.X.

"Hiya, Vin," I said.

It was another moment before he spoke; I watched confusion fill his crimson eyes as he tried to piece together what exactly I was doing intruding upon his self-imposed exile. Realizing that I didn't really have a valid reason other than the fact I was attracted to him I made a pointed effort to both control the amount of blood flooding to my face and to very quickly formulate an explanation for my presence.

"What," Vincent asked me finally, bemusement evident in the fine lines that had appeared between his brows, "are you doing here?"

That was a really, really good question, and as I began to feverishly wish I was anywhere else in the world—I heard tell Costa Del Sol was nice this time of year—I managed to produce a sentence remarkable for its content. "I- uh …"

One of his eyebrows arched a miniscule distance as I faltered, more small lines creasing his forehead. Perhaps sensing my distress and mistakenly interpreting it, he prompted, "Is everything alright?"

"I- No." I blurted, and immediately realized the ramifications of saying such a thing.

Many things could be said about Vincent, but never that he did not concern himself with the welfare of his associates. Frowning concernedly, he asked with the grim seriousness he did so well, "Yuffie? What is it?"

Tell him the truth! Screamed the logical part of my brain. The other part—the part that made me do stupid things like travel across the world to visit attractive yet morose reclusive men—told the logical half to shut the hell up. "W-Wutai," I managed to stutter.

His eyes widened a small fraction, bringing an unnerving gleam to his already creepy eyes. "What is it?"

"It was …" Think, Yuffie! "… it was attacked. Days ago. I … I …"

Coherency, it seemed, had deserted me, and so I was left staring at Vincent and feeling a panic borne of humiliation and frustration grow within me. I was so out of my element—it was becoming increasingly apparent to me how very ill-equipped I was to deal with anything even remotely resembling romance. Perhaps, I thought feverishly, I could run from this room, run from the painful awkwardness I was faced with; I had actually begun to turn when Vincent spoke again.

"Are you alright?"

"No," I said honestly, and then swiftly amended, "Yes. Yes I am."

A fine V of consternation appeared between his brows; I as not acting like myself, which in turn was prompting him to believe the lie I had stammered out. After another moment of regarding me with a vaguely perplexed expression, Vincent hoisted himself out of his coffin; the movement was refined and oddly graceful and served as an unwanted reminder as to why I liked watching him.

"How did you get here?" He asked me, closing the lid to the coffin.

"Uhm … I hitched a ride. Hitched some rides."

"All the way from Wutai?"

"All the way." I repeated, trying and failing to keep the note of slight hysteria from my voice. You are in way, way over your head! My conscience shouted.

"And you are not hurt?"

"No …" Having closed the coffin again, he'd turned, and I found myself on the receiving end of his dark red gaze. Realizing that if I didn't stop this now, things would get really out of hand, I said, "Look, Vin … I shouldn't have come here … I'll be on my way now …"

"Yuffie." He said firmly, and the sound of my name on his lips was enough to jar me out of my semi-incoherent, desperate rambling. He took the four steps he needed to be directly in front of me and knelt; instead of craning my neck to look up at him, I was lowering it to look down. He continued, "It will be alright."

"Erm …" Oh boy. Now how to explain myself out of this? "Vin, I'll be okay, reall-"

I stopped mid-sentence, because he'd suddenly stood and put a hand on my shoulder. My hormones apparently couldn't handle the fact that he was touching me, because at that moment it was all I could do not to burst into giggles and collapse on the floor while blushing furiously. He propelled me around carefully with his hand, letting it fall away when I was facing the door. Stepping out into the dark, dank hallway he inclined his head to me.

"I'll help you." Was all he said, and those three words had me both groaning and squealing with inner despair and excitement.

He began to walk, beckoning me to follow, and so I did. The eternity it took to traverse the spiral, rickety wooden staircase that led back to the upper mansion left me plenty of time to think of A) How stupid I would feel once Vincent figured out I'd lied, B) How angry Vincent would be after figuring it all out and C) How much I really wished I'd just stayed in Wutai and been content to be bored for the rest of my life.

Once we reached the second floor he led me across the main landing and over into the opposite wing, where we entered a bedroom rendered ramshackle by time. He gestured silently to a stuffed chair that was both ripped and stained, and feeling somewhat weak-kneed I sank down into it. For a moment he was quiet; I lifted my head to see him regarding me, his face an implacable mask. He broke the silence then, saying only, "I'm sorry that this has happened."

"So am I," I whispered, and I really, really was. In fact, if Sephiroth had appeared right then, I'd have happily impaled myself on his sword. But nothing came to save me from the disaster I'd created and mired myself in, and so I watched in mute dismay as Vincent moved to the door.

"I'll be right back," he said, and I noticed then the slight underlying note of compassion in his voice. If you didn't know him, you'd never have recognized it for what it was. It made me feel happy and awful at the same time, kind of like when you're in an airplane and it's exhilarating but your stomach doesn't agree … or maybe that's just a me thing.

