nagia: (ffvii; wutai)
YOUR CHILDREN DESERVE LEXCORP JETPACKS ([personal profile] nagia) wrote in [community profile] terzarima2012-02-02 01:47 pm

Kingdom Hearts; Rated T; "Gifts & Treasures" [4/7]

Title Gifts and Treasures
Author: [personal profile] nagia
Rating: ESRB Rating of T for Teen
Fandom: Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy X
Pairing: Vincent Valentine/Yuffie Kisaragi, Aerith Gainsborough/Squall Leonhart
Summary: Everything's got a price, from your first wish to your second chance. Direct sequel to Burnt Offerings
Notes: A long time coming. Shhhh.


four: different people

Boon nothing. The big giant arrow of Yuffie's mental map turned red and started to blink. The caption changed from YOU ARE BONED to YOU ARE ROYALLY FUCKED.

Well, even if she was presently unarmed, she was a ninja and she had second-tier Thunder magic. There wasn't anything she couldn't fry.

Yuffie didn't even wait for Maleficent to attack. Thundara screamed through her veins, making her hair stand on end. It arced out from her fingertips. The sky itself snapped and hissed. White-hot bursts of light left golden trails underneath her eyelids.

Maleficent raised her staff.

Something blue-silver and honeycomb-shaped shimmered in the air around the fairy. The Thunder magic struck it; the barrier flashed green. Purple wisps of light snaked their way away from it.

A Reflect spell? She'd never seen anything like it, but fairy magic wasn't human magic. Every crash of her magic against Maleficent's tasted salty underneath her tongue. She could feel something vast surrounding her, rolling on and on forever.

"That is so cheating!"

Maleficent laughed again. This time the sound was almost joyous, if a person this psychotic and vindictive could actually be happy about anything anyway.

The laughter turned distinctly mocking. "Cheating, child? You paved the way for my return. What makes you an arbiter of justice?"

Yuffie backed away, muscle memory leading her to block her face with her fists. She opened her mouth to point out that she hadn't said a thing about justice (and what was an arbiter, anyway?), but instead she asked: "I don't remember paving anyone's way."

The fairy lifted her staff so the tip hovered a bare couple of inches off the ground, then slammed the tip down. It bit into dirt not with a crunch but with the ping of tapped glass.

Glittering motes of dust gathered in the air, zigged and zagged and chased each other until they formed the crystalline outline of a rose.

Rather than say anything more, Maleficent smiled.

"You have got to be kidding me."

"You found it in my Chapel, yes? Surely you don't believe Ansem hid it there. If such a weapon as the Dewprism were his to wield, he would long ago have used it to end me."

And that made more sense than it didn't. Except: "Okay, if it's a weapon you had, why didn't you use it to end Ansem?"

The wicked curve of Maleficent's mouth turned even more amused. "But why bother, when a mere riddle could move him to destroy not only himself but everything he loved in this world?"

The next few moments were a blur. She was vaguely aware of reaching for her smaller shuriken, and finding them. Thundara rolled through her and out of her, jolting from the sky down to dance with the stone they stood on.

Her fist connected with Maleficent's face. Something went crunch.

And all the while, all she could think was: Maleficent was why Ansem had begun experimenting with the Heartless. Her war. Her riddles. Her fault.

The ground was cool underneath her cheek. Yuffie blinked, trying to piece together just how she'd gotten there. But it'd happened too fast.

A gust of wind blew her backward. She looked up. Farther up. Up, and up, and up.

Maleficent's robes whipped around in the wind. The black fabric pooled. It kept pooling, turning the rest of the night into inky blackness. Behind her, the stars seemed brighter.

And in the woman's place stood a dragon.

This would have been the perfect time to have a dragon of her own. One that had been worshipped as a god. She could have been like, "So you're a dragon? I am totally not afraid of dragons." But no, sleep-walking crazy ninja that she was, she'd left her Summon Charm and the Four-Point at home.





The doors to Ansem's Castle slammed closed behind them. Tifa half-jumped at the noise, looking around as if she expected to have broken something. The sound didn't appear to startle Leonhart or Cid, who thumped the tip of his spear against the ground and let out a frustrated growl.

"Brat's gotta be around somewhere," he said, and for an instant the words echoed in Vincent's ears, at once a smoker's rasp and an ex-smoker's gruff voice. "It's not like it could take her off-world."

Tifa and Aerith exchanged looks.

And Leonhart pinched the bridge of his nose. "Magic."

"You're tellin' me it could have?"

