Chapter 17

It was the worst helicopter ride of Zack's life. He desperately wanted to get up and move around, but there wasn't room for pacing. Just like a kid, he thought, but this time it wasn't excitement.

What if they were too late? What if they got there and there was no one left to help?

He remembered running up the stairs from the basement as fast as his legs would carry him, and Nibelheim, already up in flames. At the reactor, Tifa and her father lying motionless on the floor, blood already pooling.

It wasn't a pattern, he told himself. Just one bad day. He'd had good ones since.

Cloud and Wedge were riding in different helicopters. Stupidly, Zack had proposed they split up, because if they met with some kind of attack from Weapon or from Shinra, they didn't all want to get taken out with one shot. The strategically smart thing to do, but it was stupid.

"You should get some sleep," said Reno. He slouched across from Zack in the belly of the helicopter, his arms folded loosely across his chest and one eye cracked open.

There weren't a lot of pilots left in Midgar who had experience in combat zones or who were as intimately familiar with Junon as the Turks. Under the circumstances, Zack and Rude had convinced Reeve to give him a chance.

That felt kind of stupid, too, right now.

"How are you so calm right now?" Zack asked him.

"How are you so worked up?" Reno countered. "I thought they trained you guys for this kind of shit. You were literally supposed to go into war zones."

"Yeah, well... it's the getting there part I'm not so great at."

Or maybe he wasn't really cut out for any of it.

Zack shut his eyes, leaning back in his seat, and willed himself to quit thinking like that. He could've used Cloud, right about now. He should've ridden with Cloud.

They hit Junon just after 5am. Rude swept the helicopter cautiously over the cliffs that backed the city. It was dark, and dark in a way it shouldn't have been. Zack could barely pick out the command center against the black of the sky, and the streets below were illuminated only here and there by the warm glow of fire. The ocean beyond looked still, from this height.

On the air strip, edge lights traced the runways, but the larger floodlights were out.

"Back-up power," Reno remarked. "That thing must've hit the reactor."

A few military helicopters and short-range aircraft dotted the air field, but without the Highwind or the Gelnikas, it felt empty. Plenty of room for Rude to set them down. Zack hauled the door open and leapt out, straining his ears to pick out any sounds over the whirring of the blades overhead. He couldn't hear the cannons.

He couldn't hear the Weapon either.

The other two copters landed within minutes of them. They left behind a crew to refuel and catalogue the available birds, and the rest of them gathered at the lift down into the base. Cloud caught his eye with an unspoken question. Zack just smiled tightly.

"All right," he said. "Still no update from Sash, so we don't know the situation right now. Power's out across the city, but it doesn't seem like Weapon's actively attacking right now. Could be the cannons finally took it out, could be it's just retreated for now. Either way there's still gotta be a lot of confusion in the aftermath, and with the force they sent off to Wutai, we're most likely dealing with a lot of rookies down there. Everybody be on your toes, all right?"

"We should try to find Sash," said Wedge.

"Yeah," Zack agreed. "That's a priority."

And if Sash didn't want to be a priority over civilians, then too bad. She was with AVALANCHE, not SOLDIER.

The lift still worked. In the absence of other sounds, Zack was too conscious of the mechanical clank of its gears lowering them down.

Inside, the halls were dim, lit by emergency lights running along the floor. It was eerily still save for a distant clamor echoing from somewhere out-of-sight. Zack drew his sword, glancing back at his companions. Their faces, strangely lit from below, didn't reassure him as much as he would have liked.

Only a few months had passed since he'd last set foot in this base, but between everything that had happened since and the stark contrast in mood, it felt like ages ago. His grasp of time had been hazy then. He'd thought maybe a few months had passed, that the world was still more or less the one he knew. He hadn't realized how much had happened to him, without him.

The guard at the elevator hadn't recognized him, but the SOLDIER uniform, ratty as it was, had been enough to get him inside. A rough mission, he'd explained with a shrug.

It sure had been.

When Sephiroth had used his body, had he come this way to return to Midgar? Had he killed anyone here?

