torso shifted just as she vaulted off of it, throwing her off. She cleared Zack and Cloud, but instead of landing gracefully and rolling to her feet, she smacked her shoulder into the bridge and wound up flat on her back, wincing.

One of the soldiers offered her a hand up. "That was crazy," he said. "You okay?"

For a second, Yuffie just stared at him. To let some guy in a Shinra uniform help her up felt like adding insult to injury.

Not Shinra, she reminded herself, noting the smudge of paint across the logo on his pauldron.

Yuffie shut her eyes and grabbed the hand, letting him pull her to her feet. "I'm okay," she said. Her shoulder smarted.

"Got it!" Jessie declared triumphantly, drawing Yuffie's attention to the door. It slid open, and Jessie drew back from the control panel, now a mess of open wiring.

"Jess, wait up!" Barret shouted, his voice growing closer, and Yuffie turned in alarm.

The robot's right arm was sputtering, out of ammo, and its torso jerked like it was caught on something, unable to turn. Its legs clanked against the metal bridge as it shifted its stance, but Barret vaulted over it before it could bring the main gun to bear on them, Wedge close behind. The soldier came just after, ducking beneath the right arm as it swung in his direction. He stumbled, falling beneath the robot, but Wedge grabbed his arm and pulled him through.

"Come on!" said Jessie, diving into the reactor.

Barret cursed, but spared a glance at Zack.

"You guys go on!" Zack said over his shoulder. "Me an' Cloud'll finish this guy off an' make sure nothin' else's comin' after you."

"Right," said Barret, and bolted after Jessie. Yuffie followed with Wedge, Aeris, and the soldiers.

The inside didn't look anything like the Nibel reactor, but it felt like it. The air was close and heavy, and it smelled bad. All of Midgar smelled bad, but here the thick metallic tang found its way into the back of her throat. The Lifestream pulled up out of the earth and turned into something rotten. It hadn't smelled like this back at the Northern Crater. It hadn't felt like this.

They tumbled into an elevator at the end of a corridor and Jessie hit the down button. The door shut, and for a second it was loud with each other's breathing.

"The hell were you thinkin' back there?" Barret demanded of her at last.

"Huh?" said Yuffie.

"Runnin' out like that-- You damn near gave me a heart attack!"

Yuffie didn't want to admit to her complete lack of plan, so she drew herself up. "It worked, didn't it? We needed to get past, and we got past. You're welcome."

Barret gaped at her.

"Thanks," said Wedge with a wry smile, "but it's someone else's turn for heroics next time, okay?"

"Oh, so you're sayin' I'm makin' you guys look bad, huh?" Yuffie knew that wasn't what he was saying, but she'd take it. It hadn't been her most badass moment, even if she had given them exactly the distraction they'd needed.

Her shoulder still hurt.

The elevator came to a halt. The door pulled back on the team of Shinra operatives, waiting to make their way back up. There were shouts from both sides, and one of the Shinra soldiers hurled a grenade into the elevator.

Barret grabbed her, pulling her towards the corner with Jessie behind him, but Wedge let out a cry and kicked the grenade. It sailed back out of the elevator and exploded just outside the door. The blast hurt her ears, but Barret released her, turning to look.

The two Shinra soldiers who'd been nearest the door were down, and weren't moving. The others were struggling to get back up from where the blast had thrown them. Their leader, someone in a SOLDIER uniform, was still on his feet.

Wedge was out the door first with Aeris and Reeve's men close behind. The former Shinra soldiers trained their weapons on their counterparts while Aeris struck the SOLDIER with an ice spell, preempting some spell of his own. He dropped to his knees, and Barret joined Wedge in aiming his weapon at him.

"You're too late," said the SOLDIER. "The bomb's already set to blow."

Yuffie looked with wild eyes between her companions. "But there's still gotta be a way to stop it."

"If we can disarm it..." Jessie said grimly, and she was already pushing past towards the stairs.

Yuffie followed, and with a curse, Barret pulled away with them, leaving Aeris and Wedge to handle the Shinra. Those guys could rot, as far as Yuffie was concerned. They had to know what they were doing, they had to. With how loudly Shinra had condemned AVALANCHE for the No. 1 reactor bombing--no way could they think they were defending anybody.

Or had Shinra really poisoned them into thinking everybody left in Midgar was a bunch of good-for-nothing traitors?

They raced down the stairs and through another door. Down a series of catwalks and ladders beneath them lay the Mako pit, immense compared to the one at the Nibel reactor. The smell almost made her gag, and she imagined all that Mako in the air catching fire--

"Those guys would've given themselves enough time to get back out," she said aloud, mostly for herself. "We've still got time."

Jessie threw her a glance. "Yeah," she said. "Yeah."

She sounded nervous.

They hit the bridge over Mako storage and raced across. Planted on some kind of central mechanism on the far side was the bomb--smaller than Yuffie had expected. Heavy-looking, but something Barret probably could've carried on his own. Wired into its core, she could see the soft blue glow of the Huge Materia.

And the angry red light of numbers ticking down: fourteen minutes left.

