Order and CHAOS
By Jonatan L
"Now, Yuffie," her father said. "I know how restless you are... the Gods know I was the same in your age. But you have been away for so long..."
"Yeah, well, that's all very well," the young shinobi said sullenly. "But I'm tired to death of it! Look, dad, I never thought I'd say this... but I - I..." She trailed off. Now that she was about to say it, she didn't know how to say it.
Godo smiled. "I know, Yuffie. I know very well. And believe it or not, I felt the same when I was your age... that's why I let you go the first time, and I will not stop you this time, either."
Yuffie eyed him suspiciously. "What?" she asked.
"I am talking of the wanderlust... the curse of our family, one might say."
"What?" Yuffie repeated.
Godo sat down, folding his legs beneath him. "We Kisaragi have always been samurai," he said. "We follow a rigid code of honour, and are bound to protect Wutai... even when there is no need for us to do so. This means we can rarely leave here, even in times of peace. But there is something... that urges us to leave. I know of no Kisagiri who has not felt that urge. I knew right away that you were not cut to be a samurai -"
"Hey!" Yuffie interrupted. "Was that an insult?"
"No," her father assured her. "It was not."
"Well, since you are a woman, you would no have been required to become a samurai. I knew you had potential, so I hired an old shinobi master to teach you a few things, so that you would be able to take care of yourself. That way, if you ever felt the need to leave Wutai, you would be well prepared - and as a shinobi, you have no obligations to remain in Wutai in times of peace. After going through all that trouble to prepare you for travelling the world, do you really think I'd refuse to let you leave?"
"Like," Yuffie said, "I never knew that! And here I was thinking you were trying to get rid of me!"
"And why is that?"
"Eh, well... by boring me half to death with those stupid lessons of course!" Yuffie tapped her foot on the carpet. "I hated that guy."
"You did not have to like him, only listen to him," Godo said, trying - with little success - to hide a smile.
"And he insisted on me drinking tea!" Yuffie continued as if he had never spoken. "I hate tea!"
"You seem to have survived," her father remarked dryly. Yuffie stopped her restless pacing to glare evilly at him.
"That does it! I'm so outta here!"
"If that is what you wish," Godo said sensibly, "I won't stop you. Just remember that you will always be welcome here."
Yuffie had been heading for the door. Now she stopped. "What?" she asked suspiciously.
Godo sighed. "I was just wishing you good luck... daughter."
Yuffie grinned. "Yeah... take care, pops."
She stopped by at her own house in the eastern parts of Wutai to load up on gear. Cloud hadn't let her take all their Materia, but she had at least been able to keep what she had been carrying at the time they split up. Most of it was hidden behind secret panels in the walls; she opened each panel and removed the Materia, clicking some of it into place in the slots on her bracelets, pocketing the rest. Grinning to herself, she then left the house, made a short detour to pick up her chocobo - one that she had caught herelf, using a Chocobo Lure she had "forgotten" to return to Cloud. It was a rather friendly bird, if a bit lazy.
Yuffie thought she had found an excellent name for it. Namely, Godo.
Yuffie rode her chocobo to the south-eastern edge of the island, where a small ferry was waiting, having been set up while she was away from home. The ferryman made quite a lot of money transporting tourists back and forth between the island and the main continent, it seemed, but the fee was reasonable, and she didn't try to haggle over the price. It was against her principles, of course, and she intended to make up for it by stealing something as soon as they reached the mainland.
The boat ride didn't take more than one and a half hour, and the sea was mercifully still; Yuffie didn't even feel sick. Still, getting off the boat was a relief, and she, along with Godo the chocobo, soon arrived near Rocket Town. The small harbour, too, was new, she noticed; it had not been there the last time she passed the town. That was about six months ago, though, so some things were bound to have changed.
Since she didn't want to bump into Cid by mistake, she had Godo circle around the town, and kept going south-east.
Rocket Town was soon a small blot on the horizon.
It took her four weeks to reach Nibelheim - of which almost an entire week was spent to get around the mountains with Godo, who was extremely reluctant to climb anywhere. As soon as they got down on the other side, Yuffie stopped and set up a tent, tethered Godo to a tree - not that he would run away; the young ninja was very generous when it came to chocobo-food. She made a small fire, and sat down to think.
"Let's see..." she muttered to herself, spinning a shuriken in her hand. "Where am I heading?" She'd have to skirt around Nibelheim; she didn't want to run into Cloud or Tifa, either. Chances were, they lived in Tifa's house in Nibelheim, although she wasn't sure; she wouldn't want to live there if she was Cloud, given all his memories from that place.
She went to sleep, and got up early the next day. Godo was still asleep; she let him be while she gathered her gear (cursing silently to herself; she had forgotten to take her bags inside the tent, and now they were soaked with dew), and then woke the chocobo by holding a carrot under his beak. Feeling the scent, the great bird soon woke. Yuffie giggled - something she rarely did - and let Godo finish his carrot before jumping onto his back. "Hi-ho, Godo - away!" she quipped.
"Wark," Godo suggested, and refused to budge.
Yuffie sighed, produced another carrot from her bag, and threw it. "Look over there you stupid bird!" she said. "Go get it!"
The chocobo was all too eager to do so. Having eaten the vegetable, however, he refused to move again. Yuffie rolled her eyes, then produced a fishing rod, tied a third carrot to the line, and held the rod out over the chocobo's head. Seeing the carrot, Godo started moving towards it, and Yuffie sniggered to herself. Chocobos weren't much smarter than donkeys - at least when it came to food.
Another week passed. Yuffie had circled around Nibelheim as planned, encountering no one, and headed past Cosmo Canyon, towards Corel. Not that she was exactly dying to see Barret again, either, but she had quite liked Marlene. Also, in that direction was the Gold Saucer - a place better than any for picking pockets. Yuffie was running low on supplies, and she hadn't bothered to take much money with her - since she could just steal what she needed. Stealing didn't bother her the least; after all, she had (well, with a little help from Cloud and friends...) saved the Planet - it owed her. And so did just about everybody on it.
"Wha'?" Barret asked. "Who'zat? Yuffie?"
"Yeah, like, what's the big deal?" Yuffie asked. Barret's talking was already starting to get on her nerves (never mind that she, too, spoke in a way that most people found irritating). "I, like, just came to visit you and Marlene."
"Yeah. Marlene." Barret grinned sheepishly - he normally did when talking about Marlene. "She over at my place... wi' Elmyra."
"Elmyra?" Yuffie asked, confused.
"Yeah," Barret said, "she sorta moved in on me. Marlene likes her though, so I don't mind 'er."
"Oh, really...?" Barret and Elmyra? she thought, barely able to keep from laughing. Now that was worth the entire trip!
As it turned out, it wasn't all that serious. Elmyra's house in Midgar had been destroyed along with most of the town during the Meteor incident, and since Barret had felt 'he owed her one' for taking care of Marlene - although Elmyra had insisted he did not - he had invited her to come with him to Corel. Since there was talk about rebuilding the town, he had thought that if he helped with that, he might be able to convince them to build another house for Elmyra. As it turned out, there was no need for that. Finally realising how unjustly they had been treating Barret (his part in saving the remains of the town from the runaway train half a year earlier might have something to do with that) the Corellians had already started building a house for him. However, they had got a bit over-enthusiastic, and the house was so large that Barret had claimed that he'd "get agoraphobic livin' in such a big %Ř house". He had then asked Elmyra if she'd like to move in, and, since she and Marlene had become such close friends, Elmyra gratefully accepted. Yuffie could hardly keep from grinning. She strongly suspected that there was a bit more than agoraphobia behind Barret's offer. It seemed that Marlene was indeed his great weakness.
She spent two days in Corel - the town was much more interesting now, with several new houses, and even a Materia store - before taking the ropelift up to the Gold Saucer, where she spent almost an entire day. Not only did she manage to pick a few pockets; she also tried out the snowboard game she had been hearing so much about, and surprised the other customers with her uncanny skill at the Superdunk machine. At least shurikens weren't the only things she could throw. When the day was over, her pockets were full of money and more or less useless prices from the Saucer. Under one arm, she carried a huge doll; a stuffed cat figurine, which looked strangely like Cait Sith (but minus his moogle). The ninja, sitting alone in the ropelift on her way back to Corel, shook her head. This wasn't at all like her! Well, she thought, maybe I am growing up...?
Naaah, she answered her own question, that couldn't be it. Hell no.
Yuffie spent another night at Barret's place, and left early the next morning, heading for Cosmo Canyon, leaving a somewhat foxed Barret and an overjoyed Marlene behind. The little girl had really liked her new "Cait Sith" doll.
If it hadn't been for Red XIII - Nanaki - Cloud's party had never been admitted into the Canyon. Yuffie, not wanting to risk being thrown out in case the gate guard didn't recognise her, decided to sneak in instead - something she found was ridiculously easy, only requiring her to climb a few meters.
Although Yuffie had, as she put it, liked to 'pick on' Nanaki, she had quite liked him; at least he spoke in a way that most people could understand. After some consideration, she decided that it wouldn't hurt to say hi to him, and climbed all the way up to Bugenhagen's observatory, only to find it empty. The Huge Materia, however, was still there, as neither Cloud nor any of the others had been able to figure out what else to do with it, and Yuffie spent some time watching it. She didn't take any of it, though, as she didn't want Cloud to chase her around the world a second time; once, in her opinion, was more than enough.
On the way down, she stopped by at the Tigerlilly shop of arms to ask the girl behind the counter if she knew where Nanaki might be.
"I don't know," came the reply. "He spoke of seeing his father... but Seto is dead, so he must have meant something else... maybe to visit his grave, although I never knew there was one."
"Yeah, whatever... thanks anyway," Yuffie said, absentmindedly swiping an "I [small red heart symbol] Cosmo Canyon" pin, manufactured Shinra - what else? - from the counter.
She climbed up again, and checked the door into the haunted valley. It was, as she had expected, locked. However, the locked door that could keep her out had yet to be invented, and she had seen Bugenhagen operate this one. She knew what to do; the door soon opened, and she entered, shutting it behind her.
The caverns under Cosmo Canyon appeared empty. This was not, in fact, the case, but the ghosts rarely materialised unless they sensed intruders. Yuffie, unfortunately, qualified as one, and was soon confronted by several angry spirits. Yuffie, however, had met phantoms like these, and knew that they weren't terribly strong, however frightful their appearances.
"Look, I've beaten guys like you before," she said pleasantly, "and that wasn't difficult, so just bugger the hell out of here and let me pass, okay?"
The ghosts, of course, didn't listen. Yuffie shrugged. "Okay, it's your funeral..."
A thought struck her. "Or maybe not," she added.
A few seconds later, she had scattered the spectres with a few Cure spells, and was able to proceed. This time, there didn't seem to be as many ghosts, but it still took her some time to make her way through the cave. Finally, however, she emerged on the other side, blinking against the sunlight. "Phew," she said to no one in particular.
Suddenly a shadow fell over her. Yuffie looked up.
Nanaki's appearance was frightful - more so than the ghosts' - and if she hadn't known who he was, Yuffie, admitted to herself (although she would never admit it to anyone else, of course), she would have been afraid - very afraid. Now, as she saw him, she brightened. "Nanaki!"
"Yuffie!" Nanaki exclaimed. "I had never expected to see you here."
"But you do, don't you?" she said. Then she noticed something, and continued, "Hey, like, your mane has grown." Red waved his tail lazily. Much like a lion's, his tail was long and slender, but instead of a tuft of hair, it had what appeared to be a living flame in the end.
"Yes. I am growing older, as you are." He gracefully leaped down from the rock he had been standing on. "What brings you here?"
"Ehm, I just like thought I'd say hi. Whatever."
"You haven't changed much," Nanaki observed dryly. "You smell a bit older, though."
"Smell?" Yuffie wondered. "Like, what?"
"Sorry. I let my nose get the better of me. To tell the truth, I have missed you... and the others, of course. It was nice of you to drop by to visit me."
