[Shattered] Traditions 03

When Winter Sleeps

“Reeve called the old man for me so he should be in Cosmo Canyon in a few hours,” Yuffie explained hastily as she tightened the straps, securing her pack to a mountain chocobo she had never realized the Iyatoka owned. How they managed to care for chocobos was beyond her understanding, or curiosity, at this moment.

At her side, Nanaki watched, worry darkening his expression. “Did he say anything else?” he asked, well aware of the other eyes that were behind them, also observing Yuffie’s preparations to leave.

The ninja shook her head. “No just…” she trailed off and firmly shook her head again. “I need to go home, that’s all there is to it.”

Her hands were shaking, she noticed belatedly, and there was a tremor in her voice but she had already told herself she wouldn’t cry. At least, not yet. Her father was gone and she needed to be strong until she could get back home and find out more details, until she could do something other than try and figure out what the hell could have possibly happened.

Her fingers jerked a bit too harshly on the strap and her chocobo squawked irritably, tossing his black, feathered head. “Sorry,” she murmured, patting him soothingly on the neck.

“Yuffie,” Nanaki began but stopped just as quickly. He didn’t know what to say. He wanted to draw her in his arms but she was deliberately standing apart from him. He couldn’t see it, but he felt as if there were this gulf between them, one that he couldn’t seem to reach across.

Nanaki cleared his throat. “Be careful.” He wanted to say that he was going to go with her, or ask her if he should but… the words couldn’t come. He felt, somehow, that it wasn’t his right to even suggest such a thing. That she didn’t need him at all. His Yuffie was too strong to need him.

She had always been so strong.

The ninja was a bit confused at the pause in his words but nodded anyways, climbing up into the chocobo’s saddle. She looked down at the demi-human, at golden eyes that had all too easily captured her heart, and felt something inside of her give a sharp tug. A painful snap that wouldn’t easily mend.

“Thanks,” she said, managing a smile. “I will.”

And with that, Yuffie snapped the reins, causing the chocobo to jerk into a quick trot, taking the small and barely noticeable trail out of the Iyatokan land. She felt the eyes follow her as she left, the few Iyatokans that were watching and Nanaki’s as well. But not once did Yuffie look back. She didn’t dare for fear that the tears would fall and she needed to be calm right now before she lost all control.

The words had been there, on the tip of her tongue, to ask Nanaki to come with her. But pride and fear had stayed her wish and so she left alone. He deserved to be there with her family just as much as she deserved to rush home to hers. Perhaps that difference was all too much and she had been too love-blind to see it. Perhaps, perhaps. That was her life at the moment, a string of maybes she couldn’t see past.

She feared that if she had asked, he would have said no, though logically she knew he wasn’t like that. She feared he would believe she wasn’t strong enough if he had agreed to come. She feared that the gulf was just too wide and neither of them had wings. Yuffie had never considered herself a person without courage, but there were many kinds and it appeared this type she lacked.

Maybe she was just too young after all.

Yuffie sighed once she was out of sight of the Iyatokans and slowed her chocobo down to a more manageable speed, one of her hands moving from the reins to the necklace at her collar. It was the one that had belonged to Tolkan. The elders of the tribe had given it to her so that she could pass beyond the barrier without any trouble or accompaniment.

It was the type of item that should have been a gift between lovers, to keep each other in their hearts for long distances. Something to help bring them together, not aid in pushing them apart. Yuffie had the distinct feeling that the elders had been all too glad to be rid of her, thanking some deity that something bad had happened to drive her away. No one had shed a tear for her departure.

Not even the one she had wanted to the most.

That strange barrier between them was too high to cross it seemed.

To make matters worse, the call from Reeve had shaken her completely. Her father, the last true flesh and blood to her, had died. He hadn’t been clear on the details. All he could say was that she was needed at home. Less than a day had passed and the other nobles had already started fighting, including her betrothed Uryuu Douwe. Without her around, they would tear down what her father had worked so hard to continue.

