Yū awoke suddenly, and at first, he didn't know why.
Opening his eyes a crack, he saw moonlight falling from the open balcony window onto the floor... but he wasn't able to keep his eyes open for long. Letting out a soft groan, he rolled onto his stomach and reached for the alarm clock on the nightstand. His hand bumped into a glass of water, then into the base of the lamp, before he finally found what he was looking for. He held the clock up to his face and forced his eyes open again. The digital display was flashing twelve. His dolt of a girlfriend had forgotten to set the time, again.
He sank back into the bed, into the pillow so soft that it almost completely hid his face, and let out a shaky breath.
He was almost asleep again when the sound of feet outside the hotel room door urged him to drag his eyes open, and so he did. His eyelids were incredibly heavy, and they scraped against his corneas, like the counterweights on an old Gaian elevator. Rubbing his face and taking a deep, shaky breath, he pushed himself up into a sitting position and craned his neck to look around the wall into the tiny kitchenette where the door was.
He saw two shadows, instead of one.
His exhaustion suddenly gone, Yū felt for his sidearm under the thin mattress, and as his hand slipped between the lining, he felt cool metal and let out a relieved breath.
Sitting back in the bed, Yū turned his focus towards the voices outside the room. The first voice was light, feminine, high-pitched... almost excitable. The other one...
Upon recognizing Gunhilde's deep tones and flat, semi-guttural, obviously foreign Cocooonian, the exhaustion rushed back, and he let out a soft but irritated noise — not at Gunhilde and whoever she was with making the sound, but at it waking him up. He dropped back into the bed and covered his face with his arm.
Yū listened as the conversation came to an end and the other voice retreated — the accompanying rubber-heeled footsteps told him that it probably belonged to Serah — and a key was inserted into the lock and turned. The sound of the door slowly creaking open followed, and then soft footsteps — was she only wearing socks? — that stopped beside the bed. He lifted his arm to watch her, only to see her standing above the bed staring at him; when their eyes met, she sighed and let her shoes drop from her hand, climbing into the bed and flopping down in his lap.
"Hi." She said. Or maybe it was 'hey'; he could hardly tell with the way she pronounced the two as if they were interchangeable.
"Hey," Yū replied softly, staring at the ceiling.
She took his free hand and clasped it to her chest, directly above her heart. He could feel it, even through her clothes — like always, its beat was strong, but its rate was impossibly slow, only once every two seconds... it was a realization that always brought a tinge of worry even though he knew that it was normal for her.
"What were you doing that kept you away for so long?" He asked after a moment. "You've been gone since before dawn."
"Social calls." Gunhilde said simply. "I needed to go to the border to give Seph back his flash drive, then Lebreau called me and needed me to move some heavy stuff because Gadot and Snow were out of town, and then Zack wanted to have lunch... it just went on, and on... and on."
She sighed, rolling out of his lap and sitting up, her long legs stretched out over the end of the bed.
"Why is being around people such a pain?" Her voice was full of confusion and guilt, but it flew right over his exhausted head. "I feel like I'm constantly pulled in every possible direction."
"You tell me that kind of stuff all the time, but you never do anything about it." Yū said, throwing the covers to the side and sliding out of the bed now that he was almost completely and thoroughly awake. "So who's the pain, here?"
Gunhilde's eyes snapped to his in an inhumanly fast movement that made him freeze halfway between the doorway and the fridge. He turned to her, taking in her entire expression — the stare that was intense and yet, underneath that, uncertain; the furrowed brows; the way her lips were pressed together, her thinner lower lip almost completely hidden under her plump upper one — and realized his mistake immediately... however, he couldn't bring himself to retract it.
A silent moment passed between the two, and despite the words being quite obviously there, she did not speak them... so, like a sheepdog bequeathed with a purpose, Yū found himself baring his teeth to nip at her heels once again.
"C'mon, G." He said, switching back to Cocoonian so that he could further drive the necessary barbs in if need be. "You never say no; you give every person you know everything you have, and then you resent them for it. It's not right... it's not normal. It's rough for everyone."
