Tall, Dark and Handsome

Aerika S.

Yuffie Kisaragi did not fit the conventions of the stereotypical ninja. She was a she for one thing, and while this was common enough in actual ninja circles to warrant its own special term (because it really is important that the person coming at you with a sword and the promise of swift death be labeled properly as a girl or a boy), they didn't show up much in movies and books. The few that did appear were typically known more for their bountiful chest sizes than their fighting prowess. Yuffie never had had to worry about that.

Another difference was that she eschewed stealth for style, preferring to wear khaki shorts and a small green sweater as opposed to the dark, head-to-toe gis worn by her fictional brethren. Pajamas were so not her thing. She didn't always operate out of the shadows or move in silence either. In fact, as she ambled along the wide open plains under the afternoon sun, it was with a great deal of noise.

"We're never going to be there yet," she complained. "We're going to wander all over the countryside forever until our legs fall off."

"Then we really wouldn't be wandering forever, would we?" Red XIII pointed out as he quickened his pace to pass by Yuffie and get out of earshot. Or at least try to. He had sensitive hearing and Yuffie's whining had acquired an edge that could pierce steel.

"Yeah, well… Shut up!" Yuffie retorted before resuming her sulking. She had proper justification, after all. She and her friends were on hour six of the hike from hell down from Mt. Nibel towards the nearest town, which apparently was on the border of nowhere just east of the edge of oblivion. Then again, maybe that was Nibelheim's position. Cartography wasn't exactly Yuffie's forte.

Regardless if they were coming from purgatory or plodding towards it, the trip was taking its toll. Her feet were killing her. She had achieved a shocking new level of boredom from doing nothing but putting one foot in front of the other. Even the local monsters were conspiring against her, making themselves scarce so she couldn't take her frustrations out on them.

But that's what friends are for. Misery loves company even if company sometimes wished misery would shut up and go away already.

Fortunately for Yuffie, her company (with the exception of Red XIII and probably Barrett and, okay, probably that new guy in the red cape too – he seemed like the type to enjoy silence or really loathe the absence of it) didn't mind a little youthful exuberance. So Yuffie's complaining was only a minor annoyance. Some of them even welcomed the distraction. Trudging endlessly over the plains wasn't the most stimulating mental activity. It was somewhere between watching paint dry and watching the grass grow, except they really were watching the grass grow so it was actually worse.

Tifa, a veteran of mountain hikes, suggested they play a traveling game to pass the time. Beginning with the letter 'A', they would take turns naming things they saw that started with that particular letter. When she asked who wanted to start, the males in the party suddenly felt the need to lengthen their strides. Barrett almost caught up to Red XIII. The girls in the party and Cait Sith – assumed to be male because no one wanted to delve too deeply into the gender issues of robotic cats riding giant robotic moogles – ignored the snub and started to play.

"Anthill!" Cait Sith shouted through his megaphone.

The noise prompted Barrett to speed up even further, to the point where he wasn't watching where he was walking and his right boot met with the aforementioned anthill in a collision that, in ant terms, would be described as horrific. A brutal massacre, some of the more melodramatic ants would say.

"Tough luck, kitty," Yuffie said. "You're going to have to pick a new one."

He'd have to wait until Aeris, who being part Cetra and therefore rather thingy about the flora and fauna of the Planet and the extinction thereof, settled down. "Barrett, you have to be more careful! Those ants are living creatures!"

Cait Sith waived a paw at Barrett. "Assho-"

"Let's move on to 'B'," Tifa suggested quickly.

Cait Sith was ready. "Bast-"

"It's somebody else's turn!" Tifa pulled on her gloves for emphasis, as if the cat didn't stop talking now, Barrett was likely to make him stop doing everything in a few seconds.

"Birds," Aeris supplied, taking her mind off the ant slaughter by appreciating the wildlife Barrett hadn't accidentally stomped on.

Tifa went next and, to the surprise of no one, chose 'clouds' for 'C'. Yuffie picked 'dirt'. Cait Sith behaved himself on his turn by naming the ethers that were in the group's supply bag. Technically, they were out of sight but it was best not to argue. Tifa, Yuffie and Aeris couldn't think of any harsh insults that began with 'E' but that didn't mean Cait Sith couldn't.

The game eventually stalled on Aeris' turn at the letter 'V'. She came up with several possibilities – vines, voles, vultures, vipers- but nature was not cooperating and kept the space before her 'V' free. (Which was kind of a good thing when it came to the vipers. The expression 'snake in the grass' had the connotations it did for a reason.)

Yuffie, wanting to get the game moving again, offered a suggestion. "The new guy's name is Vincent."

