Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Title: The Difference
Author: Rose Flame
Theme(s): #14 - craven, democracy, aristocrat
Pairing/Characters: Yuffie/Vincent, Hojo, Sephiroth, Godo
Rating: M

Warnings: AU. War. Adultery. Angst. Death. (It's not as bad as it sounds. There's also candy, and a rock collection.) Also minor loli, I guess.

Disclaimer: Don't own, don't sue.
Summary: Hojo gives Vincent one last chance to change everything; a chance Vincent, surprisingly, takes.

Notes: This is long. Ridiculously so. And, surprisingly, NOT inspired by the bit in the forest with the kid and the cloak! I was writing it weeks before I saw AC. I'm prescient, or something.

Last chance, Valentine. The voice is a hoarse rasp above his head, maybe far above his head - he's too dizzy from blood loss to know where his head is any more. This is your absolute very last chance, ha ha ha, your final fantasy, before I lock you up and throw away the key.

You think you're pretty slick, Turk, but all the brawn in the world can't beat a good, solid strategy. Sniff. Swipe at forehead. Vincent's eyes focus on the streak of startling red that has suddenly appeared amidst the strangely phosphorescent glimmer of sweat on that slightly bulbous brow. Yes, ha ha. Not so sharp now with all that mako in your blood, eh? You wait until the dreams start. You just wait.

But here's the thing, Valentine, he says, and stops. He pushes his glasses further up his nose, and peers down at Vincent's face with scrutiny. Here's the thing. Even if I hid you in the deepest, darkest pit this miserable Planet had to offer - eventually, someone would dig you up. Ha ha. They always do, you know. That's how it works. But the interesting thing about it is, if a person makes a choice to go down into the deepest, darkest pit - well. They never come back. They aren't dug up five or ten or fifty years later.

I've done some pretty interesting things with your body. You'll have a lot of time to find out about them all, if you take me up on this. It's a generous offer. You can think it over while I finish up with your thumb. Son of a bitch won't sit right. You could have mentioned that you'd broken your hand at some stage, selfish bastard. I could have put the joint for this somewhere else-

Vincent's vision erupts with coloured sparks and large, jagged patches of blackness as pain too severe for even the mako to deal with surges up his arm and into his brain stem. He writhes, or tries to writhe - Hojo has done a remarkable job of pinning him to the table, and his limbs and vocal chords are sluggish. The most he can manage is a kind of high-pitched exhalation in pitiful imitation of a scream.

Hojo chuckles. Vincent's arm feels as though it's coated in jagged, molten glass. How's that, Valentine? It looks good, I must say. Very visually appealing - not what you're used to, I suppose, but aesthetic, nonetheless. His blood-slick glove comes to rest on Vincent's forehead, smoothing back his hair almost gently. Vincent, who has had to hold in his own viscera before, tries to recoil at the repulsive touch, and flops limply instead.

Hojo's face swims far above him, smug and pitying. Vincent hates him as he says, you're beaten, Valentine. I could do anything I wanted with you, right now, but I'd rather avoid anything too gruesome. 'Crecia loves you so, after all, naïve and childish as you are.

Vincent cannot speak; he snarls instead. Hojo laughs his intolerable laugh and strokes gore-coated fingers through Vincent's hair. He clenches them, the difference of the minor pain allowing Vincent a moment of lucidity, a moment of focus.

I want you to go away, Valentine. Disappear. I don't care how. Back to that little shit-hole island of yours for all I care. But disappear, and do it tonight.

Vincent cannot speak, but his lips form the words anyway. Hojo is watching him closely enough. He knows what Vincent will say. Lucrecia. I promised Lucrecia.

Hojo's eyes are cold and bright and heartbroken as he says, Lucrecia is going to die, you idiot. She was always going to die. She knows she can't make it as far as Gast can, but she's made sure she's the one who'll be remembered in this project. She'll be the martyr who allowed all this. So. So don't you tell me about 'Crecia. He closes his eyes and two fat tears leak from beneath his eyelids.

Vincent wants to scream. You're lying, you're lying, you made her sick, you made her, but against everything he wants to believe he is struck with the inescapable hammer blow: Hojo is telling the truth.

Disappear, Vincent, before you make her regret her decision. There's no way back for her now.

Vincent chokes on tears and cannot reply, but by the time Hojo feeds the right stimulants into his bloodstream to get him up and moving, he's made up his mind; he's leaving. He's doing what he swore he'd never do.

He's breaking his promises. He's running away.


They stare at each other. She is surprised and a little awed to find someone living all by himself in the middle of the forest, especially in such a funny little house. He is astonished that a grubby little girl-child, five years old at most, has ventured so deep into the forest when not even adult Wutaians had noticed his presence.

Fifteen years, he's been here, and he hasn't aged a day. He hates to think of the horrors Hojo spared him.

Her hands are caught up at the neck of her tiny cotton robe, as though seized by a sudden shyness the rest of her pays no heed. "Do you live here?" She sounds impressed.

Vincent nods slowly, still staring, still sitting dazedly in the sun. He should return her to the village, but that would mean that they would learn of his existence. He couldn't just kill her; her parents would search the entire forest to find the body, and the creature who had murdered their child. Perhaps if he waited, she would find her own way back to the village.

"Wow... what a neat house. Did you build it all by yourself, mister?" She trots closer, trying to peer inside. It isn't hard - the dilapidated hut has no door. Despite the fact the girl probably can't lace her sandals, Vincent feels somewhat ashamed of his lack of architectural skill. He had always been awed by the artistry of Wutaian structures. The child apparently prefers his lopsided creation. "This place is super-cool, mister. When I grow up, I wanna live in a cubby house."

