cheloya: (FFVII >> wusheng)
[personal profile] cheloya
Title: Faith and Feather
Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Pairing: Yuffie/Vincent
Words: 2922
Notes: To those who waited patiently, and those who did not, I am sorry this took so long, and so very glad to be able to give this to you at last. I dearly hope you find it worth the wait.

Chapter 12




Chapter 13: The General



[Day 10, 0814 Nibel Standard Time]

She went down the stairs with her eyes closed, testing each step before she placed her weight, breathing as silently as she knew how. Listening to the dark. Feeling it breathe.

The cool air curled around her like an underwater current; maybe just ventilation shafts, probably other doors. The hairs on the back of Yuffie’s arms rose. She tilted her feet over the edge of every step, then lifted, and placed. Her breath in the back of her mouth, slow, cold. Heartbeat faster, louder than she wanted.

She opened her eyes.

The darkness was not absolute; enough light had followed her down the stairs that she could see bare traces of rough-paved floor fading into nothingness. She stepped to the left, out of that barely-there corona of light, and a gloved hand closed over her mouth.

Yuffie dragged in half a breath, prepared to twist, had one hand halfway to the materia on her right armlet before warm, sharp metal curved around her biceps and the panic vanished in a rush that left her knees weak.

She raised a hand to Vincent’s human forearm and pinched him as hard as she could. The sharp bronze fingers on her bicep firmed briefly in warning, and then he released her.

Yuffie stepped forward, barely managing to control the gasps of breath, heart hammering wildly. Cursing a blue streak in her head was not as satisfying as attempting to get Vincent in a headlock, but it was probably less dangerous than scuffling with Vincent while Sephiroth could be anywhere, anywhere, waiting—

She focused on her breathing.

Vincent, when he spoke, avoided sibilants. “Nowhere ahead,” he murmured. “Low volume.”

Yuffie nodded, knowing he would see her, and motioned for him to go ahead. When he moved past, she caught a tendril of his hair, still damp, and fell into careful step behind him. Her eyes were good, but she wasn’t superhuman. She could respond to movement better than some, sense her way better than others, but she couldn’t see. Even the greatest of ninja had to make do with plain old human retina. Still, she could place her feet when he placed his, and keep the fingers of her left hand hovering over her materia.

And watch the darkness for green eyes. Of course.

Drnaa fyoc,” Vincent said after a time, the second word barely a breath. Yuffie grimaced.

Fyed?

“No. We go on.” The hair between her fingers pulled taut as he lifted his head. She caught it the same instant he did: a faint waft of breeze from their right.

Fa cruimt lmuca dra aqed.

“Agreed. Leave a knife.” He led her a few yards and paused as she wedged the blade upright in the crumbling mortar between two paving stones.

“You owe me a kunai,” Yuffie said under her breath as she straightened, and jerked reflexively backward at a sudden rush of air. She widened her stance, left hand cupped over the materia so that the glow of their response wouldn’t give her position away.

After what felt like hours, she felt the tension in Vincent ease — or at least, dip down to normal levels. “…Cunno. I heard…”

Yuffie rolled her eyes; figured she only got a ‘sorry’ out of him when ‘apologies’ might carry far enough to kill them. She retrieved the lock of hair she’d been using as a lifeline, and waited, listening intently alongside the gunman. There was nothing but the faint drip of moisture, near omni-present in Nibelheim, and—

“There,” Vincent said. Yuffie nodded, mouth too dry to form sound. There was a voice, barely audible, distorted beyond understanding or recognition by the passage through which it echoed. But even in Nibelheim, ranting madmen were in limited supply.




Every house in Nibelheim had battery-powered camp lanterns; the storms were too violent and too frequent to go without. Vincent had the requisite two per person and two backups, removed from their packaging, but speckled with dust. She passed two up to Aeris and reached to slit open a pack of batteries.

She hated painting a target on Barret, but Cloud was right: without materia or a blade, and in his emaciated condition, the danger Sephiroth posed was limited. Their long-range specialists could afford to hold the lanterns if it meant they wouldn’t be going in blind.

It didn’t mean she had to like it, though.

The gunman went first, Tifa and Aeris close behind. Once they were out of the narrow staircase, Cloud and Tifa moved out of the immediate circle of light, masking themselves in the lamp-bearers’ shadows.

