The first sign he ever encountered of them he did not trust. It was unfamiliar and raised his hackles.
“You sure this is the place?” Cid asked as he surveyed the surroundings, critical but curious about this untouched island with its tall grass and few, bell-shaped trees.
Nanaki bared his fangs in a grin. “No, but it’s my best guess.”
A bark of a laugh. “Hey, so long as we find something to pay for your ride, ‘cause Highwing Airship Taxi Services ain’t cheap,” Cid joked good-naturedly with a lopsided smirk of his own. “Lead the way.”
“You won’t be disappointed.” Nanaki started forward with his nose to the ground, knowing what he was looking for and knowing it was worth Cid’s time, as did the pilot himself.
“I still can’t believe Shinra didn’t lay hands on this place,” Cid commented with faint disbelief.
“I guess they just didn’t bother looking.”
“Hard to believe, when they were searching for mako so hard!”
“Maybe that’s it. They were so focused on only one thing, they missed everything else that might be of interest. Also, this island isn’t exactly bursting with precious metals or anything like it.”
“Might be. Then how did your grandpa find anything about it anyways?”
Nanaki smiled against the dusty ground, his whiskers heavy with sadness and nostalgia for what has been lost. “Grandpa knew a lot of things, and knew where to look.”
Cid made a dubious nose, but didn’t pursue the subject. Nanaki was grateful for it.
A few moments more passed in silence before a thin, musky smell of animal wafted up from a nearly-faded trail he’d crossed. Nanaki paused, breathing deeper and concentrating on the new scent. It clearly wasn’t what he was looking for –he was hunting for a plant, not an animal-- but it was something that sparked a glimmer of familiarity he couldn’t quite name. He heard Cid’s boots scuff to a halt behind him.
“Found something already?”
The scent was irritatingly elusive in its familiarity. Nanaki felt a growl crawl up his throat. “No, but let’s be careful.”
“If there are monsters around here, I’m doubling my fees,” Cid grated behind him, but Nanaki heard the sudden touch of wariness and anticipation coupled with excitement behind the pilot’s voice. He moved on.
The second sign he found of them made him doubly wary, but in no good way.
Cid had burned through five more cigarettes –Nanaki could smell them being consumed steadily as the pilot’s attention mulled around boredom, the vegetation having revealed nothing more than a few startled hares in the last two hours-- before he stumbled on anything interesting. Once again a smell lead him, but this time it was something he recognized very well and was neither entirely surprised nor happy to find. It was pungent and sickly sweat and old. From his vantage point well over the bristly tall grass, Cid saw it before him and swore colourfully.
“Fuck, there is something big and fang-y besides you on this dumb island!”
Nanaki walked just a few paces before breaking into a small ring of trampled grass. In the middle of it, an old carcass of some avian-looking animal was stripped down to its sun-bleached bones, with only a few dried up pieces of meat remaining. He scrunched his nose against the smell even as he moved forward to study it more carefully. Cid circled to its other side, looking vaguely disgusted.
“It didn’t die a natural death,” the pilot eventually noted, pointing to the ribcage. The bones had deep gouges the length of them.
“Obviously not,” Nanaki nodded, and after a moment he realized one of the lingering scents was that first one he’d noticed, the strange beast smell he could not name but that wanted so badly to be recognized. He felt his ears draw back against his skull despite himself. “And whatever killed it must be large and many.”
Cid rested his spear in a more convenient way and started a sixth cigarette. “Triple. I really hope we find those plants of yours,” he grated, but his grin was wide.
Nanaki tried copying the pilot’s excitement for a good fight, but he couldn’t get rid of the impression that they’d fallen in the worst kind of territory where they were being hunted.
The third sign he found of them opened an abyss of hope and pain and illusions he dared not jump into.
Some more searching around the area found no more traces of what could have killed the animal. The ground was too hard to leave tracks and the kill too old to keep too clear a smell, so they left the carcass more wary yet and suspicious of every shift in the tall grass.
The day moved on into afternoon with nothing more remarkable happening aside from stumbling on a small, clear pond. Cid declared a break; the man was getting irritable since he’d finished his pack of cigarettes but had forgotten to bring another one. Nanaki smiled to himself as he circled the pond to find a good drinking spot.
And suddenly, there in the humid ground, were a few paw prints that belonged to no small animal.
Nanaki froze with one paw still in the air and stared. Neatly preserved by the soft ground were three large, four-toed prints Nanaki recognized all too well but feared to acknowledge. His heart had lodged itself firmly in the back of his throat, so that it made it hard for him to smell anything around the paw prints. Nanaki swallowed painfully and inhaled deeply, and that familiar, tantalizing smell still lingered around the tracks, faint but painfully present. Nanaki stared at them for a long time, not knowing what to think, what to feel, until finally he tore his gaze away from the paw prints and moved back towards Cid, mind caught in a heavy fog of conflicting emotions that tumbled painfully against his skull.
The pilot watched him approach with scrunched eyebrows, munching around a blade of grass. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
Nanaki sat down heavily and shook his head. “I think I did.”
Obviously, Cid hadn’t been expecting that answer, and he stared at his animal companion like he’d grown a couple few more heads. “The hell you talkin’ about?”
Nanaki debated for a few long seconds whether he could tell Cid, whether he was able to. He raised a paw, stared at the shallow four-toed print it had left there, and felt his heart expend very painfully as he tried not to give in to helpless, desperate hope.
