Attention: I have revised this chapter to make it less cringe-worthy, in light of its nomination for the Genesis Awards. It still has its flaws here and there, but I think it holds its own a lot better. I think I'll be doing this with the second chapter soon.
An accidental meeting started the whole fiasco.
Picture yourself outrunning Heartless like there's no tomorrow. Picture there being no tomorrow for you because there are just that many Heartless following you. Seems scary, huh? Now put yourself in those shoes, and you will find yourself in the self-same shoes of Yuffie Kisaragi, ninja extraordinaire and thieving expert.
Of course, the most logical course of action for Yuffie at this point – with no help in sight and even more Heartless appearing, scenting for blood – was to duck down the nearest alley and hope to any god in existence that this was the correct route to take. "Correct" being the route that would keep the heart in her chest. Most people outrunning a hoard of certain death will take a moment to look back, and when Yuffie did what most people do in a situation such as this, she ran straight into the back of a man standing in the alley. Her momentum sent her sprawling onto the stones.
"Watch where you're going," he spat, looking down his nose at her. No one looked down at Yuffie Kisaragi!
"Hey, you watch where you're going, you big idiot! I'm not the one blocking alleys and making it hard for people to get away from impending death, you know!" She was on her feet by that time, pointing at him as she ranted.
"What did you call me?"
"That's right, I called you an idiot. Now move outta my way! I got places to be,
people to see, butts to kick." She jabbed him in the chest with her index finger. The rather unimpressive height at which she stood did not up her intimidation points.
"No, you move out of my way," he growled, getting closer to her face. She noticed the impressive sea-green of his eyes then, and the way his hair seemed to be just as angry as him.
"NO! YOU move out of MY way!" She shoved him by the shoulders. He teetered, regained his balance, and pushed her back.
"Don't touch me!" he snapped.
"Don't touch me!"
"I don't have time for this." He attempted to step around her, and she stepped to the side to block.
"I have plenty of time for you to apologize for being such a jerk." Her eyebrows lowered and her mouth turned down – the perfect picture of displeasure.
"No, you don't."
"What? I just said I—" Yuffie stopped talking when he raised his hands above his head, blinked, and twirled two pinwheel weapons that appeared. "What are you playing at, buddy?"
He nodded to the area behind her. "That."
She whirled, shurikens out and ready, three in her left hand, the standard in her right. "Oh, shit."
And then a tongue of flame shot over her shoulder and obliterated one of the huge lines of Heartless approaching them from the mouth of the alley. That snapped her out of it. With three neat little flicks of her wrist, she dispatched her tiny throwing stars, straight into the skull of a Large Body. It vaporized, like all Heartless did when destroyed.
Yuffie was too busy backing up as the wave of Heartless pushed forward to remember her argument from three seconds ago. She spun around, turned tail, and ran full-tilt after the retreating form of the stranger.
"HEY!" she shrieked at him, trying to make sure she didn't trip on any of the trash strewn about on the ground. Typical if she slipped on a banana peel.
"What the hell could you possibly want right now?"
"You just left me back there!"
They were out of the alley then, back in Hollow Bastion's square. The Heartless were a writhing black mass, pouring out of the mouth of the alley.
"Yeah, so?" He spun his odd-looking weapons in his hands. Flames crackled at the edges. Taking a battle-ready stance, he spread his feet and evened out his weight distribution.
"What do you mean 'so'?"
"I don't know you! I don't have any obligation to you!"
The Heartless surrounded them now. Book Wizards floated on their dusty tomes and lightning sizzled in their hands. Yuffie eyed one cooking up a nasty blizzard curse.
"You could've at least waited up for me to make sure I was okay! It's common courtesy, you know."
"What, and get killed?"
"No! I'm still alive, aren't I? Waiting on me wouldn't have gotten you killed!"
"Precisely! You're still alive!"
She ducked out of the way of a nasty fireball. It sailed past her ear, and she smelled singed hair. Gritting her teeth, she walked in reverse until she was back to back with the red-haired man.
They stopped talking then, fighting and watching out for each other with the kind of camaraderie that can only be inspired by dire situations. She was amazed to witness him shooting off flames with his bare hands and burning baddies to a crisp. She was so distracted by the lithe, flowing way he moved that she almost got herself axed by a Book Wizard trying to take her head off.
"Pay attention, dammit!" he yelled, and cut his weapon down inches from her face where a Shadow Knight had been spinning toward her.
"Don't yell at me, asshole!" Yuffie pushed him out of the way of a blizzard spell that would have hit him straight in the chest.
"This is not working," he said, close to her ear.