She wasn’t going to let that happen. She owed him that much. Yuffie was lingering on the edges of self-hatred right now, pissed that she hadn’t listened to Nanaki. There had been nothing but bad air between her and her father and now, she wouldn’t have the chance to clear it. Godo probably hated her and thought she felt the same. It hurt, that thought, like something physical stabbing her through the gut.

The sense of loneliness was nearly overwhelming, turning her sorrow into something numb. She kept running everything in her head, over and over and Yuffie feared it would eventually consume her. Without Nanaki, without her father, she didn’t think she had anyone to catch her all. It made her thoughts a scattered, jumbled mess of fear and sorrow that kept winding in a tighter and tighter coil around her heart.

It felt as if a vise had gripped her lungs.

Yuffie held on tighter to the reins and urged a little speed into her chocobo. She had to get home quickly, to take the control she had never really wanted. She owed her father that much at least. Her thoughts of free and easy materia hunting for the next ten years had crashed last night when she received the call. She couldn’t afford to remain the child she had been and ignore her responsibilities any longer.

Nor could she allow herself to take the time to sort through her feelings regarding Nanaki. She wanted to figure it out, to analyze and understand everything. But the chance had passed. She needed to handle Wutai now. Hovering around, waiting for something to occur between them was a vacation she could no longer afford.

It hurt. But Yuffie was strong.

It wasn’t long before the first of Cosmo Canyon came into sight. She heard Cid’s helicopter before she saw it, the whirring of the blades and the rumbling of the engine. Rumor had it that the old man had found something in Mideel that would help him create an entirely new airship but until it was up and running, he was using the helicopter he had ‘acquired’ from Fort Condor. No one thought to argue with the Captain. It wasn’t right to keep a bird grounded after all.

“Tell that little brat I said no!”

Cid’s angry voice floated her direction as she topped the nearest rise, finally laying eyes on the black chopper and its itinerant pilot. Cid was cursing into his phone, waving one hand about wildly as one glanced surreptitiously around. She noticed the reason for his caution when she spotted a cigarette dangling from his fingers. Despite herself, a small smile flitted to her lips. Old habits died hard.

“I don’t care what half-assed ideas he thinks he has,” the pilot was continuing, all a bluster as he sucked deeply on his cigarette and continued pacing. “I’m the Captain and I know what I’m doin’. If I come back and find one little unnecessary screw, I’m kickin’ ass. Ya hear?”

Yuffie pulled her chocobo to a halt and slipped from the saddle, patting the bird on the neck and quietly whispering for it to wait for her. She snuck up behind the hollering blond and stood there patiently, waiting for a chance to make her appearance.

She watched as Cid let out another sound of aggravation and promptly threw his cigarette to the ground, crushing it under his boot. “Dammit! That cheap-ass bastard. You wait, I’ll give Mr. President a piece of my mind.” Without another word, he pressed the button on his phone and ended the call, angrily shoving it into his pocket.

“I don’t think you have a piece left to give, old man,” Yuffie called out, propping one hand on her hip.

Cid jumped about two feet in the air before whirling around. “When’d you get here, brat?” he demanded, a wild look in his eyes… and a bit of a guilty one.

She afforded him a smile, though it lacked her usual exuberance. “Somewhere around the supposed ass kicking,” she responded with a wave of her hand, pretending to wave away cigarette smoke. “Is that tobacco I smell?” the ninja asked, peering around in fake wonder.

He scowled. “You ain’t my mother,” he responded with a snort. “Sides, it ain’t easy to just up and quit. Vin knows that.”

Disbelief took over the ninja’s expression. “Oh really?” Yuffie countered, a part of her easing with the return to banter between her and Cid. Despite appearances, she knew that the old man cared for her and she treated him like the annoying uncle he was. “Then what was with the attempt at being hidden?”

“Che. Vin knows it but that don’t mean I wanna hear it,” Cid replied with a sharp exhale. He paused and then peered at her. “Eh… are you okay?” he asked, the tone instantly changing from playful to serious.

She knew there was a reason she loved Cid. It was sweet that he was concerned for her, even if he didn’t really know how to be all sensitive about it. That was about as tactful as a rock to the head and then some.

Her smile remained, though her true emotion was clear in her eyes. “I don’t really know yet. Ask me again in a few hours.”