"Maybe," Aerith said, idly tracing the Four-Point's ribbons with a thumb. "It depends on the spell and the caster. But I think this one would have just —"

Her explanation went no further. At that moment, a black cloud, veined through with green, spread across the sky to the west. It blotted out the view of the stars.

And then it was gone.

"Found her." Auron shifted his blade on his shoulder and moved forward, away from Ansem's Castle and toward the path back to the Bailey.

Vincent followed. The path streamed past in a headlong rush. He almost didn't see the town's generator, or the ruined gate. The path northwest was a blur of dark stone, interspersed occasionally with Heartless or formations of glowing crystals.

Sometime during the run, red flickered at the outside of his vision. Then it vanished; he passed Auron by.

By the time he reached a wide, bare field, he could hear the crackling of flames. Thunder howled loud enough to drown it out.

On the final plateau before the path died completely, leaving only plains too pitted for any sort of road, he found them. A dragon thrashed its tail all over the plain, sometimes trying to knock Yuffie back, sometimes coiling around her.

To her credit and his indefinable pride, Yuffie kept moving. She circled the dragon, or tried to, rolling away from the tail's strikes. He watched her somersault easily out of the tail's attempts to entangle her and was reminded for a long instant of other acrobatic tricks in other battles.

The instant passed. The somersault became a handspring that carried her almost out of a gout of green-purple fire. Almost, but not quite.

Vincent moved to intercept, wishing that he had the Death Penalty.

She took the moment's reprieve he offered without hiding in his shadow, rubbed a hand along the upper arm that had been burned. Despite the injury, she seemed unbowed; Yuffie had always been fierce in combat, nearly fearless.

"A dragon?" He didn't have the breath to spare for any other questions.

Yuffie had little breath for a reply: "Maleficent." She stopped for a moment, gulped for air, and added, "Magic stuff."

The dragon chose that instant to strike with her tail.

He lifted his arms, crossed them so they would take the brunt of the impact, and shifted his weight down. He heard his boots scrape stone, felt them dig into the ground beneath them.

When he could look up, Yuffie had vanished. White smoke replaced her, hissing out from near where ninja had been a moment before.

Maleficent paused in her assault. The dragon peered at the plain beneath it, clearly momentarily puzzled.

The air shimmered. Just as he caught her outline, thunder rolled. The sound shuddered through him, made the ground beneath them all tremble.

Vincent used Maleficent's distraction to cast Fire. Red-orange flame roared to life around his gauntlet. He struck out with that arm, drove his claws into Maleficent's tail.

The dragon shrieked.

Thunder clashed again. White-hot lines crackled along the dragon's black, scaly body.

Yuffie's outline finally solidified. She was a whirlwind of tiny shuriken. Most of them clattered harmlessly to the ground, but a few stuck.

A sword swept out, flashing silver in the light. It cleaved through the air quickly enough to whistle. Once again Vincent thought back to the Buster Sword and the Ultima Weapon.

Auron's blade struck one of Yuffie's shuriken. Metal rang. The shuriken buried itself in Maleficent's hide, drawing another agonized scream from the dragon.

The undead man cast a glance over his shoulder at Yuffie. "That's how it's done."

"Well, 'scuse me for not having the arm strength of a friggin' Behemoth." Yuffie rolled her eyes, then suddenly vaulted backward. She turned the leap into a back-handspring, tumbling neatly out of the way of Maleficent's claws.

Vincent dodged, too, making sure to drag his gauntlet along the dragon's skin.

He caught a flash of blue before something made contact.

Blood splattered.

Cid cursed long and thoroughly as he yanked on his spear. Vincent moved forward to help; the spear was stuck in Maleficent's hide.

Or so it had been, until some sort of wind — visible only as a razor-sharp glitter — began to curl around the engineer. Cid gave one last mighty heave and withdrew the spear, nearly knocking himself off balance, and slid down the dragon's side, toward solid ground.

"Looks like we can't even let you leave the house, brat," Cid said. "You ever gonna explain this one to me?"

"Cid, please," said Tifa's voice from the battlefield's far side. An instant later, she was pulling her fist back from the dragon's side, and Maleficent was shuddering from the impact. "I'm sure this could have happened to anyone."

Tifa paused a moment. The smile that curved across her lips was almost gentle — but the glint in her eye was fierce.

"Well, maybe not anyone," she said before side-stepping Maleficent's strike and turning to deliver several blows of her own. Each punch connected with an earth-shaking crack.

Maleficent staggered back. Her chest and belly heaved as she gasped for breath.

