Fandom/Pairing: Kindgom Hearts; Vincent/Yuffie
Rating: ESRB Rating of M for Mature < violence, plot complexity >
Summary: True heroes don't let petty things like death stop them... and a hero's memories more often return in nightmares than in sweet dreams. [Reincarnation fic.]
Notes: I'm feeling lazy, so I just translated stuff into Al Bhed, rather than, say, Japanese. Don't go looking for translations.
Chapters One through Five
Chapter Six: If You Forget Me, Think
You, my rose, with your Lydian lyre.
There hovers forever around you delight:
A beauty desired.
Walls black like black waters when they are heavy and seem to belong to other seas
—Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
Beast's Castle: The Main Hall
Vincent stared into the deepest shadows in the castle's gloom and found himself more nervous than he'd been since he applied for a job with the Turks. He was grateful he couldn't feel the cold black stone beneath his feet—the cold of the Underworld had seeped in, had always seeped in eventually, despite the cloak and the boots—and even more grateful at the warm welcome he'd received. Even if it had been by supposedly inanimate objects.
Auron stood next to him, still as stone and just as quiet. They'd agreed that Vincent would do most of the talking. In the short time they'd known each other, Vincent had learned quite well that Auron wouldn't know what tact was if it cleared its throat at him repeatedly. But Vincent wondered if Auron had to be so not-there. Maybe it was unintentional; Vincent knew well that nobody could be as still as the dead.
"Please, monsieurs, into the parlour!" Said a living candlestick, its impossible eyes shooting a glare at a mantel clock. "The Master will be with you in just a few moments!"
The mantle clock waddled toward the candlestick and glowered, its clock face far too expressive. "What that one needs, Lumiere, is food and rest! The man is skin and bones! Quite frankly, an audience with the Master would overtax him!"
Vincent took the argument into his own hands and subtly shifted a leg, tapping the copper side of his boot against the floor to emphasize the fact that he could, if necessary, use his shoes as weapons. "A meal and a bed are all we could ask for. We can pay, if necessary."
Both the candelabra and the clock turned and stared at him in horror, cartoonish mouths dropping open in horror. They gasped in unison, apparently aghast at the mere idea.
"Pay?" Lumiere breathed. "For hospitality?"
He was too damn tired for this. "I believe the term is bed and breakfast."
Auron emanated silent amusement. Vincent elected not to respond. The other man wasn't baiting him and, so far, they'd encountered no mishaps. Although, judging by the responses of their welcoming committee, he'd made a small mistake.
The clock stamped a foot and put its 'hands' on its 'hips.' "The Master's castle is no bed and breakfast! We're civilized folk in this manor!" It subsided into a Junon-accented grumble of "My word" and then something unintelligible.
And then he was ushered into the parlor, where a yapping footstool tried to paw him into an overstuffed chair by the fire. Vincent allowed it and allowed a tiny smirk as Auron glared at the little creature. But Auron sat, and Vincent sat, and within moments, tables and crockery made their way into the room, laden with plates.
Hot tea—Junon tea, not Wutaian tea—and mutton, bread, fruit, salads. Soups, a platter of fish. Just looking at it was a torment. The scent was both hellish and heavenly.
He stared at the empty plate before him and the platters scattered in front of his chair and knew he could easily make himself sick. He also knew he probably wouldn't regret a moment of it.
Gummi Space: The Land of Dragons
The voice hadn't gone silent; it was still a rush of thoughts and words she didn't understand. Every now and then, she would see images. Nat cduha, it would say, and then she would see a round red stone, cupped in someone's palm.
She wanted to scream for the world to shut up, but the problem wasn't the world; the problem was her own crazy brain and the whatever-it-was living inside it.
Yuffie stared at her fingers and ignored the way Rikku was flitting around the ship, much to the annoyance of Riku. Sora was more laid back about it. Then again, Sora was more laid back than Riku about most things.
Rikku did a loop, briefly going upside down because of it, and asked, "Sooo, when do we land?"
"As soon as we decide on a landing point and you change yourself to human size," Riku snapped.
His snappishness had been overlooked on the day and a half trip it had taken to get here. Yuffie'd spent most of her time asleep, dreaming about the Land of Dragons again. And Rikku was exuberant but not stupid. She wasn't going to hold grudges over petty things when she was going to leave soon, anyway.
But they had no reason to let it slide anymore. Why not go out with a bang, anyway?
