Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy VII. Thus, neither do I own Vincent, Yuffie, Cloud, Sephiroth, a black chocobo named Azrael, a white chocobo named Ayana, or a house in Costa del Sol. I could afford that last one, but the realtor won't wake up and sell it to me. Jerk.

Setting: Three years after Meteor, mildly AU. Not related to the Ties That Bind series in any way. The fanfic entitled Puppet (formerly known as Your Life is the Illusion) can be considered a prequel of sorts, but no allusions are made to that fanfic specifically, merely the events that took place in it, and in the point in the game it is based on.

Summary: Three years after Meteor, Vincent is living in complete solitude and Yuffie seems to have fallen of the face of the earth. When Vincent receives information that leads him to believe she's in trouble, he finds himself roped into a quest running much deeper than locating a prodigal ninja.

Pairings: listed after chapter.

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O - O - O

Chapter One: Catch Me If You Can!

The sun was setting.

He watched in still silence, not a glimmer of light coming to his garnet eyes or a hint of a smile curing his pale lips. No, he preferred merely to watch. To watch, day after day, as time flowed mercilessly onward. At least when he watched the sun rise and set he could prove to himself that time was, indeed, passing. Otherwise, it might as well have been three days since the defeat of Sephiroth rather than three years; the lone figure perched atop the once-beautiful mansion hadn't changed at all. Oh, his hair was longer and his clothing a little worse for the wear, but there wasn't a single note of age on him. He had always been like that, even before the change. Ageless. Even now he could have just as easily been seventeen than his apparent twenty-seven—though no one would believe that he was, in fact, over the age of sixty by this point in time.

Time. It all came back to time. Vincent realized that the sun had set, though he hadn't noticed, and the first stars of evening were beginning to shine. A glimmer of light in the otherwise black sky. No, it wasn't even black anymore. In the years since the Reactors were shut down the sky had cleared, and it was the most intense shade of midnight blue tonight that Vincent had ever seen. Even when he was a child the sky had been black during the night, so the realization that it was the same shade as the deepest of sapphires came as some surprise.

Pinpoints of light flared with each passing heartbeat, and soon the sky was alight with stars. The moon had yet to rise, but it was easy enough for the ruby-cloaked man to see with only the starlight to go by. And such starlight…! It must have been some sort of special night, for the stars were brighter at that moment than he cold ever recall, the sky so clear it seemed—for once—to stretch on forever. No clouds, no planes, nothing to obstruct the perfection of the stars. The gunner wondered if there was some place that celebrated this night, and if any of his comrades were there.

Cloud was most certainly awake, probably watching the sunset from his home in Costa Del Sol. Cloud rarely ever left his seaside home, preferring to stay inside and laze his extended life away trying to sort his scattered memories. Vincent wondered if anyone was with him tonight, any old comrades visiting or reporters camping out on his doorstep. Cloud had never said a word to the press about the fight, and so they never really left him alone. The others had all given their stories and been deemed worthless since, but Cloud remained a mystery. Vincent decided he was probably alone tonight, as he always was. Nursing some great hurt he would never speak a word of.

Tifa had left Cloud twice over the initial year after Sephiroth's defeat, and a third time toward the end of the second. Vincent didn't blame her. She had been living in the house Aerith was born in last time Vincent heard from her. That had been a year ago, if he recalled correctly; right after she settled in completely. She was working as a doctor of sorts, using the training she had acquired over the course of their journey to make a living. She was a quick study, smart and beautiful, and Vincent doubted she would be alone for long.

Nanaki was at Cosmo Canyon, studying to become the Elder as his grandfather had been, and searching for more of his own kind. When Vincent had heard of the young wolfcat's endeavor, he had done some searching of his own, but come up relatively empty-handed. The little evidence he did find was given immediately to Nanaki, who accepted it graciously before politely requesting Vincent leave him to do it alone. Vincent understood that the wolfcat wanted to find his own people with his own means, and stepped back from the search.

Cid was in Rocket Town, probably already asleep, with Shera by his side tonight as she had always been. They had been married three weeks after the Jenova Incident—as the press was calling it—came to a close. Everyone had been there, even Cloud had come out of whatever hole he had been hiding in to avoid the public eye to join in the festivities. It wasn't much, but Reeve dropped by and given them gifts so amazing—and obviously expensive—that Vincent had been enlisted to keep an eye on Yuffie to make sure she didn't try anything. She tried, needless to say, but there was no success in her attempts.