Before any of them could press the attack, Maleficent's eyes glowed. Something violet, flecked with green, flared up around the dragon.

Some sort of Barrier. Vincent slammed his fist against it, watched it ripple for a moment before snapping back into place.

Comfortable warmth flickered to life in the pit of his stomach, flaring along his bones. He tasted something blue-green and smelled mint.

"I'm sorry we're late," Aerith said from somewhere behind him.

He turned just in time to see Aerith pitch the Four-Point in Yuffie's general direction. The shuriken wheeled through the air, whistling, before it bit into the dirt. Yuffie ran for it, snatching it up at speed, without slowing down.

"I've been missing this!"

Vincent caught one quick impression of a black blur before Leonhart collided with the Barrier. His gunblade left the Barrier rippling again. He paused for an instant, then renewed his assault.

Aerith took up position beside Cid, who was readying his spear. She seemed to glow, a warm, healthy shimmer dancing along her skin. Her fingers skimmed gracefully along Cid's arms, healing cuts that Vincent hadn't even seen inflicted.

Yuffie darted past the pair of them and turned so that the Four-Point was half braced against her chest. She spun on the ball of her foot, entire body pouring weight into the motion, and flung the shuriken.

It sailed quickly enough to be a silver blur. Leonhart struck out at the Barrier three more times and then dodged sideways.

The shuriken passed through the rippling Barrier, scored a deep gash in Maleficent's hide.

It was enough to distract the fairy from the magic. The Barrier dropped. Cid and Leonhart charged forward; Yuffie caught the Four-Point on rebound and resumed a run. Halfway across the clearing, she stopped again, turning the forward motion sideways, and threw the shuriken.

Cid's spear struck an unmarred patch of black scales. He twisted his wrists and pulled back with his full weight.

The spear tore free just as the shuriken whistled past. It deepened one of the cuts already in the dragon's hide. The Four-Point glistened wetly with purplish-black blood when it returned to Yuffie's hand.

Leonhart made contact last. He swung his gunblade toward the dragon's eyes and face, startling her into rearing back. She hissed, snapping at him, but he had already spun away from her, only to go spinning back.

With Maleficent's attention elsewhere, Yuffie raised the Four-Point high in the air. Lightning, blue-white and sizzling hot, lit the night. It struck in Yuffie's footsteps, dogging her faithfully.

She made her way past Tifa and Aerith, past Leonhart and Cid. Past him. Vincent had a split second to register the motion before she planted her foot on Maleficent's tail and sprang up toward the dragon's back.

Yuffie's grip on the Four-Point changed. She brought her arm down in a swipe that left Maleficent howling. She somersaulted back, then dove for the dragon again. The new angle let her get in two more cuts.

Then she changed angles yet again. And Vincent began to recognize the attack pattern, for once arrayed against a single enemy. Yuffie kept moving; he stopped counting cuts.

The assault ended. She landed just a few steps away from the dragon, only a little out of breath. Fifteen fresh wounds oozed open on Maleficent's back and sides.

The world slowed, was crystal clear, every action perfectly defined even when it should have been chaos.

The dragon began to shrink.

Leonhart lashed out twice with his gunblade, feinting, before realizing that she was no threat. He turned his back on her, then, rested his blade on his shoulder.

Cid spun his spear, then went still.

Yuffie stood, swinging the shuriken overhead in great swooping arcs, preparing a final throw and nearly falling off balance when she realized it was unnecessary. He recognized that slip all too well.

He had seen it before, had seen it countless times, was sure he would see it again soon. And refreshing as her joy was, he wished a life of peace on them all. Not for his own sake — he had not paid for such a bargain — but for the rest of AVALANCHE, who had given their lives. For Yuffie, who had died already, much too young.

Every instant that brought that fierce, maniac grin to her face was a brush with her own death. And he could not watch her die again; could not watch any of AVALANCHE die again.

The air around them began to glitter, and at last the dragon vanished. In its place knelt a fairy woman, black robes inky in the shadowed valley.

"Maleficent." Leonhart's voice was a dark promise of bloodshed to come. He needed no more malice, no more threats, than that, and gave none.

Maleficent looked up. Her eyes glinted like ice chips. "I am not ended yet, puer fatale."

The air around Leonhart exploded into steam and mist. The steam quickly turned to frost, which became true ice, falling to the ground in distracting sparks.

Maleficent didn't bother to create her barrier again. She waved a hand dismissively in Yuffie's direction. "Truly, I am restored, thanks to you. For that, our bargain is not ended."