Aeris flung out one hand, the platinum wristband and its materia flinging arcs of coloured light around the roughly-hewn corridor, and they began their cautious progress. Vincent’s footsteps were clear in the gathered dust and fine gravel; Yuffie’s less-so. Sephiroth’s loping gait and lack of caution made his prints the clearest of all.

“He knew where he was going,” she said, and felt her heartbeat gentle when she heard Cloud’s agreement. He was focused, but not afraid.

“There’s an intersection ahead,” Aeris murmured a few minutes later. “And something on the ground. Metal, I think.”

“One of Yuffie’s knives,” Cloud confirmed after a moment. “They all went down the right passage.”

“Lucky,” Aeris said, and Tifa grimaced.

“Or not.” She cracked her knuckles and clasped her hands over her head to stretch out her spine. “He’s fooled us with illusions before. What if this is one of them?”

“It’s possible,” Aeris conceded, “But I doubt his spirit is strong enough to work magic that intricate. I don’t know it ever will be.”

“It’s not a chance we can take.” Cloud glanced at Aeris, waiting for argument. When none came, he turned to Tifa. “You and Barret take the left fork. Aeris and I will continue. If the path splits again, come back here and guard the home passage. We don’t want to spread ourselves too thin.”

“Got it.” Tifa grasped his upper arm gently. “Be careful.”

“You, too.” His fingertips brushed hers as she dropped her hand, and then Barret was lifting his lantern and crunching off into the lefthand passage. She raised a hand to wave to Aeris before she followed him.




“Leviathan, how far does this go?”

Vincent ignored the slip; they had walked far enough for the immediate fear to wear off, and he wasn’t about to attempt to frighten her further. Still, he kept his voice low. “Perhaps to the mountain.”

Yuffie actually stopped, suddenly enough that the lock of hair she held pulled taut. “No way. We can’t have gone that far.”

“The rock has changed.” It was colder, harder, and the little he could see was beginning to look suspiciously cave-like, instead of like a man-made tunnel. “Less soil.”

“I guess we’ve been climbing for a while,” Yuffie allowed, and stepped forward after him again. “Has he been this way? Can you tell?”

“I have a hunch.” He had a dire wolf in his left ear, watching, waiting for the darkness to blink. “This tunnel is not so old as the other. It is possible that Shinra continued to use this as a site for mako-related experimentation, even after…”

“Ugh.”

“Indeed.”




The left-hand passage crawled in a gradual circle, the grading smooth and no steeper than any wheelchair ramp would allow. The remnants of steel rails were set in the outside wall at ankle, knee, and hip height, though Tifa thought she’d want a tetanus booster shot before she dared to lay a hand on them now. The moisture in the air and the minerals in the stone did terrible things to unprotected metal in Nibelheim, and Shinra’s best steel thirty years ago had no hope of surviving without proper maintenance.

About forty feet along the passage, the floor flattened out briefly to accommodate a service elevator. The elevator doors had fared no better than the steel rails, but in their case the cause was more obvious: the metal was twisted outward around the shape of an invisible explosion. The steel was rusted, charred in some places, and covered in chalky residue in others. Tifa grimaced at Barret and cracked her knuckles again. “Looks like they weren’t any more popular in Nibelheim than in Midgar.”

“Huh.” Barret edged close enough to let the light from the lantern illuminate the shaft. “Only a floor or two, looks like. ‘s where the cage is stopped, anyway. Top of it’s all busted, too.”

Tifa raised an eyebrow. “So, what, someone blasted through the top of the cage, flew up the shaft, and then took out the door?” She shook her head. “Let’s go. The sooner we’re down there, the sooner we’re back upstairs, and I could do with fewer tunnels in my life.”




Aeris raised the lantern and a palm full of fire, and snuffed the fire as soon as she realised what surrounded them. “Books?”

“Binders.” Cloud eyed the low ceiling and sheathed his sword to drag one from its shelf. “More reports. The Turks’ll be thrilled.”

“Yuffie might be,” Aeris offered. She held the lantern high and peered over Cloud’s shoulder, scanning the pages as he flipped through them. “Wait. Go back — was that…?”

“Huh.” Cloud raised his eyebrows. “Gast. Must be his earlier work. Before the Jenova Project.”

“Mmm,” Aeris said, frowning. “I can’t see Hojo’s name.”

“Plenty of scientists in Shinra,” Cloud said. “And the manor’s a little big for one.”

