Obligatory disclaimer : I hereby state that I, mihoyonagi, do not own any part of Final Fantasy VII and acknowledge all characters and plot as part of the actual game belong to solely to its creators. I do not make any gain for the writing of this story, fiscal or otherwise, and do not intend to at any time, present or future.

Author's note: I started this on a whim, and ended up getting carried away with coming up with new plot. I thank D, my faithful editor, who, after being told I started a new story, didn't sigh at me but instead feigned interested and did the job I still don't pay him to do, and who lets me pick his brain for plot bunnies. By all legality, I believe he owns my soul.

Chapter 1: Fire

I, Yuffie Kisaragi, am searching for something. I've always been searching for something, though most of the time I'm not sure what it is I'm looking for. I've traveled the earth high and low, been to the highest point on the mountains of Nibelheim and into the deepest corners of the crater and core, still only leaving with a story and my life, which I guess makes me luckier than most, but leaves me unsatisfied like a bad fuck with a cheap whore.

Ahh, but that's life, isn't it? People being used and abused, bought and sold not just with money but with responsibilities and all that kind of bullshit.

I guess that's why I've never been keen on staying long in the same place. I'm restless, I'm a traveler, and I'm not the type that likes to cuddle.

And, well, who would have guessed Reno was a cuddler?

It was three days after my twentieth birthday, and I was still searching. I'd come to find, through several rounds of Costa del Sol's cheap rum, that Reno was in possession of mastered summon materia. I was going to take it off his hands- a care-free guy like him didn't need something like that to worry over.

He was groggy when I carefully pulled his arm from around my waist. "You leaving?" Even if he went through women faster than I could pick a lock, he was gentle and sweet to whomever it was he was attending at the moment.

I didn't have a lot of reservations about my body. I've got tiny tits, sure, but my slim waist and figure mostly make up for it. Mostly. At any rate, I didn't cover myself when I stood. We'd already done the dirty- what was there to be embarrassed about?

"Naw, going the bathroom."

It was only half the truth. I scooped my clothing up with me, making it look as though I planned to get dressed while I cleaned up. What Reno didn't know is that, along with my clothes, I'd scooped up his belt, and with it his materia.

It took less than a minute to dress and filch the red orb from the belt-slot. Easy peasy, and the romp wasn't too bad, either.

I clicked on the bedroom light when I left the bathroom. "I should head out." I forced my voice to sound just slightly forlorn, like I'd miss him.

Reno rubbed at his face with his hands. "So soon?"

I smiled. "We both know this isn't going to last, Reno. You're a Turk and I'm, well, I'm not really inclined to stick around."

He actually looked a little hurt.

Yeah, just wait until he found out what I snatched.

Now, before I'm judged for selling my body for a piece of materia, let me just state that even though I was flat-chested and often described as wishy-washy, there is more to the story than that. I didn't -want- the master summon; I -needed- it. That, and, well, who was I to deny it? Reno was hot- the hair, the attitude, the body. I can't really say it was -just- for the materia. I'd always had a little crush on the lady-killer.

But once I'd had my fill of him, I knew I'd be done.

The alleyways were dark, as they usually are in the ungodly hours of the night. Midgar streets weren't the safest, but I wasn't scared to walk on my own through them. I'd fought things that would give most people nightmares; a knife, hell, even a gun, weren't that scary in comparison to monsters that could eat you in one bite, crush you with one step, or disembowel you with their claws before you could even blink.

I heard footsteps behind me, I saw the shadow from the corner of my eye. I knew who it was even before I'd heard him. You can't really mistake Vincent Valentine for anyone else, because no one else has such a dark aura around them.

"What's up, Vinnie?" Oh, he hated my childish little nickname for him and I loved the way he narrowed his eyes when I called him by it.

"Does Reno know you took that?"

I smiled, not looking back even once. "I'm sure he'll figure it out."

"That's low, Yuffie. Even for you."

I stopped, nearly tripping. Turning around, I forced a grin. As much as I hated it, I couldn't let what my supposed friends think of me get in the way of what I was looking for. "Looks like you misjudged me, then. Tell Cloud and the others I said hi the next time you see them, will you?"

"Tell them yourself; they're worried about you. We're all worried about you. Tifa says you never answer your phone."

I turned back around and kept walking, wishing he'd just leave me alone. Vincent was a hard man to read, and what made it even worse was that he was able to read others easily. I had to really keep up a facade when he was around, which was such a shame because the man was so damn good looking.

That's right; I totally have a big-girl crush on Mr. Emo. That's also right; you can go fuck yourself.

No matter how many butterflies started doing cartwheels in my stomach when he talked to me, I kept a stone face. It's not like it would ever work out anyway; he was still so hung up about his dead girlfriend, and I... Well, I was Yuffie. That about sums it up.

"I lost my cell a few months ago," I shrugged, picking up my pace. "I haven't had the chance to get a new one."

"Yet you've had time to sleep around and steal materia?"

It hurt, what he thought of me.

But what I was looking for was nearly mine and I couldn't let things like 'feelings' get in the way. "Yeah, well, like I said- maybe you don't know me as well as you thought you did. See you around, Vinnie."

