Chapter 16

Something was nudging into Yuffie's side. Sleepily she reached to bat it away; her fingers brushed fur--one of her cats, probably. Bells tolled gently somewhere outside, and she couldn't wrap her head around why that was significant.

"Yuffie," said a voice. Nanaki.

Bells tolling. Alarm bells. Her eyes snapped open, and she willed her body to leap into action. She managed to sit up, throwing the blankets aside. "How long--?" she asked.

"Not long," he said. "I assumed it was a signal."

"Yeah," she confirmed. "Means the Shinra are coming." She glanced up at the windows, but that only told her it was daylight. She rocked up onto her toes, and her stomach growled. When was the last time she'd eaten?

"One of your cats did bring us a mouse," Nanaki said, his whiskers going forward in amusement, "but I ate it. I assumed you wouldn't mind."

Yuffie made a face. "Nope. All yours."

It was only seeing that look on his face that she remembered Bugenhagen. She'd been so preoccupied before, but the last time Nanaki had woken her with news of the Shinra, when they'd come to Cosmo Canyon and he couldn't fight them, Bugenhagen had been gone only hours. Nanaki didn't want to let on, but...

Yuffie gave him a quick pat on the head, making him huff and pull away, but she saw right through him, one faker to another. In that way, they were exactly alike.

She'd slept in her borrowed clothes, and she stuffed her feet back into her boots. Breakfast could wait. If the Shinra had come, then Yuffie wanted to be there to meet them. She grabbed the shuriken she'd brought up from the basement dojo; it wasn't as familiar as the one she'd lost in Junon, but it was more comfortable in her hand than the short sword.

"Let's go," she said to Nanaki.

Outside, the sun had risen high; it was close to midday. It had warmed enough that snow was melting in patches of strong sunlight, but she could still see her own breath. Smoke rose over the forge across the river. The old woman next door was standing outside her house, looking northeast up the river, but she turned as Yuffie came down her steps.

"I thought you'd come home," she remarked, and she offered Yuffie a paper-wrapped meat bun. "Give them hell."

"Heh." Yuffie took it, grinning. "Of course!"

Nanaki didn't say anything, but she saw him lift his head slightly to sniff, and as they walked on, she pulled the bun apart and offered him the smaller half. He took it delicately, and downed it in one swallow.

"Thank you."

"Sure," she said, biting into her half. She'd have to talk to the old lady about manners later, but at least she wouldn't be kicking ass on an empty stomach after all.

They reached the easternmost of the city's bells, and Yuffie stopped to talk to Takahiro, who stood ringing it. He relayed to her that half of Shinra's force--20 men--had left the Highwind and started south to the capital about half an hour earlier. They'd set out by truck, but the dense forest would have forced them on foot before long. Still, they'd probably reach the outskirts soon.

A woman in red was in command.

"We should alert the others," said Nanaki.

"Yeah..." Yuffie agreed, glancing west downriver. "You can do that without me. And try to convince everybody to hang back for now, okay?"

"You don't want our help?" he wondered.

"Well," she said, "it's like Cosmo Canyon, right? They don't know you're here. No reason to tip them off unless we have to."

"They don't know you're here either," Nanaki pointed out.

"Maybe not, but this is my home. I can be here without it looking like AVALANCHE is planning anything important. But if one look at the might of Wutai doesn't send 'em running and it comes down to a fight... then I guess it's all right if you join in."

"...but you'd prefer to win on your own, wouldn't you?"

Yuffie rocked back on her heels. "Yeah. Maybe." It would feel good, she thought, for all of them, to have a win like that. But she knew Barret wouldn't want to hang back, and she didn't want the victory at the expense of any casualties that could've been prevented by accepting a little help.

No more graves and no more empty houses. They were going to kick Shinra's butt today and that was all.

"I'll go find the others," said Nanaki, turning back the way they'd come. "Try not to do anything too reckless."

"Yeah, yeah."

Yuffie guessed it was a fair admonishment; the last time he'd left her alone, she'd done something pretty stupid. On the other hand, it had led her to connect with her mom, so maybe reckless wasn't so bad.

Gorkii had gathered about a dozen people on the east bridge in anticipation of the Shinra. Yuffie knew most of their names, even if it was more from eavesdropping than actually talking to them. Masaru, Shaojie, Akimi... More figures waited in the trees that she didn't count on the Shinra noticing. She had a pretty good understanding by now of how those helmets limited visibility.

