cheloya: (FF7 >> @#$%!)
[personal profile] cheloya
Title: Faith and Feather
Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Pairing: Yuffie/Vincent
Words: 3357
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 Nine




Chapter Ten: Smoke



[Day 8, 0600 Nibel Standard Time]

A hand on his arm. Whose?

To steady his breathing even as his heart rate leapt was second nature. There were low voices in the room with him, both female; one clearly Midgan, the other with the softer vowels of Wutai. He fought the urge to crease his brow. Another of Zack's pranks?

Tubes and monitors, blinking LEDs, something wet and warm down the side of his face--

The Wutaian voice stopped abruptly. Footsteps. His flesh prickled in warning, and then a voice much closer to his ear said, "Nice try, but you weren't breathing that evenly when you were asleep."

The Wutaian rocked back on her heels, crossing her arms in front of her. She looked faintly green. The hand on his forearm rubbed two gentle circles. "How are you feeling?" asked the Midgan.

Watery light filtered down on ancient stone - an altar. The footsteps of his prey drew nearer.

He started to sit up. In an instant the gentle hand had moved from his arm to his chest. "Not just yet," the Midgan advised. "You've been asleep for... quite a while."

Everything in her posture bespoke kindness and warmth, but the guarded posture of her companion said otherwise.

The Wutaian swallowed heavily, then thumbed the PHS at her hip. "Guest's awake, Spike."

There was a brief burst of static. "Copy that. Can he walk?"

She eyed him closely, then shrugged. "Not sure yet."

"Ten minutes to find out, then we winch him down. Out."

Sephiroth eyed the Midgan woman. "With your permission...?" he said, raising an eyebrow. She blinked, and withdrew her hand. Black spots scattered across his vision as he forced himself into a sitting position. He closed his eyes.

"That... wasn't sleep."

The Midgan woman shifted uncomfortably. The Wutaian scowled, opened her mouth, and closed it again with a grimace as the room shuddered and swayed. Another voice rang out from a speaker system, ricocheting from the metal walls.

"Just a little turbulence, folks. We'll be through the worst of it shortly."

The Midgan patted the Wutaian on the back with no change in her gentle patience as the Wutaian bravely loosed the contents of her stomach into the steel basin jutting from one wall. "Nearly there, Yuffie," she sympathised.

Dark eyes behind a lattice of tinted steel; no anger, only certainty and a wave of blades.

Sephiroth pinched the bridge of his nose hard enough to distract himself from the flashes of vision/memory, and made to swing his legs out of the camp bed.

Then he gritted his teeth and sat back to wait for a convenient break in the vomiting to ask where he might find his uniform, or at least a set of trousers.

***

Highwind was on his feet and glaring out the window before Elena even thought to ask him what his problem was. She figured it out pretty quick when he slammed the door open and started crashing down the stairs, shouting about people killing themselves on their first time through this wind tunnel, though. Apparently no storm could dull his ears to an airship.

She tapped at her earpiece. "Looks like Strife and company are here."

"On my way," Reno crackled. Elena stood, stretched her neck, and trailed in Highwind's wake to lean in the frame of the wide open door to the overgrown grounds behind the manor, where Highwind was either signing directions at the airship's pilot, or presenting a rendition of frustration in interpretive dance.

Nibelheim had never got a convenient airstrip, and in winds like these even the sleek, contoured airship above her was forced to descend drunkenly, adjusting every thirty feet. It settled eventually on a monstrous cluster of plants that may once have been a hedge maze. Decades of neglect had prepared the plants remarkably well for life as an airship cradle; they were so densely overgrown that they hardly compacted, though the crew might have to duck a little more than usual on the gangplank.

Predictably, Kisaragi was the first onto solid ground, and muffled by her own hands. "Organic redecoration coming through!" Elena tried not to listen.

"Everyone accounted for?" she called as Cloud ducked out of the ship's belly.

"And then some." He eyed her. "None of you are going to like it. Gather everyone in the main hall. You too, Cid."

"I ain't goin' nowhere 'til I've seen my wife," Highwind spat. "The hell were you thinkin', setting down in this headwind?"

Cloud looked him over. "As long as you don't have a weapon, go on in." He glanced back to Elena. "Give us ten minutes. And try to convince the rest of the suits not to shoot anyone."

***

"Just try not to look like you're about to kill everyone," Yuffie advised, "and everything will be fine. Oh, and let Aeris go first. Everyone loves Aeris. She's like cupcakes. I may have slightly over-medicated for that trip."

