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Close Encounters

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On their second day out in the mountains of Nibelheim, Yuffie complains of boredom, of the quiet roads and even quieter nights. "Where'd all the monsters go anyways?" she says, scratching furiously at a bug bite. She chucks a pebble off a cliff in the hopes of stirring up a predator. "You think they'd jump at the chance for fresh meat."

"Maybe your mouth's scared them away," Barret grumbles, trudging past her.

His comment predictably sparks an argument -- fought as much with pebbles as with words -- before Cloud shushes them both from further up the path. They settle down, but the anger continues to radiate from Barret as Yuffie vindictively flicks another pebble past his ear. It skitters nervously down the mountainside.

Nanaki pauses to watch it fall; it vanishes into the swirling grey mists below, swallowed up by the ever-present dense fog that clings to the rocks like smog to a city. At his back, he feels the air stir as Vincent sweeps by him in silence, leaving behind a tell-tale odor.

A wind begins to blow. Nanaki shivers, but, after a moment, turns to follow.


He smells of monster.

It's a subtle scent, buried beneath the weight of decades-old dirt, metal, oil, and gun smoke. Nanaki had missed it in Nibelheim, in the dark, dank basement of that dusty mansion cradled between the mountains' feet. It had unsettled him even then, though he hadn't been able to put his nose on it. So many things had unsettled Nanaki in that disquieting edifice, with all its pain-laden history and history-laden rooms, that it had been easy to overlook the source of his own unease, passing it off as mere fancy rather than anything related to their new traveling companion.

Nanaki remembers finding him strange upon first meeting. But then again, so are they all, this motley band fled from Midgar (plus one ninja and a robotic cat); one more oddity in their midst is no heavy burden, as long as he can pull his own weight.

And he can, though Nanaki wonders now if the others have noticed anything aside from the obvious, or made the connection between the suddenly quiet roads and the presence of Vincent Valentine. Humans can be incredibly blind, even to that which passes before their very eyes.

Monsters are frightened of only one thing, after all.

The thought does not comfort him.


They come in the dark of the fourth night. Monsters, snuffling at the edge of the firelight. Disembodied eyes catch the glow and dance in the darkness, gleaming with animal intelligence as they circle the camp. Nanaki eyes them warily from his seat by the fire, and more than once, glimpses fangs and matted fur fading in and out of the shadows.

"Nibel wolves," Vincent says, breaking the silence. He's seated across from Nanaki, cleaning his gun by the light of the fire. It's bent open in his hand, the top hanging down from a hinge as he feeds a small cloth methodically through an exposed cylinder. "They've been following us for days."

Nanaki hides his surprise at the sound of Vincent's voice; it's the first time he's spoken without prompting since Nibelheim. "Days?" he says. He hadn't noticed. What else has he missed? His tail swishes about in sudden agitation. "I didn't know."

Vincent doesn't look up from his ministrations. "They've been careful," is all he says.

They aren't now. Nanaki wonders what's changed, if the wolves have grown used to Vincent's presence or if there's something else at play here in these mountains. He swings his eye back to their stalkers and studies them. Their party had encountered a few packs in the plains surrounding Nibelheim, but under the cover of dark, these ones seem larger and more monstrous than ever, their crude shapes blending in with the surrounding terrain. He recalls something then, that makes him uneasy. "Tifa said wolves don't live in these mountains."

Vincent stills; Nanaki can sense the shift in his demeanor without looking, but when Vincent speaks, his voice is steady. "No," he says, "they don't."

His answer is as unsettling as his poise. Nanaki feels his hackles rise and his ears swivel forward, can't help the lash of his tail at the sight of those eyes in the darkness and the reek of their bodies. He stands, unable to stop himself as his muscles coil tight with tension. His first thought is that the wolves must be hungry to venture so far from their territory, but their movements are not those of desperate, half-starved beasts. "We're not easy prey," he growls. "Why are they following us?"

Vincent makes a noise in the back of his throat. "It's hard to say."

Nanaki waits, but Vincent doesn't elaborate. Instead he sets down the cloth and the rod to which it is attached and picks up a rag, which he soaks in oil. His hands are steady, his motions confident, as he runs it over his gun until the metal gleams in the firelight.