Zack never tried too hard to dig up those memories, but he knew what this moment reminded him of: that night in the Shinra building, when the halls were silent because there wasn't anyone left alive to scream.

As they neared the main street entrance, a streak of blood smeared across the floor, but the soldier at its end was alive. He sat huddled against the door, his knees up and his arms wrapped around his rifle. There was a faint pounding on the other side of the door, and the soldier startled belatedly at their approach. Realizing that they didn't share his uniform, his hands shifted nervously on the rifle barrel.

Zack held out his left palm, and slowly sheathed his sword. "Easy," he said. "We're here to help."

He couldn't read the guy's face behind the helmet, but he did seem to be staring.

"You..." he began. "Are you SOLDIER?"

The eyes. The average person didn't know what the glow meant, but the guys at Junon base saw SOLDIERs all the time. He and Cloud, they weren't wearing the uniforms, but by their eyes, they'd always look the part.

"Yeah," said Zack, figuring a lie was the easiest way to keep this guy calm. "Got caught off-duty. We made it over here by helo, you wanna tell me what happened here?"

The soldier hesitated. "The commander said to seal off the doors. Not let anyone through."

"Where's the commander now?"

"I... don't know. A lot of them left, after."

"After what?" Zack prompted.

The soldier didn't answer. He curled his body closer around his rifle. Zack's eyes fell on the bloodstain. Someone wounded had been dragged through that door, only for them to seal it up tight again behind them. Had any civilians been let through? He couldn't tell from the pounding and muffled voices how many were still out there.

Cloud spoke up. "...did someone go against orders?" When the soldier didn't answer, he went on gently, "Things've been crazy. It's hard not to get mixed up at a time like this."

"It wasn't me," the soldier said quietly. "I was outside. This soldier came up, she said she had orders from command to start letting civilians through, so I got her on the intercom. I thought we should, but the crowd, you know, they were getting rough. Somebody shoved Connors, and-- a rifle went off."

His mouth hung open a moment, but he closed it again without saying anything more. Zack noticed that he hadn't attributed the shot to 'Connors.' He exchanged glances with Cloud.

"...and somebody opened the door to help?" Cloud suggested.

The soldier nodded.

"Do you know what happened to that woman, the soldier?" asked Zack.

"They took her to the brig."

"The brig?"

"She assaulted Connors," said the soldier.

"...okay." Zack nodded to the few of Reeve's men who'd accompanied them. "You wanna keep him company? We're gonna check that out."

He eyed the streak of blood again and then turned in the direction of the brig. It didn't sound like Sash had been injured--maybe it was that Connors guy. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking. Zack sure wouldn't put it past Shinra soldiers to drag an injured woman to the brig and throw her in.

Had they pegged her for AVALANCHE? Or just someone who'd disobeyed orders in a crisis?

It was eerie seeing the base so empty. They passed one other soldier on the way to the brig, standing in front of the windows overlooking the airstrip. If he'd been there earlier, he would've seen them arrive, and he didn't move a muscle as they went by. Zack wondered if he was in shock, if he was even paying attention.

There was no one guarding the brig either. They'd locked up Sash in there and just left. Abandoned their posts and their city. Did they think things were that hopeless? Or were they just cowards?

Well, nobody had abandoned Midgar out of bravery.

Sash wasn't alone in the brig. In the cell beside hers, some infantryman was sitting with his helmet off and his head in his hands. Sash was pacing, but she stopped at the sight of them and hurried to the bars.

"Zack! What the hell are you guys doing here?"

"Staging a rescue," he answered. "You're welcome."

He'd been hoping that the way to open the cell would become apparent once he approached the door, but he wasn't sure if the panel took some kind of key card or--

Rude quietly tapped him on the shoulder, and Zack stepped aside.

"That's crazy," said Sash. "There's no way you came here for me."

"Not just you, but you're our MVP. The base seems pretty much abandoned, but I gather they threw you in here for trying to keep the real soldiers from firing on civilians?"