"You don't say," Sephiroth replied. She reminded him of someone, though whom he could not say.

"You really should let her go first, though," she continued. "Right, Spike?"

The blond man -- SOLDIER, First or Second Class ability, though he didn't wear the colours, and the persistent nag of almost-memory was beginning to give Sephiroth a headache -- turned to look at Sephiroth. "You should probably let Aeris go first," he conceded, and turned his attention elsewhere. "Vincent. Go on ahead. Make sure they're prepared."

He paused as Yuffie bounced absently on the spot.

"... take her with you, will you?"

Sephiroth frowned as the red-cloaked man steered the girl toward the gang plank, to loud and largely unintelligible protest. Their caution was explicitly for him, then. The fingers of his left hand curled reflexively around a sword that wasn't there, and he straightened them again resolutely.

"After you, then," he said to Aeris.

He recognised Nibelheim at once, although he had never walked the gardens of Shinra Manor. It must have taken decades for the creepers and topiaries to so thoroughly decimate the wide stone courtyard. His frown deepened. Surely it could not have been decades. Perhaps the mountains were simply more fertile than they had appeared on his last visit. It was--

--raining, water pounding soil into slurry, and still the dragon's speed outclassed his partner. Sephiroth raised his sword, seeing bright blue eyes slit with pain, stepped forward--

--into silence.

And then, motion.

***

AVALANCHE and its assorted Shinra employees were scattered around the entrance hall. The room had stilled, tensed, when the door had opened, but now that he and Yuffie had been identified, for the most part they went back to talking amongst themselves. Elena leaned against the arm of the sofa beside Tifa and Barret, obviously expecting some conversation, but although she smiled gamely at Barret's words, the martial artist offered nothing.

Vincent nodded to Nanaki, who flicked one ear in greeting. The guardian was listening, mouth open slightly as he scented the air. Already beginning to suspect. Vincent led Yuffie to a chair, and stood behind her, waiting.

Cloud entered next. He stood before them, silently, until Reno snapped, "Spit it out, Strife. What'd you find?" Tifa threw him a look that promised injury, fist clenching by her knee. Cloud held Reno's gaze for a few moments before he began.

"It wasn't a wasted trip. Vincent was right to call us. But I'm not gonna lie--" Here he paused, ran a hand through his hair. Vincent saw Nanaki stiffen as Cid's raised voice filtered through the door. "What we found only confuses things more."

Barret smacked his open palm against the sofa. "Damn it, Spike--"

"It's probably better just to get it over with," Aeris suggested, peeking through the door. Heavy feet on the gravel path behind her and then Cid slammed into the room and grabbed Cloud roughly by the shoulder. Shera trailed a few feet behind, looking harassed.

"You got some kinda fuckin' explanation for this--"

"Sit down, Cid," Tifa snarled, saintly patience worn thin, and then Sephiroth stood framed in the doorway and everyone froze.

Chaos woke. Vincent's pupils flared.

Rude's hand first, then Reno's; it was the work of milliseconds to deliver blows that numbed hands and arms with the side of his gauntlet. He was moving again before Aeris began to raise her hands, eyes wide in protest at the threatened violence. Barret was harder, but slow, and already impeded by Tifa - he helped her lift the grafted arm back and upward, winced at the crackle of energy down his side. Elena bore down on her trigger--

"STOP," Vincent snarled with the voice of Chaos, his blood pounding in his ears to the beat of both their hearts.

The room stilled around him. Gradually, he became aware of the near-silent struggle of Tifa and Barret, both hissing curses under their breaths; the tinkle of plaster falling from holes in his ceiling or walls; the low, normal animal growl of Nanaki.

"Weapons down," Cloud said firmly. "He's not a threat. Not right now."

Vincent straightened as weapons were grudgingly stowed, his own still a rippling snarl beneath his skin. He resumed his stance beside Yuffie, trying to ignore the wideness of her eyes. The medication, he assured himself. She knew he was no threat to her.

Not right now.

***

The flower girl shook her head when Cloud pointed her to a seat. "There's no point," she said. "I don't have enough to tell you."

For being recently dead, she looked damn fine to Reno's eyes. She might've lost an inch or two of inviting curve, a few shades of her peaches-and-cream complexion, but he was unashamed to say he would still tap that in a heartbeat.

