(Crossposting from IJ's No True Pair community - getting my indexes up to date...)
Title: The Dragon of Nibelheim, part 1
Fandom: FF7 (AU from CC kind of, but mostly AU)
Pairing/characters: Cloud and Sephiroth
Rating: R for being pretty disturbing
Prompt/challenge you're answering: Cloud and Sephiroth, transformation of some kind
Warnings: This is the Brothers Grimm edition of a fairytale world...
1. The dragon
Tifa had asked him, once, what it was like living your whole life knowing that you were going to be sacrificed.
Cloud hadn't known how to answer that, because it was like asking him what it was like to breathe, or to wake up in the morning. He couldn't remember a time when he hadn't known. He couldn't have said who'd told him first -- it could have been his mother, or it could have been the village boys who bullied him, or it could even have been Tifa's father, who always looked at him with a kind of disgust mingled with relief. He supposed that to Tifa's father, he was a reminder of how easily it could have been Tifa born the sacrifice instead; but then, it hadn't been, and her father knew it every time he looked at Cloud.
Everyone knew it whenever they looked at Cloud.
He'd asked his mother, once, why she'd never had another child. Since he would be the village's sacrifice for his generation, she wouldn't have to worry about losing her other child as well. And her other child could give her everything that Cloud would never be able to -- family, grandchildren, happiness...
It had been the only time she'd ever hit him. And then she'd cried, which was even worse, because she never cried, no matter what the villagers said to her about sin and bastards and cursed blood.
He'd never asked again, though he still wondered.
The village boys jeered and spat on him, telling him that he was no good for anything, that he'd never earn his keep, never have a girl who loved him, never father a child, never keep his mother warm and fed in her old age. All he was good for was to be thrown to the dragon like unwanted scraps to the hogs, so there was no point in him bothering to learn anything in school, or to plan for a future he'd never have.
His mother told him that they were wrong, that he was the best of them, and that the dragon would only accept the offering of the brightest and the purest child the village had to offer.
Cloud thought that the bullies had the right of it, because, after all, she was his mother. Mothers were supposed to love their children no matter what, even if their children were born useless for anything but dying.
Tifa hated the thought of the Nibelheim dragon, with a bright-burning rage he'd never seen in her for any other cause. When they'd been young -- not that they were very old now, but when they'd been even younger -- she'd hung back when the bullies surrounded him for a day's sport, and she'd cried to watch, and cried as she helped him limp home, and his mother had wiped her tears and kissed her for being a good girl and sent her home, but she was usually still sniffling when she left.
Then, when she was seven and Cloud was six, she'd gone to Master Zangan. Her father hadn't approved, but of course he was too busy with his own life to pay too much attention to hers, so in the end he let her be.
For a while, no one had noticed a difference, except that sometimes she wasn't there to help him get home afterwards because she was at her lessons. And then one day she'd dived into the mob screaming and kicking like a tiny valkyrie.
They'd both gotten beaten up, because it was the two of them against half a dozen older, stronger boys, but for the first time she wasn't crying when she took him home to his mother.
"Next time I'll do better, I promise, Mrs. Strife," Tifa had told his mother earnestly, with her eye swollen almost shut and blood trickling from her split lip.
Cloud's mother had been just as horrified as Tifa's father had been. They'd argued about it in the street, loudly, and Cloud had run upstairs and hidden under his bed with his pillow over his head and he wouldn't come out for anything, not even his mother's berry pie.
That was the first time Cloud had ever felt worthless. It didn't matter what they did to him; he was the sacrifice. He thought it might be important to get used to the idea of pain, because dying at a dragon's claws was bound to hurt a lot. But for Tifa to hurt because of him...
He'd gone to Master Zangan and begged him to stop Tifa from fighting for him. The man had laughed at him, which stung -- and then he'd ruffled Cloud's hair. No one ever touched Cloud's hair except his mother, as though they thought the curse might rub off somehow.
While Cloud gawked at him, Master Zangan told him that it was Tifa's choice to protect him, because his life -- his sacrifice -- was important for the village's safety.
That was the first time he started to wonder if his mother might be a little bit right after all. Not because he was the best at anything except getting beat up, but because Master Zangan's words held an uncomfortable reminder of truth. He couldn't give up easily, because he had to make sure he lived long enough to die the right way.