She told Gorkii she'd let him take the lead until things turned south, and staked out a tree of her own.

It wasn't long before she caught the sound of Shinra's approach. She picked out Scarlet's coat first through the branches, an obnoxious fur thing dyed a deep red. The woman was really committed to her color scheme. Yuffie briefly wondered if Scarlet was even her given name, but decided she really didn't care.

As they came into sight, Yuffie counted helmets. Twenty. They could handle that, but she eyed the rifles they carried, knowing that someone would get shot in the process. Gorkii's barrier magic couldn't deflect everything.

"Well, well...." said Scarlet, planting a hand on her hip as she came to a stop in front of Gorkii. "You've assembled quite the welcoming committee."

"We have always been accommodating of our Shinra guests," said Gorkii, "but it's been some time since we've seen a true military force on our shores. There was some concern."

Scarlet's smile was anything but friendly. "Good news, then: you needn't be concerned for yourselves. As long as we have your continued cooperation, then no one from Wutai will come to any harm."

"And with what do you ask our cooperation?"

"Can't you guess? Then again, maybe you didn't notice a few more rats slipping among you." She glanced over those assembled on the bridge, but failed to notice anyone in the trees. "We followed some criminals here--traitors who stole valuable Shinra property and gave it to those pesky AVALANCHE terrorists. What's more, we heard quite a few of those terrorists themselves have come here, for some reason."

How did she know about that? She didn't know about the Huge Materia, too, did she? Yuffie wondered if they had another mole besides Reno after all.

"...I'm not sure what you mean," said Gorkii. "Some people sought refuge here after their airship crashed. I believe they're from Midgar, but I don't know about any terrorists."

"Of course," said Scarlet. "I'm sure you would never harbor them knowingly, but I know they came this way. Surely you'll permit my men to search for them?"

Gorkii shook his head. "Please... We want no quarrel with Shinra, but your soldiers are no longer welcome here in such numbers."

"No longer welcome?" Scarlet repeated archly. "Those weren't the terms of our treaty. You don't mean to break it for the sake of a few criminals, do you?"

"We have heard of AVALANCHE here. If they are as determined a foe as you've made them out to be, then I cannot imagine they would stay here long--if they are indeed here. With some patience, you might find a future opportunity to capture them. Wutai does not wish your conflict to persist on our soil."

Yuffie didn't like hearing all that, but she knew Gorkii was trying his best to honor Godo's wishes. He wasn't like her; he didn't want to throw the whole damn treaty out the window from the get-go. He wanted to do everything he could to maintain Wutai's increasingly tenuous neutrality.

But Yuffie also knew that Scarlet wouldn't go for it. Maybe, maybe, if it had only been the crew of the Highwind. But however she'd found out about AVALANCHE being here, she wasn't going to let that slide. She'd see it as an opportunity. They were stranded far from their allies, and after all the years Wutai had spent under Shinra's heel, she'd think they were too weak or too unwilling to step in.

She was wrong.

"I'm afraid that won't work for me," said Scarlet. There was the slightest shift in her stance, and the soldiers around her raised their rifles just enough to call attention to them. "I didn't want this to get nasty, but if you don't get out of my way, then I'll have to have you killed."

Gorkii hesitated, then bowed his head. He motioned to the warriors with him, and they stepped to either side of the bridge to allow the Shinra to cross. But it wasn't the gesture to stand down. It was the gesture to wait.

Scarlet, utterly confident in her own superiority, didn't recognize that. She started across the bridge.

Yuffie unslung her shuriken from her back, and watched the procession carefully. In her mind, she readied a Bolt spell just for Scarlet.

The soldiers stayed alert as they crossed the bridge, but once they had passed Gorkii's entourage and onto solid ground, they started to relax their guard. That was when Gorkii gave the signal.

The warriors on the bridge charged, knives and shuriken flew from those in the trees, and Yuffie's Bolt spell caught Scarlet before she could so much as turn her head, dropping her like a sack of bricks. Yuffie's shuriken followed, but the soldiers closed in around Scarlet to defend her, and it struck one of their rifles instead.

At least five soldiers had dropped in those first moments, but now they were returning fire. Some of those bullets pelted uselessly against Gorkii's barrier spell, but not all. Her shuriken slammed back into her palm in the same moment that Masaru hit the ground. She hurled the weapon again, as though she'd feel any lighter.