"Shit," said Barret. "Jess?"

"I- I'm thinking," she said. Her fingers hovered over the bomb as she inspected it, not daring to touch anything.

"What if we got it out of the reactor?" Yuffie asked. "It wouldn't be as bad if it blew up someplace else, right?"

Barret caught her eye. He didn't say anything, but his grim expression made her stomach twist miserably. She knew, they both knew, with that kind of plan--somebody'd have to carry the thing. Barret would never let it be her.

"We can't remove it," said Jessie. "They've got it wired up to the reactor controls; we try to disconnect it and it'll blow."

Thirteen minutes, forty seconds.

"Tell me straight, Jess. If we gotta cut our losses an' run--"

"No," she interrupted. Her voice had steadied, and Yuffie wanted to believe that was confidence. "No, I think I can do this. But you should go."

"What?"

"I don't have time to argue it," Jessie went on. "But there's nothing you two can do, and I don't wanna have to worry about you. Barret, you've got kids to think about, so-- think about them."

She threw him a quick look and a tight smile. Barret grabbed her hand, and he looked like he wanted to argue.

"Woah, wait--" Yuffie started, but her own protest instead spurred him into action. Barret let go Jessie's hand and grabbed Yuffie by the waist, tossing her over his shoulder like she was nothing.

"Later, Jess," he said. "You got this."

"Count on it," she said.

Then Barret was hurtling back across the bridge. Yuffie saw the timer drop under thirteen minutes before it was too far away to make out.

"We can't just leave her!" she shouted, pushing against Barret's grip.

"She knows what she's doin,'" Barret said gruffly.

And Yuffie got it. She understood. But it wasn't like other times before. It wasn't like when she and Jessie had left the others to be captured by Shinra at the Northern Crater. They'd been sure then that they'd have another shot at rescue.

Jessie had twelve minutes and counting.

Maybe all any of them had was twelve minutes and counting. If Jessie couldn't disarm the bomb, if the reactor went, it was a gamble whether they could get far enough away to survive it.

She stopped struggling, and Barret set her back on her feet at the top of the first ladder. They pressed on without talking.

Aeris and the others were still gathered at the elevator. Wedge stood in its doorway, gun trained on the Shinra soldiers now inside--disarmed, their hands bound. The two unconscious (or dead?) from the grenade blast lay on the floor where someone had dragged them. If they were alive... That was Tifa's directive, right? Not to kill anybody unless they absolutely had to. She wouldn't want to leave them to die either. Or at least, she didn't want to be the kind of person who'd be okay with that.

Yuffie was pretty sure she'd be okay with it, herself.

"Everybody in!" Barret shouted as they approached.

"Where's Jessie?" asked Wedge.

"Disarmin' the bomb," he answered.

Wedge exchanged glances with Aeris, but they all piled into the elevator, and Aeris hit the button. The doors shut, enclosing them all in one awful stupid box together. The Shinra soldiers stood stiff, their jaws set, and Reeve's men watched them anxiously. Wedge kept throwing glances between them and Barret.

Barret leaned against the heavy elevator door, pressing his forehead into the metal, and he swallowed hard, like he was trying not to cry.

Yuffie wordlessly grabbed Aeris's hand and prayed to Leviathan.

A heavy rumble shook the reactor around them. The elevator lurched to a halt, the lights went out, and Aeris stumbled into her. Yuffie squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for worse to follow. This was just a tremor, she thought. Any second they'd be blown to smithereens and it'd all be over.

...had it been twelve minutes already?

"Seems... kind of like a dud," Wedge ventured into the silence.

One of Reeve's men turned on a flashlight, providing a dim illumination for their confused and anxious faces.

"Somethin's off," Barret said. "Shoulda been more time before the bomb."

One of the Shinra soldiers twisted, trying to look at a watch. Barret grabbed his arm.

"Four minutes left," he observed.

"What does that mean?" Aeris wondered. "What was that?"

"Maybe Jessie just... tripped some kind of shutdown," Wedge proposed, "when she disarmed the bomb."

"Whatever's goin' on, we gotta get the hell outta this box," said Barret.

The flashlight beam shifted upward to a hatch on the roof of the elevator, and Barret stepped over to get to work opening it. A minute stretched by, and then he shoved it open and turned first to Yuffie. Without thinking, she squeezed Aeris's hand.

"We're not going to make it out of the reactor before the time runs out," said Aeris. "If there's an explosion-- won't we stand a better chance in here than in the elevator shaft?"

"When that bomb goes off, you don't stand any kind of chance," said the SOLDIER.

"Nobody asked you!" Barret spat. He looked back at Aeris with furrowed brows, and then pulled the hatch back down. "Okay. We only got a couple minutes... We clear that, then we're goin' to help Jess." He looked to Reeve's men. "There's gotta be some kinda emergency stairwell, right?"

They exchanged glances, and one of them nodded. "There is. But you need the security key to get inside."

"Like a metal key or one of your stupid key cards?" Yuffie asked.

"Metal," he confirmed.

"Then I can handle that."