And then she was gone. Where she had been, where blood had congealed, lay only shadow. And in the midst of that shadow, a single, shimmering bauble. The head of Maleficent's staff.

The world seemed to fall into a lull, as if they were all catching their breath. Yuffie's chest heaved. Leonhart's grip on his gunblade tightened and relaxed. Cid idly tapped the end of his spear against the ground.

It was Auron — perhaps because he did not breathe — who asked, "Restored?"

Yuffie sucked in a deep breath before she answered. "She wasn't making much sense. Something about how the Dewprism restored her magic and she owes me something."

"She owed you, and you attacked her?"

"Looks like it." Her voice was mild, as if her response made perfect sense. Perhaps it did, considering the history between Maleficent and Radiant Garden.

Vincent knelt by the head of Maleficent's staff. It was cool to the touch, left a pins-and-needles feeling in the fingers of his human hand.

Leonhart looked over. His expression stayed flat. When he spoke, however, his tone was almost thoughtful. "A favor."

Auron raised an eyebrow. Yuffie started yet another joke about Leonhart's hair. Something about all the conditioner going to his head or making him deaf, or the hairstyle itself blocking his hearing.

Vincent only half-heard the joke. His eyes had met Leonhart's, and as one, they looked down to the glittering bauble in his hand.

Yuffie stopped mid-sentence. "Watergod. She says she owes — and leaves that — Vincent put it down—!"

He was already moving to release his hold. He would have anyway; his fingers were almost numb from the pins-and-needles. The gem fell.

And never hit the ground.

Motes of gold dust burst into sight. A veritable cloud surrounded a tiny, golden-winged figure; it was like watching a flower bloom all at once.

Rikku wrapped her arms around the staff's head. Her wings beat extra hard to keep her and her sudden extra weight aloft.

"Please, it isn't dangerous!" Yuna's voice drifted to them, soft as ever. She floated into view. "That's just what we need to find the treasure Maleficent promised us."

Leonhart's eyes narrowed. Cid's grip on his spear tightened for just a moment.

"And just where were y'all during that fight, anyway?"

Yuna shook her head, seeming sad. "We can't fight Maleficent. A long time ago, we..."

"We gave her our word." Paine flew toward Rikku, helped the other fairy stay airborne despite the stone's extra weight, without a flicker of apparent emotion. It was almost comical, to see two women struggle to hold onto something he or Yuffie could have picked up and crushed with one hand.

But it was where she came from that caught Vincent's attention. He traced the path of her entrance: from beyond the valley's ledge. She had come from beyond what Radiant Garden colloquially called "the End."

It left him with a sinking feeling he knew where Yuffie would go next.





Radiant Garden: After the End

If she thought about it for too long, it was actually kind of funny. Looking down, all she saw was spiky, jagged rock. But the face of the cliff she was clinging to felt smooth as the surface of a lake.

So Yuffie tried not to think about it too long. She knew what she was doing. It wasn't like she was actually going to fall to her ignominious, squashed tomatoes death or anything. But it would be stupid to die just because she started laughing and lost her hold.

Or if she gripped wrong. She'd already gripped wrong once; she knew there was blood dripping from her palms. She had to be careful about that. Even a little could make her hands too slick to grip properly, meaning she'd cut herself more.

And more. And still some more, until she was cutting herself every time she found a handhold or a foothold. And if that kept on too long, she'd either bleed to death or lose her grip entirely.

The descent took hours. Or maybe it only felt like hours; the sun hadn't risen yet when she finally reached the bottom.

She turned to look around. Nothing grew there. There were no flat spaces, no even surfaces — it was all chaotic, unwelcoming, foreboding. It looked intentional, really, but there was no way anybody would bother designing something like this.

Beyond the splintered wasteland lay what looked like some sort of wilderness preserve. If by 'wilderness' one meant 'thorny weeds.' Dead weeds, dry and cracked and brown. Live weeds with stems and vines and leaves so dark a green they looked poisonous. Weeds with thorns she could barely see and weeds with thorns as long as her arm. Wild roses and blackberries and something she couldn't name all tangled themselves together in varying stages of life.

The thicket looked like it went on forever.

"You'll need these," a voice said.

Yuffie jumped, only to wind up with a fallen thorn stuck in her foot once she hit the ground again. She spun around to seek the source of the voice.

A human-sized Paine lounged on a half-intact outcropping. She held Yuffie's shoes by the laces in one hand. Rikku and Yuna both held onto Maleficent's so-called "favor" while clinging to Paine's knee.