Blue eyes looked around, spotted her chocobo, and then frowned. “Where’s Nanaki? He didn’t come?”

Yep, that tact was absolutely absent. Her fake smile faltered. “He… was busy,” she responded, her eyes skirting away as she absently fiddled with one of her shuriken. Her body language plainly asked for him not to say anything more.

Somehow, Cid managed to understand. Either that, or Vincent’s timely appearance saved him from making the mistake of asking more questions.

“You arrived quicker than we expected,” the former Turk said as he stepped around the helicopter, a few packages in his arms.

Yuffie’s mouth nearly dropped at the change in his attire. He no longer looked the part of a mourning amnesiac, but a man who had finally accepted everything. He wore dark slacks, loosely fitted over a pair of black boots that were far better than the atrocious golden things she had always thought were amusing. A long-sleeved button up in a deep scarlet completed the ensemble and he had his hair pulled back, a few loose wisps breaking free from the tie. ‘It was disappointing that he was gay’, she thought to herself, because he looked good enough to eat.

“Believe it or not, the Iyatokan breed chocobos,” the ninja finally answered once she had rolled her tongue back into her mouth. “You’re looking better.”

Come to think of it, the old man was looking better, too. The gaunt and strained expression was gone and he had finally gained back some of his old weight, looking the healthiest he ever had.

Vincent handed his burden over to his lover, dropping the heavier box into Cid’s arms as the pilot cursed under his breath at him, turning to place it into the helicopter. “Thank you,” the ex-Turk responded politely. His grey eyes glanced once over her. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

That twisting, churning feeling returned and it was all Yuffie could do to nod.

“We should get goin’,” Cid inserted, strolling up to the two of them with a roll of his shoulders. “I don’t wanna be in the air at dark. A storm’s rollin’ in.”

“Okay.” Yuffie turned and immediately headed for her chocobo, removing the bags she had secured to the saddle.

Vincent appeared at her side, silent as always, quietly helping to lift them. Not that she had brought many. As the ex-Turk hefted her belongings, Yuffie loosened the saddle on the chocobo.

“Return home,” she told it, running her fingers over the feathers on its head.

It warked loudly and headbutted her before trotting off. Apparently, whatever magic the Iyatokan used to ward off intruders had somehow been altered to ignore chocobos. There had been an explanation but she hadn’t stayed awake long enough to listen to it. And the lion wolves had trained their birds well. Her chocobo would return to its stable without second thought.

Behind her, Vincent was climbing into the helicopter, placing her stuff in the cargo space next to the back chairs. Yuffie dared glance once more in the direction of the Iyatokan’s home before turning her back and moving towards the chopper. Cid was looking at something under a panel in the main body before letting it shut with a clang.

“Ready?” he grunted ever so attractively.

Despite all desires to look again, Yuffie refrained. It was pathetic of her, holding on to that last wish that Nanaki show up in the final moment to be at her side. She wasn’t the type to hope unnecessarily and it was simply better if she didn’t.

A hand settled on her hair, ruffling it without preamble. Yuffie looked up to find Cid giving her a strange expression, a mix of compassion and sorrow. It passed in an instant though and the pilot’s grin was back. He gave her a little push in the direction of the copter.

“Get in, brat,” he said affectionately.

She mock-scowled, swapping at the hand in her hair. “Old man,” she countered, but did so anyways, crawling in after Vincent.

Cid slammed the door behind her and took his place at the helm. It wasn’t long before Yuffie felt the copter rise into the air with a jerk, making her stomach drop down into her toes. She swallowed thickly, feeling a little green around the gills.

“Urk,” Yuffie groaned, leaning over and putting her face between her knees. “I should’ve walked it.”

“Don’t ya dare yak in my chopper!” Cid yelled over the whirring blades. He jerked the throttle, forcing the copter into a sharp turn that steered them towards Wutai.

The ninja glowered. “Stolen chopper!” she reminded him before promptly shutting her mouth, trying to stop the spinning in her head. She really hated flying. “Ugh!”

