[Shattered] Traditions 01

Chapter One – When Spring Began

The sound of squabbling and raised voices continued to reverberate in his ears long after he had fled from the council meeting. It was all more or less the same. Arguments over what should be rebuilt and how much of the funds should be given to do so. There were even plans to change the purpose behind Cosmo Canyon, which Nanaki would not stand for.

Worst of all, was the knowledge that there were still many without homes, crowded into tents and makeshift buildings until a proper place could be built for them. But at the rate of reconstruction, it would be a long while for Cosmo Canyon to become prosperous again. The only good thing to have come out of the whole deal was that his home was one of the few places to survive the brief Chaos War, as it was rapidly becoming named. Because of that, people were flocking there, bringing with them skilled artisans and carpenters, among others.

Nanaki sighed and rubbed his aching forehead, torn between the urge to take up alcohol or ease his rage on the local, violent bestiary. The latter was probably the more logical and healthy of the two but that didn’t mean he could take off as he pleased to go ravage the population of Hojo creations no doubt lurking on the edge of their meager and strained defenses.

Not for the first time, he found himself missing Suzaku. The demi-goddess’s presence was very calming, not to mention her knowledge vast. Nanaki had loved to listen to her tell stories. But like all the other demi-deities, Suzaku was gone, leaving behind a glowing red materia and a small gift that would lead him to his missing clan.

And yet, strangely enough, Nanaki had not done so.

He wasn’t sure what, exactly, was holding him back. Fear, anxiety, uncertainty… it was all a factor. What if he were disappointed? What if they wanted nothing to do with him? What if they were already gone? So many questions swirled around in his brain and he couldn’t even begin to process one before another cropped up. Which wasn’t helping his headache in the slightest.

The excuse that Cosmo Canyon was still in the midst of rebuilding was thin at best. As the head of Education, he could only do so much. They looked to him for advice, but only accepted it when it suited their purposes. At this point, Nanaki only wanted to run away from it all, if only to escape from the stress and the falsities. It was making him ill.

He was too young to feel this old even for one of his kind, the demi-human remarked to himself, stepping quietly down the hall and heading outside. Far, far away from the bickering and the selfishness and the people who had no clue what he had to go through just to make sure they all didn’t find themselves once again facing imminent destruction. His tail twitched behind him as if in faint agreement, flickering lightly. Unconsciously, the demi-human sought out the presence of his best friend knowing that she – at least – would be able to cheer him up some.

Or was friend too light a term to use now? He didn’t know how to define their relationship. They hadn’t exactly discussed what all the kissing and heavy groping really meant. He had once asked himself the questions and at the time, had decided to just go with the flow. But that didn’t mean he didn’t wonder.

Their affections hadn’t gone any further and while he could readily admit to himself that a very male part of him wanted to, a very scared part of him didn’t even want to try. He didn’t want to lose Yuffie. He would rather have her as a friend than nothing at all. And so fear stayed his hand.

He supposed the logical thing to do would be to actually talk to her about it. But every time he thought of bringing something of that sort up, his cheeks turned a delicate red and she teased him relentlessly. In order to defend himself, he promptly forgot about the topic at hand. Yuffie was a smart girl. He had the feeling she knew what he was clumsily trying to discuss and was successfully diverting him from it.

He couldn’t really blame her. The topic was awkward.

The sound of laughter drew Nanaki’s attention then and he paused at a window, the curtains drawn back to let in the warm mid-afternoon sun. He let the warmth soak into his face, easing away the ache of his head. Looking past the glass, recently cleaned, he caught sight of Yuffie outside, surrounded by her new band of followers.

The ninja had gotten bored sitting around Cosmo Canyon and had staunchly refused his offers of joining the council. To occupy her time, she had started teaching the boys and girls of the city some self-defense and fighting techniques. What had started as a small group of two or three had expanded into three sessions of around twenty students a piece. And she loved it.

She was able to show off and the awe her pupils regarded her with made her preen under the attention. She would never admit it, but the ninja was quite the exhibitionist. As well as a very good teacher, he noticed, and incredibly good with children.

A smile crossed the demi-human’s face as he observed them from the window. She was in the process of showing them a few hand-to-hand combat moves. Nothing fancy, just how to throw a proper punch. Yuffie was surprisingly patient, stopping to help those who didn’t have it just right as they practiced. She was kind of cute like that, with her face so serious.