Sash's expression grew tight. "...I tried. It would've been worse if base hadn't brought us all inside. The one guy, though... I think he's dead."

Zack wasn't sure how much sympathy he could muster for that, even as pathetic as that other guy had looked. You didn't fire on civilians, and they hadn't had some half-alien madman pushing them to do it.

They probably thought their situation was a valid excuse, too.

Rude had gotten the door open, and Sash stepped out to join them.

"What about the civilians?" Wedge asked quietly.

"...probably a few bodies out there, too," Sash said grimly.

"So, opening that door's a bad idea," Reno concluded, and Zack looked at him sharply.

"We need to get people out."

"Do we? I don't hear any giant monster attack."

Zack frowned, folding his arms. Somebody was still pounding on that door wanting out of Junon, but that didn't mean they were anything more than scared. "How long's it been quiet, Sash?"

"A few hours," she said. "The guards ran out before then. You guys don't know what's going on?"

Zack shook his head. "I was hoping you could tell us."

Rude spoke up quietly. "If Shinra had killed it, they would've made an announcement. To restore public confidence."

He was right; even with widespread power outages, Shinra still had the means to make emergency announcements. Zack wondered what the status even was up at the command center. Had they been hit directly? The cannons were more than enough to deter any navy, but the command center might make an easy target to a giant sea monster.

"Doesn't necessarily mean everybody's listening," Reno pointed out.

" need to contact command," said the soldier from his cell. He'd lifted his head, although he wasn't looking at them. "They'll know."

"Contact Rufus?" Wedge wondered skeptically.

Reno looked to Sash, jerking his thumb towards the soldier. "What's this guy in for anyway?"

"He opened the door," Sash explained simply.

"Pretty stupid," Reno reiterated.

"I thought we had orders to," said the soldier. "I mean, it's supposed to be our job. Protecting civilians."

This guy, Zack could warm up to. "It's sure s'posed to be," he agreed. "You up for giving it another shot?"

The soldier looked up at him, and finally seemed to take in the fact that none of them were in uniform except Sash. "...what do you mean? Who are you guys?"

Zack exchanged glances with Cloud and decided this one could handle honesty. "We're AVALANCHE. So you can see how calling up command'd be a little awkward for us. But I promise, we just want to help keep everyone safe."

The soldier's eyes passed over each of them, taking in the Mako eyes and the Turk-style suits. With the exception of Wedge, they were ex-Shinra, the lot of them. Maybe, after trying to do the right thing and having his own people turn on him, he was starting to understand why.

At last he nodded to Sash. "You're one of them?"

"Yeah," Sash confirmed. "I'm with AVALANCHE."

"...okay," he decided, getting to his feet. "I'll see if I can raise somebody."

They let him out, and Wedge asked his name--what his friends called him, not his commanders. He was good at getting to know these guys. Jase led the way to communications, where they were surprised to find someone still there. A red-uniformed commander leaned over the console with a flashlight and a screwdriver, the panel case set aside.

"Commander!" said Jase, faltering and then saluting.

"What the--" The commander looked over and froze at the sight of their group. He was an older man, probably not one of the recent recruits. "Who the hell are you guys?"

"AVALANCHE, sir," said Jase. "They're here to help."

Their new friend was definitely growing on him, Zack decided. "That's right. Any word on the giant monster? Did they take it out?"

The commander stared at him for a moment longer and then said, "Oh, to hell with it. At least you're here. Those rookie bastards-- we lost contact with command when the power went out, and they just lit outta here."

"What was the last thing you heard?" asked Sash.

"Thought they scored a hit," said the commander. "I don't think it liked that."

"If it had the strength to retaliate," Cloud ventured, "then I'd put my money on 'retreated,' not 'dead.'"

Zack nodded his agreement. He gestured at the instrument panel. "Are we talking equipment failure on our end, or did command just go silent?"

"Hell, I don't know. I've been hoping it's us, but-- I'm not a technician."

