Chapter 4: Water

I felt the end of my mattress dip with foreign weight. Not now, not this early in the morning. I couldn't deal with it today- I had one hell of a hangover, and wasn't in the mood for anything other than lying in bed all day.

I threw a pillow at the intruder and kicked my legs. "Go away!"

Another dip in the mattress, followed by nothing but silence. I knew he was staring at me, his dark eyes asking for forgiveness.

"I'm still fucking mad at you, you asshole!"

My room remained quiet until he moved, my bed dipping with his weight once more. A cold, wet nose pressed against the back of my neck and I was licked by a giant cat-tongue.

"Dammit, Lunchbox, get off the bed!" I turned to push him off, but he was getting stronger by the day and could almost completely resist me. He hopped off the bed, his ears back, his eyes big and watery. "You know better than to use the couch as a scratching post." My angry look was met by slumped shoulders. For a cat, he was incredibly intelligent and expressive. He was also a fucking giant. I don't know what momma-kitty had mated with to get offspring this large, but I was beginning to put my money on a behemoth.

I stood and put some clothes on, Lunchbox rubbing against my leg, purring affectionately and nearly pushing me over. His back, when standing, came up to the top of my knee. Gigi and Simon were big, too, but Lunchbox was larger than the both of them, easily.

I'd put my life on hold for a while. Before I could go out looking for a way to find myself, I had to make sure I didn't lose myself in the process. Winter was just around the corner, the leaves turning delicate shades of red and orange and yellow, then falling down on the ground and making mush everywhere. Three days ago I'd nearly broken my wrist when I'd stepped in a pile of decomposing, damp, gooey leaves and tried to catch myself when I fell. It was rather undignified for a ninja.

I went back to the music shop, not wanting the guitar I'd purchased to go to waste. A nice, big sack of Gil and a few threatening looks later the music instructor and I had come to the agreement that I would come by the shop after close, when most of the city had shut down, and he'd teach me after hours. No one would see me go in, and no one would see me come out. But after my third week of lessons, I walked into the music shop to find my father sitting where I normally do for my lessons. He looked at me, stood up, gave his head a shake, but before he managed to say a single word I'd turned around and flounced right out of the damn door I'd only just opened.

I couldn't deal with my dad. He and I are exactly alike, which is why we don't get along. The difference is that he thinks he always right, whereas I know I'm always right. Plus, he has his head up his ass. I know how the talk would go, and I'm not interested in hearing a lecture about how I live my life. From birth, I had been meant to be groomed into the next ruler of Wutai, but seeing as how my mother wasn't there to teach me, and my father didn't know what to do, I kind of just grew up on my own. Not 'alone,' no, but passed around and taught contradictory lessons about life from whoever was watching me for the day.

That's why I'm so damn set with my own opinions; no one taught me right from wrong. They all think they did, but growing up what was right in one house was not in another, and so I learned to keep my mouth shut and just observe. I taught myself morals, and what I couldn't teach myself I learned through books.

And then the war started, and it didn't matter any more.

So, after seeing my father waiting for me in the music shop, I decided I needed to get the hell out of town for a while. I packed some clothes and pondered where to go. Costa del Sol and Mideel would be too packed with tourists this time of year, what with all of the snow birds moving to their winter homes. As far as left-over vacation destinations, I was mostly left with the Gold Saucer. It was worth a try- no one had stopped Vincent and I after he'd set the ride on fire. I'd just stay away from the speed square, that's all.

Rhu was a good bird- maybe I'd enter him in some races! I threw my backpack over my shoulder and wore my first genuine grin in weeks. I filled a giant plastic bin with cat food, and scratched Lunchbox and his siblings behind their ears. I looked my big fuzzy man in the eyes, taking on a serious demeanor. "I'll be back after a few days. Rhu is coming with me. Guard the house, and take care of your sister and brother, okay?"

He leaped forward and licked my face. What a ham.

And then we were off. Rhu and I took our time, lazing about and soaking up the few warm days of light left of the seasons. When the sun was out and the wind was still, it made for a pleasant trip. I flipped out my phone and dialed a number I had to practically beg Cloud for.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Ester? This is Yuffie. I'm a friend of Cloud's."

"Oh, yes! Hello, Yuffie! Cloud told me you would be calling. What can I do for you?"

"I have a chocobo I wanted to enter into a few races while I'm staying at the Gold Saucer later this week. I was hoping you could help me."

"Of course, dear. A friend of Cloud is a friend of mine. Let me know when you're at the lift and I'll send someone down to escort your bird up, alright?"

Ahhh, I loved it when things went smoothly. Which, for me, really wasn't often as of late. I called Ester again when I'd made it to the lift, and true to her word she sent someone down to meet me.

And boy, was he a looker. He was tall and handsome, with a red buttoned shirt tucked into white pants. His skin was sun-dark, like he spent his free time outside. He tipped his black fedora in my direction when he spotted me standing on the platform, considering I was obviously waiting for someone based on the chocobo standing next to me. "Ester sent me. Are you Yuffie?"

I fumbled my words for a moment. "Um, ah, yeah, I'm Yuffie. This here is Rhu." I patted Rhu's neck and he bent down and nuzzled the side of my face.

"Gold chocobo, eh? How did you manage a find like that? You look awfully young for a breeder." Angels, could his smile be any whiter or charming?

"A friend of mine gave him to me."

Even Rhu liked him, which was made plain as day when my feathery little baby reached his head out for a scratch when my handsome mystery man offered his hand. "Apologies, miss. Where are my manners?" He stuck his hand out for me to shake, his grip firm and his fingers warm. "I'm Joe."

You could be the king of the moon-people, so long as you kept those tight pants on and talked to me more with that spicy accent of yours. "Pleased to meet you."

We rode the lift up, Joe questioning me along the way. "Might I be so intrusive as to ask where you are from?"

I smiled. And I liked that he made me smile. It was nice to hang around someone who was genuinely curious who also had emotions. "My family is from Wutai."

"I see, I see. Beautiful mountainsides, stunning sunsets, and women who could charm the red off of a rose."

That earned a giggle from me. It was nice to be flirted with. "And what about you? Mideel area, I'm guessing?"

Another tip of his hat, this one followed by a wink. "I am, indeed. Most of my family still lives down there, but me? Ah, I am bit of an enigma to them. Small island living just wasn't for me, and so as soon as I was old enough to register for the chocobo races, I was off."

His life, it turns out, was pretty cool. On top of racing chocobos at the Gold Saucer, he bred them. He owned a own ranch outside of Gongaga, but Tieho, he boasted, was his baby. "I think I've seen you race before. Tieho is a black chocobo, right?"

Joe smiled down at me. "Yes, he is."

We chit-chatted a little more while I filled out my entrance forms. Joe wished me luck, and left me with a wink.

When I was finished with my paperwork, I found Ester on the betting floor near the door marked "Jockeys Only." She looked over my form, then nodded and ushered me through the door. "Rhu is all set up in stall three. The race will begin in a few minutes, so get ready."

I hopped on Rhu, made sure his reins were tight. He bristled with excitement. I stroked his neck for reassurance, for both he and I. "It's okay, boy. You can win- I know you can. You're a million times better than any other bird in this whole damn tree."

"Hey now," came a familiar voice from the stall next to mine. "Tieho takes offense to that, I'll have you know."

"Joe? You're in this race?"

He chuckled, and I could practically hear the smile he wore. "We meet again, Miss Yuffie. Good luck to you."

I felt smug; I knew Rhu was one hell of a chocobo. "Don't waste your good luck on me, Joe. You're going to need all the luck you can get."

"Oh-ho! The rose has a thorn!"

The opening bell rang, and the doors to the stalls opened. We all took our places at the starting line, and I couldn't help but shoot Joe a sly smile. Then the countdown began. My grip on the reigns tightened, and I could feel my palms beginning to sweat. I knew Rhu was good, and even though I'd talked big, I also knew that Joe was one hell of a jockey. Finally, the starting bell rang and the lights turned green. A myriad of multicolored chocobos burst past the checkered line, a cacophony of chocobo calls echoing through the tunnels. But within a matter of moments, Joe and I had left the rest of the racers in our wake, wondering what the hell had just flashed past them.

"You're pretty good!" He shouted at me.

"It's such a pity you're not good enough!" I called back, ushering Rhu into a sprint. Rhu had stamina. In fact, when he was born and while I was training him, Cloud, and even ChocoboBilly, had mentioned that he was the type of bird that could run the world over and not tire. I have ridden Rhu the world over, and even after some of our longer trips, as soon as we get home he's ready to go again.

But Tieho was a seasoned vet, and it turns out Joe isn't the type to give up easily. He rode Rhu's tail nearly the entire time. More than once he caught up with us, but Rhu would have none of that and pushed himself harder until he couldn't see his new-found rival.

I won, but it was by hardly a few feet. Rhu, as pleased as a chocobo could be, bucked me up and tossed me into the air, celebrating in his own way that he was awesome. I was beginning to think my bird had an ego problem, but I let him have his celebratory fun.

I dismounted and hugged him, laughing at how silly he was being. Joe reached a hand out and shook mine, all in good sportsmanship. "You are quite the racer."

As we stabled our birds after the race, Ester entered the Jockey room and came rushing at me. "Cloud said you were good, but my goodness! That was fantastic!"

I slapped the back of Joe's shoulder. "Good thing for Joe this isn't a full-time gig for me."

We laughed, and Ester handed out our prizes. Mine came in a nifty little box, and when I opened it for the barest of moments my breath caught in my throat. It was a summon materia! I all but lost my mind, thinking of who next I could call on my journey, but as soon as my fingers touched the smooth glass-like orb, I grew angry. It was Odin. Fuck.

"Are you... Are you alright, miss Yuffie?" Joe's voice brought me back from the world I'd apparently fallen into.

I snapped back to reality and apologized. "Sorry. Just surprised. This is quite the first place prize."

Ester clapped her hands together. "The prize committee decided that, in lieu of you beating Joe in your very first race, that your prize be a little more special."

I raised an eyebrow in question, which seemed to get my point across. "The Gold Saucer is constantly looking for new, fresh jockeys. If you can beat Joe here, they think you'd be a valuable asset to keep on staff, so think of it as both a prize and an incentive."

"I appreciate the offer, Ester, but-"

She dismissed my thoughts with a wave of her hand. "Don't worry about it, sweetie. I'm not expecting you to stay, and you're not hurting my feelings for saying no. It's just something that's done here in hopes of recruiting some new talent, that's all."

Ester left us, and I gazed back down at the materia in my hand. Flashes of Wutai, covered in the dead, raced through my brain. I squeaked when I felt a hand on my shoulder, still lost in my own world. I breathed a sigh of relief when it was only Joe, and not a zombie-Vincent.

"Are you well? You look ill."

I shook my head and tried to gather my thoughts. "Just... Just thinking about unpleasant memories. I'm fine."

Joe tilted his head, his forehead creased with the look of concern he wore for me. "You do not look fine, miss Yuffie. You look like you've seen the dead walk among us."

I pushed it all out of my mind – my nightmare with Odin, zombie-Vincent, and even real-Vincent. "You're right. I'm not fine. But I will be, so don't worry about it."

I'd meant to head up to the hotel and order myself some damn room service, but Joe's hand wrapped around my wrist and he gently tugged me back. "Let me take you to dinner. You look like you could use something in your system. Perhaps a little company will help clear your head?"

When opened my mouth to reject him, I took a split second to think. What the hell was I supposed to do for the rest of my life? Mope around because Vincent was a stupid fuck? It's not my fault there are a million things wrong with him, most of which can't even be classified. I was better than that. I deserved better than that. "Sure. That sounds fantastic."