Vincent is wordless. The child laughs at what is probably an expression of stunned disbelief, doubling over and holding her small pot of a belly. When she straightens, a wide and gap-toothed grin is directed at him.

"I'm Yuffie. What's your name, mister?"

"I… I am called Vincent." He is so surprised by her daring, he finds himself answering without conscious thought. She screws up her face and mumbles it a few times as though trying to fix it in her memory.

"Okay, Vincent. You wanna play with me?"

Vincent looks down at this scrap of a girl and is strangely glad that she has not seen his misshapen arm yet. "Shouldn't you head home? It's getting late."

To his surprise, Yuffie flings her head back and stares thoughtfully at the sky for a few moments. She lets out a long noise of sullen agreement. "…I guess. It took me a while to get here. It'll be dark by the time I get back."

She dithers a moment, stretching stubby toes as far as they'll go, out over the soles of her sandals and digging at the dirt with them. "Can I come play with you tomorrow?"

Vincent eyes her carefully, and shrugs. "If you can find me again."

Her eyes brighten to the point they seem to shine. Vincent notes absently that pot-metal grey is a rather odd eye colour. "Yaaaaaay! I'll come back nice and early this time. I won't even stop for a swim," she adds insistently, as though he has voiced doubts about her sincerity.

"But this has to be our secret," Vincent cautions, struck by a sudden thought. "You can't tell anyone about me."

The idea seems to strike Yuffie's fancy. "You can be Yuffie's special friend," she decides magnanimously. "Like Shake's invisible dinosaur that no one else can see. Okay, Vincent! I'll come back tomorrow!"

And with that, she's gone, off into the forest like she's the daughter of the wind. A particularly small and scruffy daughter of the wind, Vincent amends in his head. She won't find her way back - it's been fifteen years since he last saw a human. He doesn't expect to see the same one on successive days.

He wakes from disturbed slumber to the patter of tiny feet on moist earth.

"Hey! Vincent!"

He stares at the awkwardly placed boughs and leaves that form his ceiling and blinks sleepily. He wonders if he's imagining things, if he's finally snapped and the girl is just something he's created because he has been so miserably alone.

"Vincent! You meanie, you promised you'd play with me! You'd better come out here, or-hey, whatsamatter, Vincent? Are you sick?"

She's standing at the door, tugging at the straps of her worn sandals as though to remove them before walking inside. Vincent almost chuckles. He does sit up. "No. Just lazy."

Yuffie giggles. "Pops says I am, too. We're the same! Are you gonna come play with me now?"

Vincent eyes the girl and her sodden robe, and remembers how to quirk a smile. "Mmm, I'm not sure. You said you wouldn't go swimming..."

Yuffie looks horrified and insulted and puffs out her little cheeks with righteous fury. "I didn't go swimming! It rained! You can even come see, it's still cloudy n' wet!" She adds defensively, pointing to the bright, but less than usual, day that silhouettes her in his doorframe. Vincent finds the second smile a little easier than the first as he comes to stand beside her and peer distrustfully out at the day.

"Hmm, you're right. Very well. What would you like to do?"

He realises several minutes later, when he's hanging onto her foot with his one good hand and telling her sternly that she is not to climb any higher, she'll break her neck, that this was the wrong thing to ask.

Fortunately, Yuffie is distracted by the appearance of his claw, and has a whole host of questions about what he can do with it. Most involve what he's sure constitutes cruelty to fiends.

They spend the day getting all the sap that had oozed all over him out of the shirt, and out of his claw joints, and Yuffie scampers off for home with green and yellow bark stains all over her knees.

Vincent sinks onto his futon with a weary disbelief that anyone could even consider having children, and is asleep before he can think more than that.

He is waiting for her long before she arrives. When she does turn up, she is soaking wet and sullen and shivering. She stares at him grumpily, mud halfway up her calves, and says, "Lost my shoe. Big yucky lizard stole it."

Vincent's expression is amused, but otherwise unreadable. "I take it you went swimming today." She glares at him, but she's far too young for the expression to be anything but comical.

"I tried to," she grates out, "But I couldn't catch any fish, and then when I went to get my shoes there was this big nasty lizard and it hissed at me, and." And she stops suddenly, scowling viciously. Vincent is mildly concerned by this. It looks painful. Finally, Yuffie explodes with, "And I wasn't scared. At all. So there."

Vincent bites his lip against the sudden, alien urge to smile. "What a terrible lizard. Will your father be angry that you've lost your shoe?"

Yuffie turns slowly redder and redder as she mumbles something that might, with a little imagination, have been an affirmative. Vincent feels for the little girl's independence and pride. "Lizards don't need shoes, but I think Yuffies might," he says thoughtfully. "We should go and get your shoe back."

Yuffie stares at him for a moment, eyes huge and horrified and tear-filled, and she looks down and mutters something about the shoe not being 'portant. Vincent shrugs and tells her to come and sit in the sun 'til she's dry and they can chip all the mud off her legs. She is absorbed in the task until she discovers a lady beetle crawling over her toes, and that is the end of the peace and quiet.

Vincent eventually swings her up onto his shoulders and goes crashing through the forest on her imperious directions to take their reptilian enemy's stronghold. When they reach the part of the small stream that widens and calms into a shallow pond, Yuffie's shoe is sitting alone and abandoned on a large, flat rock. Vincent, casting a surreptitious glance at the canopy, surmises that the creature had merely been sunning itself, and could not have been less interested in ingesting either the girl or her tough and stringy sandal.

He puts her down so he can tie it for her properly, but the moment she hits the ground, she's tugging at the other one and crashing into the water, immediately frightening away every last one of the fish she was apparently hoping to catch. Vincent sits down on a rock to guard her from lizards, and offers occasional suggestions on the finer points of fishing, which she ignores completely, because she's done this before and of course that means she knows best.