Yuffie stood silently, made her way toward Riku. Rikku bee-lined above her, making straight toward the beanie-wearing teen. They arrived simultaneously. Riku didn't look up from the computer console in front of him.
With a pinch of her fingers and a jerk of her elbow, she ganked the skull-fitting cap he wore and then tossed it upward. Rikku caught it unerringly and flew to the other side of the room.
Riku turned immediately, just in time for Yuffie to put one finger to her lower lip and the other fist on her hip. He scowled at her.
"Give it back."
"Promise not to be an asshat for the next seven days." She paused. "And get over Mulan. It'd never work out."
He stared, incredulous. Eyebrows rose. His mouth fell open. "What?"
"You mean, 'How do I know,' and the answer is, I'm a ninja. I know everything."
Sora grinned and leaned back in his chair. "She lives with Aerith and Tifa. Like, two of the three gossip queens of the universe."
Yuffie shook her head and snickered. "Pretty much all the women around who aren't me are gossip queens. Isn't that right, Rikku?"
Rikku shrugged and accidentally dropped a few inches in the air. "Paine doesn't gossip! And Lu—uh, Louey doesn't!"
Considering the way Sora and Riku were both teenaged-boy-snickering at Rikku's probably accidental insinuation about Louey's masculinity, Yuffie decided not to say anything on the matter.
But she filed the syllable 'Lu' away in her head, right next to 'they worked with Maleficent'.
Then she shrugged and held out a cupped palm. Rikku looked left and right, then darted toward it, landing in the very center of her outstretched hand. The fairy kicked her legs in the air and clung tightly to the beanie.
"Promise us!" Rikku winked.
Riku rolled his eyes—Yuffie pretended she hadn't seen that; ass-kickings could totally come later—and grumbled that he promised. Rikku dropped the hat on Riku's head and then leapt from Yuffie's hand, fluttering to the floor, just a few fairy paces away.
A faint glitter in the air, a popping sound, and suddenly Rikku was almost exactly as tall as Yuffie was. The wings faded to a mere golden outline on the nearly-bare skin of her back.
Riku stared, eyes wide open. Yuffie didn't blame him. He was a male teenager, splitting his brains between two places, and Rikku in human size went from "adorable" to "adorably sexy." Just how beautiful she was became a lot more apparent when her face wasn't the size of somebody's thumb.
Rikku tilted a hip and winked. "So, let's decide on a landing place!"
The Land of Dragons: Imperial Palace, Throne Room
Yuffie bowed to the Emperor, her head almost but not quite brushing the floor. She was flexible enough that it wasn't exactly difficult. She chanced a glance up. The Emperor sat in his throne and said nothing, his hand idly stroking his long beard.
At least the place was full of red and gold and green. The colours and the styles all seemed, if not right, then at least close.
"I thank you, Sora, for bringing such a puzzle to our attention." The Emperor bowed his head. "The Empire will be glad to host such a pair as this in our halls."
Yuffie knew a dismissal when she heard one, and so did the voice inside her head. Evidently, it understood whatever she understood, even if they couldn't understand each other. Fryd oui ghuf, E ghuf., the voice in her head murmured and she wished she could glare at herself.
Sora and Riku bowed clumsily and left, turning their backs. Something inside Yuffie knew that was a bad idea, that it was rude. The voice in her head growled its displeasure, but then it went silent again as she turned to face the Emperor.
The Emperor made eye contact. They stared at each other for several long, silent moments while Rikku itched where her wings had been and Mulan and the Captain shifted on their feet. They stared long enough to make themselves and each other and everyone else uncomfortable.
"Child, do you know you have a dragon inside you?"
She shrugged. "I kind of figured it'd be that or something like it. How do I get it out?"
The Emperor stared at her for several long moments and then sighed. "I do not know. Most of us have lost the ability to speak with the dragons. What is it, exactly, that you seek here? Was that knowledge what you sought?"
Yuffie looked at Rikku. The fairy winked a spiral eye. It was a gesture she hadn't known she'd appreciate, but she did.
"I've been having weird dreams lately. A lot of them are about a city that looks kind of like your palace. Full of… pagodas and bridges. Everything painted red and lots of shining green tile." She stopped. "It was in a dream that I first started hearing this voice in my head. At first, it was a river that was talking to me, and then it became… a dragon, I guess. And ever since…" She spread her hands.
The Emperor inclined his head. "There are many such cities within the Empire, child. Do you know this place's name?"
