Rites of Passage Chapter One The girl knelt before the altar, the high priest chanting the ancient ritual prayers over her bowed head. The incense in the temple was thick and heady, inducing drowsiness at a time when it was most vital to stay awake. As the priest stepped aside, a black robed man approached the girl, holding out a knarled hand to her.

"Come," he said, in a voice made hoarse by the sacred smoke, "it is time." He twisted the serpent's head carved on the back of the altar. Suddenly, the earth began to tremble. Out of the shifting dust of the great desert rose a magnificent temple, old as the land itself. It cast long shadows as the sun rose behind it. And from below the ground came an ear-splitting shriek, like that of some terrible predator aroused from its slumber.

"He awaits you," said the old man with a strange half smile. "You must fulfil your destiny." His hand on the girl's shoulder, he led her forward to meet her fate.

In a flash, she twisted under his hands, leaving him stunned and breathless on the floor. Taking one last look at the awe-inspiring edifice, Yuffie muttered, "Screw destiny," and took off from her father's pagoda as fast as her legs could carry her.

Rites of Passage

Chapter One: Amongst Friends

Three days later, it was a flustered, breathless looking ninja that hammered on the door of Cloud and Tifa Strife's Costa del Sol villa, some time after sunset. Surprised and a little annoyed to be interrupted during their quiet time, Tifa went to answer the door. Seeing Yuffie, she was about to yell at her to go and play her childish pranks elsewhere, or at least wait until morning, when she noticed the look on her visitor's face. Even during their mission to save the Planet, she'd never seen her look so serious.

"You'd better come in," she said, stepping aside. Yuffie smiled her thanks and dashed in through the door like a rabbit into its hole. 'What's up with her?' Tifa wondered. She went back to the sitting room to tell Cloud they had a guest. Rather to her surprise, he sounded pleased that the young ninja had decided to pay them a visit.

"After all, Tifa," he said, "we haven't seen her in nearly two years. It's always possible she might have grown up." Tifa giggled, then her face grew earnest again.

"I think there's something seriously wrong," she said. "She had the weirdest look about her just now, kinda scared and upset. You don't think she could be, you know, in trouble with the law or something? I mean...." Tifa trailed off, not wanting to sound nasty, but she remembered just how much she had wanted to wring Yuffie's neck when they'd met for the first time and she'd had half her gil stolen. Not to mention the time when the young thief had taken ALL their materia.

"What, our Yuffie?" said Cloud disbelievingly. "I don't think so. Not that she couldn't have done something bad, but even she's not fool enough to let herself get caught. Not by our law enforcers, at any rate." He sniggered. When he'd been with the Shinra, SOLDIER had been law. Now that they had been disbanded, the militia set up in their place were renowned for their incompetence. If anyone had problems in Costa del Sol, they tended to ignore the militia altogether and go straight to Cloud and Tifa. After all, what was the use of having two war heroes in the town if they never helped you out? In return, the couple were offered the use of their honeymoon home for free for as long as they liked, and had been living there since they got married, shortly after Sephiroth had finally been defeated. Their wedding was the last time either of them had seen Yuffie, when she twisted Tifa's arm into letting her be chief bridesmaid, and disappeared halfway through the reception taking at least five of the complimentary bottles of champagne with her.

"I'm not so sure," said Tifa, shaking Cloud out of his reverie. "That may be the case here, but what about in Wutai? I've heard that their laws are much stricter than ours."

"Wutai's laws," Yuffie drawled, leaning on the door frame, "are so out of date that not even my father can manage to keep within them. It's Wutai's traditions that are the real drag. I don't suppose you have a spare bedroom, do you? I'm really tired."

"Of course," said Tifa, blushing slightly. She hoped her guest hadn't heard too much of their conversation. She didn't want Yuffie to think that she always accused her friends of thievery when they turned up on her doorstep in the middle of the night. She led the exhausted teenager to the second bedroom and went back downstairs to Cloud. He looked far less flippant than he had done before.

"I agree with you," he said, "Something's up with her. Something big. I don't like that look in her eyes, Tifa. I've never seen her so scared before."

"Why so bothered all of a sudden?" asked Tifa in a teasing voice. To her surprise, Cloud actually flushed and looked away.

"She gave me some good advice once," he mumbled. "I owe her a little help now."

"Good advice? Like what?" Cloud's muttering became incoherent, and Tifa decided to drop the subject. "Well anyway," she said, "if it's not the law, what do you think is up with her?"

"I'm not sure. She said something about Wutai's traditions, right? Maybe they have some crazy ceremony they want her to do. Or........" his eyes glittered with sudden humour, "maybe it's an arranged marriage! I've hear they're quite common amongst the more traditional ninja clans. Can you imagine Yuffie in a wedding dress?" Tifa and Cloud shared a few moments laughter at the girl's expense. Tifa sobered first.

"What if it actually is?" she said. "That would be horrible for her. Yuffie's always been such a free spirit."

"True," said Cloud. "And knowing that, we probably won't find out what's actually wrong until she's willing to tell us. And, as that is the case," he leaned in very close, and whispered, "shall we go to bed?"

"With Yuffie next door?" asked Tifa, shocked.

"She's out like a light," said Cloud, who was now running his fingertips up and down Tifa's arm. "Nothing's gonna wake her up for the next few hours at least."

Tifa sighed, and gave in. After all, she reflected, as her husband led her towards the bedroom, it was no very great sacrifice.