The tension disappeared from her face, but Yū could see that it was hardly because she felt relaxed. She opened her mouth, then closed it, then opened it again.
"I'm sorry to remind you, love... but I'm nowhere near normal. Not even close." She said in Gaian, leaning back on one arm.
He stared at her, waiting for her to elaborate, and as he was about to prod her again, she spoke.
"Where I come from, 'individuality' was a rejected concept. Being different from everyone else, in any way, was the kind of thing that demoted you to leper status. And, because I'm me, I lingered there most of my life — picked on constantly, never accepted or liked."
The errant goddess lifted a large but feminine hand and tucked an impossibly long strand of hair behind her ear. Her six-foot mane was fanned out around her in thick, inky coils that were dark like midnight against the grey bedspread.
"In order to keep what sanity I had left... in order to feel human — which was what I thought I was, at the time — I turned to other ways of feeling 'worthy'. Or maybe the word is 'special'... I don't know the specific term."
"You've told me this before." Yū said, padding across the linoleum in his bare feet and dropping down beside her. The soft blankets welcomed his tired body, engulfing his significantly smaller frame in an instant.
"Yup." Gunhilde continued. Her eyes had taken on a glassy, faraway look, and she stared at the floor, even though she was actively talking to him. "But did I tell you about the circumstances in which I fucked for the first time?"
"It's called 'losing your virginity'," He replied. "and no, you haven't."
She didn't say anything for about a minute, as if she was gathering the strength needed to release her death-grip on her past. Yū watched her, and — not even bothering to hide his interest in the private confines of the tiny but familiar hotel room — waited for her to continue.
"Despite the act of fucking random people being highly demonized in our literature, even our history... the Syndicate begrudgingly allowed a few places to exist where you could drink... well, alcohol—" She said the word in English, but it was all rounded vowels and did not sound like the actual word; it took Yū a moment to catch on. "—and 'scratch the itch' if you so desire... kind of like the Gaian concept of 'love hotels' and the Cocoonian 'club scene' mixed together into one."
She paused, her gaze flickering to his before barely a moment before she began staring at the floor again.
"I used to go to clubs when I was young simply because nobody knew who I was there. All of the patrons were older and unconcerned with what kind of person I was. People would talk to me, sometimes, and eventually, someone hit on me. I don't remember his face or his name, or even what he did for a living, but..." Another pause. "He was fat, or maybe he had a moderate case of ascites... and he smelled. His skin smelled, his clothes smelled, he just stank. But I fucked him anyway."
Gunhilde turned her head and looked at him — not in the eyes, but generally, as if trying to figure out whether she should go on. Yū knew what she was seeing — a semi-disgusted expression had taken over his face, but he broke out of his speechlessness in order to answer her.
"Well," She said, after a moment. "he wasn't you, and he wasn't Seph... obviously. I'm not into people who won't take care of their bodies. I also knew that he wasn't even interested in me as a person, either — all he wanted was a hole to cram his dick into. He kept saying things about how he loved flat-chested women, that it made them seem young... that I looked 'kind of like a girl', which was vaguely creepy. I was more than aware of the fact that he was leering, and that he was only saying the things he did because he wanted to fuck me, but..."
Gunhilde paused, a small self-deprecating smile twitching at the corners of her ample mouth.
"He praised me, the way nobody else had ever done. It wasn't just my chest, either; instead of telling me that I was weird, improper, that my differences were disgusting, he praised them. I, um..." She stopped for a moment, swallowing hard. "I needed that. I desperately needed someone to say things like that, but I couldn't ask for it; I felt too much shame. I realized that, if I could fill someone with such feeling that they'd say anything to get me to do what they wanted — even if they didn't mean it — that I could continue to feel valid and wanted. Something like that."
"And because of the emotional permanence issues..." Yū said, continuing her train of thought. "you've spent the rest of your life chasing it."