I threw a smoke-bomb and, for all he knew, disappeared into the night.

In actuality, I disappeared into the sewer, but I knew my way around the seedy under-belly of Midgar better than most, and I was far away long before he would realize where I'd gone.

Daylight greeted me at the end of the tunnels, outside of the city. Shiva's frozen nipples, it was good to breathe fresh air! I took out my newly obtained materia from my pocket and rolled it around in my hands.

Ifrit- perfect! Just who I was looking for.

I took out my choco-whistle, blowing as hard as I could. The tune was inaudible to humans- even fantastic ninjas like myself were deaf to it- but chocobos sure loved the damned things and mine was no exception.

My gold chocobo, given to me by Cloud after we were done being bad-asses and saving the world, was pretty smart for a seven-foot-tall ball of feathers. His eyes were dark, but intelligent. He let out a triumphant wark when he spotted me, his giant legs tearing up bits of earth and sending it all flying behind him.

Holding out my arms, I was nearly bowled over by the dopey bird. "Good to see you too, Rhu." The bird nuzzled the side of my face, my trusted and true partner these past few years. "Let's go home!"

The nice thing about chocobo-riding is that, surprisingly, it doesn't make me sick to my stomach. The bad thing about chocobo-riding is that it's mostly uncomfortable. Crossing the ocean on a bird that can walk on water isn't nearly as exciting as it sounds.

My base, my newly-made home, was a little hide-away I'd found on the northern most tip of the Wutain continent. It was obvious, by the looks of it before I'd cleaned it up, that it had been a rebel hideout in the time of the Great War. But, no one fought the Shinra anymore – they all accepted the easy life being conquered by a giant corporation – and no one remembered it existed at all. It was hard to get to on foot, most likely the reason no one ever bothered me, but was close enough to the city that I could walk there and back within a little less than a day. I tied up Rhu, brushed him out, and gave him a good meal before I locked his pen for the night.

It had taken the better part of an entire month to clean it, re-build most of the walls, and thread a string of electric lights through out the rooms. I'd purchased a small electric generator soon after I started gutting the place, mostly because I was tired of only being able to work in the day time. I'd be damned if the little bugger wasn't the hardest working piece of shit machine I'd ever laid eyes on. It was ugly, made mostly of leftover parts from only the planet knows what, and most likely held together with the sheer force of my will, but it had yet to break down or even sputter, despite it vibrating so hard when it was on that I worried over whether or not it would cause an earthquake.

I ate a light dinner before I set to work, fruit and a sandwich, knowing that if I kept going on an empty stomach I might not make it. Lighting candles and distributing them throughout the room, I killed the lights and the cave went nearly pitch-black. Using the chalk I'd bought from the general store in Kalm a few weeks ago, I began to draw intricate circles on the hard rock floor.

This was something I'd only done once before in practice, although I'd memorized the spell circles months before to make sure I didn't fuck up. One wrong move, one misconnected line, and I was done for. Ah, but that's what made it so exciting!

This wasn't just magic, this was old magic; legends from all over the world tell stories about the kinds of magic that were used before materia. I, having descended from an ancient line of Wutai royals, remembered having story after story shoved down my throat, treated as fact, when I was growing up. After I'd tried the first spell, mostly out of curiosity and boredom to see if it would work, I began to take old legends a little more seriously.

I put the summon orb in the middle of the labyrinth of symbols and took a deep breath.

"Ifrit, brother to all the children of Gaia, heed my call."

The lights flickered and the room became eerily silent.

"I seek your help- lend me your knowledge, speak with me, and I shall grant you whatever is in my power to grant."

The flame of the candles exploded, flared and grew so large that they licked the ceiling of the cave. The heat of the fire licked at my face, but I had to be strong to get what I wanted, and a little burn wouldn't put me out.

A great clawed foot stepped out from the flames and the ruler of fire looked down at my bowed form. Steam rose from his skin as though his entire body might spontaneously combust at any moment.

He looked down at me with his ancient stare and it took me a moment to regain my composure.

"Thank you, brother, for coming to my aid."

Formalities were big with these guys. I'd learned that with the last creature I'd summoned this way. Ramuh was a nice deity, lucky for me.

"Who are you to ask of my help, mortal?"

I bowed, touching my forehead to the stone. "I am Yuffie of the Kisaragi clan of Wutai. I am daughter of Godo."

This made him pause. Then, "What is it you seek of me, Yuffie of the Kisaragi clan?"

"Knowledge, brother-hellfire."

"My knowledge comes with a price."

"Anything that is in my power to grant."

"If I bestow my knowledge unto you, you must prove you are intelligent enough to use it. I will tell you what you want to know, and you will answer my riddles."

And, if I didn't, he'd kill me. Shit. I hated riddles.

I didn't have a choice.

"Let it be."

The tide of ancient magic, the bond of a promise, squeezed the breath out of me.

"What is it you wish to know?" The flames rolled out of his mouth, smoke rising up to the stone ceiling.

"Who am I?"

