Title: The Difference (3/3)
Author: Rose Flame
Theme(s): #14 - craven, democracy, aristocrat
Warnings: AU. Hair-pulling. Allusions to sex.
Disclaimer: Don't own, don't sue.
Summary: Hojo gives Vincent one last chance to change everything; a chance Vincent, surprisingly, takes.
He is outside, dangling his feet so that his bare toes brush the varied surfaces of her carefully arranged rocks, and he hears them coming through the trees. He recognises Yuffie immediately, of course, but she seems to be talking to someone - someone who does not reply, or at least, replies very softly so that he cannot hear. He looks up, out across his clearing, and he frowns. Bringing someone new to meet him, after the lengthy pause between now and her last visit? It is certainly not Cid Highwind. Who?
He has not long to wonder about this, for Yuffie pushes through the trees, a large wad of cloth held in her arms. The blankets drape down her form, but they cannot hide the way her stomach bulges still, and Vincent's eyes widen with shock and a sudden feeling of immense stupidity, even as she beams at him.
"Vincent! Oh, Vincent, I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I just couldn't think, and then they would hardly let me out any more... and here she is, now, anyway. Aren't you, my sweet girl?"
He had come to his feet without realising it, raised his hands towards the babe in her arms without noticing, and he watches his fingers descend as though they belong to someone else. He watches as, stunned and delighted and horrified, they clutch at her forearm - a tiny pink face and grey eyes that could only come from one person, all shining and fresh and new and so beautiful...
"Yuffie... I..." He comes to himself with a start, and some of the startled-into-the-light emotion leaves his face. "Congratulations!" He is wordless, and simultaneously indescribably happy, and sad. "She is... perfect. Has she a name?"
Yuffie's eyes are shining fondly when she looks at him, though he is not certain for whom the affection is intended. "Sure does. Kisaragi Ayame, aren't you, kiddo? She'll take after her mother, and prove herself before the Five Gods when she's sixteen, and she'll never back down or give up, will you, kiddo?" She gushes, and then looks down with a small blush. "It's funny, how completely she's taken me over already. She's only two weeks old."
Vincent pats her head. "That is common, I have been told..." he informs her. "And she is well? All limbs present? It will take time to discern whether she has your brain damage," he says, and does not quite dodge the vicious kick she directs at his shins.
"You can't talk to me like that," she declares, laughing. "I'm a mother now. Gawd. That'll never stop sounding weird."
Quietly, to himself, he disagrees. He cannot help but feel the title suits her, will always suit her. He recalls from the days of his youth an already ancient woman that everyone called, simply, "Grandma", and wonders with a strange twist to his smile whether Yuffie will attain a similar status as she grows old.
And she will grow old, he realises, trying to keep the sadness from his eyes. She will grow old and she will die, and he will stay here, stay the same.
Yuffie, standing quiet and glowingly happy beside him, turns her head suddenly downward, a shy sort of gesture, and asks, "Would you... like to hold her?" Vincent glances rather helplessly down at his claw.
"I do not want to... harm her," he says, defeatedly. "Perhaps when she is older and does not require as much support..."
But Yuffie makes a rude sort of sound, and lifts Ayame up towards him; his arm jerks automatically out to catch the child, and the ninja nestles her only daughter comfortably in the space between his left arm and his body. She is grinning as Vincent's right hand comes over, hovering, half-terrified, half-mesmerised, at the infant's side. "Don't be stupid, Vinnie. We both know people are pretty tough to kill, even little ones." She laughs as Ayame reaches out and clamps one tiny hand around his finger. "You could drop her off Da Chao and-- well, not Da Chao," she amends as Vincent fixes her with a slightly horrified stare. "Point is, she's not gonna take any harm if you hang onto her for a while, now, is she?"
Vincent is not so certain, but then, he has little positive experience with babies. Currently, this one is attempting to dissolve his finger with saliva. Recalling something about bacteria and small children, Vincent makes to pull his hand away, but the grip on his finger is surprisingly strong. Yuffie, noticing what he is trying to do, waves her hand dismissively.
"Aw, let her have it," she says. "You're no dirtier than I am, and how's she meant to develop anti-whatsits and an immune system if she's got nothing around to be immune to?"
"...if you say so, Yuffie..." He relinquishes his finger to the child in his arms. She is not old enough to do more than sit the very tip of it in her mouth, but even that makes Vincent wonder, a little desperately, when exactly the last time he had cleaned his nails had been.