And that's how I ended up eating at a fancy restaurant with a sexy man in tight pants, with one hell of an accent.

The fantastic part? I had fun. I actually smiled and laughed and ate with decent table manners instead of making a fool of myself. What? Eating dehydrated food from plastic pouches while I travel the world isn't exactly the best place to pick up table etiquette. Sue me.

"And what do you do, miss Yuffie? You're hardly spoken about yourself all night."

Oh, you know. That huge meteor that nearly crashed into the planet a few years back? Me and my team that stopped it. Yeah, we totally saved the world. As far as what I'm doing now? I was searching the globe with the man I was in love with in order to find out about my origins, because, believe it or not, it's way easier than talking to anyone in my family, but after he nearly fucked me, then acted like he didn't even realize what was doing and freaked out and ran away, I'm on my own. I also live with a giant cat who is smarter than most people I know.

"I'm a treasure hunter."

That sounded much better than my inner-monologue.

"A treasure hunter? What kind of treasure do you hunt?"

I sipped my wine. What? A girl can enjoy a glass of red to pair off a steak. I like good food, and I like good drinks with my good food. "It used to be strictly materia, but I've been known to dabble in whatever catches my interest."

We talked so long into the night that our waitress had to tell us, polietly, to get the hell out so they could clean and leave for the night. We apologized, of course, left a big tip, then walked ever so slowly down the mostly empty halls of the Gold Saucer.

Checking my watch, I decided two in the morning would be a good time to call it a night. Joe, ever the gentleman, insisted on walking me to my room, which was very sweet and something I'd never actually had happen to me before. "I've had quite the entertaining night, miss Yuffie."

"Please. I've kicked your ass at the races and made you pay for dinner. Drop this 'miss' nonsense."

He smiled and leaned down.

I knew he was going to kiss me. I knew he was going to kiss me before I think he knew he was going to kiss me. And, well, I couldn't blame him- it had been one hell of a date...

Was that what we had been on? I'd gone out on a date, huh?

I leaned up, pressed a hand against Joe's chest, and when our lips met...

I was completely and utterly disappointed. All I could think about was Vincent. There was no spark, nothing.

Joe pulled back and looked down at me. "See? I knew you were not well."

I sighed and leaned against the door frame of my room. "I'm sorry. I recently was left."

"Left?"

"We weren't... we weren't 'together' so to speak, but he knew I had feelings for him." Gods, my mouth was running away with me. But I couldn't help it; it felt so good to get it all out to someone other than my cats. Ugn, that made me sound crazy. "Suddenly, he became close – really close - and then, in the middle of becoming intimate, he just took off."

Joe's eyebrows shot up into his hat. Good thing he was wearing it, otherwise they would have launched into space.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to blurt it all out and-"

He took my shoulders in his hands and looked down at me, determination set into his otherwise smiling features. "Do not apologize, Yuffie. You have done nothing but open your heart, and there is never anything wrong with that. Do not feel ashamed; you've done nothing wrong. It is this man you speak of – this gigantic idiot – who left you like that who is the one deserving of shame."

I bit the inside of my cheek to I wouldn't tear up. He was sexy, he was intelligent, he was caring, and he wasn't anything that I wanted. Our first date had gone well because he's the type of man who can make friends with anyone, and I was in need of an escape from moping about stupid Vincent and the fact that I was still in love with him.

Joe was kind enough to stroke the side of my face, making me look up at him. His palm was warm and his smile was caring. "Listen to me. He was stupid for leaving you like that, and stupider still for not coming back to you." He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and left it in my hand. "This is my card. When you forget about him, when you want to start new, you call me, alright?"

I nodded, wiped my eyes on the back of my sleeve, and opened the door to my room. "Fuck you, Vincent Valentine," I cried into my pillow. My words would never reach him, but I didn't care. Just saying them out loud made me feel better. I went home in the morning, thanking Joe for the fun night out and promising to call, whether I needed him or not.

I had no one to talk to, nowhere to go, so I spent a while just traveling. I slept under the stars when the night sky was clear, and huddled up in a tent against Rhu when it wasn't. I went back home to check on my cats, who were doing well and were very pleased to see me. Simon and Gigi had taken up residence with Shake, which surprised the hell out of me. I'd stopped by town to resupply before heading out again, and talked with her. I insisted she take a little gil from me to feed the beasts, and advised her to keep an eye out for Lunchbox and keep him out of trouble.

I was gone for a month. I called Shake twice to ask her how my cats were doing, and she would laugh at my worries and assure me that they were all doing fine. She'd purchased a collar for Lunchbox, complete with a bell, as apparently the local school children had become so enamored over having such a sweet, gigantic kitty around some of them were trying to keep him as a pet. At night, however, Shake told me that he would leave, obviously going home, and would come back in the morning. Once she even held up the phone to Lunchbox's ear so I could 'talk' to him, and I heard him purr and bump his head against the receiver. "He misses you."

"Buy him a fish and I'll pay you back when I get home again."

I did. Lunchbox had grown physically, while I had mentally. I was stronger in heart, hardened from the constant sunshine on my back, the stalwart moon over my head, and from being whoever the hell I wanted to be while I was gone.

Lonesome seemed to be in my nature.

Regardless of this fact, Lunchbox, upon seeing me riding into town, threw back his head and howled in delight, and practically bowled me over the moment I was off Rhu's back.

"He's quite the handful," Shake assured me. "Next time, just take him with you- he's big enough."

I thanked her with another handful of gil, though she tried to deny me paying her back for all she'd done for me. Eventually she took it from me, though I had to threaten to break into her house in the middle of the night and leave money – she teased me that I was quite the backwards thief – and we shared a good laugh.

Home was as I'd left it. I took a magnet off my fridge, a cute little glass bead in the shape of a piggy, and stuck Joe's card to the face of it, which had been previously taking up space on my coffee table. Maybe I'd give him a call. He certainly knew how to treat a woman.

Lunchbox followed me around the cave as I cleaned. We took the afternoon off and ate a picnic lunch by the sea, despite the cold weather, mostly because I set of a bug-bomb inside my bedroom and kitchen. Just because I lived in a cave didn't mean I had to live with the creepy-crawlies. I can deal with bugs, even spiders, but that doesn't mean I like them at all. And, despite my home being a cave, it wasn't really natural by an stretch of the word; it had obviously been carved from the beginning of a cave, which explained why I had both stalactites and nice, carved bathroom, not to mention doors, but if the bugs weren't paying rent, they could lump it or leave it.

I sold out and bought a nicer video-player. I bought some newer movies, and started watching at least one a day.

Finally, sick of the slump I'd fallen into, I decided to give Cloud a call. It was time to discover myself, my origins, all on my own once more. What's that old saying? We are born alone and we die alone. Yup, that sounded just right. In fact, I'm sure even Vincent could agree with that.

"You want to borrow my what?"

"Your Knights of the Round."

"...No."

"Reeve is vouching for me, come on! I just need to use it once!"

"No way. I know you and how you are around materia."

"Cloud! Pleeeeeease? I won't even touch it, I swear!"

He sighed. Ha! I was breaking his resolve. "Tell me what it's for."

"I can't. Not yet. I will some day, but not now. Reeve knows, but he's sworn not to tell anyone. Please, Cloud? Please? When was the last time I asked a favor from you?"

A pregnant pause. Another sigh. "Send Reeve. You're not to touch it, you got that?"

I pumped my fists into the air in a little victory dance on my part. "I'll call him right now! Thank you, thank you, thankyouthankyouthankyou!"

I hung up, squealed, then dialed Reeve. "He said yes!"

It took him three days, as he had a little business to finish up before he left, but when he arrived I was so ecstatic I threw my arms around his neck and giggled like an idiot. "We have to wait for nightfall, because I don't think calling them all in my house is a good idea."

"Where is Vincent?"

I made a sour face. "Don't know, don't care."

"Ah. Have a fight?"

"You don't even want to know"

And I'm glad Reeve knew enough about me to leave it at that. We went to nice dinner at Turtle's Paradise, which Reeve offered to pay for. Since he was going out of his way to help me, I bought dessert, though he didn't get to pick.

"Chocolate cake? Yuffie, you're so predictable."

"Chocolate cake is the only thing on this planet that makes me suspect a greater power, so you cram it," I barked, taking a giant bite of the dark, spongy goodness.

After our food was finished, Reeve pushed his plate to the center of the table and sat back, satisfied. "Well, Yuffie, shall we get going?"

I took a long sip of my drink, ridding the glass of liquid. "Might as well." A nice, long walk in the moonlight, in the crisp winter air would sober me right the hell up.

Reeve was impressed with the runes I drew on a little rock outcropping next to the ocean. The salty sea, coupled with the biting cold, served only to burn my lungs and throat. I pulled my scarf a little tighter around my neck, wishing it would just fucking snow already.

"How much of this is ritual?"

I shrugged, popping the chalk back into my pocket. "Eh, some of them are sticklers, and others are pretty laid back. I'm still alive; I just figure so far so good." Standing up, I dusted my knees off and sighed. Well, it was now or never. "Reeve, whatever you do... don't speak. I'm the one who's calling them, I'm the one asking questions. I don't know what these guys will be like, and if it's anything like Odin was, I might be in over my head. I need you as backup in case something happens. Understand?"

"Lots of lookie, no talkie." I chuckled while he made a turn-key motion over his mouth with his hands, then pretend to throw away the key he'd locked his lips with. Then, heaving a heavy sigh, I began lighting the little tea candles. They flickered in the pale moonlight.

"Knights of heaven and hell, heed my call." I bowed my head, falling to my knees. "I seek your help- lend me your knowledge, speak with me, and I shall grant you whatever is in my power to grant."

They appeared gradually, all of them, in a gigantic circle around me. They were each as tall as a house, as intimidating as a tank, and each had armor that glistened and shined in the moonlight. My breath caught as a shower of flower petals fell around me.

One of the knight knelt before me. "We knew you would call us," he admitted. I had the distinct feeling that, if I could see his face, could meet his eyes, I would have been terrified beyond measure.

I swallowed hard, the steadied myself. "Whatever is in my power to grant, I shall-"

Another knight, one behind me, interrupted me. "We will take what we are owed in due time. Ask your questions."

"Who am I?"

Yet another knight, and another and another spoke in turn.

"You are who you are."

"You are who you think you are, no more."

"You are who you aspire to be, no less."

Alright, I was done with this cryptic shit. "Yeah, that's pretty much what everyone else tells me. I'm sick of this run-around. The only thing that I've managed to figure out with the riddles I've been given is that part of me isn't mortal."

The largest knight leaned over me. "You know exactly who to seek for your answers, little one. You merely choose to ignore them on the basis of your personal beliefs and vendettas."

I puffed out my chest. "What can Leviathan tell me that the rest of you are so reluctant to? What does he know about me that you won't share?"

"It is not our place. Seek Leviathan."

Oh, now I was pissed. "You're kidding me? So now you're going to take something from me just for bothering you? Ifrit took a year from my life, but at least he provided me with some new information and thoughts."

"Yuffie..." I heard Reeve warn from outside the circle. The knights, however, pretended not to hear him.

A new knight spoke, this one, surprisingly, female. "You are selfish, human. In you may run the blood of our brothers and sisters, but you forget your place. We have granted you with what knowledge we deem fit, and have graced you with our presence. The fact that you can do nothing with the gift we have given you is not of our concern."

A different knight held out his hand to signal silence. "We are indebted to the water-snake. Perhaps there is something we can offer this Wutain..."

