Yuffie knew what they were saying about her. Even if she couldn’t totally overhear them - which she could, because duh, ninja skills? - she would’ve been able to figure it out anyway.
“We’re really gonna let her tag along with us, Cloud?” she heard Barret ask, sitting with Cloud and Tifa at their camp. Case in point.
She’d been following them during their trip on the mainland; hanging out with with others was kind of awkward. She hadn’t made the best first impression on Cid, and Vincent was just always looking for a reason to be cranky, she was pretty sure. The cat was just... well, kinda weird, so she didn’t really hang around with him much. Aerith and Red were at least trying to be fair about it, and that was okay, but it was still tough being around people who watched her constantly, no matter how polite and apologetic they were. Not like she could complain; she’d kinda robbed them, and then she’d had the bad luck to be discovered by Mister Horny before she could get away. Still sucked, though.
She didn’t heard Cloud answer; either he was being too quiet, or Barret was being impatient. She figured it was impatience, especially when she heard him speak up again. “I mean, c’mon. She stole a bunch of Materia while we were usin’ it! How’d she even do that? And how do we know she won’t do it again?”
“She won’t,” Cloud said, and that was it. He just spat out those two words, like that was all, end of discussion.
Barret wasn’t letting it drop, though. “Damn it, Cloud, start using your spikey head!” he snapped. “She obviously has other stuff on her mind besides savin’ the Planet - hey, how do we know she ain’t the one who tipped off the Turks, anyway?”
“No. She can’t be the spy,” Tifa said, speaking up. “She hates the Shinra as much as we do, Barret. She wouldn’t work with them.”
Barret made a sound between a grunt and a sigh, the sound he made when someone said something he wanted to refute but couldn’t. And yeah, Yuffie couldn’t help but feel smug about that. Her, working with the Shinra? She knew Barret could be paranoid sometimes, and yeah, she didn’t agree with him about everything, but that was just taking the cake! “Yeah, I know, I know,” he finally answered. “I know she wouldn’t help those bastards. Just... gettin’ worked up, I guess.”
That was really nice to hear. Yuffie didn’t have time to feel too happy about it, though. “Still,” Tifa said, “I think Barret’s right about not being able to trust her, not after all of that. I mean, I know you must have your reasons for this, Cloud, but I wish you’d let us know what you’re thinking.”
She heard Cloud sigh. Then they were quiet for so long that Yuffie dared to peek out from behind the bush, worried something weird had happened again, like one of his weird headaches. But all she saw was him sitting there, facing the fire, with Barret and Tifa both staring at him while they waited for him to say something. Barret was scowling like a demon, and Tifa just looked tired of the whole thing. Hard to blame them, she thought. He was so quiet when he was thinking, and it got on her nerves, too.
“If she steals from us again, I’ll be the first to drive her off,” he said, finally. “But after what happened in Wutai... she won’t. I believe that.”
“Shit. You’d better be right, Cloud.” He stood up, cursing a little more under his breath - seemed like something was always bothering him, probably thanks to that heavy metal gunarm. He didn’t sound really mad anymore, though. Just tired. “I know you ain’t no fool, but I ain’t trustin’ her.”
“That’s your choice,” Cloud answered, voice still quiet.
Barret walked off to the big tent, still grumbling under his breath. Tifa shook her head. “I don’t think he’ll ever trust her, really,” she said. “You weren’t around when they got into that big argument.”
Oh. Yeah, Yuffie remembered that one. One innocent question about why Mako Energy was such a big deal, and Barret had nearly jumped down her throat. And that was before he’d told his big sad story about how Shinra had ruined his life! How was she supposed to know? She’d thought he was just bein’ a geezer who hated everything new and cool, like her old man....
“No, I wasn’t,” he said, after a pause. “I can believe it, though.”
“We all trust you, Cloud. Even Barret trusts you, though he’s not good at showing it. But we’ve got to be careful.”
“Yeah. I get it.”
“Okay.” Tifa stood up, brushing off her skirt. “I’m going to get some sleep. Wake me up when it’s time for my watch.”
“Sure,” he said. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, by the way.”
Tifa looked back at him, puzzled. “It’s true,” she said, but she still smiled a little when she turned away again.