Gunfire sounded from somewhere in the trees, too. Not the rapid machine gun stutter of Shinra rifles but steady and careful shots. Vincent? Another soldier fell.

Scarlet struggled back to her feet, and apparently her awful coat wasn't entirely without function, because from beneath it she pulled out a huge gun. Still shielded by the soldiers around her, she aimed it between them and blasted Guiying clear off the bridge.

Yuffie screamed, and leapt from the tree without thinking.

A Fire spell exploded into Scarlet and her troops from the other direction. Nanaki bounded up the path, followed by Barret and Tifa. Scarlet spun towards them, and they leapt to either side as her shot blasted into the dirt.

Another soldier went down, and Scarlet considered a beat. "Retreat!" she shouted.

Yuffie didn't want to let her. She threw her shuriken again, but it glanced off one of the soldiers' pauldrons, making him stumble. Scarlet swung that weapon around into the opening, and Yuffie caught a flash of recognition on Scarlet's face before she dove out of the way.

The close blast of the weapon muffled the sound of Gorkii's shout, but Yuffie could guess he was giving the order to let Scarlet go. The warriors remaining on the bridge leapt clear of her path and let her cross back over.

She didn't fire her weapon again, but her soldiers covered their retreat, firing in bursts that kept them scattering until Scarlet disappeared around a bend.

Others were already hauling Guiying out of the water. Yuffie sprinted the few paces towards them and dropped beside her, her knees scraping against the rocky bank. She reached out to Leviathan, even knowing it was no use. Scarlet's shot had ripped through Guiying's torso, tearing her near to pieces. Freezing water splashed her leg as someone sloshed past out of the river, and the healing spell unravelled.

They laid the body carefully on the shore, and as Yuffie saw the others exchange glances over her head, she wondered if they blamed her.

Godo would.

"Yuffie." Barret's voice drew her attention. He was crouched by another body--no, someone still alive.

Yuffie scrambled over to Masaru, stupid relief flooding her. Just a regular bullet wound and nowhere fatal. Her magic flowed through her, easing the heaviness in her chest just a little, and set the wound well on its way to healing.

She glanced up, and around. Everyone was moving, helping their wounded, checking the Shinra soldiers left behind. Yuffie's eyes skipped over the uniforms as she frantically tried to catalogue her own people. Were they all moving? Had they lost anyone else?

Tifa was helping someone to sit up. Shake and the others had come down from the trees. Gorkii crouched by another figure, but he was focused on healing, and you didn't heal the dead. Yuffie joined him.

"It's been a long time," said Gorkii, "since I've been in a battle."

"Sorry," she said. She tried to concentrate on healing.

"No, Miss Yuffie. The war was a painful thing, for all of us... But we were not wrong to fight it."

Yuffie glanced up at him. She thought he meant now, too.

Barret approached from behind them. "Think everybody else's gonna pull through," he said. "Can't say the Shinra came out so well."

Yuffie looked past him. A group of the uninjured warriors had corralled the living Shinra soldiers on the near end of the bridge, while two others had set themselves to collecting the bodies. Five wounded, four dead. Scarlet had escaped with barely more than half her men.

And they'd lost only one. Putting it in numbers made it sound acceptable, even good. It didn't feel like it.

"Where are Jessie and Aeris?" Yuffie wondered, realizing only now that they hadn't come.

"Wedge called just as we were leavin,' wanted to talk to Aeris. Not sure what's up yet. Jessie's lookin' after Marlene."

Yuffie nodded slowly. Her thoughts wouldn't quite come together.

Gorkii sat back, having done as much with his healing as he could. "Your arrival was timely," he said to Barret. "Thank you."

Barret scratched his head. "Wish we coulda done more. It was good to see 'em runnin' scared, though."

"We'll have to do something about that weapon," said Nanaki as he and Tifa came to join them, "if we're to retake the Highwind."

"That ain't your only problem."

Yuffie looked up as Shake approached, Vincent a pace behind him like a looming shadow.

"One of your 'refugees' turned traitor," Shake went on, "ratted you out."

"What?" said Tifa.

Yuffie frowned, and then pushed herself to her feet. "Yeah," she said. "Scarlet already knew you guys were here."

Tifa exchanged glances with Barret. "But when...? I thought everyone was accounted for."

"A woman left the group before you reached the capital, and doubled back," Vincent explained. "Unfortunately we weren't watching for it. The Shinra picked her up before we could stop her."