"Yes! There's my 'V'. Your turn, Tifa."

"Actually," Cait Sith interjected, "It's Vincent Valentine. So there's two 'V's. Double points!"

Up to that point, nobody but Cait Sith was aware that they were keeping score. Aeris, however, quickly became amenable to this. "It'll make the game more challenging and fun." With less enthusiasm, she added, "It's not as if it matters who wins." It mattered so little to her she only contemplated briefly if Vincent had a middle name and, if so, what letter it might start with.

Unfortunately, the usage of proper nouns was an unwritten no-no for the game. Tifa mentioned this reluctantly, not wanting to be accused of taking away Aeris' bonus score.

Which Cait Sith did anyway. "You said 'Cloud'!" Truth be told, since he was the one who had pointed out the new guy's last name, he felt he had deserved partial credit. Of the two points he had awarded Aeris, one of them had somehow migrated over to his score column. He really didn't want to have to erase it.

"I said 'clouds'. The big, poofy white things in the sky!" Another truth be told, the sky had been an unbroken shade of brilliant blue all day. Some clouds did linger around the now out of sight Mount Nibel and the yet to be sighted Rocket Town, but the current vicinity contained but one actual 'Cloud'. If someone had smacked Tifa upside the head with one of the numerous rocks (Aeris' 'R') and induced double vision, then she might have been able to rightfully claim 'Clouds'. But then that would have brought up the whole proper noun business again and the rock wielder would have taken a retaliatory fist to the gut for no reason.

"I'll just pick a new 'V', okay?" Aeris said. Double points were not worth having her friends argue. If it had been triple points, she might have seen a reason to let the debate continue, but not double. Looking around, she came up with the same old list she had before, only now it contained an illegal 'Vincent'. "Vagabond!" she blurted suddenly, completely apropos of nothing. Nope, apropos of nothing at all.

Cait Sith must have found it apropos of something because he snickered all the way through Aeris' explanation of her choice. "I mean, look at us. All of us. Tramping out of the mountains, haven't stayed at a proper hotel since the Gold Saucer – we must be quite a sight."

Tifa ignored the pretense (and Cait Sith's suggestion of 'vagrant' for another 'V'). "He does look a little rough around the edges, but considering he's been in a coffin for thirty years, I'd say he looks pretty good."

"I didn't mean it like that," Aeris insisted. "It's just the hair and the head scarf and I think his cape is starting to fray on the bottom." Taking another look at the man she was describing, she came to another conclusion. "But he looks pretty good, coffin or no coffin."

"Aeris!" Tifa didn't know why she was surprised. Aeris was not one of the shy violets she sold for a gil a piece. While Tifa had felt uncomfortable around the unseemly men in Wall Market, Aeris had bilked the perverts for all they were worth. She was a flirty wolf in a pink sheep's clothing.

"I'd lose the pointy boots," Aeris continued, "but otherwise, he's got the dark and mysterious thing going."

"Yeah, sort of a romantic air," Tifa found herself musing. But then a spiky blond head came into her view and she refocused. "…If you like that kind of thing."

"He said he used to be a Turk. Can you picture him in a Turk suit?" Yuffie asked. She meant to be funny. Then she actually began picturing Vincent in a Turk suit and the humor got swallowed up in a vague dreaminess.

"Um, aren't we on 'W'?" Cait Sith prompted. No one listened to him. Here he had gone to all that trouble to get a bonus point and now nobody wanted to play. "It's your turn, Tifa!"

She didn't pick a 'W'. Instead, she addressed Yuffie's question. "I don't think they'd let him back into the Turks with that rat's nest."

Aeris wasn't concerned. "If they make a comb that can go through Cloud's hair, they can make a comb that can get Vincent detangled. Besides, you saw Reno. I think the dress code's slipping."

"He's the redder than red head with the rod, right?"

"Yeah, that's him," Tifa answered Yuffie coldly.

"That is such a dye job. No way those curtains match the carpet. Looks good though."

Aeris giggled but Tifa seemed annoyed with Yuffie's assessment of the Turk. "He's the one that dropped the plate on Sector 7, you know."

Yuffie did not know this as it happened before she joined the group and tended to get a little sleepy any time someone tried to fill her in on the detailed exploits of Avalanche. Yeah, saving the Planet was like important and all, but she had her own problems.

"We'll never forget that," Aeris assured Tifa, "but we were just having a little, shallow fun. We all know a person can be gorgeous on the outside and ugly on the inside. Just look at Rufus Shinra."