"Yeah, like... whatever." Yuffie grinned, and reached down to pat him on the nose.
"Please," Red pleaded. "Don't do that."
"Sorry," Yuffie said, still grinning. It was apparent that she was not the least sincere. "I guess you really did go to see your father," she said a second later, changing the subject.
"Yes. I go here from time to time... but rarely in the day." He looked up at the high cliffs. On the highest peak, Nanaki's father stood watching the Canyon, the power of his spirit keeping the Gi spectres inside the caves even after his body had been turned into stone. Even Yuffie, who had never thought she'd feel anything more than 'so what' about noble sacrifices, found herself feeling some kind of reverence at the sight of Seto.
"He'd be proud of you," she said silently.
"He is," Nanaki said simply. "But not only of me. As part of the planet, he is proud of all its children... I can feel it. And so is your father... all of our fathers, or mothers..."
"Nice speech." Reverence was a good thing, but too much of it in one place was, in Yuffie's opinion, just as bad as Shinra's TV commercials.
Nanaki calmly looked at her. "Maybe you knew that, too," he said. "Or you wouldn't stop me from saying it."
"Gawd, you're moody!" the ninja complained. "Like, could we go back now? This place is giving me the creeps."
"Yes," Red agreed. "It is time to go back."
"Won't you stay a while?" Nanaki asked as they sat by the Cosmo Candle. Yuffie gazed sleepily into the fire and did not reply. "I see. ...Yuffie. If you see Grandfather..."
Yuffie rolled over. "I'll tell him hi from you," she promised.
"You're going to stay here?"
"Yes. For the time being, at least... I have much to do here."
"You sound tired."
"I am," she admitted. "I think I'll turn in."
"You can stay up at the observatory. Since Grandfather is not here, he doesn't need his bed."
"Naw... Don't bother," Yuffie mumbled, yawning. "I'll just sleep out here, under the stars."
Nanaki didn't reply for a while, then, just as Yuffie thought the conversation had ended, softly said, "I think you are growing up."
"Don't get any stupid ideas," Yuffie warned, opening one eye enough to glare at him. "The only reason why I don't demand a bed with goose-feather mattresses is I'm too tired to climb anywhere."
"I see," Red replied. There was an unmistakable grin in his voice.
Yuffie soon fell asleep, under the stars, warmed by the ever-burning flames of the Cosmo Candle. Had she woken during the night, she would have been surprised to know that Nanaki remained by her side throughout the night, watching her. As had Godo, Barret and Elmyra, he sensed a change in the chaotic young ninja; not a very great one, but still, an important change.
She left early in the morning, waken by a chilly morning breeze, heading, once she had said goodbye to Red, towards Costa del Sol.
Since she couldn't pass through the mountains with Godo - the chocobo was afraid of heights - she had to make a detour. It was a rather long trip, but uneventful, and once the coastal city came into view after three weeks, Yuffie was glad it was over. Even if she didn't get sick riding a chocobo, strange as it might seem, she was getting sore in places she didn't even want to think about. "Man, am I glad to see that!" she sighed, sliding off Godo's back and rubbing her smarting posterior. Costa del Sol was still a couple of hundred meters away, but she intended to walk, not ride.
She found a newly built chocobo stable just outside of town, and 'parked' Godo there. Then she walked into Costa del Sol, intent on finding a ship to take her east to the neighbouring continent. Or maybe north. She hadn't quite decided yet; so far, she hadn't really thought about it, just assumed that she'd first ride to Costa del Sol, then take a boat to Junon. As she found out that there were ships for the northern continent as well, she began to think about it, and soon found that she didn't have any idea as to where she was going. She only knew that she was going, and she had to keep moving.
Finding a ship, however, wasn't all that easy. There were three of them in the harbour - two were bound for Junon, one for the northern continent - but none had any place for her. Oh well, she had been a stowaway before, and sneaking in would be a cinch for her - it had even been easy when Cloud and the others had been with her. Doing it alone was, as of course, much easier... then again, she needed to get Godo on board as well, which wouldn't be easy. For the time being, though, she didn't want to sit around in a mouldy cargo room; she was tired and hungry, and so she decided to find a place to eat and a bed, in that order. There was a bar in Costa del Sol...
Yuffie stepped into the bar, which was all but empty. The few customers were seated by a table in a corner, and didn't pay her any attention. The bartender, however, eyed her suspiciously.
"Just how old are you?" he asked as Yuffie sat down.
"Uh, I'm, like, nineteen."
"You've got to be kidding me. Alright, no alcohol for you, young lady. What do you want?"
"I want something to eat," she said, ignoring that last sentence. "And something to drink. Have you, like, got any saké?"
"I told you, no alcohol. We've got, let's see... either turtle soup or rice with fried shrimp. As for the drink, well, there's orange juice..."
"Alright, alright! Yuffie sighed. "As long as it's cold! And I'll have, um, rice and shrimp. Yeah, that's right, rice and shrimp, and orange juice, too, and hurry up, got it?"
The bartender, chuckling to himself, left to prepare her food. Yuffie, feeling a bit lazy, didn't even bother to nick his wallet, which would have been easy.
Once she had eaten, she felt a bit better. Instead of heading straight for the inn, she decided to take a short trip to the beach first.
Once she reached the beach, however, she froze, and quickly stepped behind a parasol. Wasn't that... Yuffie rubbed her eyes. She had another look. No, she decided, she had not been mistaken...
What the heck's she doing here? Yuffie wondered. Never mind. I don't wanna talk to her anyway.
She turned her back on the beach and headed back into town. However, just as she was about to enter the inn, she froze. If Tifa was here, that would probably mean Cloud was, too... The question was, where was he? She risked a peek through the open door, but the place seemed empty. Satisfied, she entered.
The accommodations weren't the best she had seen, but they were enough. And there was a shower. She had been longing for a bath and - change of clothes, too; they were as dirty as she was, and moreover, they smelled of chocobo. She washed both herself and the clothes, hanging the later to dry. Even though it wasn't very late, she decided to go to bed, so that she'd have time to sneak aboard a ship in the morning.
She woke up as the first rays of the rising sun fell in through a window - and in her face. Yuffie sneezed and sat up dizzily, trying to figure out where she was.
Oh, she realised as she looked out through the troublesome window. Costa del Sol.
Quickly getting dressed, she left the inn and headed for the harbour. However, on her way there, she passed the old Shinra Villa, and happened to take a look at the door - and noticed that there was a new nameplate on the door. "Villa Strifehart?" she read. "Hmm..." That had to be for Cloud Strife and Tifa Lockhart. So he really did buy the stupid house! she thought, peeking in through an open window. The curtains were drawn, and she carefully pushed one aside. There, hanging on a wall, was a sword - a very big sword. Yuffie grinned. Well, if there had been any doubt...
"Hey! What do you think you are doing...?"
She spun around, clutching a Fire Materia. "Who -!"
It was Cloud. He seemed at least as surprised as Yuffie, and stared at her as if he had seen a ghost. "...Yuffie?!" he said finally.
"The same! So you remember me, hmm...?"
"Of course. We saved the world together, did we not?"
"You'd better come in..." He unlocked the door and entered, followed closely by Yuffie. "Sit, please." Cloud said, making a gesture in the general direction of a table with four chairs around it. Then he knocked on the door to the bedroom.
"Yeah? Cloud?" asked Tifa from the other side.
"We have a visitor," Cloud told her. Typically, he didn't say more than that.
"Who?" Tifa asked.
"You won't believe it..." Cloud said, looking over at Yuffie, who had just opened a jar labelled 'cookies', and found it empty. "It's Yuffie."
"Yuffie!" Tifa said, opening the door. She was dressed in her regular black shorts and short white T-shirt, and looked the same as she had always done, Yuffie thought. "Why it is Yuffie! I thought you were joking..."
"Does he ever joke?" Yuffie asked from her place by the table. "I can't remember him telling a single joke... did you, Cloud?"
"A few things have changed," Cloud said. "Some things never change, though."
"...am I to take it you do or you don't tell jokes?"
"Whichever you like the best, I suppose..."
"Did you come all the way here just to visit us?" Tifa asked. They were seated around the table, drinking tea - even Yuffie.
"Gawd, no!" Yuffie said thoughtlessly. "I'm just like passing through."
"So where you headed?" Cloud wondered.
"Oh, like, I don't know. Like, anywhere. Nanaki asked if I was trying to, whatsit, find myself. Yeah, that's what he said, find myself. So I guess that's what I'm doing. Whatever. Trying to find myself."
Cloud and Tifa stared at her. "Say that again?" Tifa asked.
"I said I'm trying to find myself," Yuffie repeated around a mouthful of cinnamon cake. "What?"
"Well, that's, eh, nice," Tifa tried. Clearly, Yuffie's statement had brought her off balance. "Eh, exactly how did you intend to find yourself?"
"I don't know!" Yuffie confessed. "I'm just like going to get around for a while. And if I don't find anything I'll have to get around some more." She took another piece of cinnamon cake. "Hey, did you bake this?"
"Um, yes, as a matter of fact I did," Cloud confessed.
"It's good. Look, I've like got to sneak on a ship so I can get to Junon or something. And I've got to smuggle my chocobo aboard as well, so if you'll excuse me..." She slid off her chair.
"You know, Cid repaired and rebuilt the Tiny Bronco," Cloud said. "It's a hydroplane now. And he said he was going to stay on the ground for a while, so he left it in our care. I could take you to Junon... not a chocobo, of course, but I can put you down by the chocobo farm instead, if you want."
"I..." Yuffie blinked. "Yeah, I'd like that," she said.
"We're here," Cloud said. Yuffie, who had been hanging over the edge of the cockpit, groaned. She had been airsick, of course, but it was better than being seasick - it didn't last as long. Cloud understood, as he sometimes suffered from motion sickness, too, but he usually managed to avoid it if he was driving. Yuffie, of course, did not know how to fly an aeroplane, nor was she old enough to get a licence. Cloud waited until the ninja's stomach had settled, and then asked, "Are you sure you'll be alright by yourself?"
"Of course I will!" Yuffie said. "I've been taking care of myself for years... by the way... why are you helping me? I didn't think... well, since I... you know... whatever. Thanks anyway." She jumped out of the plane, and Cloud tossed her bag down to her.
"You know," he said, "we don't dislike you. You had a reason for what you did... it was no different than what we in AVALANCHE did in Midgar. We were trying to accomplish something good... but ended up hurting and killing a lot of people. You are no different. What we did was wrong, I can't deny that, but the purpose was not for evil."
"You're just as moody as Nanaki!" Yuffie complained. "Like, thanks for the ride and all... look, I'll see you later, Cloud. Later."
"Yup," Chocobo Billy said. "We've got a chocobo to sell ya, if you'll have 'im. This one, over here... he's the one." He pointed to a big yellow chocobo in one of the pens. "He's strong and fast... I should be charging over ten thousand gil for him, but I'll let you have 'em for five. Deal?"
"Five thousand gil!" Yuffie exploded. "What do you think I'm made from money or what? I'll give you two!" Billy quickly thought about his chances. However, even if she was young, the girl seemed to know very well how much she was prepared to pay. And since he only had to catch another chocobo to replace the one he sold... "Deal," he sighed, somewhat theatrically, "but I'm cutting my own throat."
"Wrong," Yuffie grinned. "If you tricked me - if this chocobo isn't strong and fast - then I am cutting your throat."
Billy looked at her, grinned, and started to sweat. She was grinning too, but that did nothing to calm him; somehow, he imagined that the last thing a mouse might see was a grin like that. On a cat.
He opened the pen and led the big, sleepy chocobo out, fitted it with a bridle and reins, and handed the latter to Yuffie. "Here y' are," he said. "He's all yours."
Yuffie grinned. "Thank you," she said, tossed four five hundred Gil bills to Billy, and leaped onto the chocobo's back. "By the way, what's his name?"