"Thanks."

"No problem." Paine watched her shake her shoes out and then wiggle into them. One eyebrow twitched, even while the very corner of her lip curled up just a tiny bit.

"I know me and my shoes are comedy mythril, but Big Red and the Queen Of Hearts up there are comedy orichalcum."

Whether they were funny enough to be worth their weight in excruciatingly rare metals or not, it seemed to take just as long for Vincent and Auron to descend as it had her.

It took having his feet back firmly on the ground, where the wind couldn't grab him as easily, for Vincent's cape to stop billowing ridiculously.

Auron smoothed his red teng-yi and took a step forward, away from the cliffs. Rikku immediately launched herself up from Paine's knee, making a bee line for Auron's collar.

Yuna followed, of course.

Paine stood up. They all squared themselves against the thicket.

"You sure that princess cape's a good idea, Vince?"

Vincent turned to look at her. He gave her one of his special My Cape And I Are Not Amused looks, which she ignored. He held the stare for a moment or so, then adjusted his collar to hide more of his face.

The trip through the thicket was just as slow and painful as the descent down the cliff. Maybe it was worse. Even hacking at the vines with the Four-Point — while Auron swung his sword like a machete and Vincent batted nettles away with his clawgauntlet thing — she still had to stop every few minutes and disentangle herself.

Auron was worse off. The thorns seemed to reach after the teng-yi. What Yuffie managed to pass by trapped him. He had to stomp and shake himself free.

But if she thought Auron had it bad, the thicket seemed drawn to Vincent. Maybe the rest of the world thought his cloak was as ridiculous as she did. Maybe the bright red cloak drew the thicket's attention somehow. Maybe it was just the length and volume of the cloak; there was so much fabric to get entangled that it inevitably did, with every step.

They pushed all the way to some sort of natural clearing. Yuffie leaned up against a suspiciously thistle-free marble block that was shaped mostly like a suspiciously thistle-free marble block. Maybe it had been a statue of something, once, but there was no telling now if Maleficent had been partial to marble kittens or to marble girls.

She inspected her arms. The vines had got her good, even if they hadn't managed to hold onto her. She had thin red scratches from her shoulders all the way down to her wrists. She even had slim cuts on her fingertips.

Gawd, this place had tried to turn her into a bunch of hamburger meat or something.

She almost laughed at Vincent, though. There was definitely no stopping the grin. His cloak was more a long, bright red tatter. It'd be more useful torn into strips and made into bandages than worn.

Vincent ran the fabric through his fingers, deftly picking out stickers wherever he found them. He tossed them away with a casual flicking motion.

Rikku launched herself from Auron's shoulder, leaving Yuna to bear the staff-head's weight. Rikku whirled in place just a little above Yuffie's head, glittering in the early dawn light.

That drew Yuffie's attention to the horizon. She stomped a foot and swore with one of the long, ridiculous phrases she'd learned from Cid. She peppered it with a few inventions of her own.

Auron raised an eyebrow. But he didn't look at her like she was crazy.

"Sun's coming up, and I want the hell outta this thicket by noon."

Surrounded by all that dark green? They'd bake! And then she'd be sweating and bleeding at the same time. Not her idea of fun.

"We should hurry," Vincent said. "Sundown will be dangerous here."

That made her laugh. "What, you mean this place gets less fun to run around in? I thought we'd hit rock bottom."

Vincent just gave her his I Am Princess Serious McStoic Of The Serious Business Lineface Kingdom look. She made a point to look him right in the eyes and ignore the look. None of those serious Over-Queen Of Woe Is We looks had any effect on her, and he needed to figure that out.

"This place was Maleficent's," Yuna said. Unlike Rikku, she stayed in her place on Auron's shoulder.

"And this is about as nice as Maleficent ever was," Rikku added, still turning slowly in the air to look at everything around them. "Even when she was happy."

"She was happy?" That was hard to believe. She couldn't picture it; Maleficent's face just wasn't made to smile. She had the kind of face that always looked stern and foreboding.

"It was..." Yuna paused for a second. She finally settled on, "It was a long time ago."

Yuffie filed not always a big seething pile of malice, jealousy, and spite away. Right next to responsible for Ansem's research into the Heartless. The thought burned.

The burn kept her company through the thicket. There were moments she thought she could have set the whole wasteland on fire just thinking about it. But it kept her from feeling the cuts and gashes the thorns left in her arms.





