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Title: Faith and Feather
Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Pairing: Yuffie/Vincent
Words: 2850
Notes: In celebration of an election result that did not make me cry.

Chapter 13




Chapter 14: The Underground



[Day 10, 1635 Nibel Standard Time]

Sephiroth was not escorted through the study and into the entrance hall at gunpoint. This was, Yuffie felt, an achievement -- although from the way Barret was studiously avoiding Sephiroth's eye, and the serious-trouble-young-man scowl on Aeris' face when they staggered back into the study, she was coming to doubt her initial supposition that Vincent and Cloud had formed a secret language of interpretive eyebrow movements and never using a goddamn comb.

She flopped down on the carpet next to Red at the first opportunity and stretched one leg while she massaged the other. He growled under his breath, but the bump of his forehead against her elbow was affectionate.

She was about to tip sideways and return the headbutt when Tifa came in from the hall, PHS halfway to her belt.

"Cid's already in the air," she said. "They're headed to Rocket Town for the time being. They'll check in at eighteen-hundred." She, too, was very careful not to look in Sephiroth's direction, as if avoiding his eyes would prevent Sephiroth from grasping her meaning.

As far as Yuffie could tell, it was working. In her peripheral vision, Sephiroth stood like a statue, eyes fixed on the far wall. His face was slack, expressionless; his posture and breathing were neutral, relaxed. Only the occasional flex of his fingers, the tightening of his knuckles and their dull pop, betrayed him.

A true warrior, with few tells. Her memory gave the words to Staniv, but only Gorky had been on the council before the war. A serpent, striking from the depths. But he was too close to the surface right now.

Yuffie's fingers tightened in Red's mane. Sephiroth's knuckles cracked.

Cloud said, "Vincent. Aeris."

And Yuffie traipsed out into the hall with the rest of them, silently cursing Cloud Strife and all his spiky, over-gelled potential offspring, paying no attention whatsoever to the faintly reptilian slits of Vincent's pupils.

***

"You were unaware of the secondary lab," Sephiroth stated, as soon as the door had closed. "My childhood memories have never been particularly clear, but I recall that place quite vividly." His words were crisp and measured, Vincent noted. Masking pain, or falsehood?

"I do not."

"Me neither." Cloud's arms were crossed, shoulders straight in defiance of a defensive posture.

Sephiroth shrugged, a measured motion, not casual in the least. "I was five, perhaps six. I imagine you were elsewhere."

Chaos pulsed, red rage and black grief in their chest. They did not correct the swordsman. To their left, Aeris shifted, and Vincent blinked rapidly. Breathed.

"You were here with Professor Gast," she prompted, and Sephiroth nodded, once.

"Gast, a number of other scientists, Turks. At the time, I believed they were preparing me for my role in SOLDIER." His eyes narrowed, and his hands flexed. "Revisiting the place... I no longer believe that was the case. Nor was it part of the Jenova Project. More than that, you must learn from the lab itself."

"That's it?" Cloud's tone was neutral, but they had all heard that quiet control before. Aeris glanced in his direction, but said nothing. Vincent followed her cue.

"Unless you have a particular interest in the daily schedule of a child officer-cum-lab rat, or believe an apology for behaviour over which I had no control would be of any benefit, yes -- it is."

Vincent felt a moment's sympathy for every member of AVALANCHE who had ever been thwarted by his own reluctance to discuss his past. He could not blame Sephiroth for being unwilling to discuss events that he was surely still struggling to come to terms with -- but neither could he blame Cloud for the snort of frustration that escaped him.

Aeris cleared her throat into the silence. "We understand. But we do need to keep you under supervision, in case... in case."

"I have no reasonable objection."

Behind Sephiroth, Vincent raised his chin toward Cloud, then tilted his head toward Sephiroth almost imperceptibly. Cloud didn't so much as blink. "Vincent or myself will accompany you at all times."

"Understood," said Sephiroth. He glanced at Vincent, and then preceded him from the room. Vincent followed, three steps behind, trying not to look at Sephiroth and see Lucrecia's wrists, Lucrecia's jaw; trying to suppress the lunatic laughter behind his right eye.

***

[Day 10, 1930 Nibel Standard Time]

Even in a borrowed set of dungarees and a filthy flight cap from the Highwind's engine room, Reeve and his companion were about as subtle as the carnival cat-robot secretary flouncing along behind them. Feather struck a note of mako-hazed waif that might have worked in Midgar, even with the natty flight jacket, but in Nibelheim she may as well have been wearing day-glo orange.

At least there weren't many people on the streets this time of night. Street lamps were few and far between, rendered moot by decades of weather and fiend-induced curfew turned habit, and it was too damn cold and windy to go out after dark here, anyway.

Didn't help Reno stop eyeballing every lane they passed, daring every trash can, especially after Rude peeled off.