"Let me take a look, sir," said Jase. Zack saw Reno exchange looks with Rude over the kid's head, and the ex-Turk stepped over to the panel with him.

That was when a faint tremor came up through the foundations. Everyone in the room stilled, and the distant pounding paused. Another shudder followed, and the pounding resumed full-force.

"We need to get those people out of here," Zack decided. No more wandering around trying to figure out what was going on.

"How do we do that without them hurting themselves?" Cloud wondered. Or us? was the unspoken addition.

In his teen years, Zack had thought Junon was so secure; there was no way any Wutain spies could possibly make it inside. Now he just saw it as a death trap. The easiest way to leave it was by sea, and there was something out there waiting. The only way out by land was this one stupid bottleneck of a door through the air base. A panicked crowd would trample each other, and they'd get lost, and they'd get angry.

"You get on the intercom loudspeaker," said Reno, still focused on the control panel, "and you tell 'em SOLDIER's arrived on scene and you're taking over from these rookies. Everyone'll be evacuated if they're orderly."

"Should we really be lying?" asked Wedge, looking to Jase and his commander and back at Zack.

"Hate to say it," said Zack, "but for those people? Probably the best way. We tell them AVALANCHE's here to rescue them and they're just gonna panic more."

Wedge's shoulders slumped. "I just wish... people weren't afraid of AVALANCHE. We never wanted people to be scared of us."

Jase glanced back at him, but didn't say anything.

"I know, buddy," said Zack.

"Yeah, okay," said Reno. "We can talk about the Shinra propaganda machine later-- Are you gonna get a move on or what?"

Zack nodded to himself. "It's the right idea, but I think they need a face, not just the intercom. Rude, you think you could fly me out there? We don't have to land. Sash, I'll coordinate with you on opening the door."

Sash looked like she wanted to protest, but Cloud beat her to insisting he didn't go without back-up. They left Wedge to keep an eye on Reno and loop them in if they got through to command. Mostly the latter; Zack didn't see this as the moment when Reno would turn on them.

Out of the walls of the base and back onto the airstrip, Weapon's roar announcing its return assaulted their ears as they ran for the helicopter. The crew had refueled it in their absence, moving on to other birds. As Rude lifted them into the air, Zack finally caught a glimpse of the thing.

A huge black shape silhouetted against the sky, he couldn't quite comprehend its shape. Maybe those were fins rising off of it. Something organic and unknowable, from another world entirely than the city below them.

It wasn't supposed to be their enemy. Not the enemy of AVALANCHE or of the average people just trying to survive on this Planet. Zack really hoped Aeris could manage to get that across somehow.

Rude brought the helicopter over the entrance of the base, and Zack and Cloud leapt down onto the narrow ledge above the sealed door. The crowd below stretched back down the street, farther than even his eyes could make out in the dim. As the helicopter pulled away again, he picked out kids crying--and a few adults, too, just sobbing. The pounding at the door had stopped at their arrival.

There was a small circle, not far from the door, where several bodies had been dragged away and laid out. The crowd kept an uneasy distance from them, or maybe it was a respectful distance. A few people crouched nearby. Loved ones, Zack figured. They were all scared, not crazed. They'd listen. Right?

He'd brought a megaphone from the helicopter, and he switched it on.

"Listen up!" he said. "I know Shinra's made a mess of the situation, but SOLDIER's on site now and we're gonna clear things up."

"Open the door!" someone shouted, and others echoed it.

A burst of white fire shot out from Weapon's mouth, lancing across the sky into the cannon. An almost super-sonic boom ripped through the city in its wake, and the crowd flinched. Screams followed, and knots of the crowd swayed as some tried to shove their way forward.

"We're okay!" Zack called over the crowd. "That big monster out there has its eyes on the command center, it is not looking at all of us. So I need you all to be brave and stay calm. We're gonna get the door open in a minute, but we need to do this orderly so nobody else gets hurt, understand? I wanna get you guys outta here as fast as I can, but I need your help to do that."

The people pounding at the door started to pull back. Unsure, not yet trusting, but he had them for a few minutes.