The nausea and the dizziness, however, was a good distraction for the turmoil of emotions. She didn’t think once about her father or Nanaki or the stress she would soon be under. Trying not to vomit became her focus. Yuffie didn’t even bother to listen in on the two lovers when they began their own quiet conversation. Not that she wanted to hear them exchange sweet nothings anyways.

Therefore, she was very glad when they finally arrived in Wutai, the chopper setting down on the ground with a slightly rocky lurch. Yuffie tumbled out of the side door, her feet somewhat wobbly.

“I hate flying,” she grumbled as the two men climbed out after her, Cid keeping the rotors running so that they could leave again.

Cid snorted. “Ya got a free ride. Don’t complain, brat.”

She ignored him, standing up straight and taking her first good look at Wutai in many months. The rebuilding was going incredibly well in her absence. Not that she expected any different. It made a small pang strike her heart.

Behind her, the two lovers exchanged glances before Cid ventured to speak again, scratching his chin in uneasiness. “You know…” he began slowly, capturing the ninja’s attention. “Me and Vin could stay for a bit. We’ve been needin’ another vacation.”

It made her feel better that they would even suggest it. But Vincent and Cid, as much as they were her family, weren’t who she needed by her side. It was enough that they brought her home. That meant a lot.

“No, that’s okay,” she assured them with a weak smile. “I’ll be fine. Go build your masterpiece.”

The pilot looked skeptical but Vincent seemed to sense something and nodded in understanding. “Don’t hesitate to call,” he commented as he handed over her other pack. “You know we’re there for you.”

“Yeah, I know.” She hefted her pack over her shoulder and gave a parting wave. “Thanks guys. I’ll give you a call later to let you know what’s happening.”

She didn’t give them a chance to say anything else, taking off towards the temple and the main compound where her father’s house and the central buildings were located. It was time she learned exactly what had happened. The time for delay was past.

*****

A heart attack.

Of all things to end her father’s life, she never expected it to be something as mundane as a heart attack. He was supposed to be stronger than that. She had always seen her father as some sort of undefeatable man. Before their argument, he had been her hero, not that she had ever told him.

Yuffie was sick of hearing condolences. A few days after his funeral, she closed herself off from the grievances and the stranger’s expressing their apologies. Most of them didn’t really mean it. Plenty were glad her father was gone. She was tired of the proprieties. She didn’t care to hear them any more.

They were already pushing for her to marry, trying to convince her that a woman running Wutai alone was unacceptable. Uryuu had already claimed he would graciously accept her hand, even if she was grossly untrained. Yuffie had punched him in the face and was glad to do so. But that didn’t stop the pestering.

After only a few days in her father’s shoes she was even more convinced that she didn’t think she fit in them. They were several sizes too big.

The ninja sighed and laid her head down on the former Lord’s desk on top of a stack of paper’s she had yet to go through. It had become her duty to clean out his working office, pulling out documents that needed to be signed and getting it prepared for her own use. She wouldn’t let anyone else touch her father’s stuff.

She didn’t understand a damn thing she read though. It was annoying.

She blindly groped for a paper and brought it within eye sight, head still flat on the desk. Something about taxes. She tossed it to the floor and grabbed another. A complaint about the temple upkeep. It joined her carefully ordered stack on the floor with a flutter. Yuffie was getting sick of it all.

Requisition forms. Complaints. Suggestions for laws.

Boring. Boring. Boring.

Her fingers encountered another paper and she sighed, fully prepared to throw it to the ground and join the rest of the ‘important’ documents – some more than five years old – that she hadn’t even looked at until she happened to catch a glimpse of something. Her own name. Curious, Yuffie sat up and brought the item closer for inspection.

It was a letter in her father’s own handwriting. Unfinished and dated not but a few days before he died. Her heart pounding in her chest, she smoothed out the paper and laid it flat on the desk in front of her to read it. Yuffie swallowed thickly, her eyes anxiously scanning the first line.

Yuffie,

I have been a fool, an utter fool, in allowing this argument between us to continue further. You are my dearest child, my only daughter and I have been such a foolish father for trying to push you into something you did not want. If only my eyes had seen my mistake sooner, this distance will have ended. Now, you will not even answer my call and I have only myself to blame.

