Yuffie crouched in the brush of the riverbank and studied the bridge. A Shinra checkpoint, just like Jessie had said. Military trucks blocked any easy passage across, and soldiers actively patrolled its span. There was no approach that wouldn't leave her exposed; the undergrowth thinned out not far from her position.
A wind rustled the branches overhead, carrying off a few more autumn leaves and reminding her of how cold the water would be, even if the weather was milder here than back home. An early snowstorm had come to Wutai just before she'd left, rendering the slopes of Da-chao nigh impassable. She hadn't made her usual hike the day she'd gone, and she wondered if the gods had noticed her absence.
Most people who still believed in them would say that no one was watching. That the gods had abandoned Wutai. Yuffie didn't think so. They were waiting, maybe, for a people to be proud of.
Wutai's surrender had come in the spring, she remembered. The beauty of the trees blossoming along the riverside marred by military trucks and uniformed soldiers and the sting of tears blurring her vision. Back during the war, she'd imagined herself fighting the Shinra so many times, but when she'd at last come face to face with them, all she'd been able to do was ball up her small fists and glare at them through teary eyes.
She was stronger now, but taking on the soldiers on the bridge was still a bad idea. She could wait for nightfall to sneak past them, but that was a waste of a day; it wasn't even noon. Detouring to another bridge upriver would cost her time, too, and there was no guarantee she wouldn't run into the same problem.
Yuffie heaved a silent sigh and crept back downriver, continuing on until the bridge fell out of sight around a bend.
She squatted on the bank, staring at the water.
It wasn't a fast current, and she'd swum it before, but that was during the summer months she'd spent familiarizing herself with the lands outside of Junon.
How come materia had to be so specialized for fighting? she wondered. Why couldn't there be magic for getting across a river without freezing your ass off? Hadn't the Ancients done all sorts of other stuff with it?
She thought of the magic that had transformed the Black Materia into the Temple, the magic that had hidden the altar where they had all prayed together for Holy. That magic was so much more powerful and complex than just hurling a chunk of ice at somebody. She wondered if Aeris would ever be able to figure it out.
She wondered if she could.
Yuffie stared hard at the river. No way did she think she could make a bridge out of nothing, but ice would hold her, if she could just freeze it, just for a few minutes. She knew how it felt to cast ice magic with materia, and she knew how it felt to use her healing magic, without it. The blessing of the water god.
Come on, Leviathan. Show me how to do this.
The flow of the river shifted, she thought it slowed.
On the edge of her vision, on the far bank, someone stood watching her. Yuffie snapped her head up, but the figure was gone.
No one there.
She sat staring for a long minute, then shook it off.
The river was flowing normally again. Yuffie tried focusing again, but nothing happened. Maybe that had been her imagination, too. With a sigh, she sat down to pull off her shoes.
She stripped down to her underwear, and did her best to hold her pack out of the water as she swam across, because she only had a waterproof case for the important things. She was shivering when she climbed out onto the far shore, and she made a hasty fire, keeping it small so the smoke wouldn't attract attention. Fishing out her canteen, she set her water to heat while she dried off. It wasn't tea, but it would help. Yuffie bundled herself up in nearly every dry stitch she had and sat for a while sipping her hot water and looking out on the river.
She'd learned her healing magic from Godo, when she'd been a lot younger--young enough that believing in things had come easy. Back then, she'd still believed in him, after all. But time and again the war had called him and all the other masters away, and they hadn't passed on anything else to her before they'd come back--defeated, disillusioned, doubting whether the gods their magic came from even existed.
But Yuffie had seen Leviathan. It had come to her, when they'd fought Sephiroth at the Northern Crater.
Why it had come for her, and not for Wutai, she still didn't know.
Maybe they'd been arrogant in the war, and thought they didn't need the gods. They hadn't realized what they were up against, Shinra and its manufactured magic, its soldiers led by some science experiment gone wrong.
Not that Yuffie was big on relying on anyone for help, but it'd be stupid to turn down the help of a god.
Are you in this with me? she wondered, watching the river. I hope so. The Planet still needs our help, right?
She got moving again before too long. It was still a solid two-day hike to Junon, and she'd have to keep an eye out for Shinra patrols.