I watched as he left the room, watched as his steady, confident tread carried him down the stairs visible through the open door and out of my sight. I had an inkling of where he was going; he'd want information on the lie I'd told, and so he'd check the airwaves for any available news. After a few minutes of mulling over that fact, I found myself propelled out of my chair by a feeling of imminent dread; I moved to the window, which was hardly more than a few jagged pieces of shattered glass still attached to the frame, and peered down at the ground two stories below. I could make the jump easily, but I wasn't sure if I could get through the window without cutting myself and opening an artery. Frustrated, I spun around and moved to the doorway. I stuck my head out and did a quick survey of the landing and the wide open foyer below. There was no sign of Vincent, and so I quickly ran down the stairs before gripping the banister and swinging myself around to the next set of steps. I was going to make a dash for the door—sure, Vinnie would be confused when he returned and found me gone, but maybe with time—and a lot of luck—he'd think he'd imagined my visit. Or maybe he'd be pissed off and hunt me down. Either way, I didn't want to stay here and suffer the consequences of those few words I'd stupidly uttered that had started this whole ordeal.

I had actually begun to think I might just make a clean escape when I heard him say my name. I halted, bowing my head and sighing. There'd been a grim, hard note in his voice, and knowing what that meant I turned slowly around to face him. He was standing in the doorway to one of the first floor rooms; the door itself was hanging at an angle by one hinge. He approached me slowly, his steps seeming to my apprehensive self purposeful and deliberate. When he was within five paces—striking distance—he stopped, and I steeled myself for what I knew was coming.

"The attack," he said in a quiet, careful voice that betrayed no emotion whatsoever, "when did you say it happened?"

"A f-few days ago," I said, hanging my head, even though I knew that I had been caught in my lie.

"And you got away? You fled when the bombing started?"

"Y-yes, I caught—" I stopped talking and stared at him as the implications of his latter question finally registered. "Bombing?" I whispered, and quite suddenly there was a coldness seeping through my veins, originating in the area of my heart.

"It's a wonder you escaped, Yuffie," he said, and there was no mistaking the gravity and the empathy in his tone. "It's all over the news channels."

I couldn't speak. I simply looked at him, thinking that perhaps this was some sort of joke, an act of revenge on me for lying to him in the first place. But he moved closer and gently took me by the arm, leading me to the room he'd just left. Within were the shambled remnants of the mansion's former inhabitant's furniture, but there was a sturdy table situated in one corner, and on top of it was a small TV with two long antennas. I recognized the news program on the screen; it was from one of the main broadcasting stations located in the main continent. The volume, while not loud, was enough for me to hear what was being said clearly.

"—quite obviously the act of a terrorist faction. While their reasons for the bombing were not made public, it is rumoured that this attack was over a dispute between the ruling family of Wutai and some of the smaller, surrounding areas under its rule. As of right now, the total number of casualties are unknown, but the outlook is grim—"

How calmly the news anchor uttered those words—how very matter-of-fact she sounded. The image on the screen changed, showed a scene of smoke and fire, with bits of rubble lying everywhere. There were other things lying about, too, and after a moment I realized they were bodies, crumpled and broken. I shook my head, made a sound of denial—this wasn't Wutai—this couldn't be … But then the camera panned upwards, showing more billowing clouds of dark smoke as they reached upwards for the sky, and then I saw the many faces of the mountain, obscured only partially by the haze, gazing down upon the burning wreckage as though in heavy sorrow …

I made a sound and fell to my knees, unable to peel my eyes away from the television. The woman was speaking again, though the camera had shifted once more to show buildings crumbled and alight with flame. And against my will I began to recognize things—the sign to Turtle's Paradise, the arch from the materia shop upon which so many schoolchildren had carved their names …

"—you can see, very little has survived the devastation. Preliminary investigation revealed that the main and largest bomb had been planted within the central pagoda, which was situated in the easternmost part of the village—"

And I saw it then, the building that had been the pride of Wutai. It was a broken shell, a husk torn apart, sundered and blackened with wisps of flame still visible dancing all around it. And I knew then a pain like none I had ever known, so strong, so piercing that I felt as though I had been stabbed directly through the heart. I stared dumbly at the screen and tried to ignore the intuition that told me with cold, cold certainty that my father was dead, as was everything I had grown up with, everything I had loved. When Vincent stepped past me and turned off the television, I did nothing. I remained on my knees, my eyes locked on something I wasn't seeing.

"Yuffie." Vincent said, and he dropped to a crouch before me. My eyes shifted slowly to him, and the irony of what had just happened, of the truth becoming intertwined with my lie, was so incredibly painful that it hurt to breathe. I stared at Vincent and didn't move as he reached out slowly with his flesh and blood hand to touch gently my cheek—it was a hesitant gesture, a move made unsure by the fact that he hadn't comforted anybody in a very long time. But it was enough to make me close my eyes, enough to make me catch my breath on a sob and fold in on myself as the world I knew came crashing down around me. And when I felt arms going around me, I cried harder, lost myself to the awkward embrace that was meant only to reassure, to console.

I'd come to Nibelheim to find Vincent. And the people I'd left behind were now dead. Attraction didn't matter then. Lies didn't matter. What mattered was all I'd lost—what mattered was that I'd left, and that maybe, just maybe, things would have been different if I'd stayed.

.X.

Author's Note: I apologize for the many month absence. My attention –which is like that of a crow when it sees something shiny- was caught by other things.