"Well, his name... it's... Rufus!" Billy said, thinking quickly. "Y' know, after the late President Shinra."
"I know," Yuffie said. "I helped make him 'late'! Well, actually the Weapon made him really late, but anyway..."
Chocobo Billy swallowed nervously. "Eh. Weren't you in a hurry?" he asked.
Yuffie glared at him. "Oh, yeah. I was." She skilfully turned 'Rufus' around and smacked her lips. "Away!" she commanded.
"Waarrrk," Rufus agreed, and started walking. Yuffie ducked her head as they passed the door, and then steered her chocobo towards Kalm town.
Yuffie reached Kalm without any problems, but found nothing of interest there and soon moved on. Next stop Midgar - but even though Midgar was immensely more interesting than Kalm, Yuffie knew that whatever she was looking for wasn't there. After a one-day trip around the area, she felt she had exhausted the place's possibilities and decided to move on. Yuffie hadn't expected to find anything there anyway, but she had to check... the question now was, where to next? Mideel maybe? But then, she would need a boat. There might be one at Junon - but that was far away, and the thought of being in a boat that long was not at all appealing. But then, hadn't she seen a boat outside Kalm...?
There was only one way to find out.
Yes, Yuffie found, there was a boat anchored just outside Kalm. It was big enough to hold a chocobo, too - that was important; she didn't want to buy another chocobo every other day. Even if she picked every pocket she saw, it wouldn't be enough. However, where the boat was headed, now, that was an other matter entirely. She'd probably have to hire it.
After inquiring at the bar, she got an address to the boat's owner, and soon found the right house. The old man was reasonable, and agreed to take her as far as the northernmost island in the Mideel area. Since he didn't want any money for it, that was fine with Yuffie.
Early the next day, the boat sailed, and Yuffie was on it. Although she spent most of her time hanging over the railing, the trip was uneventful, and the seas were not that high. Once she got ashore, the ninja soon recovered, and, waving goodbye to the sailor, was off for Mideel. The chocobo Rufus was in a good mood - unlike Yuffie, he seemed to have liked the sea - and ran fast, and so she reached the town - what was left of it anyway - before nightfall.
Mideel being only in a slightly better state than it had been when she saw it the last time, Yuffie didn't waste time looking for a place to stay. The woods around the town were probably more comfortable than whatever beds they had left in Mideel anyway. Since the number of monsters had dwindled, it was rather safe sleeping outdoors.
Yuffie got little rest, however, because of the mosquitoes. Come morning, she was very irritated, and had bites just about everywhere. An Esuna spell took care of the itching, but did nothing for her mood, and when she entered Mideel, she looked like a small, but very angry thundercloud.
Wisely, the people of Mideel did not bother her.
The Lifestream still flowed up to the surface in some places, but Yuffie knew that it was not the answer. Her mood brightened somewhat when the little white chocobo living there started following her around - not that being followed by a chocobo would normally make her any happier, but the dwarf albino chocobo looked so ridiculous that she had to smile. It was obvious that it felt the smell of carrots, and although she had intended to save them for her own chocobo - in case he gave her any trouble - Yuffie gave the albino a carrot, and scratched behind his ears. But to her disappointment, the chocobo didn't bring her any Materia this time.
Having found nothing of interest in Mideel, Yuffie started asking around for a boat. But, to her surprise, there didn't appear to be a single boat on the entire island. This put her in a sticky situation: to get off the Mideel island, she had to find a boat.
Finally, someone suggested making a raft. Yuffie blanched, but realised that it was probably her only alternative.
Making the raft took two days, since she insisted on doing it alone, and dragging it down to the beach took several hours. Getting Rufus to understand that he was supposed to get on the raft took almost as long. And deciding to finally get on it herself and shove off was just about the most difficult thing she had ever done. However, being stuck on a small island was not much better, so finally she got on and let the raft drift. Once she had cleared the island, she set the small sail provided to her by one of the villagers.
The raft soon became very wet - and of course, being on it, Rufus and Yuffie soon got wet, too. However, to her surprise, Yuffie did not feel sick - somehow, it felt better once she was at the same level as the sea. She still didn't like it very much, but it was an improvement.
The raft was slow, having no means of propulsion apart from the small sail, which didn't do much good. After three days at sea, it finally reached land, just south-east of the chocobo farm. Both the girl and her chocobo were happy to get off the raft.
Seeing no other way out, Yuffie headed for Junon - it seemed that somehow, she would have to go there no matter what.
It took her a week. And it was worth it, as she didn't see a single boat during those seven days.
Junon... It was no different. The elevator's power was down, the Shinra guard gone - there was no need to keep guard there; the upper city was deserted - and a house had been built out to serve as an inn, but other than that... Yuffie sighed. Everywhere she went, it seemed that little ever changed. It was depressing, really.
But then she noticed something was different. The high cliffs above the town looked more jagged than she remembered, and several large rocks lay scattered around the cliff wall. The mountain was crumbling.
Well, Yuffie thought, that's got nothing to do with me. Now if I can just find a bed and some chow... She thought about the boat trip and shivered. Scratch that. I just want a bed.
She was about to turn away when something caught her eye. There was a crash.
A stone dropped to the ground and shattered, not five meters away. Yuffie jumped, then looked up. "Hey...!" she began. But there wasn't anyone throwing rocks at her. It had fallen from the mountain - and more was on the way. "Landslide!" she cried, and dived for cover. Someone picked the cry up: "Landslide!" and suddenly the town bustled with activity. People came running out of their houses, moving away from the mountain. Someone grabbed Yuffie's arm and dragged her along.
"Come, it's not safe here!"
They gathered on the beach, fearfully looking up at the cliffs. Some cursed; some cried; others just watched.
"This happen often?" Yuffie asked.
"Once in a while... hear it's 'cause of Shinra polluting the earth and the air. Wears the rock down, they does. We ain't never had any problems when I were young, we never did." The old man spat on the ground. "Well, we won't be havin' more of 'em around 'ere, I tell you. Not with that little runt president bein' done in by the Weapon... and thaqt new president guy, what'sisname, seems like a decent fella... Not that he's got much of a company left, of course."
There was another crash, and bright light flared on the mountain wall. As it fell, a large rock shattered into small pieces, almost invisible from where they were standing, in mid-air.
"What was that!?" Yuffie gasped.
"A guardian angel..." someone else muttered. "That rock would have hit... hard."
"Yeah, and it just went up poof!" someone else exclaimed. Now I've seen everything..."
No one noticed as Yuffie silently left. There weren't very many things in the world that could cause such destruction, and the only one she could think of that would be here, was a magic spell.
If there was something Yuffie had learned, it was that Magic = Materia.
Silently, she went outside of town, headed up the steep slopes, climbed a bit, and finally reached the top of the mountain.
Junon town looked like a miniature from up there, but Yuffie wasn't there for the view. Somewhere below her, a great rock had just exploded... And with a little luck, maybe the one who had destroyed it was still there.
Of course, with a little bad luck, that person was a nasty one... But Yuffie had the utmost confidence in her abilities (some might say she had too much). However, too much, too little or just right, she started to descend. It wasn't hard to climb; she was used to climbing in general, and this mountain was climbing friendly.
She soon reached a plateau, on which a great number of small, sharp rock shards lay scattered. I gotta be close... And then she heard something move. Spinning around, Yuffie grabbed a Fire Materia from one of the special pockets in her clothing, preparing to unleash its most devastating spell. However...
"...Vincent?" she asked. The formerly red-cloaked, now grey-cloaked man nodded, shaking some of the dust from said cape, returning it towards its originally red colour. "What are you doing here?"
"I was trying to save the village below from a rockslide. It was just a stroke of luck that I happened to be here just as it started..." Vincent holstered his gun, which he had been pointing at her, but not before he had carefully checked it to see if there was any dust on or in it. "And you?"
"I'm like on a journey to find myself, or something."
Vincent stared at her. "Say that again?"
"I'm like on a journey to find myself, or something."
Vincent kept staring at her. "Find yourself," he repeated dazedly.
"Is there anything wrong with me finding myself?" Yuffie asked sourly. Why did everybody have to react like that?
"Not exactly," Vincent said, "but you are not the kind of person I would imagine would be trying to 'find herself'. Good luck, anyway." He turned away.
"Hey!" Yuffie shouted. "You're just gonna leave me here? I'm shocked!"
Vincent turned back. "You want to come with me?" he wondered. "Then why didn't you say so? Come along, then." He turned away again and started walking, leaving Yuffie to decide whether to stay or follow. There wasn't much of a decision to make; she choose the second option.
"...and that's the way it is," Yuffie said, having finished her explanation over dinner (Vincent's treat). "Red asked me if I was trying to find myself and I guess that's like about what I'm trying to do. Your turn." She stabbed a potato with her fork and took a big bite. Once she started eating, she realised she was quite hungry.
"I, too, am on a journey to find... something." He didn't say more, so Yuffie, her mouth full, asked,
"Mwah hmm mp hr?"
Vincent blinked at her, finding her 'words' incomprehensible. Swallowing and taking a swig of her saké to clear her throat (now that Vincent was with her, she had no problems ordering alcohol; the ex-Turk just glared at the bartender, and the man shut his mouth) before saying,
"I said, What is it you are looking for? Maybe I saw it somewhere. " Maybe I nicked it somewhere...
"I doubt it," Vincent replied dryly. He didn't follow it up, and Yuffie didn't push him; instead, she decided to enjoy her meal while she had a chance. She knew she wouldn't be able to eat on the boat.
"So where are you heading?" Vincent asked after a while.
"Dunno. North I suppose. Been everywhere else." Yuffie took another gulp of saké. "Really. How about you?"
If Vincent noticed that her speech was slurring up somewhat, he didn't say. "North."
"Yeah right! You're tagging along to keep an eye on me - aren't you!" She gulped down the last of the rice wine. She was starting to feel warm and slightly dizzy. "Isn't that right!"
Yuffie stood up and glared at him over the table. "Is too!" she protested. "You all do that! 'Yuffie can't take care of herself'! Well let me tell you, I've been taking care of myself since I was, like, twelve!" She suddenly felt thirsty, and made a move for Vincent's glass - it contained water, and was the only thing he had ordered for himself - but missed and knocked it over. Yuffie blinked and looked down at her hands.
"What's, like, wrong with my hands?"
"I think you have been drinking more than you should have," Vincent said.
"Yeah, bee-ess! I'm, like, used to it. Whatever." She tried to rise, but promptly stumbled back down onto her chair.
"I can see that. Come, let me help..."
"Hell no! I can..." But she couldn't. Grumbling, Yuffie was forced to accept his help. Vincent led her up a set of stairs, through a couple of doors, and helped her sit down on a bed.
"Can you manage from here?" he asked.
"Yeah... whatever..." Yuffie was finding it hard to focus. She was also finding it hard to stay awake. "I'll be... fine. Whatever."
She heard him leave, and just barely managed to swing her legs into the bed before she fell asleep.
"Hey, tall fella!" the bartender said as Vincent passed. "Aren't you going to go to your room? I'm closing down now... gotta lock the door."
"I think I will manage." Vincent turned his eyes on the man, which effectively shut him up.
"Y... yes, sir. I'll just leave the door open, shall I...?"
"There will be no need. I no longer need to sleep as frequently... I will not need my room. Leave the girl alone."
"Y - yes, sir -"
Vincent closed the door behind him.
"What am I doing here?" Yuffie wondered, sitting up. "Like, ...huh. Or something." What had she been doing? Desperately she tried to remember, but the night before was... just a blur. "...Vincent?" A memory seemed to surface. She had been talking to Vincent... But where had he come from?
Oh, yeah. From the mountains...
Then what? They had gone down to Junon again... and decided to have something to eat? Yes, that was it. But...
She could recall nothing after that. Shaking her head - and immediately wishing she hadn't - she swung her legs over the edge of the bed. She was still wearing her clothes, she realised. "Aww, maaan, I need a bath!" And something to settle her stomach, she noticed. It wasn't as bad as being seasick, though. And something to kill the headache, too. But first, a bath.