He paused, but I wasn't yet brave enough to lift my head and look him in the eyes.

"In you flows the blood of my brothers and sisters, of the planet and the sky. I do not know who you are, but I know what you are."

"And what is that?"

"My turn for a riddle, now. Then you may ask another question."

Fuck, I already hated this guy.

"I always thirst, yet I am never hungry. I wear a hat in the summer that is set aflame in the autumn, and yet when the snow comes I am dead and bare. What am I?"

Thirsty, but never hungry? Not an animal or a monster- that wouldn't make sense. Not a rock or a mineral. Something that changed with the seasons, I guess. Dead in the snow, wearing a hat in the summers? Fire, burning, red... leaves?

"You are a tree."

I could hear his smile. "Good, mortal. Your next question answers thus; you are mortal, as you are human, but you are also not- half the blood in you is set with magic."

"What do you mean?"

"Impatient, aren't you? My turn again. I am fragile. So fragile that the sound of your voice shatters me. What am I?"

Seriously, fuck this guy! Damn, this was a bad idea. Ramuh was so much nicer! He just wanted someone to talk to! Alright, down to business. Fragile? Glass is fragile, but isn't broken with a voice. Unless you count those Saturday morning cartoons where the opera singers can shatter glass with their singing, and somehow I doubted Ifrit to be up to date with his cartoons, so glass is no good. What can my voice break?...

Of course!

"You are silence."

This time I was rewarded with a chuckle that sounded like lava rocks hitting one another. "You are good at this, human. Now for your question; Your father was mortal, but, tell me truthfully- you never knew your mother, did you?"

Okay, things got creepy, fast. I looked up, even though I'm sure fire-pants would think me rude for it. "No, I didn't. She died when I was born." Ramuh had known this about me, too.

Ifrit tilted his head, looking down at me with a curious expression. "If you answer one more of my riddles correctly, I will tell you who you must seek to find the answers."

I sucked in my breath. Could I handle another riddle? I didn't really have an alternative. "Let it be."

"I can be seen by anyone, but not by everyone at the same time. I am sometimes full, but I never overflow. Who am I?"

I swallowed. I knew this one would be hard. Seen by anyone, but not everyone? Could he be any more cryptic?

Minutes passed, and Ifrits' patience grew thinner. "Do you have an answer for me?"

I was out of options. Shit. "I do not, brother." My whole body began to shake. I was going to die. Shit shit shit.

"You have been entertaining, human, so I will spare your life. I will, however, take something else from you."

"Anything that is within my power to give." Out of the frying pan and into the fire- he spared my life, but what else would he take from me?

"I take from you a year of your life."

Everything, every muscle in my body, was set on fire. I lost my breath and couldn't get it back. I wanted to scream but my lungs were empty, too busy with trying to refill with air. I went down like a house of cards, like someone had kicked my knees out from under me. My face hit the hard stone floor, followed by the rest of my body, and even though I didn't think it was possible, I hurt more.

And then it was minutes, days, weeks, months later, or at least that was how it felt. The sun beat down, illuminating my cave home with warmth, which was good because I was fucking freezing. My body convulsed and I threw up, hardly able to muster enough strength to move my head so I wouldn't have to lay in my own vomit. I tried to call out, tried to speak, but my voice was gone. My legs twitched, my back in so much pain I was worried I might have broken something.

I was alive, but I think, given the debilitated state of my body, I would rather be dead. At least then I wouldn't hurt so damn bad. My fingers wouldn't flex, and my eyes were swollen shut.

And that was how it was for an entire day. I lay, helpless, on the floor of the cavern. Nearing sundown (I only knew it was nearing sundown because I slowly grew colder and colder) I began to smell a terrible odor and realized I'd pissed myself. Oh, grand. Just what I fucking needed. Immobile and sitting in my own urine. It just kept getting better.

And then it seriously went down the toilet-

Just like always, I felt Vincent before I ever saw or heard him. His footsteps were careful, measured, because he was the type of man who thought with his head too much. Though, to be fair, following my heart and instincts hadn't exactly put me in a good position, lying on the floor, soaking in my own pee, unable to move, unable to see.

"Oh, Yuffie-"

There was enough in me to sigh, dejectedly. The last thing I needed was the pity of Mr. Valentine.

"Who did this to you?" It hurt when he picked me up, and I was a little embarrassed when I heard him inhale through his nose and realize I'd pissed my pants. "Do you have a bath tub in here, somewhere?"

I was living in a cave, not in the middle of the dark ages- damn right I had a tub. It took most of my strength, but I found my voice just for a moment. "Hallway. Bird first." I had to make sure Rhu was alright- the bird was my baby, and I didn't want him to starve to death.

He sighed, but he knew better than to argue. I was placed against the cave wall, my back resting on the cold stone. His footsteps faded, but Rhu let out an indignant wark that echoed down the hall, offended over a stranger entering his paddock. Let the bird's feathers ruffle a bit- it was better than going hungry.

Vincent was back by my side, picking me up, within a matter of moments. "Your chocobo is alright. I need to bathe you, Yuffie; you're filthy, and your clothes are torn."