Later, she sits on his porch and sips his weak attempt at tea while he nurses a sleeping Ayame as carefully as though she is his own. Yuffie regales him with detailed accounts of the bloating and swelling and hot flushes and weird foods ("I actually made mama's purple nori! Shake thought I was going insane!"), and how Shinichiro had wanted a boy, she thinks, but she doesn't care because all Wutaian fathers want boys, and she knows girls are just as good and better, anyway. Vincent points out that she is the more powerful person in her marriage, and may do whatever she wishes. Yuffie rolls her eyes in a way that is a little more irritated than fond, and mutters that at least someone understands that.
Ayame stirs, then, and Yuffie sets down her tea immediately. "Snack time," she confesses with a laugh. "It's amazing how hungry she can get." Vincent's hold on the infant becomes instantly less certain as the child begins to wail loudly in demand of sustenance, and Yuffie begins to loosen the sash of her robe, sure and matter-of-fact. Vincent turns his face away so quickly that his neck cracks, and Ayame is momentarily distracted by the hair that flies in her direction.
He learns, then, that there is no idea quite so bad as to give an infant a fistful of his hair. Yuffie dies a slow death, gasping and shaking, her grin so wide that her cheeks must ache, as she tries to persuade her daughter to release him.
"You're lucky she was hungry," her voice sounds from behind his shoulder as he determinedly eyes the distant forest, adamant about giving her privacy. "She just about pulled the hook of Shake's earring through the lobe a few days ago."
"You have obviously trained her well," Vincent says, trying not to concentrate on Ayame's loud, satisfied sucking noises. Yuffie laughs softly and the child makes a fussy sort of sound as her feeding is disrupted.
"Damn straight. What'd I tell you about the beating-the-fivegods thing? Can't do that if you can't rip out an earring or two." There is an unfamiliar, gentle beating sound, and Vincent turns back with a frown to see that Ayame has been flung over Yuffie's shoulder, and that Yuffie has not quite put her breasts away. She doesn't seem at all uncomfortable with this. He focuses determinedly upon her face.
"Please remember your serving maids, when you teach her these things," he asks her. "I remember how hard it was to get blood out of your clothes – and you had only fallen from trees."
Yuffie turns a pretty sort of pink, and he is unsure if it is related to his comment, or her finally noticing how carefully he is refusing to look below her collarbone. "Don't be stupid, Vincent," she mutters. "I've never fallen from a tree in my life."
Vincent smiles, then, and looks back out at the clearing. "Alas, my only witnesses are part of your rock garden."
She smirks. "That's my story, and I'm sticking with it."
Yuffie brings Ayame with her as often as she can. Vincent is privileged, not enough to witness her first steps, but to be the one who catches her, small and wobbling, at the end of her first thirteen-pace journey. It takes twenty minutes to fully detach her from his hair again, but Yuffie maintains that it was the goal that helped Ayame out.
Vincent tells her regularly that he would rather the child never walk a step in her life, if she'll only leave his hair alone. They both know he is not serious, but it never seems to stop Yuffie from punching him in the shoulder.
This, to Vincent's private horror, seems to delight Ayame as well.
"What are you teaching her?" He murmurs, as the child gnaws on a small, rubbery imitation of a megaphone. "She'll be a tyrant!"
Yuffie seems to think this is funny. "Vinnie, with you and me, and AVALANCHE behind her, she's destined to be the best damn ruler Wutai ever had."
He frowns. "And… Shinichiro?"
Yuffie frowns back, but this is less thoughtful and more a careful smoothing over of seething anger. "Mmm. Him, too, I guess."
He glances at Ayame, happily bashing the megaphone (which squeaks, he is displeased to discover) against his bottom step, and says, "Is something... wrong, Yuffie?"
She gives him a look that he does not think she should know how to make; tired and angry and sad. "He took a mistress."
Vincent's jaw drops, and he cannot quite gain mastery over it again. "He... a... what?"
"Don't make me say it again, Vinnie, it's bad enough the first time," she tells him severely. "I don't... I don't really mind, I mean, I know I'm not exactly the classical Wutaian beauty, or anything, but—" She pauses to blink a couple of times, and when that doesn't work, she scowls and squinches her eyes tight shut. "But he oughta think of other people and what it looks like, and – and he oughta think of Ayame, and – and me." She turns abruptly away, crossing her arms and glaring at a blameless forest.
Vincent reaches out and touches her shoulder gently – then abandons that approach and tugs her close, instead, knowing she has always appreciated honesty and the forceful expression of opinions. "He is wrong, to be so selfish," he mutters. "And obviously stupid."