He hadn't mentioned that to his mother or to Tifa, because he knew both of them would take it badly. Instead, he went to the widow Bergman, because her youngest sister had been the last sacrifice. Everyone said that she was cursed and her creaky old house with her; but then, Cloud thought, that might mean he would fit right in.
Mrs. Bergman didn't like visitors, especially children, who made a habit of daring each other to sneak into her house and stay the night or smashing rotten vegetables on her windows. Cloud had had to knock for quite a while before she stomped over to the door and swung it open, all wound up to flay him up one side and down the other with the sharp edge of her tongue -- but then she took one look at his hair and his eyes and she swallowed it all back. After a long shaky minute, she invited him in for a cup of tea.
He stammered through his questions, since he thought they might sound fairly stupid to someone who'd already lived it all, but she was patient and awkwardly gentle with him, and gave him sugar cubes for his tea. Cloud fought back the guilty thought that maybe he could run here when the bullies came after him, because if they overcame their fear of the haunting to attack Mrs. Bergman for being curse-kin, they could hurt her.
Mrs. Bergman told him about her sister, and about the young man who'd been so desperately in love with her that he'd gone to slay the dragon for her sake. And the dragon had died of its wounds -- but so had her sister and her sister's lover; they had never returned. But the dragon had hatched an egg before it died, because when the wind carried down from the mountaintop the miners could hear its cries.
Mrs. Bergman had begged her husband to go and put an end to the creature while it was still young and weak, so that no one else would need to lose what she and her family had lost. Her husband had never come back either, and the villagers had shunned her for the curse in her blood as well as the loss of a strong man who'd had no guilt in him but the foolishness of marrying curse-kin.
She'd never had a child of her own. Better that way, the villagers said to themselves, even though the sacrifice-mark cropped up wherever it would, in a child born with curse-blanched hair and eyes once every generation amid the dark-haired and dark-eyed miners and herdsmen of Nibelheim.
Mrs. Bergman gave him a packet of sweets to take home. Cloud hid under her porch and ate them all at once, because he didn't think that the fact that they'd been given by curse-kin would be enough to keep the village boys from taking them.
2. Shining armor
True to her promise, Tifa had gotten better and better at fighting back against the bullies -- not that they ever backed off, because the only insult that was always worse than 'curse-lover' was 'beaten up by a girl.'
Somehow, Tifa never seemed to mind -- sometimes she said it was good training, and other times she said it was important to fight for people who couldn't fight for themselves. Cloud minded quite a bit, but he never could manage to talk her out of it.
And then when she was fourteen, Tifa had gone up the mountain to try to kill the dragon herself.
They found her on her own doorstep, laid out as though she'd been carried there, with a sword crusted with ice-white diamonds run straight through her body, her blood pooling beneath her to trickle down the steps.
Her father had been beside himself with rage; he might have killed Cloud then and there if Cloud's mother hadn't fetched Master Zangan to pull the man off her son and keep him back until she had had the chance to take him away. The healer had managed to save Tifa's life, and probably Cloud's with it, but still everything had changed then.
Tifa was a good girl, the Mayor's daughter, a symbol of what was normal and wholesome and expected, even if she was a bit eccentric about her choice of teachers. For her to nearly die in the place of the town's sacrifice -- where had the boy gotten the arrogance to think his life was more important than hers? He'd never been worth the dust on her shoe, him or his tramp of a mother, and they had no business forgetting it, the villagers muttered to themselves.
That was when Master Zangan had sent to the king, and the king had sent a knight to keep the town's peace until the sacrifice could safely grow old enough to meet his fate.
Master Zangan had been more of a diplomat than the knight he fetched -- he had it put about the town that the knight and his squire were there to protect the villagers from the monsters that prowled the mountainside, and that they were to be housed with the sacrifice in order to keep an eye on the curse-kin, to make sure that what had happened to Zangan's prize student never happened to anyone else.
It was Commander Hewley's young protege who'd caught Cloud around the shoulders and scruffled his hair into wild disarray, without a single care for the curse-sign, and he'd explained with a sunny smile that they were really there for Cloud, not against him.
Cloud had never seen anyone smile the way Zack smiled. No one in the village smiled like that -- least of all at him. He'd spent the first several months wary of being burned by that shining fire in the young knight-to-be, the completely irrepressible joy that would never succumb to something like a mere dragon.
