- - -
The pagoda is beautiful at night, limned against the night sky. Looking at it, for a few moments, Vincent is able to believe in gods again. It's not really that he stopped believing, of course, he simply stopped caring, stopped seeing gods as gods and started seeing them as powerful, inhuman entities. The belief subsides, but still he stares at the Pagoda of the Five Mighty Gods.
Five floors, meaning five sweeping portions of the roof. Red wood and green tile. Both are dark from night: the body of the building looks burgundy with brief highlights of red and gold, wherever moonlight can illuminate it. There is an occasional blaze of emerald as starlight catches the roof. But, most striking, the tower stands strong and tall against the full moon and glittering spangle of stars. The luminous darkness is a silken counterpoint to the solid presence, the pinnacle of the world—or at least the world of Wutai's martial artists.
Somewhere in that building, he knows, Yuffie sits either in the lotus position or in seiza. There is probably incense burning. She hates the stuff, but it is one of the essential parts of whatever ritual she has decided to undergo. And he knows also that wherever Wutai is concerned, Yuffie's personal preferences hold no sway. She will do what is necessary for her country; he has known that from the time he knew her.
Her parents were much the same.
He cannot fault her for this choice. Not in good conscience. But it hurts anyway. It hurts and it stings and he has confessed to jealousy how many times—too many, he is too jealous—and how many times has anything changed—too few, she will not change. She is change, he once thought; now he thinks she is a bundle of stereotypical Wutaian stubbornness, group obsession, and, less stereotypically, radical anti-traditional feelings.
He's known for a long time that he was going to leave. It's just taken him a while to do it.
So he stares at the Pagoda, at the faintest plume of smoke trailing from the open fifth-story window.
The copper-toed boots he hasn't worn in years seem dull as he walks toward Lower Wutai. His legs seem swathed in darkness as he turns his back on the House Kisaragi. Everything is dreamlike, nothing is real; for a few moments, he almost believes it is some otherworldly current of darkness that carries him out of her city, rather than his own footsteps.
- - -
Huei Dynasty crockery—the nearest thing to her hand, most likely—shatters against one of the thick wooden posts that support the walls of the Palace. It's a lucky throw, but then again, all her throws are lucky. She's built her life on them, saved his life with them.
"How can you say that?" Her voice, tearful and angry and loud as ever, follows him immediately after the ancient and expensive vase.
Ah, the typical Wutaian approach to problem solving. Once again, the full force of just how Wutaian she is, just how much of her is Wutai's and not his, strikes him. For the first time in years, he finds himself wanting to prolong the argument. The fact that Yuffie is and always will be more Wutai's than his makes him angry, and the fact that she refuses to see it, to acknowledge it, to change any part of it, only makes him angrier.
Vincent turns to look at her, fury thrumming through him, accompanied by a frisson of unease at the way she hurls things at the wall when she's angry. He makes sure to keep his expression level, his voice cool. "Have you never questioned your priorities?"
She laughs at him—anger turns into a hot, churning feeling in his stomach, the itch of a trigger finger, the sudden physical need to destroy something, but unlike her, he controls himself—laughs at him and it's a short, bitter bark. "Am I hearing you right? You want me to care more about you than my entire country?"
"Do not put words in my mouth." He makes a curt sweep of his arm. "I asked if you had ever questioned your priorities, not that you value me above the country you rule."
"What's to question?" she asks him. It's flippant but remarkably honest. She probably truly believes that. Truly believes that there is nothing at all skewed with her priorities. Of course Wutai comes first, always, because it is a nation and he is one man. What could possibly be wrong with that?
He wants to say, I am not one of the nameless boyfriends, Yuffie. I'm your consort. But that doesn't seem to mean anything to her. Perhaps if they had chosen to marry, to flout the ancient laws of succession, things might have been different. But she had chosen Wutai again, and had merely made him her consort.
Leaving her free to wed someone else, someone the Mighty Gods recommended. For Wutai's sake. For a strong alliance. Not that she would. But it was still an open possibility and that bothered him as much as everything else did. And, as he was so used to doing, he said nothing.
And he says nothing now, merely closes his mouth, shakes his head, and sighs.
- - -
There are guards at the gate. He did not expect that.
It is the guard on the left who speaks first. A white street lantern sends a gleam rippling along the helm he wears. "Stop! Who goes?"
"The Consort to the Emperor of Heaven," he says.
Immediately, the guard is a blur of bowing and scraping. He is all humble apologies and black hair, shining armour and an obsequious bow. Even more obsequious than Wutaians usually are, anyway.
Has he always hated Wutai this much?
He doesn't know.
The grasslands that surround the city are nearly silent beneath the reproachful moon. He might almost swear he could hear the ocean's infinite, mindless roar, but knows that it is only the night wind in the grasses. Monsters lurk in the distance, few in number but great in strength.
I do not regret this, he tells himself.
Your life is one long regret, the darker corners of his mind—the corners not even Yuffie could brighten—whisper back to him.