A/N: Here it is, readers. The very last chapter of this monster. Good god, it's been a long time coming. I just want to thank each and every one of you who reviewed, and especially I want to thank my fantabulous beta VulcanElf, and Mengde, for being my sounding board for ideas. Any good quality of this fic is owed in part to them.
I hope you enjoy, and if you've read along this whole time without ever letting me know, now would be a great time to leave me a review and tell me what you think.
Peace out and see you next time,
"Didn't you say you were supposed to have an appointment?"
"Well, yeah, but how the hell am I supposed to phone ahead to another world?"
"I don't know. You say how smart and awesome you are all the time. Can't you figure something out?"
"I don't see why it's such a big deal."
"Maybe because the guards are trying to beat the shit out of us."
Axel and Yuffie were throwing guards out of the way as gently as they possibly could, attempting to keep from hurting anyone. Once again, Yuffie had decided to drop in on Senzo without calling ahead first.
"You know, things like this wouldn't happen if you would plan better."
"Oh, shut up. Like you're any better at planning than I am, Hot Head."
A familiar voice rang out. "You again? I thought I told you to alert us before you came, Yuffie!"
"Hey, Mulan," Yuffie grinned, dodging under the swipe of a sword. "A little help here?"
Mulan rolled her eyes and called, "Halt! The Hero of China commands you!"
The ten or so guards stopped their assault, freezing and then saluting Mulan.
Mulan eyed them shrewdly, looking Yuffie up and down and then studying Axel for a bit longer. "And who is this?"
"Mulan, meet Axel," Yuffie said. "Axel, this is Mulan. We met after you died."
He strode forward to shake Mulan's hand, lifting his eyebrows when she bowed instead. He mimicked her respectfully. She laughed at his attempts. "Close enough." He smirked.
"We're here to see Master Senzo," Yuffie said. "Sorry about not telling you beforehand, but I haven't exactly found a good way to send a letter through outer space."
Mulan sighed. "It's fine. Something tells me you do this a lot."
"Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Never mind. Come with me."
Mulan led them down a familiar set of halls and to a very familiar door. Once again, before they could knock, Senzo stuck his head out the door and barked, "Who is it? Oh, good afternoon, Mulan. I see you've brought some guests."
He smiled when he saw it was Yuffie, the look fading a little as he appraised Axel. For his part, Axel looked back coolly, green eyes level. Yuffie knew he was trying to make a good impression on her old master. She had told him a lot about Senzo.
"Hey, Master. This is Axel."
Senzo's beetle-black eyes widened, the whites showing in stark contrast. "You told me he died."
"I did." Axel bowed awkwardly to Senzo. "It's nice to finally meet you, Master Senzo. Yuffie talks about you a lot."
His eyebrows lifted. "She talks about her old master, eh? That's a surprise."
Axel nodded. "From what I can tell, you're pretty impressive to have taught her all these neat tricks. That All Creation is something else."
"Are you kissing up to me, boy?" Senzo stared at him with narrowed eyes.
Axel threw back his head and laughed. "I like this guy, Yuffie."
Senzo's opened the door wide. "Come in for tea. Tell me how all this has come about. You're welcome to come in too, Hero of China."
"Thank you, Senzo. I think I will. This sounds… interesting."
As they filed in, Senzo whispered in Yuffie's ear, "I approve." Yuffie could tell from the look Axel shot her that he had heard.
She suppressed a grin.
"Bartender!" Yuffie barked.
All eyes in the bar turned to her as Axel hissed, "Don't do that. They might attack us or something. You enjoy drawing attention to yourself, don't you?"
"This is the only way I know how to find Jack Sparrow," she said, rolling her eyes. "And would you relax? You could blow this whole place sky high and burn it to the ground. Maybe not both those things, though."
"Just because I can doesn't mean I want to burn this place down." When she stuck her tongue out at him and ordered something to drink, he plunked down in the seat next to her. "Never mind. I can't reason with you." He draped an arm over her shoulder possessively, glaring around the bar at anyone foolish enough to look too long at her exposed skin.
"Being possessive. I don't want any of them anyway."
"I'm not possessive. Can't I put an arm around my woman?"
Before she could smack that smirk off his face, someone tapped her on the shoulder. His eyes widened as she turned around with a face-splitting smile. "Hey, Jack."
"Why, hello there, lass. Long time no see." He settled himself onto the bar stool next to her. "You look heaps better than the last time I saw ye."
He looked exactly the same – the braids, the grime, the big dark eyes, and the gold-flecked grin.
"I hope so."