**********

Many miles away, Lord Godo looked down at the warrior kneeling before his throne. His voice was cold and passionless as he gave his instructions.

"You know what tradition decrees," he said. "The Firstborn must undertake the trials when they come of age. Leviathan demands it. And if they cannot pass the ordeals, His hunger must be assuaged, not by their triumph, but by their blood. If my daughter does not return within a one quarter cycle of the moon, it is your duty to hunt her down and destroy her. You have your orders. See to them."

The warrior's face was expressionless. All in Wutai knew their duty.

**********

Yuffie slept very late the next morning. The sun was nearly at its zenith by the time she rose. Making her way into the kitchen, still yawning, she found Tifa making lunch.

"Well, you're up bright and early," Tifa said, using her teasing tone again. "Fancy some brunch?" When Yuffie didn't respond, Tifa grew serious. "Long time on the road, huh?" Yuffie nodded. "Never mind. Have something to eat, then you can tell me what's bothering you."

After some food, the ninja girl started to look a little more human. "Where's Cloud?" she asked. "I thought he'd be eating with us."

"Out in the mountains again," replied Tifa. "They're having some major monster problems up there. They think there's a clan of dragons breeding in the caves, and it's a long journey to get there, and they have to wipe out as many as they can whilst they're there. He probably won't be back until the sun starts going down. It's dangerous to hunt at night." Yuffie had winced slightly when Tifa said 'clan'. It didn't go unnoticed.

"So, are you going to tell me what's wrong or not?" asked Tifa, as they were clearing their plates away.

"It's kind of a long story," Yuffie said.

"That's OK, I've got plenty of time. Besides," her host added mischievously, "it gives me an excuse not to go help out at the bar, and since my new bar maid can take care of things perfectly well by herself, an excuse is all I need."

"You started another bar?" asked Yuffie.

"Bought out the previous owner," said Tifa. "He couldn't believe his luck. And even war heroes have to make a living, don't they?" Her tone was an invitation.

"Actually, my father was taking care of me," Yuffie said, putting an emphasis on the 'was'. "Up until my eighteenth birthday, that is."

"Did he kick you out?" asked Tifa, sympathetically. "Tell you you had to earn a living?"

"No. He just told me I had to take the seven trials of Wutai, and if I failed any of them I would die and my body would be fed to Leviathan." Yuffie's voice had a highly sarcastic edge to it. Tifa started to smile, then she took a look at her young friend's face. "My gods!" she exclaimed. "You're not serious?"

"Ancient family tradition," Yuffie said, bitterly. "Well I survived it, so I don't see why you shouldn't. It's your destiny, my daughter, don't fight it." Her voice was cold, and mocking, but there were unshed tears in her eyes. "I'm only doing this because I love you, and I want you to be everything you can be. His exact words. Bastard!"

"How did you get away?" asked Tifa, mind still reeling.

"Slipped the Master of Ceremonies the elbow and ran. Didn't stop running til I made it to a boat, then came here as quick as I could. It's very good of you to put me up for the night, but I can't stay here long."

"Nonsense," said Tifa. "You're no trouble to us." At Yuffie's raised eyebrow, she amended, "Well, none we can't take care of, anyway. We'd be happy to have you here until that crazy family of yours gives up on you, if you like."

"No, really, a week from now I'll be more trouble than I'm worth."

"What do you mean?"

"Another of those good old family traditions. If I don't take the trials, they'll send an assassin after me. Got that? A fully trained, Wutai assassin. If it was a warrior, no doubt you'd be well able to take care of me. Even if it was an army, you'd probably be alright. One of our assassins? You'd be strangled in your beds before you heard them coming. I'm not going to let that happen. If I'm on my own, I have a fair chance of beating them. With you two to look after, I couldn't make any guarantees."

Tifa had to smile at the young ninja's arrogance, but her eyes were grave.

"You're sure? There's nothing we can do for you?"

"Do you do miracles?" asked Yuffie, softly. "I could do with one."

Tifa had no answer for that. Uncomfortably, she changed the subject.

"By the way," she said. "What advice did you give to Cloud? He mentioned it last night. Said he owed you one."

Yuffie's eyes twinkled. "Oh, that," she said, some of her old flippancy returning. "That was just after we kicked Sephiroth's butt. All I said was, he had to get his priorities straight. If he liked Aeris more, he could go and join Vincent in the 'mourning your old lovers' club. If he preferred you, he should tell you already. I mean, what was he trying to do? Remain lost and confused in emotional turmoil forever? He was certainly doing a good impression of it."

Tifa was staring at Yuffie, open mouthed. "I guess I should thank you," she said after a while. "I had no idea."

"Hey, no sweat," said Yuffie, casually. "The guy needed a little prompting. He was bugging the hell out of me with that whole tough guy act."

Tifa turned the conversation away to other things, still stunned. Perhaps there was more to her friend than she had always thought.

**********

"You're sure you don't wanna stay?" Tifa asked, for the fifth time.

Yuffie's exasperation melted when she saw nothing but genuine concern behind the offer. "Sure, thanks," she said softly, turning away. She was halfway down the garden path when Tifa called to her.

"Yuffie! One last thing, before you go!" She turned round. "Yes?" Tifa handed her a mastered Leviathan summon materia.

"Happy birthday," she said, simply. "And good luck."


END OF CHAPTER ONE


Chapter Two