Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII is the property of Square-Enix. Everything else is mine.

A/N: The last chapter threw me a bit; I wasn't expecting that to happen when it did. But I think I have things sorted now, so let's see how this goes.

Chapter 39: Ask the Sea

Yuffie opened her eyes to darkness, breathing harshly, and stared for a moment at the ceiling while her eyes adjusted. What had woken her? She took a slightly deeper breath, trying to steady herself against the cold pit that had opened in her stomach, and realised that someone else was breathing with her. Aeris. She turned her head, saw the older woman wrap her arms suddenly about herself. She gave a violent shudder, and then her eyes opened, to fix upon Yuffie's, even in the darkness.

"What is it?" Yuffie hissed.

Aeris sat up, hands clasped to their opposite elbow, as though trying to contain herself, trying to keep out whatever it was that had woken them. "It was... something horrible," the Cetra confessed, still whispering. "Something..." She shook her head, as though to clear it. "No, someone... someone hurting."

"Vincent...?" Yuffie suggested, and almost immediately dismissed the idea. It was quiet; far too quiet for what had woken them to have anything to do with Chaos. She slithered from her bed anyway, and groped in the darkness for her discarded shorts. Halfway through zipping them, she froze.

There were footsteps in the hall.

Too quiet.

She held up a hand to still Aeris' grudging movements, and crouched to retrieve the Conformer. Her fingers traced along its arms, the now-expected dip of the empty slot that usually held her Leviathan making her grit her teeth as she moved noiselessly toward the door. She stood to one side of the heavy wooden door, one hand on the handle, the other holding her Conformer cocked and ready. She listened. She took a deep breath.

She pulled the door open and raised the Conformer defensively, pausing as a voice in the hall hissed, "Yuffie, what are you doing?"

Tifa stood there in a tee shirt and boxer shorts, squinting tiredly at the ninja. Behind her, Reeve tried vainly to comfort a softly weeping Feather. Yuffie blinked and lowered her weapon.

"Sorry," she whispered. "We, uh... what's wrong with Feather?" The last thing she wanted to do right now was confess to getting all jumpy over a bad dream. Tifa ran a hand through her hair and half-turned to look back at the trembling woman, something between sympathy and exhaustion on her face.

"We're not quite sure. She woke up crying, and hasn't stopped."

Reeve was ruffled with sleep, but it didn't take the sympathy from his eyes, or the gentleness from the hand that rubbed ineffectually at Feather's shoulders. "I think it was a nightmare about the Phoenix-Imbued," he tried to mutter in an aside. "She knew him before, and I guess it's a bit of a shock to be going up against him..."

Feather's hands clenched abruptly, nails scraping brilliant red trails down cheeks already blotchy with tears. "The Phoenix is free," she said, in a whisper so forceful that Yuffie suspected it had started as a scream. Aeris' hand touched the ninja's elbow gently as the tattooed woman continued, "It's crying... it's crying. Can't you hear it?" She dissolved into tears again as Reeve tried to calm her, and keep her hands with their long nails far from the delicate flesh of her face.

Aeris, peeking over Yuffie's shoulder, cleared her throat. "I think we might all be awake for the same reason," she told them. Yuffie shifted slightly so that she could look back at Aeris' eyes. Usually they were a soft green, like a misty ocean, but now they had the harder sheen of a piece of jade. "Were you going to see Cloud?"

For a second, Tifa looked almost abashed. Then Aeris stepped into the hall and nodded to herself, went to Feather's other side to try to still the other woman's grief.

"We'll come, too," she said, and Yuffie could only shrug and fall into step behind Tifa as the martial artist led them down the hall.

- - -

The Titan was hunkered down beside the smoking remnants of the board table, frowning slightly. He had not expected that the Phoenix would try to resurrect the body that had kept it prisoner. But try it had; the boy's body had burned to ashes, taking half table with him in an eerie burst of crimson flame. And now, in the ashes, there was something moving.

He reached out a hand, and brushed ash away from the something. At his touch, it let out a weak, mewling sound, and flailed tiny limbs a little more determinedly, shaking more of the dark, clinging substance free. It coughed, and then set to wailing in earnest.

It was a baby.

Titan's brows knit. He brushed more ash from its forehead, leaning closer to observe its eyes, brightened already with the coldness of the crystal-blind. Its limbs were normal for an infant, if Titan was any judge, but its fingers were slightly too long. The nails on its feet reminded him more of claws than of anything human.

It would not survive on its own, and he had no time to coddle it.

