(Crossposting from IJ's No True Pair community - trying to get my indexes up to date on both sites!)
Title: The Dragon of Nibelheim, part 2
Fandom: FF7 (AU)
Pairing/characters: Angeal and Sephiroth
Rating: R for being pretty disturbing
Prompt/challenge you're answering: Angeal and Sephiroth, working together
Warnings: Still the Brothers Grimm edition of a fairytale world...
Author's notes: Continued from part 1.
Angeal had once hoped, when he'd first heard of a dragon hatchling orphaned at birth, that he might be able to change the senseless, wasteful pattern the Nibelheim villagers had accepted without question over the centuries. The hatchling's mother had been mad beyond hope, and could worm its way into a man's mind to paralyze him before he could strike, and had killed too many glory-seeking knights over too many centuries. Finally, one of the kings had decreed that no more knights were to waste themselves on the quest for dragonslaying renown, because Nibelheim was too small and too poor to be worth such efforts. Three knights' training and caparison cost more than the value of the entire village's work for a decade.
Left to somehow come to terms with a monster that no one with power would defend them from, the Nibelheim villagers had taken it into their heads that a sacrifice was needed to appease the beast. It was just as barbaric as the ancient custom of reading fates in virgins' torn-out entrails -- but if no king would spare them a squadron of knights to try to finish off the scourge, it was a certainty that none would bother to intervene on behalf of a few village children.
Angeal thought that the lowland knights who had come through questing for glory over the centuries must have been the ones to leave the fair-haired grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the village's bloodlines. Over time, it must have gone from sacrificing the 'outlander's bastard' to sacrificing the 'outlander's mark,' and then simply to the child born pale enough to be remarked upon in each generation. If he'd been more superstitious, he'd have granted some sort of significance to the fact that one was born every quarter century like clockwork; but Angeal was stubborn about the value of logic, and thought that even in a mountain range where magic welled up out of the very stone, there had to be some rational explanation to counterbalance the complete madness of the rest of the sacrifice-ritual.
Still, he was grateful that both he and Zack were dark-haired, because there was no telling how badly the isolated villagers might have reacted to 'curse-marked' knights who came to the defense of an equally 'curse-marked' child. He suspected that eventually it would have involved either a threefold sacrifice or burning and stakes, because his own tendency to discard diplomatic niceties for the stark blunt practicality of truth was not always a safe habit to indulge himself in.
Over the centuries, the old dragon had crowed its victory to the heavens as it tore each sacrifice to bloody shreds, and the villagers continued their barbaric ritual to placate a beast as powerful and lawless as the old and vengeful gods, and none of them had ever thought to question it. Not the villagers, who kept the dragon sated in its madness with a sacrificed youth a few times a century; and certainly not the dragon, who gloried in their abject, unquestioning submission.
But this young one, this hatchling that had never known any companionship beyond the first few days of its life -- Angeal had hoped that if he could convince himself strongly enough that a dragon's sacrifice was to be kept alive, perhaps the young one might be swayed by the force of his conviction that this was how sacrifices were to be handled. Perhaps there was a path to end the madness and the bloodshed.
Angeal hadn't fully anticipated the dragon's capacity for reason -- or its loneliness. The creature had been yearning for an intelligent companion for so long that it had already seized on the idea of possessing its sacrifice rather than destroying it, long before their arrival. It had been so desperately eager to have its sacrifice that it had barely taken more than an admittedly loud and frantic nudge for Angeal to convince the creature that sacrifices were to be kept alive.
But the dragon had no grasp of how not to damage a living being, when its entire survival had depended on its ability to swiftly kill and devour whatever poor beasts it snatched from the herds for a meal.
Amid all Angeal's half-formed hopes and plans and calculations since he'd come to Nibelheim to try to stop the waste of innocent lives that their kings had never bothered to defend, though, there was still one point he'd never considered.
He wished he'd had the foresight to anticipate how badly the beast would react to its chosen sacrifice 'escaping' its mental clutches by slipping into unconsciousness.
The dragon was beyond incoherent; it beat against Angeal's mind with raw emotion rather than words.
Its tail lashed around Angeal like a whip, and then squeezed like a fist.
He wasn't too worried when his ribs went, but when he felt his spine crack, Angeal thought, ah, well. I suppose it was too much to hope that I might survive such heroic lunacy. I hope Zack won't be too angry with me...
Your boy's asleep, Angeal pushed in the direction of that searing torrent. He's not dead. I didn't let him escape you. He's just sleeping.