She wanted to think she sounded confident, but her voice was shaky. She didn't know what that blast had meant. She didn't know if Jessie was okay. She didn't know if any of them would be okay.

Aeris squeezed her hand back. Barret pulled the watch off the soldier's wrist and kept it in the line of the flashlight beam.

"Ten seconds," said Barret.

Everyone got real quiet, not even daring to breathe. Yuffie counted down in her head.

Nothing happened.

"Barret?" Wedge prompted.

"We're at zero," he confirmed, and tossed the watch aside. "Time to get Jessie."

He shoved the hatch back open, and this time Yuffie eagerly released Aeris's hand to be the first one through. She couldn't see much in the empty shaft, but Aeris thought to grab a second flashlight from Reeve's men before she came up, and together they found a ladder built into one side of the shaft.

"You go first," said Yuffie, taking the flashlight from her. "I'll spot you."

The elevator had made it most of the way up. There were only about two stories left to climb. Aeris was already nearing the top by the time Wedge and the guy who knew about the emergency stairs had helped Barret up through the hatch. They left the Shinra in the elevator with the other two men to guard them. They could come back for those guys later.

Out of the elevator shaft, they were surprised to find some of the lights on. Was there a back-up generator, or had the blast only knocked some of the reactor's systems offline? The ex-soldier took point, leading them down a side corridor to an unmarked and inconspicuous door. The lighting was still dim, so he held the flashlight as Yuffie picked the lock. Easy work, but that didn't make her feel any better.

Descending the stairwell in the low light made her think of the Shinra building, after Holy had knocked out the power. The dread that the whole building might come crashing down on them at any moment, those tense moments after Holy had washed over them. Vincent's raw voice announcing that Lucrecia wasn't dead, yet.

Yuffie fought the urge to glance at Barret and picked up the pace. Weirdly, she wished Nanaki was here. She knew he hated having to lead the way, but she'd take the steady glow of his tail over Shinra emergency lighting any day.

They passed back through the door over Mako storage, and the glow of that pit illuminated the whole cavernous room. Smoke drifted from the far side of the bridge, where they'd left Jessie, obscuring their view as it caught the light of the Mako in a green haze. Something metal shifted and groaned.

Barret raced ahead of her down the first ladder, and Yuffie hurried after.

"Jessie!" Barret shouted as he hit the bridge, and he started forward.

On level with it, Yuffie made out through the smoke that the bridge didn't go all the way across anymore. Halfway through, it bent sharply down and twisted off, pieces of railing listing far to the side.

Jessie lay sprawled just at the end of it, one of her hands clamped around the base of the railing and a trail of blood streaked across the bridge where she'd dragged herself forward. A piece of shrapnel had lodged in her leg.

Flung out of her grasp, teetering on the side, was the Huge Materia.

Yuffie snatched it up without thinking even as Barret ran straight to Jessie, and it made her heart lurch. That's where her instincts took her, to grab a chunk of rock?

Through her fingers, the materia itself seemed to be trying to communicate something. It felt... riled, compared to the last time she'd held it, or maybe it was reflecting her own feelings back to her. Twenty minutes ago it had been a bomb.

Aeris and Wedge ran past her, and with a start Yuffie joined them. The soldier alone hung back as the rest of them crowded around, and Barret pulled Jessie into his arms.

"Jess-- You with me?"

Her eyes fluttered open. "Yeah..." she said. "Gotta say... Shinra bombs... really not that impressive."

Barret hugged her close, and the tears he'd held back before streaked down his cheeks now.

"Let's have a look at that leg," said Aeris.

It was Wedge who pulled the shrapnel free, Aeris and Yuffie ready with healing spells to close up the wound. Jessie was in no shape to walk, but Yuffie could tell she'd be okay, and she swallowed down her own tears of relief because damn it, she was supposed to be a badass.

"So... what happened?" Barret asked finally, throwing a glance at the Huge Materia in Yuffie's hands. "You take it apart?"

Jessie nodded. "Couldn't disconnect the bomb from the reactor, but I got the Huge Materia out of the bomb. Without that... it just didn't have much kick to it."

Yuffie looked across the broken bridge to the tangle of metal pipes and plating that had been the heart of the reactor. But, she reflected, Jessie's bombs had blown two whole reactors to smithereens. This was nothing compared to what was (or wasn't) left of the Nibel reactor.

"Guess not," Barret agreed with a soft chuckle. "Don't imagine Reeve'll be too happy 'bout the damage, but it ain't our fault this time. You did good, Jess. Real good."

She grinned back at him. "Damn right I did. Now let's get outta here. I'm not sure how stable this bridge is, and I know it's time for some R&R."

Barret lifted Jessie with him as he stood, and they all turned back for the nearest ladder.

It was only then that it really hit her: they'd done it. If the damage had knocked the reactor offline, then that was gonna suck for a lot of people, but it wasn't going to explode. Nobody was going to die.

Yuffie was off the hook.

Aeris caught her eye and smiled at her. "We're gonna be okay," she said, and Yuffie nodded.

"Yeah, I guess we are."


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