Cloud's hand slipped into his, giving it a squeeze. He didn't think anyone would be able to make it out in the dark. Just their own little secret.

Zack could work with a few minutes. These people desperately wanted someone to give them a solution, and he had one. He could get them to trust him.

He just wasn't sure he'd be getting a statue out of it.

Barret wondered what it felt like, doing what they did. It was a marvel enough, what it looked like. Nothing, for a while, but then the Huge Materia would begin to glow brighter and brighter, until he blinked and there was nothing but the afterimage. It was like watching magic in reverse, a spell that returned to the Lifestream instead of being born from it.

Not that he'd ever been too good at understanding that either. But as time wore on, as wordlessly as all of this was happening, he felt some kind of noise pressing against the back of his skull, like a million voices whispering in the next room. Yuffie said this was where she came to listen to the gods, and having seen Leviathan, he couldn't discount any bit of her religion.

Strange to think her gods might have something to say to him. Then again, if Yuffie's mother was part of them in some way, she might have a word or two. Nothing too angry, he hoped. He was doing the best he could.

Of course it all made him think of the City of the Ancients, too. Of praying for Holy in another place full of voices he couldn't hear. A legacy that wasn't meant for him.

Or was it?

He thought about how Aeris had told him that she thought Marlene could hear the Planet. She was too young to have closed herself off to it yet, and maybe all Barret's bluster to his team about how he heard it himself had helped to stave off what was, for most folks, an inevitability. Not knowing or not believing there was anything to listen for, they never tried.

He wondered if Marlene could feel what they were doing, the workings of the Planet passing through her tiny little body. It wasn't dangerous, was it? Yuffie or Aeris would've told him if it was, and gently discouraged her from planting her little palm on the Huge Materia alongside theirs.

It was a long process for a four-year-old to sit through, even though Marlene had always been good at that. She'd entertained herself through long AVALANCHE meetings, their strategizing and Jessie's technical talk going over her head. Barret had always kept one eye on her, knowing he needed to take action to ensure her future but wishing it didn't have to pull him away from the moment.

Marlene pushed her way back over to him, and he lifted her into his arms and watched her face staring up at the huge statues above them.

If this was where the voices of the gods were strongest, then it was probably where the Mako ran densest, too. Barret had never read too much about the particulars of how the war had started--and frankly it was hard to find anything that wasn't propaganda, much less unbiased--but he wondered now if Shinra had proposed building their Mako reactor here. Desecrating at once a sacred place and a monument that must have existed for generations.

Trees used to dot the slopes of Corel, not so dense as the forest stretching out below Da-chao, but still green with life. They'd blossom white in the spring, and the petals would float down into the valley on the wind.

The nostalgia hit him so hard he almost started crying, and only then did he realize that Yuffie and the others had moved on to the Huge Materia they'd pulled out of Corel.

"Papa?" Marlene asked quietly.

"You feel that, baby girl? Feels like home." He pulled her a little closer, kissing her forehead.

She'd been born late in the winter, and when the trees began to blossom that year, she'd still been so tiny. He'd been so excited for Dyne and Eleanor and their new charge, everyone had noticed. Myrna had shared knowing looks with him as both their mothers made less-than-subtle remarks, and he'd been so certain that once the reactor was finished, once all their lives got a little easier, she'd finally beat what was ailing her and they'd have a family of their own.

He felt Jessie's hand on his arm and looked down to meet her concerned gaze. Tifa was looking over at him, too, from where she stood, but her gaze held a different sort of question. Had she felt it like this, with the Nibel materia? He gave her a nod.

"I'm okay," he said, looking back at Jessie. "Think I'm finally hearin' this one is all."

"It's a little intense," she said, "huh?"

"Yeah. Little bit."

They'd find a way to shut down that damn reactor in Corel, he promised himself, before it sucked up every last one of these memories. There'd be trees to blossom again, and he'd take Marlene to see them. They'd make a more fitting memorial than those crude markers by the desert ravine.