"Are you kidding? I could do this all day!"
"So can I!" he replied. "But I have better things to do."
"Like blocking alleyways."
"What was that?"
"How do you think we can get out of this?"
In reply, he grabbed her by the waist and leapt into the air, sending a hot pillar of flame from his palm into the mass of Heartless bodies. It rippled, a burning flare that lit up the area and gave their faces an odd glow. The Heartless shrieked, and a wicked smile spread across his face. Yuffie stared at him, trying to keep hold of his neck. She noticed he smelled like wood smoke and warm skin. The residual magic on him crackled along her hair and made her face tingle.
The opposing thrust of energy from his fire magic kept them airborne for several long moments, but then they landed safely on a rooftop some yards away. Yuffie was still clinging to him, trying to breathe. He didn't make any move to push her away, and she didn't look at him for a moment, attempting to get her bearings.
"What's wrong with you? Scared?" She could hear the grin in his voice.
She scowled at him. "Never in a million years."
He leaned in. "We'll have to see about that."
"I guess we will."
He smirked. "What's your name?"
"I asked you first."
"I asked you second."
He expelled a sigh through his nose, and she stood up, brushed the ash off her shorts. She could still hear the Heartless screaming and the smell of burning flesh was heavy in her nostrils. She wanted to push her face into his chest again.
"Yuffie Kisaragi." She gestured for him to supply her with his name.
"Axel?" She snorted in a very unladylike manner. "What kind of name is that?"
"What kind of name is Yuffie?"
"Mine is at least a name. Yours is just something that goes on a wheel." She stuck out her tongue at him.
He crossed his arms. The odd weapons were gone, back to from whence they had come. "You're gonna remember my name. Axel. That's A-X-E-L. Got it memorized?"
"Psh, like I'd remember your name. You're nothing special. Just some nobody with fire tricks and stupid hair."
At the word "nobody" he made an odd face, and at the jibe about his hair, he looked dismayed, putting his hand on top of his head. "You think my hair is stupid?" For a moment he sounded vulnerable. "Well, it's not. If my hair is stupid, your boots are stupid."
"My boots are not stupid! At least," and here she sneered, "I'm not a man with womanly hips."
Axel's jaw worked as he tried to think of a retort. "At least I'm not a woman with a boy's body."
She gasped in outrage. "God!" she said, unable to think of anything adequate to parry him.
He wagged a finger at her. "I already told you my name is Axel. I know I'm great, but you don't have to call me God."
She burst out laughing. After a moment of that, she regained her breath enough to give him a proper reply. "That was so lame."
He rolled his eyes at her. "I really don't have time for this."
"Oh, really? Then why have you been standing here talking to me this whole time if you've got somewhere to be?" She stabbed his chest with her finger again.
He growled, grabbed her hand, and twisted her arm behind her back. "Little girl," he breathed in her ear, "do you really want to toy with me?"
"I'm not afraid of you!" she proclaimed, hiding her grimace as he jerked her arm.
"You should be."
"Well, I'm not. You're just full of hot air."
"You might be right about that," he said, blowing into her ear.
She looked at him for a moment, contemplated beating the crap out of him for touching her, and then decided against it. "…see ya 'round?" It was more a question than a farewell.
He began to back up, still looking at her, studying her. Just as she was growing uncomfortable with his scrutiny, he spoke.
"I doubt it."
Before she could protest, something almost like a rip in the air opened behind him. The darkness. He gave her a cold smile and stepped into it. It vanished, taking him with it.
She didn't mention him to anyone else.
Yuffie thought about telling Aerith or Tifa about her strange encounter with the even stranger man, but decided against it. She felt that if she let it out, if she talked about him, he wouldn't be real. Like he'd cease to exist. She hadn't seen him even one time in the months that followed, and as the memory started to fade and take its place in the other memories in her mind, she almost chalked it up to her imagination, even though Yuffie knew she had never really been one to think these things up on her own.
Then one day she heard Sora, Goofy, and Donald talking to Merlin. Well, "heard" was a loose term, seeing as she was hiding under the bed and eavesdropping. She needed to know more and no one ever told her anything.
"We don't really know who they are, but they control those things, those…Nobodies. We still have to fight them," Sora was saying to the old wizard.
"They call themselves Organization XIII," Goofy added, laughing in that oafish way he had. Yuffie contained a smile of fondness for the gangly knight.
"We've only met a few of them, but they seem to keep popping up," Sora continued. "They're working toward a goal, or so Yen Sid tells us. We're not sure what, though. But one of them, his name is Axel – he took Kairi. We need to find her. I'm afraid something bad has happened to her."
