It was cold when she awoke.
Aerith lay stiff and still in the dark, not even daring to breathe as she strained her ears for the noise that'd awakened her. It flitted softly at the edge of her consciousness, beckoning to her. A dream? Or a monster? She was sure it was real, but all she could hear now was Tifa's soft breathing and her own errant heart thudding in her ears, and all she could see was the dark outline of their gear piled in the corner.
Then she heard it: the flapping. It was the tent, blown open by the wind, the canvas fluttering in the breeze. Aerith thought about getting up to close it but couldn't bring herself to leave the warm cocoon of her sleeping bag. Instead she turned over and willed herself back to sleep despite the chill that crept in to nip at her fingers and toes. If there'd been enough light, she knew she'd be able to see her own breath rising in plumes from her lips.
When they'd first left the city, she hadn't expected it to be so cold. In Midgar, the temperature barely swung to one side or the other, even in the winter. It used to snow when she was younger, but gradually, the seasons had coalesced; the winters had grown warmer, and the summers colder, and eventually it seemed that Midgar had always had just the one season. A consequence of the mako extraction? Probably. It seemed that everything was tied to that these days.
Aerith shivered and curled up tighter into her bed roll, and not just at her knowledge of the Planet's pain and the reminder of her own inheritance. A wind was blowing now down the back of her neck; the sensation was cold and sharp, like a knife pressed there against her nape. Finally recognizing the futility of sleep, she shook free of her bag -- slowly, softly, because Tifa was still sound asleep -- and went outside.
It was dark -- a true night, nothing like the false night that one got in Midgar, tinged pale green by mako and light. Even though they'd been on the road for a while now, she still hadn't gotten used to this total darkness. She knew that if she wandered too far from camp, she'd soon be swallowed up by the shadows and wouldn't be able to find her way back without help. Even the moon and the stars hanging in the sky wouldn't be enough to light her way.
Nanaki was seated by the remains of the campfire -- just glowing embers now -- his head resting upon his paws as he stared off into the distance. He never slept inside the tents; when she'd asked, he said he preferred the open sky. It'd been so long since he'd seen it.
Aerith understood, in her own way. She knew what it was like to yearn for something or someone long lost, and then to regain a piece of that past. You never took it for granted, afterwards.
Nanaki didn't flinch at her presence, though his tail lazily swished through the dirt behind him, leaving behind a trail of light in the darkness like a comet parting the sky. Neither of them spoke as Aerith sat down beside him on a patch of grass. She drew her knees up to her chest for warmth and hugged them to herself.
"I used to be scared," she said. "Of the sky, I mean."
The words sounded harsh and sudden to her, shattering the peaceful silence, but Nanaki's ears simply pricked at the sound of her voice as he turned to look at her. "Why is that?" he asked.
His voice was deep and low, like the earth, and Aerith felt it rumble through her. It was funny, she thought, that out of everyone in their party, it was Nanaki she felt most comfortable around; was it his maturity or their understanding? She rested her chin on her knees and reached out to play with a blade of grass. "It seemed so huge. Like it could swallow you. It made me feel small and insignificant, I guess." She paused. "Alone."
"Do you feel like that now?"
Aerith shrugged one-shouldered and tried to smile. "Not now. But sometimes. Back in the canyon I did. But when I'm with the others, I can almost forget."
She knew he would be able to hear her unspoken words: That I'm the last.
He didn't answer, just nodded and looked away once more in contemplative silence. Around them, the night was quiet except for the rhythmic buzzing of the insects and the hooting of the solitary owl. Aerith let fall the blade of grass and watched it blow away in the wind before rocking back on her heels. The sky was enormous above her, and she could feel the weight of it gaping down at them, a threatening black chasm, but beneath her feet, she could sense the very bones of the earth vibrating. It was comforting now, a grounding force, but she remembered that it'd frightened her once. When she was younger, she'd wanted so badly to be normal. She'd ignored the Planet then, letting its cries fade into the backdrop of her life, until it'd become no more than a nuisance, a buzzing at the edge of her thoughts. She'd thought that ignoring it would make her the same as everyone else.
Now it seemed a foolish thought. A naive one. You had to live with the hand that life dealt you.
The silence stretched. Aerith wondered what was on Nanaki's mind and thought she knew: his home, his role in the world, his duty to Cosmo Canyon. She understood. "Do you want me to leave?" she asked.
Nanaki shook his head, slowly and heavily. "No," he said. "Stay. Please."
Aerith didn't giggle, but allowed herself a smile. "You don't have to say please for that, silly," she said, then shivered at a sudden breeze that made the hairs on her arms rise. She rubbed at them. "Brrr..."
"Are you cold?"
"A little. I thought it'd be warmer ..."