The forests outside of Junon should have been familiar territory for her, but they felt different now. This late in the year, most of the leaves had fallen, carpeting the ground beneath her feet and leaving the branches bare overhead. The buzzing of the summer insects had gone, silenced by some recent frost, and even the birdsong had changed.
Yuffie couldn't help remembering the last time she'd come this way, the same day she'd first encountered AVALANCHE. They'd all been so distracted by the very existence of nature around them that she'd taken them for easy marks. She'd had to revise her strategy after they'd caught her.
A lot had happened since then, and now... she kind of missed them.
Which was stupid, since she'd seen most of them yesterday at the birthday party Barret had thrown for her. It had actually succeeded in catching her by surprise, but she really should have known better when Tifa had specifically invited her to Kalm on November 20th. Dead giveaway.
But Yuffie had always been a loner. The friendship thing was new. When she'd gone home to Wutai and resigned herself to going more than a month without seeing any of them, she hadn't expected the letters either.
Not even a week had passed before the first one had shown up. Barret must have written it on board the Highwind, and posted it the second he'd reached Cosmo Canyon.
And the effort she'd had to put into deciphering it told her that he'd been right-handed, when he'd had a right hand. The envelope had included a pen drawing from Marlene depicting her and Yuffie (roughly the same size) riding on Barret's shoulders. A quick note from Tifa in the corner read simply 'welcome to the family.'
Most of them had written her letters, with varying frequency. Jessie's were sporadic, but long when they came, full of details about the latest and greatest plans for the recovery of Midgar. Tifa wrote every Monday like clockwork, letting her know how everyone was doing and keeping her apprised of what she deemed the most important news. Aeris usually included a shorter letter in the same envelope, relating funny anecdotes from their life, like the ongoing saga of their landlady struggling to understand which one of them was Marlene's mother.
Letters from Midgar had come rarer, but she'd been surprised to get them from Wedge, of all people, detailing AVALANCHE's efforts there. Zack contributed some illustrations that somehow demonstrated less artistic talent than a four-year-old, complete with labels that she later realized were in Cloud's handwriting, after he included a post-script apologizing for the awful drawings.
She'd gotten exactly one short letter from Nanaki, which she couldn't really fault him for. Blotchy in parts, he must've written it painstakingly with claw and inkwell. He might have dictated, but she was grateful he hadn't. Unlike the others, he hadn't sent her news, but rather words of encouragement. He thought she had the makings of the leader Wutai needed, just as he hoped he could fill the role of guardian for his beloved canyon.
It was embarrassing. But Yuffie had stashed it away with the rest of them in her most secret of hiding places, where she kept her treasures.
She hoped Nanaki was holding up all right. He hadn't made it to her party, not because of the distance, but because Bugenhagen had fallen ill. He said it wasn't bad, but honestly Bugenhagen was so old it was a miracle he hadn't croaked already, and Yuffie wondered if Nanaki really got that. His species was supposed to be super long-lived, so maybe a hundred years was nothing to him.
What would the world even be like in a hundred years? Even Marlene would probably have kicked the bucket by then, and... would the Planet itself even be there? Bugenhagen hadn't thought so. She remembered.
Vincent would probably still be around, she told herself. The absolute worst option for company, but better than nothing, right?
In the end, he was the only one she hadn't seen or heard from, which came as no surprise. Apparently Nanaki had seen him a few weeks ago, and Jessie had shown her the postcard he'd sent. 'Still alive,' it read. He hadn't even signed the damn thing.
For a hot second, Yuffie wondered if she'd be getting any letters in Junon. But even if the Shinra were allowing mail in from the outside, they'd probably inspect everything first, and she wouldn't want them reading even the most innocuous letter.
Besides, Tifa had gotten her a phone.
Did that mean Barret was going to start calling her every day, like he'd done for Marlene when they'd been on the road? Gods, she hoped not. As much as she appreciated having a dad who was more involved than Godo, that was way too much. She needed her space.
By nightfall, Yuffie knew from the terrain that she was nearing the southern edge of the forest. She made camp among the trees, and overhead, the stars shone between the tangle of bare branches. She wouldn't see much of them in Junon, and she wondered if the people who lived there even noticed. Most people never bothered to look up.
Which tended to make her job easier, but it was sad, sometimes, too.
She closed her eyes, and night sounds kept the silence away.