She took about an hour to bathe, wash her clothes, and get dressed again. The shorts and T-shirt she had worn were still wet, so she had to dig up a new pair - which weren't too clean, either - and then finally, she went downstairs.
There was no sign of Vincent, and the door was locked. No one seemed to be around, but as Yuffie rounded a corner, she noticed a door that stood slightly ajar. When she peeked inside, she saw a rather messy room, including a bed with a sleeping man in it. It wasn't Vincent, so she assumed that it was the bartender/innkeeper. Digging a well-used and wrinkled fifty-gil bill out of her pocket, she tossed it on a table by the door. Jumping over the bar, she opened the refrigerator and looked inside. There was nothing of interest, and so she opened the freezer and retrieved some ice, which she wrapped in a towel and pressed to her forehead. It made her feel a bit better, and she looked around until she found a loaf of dark bread. Carving a chunk from it with a shuriken, she ate it without feeling the taste, and finished her meal with a glass of water.
Yuffie dumped the by now half-melted ice from the towel into the sink behind the bar, wiped the water off her face with another towel, and proceeded to pick the lock of the front door. It was a crappy lock, and Yuffie was good at picking locks; it was easy, and didn't take long. She opened the door and went outside.
Vincent was standing in the shadows just outside, gazing up into the sky. Knowing him, Yuffie would say he had been standing there all night.
"Eh. Hiya, Vince."
"How are you feeling?" Vincent asked, without taking his eyes off the stars.
"Why, fine!" she lied. Her head still hurt, and she felt a bit sick, although the bread had done a lot to calm her stomach. "Why?"
"You did not appear too used to intoxication. I just wanted to make sure you are feeling up to travelling."
"'Travelling'?" she asked suspiciously.
"Yes." Vincent finally turned to look at her. "I found us a ship. It is departing today."
Yuffie groaned and leaned against the wall. "Oh, noo..."
The boat ride took three days. Three long days. And Yuffie was sick as a dog at least four fifths out of the time.
This was nothing compared to Vincent being there all the time, looking so well. Yuffie, ill as she was, found his cool and undisturbed appearance infuriating; it was one thing feeling sick, but another entirely to have someone standing around not being sick at the same time!
Oh well. At least now they had reached land, near Bone village, and the seasickness was just a memory, if not a pleasant one. As Yuffie led Rufus along, walking next to Vincent, she felt her spirits rise. Even if Vincent had decided to join her only to keep an eye on her, it was okay with her; at least she had some company. For the time being, she was going to let Vince tag along - as long as he didn't get in her way.
Vincent did not think of it that way. He was preoccupied with darker thoughts. I will stay with her... as long as I can... but... Soon, we must part. Can't endanger her like this... At any moment, I could... He couldn't shake the feeling that something terrible was about to happen. He had not been able to do so for several years, now, but this time, it felt stronger.
He just prayed that he was wrong.
Bone, too, looked the same. There were a few more holes, a few more strange artefacts scattered about the place, but apart from that... Strangely, it didn't bother Yuffie. It seemed somehow appropriate that this place changed slowly. And there was the city of the Ancients... the Cetra... nearby...
Yuffie knew that she'd have to go there, that she would have to see Aerith's grave, before she could continue. Vincent, too, seemed intent on going there; perhaps he felt the same. Yuffie suggested taking a night's rest before venturing forth, a suggestion which was met with a nod from Vincent; apparently he was content letting her decide what to do. He obviously wasn't the leader type, the ninja thought; he had never seemed comfortable telling others what to do. Although Yuffie, too, couldn't see herself as a leader, she was clearly more suited for it than Vincent.
She had not known where she was heading when she set out. That meant she was not prepared for anything in particular, and definitely not for going through the woods surrounding the city of the Cetra. As far as she knew, Cloud had the Harp they used to cross through it the first time - and that harp was the only one she had ever heard about. She voiced her worries to Vincent later that evening, when they made camp in one of the tents in the village.
"I see," he said.
"'I see'?!" Yuffie wondered. "What kinda answer is that? What are we supposed to do about it?"
"We will see."
"'We will see'..." she mimicked. "Heck no! I wanna know... now! Can we get through? Did you have anything planned? Tell me!"
Vincent seemed to tense momentarily, as if he wrestled with some huge problem, and then he turned his head to look at her with his strange eyes, their irises red as blood. "I know a way," he said softly as their eyes locked. Yuffie quickly looked down. "I will tell you of it tomorrow. Now sleep, Yuffie, or we will not get started in time." He would say nothing more, and after a while, Yuffie drifted into a fitful slumber, troubled by dreams of shadowy images.
Vincent lay staring up into the canvas for a long time before he, too, fell asleep; a sleep no more restful than the young shinobi's.
Yuffie was surprised at first, when Vincent led her away from the village, into the outer reaches of the forest, where the enchantment was weak; not strong enough to disorient them, but still enough to be felt. The mossy ground seemed treacherous and uneven under Yuffie's feet, although it was, in fact, quite smooth and free of obstacles. She stumbled several times, cursing all the while, while Vincent - which further irritated her - seemed to manage quite well, not falling or stumbling but simply walking in a straight line, something Yuffie found incredibly difficult to manage, even with Vincent showing the way. And to her dismay, he led her deeper into the forest.
"Isn't this, like, long enough?" she asked anxiously. "I mean, like, we're in pretty deep.. hey, are you listening?"
Vincent stopped walking and turned, almost causing her to stumble into him. "Yes..." he said. His voice had undergone a change; it sounded strange and powerful, and frightening. "It will soon be time."
Then he turned away and started walking again, with Yuffie stumbling after him.
In a few minutes' time, the power of the spell had intensified manifold, and Yuffie felt her legs start to shake as they seemingly headed off by themselves. It was also getting increasingly difficult to focus her mind on anything for more than a few seconds; if they kept walking, she knew, she would soon be reduced to a vegetable. It frightened her, more than she wanted to admit even to herself. But Vincent, strangely, seemed unaffected.
Finally, he stopped, turning to look at her. Yuffie involuntarily shivered and backed a step - tripping as she did, and falling, sitting down in the wet moss - as she saw his face. It had grown even paler than usual, and his eyes... Yuffie could not look at those eyes. What she saw next would give her nightmares for days, but it was the eyes that she remembered most clearly. Their red irises glowed with a strange inner light, illuminating his pale features with a terrible red sheen. "It is time now," he said, and it seemed to her that he had to fight to get those words out. "Stand... stand back... now."
She was only too happy to oblige... If only her legs would stop shaking! Yuffie backed away, hugging a tree for support.
Vincent sank to his knees, burying his hand - the gloved one - in the ground.
His entire body started to tremble. Lowering his head, he groaned in pain, but now the transformation was taking place; there was no way of stopping it now. Jerking his head back up, he bared his teeth as they started to elongate, and his facial features twisted in a grimace. Long horns grew from his forehead, and his limbs bulged with muscles. His clothes vanished, replaced by brownish purple fur.
Yuffie gasped and closed her eyes, too late. She had never actually looked at Vincent when he underwent his transformation process; she did now, and it was not a pleasant sight.
Within seconds, the Vincent she knew - if that was indeed the word - had vanished, replaced by the life form known only as the Galian beast.
The beast turned its small, but surprisingly intelligent eyes on her, and that was the only thing that caused Yuffie to remain where she was and not panic. The eyes, strange as they seemed, still held Vincent's soul; even within this grotesque body, Vincent remained in control.
And so the beast knelt down, making a gesture for its back. Yuffie swallowed hard, and wordlessly pointed to herself; the creature grunted and nodded. Taking small, controlled steps, she approached, and finally, after a very long second of doubt, grabbed the beast's mane and hoisted herself up on its back.
Hold on tight... and don't let go..
She did not know if it was Vincent's words in her head or just her own thoughts, in her semi-aware state, senses dulled by the strange spells over the forest, but she understood, at least, the meaning of the words. Pressing her face down into the Galian beast's surprisingly soft fur, grabbing hold of its mane, she prepared for the worst.
"Yes..." she whispered.
And Vincent started running.
Yuffie did not know how long she had been holding on, how long they had been in the forest - a large part of it all seemed just a blur. She remembered the fear, the overwhelming power of the forest's magic, but there it ended. She just knew that she woke up, as if she had been asleep - and maybe she had. Her fists hurt from holding on to Vincent, and her entire body ached; Vincent was unaccustomed to carrying people in his beast form, and did not know what to do in order to make the ride comfortable. Thankfully, as her eyes got used to the light, she saw him sitting under a tree - in human form. He appeared just the same as always; just the same...
"V... Vincent," she whispered, suddenly realising that her throat was dry. "Wa - water. Please."
Vincent rose and walked over to her, silently kneeling down and handing her a canteen. Yuffie drank deeply, and handed the bottle back. "Thanks."
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Like... hell," she managed. "I'm, I'm, like, totally... ouch."
"I think you will live," he said, with a touch of dry humour. "You have been worse. I just recently... returned. I was worried you would be hurt when I ran..."
"No worries," Yuffie hissed. "Now just... where are we?"
"Just the edge of the woods. The city is just ahead of us... five minutes at most. Do you want to rest some more before we go on?"
Yuffie shook her head energetically. "No way!"
"Very well then." Vincent rose, and offered her a hand to help her up. Yuffie pointedly ignored it, putting a hand to the trunk of the tree she had been lying under.
"Let's go then," she said, shouldering her bag. "Let's get out of this forest."
The forgotten city was, well, forgotten, so one would not expect a lot of change in it. Yuffie and Vincent found it in much the same condition as the last time; apparently, the Ancients had built things to last (but, Yuffie thought, they had no taste whatsoever). They headed for the central building, ignoring the rest of the city for now - they both felt that the visit to Aerith's grave should come first.
The stairs were still there, thankfully, and the two of them descended into the underground temple. Instantly every sound died down to nothing, leaving them listening to nothing but the echoes of their own footsteps.
"This is eerie," Yuffie whispered. Even the whisper seemed incredibly loud, and made Vincent put a hand to his gun before he realised that it was his companion who had spoken.
"I feel it too," he said, keeping his voice low but not whispering. Somehow, his voice seemed a lot quieter than hers.
"I hope there isn't anything down here," she muttered. "Like last time..." The last time... Sephiroth had been down there, and... Jenova. Yuffie went through her mental list over the Materia she carried, and found a few suitable spells, just in case... Quietly, she slid an Ice Materia out of a pocket and pushed it into position in a slot on her bracelet for easy access. Vincent seemed calm as usual, but she noticed how he held his hand, probably without even knowing it, close to the gun in his belt. It was comforting, knowing that she wasn't the only one who felt spooked...
Finally, however, they reached the platform in the lake. No Sephiroth, no Jenova, just the platform... A dark spot of old, dried blood was the only trace of the tragedy that had taken place here. Vincent knelt and touched the spot, but immediately rose again, walking to the edge of the platform. Yuffie thought she heard him say, under his breath, "Aerith... and Lucrecia..."
"I wonder... no... never mind."
"So calm... so quiet," Vincent said. "I wonder what she felt, down here... I can feel the power of Lifestream here, but how did she perceive it? We will never know. I look into these waters..."
"Vincent?" Yuffie said. "You're... are you... okay?"
"No..." he sighed. "Not for a very long time." He kept staring into the waters of the lake, where his reflection stared back. The surface of the water was smooth like glass; there was no wind down here. The light emanating from below made it possible to see all the way to the bottom - but there was no sign of Aerith.
"What do you think happened to her?" Yuffie asked, suddenly feeling very small. "I mean, like... did she become part of the Planet? Do you think she's been reborn already?"
"I know nothing of such things."
"Would you leave me alone for a while... please. Return upstairs. I will be along shortly."
"Eh huh? You mean, like, walk around here, like alone? No way!" She backed away, hands raised. "No way I'm doing that!"
Vincent remained where he was. "Please," he said. "I promise I will not be long."