I believed that I only wanted your happiness without even asking you what you wanted for yourself. I listened too heartily to the demands of the elders when I should have thought as your father and not the Lord part I also play. I have let my pride and my anger best me in the end.

Please believe that I never meant to say such hurtful things. Anger clouded my rationality and I spouted nonsense which hurt you and your friend. I regret my actions deeply and I wish that you would accept my apology. I can not bear this ire between us. I have already lost your mother and I do not wish to lose you as well.

I hope that–

The letter ended there, mid-sentence. He had obviously been disturbed in the middle of writing it. Yuffie felt a hot clenching in her chest and before she knew it, two drops dotted the parchment, smearing the ink. Her hands trembled on the paper, crinkling the edges where she gripped it when the first sob escaped her.

She should have called him. She should have picked up the damn phone.

More tears joined the few drops on the paper as Yuffie hunched over her desk. It was the first she had cried since hearing the news a week ago when Nanaki had held her. It was the first time she let her emotions out and now they poured.

She had been so stupid and immature, letting that argument come between them. And now she wasn’t going to get the chance to apologize or talk to him again. The tears fell even more, soaking the papers beneath her.

It was too late.

*****

He had watched her ride away, her chocobo vanishing all too quickly down the trail. It was then he had felt the tinge of regret tugging at him. A strange emotion he couldn’t exactly place. He had wondered why it felt as if he was losing her, losing something he couldn’t replace with every meter of distance that grew between them.

He had tried to remind himself that she hadn’t asked him to come, as if that would make those uneasy feelings fade in some way. But then the truth always came back to haunt him. That he hadn’t offered to go with her. Even a week after the fact, he still found himself questioning his decision. Or lack thereof.

Nanaki felt he had only accepted things as they happened, without a word in himself. Without making a single choice. His tongue was tied and silent and now he worried. Her father had died, making her an orphan. She was all alone. And where was he? Still with the Iyatokans. His greatest wish had been fulfilled in that regard but it made him wonder if he had to lose something in return.

“It is a beautiful sunset.”

The demi-human nearly leapt in surprise at the unexpected arrival at a visitor. Blinking in confusion, he looked over his shoulder to see a very aged Iyatokan approaching his position. He was currently perched on a high outcropping of rock, staring out at the land spread out beneath him and the sun setting on the far horizon. The sky was a picturesque mix of oranges, reds, and blues.

“That it is,” Nanaki agreed as he watched the elder leap up onto the rock next to him and sit back on his haunches, aged gaze trained out over the landscape.

A minute of silence passed between the two of them as the demi-human tried to ascertain his visitor before the old man spoke. “I remember long ago when Kairi first fell in love with a human.”

Nanaki’s mouth nearly dropped in surprise. “E-excuse me?” he commented.

Golden eyes much like his own turned towards him. “Pardon,” the Iyatokan said with a dip of his head. “I’m Liesl. My older sister was once the owner of the amulet that you now carry.” His eyes flickered to the necklace against Nanaki’s skin.

Unconsciously, a taloned finger touched the warmed metal. “Your sister?” he repeated, half in astonishment. He hadn’t really thought about it until that moment but it had belonged to someone before him. He remembered the strange dream he’d had. Memories of someone else’s love.

Liesl nodded. “I was even younger than you are now when Kairi first met Tolkan. I won’t say it was love at first sight but something more like fascination.” He turned his head back towards the fading sunset, a brief wind stirring and rustling his vastly silver-streaked fur. “Considering that our two races had been enemies, the love that sprouted was even a surprise to her.”

“I remember Akili telling me of the war,” Nanaki responded, furrowing his brow as he tried to recall the details. “Is it true that no one remembers how it started?”

The Iyatokan sighed. “Racial tensions had never been the best between the humans and those not. I’m sure it was a misunderstanding of some kind.”

“And Kairi and Tolkan… they had something to do with the end of it? And the resulting peace?” Nanaki asked, beginning to grow excited despite himself.