The lean knight nodded his head in agreement. "We shall tell you, then, where to find the water snake, and what traps lie ahead of you." He held out a humongous gloved hand, his index finger pointed straight at my face. When he spoke again, it felt like his voice was echoing inside of my head. "Leviathan can be found in the deepest corner of the cavern of flames. No normal mortal can face such fire without the aid of the scales of the guardian of the seas, and even after you douse the flames another challenge will make itself known."

"And now," they all echoed, together. "We take that which is most precious to you." A wave of ancient magic rippled through me, and I felt the world ripple around me.

I hated Vincent, but I wasn't past denying that he hadn't had an impact on my life. Even if I never wanted to see him again, some fucked up part of me still clung to his memory. The knights faded as the moon disappeared behind a cloud, only the smell of cherry blossoms lingering.

"Reeve," I called out, nearly crying. "Call Vincent!"

He pulled out his phone, obviously shaken. I knew that if I dialed the number, Vincent wouldn't pick up. If he wanted to talk to me, he would have the balls to actually do it in person. But for Reeve, I knew he'd answer.

"Vincent? Oh, thank the planet."

I sighed with relief, even if I wasn't without worry. Vincent was fine, sure, but what had my payment been?

After a short conversation with Vincent, Reeve hung up his phone. He walked past me and picked up the summon materia that lay in the dust. "That was quite amazing," he admitted, his voice shaking slightly.

"You're telling me."

Reeve walked back to me and offered a hand to help me stand. My knees felt like rubber under me, but I managed to get up on my feet. I looped my arm around his and we began the long walk back home.

"I'm so drained," I moaned, pinching the bridge of my nose.

"I'd give you a piggyback, but my knees aren't what they used to be."

I pulled my chocowhistle from my pocket. "Let me call Rhu. I bet he's bored anyway." I took a deep breath, then blew.

We waited, in silence, until the tension slowly began to escalate between us. My heartbeat quickened, and my extremities felt suddenly cold. I blew again, and Reeve and I seached the horizon for my chocobo.

"Oh, Gaia, no-" Tears were streaming down my face, and my hands shook.

Rhu wasn't coming.

Reeve swallowed hard, looking panicked. He didn't know what to say, didn't know what to do.

"Not my baby!" I forced myself to stand, turned on my heel, and ran as fast as I could back to my cave hideaway. I was sick to my stomach and wanted to throw up, but I pushed one foot in front of the other until I came to the door of Rhu's paddock. I didn't have time to fumble with the damn knob, so I did a running leap and kicked the whole thing off its hinges. New doors were a dime a dozen; chocobos that I've raised since they hatched were not.

An ear splitting squawk sounded the moment after the door hit the floor, and Rhu's giant talons swept past me. He was in full defense mode, and I didn't blame him; I'd just barged in and scared the hell out of him.

I tried to grab at his reins to calm him down but he swiveled his head away, though not before trying to nip my fingers off. "Rhu! Calm down, boy! It's just me!"

He moved to peck at my face, and I fell over trying to dodge getting my ear bitten clean off. On the floor, however, I had the disadvantage, and the moment my ass hit stone Rhu raised his big feet and tried to squash me.

Reeve, who must have been just steps behind me the entire time, jumped in front of me, his arms spread wide. "Whoa, whoa there boy, it's alright." Rhu took a few steps back, obviously having recognized Reeve. True, they'd only met twice before, but chocobos had impeccable memories and-

"He doesn't remember me."

Reeve turned around, confusion in his expression. "What?"

"That was my payment. The knights said it was that which was most precious to me. It was my bird."

Realization washed over his face. "They didn't take his life, they instead took all his memories of you."

I didn't know what to do. I was at a loss of words, of actions, and of cognitive thought. I curled up in a little ball and cried until my eyes hurt, until I threw up, until Reeve had to pick me up off the floor like the awesome guy he was, hug me, and make me a bowl of ice cream. He still had enough niceness and patience left in him, after patting my back while I threw up the ice cream he'd given me, to try to fix the door to Rhu's pen.

In the morning, Reeve made a phone call to let the people back in his office know that he would be a few days late. After he hung up, I told him that I didn't want another free-loader staying in my house. Vincent had put me through enough shit, thankyouverymuch.

"I'm not free-loading, I'm helping. I know a guy who races chocobos at the Gold Saucer who can-"

"Joe?"

Reeve blinked in surprise. "Uh, yes, actually. You know him?"

I felt my cheeks heat. "He and I went on a date a few weeks ago. Rhu and I beat his sorry ass at the races, so he bought me dinner."

The gears in Reeve's head were obviously trying to make sense of that, so I spared him the mental turmoil and offered him up some slim details about why, exactly, Vincent was gone. "Some weird shit when down when and after we summoned Odin – be thankful you were not there for that, let me tell you what - and he just left me without a fucking word. I was feeling depressed, and I knew I needed to get out of the house so I took a trip and decided to try my hand at racing."

"Joe's a pretty great guy."

I remembered the kiss he'd given me after our date, and wished it could have meant more. "He is. He's just not what I need right now, though. He was polite enough to back down when, even if we were having fun, the night wasn't going anywhere."

So, after a long discussion – and perhaps a few chocked back tears from me – Reeve and I decided that it might be a good idea to seek Joe out. He was an expert on chocobos, and if anyone could help Rhu it would be him. Reeve coerced Cid into helping us transport Rhu, with the promise of a very expensive bottle of whiskey for the old pilot even though I'm sure that Cid wasn't enough of a jerk to refuse us in the first place. I gave the grumpy old curmudgeon a hug when I saw him, and he patted my back and pretended to be all affronted about it. Cid, no matter how much of a bad ass he pretended to be, had a great big heart. He'd just convinced himself that no one else could see what a softie he was.

Reeve had been kind enough to call Joe before we'd headed out, just to make sure he wasn't at the Gold Saucer. We'd luckily caught him during his vacation time, and he was pleased as punch to hear that apparently Reeve and I knew one another. "It makes me happy to know that she has good friends to take care of her," he explained.

I was a little worried about explaining what had happened with Rhu to Joe without, you know, blowing his fucking mind but Reeve, thankfully, took the initiative and kept it simple. "It's not common for magic to backfire, after all," he explained.

I followed. "I was running from some monsters, and I cast confused= to try and get them to leave me alone, and something happened. The next thing I knew, Rhu didn't recognize me."

It was strange, seeing Rhu nuzzle Joe. I felt empty, knowing that my feathery little baby didn't remember me. But Joe, because he was a kind man, told me not to worry and that he would take care of Rhu for a while, and that I was welcome by for a visit anytime I wanted.

"I hate to dredge up sour memories, Yuffie, but what of the man who left you? Is there hope left in your heart for his return?"

I leaned up and kissed Joe on the cheek. "Tell ya what, Joey. When I am confident that I'm over him, you'll be the first to know."

There was a warm spark settling in my tummy as we rode away in the Highwind. Yuffie Kisaragi isn't the type of awesome ninja and thief extraordinaire to let a little heart break completely mess up her life. Sure, Vincent had sent me through the wringer, but I was still whole, still me, and so when I was dropped off back home I decided it was time to figure myself out a little more than my previous attempts. I missed Rhu, but moping and feeling sorry for myself wasn't going to get shit done.

I tried different hobbies, just to keep me busy until I felt comfortable returning to my journey of self-discovery, until I felt that I'd learned at least one new thing about myself. Guitar lessons were out, obviously, so instead I purchased a boat-load of DIY books from the shops around town and set to work. I taught myself how to fix my plumbing without the use of tape and super-putty; I tried oil-painting, knitting, and even yoga. I made cheese and pickles that tasted like heaven and hell respectively – seriously, I don't even like cucumbers, so where I got the idea that I might like pickles I'll never know.

I always knew that I was a decent cook, and so I took to making dishes that I'd never in a million years try. I made a spicy sausage and seafood stew, and watched documentaries about anything and everything from the ruins outside of Bone Village to the different kinds of monsters that lived at the bottom of the sea.

Of course! The bottom of the sea!

I dialed Cloud late one night, hands covered in flour from a new type of dough I was making. He sounded sleepy when he picked up, but I knew that I couldn't wait until morning to call him. "When we were in the Underwater Reactor, you found some Leviathan scales. Do you still have them?"

He paused, and I realized from the strange little sound he made that he was yawing. "Does this have anything to do with why you needed to borrow my Knights of the Round?"

"Yes. A little. And you got your materia back, just like I promised. Don't dodge the question, Strife. Do you still have them?"

"I have two, and you're welcome to take them off my hands anytime."

"Have I ever told you how much I love you, Cloud?"

"Goodnight, Yuffie."

I did a little dance in my kitchen, then went back to my baking. I decided that I'd pay Cloud a visit when I went to see Rhu and Joe.

Two weeks passed, and I'd made arrangements with Cid to hitch another ride across the continents in two days time. I busied my myself with simple tasks, like catching up on a new series of fantasy novels.

Sitting at the kitchen table on one of my many mismatched stools, I was working on my flower arranging. I played some nice piano music to relax me, and felt profoundly girly and un-ninjalike.

Lunchbox, sitting on his rump with his front paws resting on the counter, was staring at the mess I was making with the dried flowers. He tilted his head, obviously curious as to what it was I was doing, and, to be honest, though I was trying my best, even I wasn't sure what I was doing. My supposed flower arrangement looked like... well, it looked like crap. I looked down at my cat and he gave me an almost apologetic look, something along the lines of, 'I'm sorry you found something you're terrible at.' Then, his ears perked and he sat up tall, looking toward the door. Before I could even turn around, he'd bounded off, letting out a welcoming meow.

When I turned, I froze.

Vincent Valentine knelt, scratching Lunchbox behind the ears. The face he wore was tinged with sadness and regret.

"Oh, no. No you don't. Get out. I just got over you, you fucking bastard."

He stood and took a step toward me, shaking his head. "Please, Yuffie, let me-"

I picked up my flower arrangement, vase and all, and hurled it at him. He dodged it, of course, what with his amazing reflexes, but the vase still hit the floor and shattered behind him. Lunchbox, not knowing I wasn't yelling at him, tucked his tail between his legs and booked it down the hall and out of the cave.

"Please-"

"Get. Out. Now." I hurled my book next, even though I knew it wouldn't hit him. "Leave!"

"No. I need to speak with you."

I grabbed random things off the counter and threw them at him; my salt and pepper shakers, a half-eaten candy bar I was saving for later, a wooden spatula. Anything and everything I could get my hands on went sailing toward the general area of his head.

"OUT!" I was so angry I was shaking, and my vision began to blur as I fought back tears. Here I thought I had enough strength in me to face him and keep my wits about it. No, it looked like my wounds were still a little too deep, still a little too fresh.

"I will not once more let my silence ruin me. I didn't speak out when I should have, and it nearly cost me my life before. Hate me now, hate me afterward, but at least hear me out."

"I am going to bust that pretty face of yours, Valentine, if you're not out of my house in the next three seconds."

He widened his stance, let his arms fall to his sides, and clenched his fists. "I am not moving until we talk."

"Fine then," I huffed as I picked up my coat off one of the stools. "I'll just find a new place to live." I started toward the door, but he stepped in front of me. "Move."

"Quit being stubborn, Yuffie,"

I tried to move around him, but he was being a giant jackass. Where ever I stepped, he moved in front of me. I contemplated just running him down, but I didn't want to touch him, didn't want him to touch me. I was so sick of him, so over him, that I never wanted to see him again. I told him as much.

He sighed, shook his head, and tried to plead with me more. "I'm not asking you to give up anything. I simply want to speak with you."

I stamped my foot; I was done being grown up and polite. "FUCKING MOVE!" I made a break for the door, but he was too fast for me. He held out his hand, his forearm coming in contact with my stomach. He held me in place when I struggled, trying to get past him, and was seriously thinking of biting him. Yeah, I was that mad.