Yuffie closed her eyes. She willed her insides to become still water, an unmoving, placid pond. Clean and pure, just waiting.
The dragon—if it was a dragon—responded swiftly. Wutai. Pagodas and that river swam through her head again and suddenly, behind her closed eyelids, she was looking down at a city full of white lights. The full moon limned the tallest pagoda against the night sky. The stars were just as bright as the city lights; it was like looking at an ocean spangled full of glittering diamonds. Wutai! Wutai ec so pamujat!
"Wutai," she said. The word felt strange on her tongue. Familiar, and yet not.
Mulan and the Emperor exchanged a glance. The Captain's face went a little tight.
Yuffie narrowed her eyes a fraction. "Okay, am I the butt of a joke, or what?"
"I have never heard of that city. However, there are many cities in the Empire, so it may mean nothing."
But Mulan and the Captain hadn't heard of it either. That was plain on their faces. Yuffie felt her heart sink.
"I'm remembering a place that doesn't exist?"
Cid was going to kill her. They'd wasted airship fuel and she'd caused—and felt—a hell of a lot of heartache because of these dreams. Something about them had to be real.
Ed femm ymm pa famm, the voice in her head murmured. Tu hud vayn. E ys rana.
After a few silent exchanged looks, the Emperor made a graceful gesture with his hand. "The Empire is quite a large place. I shall arrange a consultation for you and my map masters tomorrow. In the meantime, please feel free to look through the library." He gave her the tiniest hint of a wry smile. "I would hate to frustrate the will of a dragon."
Rikku looked up, took a tiny step forward. "Um, what if we want to go to sleep before searching the library and stuff? And maybe take a bath?"
"That will be arranged." The Emperor gave them his benevolent, meaningless smile and then looked to Mulan. "Mulan, if you would?"
Mulan bowed and stepped toward them. "Of course, my lord. Rikku, Yuffie, right this way."
Beast's Castle: The Library
Belle stared at the spines of the books in front of her. There were too many of them to read them all, even in a lifetime, but she was determined to try. And she maybe was determined to ignore the older man with the claw who was curled in a window seat next to a basket of fresh-baked meat pastries, avidly reading Arabian Nights. Then again, who could blame her? He wasn't exactly the easiest person to talk to, even if he was easy on the eyes.
She picked up a book and settled into a comfortable armchair to read. But the book just couldn't hold her attention. Every so often, she found herself looking over the pages at their longer-haired guest. He was much friendlier than the other one, who spent most of his time secluded in the guest room they'd provided for him. This one came down for meals and ate with rigidly controlled vigour.
He looked up from his book, made eye contact. She fought back a shiver as those red eyes pierced her and he asked, in a perfectly pleasant tone, "Is something the matter?"
There was something not right about him. It felt like she was adjusting to Beast all over again. But with him, that sense of predator, of monster, rang even truer, which was ridiculous, because the Beast was tall and strong and had jaws that could snap bones. And this man was tall and fine-boned and—seemed dangerous.
"No, nothing's wrong," she told him.
He raised an eyebrow and went back to his book, idly tearing open a pastry, eating neatly.
Belle wished Aerith could come to stay with them for a while. Aerith knew how to deal with people who'd obviously undergone great trauma.
The Land of Dragons: The Baths
Yuffie stared into the steaming water before sinking into it. There was something familiar about this, too, though Yuffie was fairly sure she'd never taken a bath with anybody else before. She probably should have been awkward, but Rikku'd poofed into her room and bathroom enough times over the years they'd known each other—and in the months since their return to Radiant Garden—that it didn't feel awkward at all.
The water was hot against her skin and she closed her eyes, relaxing. It felt so good to be mostly submerged in water. She leaned her head back against the edge of the bath and sighed.
E ryja fyhdat drec, the dragon murmured inside her head. She ignored it as Rikku lowered herself into the water beside her.
"This feels really nice," Rikku sighed and gathered her long hair up on the back of her head.
Yuffie cupped water in her hands and stared at it. A still, calm pool of water. Her fingers trembled a little. She closed her eyes.
Darkness. Running. Pain. Fallen bodies; the faces of people she loved. A man in a moogle cap with a goatee. You're not dying, Reeve, it just hurts like a bitch. A blond with amazingly blue eyes and thick, thick stubble. That's m' girl, thief 'n a liar. And then the man with the red eyes and the red cloak, his arms wrapped around her. Then don't. The last trembling thoughts before a deep, long sleep: I never wanted those to be my last words!