The next day she was hiking across open country, but avoiding the road meant she didn't make much better time. It was late in the morning the following day that she found herself approaching Junon, and the dreary fishing town swallowed up by its shadow. The ocean breeze carried with it a Mako scent, overriding any familiarity in the sea air.
The road was clear of Shinra soldiers, for the moment, so Yuffie made her way into the village and perched herself on an obliging roof to survey the heightened security on the entrance to the upper city.
There were five men guarding that big elevator door now, and she waited through a midday shift change to be certain of it. While she watched, a patrol came in from the road, escorting a knot of civilian travellers, and the men on duty ran all of their IDs, even the soldiers, not trusting the uniforms. Considering the split in the company, it made sense; people had mostly made up their minds by now, whether to side with Rufus or Reeve, but the uniforms were still the same.
Obviously, her old routine of bribing her favorite guard to let her through was out, but she had some options here.
Option one: she could throw on her Shinra uniform and put the fake ID Jessie had made her to the test. That one was risky, though. As much as she trusted Jessie, the media blackout Rufus had put in place meant their intel on Junon was patchy. A lone soldier coming in from patrol was already suspicious, and if Shinra was smart, which they were occasionally, then they'd distributed her description to their soldiers, and they might recognize her even if the ID was good. Yuffie didn't want to tip them off that she was here so soon.
Option two: she could call up Sash, as Jessie had suggested, and enlist her help. That meant relying on her skills... and Yuffie had met the ex-SOLDIER all of once, during their victory celebration at Cosmo Canyon. Sash had still been recovering from the whole 'clone' experience at the time, and she didn't exactly stick out as capable in Yuffie's memory.
That left option three: rely on her own skills.
Her eyes travelled up from the elevator, noting the concrete ledge of its frame. A pipe stuck out from the wall above, disappearing into it not far from the cliff side. Climbable, she thought.
Yuffie changed into her Shinra uniform as a preemptive measure, secured her pack across her back, and crossed the roof to the cliff face behind her. It was a short climb across the rock to the wall of the base, and she caught the pipe without any trouble. From the pipe, she leapt down to the protruding frame of the elevator, and waited for her moment.
The next shift change wouldn't be for a while, she thought, and that was how she wanted it. She needed someone coming down, but not going back up. Over the lip of the concrete ledge, she could make out the soldiers below her. None of them ever so much as glanced up.
She heard the elevator moving through the wall behind her before the doors opened below. Voices, someone greeting the soldiers as they stepped out. Another patrol stepped into view below her, and beneath the sound of their boots was the mechanical click of a button being pressed. As the heavy doors began to close again, Yuffie dropped down, hanging from the ledge by her hands, and swung through into the empty elevator.
"What was that?" said one of the guards as her boots hit the floor of the elevator, but the closing doors narrowed the view inside, and she rolled out of sight as they turned to look. Yuffie hit the up button, the doors shut completely, and the elevator clanked into motion.
Yuffie stood, straightened her pack across her shoulders, and adjusted her uniform.
"Still got it," she said to herself.
The elevator opened onto the base up top, and Yuffie stepped out in plain view, unconcerned if anyone saw her now. They'd have to assume that the guards below had already cleared her, and she belonged here. She walked down the hall, exited the base, and stepped out onto the main street.
Junon had been alive with people and noise the last time she'd passed through it, parade music blaring over the loudspeakers, but Yuffie had spent enough time in the city to know something of its usual mood, and today felt different from that, too. She couldn't put her finger on it exactly. She studied the passersby from behind the anonymity of her Shinra helmet, and tried to figure it out.
The streets were more crowded than they had been. Not like Kalm, with the tent city that had sprung up outside its walls and the street vendors clamoring in its square--it was Midgar's rich who'd fled to Junon, seeking the familiar comforts of Shinra's protection and Shinra's Mako. Not that Midgar was entirely without, but AVALANCHE had talked Reeve down to a minimal power output. Even folks on the plate had to put up with scheduled brownouts.
No sign of that here. It was broad daylight, and still light shone out of open windows, neon signs advertised shops and restaurants, and the latest Mako-powered cars flashed past.