Instead of drawing blood, I twisted backwards and stomped back into my kitchen, livid. "Don't touch me! Don't fucking touch me!" I kicked one of my stools so hard it broke into several pieces when it hit the floor. I was livid. Tears were streaming down my face, but I was too angry to actually sob. I grabbed a coffee mug off the counter, spun around and cocked my arm back, preparing to throw the damn thing at Vincent's head, but my food caught on something when I turned and I nearly fell. I managed to right myself, but when I looked down to see what had tripped me I was surprises to see it had been him.

"Yuffie, I am begging you. Please listen to me. Listen to me and continue hating me if it makes you happy, but do it after I've spoken."

I was surprised into stillness. He was bent, nose to the floor, actually begging. Part of me wanted me to kick him. I'm glad I didn't listen to that part of me, because kicking someone when they are down is pretty low. Even for me. I put down the coffee mug, my hands still shaking. "Make it quick." I was still angry, sure, but the burning rage had momentarily subsided into smoldering embers.

He stood and looked down at me, his face, as always, composed. "Come. Sit with me on the couch."

I numbly and dumbly followed him, anxious and suddenly strained. I flopped down unceremoniously and fought the urge to fidget.

It took a moment for him to gather his thoughts, and another moment still before he began to talk. "After Odin, back in the hotel- it was Chaos-"

"No shit. It was a fucking disaster and-"

"No, Yuffie. I mean it wasn't me. It was Chaos."

I squinted my eyes at him. "What?" I was seriously out of the loop.

He sighed and punched the bridge of nose. "It was one of my demons. Do you remember in Icicle Inn, and again in Cosmo after the stampede?"

I opened my mouth, but no words came out.

"You asked about my glowing eyes. I told you it was a defense mechanism. I wasn't lying, merely selective with the truth I presented you."

The gears inside my mostly empty head began to turn. "Chaos posses you when you lose control. That's why before Odin fucked with your head you told me to run if you lost yourself."

He nodded, somberly. "The times when I let my anger or fear completely own me are times when Chows saves me from myself. If he refused to intervene, I would most likely die."

"Well, that explains why you're always so careful with your emotions, at least." My delivery of sarcasm was lacking.

"Yes. I must always tread carefully. When Twisp had held the gun to you, it was only Chaos hearing your pleas to spare him that stopped me from snapping his neck. Later, when we were both in danger of being trampled, he took over for fear of something happening to our well being."

I crossed my arms over my chest. "Yeah? And how did Chaos figure getting me under him was crucial to your survival?" Bitter? Uh, yeah.

He sighed, obviously tired. Whatever, he could suck it. I was still mad. "Demons do not work on the same emotional levels as humans. What he did he did because I had retreated inside myself. He was trying to get me to respond."

"Tell him thanks for using me. I appreciate being a tool."

"That is not what I meant." It was one of the few times I'd ever heard him raise his voice. Instead of apologizing, I stayed silent. He lowered his voice, almost as if he, too, had been surprised. "As I said, demons don't work on the same emotional frequency as you or I might. They sense things and they act accordingly. Chaos understands love and hate on basic levels, but he does not understand shame. What he did to you... he did because he knew that you are in love with me. He acted on your desires, while all the same hoping to wake me from within myself."

"That's so much better. I totally love that I was nearly fucked by a demon in your body on the basis that I'm still hot for you."

"That's not... that's not everything."

"Oh, yeah? What else are you withholding about me nearly getting boned by you, but not really by you?"

"Chaos cannot work outside of the realm of my wants and needs."

"...What?" I stared at him. My brain clicked off and the world powered down around me. It was just he and I alone in the universe. He was looking at me, right in the eyes, which took serious cajones.

"Chaos lacks the ability to act against my desires and needs."

"So what you're saying is..."

"Chaos acted based on my inner emotions. What he did to you he did because a part me me wanted him to do it to you."

I glared at him. "Then why did you run away like you did?"

"Because until Chaos explained his inner workings to me, I didn't know. Because when I woke up, all I knew was that you were naked, under me, and moaning my name. I was terrified Chaos..."

"Had done something you would regret."

"No. I was terrified he'd done something that couldn't be stopped."

Well, that took whatever witty retort I had readied right out of my head.

"After I left, I just wandered. I shut Chaos out, refused to communicate with him, until he completely possessed me and forced me to listen. I was not previously aware that he couldn't act outside of the scope of my inner workings, even if it would mean the death of us at some point. That's why I'm always so careful. That's why, as you said, I keep my emotions in check. I wasn't previously aware that no matter what I did, Chaos is looking out for my best interest."

"And is there a reason for that?" I was growing suspicious.

He shrugged. "Yes and no. He doesn't hate me, though he doesn't like the idea of being what might as well be named my prisoner. He knows that I wasn't responsible for him being forced to share my body, and he respects the fact that while I greatly dislike the idea of sharing my body with demons in the first place I, at the same time, hold little animosity toward him. Even so, he is not able to do something that might hurt me. He shares my emotions, you see, as we are two personalities sharing one body. I, however, hold the upper hand as it is my body that we share; he is merely an entity inside it, almost like two souls in one casing. Thus, when I am angry, he is angry. When I am happy, he is happy."

"So when he nearly fucked me-"

"Yes. It was because, at some point, I had given it thought." Vincent looked to his hands, suddenly finding them very interesting.

We sat there for a minute. I really couldn't think of anything to say. In all honesty, I was quite dumbfounded. Eventually, I started on the millions of questions that were racing through my head. "If you were entertaining the thought of screwing, why did you reject me in the first place?"

He glared at me. "You make it sound so crude. That aside, when have I ever rejected you?"

Ah, there it was; my indignation flared up again. "You're joking, right? When haven't you rejected me?"

He began counting on his fingers. "When you told me you loved me, I never rejected you, I merely stated that you had years ahead of you, and that you had the chance to move on. There was no rejection there, just my attempt at avoiding confrontation. And can I be blamed? My last relationship wasn't a walk in the park. Yet again in the very beginning of our journey together, when I saved you after it looked as though Ifrit had nearly killed you; you had avoided me thereafter, even threatened me after Phoenix was called, but I still followed you. And why was that?"

I glared at him. Fuck him and his logic.

"Because I was worried for your safety, and because I would not back down. What of in the elevator in the Shinra HQ building, when it was obvious Reno was making you uncomfortable? Who pulled you backwards and became jealous? And perhaps you remember later that same night, after our night of drinks with Reeve? What had you asked me?"

I sighed and rolled my eyes. "You were drunk, and I thought I was being sneaky."

"I was no such thing. I was mildly buzzed, at best. You asked me for a kiss, and I gave you what you asked for. I ask you again, Yuffie; when have I ever rejected you?"

"Oh, fuck you. So you're saying that this whole time all I had to do was just ask you to fuck me?" I stood up to leave, considering my rage was building up once again. Just who did he think he was?

He reached out and pulled me backwards so fast that it took me a moment before I realized that I'd fallen onto his lap. Completely uncharacteristically of him, he placed his hand on the back of my head. My forehead pressed against his shoulder, I heard him sigh. "That's not what is meant." I pulled back, just barely, and realized that Chaos had taken over. My heart jack-hammered in my chest and I suddenly found it harder and harder to draw breath. After a long intake of air, the glow in Vincent's eyes dissipated. When he came to, he slowly let go of me, obviously not having anticipated Chaos' take over. "I apologize."

However, I couldn't find enough strength to move away. I was straddling his hips, our faces mere inches apart. It took a moment, but eventually he spoke. "This is not easy. I am not outright proclaiming to be in love with you, but there is... something."

"Why did it take you so damn long to come back?" There it was; I was upset again.

He looked into my eyes. "I've been watching over you since you came home from the Gold Saucer. I admit that my cowardice has prevented me from confronting you without shame. Speaking about the way I feel, not to mention bringing up my inner demons, both figurative and literal, is extremely difficult for me. I had tried, at first, to convince myself that you were better not knowing, but I knew that it was not fair for either of us in the end. I did, however, want to make sure you'd had enough time to cool down."

I couldn't help the tears that began to flow down my face. "You're such a jerk." I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand.

"I know. Hating me is easy."

Suddenly realizing what he was doing, I forced myself to stop crying. "That's what this is about, isn't it? You apologize, and I either forgive you or continue hating you."

"That's the general idea of apologies, isn't it?"

I scoffed. "Bullshit. That's not what you're doing at all. You couldn't take the guilt of it, and so you came back. You want me to hate you, don't you?"

When he looked into my eyes, I knew I'd hit a nerve. Finally, when he responded, tiredness had wormed its way into his voice. "It is... easier if you hate me."

In a flash, a million things burned through me, through my brain and body. I wanted to hit him, I wanted to scream at him, I wanted to cry, and I wanted to hit him some more. "What did you just say?"

"I am no good at repentance. I slept in a coffin for thirty years as a form of self-imposed punishment. You hating me is simply the easiest way out. I apologized, however, because somehow you've made me feel less the part of the monster and more the part of the man."

"No, you're fucking bastard, Vincent Valentine!" I screamed at him, full-on, in his face, complete with the grabbing of the front of his cloak. I shook him once, just for good measure. "Do you hear me? You're a bastard!"

And then I kissed him. I think I surprised myself more than I surprised him, because – holy hell – I really hadn't meant to do anything other than scream at him and make him feel like shit. But I was kissing him, and goddammit he responded. For all of the anger and venom I put in that kiss, he gave it right back, which, if I'd been wearing socks, would have knocked them completely off my feet. I dislodged one of my hands from the death-grip I had on the collar of his cloak and raked my hands across his chest, and his response was a heated gasp. His hands began to roam, his gauntlet tracing up my leg, his human hand entangling my hair. He pulled my hair back, exposing my throat, and actually bit me. Great deities, my mind was swimming.

He tilted me backwards and we fell to the coffee table. My legs wrapped around his hips, I was sprawled across the tabletop, half of me wondering if I was dreaming somehow. Both of Vincent's hands pressed against my hips as he leaned over me. Hair dark as ink fell against my neck and face, and I was reminded of how he smelled, and of just how much I'd missed him.

Stupid jerk.

I was crying again, and I couldn't help it. Vincent stilled above me, sighed, and pulled back. "Yuffie-" When he called my name, he was obviously pained.

Sitting up, I wiped my face. "You're such a bastard."

He ran his good hand across my forehead, then kissed me again, gently and tenderly. "I know. I know."

"I mean it. You're a big, fat idiot."

"Yes, but you're in love with me, so doesn't that make you the bigger idiot?"

Oh, trust him to use my own words against me. I chocked out a laugh at that, which, in turn, made Vincent smile – or as close to smiling as Vincent ever gets. That ended up making me laugh even more, and that earned a soft chuckle from him.

He stood up and offered me hand. "Come," he instructed. "Coffee tables and sofas are no place for love-making."

I snorted. "You make it sound so formal."

After he helped me to my feet, I was rewarded with another kiss. "Don't cheapen it." It wasn't meant to hurt my feelings, it was merely his observation. I often let my words ruin me, after all.

He took me, by the hand, and led me down the hall. My heart was hammering in my chest. Surely this was some kind of dream. Never in a million years would Vincent want me. No sir, not Yuffie Kisaragi, loud-mouth kleptomaniac extraordinaire. There was little meat on my bones, if any at all, I lacked a good pair of breasts to be pawed at, and I was annoying and unapologetic and selfish and-

I pulled my hand from his, but couldn't get a good excuse out of my mouth past, "I need to use the restroom." I turned, and locked the bathroom door behind me. Yup, a dream, that must be it. I turned on the faucet and splashed my face with cold water, but I didn't wake up. I pinched my arm, just for good measure, but I still found myself in the bathroom, my face wet.