"So much for putting Shinra behind 'em," Shake scoffed.

"I'm sure she was just scared," said Tifa, her brow furrowed in worry. "Shinra came down hard on the slightest hint of Wutain support, even after the war..."

"Exactly how much did she tell 'em?" Barret asked.

Vincent shook his head. "Scarlet still doesn't know about the Huge Materia. The passengers were unaware."

"Then what does she think we're all doing here?" wondered Tifa.

"She believes you've come to discuss a more military collaboration with Wutai. This little skirmish has likely played into her suspicions."

"I suppose it's good that she doesn't suspect our true intent," Nanaki reflected, "and that she underestimated Wutai's resolve."

Shake puffed his chest out at that, and Yuffie wished she could share in his pride over their victory. Was it lame to be so messed up over one death? Maybe she should've been more prepared for it. AVALANCHE had always been lucky that way, but it was naive not to expect any casualties.

"But," she said, glancing between Shake and Gorkii, "are you guys really gonna help us take back the Highwind?"

Gorkii shook his head. "That will have to be discussed. But we have now delivered Shinra a strike to the face... I doubt they'll let it go unanswered."

Yuffie hesitated. "...are you gonna talk to Godo?"

"I believe I must. I think we all need to talk."

Yuffie nodded. She couldn't imagine that going well, but she took some comfort in the fact that Gorkii had gone in on this with her. A lot of people had committed to it now, and Godo couldn't ignore that.

Barret laid his hand on her shoulder. That helped, too.

Gorkii gave orders to their warriors, leaving some behind to watch their Shinra captives and monitor the road, until others could come to relieve them. Barret and Tifa helped support the wounded on their way back into the capital.

They left the body behind, too. Barret had offered, but this close to home, there were others whose duty it was to make sure it was given the proper respect. Yuffie swore she wouldn't need anybody's hand on her shoulder to keep her at that funeral.

Jessie and Aeris were waiting at the outskirts of town with Marlene, Takahiro, and some of the Highwind's crew. Aeris and Jessie both looked worried, and it didn't ease at the sight of them. At Yuffie's glance, Gorkii said something quietly to Shake and hung back, too, letting Shake lead the way on into the capital with the wounded.

There was an uncertain pause over sharing whatever bad news it was in front of Marlene, but before anyone could speak, Nanaki approached her, bumped her gently with his head, and guided her a short ways away. Marlene glanced over her shoulder, but at an encouraging nod from Barret, she settled with Nanaki along the riverbank, looking up at Da-chao above them. Nanaki's ears swivelled back, primed to catch their conversation.

"What's going on?" Tifa asked at last.

"Junon's under attack," said Aeris.

"What?" Barret exchanged glances with Tifa. "From who? No way Reeve'd make a move like that without us."

"It's not Reeve. It's the Planet." Aeris shook her head. "I could feel it was riled as soon as we left Midgar, but having a conversation has been... hard. It's like it didn't want to talk. But the Shinra, when they were up at the Northern Crater... they woke something. A Weapon the Planet made a long time ago, to fight Jenova."

"A Weapon..." Tifa repeated. "The one your mother talked about?"

Aeris nodded. "It's been dormant all this time, never used."

"But now the Shinra woke it up, so it went after them?" Barret asked.

"Weapon is acting on instinct, to protect the Planet," Aeris confirmed. "And I don't know how well the Planet can control it... or how much it wants to."

"What kind of weapon are we talking about, exactly?" Yuffie asked, feeling like she was missing something the others were all in on. "Some kind of magic?"

"Sash apparently described it as a 'Shinra-building-sized monster,'" said Jessie. "It's attacking from the sea."

"That's... big," Vincent summed up eloquently.

Tifa was shaking her head, her brow furrowed with worry. "What do we do about that? What can we possibly do?"

"Do we gotta do anything?" said Barret. "If it's goin' after the Shinra..."

"If it were just Rufus and his cronies, I'd be with you," said Jessie, "but there's a lot of civilians in its path."

"Zack's talking to Reeve about organizing some kind of rescue party, to get people out," said Aeris. "I know he's going to do everything he can. And I think the best thing we can do from here is what we came to do. If we can return the power of the Huge Materia to the Planet, that might just reassure it, and maybe Weapon will stand down."

"Are we sure we won't just make Weapon stronger?" Yuffie asked skeptically.