Yuffie's heart sank. He took Kairi? Sweet, innocent little Kairi? What was he playing at? And he was part of this Organization? The one that kept causing trouble for Sora and his friends? Sora had told Yuffie, Leon, and the others about them in a sort of warning. But Yuffie didn't know Axel was part of the Organization. He hadn't acted as though he was out to harm her. He hadn't acted as though he meant her harm. She hadn't sensed that he was up to anything evil.
Stupid, Yuffie, stupid. Don't be an idiot. Just because he didn't seem like he was a bad guy doesn't mean he wasn't a bad guy.
"Well," Merlin was saying, scratching his beard, "I can't say I can help you there. I have no idea where he would have taken her, but I can say to be on your guard. I don't know what this Organization's ultimate goal is, but it doesn't sound good."
"One of them told me that Axel would 'stop at nothing' to turn me into a Heartless. What would be the point of that?"
Merlin shrugged. "I honestly don't know. Keep searching for your answers, Sora, and maybe you will find them."
Yuffie stayed under the bed for a while even after everyone was gone. She didn't feel like moving. Finally, after a long time of feeling heavy and disappointed, she rolled out from under the bed and went to see if she could beat up on Leon for a while. That would make her feel better, if nothing else.
She saw him the second time in the bailey.
She had had enough time to properly dwell and grow furious at Axel for kidnapping Kairi. She wanted to punch him straight in his stupid mouth, take him by the face and make him eat pavement.
So when Axel appeared, stepping out of a swirling vortex of darkness, calm as you please, she launched herself at him, tackled him, and punched him. She got about three punches in before he managed to grab her arms and roll them over until he was straddling her waist.
"What the hell is your problem?" he yelled in her face. A trickle of blood dripped from his nose onto her cheek, and even though that sickened her, she felt a little burst of triumph that she had made him bleed.
"What the hell is your problem?" she yelled back.
"I asked you first!"
"I asked you second!"
He loomed over her, his hair a red corona, disheveled and bloody and panting with exertion. The only thing she could think of then was just how angry she was at him. How hurt she felt by him. She would look back later and wonder how he had affected her so when she barely knew him, and she would look back later and wonder at how beautiful he had been in that moment.
"Why did you kidnap Kairi?"
At her question, his face twisted and he looked away from her, but didn't make a move to release her from their suggestive position. She hoped no one would happen upon them because if Leon or Cloud showed up, she didn't know how she would explain herself.
"That's…none of your business."
"The HELL it's not my business!" She squirmed, endeavoring to free herself from his hold.
"I have my own reasons, Yuffie," he said, his face very serious.
"That's not good enough," she said.
"It doesn't matter if it's not good enough," he said. "That's all there is."
"Why?" she asked. Her voice broke. Yuffie hoped he hadn't noticed.
He had. He stared at her, hard. "You'll understand in time. Why do you care so much?"
She opened her mouth to shout at him, but then stopped. "I…" she looked away. "I don't know. Just…get out of my head, okay?"
Axel looked surprised, of all things. "I could say the same thing to you."
He rolled off of her and stood in one fluid, graceful movement. Yuffie sat up and took the hand that he offered her. She wiped the blood off her cheek.
"Why are you here?" she blurted.
He shrugged, rubbing at his arm in a fidgety sort of way. "I'm not entirely sure."
She frowned at him. "If you're here to harass Sora or cause any sort of trouble, I can tell you he's not here."
His eyes locked on her. "What do you know about Sora?"
"I know that you will 'stop at nothing,'" she quoted, "to turn him into a Heartless."
He closed his eyes for a moment, as if in some sort of pain. "You don't know anything, Yuffie. Don't talk about what you don't understand."
"I would understand if you would tell me!"
He was on her in an instant, his face in her face. He fisted his hands in her too-small shirt and pushed her against the wall, scraping her shoulder-blades on the harsh rock. He got very close to her, and she could feel his breath on her skin. She noticed he still had blood under his nose.
"Don't," he breathed, "presume to know me."
She wrenched out of his grasp and moved to sock him in the mouth again. He caught her fist and she kneed him in the solar plexus. As he bent over and wheezed, she worked her shoulders. They stung.
"I won't presume to know you from now on, and you don't touch me like that again. OrI will make you regret it."
His eyes watered. "I hurt you."
"Nah, you didn't—"
"Let me see."
"You can't tell me what—"
He gritted his teeth. "…please?"
She gave him a cheeky grin and turned her back to him. She didn't know what he was doing until she could feel his hands on her exposed skin, prying at the scraped flesh. She hissed. "Cut it out!"