Barret was in Neo-Midgar with his daughter and Aerith's mother, the three of them living in the home Aerith had grown up in. The man with the gun-hand made frequent trips to Corel, but within a year of Sephiroth's defeat the town had righted itself—with Barret's help—and required little attention nowadays. The publicity it got for being the hometown of a member of AVALANCHE was enough to clean the place up considerably, and the rest was done by its connection to Gold Saucer. The theme park was booming—it had been expanded twice since the incident, thriving off the documentaries done on its connection both with the Black Materia and with Cait Sith, who had helped to save the world along with everyone else.

The little doll had gone to Gold Saucer at the end, and it was there that he was at last retrieved by Reeve—the Turks in tow, seeming much lighter of heart than they had ever been—and shut down for good. Reeve had left, then, and no one had seen him in person since. He was busy, working to restore the damage done to Neo-Midgar by both Meteor and Holy, and attempting to turn around the workings of Neo-Shinra. He was the president now, with everyone else dead, and working hard to take apart every single Reactor piece by piece. The generator he had used on Cait Sith had been studied, tweaked, and enlarged to take up the space of a single Reactor in Sector One, and that lone power plant now powered the entire city. Vincent was, though he would never say it aloud, rather proud of the former Secretary of Urban Development.

Last of all was Yuffie. If anyone was celebrating the brightness of the stars it would be her; lighthearted, energetic Yuffie celebrated everything from the defeat of the pseudogod Sephiroth to the healing of her bruised knuckles with fervor. The stars' light was likely not lost to her, wherever she was.

Vincent knew where the others were, but Yuffie remained a mystery. He had traveled, done mercenary work, for a time after Jenova fell, but his short jaunt to Wutai over a year ago had proven that Yuffie had not, in fact, returned home. She stopped in from time to time, so Godo said, but she had not been home in eight months when Vincent visited. Godo had requested that the gunner, should he see the prodigal Kisaragi, to tell her to come home for good.

The gunner had no intention of doing any such thing—Yuffie's life was her own, she had earned that much at the very least in standing against Sephiroth, and no one was going to tell her own to run it any longer, least of all her father. Vincent respected the man's ability to adapt to change, but he had never appreciated the way he treated his daughter. He behaved as though she was some sort of puppet for him to speak through, a lump of clay he could model after himself. Yuffie was her own person, had her own spirit, and Godo didn't seem to see that.

Of course, Vincent hadn't seen Yuffie since they parted ways at Cid's wedding, so the memory hadn't resurfaced until now. Where was she, he wondered, and why didn't she ever visit the others? He could understand why she never came to see him—he was Vincent, after all, and had probably scared her to death since the moment she laid eyes on him under the mansion—but no one had spoken to her since the wedding. One of the gunner's comrades would call every couple months, and Vincent tended to ask if they had seen Yuffie lately; all of them said no. Even Cloud and Nanaki hadn't seen her the last time they called, and that had only been five months and two months, respectively, ago.

Vincent had found out upon Cloud's call that it had become a topic of great conversation among the others. Before the end of the battle, the merest thought of Vincent asking about Yuffie would have made anyone laugh, but now it happened, and it happened frequently. The gunner guessed that someone had told another, and the word had spread since then.

As if on cue, the gunner's PHS rang. He sighed, removing his eyes from the sky, and flipped open the phone, pressing the green button and holding it to his ear. "Valentine," he answered.

"Hey, Vin, long time no see!" said a gruff voice from the other end; Cid. "Before y'ask, I figure I should tell ya that I saw Yuffie today." Vincent stiffened involuntarily, eyes widening. When had hearing of her become so important? She had always been nothing more than the youngest of their group, and hadn't even crossed Vincent's mind after the end until his visit to Wutai. But now he always seemed to find his thoughts returning to the missing ninja. "Well? Isn't that a good thing?"

Vincent realized he hadn't replied, and did so at last. "Yes. Where?"