Eventually she patters up the bank, sopping wet and muddied again, but grinning because she touched one and that was what counted, and he puts her shoes back on. He has to have her hold one of the laces, because his claw's too sharp for the delicate procedure and in any case, he wants it nowhere near her skin. When he's done, he straightens and points her in the direction of Wutai.

"Home," he tells her firmly. "Or you'll get sick and your father will have reason to call you lazy."

Yuffie nods and hugs his leg, wet and warm and slightly squishy. Her short cap of hair is an utter mess, and he is sure her mother will be horrified. His own certainly would have been. She dashes off into the undergrowth.

Vincent turns in the opposite direction and heads for home, wondering with a strange exhilaration whether she'll come back tomorrow.

Vincent's days pass in blurred colour, his evenings in slow contemplation, and his nights in the barest blink of an eye. Keeping Yuffie occupied exhausts him.

He often wonders why he puts up with her; why he doesn't just do something so horrifying and cruel that it will frighten her away for ever. Certainly it would make some days easier. Certainly he has done such things before.

He thinks he could live without the days watching with heart in throat as she scrambles and slips all the way to the top of the monstrous pines, and the days where she practises holding her breath in the too-fast-moving stream, and the days where she falls and he's just too far away to catch her and she cries, hiccupping and gasping for what seems like hours while he holds her close and tender and he doesn't know what to do.

He could live without those days.

He thinks.

Her visits to him wane, as she grows older. A six year old has more to do than a five-year-old does; she learns to write and count and tie knots - Vincent isn't sure where that is leading. She visits only once or twice a week, for she's still small, and it's a long way from the village to his ramshackle hut in the middle of nowhere. It takes a whole day. She arrives late and leaves early, so she doesn't have to walk in the dark.

Some days she forgets, and Vincent walks part of the way with her, carrying her quickly on his vastly longer legs. He always stops well before the village, though, and cautions her to mention him to no one. She's old enough now that she makes faces while he's talking and smiles brightly, innocently, when he stares at her suspiciously. She makes her promises, and she hugs him - whether he wants one or no (and it's usually no) - and she dashes off, with her pockets filled with leaking berries or pretty rocks.

She has a line of these; it's her collection. She told him once that all houses needed fences, and rock gardens, and since then she has been stubbornly placing interesting pebbles in the ever-growing outline of a circle all around his house.

She seems to think some of the rocks don't get along; she moves them around a lot.

He thinks he could do without those days, but he never, never tries to sweep the pebbles from their arc.

Wutai often has festivals, to celebrate gods, or men, or women, or trees. It's a different world to the one Vincent spent most of his working life in, and he finds it difficult to understand how one tiny little village could possibly find so much to celebrate in a year.

Today, when the wind gusts just right, he can hear music and laughter, and knows it is a festival day. Yuffie will not be coming.

He sets about his usual routine - or what used to be his usual routine, before a certain scrap of a princess began calling on a near-daily basis. He checks his rations. He checks the sturdiness of his dubious shelter. He hangs his ragged blankets out to air; the very last thing he wants is lice. He'd have to burn the whole place and start again. And shave his head, which he has never fancied, not even when he'd been fond of that band with the patchwork clothing.

Yuffie would probably laugh at him. He wonders if this would be better, or worse, than her frequent requests to do strange things with the hair that he has. He blames her mother.

He walks for hours and gathers enough dry wood to cook on for that night, setting aside enough that he can cook tomorrow night if it rains. It shouldn't.

It is after lunchtime when he hears twigs snapping in the forest at his back, and turns to regard it with weary suspicion. He is pleasantly surprised when Yuffie emerges, elaborately dressed and treading with exaggerated patience in fancy shoes. Vincent's memory of festival days is short and hazy, but he recalls the ones he was forced to attend, and he recalls those he was, as a child, glad to miss. He was glad to be seven, and not five, or three (1) - boys didn't have to dress up when they were seven.

From the expression on her face, Yuffie probably wishes she were still five. She has torn ornaments from her hair, though she appears reluctant to actually do away with them completely. (Vincent supposes she has been warned about the consequences of this.) She looks up at him and her grumpy expression morphs into a bashful smile.

"The temple gave me candy," she says by way of greeting. A younger Vincent would have agreed that that was the important thing.

"You look very beautiful, Yuffie." He tells her, truthfully. Duty compels him to add, "Shouldn't you still be at the temple?" She barely squirms as she shakes her head.

"I hate temples," she declares. "You want some chitose-ame?"

Vincent shakes his head in exasperation. She will argue determinedly for hours over who gets the last berry, but she comes out of her way on a festival day to offer him candy. Good candy, if Vincent remembers correctly. "That's a special sweet. You're seven - you need to eat the temple's candy. It's been blessed." Vincent doesn't need its long-life implications, after all.

Yuffie shrugs and goes to sit on her favourite piece of firewood. Vincent had harvested it months ago for use in the winter months, but Yuffie thought it looked like some creature from a story, and had begged him to keep it. She reaches into her little cloth bag and makes a valiant effort at shoving a whole stick of chitose-ame into her mouth at once.

"Mm nighrl yht gnewyl," she says, incoherently. Vincent tells her not to speak with her mouth full, and regrets it almost immediately as she spits the half-chewed sweet out into her hand. Vincent's eyes fix in mild horror on the sticky mess oozing slowly down her sleeve as she repeats, "I'm nearly eight, anyway."

"Eight-year olds do not spit food out into their hands." Vincent mutters pointedly. The sarcasm is cheerfully lost on Yuffie.

"I've got to eat it, Vincent." She tells him painstakingly. "I can't spit it into the dirt."