Aeris shook her head. "Weapon is connected to the Planet, but it doesn't form out of the Lifestream like your gods. It's a living thing as much as any of us."

"Awright," said Barret. "Then we do this thing. We can let Scarlet cool her heels in the Highwind a little while longer."

Jessie exchanged glances with Aeris. "Well... About that."

"There's more?" said Tifa.

"Before Weapon attacked," Jessie went on, "Shinra sent out reinforcements on the Gelnikas. They'll be here in another five hours or so."

Vincent folded his arms thoughtfully. "Hm. Scarlet must have sent for them once she learned we were here as well."

Was that enough time? To do this thing without a decent night's sleep and after the battle they'd had? Yuffie glanced at Gorkii. "Well, they're definitely not gonna attack again before that, right? Five hours should be enough."

"Definitely," Aeris agreed. Yuffie saw Tifa take her hand and give it a squeeze, and she pretended she hadn't. Fake it 'til you make it, right?

"Come, everyone," said Gorkii. "I've already asked the other guardians to gather at the pagoda. I will speak to Lord Godo, and join you there."

"Okay," said Yuffie. He must've been in the middle of that before the Shinra had arrived. It figured that none of the other pagoda guardians had bothered to get involved.

Nanaki rejoined them with Marlene, who absolutely wasn't dumb enough not to know something was going on. It was a lot easier to hide stuff from her when she was halfway around the world on the other end of a phone line. Yuffie wasn't always sure how she felt about the effort, but she guessed it wasn't worth freaking Marlene out after she'd already been through an airship crash.

"What's going on?" Marlene asked. "Did people get hurt?"

"A few people, yeah," Barret admitted. There was no lying about the wounded who'd gone past. "But we scared off the Shinra for now, so you remember that thing we came here to help Yuffie with? We're gonna do that now."

"To make the materia safe?"

"That's right."

"Can I help?"

Barret looked to Yuffie. "What d'you think? Could you use an extra hand?"

Yuffie bit back a snort, because there was no way a completely untrained four-year-old was going to be any help with the magic they needed to do. But... She remembered how Aeris had brought them all in on it, when she'd summoned Holy, even though she hadn't expected any of them to pull their weight with the magic. She'd wanted them around for the emotional support.

If she had to stare down Godo and the rest of the pagoda guardians, one more couldn't hurt.

"...yeah, why not?" Yuffie decided finally. Marlene was a sweet kid, but Yuffie was betting she had some scrap in her. No way could Barret and Tifa raise some kind of pacifist. She could kick Godo right in the shins, and nobody could do anything about it, because she was four. Yuffie motioned her closer. "You're gonna be my secret weapon, okay?"

Marlene beamed, proud to be entrusted with such an important role, while Barret and Tifa exchanged glances over her head.

They wound their way back through the streets of the capital, passing the hall where the wounded were being brought. Yuffie spotted Shera and another of the crew hurrying up to its entrance, carrying first aid supplies they must have brought back from the ship.

Once they reached the square outside the pagoda, Gorkii peeled off from them to enter Godo's house. Tifa and Aeris went, too, so they could retrieve the Huge Materia from the shrine, and they persuaded Vincent to accompany them. He'd been out all morning, and hadn't had the opportunity to catch even a few hours' sleep like the rest of them.

Yuffie led the way to the steps up to the pagoda, but Barret stopped her just outside and motioned for the others to go on in ahead of them. Yuffie frowned, sure she knew what this was about.

"Look," she said, "I'm fine. Okay?"

Barret lifted his hands. "You're tough, I know. But if Godo decides to drag his ass over here, I know the kinda shit he's gonna say. I wanna make sure we're on the same page, before we get into all that."

"The same page?" Yuffie repeated.

"What happened out there ain't on you," he said firmly. "Everybody made the choice themselves to be in that fight."

On one level, she knew he was right. But on another, could she really say she hadn't dragged them into it? "...I'm the one who's been pushing for it," she said.

"An' do you think you're wrong about that? You think it's a fight that ain't worth fightin'?"

Yuffie couldn't argue it. She'd never wavered on the idea that Shinra needed to be fought. She'd only ever doubted whether Wutai was ready for it. She didn't want to drag her home into a fight they couldn't win.

"I know it's hard," Barret went on. "It's damn hard losin' people, especially when you were the one who recruited 'em to the fight... But they joined it 'cause they believe in the same thing you do. They made the choice to follow you."