She sobbed. The images and words didn't make any sense. But they did, in a strange way. They were memories and they were hers. They had just never happened.
"Yuffie?" Rikku asked her, one arm settling along her shoulder. "Yuffie, are you okay?"
Yuffie shook her head. "I don't think so. I don't understand why it's showing this to me."
E ys hud dra lyica uv ouin byeh, the voice inside her snapped. It was angry, she could tell. Cissuh sa!
Whatever the hell that meant.
Rikku pulled her close and the let out a gasp. "Yuffie! Yuffie, look!"
She opened her eyes and felt her mouth fall open. The water around them was moving. It was like it had formed some sort of tide, except that was impossible. But there it was: the water was pushing and pulling, lapping against the edges of the bath and then it was solidifying, actively taking the shape of a long, scaled serpent. The water-serpent coiled through the baths, and rubbed its side against her ribs. It raised its head, opened its mouth.
Cissuh sa! E ys Leviathan, ouin Fydankut! Cissuh sa!
She heard it clearly, just as clearly as she heard the sound of water roaring throughout the room.
"Leviathan," she whispered. "Leviathan!"
The dragon closed his mouth, rested his head atop hers, and then let go. Water splashed directly downwards, soaking her on its way back to the tub.
Beast's Castle: East Hall
Vincent forced open the door to Auron's room with a trick he'd learned amongst the Turks. Yuffie had refined the trick for him. He recalled his utter surprise at that, then forced it away as he stepped inside.
"Out," Auron snarled. He was seated crosslegged against a far wall.
Vincent crossed his arms over his chest and refused to move. "Something is wrong."
Belle and the Beast were asking questions, more and more pointed. But that wasn't what bothered him; they had a Gummi ship, even if it had been obtained somewhat illegally. They could always go somewhere else. But this seclusion was unlike Auron. He was worried about the undead man. Silence and grim expressions were normal. They were alike in that. But that snarl. It hadn't sounded like the man he'd begun to call 'friend' at all.
He'd ignored the reclusive behaviour long enough. It was time to question.
Auron stood up, glared at him."It's not safe! I'm not--safe--yet."
Vincent narrowed his eyes and raised a single eyebrow. He'd heard nothing of this and it worried him almost more than the seclusion.
Pointed silence. They glared at each other, neither giving ground, neither pressing forward. But Vincent had spent longer awake, dealing with humanity and people unresponsive to the force of his glare. Auron, who had only been alive a few months, didn't stand a chance. Not against a true immortal.
It was Auron who looked away. "My promises are all that are keeping me human."
Vincent looked away after that statement. So, he and Auron were more alike than he'd thought. Except that he'd long come to terms with his constant struggle. Though his burden had been eased when he'd destroyed Chaos and Omega, Galian was still a constant presence, though much quieter since the end of the world. Then again, it wasn't as if the Underworld had much that would spark the demon's interest. It preferred fresh blood and full moons, meat and pack members to the drifting souls that wafted through the Caverns.
He knew what it was to struggle with the darker aspects of one's nature. What it was to struggle to keep one's hatred and pain contained.
"Take as much time as you need. I'll explain." Somehow.
Vincent put one hand on his hip--and thought of Yuffie, then forced himself to think of the matter at hand, because thinking of her hurt too much--and asked,"What else?"
Auron looked over at him. "If your... Cloud and Yuffie are alive, then there's a chance that Yuna and Tidus..."
"There's a chance." He paused. "Are you afraid of harming them?"
Auron shook his head. "I'd never hurt them. They're all that's keeping me... here."
Vincent nodded. Living friends were a fierce draw to the more lively inhabitants of the Underworld. The undead and immortal could love, and even loved fiecely. Love was often all they had. It would be almost impossible to turn them against their loyalties. Galian and Chaos, in all their hatred and battle lust, had never once truly harmed a member of AVALANCHE (though Chaos had frequently come close; he'd seemed to take a perverse delight in teetering on line that could decide Vincent's sanity).
"We can search for them, if you like."
Auron looked up. His lips curved into something that was very nearly a genuine smile before becoming a smirk. "Meddling, Vincent?"
"Call it frienship," Vincent replied.
More silence. This silence was almost awkward. Vincent began to edge toward the door.
Auron looked up again and asked, "What will you tell them?"
With a smirk, he said, "I'll tell them you're on a religious fast and have been meditating."