Vincent ruffles her already destroyed hair tiredly, indescribably content. "No, I suppose you can't. Finish up, then." She starts to suck the blessed sweet off her hand, the other still holding onto her hair ornaments. They are orange and amber butterflies, strung together onto clips. Vincent has seen Yuffie chasing similar creatures enough to know that they are her favourite. "Did your mother buy those for you?"

Yuffie nods enthusiastically, her mouth full. "She said I was the prettiest girl in Wutai," she manages around the chitose-ame, "But that's silly. Mama's the prettiest. Shake says I look like a boy."

Vincent has heard a great deal (scathingly) about Shake, and thinks that she and Yuffie could probably be great friends, if they weren't both so determined to be better than each other. At everything.

More likely, he reflects, they are great friends, though neither of them know it, and will continue to be so long into Yuffie's rule, no matter what Shake tells Yuffie she looks like.

"Not at all, Yuffie. No boy would wear that robe so."

This is true. It hangs unevenly from her left shoulder, causing part of the hem to drag in the dust. Vincent is sure that all the hen-pecked five-year-olds of the village are too terrified at the thought of their mothers' reactions to ever wear a kimono in such a way.

She grins at him, candy in her teeth, and puffs out her chest proudly. "I am a princess, y'know," she tells him airily. Vincent pats her head again, and glances up at the sky.

"Princesses should be home before sundown," he reminds her. "And you probably should have left a little while ago to do that, especially on festival day." It's coming into winter, after all, and the days are getting shorter. "Come, princess. I'll walk you home, today."

"Yaaaay!" Yuffie carols, as though this has been her intent all along. "Give me a pony ride? These shoes hurt." She looks up at him pitifully, as though her mere request is not enough. He sighs and crouches so that she can fling herself onto his back and half-strangle him with enthusiasm. "Go, Vinnie, go!"

Vincent goes. Shortly, when the amber butterflies tumble from her grasp into the leaf litter, he finds that Yuffie has lost her 'go' in the excitement of the day - she's fallen asleep on his shoulders. Cautiously, he shifts her with his arm and the back of his claw until she is nestled almost comfortably in the crook of his left arm, held in place with his right. He begins to fret, but continues to walk. Perhaps she will have woken by the time they arrive in the village.

He stands in the shadow of the trees, staring down at the face of a seven-year-old girl, and wonders how it is possible that he cannot bring himself to wake her, even though she has drooled sugary candy-saliva all over his collar. (He is sure he has killed for lesser trangressions.)

He has been standing in the trees for some time. He has begun to worry that someone will notice him soon. But it is still festival day, and Wutai has more pressing things to attend to than a misplaced splash of crimson in the trees.

Soon it will be completely dark, and they'll trickle slowly from the bonfire in the lower village back to their homes. Vincent glances down toward the blaze, as though thought will summon them faster.

He creeps forward a few steps, testing the smoothness of his stride. Clutching Yuffie close, he chances a dash across the courtyard, metal shoes clanking on the cobblestones. Vincent crouches carefully and awkwardly to lay her on her porch, unwilling to mount the stairs. She stirs, but does not wake, the chitose-ame in its decorated bag slipping from her fingers with a muffled clatter.

Though his eyes had been upon her soft features, pink lips curved in a smile he can rather helplessly only term 'adorable', the sound startles him from his trance. He cannot linger here, but she will be safe enough. There is not a person in Wutai who will dare to harm one hair on her head.

As though to spur him on, he hears footsteps and laughter approaching the torii at the edge of the courtyard. He freezes a split-second, staring at the red gate, and at the sight of a pale, beautiful face ascending the stairs, backlit by a fiery sunset, he turns tail and runs.

For hours afterward, he paces and frets, certain the Lady Wutai has seen him. But when the long night at last begins to give way to dawn and no shinobi have emerged from the forest dark to claim his head, he stretches out on his futon and falls into uneasy slumber, his fears not quite allayed.

For the next five days, Yuffie does not visit. Vincent spends his days performing the tasks he has set himself, flawlessly and listlessly, as though his body got up and set to work in the mornings without the aid of his soul. He sleeps badly, and his limbs have an odd heaviness to them when he moves. He remembers years of this feeling, and hopes it will not linger.

On the sixth day, when the clouds coiled overhead make it dark despite the lateness of the hour, he is sitting on his doorstep, whittling a stick into a makeshift spear with his claw. His hair is in his eyes and mouth, and he is sure it is the fact that he looks like an evil haystack that startles the giggle out of Yuffie.

His head shoots up at once, catching her eye with some surprise. "Yuffie. Welcome back." She is too young, too young to hear the disbelief, the relief, in his voice. He recognises it, and feels something sickly curl in the pit of his stomach, curdled and cold.

She grins and tilts her head at him, then proffers the wrapped box held in her stick-like arms. "Mama said to tell my friend, be sure to try the egg rolls," she recites obediently, hastening to add, "Mama makes the best egg rolls... but she makes her nori funny."

Yuffie plonks the box in his arms, cuddles him happily, and then drags over her favourite log to sit on while Vincent carefully unwraps and opens the box, and blinks at the red and purple nori, and the smiling faces carved into the sliced bamboo shoots. Evidently, the Lady Wutai has passed her interesting personality along to her daughter.

Also, rolled carefully alongside the egg rolls, on yellowed paper with a purple ribbon, is a note to "Yuffie-chan's Mr Invisible". Vincent slips it discreetly into his pocket while pretending to enjoy a purple-weed-and-tuna nori roll. (The purple weed is textured strangely, and slightly bitter on his tongue. He suspects this is some painful derivative of green tea, or the ridiculous frilly lettuce that has never tasted better than the plain iceberg, no matter what certain Midgar restaurants might like to think.) Yuffie tells him how busy she's been for the last few days; her birthday's coming up soon.