"Yes." She replied, a smile lighting her face in recognition of his understanding. "It's that, and the feeling of connection. I feel so alienated from people and worthless most of the time that when that changes, I become... well, frantic."
She sobered then, her face going dark.
"People talk about me like I have the world wrapped around my finger. Like I'm some manipulating, awful bitch... and I guess I am. I've done some incredibly awful things. But... honestly? I have zero power in any sort of scenario that involves relationships, especially with people who aren't fucked up like I am... and it isn't just romantic ones, either. I depend on others to tell me who I am, what my identity is... my worth is defined by what others think of me."
She stared directly at him as she continued, and, feeling drawn in, he found himself subconsciously leaning towards her.
"But, normal people find that repulsive. I have to act nice and give all that I can, or they leave and I'm back in the same position I was in before I met them. I have no choice."
Gunhilde paused for a moment, then closed her eyes and forged on.
"That's why, when I realized how healthy and whole you were, things got as difficult as they did."
Repulsed for a different reason now, Yū leaned back, regarding her with a tight-lipped expression that he could feel straining his facial muscles. He did not appreciate being reminded of that time in his life — when his life and identity were in flux... but that wasn't entirely it. Why was it that when he was just starting to feel close to her, drawn to her, she tended to drop a live grenade in his lap?
The silence stretched out between them, clearly uncomfortable and definitely tense. Gunhilde opened her eyes, but she didn't look at him — instead, she stared at her socked feet upon the linoleum, her eyebrows pulled down over her eyes, veiled by deep shadows.
What is she thinking, Yū wondered, but then he realized that it didn't make much difference to him either way. What had begun as a semi-light conversation had become personal and heavy, and he was too enervated to even pretend that he wanted to dive into something like that at the present moment.
"Well," He said, lifting himself from the bed. "this conversation is obviously over."
Her hand was around his wrist in an instant, startling him. He turned and looked down at her, regarding her bent head and tense, lowered shoulders with a look of exhaustion.
"I was trying to draw parallels..." Gunhilde said. "I was trying to help you understand, not insult you, or anger you, or hurt you."
Yū had to fight a strong urge to pull away. Why did she always have to broadcast what he was thinking like that? She was dead on, completely and utterly right... but why? Hearing it said out loud irked him; there was a reason he hadn't said it himself. But then, her hand lowered; her long, cool fingers tightened gently around his hand... and he began to feel guilty. The moment he realized that feeling, she had already lifted her head to look at him, preternaturally aware of every thought that passed through his head before even he did.
"Sorry." She said.
Yū shared that sentiment, but he didn't need to say so, so he did not.
"So me being..." He made a face. "...made you angry?"
He had turned towards her in order to say that, and she reached out with her other arm, taking his free hand in hers. She gently rubbed his skin with her thumb for a moment, before letting out a breath that could have been a chuckle if she'd used her vocal chords.
"More like..." She paused, averting her eyes. "afraid."
"No way," He said, aghast.
He stepped back, only for her strong arms to pull him closer than he was before.
"Yes way." She said, sounding too amused for his comfort.
"But... why? That's like a crow being afraid of a worm."
"You are not just a 'worm'."
"Yeah, whatever." Yū said, perching himself beside her on the bed, shoulder to shoulder. "You could end me in a heartbeat and you're telling me that I'm scary?"
"It's not about... physical intimidation." She said.
He made another face, this time directed at her.
"Hey," Gunhilde said softly, "are you going to listen or not?"
"Yeah," He replied, meeting her eyes and offering a tiny smile. "I'm listening."
Yū watched her expression melt — just a tiny bit, barely perceptible — before growing firm again. Her hand — which he was still holding, his fingers curled in her palm — had begun to grow warm, attempting to adopt the temperature of his own.
"Everyone has issues; you've had yours, obviously. But underneath them, you have a good foundation. You know who you are. You get people, and you treat them with respect and kindness. No matter what kind of awful shit happens, you never allow yourself to get beat down... you never stop fighting. You're just really good at dealing. When bad things happen, you don't get overwhelmed. If life's a flood, then you're a good swimmer."