He brought a chair down on its forehead, and scowled when the corpse once more began to smoke.

- - -

Tifa was quickly learning that the slightest hint of a smile from Ryyu could make her feel like smashing down walls. It was infuriating. Smug and calculating, as though she held all the cards and could see through the hands of her opponents.

"And you all had this nightmare?" She questioned silkily. Cloud glared at her. Despite a groggy awakening, he was bearing up surprisingly well with the application of a hastily assembled cup of inn coffee.

"Feather had a nightmare," he corrected her shortly. "Yuffie and Aeris woke up around the same time."

"We can't remember what we were dreaming," Aeris put in regretfully. "We were wondering if you had felt anything?"

Ryyu looked as though she would skirt this question, but after a moment she nodded firmly. "Yes. The Phoenix has broken free of Laurent's body, although not properly. Not well." She drew her brows together, and stared at them more plainly. "Are you sure that you are all that sensed his death?" She accented her words pointedly. Sephiroth shook his head when Cloud glanced at him.

"I felt nothing," he informed them calmly. "Don't be fooled. Those who did sense it, stirred. Even she was dozing, before you arrived."

Ryyu shot him a dirty look. "Perhaps you should direct your observations elsewhere," she suggested tartly. "More than four have woken from nightmares this night."

"To wake me from the nightmare..."

"Vincent." The name was off her tongue before she could think about it. Cloud glanced at her, and she tucked her hair behind her ear. "He might have had the dream as well," she suggested, and smiled slightly as Yuffie nodded in agreement.

"Hey, she might be right. He's been having weird dreams since the beginning of this, you know? I mean, the very beginning." She flipped the Conformer over her shoulder, stuck out her hip. Tifa grinned along with the ninja as Yuffie said, "I'll go get him. If I don't come back, he's passed out from one measly Rising Sun, and I can't haul his ass back up the stairs."

- - -

The Titan peered at the tiny, misshapen creature at his feet, and scowled. It was stubborn; he could give it that. But it had begun to annoy him.

This was the third attempt the Phoenix had made to revive the shell of its host body. The long, spindly growths at the end of its arms could no longer truthfully be called fingers. Their flesh was strange and hard, the wax-like tracery of feathers and nails on the skin covered over with a brittle, greenish exoskeleton that throbbed dully in the scant light. The legs bent as a bird's did, now, not as a human's. There was little tissue on those legs, and the toes grew longer and separate, each capped with a talon in frozen mako green.

There was still a tiny human chest to the creature, but it was a weak cawing sound that came from the ill-developed throat. The child's face had begun to stretch forward, outward, as though there was something behind his lips pushing determinedly at the skin that covered it.

The eyes, still, were blind.

Titan picked up the long-limbed, ill-formed child and dashed it violently against the edge of the table. He kicked and scuffed at the ashes on the floor, but the sad, thin form that held the Phoenix smouldered determinedly, no matter how he railed at its remains.

- - -

It was not yet dawn when the Highwind lifted into the sky, and as such, their take-off seemed even louder and more abrasive than usual. Yuffie sat opposite Ryyu in the cargo hold, jaw firmly clenched despite the lurching of her stomach. Damned if I'll show weakness to her, she thought poisonously, glaring so hard she thought her eyes might pop out of her skull. (How did Vincent do that all the time?) Damned if I ever let her see weakness on my face.

Ryyu, for her part, seemed completely oblivious to Yuffie's efforts. Flanked by Red and a surprisingly subdued Cait Sith, she sat wth her legs curled beneath her, apparently perfectly comfortable despite the cold of the steel floor. Her golden eyes were blank, her face a mask – who knew what she was thinking, behind a face as cold as that? It could have been anything... and what if she was concentrating on something important? Yuffie gulped down a deep breath as bile rose momentarily in her throat and scowled darkly at the other Wutaian.

"Hey," she said to get Ryyu's attention, and when the other woman's eyes remained glazed and distant, said it again, a little louder. The Bahamut-Imbued blinked, her pupils widening from vertical lines to what could have passed for normal human pupils if Yuffie hadn't watched them focus. She didn't reply, but turned her face expectantly toward Yuffie, waiting for her to continue. Yuffie found herself a little envious of the woman's poise.

"How did you know that Vincent had dreamed about this Laurent guy, too?" She asked. "If you can't get into his head like you can with the rest of us, how do you know what he was dreaming?"