From what he knew of Auron's past, it could almost be true.
The Land of Dragons: Hall of Maps
The chief cartographer in the Empire rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He had thick eyebrows and a thick grey beard and moustache. He reminded Yuffie of someone, but she wasn't sure who.
"Wutai?" He murmured to himself. "I believe that's the name of a mountain. But I can't recall if it had a town at its base or not."
"And what about a river? A river that led to the ocean. It's inland, but not very far, I don't think. Maybe ten miles."
The cartographer looked narrowly at her, then shook his head. "No. Mount Wutai is not near the sea, little lady. It's at least twice your figure inland."
Yuffie creased her brow and closed her eyes. That didn't sound right. She'd been able to smell the sea in her latest dreams. The ocean's dull roar had been her heartbeat, had been Leviathan's heartbeat too.
A warm hand grabbed onto hers. Fingers entwined with hers, squeezed gently. She opened her eyes to see Rikku give her a hopeful smile. The fairy gently swung their joined hands.
"Don't worry. We'll figure this out. Fairies don't give out unsolvable riddles. I can't see why dragons would either."
The cartographer narrowed his eyes, but then bustled away to a row of cubby holes filled with rolled-up scrolls. He hummed to himself, then withdrew a scroll, apparently at random. He then moved over to a table and unfurled the bamboo parchment, pointing.
"This is Mount Wutai. The most recent census does not record any village at the base of the mountain, as you can see. I may be wrong, but I'd place no wagers on Mount Wutai ever having a village at its base."
Yuffie looked at the mountain on the map. She wasn't an expert cartographer, but distance between this Mount Wutai and the sea was too great. The scent of the ocean would never carry that far. And there wasn't a river that was as full of meanders and bends as the one that was in her dreams.
"This doesn't make any sense!" She let out an exasperated gasp. "Damn it, I'm sure he's the dragon of a river that runs through a city. And he calls it Wutai."
The cartographer thought a moment. "It may be that Wutai is a name the dragon applied to a place, and not necessarily the place's name. One of my apprentices is in the process of mapping where dragons can be found. Shall I send for him?"
Yuffie looked to Rikku, who grinned impishly and squeezed her hand again.
"If it's not, like, a deathly inconvenience," she told him.
The cartographer gave her a rare smile and turned over his shoulder. "Han!" He didn't exactly shout, but he might as well have, the way the other cartographers fell silent at his call.
A shy-seeming twentysomething who looked uncomfortable in his clothes stepped forward. Tendrils of long hair had fallen into his face. "Yes, Master Shu?"
"These ladies have asked to see your dragon project," the master cartographer indicated them.
Han bowed immediately. "I would be honoured to show them, Master Shu. Shall I bring the maps?"
Master Shu said nothing, simply stared at the other man. After a beat of silence, Han bowed again, tripped over himself to say he'd bring the maps at once, and rushed away in an ungainly flutter of fabric.
"Boys," Rikku murmured, just loud enough for Yuffie to hear. A pause, and then Rikku whispered, "When can I go flying again?"
Yuffie leaned over and whispered back, "As soon as we get away from all the bearded people."
Rikku giggled. She recovered just in time for Shu to reappear heaped in scrolls. He spread them across the table, where Master Shu had spread his map, and pointed.
"As you can see, the project is far from complete. However, I do have the demesnes of most of the major dragons depicted."
Yuffie nodded and inspected the map. However, the symbols made no sense, though they looked familiar. The dragon in her head recognized them, but made no move to read them. Which was irritating, but then again, she'd probably have still been irritated with the jerk even if he was talking to her in languages she could understand. Sharing roomspace, she could deal with. Sharing headspace? Not so easy.
"So, uh, what about river dragons?"
Han looked over at her. Yuffie realized that his face was more lined, more mature, than just 'early twenties.' "This is a land where rivers and streams are plentiful, my lady. I listed about eighteen river dragons, six of them major, but there are most likely many, many more."
"Okay, then do you know of one called Leviathan or Wutai?"
The apprentice pursed his lips and thought. As his master had, he rubbed a thumb on his chin, then shook his head. "I have never heard of a dragon named either of those things. But isn't Wutai a mountain?"
"Back to square one," Rikku said, winking.
"Back to the library," Yuffie replied with a groan.
The Imperial Palace: Library
Yuffie stared at the heap of scrolls piled before her. She'd figured the Land of Dragons would have a lot of info on them, but the scrolls were piled up so high she couldn't see over them! How much dragon lore did they have?