“Yes.” Liesl shifted slightly to get more comfortable on his perch. “I remember how my sister had been. Scared of her feelings. Scared of what her family would think of her. Scared she would lose everything but also determined because she didn’t want to deny her heart. She told me only because I was too young to hate her. I admired her, you see.”

Nanaki smiled a bit to himself, recalling his own fears and worries when his feelings for Yuffie had only started to emerge. He had questioned himself then. Because he knew at any moment he could return to a more human form. He still questioned himself now but he couldn’t deny that he felt something for her, something more than just a casual friendship.

“Their marriage commemorated the beginning of a peace between our two kinds,” Liesl continued fondly, his eyes sparkling with remembrance. “It was a beautiful ceremony. The Wutaiian’s crafted the amulet for Kairi and we, in turn, crafted the pendant for Tolkan. They exchanged names as a symbol of their union.”

“I see.” Nanaki looked down at the metal in his hand, the expert craftsmanship. It represented something incredibly important. “It sounds as if they really loved each other.”

Liesl inclined his head. “It wasn’t easy, I assure you, young one. But they were willing to take the challenge. I only wish that they had lived longer. When Tolkan returned alone, it came as no surprise that he died not long after.”

He wasn’t certain if the Iyatokan intended his visit to do so, but it really made Nanaki examine his own feelings. Did he care that much? Was he even worthy of inheriting the amulet that had signified so much?

“That young woman,” Liesl inserted after a moment, sounding thoughtful. “She is more than just a friend?”

Despite himself, the demi-human felt a light blush heat his cheeks. “I’m not really sure,” he admitted truthfully. “But I think so.”

Liesl chuckled lightly. “I understand completely. Kairi confessed much the same. But I wonder… why you did not go with her.”

Nanaki sighed. “She did not ask me,” he answered lowering his gaze.

“It doesn’t mean that she didn’t need you,” the Iyatokan responded with a quiet cough. “A woman’s heart is a strange thing, and especially a Wutaiian woman at that. They are full of pride but also… insecurity. Tell me, Nanaki, do you wish to remain with the Iyatokan?”

The demi-human’s brows rose. “I… haven’t thought about it. I was actually thinking that perhaps you’d like to return to Cosmo Canyon.”

Liesl shook his head. “That will not be happening. Scars run far too deep for most of those here to even think of trusting humans again. You saw how they treated your lady.”

To be more precise, Nanaki hadn’t been paying it any attention. Too absorbed in his lucky chance at meeting his clan, he never even noticed that they had been treating Yuffie any differently. He frowned and tried to recall some instances.

“I see now that you didn’t,” Liesl inserted. “In any case, we still shun those that are different, human or no. The Gi Nattak tribe nearly wiped us out and then that monster only made things worse.”

“Monster?” Nanaki repeated before sudden realization struck him. “You mean Hojo? You knew of him?”

The Iyatokan’s face twisted into a scowl filled with hatred. “Bugenhagen kept us informed. We grieved for the loss of your mother and your capture but could do nothing. We were proud to hear of your escape.”

Nanaki sighed. “I wish grandfather had told me more than he did.”

“Perhaps he thought you weren’t ready for the entire truth.”

“Maybe…” Nanaki trailed off, uncertain to even guess what his grandfather had been thinking. The elderly man had been ten times wiser than he and that loss still struck him deeply. Even recently finding his clan couldn’t replace that emptiness.

With a groan, Liesl rose to his feet beside him, stretching out aged muscles. “The sun is fading and it is time for these old bones to rest. I hope that my words helped to clear that turmoil.”

A wry grin pulled at Nanaki’s lips. “That obvious?”

“Only to one who can recognize the pain of confused love,” Liesl responded, tail twitching as he turned and hopped carefully down from the rock. “Do not dwell too long, Nanaki. Else you will lose all chances.”

The elder disappeared into the brush that carefully hid the location of the Iyatokan camp, leaving Nanaki sitting alone on his boulder. He sighed and turned his attention to the horizon but it was already darkening with the coming of night, stars peeking out one by one to dot the sky. Liesl had brought out many points… but the confusion hadn’t cleared any. In fact, it only had guilt added to it.