She paused for a moment, pursing her lips at the self-conscious flush that had taken up residence in his face. Then, she looked down.
"It's honestly really intimidating. The rest of us are carrying this huge pile of baggage, desperately holding onto each other for support, panicking... some of us have even given up hope... and there you are, standing apart from the rest, perfectly and utterly fine in the face of all the awful."
"Yeah, so?" He asked, wanting to dispute but holding himself back.
"You don't need me; and you aren't really swayed by me, either. If I were to mess up heinously like I did so many times with Seph, you would turn around and leave and be better for it. That scares the living crap out of me."
Yū couldn't immediately find something to say in response to that. He opened his mouth, then closed it, averting his eyes but continuing to lean on her.
"You think I'm going to leave you." He stated in a tone that was inadvertently dull and lifeless.
"I know you would." Gunhilde said, squeezing his hand. "If I really screwed up, you'd protect yourself, and that's good. It is simultaneously an attractive feature and a frightening one."
The laugh that emanated from his throat reminded him of someone who has just been served a death sentence.
"You give me too much credit." He said. "Way too much credit."
"What do you mean?"
"Yeah, if you 'screw up', I could leave you. But do you realize the kind of baggage that would leave me with? Take a look at Sephiroth right now, and you'll see it laid out plain as day."
"I don't presume to know anything about Sephiroth, anymore." Gunhilde said, shaking her head. "Even when I try to empathize, it is so out of my realm of experience that I just can't imagine what it would feel like."
"You've never left anyone willingly, have you?"
Knowing her history of being devalued and discarded, he wasn't surprised by this.
"It's like... cutting off your own arm." Yū attempted to explain. "Except, it doesn't grow back like your's does. When you cut it off, it's gone forever. Everything from the way you fight to the way you relate to people completely changes."
She simply stared at him.
"You can't do things as easily as you once did, and you see the world through a lens that is now tinted a very different colour. Things that once would have been ok aren't anymore; things that weren't suddenly are. You have to relearn everything. And then, there's the guilt."
"Guilt?" Gunhilde said, her expression twisting minutely.
"It may be easier to, y'know, 'convince' yourself that Sephiroth doesn't feel anything, since he doesn't outwardly show much, but, he does have feelings..." Yū paused. "You told me that you knew that he loved you, even though he never said so; so something like this should be a no-brainer. He loved you, and he left you against your will, even physically breaking your back so you couldn't follow. Sounds like guilty territory to me, among other things."
Gunhilde lowered her head. Her lips had become a thin line, and where her bangs would have once hidden her eyes, he instead saw a darkness creeping in around her orbits — a prelude to disaster. Yū decided to move on.
"But yeah," He said. "I can see what's happening to him pretty clearly, and I'd honestly rather not go through it myself... so..."
Yū reached out and lifted her chin. She looked back at him with downturned and wary eyes that were ringed with deep purple.
"So I guess that answer is 'yeah, I suppose I'd leave you'. But I'm going to fight as hard as I can so that I don't have to... and you better fight, as well."
"You're too nice to me." Gunhilde said after a long moment.
Yū watched the tiny lycoris radiata blooming in the whites of her eyes, and he reached out and touched her cool cheek. Her hand left his, moving upwards to his shoulder. They leaned into each other.
"This is how it should be." He replied. "You're supposed to be 'nice' to the people you love."
Gunhilde didn't seem to know how to deal with that, yet, and so she leaned over even further, resting her head on his shoulder.
"Thank you." She whispered.
He wrapped his arms around her back and pressed his head against hers. Thin shards of light scattered across the floor, now; morning had come all too soon... and though he was still exhausted, Yuj found himself looking forward to the new day. Whatever is going to happen next, he thought, if we're together, I don't think I'll mind at all.
Outside the balcony window, the crystal-faced clock tower in the centre of the city announced the coming of the morning with six gentle peals.