Yuffie glared at his back. There was something about him, though... "Alright, alright! But don't be long... okay?"
Vincent did not reply, and she did not wait for him to do so.
Yuffie exited the shell-like building and stopped just outside the door, looking around. "Damn," she said to no one in particular, and then sat down with her back to the wall. "This sucks!"
She waited for a short while, maybe as short as a minute, and then Vincent emerged from the building.
"Let us go," he said.
"What? Just like that, 'let's go'? And then what?" Yuffie wondered, jumping to her feet.
"Yes. Just like that. Come; we will take the eastern road through the mountains."
"But but but - Hey! What about my chocobo?" Yuffie protested as she hurried after Vincent. His legs were so much longer - it wasn't fair! "And what about this place?" What's with this guy?! Just a minute ago... and now he's colder than ice!
"There is nothing here for us. You may remain if you wish, but there is nothing worth remaining for."
"But - hey! Are you listening? I say, what the heck did you do down there anyway? And... Vincent?"
Vincent stopped walking. "Yes?"
"Never mind," Yuffie sighed. "Just... Just keep walking."
"Vincent..." Yuffie said as they walked. "How is it that you could cross the forest... that the spell didn't affect you?"
Vincent, as always, was silent. But after a few seconds, he sighed. "I was not unaffected," ha said. "If possible, I was more susceptible to the ancient magic..."
"No way! It didn't touch you... I saw you walk!" Yuffie protested. "You walked in a straight line! You never stumbled! You..."
"Partially... right. But..." He looked up at the sky just as they entered the caves. On the other side of the mountains lay the Icicle Area, which appeared to be their next destination; neither ninja nor ex-Turk had any direct plans. "I am not... completely human," Vincent finally continued. "It is hard to explain this to you... I am... different. Thus, the spell has a... different effect on me."
"My mind is slightly different from yours..."
Vincent glared at her. This time, his eyes did not frighten her, however, and she grinned. "Go on."
"In any case, my mind has a... well, let us call it a wider span. I understand things that you, or any other human, would find... incomprehensible. With the blood in my veins, I was able to overcome the spell, which is designed only to keep humans out. The risk I took..." He took a deep breath and slowly let it out, shaking his head. "I should keep my mouth shut."
"No! ...please." Yuffie grabbed his arm. "Vincent. Please, I want to hear."
Somewhat baffled by this behaviour, so unlike Yuffie's usual demeanour, Vincent stopped. Looking down - because of the twenty-four centimetre difference in height - at her, and shook his head again. "Very well," he sighed. "But let me speak, and do not interrupt."
"I won't;" she promised.
"Then I will tell you.
"You already know that my body was genetically modified by Hojo. The truth is, Hojo did not know exactly what he was doing. I was an experiment - a guinea pig.
"Hojo believed he had found a better way to enhance SOLDIER - a powerful drug, with effects similar to Mako. In addition to enhancing the person it was injected in, the new drug would also, with a little help, make the victim extremely loyal to a certain person - such as the president Shinra, for instance."
"That's awful!" Yuffie exclaimed, momentarily forgetting her promise to keep quiet. "Sorry," she added as she remembered.
"Very well. Hojo programmed me to be loyal to him... and I was. I forgot everything... even how much I hated him. But his drug was flawed. He had based it upon genes from a long extinct beast - Galia - and a few other beings, although the Galia's genes were the base. I know not if it was Hojo's experiment alone, or the drug in conjunction to my special genetic structure, that triggered the shape-changing power in me.
"Whatever the cause... One day, Hojo decided to test me. He took me up into the Nibel mountains, and ordered me to fight, and... I fought. There were few monsters there in those days, but finally, we ran into something... large, powerful... I know not what it was. Hojo was thrown to the ground... I attacked the monster. I was not strong enough to hurt it, my gun had little effect. The beast almost tore my arm off - " Vincent raised his left arm, as always encased in a flexible metal gauntlet. Yuffie considered asking what that glove hid, and came to the conclusion that she was probably better off not knowing. "I remember feeling excruciating pain... not only in my arm, but in my entire body... and when it subsided, I was... something else." He fell silent.
"And then?" Yuffie pressed. "Come on!"
"I destroyed my opponent... it was easy. After that, I passed out from the pain of my wounds. When I awoke later in Hojo's lab, I remembered... everything. I tried to rise... but I could not. I was strapped to the table... Then Hojo appeared. I tried to reach him, but..." Vincent took another deep breath and shook his head again. "He gave me a shot... everything went black.
"When I awoke, I was lying in a coffin in the basement, near the lab. For some time, I walked the world... Hojo was gone, Lucrecia with him... And so I returned... Part of me was dead. That was the irony in it all; that Hojo had chosen such a place for me to rest in. For years I slept. And the rest you know, up till now."
Vincent suddenly stopped. "Do you know how old I am?" he asked.
"Eh, huh? Like, you were twenty-seven... it's been half a year... Twenty-eight?" she hazarded. "Or is it still twenty-seven?"
"It is still twenty and seven," Vincent said, suddenly sounding very tired. "But can you guess how long I have been twenty-seven?"
Yuffie did not answer. Just then, they reached the other end of the cave, moving out into the sunlight. What does he mean? she wondered as she squinted at the sun. What... no one can be twenty-seven for more than one year... can they?
But that question, too, would have to go unanswered.
"Just how old did you say you were again?" the shopkeeper asked. Yuffie glared at him murderously.
"Seventeen!" she said, telling the truth this time. "You got a problem with that?"
"I am very sorry, young... lady, but I'm not allowed to sell alcohol to minors." Yuffie, of course, didn't miss the short but definitely present space between 'young' and 'lady', and clenched her fists.
"Look, old... man," she said, in tones that clearly suggested that 'man' should be interpreted as 'buffer' at best, "I'm a shinobi! A ninja! I'm allowed to buy over five hundred different liquids that would render you unconscious after one sip - and now you tell me I can't buy a bottle of saké? It's freezing outside! I'm freezing my butt off!"
"Sorry. I'll lose my licence..."
"Yeah, right! You can just say I threatened you..." A thought struck her. "Wait, even better: I will threaten you!" She pulled a simple four-point shuriken from her belt. "Hand that bottle over here! This instant! Or you'll, eh, yeah, or you'll be sorry!"
The shopkeeper looked at the 160 centimetres tall ninja, then at her to an outsider seemingly puny weapon. "Put that down, " he said. "And act your age. You'll put out someone's eye with that. Or at least cut your fingers."
Yuffie growled. She put the throwing star in her headband - for easy access - and folded her arms, leaning on the counter (she was just barely tall enough to manage that). "Tell me something, old coot, did you ever perchance like hear of a man named Sephiroth?"
The old man nodded. "Tell me someone who hasn't," he said. "What's he got to do with this anyway?"
Yuffie grinned her patented Scare-The-Shit-Out-Of-People grin. "Well, you see, the last time there was blood on this shuriken, it was his." She flipped the star into the air and caught it easily. "You see this? Four points. That's for, hmm, one heart, two lungs, and... oh, I don't know... Yes, that's it - a spleen. One heart, two lungs and a spleen. And I hit'em all in one throw. So..." She held up the weapon. "Are you feeling lucky today... punk?"
"What is going on here?" Someone opened the door, letting himself, and about half a ton of snow, in. Shaking the snow from his red cape, Vincent looked at Yuffie, and the weapon in her hand. "I thought you had stopped that sort of thing."
"Aww, come oon! I'm just tryin' to persuade oldtimer here to sell me some anti-frost liquid."
"Saké," 'Oldtimer' said. "Finest quality, too... and she's not of age! Like I said, I can't sell her..." Vincent's red eyes staring at him seemed to rob the man of his strength. He trailed off and cleared his throat nervously.
"I thought you had learned your lesson," Vincent addressed Yuffie.
"I have too! But it's, brr! I mean, like, it's freezing outside!"
"You should try wearing some more clothes. And you -" Vincent turned to the shopkeeper "- hand over that bottle. I will pay for it."
"Eh... certainly, sir!"
"And you better not forget the rest of the stuff!" Yuffie yelled as he scurried off to get a bottle. "Or we'll be back for it!" She then succumbed to a fit of giggling which lasted almost until the poor shopkeeper returned with the supplies, neatly packaged. He made a point of handing Vincent the bottle of saké, but let Yuffie take the rest.
"Um... that will be, let's see... that's a hundred forty five Gil for the wine, and... that'll be six hundred seventy Gil, total."
"Get real!" Yuffie shrieked. "The service was lousy! You kept me waiting and there aren't even any other customers in the shop! Cut that to five hundred!"
"No way! The price is six seventy."
"You have delayed us enough already," Vincent said in that special, very quiet tone of voice that probably could be heard through a thunderstorm. "The girl is right. Some compensation is in order."
"V... very well," the shopkeeper stammered. He wasn't about to start arguing with that man. "H - how about s - six hundred?"
"Five fifty!" Yuffie countered.
"Six will be fine," Vincent said, silencing her with a glare. He tossed a few bills on the counter without bothering to count them. "Come on, Yuffie. And here is your wine."
"That was like too cool!" Yuffie laughed as they walked towards the Icicle Inn. "Like, I never thought I'd see you do that! Yow, man! Yeah, I'm impressed! Way ta go!"
"Calm down," Vincent sighed. "Even I am human... at the moment. And I found such activities quite amusing when I was with the Turks. Sometimes, even I want to have some fun."
Yuffie threw her head back and laughed. "I love it!"
"But don't let it... or the wine for that matter... get to your head," Vincent reminded her. "And watch where you're -"
"Whooo! Damn!" Yuffie sputtered as she suddenly found herself sitting in a snowdrift.
"- stepping," Vincent finished.
Eventually, she managed to brush the snow from her clothes, and they made their way to the inn. Vincent paid for two rooms - he didn't seem to be low on cash, Yuffie noted, but where the heck did he store all those bills? He also ordered supper for the both of them, and they ate in silence. After the meal they sat basking in the warmth from the fire burning in the hearth. Finally Yuffie realised that she was dozing off, and headed for her room. Remaining behind, Vincent stared into the fire, his thoughts far away. This time, like so many times before, a bed he had paid for stood unused, while the man who should have been sleeping in it pondered the meaning of things.
"Are you sure this is the right way?" Yuffie asked, shivering.
"There is no other. The chocobos we could have found here would not be able to climb the mountains... we need to go this way." Vincent, his red cloak wrapped around his seemingly fragile body - not against the cold, but so that it wouldn't be swept away by the wind - stood on a ledge, looking south, towards the horizon.
Yuffie had bought warm clothes, and now wore most of them - baggy pants, an even baggier sweatshirt, and, over that, a warm jacket, and, as the finishing touch, a brightly coloured knitted cap on her head. "I don't see why we gotta take that path anyway!" she complained. The words came out with a funny accent, as her jaw was starting to feel numb. "Damn, I'm cold..."
"I should have thought of that..." Vincent turned his back to the precipice and walked over to where the ninja was standing, her back to the mountain wall, trying to shield herself from the wind. "I forget that other humans feel such temperatures... I am immune to them. Take my cloak, it should help against the wind."
"T-t-t- thank you," Yuffie stammered. Wrapping the soft red fabric around her, she wondered if it would be of any help at all. Vincent clasped it around her neck, and pointed upwards, to the next ledge.
"We have to move. You will feel warmer once we do."
"W-w-w-worth a t-try," Yuffie agreed. Vincent started climbing, digging his metal-gloved hand into cracks, clearing a path for the ninja.
Despite its slight weight, the cloak did keep the wind out, and Yuffie was starting to feel warmer. They had climbed for hours, now, and still, this was one of the lowest mountains in the area - barely a hill when compared to the range to their right, rising several thousand metres above them. At last, they had reached the top - now, all they had to do was get down. Get down safely, of course... how hard could that be? Yuffie looked down at the steep, but smooth slopes. "Too bad we didn't bring a couple of snowboards," she said. "This would be ideal! ...but I've never even stood on a snowboard before anyway, so I'd probably just fall off."