Radiant Garden: Maleficent's Palisade

Yuffie had always heard Maleficent's Castle called Castle Obsidian. From a distance, its dark, menacing towers had been a perfect counterpoint to the graceful white marble that made up Radiant Garden.

But Maleficent's castle wasn't black at all.

She stopped halfway across the drawbridge. It was narrower than she'd expected. She looked over the side, found herself staring into what might have been a moat, years ago. Now it was an overgrown ravine. She could hear water hiss through, choking past all the nettles.

At the end of the drawbridge, the gate awaited. For some reason, the portcullis was raised, but the great doors were closed.

"Daylight's wasting," Auron said, tone slow and drawling.

Vincent just kept moving forward, ignoring them all. The stoic set of his shoulders, the way he kept his head half-dropped, told her everything she needed to know. He wasn't moving forward out of curiosity.

He wanted this done and over with. Well, not like she could blame him. He had another trek through a briar patch that found his cape magically delicious to look forward to, after all.

Once they were close enough, Yuffie pressed her nose up against the outer wall of the castle. Then she took a step back, tilting her head. She even squinted. But no matter how she looked at it, now that she was up close, she could see the difference.

It wasn't black. It was dark green. Darker even than the vines she'd just hacked her way through. Or maybe all the plants creeping their way up the palisade — and twining around the chains that held the drawbridge down, and if that didn't make this a death trap, nothing did — were messing with her sense of color.

Yuffie looked up. And up, and up. It was one of the highest walls she'd ever seen. Gargoyles of the same dark stone snarled down at them all from the very top, none seeming to mind the way the overgrowth made them hard to take seriously.

Then the first light of dawn hit the castle gate. Yuffie could only stare at the complex images engraved on the heavy doors. Tangled knots and swooping lines, roses whose shapes seemed mournful. Thorns and flames.

The bauble from Maleficent's staff began to sing. Yuffie watched as Yuna and Rikku lifted it above their heads.

She wasn't sure which of them let go first.

A purplish light swirled through the green crystal. The light brightened. The surface of the crystal began to spark. Lines of light so bright they were something like violet and something like white burned her eyelids.

The gates opened with a groan.

The first thing she saw was a rose blossom the width of her arm.




Radiant Garden: Maleficent's Bailey

There were roses everywhere. Big roses, little roses. Flowers as big as her head. Flowers as big around as her whole arm. Buds half as tall as she was.

And everywhere, thorns. Some of them were tiny, just barely visible needles. Some of them were as big as her hand, or even bigger.

Vines wove all throughout the courtyard, blocking most of the ways out or up. They even blocked the other doors. It was as if they hadn't fought through the thicket at all.

"You've got to be kidding me," Yuffie said, half to Rikku and half to Maleficent, who probably couldn't hear but still needed to learn that this was not okay. There were things you didn't do to adventurers and treasure-hunters, and this was one of them.

"Right back where we started," Auron replied. He might have been agreeing with her. There really wasn't any telling with him.

Rikku and Paine buzzed away, looking for who knew what. Fairy magic, maybe.

Yuffie watched them go, then grabbed Vincent by what was left of his cape. "Don't freak out, but we've gotta get to one of the towers." She paused, thought better of that, and explained: "I mean I've gotta get to one of the towers. Nobody hides their treasure on the main floor."

Vincent raised an eyebrow.

"Well, unless your fire magic can blow the ground out from under us, I'm going to need a door, a gate, a staircase, or something else that lets people into places. So I need into a tower. Seriously, don't freak."

After that little pep-talk, she turned to the tower wall least covered in vines — or covered in vines with the smallest thorns — and started searching for a place to plant her foot. She braced one foot against a clear spot on a thick vine, then heaved herself up, digging her fingers into handholds in the stone, where she could find them. Where she couldn't find them, she clung to any vine that didn't give way if she tugged it and wished Yuna was flying around handing out Cure spells the way Aerith did.

Three stories up, she found a mostly-clear window. It was even deep enough for her to wedge herself in between the plants and the sill. She drew one of her smaller shuriken, rammed it against the windowpanes.

Glass shattered. The empty lattice left her a place to grip so she could heave her shoulder against the window.

She grinned when it broke under her weight.

The tower room was surprisingly clear. She saw no flowers, no dead vines, no fallen thorns. Nothing. It had been a bedroom, once. Assuming the half-collapsed pile of sticks in the middle of the room had once been a bed, and the moth-eaten rags on top of it had been linens.

The hair on the back of her neck stood up. Yuffie pocketed her smaller shuriken and drew the Four-Point. No sign of Heartless yet — and why hadn't there been? They plagued both town and castle of Radiant Garden — but that didn't mean something wasn't wrong.