What the hell did Ifrit do to me?

I moved my head, just barely, trying to nod. Vincent must have felt it, because he began down the hallway. I was placed on my toilet, the lid down. My body was stiff and I felt like I was sitting funny, but I wasn't strong enough to readjust. The faucet began pouring fresh water into the ceramic tub. Both the tub and the hot water heater I'd jacked from the junkyard outside of Wutai. It wasn't a tourist attraction, obviously, but most of the locals still brought their shit to dump there when they no longer wanted to deal with it. I'd borrowed a few books from the library, bought some tools outside of Gongaga on my last visit, and kind of learned how to weld. My shitty on-the-spot job wouldn't hold more than a few years, mostly due to the fact that I tried not to use the water heater when I could, but I was still pretty proud of it.

"I'm going to... I'm going to have to undress you, Yuffie. I'm sorry."

If I were capable of it, I would have made a smart-ass joke, something along the lines of, "you could at least buy me dinner, first," but all I could managed was grunt.

Most people would be really embarrassed by the idea of being undressed, then washed by Vincent Valentine. I was categorized into that 'most people' generalization. I, however, am not ashamed of my body, so I was more embarrassed over the fact that he actually had to help me in the first place, versus him seeing me naked. Although, I'm sure I would have felt differently if I could have opened my eyes.

Oh, the warm water on my bruises and cuts felt like heaven. His hands were calloused, but surprisingly delicate. He washed my hair with care, and I hardly realized he washed my face, too, simply because his touch was so light and gentle.

He stood me up, wrapped a towel around me, and let the water out of the tub. "Who did this to you?"

I grunted again; I couldn't talk about it, not in my current state, and I wouldn't talk about it, not with him. It wasn't any of his goddamned business why I needed to summon the god-creatures of ancient magic and have nice little one-on-one conversations because, well, I wasn't sure the exact reason myself.

All I knew was that I was searching for something that no one on Gaia could tell me; who I am. That's why I turned to the beings of ancient magic, who didn't reside in our world, but in all of them at once.

Like I mentioned earlier, it had all started with Ramuh. It was more of a boredom thing than anything else, but it turned out the lightning-god knew things about me I never knew I should have known, things like how I was raised to fight, who, exactly, my mother was, why Godo never talked about her, and a myriad of other questions that no one else should have been able to ask me.

Ramuh, of course, wouldn't tell me the answers. He said I needed to look deeper, to find myself on my journey to find my answers, and to grow as a person before I could understand my past, and what my future might hold. So, that's why I went searching for other mastered summon materia; if Ramuh knew that much, there must be others who knew of me as well.

Vincent laid me down in my bed, an old but clean mattress I'd stuffed myself with gryphon down, bundling me up. "Do you have food? Some canned soup, something, anything, I can get for you to eat?"

I swallowed hard. "Top shelf. Left."

I must had nodded off when he'd gone, because one moment I heard him shuffling around my tiny little kitchen, and the next he was sitting down on the edge of my mattress with something that smelled like it was made for the divine. He pulled me to a sitting position, or at least halfway there, and brought a cup to my lips.

Oh, stars above, beef broth. It was better than anything I'd ever fucking had. I hadn't realized how hungry I'd been until something with substance went down my throat.

After I'd eaten, drank, whatever, Vincent laid me down on my bed again, bundled me up under my covers once more, and I couldn't help thinking how weird it was to be doted on by him. I heard rustling, and then his hand slid under my head, bringing me up just a little so that he could get something under the back of my skull.

"I'm wrapping a cloth around your eyes. I'm going to town to get you medical supplies, and I don't know how long it will take me. If you can open them before I get back, the sun might have already risen and I doubt, based on the shape of the rest of your body, that your eyes are in decent shape. Don't be stupid and take it off, alright?"

I managed a grunt in affirmation. Yeah, like I fucking had the strength to even move my arms.

He placed something cold in my hands. "This is my phone. If you need to, call Cloud on it." He adjusted my fingers so that my thumb was directly over what I assumed was the call button. "It has a GPS locator in it; he might not know it's you, but if I can't be here and something happens... please, just call him if something goes wrong."

I wanted to shout after him. I wanted to shout terrible, awful things after him, like 'fuck you, Vincent Valentine, for caring about me, for being my friend,' but I was glad that I couldn't.

Soon after he'd left, I was asleep, but it was fitful, and I woke up more than a few times covered in sweat, wishing I could see. I had to remind myself that I was hurt, that Vincent was coming back for me, and that Rhu was safe in his pen down the cave hallway and that I didn't have to be afraid of being totally alone.

And, true to his word, the bastard was back by mid-morning of the next day. He went to get medicine for me, cared for me the night before, and he apologized about it. Who does that? Him, apparently. "I'm sorry it took so long. The apothecary was late opening this morning."

I managed to actually roll over, which was a grand improvement from the night before.

"Can you speak?"

I sucked in a breath of air, then coughed. "Water."

He sloshed around something, and I knew he'd come prepared. Just like he had with the soup the night before, he helped me up into a slight sitting position and held the canteen to my lips.