Yuffie's voice is thick and muffled with tears, but she laughs anyway and replies, "Well, obviously." And she burrows her face into the side of his neck and she stays there for a few minutes, just breathing. "...I'm glad Aya's still little. She doesn't... I mean, if Godo had done that to me and Mama—"
"Your father was an honourable man," Vincent reassures her softly. "They are few and far between. It is unfortunate –" He stops, there, for it is too calm, too soft, too distant. "I feel badly, that this has happened to you. You deserve so much better."
Yuffie laughs against his neck again and pulls back, fingers twirled loosely in his hair. "A killer and a thief deserves a good husband?" She teases him, and tugs on the lock fondly. He stops the motion sternly, catches her eyes.
"You are hardly a killer," he disagrees with complete confidence, "And Kisaragi Yuffie deserves a husband devoted beyond compare." And then, almost impulsively – and it horrifies him, the ease with which it slips out - "I would take care of him, if you wished."
Yuffie, to her credit, is not horrified by the question. She takes it for what it is; a question as to whether this transgression requires vengeance, and she shakes her head. "Cid and Barret already asked," she replies. "It's not his fault he wanted something different. I wanted something different, too. Want," she amends thoughtfully.
Vincent cannot bring himself to ask what she means by that, and then she is gone to jokingly scold her daughter for picking apart the rock garden. She sweeps up her daughter and spins the child around, the both of them laughing as Yuffie sinks to the ground, hopelessly dizzy.
Ayame offers him a rock (the dark, pointed one that apparently guards the left-hand side of his path), large eyes childishly pleased to be able to share this gift with him. He takes it from her, waits the obligatory three seconds it takes for her to want it again, and then hands it back to her gently.
Yuffie smiles at him from behind her daughter, cradling the girl close and marvelling aloud over the rock, and how, "That was always Vincent's favourite, y'know, so we'd better put it back!"
She places it underneath his bottom step, right in the middle, and collects the white rock with a smile from the right-hand side of the path, to sit beside it.
"I thought they didn't like each other?" He reminds her with a smirk. She rolls her eyes and hefts her daughter on one hip, striding away with the sunlight.
"I think they just needed a little time."
Time is something Vincent has in great abundance. He dedicates it, now, to finding pigment. Ayame is not old enough to appreciate colourless toys, as Yuffie was when they first met. He has a rock – for which he has erected a crude structure reminiscent of his first dwelling – on which he has ground an assortment of colours. She likes green best. He has trouble making it bright enough for her.
On days when Ayame is left with Yuffie's retainers, Yuffie is unhelpful in this regard. She enjoys brighter colours like yellow and orange, and still has few qualms about smearing them where she perhaps should not. (Vincent had learned to make his pigments out of less indelible materials after he spent three weeks with a blue star on his left cheek.)
She is playing with a dark, oddly vibrant red when she comments, "Y'know, I think this might be the exact colour of your eyes. What'd you make it out of?"
"Blood," he tells her seriously, and she crinkles her eyes at him in a grin. "Berries," he answers more truthfully. "To the south, there is..."
"Oh, right down the bottom of that little valley?" Yuffie asks, surprised. "I didn't know you went that far."
Vincent supposes he should not be so surprised every time she demonstrates a detailed knowledge of her homeland.
"Those taste pretty good, y'know," she tells him, and sticks red, sticky fingers in her mouth before he can stop her. She shrugs. "A little like dirt, with your paint-stuff in it, but still okay." She holds out one hand, still smearing the stuff on her lips and tongue with the other, and smiles at him with a newly made-up mouth. "Try it, Vinnie."
He frowns at her and at the paint still smeared on his rock palette. "I didn't realise they retained flavour after I'd dried and ground them," he comments, not deigning to taste the stuff himself. "That would explain the ants."
Yuffie looks disgruntled at that, and examines the paint on her fingers critically for any sign of ants in it. Finding none, she shrugs and sticks them into her mouth, sucking at them meditatively. Vincent quirks a smile. "I thought I was going to try that?"
Yuffie shrugs and clambers to her feet. Without warning, she presses herself close, tugging him down with pink-stained fingers to kiss him, lick his lips. He jerks backward – or tries to. Her fingers hold his collar tight, her eyes serious as they watch him.
"Try it, Vincent," she says flatly. Obediently, he finds himself tentatively licking his lips, tasting not the tartness of the berries but the clear sweetness of her. He stares, his collar still gripped in iron fingers, feeling his heart pound. Yuffie's fingers gentle, smoothing themselves against the nape of his neck. He feels himself begin to shiver.