He thinks she has thrown that statement at him roughly thirty times in the past hour. He wonders what she expects, when he has no money, but some part of his mind steels himself in preparation for a task he will complete to her satisfaction, no matter the trials.

Thunder rumbles across the skies, and Vincent makes Yuffie promise to be careful if it starts to rain. Yuffie replies smartly that she likes the rain better, anyway, and sets off for her home, carrying her sandals and the box, the furoshiki tied haphazardly around her head in imitation of his bandanna.

Mr Invisible,

Allow me to extend my gratitude to you, for returning my daughter safely to me on a most tiring day, and also for the friendship you show her.

Yuffie gives me to understand that you are very kind to her, and spend much of your time with her. This is very much appreciated. Though she may not mention it to you, my Yuffie has always been a lonely child. There are few children her age in the village, and it has been hard on her. Nevertheless, as I am sure you have noticed, she can be quite precocious!

I hope you will continue to watch over her, and lend her your friendship and assistance. You need not fear Wutai's retribution; rather, expect our gratitude. We will support you in any small way that we are able.

I fear I must warn you, however, that all is not well between Wutai and Shinra, Inc., whose headquarters are far to the west in Midgar. It is not impossible that hostilities will continue to escalate. I will do my utmost to keep you informed, so that you, too, may be kept safe in these troubled times.

Yours in gratitude,

Kisaragi Michiko

P.S. Yuffie is quite fond of the white cranes that visit our garden in the spring.

Vincent has no wrapping paper; he has had to make do with leaves. He thinks it may have been more frustrating to wrap than it was to make - and given that he worked on it by the bare light of a tiny fire, carefully bringing out its form in tiny shaving motions with his claw, this is no small statement.

It is strangely shaped, and looks odd beneath the cover of the massive burgundy-and-lime leaves, but Vincent is satisfied. He hopes that Yuffie will like it.

Yuffie does not visit on her birthday, and he tells himself that this is only natural. He spends the day lost in memories, reawakened by Lady Kisaragi's letter, and replaces his wrappings absent-mindedly when they brown and begin to fall apart.

Several hours after the sun has set, it begins to rain. Vincent wets the leaves in the hope that they will live a little longer and falls asleep thinking of Lucrecia and the fond, amused way she had looked at him over her wire-rimmed glasses, small curls of hair drifting down in front of her eyes.

He wakes to Yuffie standing over him, eyes wide and interested. "You wouldn't even wake up when I knocked." Her voice is a curious mixture of concern and distaste. "You were having a dream, I think." Vincent blinks at her, bleary-eyed. He raises an arm to point to the misshapen mass of soggy, brown leaf-matter sitting on the flat stone area that can loosely be called a table.

"There's your present," he says without preamble, and watches her face change. Glee shines from every pore, and she rips into the leaves with barely a thankyou in sight. (Vincent reflects mournfully that it took him hours to get those leaves to sit right, and now they are nothing but moist shreds all over his living space.) Her small sound of strangled delight makes him sit up hastily, trying to catch her expression.

Soft-featured and round-eyed, she traces her fingers along the wings of the crane, carved from the palest wood Vincent could find on such short notice. It really had been a miracle, to locate a large enough, dry enough chunk of wood in time, and that he had managed to carve it to his satisfaction. The sense of relief upon completion had been strange, almost alien to him. He could hardly recall a time when such a small thing had meant so much to him.

It is as though all he strives for is the happiness of this girl.

"Vinnie... beautiful... it's so beautiful! Did you make it?" She turns to him, crane clutched to her chest. The pointed tip of its wing leaves a red mark as it scrapes along her arm, but she doesn't seem to notice it. "Thankyou so much, Vinnie! How did you know cranes were my favourite?" She is beaming at him, clouded eyes shining. The silver lining.

"Yes. You are welcome. Your mother mentioned it in passing." He tells her, and runs his hand through his hair to settle it. Yuffie leaps at him and seizes him around the stomach, the crane still in her arms - it digs sharply into his hip, but he pats her head and bears it. "Did you have fun?"

Yuffie pulls back and nods at him enthusiastically. "Yep, it was great. We had all sorts of things. I even brought you cake! And look," she adds excitedly, digging her fingers into her pockets - she no longer wears yukata. Shorts are far more practical for climbing trees, and Yuffie does plenty of that - particularly in the spring, when she arrives late in the day, pre-tousled and stained all over with the juice of berries. (And, occasionally, vomit, where she has tried to eat the unripe ones, too. She never seems to learn.)

His thoughts are interrupted when a small golden glowing stone the size and shape of a marble is held up before his nose. "Pops gave me a Throw materia!"

Vincent stares at what he considers - even as a Turk, who avoided the use of materia - to be the most useless of them all. "And an armlet to put it on, I see." He gestures to the crude pot metal thing clamped around her bicep. "But who are you fighting? Who are you training against?"

Yuffie grins and puts up her fists, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "Mama's training me! And Gorky and Staniv and Chekhov and Pops and Shake. I'm gonna be the best ninja ever, Vinnie, you wait and see! Not even the Shinra'll be able to beat me."

Shinra, again, Vincent thinks, a sense of foreboding rising within him. "I'm sure you will. You have always been extremely stubborn." Yuffie's grin only widens, as though this is a compliment. "Shall we have some of that cake?"

Yuffie is only too happy to oblige, but the wooden crane never leaves her side. In a small wooden box wedged in the side of Yuffie's bento, Vincent finds a bone comb and another note from Kisaragi Michiko, telling him in brief but spirited bursts about the deteriorating friendship between Wutai and the western electrics company that will never be satisfied with what it has.

It takes years.