I never knew that water tasted so wonderful. I drank all of it.

"Can you please tell me what happened?"

Sighing, I rolled on my side. If I had my sight, I would have been looking right at him. "I can, but I won't."

"Yuffie..." His voice was low, sorrowful, and perhaps a little dangerous.

"I brought it on myself, before you think someone did it to me. My plan... backfired. I don't think anything's broken, and in a few days I'm sure I'll be fine."

"That is not what this is about. What if I hadn't found you?"

"Oh, please." I wish I could have rolled my eyes. "I can take care of myself."

"I can see that." There was angry sarcasm, perhaps a little venom, in his voice.

"Look, thanks for saving my ass. I appreciate it; don't think I'm not grateful for your help. But this is something I have to deal with on my own. I can't get you, or anyone else, tangled up in it, alright?"

He sighed. "Do not think that no one would miss you if you were to perish."

I didn't have anything to say to that in reply. So, I didn't say anything at all.

Vincent, apparently, didn't like it. "I'll stay until you can at least walk on your own."

"Fine, do whatever you want."

And he was a dick like that for two more days. He stayed until after I could walk, even though I told him to get out; he claimed he was sticking around to make sure I didn't have some sort of relapse. To his credit, he tried on several other occasions to get the story behind what happened out of me. By the time the swelling around my eyes had gone down and I was able to see, I was thankful that all of the markings I'd made on the cave floor had vanished. The candles that littered the room looked as though they belonged there, what with it being a cave and all. Avoiding answering his questions was one thing, but I didn't want to lie to him. Too much, at least.

"I don't owe you shit, Valentine. I've let you eat my food while you've stayed here, and I've let you use my water heater, which I take great pride in telling you that I set up my damn self, and will most likely have to fix again if you keep using it."

"Normal people shower once a day."

"No shit. But there is nothing wrong with standing in a tub and washing yourself upright. It saves water, dammit."

His eyes sparkled with what I assumed was humor or annoyance; Vincent is hard to read that way.

"I'm heading to Fort Condor," he announced a few days later over a breakfast of freshly picked fruit.

"Yeah? What's going on over there?"

"They are rebuilding, and trying to build around, the base of the reactor, of the mountain. More people keep moving there, and I need something to busy my hands with."

"Cloud asked you to help, didn't he?"

"Yes, but I had decided to go before he asked me."

"Cool. That's nice of you."

"I am still getting paid."

"Yeah, well, a person has to eat, no matter how nice they are. Do you know anyone who has a mastered Phoenix materia?"

"Do you always change the subject so drastically?" He took a sip of his coffee; he liked it black, two sugars, which was totally gross. I hate coffee.

I smiled anyway, clearing my plate.

"I might. You're not thinking of stealing it, are you?"

Shrugging, I rinsed my hands.

He let the subject drop, and I figured I would do the same. I knew it was a long shot in the first place, but it never hurt to ask. Well, if I was asking Ifrit it might, but Vincent wasn't that big of an asshole.

And then he was gone, and it was weird being alone again. That's kind of what I'm good at, though- making people want to leave. I know I'm annoying. I'm not arrogant enough to think otherwise (though I'm sure lots of people would love to argue). I'm the type of person who likes my space. My space means my rules, and to hell with everything else and what they think. If you don't like it, you can get out of my house.

I spent the better part of a month sneaking into the grand library in Wutai, and by sneaking I mean less 'making sure no one saw me' and more 'making sure I got the key from Shake with the promise of not telling my dad.' I couldn't deal with him. He was just like me, and that was why- stubborn, convinced he's always right, pig-headed, proud, and over-bearing. Godo is prime dad material in that sense, sure, but he's also an alcoholic, he used to gamble like no one's business, and he says things he doesn't mean and later regrets, but is too proud to apologize for it. That was why I left- I couldn't take any more of him, I couldn't take thinking that I would grow up to be like him, so I took off and started making my own path, started being my own person.

When I was younger, materia was something Wutai prided itself in. When one materia was mastered, we cataloged it, stored it away in the archives, and shared the new birthed one with whoever wanted it; share and share alike. When Shinra took over the town after the war, they jacked it all. We managed to hide a few that were deemed sacred in our culture, like water, fire, Leviathan, along with others, but who took them and where they hid them weren't common knowledge. The people of Wutai were a suspicious lot to begin with, and once the war ended, they became a little xenophobic to top it off.

I guess that's why I was so obsessed with materia when I first met Cloud and his merry band of weirdos. Somehow, I'd convinced myself that if I could get enough of it back, it might change who my people had become. But I was a kid back then – hardly 16 – and even though I knew better, I still tried to hoard it all anyway, hoping, praying, with a broken heart that I might be the one to change the world.

And, yeah, I guess I did kind of change the world. 'Saving the whole damn planet' isn't exactly something everyone can put on their resume. Not that most would believe me, I'm sure, but my friends knew, and a few others in the higher ranks of Shinra, so it was enough for me. Maybe I'd write a book one day about all those weird adventures. I'd title it, 'How Yuffie Kisaragi, the greatest ninja to ever walk the face of Gaia, saved all your fucking asses.' That's catchy. I'd buy it.