Shaking his head at the thought, Nanaki moved away from the window and to the nearest door that would take him outside. A warm breeze greeted him immediately, carrying on it the fresh scents of the ending of summer. He breathed deeply of it, feeling better now that he was free of the stifling walls of the council room. Politics was more than he had ever wanted to take part in. But he was a person who understood responsibility and forced himself to endure.

“Mr. Nanaki!”

The children immediately noticed his presence and stopped practicing as he approached, a couple even running towards him in excitement. He offered them a smile, despite the aching in his head.

“Hello guys. You’re getting better.”

They skidded to an abrupt stop in front of him. “Uh-huh! Ms. Yuffie’s teaching us good!” One of the boys exclaimed enthusiastically, nodding his head up and down. He was one of the elder males, energetic and quite promising with a sword, if Nanaki recalled correctly. Unfortunately, he was also an orphan, one of many since Pandemona’s attack on Cosmo Canyon more than two months prior.

“You mean well, Jacob,” Yuffie corrected, striding towards them as the other children crowded around her. All thoughts of practice and learning were forgotten in their excitement. Before all the fighting and such, Nanaki used to play with the children often. He supposed they hadn’t forgotten that little fact.

Nanaki managed a grin, ruffling Jacob’s hair as he raised his eyes to Yuffie. “You correcting someone’s grammar?” he teased in good nature. “Surely the apocalypse has come.”

She rolled her eyes. “Been there, defeated that. Remember? You were there, too.”

Unfortunately, Nanaki recalled it all too well. The horrible feeling gripping his heart when he had heard that she was injured, rushing through the halls of Fort Condor hoping that he wouldn’t find his best friend hurt beyond recognition. That particular war had not been easy on his nerves, and he thanked the heavens every day that she hadn’t fallen.

He had already lost Bugenhagen, the closest thing he had to family and the man who had helped raise him. He had gone through the pain of thinking he had lost Vincent, a close companion. And while the former Turk was now alive and well, it was still a lingering sadness he could not forget having suffered. And Cloud was gone as well, another presence he had grown to care for. He had always seen the blond male as the one who had inadvertently rescued him from Hojo. Nanaki didn’t know how he would have handled losing Yuffie as well. She had become both his friend and his dearest companion in the space of less than a year’s time.

A very selfish part of the demi-human had been relieved when Yuffie was left out of the final battle. Though he was careful to keep that truth to himself. She would never forgive him for that. He knew how much she had wanted to be in that fight.

“Yeah, I remember,” he responded, his smile broadening as the stress clenching on his nerves gradually began to lessen.

Their eyes met, that same inexplicable something passing between them that was becoming more and more common lately. It was the one that made his heart flutter and his nerves tremble all at the same time. It made him wonder why he simply didn’t take her in his arms and kiss her senseless.

One of the children tugged on Yuffie’s arm, attracting her attention away from the inscrutable moment. “Ne, Yuffie, can we watch you two fight again?”

A chorus of nods resounded, the younger ones generally looking excited at the prospect. He wasn’t surprised. He and Yuffie often sparred to keep each other in shape or when the local monster population just wasn’t enough of a challenge. More often then not, they had an audience. Uninvited, of course, but the children seemed to have a knack for knowing when they were sneaking off to spar.

Yuffie smiled, the words to agree on the tip of her tongue, until she noticed how strained and tired her best friend looked. While sparring might ease his nerves, he really looked more like he needed a good meal and some sleep. Though she wasn’t exactly the mothering type, Yuffie knew someone had to take care of Nanaki. There wasn’t anyone else left but her.

“Not today,” she said, much to their disappointment as she patted one of the children on the head. “But maybe tomorrow.”

Their cries of discontent were slightly amusing, but luckily the ninja was able to hold back her chuckles. She ushered them away, shooing them with her hands towards the direction of the orphanage. It was merely one of the few buildings that had managed to remain standing, but a couple who had lost their own child in the attack were kind enough to run it. Not to mention that the other townspeople helped out from time to time.

“I promise I’ll teach you more tomorrow!” Yuffie called out to them as they waved at her and scampered away with the type of energy that only the young had.