"Caught a glimpse of her in Kalm. Shera an' I were on our way to visit Barret an' Marlene, to show 'em the baby, y'know?" Vincent did not know, but supposed that he should have. He gave a quick congratulations, wondering why he hadn't been told of the child's arrival, and waited for Cid to continue. "Thanks, Vin, that means a lot coming from you. Anyway, so I passed her on the street, an' it took me a second to recognize her. I turned around and called for her, and she turned around and looked at me. Then she got all scared-lookin' and ran off."

"Odd," Vincent murmured, eyes narrowing slightly. "Did she say anything?"

"Not a word outta her. That's the really weird part; the brat never stopped talkin' last time I saw her, and now she's, like, mute and all depressed."

Vincent waited for an explanation, realized he would have to prompt it, and spoke again. "What do you mean, depressed?"

Cid paused for a long moment. "Well, not so much depressed as…tired? I dunno. Anyway, her hair was all messy and her skin was pale—looked like she hadn't slept in a week. And she had this cut on her face, just below her eye."

Vincent let the pilot change the subject then, going on about the prettiness of his daughter—who, apparently, looked like a blonde baby Shera—but Vincent wasn't paying attention. Yuffie had run from one of her comrades; she had been ruffled in appearance, and she hadn't said a word. This did not bode well for the young Kisaragi. Cid's coos about his baby trailed off and he said a quick farewell. Vincent merely shut off his phone, not bothering to say goodbye himself, and stared out over the earth stretched out around him.

She was in trouble, that much was obvious. But usually her being in trouble would result in her hurrying to get help from a friend. The fact that she ran from Cid suggested that she was in trouble to the point that involving anyone else would be dangerous. But they had saved the world; the monster called Jenova was destroyed, Shinra was gone, Meteor's rape of the earth had been averted. What could possibly be holding her in such a thrall?

The gunner rose to his feet, steady in spite of the ramshackle roof he stood on, and looked out round him. The windows of Nibelheim glowed warmly—all save the mansion he lived in, the Shinra Mansion. It hadn't seen light inside during the nighttime hours since that last covey of reporters had come eight months ago, attempting to get Vincent's side of the story and failing miserably when the few monsters left in the mansion attacked them. The thought of reporters made him think of Cloud, and the gunner dialed in the young Clone's code on his PHS. He would be willing to look for her, wouldn't he?

The phone rang once.

Out of everyone in AVALANCHE, Cloud had been the one who most identified with Yuffie, both before and after he regained his memory.

The phone rang again.

Surely he would be interested in this bizarre news; perhaps he could talk to Reeve and see if anything strange was happening in the outside world.

A third ring sounded.

Cloud had never taken so long to answer, had he? Perhaps he was always like this—Vincent had only called him once since the end, and that had been the first time Tifa left him. Then the sunshine-haired young man had been prompt, his voice steady in spite of the emotional trauma he had just suffered.

There was a fourth ring, then a click as the young man's voice mail turned on. "Cloud Strife," a recording of the numberless Clone said. "I'm not picking up right now, and I might never pick up. If you're a friend, leave a message; it you're not, go screw yourself." One of the gunner's eyebrows quirked. When had he recorded that? He must have been in a particularly bad mood that day.

"Cloud, it's Vincent. Cid said he saw Yuffie today, and I think she's in trouble. Call me back when you get the message." With that he hung up, heaving a sigh and looking down at the ground far below. He couldn't call the others; the only ones he had ever identified with were Cid—they had both had all their dreams pulled out from under them like a rug in an old movie—Cloud—there was little to be said about their connection, it was obvious—and Nanaki—they had both been prodded by the same lunatic. Nanaki was busy studying and searching for his people, Vincent couldn't interrupt that because of something Cid, who was not the best source, had said. The others were already accounted for.

It looked like there was only one thing left to do.

Vincent sighed, made sure his gun was in it holster, and jumped of the roof, landing with all the weight and sound of a shadow on the cobbled stones below before darting into the darkness and disappearing entirely. The rooftop was empty, then, as though nothing had ever been there in the first place.

The moon was rising.