Amid the roil of emotions, the dragon's mind thrust into his thoughts like a spearpoint, searching for a target: sleeping?
He could have kicked himself, if he could have moved. Of course the beast didn't know what sleeping looked like from the outside; it had never seen itself sleep, and its meals only stopped struggling when they were dead.
Angeal gathered up what he could find of comfort-thoughts around the agony of shattered bones, and offered: rest. soft. bed. pillow. ease. warm. recover...
Stop him, the dragon commanded. Make him come back. Now.
I can't just--
The dragon squeezed again, and the spike of pain took whatever coherence he might have had left.
You are NOT to go until you have brought him back!
You're killing me, Angeal thought. You've broken me inside. I can't help dying.
Recognition sparked in the dragon's thoughts, associated with the smell of the boy's blood and its furtive twisting displeasure at his 'escape'. Mend yourself. I require explanations.
The cure is in my sword.
I can't lie to you in my own mind. Give me my sword or kill me. The world was already fading into gray, and Angeal thought miserably, I wish I could have lived long enough to teach it how not to kill him.
The dragon's eyes narrowed; it bent its head to investigate the sword, its tongue flicking out to taste and sense.
...Oh, the dragon said, pleased with itself, and suddenly that gray haze was seared away in a vast wave of boiling green life.
When Angeal could stop himself from screaming, he realized that he could breathe again. The dragon still had him clutched far too tight, though, and... he didn't want to think too hard about the shape his broken back and hips must have fused themselves into. Although if he couldn't keep himself from triggering another of the beast's flashfire rages, it might not matter for long anyway.
Now you explain, the dragon commanded.
What do you want to know?
Well. Nothing like job security, Angeal thought irreverently, before he could censor himself; but the concept must have been too alien to anger the creature, because there was no punishment forthcoming. Instead, the dragon nosed at his head, and whuffed startlingly warm breath down his collar.
Are the pair of you diseased? This -- the fungus growing from your flesh, the patchy, discolored hide...
"Hair," Angeal said, trying desperately not to laugh. "Hair and clothes. Hair is like animals' fur, but only on top..."
"I don't know."
The dragon's eyes narrowed. You live to explain. You have no other use to me.
"I understand," Angeal assured it quickly. "But there are some things I simply don't know. It might have been better if our hair -- our fur -- grew everywhere, because then we could keep ourselves warm enough to live. Then we wouldn't need clothes to protect us from the cold and the snow."
You are badly made, the dragon told him disdainfully. You are too easily damaged.
"I know, great one," Angeal said with all the humility he could muster. "This is why I want to explain how you can keep Cloud healthy and well."
He is nothing like a cloud, the dragon rumbled.
"His mother gave him that name so that she could call to him among the other children," Angeal said. "There are thousands of us. We use words we call 'names' to identify each other."
He has always been my sacrifice, the dragon said, irritably. That is his identity.
"His mother wanted him to be happy while he could," Angeal said. "He may always have been your sacrifice, but he has also always been his mother's child."
The dragon reared its head back, snapping at the air in vexation. She has no purpose now. He no longer belongs to her; he belongs to me--
"Yes, I understand," Angeal said dutifully, even as his heart sank a bit. The poor boy would be miserable for the rest of his too-brief life if he couldn't manage to coax this prideful creature into allowing him any sort of human contact. "But her purpose was to care for your sacrifice, before he came to you. You will need to care for him in her place, in order to keep him alive and well. Remember, we are small and soft and fragile next to your great strength."
The dragon huffed its displeasure, with a vast gout of warmth chasing back the cave's chill. You are all badly made.
"Yes, great one."
This displeases me.
"I am sorry," Angeal said, and meant it most of all for Cloud's sake. "But I cannot change what we are even to suit your pleasure. If you try to force us to change, we will only die."
Pathetic, the dragon rumbled.
"Yes, great one."
It turned around and around, pacing a circle about the boy's motionless body, and then draped itself next to him and set Angeal down -- though it didn't loosen that tight-twined tail-grasp, to make certain that he could do nothing untoward.
Explain, it said. What else must I do to keep my sacrifice intact?
Angeal told it about healthy food and fresh water, coats and blankets and bathing and washing, protection from the elements, physical and mental diversions like books and exercise, sleep as a daily need, just like the need for sunlight -- yes, like plants, and yes, plants truly were a necessary food item. And while he acknowledged that it might seem disgusting to tear things out of the filth of the earth and consume them, it was a true human need. Not everything was as splendidly designed as a dragon, after all.