"We have something of equal value," Vincent said, pulling his pack off the ninja's back; they had switched packs so that Yuffie could move more easily, since Vincent's pack was much smaller than hers. "Snowblades."
"Blades. Look, here..." He produced something that looked like ridiculously short skis from the pack. "Practical... don't take up too much space."
"We're... supposed to... go down here... on those?" Yuffie said, her voice fluting, as she realised what he had in mind.
"That or climb," Vincent said.
"But I've never even stood on normal skis before!" she complained. "I, I, I, I'm scared!"
"Take it easy, Yuffie. I will be right behind you... you will be fine. Here. Let me strap you in... there you go." Vincent straightened his back. Yuffie looked down at her booted feet. The 'snowblades' seemed barely visible, protruding only about twenty centimetres in front of her.
"This isn't going to work, I know it isn't!"
"It will," Vincent assured her. "The snow is soft here... you can fall as much as you like. And I will be here. You know I can help you if you get into trouble."
"Yeah... yeah, I suppose you're right." She wiped her nose. "If I get killed here, I want you to have my chocobo. He's at the Costa del Sol stables..."
"You won't," Vincent promised, and fired off a rare grin as Yuffie started her descent.
Surprisingly, she managed to keep on her skis. Once she was heading down, it all pretty much took care of itself - turn slightly this way or that to turn the skis, keep the balance... She was used to balance exercises, and this was easier than most of the things she had done during her ninja training.
After a minute, she was starting to enjoy herself.
Following her closely, Vincent smiled to himself. He had known she would be good at skiing - the balance seemed natural to her, and she caught on quickly. They would be down in no time.
It all had started out so well. But when a chasm opened up under her feet, Yuffie started losing control. And once she landed again - by some miracle on her feet, with the skis intact - things went, as it were, rapidly downhill from there.
Vincent noticed it even before she did - the ninja was no longer in control. He quickly brought his own skis up beside her, but there was nothing he could do - Yuffie was struggling with all her might to stay upright, and could do nothing more. Vincent made his decision, and bent down to unfasten the straps securing his snowblades to his boots.
Yuffie stared at the ground, which sped past with alarming velocity, but felt no fear. This was life! she realised. The only time a person truly lived, was while her life was in danger. And Yuffie certainly felt alive.
Suddenly, she wasn't as certain of it anymore. The ground disappeared, and she continued on - through the air. Looking down, she found another chasm ready to swallow her - and this time, she wouldn't be able to land safely on the other side.
She was about to fall. But somehow, she never did. A strong, clawed hand gripped her shoulder, causing incredible pain - she was hanging suspended by those few claws, which tore at her flesh even through the thick clothes. Then another claw grabbed her around the waist, the first one released its hold, and she felt a strange sensation - as if her back was being pressed to something that was at once very cold and very hot. The dark red arm around her waist was familiar, however, and when she heard Vincent's voice, augmented by the barrel chest of Chaos, she could finally relax.
"It is over now," Vincent said. "I have you. I promised, right? And I always keep my promises."
Yuffie smiled weakly and patted the muscular arm awkwardly. Then she allowed herself to relax, and everything went black.
Chaos descended smoothly through the air, and finally landed softly on the snow-covered ground just outside a small cottage. A sound from within the building made the demon turn its head and regard it with its startlingly human eyes. Unnaturally sharp ears picked up words from within.
"No, no! Stop that! No need to... oh, look at this mess! You stupid bird!" A chocobo warked loudly, and something broke. "Oh, damnit! Look, you've destroyed five plates already! This is quite enough. Now... Oh, damn, you know how I hate doing this! Stop it."
The chocobo warked again, but the noise died down. A few seconds later the door opened, allowing an old, wizened man in a purple robe to peek out. Seeing Chaos, he blinked and straightened his back, opening the door. "Well, hurry on!" he said. "Let's get that girl inside! And you -" He glared at Chaos "- get lost, right now. You're scaring the heck outta my chocobo! Here, hand her over..." He caught Yuffie as the demon lowered her to the ground. As he carried her inside, Chaos clenched its hands into fists, threw its head back and growled, as if attacked by an invisible foe. Then it lowered its head again, and unclenched its hands. Kneeling, it buried its left hand in the ground - the claws crushed stone under the snow - and let out a sigh. Red light flared around the demon, like fire, but there was no heat. Suddenly, Chaos' body turned into solid light, and started to shrink down. When, finally, the light faded, it left a man kneeling down in the snow. Slowly picking himself up, the man shook his head, putting a hand to his forehead. The red headband was damp with sweat.
"It is never... ever easy," he whispered, and walked inside, closing the door behind him.
"Her shoulder is in a bad condition," the sage reprimanded Vincent. "I have never seen such carelessness! I do hope you had the good sense to bring healing magic along, warrior."
"You use this," Vincent whispered. "I am in no condition to call upon its power." He held out, in his gloved left hand, an emerald green piece of Materia. The sage nodded and took the Materia out of his hand, placing it on Yuffie's chest, and his hand over it. A few seconds passed, and he removed the Materia, returning it to Vincent.
"Now we wait."
"How is she?" the ex-Turk hissed. His voice always gave him trouble right after a shape-change.
"About as bad as you," his host said. "You should know better than to... oh, forgive me. I see you do know better, after all. You can not expect such wounds to heal without problems... but she will pull through. She is a strong young woman."
"I wish... there had been an other way." Vincent looked at the unconscious ninja, shaking his head sadly. "If I had an other way..."
"I understand," the Chocobo Sage nodded. "She desperately needs rest - that's the only way she'll ever heal. And you, too, require rest. You saved her life, you know," he added as an afterthought. "You must not feel bad about wounding her. We both know that she would rather have a few extra scars, than lose her life."
"Yes..." Vincent rose from the chair he had been sitting in. "Would you then kindly show me where I might rest? And..." The sage turned and focussed his mild blue eyes on his guest.
"Yes?" he queried, meeting Vincent's gaze - something few managed to do.
"Thank you," the ex-Turk said simply.
Yuffie woke slowly. At first, she thought she was dead. There was no snow anywhere; she was lying in a warm, comfortable bed. She had been carried off... by Chaos. Or had she? Maybe it had been something else, and it had - she swallowed hard - eaten her?
But, she realised, she couldn't be dead. Heaven, hell, or something completely different - whatever it was, she was quite certain that afterlife would not smell of chocobos. So where...?
"The sage's!" she said aloud. "Yeah! That's where I am..."
"Indeed," someone said. Yuffie turned to look at the speaker, and found herself looking at an elderly bearded man in a purple robe and very pointy, and equally purple, hat. "The Chocobo Sage, that's me! And... uh... what was I saying?"
"You are the Chocobo Sage," Yuffie said.
"Yes! That's it, it is... what was that again?"
"Chocobo Sage," Yuffie repeated.
"Yup, that's me. That tall fella, win... what's his name, win something, brought you in here, he did. You had fallen pretty bad... skiing accident, you know. These mountains can be rather dangerous if you don't know what to look for."
"I... noticed," Yuffie said with a wry grin. "Huh... I've done 'where am I', so I'm just gonna go on to 'when am I'. When is it? How long have I been here?"
"It's been almost... well, almost two weeks," the sage said. He scratched his chin through the long beard, and Yuffie found herself thinking that it'd be fun to tie that beard to his shoelaces... if he had any.
"Two weeks," she repeated. "No wonder I'm hungry! I could eat a chocobo..."
"Wwwarkk!" someone protested from downstairs.
"Hush!" The sage looked around carefully, and lowered his voice as he spoke. "He's a bit stingy, you see!"
"Oh, I get it!" Yuffie laughed. "Is there like any chance of breakfast?"
"Yup! Although it's more like dinnertime, actually. I'll just tell him, what's-his-name, to get something. Hey! You! Tall fella! The lady wants some..." He fell silent. "What was that again?"
"Vincent?" Yuffie called. "You here?"
Vincent came running up the stairs, three steps at a time. "Yuffie! You finally woke up."
"No," Yuffie said, "I'm sleeping! And I want something to eat! Like, now! I'm starving!"
"Just a moment," Vincent said with a ghost of a smile.
"Vince," Yuffie said as he reached the stairs. Vincent stopped.
"Thank you for saving my butt out there."
"We need to borrow your chocobo."
"No. I cannot... do anything more."
"Well, I see, but..."
Yuffie crept closer to the stairs. She heard someone walking around downstairs, and then the conversation continued:
"It is too far."
"He doesn't like carrying other people," the sage warned. Huh? Yuffie wondered. He sounds completely different... "He might just decide to throw you."
"Let us worry about that after I get your permission," Vincent insisted. "I believe I can handle it. But we need an experienced climber to get out of here... I can't carry her. It would be easy if I was alone, but..."
"Well, there's no harm in trying... and we still have your healing Materia in case you fall bad," the old man sighed. "Let's try it out then, shall we?" Yuffie heard two sets of footsteps, and then a loud warking as the chocobo greeted the sage.
"Now, Cyan, you be a good chocobo..." the Chocobo Sage warned.
"Cyan," Vincent remarked.
"I couldn't very well call him Green, could I?" the sage muttered. "Here, let me... there, now you try it." Yuffie heard nothing more for several seconds, and then the old man spoke again: "Well I'll be darned! I wonder what's gotten into him?"
"He knows me," Vincent said, quietly - Yuffie still heard him, though; his voice carried very far, for some reason. "I will not be having any problems."
"If he accepts the girl."
"He will. The sooner we've finished our business, the better for him."
"If you say so... I guess it isn't all bad, hmm?"
"Not... everything. But enough."
"Hmm. If that is all, maybe we should invite the shinobi down...? Yes, that is probably for the best. Come on down, Yuffie. I know you're there."
Yuffie's eyes widened as she heard this. I was silent... But then...
She descended slowly, as if she hadn't been surprised at all. "Yeah... whatever," she yawned. "We gonna go?"
"Yes," Vincent confirmed. "But this time, we will ride."
"Really...? Hey, the green chocobo!"
"His name is Cyan," the sage said. He glared at her. "Nothing wrong with that name, is there? I mean, perfectly good name for a bird..."
"No, nothing's wrong, like, why should it?" Yuffie wondered. "I like it! But he's not really cyan, you know."
"There you go!" the old man snapped. "Just like that tall friend of yours, win-some or whatever! Go on, why don't you criticise the way I dress while you're at it? Come on!"
"Well actually," Yuffie grinned, but was cut off by Vincent.
"We should leave. The more daylight we have, the better."
"Gawd, you're no fun!" she complained. "Anyway... ah, what the heck... we might as well get going. Whatever."
The chocobo slowly but surely made his way up the steep mountain wall, instinctively putting his feet on secure ground. The two riders didn't seem to bother it much, and the journey was smooth. Having been given new clothes by the sage, Yuffie was comfortably warm, wrapped in a large fur coat; Vincent, as usual, wore nothing more than the clothes he always wore. As the landscape slid past, the ninja found herself enjoying the trip... until she realised that that was the way she had gotten into trouble when she was on the skis. Instead of enjoying the ride, she should watch out for trouble...
Fortunately, as far as 'trouble' was concerned, the unusual green-tinted chocobo and its two riders weren't worth the bother, and they made it up safely.
For three more days they rode. As they finally left the mountains behind, Vincent let the chocobo go, and the two travellers carried on on their own. Yuffie wondered what the heck Vince was doing, but knew that he rarely did anything without thinking.
The problem was, they were now making their way through the woods around the northern crater. With mountains on all sides, Yuffie thought, how were they going to get back out? But Vincent didn't seem worried, and so she decided not to bother worrying. After all, she thought, if anything goes wrong, he can just fly me out of here...
But what she diddn't think of, was his words to the Chocobo Sage: "We need an experienced climber to get out of here... I can't carry her."