Years of thinly veiled hostilities over trade routes and methods, in quasi-polite political discussion between Lord Godo and President Shinra.

Years of forced calm in odd, loopy handwriting; short, discouraging missives from the Lady of Wutai to a red-cloaked hermit in the western forest near the mountains on the border of her lands.

Years of the heir to the Wutaian throne walking miles to reach her best friend, to while away the hours when her parents and retainers have no time for her, even to teach her what they are doing, and why.

It takes years, but eventually war is declared.

Wutai never stood a chance.

The first of the hostilities that Vincent is personally witness to, is when twelve SOLDIERS stumble into his clearing early one morning. They hold him at gunpoint until the nearest one notices that his eyes are red and bloody, and stumbles backward into a pit dug for this very purpose. Vincent has not declared loyalty to Wutai outright, but he is damned if he will go back to Shinra knowing what they are willing to do in the name of 'advancement'.

Three others gather around the pit to try and haul their fellow out, while the leader of the squad - a stern-looking soldier with short-cropped yellow hair - tries to speak with Vincent. He asks questions that, in Vincent's opinion, are utterly foolish. No Turk would speak so. His pride takes a hit; we used to be better than this.

Vincent is glad of his claw; moreso of the handgun and ammunition he has kept in good working order despite the years. Some things do not change.

Some things do. At the precisely worded insistence of Michiko, there is a Shield and a Restore materia in the single slot of the Scorpion.

"I am loyal to no one. I wish to be left alone." He fixes the captain with a steely glare, and has the strange, fizzing pleasure of seeing the man's pupils contract with fear. "I am willing to fight for that privilege, as you see. Allow me to assure you, you will not come out on top."

One of the younger SOLDIERS, already sweating if the nervous way he grips his gun is any indication, sneers. "Do you think you can hold back the entire Shinra army?"

Vincent's own sneer is far more impressive. "Any army stupid enough to put themselves between the warriors of Wutai and the dragon-infested mountains to the west needs no holding back."

Silence greets this. The captain turns slowly red. "General Sephiroth would never give a foolish order to his SOLDIERS."


Lucrecia had picked that name only weeks into the pregnancy. The sound of it pleased her, its connotations - as far as she had been concerned, it was perfect.

Vincent closes his eyes for a moment to steady himself.

"Your general, I have heard, is a tactical genius. I can only assume this order was not his. Leave, or I will prove to you just how foolish it was."

The captain glowers sullenly, but the bloodstained witchlight in Vincent's eyes makes his mind up for him in the end. They turn and march away, but Vincent knows no immediate relief. He resets the trap, checks on the locations of the dozens of others littered about the region, and knows that this will not be the last that he sees of this war.

Once a week, Yuffie brings terse missives from her mother, lunch, and her own woes. The bridges to the south have been burned; Wutai is completely cut off from the outside world, with Shinra's speedier ships lurking like hungry sharks at the mouth of the Leviathan. Wutai has no income, with its barges and fishing ships lying idle on the riverbanks.

Godo and Michiko lead their small country with determination, and try to reassure their small daughter, but even Yuffie sometimes has doubts. She cannot sleep properly at nights; he knows because at least once a month, she falls asleep in his comforting embrace. It breaks his heart each time he is forced to wake her to her harsh reality, each time he must send her running back into the jaws of the war.

He has begun carving cranes. On her tenth birthday, he has a little over eight hundred. She has placed the larger ones like pale, fragile guardians around the thick, colourful circle that makes up her rock collection. (Once, he suggested she add her small collection of materia to this. He believes her eyes nearly popped out of her skull.) He hopes that by her eleventh, he will have the fabled thousand required to make her wish come true.

She longs for an end to the war.

Ironically, it is on the night when he completes his nine hundred and ninety-ninth crane that an explosion rocks the ground beneath him, and he rushes outside to see a pillar of smoke and flame against the sky.

Vincent stands frozen for perhaps thirty seconds, trying, somewhere in his mind where he's still lucid, to calm his raging heartbeat. He breathes so hard and fast, he is hurting his throat, but he doesn't notice now - he will notice later, when the exhaustion sets in, and he is finally forced to rest.

Right now, numb fingers grasp the Scorpion and haul it from its holster. He holds it by his side as he charges through the trees, claw extended to ward off the more determined bits of shrubbery. He does not try for silence; he does not particularly care who can hear him. His only real concern right now - and it is generous to call it concern, when he barely knows what he is doing, when he is acting on instinct and whim - is Yuffie.

It is a miracle, he realises, when he encounters Michiko, bloodstained and exhausted, hauling her daughter through the trees. A miracle she does not immediately let fly with her fan-like weapon, and a miracle he has not fired three shots, one to kill, two out of sheer panic before her body hits the ground.

They both pause. Vincent's heavy breathing must say it all, for Kisaragi Michiko smiles at him, and puts up the fan.

"Sephiroth is coming," she tells him mildly, completely oblivious to the blood streaming down the side of her face. She strokes her free hand over her shivering, silently crying daughter's head, and looks down at her with great affection. Though he has seen her only once before, Vincent can see the tears rising in a painful wave through her body, before they force themselves out her eyes.

"Yuffie-chan," she murmurs softly. "Will you go with Mr Invisible, please?" Yuffie shakes her head miserably, clinging to her mother's leg. Michiko sighs, not impatiently. "Yuffie-chan, it's very important to me that you are safe."

Vincent has seen enough last goodbyes to know that this is a poor one, and there is nothing that will change it.

"Yuffie, come with me." He says, and feels his heart shatter as she looks at him, lost and hopeless, furious and frightened, and filled with that indefinable Yuffie-ness that simply screams, you will not beat me. "Your mother needs to concentrate completely on the battle ahead. She cannot do that if she is worrying about you. The best thing you can do for her, is to come with me."