"Not so," Nanaki said, amused, but there was no condescension in his voice, and she felt the gathering rumble of his power before it erupted like a volcano in the night. The materia fixed into his bangle flared, and the spent wood in the pit went up in flames, filling the immediate vicinity with heat and light. "There," he said, satisfied.
Aerith let out a grateful murmur as she held out her hands to the fire, letting the warmth chase away the numbness in her fingers. "Thanks."
"You're very welcome." Nanaki moved his tail out of the way so that she could scoot closer to the fire. "Be careful."
She grinned. "I'm not going to fall in."
"Sometimes I wonder," Nanaki began, before Aerith bopped him on the nose. He drew back and snorted, shaking his head. "H-hey!"
Aerith laughed, thawing in the company and the warmth. The wood popped and crackled, throwing up sparks to join the stars in the sky. Nanaki gave her one last offended look before drawing his tail around himself protectively; Aerith traced the path of its fire with her eyes.
"How come you never use your tail?" she asked.
"To light fires. I was wondering why you've never caught anything on fire with your tail."
"You wonder why I've never started a wildfire," he said dryly. At her sheepish shrug, he bared his teeth in a grin and said, "It's not fire, it's light."
"But it looks --"
Nanaki cocked his head and lazily flicked his tail towards her. "You can touch it, if you like. It won't burn."
Aerith looked at him. Nanaki's face had never been particularly expressive, but she'd never known him to make a practical joke. She reached out, cautiously, until her hand hovered over the flame burning on the tip of his tail. It felt real enough. "It's warm," she said, drawing back. "You're not trying to trick me, are you?"
"Now, why would I do that?" Nanaki said, tongue lolling out.
Aerith raised an eyebrow.
Nanaki chuckled, but nodded at her. "Go ahead. It won't burn. But just in case it does," he added innocently, "I'll ready my Cure."
Aerith rolled her eyes, but after a moment's hesitation, reached out again. This time, she made a soft sound of wonder as the tendrils of light licked at her fingers and danced through them, soft and feathery and warm. She turned her hand about in the fire and marveled at the sensation. "Oh, it tickles!"
"They say the flame on our -- on my tail is the same as the one that lights the Candle. If ever that holy flame goes out, mine will follow."
"Has it ever done that?" Aerith asked, lifting her eyes from the mesmerizing light to watch him. "Has it ever gone out?"
Nanaki looked contemplative again. "Once, long ago... Grandpa will tell you about it if you ask."
He fell silent again and looked off into the distance. Aerith could almost sense him disconnecting from his surroundings and falling back into his memories. Cosmo Canyon would be in that direction, she thought; two days' travel by car, and the rolling plains would gradually give way to sun-baked rock. If she concentrated, she could even imagine the sky brighter there, lighter. Could almost see the Candle and imagine the heat of it -- or maybe that was just the warmth of Nanaki's tail that she was feeling. Maybe they were one and the same.
"It must be hard," she said softly, "leaving home again."
He sighed, a heavy breath. "You had to leave yours."
"But I didn't really have a choice, so it's not so bad ..." Aerith removed her hand and returned his tail to him, though she longed for that warmth as soon as she drew away from it. It somehow seemed deeper than the heat from the fire, reaching past her skin to touch something beneath it. Her fingers tingled. "What changed your mind?" she asked. At his silence, she prodded. "It had to be something. You were so set on staying, at first."
It was something she'd wanted to ask but hadn't known how. It seemed private, too personal. After all, she'd heard the pained howling two nights ago from deep within the canyon. They all had. But now seemed the right time to ask, if there ever was one, and so she did.
When Nanaki spoke, it was with great care. "Sometimes you have to leave behind what you love to protect it," he said. "Grandpa said ... you can't let yourself be so focused on one thing that you miss the bigger picture. If protecting the canyon involves saving the Planet ..."
"So it's just about protecting Cosmo Canyon, then?"
She sensed his indecision, his struggle with words. "No," he said finally, hanging his head. "It's not just that."
"It's okay," Aerith said. "You don't have to say."
Nanaki shook his head, as if he thought he did have to. And maybe he did, with how labored and halting his words were, as if he were trying to figure something out for himself. "It has been good to be on the road. It's been a long time since …” He took a breath, then raised his head to look at her with his one lonely eye. "I am the last of my kind, as you know.”
Aerith did know. "I understand," she said and laid a hand over his back, letting her fingers twine into his fur.
Nanaki sighed at the contact. "You do," he said. "Thank you."
The silence that fell then was a companionable one, and after a while, Aerith leaned back against Nanaki's haunch. His tail curled around to rest by her feet, throwing light and warmth over the two of them. She closed her eyes, and before too long, the beating of his heart and the rhythm of his breathing lulled her into a deep and peaceful sleep.