Her first thoughts, when they finally reached the centre of the crater, was, This has changed. And indeed it has. The formerly so rough and uneven rocks were now smooth, as if they had been carefully polished; the ground was slippery, like glass. The explosion following Sephiroth's defeat had done more than destroy an airship.
Her second thought was, Cold...
That, too, was right. The air seemed chillier here, even compared to the cold mountain air.
And Vincent, of course, didn't notice anything at all. Yuffie wrapped the coat tighter around herself, but it didn't do much good. Vincent had let her keep his cloak, too, but the wind was too cold even for that to be of much help.
"What are we gonna do here?" she asked, knowing he'd think she was whining. "I don't like this!"
"I know," he replied, surprisingly softly. "But what better place could there be for seeking answers? This is a meeting point; this is where... certain things... converge."
"What?" Yuffie asked. "What 'things'?"
"Questions," Vincent said simply. "Questions... and answers."
Yuffie stared at him blankly. "Yeah, sure."
"You can feel it too..."
Yuffie snapped her mouth shut. The chill was making her teeth ache. Vaguely, she wondered if it would be a good idea to use a Fire Materia and set fire to her coat. At least she'd be warm for a while... or maybe not.
"Can we like go find cover?" she begged. "Please! My tongue is coated with ice!"
"The entrance is still.. there," Vincent hissed, pointing. "We can seek shelter in there."
"The... cave?" Yuffie wondered. "I think I... would rather freeze, Vince."
"To death?" he wondered softly. "Now, I don't like it either, but... even I will not be able to withstand this temperature for long. It is unnatural..."
"Oh, gee are eyt," Yuffie muttered. "Just what I needed!"
"Come on," the ex-Turk sighed. "Let's go."
The cave wasn't much warmer. And it did nothing to warm Yuffie's spirits - speaking of spirits, she thought, she wished she had saved some wine. Although they managed to find enough wood to get a fire going, it fought against overwhelming odds - the air cooled down faster than the flames had a chance to warm it.
"This isn't gonna work!" Yuffie said to Vincent as he heaped the last wood on the fire. "I'm gonna freeze to death if I stay here much longer!"
"I understand... no answer is worth dying for. Shall we head back?"
Yuffie was speechless. For a few seconds, at any rate. "What, you mean like give up?" she asked. "Give up? After all this trouble...!"
"I did not mean that. But there are few alternatives..."
"Name them!" the shinobi demanded. "Very well. I can change my shape... if you curled up next to me..."
"Ah uh. No way I'm gonna sleep next to... that. Next," she demanded.
"Yes, there is one more option. We can use fire magic on the rocks around us... that should warm the cave somewhat."
"Yes!" Yuffie said. She liked it! Not only would she get warm, but she'd also get a chance to set fire to something... could it get much better?
"Correction," Vincent said. "I will use Fire Materia on the rocks around us."
"Aww," Yuffie said in disappointment. "You're no fun. Whatever..."
"Yeah. But, Yuffie, it would be better if you got out of here first. Otherwise, you might get burned."
"But what about you?" she protested. Vincent held up his right hand, showing her a golden-red bracelet.
"I have some protection. And I will be casting the spells; it will be easier for me to avoid their effects. Now, hurry... or you might catch a cold."
Grumbling, Yuffie did as she was told - something that was a very rare occurrence - heading out.
The wind instantly seized the opportunity to seize her, almost throwing her flat on her face. The ninja knelt down, pulling the coat over her, and then laid down, thus avoiding some of the worst wind. The cold staid the same, however, and she found it harder to move... "Hurry, Vince!"
Meanwhile, Vincent pulled a green, magic, Materia from a pocket, raised it, and focussed on the spell he needed. Called 'Contain', this particular piece of Materia held the most powerful elemental spells - Fire, Air, Earth and Water. Needing heat, meaning fire, Vincent cast Flare spells, keeping it up until his vision was blurred and his knees shook. He desperately needed rest, but the cave had become much warmer now, allowing him - and Yuffie - to rest without any danger. "Yuffie," he hissed, using his 'long range' voice.
"Yuffie..." Yuffie jumped as she heard her name. "Yuffie! I am done. The cave is warm now."
"Oh, really?" she wondered. "Gawd! I musta fallen asleep or something." That was just about the most stupid thing she could do, she knew... and maybe the last thing she would do. Shivering, she crept down into the cave -
A gust of warm air hit her, lifting the coat off her shoulder. "Wow!" she exclaimed as she looked around.
The stones glowed red-hot; in places, the magic had melted rock. These places glowed brighter, almost yellow. Vincent himself was lying on the ground by the now-useless fire. "Wow," Yuffie repeated. "Yo! This is great, and I mean great! Like, it's warm!" She had to take the coat off. Laying it on the ground, she lay down on it, turning to face Vincent. "You did it," she said.
"Look, Yuffie, that spell took a lot out of me. I need to rest."
"Well. yeah. Whatever. You go ahead and rest..."
"I have come to destroy you, Sephiroth..."
The silver-haired warrior laughed silently. "What can you possibly do?" he asked. "You know your weapon is not enough to stop me. You have tried before, haven't you?" He pointed his sword at the gun in Vincent's hands. "I can cut you down here and now. You can do nothing to stop me... Valentine." The last word was uttered with such scorn Vincent felt as if the long, gleaming, blade had already been thrust through his body. Still, his face showed nothing of what he felt. "Maybe not. But I will still try." Raising his hand he cast a spell: "ULTIMA!"
A green sphere appeared in midair, hovering in front of Sephiroth, who calmly watched it, sword in hand. Suddenly the sphere exploded, showering the man with green, insubstantial fire. Sephiroth laughed again.
"Is that the best you can do?"
Vincent felt the icy black hand of fear grasp his heart. The spell had just been a ghostly image, nothing compared to what it should have been. He tried again, "FLARE," only to see the white-hot fireballs fade to deep red, then into nothing as they touched his enemy. Almost panicking, he tried to summon Espers, but no one answered.
And Sephiroth laughed again.
"You... are pathetic." Holding his sword, Masamune, aloft, he advanced.
Vincent knew, as the sword slid in between his ribs, what he would do... and how it would end. Releasing all hold on himself, he felt his body change - a far more rapid transformation, compared to his controlled shape-changes. The fatal wound seemed a mere annoyance, now, and he reached out with a clawed hand, grasping Sephiroth's arm... crushing flesh and bone as easily as if it had been balsa wood. He registered the shock on his opponent's face as Chaos slowly pulled the katana out of its abdomen.
"Sephiroth..." the demon hissed. Smoke seeped out between its teeth. "Sephiroth."
"No!" Sephiroth said sharply. "You will not defeat me!" Grabbing the hilt of his sword with his remaining hand, the left one, he tore the blade out of the demon's hand, almost severing it. Chaos released its hold on his mangled right arm, pulling its own hand back, this time actually feeling pain. Sephiroth's strange blue Mako eyes glowed as he triumphantly raised his weapon for a final strike.
Then his eyes widened as Chaos roared, folding its wings around its body like a shield. Razor-edged, forged by the greatest swordsmith in the world - in any world - enchanted by a magician equalled by no other, the Masamune failed to penetrate the ancient demon's shield, sliding off with a sound like nails dragging over a blackboard. Chaos, triumphant, snapped its wings open, thrusting its clawed hand out towards the stunned Sephiroth's chest, the claws piercing flesh as easily as any sword. Warm, red blood gushed out between its fingers, and the claw came up holding...
No, Vincent thought, furiously seeking to regain control. It was useless, and as his consciousness faded away, forever destroyed by the greater power of Chaos, he heard a small, mocking voice speak in the back of his head:
* * *
"Vincent! Vincent!" Yuffie shook him furiously. "Vincent! Wake up!"
Slowly he emerged from the dream, feeling the weight of the words on his shoulders. I win again, Vincent Valentine... "Yuffie!" he gasped, grabbing hold of her wrist. "There is no need to shout so loud... I hear you."
"Let go!" she snapped. He did, and watched her rub her arm. There were red marks on it, where the claws on his glove had cut her skin.
"Forgive me," he said as he realised what he had done. "It was a reflex-"
"Yeah, yeah, alright already! I was just trying to wake you up. No big deal."
He slowly sat up, trying to shake off the unease that the dream left him with. "How long... have I been asleep?" he asked.
"The hell would I know?" Yuffie wondered. "I don't have a watch on me."
"Guess," he insisted. Yuffie shrugged.
"Don't know. I've been asleep too, you know, and besides I did some exploring in the cave while you were sleeping... No, not in your pockets! Anyhoo, I think it could be, like, ten or twelve hours?"
Vincent looked around, feeling the air. It was probably true. The cave was colder now, but some warmth still lingered; he had used powerful magic, so that was to be expected. However...
"Hey," Yuffie interrupted his thoughts, "look what I found!" She proudly displayed a chunk of Materia; Vincent could barely make it out as red in the dying light from the coals that had once housed a fire.
"What is it?" he asked. Yuffie shrugged.
"Don't know," she admitted. "I've never seen this before... Hey, I found it! I'm gonna keep it."
"Do as you wish," Vincent shrugged. But what is in that piece of Materia? he wondered. Its colour... there is not just a spell within that stone. There is part of a spirit, an Esper... but which one?
Once more, Yuffie interrupted his thoughts. "Hey, Vince... maybe we should try and move down a bit? I mean, whatever we're looking for... if it's here, it's probably down there.. closer to the bottom, right? I mean, things you want are always on the bottom of something. Or under your bottom of course... Hey, did I ever tell you about that time I lost my Leviathan Materia, and I searched Wutai from one end to another, and when I got home I found out that it had rolled under a pillow and Godo had been sitting on it all the time?"
"No," Vincent said. "Not before today."
"Icky!" Yuffie said, brushing a cobweb from her face. It was obvious that no one - except for the spiders - had been down there for quite some time. Judging from the size of the webs, the spiders weren't the huge, hero-eating sort, but rather the normal, small kind. This, however, did not make the webs less sticky. Yuffie and Vincent were soon covered from head to toe in webs, and even Vincent seemed disturbed. Yuffie, however, openly voiced her thoughts about the webs and their makers, and someone travelling through the caves would have heard swearwords and curses echo between the walls for a very long time. Vincent did not comment, but as Yuffie broke out into yet another string of profanities, he found himself smiling. Such a young girl should not use such colourful language - let alone know the meaning of those words. Yuffie, however, both used them and knew their meanings - and she knew a lot of them.
Vincent had brought a flashlight and a supply of batteries, but the light it gave off was far from enough. The two of them stumbled around quite a bit, and their descent was both painfully slow and simply painful.
They didn't have to go too far, however. The explosion had destroyed most of the lower levels, and made progress beyond a certain point almost impossible. Yuffie and Vincent slowly walked up to the edge and looked down into the swirling green Lifestream.
"Did we find anything yet?" Yuffie asked in a loud whisper. "Or was it completely unnecessary? If it was, I swear I'm gonna kill you..."
"An unmarked grave," Vincent said, as if he hadn't heard. "Yet one that no one can ignore. Sephiroth was determined to make his mark on the Planet..."
"Did he ever!" Yuffie said.
"Why is it that you care so much about that anyway?"
"...because..." he shook his head.
Yuffie did too, and then said, "Never mind. I don't think I could stand your explanation."
And Vincent, surprisingly, laughed. "No," he said. "I don't think you could."
"For the last time, Yuffie, yes. We will have to climb out again. There is no other way."
"Aww, maan! More /#&%!# cobwebs..."
"Yes," Vincent said calmly. "But it's either that, or stay down here."
"/#&%!#," Yuffie repeated.
"I don't know what Cid was thinking. He shouldn't use such language in front of little girls."
"Hey!" the 'little girl' protested. "I'm seventeen! And I knew that word before I met Cid!"
"Anyway... Let's start climbing."
They climbed for some time. It was tiring, and after a while, they decided to take a rest, stopping by at a ledge, where they sat down. As they did, however, Vincent froze, then turned his head sharply, looking up into the darkness. "Shh!"