Well, mostly unashamed.

"Tell them what you told us," Tifa said. "Then we can get cleaned up." The flower girl bobbed her head, the hint of a frown on her face.

"I had been... dreaming, I suppose. Adrift in the Lifestream, touching a hundred thousand other minds. I don't know when I started to come back to myself again, but the Planet... woke me nearly six days ago." She took a deep, shuddering breath, answering Reno's silent question as to whether the Planet had also woken a floatation device. "I could still hear her, but the Planet speaks very slowly, so I could hear that... above her, there was another voice. It was barely a whisper, but it was calling for me -- for anyone."

Rude's head barely moved, but Reno traced his gaze to Valentine. The ex-Turk's frown grew slightly deeper, but other than that he made no reaction.

"I followed it," The flower girl continued. "I couldn't sleep, so I followed the whisper. When the snow was too thick, I tried to speak to the Planet about why she had woken me, but all I could see was... creatures. Violent and powerful, but somehow... small. Like angry children throwing toys. It never got clearer, but every time she pushed me toward the voice.

"It grew stronger the closer I got to the Crater, until I finally started to realise what it was. Who it was." She paused, twisted to see Sephiroth. "You weren't awake, when I told Cloud before. Do you remember what you were calling for?"

The General -- there was no simmering madness in this Sephiroth's eyes, only puzzlement and weary calculation -- shook his head. "I recall the area, but I have no knowledge of these events." Precise, clipped. The flower girl did not seem surprised.

"The Planet woke me so that I could wake him. It's not anything I'd... normally be capable of. I'm sure she could have woken him herself, except..."

"Except that we'd have taken him out again, no questions asked," Cloud said. Barret muttered something in sullen agreement behind him. "We needed you to convince us. Why?"

Aeris shook her head, spread her hands helplessly. "I wish I knew. All I can tell is that something isn't quite right. The Planet is still weak. She's not the way she's meant to be. I think she needs us to set things right."

"You're telling me the Planet woke you -- and him -- from the dead so we could run errands?" Reno couldn't stop himself from snorting. "I don't know if you've heard, princess, but we have problems a little closer to home."

"I know about Reeve," Aeris said. "And Godo. I don't know if it helps, but Midgar and Wutai... Wutai especially... were shifting. Getting dimmer. I sensed that much before I woke." She put her hands together in her lap and hunched her shoulders as if suddenly cold. "I don't know that the events are connected, but I suspect they are. We need to find them."

If they're still there to find, Reno finished for her.

"I think that's enough for tonight," Tifa suggested, obviously sensing the same sentiment. "If the Turks aren't sick of Wutaian takeout yet, there's a place down by the equipment shop. We can start fresh in the morning. Barret, you're the best at juggling shopping bags..."

Within a few minutes she had packed the gunman off with Highwind and his old lady in tow, and the flower girl was halfway up the stairs being led toward a hot shower. Valentine, at a nod from Strife, got Kisaragi on her feet and headed for the kitchen.

Lana cleared her throat. "...if it's all the same, sir, I don't think I'm fit for what you're about to discuss." The faint hint of a tremor in her voice made Reno agree with her. Not that any of them really were. He jerked his head in Valentine's direction and she hastened after him.

Sephiroth stood in their midst, waiting. Cloud exhaled slowly.

"You say you don't remember, and I believe you," he said, "But that's more worrisome than you might think. I need two people with you at all times. Is that going to be a problem?"

The General's green eyes narrowed subtly. "According to Ms Gainsborough, you're speaking to a corpse. Until I understand or recall how that came to be, you are welcome to do as you wish."

"Right." Cloud turned his attention to the rest of them. "Right now, there are only six of us I trust to watch him without making things worse. You three, Vincent, and Tifa. I'm up for first watch."

"I'll join you," Elena cut in before Reno could open his mouth. He shot her a look, which she returned evenly, chin lifting stubbornly. "All due respect, sir, you haven't slept right in days."

"You want me to start now?" He'd have laughed if he'd thought he could stop once he started. "Done. I was never much good as a babysitter."

He beckoned her over as Strife started on about the next shift -- Valentine and Rude, and Reno couldn't tell if Rude had sagged with relief or disappointment. He lowered his voice and turned his head so the General couldn't see or hear his words. "You sure you'll be okay with this?"

Elena's eyes were dark with purpose, her jaw tight. He hadn't seen her so closed down for years.