"To follow me?" Yuffie wondered, her eyebrows going up. Was anyone here really following her, or just choosing to join the fight she'd brought them?

"It's shapin' up that way," was Barret's assessment. "'course, bein' a leader don't mean takin' everything on yourself. You gotta have your right-hand people. Like Gorkii. Like us." He thumped his fist to his chest.

Yuffie put her hands on her hips, eyeing him slyly. " sayin' I'm in charge here?"

Barret chuckled. "When it comes to Wutai shit, anyhow. This's your turf. We're here to back you. You remember that, okay? You ain't taken any missteps in my book."

No missteps, huh? Yuffie thought about what Gorkii had said, too. It hadn't been a mistake, bringing the fight here. If Wutai hadn't been ready for it, then Gorkii and all the others would've done what they'd done every other time Shinra had shown up over the past six years and counting, and stood aside. They hadn't wanted to. Guiying, too.

"...yeah," said Yuffie. "Thanks."

Barret gave her a firm nod, and together they went on into the pagoda.

Past Gorkii, the identities of the other guardians were supposed to be a secret. Yuffie had always thought it was a stupid tradition. Did being unknowable really make something more sacred? For a while she'd even thought there weren't any other guardians, that maybe Gorkii was just making it up to keep up appearances, but Yuffie had put enough time into it to figure out a couple of the others.

Staniv and Chekhov were among those waiting inside the first floor of the pagoda, confirming her suspicions. They were both Godo's age, both veterans of the war, and she hadn't seen either of them do jack shit since. Shake was waiting with them, and Yuffie frowned as she realized Gorkii must have asked him to gather them, trusting this brat with their identities before her.

Yuffie settled her hands on her hips. "So, you two, huh?"

Shake cleared his throat. "You mean, us three."

Yuffie snorted, but Staniv and Chekhov didn't correct him; they looked totally serious. "You?" she said incredulously. "No way!" He was younger than her! That couldn't be right.

"Yes way," he said, folding his arms across his chest. "My mom passed it down to me."

"But that's not..."

"--how it's done?" Shake interrupted, finishing her thought with a snort. "You're gonna lecture me about 'tradition'?"

Yuffie frowned. Shake's mother had come back badly wounded during the war. She'd survived, but lost the use of her legs. No longer able to fight or, apparently, to fulfill her duties as a guardian. You weren't supposed to just pick your kid as your successor, but Shake spent a lot of time with her, maybe more than anyone else. He helped his father to look after her and his aging grandparents.

That was why Yuffie simultaneously couldn't hate him and yet despised him all the same. His mom had come back. His family depended on him. He helped keep them all together.

Why couldn't she be more like him? She heard it a lot behind her back. Shake was such a dutiful child.

And she sure as hell wasn't. But her mother had passed something down to her, too.

"Wait," she said, "so who're we missing? There's supposed to be five of you."

"I'm sure Lord Godo will be joining us momentarily," said Staniv.

Yuffie tried unsuccessfully to suppress a grimace. It wasn't surprising, but she'd really hoped that the fifth guardian would be someone else, so that when Godo inevitably flaked out on her, it wouldn't be that big a loss. But if he was one of them, and the rest of them followed his lead...

She hated to think it, but it was actually a good thing if Shake was one of them. He'd fought with them, so he was already on Gorkii's side. Together with her and Aeris, that made at least four of them. She wasn't sure if that was enough, but they'd try to make it work if they had to.

Into the silence, Jessie awkwardly cleared her throat and began introductions.

Yuffie let her attention wander to the stairs in the back of the room. She'd never been beyond the first floor. She'd always told herself that challenging the pagoda was just some dumb tradition that didn't matter anymore, that it wasn't worth embarrassing old Gorkii, but deep down she'd always been scared of failing and proving everybody right about her.

She hadn't really thought about it, since everything that had happened with Sephiroth. After something like that, it did seem stupid. 'Conquering' this pagoda felt like it'd be about as meaningful now as any of the little tourist traps that had sprung up since the war. It wouldn't accomplish anything that counted out in the real world.

Except that maybe if she'd taken the time to do it, she'd have enough of their respect to make this go smoother.

"You'll do fine," Nanaki said quietly from beside her, startling her.

"Yeah," she said reflexively. "Yeah, of course."

Tifa and Aeris rejoined them first, and Jessie led another quick round of introductions. Chekhov looked like she was getting impatient, but that was totally Godo's fault for not having his shit together.