---------------

"Run-run-run-run-run!" she cried, darting between buildings and people, searching for some concealing corner of shadow deep enough to drown herself in. It hadn't been a problem when she saw Cid earlier, and it wouldn't have been a problem at all if it weren't for the fact that she had run. Due to her hasty retreat, it was obvious to the Watcher assigned to her that the blond was someone she knew, and he had taken actions to make sure she wouldn't make contact with anyone else from her past.

Namely, a failed attempt to cut off her feet so she couldn't walk around anymore.

So she ran, hard and fast, until it felt as though her lungs would burst. She caught sight of a red-and-blue sign and raced into the shop it advertised, bowling over a woman coming out carrying so many boxes that she had no head to speak of and obviously had no clue where she was going. Yuffie, on the other hand, knew exactly where she was going, and only had a moment to make it there before the Watcher would catch up. She darted behind the counter, obviously terrifying the shopkeeper, and slammed once on the third floorboard back. It upended, and she pulled it back until it was completely flipped over, pushing it back into place with a satisfied click. She turned to her left and found a trapdoor barely with width of her shoulders in the wall.

"Yes!" she cheered, diving in and pulling her legs in after her just as the door slid shut. She could swear she heard footsteps—heavy and steady, like a Nibelheim rain—sound against the creaky floorboards as she scrambled through the narrow passage. The Watcher couldn't know about this passage—not even she had known about it until three months ago during a particularly expensive purchase of new clothing. And he hadn't been there; she knew for a fact that there had been no Watchers present during that short foray into world outside pursuit.

But she didn't know where it led; for all she knew it opened into a monster nest. It leads away from the Watcher, she told herself sternly. That's good enough for me!

She went on for what felt like hours, until all her muscles were cramped and her breath was labored. Just when she had come to the decision that this was another dream, that the passage would never end, it opened up into the open air and she tumbled unceremoniously out. Head rattled and muscles aching, she remained in the position she had fallen for several long moments, seeking out the little strength remaining in her limbs and preparing for anything. Something was bound to happen so long as she remained in one place, and she wanted to be ready for it.

Something did happen, though not at all what she expected. She had been expecting for the Watcher to emerge from the tunnel—even though his shoulders were far too broad to allow him entry—or for some spell to ricochet out the opening just above her head, but what happened was considerably different. A strange warbling noise caught her attention, and something tugged lightly at her hair. Very lightly.

She angled her head back to see the underside of the square pipe she had climbed through—it certainly looked gross from the outside, and even though she knew the inside was in perfect repair her nose wrinkled in distaste at the thought that she had actually crawled on her belly through it—to find a single violet eye rooted on her. A very large violet eye. Almost the size of her fist.

The ninja yelped and rolled forward in a somersault, landing at last on her feet with Conformer in hand, but she relaxed the instant she realized what it was she was seeing. "Ayana!" she cried, leaping to her feet and wrapping both arms around the massive chocobo's neck. "I thought Akaru killed you months ago!"

As if in reply the white chocobo warked happily, then proceeded to rub against the girl's neck almost like a cat. Yuffie chuckled and embraced the giant bird with the same affection it was currently showing her. They stayed like this for several long moments before Yuffie drew back and looked deep into her long-lost mount's amethyst eyes, petting the top of its head lightly and speaking in a tone so sweet it would be enough to give anyone a toothache. "Listen, babe, I need your help. I have to get out of here, and I have to do it now. The only problem is, I don't have any greens to give you, and you don't have a saddle or reigns. This is going to be hard on both of us, but we need to get out of here before Akaru's flunkies catch up with us, okay?"

The chocobo cocked it head to one side and blinked once, clearly not understanding, and Yuffie let out a sigh. She held up her right hand and snapped—instantly the bird's attention was rooted on her too-pale fingers. She clicked her tongue and the chocobo turned back to her face. She continued this, alternating, for several seconds before beginning to do both at once. The bird was confused for a moment, but then turned and rooted its attention on her face. Yuffie smiled and stopped snapping.

Cloud had taught her how to do that, to catch a chocobo's attention and keep it, regardless of whether she had anything to offer or not. Cause momentary sensory overload, force it to make a decision, then stop the choice it didn't take. She had always wondered where he had learned it, but never thought to ask.