“I guess so.” Aeris edged past a collapsed shelf. “It’s nowhere near as well-preserved as the other lab. It’s almost like a dumping ground.”

“Research that didn’t pan out, maybe. Let’s get back to the others. Sephiroth isn’t hiding here.”

“Right behind you,” Aeris said. Her hand hovered momentarily over a sheaf of reports and then she snatched it back and followed him from the room. Time enough to investigate her father’s work when they were sure everyone else was safe.




The saline stench of mako clung to the back of her throat, sat thickly on her tongue whenever she wet her lips to whisper. “Door ahead.”

“I’ll get it.” Barret eyed the double set of doors, sagging and warped with moisture, the stainless steel panels and windows crusted with mildew. It took one well-placed kick to crumple the door on the right, and without its support, the left-hand door toppled with a shriek that grated right down Tifa’s spine.

Barret snorted as he scuffed through the rubble. “Quality Shinra construction, as usual.”

Tifa stepped nearer to give the room more light, and nearly retched at the reek of rot and mako. “What is that?”

“Mako. All over the floor,” Barret gestured with his gun arm, and Tifa saw the faint green glow amid crystalline fragments so oily they looked congealed. “There’s a leak in there somewhere.”

“That can’t just be mako.” Tifa moved ahead of him, one eye on the mako sludge, the other on the operating theatre they had just walked into. Lamplight glinted off dull metal surfaces; gurneys, enough overhead lights that she knew this space would have been blinding once, and cleaner than her griddle at closing time. Something crunched underfoot, and she winced. “Broken glass.”

“From the back,” Barret said. “There’s one of them rooms.”

“You’re right.” She could see the faint mirror-like quality of the glass that remained in the panes of the observation rooms. But behind that… “There’s our specimen elevator.”

They edged through the theatre space, past trolleys of equipment and rows of blank screens the size of Barret’s fist. This lab was older than the other, and it hadn’t been updated. “I don’t think this was part of the Jenova Project.”

“Well, ain’t that a relief,” Barret muttered, stomping ahead of her through the debris, and pausing by the large windows. “…ngh. Aw, hell.”

“What is it?” Tifa started forward, but Barret swung around and ushered her back the way they’d come. “Barret, what are you—”

He was shaking his head, and even in the colourless lamp light, he looked pale. “Trust me, darlin’, you don’t wanna know.”

Ordinarily, Tifa would storm right past anyone who told her such a thing, but something in Barret’s voice made her cold. “Let’s get back upstairs, then,” she said. “There might be other splits in the passage.”




Yuffie’s first dumb thought was that she smelled the ocean. She tugged on Vincent’s hair and tilted her head at him, sniffing. He nodded, the movement tugging at the hair around her index finger, and she grimaced. Mako, and industrial grease, and the silence that had, in the past, been filled by a deep, steady hum. Groovy.

The reactor had been decommissioned a little over a year ago. It had been one of the first to go offline, but dismantling it and taking it down off the mountain piece by piece had been too expensive for the fledgling Neo-Shinra to condone. So it sat here on the mountain, sealed as tight as Reeve could make it, silent and dark, without even the dubious blessing of emergency lighting. She didn’t know how that was supposed to help.

And if he’d torn it down like he was supposed to, she wouldn’t be in this tunnel right now, because they’d have caved it in when they found it, and probably torn down the mansion, which would also have neatly solved the problem of Vincent moping forever in that goddamn house.

Yuffie made a mental note to sock Reeve in the arm when the Turks were done rescuing him, and yanked sharply on Vincent’s hair, just because.

E caa ed.

Yuffie blinked, and peeped around him. The light was wan and greenish, but it was enough to see the crenellations in the rock, the stalactites that had been trying valiantly to smack Vincent in the face the whole way here, and, above a series of sharp lines she assumed were steps, a hatch like the outside door to a basement.

Beyond it, she could make out the squirming shadows of pipes and cables, flexible aluminium hose and the dusty sheen of broken glass.

Jenova’s chamber.

She moved ahead of Vincent, uncertain if the stairs were metal or stone until she touched them, and she crawled over them with hands and feet at the edge of each step rather than warping them with her weight in the middle. The dust was thick enough to coat her palms, but it wouldn’t muffle Vincent’s bronze-tipped boots.

On her belly, trying not to breathe too fast to avoid inhaling dust (to avoid inhaling panic), she moved to the top of the stairs.