I bit my lip, flipping through another book. Not sure why I'd set my next target as the life-giver Phoenix, I was beginning to change my mind. At first I'd figured that since I'd spoken with one fire-deity I might as well talk to another. The situation, however, was turning out to be very different as I was coming up with a big fat pile of nothing as far as intel goes.

And then my heart did a little leap all the way up to my throat. It was a once in a lifetime chance, I knew, but I couldn't think of anything else. In the middle of a dusty tome was the name Grimoire Valentine, listed next to a set of materia that had been originally chosen to take with him after he'd married.

Vincent was of Wutain decent- any idiot could see it. To keep the last name of Valentine, his mother would have had to have been Wutain and married his father, taking his last name. Giving materia as a wedding present was tradition in Wutai- it was practically how we used to say hello. And, well, we used to be a little backward, too, or at least a generation before I was born; only to men was the materia passed down to in marriage. Which, in the long run, was weird because before my father, only women had ruled Wutai.

Now, to be fair, I had no fucking idea if what I was thinking was true or not; I didn't know Vincent's dad's first name. It was pretty crazy, yeah, but, it was better than sitting on my ass doing nothing. Vincent hadn't actually mentioned knowing anyone with a mastered Phoenix materia or not- he'd changed the subject, avoided answering me. And, well, how many people with the last name 'Valentine' married a Wutai woman in the last...

Shit- the date written in the book was a good sixty-five years prior. Vincent looked young, but he'd spent thirty years holed up in a coffin in the Shinra basement. I wasn't sure his exact age, but I had my suspicions.

So, on a whim and hardly more than a spark of hope, I saddled up my feathered companion and made my way across the sea to Fort Condor.

Construction on the reactor and the surrounding mountain looked like it was going well. I'm in no way qualified to tell if it was good or not, but the scaffolding seemed solid, and the whole construction area seemed to look nice, like something was actually happening.

Vincent was surprised to see me. As he should be; a ninja should never be expected, no matter what the situation.

"What are you here to steal?" He hefted several pieces of wood into a cart.

"I'm not stealing anything. This sounded like a good chance to stretch my legs and get out of my hidey-hole."

Vincent eyed me with some suspicion. It was hard to lie to him, but I've been lying to people since I was old enough to talk, so no matter how good he was at reading people, I would still remain just as good, if not better, at deceiving them.

"Don't cause any trouble."

And that's how I ended up signing a workers agreement for a trial work period of two weeks, stationed at Fort Condor. I received a pitiful siphon, compared to what I made just killing monsters in my spare time, but the food was free and home-cooked, so I worked my ass off to impress Vincent. I needed him in a good mood when I asked about his materia.

No, I don't steal from my friends.

Well, alright, I don't steal from my friends anymore.

And before I'm asked, Reno wasn't a friend. He was a rogue with a fantastic ass, but not a friend.

I asked Vincent if I could borrow his Phoenix materia in the mess hall over dinner one night, on a busy evening to make sure he didn't publicly freak out. I don't think I've ever seen Vincent freak out, even in private, but I wasn't taking chances.

He paused, his spoon halfway to his mouth. "You need my what?"

"Your mastered Phoenix materia. Just for a bit. I'll give it back, I swear."

He finished his bite of stew, eying me carefully. "Like how you 'borrowed' Reno's materia?"

To show that my intentions were decent, I dug the summon orb from my pocket and handed it to him. "I'm not heading back to Midgar for a while, so you can take this and give it back to him if you want, to show that there are no hard feelings."

That got an eyebrow raise out of him, the most facial expression I think I've ever managed to get out of him on my own. "So you're not going to cart off with it and never come back?"

I shook my head, trying to look innocent. "I do need to take it back to my place, but I swear I'll bring it back."

He narrowed his eyes. "What is it for, and how did you find out I had one?"

Smiling my cheekiest smile, I shook my head. "I can't tell you what it's for because I'm not sure about it myself. And, as to how I found out you had it? It was honestly a lucky goddamned guess." Seriously. How was I supposed to know that his dad had given him his Phoenix materia and that he still had it after all this time? I should have bought a damn lottery ticket, instead- then I could jut buy the damn materia I needed..

He ate another few bits of his dinner, contemplating. "Alright. I'll give it to you when your work contact here is up."

Feeling triumphant, I held in a giggle as I began to stuff my face with food.

Just like he promised, Vincent awarded me with his mastered Phoenix materia when my contact was up.

"Are you sure you don't want to stick around, kid?"

I signed the finished contract, stating that I'd done what I was hired to do, and they had paid me to do it. "Thanks. I might come back. But for right now, I have some other stuff I need to take care of."

The warden adjusted his hard-hat. "Alright. Well, we'll keep a spot open for you if you change your mind sooner rather than later."

If my chocobo was a car, he would need an oil change with how far around the globe I'd been taking him. Luckily enough for me, he ran on greens that were easily grown in the shitty little garden I'd started near my cave, so I didn't have to worry about the fine mechanics of motor vehicles, just how to keep the bugs off my crops.