Tifa had looked at Rufus Shinra. She'd seen an arrogant jerk who liked to ramble on about his own power. Designer suits and meticulous grooming didn't change that. Okay, so he wore the suit ridiculously well and the way his bangs swept across his forehead helped highlight a beautiful set of eyes, but still…big jerk. Huge jerk.

Aeris nodded along as Tifa ranted about this. Pointing out that Tifa was making her case for her wasn't going to calm her down and Aeris was kind of distracted by the mental pictures the tirade was creating.

Yuffie wasn't paying much attention to the substance of Tifa's speech either. True, Big Daddy Shinra's company was totally screwing her homeland over and she'd bring them down with her bare hands if she had to (though she would prefer for those hands to be clutching all the materia they could carry without cramping up), but she could see where Aeris was coming from. She'd seen newscasts with Rufus in them. The massive jerk part went without saying. But most females (and males of a certain persuasion) would tack on a disclaimer that he was not without some aesthetic merit. Yuffie would use that very same disclaimer if she didn't think people who used phrases like 'aesthetic merit' in lieu of saying 'really hot' were being pompous. 'In lieu' tended to make her twitch too.

"Whenever I see these people, all I can think about is what they've done," Tifa concluded. "I can't appreciate what they look like."

"I dunno," Yuffie said. "A lot of women in Wutai thought Sephiroth was good looking and that was during the war."

That made things worse. Dropped the Plate Guy and Corporate Jerk Guy didn't hold a candle to the evil of Batshit Crazy, Firebombed My Hometown and Killed My Father Guy. Tifa was not going to be making any concessions to aquamarine eyes and silky silver hair, no matter how tight and leather clad the ass that the hair fell to was.

Tifa stopped dead in her tracks, ready to rant again.

"Hey, Tifa," Aeris yelled, hoping to stop the crisis before it got started, "didn't you think Cloud looked hot dressed like a girl?"

With her heritage, Aeris often felt isolated as a child. Other children would chase after the stray animals that roamed the neighborhood. She'd stand still, lost in the feelings of their fear as the animals would seek places to hide. The other children would trample over the rare bits of dirt and grass that managed to find purchase in the slums without notice or care for the piece of nature they were destroying. At those times, Aeris could barely hold back her tears because, damn it, she had spent hours cultivating those freaking weeds and praying for them to grow and nobody ever apologized to her for stomping all over them and you'd better believe those brats would cry if Aeris went over to their houses and broke all their stuff. Especially if she broke it over their stupid heads.

There were other things too, but Aeris never dwelled too much on them because that would cause her urge to break to rise and the specifics didn't matter. The point was, on the few times she did share with the other children her ability to communicate with the Planet, she'd receive the stares of discomforted awe reserved for the weirdest of weirdoes.

Tifa and Yuffie were giving her those exact stares right now.

"Uh, I meant pretty. Didn't you think Cloud looked pretty?" Aeris quickly amended.

Tifa just as quickly accepted the edited version of the question. She liked Aeris and didn't want to think of her friend as 'one of those kind of people' she'd been warned about growing up in Nibelheim.

Yuffie, however, clung to her expression of bemusement. Its cause wasn't necessarily Aeris' attraction to Girly Cloud but the fact that Girly Cloud had existed and she had not known. Come on, she had (sorta) listened to all that crap about mako and Shinra raping the Planet, but nobody had said a word about this goldmine?

This transgression could not go unnoticed. "YOU MEAN CLOUD DRESSED UP LIKE A GIRL AND NO ONE TOLD ME? NOBODY TOOK PICTURES?"

The cry of the ninja warrior echoed across the empty fields. There was a moment of utter silence as the words were absorbed into the soil and sky and the dumbstruck minds of the party. In that moment, you could almost hear Cloud Strife's cheeks blushing. In the next, it was drowned out by Cait Sith laughing so hard, he almost fell off his moogle.

"What's she talkin' about, Spike?" Barrett asked slowly. Back in Corel, there had been talk about 'those kind of people' too.

"It was the only way he could get into Don Corneo's manor!" Tifa explained.

"Dude's a SOLDIER First Class and he can't sneak through a window like everybody else?"

"No, no," Aeris insisted. "It was much better that way." She believed that to the core of her being. Yeah, Barrett's window idea might have worked if they really had tried but it would have taken too much time and not been nearly as entertaining.

"You didn't wear no dress or anything, didya Spike?"

Cloud hadn't quite regained the ability of speech yet so Aeris ticked off a list of Girly Cloud's wardrobe. She didn't think he had anything to be embarrassed about. "Dress, wig, make-up and…uh, that's it!" she concluded brightly. Okay, there was one thing he had to be embarrassed about. Aeris would not mention the pair of panties she had seen tucked into Cloud's pocket when they had left the Honeybee Inn under even the most thorough of interrogations.