Ryyu smiled that tiny, polite smile that Yuffie had only ever seen be polite and kind on her mother, and drew herself slightly straighter. Leviathan, her manners are, like, a thousand years old... "Merely an educated guess, I assure you. There is no telling what lies in that man's mind." A poisonous hint to the smile, now, and Yuffie struggled to shrug the comment away.

"It'd make more sense if he'd sensed it and I hadn't," she said flatly. "Why would I dream about the Phoenix-Imbued?"

Ryyu's eyes went dull and golden once again, and she dipped her head. "I am sure that the answers you seek lie in Wutai," she said, and would speak no more. Yuffie sighed. Why can't we hold her in the Chocobo stalls? She thought grumpily, though she already knew the reason. The moment any of the birds caught her scent, it was like they were standing next to the Midgar Zolom.

Or Vincent.

Nanaki, seeming to catch the drift of her thoughts, stepped forth stiff-legged to collapse on her lap. She'd spent too much time on the Highwind to try to rebuff him; the squawking only made her feel worse. She sat with his enormous, shaggy head on her knees most of the way to Wutai, and laughed when he woke above the island's southern coast to snarl at the hundreds of tiny braids that she'd peppered through his mane.

- - -

The Titan had one browned hand clamped over his mouth and nose as the other clutched the malformed infant form of the Phoenix-Imbued against his chest. The damn thing would not stop burning, respawning; there was ash all over his floor.

And now, as he stepped out into the loading bay, the child's body made steam in the air as his own did not, some inner heat sustaining it even as he dropped it in disgust on the metal grating that passed for a floor. It squealed, blind eyes crinkling slowly into an infant's expression of betrayal. What should have been easy, fluid motion was greatly hindered by the crackling, crystallized skin that had appeared all over this incarnation's body. The rough edges could almost have resembled feathers. But this child would never fly; this child would be lucky to keep breathing long, with the strain the exoskeleton was placing upon its internal processes. It was a mutation, destined to fail.

He nudged it with a booted toe, watching its feeble movements with pity. It was a shame. Laurent had been a good boy. A bit of a coward, but a good boy. It was a shame.

He nudged the squalling baby a little further, over the edge of the submarine dock. There was a splash, and a few moments later, steam, as the Phoenix tried in vain to combat the icy water and revive its host one more time.

Titan sighed, coughed at the steam, and returned to salvage what was left of his board table. It was all such a dreadful pity.

- - -

The weather in Wutai had not improved since AVALANCHE's last visit. The rain, while no longer torrential, still drenched the town determinedly day after day. The earth beneath their feet was barely visible through the rush of grounded raindrops downhill, toward the Leviathan. The river itself was swollen so much that the materia shop, the weapons shop, even Turtle's Paradise seemed adrift in its flow.

Cid wasn't happy about having to land his airship in the mire, but agreed (very reluctantly) that it would be far too dangerous to just let down a ladder in the middle of the storm. The walk to the gates wasn't particularly long or arduous, but Yuffie was pretty sure she hadn't had this much mud on her since she was four years old with a taste for mud pies and mud baths and mud anything, really, so long as she got to have a bath with Mama, afterward. She'd hated the way Chekhov had washed her hair. Mama was gentler. But then, Yuffie thought with a sudden pang, Mama hadn't had four boys.

She'd have to go talk to Chekhov's kids at some stage. Jonqui and Gaara were both older than her, but she was willing to bet that Ryyen was still pretty cut up at his mother's violent death. Damn. Why hadn't she thought of that? Too busy thinking about herself, her father. Good rulers didn't do that.

Not like I'll make that mistake ever again, she thought wryly as she took a step and lost half her right leg to the cold, sucking mud. I don't have any family left to concern myself with. No close family, anyway. It wasn't as liberating a thought as she'd imagined it would be, when she was thirteen, sullen and stubborn and sad. She pulled her left leg free of the mud she'd set behind her, and made a face as the water rushing along the ground splashed up colder and higher to her thigh. She was never going to get these shoes clean. They'd never be yellow again, that was for sure.

She'd never been gladder to see Katsura as when they stepped through the gates and the young woman hastened to the edge of Shakhai's porch to greet them with – Yuffie had to laugh – several fishing boats.

"It's easier to get around this way, these days," she explained as Yuffie tried to stifle her giggles. "…although your party seems to have grown since last you were here." She glanced in polite confusion at the Bahamut-Imbued, and Yuffie mastered her amusement at once.

"Thanks for the boats, Katsura, and thank you for thinking of us." She interrupted Cloud as he opened his mouth. "Would you be able to do me another favour?"