I waited until sundown, exuberant in my excitement to call upon the fire-bird for help. I hoped it – he? She? I didn't know – was nicer, like Ramuh. Ifrit had been such a prick, and I wasn't up to entertaining another gigantic, gaping asshole like him. I secretly prayed for no more riddles, at the very least.

By dark, the floor of my cave was covered in arcane circles and glyphs made of chalk. I took a deep breath, found my resolve, and began the ritual.

"Phoenix, giver and taker of all life of Gaia, heed my call."

The flames flickered, like they had when I'd called Ifirt forth, and the room grew quiet.

"I seek your help- lend me your knowledge, speak with me, and I shall grant you whatever is in my power to grant."

"What are you doing?"

Shit shit shit. "Vincent, no!"

The bastard had followed me back! He knew that I would never willingly tell him what it was I'd needed his materia for, so he followed me back and was spying on me!

It was too late- the flames of the candles started to flicker and grow and before I could do anything other than blink, a giant, firey bird stood before me. Phoenix's wings were folded, not spread, and as I gazed up I realized that was the only way it could fit.

Vincent fell to his knees beside me, both of us bowing. "What have you done?" he whispered, hoarsely, at me.

"I swear On Ramuh's beard, Vincent, that if you fuck this up I will fuck you up." It was a strange threat because, honestly, if he messed up my chance to talk to Phoenix I'd most likely end up punching him, crying, and moping until I found my next mastered summon materia. It wasn't a good time for me to think on my feet.

Phoenix's voice sang out, even though the bird did not move its beak to speak, and I realized that the bird was definitely female, or at least it sounded that way.

"Who is it that disturbs me?"

"I am Yuffie of the Kisaragi clan of Wutai." I swallowed hard, trying to remember my formalities.

"And you?" Shit, she thought Vincent was in on this. What do I do, what do I do?

"It is I, Vincent, of the Keigo clan of Wutai."

Oh, angels above I sighed in relief. Thank the planet that Vincent is quick to think on his feet.

"I am not disturbed without payment. Have you something to offer me for appearing before you?"

Were all summons this stuck up? First Ifrit, now Phoenix. Ugn, I was really beginning to hate summons.

"I was the one to call upon you, life-bird, so it is I who shall offer you whatever within my power I can grant."

Phoenix was silent for a long moment.

"Your happiest memory."

My blood ran cold for a moment. My happiest memory was the only happy memory I have with my father. I was six, and I was stilling in his lap. His big hand was smoothing out my hair, which was long back then. He'd looked at me with admiration, and told me he was proud of me. Why? I'd folded an origami crane for him on my first try.

I swallowed. "Let it be."

And suddenly I felt empty, like there was a hole in my head. I flew backwards as if I'd been shot, and it was only by Vincent's amazing reflexes that he managed to catch me before I flew too far backwards.

Phoenix bristled with what looked like pleasure, her eyes momentarily rolling back. Then, she looked right at me. "What is it you wish to know?"

"Who am I?"

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Vincent turn sharply toward me, his eyes wide.

Phoenix tilted her head back and forth several times. "You are not yet ready for that answer. But, I can tell you who would be of service in your quest to find your answer."

I bowed, my forehead to the cave floor. "Anything you see fit to tell me, fire-bird, would be most treasured."

"Find the dragon-king."

Vincent, like me, pressed low to the ground in respect. "Where can we find him, honorable life-giver?"

Phoenix tilted her head again, looking down at Vincent with a curious expression. "I have been in debt to the Keigo clan for some generations. Consider my answer without taking anything from you a favor. Seek the tree of lights in the swirling sands. He is there."

And with a thunderous, nearly deafening boom, Phoenix was gone.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck! Vincent, you nearly ruined everything!" I stood, wiped the dirt from my clothing and ran my fingers through my hair. "You as so fucking lucky that you didn't screw it up!"

I turned, more angry than I can remember being in a long time, to face him.

Instead of looking defensive, he merely kept on his knees, staring intensely where Phoenix had been only moment before. "All of the old legends, all of the old tales my mother told me..."

He wasn't listening to me. Not at all. So, I did what any other woman might do in my position. Well, what any woman like me might do. I decked him.

If he'd been expecting it, he would have easily been able to avoid it. Having been stuck in his own little world prevented him from noticing me in the slightest.

Needless to say the punch to his face got his attention, and damn quick. He wiped the blood from his face with the back of his hand, his emotionless mask back in place. He stood, wiped the dust from his knees, and looked down at me as if I hadn't just given him the hardest right hook I'd ever managed.

"Is that why I found you, a month ago, here in your hide-away, completely decrepit and unable to move?"

I crossed my arms, grinding my teeth together. I still couldn't believe he'd followed me. I still couldn't believe that I hadn't noticed him do it, too. "Yes," I bit out with as much venom as I could.

"That's why you stole from Reno, and why you gave me his materia when you were finished- you honestly didn't need it any more."

I took a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves. I could feel my face reddening from frustration and anger. What right had he to barge into my life like this?