Biting his lip in frustration, Nanaki dug out his phone and flipped it open. He had full battery and a couple of bars. This was the best place to get reception. He could easily call Yuffie if he needed to. If he wanted to.

He wondered how she was doing after this week’s time. Had the funeral for her father already finished? Had she begun her work in his place? Was she well? A part of him knew that he should call her. But what if she were angry at him? What if she didn’t care if he called or not? Was it too presumptuous of him to believe she missed him?

He had felt it, a small brief tugging, the cracking of a gulf between them. When had that happened? When had he grown blind?

So many questions. He didn’t know how to answer them.

He thought that maybe he should call her.

He missed her, he truly did. Her laughter, and her smile, and her teasing. Nanaki missed sparring with her and fighting with her over certain choice foods. Arguing over whose turn it was to do laundry. Conversation late in the night when both of them were too keyed up to sleep. He remembered how warm she was sleeping next to him.

He missed all of that.

Nanaki pressed the button and held the phone to his ear, listening to the steady ringing on the other end. His heart began to pound in his chest. If she answered, what would he say? His mouth felt as if it had suddenly gone dry. Perhaps she was too busy to waste time talking to him. What if he was just going to be a bother?

The phone rang for a fourth time. He knew that at the sixth ring her voice mail would pick up. Was she ignoring his call?

He didn’t wait to find out. With a sharp intake of breath, Nanaki snapped his phone shut and laid it onto the granite beside him.

He was such a coward.

*****

And tomorrow they said they were going to have a bonfire! They’re going to introduce me to some of our music and even dancing!” Nanaki said with excitement in his voice.

Yuffie could practically feel it vibrating through his body from where she lay, her head propped on his chest. Despite his energy, however, she felt rather blah herself. She was glad that he was happy but… her own heart was wounded. She had been there for almost an entire week but the Iyatokans had yet to warm to her. She didn’t think they were ever going to. She had learned the hard way that it was better if she just remained in the room.

She was happy where she was currently however, this close to him, able to hear his heartbeat. For all that they had grown closer, they had also grown apart. It was so strange and she couldn’t put it into words. Nanaki was this near but she also felt as if he were unreachable. That if she held out her hand, it would only grasp empty air.

You’re invited, of course,” Nanaki was saying, waving one hand in the air in his excitement.

Yuffie hummed noncommittally. “Am I?” she questioned, only half-listening to what he was saying.

He nodded, sounding the most relaxed she had heard in some time. “Yes, I asked. I think you would have fun.”

She didn’t respond.

He didn’t seem to notice but continued in his description, going on to explain the herbs they would put in the fire and other little details she didn’t listen to. He was that close and yet, she had never felt so alone.

“What are you doing up here?”

Illeana’s voice pulled Yuffie from her reminiscence. She blinked and turned to find her childhood friend climbing up onto the roof beside her. “Hiding,” Yuffie answered, returning her attention to the wonderful view. From the roof of the temple, she could see the entire of Wutai. Not to mention the adults never looked for her on the roof. It was the perfect place to conceal herself.

Illeana giggled and plopped down next to Yuffie with a heavy groan. “From the elders?”

The Wutaiian heir nodded as her friend continued, “I hear they’re trying to get you to marry.”

Yuffie’s face scrunched into distaste. “Not going to happen,” she mumbled.

“I didn’t think so.” Illeana leaned back on her hands and looked up at the clear sky with few clouds in sight. “Still, it’s nice to see you again, Yuffie. I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about me.”

Illeana had a point. From the war to materia hunting to spending time with Nanaki and the argument with her father, Yuffie hadn’t made any contact with her friend. It only served to make her feel worse.

“Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “I’ve been busy.”

“I know. Lord Godo told me.”

Yuffie blinked in surprise. “What?”

Her friend shifted position, crossing her legs out in front of her. “I came to your house sometimes, borrowing stuff,” Illeana explained with a knowing wink and conspiratorial grin. “I think he was lonely. He talked to me.”

“He talked to you?” Yuffie repeated in astonishment, her lips pulling into a hurtful pout. “He never talked to me…”

“That’s cause you weren’t listening.” Illeana paused, tilting her head to the side. “He was always talking about how you were so much like your mother. Lord Godo sounded so proud. I was jealous.”