Nanaki smiled lightly, relieved that Yuffie had turned them down. He was slightly worried that he would have ended up taking their spar too far since the urge to take out his stress was growing exponentially. Still, he was even happier to see that cheerfulness was gradually returning to the children’s faces. Their planet had suffered far too much in such a small amount of time. It simply didn’t seem fair.

“Thanks Yuffie,” Nanaki murmured as the ninja turned back towards him, shaking her head at the antics of the orphans.

She beamed. “I figured you weren’t up to it today,” she said in as merry a voice as she could muster. She linked her arm through his elbow, gently tugging him in the opposite direction. “That bad, huh?”

The demi-human groaned, though his face flushed at her nearness, a fine pink glow spreading across his cheeks. “I hate politics,” he responded honestly. It was something that he had never planned on getting involved in.

They headed towards the rebuilding, idly strolling more or less. Yuffie’s feet were unconsciously taking her in the direction of the food, however. She was hungry, Nanaki probably was too. It seemed like a logical decision, at least in her mind.

“All they do is bicker over money,” Nanaki continued, venting his frustrations to his closest friend. “I wonder when the last time they actually came to see the rebuilding was.”

He lifted his own eyes, sweeping his gaze across the busy section of Cosmo Canyon. People were criss-crossing the streets, carrying supplies and building materials. The steady cacophony of hammers and drills, as well as foremen calling out orders, floated to his ears. His nose twitched at the smell of freshly sawed wood. The town had really banded together, with the exception of those in the council.

Yuffie squeezed his arm, a bit concerned by the obvious stress in his tone. The both of them were far too young to be shouldering this much responsibility. But as fate would have it, this was what had been handed to them.

She sensed that he needed to be cheered up and surreptitiously glancing around, keen ninja eyes spotted a location that would be just perfect. A mischievous grin quirked her lips and she glanced slyly at the handsome demi-human walking at her side. His brow was drawn tight with tension, even lines of broody thought etched into his expression, making him look far older than he actually was. Yes, he definitely needed a pick-me-up.

She tugged on his arm, much to his surprise, and bodily pulled him out of the main street. “Come with me,” Yuffie urged, deftly avoiding a runner that was scampering by as she yanked Nanaki into the cool darkness between two half-finished buildings.

“What? Why?” he asked, a slight frown tugging at his lips.

The Wutaiian winked, amused by his cute, confused expression. “You always ask such silly questions,” she murmured as they slid into the chilly dim.

His brow furrowed in a motion guaranteed to give him wrinkles in the future. Yuffie didn’t allow him any more time to ask anything else. He stumbled in after her and it took only seconds for her to weave her arms around his neck, pressing her lips lightly to his. He was surprised for a moment before his hands settled on her hips and he gently returned the kiss.

Her lips parted deviously and she slipped her tongue out to tease along the seam of his, flitting touches determined to draw him out. Nanaki complied all too happily, their wet appendages sloppily darting together. Yuffie hummed in her throat, twining her arms tighter around Nanaki’s broader shoulders and pressing their bodies close as she deepened the kiss.

It wasn’t long before she felt him completely relaxing, the tension thrumming through his body and making him walk as if a stick had been shoved into his spine melting away. His hands twitched before lightly moving up and down her sides in a rubbing motion. Her fingers trailed through the hairs at the base of his neck, sending tingles up his spine. Yuffie’s tongue danced playfully at the sharp tip of his fangs before returning to duel with his, drawing him deeper into the sensual web.

She felt so incredibly right in his arms, soft and pliable, yet with enough willpower to prove her fortitude. Her lips were incredibly soft, her body warm against his. Nanaki could feel his veins thrumming with something, and he longed for the proper knowledge. His hands could only lightly explore, too nervous to venture anywhere else, and unskilled to attempt anything further. The noises, the soft sighs that echoed in Yuffie’s throat, were pleasing to his ears.

Until the sound of an ear-splitting clatter followed by lengthy muffled curses very near to their hiding spot had the both of them ending the kiss in surprise, their heads turning to the mouth of the alley. They could see nothing, but heard a man angrily mutter to himself about being clumsy and in a hurry. It reminded them of their current situation, ending what’d had the capacity to become hot and heavy.

His breathing sounded far too loud in the ensuing silence, sharp and quick. Nanaki blushed as he realized where they actually were and what they could have been caught doing. And it was all Yuffie’s fault, too. Not that he minded too terribly. Somewhere along the way, he had gotten used to her boldness.