Taking a deep breath, I steeled my resolve. "This is what you wanted, isn't it?" I reminded the shaken-looking version of myself in the mirror. Why was I so nervous? It really wasn't like me to get gun-shy. I'd let Reno bone me on the basis that I wanted his materia.

Hell, Vincent had already seen my birthday suit when he'd bathed me after Ifrit had kicked the shit out of me. So why was I so nervous?

Because he was something that I wanted, and despite the fact that I always get what I want simply by taking it, I'd never been giving something my heart desires willingly. I had drank Reno under the table to get in his pants, and yeah, the sex had been pretty decent, but it wasn't what I was after. His affections weren't high on my priority list when I'd been eying the materia in his belt.

I clicked the light off in the bathroom and made my way to my bedroom. The light was on, the door ajar, and when I entered I was met by a very shirtless Vincent. I allowed myself a moment to gawk. He was sculpted out of marble or something, all of the muscles in his back tight. His fingers were sweeping across a row of seashells I had decorating one of my shells. When I shut the door behind me, he turned toward me. "The things you have in your room..."

"All mean something to me, in one little way or another." I didn't know what to do with my hands, so I folded my arms across my chest.

He reached over and picked up a tiny starfish off one of the shelves. "I remember this one."

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. "The day we'd spent at the beach. I was making a sandcastle with Tifa and-"

"And I placed it on top of the highest tower."

I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything at all. I wasn't used to not being in control of the situation, and it seemed that all of Vincent's cards were aces. Or, if he was just a nervous as I was, he sure was keeping it up his sleeve like a pro.

He made the next move, which was just fine by me. Slowly, he began toward me, but instead of stopping when he reached me, he placed a hand on my back, leaned me backwards, and flipped off the light. I placed my hands on his chest, still vaguely wondering if it was all some kind of strange dream. He placed a light kiss to my forehead, then tugged me toward the bed. Vincent sat, and pulled me between his legs. I buried my face in his hair, cupping the sides of his face with my palms. Even though it was dark, I looked down and saw that my neck was being illuminated by a soft, red glow.

"Vincent, your eyes are glowing." I stopped, let my hands rest on his shoulders.

"I know. But it is only because Chaos is reacting to the elevation in blood-flow and heartbeat. I am the one in control, he is merely curious as to why my head is swimming."

Note: Vincent Valentine is not a romantic with words. Good thing I wasn't looking for sweet words filled with sweeter meanings.

"Do you trust me?"

I nodded. With my life I trusted him.

"Move your hands." I obliged, and took my hands from him and waited patiently while he... well, considering it was fairly dark, I wasn't really sure what it was he was doing. But when he instructed me to be still for a moment, I felt him tie his hair-wrap around my eyes. He pulled it tight around my head, but loose enough that it wouldn't hurt me. "Is that alright?"

I thought for a moment. By letting him blindfold me I was giving him control. In such a small action, I was giving myself up to him completely. Then, I smirked, confident he could see it, even in the dark. "Now you have the upper hand."

He raised my hands to his mouth and kissed my knuckles. "Yuffie, I'm certain that in your company, even blind-folded, I am the one at a disadvantage."

I wanted to compliment his assumption, because while I might have been surrendering control to him I was far from without my strength or clever thinking, but his lips danced across mine and I suddenly didn't care so much about it. In fact, as soon as he kissed me, there really wasn't much going on inside my head at all. His hands moved to my elbows, and he brought my arms around his neck. My fingers played with his hair as he laid a trail of kisses down my neck.

I wasn't used to tenderness. No, none of my previous lovers had been abusive in any way, but they had, with the exception being Reno's making sure I was happy before he was, been selfish. But the way that Vincent touched me, the way he kissed me... even if he wasn't in love with me, just one night would be enough for me. True, I thought one kiss would have been enough to satisfy me before, but somehow I knew, deep down, that I wanted all of him or nothing; there is rarely middle-ground with me. But this? One time was all I needed. All of him, just to say I had him. Just to say I knew what it was like.

I obediently lifted my arms when he directed me to raise them up over my head, and he pulled my shirt off me with a gentle slowness, as though he was drinking me in. I'm not one to feel self conscious about my body, so I just stood there, weight shifting from one leg to another, as he tried to remove my bra. I didn't cover myself up when he finally managed to rid me of it, though I'm not going to outright deny that my cheeks were most likely a little pink.

The contrast of hot and cold between his gauntleted and his human hand nearly prompted me to spontaneously combust. It was like there was some kind of fire burning inside of me, lapping at the skin it was trapped by, burning me up from the inside out, and it had all been ignited by his touch. "You're heart is beating faster than a little hummingbird's." There was no mocking in his voice, no sense of teasing. He, as he always did, was simply stating an observation.

"It's your fault," I accused, gently.

He placed a kiss between my breasts. "I was not assuming otherwise."

"So confident," I shot back, perhaps a little too mockingly.

He pulled me to his lap, my legs straddling his waist. "I apologize. It's been... a long time since I've done this."

"Oh, please. You could charm the moon out of the sky if you got your head out of you ass long enough."

"Such eloquence."

"Shut up."

He wasn't the one who would have all the fun in teasing, dammit. Despite the dark, despite my blindfold, I followed the curve of his sculpted chest down to the band of his pants. I tugged a few buttons, managing to get them loose, but when I got to the buckles I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I'm sure he was wearing a smile on those thin, pretty little lips of when he gently batted my hands away and undid his pants himself, but I decided not to hold it against him.

I thought, vaguely, of teasing his choice of boxers over briefs, but I decided to keep my mouth shut. Idle chit-chat was not how I wanted the rest of the night to go, so instead of speaking I occupied my mouth with his earlobe.

That earned me a little hiss, like he hadn't been expecting it but wasn't going to deny me. I was even rewarded by a tilt of his head, allowing me access to his entire throat, too. I placed light kisses all the way down his shoulder, enchanted by the fact that I had a god underneath me, between my legs, who shuddered when I raked my teeth across the side of his throat. Me. Who would have thought?

All the while I kissed him, his hands explored me. Up and down my hips and legs his fingers rose and fell, to my shoulder blades and back down to my ass. He cupped my rump with those strong, capable hands of his and rose me up so that I was kneeling in his lap. I let out a soft little sigh when his tongue danced across my stomach and underneath my breasts.

He moved me, turned me over so that I was flat on my back, and just leaned over me. His hair caressed me as it fell around me and I laid there, beneath him, arms resting on his shoulders, wondering what he was doing. For a moment, I was afraid he was getting cold feet. It certainly wouldn't be the first time, though I suppose I should give him some leeway considering what the precious circumstances had revolved around.

Then, he growled. I almost didn't hear it. In fact, I'm sure I wasn't meant to, considering that the voice that left Vincent's lips did not sound like him at all.

"Perfection."

My breath hitched. Then I let out a out choked out laugh. "You have a pretty fucked up ideal for perfection."

"No," Chaos purred. "No, no, no." He kissed me, gentle and sweet. "Do you think a demon knows not an angel when he sees one?"

I didn't have a smart remark for that one, so I turned my head away, confident my face was inventing new shades of red. "No one has ever called me something so outrageous and kind." I swallowed my tears. I was just crying all over the place tonight, wasn't I?

I don't know how I knew it was him, by the next kiss came from Vincent. Even if he wasn't in love with me, this was far from a pity fuck, and I was perfectly fine with that. His hands coasted down and and rid me of my pants, leaving me only in my panties.

If Vincent were a lesser man I'm sure he would have made a snide comment about how my panties were pink with white polka-dots and were rather unbecoming of a ninja. I'm glad that, instead, he leaned down, his hair coasting down my stomach and tickling me ever so slightly and kissed the the area of skin between my belly button and my panties. My skin prickled as his hot breath cascaded over it, only further igniting the fire that was burning inside me. I dug one hand into the sheets, and the other threaded through his hair.

Nearly unbearably slowly, he hooked his gauntlet on my panties and pulled downward until I was free of them completely. There was a certain level of anticipation and excitement my body was reaching, being unable to see, only to feel, only to hear, only to touch. My mind was reeling, my heart racing, and each kiss I was awarded with, every touch Vincent graced me with, made me want to explode.

He wrapped my legs around his waist and pressed against me and I found myself pondering just how he'd managed to take off those boxers of his without my realizing it. If I thought his fingers were scorching, I was drowning in his heat when he pressed his entire body against mine. Gods be damned, I could not remember the last time I'd felt so good. I was drowning in him, falling and flailing, without an anchor and without a care.

"Yuffie..." He paused, uncertain.

"Quit thinking." I pulled him down for a kiss, not letting him get another word in. I knew better than anyone how words can ruin everything.

He pushed inside of me and I couldn't help the sounds that rolled past my lips. Yeah, that's right. The greatest ninja on the fucking planet mewled like a little helpless creature under the scorching touch of one Vincent Valentine. Take note, aspiring ninjas the world over.

One hand raked across his shoulders and back, my nails scratching his skin, while the other caught up his hair. God, he was anything but disappointing. Minutes turned into hours turned in to years turned into eons, and it felt like a million lifetimes before I was floating back down to the face of Gaia.

A thin layer of sweat rested between our nakedness. Vincent was breathing hard, and I took to heart the few heated whispers of my name that I'd heard pass his lips earlier, quiet and strong like a prayer. He was breathing hard, but after a while the drum-like staccato of his heartbeat slowed to a normal pace and he pulled away, pulled out, and rolled over on his side. With gentle hands, he untied the blindfold from around my head and gave my eyelids a kiss.

It's cliche, but we didn't need words after that. Whatever would happen when we woke up was yet to come, and, to be fair, didn't really matter until we got there. I gleefully drifted off to sleep, content and satisfied liked I'd never been before.

And when I woke up, Lunchbox was nuzzling my feet, asking permission to come up on the bed. I sat up, patted the bed and signaled for him to come on up, and was nearly bowled over by his eagerness to be petted. "I'm sorry you thought I was mad at you earlier," I apologized, kissing his furry nose.

He took it in stride, whether he understood me or not, and bumped his forehead against mine.

We both turned to look when the door creaked open. Vincent stood in the doorway, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. "I was just about to wake you."

I scratched Lunchbox behind his ear, and he began a most tremendous purr. "He beat you to it."

"Are you hungry?"

"I'm... sore. I want to take a bath."

I stood and walked right past him, completely naked. What did I have to be embarrassed about? He'd drilled me into the mattress a few hours before. I ran my bath, washed my hair with my favorite apple shampoo, and toweled my hair until it was mostly dry. When I was done, I walked into what was designated as the living room of my cave and was greeted with the smell of waffles.

The stool that I'd kicked over earlier was gone, as was all evidence that I'd thrown a vase had disappeared as well. "You cook and clean?" I teased, throwing a wink in Vincent's direction.

His sly little smile should have surprised me. I was half under the belief that he wasn't, in fact, smiling, but rather that I was merely getting used to reading his almost facial expressions. Or, maybe it was merely because he knew he didn't have to keep such a tight lid on his emotions any longer as Chaos wasn't out to get him.

"What do you like on your waffles?"

"Syrup and bananas."

"Good answer." He sliced a banana for me, though he stole a few slices for himself. I sat on the counter next to where he was busing his hands, glad he felt at ease enough after what we'd done earlier. Awkwardness after sex really isn't that great of a turn on for the next round.

He dropped the knife in the sink, but paused when he passed by the fridge. Picking at the corner of the business card that stuck to my fridge, he turned to me. "Who is Joe?"

"He's a chocobo jockey at the Gold Saucer. He took me out for a date after Rhu and I had kicked his ass in our first race." I stole a slice of banana from the bowl.