Yuffie looks as though she is about to argue his harsh words, but Michiko shoots to her feet, listening intently. She raises her fan again, and pulls Yuffie around her body so that the girl is between Vincent and herself.

"Yuffie. Go. They are coming." She squeezes her daughter's hand one last time. "Do everything that Mr Invisible tells you."

Yuffie backs away a few steps, breathing in gasps as though this will help her stop the tears. "O-o-okay. Okay. I love you, Mama. I love you."

Vincent sees the strength in Michiko's shoulders as she prepares herself for the even, mechanical footsteps that are coming through the trees. He can hear the whistle of a well-honed blade.

"I love you, my precious Yuffie. Hurry, Mr Invisible."

Vincent catches Yuffie with his claw; he may yet need his gun. "Be my eyes," he whispers into her hair. "Watch behind us." And to her mother, "It's Vincent."

Michiko nods, though she does not turn her gaze from the trees before her. "Take care of my Yuffie, Vincent, and do all you can for her."

"Be my eyes," he tells Yuffie again as he turns to run away again, and reflects that he never needed to be asked.

He arrives at his tiny hut with his throat burning, though in truth he is barely out of breath. It is the ache of sorrow, not of exhaustion, that eats away at his reserve, and despair at the little girl, she's still such a very little girl, crying silently into his collarbone.

To her very great credit, her eyes are still firmly fixed on the forest behind him.

He swings her down inside the door of the hut, leads her to the corner that houses his futon and covers her with blankets. "Stay here, and be quiet."

She wraps her hands about his claw, grey eyes pleading with him. "Vinnie. Vinnie, I'm scared. I'm scared. I want you to stay with me. I need you to stay. Vinnie, please, Vincent, please, please, pleasepleaseplease..." Her voice breaks and she's left with naught but a high-pitched whisper as the tears track down her face. Vincent wishes he could do as she asks. He pulls her forward abruptly into a fierce embrace; the second true and desperate thing he has allowed himself today, and for the last two decades.

"Yuffie, Yuffie," he says gruffly into her hair. "I will come back. I will always come back. I swear it. I swear it to you, Kisaragi Yuffie."

Yuffie's tiny shoulders shake. "Do you promise?" She whispers, and Vincent lets out a startled bark of a laugh.

"I do, Yuffie. I promise. I will always come back to you." He rubs her back for one second, two seconds, long seconds leading ever closer to the end of their lives. He grits his teeth. "Yuffie, you must be as quiet as you can. Sephiroth will be heading this way, I am sure. I was... careless, when I came for you."

Yuffie pulls her knees up to her chest. Tears are still leaking down her cheeks, but her jaw is clenched in the stubborn expression he knows so well by now. "I'm quiet and quick," she mutters. Vincent cautions her to stay put, no matter what, and casts the highest level Shield spell he can muster from an old and unmastered materia. He wishes now that he had taken more care of it, but he never needed look out for others when he was a Turk. They never mattered enough.

She matters.

He grasps the Scorpion firmly in his right hand, balances the materia carefully on the palm of his claw, and strides outside. He wishes vaguely and with mild hysteria that he had a door to lock and bolt, and sits down on Yuffie's log to wait.

It is not long before he hears the measured tread of heavy boots, sounding no different than they had in the forest less than an hour ago. No fatigue shows in the even pace, and as a man with flowing silver for hair and emeralds for eyes steps from the trees, Vincent is reminded of ancient Wutaian gods. The man's gorgeously sculpted sword is five feet long from hilt to tip. It must weight thirty kilograms. Vincent finds himself grudgingly impressed. He senses that the striking man is undergoing a similar assessment of Vincent himself.

"And you, I imagine, are General Sephiroth."

Four other SOLDIERS skid into the clearing, and Vincent recognises the second as the yellow-haired man he had spoken to at the start of all this nonsense. Evidently the SOLDIER recognises him, as well, for his eyes narrow. He starts forward. Sephiroth makes a short swipe with the excessive blade that displays his mastery of it, and stops the SOLDIER in his tracks.

"Stay where you are, Matthews. The clearing is filled with pits."

Vincent counts himself doubly impressed, but knows he would be disappointed with less. "To what do I owe this... honour. I suppose."

Sephiroth's eyes narrow, considering. Vincent notes snake-like pupils, and wonders what flashed through Lucrecia's mind when she gave birth to this... 'human' does not seem to apply; 'creature' is a word he is reluctant to use.

He is so young, yet. Her experiment must have been so successful, she must have been so proud in her last moments. He wishes she had been there to see it. He is such a terrible coward.

Not the time to think on this, Valentine.

"Kisaragi Yuffie is in this house."

Vincent's cold-eyed gaze does not falter in the slightest. "Is that so...?" He stands, needing no hand-to-ground to attain perfect balance. The Scorpion is a reassuring weight in his hand. "This house and all in it are mine. I warned Matthews of this, when first we met. Evidently he has already forgotten his comrade's more humiliating lesson."

Matthews glowers, but heeds his General's order; he does not move a muscle.

Sephiroth's eyes bore into Vincent's, indifferent to the childish taunt. "Kisaragi Michiko is dead." He smirks at the stifled, but not quite soft enough sob from inside Vincent's hut. Vincent pumps a round into the chamber of the Scorpion, but makes no other move. "There is no reason for her daughter to die when her husband has already surrendered."

Vincent's eyes narrow, calculating. It might just be possible…

"We will take her back to Wutai, and return her to her father," Sephiroth continues. "There is no reason to fuel his ire. Kisaragi Godo was a formidable opponent… and I have no desire to repeat this foolishness. Give the girl to me."