His lips quirked into a light smile as he turned his eyes back towards the ninja. “You’re dangerous,” he murmured, licking his lips as if to savor the last traces of the taste of their kiss.

She chuckled, pressing closer as her fingertips continued to tease the hairs at the back of his neck. “But you feel better right?”

Nanaki flushed, his cheeks likely turning a bright, embarrassing pink, and nodded, not trusting himself to speak with genuine words. She was right in that, at least. He felt more than “better” actually, a part of him contemplating an immediate and freezing cold shower. He had heard somewhere that it was a pretty good dampening of arousal.

The truth of the matter was, their relationship had not progressed that far. Kissing and groping was pretty much the extent of it. Neither of them were particularly knowledgeable nor was Nanaki willing to ruin anything by pushing her. Though he strongly suspected she was getting bored of waiting for him. Yuffie was strong-minded like that.

He wasn’t the type to ask, or push but by the gods, he wanted her. He might not have known much about anything but he could recognize the feelings inside of him. The way his heart leapt when she looked at him and the thrumming in his body at her touch. He could see the emotions glinting in her brown eyes and knew that she felt somewhere close to the same.

Besides, the both of them were dancing around the issue. Stoically deciding not to talk about it within themselves, and avoiding the problem in the open. If he tried to bring it up, she would successfully divert him with a spar or a game or something. And whenever Yuffie worked up the courage, he wasn’t ready, and somehow found the means to distract her. It was an endless cycle.

Nanaki kept telling himself that he was merely waiting for the right moment, working up the courage to at least ask for advice before making any disastrous advances. But the sheer idea of questioning one of his friends was mortifying on its own. It wasn’t a simple thing to walk up to someone and ask, “how do I have sex with my girlfriend? Because you know, I’m not always a human.”

And therein lay the root of the problem. He had already decided for himself that he was going to fight to be with Yuffie but even Nanaki understood that he wasn’t always human. There were times when his body was feline in shape and the longer he was in that form, the less he viewed Yuffie as a potential mate. It was hard to see her as a human to love as an Iyatokan.

What if one day he transformed and remained that way? It would hurt. He was certain. Like something tangible, a squeezing of his heart. He didn’t want to have to let her go, but a part of him feared that he would have to.

Fingers tickled at his collar, dragging him from his long, inner diatribe. Nanaki blinked, looking down to find Yuffie gently lifting his necklace away from his chest. She thumbed the elegant pendant thoughtfully, the metal warmed from laying flat against his bare flesh.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked quietly, her query self-explanatory.

The demi-human shrugged lightly, fully aware of the fact that she was still pressed to him. In the dim of the alley between the buildings, her eyes looked like liquid onyx and he was reminded of how beautiful she truly was. And stubborn, strong, and troublesome as well. But he liked all of those traits, not just the one.

“I don’t know,” he replied truthfully.

She hummed in her throat. “Scared,” she teased, looking up at him with another one of her usual winks. She let the necklace slip from her fingers, to thunk gently against his chest.

“Maybe a little,” Nanaki conceded, his fingers dancing against the flat of her back. “I’ve only ever known humans. What if I can’t connect?”

“It’s what you’ve been wanting,” Yuffie encouraged, a strange tone to her voice that he didn’t fail to catch. “You’ll never know unless you try.”

He lifted an accusing brow. “The same could be said for you.”

The confused look she gave him in return was cute. But he wasn’t fooled. Nanaki was aware that Yuffie knew exactly what he was talking about and purposely chose to pretend innocence. She was smarter than people gave her credit. And ten times more devious and mischievous, but they already knew that much.

“You haven’t been to Wutai since the argument,” he pointed out gently. “I know that Godo is worried about you.”

She frowned, expression darkening slightly. “Like I care,” she retorted, but couldn’t hide the emotion in her voice.

They had been friends for a long time, bond even stronger thanks to the battles they survived together. Not to mention Nanaki was remarkably perceptive at picking up her little emotional quirks. Yuffie missed her father and her home, but would never admit it. Because that would be like admitting a weakness. She was determined to show her father that her mind could not be swayed.

He shook his head, sensing he was treading on dangerous ground. “You should make amends with him,” the demi-human continued. “He is your family.”