And then she hit back upon the problem that had driven her out of the library in the first place.
"Uh, how am I supposed to read this, anyway?"
Rikku and the librarian blinked. The librarian stiffened and looked around. "I haven't the time to read all this to you, and the Lady Fa is busy guarding the Emperor."
A young woman in an elabourately decorated teng yi stepped forward. She concealed her lips with a silk fan. "Lao Feng, might I be of some assistance to you?"
Feng looked up. He stared at the young woman, then gave a brief nod. "Lady Kisaragi, this is the young Lady Shu. She might be of some service to you."
Lady Shu chuckled politely, withdrawing the fan, and nodded to Feng. "Unless it would bother you, I would be grateful for the opportunity to read this to you."
Yuffie raised an eyebrow. "Sounds like it could be pretty boring. Are you sure you want to?"
The Lady Shu smiled and shook her head, waving her fan a little. "Dragons are one of my favourite subjects! It would be no bore at all."
And so they sat down. The older woman began to decipher the mountain of scrolls. She would often pick one up and open it, read a little, and then set it aside without reading a word aloud.
After several hours, a lunch, and a break to let Rikku shrink and whizz around the gardens ("Our little secret," Yuffie had told the Chinese woman, oh-so-casually walking a pair of tiny shuriken along her knuckles, and the woman had nodded vigourous agreement), they hit on something interesting.
Mei set a scroll down and pursed her lips, a line appearing on her forehead where she wrinkled penciled-on brows. "According to Hei Rei Fan, dragons can sometimes be coerced into inhabiting the body of an oracle."
Yuffie snickered. "So I'm a prophet? I've been seeing the future?"
The Chinese woman shook her head. "I don't think that's exactly it. This dragon, Leviathan, seems to be showing you his demesne. He may be from another world entirely, or from a world that has been destroyed."
The point of Wutai looking pretty much exactly like the Land of Dragons notwithstanding, exactly how would a dragon escape from a world that had been swallowed by the Heartless? And even if he managed to do that, how could he find his way to her brain without whatever elabourate ritual was required to make a dragon-oracle?
Yuffie's doubt evidently showed on her face, because the woman waved a hand. "There's more. This scroll claims that oracles have a special method of parting from the dragon, that they may have rest and then die."
Rikku let out a squeak, covered her mouth with her hands, and then demanded, in a muffled voice, "Is Yuffie going to have to…?"
Mei shook her head. "I don't think so. However, these rituals would be known only to the oracles, so I can't say for certain. But the scrolls stated that becoming an oracle unnaturally prolongs one's life, for dragons are undying."
"So kicking the dragon out probably kills them because they've lived longer than they should or whatever, right?"
Mei nodded. "It seems a likely conjecture. However, to know the truth…"
Yuffie grinned and rolled up imaginary sleeves. "I'm going to have to find me a dragon sage!"
Rikku laughed. The two of them slapped five.
The Land of Dragons: Mountain Village
Yuffie balanced on a rock, one finger brushing a tall bamboo sprout, and closed her eyes. She was still water; she was a clear, clean pool. The tide would join her soon; the river would run right through her. All she had to do was wait.
Dra nejan ec drana. Tu oui vaam ed?
She smiled. Leviathan might take up a hell of a lot of head space, but he definitely had his uses.
Yes, I feel it, she told him, and his pleasure was a chuckle that sounded like a flood.
Han unfurled the map again, squinted at it, then turned it upside down. He muttered to himself for several long moments before sighing and staring at the sky.
Rikku, tiny and happy and doing loop-de-loops in midair, easily dodging bamboo trees, laughed at him. "Are we lost again?"
"We shouldn't be lost," Han groused. "Lady Fa found her way there!"
Yuffie snickered, silently moving directly behind him, and pointed to an opening in the bamboo thicket. "The river's that way."
Han jumped and turned to look at her. His face said, quite clearly, How did you get here?, while his lips said, "How do you know?"
"I can feel the river." She shrugged. "Once we ford the river, there's a path up the mountain. We just have to ford it in the right place, right?"
And, behold, the river lay just a few miles in the direction she'd pointed. Once they forded it, they let Rikku fly along the banks and followed her once she'd found the trail.
A quarter of the way up the mountain, Rikku had to rest. Yuffie stopped and let the fairy collapse onto her shoulder. She idly patted her friend's back with a finger and grinned when the tiny woman leaned into her neck.