They’d come up behind her tank, amidst the press of cables and pipes. Mako had congealed foully on the floor, but it hadn’t lain still long enough to go entirely dark; the light that it cast showed her debris, deep slices on the walls, but those were old scars. She couldn’t see Sephiroth here.

She raised a palm to Vincent before lowering herself cautiously to the ground. No audible crunching. Good. She didn’t even brush the pipes on her way past; Vincent would have to turn sideways, but that was fine — he made a smaller target that way.

Her survey of the room still gave her nothing. She light-footed it to the broken door and eased herself in close to the wall to see outside it. Nothing ahead, or to the left. When she moved to see the right, her heart jumped up under her tongue and her breathing seemed suddenly ten times louder.

She moved back to Vincent as quickly as she could without turning away from the door, and scooped her hand frantically through the air to get him to follow. She heard him move to her back, and stood frozen, wondering if Sephiroth had heard, too.

His gauntlet found her elbow, and rested lightly around the flesh just above it. He didn’t squeeze, but she got the message.

She drew a kunai from her belt, and moved.




They slithered from the antechamber like dragonspawn from the shell, this one dragging tattered scarlet wings, that one blinking rapidly in the light.

“Come to finish what you started?” he asked.

“We’ve done it before.” Kisaragi’s eyes were too large, too expressive to mask her fear, but the hand that held the kunai did not falter. Valentine was stone.

“So I recall.”

They waited — seconds, minutes, hours. His mind was a jumble of images; this place, their faces, an alien voice in his head, sinuous and coiling. Valentine — or was it Tseng? Turks were all the same, their features, even their voices blending into one throughout the years, each one adept at harnessing and hiding the psychotic.

He had often thought, in other circumstances, he would make a good Turk.

He straightened from his slump, stared them in the eye. “Will you wait until I lose my mind, or just until I sleep?”

“We’re not murderers,” snapped Kisaragi, and Sephiroth could not hold the snort that left him.

“I suppose that is where we differ. In my right mind, I have never tried to fight against that word.”

He pushed himself to his feet, steadying himself on the hand rail, thoughtfully provided by men who would straighten their spectacles and observe the victim of a fall down these stairs with no more discomfort than they had observed the changes that concentrated mako wrought upon the human bloodstream. The human placenta.

Him.

“Perhaps it’s that I am not fully human,” he mused, and narrowed his eyes just as they did. “Don’t misunderstand. This is no ludicrous notion of godhead. If there is one thing to be learned from our whole sorry history, it is that Cetra are born, not made. It would make things simpler, however.”

“They are simple enough.” Valentine’s eyes burned red. “Return with us.”

“To a gallery of my victims?”

“To the house your mother died in.”

Sephiroth eyed the ex-Turk through a fall of silver hair. “My mother.”

“Lucrecia.” Valentine’s jaw clenched. “Hojo’s wife.”

“A human woman. Wife of a human man.”

Kisaragi gave him a long look, and then made the kunai vanish. “Only if you think Hojo was human.”




“Anything?”

The call echoed down the stone corridor, and Tifa grinned when she recognised Aeris’ voice. The way the lantern had been swinging, she’d been expecting Yuffie. Or a psychotically cheerful Tonberry.

“There’s another lab down there,” she called back. “No sign of Sephiroth, though.”

“Us neither.” Aeris face, when it came into view, was not nearly as cheerful as her lantern had suggested. Cloud’s was equally dark.

“What kind of lab?”

“The bad kind,” Barret growled. Cloud glanced toward Tifa, but she didn’t challenge the assessment.

“We found an archive. It looks like some of Gast’s old work, but it’s big enough that it could be lots of things.” He shifted, clearly uncomfortable. “If any of Hojo’s work is down here, we have a lot more ground to cover.”

“You mean more clues,” Tifa said, but she barely got a smile.

“Maybe.” He took a deep breath, and his hand twitched upward as if to run through his hair. “Right. Barret, you and me are going to follow Yuffie and Vincent. They’ve been gone too long. Tifa, Aeris, I want you to get back topside. Try to contact the Turks. If anything goes wrong, they’ll need to know first.”

Aeris’ lips flattened out. Her eyes blazed, but she contained herself and nodded. When Cloud and Barret were out of sight, Tifa reached out and squeezed her hand.

“It’ll be fine,” she said. “They’ll all be fine.”

Aeris didn’t squeeze back.




Chapter 14: The Underground
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June 2013

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