Yuffie, predictably, scowled out right and drew back from his hold. “No,” she declared stubbornly as he regretted the loss of her warmth. “Not until he apologizes to me first.”

“How is he going to do that if you don’t talk to him?”

The ninja waved a hand in the air. “He’ll figure out a way,” she said loftily, a slight twitch to her hips as she walked past him, peering out into the bustling street which was rapidly growing more crowded. “He insulted you and tried to cage me. I don’t think I’m ready to forgive him.”

Nanaki sighed but didn’t push the matter any further. He had made the suggestion; it was up to Yuffie to do something with it.

“Besides,” she added, tossing him a look over her shoulder. “You’ve had that stone for two months and still haven’t gone to find your clan.”

She had a point.

The demi-human shifted position, his tail lazily swinging behind him. “It’s complicated,” he said lamely, knowing it was a thin argument at best.

Yuffie waved a hand of dismissal. “Not anymore. The rebuilding’s well on its way. There’s not much more you can do and admit it, you’re as bored as I am.”

It wasn’t so much that she was pushing him away, but she knew that he would never be happy if he ignored the chance to find his clan. It was the mark of her feelings for him that she considered his happiness first.

He thought about it for a moment, crossing his arms and staring down at the ground as if it would hold the answers. He wasn’t surprised that Yuffie was bored. He hadn’t been able to spend as much time hanging out with her as he used to. And she wasn’t the type to sit around all day in boring meetings either. She wanted adventure, the urge to materia hunt still running strong. And a part of Nanaki wanted that, too.

“All right,” Nanaki said finally, lifting his eyes to meet hers. “We’ll go.”

A strange emotion flitted through her gaze, passing too quick for him to tell before she grinned, bright and sunny, one hand idly twirling a shuriken. “Finally!” she declared with a hint of exasperation. “Adventure, here we come!”

The demi-human chuckled, allowing a slight bit of excitement to creep inside of him as well. Her enthusiasm was, as always, infectious. “It can’t have been that boring,” he teased lightly. “You had fun teaching the children, didn’t you?”

“Yeah but…” she trailed off, seemingly searching for the right words. “It’s not the same,” she finally finished, a few seconds later.

He understood completely. Nothing could quite compare to saving the planet, not once, but twice. Or fighting against demi-gods and with them. Criss-crossing the world in an airship. Taking down ShinRa’s greatest general… who was now on their side. No, he didn’t suppose teaching children self-defense was anything like the excitement they were used to. It almost made him miss the danger and the fighting.

Almost.

“You’re right,” he agreed, much to her surprise, as he stepped up beside her. “It’s not the same.” A faint smile decorated his lips.

She grinned, and ever so coyly, slipped her hands into his, tangling their fingers together.

*****

They headed back to small quarters they had taken to sharing since the Chaos War ended. It was sort of an unspoken agreement that they would, Nanaki recalled with some blush, though they did have separate rooms. It wasn’t much, just a kitchen, a main room, a bathroom, and a couple of bed rooms, but it was space plenty for just the two of them. He tried not to think of how domestic it was, for them to be living together like that. But he liked it, the experience actually rather… nice. Even if Yuffie never picked up the dirty towels and she constantly fussed that he couldn’t do dishes to save his life.

The two packed in swift silence, a sense of excitement beginning to dwell in Nanaki despite his original reservations about the whole affair. Even his fatigue had faded in the light of anticipation. The familiar weight of his claw was welcome on his hand, as well as the subtle treble of power racing through his veins from the materia which had recently regained their powerful glow.

He tossed some provisions, potions, and ethers into his well-worn, well-used travel back, and hunted down the small charm that Suzaku had given him before she left, removing herself as a constant presence in his life.

The demi-human’s thumb rubbed over the elaborate and smooth surface of the small symbol, able to feel a slight pulse of power from the materia colored substance. It was the key, Suzaku had said, the key to getting past the barrier erected by his clan all those years ago when they had hidden themselves. For such a small, simple thing, it bore the weight of a good many of his expectations. Strange how it was always the smaller items that carried the most importance.

There was a sound in his doorway and Nanaki looked up to find Yuffie waiting there for him, an unreadable expression on her face despite the smile curling at her lips. “Ready?”