"Yuffie," he tries again, voice low and pleading. "You do not—"
Her fingers move to stroke his cheeks, dark strands of hair sticking to the remnants of juice that coat their tips. "Don't tell me what I do or don't want, Vincent," she murmurs. "I know – truth be told, I've known for years, now. What I want." Closer, softer. "Who I want."
He shuts his eyes to guard against temptation and he opens his mouth to argue, Shinichiro, Ayame, your father would--
Thought flees when she kisses him again.
"They don't care, Vincent," she whispers. "By Wutaian law, I can take a consort – anyone I want. I know you don't want that." It is true; the thought, though newly awakened, terrifies him. "But... but I thought, I hoped..."
She lets go of him, then, sticky fingers sliding down his collar to drop again by her sides. She's frowning a little, as though an unexpected knot has formed in a rope she was busily coiling. "I guess I had this crazy idea you might want something."
This is too much; she has been pushed away too often for him to let that go. "I do," he blurts throatily, "I do. But, I—Yuffie, you should be sure about—"
He can't talk any more after that, because Yuffie is smiling and her hands are on his cheeks and it's all he has wanted his whole life, he thinks, to be held and kissed so truthfully.
It makes him nervous, sometimes, that the whole world can see them. They have no night times, no forgiving shadows. They dwell in a bright circle of trees and rocks and sunlight, and sometimes rushing river water, when they visit Jormungand.
She bathes with him sometimes. There are silvering stretch marks on her belly, on her breasts and thighs. She giggles when he touches them, lifts her cupped hands to dribble water through his hair. There are lines that stay in her face when she stops smiling.
She looks older than he does, and it terrifies him.
He tells her this exactly once.
She slips – a rare occurrence – and comes crashing to the ground, and spends several moments with her face all scrunched up, gasping with the pain. He drops immediately down beside her, good hand rubbing soothing circles until the harshest of the lines in her face go away and she squints at him with tears still in her eyes.
"That hurt," she admits, shifting herself carefully upright.
"Lady Wutai should be more careful," he tells her, helping her to her feet. He notices more clearly, then, the care with which she holds herself, these days. He notices the paler strands of hair that are not self-inflicted – or inflicted by a horrendous salon in Midgar, when she visits Cloud and Tifa, ostensibly as diplomat - that are becoming ever more populous as the years go by. She seems to understand the sudden horror in his eyes, for she smirks at him and her eyes still gleam with beguiling youth, sharp and grey and shining.
"I'm not dead yet, Vincent Valentine," she tells him, and he swallows harshly around a sudden lump, blinks against the stinging tears.
"Not yet," he repeats numbly, and is startled once again by the searing trail the tears carve down his cheeks. Yuffie looks as surprised as he is, touching his face, tugging him close and tightening her arms about his shoulders.
"Hey, now," she soothes, in much the same way she has reassured Ayame for the countless falls and bruises; the girl is not as graceful as her mother. "Not for a long time, yet, Vincent."
"I don't want," he tells her, though his voice is muffled and he cannot seem to form coherent sentences. "Ever."
She strokes his hair and hums to him softly, a sad smile on her face. "Hey, now," she repeats. "I promised Aeris, y'know, and I still owe her a ribbon from the time I used hers to tie in Red's mane and he ate it, because apparently that was my fault. I've gotta go on ahead to meet her, and make sure Cloud doesn't hit on her any more, 'cause Tifa'd bring him back and kill him twice." She pauses reflectively. "And then we've gotta have a hot threesome, I think, 'cause I promised Reno, once, and did I tell you he got himself killed in Junon, trying to impress some chick in a bar? Stuck his tongue in a blender or a wall socket or something, I dunno, he was playing pool, but it was really neat in a grossness kind of way; Reeve showed me the pictures—"
He's laughing and crying now, and though it's something she does often, he's never realised just how much that odd combination hurts in the back of his throat and the pit of his stomach.
"Only you," he chokes out, "Would think an accidental death was neat."
She grins at him and ruffles his hair. "You're just still sore from the time I tried to install a blender on your arm," she accuses.
"I love you," he tells her softly, because he feels she ought to know, and Yuffie smiles at him and smoothes out his hair again, as though in apology for the tousling.
"Of course you do," she tells him. "And it's gonna stay that way, even if I somehow manage to electrocute myself over a pool table." She chuckles and shakes her head. "You know what, I don't think, after that, he even deserves the porn."