Katsura smiled at that. "I am yours to command, Lady," she returned, the levity in her tone tempered by her usual serious, determined attitude. Yuffie didn't lessen the gravity of the moment by smiling in return.

"Please gather Gen, Roko, and Asako, and send word to any other elders of that generation that Lady Kisaragi would be honoured to speak with them, of important matters regarding the Wutai War." At Katsura's slightly surprised expression, she added, "Not Kanzaemon. He shouldn't be outside in this weather." She gestured to the others and stepped into the larger of the shallow fishing craft, hoping that such a short, simple trip wouldn't make her feel sick, and – knowing her own luck – doubting it.

Katsura's eyes softened into another smile as she knelt to steady the boat, and nodded deeply. "It shall be done, Lady. I shall escort them to your door myself." There was a twang of amusement in her accent as she added, "Pid banrybc oui cruimt dyga desa du pydra vencd, Myto. Asako famm myikr, pid Roko famm hud dyga gehtmo du dra mak oui yna vmycrehk, hun dra sit ibuh ed."

Yuffie scooped up a handful of the rain that had pooled in the bottom of the fishing boat and threw it past her friend's ear, while Aeris squeaked and held up her hands as though the makeshift projectile had been intended for her. Katsura retaliated by waiting until Aeris was seated, and then viciously rocking the boat. Yuffie laughed.

"You'll be the sorrier when I vomit on you, Katsura! I win!" She bounced in her seat, but stopped immediately when she caught sight of the old woman who had come to the door of old Shakhai's house.

"Oui'mm pa dra cunnean frah cra sygac oui fycr ed, ouihk Myto." Asako's voice was cracked and weathered like the bark of a thousand year tree. Yuffie straightened her back and her features; unlike the similarly aged Roko, Asako was a joker by nature, but people who crossed her had a tendency of vanishing, and showing up several days later with impressive welts and bruises. She stared hard at Yuffie, her narrowed eyes a clear and vibrant copper despite her age, and climbed into the boat beside the ninja as though this had been the plan all along. Yuffie and Katsura knew better than to try to tell the woman differently.

Asako's bright eyes remained fixed on Yuffie's face, but when she spoke, it was to Katsura. "Oui haat uhmo pnehk Roko yht Gen. Keja ic yh ruin." She reached out with a slightly softer look to pat Yuffie's suddenly tight-clenched hand. "Vun drec, oui famm naat uhmo dra drnaa uv ic."

Yuffie and Katsura stared at her in surprise for a moment; Katsura bowed her head suddenly. "Oac, Asako. Yc oui cyo." Yuffie felt a dreadful excitement begin to rise in her throat, something that would surely form into a whoop if she didn't do something. She bit her tongue and Asako patted her hand again. Then she looked up at the rest of AVALANCHE, still standing beneath the shelter of the porch, and knee-deep in mud.

"You want keep old woman out in rain?" She demanded suddenly, and Yuffie had to bite her tongue again as even Reno hastily straightened. "Hurry up! Get in boat!" There was a flurry of movement, and Yuffie felt that excitement fizz down into a more manageable, less volatile amusement at the way Vincent had to move like an old man to avoid flicking mud onto Asako's robes, at the way Sephiroth barely caught the tail of his braid before it slipped into the silt-muck that adorned the floor of the other vessel. Yuffie felt a squeeze on her wrist, and looked fondly at the ancient woman at her side, stronger and more dangerous than any dragon's fang.

"E muja oui, Knyhtsy Asako."

Asako returned the expression with a wicked gleam in her bright, mischievous eyes. "Uv luinca oui tu, bad."

- - -

A/N: This chapter dedicated to my grandmother and my stepmother. Asako seems to be exactly what would happen if you smooshed them into the same body, and they got along at all. Sorry the chapter took so long, once again, and I hope it's enough to keep you all going. As always, comments and criticisms are very much appreciated.

And since I know some of you have trouble with Al Bhed, here are the translations.

Katsura: It shall be done, Lady. But perhaps you should take time to bathe first, Lady. Asako will laugh, but Roko will not take kindly to the leg you are flashing, nor the mud upon it.
Yuffie: You'll be the sorrier when I vomit on you, Katsura! I win!
Asako: You'll be the sorrier when she makes you wash it, young Lady.
Asako: You need only bring Roko and Gen. Give us an hour.
Asako: For this, you will need only the three of us.
Katsura: Yes, Asako. As you say.
Asako: You want keep old woman out in rain? Hurry up! Get in boat!
Yuffie: I love you, Grandma Asako.
Asako: Of course you do, pet.