It worked every time. The girl shot her eyes downward, and the bird knelt, allowing her to mount. It turned to one side, fixing a purple eye on her face, and she placed one hand on either side of the bird's neck, snapping the fingers of each once. Ayana turned to face forward again, standing up, and Yuffie petted her mount's neck for a moment more before releasing with her left hand and pressing lightly with her right. The bird turned to the left and started off at a brisk walk.

Yep—that trick worked every single time. Yuffie decided that she would definitely marry whoever it was that had come up with it if he ever asked. Unless it was someone like that sleaze, Corneo. Or that Turk, Rude. Reno might not be that bad. But if it was my dad…or maybe— She broke off. Maybe she wouldn't marry whoever came up with that trick, after all. There were just too many possibilities.

Yuffie urged Ayana into a canter, taking in the scenery all around her. She was in a forest, she realized, which couldn't be possible if she had climbed out a hole in Kalm. The nearest forest was…hell, she didn't even know. "Unless," she mused to herself, someone put this…here…!" Her eyes widened and she tightened her grip on the bird's neck, grey eyes darting around her as Ayana froze in place, one foot lifted to take a step.

The ninja ground her teeth. Another damned trap; all this, and it was just another trap. She was still caged. "Akaru!" she shouted, removing her hands from her mount's neck and allowing it to relax. "I know you're out there, you bastard!"

"Ah…" a smooth male voice breathed somewhere to her right, so close to her ear she swore she felt him breathe on her, "but if you cannot find me, then there is no point in my keeping you." She leapt off the bird to be further away from him, wherever he was. "Find me, my little kitling. Perhaps I will let you leave this den I have built for you for another day if you can find me."

She ground her teeth, clenching one hand into a fist and taking hold of Conformer with the other. "How about I just start chopping things to bits until I hit you?"

"Straightforward, as always. But of course, that is one of the many things I so adore about you, kitling." Her head shot back to face beyond her bird, where she found a young man standing. He was in his mid-twenties, with red hair—fiery blond highlights streaking through the crimson—and Wutaian-slanted eyes of pale blue. His smile was not unpleasant, but there was a predatory note to it that Yuffie recognized from both Don Corneo and Rufus Shinra, though even the young president had never seemed close to as threatening as the sky blue-eyed Wutaian before her.

Akaru walked past the girl's chocobo, pausing to ruffle the snowy plumage on its wings before continuing toward the girl. "I built this forest, you know. It's more like a jungle, though, than a forest. So many of the old trees from home couldn't survive here that I had to make due with what would. Even I have my limits." Yuffie stood, defiant, before him, eyes narrowed. He was close now, close enough to touch only extending her arm halfway, but the young ninja was determined not to back down. Akaru sighed, looking down at her—she was barely eye-level with his chin—with a slightly lighter smile. "Don't you like it? I remembered how you used to love to play in your father's garden when we were little and I tried to recreate it here. Isn't that enough for you?"

He reached out to take her hand, but she jerked it away, taking a single step back. "Don't you dare touch me you….you…!" She couldn't even find a word to describe him.

Hojo had been a malicious lunatic, Sephiroth had been a madman with the powers of a god, but Akaru…Akaru was, somehow, worse than both of them combined. There were no words to describe his variety of wrong. It was like Hojo's lust for power combined with President Shinra's authority and the magic of kitsune from an old fairy tale; he could do anything he wanted, be anyone, but still he wanted more.

Akaru wanted it all; and, for some reason she didn't quite understand, he thought Yuffie could give it to him.

He leaned forward, his smile fading as he parted his lips and let out a long breath that smelled of roses and summer. Yuffie winced when his breath touched her face, but did not move otherwise. Let him be a weirdo, she thought. Maybe he'll get so stuck on trying to be mysterious that he'll leave himself open. She bit her bottom lip. That's how it always worked in the books…princess captured by evil prince/king/wizard/lord-of-some-sort, he lets his guard down, she gets away. She runs straight into the arms of her prince… That was where she faltered. Yuffie Kisaragi, future Lady of Wutai, had no prince to run to; nowhere she could be safe. If Akaru found out she was coercing with any of her friends from AVALANCHE he would have them killed. Them, but not her.