Which makes Vincent wonder what exactly he had done to deserve it in the first place, but some things, he feels, he will never be quite ready to receive an answer to.
Vincent knows something is wrong when he wakes to the low, throbbing chime of the great bell in the ground beneath him. He is unsurprised, but worried, when neither Ayame nor Yuffie spring from the trees to hug his legs or drag him to the ground, respectively. He smells smoke, but not wood smoke – spice smoke; incense. When he stands on his roof, he can see no trace of fire on Da Chao.
A death, then.
The great bell chimes four times more – at midday and at dusk. It wakes him at midnight, a deep reverberation that leaves his chest aching, and again at the dawn of the following day.
He sits on the bottom step and peers between his heels at the white rock and the black rock until Ayame and Yuffie wade slowly from the trees' shadows, and then he knows it is Shinichiro.
For an instant, he is angry; then, ashamed.
Yuffie walks straight into Vincent's arms and he holds them both; the good hand curled around the back of Ayame's head as she burrows wetly into his collar, the bad arm tight around a still, cool Yuffie's waist.
He doesn't ask and she doesn't tell, but they stand all there together as the sun sinks into the horizon.
They stay with him that night. Yuffie has long since installed a cot for her daughter. She claims she will sleep on the floor, knowing he will give the bed to her anyway. He does.
Vincent wakes in the night, not to the sounds of Ayame's tears, but to Yuffie's careful footsteps by his head. He grabs her ankle before he realises, but she kicks him off impatiently; not while her daughter is crying. It takes him a moment to orient himself, takes him a moment to roll to his feet and follow Yuffie to the cot, where she has scooped Ayame into her arms, to stroke the back of that tiny head and press the child soothingly into herself.
"Go back to sleep," he murmurs. "I'll take care of her."
"Will you?" Her voice is distant, scratchy with sleep, so drowned by the torrent of sound from her daughter that the first time, he can barely hear the words. "Will you really, Vincent?"
He frowns down at her, holds out his arms, thinking in her terms as they have always been: the moment. "Of course." But she turns to him, eyes steely in the night, and next to the rumpled mess of her hair, the gravity in her face is enough to make him pause.
"She's old enough to remember you now, Vincent," she reminds him. "Ayame will remember you, and remember her father, and eventually she'll think to wonder why she spent so much time with you. And I—I won't care." Tears again in her eyes, steel and water. "I won't care, but she might, and you might. And if you step in, it has to be for always, Vincent. I don't, I can't do half-measures any more."
Vincent stares at Ayame, bundled in her mother's arms and gulping huge breaths past the tears, stares at the lines that have crept in around Yuffie's mouth, around her eyes over the years, and though he can already feel his heart breaking, although he already knows that losing her again will all but kill him, the decision she raises is really no decision at all.
"Of course." He takes the child from her, snorts gently as Ayame's left hand curls immediately around a hank of hair, and leans to kiss Yuffie's forehead. "Go back to sleep," he tells her again, and basks in the glow of her affection when he repeats, "I'll take care of her."
There are five bells for Yuffie when she dies, and one of them is rightfully Ayame's, having bested her mother in the Temple of Five Mighty Gods at the age of fourteen. She is twenty-three now, and she knows that Vincent needs no reminding of his promise, but she goes to him anyway and she gives him her mother's mother's Leviathan necklace because Wutai's economy is secure enough now that one piece of materia doesn't matter much to her, but she knows it matters to him.
Lots of strange things matter to Vincent now that her mother is gone. Rocks. Her mother's rock garden matters to him; matters enough that she helps him build a low wall about it and set it with resin. The necklace goes into the middle, right underneath the floor of Vincent's house – they bellied in together one day and decided just how the chain would go; Vincent may or may not have given birth to invisible kittens when he accidentally toed one of her mother's rocks out of the way.
He will not come to the city unless she is meeting with people so important and intimidating that she needs his actual support, which is to say he rarely comes to the city at all, but when he does he sits behind her as one of her retainers, and none of the visiting dignitaries ever suggest he is not the fifth god. His blood runs with their blood now, and he will be the best of retainers for her daughters and her daughters' daughters, and they will never be afraid of fire, nor of red eyes in the night.
They will never be afraid to be alone, because they never will be.
A/N: Thankyou to everyone who waited patiently for the near-year between the middle and the end – I'm sorry it took so long, and I have no excuse but laziness and being kidnapped multiple times by a variety of fandoms. I am still flabbergasted that all this came from a three-word prompt, and suspect I always will be.