He nodded and quickly slid the piece into the empty slot on the necklace, unsurprised at the tingle of power that raced briefly across his skin. Then, throwing his pack over his shoulder, he headed towards the door, ready to be on their way.

He had even bothered to leave a message for the council. He was pretty certain that they could handle things in his absence. They didn’t need him there to pretend to listen as if he was really interested in their petty politics.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and the tunnels will be packed with monsters,” Yuffie mused aloud as they headed towards the massive iron doors that barred the Gi Nattak cave.

Nanaki chuckled, shifting his pack more firmly across his shoulders. “Only you,” he responded with a shake of his head, “would consider that luck.”

“That’s because other people have no concept of fun,” she shot back teasingly, sticking her tongue out at him. She didn’t care if people that it was purely juvenile behavior.

He didn’t dignify her with a response and at last, they found themselves standing before the set of doors at least three times their height. Nanaki moved to turn the massive gears and the iron rumbled open with an audible creak, stale air wafting out to greet their senses in the process. Yuffie wrinkled her nose at the musty, damp odor.

“At least one thing hasn’t changed,” she commented with a sigh, checking to make sure she had grabbed all of her spare throwing knives and stars. And most importantly, she double-checked that her good luck charm – the Earth necklace Nanaki had given her – was still dangling from her neck.

“What? Backing out on me already?” he teased as he waved over one of the local townsmen who he had asked to watch over the door for him.

She scoffed as she stepped towards the door, peering into the barely penetrable gloom. Whatever magically enhanced Bugenhagen had crafted to light the way had stopped functioning, darkening the tunnels beyond her sight. They would have to carry torches with them, not that she hadn’t anticipated the need.

“A little smell never hurt anyone,” Yuffie countered, digging around in her pack to produce two flashlights that she’d had the foresight to grab earlier. “I’m always prepared after all,” she added as she handed one over to the demi-human, Nanaki stepping up beside her.

He accepted it gratefully, even his enhanced senses couldn’t see through pure darkness. “I’ve got someone closing the door behind us so we’re going to have to find our own way out.”

She shrugged. “No problem. Didn’t those maps have another exit?” Yuffie tested her flashlight, flicking it on and off before satisfied with its performance.

“Probably,” he conceded. “If not, we can always get out from Father’s grave. We’ll have to climb down the side of the mountain but at least we won’t be trapped.” He restlessly checked his claw one more time before gesturing towards the door. “After you.”

“Why do I get the feeling of deja vu here?” the ninja asked rhetorically as she plunged into the darkness, shivering slightly when a wash of cold air attacked her body.

Her flashlight was a thin stream of light battling against the impenetrable black, and the distinct drip-drop of water floated to her ears. Nanaki entered after her and once they were completely within, the door scraped shut behind them with a loud thud. There was officially no turning back now.

Nanaki clicked on his flashlight, the pale white beam flashing over the dirt-encrusted ground. The only other illumination came from his tail, bright orange flickering their shadows on the rocky walls surrounding them. His ears strained to catch any signs of monsters and/or creatures out to eat them, but only detected the eerie hum of silence and water. Much like last time.

They made their way through the darkness with the familiar quiet that those who had fought side by side had perfected, their flashlights executing broad sweeps over the paths in front of them. Nanaki directed them purely by rote, having memorized the map to lower the amount of packing they would need.

The switch they had triggered all those months ago was still activated, the descending stone steps barely visible. Nanaki went down first this time, his feet momentarily slipping on something slimy that covered the rocks. He crouched, swiping a hand over the slick liquid, and bringing it up to his nose.

Only to promptly sneeze and grimace. The stuff was positively foul.

“What is it?” Yuffie asked, crouching down beside him. Her flashlight pointed directly at the goop on his fingers, illuminating a sticky substance that was faintly green in color.

Nanaki made a face and shook his fingers, allowing the disgusting material to slough onto the floor. “I don’t know,” he responded, lifting his gaze to try and peer into the darkness. “Probably from a monster that we haven’t seen before. Just our luck.”

He rose to his feet, shaking off the lingering remnants of what was probably saliva. “We’ll just have to keep an eye out.”

The ninja glanced around them warily, inwardly cursing her all-too-human eyes. “Easy for you to say,” she muttered, hating the prickle that raced up her spine. Was she being too paranoid to think that they were suddenly being watched?