“Pfft. Of the old man?” Her tone was light, but inside, her chest was coiling tightly again. That familiar feeling of tears knocked at the back of her lids.

Her friend knocked her with her shoulder. “No, of you. My dad’s hoping I’ll bag some rich guy since I’m useless elsewise.” She laughed lightly to herself, unbothered by the fact. “That’s okay, thought. Mitsuro’s the perfect first born son. I don’t mind.”

Yuffie was quiet as she thought about her father. “I never got to apologize,” she whispered, feeling the first few tears trickle down her cheeks. Her fingers tightened on her knees. “He died thinking that I hated him.”

“I doubt he really thought that,” Illeana responded. “Lord Godo knew you were angry with him but I know he knew that you loved him.”

The Wutaiian heir sniffled, drawing her knees to her chest and hugging them tightly, feeling every bit the little girl she had been when her mother died. “I’m alone now.” She was an orphan and though she had her friends, they weren’t the same. And now, it even seemed as if she was losing Nanaki.

“Don’t forget about me,” Illeana inserted in as cheerful a voice as she could muster, wishing she knew the right words to cheer up her dearest friend. “I’ll always be here.”

Yuffie managed a watery smile, swiping the back of her hand across her eyes. “Yeah, I know.” She paused and looked out over Wutai, her eyes able to make out the many forms of her people walking around. Surrounded by so many and yet, she still felt so alone.

“Stupid Nanaki,” Yuffie mumbled to herself, wishing he had come with her as she laid her head on her knees. She could do this on her own, sure enough, but it would have been easier, it would have been nicer… it would have proved something if he had come with her.

“What was that?” Illeana asked, intrigued. “It sounded like a boy’s name.”

“It was,” Yuffie replied a bit petulantly. “A stupid, stubborn, handsome, perfect boy who doesn’t understand a damned thing.”

Her friend shook her head. “Sounds like a guy all right. I didn’t know you had a boyfriend.”

Yuffie winced. “I don’t… I don’t think anyways. Or maybe not anymore. He was a friend or something. I really don’t know. Everything’s gotten complicated.”

“Don’t I know it!” Illeana exclaimed with a wave of her hand through the air. “He’s not gay is he?”

The ninja blinked before suddenly bursting out into laughter at the mere thought, a strange sight considering the tears that still wet her cheeks. “No, he’s the furthest from gay… I think.”

“Good then. It sucks to pine for a gay guy.” She sighed dramatically, holding her hand to her forehead. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget that redheaded stud.”

Yuffie lifted her brow, wondering if her friend would ever change. “Stud?” she repeated.

“Oh, you weren’t here when we were saved from those huge monsters. This hot guy named Reno destroyed them.” Illeana sighed again and a starry look filled her dark eyes.

There was a moment of silence before Yuffie burst out laughing again. “Reno? You liked Reno?” she exclaimed with incredulity, her belly cramping from the force of her laughter. “You must be talking about after he and Reeve had that fight.”

Illeana nodded, looking quite depressed. “Yes. And then, I find out, he’s not only gay but Lord Godo married them! Talk about a let down.”

“You couldn’t find anyone better?” Yuffie asked, her tone filled with amusement.

“What? Like Uryuu?” Illeana wrinkled her nose in disgust. Yuffie heartily agreed. “Trust me, Wutai’s all dried up in eligible bachelors. In any case, tell me about this Nanaki.”

Yuffie’s smile vanished. “There’s nothing to talk about. It’s probably over and done with,” she said, kicking out at a roof tile. It clattered and fell to the ground beneath them, crashing.

“Probably?”

“It’s a long story.”

Below them, someone noticed the tile breaking but couldn’t seem to find the perpetrator. Two of the elders went running by, obviously on the hunt for Yuffie. The ninja did not feel inclined to inform them of her presence.

“We’ve got time,” Illeana assured her, smiling at the buffoonish elders looking so haggard and anxious.

“Yeah, we do, don’t we?” Yuffie shook her head. “Well, the story starts about a year ago when I ran into these guys in the forest outside of Junon….”

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