She crept through the room, heaving open heavy wooden doors. The first two were blocked off by vines, but the third led to a clear hallway.

Metal scraped against stone.

Yuffie nearly jumped out of her skin, turning toward the sound with Thunder crackling at her fingertips.

Back in the bedroom, Vincent slid in through the open window. A long, slow slide. Smooth. Pointy metal boots first, then legs. Then his hips.

"Stalking me, Vincent?" She didn't bother trying not to smirk.

"No." He frowned down at her, a little distantly.

That got half a laugh out of her, then she jerked her hand in a 'this way' gesture. "Come on."

She turned on her heel and went back to the hallway. She kept one hand on the wall. The stone felt smooth and cool, as if it wasn't ancient. As if it was normal. There wasn't even a thrum of weird fairy magic.

They made it down two floors before they encountered the vines. Vincent frowned at them, then laid the palm of his clawgauntlet thing against a green fleshy part. Yuffie watched as his eyes closed.

It started with heat. So hot she almost felt as if she were melting; she imagined her sweat and her skin turning to steam. Then light flared, bright in the half dark, orange and gold and flickering, licking.

"oG. yawa nruB," he said, softly, "nrub."

If she closed her own eyes and took a deep breath, she could smell heated cinnamon and something old and smoky, like charcoal. She opened her eyes to watch his magic take shape.

The vines turned brown. Their thorns fell. And then they all shriveled away, shrinking back beneath the fire.

Yuffie waited to ask until they were a few yards further down the stairs. "Where'd you learn Merlin's kind of magic?"

"He loaned me a few spells," Vincent said. His tone was calm, smooth, as if he hadn't been caught out at anything. But Yuffie was sure that just loaning spells wasn't enough to give your magic a taste or a smell and control Maleficent's vines.

Chocobo crap. "Bullshit," she said. "Why didn't you do it before?"

"It would have been meaningless outside the threshold."

"And how do you know that?"

Vincent just looked at her. He kept his face bland. But she could hear a tinge of sorrow in his voice when he answered. "I am old, Yuffie. I have learned many things."

"Right, right, I'll just bet you have. Age and experience and whatever. So where'd you learn about Maleficent's castle?"

"Maleficent and Hades were once allies."

She blinked. That was right, Hades and Maleficent and a bunch of other crazies had all been working together. They weren't now, of course. Or maybe they were and were just hiding out until Sora lost his thing about cosmic justice and the universe not ending and all that jazz.

They were still yards away from the door to the ground floor when it burst open. Auron swept in through the doorway, huge-ass sword in his hands and fresh cuts down his arms. The fairies clung to or followed him.

"We were going to open that," Yuffie told them, in case they didn't know.

Auron's lip twitched into something that could have been a smirk and could have been murderous irritation. "No use waiting."

"That's what I always say! Now, since you're here..."

They hopped to it. There was no way underground. Not even Vincent's backwards-talking Fire trick could burn away the vines. Auron's katana simply rebounded straight off, and the fairies all shook their heads wildly when Yuffie suggested that they combine their fairy magic with Vincent's fire.

With no other options, they went up the staircase. Vincent drifted to the front of the group. His footsteps grew softer and softer. It was like having a ghost for a tour guide who was pretending he didn't know where he was.

They flung open doors. This tower seemed mostly bedrooms, and most of them had long decayed to rubble. Yuffie and the fairies studied every ruined tapestry, tapped every loose stone.

Before she knew it, they'd reached the top of the tower. Yuffie'd expected some sort of observatory, like Ansem housed in one of his towers. Some big round room full of tarnished models of planets and telescopes and complicated astronomy tools made out of gears and strings. That was what you put at the top of towers like this, right?

It wasn't.

It wasn't a library, either, which would have been her second guess.

"Another bedroom," Paine said. She mostly sounded bored, with just a shade of annoyance.

She looked to Vincent, but he didn't say anything. He didn't even venture in past the door.

The gleaming cherry wood of a huge bed took up one wall. Whoever had carved it (or magicked it into existence) had found a way to make the headboard blend in with the way the walls seemed to curve. Golden inlaid panels caught the light and glittered. A wooden hoop hung over the bed, shaded it with a thick pink canopy that pooled onto the floor.

On the other wall was a vanity, made of the same gleaming cherry wood. The wood had gilt inlays, sometimes panels, sometimes simple traceries. What caught Yuffie's eye, though, was the mirror: it wasn't glass but some sort of very bright metal. Copper? Bronze? She couldn't quite tell.