Vincent makes a derisive sound and tosses his head. "I'll return her myself. What reason have I to trust you?"

Sephiroth's eyes burn cold fire. "What reason have we to trust you?"

Somewhere deep in Vincent's mind, something trembles at the sight of those eyes and the sound of that voice. But his hand is steady on the gun. He knows what he must do.

With three precise shots, he takes down Matthews and two of the SOLDIERs that had followed Sephiroth out of the woods. The last dodges Vincent's next two bullets, shooting at the red-cloaked man, but Vincent, too, has darted into motion. The last SOLDIER goes down with Vincent's claw buried in his gut, screaming and twitching as his eyes mist slowly over.

Vincent looks up at Sephiroth, who looks completely unafraid, but interested.

"I will return her myself," he says again. He strides into his house, and kneels by the shaking and gasping Yuffie, who now knows that her beloved mother is dead. Vincent picks her up, cradles her with his true arm and, for a few brief moments, allows himself to holster his gun, to kiss her hair and whisper to her that it will be all right in the end, it will all come right in the end. He tells her that she must be strong, she must be so strong, just like her mother would have been, would have wanted her to be.

He shifts her to his claw, the gore sticking to her skin. She squirms, uncomfortable, at the rapidly cooling trickle down her leg, but does not flinch more than that. Vincent is glad. It will not do to face Sephiroth without his primary weapon. He needs his gun hand.

He plucks her favourite, the tiniest crane, from his 'hearth', and she latches onto it frantically, breathing hard. Vincent settles her against his hip and takes the Scorpion in hand again, reloading it as he steps outside into the clearing.

Sephiroth is waiting. He has even sheathed his sword. To Vincent's surprise, Yuffie's every muscle tenses against his arm. The general's eyes focus briefly on the girl. They do not soften in the slightest.

"Make haste, then." He turns and stalks into the trees.

Vincent holds Yuffie close, taking the risk of fending off branches with his gun-hand so that she isn't prodded or scratched. She is still trembling, but her breathing is strong and clear. "Yuffie? What is it?"

Her hands clench in his collar. "Mama's scale. He's wearing the Scale of Leviathan." He has never heard her voice so furious, not in all his years, where she has raved about the unfairness of so many things, and thrown things at him for daring to agree with her imagined foes. His heart clenches at the thought of Yuffie, little Yuffie, speaking with such hatred in her voice. He bows his head closer to her, as though trying to protect her from herself.

"We will see if you can have it back."

Yuffie's grip on his collar does not loosen.

It takes a little over an hour to reach Wutai, and in that time, Sephiroth does not speak. The forest is eerily silent around them. The war has ended; the fighting has stopped... but the animals will not surface for some hours yet. Vincent does not doubt that fiends, lured by the scent of blood, will descend upon the village before long. He will be glad of his pits, soon enough.

When they break through the trees, Vincent is possessed by the urge to cover Yuffie's eyes. It is such a foolish thing to think, for surely she was in the midst of this carnage before her mother fled into the depths of the forest. The town is covered by the stench of blood, drowned in it. It is nearly enough to turn even Vincent's stomach.

It has been so long since he has witnessed a scene like this and yet, predictably, it is just not long enough.

Lower Wutai is still smoking. Upper Wutai appears to have avoided the worst of the flames, but the corner of Godo's pagoda is charred and ruined; some incendiary damage, Vincent supposes, was inevitable. Yet despite the abuse to the building, four SOLDIERs are stationed on the steps leading up to the entrance, and he can see more surrounding the building and patrolling the square further along.

The SOLDIERs part respectfully when their general moves to ascend the steps. They do not stop Vincent when he, too, sets foot on them, although the red-cloaked man still holds the Scorpion at ready, and his claw feels thick and old when he twitches it; its joints are clotted with foreign blood.

"Lord Godo is in the last room along this hall. You may deliver his daughter, and you may return to your home." Sephiroth gestures languidly. Vincent's eyes narrow in suspicion, but Sephiroth merely stands, waiting for his orders to be accepted. After a few moments, a vague impatience becomes perceptible in the general.

"I have destroyed the driving force behind our opposition. There is simply no need for further violence against Wutai. My army will pull out shortly after arrangements are secured."

Sephiroth turns and marches back out the way they came, looking irritated, as though Vincent's suspicion has in some way marred his reputation for efficiency.

Vincent watches him go warily, then turns to walk along the wooden floor. It seems a long way, past the enclosed garden to the sliding, panelled door Sephiroth had directed them to. Yuffie's hands tremble beneath his chin, her fingers chilly on his neck, even through the cloth of his collar. It seems to take years, to watch his human hand rise and push aside the door, to watch it fall again.

Lord Kisaragi Godo of Wutai has brushed past fifty with confidence, but it seems as though he has aged swiftly these past few hours, for his face is pale and horribly drawn. His expression as he espies Vincent, this strange, dark, bloodstained man, carrying his daughter toward him, is so raw it is almost painful to look at.


His hands come up like grasping claws, desperate and frightful, but Yuffie stills in Vincent's grasp. Her tiny voice puffs in his ear, "Daddy," and she slithers from his arms as though her body is nought but cleverly twisted rope in his hands.

Madly, as he watches Godo sink to his knees and silently embrace his wailing daughter, Vincent wonders what his thousandth crane might have done.

(to be continued)

(1) - Shichi-Go-San is a Japanese festival literally translated as 'Seven-Five-Three'. On this day, children of these ages visit temples to receive chitose-ame (thousand-year candy) as a symbol of long life and good health. Three-year-olds of both sexes do this, but for five-year-olds it's boys-only, and girls-only for seven-year-olds. Shichi-Go-San is held on November 11, so Yuffie turns eight nine days later anyway.