Then Angeal told it about the difference between blood and ichor, and the need to keep humans' blood in its place. How easily bones could be broken, and how the sharp points could tear the boy inside. Claws were not to be used, or teeth, and any twining-about should be gentler than what had been done to Angeal, since the boy had no inherent magic to heal himself with.
They have given me a defective sacrifice? it asked, bristling.
"We humans are all defective, great one," Angeal reminded it. "I need the healing magestone in my sword to mend grave wounds. He has no magestone, no sword."
Oh. That. I have the taste of that now, the dragon said, dismissive. I will keep him mended. What else?
"Compassion," Angeal replied. "He will need compassion from you, to thrive here."
What is compassion?
"Gentleness in your understanding," he offered. "Mercy rather than judgement." But those words meant nothing to a dragon; there was no spark of recognition in the shifting pressure of its thoughts.
"If he asks for something," Angeal tried, "give it to him kindly, rather than in anger."
I will provide him with all that is necessary. He shall not have need to ask.
"You've never known a teenager, have you," Angeal said wryly.
Of course not, the dragon said. He is my sacrifice. I have never known anyone else.
Angeal didn't want to feel pity for a touchy, arrogant monster that would likely kill him outright for the insult to its pride. "Well," he said, "now you know two of us."
That, the dragon said tartly, was entirely unintentional. Is that everything?
Saying something like of course not, you ignorant beast, but you won't listen when I tell you he needs to belong to his human kin as well was, Angeal thought, a good way to guarantee his own death. But he'd been prepared for that when he followed the boy into the cave.
It would, he thought wistfully, be a worthy way to die. No one had ever needed his strength so badly as this cast-off child. But he owed it to Zack to at least try to live, even if he suspected he might never walk unaided again.
"Companionship," Angeal said instead. "He had several friends that he left behind. He enjoys other humans." Then, with a split second's horrified image of how a dragon might misinterpret that, he added quickly, "Other living humans. Undamaged. To talk to, not to eat."
The dragon considered that for a long, silent moment.
I will provide him with companionship, it said.
"Human companionship comes from other humans," Angeal reminded it, despite the tightening coils.
His needs are mine to provide for, the dragon hissed. No one else. Mine alone.
MINE! the dragon raged. No one else shall have him! He would not stay with me if someone else could have him.
"He would be happier," Angeal gritted through clenched teeth, "if you let him have companions. Visitors -- humans who come and then go, by their own choice. Without being wounded or killed for it."
No one comes here by choice, the dragon snarled. No one has ever come except to kill me, and to fail. Even my sacrifice did not come of his own will. He would have chosen death rather than remaining with me. But he was Mother's only promise to me. He is all that I have ever been given. I will NOT let him go.
"I'm sorry," Angeal said. "Yet I would come. I would come by choice, for his sake."
You, it told him over a growl, are damaged inside your head. No one that was not head-sick would choose to gamble your very life on my whim. Your thoughts are unhealthy things.
He couldn't choke back a bark of laughter. "True enough, great one. But I am willing."
I will NOT have you infect my sacrifice with your damaged thoughts.
"But-- you'll need help. Not all plants are edible; you can't simply tear up something green and present it to him. Your claws are unsuited to fabric, to dishes, to the things that he will need to have brought--"
Enough. The dragon's eyes burned green as witchfire. If you have nothing acceptable to present, you are of no further value.
Angeal never had been the type to see much value in prayer; he almost wished he thought it would do any good. There are still people who need me, his stubborn mind protested. Oh, Zack. I'm sorry.
Still, he knew that he'd made his choice the moment he walked into the cave. He'd been prepared for it then, and he was a man grown and a warrior trained; he couldn't let his courage be accounted less than that of the boy he'd led here to live or die at a monster's whim.
He shaped what he suspected might be his last thought save for pain, and let the dragon see it: Here is your choice, great one. I will not forsake this boy. What will you do with me now?
Fool, it hissed. Damaged, death-chasing fool -- your mind is full of another, yet you still -- these dangerous, stupid thoughts of yours -- why? Why can't you just leave me be?
It's called heroics, Angeal said wearily, and closed his eyes. Honor, loyalty, devotion -- actually, Zack says it's called 'bloody stupid heroics.' It's an old weakness of mine. Some humans are more prone to it than others. ...I suppose you wouldn't understand.