Parade or no, Junon had always felt to her like people making a lot of clamor, trying to ignore the world around them. The base and the harbor dominated the waterfront, distancing residents even from a decent view of the ocean they lived right next to. That seemed to be the Shinra way of things: wall yourself off from the Planet and shout about how great you had it. Technology above all else, to replace all else.
Yuffie wouldn't exactly call that progress.
She knew the streets well enough to navigate to the address Jessie had given her without having to ask for directions. A nondescript apartment building some long blocks away from the bustling main streets. Nothing in Junon was old enough to look run-down, but Yuffie had the feeling this building would get there sooner than the others.
She went in through the front entrance and took the stairs up to the third floor. Two doors down, she knocked.
A woman answered and stood leaning against the doorframe. Dark-skinned, her black hair now in tight braids, her frame more muscular than Yuffie remembered--but still leaner than Tifa.
Her hands were bare, exposing the tattoo on one: the numeral X. Yuffie could remember the first time she'd seen it, as Zack had carried the unconscious black-cloaked figure out of the hole where the Temple of the Ancients had been. That place had given Yuffie all manner of creeps, but Sash didn't seem to remember any of it.
"Hey, Sash," said Yuffie, finally pulling off her helmet. "How's it goin'?"
"Yuffie," Sash said in recognition. She stepped aside, opening the door wider. "Come on in."
It was a small apartment--clean but otherwise unremarkable, almost like a hotel room in its utter lack of personality. Yuffie knew getting turned over to Hojo as a lab rat must have come with the loss of everything she'd owned, and that Sash was working with the limited funds of AVALANCHE, but still. The only things to suggest anyone even lived here were some papers on the kitchen table and a coat hung up by the door.
"Jessie's fake ID must've worked out," Sash remarked as she shut the door behind Yuffie and turned to face her. "I'm impressed."
"Nah, I snuck past 'em," Yuffie corrected. "Didn't think this was the time to test it."
"Now you're doubly impressed, aren'tcha?"
"Sure," said Sash. She didn't exactly sound impressed, but Yuffie couldn't detect any sarcasm in the acknowledgment either.
Well, that was all right. At least she wasn't like their new pilot, Cid, who Shera had introduced her to on the flight over from Wutai. On her way off the bridge, she'd caught him refer to her as 'underwhelming,' and it still pissed her off. Maybe she would've cut a more impressive figure if they'd met on solid ground, where human beings were supposed to be. Underwhelming! What was so great about him anyway?
Yuffie dropped her pack onto the kitchen table with a thud and unzipped it to start unpacking. Despite her rough treatment, it seemed like the most fragile of her belongings had survived more-or-less in tact.
"...you brought a plant?" said Sash.
"For some reason Aeris wasn't too confident in your interior decorating skills," Yuffie replied as she freed the pot from the last of its cushioning and set it in the center of the table. The single white bloom left on the plant was looking pretty sad, but the leaves seemed all right.
"In my defense, I've been here a week," Sash said.
"You could've picked up a few things to stick on the walls or something."
Sash just shrugged.
"Well, I've at least got an ID in here for you, too, once I dig it out. Jessie told me they stuck you with some kind of special Midgar refugee card when you came through?"
"Yeah. They bought the story of me not having ID, plenty in the slums never registered for them, but the damn thing's so restrictive. They want me to apply for a permit just to leave the city."
"Guess they're pretty suspicious of folks coming here from Midgar." Yuffie grinned at her. "After all, you could be a spy for AVALANCHE."
Sash returned the grin with a smile, confirming she wasn't without a sense of humor. "You never know."
"Speaking of, I've gotta get outta this damn uniform before I do anything else."
"Bedroom's right through there."
"Good to know," Yuffie said. She'd worn the uniform over her clothes, but she grabbed her pack anyway and followed Sash's gesture. She pushed the door open into another tiny room. "I guess we're both bunking in here?"
She hadn't expected any differently, knowing how cheap AVALANCHE could be, and a glance confirmed it for her. There was a bed shoved into one corner and a mattress made up in the one opposite it, without space between for much more than a nightstand. There was absolutely nothing on the walls.
"That's the deal," said Sash from behind her. "You mind the mattress? I figure it's pretty much what you're used to anyway."
"Pretty much. Sure." Yuffie cast her a skeptical look for that one, but shrugged. "I can deal."