By the time they reached the manor, he was wound so tight even Elena had quit chattering. When Valentine opened the door and said, "Off the street," as if it hadn't occurred to Reno that whatever freaks Ayuki was with might have eyes on them, it was all he could do not to pound the prick. And Valentine probably knew it. Glaring, Reno gestured Reeve inside, turned to watch Cait's lumbering progress alongside the trail of smoke that surrounded Highwind, and only really noticed the other occupants of the entrance hall when Reeve choked on his own spit two steps inside the house.

Aeris stepped forward, grinning from ear to ear, and Reeve reached out for her hand as he tried to stop coughing, pulled her into an embrace before his breathing evened out. "Welcome back," she said, and Reeve dissolved into coughing chuckles again, tears leaking from exhausted eyes and running into the tangle of his beard.

"Same to you," he croaked at last, giving her hand one last squeeze. "Reno tells me you aren't our only visitor."

Sephiroth, who had watched the scene with an expression of boredom-tinged amusement from an armchair, stood. "President." His hand twitched. Whether in abortive handshake or salute, Reno wouldn't have cared to bet.

"Reeve," said the man in question. He didn't offer a hand, either, but Reno suspected that was only because he couldn't quite let go of Aeris' hand to do so. "I believe we were introduced at a cocktail party once." Aeris gave him a look so radiant it might have blinded the room.

Sephiroth's face took on a strange expression, as if surprised to discover that he did , indeed, remember.

Reeve grinned. "That's about how you looked when Scarlet caught up with you, too."

Reno almost sympathised.

***

[Day 10, 2300 Nibel Standard Time]

Yuffie reached out across the table, hands raised in supplication to her very favourite president, even when she didn't want anything, and rolled her eyes when Reeve passed her another slice of pizza. "Not actually what I was aiming for," she informed him, popping it onto her plate for later and extending her greasy fingers expectantly.

"Mm," Reeve said brightly, and passed the garlic bread. Yuffie's face hit the tabletop between her napkin and her can of sugar.

"The materia, Reeve, jeez." She propped her face on greasy knuckles. "You can't tell me stories of mysterious girlfriends and split-materia amulets and battles with Shiva and not show me your split materia."

"About that." Reeve swallowed, and looked apologetic. "It was split." He grabbed a napkin and began wiping his fingers, slowly and precisely. "Something Feather did fixed it. I don't know what -- I'm not sure she knows. But... well." He fished in his trouser pocket for a moment, and held his closed hand out to her. "See for yourself."

The materia was whole, mastered Shiva; Yuffie could see that in an instant. Half a dozen other people would say the same after a few moments more. The interesting thing was the torque. The bar between the materia halves had snapped cleanly, with only a slight curve near the severed ends. It had been cold, that much Yuffie could figure, but more than that, it had been fast. She squinted, and frowned.

"The setting's fused with the materia?"

"Not only that." Reeve gestured for the amulet, and Yuffie handed it back to him. "The materia is pushing the setting back out." He traced a nail down the curve, where a bare millimeter of the flat base could be seen beyond the lip of the claws set into the crystal.

"It's... growing," Yuffie said. "But... it's mastered. We haven't used it. How can it be growing?"

Reeve scooted it across the table at her and sat back, patting his returning paunch with great affection. "I have no idea," he said. "But I figure you're going to have a lot of questions for Feather tomorrow morning."

"Pshyeah," said Yuffie, who generally pretended not to know the meaning of the word 'patience'. "Where is she now?"

Reeve rolled his eyes. "If she has any sense, sleeping. Like you should be."

"After all this?" Yuffie's gesture included the tabletop of empty pizza boxes, tinfoil, pie tins, and soda cans. "You're lucky I'm not on the roof."

***

Vincent found her in the courtyard in the wee hours, balancing on the statuary. He forebore to chide her; she would only behave more recklessly to spite him. "They seem to be withstanding the weather," he said instead, and politely ignored the jolt of tension that made her foot slip from a stone angel's shoulder.

She caught herself, of course. "There's a nest on top of the northwest gargoyle," she informed him. "Definitely not owls."

"I heard." He'd seen her rapid progress past the first floor window, too, and had a hand to his holster before he realised that the demon wasn't stirring, that any threat was pure imagination.

"Good thing you're caught-up on sleep, monster man." She eyed the angel's left wing and, with a rapid twist, she was on her hands with her feet in the air, grinning like a carnival mask, the flesh of her face distorted by gravity.

"Just as well," he agreed, and waited.

Yuffie held her handstand for thirty seconds, a minute, before the tension returned to her frame and she had to let it go. She made a sound of disgust, and pushed herself back into the air to land upright in front of the statue, frowning deeply.

"She can't tell me how she did it," she said at last. "She doesn't know. Or she doesn't understand the question. Not only that," knuckles tightening, "She says she can't fix my Leviathan. She can't understand him."

Vincent watched the tension creeping up her spine, watched her still hands flit into motion, whirling a kunai before her, around her back, a wavering globe of the slim blade's sheen in the moonlight. "She does not strike me as the type to withhold information."