Yuffie tilted her head and peered more closely at the mirror. Her reflection took just a second longer to tilt its head, too. And there was something very wrong with its face. She couldn't put her finger on it. Were the reflection's eyes darker? Was there an edge to the set of its mouth?

Either way, it was wrong.

A few feet away from the vanity was a toy chest. It was easily as tall as Yuffie, had the rounded top one expected of a fairy treasure chest. It was the same cherry wood and gilt as the rest of the room's furniture.

She lifted the lid. The weight forced a gasp out of her.

"Damn," she found herself saying when she finally had the lid off.

There was absolutely nothing inside that fit with the vanity, the pink canopy. Instead, it was filled with sheet after sheet of some sort of thick, off-white paper. And page after page were drawings of Radiant Garden's towers. They were always tiny backgrounds against a foreground of some sort of green space — a garden? The wasteland they'd just crossed?

Beneath those, though, were drawings of some sort of underground river bank. She could make out black stone and a black ceiling, with a roiling green-gray river churning past the banks.

Yuffie tossed the paper backward, out of her way. "Didn't know Maleficent was in touch with her inner child."

Ha, at last, something that belonged in a girl's room! She pulled the wooden box out of the chest and opened it. Inside lay strand after strand of pearls, some strands as long as her arms. An emerald locket. An emerald ring. Gold and silver rings without stones. One memorable item was set with so many into the ring itself that it looked made of gems.

Two pieces didn't fit with all the rest: a lacquered black feather-shaped pendant on a silver chain, and a tarnished iron key on an equally tarnished iron chain.

Beneath the jewelry box was a thick book. It was longer and wider than her head, leather bound and held closed with a leather strap and an iron lock.

Rikku zipped away from Auron — who had opened up the wardrobe and was now staring at a closet full of silk peploses, most of them stiff with embroidery, all of them green. She spun a loop-de-loop in the air around the book.

"We'll definitely need that!"

"But not the jewelry."

Rikku shuddered and shook her head.

From across the room, still clinging to Auron, Yuna said, "No, we can't take it. Please put all the jewels back where you found them."

"I thought you were looking for treasure?"

Paine looked up from one of the sheets of paper Yuffie had discarded. "Yeah. Our treasure."

Vincent still didn't say anything. When Yuffie looked over at him, he was looking from one side of the room to the other. His gaze trailed slowly, like he was memorizing every detail. And then he'd start all over again.

So she piled all the jewels back into the jewelry box — and if she grabbed a ring or two, well, Maleficent owed her, right? — and piled all the stupid, creepy drawings back on top of that. The chest clicked ominously when she closed it.

So she turned her attention to the only other closed thing in the room: the dollhouse. It was maybe three feet tall and shaped like a tower. Pretty big but not obviously magical.

Except when Yuffie touched it, something hot and sharp and wrong rippled across her skin. She could feel it sweep from her fingers all the way to her toes, all the way up to her hairline and the back of her neck. Just like the mirror, something was wrong with this dollhouse.

So she looked at it. It just looked like a normal toy, maybe made out of really good wood. Every single "stone" in the castle wall was clearly delineated from every other stone. She pressed a finger to it and realized that she could slip her fingernail into the crevices.

She opened it.

It was just as exquisite on the inside. Every detail perfect, from the stone walls and the tapestries that covered them down to mirrors and tiny furnishings. Furniture made of oak and cherry wood. One bedroom had a tiny model spinning wheel, another a wash basin.

Strangest and most perfect of all was the top room. It looked exactly like the room they were standing in, from the bed with its pink canopy to a model of the treasure chest. The chest even opened and had scraps of paper in it.

Yuffie pushed aside the canopy and found herself gasping again.

On the bed lay a doll. The only doll in the room, and just as perfect in minute detail as the rest of the dollhouse's furniture. The skirt of her dress was made of interconnecting belts, each clearly distinct. Yuffie could even make out a stocking and garter peeking out from beneath the belts.

Rikku whooped. "It's her!"

Paine looked over sharply, then was suddenly hovering right next to Yuffie and Rikku. She inspected the doll closely and at last nodded, though she didn't say anything.

"Yunie, Yunie, it's—"

"Lulu," Yuna breathed from Yuffie's other side.

On the bed, the doll exhaled once without opening her eyes.




'I could tell you my adventures — beginning from this morning,' said Alice a little timidly: 'but it's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.'

— Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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