Two years.

"Laney?"

She saluted, and smiled grimly. "Let you know, sir."

***

Tifa knocked twice before she stuck her hand around the bathroom door. "Elena had a spare. She's about the closest to your size."

"I think I'm closer to Yuffie's size now," Aeris complained. Tifa suppressed a smile, rolled her eyes, and leaned against the wall beside the door.

"Poor thing," she said. "Imagine having a normal chest size! I don't know how you bear it."

"Oh-- you--" Aeris emerged in a haze of steam, half-dressed, hands on hips, and flung her wet towel at the laughing martial artist. She held the expression of righteous indignation for nearly four seconds before snorting in a most un-lady-like fashion and grabbing Tifa in a surprisingly bony hug.

Tifa rested her forehead against Aeris' damp hair and squeezed Aeris' cool shoulders. "It's good to have you back," she said. "I've missed you."

Aeris' eyes twinkled up at her merrily. "I haven't. I've been watching you. And Cloud. In the shower." She waggled her eyebrows as Tifa turned bright red. "Hah! I knew it!"

"You little cheat," Tifa whisper-shrieked, completely mortified and unable to keep the smirk from her face. She grabbed Aeris' head through the towel with both hands and noogied the laughing flower girl until she submitted, both hands raised in surrender. Then, gentling her motions, she started to towel Aeris' hair.

Aeris sighed happily and leaned into the motion, apparently perfectly comfortable in little more than underwear (Tifa had no illusions about her spare shorts) even in the chilly Nibel air. The towel was saturated before she was even halfway done, slick chestnut running in rivulets across her lap. "Is this going to get in your way?"

Aeris shrugged, taking part of the mess over her shoulder and massaging the towel through it. "I think it'll all go back for the moment. If you're offering home haircuts, though, I can think of someone who needs it worse than I do."

Tifa's lips pursed as she combed her fingers through the hair, dividing it for a braid without really thinking about it. "I don't know how he'd feel about someone else holding scissors," she said at last, the most neutral remark she could think of, and Aeris twisted to face her sadly.

"You don't like it."

Tifa rocked her head from side to side, not quite meeting Aeris' eyes. "I'm uncomfortable," she agreed. "It's all a little hard to believe. You back. Him back, like nothing ever went wrong, when I still have dreams sometimes--"

Aeris took first her left hand, then her right, rubbing soothing circles with her thumbs. Tifa stared at nothing meditatively, not realising at first what her eyes were focused on. Then she sucked in her breath in a hiss, touched her fingers to Aeris' bare stomach. "Do you need something on that?"

Aeris looked down as if she had forgotten, both hands moving to cover the wound on her belly. Tifa pulled her forward to peer over her shoulder, bit her lip at a matching injury, only three or four inches long, in the middle of Aeris' back. Neither bled, but both were newly-healed enough that their edges were still raised, layers of skin flaking away to either side. Aeris wouldn't meet her eyes, and Tifa was seized with sudden suspicion.

"It wouldn't help, would it? They'll stay like that." She gave a choked laugh that might have been a sob. "You're not really--"

"I've lived my life," Aeris said softly. She brushed back her hair with one hand and grimaced as shreds of old skin came away on her fingertips. "But I'm needed. Some skill of the Ancients must be required, some intercession by the Planet-- I don't know. But no. I won't be here forever. Neither will he."

"Does Cloud know?"

Aeris' hesitation was enough. Tifa swallowed.

"I can't keep this from him. But it's not my place to say," she said carefully. Aeris nodded.

"I'll tell him," she said. "Just as soon as I figure out how."

***

[Day 9, 0029 Cosmo Candle Time]

"Hah hah!" Reeve chuckled as Ayuki's PHS paused mid-boot and reverted to a simple command line interface, green text lurid against the black backdrop. "Just a few minutes more and we'll be in business."

Feather smiled vaguely in his direction. Whatever had happened in the submarine bay had left her exhausted, though the GPS didn't seem to mean much to her even as she recovered. She sat hunched around her knees, as if stricken with cold much deeper than that of the badly-aired building.

Painstakingly, he began entering commands, starting up services, reaching out to IP addresses he had long ago learned by heart. The signal here was weak -- he'd seen that before he rooted the device -- but that should only slow him down, not prevent him entirely.

"Any minute," he promised them both, and waited for the signal to travel.




Chapter Eleven: Fetch
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cheloya

June 2013

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