Nanaki lifted a brow in her direction as he continued down the steps. “Is the Great Ninja Yuffie scared of a little spit?” he asked teasingly, half-turning to look back at her.

A shuriken flying towards his face was the response he hadn’t expected to receive. If it weren’t for his quick reflexes, he might have been sliced across the face. As it were, he jerked backwards, avoiding the sharp edges, and heard a sharp plunk! As the weapon careened into the pudgy, slime body of a monster he had never seen before.

A putrid scent immediately wafted to his nose.

Nanaki whirled in the direction of the monster, twisting his body to avoid the wriggling arms that made his stomach roil in disgust. Yuffie bounded to his side, already throwing a Fire 2 in a sharp spray from her hands. It collided with the gel-like skin of the beast, causing it to sizzle and pop. The monster burbled and groaned, whipping out its extensions in retaliation.

“What the hell is that thing?” Nanaki gritted out as he leapt to the side, narrowly avoiding one as his claw sliced through another.

The ninja shook her head, mentally cataloging her materia for something else to throw at the creature. “How should I know?” she shouted back, only to cry out when an arm caught her across her abdomen, searing pain ripping through her body.

Yuffie careened backwards, slapping uncomfortably against the wall of the tunnel. Her flashlight fell from her hands, rolling to an abrupt stop and pointing uselessly up the stairs they had just descended. An uncomfortable feeling of deja vu attacked Nanaki, though he couldn’t understand why, as if he had seen this scene before.

Narrowing his eyes, he reached up with his unweaponed hand and yanked a bead out of his hair, tossing it angrily at the creature. He chanced a glance Yuffie’s direction, relieved to find that she was rising shakily to her feet, very much alive. He returned his attentions to his opponent, currently writhing under the effects of a Bolt Plume. Electricity was racing across its bulbous skin and it keened loudly, the shrill gurgle reverberating painfully in his sensitive ears.

Would the beast not die?

Gritting his teeth, Nanaki darted towards the creature, determined to decapitate it, if he could manage to find the head. Unexpectedly, another shuriken went flying by his head, slicing into the monster and sending a spray of blood into the air. He barely avoided getting showered by green gunk.

“You’re not getting all the fun,” Yuffie called out, despite the fact that she was stumbling slightly. Her back ached, but a quick Cure had healed most of the damage. The pain, however, would continue to linger.

A bright yellow flash momentarily brightened the narrow tunnel, Nanaki attempting Sense. But like most of Hojo’s escaped creations, he could discern nothing about their foe. They had no choice but to pummel it until it stopped moving.

More tentacles whipped through the air, snaking appendages of slimy flesh. Nanaki agilely darted through him, drawing closer to the monster as Yuffie flipped and twisted, determined to stay far from the wall. In tandem, the best friends attacked, Nanaki’s claw gouging deep gashes in the beasts slippery hide as Yuffie drew on her materia, more flames licking across the oozing jelly.

With an ear-splitting wail, the monster abruptly deflated, splashing slimy innards in all directions and nearly soaking the two companions. Yuffie’s quick actions threw up a Protect, protecting them from the explosion of gunk as it splattered the walls.

The thing gave one last, disgusting burp before completely flattening, leaving nothing behind but an oil-like pool of viscera on the ground. Eyes stared unblinking at them, floating in a goopy puddle. Yuffie couldn’t help but shudder in disgust, the Protect unable to keep away the foul odor that emanated from the monster.

Nanaki shook off remnants of the beast from his claw. “That explains the slime at least,” he said, reaching up to cover his nose. “I wonder if there are any more of those… beasts.”

“Jello,” Yuffie announced, stepping gingerly around the monster remains to recover her dropped flashlight. She made a face when she slipped on a particularly disgusting pile, her agility the only thing saving her from a dousing in guts. “Gross.”

The demi-human followed her lead, skirting around the corpse and continuing down the tunnel. He dreaded to see what other of Hojo’s concoctions had found their way into the passages. Even long after the man had died and the reactors shut down, the strange abominations continued to emerge from hidden corners of the world. Laboratories they hadn’t heard of and hadn’t known to destroy were the ones most responsible. Reeve was doing his best to destroy them, but Hojo’d had many. It wasn’t easy.