Nanaki watches him for a while, eye narrowed, before turning his attention back to the wolves. They're difficult to see, but there's a trick, he knows: look for motion, not for shapes. Nanaki counts them. A large pack, at least seventeen strong, and who knows how many others are lying in wait, hidden by the darkness. One pair of eyes meets his, and he hears a guttural snarl. He doesn't flinch, however, and only bares his teeth in response, bracing himself for the imminent attack. If it's a fight they want --

A sharp click. Nanaki starts. All eyes snap to Vincent, who is standing now, his gun sighted into the dark. Nanaki hadn't heard him move; it's enough to make his fur rise with unease. No human has any business moving so quietly.

Then again, Nanaki thinks, Vincent is no human.

The wolf glares balefully back at them, its chest rumbling in anger. Vincent meets its gaze and cocks his gun, unspeaking.

The sudden silence is deafening. There is a stillness in the air, and Nanaki realizes for the first time that his throat is dry with apprehension. He swallows, wetting it, and considers sounding the alarm. There's still time, he thinks; though wolves are quick, everyone in their party is more than capable of handling at least two, even when startled awake.

But then, just as the tension is ready to snap, the wolf snarls -- just once -- and its eyes turn aside.

There is movement all around. The eyes surrounding them flicker and then vanish as the wolves fade back into the night. Hardly daring to believe it, Nanaki strains his ears and his nose, attempting to track them, but all that remains is that lingering scent of monster on the rocks and the loud, deathly silence. "They're gone," he says, letting out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding, and glances sidelong at Vincent. I know what you are.

Vincent doesn't respond immediately but instead stares out into the darkness, his gun still raised. Infinitesimal heartbeats pass before he lowers it. "They're more aggressive now," he says.

Nanaki looks up at him. "What's changed?" he asks. At Vincent's silence, he hazards a guess, recalling Cloud's story. "The mako reactor?"

Vincent inclines his head in the slightest of nods. "It appears to have affected the local wildlife while I was asleep."

Nanaki remembers. A snarl rumbles reflexively in his throat. "Monsters..."

"Is that what they say?"

There's the barest hint of dry mirth in his voice, tinged with something else. Nanaki does not bristle at it, but he cocks his head and considers Vincent. The dim, shifting light of the fire gives him an otherworldly quality that Nanaki finds discomfiting. "You think they're not?"

"They've mutated," Vincent says. "By some accounts, that makes them monsters."

"And by others?" Nanaki says, watching him carefully. By yours?

Vincent's answer is as noncommittal as a shrug. "It's not for me to say," he murmurs, then melts into the shadows of the camp like a wolf into the night.

This time, Nanaki does not follow.


By midday, the wolves have given up on concealing their presence. Nanaki can hear them a mile off, their claws scrabbling at the rocks. He knows that Vincent is just as aware of them as he is, and the two of them don't even flinch when a distant howl shatters the air.

"Wolves," Cloud says, after a pause. "Never seen them before in the mountains."

"It's been a long time since we've been back," Tifa says, chewing on her lip. "Let's keep moving. We're almost out."

Vincent keeps his peace.

It crosses Nanaki's mind more than once to tell Cloud, but there's little enough to say. Vincent is a valuable ally, both within battle and without, and he's given them no reason to doubt him. And truly, although Nanaki doesn't trust him, he doesn't doubt him either; they all have their secrets, and nobody is obligated to share.

Nanaki understands it well enough, this careful guarding of secrets. He doesn't speak of his time in Midgar. He doesn't care to recall it either, but now he's thinking about all the times he's been called monster, and the memories trickle back to him. Pain has a way of persisting; it always leaves scars.

He'd thought that names held power, back then, that there was something sacred in the sound of them. Nanaki. "Little flame" in the tongue of his people, his mother's gift to him when he came into the world, and the only name he'd answered to, before the men in the blue suits had come to take him away.

He'd had the chance to escape, then. But he'd let the Turks take him, because the alternative was unacceptable: his freedom would've come at the cost of another's life and his own dignity, and that was not the way of a warrior. He was not -- is not -- a coward.

And so he'd gone, but not peacefully. His time in the lab is a blur in his mind; even now, he can't dissect it into formal divisions of time. He only knows that at the beginning, he'd tried to reason with the scientists, and then, as his own frustrations mounted -- why wouldn't they listen? -- he'd attempted to break free with tooth and claw. His efforts were in vain, however, and he became violent, intractable. They called him Red XIII, and he'd hated it. The words were meaningless, of course -- sounds, mere sounds -- but they nevertheless seemed as sharp a blow as the impact of a bullet, impressing on him the reality of his own situation: he, Nanaki, the last defender of Cosmo Canyon, kept in a cell with little more than fetid meat and water to sustain him. The "name" they'd given him stripped him of everything he was, marked him as little more than a monstrous specimen.