"Where is that bird of yours, by the way?"

I sighed, suddenly moody. "He's with Joe. Reeve and I summoned the Knights of the Round, and their payment was to take what is most precious to me. That's why he called you that night."

"I admit that I wasn't far off- I didn't see the knights, but instead the lights that they gave off. I found it peculiar that Reeve wouldn't tell me what was going on after they disappeared."

"I thought, at first, that they'd taken you, and I figured that you wouldn't answer if I called so I made Reeve dial you."

"You said that Rhu was with this Joe. Is he sick? I don't understand."

"They took Rhu's memories of me."

"My apologies."

I took a bite of banana and waffle. "I'd rather his memories than his life. I don't think I'll ever have what we shared again, but I still love his furry little bird-brain. I at least get to make new memories with him, versus none at all."

"Again, my apologies."

"Don't. It's not your fault."

"No, but if I'd come back earlier-"

"You might be the one with the gaping hole in your memories. Either way, I would have lost something important to me. Stop fretting."

He took the silence between us to contemplate, as he often did. It was easy to tell when he was thinking; there is no facial expression he makes, no, the evidence is in his eyes. He gets this far-away look, and even if he makes eye contact with you,it's like he's looking through you.

"Stop thinking so much. He's not dead, and I'm over crying about it."

He sighed, and I felt that he was biting back another apology.

We ate waffles with syrup and bananas and watched movies like we used to, all curled up on my couch. We made love again in the shower, something I decided I liked, and when the time came Cid rounded us up in the Highwind and flew us to Joe's ranch, outside of Gongaga. I got sick and threw up, which isn't unusual for me, but I felt better after a short walk, which was.

Turns out, Vincent is a little on the possessive side. I'm going to be shallow and admit that I kind of found it sexy coming from him. I've never had a man fight for me, feel jealous because I paid mind to another man. When Joe and Vincent's eyes locked, it was like a firestorm had been ignited in the empty space between them. It was like Joe knew Vincent had been the man I'd told him about, had been so upset over when he'd taken me out for the night.

Still, they were both gentlemen and neither would call out the other. Men with manners; a burden and a blessing, I suppose.

"Yuffie, it's good to see you well." Joe took my hands in his, bringing them close to his chest. "Rhu has simply been doing wonderful. Come." He lead me to the stables, to Rhu's pen. Joe whistled a low note and my chocobo perked up his head.

I swallowed, hard, nervously. "Hey, boy."

Rhu tilted his head. He still didn't recognize me. I sighed, but put my hand out to scratch behind his neck. I knew all of his little tickle spots, and as soon as my fingers went to work in his mess of golden feathers, his eyes rolled back and he made what can only be considered a purr, which was a bit of an odd noise for a bird to make.

He didn't remember me, no, but he was still my baby.

"I want to take him out for a ride."

"Yes, yes, I think that's a grand idea."

I didn't need a saddle. Just reins and the open road. It was invigorating; the wind in my hair, the blue sky above and the earth below. Even if Rhu didn't seem to know who I was, he immediately took direction from me. We'd done it a million times before, as if it was his first.

It shouldn't have been out so long, it just felt so wonderful to have Rhu, even if wasn't -my- Rhu, back. My chocobo seemed happy now that we'd had a nice long run together, and I had a good feeling that it wouldn't take long to retrain him, and get him to love me like he did. When I got back to the ranch, however, there were other difficulties. I penned up Rhu from the same paddock he'd been in when we'd arrived, and then I made my way toward the house.

That's when I heard the yelling.

"You have little knowledge about what Yuffie and I have been through over the years; your assumptions are, at best, childish and unwarranted."

Was that... Vincent? His voice was angry, obviously, but also raised. It was strange to hear him do anything remotely close to yelling, which is why I didn't recognize it at first.

"She was a bundle of nerves when she was with me, all because of what you had done to her, and you have the nerve to come back and-"

"Do not pretend for one moment that you know what transpired between us, what caused me to leave her in the first place."

Oh, shit. There was a little Chaos mixed in with that tone. Call me a raging, attention-whore if you must, but I couldn't move to finish their argument, not yet. I wanted to know what it was like to hear someone fight for me.

"I pretend to know nothing, sir; I'm simply affronted that you seem to think you deserve her. You do not. She's simply too love-sick to know any better."

"You're quite correct in assuming that I do not, in fact, deserve her. But do not think for one moment that Yuffie doesn't know better. She knows me better than perhaps I know myself, and yet she stays by my side. This is her choice. I gave her the option of leaving."

I felt all warm and fuzzy, and perhaps a little guilty for eavesdropping, but it was worth it. There was no proclamation of undying love from Vincent, of which I'm glad. That kind of thing just isn't his style. But he seems to understand that I'm not giving him up because of how fucked up he is – or how fucked up we both are, for that matter – and for that, it seems he completely respects me.

I pushed the front door open, not wanting the arguments to go on any longer. I smiled at the both of them, shutting the door behind me.

"Did you have a good time?" Vincent's voice was back to normal, as if nothing at all worrisome had transpired while I was away.

I smiled and pulled up a chair beside him, stealing the cup of tea from his hands and taking a careful sip.

"Yeah, it was really nice." I turned back to Joe. "Thanks again for helping me out. Rhu means the world to me."

"You seem to always put your heart into everything you do."

I shrugged. "Some people don't quite appreciate it. I'm an all-or-nothing type of gal." Hint, hint. Joe was a nice guy, but I didn't need nice. I needed someone to tell me when I'm acting like a bitch. I didn't need someone to take care of me. Well, I guess that's not completely true. I did need someone to take care of me. What I didn't need was someone to baby me. I needed to care for someone just as much as I needed them to care for me. You don't realize you're doing something annoying, like chewing with your mouth open, when you're alone. It's only with other people do you realize how lonely you can get, and perhaps how messy depending on how wide your mouth is when you were eating potato chips in the first place.

Under the table, Vincent stroked my leg with his knuckles. It was not meant to be seductive, I could tell; it was just a reassuring action. He knew what I was talking about when I said I all-or-nothing. I was guessing that he also knew that while Joe was a nice guy, he wasn't the guy for me.

Eh, but that's love, isn't it? It's all subjective.

Joe, because he's polite, and perhaps because I think I might have led him on a bit too far, insisted that we stayed for dinner. He cooked like a five-star restaurant chef, and hardly outside of forty minutes we had one of the best meals I'd ever had the pleasure of stuffing down my throat. I didn't even know what it was called, to be honest- he tried to explain it, but I was too intent on helping myself to another scoop of noodles to pay attention which, I fully admit, makes me a bad guest.

We agreed, through mouthfuls of delicious food, that Rhu would stay another two weeks with Joe, just to make sure that he was still well. Having a gaping hole in your memory might make a person go insane, and since Joe still doesn't know the entire story, it's most likely a good thing to have Rhu stay with him on the pretense of spell-backfiring amnesia.

They stayed civil through the meal, my two testosterone-filled gentlemen. Right as we were bidding our most gracious host farewell, Joe took my hand and kissed the back of my wrist. He made eye-contact with Vincent as his lips touched my skin, as if issuing a challenge. "Miss Yuffie, you make sure this man takes good care of you, or you might find someone else sweeping you off your feet."

I laughed mostly because I didn't really know what else to do. Thank the angels that it was only just sundown- I'm sure that Vincent's eyes would have given off a wicked red glow had it been any darker.

We walked into the open fields, nearing the beaches of the ocean. Silence invaded the space between us, and I could tell he had a million questions on the end of his tongue. "Sometimes you're too polite, Vincent. Just ask whatever it is that's bugging you."

"I can't be that obvious." He sounded slightly astonished, like he hadn't meant to actually show emotions without speaking.

"I've been around you too long- I know how to read you. Just ask."

My back was to him. I bent down, picked up a rock, and threw it to the ocean. Seaweed and smooth rocks covered the beach, the biting wind cutting through my coat.

Finally, he spoke. "It's not my place. I had left you."

I made a big show of rolling my eyes. "Since I know you're not going to ask, I'll just tell you. It was only a date. I decided to go racing, and he helped register Rhu. I beat him in the race, and when I got my prize, it was a newly birthed Odin materia. The moment I had it in my hand, I thought of what had gone through my mind when we'd summoned the giant prick, which only made me think of you, which only made me even more upset. He saw that I obviously wasn't okay, so he took me out to dinner. We hit it off and had a great time, but when he walked me to my room for the night... I couldn't help but think of you when he kissed me. He backed off, gave me his card, and told me to call him if I needed anything. Turns out he knew Reeve, too, so when Rhu lost his memories, we decided that Joe was the best candidate to help us... well, just to help."

I hadn't heard his footsteps, but by the time I was done speaking he'd walked up behind me. It was obvious that he didn't know what to do, didn't know how to reach out to me to reassure himself, so I just leaned and rested my back against his chest. We watched the sunset and then, when it was nearly completely dark, we asked me, though his voice was just above a whisper, "ready to go?"

I sighed. I was content, and didn't want to go. "Let's do this."

We teleported to just outside of Kalm. He got sick, of course, but after hardly a few minutes, and a swig from my canteen, he was nearly right as rain. I locked my fingers in his, though it surprised him at first, and we walked hand-in-hand toward the city.

"You overheard Joe and I, didn't you?"

I shrugged. "Even if I hadn't, I'm sure I would have assumed. I could practically feel the tension when I walked into the room."

"Joe was merely thinking he knew best for you."

"And you think you do?"

"Not at all. I think that you are the only one who knows best for you, even if your decisions sometimes end with us nearly being stampeded to death, or me breaking my leg, or us living out our worst nightmares, or-"

"I get it, I get it." There was a moment of silence before we both laughed. "I didn't mean to drag you into all of this bullshit, you know."

"I wouldn't have followed you if I wasn't prepared to risk my life. It's never dull with you, after all. I still remember our first venture to Wutai, and your thieving hands. I've never heard such a string of curse words so vile as the batch that Cid let fly. I was sure he was going to wring your neck when he found you."

The town was softly lit with streetlamps, their pale halos chasing off the dark.

"Thank you, by the way."

"For what?"

"For coming with me on this crazy journey. I was so set on doing everything alone, but now that I look back on it... It's been really nice having company."

I knocked on the door to Tifa and Cloud's place before I let him have a chance to think over what I'd said. Me actually thanking someone is a rare occurrence of its own, but considering I was pleased as punch about having been pinned to my mattress under his finely toned body, I felt as though some form of gratitude was in order. After all, we'd done it again in the shower later that same afternoon, so it's not like it had been a one time-deal.

Tifa pulled back the door and promptly bowled me over, spun me around, and put her hands over my eyes. "You can't see. Not until you're inside."

"What the hell is going on?"

"Just do as she says, Yuffie."

"You're in on this too, Vincent? Is this an intervention? I haven't stolen anything in months, I swear!"

Tifa was giggling, which only served to scare me. It's not that a giggle was out of place from the bubbly pugilist, but I knew that it was for most sinister reasons. I was led, blinded, by Tifa, through the threshold of the house and into what I would later come to find was the parlor. Tifa pulled her hands back and a cacophony of timed "SURPRISE!"s rang out and proceeded to scare the shit out of me.

"What the hell is this?"

Cloud blew a party-worm, the paper unfolding and making a funny 'prrrmmm' sound. "Happy birthday, Yuffie."

Oh. Shit. It was my birthday, wasn't it? "Oh. Um. Thanks?"

I watched Vincent hide a smile behind his hand, though no one else noticed. He was in on the master plan of it all, I'm sure. Oh, I'd get him back, just wait.