Cloud couldn't let himself surrender to Zack's boundless, exuberant warmth; it was going to be hard enough to walk up the mountain and give up his life, even when he didn't particularly like his beaten, spat-upon, contemptible existence in the village. But Zack kept trying to give him a reason to laugh, a reason to hug back, a reason to live, and Cloud desperately wished he could find a way to hate him for it.
It would have been easier to die if he could have had nothing to live for.
Commander Hewley understood far more than Cloud had ever guessed he might, which made him uncomfortable too, especially when the man pulled the eagerly-bouncing teen to one side and spoke in an undertone about the need for patience and gentleness and caution with people like their hosts.
Gentleness was never a problem; Cloud privately thought Zack couldn't have been cruel if his life had depended on it. Patience and caution, though -- there Commander Hewley had him dead to rights. When Zack had heard the story of how Tifa had gone to face the dragon for Cloud's sake, he'd been sufficiently shocked -- but for all the wrong reasons.
"Of course you had no business doing that by yourself," Zack had declared to Tifa and Cloud both, wagging his finger at the girl, who was still heavily bandaged and chafing at Cloud's insistence that she had to lie down on the sofa if she was so determined to creep next door to visit. "Master Zangan's a hand to hand specialist! You should have had weapons training before you went to take on a dragon, and the longer range the better! A pair of sharpshooters and a dozen good spearmen would be the best option, but since we're the only ones here I suppose we could try it with just us and--"
Cloud knew that he had no chance at stopping Zack by himself, so he'd gone running for Commander Hewley. The commander felt sorry for Cloud and his curse, but Zack was far more important to him than Cloud was. Cloud knew the commander wouldn't let Zack die for him, no matter how Zack whined and begged and schemed -- after all, Zack was nearly as bad at scheming as he was at frowning.
Cloud had to believe in the commander's authority and control, because he couldn't endure the thought that someone else important to him might try to die in his place too.
Time seemed to slip away faster and faster as he got closer to his last birthday; all his life it had been somewhere in the awfully distant future, somewhere where he'd gotten to be sixteen whole years old. But once he turned fourteen it was harder to forget that he would die at midwinter the next year, and then that he would die at midwinter this year. Tifa was awfully quiet around him, the year that he was fifteen.
Cloud only managed to shake himself out of his preoccupation when he realized that as the summer faded away and his sixteenth birthday came closer, Zack had suddenly turned quiet too.
Zack being quiet meant that there was something really, really wrong.
From the way that Zack and Tifa would both go still when they heard his footsteps or saw his shadow -- abruptly, rather than just trailing off, with words caught unspoken behind their teeth and something fierce behind their eyes when they looked at each other -- Cloud started to guess what it was.
He felt a little stupid for not having guessed sooner, really. Tifa had already come within a hair's breadth of throwing her life away to try to save him, and that had been before she had a well-armed knight-in-training with more heart than sense who thought she'd had a bright idea when she tried it.
Cloud fought with himself for nearly a week before he managed to drag himself to Commander Hewley to ask for one last favor.
Commander Hewley had looked at him with eyes that seemed far too old for his face, grieving and yet achingly gentle. And he'd pulled Cloud into a sudden, fierce embrace, which was startlingly unlike the stern, self-controlled knight. But he'd agreed to do as Cloud asked.
It was only natural that Commander Hewley would help him with this, Cloud thought. Zack was still the commander's most important person, no matter what. And Commander Hewley approved of things like honor, and pride, and heroism.
Cloud had always secretly wanted the chance to do something heroic, even just a little bit. He thought it didn't really count as heroism to go and die when everyone expected you to die anyway, and he was just doing it a little bit sooner than expected; but Commander Hewley had told him that it took a hero to choose the moment of his death in order to save those who were important to him. Cloud thought Commander Hewley knew enough about heroes to be able to tell things like that.
It took Cloud several tries to keep his hands from shaking too much when he wrote the note that said he'd run away to the capital. Even though Commander Hewley had promised to keep his mother safe through the aftermath, he knew how the villagers would react to the news that their contemptible sacrifice hadn't even had the decency to die properly. If Cloud simply vanished this close to the sacrifice, Zack and Tifa would know what he'd done -- and then they'd rush up the mountain to try to save him, and then they'd die for nothing. If they thought he had run away, he hoped that either they'd be relieved that he was safe or they'd go to look for him in the capital. Either way, they wouldn't be looking for him on the mountain, not until it was safely too late.