"It was for the mission," Cloud finally said (or muttered compulsively to be more precise). "I had to save Tifa. It was for the mission to save Tifa. I had to for the mission."

"Ooo-kay, Rain Man. Whatever you say," Barrett said, backing away from Cloud.

For his part, Red XIII had remained silent. He didn't wear clothes period and didn't care what humans put over their bodies. That was the mature, logical reaction to have. Plus, with the structure of his species' mouths, it was hard to giggle without breaking out into a full blown laugh and that was just not something Nanaki of Cosmo Canyon would do.

Vincent didn't say anything either. Guys in drag sort of defied pessimistic crypto-gothic commentary.

Cait Sith eventually stopped laughing though he almost started again when Yuffie insisted she was serious about those pictures.

"Don't worry," Aeris whispered. "I traded some flowers for a disposable camera while Cloud was in the Honeybee. I took the full reel, but some of them are kind of blurry because I didn't want him to notice I was taking pictures."

"Aeris!" Tifa thought her companion deserved some sort of chiding, but not too much because if she overdid it, Aeris might not let her see the pictures.

Aeris was, of course, charitable as usual after she dug the pictures out of her travel bag. Tifa and Yuffie agreed out loud that Miss Cloud was quite pretty. Inwardly, they both could see where Aeris had been coming from. They weren't there themselves, no siree, but they could concede Aeris wasn't completely crackers.

Tifa attributed this to Cloud's natural good looks. That was a point all the girls could finally agree on. They bickered a little over the details, such as whether his eyes were his best feature, how endearing his freckles were and other things that would have gotten Cloud blushing again if he had overheard them, but their conclusion was the same: Cloud was a tasty little treat.

The next subject did not garner unanimity. Tifa offered up Barrett for their next specimen.

Yuffie went first. "He's kinda chunky and that hair, blech."

"That's all muscle," Tifa argued. She did not defend his hair style. "And he's so sweet with Marlene, not to mention how dedicated he is to Avalanche."

"Jeez," Aeris said. "Next you're going to say he has a great sense of humor. Okay, a haircut would be good but I think he looks just fine."

Yuffie would not be persuaded. "Too old."

"Vincent's old enough to be your grandfather and I saw that grin you had after telling us to picture him in a Turk suit."

"He don't look like nobody's grandfather," Yuffie countered. Even with the suit. Especially with the suit.

There weren't any convincing arguments to make so Aeris moved on to the next step. With no more males to discuss, there was nothing left to do but take a vote to make it official. "So, out of all the guys, Vincent, Reno, Rufus, Cloud and Barrett, who do you like the most?"

She deliberately left off Sephiroth to prevent Tifa from becoming upset. She didn't bother including Red XIII because if any of her companions had that proclivity, she didn't want to know about it.

Cait Sith, finally seeing an opportunity to rejoin the conversation, wondered why he wasn't a choice. "A lot of women find this accent sexy!"

Tifa, ignoring him, gave a suggestion of her own. "You forgot Rude."

"Really? Did I now?" Aeris teased.

"I know he's a Turk and all, but he has a quiet, cool assurance. Not as much as Cloud, mind you." Hearing Aeris snerk at her reply, Tifa sneaked in a quick jab. "What about your Turk? The one with the ponytail?"

"Oh! Tseng! How did I forget Tseng?"

Yuffie didn't even know who Tseng was or, more importantly, what he looked like. Aeris hastened to remedy this oversight.

Towards the front of the pack, Barrett had gotten over his case of the heebies towards Cloud and tried to engage him in a chat. The monotony of the hike was starting to wear on him and the girls seemed to having so much fun yakking amongst themselves he thought he'd give it a try.

"What do you think they're talking about back there?" he asked.

"Who knows? Girl stuff: clothes, movies–"

"–Men."

Cloud huffed at the offensive implication about his friends. "This is Aeris and Tifa we're talking about. They're too sweet and nice to be like that."

Barrett took a look back at the giggling women. Aeris was making a shape in the air with her hands that Barrett didn't want to connect the dots on while Tifa looked on with a mixture of curiosity and embarrassment, then made corrections. Yuffie whooped in appreciation.

Barrett shrugged. "Yeah, what was I thinkin'?"


Author's Note: This fic is in dedication to sassy, spicy Wall Market Aeris, who doesn't seem to get nearly the airtime as sparkly pink Martyr Aeris. Which is a shame because you've got to love a gal who can get a studly SOLDIER man into drag (and thoroughly enjoy the whole experience) while still coming out looking all sweet and innocent.