Yuffie sat back down, curled up on the ground with her head on her knees. She had to admit, she hadn’t expected that. Not all of it, anyway. She had a big list that she’d made in her head, mostly when she was bored on night watch duty, of who would have whose back if any trouble started. Say, if anything happened with Tifa, Barret would stand up for her, and vice-versa. Aerith would stand up for Tifa too, because they were basically BFFs, and then Nanaki and Vincent would both get involved if anyone started anything with Aerith, and... well, she’d just met Cid, so she didn’t really know about him. But yeah, she had a pretty good guess over who would stand up for who first.
She hadn’t figured anyone would stand up for her. Not like Cloud just had.
Her PHS flashed, and she jumped, grabbing at it and pulling it free from the holster on her thigh. Probably Aerith wondering if she was okay, she thought, which meant that Yuffie oughta get away and call her back. She reached for the ignore button, but then the number caught her eye. No, definitely not Aerith.
She answered it instead. “Hey,” she said, as quietly as she could - she didn’t think her voice would carry that far at that volume, not when she was turned away. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing new,” Cloud answered, his voice just above a whisper. “You heard all that, right?”
...oh. She thought for a minute about playing it off, then shook her head. “How’d you know? No way you guys saw me!”
“Lucky guess.” He chuckled a bit. “Also Vincent sent me a message from their camp and said you weren’t with them.”
She huffed into the phone. “Figures. He’s not trusting me either, I guess.”
“He’s keeping an eye on you. That’s not always the same.”
She shook her head. “No. It’s definitely the same this time. I mean, I get why. I’m not an idiot.”
“I know you’re not.” Cloud cleared his throat. “You wanna join me for a bit?”
“That sounds nice,” she said, thinking about the fire; the little piece of fire Materia she had on her arm only went so far. “But... I don’t wanna have to deal with Barret if he decides to take a walk or something.”
“That’s fair. Give me a minute. I’ll find you.”
“You don’t -”
The PHS went dead. Yuffie shook her head, putting the little handheld down beside her. She would’ve been okay with just talking on the phone, she thought, sitting back. Once Cloud had it in his head to do something, though, it was gonna get done.
She heard him coming before she saw him. Apparently SOLDIER didn’t teach their recruits to be quiet, which was a real shame. For them, anyway - not so much for her. By the time he had stepped around the little pile of rocks beside her comfy little shrub, she knew exactly where he was going to be.
“Hey,” she said, as soon as she knew that he had seen her. Not a good idea to startle him - she’d figured that out shortly after they’d fought. Whatever had happened to him back in the past, well, it must’ve been really nasty. She knew warriors from her own country who’d faced down Sephiroth in single combat, and even they didn’t get the jitters like Cloud did!
“Hi.” He crouched down next to her in his tank top and thin cargo pants - geez, even she was wearing decent pants and a shirt with actual sleeves in this weather, what was he thinking? Then again, Cloud never seemed to get cold - maybe that was another weird quirk of the whole SOLDIER thing, like the glowy eyes. Or maybe he just liked showing off his really nice muscles more than he hated being cold. Not that Yuffie was complaining, as long as he wasn’t gonna freeze. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m okay.” She shook her head. “I mean, c’mon, I’d been hanging around Junon for a while before you guys found me, so obviously I’m used to a little smack talk.”
“I know the feeling. Doesn’t make it much fun, though.”
“Not really,” she admitted. “But if I just wanted people to be nice to me, I would’ve stayed home and milked the whole ‘beautiful ninja princess’ thing. Guess I just like doing things the hard way.”
“Guess so,” Cloud answered, half-smiling. Probably trying to imagine her dressed like a princess - it did look pretty silly, although probably nothing like he was imagining. She’d have to show him pictures someday.
“Okay, since we’re bein’ all serious, I’ve got one for you.” She took a deep breath. There probably wasn’t a good way to ask it, but under the circumstances, she’d just have to take the bad way. “I was gonna follow you guys anyway, but I didn’t expect you to let me, well, keep going with you like I was before. Why’d you do it?”
He looked at her, raising an eyebrow. “You too?”
“Well, yeah! I mean, if anyone oughta know, it’s me, right?”