“Red?” Cid prompted after a while, voice gruff with worry.
“I—I think I know what the predators are,” he finally said, diving headfirst in that agonizing hope he couldn’t refuse. Not after the signs he had seen.
Cid was staring hard at him, and the crinkled knot between his eyes was not loosening. “Yeah? And what would that be?”
The fourth and last sign he found of them broke his heart only to mend it again, piece by piece.
They’d found the plant just before evening darkened the sky, an enormous patch of the leathery leaves that were the key ingredient to a remedy. They whispered and danced in the wind, and the quantity of them was easily worth thousands of gil, not to speak of even more precious remedies. After collecting a small quantity that barely dented the patch, they moved on, but did not turn back for the airship.
Nanaki had a more important thing to find, now, and Cid had grasped enough of its meaning to want to stay and help.
It wasn’t that late after the sun had completely disappeared that the predators in question finally manifested themselves. As Nanaki had suspected might happen, Cid and he had been found, maybe even followed throughout the day, and now that their quarry seemed to be aware of their presence, they were making themselves known. Howls more evocative than words sprung up all around them, and Nanaki found himself crouching, muscles taut and tail lashing, as he felt the need to respond to those cries he hadn’t heard in years but could still understand.
Beside him, Cid was understandably holding Venus Gospel in position, legs widespread and solid yet reading to spring in motion at a moment’s notice. He far from looked as confident in the origins of the sounds as his four-legged companion. He hissed a question that had the sounds of a warning, but Nanaki didn’t listen. He was too intent on the calls that echoed back and forth to bother with human language for the moment.
Slowly, the howls died down, and Nanaki saw a first bob of firelight coming closer. He narrowed his eyes, unwilling to completely destroy his night vision, and waited in barely restrained anxiousness as the owner of the light revealed itself to him.
At first Nanaki thought he was hallucinating, that he was wrong after all, and that something was playing with his mind and showing him his father. But after the first few moments of frozen astonishment he realized that his father, despite being imposing, hadn’t been quite as tall and thick of mane, but larger in the neck and shoulders.
The individual before him revealed himself in full light, his heavy, scarred muzzle and dark golden eyes unlike Seto’s in every way, but yet so familiar. Nanaki looked down his mane and flank, recognized the marks of rank, and knew this was the pack leader. Slowly, feeling his mind go blank but for his old instincts, he bowed his head and tilted it to the side, exposing his throat.
The leader moved forward slowly, extended his head and took a careful sniff before sitting back. Only then did Nanaki straighten his head, and the rest of the pack took it as their cue to show themselves, sitting or standing in a circle around them, all of their tail-fires casting the scene in flickering shadows. Cid cursed under his breath, but he mapped his behavior on Nanaki and wisely lowered his spear.
“You are smelling too strongly of human, warrior. What have you been named?” the leader finally spoke. His voice was a deep grumble and his speech clipped and old.
Nanaki sat and regained his dignity as his mind kicked itself back to life, realizing this was not a dream. That it was real. He was a guardian –which the leader had thankfully acknowledged--, and had earned his feathers and tattoos at a great price. The tilt of his head showed respect to the imposing male before him, but would not be cowed.
“I am Nanaki, son of Seto, guardian of Cosmo Canyon,” he answered slowly, but his pronouncement produced no reaction from the leader. His eyes flicked to the feathers in Nanaki’s mane, to his tattoos, hovered over Hojo’s ugly brand, before returning to hold his eye with his own.
“Cosmo Canyon. It is a name I have not been hearing in long cycles. You are the son of the sons that left the island when the sea had not yet isolated it. Why are you being with a human that hides your scent, and not your own kin?”
Cid fidgeted uncomfortably behind him, but the pilot held his peace. Nanaki considered his next few words carefully; although the leader didn’t seem hostile to Cid’s presence, he didn’t look entirely trusting of humans, either.
“He helped fly me here, over the ocean, on a quest for rare plants. I’m alone because I’m the last of our kind in Cosmo Canyon.”
That answer caused a few whispers of surprise and grief through the small assembly, but the leader merely looked on, unfazed, though he inclined his head in respect for the departed.
“It is with grief that we are hearing this news, but the ancestors of your ancestors chose their way freely.”
The leader’s eyes once again rested on Nanaki’s specimen tattoo, on the materia in his mane, and even on Cid. He nodded his massive head once.
“Our lost brother has found his way,” the leader declared, looking at the other assembled, solemn. “Welcome him, and be cheering for this good fortune.” Returning his attention on Nanaki, the leader smiled, slowly and with reserve, but it was genuine. “I am Ikkaku, son of Sai. Your body is bearing the marks of stories I am wishing to hear, Nanaki son of Seto. Come, and we will be talking.”
At those words, something tight suddenly unravelled in Nanaki’s chest and he was sure that if he had not been sitting, his legs would have buckled under his weight. He realized that Ikkaku and all the others, they were his kin, his family, his own kind, and that what he had felt was the heavy, stifling weight of extinction, of being the last, lift from his heart. He felt light headed and happy, but slightly sick as well, because all those years, he hadn’t been alone. He just hadn’t known where to look.
Slowly, still wary of Ikkaku and his pack, Cid moved forward and squatted beside Nanaki. His face was deeply set in an inscrutable grouchy frown, but his voice was light when he spoke.
“Hey, keep breathing.”
And Nanaki did, deeply, and filled himself with the scents of his kin, healthy and alive.