I'm not a birthday party type of person. One would argue that I would seem the type, considering I love both presents and being the center of attention, but something about my birthday just rubbed me the wrong way. Having gigantic birthday parties when I'd been growing up had turned me off of them completely, but my friends had been awesome enough to surprise me with one, so no matter how uncomfortable I was, I mustered up big grin and tried to have a good time.

And, to be honest, the whole ordeal was pretty cool. I got a weird array of gifts from a new set of bracers, to a bottle of high-class sake, some new clothes, and even a new choco-whistle.

"I figured that, since you're re-training Rhu, you'd like a new whistle," Reeve offered up though a mouthful of cake.

"What's wrong with your bird?" Cloud asked, out of the loop.

I shrugged and spooned a heaping of chocolate ice cream into my mouth. "Long story."

Surprisingly, he left it alone. When everyone was sufficiently stuffed with cake and sweets, we all settled in and just chatted, recanting all sorts of stories from our crazy journeys. While Cid was lost in his retelling of when we'd launched into space, Cloud slipped over and nudged something small and wrapped in paper into my hands. "It's the scales," he offered. "There are only three, but they're yours."

"Thanks, Cloud. I owe you one." And I hated owed favors.

"Tell me what it's for. Reeve and Vincent are obviously in on it. Don't leave the rest of us out."

I sighed, then whispered back. "It's not that easy. Vincent and Reeve know because they have to, because I was in need of serious help and-"

"I gave you the Leviathan scales, I let you borrow my Knights of the Round. I'm not telling you that you owe me anything Yuffie, I'm just asking. I'm just asking to make sure you're not in over your head."

Dammit, Cloud. Stop being awesome and nice and caring and shit. I stood up. "I want another drink," I announced, motioning for Cloud to follow me into the kitchen.

"It's... complicated. The whole thing is nothing but a big shit-storm."

"After what we've been through, Yuffie, there is little in this world that I find unbelievable."

I smiled and rolled my eyes. What he said was true, after all. "I found a way to communicate with the summons."

Well, that got his eyes to pop out. "I don't... I don't understand. Outside of battle, you mean?"

"Yup," I nodded, opening the fridge to find another soda. "Through research and trial and error, and a shit-ton of luck, I found a way to summon outside of battle. The only problem is that the summons want something in return for being summoned and answering my questions."

"Questions?"

"It started with Ramuh. I was honestly just fucking around and drawing runes on the floor and I just happened to figure it all out. Ramuh told me all of this shit that no one else would know, about my parents and my past and all kind of stuff, and told me that what I was really looking for was a deeper meaning to myself. So, I began to look the world over for mastered summon materia to call out the respective deities and ask them about who I am, and what I'm connected to."

"And what have you found out so far?"

"Not a whole lot, actually. I keep getting the same thing, like 'in you flows the blood of our brothers and sisters,' which is just creepy. Odin told me I had the stink of longevity about me, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean, and I actually had to fight Shiva before I got the chance to talk to her, and she looked like she recognized me and ended up pulling her punches."

"How much longer do you have to go to get what you want? Who is next?"

Vincent's voice made me jump. I can normally always tell when he enters a room, but as of late the dark aura he hosts seems to have eased. "She seeks next the water-snake, Leviathan."

Cloud looked back to me, surprised. "You mean you didn't call him in the first place?"

"Well, would you be in a hurry to talk to the god that you spent most of your early life praying to, then ignored and spurned, but still secretly kind of prayed to, even if it was all laced with scathing wit?"

Vincent took the soda from my hands and replaced it with a glass of water. "You're slightly drunk. Drink more water; you need to stay hydrated."

"What are you talking about?"

"You like to ramble when you've had too much to drink." He pushed the glass up to my lips and made me drink while he talked to Cloud. "After she'd summoned Ifrit, I'd found her in her hide-away outside of Wutai. If I hadn't have been worried for her safety, she would have most likely suffered severe damage to her body."

"He hardly scratched me up, I-"

"You were unconscious for most of the Cure3 spells I cast. You could hardly talk when I found you."

"Wait," Cloud put up his hand, stopping me from opening my mouth. "Why did Ifrit hurt you?"

"Like I said, the summons want something in return for being summoned outside of battle. Ramuh was content just to have a conversational partner, Phoenix took my happiest memory, Odin made us live out our worst fears, Ifrit took a year from my life-"

"WHAT?" Cloud's voice was so loud that the noise from the front room promptly ceased.

"Everything okay in there?" Reeve called out, obviously a cover for 'do you need some help? Is he going to flip out?'

"Yeah, we're okay. Sorry."

Cloud leaned over the counter, slightly embarrassed. "A year from your life? Is it really worth it?"

I shrugged. "You don't really understand how important this is to me, Cloud."

They studied me for a while, obviously weighing their thoughts. "At any rate," Vincent finally offered, "I think it's a better way to spend her time than filching materia."

We all had a laugh at that, because it was true. There were plenty of terrible things I could do instead of trying to find out about my past.

I untied the little ribbon from around the scales and unwrapped them. They gleamed, even in the dim light of the kitchen, and shone with colors ranging from green to blue and back again. They were smooth like ocean-washed glass, but shiny all the same. "They're beautiful."

Cloud stole a sip of my unattended soda. "Aren't they? I'd forgotten how pretty they were until I found them at the bottom of one of my chests upstairs."

"They're cold, too."

"The power of the water god lies dormant within them." Vincent sounded so wise. It was a stark contrast to the sounds he made when he was drilling me. Ah, but that's what's so great- he's such a bundle of contrast, and he doesn't even realize it. He looks mean and vile whereas he's quite caring and easily embarrassed. I still remember the look on his face when I had to explain what a 'dick bag' was.

"Just be safe, you two." Cloud stood and walked back into the front room.

Vincent moved to stand by me. "Are you sure you're ready for this?" He took a scale from me and ran his fingers over it.

"No, but I'm not going to just sit on my ass and do nothing. The knights said that this was the end of the line for my questions. The worst that's going to happen is that it's really not, and none of my questions are answered. But, at least I traveled the world again, met new people – and gods, had some good times and some bad times, and learned a lot about myself."

I stood, leaned up, and kissed Vincent. "Not to mention had the best lay of my life," I winked, then went back to the party.

He followed me, though it took him a moment or two. Embarrassing him was just too easy.

We talked and ate junk-food and laughed even more, until nearly dawn and we all collectively decided it was time for bed. Little Marlene had dozed off hours before, on the couch set against the far window, with a coloring book and an empty cake plate in her lap. Barret scooped his daughter off the cushions and carried her carefully upstairs. I was reminded of my dad for a moment, and suddenly felt guilty for hating him so much.

It wasn't like he was a bad guy. He was just full of himself and convinced he's always right and stubborn and arrogant and- okay, so he wasn't a bad guy, but he wasn't exactly a good guy, either. My dad cared too much for Wutai, and as a result cared less and less for me when it was obvious I wasn't intending to stick around and be married off to some lord in hopes of popping out a kid to succeed the line. I'm the last of my clan, but I'll be damned before I let guilt and duty ruin my life and dictate who I should be, not who I truly am, because I'm the last person who can pass on my family name.

Still. "I want to visit my dad before we call up Leviathan," I whispered to Vincent as we walked down the upstairs hallway to our respective rooms.

He paused, obviously confused, then began walking again. "That's a little strange, even for you. Is there some insidious reason behind it?"

I shrugged. "He's a gigantic asshole, but he's still my dad. I haven't seen him in a few years, and I guess all the alcohol and cake I've stuffed myself silly with tonight has made me feel guilty or something. I don't know."

"Take two aspirin and drink another glass of water before you climb into bed, and we can talk about it in the morning."

He was so smart. Well, sometimes he was a great, big idiot. But most of the time he was smart. I did as he told me, and since I had the intelligence not to drink myself completely under the table the night before, woke up with hardly a hangover. I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep, though, so when I heard noise in the kitchen below I got up and decided to help whoever it was make breakfast.

Cloud can't cook, as it turns out. It's a good thing Tifa loves him so much, because he would starve on his own. In fact, I'm not sure how he managed to actually stay alive before she started to take care of him. Tifa and I, after he'd managed to nearly set fire to the stove again, sent him out of the kitchen and made it his duty to wake everyone up.

"So, you a little sweet on Vincent?"

The knife in my hand slipped, and I nearly cut my freaking hand open.

Tifa winked at me. "You look happy. Actually happy. Which makes me think you got some."

Well. Um. Yeah. What do you say to that? "Don't announce it to everyone else, okay? We're not really making it that big of a deal."

"I'm happy that you're happy, that's all."

I shot her a dirty look. "How do you do that?"

She smiled. "Simple observation. I don't think anyone else noticed last night, but Vincent kept giving you these looks."

Oh, fuck. My face was all heated. What did I have to be embarrassed about? "You, my dear sweet pseudo-big-sister, can shut your mouth, thankyouverymuch."

She laughed, then went back to peeling potatoes.

The thing was, I wasn't sure how deep mine and Vincent's relationship went. On one hand, I really didn't care so long as he was just with me, but on the other I can't really see him as the type to keep a fuck-buddy. You know, dignity and all that shit. I wasn't going to call him my boyfriend because that just makes the whole relationship sound juvenile.

And then I realized that I didn't need to label it.

Whatever the basis of our relationship, whatever reason he stuck around, was unimportant. I needed him as much as he needed me, and that was important enough for me.

So, feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, I finished chopping potatoes and smiled to myself the entire time.

Cid dropped us off back in Wutai. I got sick from the airship, of course, but it was still daylight out so Vincent and I just sat in the flower fields and enjoyed what little sun was to be had. "I hate winter," I complained, my breath forming a a cloud in front of me.

"There are many things you hate. But you're not going to stop winter from happening, so I suggest you learn to like it."

"Bullshit. If I move to Costa del Sol, I would never have to deal with snow again."

"Perhaps, but then, after a while, you'd come to complain of the hot, or of the sand, or of the-"

"You know, you can just tell me to shut up."

"Yes, but this annoys you more."

I rolled my eyes, but turned my face away so he wouldn't see me smile. We took our time walking to Wutai, and once we got in view of the city I began to feel antsy.

"Don't change your mind, Yuffie. I think a visit with your father will be good for you."

"You don't know my dad. He's ten shades of crazy, and stubborn as a mountain."

"Even mountains can be moved."

"Not one as pig-headed as my old man." Just wait, Valentine. All of your world knowledge wouldn't prepare you for this shit.

I knocked on the door to the house I grew up in, which was weird as hell. Still, after I hadn't been home in years, I felt it was, at least, the polite thing to do. It surprised the hell out of me when it was actually my dad that opened the door, and I'm positive I surprised the hell out of him, too. I can practically guarantee that I'm the last person he ever thought would just knock on his door our of the blue.

His expression soured. "I'm not giving you money."

I gave him a disgusted look. "Hi to you too. I'm not here asking for money. I felt that I should be a decent daughter and come say hello to my old man."

Godo crossed his arms over his stomach. "You could have said hello when I was trying to reach you when you were taking your music lessons."

"It was rude of you to simply show up and not expect me to be pissed off. Now are you going to be a gracious host and invite my guest and I in for tea, or are you going to be a sour old man and make your only daughter stand out in the cold?"

He smiled, gesturing us inside. "I see you haven't changed."

Vincent followed me inside. "Same could be said for you," I shot back, over my shoulder.

Dad made us tea, and we made small talk. It was awkward, but I suppose not completely unwelcome.

"Are you still a thief."

"Thief is such a dirty word. I prefer 'liberator,' thank you."

"You were learning guitar?"

"I was, until you ruined it. I had some free time, and felt like it would be a good thing to know."