He hadn't been able to keep himself from crying on his birthday, and Zack and Tifa were beside themselves worrying about him. They spent the afternoon curled up together under a quilt beside the fire, and Commander Hewley and his mother hovered just outside earshot, bumping around the kitchen and the study. Cloud's mother had cooked all his favorites for dinner; he scrubbed his face with cold water from the well-bucket in order to try to pull himself back together enough to smile for her, and to hug them all extra tight when it was time for bed -- even Commander Hewley, who cleared his throat a bit and hugged Cloud back.
Cloud suspected the commander would have let him sleep the night through, but he couldn't sleep for the dread and the panic and the ache of loss. Living hurt quite a lot, to go by the education the village bullies had given him, and it only stood to reason that dying would hurt worse. But that was why it had to be him. He didn't really care what the dragon might do to the rest of the village, but his mother and Tifa and Zack loved him, and he wouldn't repay their love by letting them suffer in his place.
Commander Hewley was waiting by the front door when Cloud crept down the stairs; it almost startled him into putting his foot down on the squeaky step, but he recovered himself just in time.
"You didn't think I'd let you go alone, did you?" the man asked, his deep voice unexpectedly soft.
"You can't," Cloud hissed through his teeth, quiet but frantic. "I'm going so no one else has to!"
"I understand," the Commander murmured, both hands up, empty and unthreatening. "I won't take your choice from you. But I can guard your path, and bear witness to your courage for the fools who might have doubted you."
"You promise you won't try to stop me?" He'd never spoken so brashly to the stern knight before; he'd always been quite aware of the man's height and strength. But, tonight, Cloud couldn't make himself care; there was nothing Commander Hewley could do to him that would be any worse than what he already faced.
"You have my oath," the Commander said, "and my honor."
"...Um. Okay, then." Feeling a little silly, Cloud added, "Thank you."
"No, son." The tall warrior padded across the room as lightly as a ghost, and put a big, solid hand on Cloud's shoulder. "I'm the one to thank you, for your courage. I wish that you could have been one of my men. You'd have been an honor to the realm."
Cloud had to blink back tears at that, and bit his lip hard to keep from making a noise that might have woken his mother.
Commander Hewley kept his arm around Cloud's shoulders as they walked. If he'd wanted to be a proper hero he shouldn't have let himself lean into that strong warmth, Cloud knew, but he needed the commander's strength as a reminder of everything he was trying to be, for as long as he could pretend he could. He hadn't realized the knight was guiding him to the corral outside the inn until a big black shape loomed out of the night and whuffed in his face and Commander Hewley clamped a hand over his mouth to muffle his yelp.
Of course the commander had a chocobo, Cloud told himself once he got his heart unlodged from his throat. He was a knight under the King's command; knights were mounted warriors, able to travel swiftly at the King's word. Going to a steeply mountainous area like Nibelheim, of course he'd brought a black. And bells were not a good idea when you were trying to be sneaky in the middle of the night, even if some forewarning might have saved unwary people some heart palpitations.
Cloud put both hands over his own mouth when Commander Hewley introduced him to the bird he'd named Valor. Because of course Commander Hewley had named his chocobo Valor. Honor or Pride would have meant that Zack would have had free rein to tease him about it for the rest of his life. But it really wouldn't do to burst into peals of more-than-slightly hysterical laughter, alert the stablemaster, and offend a man who could snap him in two like a twig.
Still shaken up by fright and dread and exhaustion, he kept himself muffled for most of the ride anyway, because Valor climbed a lot faster than they could have on their own. It was getting harder and harder for Cloud not to clutch at the commander's shoulders and babble something cowardly and shameful about how he'd changed his mind and maybe running away to the capital was the best option after all and surely they could find another sacrifice somewhere.
He wasn't going to break. He wasn't. Commander Hewley had said that he would have been an honor to the knighthood, and he wasn't going to prove the commander wrong.