Gorkii was probably having a hard time persuading him, after the morning's skirmish. If he hadn't already basically disowned her, this would've put him over the edge. Of course he didn't want to come. He wasn't coming.

The doors to the pagoda swung open, and Gorkii entered, followed by Godo.

"Is that him?" Marlene whispered to her.

Yuffie nodded, and she braced herself for some kind of scolding. But Marlene took her hand, and Nanaki padded around nearer to the door almost as if he was flanking Godo, and suddenly she wanted to laugh. She knew Barret was keeping a watchful eye from just behind Marlene, too. If Godo made one wrong move, he was gonna get his ass handed to him by the weirdest group of people. He'd never live it down.

The best part was that Godo knew it. Maybe not that a four-year-old was preparing to kick him in the shins, but he knew. He folded his arms behind his back and lifted his chin, and that was absolutely all he could do.

"Gorkii has explained the situation," he said. "We have until tonight before more Shinra troops arrive, and you want to use that time to do something to aid them?"

"No," Yuffie corrected. "To aid the Planet."

"If it is the Planet's judgment that the Shinra suffer its wrath, then why should we interfere?"

"Lord Godo..." Tifa began carefully. "I admit, I don't know much about you besides what Shinra put in the papers. If that was just propaganda, there's no reason to think you're not an honorable man. I know you think of them as your enemy, but would you really wish harm on civilians?"

Yuffie had her opinions on how 'honorable' he was at this point, but there were definitely still lines he wouldn't cross. "That's the way of the Shinra, right?" she reminded him.

Godo frowned, and Yuffie almost wondered if he'd come in trying to pick a fight more out of habit than anything else. If he didn't want to do anything, he could've just stayed in his big stupid empty house.

"No one's sayin' they ain't idiots, followin' Rufus Shinra," Barret put in, "but they don't deserve to die for it."

No, Yuffie realized. The Shinra had come and attacked Wutain people on Wutain soil. Appealing to his sense of honor was the wrong play right now. "Anyway, what we do now..." she began, "We don't know what it'll do for Junon, if it does anything at all. But it will mean that when the Shinra get here, they won't have even the slightest chance to get their weapon back."

Godo met her gaze. "While the Planet weakens Shinra in Junon," he said slowly, "we will do the same from here."

"Yeah," she said. "You can think of it that way."

"Very well," he said.

"Lord Godo?" said Staniv, sounding unsure. He hadn't expected Godo to agree.

"I don't know about the Planet," Godo admitted, "but if this is the will of Leviathan... We were unable to curb Shinra's actions in the past. Perhaps we did not listen well enough." He shook his head slightly, his eyes on Yuffie. "I don't condone your bringing the Shinra down on us. But since they're coming now no matter what I do, then I will not stand by."

It's about time, Yuffie wanted to say, but she managed to bite it back.

Chekhov stepped forward. "And neither will we," she added, looking to Staniv as if challenging him to be the one dissenter. He didn't speak up.

"Well," said Aeris, looking them over. "The more the merrier."

Tifa threw her a wry look for that one.

"Then, Miss Yuffie," said Gorkii, "why don't you explain precisely what it is you need us to do?"

Yuffie took a breath. Then she lifted her chin and related, with as much confidence as she could muster, what her mother had told her. Or at least, as much as she could in words. In the end, she knew it was something that needed to be shown. She'd have to lead them in this.

Apart from Aeris and Gorkii, they all thought so little of her, and she'd have to lead them.

Once she'd gone through everything, it was Shake who suggested that maybe the pagoda wasn't the ideal place to do it, and everyone agreed. They ought to move to Da-chao.

But before they left, Godo insisted on climbing to the top floor. All the guardians seemed to understand, and Yuffie asked Gorkii,

"What's he doing?"

"I believe," said Gorkii, "that he seeks to strengthen his connection to Leviathan, in preparation for our task."

Yuffie knew from experience that she wasn't going to get a clearer answer than that, and she folded her arms while she waited. But if Godo was saying a prayer, it was a quick one. He was up and back down the stairs fast enough to be a little winded. Yuffie drew in a long breath and held in her insults.

Later. She only had to play nice until this was done.

They made their way to the path leading north of the capital, through the stretch of forest between the city and the mountain. It wasn't so well trafficked, and only a few sets of footprints had made the trek since the last snowfall. Rising above them, all of Da-chao was capped in white, obscuring some features of the statues but bringing out their shapes in stark relief.