"I suppose so." He rubbed the back of his head, looking off into the distance. "It's not that I wasn't angry. But you know that."
Yuffie smiled in spite of herself; she'd had to laugh at Cloud's coldness to her at the time, because she didn't think she could take it if she let it get to her. It had taken him a while to thaw back out again, and start treating her more like before. It wasn't quite the same, and she doubted it would be for a long time, but it helped.
He opened his mouth like he was going say something, but then stopped short. “I don’t know how to say it,” he said, his forehead scrunched up like it usually was when someone asked him something he couldn’t answer. Or didn’t want to - Yuffie couldn’t be sure yet. She couldn’t judge him, either way.
“I’m not complaining, anyway. I didn’t want to have to keep wandering alone. I was just... surprised. That’s all.”
“So was everyone else.” He kept his eyes closed, but at least he looked like he was relaxing a little as he kept talking. “When I said we should let you stay with us - not just around, but actually treat you like part of the team - I didn’t think anyone was going to agree with me. They were just dumbstruck. A couple of them came around after a while, at least, but I think the others just agreed because they didn’t want to keep fighting about it.”
Or they just wanted a chance to catch her again, and then let her have it for real. Not that she was planning to give them that chance. “See, that’s what I don’t get. Why fight so hard about it? I mean, it’s great and all, but... it’s just not what I thought would happen, is all.”
“It’s because....” He took another deep breath, and when he spoke again it all came out at once, like he was trying to get it out before he could change his mind. “With most of the group, they see me as something else, right? I’m Aerith’s bodyguard, Tifa’s childhood friend, that annoying merc that Barret hired because he needed help... to everyone else I’m the leader, and I have to be the leader, or else I’m afraid they won’t listen to me when I really need them.” He looked at her, still smiling as much as she’d ever seen him smile. “But you don’t treat me like that. It’s like I can be somebody else when it’s you and me, you know? I can just be... I can just be me.”
“Oh. Wow.” Crap, was she blushing? It wasn’t all bad - at least she wasn’t so cold anymore - but still, hopefully Cloud couldn’t see that well in the dim light, because she was definitely blushing. Good grief. “That’s, um... thanks? I think? I mean, I know what’s that like, I’ve always gotta be a princess at home and it drives me nuts, so it’s really nice to hear I can help somebody else like that... or....” She stopped, not wanting to look back at Cloud to see if he was still smiling at her. “I’m babbling, aren’t I? I mean. Thanks, Cloud.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, and yeah, he sounded like he was smiling. No way she could look at him now.
“Um.” She said. “While I’m thanking you for, um, stuff... thanks for standing up for me. Seriously. Just... thank you.”
“Don’t worry about it. It was the truth.”
“I know, but still! You're a real, um, stand-up guy! Or something!” She reached over, eyes still shut, to where she was pretty sure she’d seen his hand on the ground. She found it after a few tries, and squeezed his fingers tight.
“Yuffie,” he said. “Just... hang in there, okay? They’ll trust you again, as long as you don’t give any more reasons not to trust you.”
“I... okay.” She pulled away and stood up too quickly, had to stand still for a minute to get rid of the vertigo. She heard Cloud stand up beside her, and thought for a minute about giving him a hug, but then the blush went into overdrive and she lost her nerve. “Okay. I... good talk, but... if they’re really watching out for me, maybe I should go back, huh?”
“If you want to. Just be careful.”
“I’m always careful!” she protested, maybe a little too forcefully. But she finally opened her eyes, and Cloud was smiling that familiar half-smile again, and thank goodness for that or else she probably would’ve run away then and there. “But... you be careful too, okay? Let us know when you figure out our next move.”
“I will. And I’ll tell Aerith you’re okay. She’s probably worried.”
“Um. Sure.” She decided against going in for a hug, because she might've just died of embarrassment right there if she'd tried it. If she didn't hurry, she thought, it would be harder to turn away, so she went ahead. But she couldn't resist looking back over her shoulder before she left. "Bye, Cloud!”
She dashed off before she heard him answer. It was still hard talking about this stuff, and she'd probably be blushing for hours, but hey, she had to look on the bright side. At least she wasn't gonna be cold for the rest of the night!