The pass grew progressively colder as they went higher, until, at last, more than mere dustings of snow coated the ground and Yuffie could smell the smoke from the village.
The village had several wonderful amenities: a communal bath, a holographic moogle shop, and a Gummi landing. A woman in her mid-twenties—the village probably thought of her an old maid, Yuffie realized—greeted them in the center of the town and led them to a tidy, cozy house equidistant between the southern pass and the northern pass.
"Call me Yuu," the woman murmured, settling Rikku onto a pillow and pouring tea for her more conscious visitors. "What is it you seek in Xuejiang Village?"
"A dragon oracle," Yuffie told her, voice grim.
The woman tried to conceal her surprise, but Yuffie wasn't stupid. She said nothing about the lie, though, allowing the woman to ask, "Why?"
"I need his help."
Yuu took a cautious sip of tea and then said, "North of here, there is a cave with offerings for peace and prosperity. The oracle appears there, when she goes in public."
"Any idea where to find her when she's, uh, not in the cave?"
The woman gave her a pointed stare. "You do realize that we were recently invaded? This village was burned to the ground. If the Huns had known a dragon prophet lived among us, it would have been much worse." She closed her eyes and shuddered. "Much worse."
"So, basically, for everybody's safety, the oracle is all incognito?"
"For her sake and our own, yes. None of us knows who she is or where she is, or even if she is anywhere near this area."
Yuffie gave the older woman a suspicious glance, then shrugged. "Fine. I'll check the cave out tomorrow. And if she's not there?"
"Visit again the next day." Yuffie opened her mouth to reply, but the woman raised a hand to forestall her. "And if she is not there, you will continue to return to the cave each day. It is not for us to know when she will appear."
Yuffie scowled but bowed her head. "All right. So, try tomorrow?"
The woman nodded, so she stood up and headed for the next room, where she and Rikku would sleep.
"If you could please explain why you need the dragon oracle, that would be very helpful."
Yuffie whirled and eyed the woman narrowly. "You're her apprentice, aren't you?"
Yuu smiled. It looked like a smirk, almost wicked, on her round lips. And it didn't reach her eyes. "Something along those lines, yes."
The Land of Dragons: Mountain Cave
Yuffie trailed a hand along the cave wall as she made her way into its depths. Rikku had curled up in her jacket, in the spot where shoulder and sleeve joined. Rikku's heat and movement was welcome, though if the oracle was around, it would probably make her suspicious.
And, in the innermost depths of the cave, she found an altar on a natural pedestal. Wrapped in furs, seated on heavy fur rugs, a wizened old woman sat. Most of the woman's hair was still black, but there were thick streaks of grey, and even a streak of white. The woman's face was heavily lined, but not quite wrinkled, and her lips were chapped from cold.
Yuffie stopped still. "I assume you're the oracle?"
"I am dragon-touched, yes," the old woman intoned. She cracked a half-smile. "And I see you are, as well."
"Oh, good, it's obvious, huh?"
"Surely you can see that I am dragon-touched? It should be obvious to anyone with a god living in her mind."
Yuffie stared at the old woman, let Leviathan join her. But she could see nothing unusual about the oracle. So far as she could tell, she was looking at a stressed-out woman in her forties who got really cold sitting on stone floor.
There was something hazy about her. Like a heat shimmer, or the way the sky looked when you had your eyes open underwater.
"You're not real!"
"I am an illusion," the prophet allowed, "but I am quite real. There are, of course, those who teach that nothing we can touch is real."
Yuffie sat down in front of her. "Okay, you know I have a dragon in my head. How do I get it out?"
Utter shock. Silence. Once she'd apparently found her tongue, the oracle asked, "And why would you want to? You're young yet."
"Yeah, but I kind of liked being alone in my head, and it's not exactly like he's doing much for me!"
More shock. More silence. And then the old woman shook her head and sighed. "You realize that when he is with you, you are undying?"
"Sure. Undying, but not unaging. Not immune to injury or pain. I don't want that for myself. Besides—" Cissuh sa! Leviathan insisted inside her head. "He's been telling me to summon him."
They sat in companionable silence while Rikku fussed around inside her jacket. At one point, Rikku poked her head out and looked up at Yuffie, but then the fairy shivered and ducked away.
At last, the oracle bowed her head. "I will show you how. If it is his will to be summoned and drawn from you, it will succeed. If not, I will show you how to live in harmony with him."