She set down her pack at the end of the mattress and left her uniform and boots in a heap beside it. She fished out the tea Shera had given her before returning to the kitchen. Bracing herself for further disappointment, she started browsing the cupboards.
Well, at least Sash had clearly been to a grocery store. Judging by what she'd bought, maybe she even knew how to cook. She sure couldn't be expecting Yuffie to do it for her; she'd managed to keep that skill a secret from her teammates until Tifa had found her out a few days ago.
Not that she'd really put effort into it. She'd just never volunteered and nobody had put two-and-two together from the fact that she'd spent months on her own before they ran into her.
"So," Yuffie said as she found a place for her tea, "since it wasn't decorating, what have you managed to do with the past week?"
"You don't want to get settled in first?"
"I'm settled," Yuffie said. She let the cabinet slam shut and turned around. "Aren't you ex-SOLDIER? Where's the professionalism?"
"Isn't Zack the only ex-SOLDIER you've known?"
"Well, yeah. The guy's so chatty it's hard to imagine him ever being in the military, but I figured he was kind of an outlier."
"Well, he wasn't in SOLDIER long."
"Aren't you guys basically the same age?"
Sash shook her head. "Not exactly. I've got five years on him."
Yuffie hesitated. She'd never really given it that much thought before, just lumping Sash in with Zack in her mind, but... "Does that mean... you were in SOLDIER during the war?"
Sash didn't shy away from Yuffie's gaze or from the question. "Yes," she said, "I fought in the war. Is that going to be a problem?"
"I don't know," Yuffie admitted.
"It isn't for me."
"Well, I'd hope so, since you switched sides and you're fighting against Shinra now."
"My reasons for that don't have much to do with Wutai. And from what I understand, Wutai isn't really in this fight. Just you."
Yuffie grimaced. "You just wait. You just think of me like the vanguard. Once the rest get in on it, the Shinra won't know what hit 'em."
"It seems like they'd better hurry up, if they want in on it," said Sash.
Yuffie's hands balled into fists at her side. Sash didn't have a problem, huh? Yuffie stalked to the room, shoved her feet into those damn Shinra boots because her sneakers were still somewhere in her pack, and turned on her heel.
"I can do this without you, you know. Don't think you're anything special because you got here first."
Sash said nothing, and Yuffie shoved past her on her way out. She slammed the door behind her.
She didn't know where she was going, but she headed down to the street and started walking.
It wasn't that Sash was wrong. It just infuriated Yuffie to hear words out of Sash's mouth that her own-- that Godo had thrown back at her before, even if they didn't carry nearly the same weight, coming from her. Wutai wasn't in this fight, just her, on her own. And maybe AVALANCHE would put an end to Shinra before Yuffie could do enough to change that.
But Wutai was changing. For years, it had happened only with the seasons. Oceans away, Yuffie still knew when each tree would lose the last of its leaves, and where the deepest snow drifts would form, and which parts of the river would freeze over. But this year, other things had come, too.
Houses that had stood empty since the war had been opened up, aired out, shored up for the winter, in anticipation of new occupants. After her party, the Highwind had left Kalm for Midgar, and the first group of refugees might have already made it to Wutai. Yuffie couldn't imagine how her people were receiving them, how they were adjusting, because it was something that had never happened before.
And when afternoon came, if the newcomers hadn't made things too hectic, old Gorkii would be in the square outside the pagoda, training his motley batch of students. Kids who hadn't had anyone around to teach them during the war, or who hadn't been old enough then to start learning. Adults who'd let their skills go forgotten in the years since.
They weren't in this fight, yet, but what else were they getting ready for?
Godo was the only one who didn't see it. Shut up in his big house, he was blind even to the changes that came every year. Wutai wasn't a living thing to him anymore. It hibernated. He didn't see, it was coming awake.
Just wait, Yuffie thought again. In time, even he'd have to notice.
But she'd gone and left again, leaving Wutai behind. Too slow for her and her growing sense of urgency. Her friends had never pushed her to leave, but sometimes, sitting up on Da-chao, in the quiet, she'd felt the gods pushing her to action. There was a growing restlessness in the Planet itself, unlike the calm that had followed in the days after Holy.
Or maybe the restlessness was her own, and she was just imagining things.