And things would be good. It wasn't the family he'd imagined, but he had one. Marlene put her little arms around his neck and hugged him.

It was late afternoon when the yellow glow of Fort Condor's Huge Materia dissipated into the sunlight. The shadows cast by the arms of the statues overhead were growing deeper, and longer. Yuffie, Aeris, and the guardians at last stepped back from one another, and Yuffie let out a loud breath.

He had to say, her focus impressed him. She could be as impulsive as he could, but she could dig in when she needed to.

"Well," said Shake, "that was weird."

"It wasn't weird," said Yuffie, shooting him a look. "It was..."

None of them knew how to describe it. The guardians all exchanged looks. They seemed a little uneasy, a little unsure of how to come back to concrete reality.

"Obviously it worked," Tifa offered. "Or at least, the Huge Materia isn't here anymore. But I'm sure I felt something. Is the Planet feeling stronger?"

"I... think so. Yes." Aeris hesitated, her attention unfocused, and then she shook her head. "Sorry, that was all a little overwhelming. I need a little time."

"Sure," said Tifa.

Aeris took her hand, and they started back down the mountain path. Yuffie stood for a moment looking up at Da-chao, and then she, too, turned to leave. They all followed after, picking their way down the path at their own pace, leaving Aeris and Tifa their space.

Barret forced himself to be patient. Whatever came of this, it was a good thing, but hours had passed since they'd heard about Junon, and it was why they'd decided to do this now.

Did the Planet feel calmed, or had all that just reminded it how much had been ripped away from it? Barret felt the heartbreak keen again, but it hadn't spurred his sense of vengeance. It wasn't all bad, remembering what had passed.

But he didn't really know how planets felt, exactly. He was only just starting to listen properly.

A roaring sound reached them through the trees, before they came in sight of the river. The waters surged against the banks like there'd been some kind of deluge all afternoon, but the sky was cloudless.

"Leviathan is here," said Yuffie. Hurrying over, she dropped to her knees on the shore and let her fingers just comb through the water.

Unexpectedly, Godo walked past from behind him and knelt down beside her. Barret watched him, just to be sure. He thought that something had shifted this time around, in the man and in his relationship with Yuffie, but Barret was never going to like or trust him. If he wanted to make himself an ally, finally, then fine. He'd never be a friend.

Yuffie jumped up again, spinning to look at Barret. "We can use this," she announced.

Before she could elaborate, footsteps pounded on the wooden planks of the bridge as Tifa and Aeris hurried back to them. "Weapon's attacking Junon again," Tifa got out first.

"Sh--" Barret managed to cut himself off, in front of Marlene. "So we didn't calm it down any?"

Aeris shook her head. "Shinra wounded it, so it retreated for a time. But that just made it more angry, because..."

"...they struck it with the cannon, didn't they?" Nanaki concluded. "The one powered by the remaining Huge Materia."

Aeris nodded.

Jessie glanced at him, and she put it together for him first. "So it just got a taste of exactly the kind of damage Shinra's been doing to the Planet..."

"Guys!" Yuffie broke in. "We can ask Leviathan. It'll help us."

Barret looked at her quizzically. "You sayin'... you can ask it to manifest all the way out there, in Junon?" He knew Leviathan wasn't constrained to Wutai; it had shown up for them in the Northern Crater. But he figured that was because Yuffie was there to call it. They were connected. Could she really do that from all the way on the other side of the world?

"No," said Yuffie, "but we can go there with it. It's really strong right now, so I think it can carry us."

"That's a lot of distance to cover," Tifa said skeptically. Halfway around the world would take hours, still.

"Yeah, but it's a god, Tifa," Yuffie pointed out.

At a loss, Tifa looked to Aeris.

" might work," Aeris considered. "We just poured so much magic back into the Planet, and in this moment, it's still concentrated right here. It hasn't circulated yet. It could be harnessed."

"Meanin,'" said Barret, "that we couldn't use the Huge Materia, but now that it's back with the Planet, Leviathan knows how to use the energy?"