They had no plans to climb to the top. The winding path grew narrow and treacherous, and that was no good for old people or for sticking together. They gathered instead just at the start of the climb, directly beneath the central statue.

Yuffie looked up at the five mighty gods, wondering if they were here as much as Leviathan was. Gorkii channelled his magic through them; all of the guardians did. She hoped they felt that connection strongest here.

Godo stood with his back to Da-chao. In his mind, he probably saw it as a position of strength, with the gods rising up behind him, but Yuffie couldn't help thinking of how long he'd gone ignoring everything. She didn't think he'd ever turned his back on the gods... but today, at least, she needed him to connect.

She thought, for once, he wanted to. But maybe it had been too long.

Aeris passed her the blue Huge Materia, the one that they'd lost to the Shinra, the one that had almost destroyed the No. 5 reactor. It felt right to do this one first.

Aeris, Gorkii, Shake, Chekhov, Staniv, and Godo all gathered close around her, each getting a hand on the crystal. And in a semi-circle behind them, the others kept close. Barret, Jessie, Nanaki, Tifa... Marlene squeezed her way between Aeris and Yuffie, crouching beneath the Huge Materia and planting her tiny hand on its underside.

It couldn't hurt anything. Hell, she probably had more experience with materia than Yuffie had had, at her age.

Learning about materia while growing up in Wutai hadn't been easy. Unlike the Shinra with their manufactured materia, it had always been a rare commodity here. Every last piece of it had gone to the war effort, and when they'd lost, the Shinra had taken most of it, like they were confiscating a toy from a disobedient child.

Yuffie had fixated on that. Shinra had won because of their materia, and they'd made absolutely sure that Wutai didn't have enough left to pose a threat. If only she could balance the scales, if only she could get materia for Wutai...

She'd pestered anybody in the capital who knew about it. The veterans who'd had the privilege of wielding it, and the ones who'd seen the Shinra's magic in action. She used to spend hours in the old shop that once sold materia alongside the powders and talismans that now comprised the whole of its stock. She'd learned a lot more about making grenades than about materia.

When she'd finally gotten a first-hand look at some, browsing through shops in Junon, she'd been pleased to discover herself a natural.

But, she hadn't totally understood it, then. That guy Hargo had told her that maybe the Planet had made it to try to connect with people again. A conduit between them and the Planet.

The Shinra hadn't heard anything it was trying to say. They'd pulled out all these thoughts and memories and smashed them together to make the Huge Materia. Sure, the Planet's thoughts were powerful. There was a lot more to the world than power.

It was time to put all this back. For them to act as a conduit, reconnecting the Planet with the memories that had been forcibly drawn out of it. They all knew, each in their own way, how to tap into the Lifestream. Through Leviathan, through the five mighty gods, through the magic of the Cetra. All they needed from it was to connect.

For all things to flow back to the ocean.

Within the Huge Materia, she could sense the jumbled voices come alive. Instead of drawing the power of the Lifestream up through them, she invited them into herself, to pass through her, to let Leviathan guide them home.

It was a lot.

Trees growing up through the skin of her, their roots finding purchase even on the steepest slopes, branch and mountain alike reaching for the sky. Dragons nesting amid the highest spires, watchful but unconcerned, their hatchlings safe from harm. Humans in the valley below, and then on the slopes, building the things that humans built. Their tools piercing unexpectedly deep, inflicting a wound no living thing had ever made with such intent.

That memory drawn up, too, into the reactor's pumps. The Planet couldn't remember the moment when its pain had started, or so many moments before. Each wound was devoid of history, there was nothing but the present and the pain, nothing else had ever been there.

But it had.

Some of it was gone forever. Sucked up and processed and pushed down pipes to feed the lights of Nibelheim and each of its terrible experiments. But some of it had just been separated. Cut-off, condensed, cached. Those moments could be returned, one by one.

A fragmented history that restored only a fraction of its former vitality, but the Planet had forgotten what it felt like to be healthy. To be strong. To be unafraid.

Yuffie felt it surge through her and through Leviathan. A river feeding the ocean, a current that connected all of them. She felt her mother's hand on hers, cool in the way of a spring rain, a comfort now even in the chill of winter.

And then she realized it was all of their hands, fingers tangled together in the space where the Huge Materia had been.

It was gone.

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