Yuffie realized she was hungry, and she pushed her way into the first pub she came across. It wasn't crowded, and she took a seat at the bar, where she had a good view of the TV. Any news on would be exclusive to Junon, and that was why she was here, wasn't it? For news on Junon?
But it wasn't broadcasting anything important at this time of the afternoon. Just some fluff piece about how well Junon was welcoming its new residents from Midgar. While she waited on her food, the story broke for an advertisement, a bid for people to enlist in Shinra's military and help protect their city from the AVALANCHE threat.
Yuffie couldn't exactly say that they weren't a threat. Maybe they didn't have another Holy up their sleeves, and Tifa was adamant about avoiding any further loss of life, but if they had their way, it meant an end to these people's way of life.
She wondered what the recruitment ads had said about Wutai, during the war. What kind of threat had they posed, in the imaginations of the people who lived under Shinra? What had they thought they were protecting their families from?
How many of her people had Sash killed? Yuffie wondered finally. Did Yuffie walk past their graves, when she went to visit her mother's? Did she know their empty houses, about to be filled with Midgar refugees?
No one had warned her about Sash's role in the war, but maybe they'd thought it was obvious. Sash had been in SOLDIER. Yuffie knew that. She hadn't thought it through all the way, but she'd known it. To her, it hadn't been any different from Zack, or Cloud, or Vincent. They'd all done Shinra's dirty work, and she'd still come to trust her back to them.
Sash wasn't supposed to be any different, but the war was so much more personal than anything that Zack or Cloud or Vincent might have been involved in. It wasn't just that Sash had fought against her people. It meant that, maybe, she'd been there for their defeat. For the moment of their greatest shame.
When they'd given up.
Soldiers in the square outside the pagoda. Soldiers she'd been too young and too powerless to fight, then.
Yuffie had left home the first time in search of power. She'd found it, unexpectedly, in her friends. In AVALANCHE.
That was what mattered now, right? Finally having the strength to stand up to the Shinra? Did it matter where it came from?
Yuffie didn't doubt Sash's commitment. She didn't worry the woman was going to stab her in the back. Zack had vouched for her, and Hojo had given her five years worth of personal reasons to hate the Shinra. If Sash still had some lingering prejudice or animosity towards Wutai... well, frankly it was mutual. They didn't have to like each other. They just had to get the job done.
Yuffie watched the reporter on the television talking like everything was getting back to normal, like what had happened in Midgar was no big deal. Junon was Rufus's stronghold, a bastion of safety.
But that's what everyone had thought about Midgar.
Junon had already made the mistake of letting Yuffie Kisaragi walk in through their front door, and they didn't even know it. It was only a matter of time.
Well, first things first, she'd finish her meal and get back to Sash. With any luck, the ex-SOLDIER would've worked her way to an apology by then, but Yuffie would be gracious enough to give her a chance even without one.
It wasn't how she'd imagined fighting the Shinra, but Yuffie wasn't a kid anymore. She was seventeen now, after all.
That night, she had that dream again.
The sounds of the city were all wrong. The faint but steady hum of electricity, the occasional flash of a car driving past, the intermittent sounds of people, echoing between too-tall buildings. Sash breathing softly in her bed. Completely absent was the gentle rush of water from the river that flowed past her house.
And so when she finally slept, she dreamt she stood on the bank of that river, but it was dry, not even a trickle through the stones of the riverbed. They lay dusty, and parched.
On the far shore stood her mother. Her lips were moving, but even though the air was still, there was a wind in Yuffie's ears, and she couldn't make out the words.
The colors around her grew drab. The stones in the riverbed turned black as ash and began to crumble, and it spread, reaching the banks. Yuffie ran for the bridge, dead grass snapping brittle under her feet, thinking this time, this time maybe she would make it.
The bridge had torn loose from the bank as it gave way beneath. Yuffie leapt. Her feet crashed into the wooden planks, and she sprinted on as they fell away beneath her.
She reached the other side and struggled to keep her footing over the crumbling earth. Everything turned to black ash--the ground, the buildings around her, even the tips of her fingers were grey. Colorless like the sky overhead.
She grabbed her mother's hands and couldn't feel them. "Mom!" she shouted. "What's going on?"
This time, Yuffie heard her speak.
"We're running out of--" she said, and then Yuffie woke.