"Right," Aeris confirmed. "And it's a lot of energy."

Barret didn't know how it all worked, but he trusted them. There was way more magic out there than what Shinra put into their factory-bred materia. All the stuff they'd seen on their journey that the Ancients had left behind, that was just the tip of the iceberg, probably. So why not this? Why not a god whisking them halfway around the world in the blink of an eye, so they could save the second-largest city in the world?

He wanted to believe it, too.

"Could Leviathan stop Weapon?" Tifa wondered. "One giant monster fighting another...?"

"Leviathan is no monster," Godo spoke up coolly.

"I'm sorry," said Tifa, and Barret hoped she only offered the apology because Godo wasn't the only one who'd be offended. "Weapon isn't either, really. But would Leviathan really do that?"

Staniv stepped forward. "Why are we talking about calling on Leviathan to save the Shinra? We should be asking it to defeat them when they come. They're meant to land here in only a few hours."

"...we could," said Yuffie. Her eyes fell on the river, and it was a different bridge, but he knew she was thinking about the woman who'd died in it that morning. "We could use it to defeat the Shinra, and then there's no way we'd lose anybody else."

Nanaki padded to her side, looking up to catch her side. "But," he said softly, "would Leviathan be able to do both?"

Neither Yuffie nor Aeris answered that one, and Barret was pretty sure it couldn't. It was a rough thing to ask of her, for her to consider the lives of the people who'd supported Shinra's war over the lives of her own people. The math made sense, but when it was your home, math didn't matter.

"Yuffie..." said Tifa. "We can fight the Shinra ourselves, and we can beat them, I know we can. But Weapon... What happens to Junon?"

"And what happens once Weapon's done with Junon?" Jessie added. That wasn't something Barret had thought about. If it conquered Shinra in Junon, would it move on to some other place, some other reactor? Midgar? Corel?

"The decision doesn't rest with Yuffie," said Godo, as Yuffie continued to waver. From out of his sleeve, he produced a small red orb--summon materia, though it was the first Barret had ever seen. In his arms, Marlene was glaring daggers at Godo. He wasn't sure how much of this she was following, but she'd picked up on Yuffie's mean dad going against her.

Yuffie gave a start, like she recognized it. "Wha-- Have you had that this whole time?"

Godo nodded. "This was the one piece of materia we kept the Shinra from taking. It was too precious to lose."

"Why... didn't you ever try to use it during the war?"

"I did try," said Godo. "After Kasumi...... But Leviathan did not come. I don't know why. But I can feel that it will come for us now."

Leviathan materia? Barret wondered. If he had that, did that mean that Godo could command it, whatever Yuffie or any of the rest of them felt?

"Lord Godo," said Gorkii, "the decision is not yours."

"What?" said Godo, and the other guardians looked at him sharply, too.

"Control of the Leviathan materia rests with the one who conquers the pagoda," said Staniv. "It's tradition, Gorkii. You know that."

"And what other traditions have we kept?" asked Gorkii. He hadn't raised his voice one iota, but the others fell quiet. "Miss Yuffie may not have defeated us in combat," he went on, "and she may not be Wutai's leader, but she has brought us all together in its defense. Without her determination, there would be no one to defend Wutai now--not us, or the gods. I believe it should be her choice."

Shake was the first of them to break the silence, folding his arms across his chest. "Well..." he said. "The guys showing up here, like Busty over there said, we can take 'em. It's Junon that's the heart of Shinra, right now."

Yuffie looked at him askance. "What, you wanna have Leviathan team up with Weapon?"

Chekhov looked thoughtful. "We could destroy Shinra, utterly, in one blow..."

"Look," Jessie cut in, "I get it. We all get it. AVALANCHE has been there, taking the big swings at Shinra, but the collateral damage... it just isn't worth it. You guys didn't see Midgar after the bombings, or after Holy hit. Sure, we knocked Shinra down a peg, but there's a lot of innocent people suffering, even now."

"Yes," said Gorkii, nodding his agreement. "We've heard some of their stories."