"Now it's obvious why you asked for my Phoenix materia. But, why, Yuffie? What are you looking for?"

Pivoting on my heel, I stormed out of my cave and into the night. I couldn't take him anymore, couldn't take the almost-but-not-quite tone of hurt in his voice, couldn't take his concern. I wasn't used to people actually giving a shit about me.

I walked (stomped would be a better term, I guess) through the fields of moon-lilies. The air was nearly suffocating with the scent of them, but I was too pissed off to enjoy it. I rounded the foothills and sat in a favorite spot of mine that overlooked the ocean. The moon, completely full, reflected off the surface of the waves that crashed below. I sat too high-up for any water to reach, but I could still easily smell and hear the sea.

It was hours later before he came after me, rightfully giving me my space. He even offered up an apology, despite me being the one that had punched him in the face out of frustration. "I was concerned, Yuffie. I apologize for breaking your trust."

Sighing, I patted the rock beside me. "It started a while ago," I began. It had taken me several hours, but I came to the conclusion that it might be a good idea to at least let one person know what the hell I'd been up to as of late. That way, when they inevitably found my dead body, it wouldn't be such a mystery.

"I summoned Ramuh out of boredom. I found an old book in my cave and, since I remembered being told about the "god-summons" since I was old enough to sit still. I thought, 'hey, why the hell not. It'll give me something to do.' Yeah, long story short I was lucky because Ramuh is really fucking nice and just wanted to talk to someone."

Tentatively, Vincent sat next to me. It was nearing sunrise.

"And, as we chit-chatted, our topics of conversation turned to some that no one else should have known about me, not in a million years. Shinra researchers could do background checks on me and still know less than half of what Ramuh know about me. And so, naturally, I began to question who I am. Ramuh said that while he knew, I wasn't ready to know just yet, and that a journey would shape me and prepare me for what I will eventually come to find out. So, three weeks later I found myself in a bar, buying drinks for Reno, hoping to get him drunk enough to steal his materia."

"And what did Ifrit tell you?" I was surprised that he wasn't scolding me.

"He said that in me 'flows the blood of his brothers and sisters' or some weird shit, which is completely and without a doubt the most unhelpful piece of information I've been given so far. He's an asshole."

"What did... What did he take from you?" Ah, there it was- he wanted to know how I'd ended up in such shitty shape when he'd first found me.

"None of your damned business." That was something I wasn't going to give Valentine. I would only get chided, anyway.

"Are you sure? You can... talk to me."

And then I realized Vincent thought Ifrit had done something really unsavory to me.

"Oh, Gods, Vincent," I balked. "He didn't do anything like that. I'm fine. What he took isn't something I'm going to miss that much, anyway." And, well, that was the truth. It was one year of my life. We're doomed to die as soon as we're born- there's no escaping it. One year, ten years; what did it matter- I wasn't afraid of death.

Much.

I leaned backward, shifting my weight to the heels of my palms as I laid back. "So, what was that about you being part of the Keigo clan back there?"

I watched him as he watched the sea. "My mother was the only daughter of the last generation. I'm the last of the Keigo."

"That's depressing. Did you mom ever tell you anything about her side of the family?"

Vincent shook his head. "Not enough. My mother married my father and left Wutai for good. She and her father, my grandfather, had a falling out. Apparently, my mother was to marry someone else. Do you... do you know of my family?"

"A little. The Keigo family were the sacred bodyguards of the Kisaragi."

His eyebrows shot up a little. "You're joking."

I sighed. "Nope. All of the rulers of Wutai have been women, with the exception being my father after my mom died when I was born. My grandad used to tell stories about when he was young and your, uh, uncle I guess it would be, would go hunting, or travel around."

He gave me an appraising look, like he didn't believe me.

I looked to the sea. "I think it's kind of neat. In another life, in another time, we still might have crossed paths."

We watched the sunrise in a comfortable silence.

"You still haven't answered my question."

"And what question would that be?"

"What is it you're looking for?"

"The answer to the biggest question a person can ask about themselves; who am I?"

Another comfortable silence passed between us.

Finally, "the tree of lights in the swirling sands. Think Phoenix was talking about the Gold Saucer."

"Yup." I stiood and dusted off my ass. I was hungry. "I'm leaving tomorrow. I need a little sleep and to resupply."

"Tomorrow it is, then." He stood and looked down at me.

I squinted my eyes in suspicion. "Yeah. Tomorrow."

"We'd better get some rest, then. We should leave as soon as we can."

My eyes remained narrow. "We?"

"You can't expect me to let you go out on your own, now that I know what you're doing?"

I began walking back toward my place. "Yes. Yes I do."

"Alright, let me put it like this; either you let me come with you, or I tell Cloud and the others what it is you're doing, and you can sort it out with them."

I turned on him, pissed off again. "You're blackmailing me?"

His face was impassive, as always. "Absolutely."

My anger faded, like a flame being doused by a bucket of water.. He was my friend, and he was only doing what friends do; be nosy, and watch your back.

"You get in my way and I'll kick your ass, Valentine."

"I'll keep that in mind."

Damn I was tired.