"No." The kunai stilled abruptly, and Yuffie stuffed it back into her belt. She turned to him with a grimace dressed as a smile. "Not on purpose. Doesn't make me want to smack her any less." He didn't -- couldn't -- laugh, and after a moment, her dark eyes flickered past him. "How's life with the General, monster man?"

Her lack of apology didn't bother him; her pride was familiar, and almost comforting. Her choice of subject, however... "His behaviour is exemplary."

"Pity you spend so much time with the rest of us slobs, huh?" She grimaced, and shook her head, glaring at her hands. "No, that's... god, Vincent, just-- just go inside. I'm not..."

Fit company. "Were we ever?"

Her laughter was a sudden snort of breath. A sniffle followed it, but when she looked up, her eyes were dry. "Guess not," she said. "C'mon, then, monster man. Bad company needs all the beauty sleep it can get."

***

[Day 11, 0900 Nibel Standard Time]

"Figured you of all people would be champin' to get down there," Cid grumbled over the umpteenth cup of tea, while Yuffie rattled around the kitchen and grappled with the cheap toaster Tifa had picked up when it became apparent that Vincent's breakfast habits were roughly equivalent to those of a college student.

"I was ready to go after dinner, not my fault you pansies wanted to wait 'til it was light," she said, then tucked her tongue between her teeth as she levered the edge of her toast up high enough to grab it and flip it onto her plate. "Like daylight makes a difference down there."

"Damn sure makes a difference when we come back up," Cid said, but didn't rush her further.

Just as well, she thought a short while later as they descended the second staircase, this time with torches in hand; with the amount of mould and fungus on the walls, taking the toast with her would either give her superpowers or make her puke _forever_.

The air grew cooler as they descended, and the debris fell away from the walls, starved of the moisture required to propagate. Lana and Rude followed Cait's flouncing tail ahead to the archive that Aeris and Cloud had found, while Cid and Yuffie descended further to the lab.

Reno and Elena were already there, although she looked as if she'd drawn the short straw, and Reno didn't look much happier. Yuffie threw her arms wide. "Rejoice! Your princess has arrived."

Elena looked at her, then went back to the console she was trying to extract data from. Reno rolled his eyes. "Just get going, Kisaragi, and don't make me look in more of these damn tanks than you have to. Some of them are downright nasty."

Yuffie eyed the room, which would have been more of an amphitheatre if the audience hadn't been stewing in their own juices for half a century or more, and glanced back at Cid. "Top left?"

"Just fuckin' start already," Cid grouched, and took a weathered pencil and notepad from his top pocket.

She trotted across the main lab floor and let herself into the pod room. The air was cold and thick in spite of the stench, mako salt and sweet organic putrefaction making it hard to breathe through either nose or mouth. She pulled the neck of her shirt up over her nose and mouth, trying not to gag. "I'm having second thoughts about that piece of toast," she said, and Cid shrugged and gestured her onward.

"You can't even smell this, can you," she accused him as she climbed. "You have actually absorbed so much tar and tannin that it has formed a protective coating. Okay, okay, I'm looking, stop bothering me, I need to concentrate, Cid, jeez." She peered inside the pod, and glanced at the materia set into the channel in the door. "Command, looks like a... a Morph, I think. And this guy really needs to shave-- well. Chisel, I guess. Next one is a holy crap, human knifeblock, is there a knives materia no one told me about? Oh, oh, wait, it's a Double Cut, never mind. Yeesh."

Reno hadn't been kidding about the state of the victims in the pods; most of those with Command and Independent materia set into their doors could still be recognised as human, but when they moved to the second tier and started to hit those with Magic materia in front of them, Yuffie had to close her eyes and bite her tongue to keep herself from sobbing like a little girl.

It was almost a relief when they came to the pod with the Seal materia. The corpse had crystallised; perfect, unchanged. She might not even have punched the tank, if it hadn't been a kid no older than eight, fear and anxiety still plain on his frozen face.

Cid didn't even have the heart to tell her off for it, just heaved a sigh and put the pencil between his teeth. "C'mon, kid. Just a few more to go."

She hoped Cloud wouldn't want a blow-by-blow account.

***

[Day ?, ???? ???????]

It was dark in the board room, and cold, but none of them needed light to see, and Titan hardly cared about their comfort. His palms stretched across the chill cement, mottled white and dun with cold, but his body held no tremor.

"It seems they have ignored our warning," he said, in a voice threaded with sand.

From the darkness, a chuckle. "Children are ever wilful," came the placid agreement. Titan's jaw firmed.

"You forever underestimate children, Leviathan. They must be stopped." He tapped a fingertip against the table's surface. "...swiftest runner, daughter of air."

"Mm-hmm?" The table creaked as lean, tanned arms came to rest on it.

"Bring their investigation to a close. Ensure that none can reopen it."

Teeth gleamed. "I'll get Laurent."




Chapter 15: Rising Son
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