Jack's liquid-dark eyes ran the length of Axel's arms and studied his impassive face. The two men stared at each other for a long moment, assessing.
"Ye find what ye were lookin' for, girly?" He nodded toward Axel. "Looks like you found somethin'."
Axel stuck a hand out, quirking an eyebrow. "Nice to meet you, Jack. I'm Axel."
Jack's eyes widened. "Axel, ye say? Now correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't you the bloke what went and died and had Yuffie here mournin' for ye?"
He cleared his throat, eyes flickering away. "Yeah – that's me."
"Ye look pretty alive to me." Jack grabbed the drink the bartender had passed his way, chugging it. After the glass was half-empty, he wiped his lips and belched. Amusement flashed across Axel's face.
"I'm alive, yep."
Jack shrugged. "I've seen stranger things, t'be sure."
Yuffie leaned forward. "You want to hear all about it?"
"O' course. However, I am of the opinion that we should go to me ship so that I may show ye around the Pearl. My second most prized possession, ye know."
Axel piped up. "That's a very nice hat you're wearing. Where could I acquire one like it?"
Jack's eyes narrowed to slits. "Laddie, there ain't a one like it, not on any of the seven seas. This hat is me first most prized possession."
"Hey, Jack, pick up the tab, will you? All I got's this stuff." Yuffie threw some munny at him, and he scowled.
"Should've known you were going to mooch off me, bloody thief," he muttered.
When they all proceeded out the door for a night of star-gazing on Jack's grimy ship, he cast a glance at Yuffie and said to Axel, "He's a keeper, lass. Although that hair of his is a bit much."
Yuffie eyed Jack's birds' nest of braids and beads and decided it was better just to keep quiet.
"Phil! Oi, Phil!"
The little man was lounging on the stairs, watching Pegasus frolic around the outside of the coliseum.
Axel leaned down and whispered, "You're friends with a goat?"
"Goat-man," Phil grouched as his ears twitched. Axel looked vaguely surprised at Phil's impressive hearing. "And who might you be?" He surveyed Axel with an extremely critical eye, muttering something about Yuffie "associating with dirty hippies."
"This is Axel."
Hands on hips, he said, "The one you told me about? Your boyfriend or something?" He considered this for a moment, then said, "Figures. I can tell you have a lot in common." He turned smartly on his little hooves and said over his shoulder, "Well, let's put this boyfriend of yours to the test. I wanna see how he fares against Herc."
Yuffie ran after him, Axel jogging behind. Dust kicked up behind her heels. "But don't you want to know how he's alive?"
He waved a dismissive hand. "Nah, I've seen stranger things. You can tell me later when my attention span is longer. It's too hot right now."
"Don't laugh. Later we're going to see the God of the Underworld for some tournaments, and then we'll see if you're still laughing."
He glowered in her direction. This time, she was the one laughing.
"Hades, can you get this thing a muzzle – er, muzzles?"
"Cerby! Down! What have I told you about drooling all over my guests?"
The Lord of the Dead greeted them with a sharp-toothed smile, as cordial as someone who manages the souls of the damned can be.
"Here to compete in some tournaments, Kisaragi? Oh, hey, whatever happened to you and that dead boyfriend?" He caught sight of Axel lurking behind her. "And who's this?"
"Dead man, pleased to make your acquaintance." Axel stuck his hand out toward Hades. Warily, Hades took it, shaking.
"So you weren't really dead?"
"No, I was, I just – "
"Long story short, we now share a heart, blah blah complicated stuff."
Yuffie stepped between Hades and Axel, wanting to handle the Lord of the Dead herself. He tended to be tricky about the most seemingly-inconsequential things, and you only knew he had snagged you years later, when he told you how that handshake you gave him was right at a certain time of day and therefore a legally binding contract that dictated him as the owner of your soul.
She stuck her nose in his face. "We're lookin' for somebody, and I don't feel like searching all over this damn place to find him. Can you help?"
He walked over to his giant book, filled with all the names of the dead, and started twirling the quill that had been laid on it. "That depends. You want to compete in a few more tournaments? You're one of my top players, and you earn me a good bit of cash in the betting arena."
"Sure, sure," she said, waving a hand. "Axel can come too. I just need to know if this guy is still here. Said his name was Auron."
Hades scowled at the name. "Auron," he said darkly. "That pest. He's gone, and good riddance."
"Do you know where to?"
"There's no telling. He's not really alive, but he's not really dead either. From what I know of him, he probably went looking for the people from his world."
"Well. That throws a wrench into things. Maybe we'll find him some other time, eh, Axel?"