They reached the first juncture without further incident, Yuffie navigating towards the left tunnel without having to be told. Her flashlight waved continuously across the ground, her senses on alert for the first sign of the enemy.

“How’s your back?” Nanaki asked, drawing up beside her. His low voice echoed in the smooth-walled passage in an almost creepy fashion.

The ninja shrugged. “I’ve had worse,” she responded. Inwardly, she was cursing herself for letting that overgrown blob get the best of her. Perhaps she was just a bit too distracted.

Worry over what would happen when they found Nanaki’s clan was at the forefront of her mind. Would he want to stay? Would he leave her behind? Would he see that she was just a kleptomaniac ninja and decide he wanted better? She wanted to believe that she knew him better than that, but her fears were stronger. He was all she had left, excluding their friends. Nanaki was her strength. She couldn’t lose him.

Beside her, Nanaki’s steps unconsciously quickened. She could read the eagerness in his face, the excitement. Yuffie understood his yearning to find his clan. She only wished she could feel half as happy for him as she knew she ought to. She wished that it didn’t feel as if she were about to lose him.

They appeared at the next juncture a lot quicker than the first, this time following to the right. Under their footsteps, Yuffie could just make out the fading, yet still present signs of their prior passing… and the former marks of Nanaki’s clan that they had followed the first time. Her heart felt heavy in her chest. It really wasn’t right for her to feel this selfish.

It wasn’t long before the faint brightness of day, what appeared to be an exit to the outside, came into view. They knew that right before this was the barrier. Nanaki paused as they approached, sucking in a breath of anticipation. He exchanged glances with Yuffie, failing to catch the apprehension in her slightly shaky smile, and reached out with one hand, walking forward.

He felt nothing as he passed, stepping from one side of an invisible line to the other. For a moment, he almost believed that perhaps the obstruction had already fallen… then he felt the necklace warm and buzz against his collar. Suzaku’s gift had worked. But, it wasn’t until he noticed that he didn’t hear the sounds of footsteps behind him that he stopped and turned.

Yuffie still stood there, an inexplicable expression on her face. She seemed to be deep in thought, her lips pulled into a faint frown.

The demi-human furrowed his brow. “Yuffie?” he asked. She had been acting so strangely lately.

She shook her head. “Nothing, ‘Aki,” she said, assuring him. With that, she took the last step forward, only to run directly into the barrier.

The ninja paused and lifted a hand, skirting it across the invisible instruction. It always amazed her how it felt, like glass except with a subtle edge of magic that seemed to tingle through her fingers. Instead of negating the barrier like they suspected, it appeared the necklace only allowed those wearing it to pass through.

“Looks like I can’t come.” Her hand dropped from the barrier.

Nanaki paused in consideration. “Let me try something,” he suggested, taking a step towards her. He reached out and his hand passed directly through, as he suspected.

“Take my hand. Maybe that will work.”

He noticed, this time, her briefest moment of hesitation before her fingers entangled with his. He ignored the pleasant warmth that trickled through him at her touch. This wasn’t the time to be thinking such thoughts. With a gentle tug of encouragement, Yuffie stepped forward and through the shield without another problem, the amulet humming warmly against Nanaki’s chest.

“Told you.” The demi-human smiled and didn’t relinquish his hold. He liked holding her hand. It made him feel as if they were connected.

There was a click as Yuffie turned off her flashlight and jabbed into a side pocket of her pouch. The scent of fresh air wafted her direction from the open end of the tunnel, letting in a dim light.

“Ready to go?” the ninja asked, giving him one of her best, rallying grins.

Nanaki nodded and turned towards the mouth of the passage. He thought he detected the sounds of birds chirping and he most definitely smelled fresh air as well as the heady scent of greenery. Anticipation curled in his veins. This was it, the final moment. He would be meeting his clan soon, the Iyatokan. The truth would come to pass and his eternal feeling of being the last on Gaia would vanish. There was absolutely nothing to hold him back.

He didn’t know of the churning worries racing through Yuffie’s head. He didn’t realize that her hand in his had suddenly tightened as if fearing he would slip away. He couldn’t see the fear in her eyes, or the sudden apprehension.

Nanaki missed all of these signs.

Instead, he squeezed Yuffie’s hand and stepped forward into the light, stepping towards what he hoped to be his clan.

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