She had seen it enough times before to know that he would leave her alive. He needed her, after all; without her, he would never be Lord of Wutai, and without that authority he would never have the power to complete his goal—whatever that was. Yuffie didn't really want to know what it was he was striving for; all she had to know was that it was bad, and the man immediately ranked very high on her This Person Needs to Die Before He Screws Up the World list. She almost grinned at the thought of anyone—even her—writing down a list of all the people that needed to die to protect the planet. Hojo, check; Sephiroth, check; Heidegger, check; President Shinra, check…

Akaru? No. Not yet at least.

The redhead placed his hand on the back of her neck, pulling her close enough to lean his forehead against hers as he looked deep into her grey eyes. "Isn't it pointless," he murmured, "to hate me so much? Your father agreed to this; the would never do anything to hurt you."

Yuffie wanted to tell the man that her father had beaten the tar out her as a child whenever she stepped out of line; that the only reason he acknowledged her existence was because her mother was dead and she looked a bit too much like her to overlook; that he really didn't care if his daughter was happy with his decisions or not. Anything just to make him stop talking. But she couldn't—her father meant too much to her. She hated him, yes, but it was the same hate she had so often directed at the rest of AVALANCHE when things didn't go her way. She loved him more than she hated him, she wanted him to be proud of her, not disappointed. Would marrying Akaru make him proud? She doubted it.

The ninja let out a sigh. To think that this terrible ordeal had found its roots when she was barely six years old…

Akaru closed his eyes. "Considering you have no alternative, kitling, you have to marry me, to keep the blood of Wutai flowing strong." He smiled. "Just think of the children we'll make…"

"I won't," she hissed through clenched teeth, tightening her grip on Conformer, "be bearing any children of yours, you sick bastard!" She leapt back, swinging her giant shuriken like a sword or dagger, slicing open the front of the Wutai nobleman's kimono. She whistled loudly, Ayana rushing to her side in an instant, and leapt onto the chocobo as though her life depended on it. Which, in a manner of speaking, it did. They raced off, and Yuffie turned to see how much damage she had done to the man claiming to be fiancé. Her grey eyes widened when she realized what she was seeing.

Firstly, he was pursuing them. On foot. And keeping up. His arms were at his sides, spread out almost like a bird on the verge of taking flight, the sleeves of his haori flapping out behind him like great cerulean-and-silver plumage. Secondly, he wasn't bleeding. There was blood on the front of his kimono, certainly, but it looked…old. Dry.

Like there was no blood left in him to bleed.

Akaru smiled as he gained speed, coming closer with each passing moment, and Yuffie tightened her grip on Ayana's neck, urging her to quicken the pace. The bird did so, and soon Akaru began to shrink behind them; when it all came down it, he could be as fast as Sephiroth and a good chocobo could still outlast him on endurance. At least, Yuffie hoped so. She faced forward again, letting out a sigh of relief as they broke the cover of trees and thereby escaped the princess' gilded cage, but even carefree Yuffie couldn't help but feel that her escape had been a bit too easy. Akaru wasn't going to give her up without a fight—he would find her again, just like he always had, and she'd be dragged off to hide in one of his numerous 'summer homes.' She had to think of something fast, before he sent the Watchers out after her again.

But where could she go? She didn't dare involve anyone else—they all had lives ahead of them, days of joy and light just on the horizon. Except, perhaps, for Cloud and Vincent; the ninja doubted those two could acclimate to peace regardless of what kind of therapy they went through. However, in spite of the fact that she doubted those two particular members of AVALANCHE weren't as content with life as the others, she couldn't just rope them into this mess. It was her problem, and she couldn't bear to think of either of them being hurt.

Well, being hurt anymore than they already were.

Her only choice was to run—run as fast and as far as she could, hide out somewhere he could never thin of looking for her. But if she thought he would never think of looking for her somewhere, that meant he would check there first. Akaru had always been like that; when they played hide-and-seek as children he had always—always—won.

Yuffie sighed. Akaru had been her friend; a kindhearted, if somewhat arrogant, boy with fiery red hair that he got teased for more often than not. He had been fun to play with, easy to talk to, and always made her feel like she could do anything. He had believed in her when her father didn't, and she had loved him for that. Of course, she had never had any romantic interest in him, not even in the last moment before she ran away, when he held her hand and begged her to stay… She closed her eyes and shook her head, letting the chill wind of the Midgar Field clear her head.