"I don't wanna be their boogeyman either," said Yuffie. "If we go in and attack Junon like that, it's exactly what Shinra's been telling them to be scared of since the war first started. Big bad evil Wutai. That's not us."

"But it is an opportunity, surely," Godo insisted.

"Well, how's it gonna play out if Wutai's the one to save 'em?" Barret proposed. Wasn't that how they'd started to win over Midgar?

"Yeah," said Yuffie, meeting his gaze. "Yeah! What's it gonna look like if Shinra totally bombs this, and the patron god of Wutai is the savior of Junon?"

Tifa was smiling. "Exactly. We don't need to destroy Junon, just Shinra's hold on it."

"And you'll be able to control Leviathan, yes?" asked Nanaki.


"I mean that... You have a connection to Leviathan, but Leviathan also carries with it the spirits of those that Shinra killed in the war. Will they follow you?"

"I think they will," said Aeris. "Leviathan is connected to the living, too, to all of us here who've strengthened it. Like Holy, it's responding to our will."

"We can definitely see about drowning Rufus while we're at it, though," Yuffie added, and Barret didn't have a problem with that.

"...just a little bit, okay?" said Tifa. "I still wanna slug 'im."

Jessie put her hands on her hips. "So then, who all is going?"

Yuffie hesitated, her gaze sweeping over all of them before finally landing on: "...Aeris?"

"Of course," said Aeris.

"Tifa, you should probably come, too."

Tifa blinked. "Me?"

"For what happens after," Yuffie clarified.


Barret scratched his head. "Junon saved by Wutai and the leader of AVALANCHE, huh?"

Yuffie nodded, and she looked to him, and to Jessie, and to Nanaki. "The rest of you guys... You'll take care of Wutai for me, right?"

There were plenty of other reasons that made it the rational choice for Barret not to go--Marlene couldn't, and he couldn't leave her in Wutai with Shinra on the way, and he wasn't any good with magic, and if Tifa was going then she needed her right-hand man heading things up here--but he was honored that none of those were the driving force behind Yuffie's decision. Wutai was the most important thing to her in the world, and if she had to leave it, then she wanted to leave it in good hands.

She trusted them.

"Scarlet won't know what hit 'er," said Barret. "Promise."

It was with reluctance that Godo passed the Leviathan materia to Yuffie, but when he did, he held onto her hands for a moment. Then he let her go, and stepped back beside Barret. The others handed over their phones to Jessie, and Barret watched as Yuffie stepped out onto the bridge over the river, Aeris and Tifa at her side, preparing herself.

"Yuffie is my daughter," Godo said quietly.

Barret glanced at him. He wanted to say that now? "She was your daughter," he corrected. "You didn't do right by her, so she's my kid now."

"How was I supposed to do right by her, after Kasumi..."

Barret's jaw set. He could've sympathized, with a man who hadn't raised a hand to his child.

And what about Dyne? came the unbidden thought. Dyne had become something even worse in the end, and Barret still felt for him. He didn't blame Tifa for what she'd done, but part of him wanted to believe that Dyne never could've gone through with it--that he would've seen Marlene's face, and the sight of her would've changed him.

Well. Barret didn't know what kind of man Godo had been, before the war. Yuffie had said once that she'd missed him, but a kid could miss a bad father. They didn't know any better.

Barret understood losing a wife. He'd lost Myrna to incomprehensible violence. In one day, he'd lost everything, except for Marlene. He hefted her closer in his arms.

"You hold on tighter, is what," he said with certainty. "You wanna try not bein' a jerk now, after all this time, I got no problem with that. But it's on Yuffie's terms, you understand?"

Marlene punctuated that by sticking her tongue out at Godo. The man didn't answer, but he folded his arms inside his sleeves and gave the barest nod. His eyes were on Yuffie.

You held them tighter, when you could. Like always, Barret wished he could go and stay at the same time. Yuffie was entrusting him with Wutai, and he had to have faith in her, too. She was his kid, and she could do this.

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