"Sure. What's this I hear about a tournament?"
She rolled her eyes.
"Where to next? Oh, I know, we could totally go to Agrabah!"
"What, not even for nostalgia's sake?"
"Okay, okay, sheesh."
"Whoa, what is that thing?"
"Axel, that is a not a thing, that's the Beast. Now say hello."
"Hello, Beast. Nice to meet you…?"
"Hello again, Yuffie. Belle will be pleased to see you."
"Whoa, he talked."
"Of course he talked, Flame-Brain."
"Is that Candelabra… singing?"
"Is that a walking skeleton?"
"That's Jack Skellington. He's actually really nice."
"You met some weird folks when I was gone, didn't you?"
"You're just jealous because he has a pinstriped suit. Don't lie."
"Ah, home sweet home. It's nice to be back."
Axel picked her up and swung her around in a circle. "Traveling's great, but I like it here in Radiant Garden."
"Man, you know who I haven't seen in a while? You've never met the Gullwings, but they're… friends – er, well. Sort of. If they'd stop calling me fat, I might come around more often."
A lifted eyebrow. "They call you fat?"
"Well, it makes more sense if you see the size of them. Come on."
Yuffie led Axel to her usual spot meeting the Gullwings and found someone unexpected.
"Auron?" Surprise laced Yuffie's voice. "How…?"
He smiled a little, and the familiar creases in his face warmed Yuffie. "It's interesting – one may travel many ways when one is not quite dead or alive."
"Yuffie!" squeaked a tiny voice. "It's about time you showed up!" Rikku zoomed out from behind Auron, brushing Yuffie's face with her little wings and then settling herself on the man's broad, red-clad shoulders. "I see you're still fat."
A look of comprehension dawned on Axel's face. "Oh, I get it."
"Yeah." Yuffie cast him a wry glance. "Where are the other Gullwings?"
"They left me and Auron alone," she said. "Thought we needed some time to talk."
Rikku swung her little feet, beating out a rhythm on Auron's coat. "Yep. Me and Auron have some… history."
Eyes flickering to his one good one, Yuffie said, "I take it this is the girl I remind you of?"
He nodded, a pleased expression lurking in his eye.
"Ew," Yuffie said. "How could that annoying girl remind you of me? I'm way awesomer than her."
"You shut up!" Rikku exclaimed, flitting forward to yank sharply at Yuffie's headband. She zipped back over to Auron with it in her hands, cackling. "I'm cooler than you, and that's a fact."
Axel and Auron shared a significant look.
"I don't believe we've met," Auron rumbled in his gravelly voice. "Auron. You are?"
"Axel. Nice to meet you."
Yuffie elbowed her redhaired companion. "Don't be such a stiff. Hey, Auron, remember that dude I told you about?"
"Well, this is him."
"He looks… alive."
"Yeah, through some weird chain of events he was reborn naked in the Agrabah desert and then I found him because he drew creepy stalker pictures of me and then we found out he was going to explode but he totally wasn't because it turns out he shares a heart with me since his got stolen a long time ago."
"Ohh, neat!" chirped Rikku, happily twisting Yuffie's headband into knots.
For his part, Auron looked remarkably unfazed by Yuffie's explanation. "Is that so. Well, I'm glad you found each other once more."
"We're glad for you too, Auron," Yuffie said, trying to snatch her bandana away from Rikku and failing. "But I didn't know the person you were talking about was so… small."
"Just because you're all fat doesn't mean I'm small!" Rikku remained right out of Yuffie's reach, hovering.
Auron shrugged a little. "She wasn't the last time I saw her. But having your world destroyed by the Heartless can do strange things to a person."
"I didn't used to be this way – none of the Gullwings were. I used to be Auron-sized." She paused, scratching her tiny head with an equally tiny hand. "Wait. No. More like Yuffie-sized. Except skinnier. I don't really remember how I got this way."
"How are you gonna change back?" Axel walked over, grabbed Rikku gently out of the air, and retrieved Yuffie's bandana for her. Rikku kicked him in the thumb as payback.
"I dunno," she said.
Auron looked between Axel and Yuffie, his expression contemplative. "I'm sure we'll find a way eventually."
"Yeah! That's the spirit, Broody McBrood!" Rikku pumped a little fist into the air. She buzzed over and started swinging from his ponytail. He just rolled his eye – a long-suffering gesture. "We'll find a way."
Axel's mouth twitched as his eyes met Yuffie's. "I'm sure you will."
Yuffie grinned and took his hand.