"I was only trying to make sure you were alright. I haven't seen you in-"

"Yeah, I know. That's why I'm here, now. So you at least know I'm not dead."

He poured the tea, then took a moment to study Vincent. "And just what kind of relationship do you have with my daughter?"

I didn't want Vincent to be put on the spot like that. I'd decided on no labels for what we had going, and to ask him what he was to me was a bit unfair. "Don't you remember? When I fought you in the pagoda last time I was here with my friends. This is Vincent Valentine."

Godo narrowed his eyes. "You her body guard?"

Vincent sipped his tea, unperturbed. "I suppose that's one way you could put it, though Yuffie hardly needs protection."

Uh-oh. Testosterone-fueled stare-down. "So, dad. A nice cup of tea isn't the only reason we're here. I wanted to ask you about... about mom."

My father's eyes snapped to me, his gaze hot. "What about her?"

"Well, you never talk about her. I never met her, so I don't know much about her, or how she died. I don't even think I've seen pictures of her."

He ran a hand through his stubble, scratching at his chin. "She was... benevolent. Pure, beautiful, and perfect. You look just like her, you know. But she couldn't stay in this world forever."

"How did she die?"

The room was quiet. The skin on the back of my neck prickled. Dad sighed. "She wasn't meant to have children. We were punished, she was punished, for having you. That's why the war..."

My heart was hammering in my chest. I got it. I understood it, now. I suspected it, but now I really knew it. There wasn't a doubt in my mind. I stood up, pissed beyond all hell. "You could have told me."

Godo's eyes were red. "No. I couldn't have. She begged me not to."

"What's why you were looking for me."

"They came to me, they told me to make you stop asking them."

Vincent stood up next to me. "What are you talking about? Calm down- talk to me."

I shrugged his hand off, then threw my cup on the floor. "Everyone else knew. Shake, Chikov, the townsfolk. Everyone but me."

"We felt it was better this way."

I opened my mouth, but found I had no words. Instead, I turned on my heel and marched out the door. Fuck this shit, I had something that needed to be done.

Vincent stormed after me. "What is going on, Yuffie?"

I screamed because I didn't have any formed words that would make sense. I was mad like I'd never been before. Vincent followed me all the way up the mountainside and to the fire-caves. I pulled the scales Cloud have given me out of my pocked and drenched the hot flames of the cavern.

There, at the back of the cave, was a simple pedestal. Set atop the jade carving of a dragon was a red summon orb. I snatched it up, placed it on the ground, and started furiously drawing the arcane circles of calling around it.

"Yuffie, I-"

I pulled some tea-candles from the pocket of my jacket. "Light them," I commanded, my voice echoing off the rock walls.

"What is-"

"DO IT."

I heard him hesitate for the slightest of moments before he stepped toward me. I felt his arms snake around my sides, effectively holding them still. Tears were streaming down my face, and I hadn't realized I was crying until I was actually still. "Please, Yuffie. I'm begging you. Tell me what is going on."

"You don't get it, do you?" I turned around his arms, looking up at him.

He shook his head.

"Light the tea candles. I'll show you."

For a moment, I thought he would argue with me. Instead, he picked up the candles from the floor and began to light them.

I heard footsteps from outside the cave. "Yuffie!" I heard my father bellow. Without even looking, I help up my hand and cast wall and protect. The materia in my bracers shined with what almost looked like happiness, like they were glad to be of service to me. It wouldn't keep dad out forever, but it would buy me a few minutes.

I dropped the chalk on the floor. I wouldn't need it any longer, after all. This was the last summon I was meant to face.

"I'm calling you out, you slippery bitch."

Vincent's wide-eyed gaze fell on me. Still, I ignored him.

"Get out here!" I stomped my foot, impatient and stilled pissed beyond measure.

A wave of fog exploded from the orb and the room was covered in mist. Out of reaction more than necessity, I reached for Vincent and caught the sleeve of his jacket. Something solid was forming in front of us. When the fog eventually cleared, I glared at the figure stranding in front of me.

"Nice to meet you, mother."

I felt Vincent take an involuntary step backward.

I wasn't going to lie; she was beautiful. Her hair was long and flowing, down to the floor, and at the end where it should have ended, the dark locks instead faded to mist. The robes she wore, light and flowing like a river, shimmered as if made of water.

Her smile was sad. "I'm sorry that you had to find out this way."

I could hear my dad pounding on the protective wall I'd set up. I didn't have long before he broke through, not that it mattered. I'd already summoned her.

"No, you're not. If you were sorry you wouldn't have made everyone hide it from me."

She sighed and stepped forward. Her eyes were the only feature of hers that she hadn't passed down to me. Where my eyes were a misty gray, hers were the color of a tide-pool, always changing.

"Before you make up your mind, let me tell you the story behind it. Then you can make your judgments. I've always lead the people of Wutai. They worship me as their god, and in return I act like one, bestowing miracles and graces where I see fit."

I swallowed, reached for Vincent's hand, and took a deep breath. It wasn't supposed to be like this. I was supposed to hate her for leaving me, not listen to why she had to leave in the first place. Hate was easy. "I've lead the Kisaragi family for centuries as the leaders of Wutai. In them was just enough earthen magic for them to speak with me."

"But everyone refers to you in a masculine form. Leviathan is supposed to be a man."

"If no one could see me unless I was in my serpent form, how would they know differently? They spoke to me, they prayed to me, but it wasn't often I spoke back to them. Their masculine way of referring to me simply took, and I didn't have the heart to correct my people. Besides, it didn't matter what gender I was- I'm still their god. But your father... Godo could see me. He came here to pray when he was young, and I grew fond of him. It came as a surprise when I realized he could see me. Over the years, though it was forbidden, I fell in love with him."

She took another step toward me and reached out for my other hand. "I took on a human form and became Godo's wife. Wutai was prosperous, and I felt that nothing could go wrong. When I became pregnant with you, however, my powers began to fade. As I was not meant to be a part of this world, so my own world began to steal me back. I had enough strength to give birth to you before I disappeared."

"The war-"

"I couldn't prevent it. My people prayed with all of their hearts, but it took nearly an entire decade before I regained even a fraction of my power. By then, the war had started, but I was still not strong enough to aid them."

I took my hand from hers, took a step back, and sighed. "I'm not going to fade away, am I?"

She smiled a sad smile, but shook her head. "No. You are half human, and half is enough to keep you in this existence of living. Of that I am certain."

"I'm not going to, like, live for a million years or something, am I?"

Leviathan bit her lip. "You are the first child of a human and a god. I cannot say what your life will be like as there have been no others like you. I am-"

Godo had broken through my barrier. He stormed into the antechamber, but stopped dead when he laid eyes on who I'd summoned. He looked like he'd been stricken, disbelief written across his face. "Oh, angels be damned."

"I haven't seen you in twenty-odd years, Godo, and this is how you greet me?"

It was really weird, what happened next. My dad, my stone-hearted, pig-headed idiot of a father, ran to the outstretched arms of what I'm basically equating to as his true love. I don't pretend to believe in fairy-tales or the like, but this was too fan-fucking-tastic not to belong in a story book.

I wiped the tears off my face with the back of my hands. "I hate the both of you," I wailed. My mom and dad turned to look at me. They had something special, something that happens hardly once in a million lifetimes, and while I was happy for them, I was still mad. "Why didn't you tell me?"

My mother knelt before me, pushed away my hands, and wiped the tears off my face herself. Her skin was perfectly smooth, and only slightly chilled. "Because we thought it would help you lead a normal life. I made your father promise never to even come visit me, on the chance that you might find out."

I was really crying now, big fat tears rolling down my cheeks. "I didn't need a normal life, I needed a fucking mother. What in your right mind made you think Godo would be a decent single father?"

She laughed, though it sounded like waterfalls and bells. "I had faith, Yuffie."

I cried until I threw up, until Vincent had to hold me upright in his lap, until my mother told me that she couldn't stay much longer in this world, until I got the first motherly hug of my life, until my father tried to hug me too and I ended up punching him and telling him to stay the hell away from me because I was still fucking pissed.

Vincent carried me out of the cave. Godo said he wanted to stay for just a few minutes more, alone, and I was beginning to feel claustrophobic so I didn't argue. He deserved a moment or two before my mother disappeared.

Just outside the cave opening stood an old man with a spear. I knew the faces, if not the names, of nearly everyone in Wutai, but this man was not familiar. "Who are you?" I asked, perhaps a little too tersely.

He smiled a toothless smile. "I'm the one that watches over the cave of the water-god. You are the daughter of my serpentine-mistress and the most respected Lord Kisaragi. And you," he pointed the tip of his spear at Vincent, "have stolen my job right out from under me. Now I can take a rest. Thank you."

I looked to Vincent and he looked to me, but when we looked back the old man was no where to be seen. "Not ghosts, too. I can't handle this shit."

"What are you talking about?" Godo asked from behind us.

"There was an elderly man with a spear here just a moment ago. He knew who Yuffie was, more importantly who her parents are, and, strangely enough, seemed to think I've taken his job."

A little light bulb clicked inside my head. "You said your mom was Keigo, right Vincent? Keigo are protectors of the Kisaragi. He's been up here, protecting the cave, protecting mom."

"He said I stole his job. I don't understand."

Godo patted Vincent on the shoulder. "Seems you've taken it upon yourself to protect my daughter. If you're Keigo, like Yuffie mentioned, then it was the sacred duty of your ancestors to watch over the Kisaragi. If you're protecting Yuffie, it seems that you're also inadvertantly carrying out the task your ancestors did, as well. She's the last in line, so it only makes sense for her protection to be most important. You, without meaning to, stole his purpose for remaining in this life."

"This shit is so confusing," I moaned, snuggling closer to Vincent's chest.

"It's ironic," Vincent mused, shifting me in his arms.

"You being a job-thief?"

"Your limit break."

"My limit break?"

"All Creation. I find it fitting for a demigod."

"Holy shit, I'm a demigod. How about that? Well, I'm too tired to figure out whatever kinds of awesome powers I have for right now. Let's worry about it tomorrow."

Godo started toward the path to town. "Now that you're here," he began, over his shoulder, "we can start talking about what is meant to happen, about your future. You're meant to be the next leader of Wutai, Yuffie, and-"

"Oh, seven-hells no. My dear Mister Valentine- I do believe that's our cue."

"Where to?"

"Anywhere but here." I looked back to my dad. "Just because we had a nice family moment back there in the cave doesn't mean any bad juju between us is nullified. I still detest you, you ol' grizzly."

"Yuffie, I-"

"Here it comes, the lecture of a lifetime! Quick Vincent! Let's boogie!"

We teleported, the both of us laughing.

And it would be neat if I said we lived happily ever after, but, because I'm still half human, I can be spiteful and stubborn and pig-headed, we didn't always live happily ever after and Vincent and I got in a few too many fights, and one that actually ended with me punching him, but he deserved it and promptly apologized after I'd knocked him on his ass.

Rhu was never the same, and though he grew to love me, it wasn't as it once was. Still, I was happy to have my feathered little man back, and once he relearned all of his tricks again it was almost like he'd never forgotten. He still minded well, and snuggled up to me when I was in one of my moods, but the over-eagerness to please me was gone. I was no longer 'mommy' to him, but more like 'treat-bearing big sister' which, you know, was still pretty cool considering I'd nearly lost him forever.

Vincent never got the emo-stick completely out of his ass, but he did develop quite a dirty streak in bed which, hey, was just fine by me. He told me he loved me one night, in the middle of dinner and a movie. I returned the sentiments with a kiss to his nose and a rather sly, "Yeah, I know. Love you, too," and went back to watching my favorite movie.

Lunchbox meowed loudly, announcing his love for us both.

-THE END