He took his hands away. "Okay, okay! Sheesh. Just… wash that when you get home. It has dirt in it."
She rolled her eyes. "Thanks." He held up his hand and shook his head at her.
She understood. But she needed to know now. "What are you doing here?" His eyes darted anywhere but her, searching for a place to rest. He opened his mouth and she cut him off before he could begin. "And don't tell me you don't know. I know you better than that."
He scowled at her. "You don't know me at all, Yuffie Kisaragi."
"I think I know more about you than you think, Axel."
"Be glad that you're wrong."
"You'll wish you were, once this is all over and done with."
"Once what is all over and done with?" Hands on her hips again.
"You'll understand in time."
"Goddammit, quit being cryptic with me, Axel. And you still haven't answered my question."
"Why. Are. You. Here?"
"To see you."
Silence. He looked away. She stared at him.
"I should go."
"No, wait," she said, grabbing his wrist and holding him there. He could easily have thrown her off if he wanted to, she knew, but she wanted him to stay. She needed to know. "Why?"
"Why? I…don't know why. Why do you always have to ask me why?"
"I don't always ask you why, I've only met you once!"
"It doesn't feel that way."
"I know. Answer me why."
He sighed, exasperated. "Don't make me say this. Dammit, I couldn't…stop thinking about you."
He raised an eyebrow at her, smirking. "What?"
"I couldn't stop thinking about me," she said.
He grabbed the arm connected to the hand that was still gripping him around the wrist and yanked her forward until she was body to body with him, and he was staring down at her with an inscrutable look on his face.
"What are you doing to me?" he asked her.
She frowned. "I'm not doing anything to you, dummy. You keep coming here yourself."
She yawned. He made a face at her, then sat down on the ground, pulling her down next to him.
"I haven't been sleeping all that well lately."
"Dreaming about me, I take it," he said, sounding smug.
"Pfft, duh, seeing your ugly mug in my dreams makes me wake up screaming."
"Oh, I see. Well then, I guess I'll just have to tire you out to make sure you sleep better."
"What are you—"
Axel started to tickle her, and dammit it if she wasn't extremely ticklish. The only person who knew that was Aerith, who used it to get Yuffie to obey her when the ninja was being particularly obtuse about something. But now, apparently, Axel had discovered it, and Yuffie was laughing and laughing and tears were running down her face, and something inside her came to life in those few precious minutes.
When he finally stopped torturing her, they both collapsed onto the ground. "I guess you're gonna use that against me next time you want something now."
He stiffened, and she wondered what she had done wrong.
"I should go," Axel said, pushing away from her and attempting to rise.
"To hell with that," she said, latching onto him around the shoulders and pulling him back down to the ground to land in a heap, half on top of her, arms akimbo. "What the hell did I just say?"
His eyes were shadowed. "There might not be a next time."
"What? Of course there'll be a next time. You can come and—"
"I might not make it to a next time. I might…I'm your enemy. There's no telling what will happen after this."
"I don't care if you're my enemy."
"Well, I don't," she said, sticking her lower lip out. "And what do you mean, 'after this'? What is this anyway?"
He sighed again. "I don't know, honestly."
"You'd better not just…let it go."
"I can't control what happens from here on out."
"You don't have to. Just don't…don't let this go."
He looked at her then, really looked at her. "I won't."
"I don't make promises."
He paused. "I promise."
He rolled off of her and laughed, long and loud and deep from his belly. "Good."
For a few minutes, they just laid there.
Finally, Axel stood, offered Yuffie his hand, pulled her up and told her, "I have to go now."
She nodded. She understood. She made as if to touch him, then let her hand fall to her side. The portal materialized behind him and he stepped into it, vanishing.
"Yuffie, where did you get those nasty scrapes?" Aerith asked her, concerned. Yuffie jumped. She had been lost in her thoughts, replaying the encounter between her and Axel over and over, trying to figure out what it had all meant.
"Oh, it's nothing."
"They look painful," the lovely young woman insisted, trying to get a better look as Yuffie turned away.
"Nah, I'm the great ninja Yuffie, Aerith! Pain is nothing to me!" She struck a pose.
Aerith smiled. "All right. Next time come to me and I'll at least cast a cure or something on those while they're fresh. Now that they're scabbing there's nothing I can really do that your body's not already doing for you."
"Thanks, Aerith, I'll keep that in mind."
But the truth was, Yuffie wore the wounds like a trophy and every time they scraped against something rough, she hissed and thought of Axel and wondered if he remembered his promise.