"What?" Yuffie whispered.
"I heard a sound -"
Just then, the ground shook, and a dark shape fell down in front of them. A pair of leathery black wings snapped open, and the dark shape stopped, hovering in mid-air as it beat its wings. Two black, but somehow shining eyes stared at them over a scaled snout.
"Dark dragon!" Yuffie gasped, jumping to her feet and pressing her back to the rocks behind her. "Vincent! Do something!"
"I can't change up here! My other forms are too big to fit in this space! Us your weapons, ninja." He pulled his gun from its holster and opened fire.
Vincent only shot once.
The bullet struck the dragon in the forehead.
On any normal being, that would have been enough.
Vincent grunted in pain as the dragon's powerful claws raked over his chest, tearing up clothes and flesh, and grunted again as he slammed into the rock wall. Meanwhile, Yuffie tried out a spell, casting Demi on the dragon, which didn't seem to be bothered. Cursing, the ninja grasped another Materia at random, brought it up, and cast Thundaga at the dragon. This seemed to catch its attention - unfortunately for her. Turning to face its new enemy, the dragon opened its mouth and unleashed a stream of dark fire, almost knocking Yuffie off the ledge, striking the Materia from her grasp. Badly wounded, she fell, hitting her head. Everything went black... then she heard Vincent cast a spell, and felt strength flood back into her body. Sitting up, she saw Vincent pointing to the dragon, and heard him utter yet another spell: "ULTIMA!"
"You have the Ultima...!" the ninja gasped as the spell took effect. The dragon roared in pain as green flames rained down around it, but did not appear seriously harmed. An astounded look appeared on Vincent's face, and he looked down in terror at the Materia in his hand. I recognise this - it has happened before!
The dragon took that opportunity to use its firebreath again, and Vincent went down on his knees. Yuffie thought she heard him say something under his breath... but it only sounded like "No... Not...now!"
He fell to the ground, unconscious or - she hoped not - dead. Fumbling in her pockets, Yuffie felt something that was marginally different from the other Materia she was carrying. Whereas normal Materia was smooth, like glass, this piece was rough and uneven...
Summon... materia? she wondered. She didn't have any...
But she did! That piece she had found...
No time to think about it.
Bringing the Materia up, she focussed her mind at it, trying to reach whatever mind was connected to it.
There was a reply, very faint, but it was there. Yuffie ducked as the dragon swung a massive claw at her, almost losing her hold on the Materia, and found herself praying to the gods she usually dismissed, praying that the Esper would see fit to give its aid -
Suddenly the air seemed to start vibrating, and a shaft of bright light shot from beneath them - from the Lifestream, Yuffie thought - and past the dragon. Something flashed even brighter than the light column...
The light faded. The dragon shrieked in agony, clawed at the ledge, and finally plummeted down towards the rocky ground, its left wing severed.
Standing on empty air several meters above them was a man; a man with silver hair, dressed all in black. As black as his clothes, blood dripped of the long, gleaming sword in his hands.
"S - Sephiroth!"
As Sephiroth slowly descended through the air, Yuffie backed away, finding herself at the edge of the ledge, standing over Vincent. "Sephiroth! But that's impossible!" She felt ready to cry. All they had done... for nothing? "You can't be alive! You can't!"
"Yes. You are right," Sephiroth said. "I cannot be alive. My body was destroyed over seven months ago... completely destroyed. There is no way I could be alive." He set his foot on the ledge. Yuffie tried to back away, found nothing but empty air, and quickly retreated back onto solid ground. "Vincent! Wake up!"
"I am afraid he cannot hear you. He appears to be unconscious." Sephiroth sheathed his sword, after first shaking the black blood from it. "But you will not need him. I am not here to harm you."
"What else!" Yuffie demanded. If she could just get the Ultima Materia in Vincent's hand...
"When I died," Sephiroth said. "I was not myself. Or rather, just before I died, I was myself. The very last seconds.
"For years, my body and mind had been controlled by Jenova. When you defeated her, she merged her body with mine, thus creating the... One-Winged Angel. When that body was destroyed... so was Jenova. Body and soul. I, however, remained. My mind would not merge with the Lifestream, but then Cloud appeared..."
"He did?" Yuffie asked. "He never said!"
"His spirit found mine. We fought... I knew what I had to do. I let Cloud destroy me. Thus, freed from all bonds to the physical world, I joined with the Planet, as part of it... It was I, who caused Lifestream to shield the Planet."
"Yes. The instant I joined Lifestream, all the lives I had taken... I knew what I had done under Jenova's control. I had to atone for my crimes... by saving the world I was trying to destroy, I have just begun to repay my debt."
Yuffie was, once more, speechless. "But you were... evil!"
"Jenova was alien. It was not necessarily... evil, only different. And as for me... I am - was - cold and merciless... not evil."
Yuffie blinked. Vincent, by her feet, started to move, and she knelt down to help him. "Vince!"
"I... Chaos... Dragon!" Vincent's eyes snapped open, glowing red. "Where.. is it?"
"Dead. look, Vincent, you should -"
"What!" Vincent sat up, then leapt to his feet. "This... I feel... No!" He turned around. "Sephiroth!"
"Sephiroth..." Vincent's hands clenched into fists of their own accord. "Sephiroth!"
"Yes. My spirit. Vincent Valentine, I know... my being here must pain you, as much this place... Why are you here?"
"I have come to destroy you, Sephiroth..."
The silver-haired warrior shook his head sadly. "I have done much wrong under the control of Jenova. Even I... realise how wrong those things were. But there is something I regret... more than anything. That is my part in destroying two courageous persons... My mother. And the only man who ever loved her. You, Vincent. And Lucrecia."
"You have no right to speak that name!" Vincent snapped. "This ends here! I will destroy you, Sephiroth... this time forever!"
"You cannot. I am... dead already," Sephiroth said. "And a spirit can not be killed."
"Maybe not," Vincent said, knowing with dreadful certainty that this was not new, that this had happened before... "But I will still try." Raising his hand he cast a spell: "ULTIMA!"
A green sphere appeared in midair, hovering in front of Sephiroth, who calmly watched it. Suddenly the sphere exploded, showering the man with green, insubstantial fire. Sephiroth shook his head again.
"I... hoped that you would no longer harbour such feelings. They will destroy you in the end, as surely as they destroyed me... as surely as those very feelings allowed Jenova to possess me."
Vincent knew now that something was wrong - very wrong. But what? His determination was beginning to waver. Why didn't Sephiroth do anything? Why did he just stand there? Why was the only thing Vincent could feel from this man... sorrow?
Yes, something was wrong.
"Sephiroth.. What are we doing? I hate you, I... hate you more than I have ever hated anything. I cannot rest until you are destroyed, yet..."
"There is only one thing you an do, then. You and I must fight..."
"You said you weren't going to hurt us!" Yuffie shouted. "Was that a lie?"
"Believe me," the warrior said. "I will not harm anyone. Least of all you. How about it, Valentine?"
"Yes... yes. I will fight you." Vincent holstered his gun. "I will fight you with all my might, Sephiroth, and I will not let you win. Know this: this time, I am not holding back."
"I would have it no other way."
Sephiroth made a gesture. And in a flash of light, he and Vincent disappeared.
The darkness was impenetrable; almost palpable. The only thing visible to him was... Sephiroth; his face, hair, hands, and sword.
"So here it ends," Vincent said.
"No. Here it begins. But something must end, first, before anything else can begin." Sephiroth pointed his sword at Vincent's chest. "Something in there."
"Did you never know?" Vincent asked. "In here? The only thing in there is my heart... and it died... long ago."
"If you feel that way..." Sephiroth raised his arm a little, pointing the sword at Vincent's throat. "...there's nothing I can do."
And he advanced.
What am I to do? Vincent thought as he watched Sephiroth come closer. I cannot do anything. Whatever I do, I lose. How do I know that? No, it must be true. I cannot... do anything. But why not? Why couldn't he do anything? Once you accept your destiny, there is no escaping it.
Accept my destiny? No...
I cannot accept such a destiny. I must at least try.
He pulled his gun again. Calmly taking aim, he aimed at Sephiroth's forehead... and pulled the trigger.
He never missed. No, he never missed. But somehow, Sephiroth was faster. The Masamune came up, seemingly at a slow pace, and the bullet struck the sword, shattering. Sephiroth didn't even flinch.
"That weapon is not what you must fight with," he said.
"No. There is no need..."
"But the choice is mine." Vincent threw the gun to the ground - ground? - and clenched his hands.
Everything seemed to happen in slowmotion.
Sephiroth thrust his sword at Vincent's chest...
Vincent dived out of the way...
Summoned all his strength...
The next second, Sephiroth's katana burst through his back. Vincent felt the blade enter, then felt Sephiroth pull it away.
"So... it is over. Now do you see?"
"It is never over, Sephiroth." Chaos straightened its back. Vincent held a hand to his chest, over the wound. "It will never be over... as long as I constantly struggle... as long as I hate..."
Wasting no more time, Sephiroth attacked again.
Vincent did not move. Yet once more, the slightly curved blade slashed through his body. He grabbed Sephiroth's arm -
"This is how it always ends," he said, staring into the warrior's eyes. "This is how it always happens, this is the way I always lose. Not this time. I caused the change by my own will. I do this, too, out of my own will."
And he released Sephiroth's arm, taking a step back. Possibilities - and now, along with the possibilities, glimpses of their futures - flashed through his mind. The pictures passing too fast, being too many, Vincent could understand little, but one particular picture burned itself into his mind - he killed Sephiroth... and knew that this was not the first time...
The first time?
And then he understood. By choosing that path... history would repeat itself. Was it the _other_ possibility that led to this future...? How? The image of Sephiroth dying appeared again, flashing before his eyes...
But that was the one thing he could not do. Anything else... but by that choice, Vincent knew, he would choose to embrace a destiny more terrible than Sephiroth's own. Taking one more step back, away from the silver-haired warrior, Vincent stared into his Mako-blue eyes. "Killing you would not return Lucrecia... " he hissed, "nor would it ease the pain in my soul. If I kill you now, all I will gain by it is death. I do not accept that. I will live... " Still staring into Sephiroth's eyes, Vincent caused another Change, returning to his human form. "...because I choose to do so. "
And finally, Sephiroth smiled.
"That," he said, "my friend... is how it is supposed to be."
"What happened?" Yuffie asked. "Where did you go?"
"I think... my soul," Vincent hissed. "I think... I found... what I was... looking for. Maybe more..."
"Yeah. I think you did. Hey, Vince... I never found anything. But I feel like going home. Can we go now? Please?"
"Yes," Vincent smiled. "We can. Hold on to me, Yuffie. I will fly us out."
The day was quiet and beautiful. The sky was clear, and the sun warmed him. The samurai leaned back, closing his eyes, soon drifting off into a peaceful half-slumber...
He sat up with a start. "...Yuffie?" he asked the dark shape standing between him and the sun. "Yuffie! You're back!"
"No I'm not!" Yuffie Kisaragi replied. "Of course I am back, you old coot!"
"Well, did you find what you were looking for?" Godo asked.
Yuffie frowned, although, being only a silhouette to him, she knew that Godo did not see it. "I'm not sure," she said. "But I think I might have found something."
"Something, eh?" Godo slowly got to his feet. "Well, daughter... Sometimes, we don't find exactly what we are looking for. But sometimes, we find something as good... or even better."
"Yeah... I know. And I rather think I did." With that, Yuffie grinned and slapped her father on the back. Godo straightened his jacket and frowned at her, which made Yuffie roll her eyes. "You know, pops," she said, "I'm kinda glad to be home again."
What is life? Death? Love? Indifference? Anger? Joy? I have seen it all... but I am none the wiser. I wonder what the future has in store?
Only time will tell. But for now, I am going to live the present... and remember the past.
And with those thoughts, Chaos - no, Vincent - turned his back on Wutai, and flew west, towards the rising sun.