For that was what he was to them. They didn't understand him. He defied their categories, hovering in that liminal space between humanity and something more, and so, they were frightened and called him monster.

He lost his eye early on during his struggles. He remembers killing a man and the aftermath of that clash -- the pain in his head, his sore throat, hot blood on his tongue and up his nostrils. The knives, glinting in the pale light, nearing his face, and his feeble attempts to escape.

He remembers a voice too, high and nasal, and the reflection of light off glasses. "It's already injured. We might as well get it over with in one session. Brand it."

The rush of hatred Nanaki feels for the man is not insignificant. The intensity of that emotion is only rivaled by his love for his grandfather and the canyon. But it balances, he supposes. In the aftermath of the fever and the nausea, he recalls a hardening of his spirit and a slow realization of what he was and what he'd become, what he'd allowed himself to become.

Grandfather had told him once that monsters killed needlessly, that they chose to hurt others without adequate cause. The man hadn't needed to die, but Nanaki had been so angry and so frightened that he'd snapped.

It was not to be borne. Nanaki had lain there in the dark, hurting, and reassessed himself and his own options. Names, he realized, only hold power over you if you choose to let them; Red XIII he may be called, but it meant nothing to him. Monster they may label him, but that did not make him one unless he willed it to be so. He was the one who ascribed meaning and significance to their words, he made himself who he was, and he was Nanaki, no matter what they said.

And so he survived. After his recovery, he acted with dignity. He refused to let them provoke him to violence, unless it was for fear of his own life or a chance to escape. He took advantage of their simulations and tests, trained himself to compensate for the loss of an eye. He had no chance to read -- they didn't provide him with materials -- but he became a philosopher nevertheless to cope, even though he mostly kept his own thoughts to himself; there was no point, after all, in speaking to those who heard the words from his mouth but never listened. And when Cloud and his party freed him that fateful day, he emerged cynical and distrustful but not broken.

And not a monster, though they thought him one, because they'd been frightened and didn't understand.

Now, Nanaki thinks, watching Vincent by the failing light of the sun, he begins to understand.


Silence descends with the darkness. One more day until they're free from the mountains' grasp, or so Tifa said. That night, Nanaki takes the second and third watch, urges Aerith to sleep with a nudge of his nose against the small of her back, and keeps his eyes peeled for movement in the dark. He is unsurprised when Vincent returns to camp, bleeding out from the shadows. He reeks of brimstone and monster -- not just the monsters he's killed, but monster in his skin and in his sweat.

"Good hunting, Vincent?" Nanaki says, lifting his head from his paws with a forced flippancy. He'd noticed Vincent missing when he'd taken his watch, had guessed where he'd gone.

There'd been howling earlier, during the day. There is none now.

Vincent's eyes flicker to him, blood-red in the firelight, and Nanaki's hackles rise, unbidden, at the flash of predator in them. His muscles tighten as he prepares to leap to his feet, his lips drawing back instinctively to bare his teeth in a snarl. The adrenaline sets his heart pounding and his blood rushing for the attack.

But then Vincent glances away and inclines his head ever so slightly. "Indeed," he murmurs, then disappears into his tent.

Nanaki forces himself to relax and, after a moment, seats himself once more, even when all his instincts are screaming at him to fight, to flee. He flinches when the tent flap rustles and resists the urge to run when Vincent sits down across from him. Brimstone, monster, beast, and predator seep from every pore in Vincent's body. The scent is nauseating. Nanaki's tail twitches, and his ears flatten to his skull.

"It has been quiet tonight," Nanaki says finally, with effort.

Vincent nods. The firelight glints off his golden gauntlet. "In a manner of speaking," he says, then stares out into the darkness, unblinking and guarded, as if he sees something in the shadows that Nanaki cannot.

Nanaki doesn't ask. There are some scars better left untouched, and he isn't sure he wants to know. They all carry their own demons, and they've all lost some part of themselves, whether it be an eye or an arm, a loved one or a home. Or humanity, it seems, for some of them.

No, he does not ask. Instead, he lays down his head and closes his eye, hoping that Vincent takes it as proof of the trust that he's offering. "I'm going to sleep," he says. "Wake me for the next shift."

A pause. Then, "Very well."

They pass the night in disquieting watch.