Akaru Inochigawa—her pursuer. Heir to the Inochigawa fortune when she saw him last, when she was barely twelve, and he a mere sixteen. They had been betrothed since childhood, when she was six and Akaru ten, and that had been one of the many reasons Yuffie Kisaragi had left Wutai in the first place. She wanted to decide who she would love, who she would marry; if it turned out that, after she had her fill of life outside her father's box, she really did care for Akaru, then she would have married him.

Upon returning to Wutai after Holy and Meteor, after Sephiroth was defeated and the world saved, Yuffie found the red-haired Wutai noble a changed man. He was cold and almost cruel, his arrogance and ambition seeming almost to be more than he could handle, and he was furious. Furious over what? She wondered. There was no reason to be angry because the world was saved, but he continued to rant and rave about what things would be like, "If Sephiroth hadn't been defeated."

It scared her.

So, as she tended to do whenever things grew too intense for her to handle, she ran. She ran and she was caught, by a young man from Midgar who called himself a Watcher. "I am a carrier of Lord Akaru's gaze, I hold a fraction of his omniscience…"

Yuffie had spent the last two years escaping and being recaptured, over and over, until she had almost given up hope of ever being a real person again. Until she found that trapdoor in Kalm; then the spark that was her spirit was relit, and she formulated a plan.

Thoughts of Kalm made her brow furrow. Akaru would be searching the field, checking Wutai and Nibelheim and even Neo-Midgar for signs of her—those were the three places she would never dream of going, and so the first places he would station his Watchers—but what about Kalm? Not even Akaru would suspect her return to that hellhole, the cage she had lived in for the last six months.

She urged Ayana into a turn, coming about, and faced the now-distant town. "Come on, birdbrain," she breathed, "let's go get you a saddle."

They started off toward the city, a prison of blue cobbled stones and trees that should never have been.

O - O - O

O - O - O

Author's Note: Okay, as with all new stories I have a few points to make before the story is continued. First, this story was originally conceived only because of a challenge I was issued, and I have been deliberating on the plot for almost a month. In that month it became a story I truly wanted to write, and I'm enjoying writing it about as much as Bound. It is not intended to be a very long story, but mine never are. Bound was only supposed to be twelve or thirteen chapters long. Yeah. Right. That certainly worked out, didn't it? Secondly, this fanfic is unconventional. Highly unconventional. The main reason for this is because of the pairing combination—current, past, and implied (meaning 'happening in this fanfic,' 'happened in the past,' and 'may or may not be real, but it looks like it probably is')—that is used. I guess I should give a list so you know what to expect, huh?

Pairings (type):

Vincent/Yuffie (implied, eventually current)
Vincent/Lucrecia (past)
Cloud/Sephiroth (current, implied)
Cloud/Tifa (past, implied)
Cloud/Aerith (past)
Barret/Elmyra (current, implied)
Cid/Shera (current)
Hojo/Lucrecia (past)
Zack/Aerith (past)
Sephiroth/Zack (past, implied)

It's not normal for a fanfic to incorporate different orientations, and I understand that a lot of people aren't going to read this fanfic because of the shonen-ai implications, and others aren't because there aren't enough of them. I do not endorse the Vincent/Cid pairing by any means, but neither do I believe in the possibility of a rekindling of a relationship between Cloud and Tifa. I have incorporated hints of both, however, in this story. I've read some darn good Vincent/Cid fics, and I can bear a couple Cloud/Tifas here and there, so the genre isn't completely lost to me. Vincent/Tifa, however, in my opinion, is just going a bit too far. As a result, there is not an inkling of that pairing in here. Not even a word.

Thanks to anyone who is reading this, both new readers and fans of my other works. I really appreciate all your support, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading my work as much as I enjoy writing it.

If you think this story was worth your time, please leave a review. If not, then you can leave a flame if it means that much to you. Be warned, though; I won't have a whole lot to say in response to flamers. Constructive reviewers, however, will receive a note of thanks in the next update. I especially appreciate when I am given a suggestion on how to improve my writing; if you want to critique, fell free to critique! Constructive criticism is always welcome, so long as it's done politely.