Finding the right crevice in the mountainside was easier than Cloud had hoped it would be, too. It smelled of curdled magic and of hollow centuries, old leather and cold metal and silent bones withered dry as winter's heart. Something glowed witch-green, sorcery-green, in the veins of the mountain and the trickle of water that slid across the ragged stone path.
Cloud thought his heart might pound its way out of his chest. He couldn't think as far as the end of the path; he couldn't let himself see the witchfire that glowed brighter the deeper he crept into the mountain's heart. The best he could do was one step at a time, one foot in front of the other. Just one more step, he told himself, and then told himself again. Just one more. You can take one more. Don't disappoint the Commander. Don't shame your mother. One more step.
The air was thick with the reek of magic and cold stone; he didn't dare stop to catch his breath, because he knew it would be too easy to tell himself just another breath, just another minute or two, just a little while longer. He couldn't stop moving, or he'd break. One more step. There. Now do it again.
The eerie green glow burned brighter at the end of the tunnel; Cloud forced his head up by sheer will, and then caught his breath. The mountain's heartblood had dripped from the cracks in the stone and filled a pool with shimmering liquid jade; it looked like a wound in the mountain's heart, and Cloud bit his lip to keep from whimpering. If the dragon could injure something as vast as the earth's heart itself, one scrawny boy would be nothing at all.
Then something moved in the shadows beyond the pool.
The dragon's eyes burned the same liquid green as the mountain's blood.
Cloud didn't even have time to scream.
Mine! the dragon cried, its voice ringing in his head a hundred times louder than the thunderstorms had ever been. My sacrifice. I've waited so long. Mine. Mine forever, forever...
It shone like the moon's cold white radiance, remote and terrible; its wings blotted out the green-glimmers of the mountain's bleeding magic-veins.
Cloud had never seen anything so...
magnificent wasn't enough to encompass the horror or the awe or the sheer wild power, but he couldn't help it. He couldn't think; he couldn't breathe; he couldn't even pass out.
A sword scraped behind him, and then the dragon screamed, mantling high and fierce.
Vermin -- thief -- he is MINE! Mother promised me! You shall not have him!
"I said let him breathe," Commander Hewley said, from somewhere that sounded miles and miles away. "Let him breathe. He's yours, but you have to keep him alive."
Why? He is mine regardless--
"He'll rot," the commander said, raggedly. "He'll crumble into nothing. He won't be yours anymore if you kill him."
He will always be mine, the dragon said, though with a thread of uncertainty beneath the brittle, arrogant assurance, and Cloud remembered that this was the hatchling who had never been given its own sacrifice before.
"Keep him whole," the commander insisted. "Keep him alive. You'll be alone again if he dies."
Cloud choked and gagged on his first breath of air in what had been far too long. When Commander Hewley moved to steady him, the dragon smashed him away with a sweep of its tail and caught Cloud up in its claws.
He almost wished he hadn't been able to breathe, because then he wouldn't have had to scream.
"Stop!" the commander wheezed, leaning heavily on his sword and clutching at what must have been shattered ribs. "You're killing him! Stop!"
No closer, the dragon warned. You'll not have him. He is mine. He was promised to me.
"You won't have him for long if you tear him to shreds," the commander hissed through clenched teeth. "Listen. I'm not going to fight you. I'm going to heal myself. And then I'm going to heal him."
"Mend," the knight said wearily. "Repair. You've broken me. You're breaking him right now. We are in pain. I can make the pain stop."
The dragon considered his words, and it gripped tighter when it was uncertain. It hurt more than he'd thought it was possible to hurt. Faintly, Cloud wished the commander had just let him die, because then the pain would have been over with...
The dragon snapped its head around and snarled at Cloud.
MINE! it howled. You are mine! You shall not end! You are my sacrifice -- you are mine forever!
"Not if he bleeds to death first!" the commander roared. "Put him down! I swear by my life I'll not take him from you."
Hissing, the dragon unclenched its claws and laid Cloud on the stone. You shall not escape me, it told him. You were promised to me from your birth. You shall stay.
Commander Hewley cast a spell that knitted Cloud's flesh back together, and Cloud choked on a curse.
"Cruel," he gasped, with the first breath his lungs could contain. "Should've... let me go..."
The dragon's searing fury burned like a lash across his mind.
Traitor! it raged. Coward! You have always been mine, and you shall always be mine -- always -- and I WILL have you! I will have you regardless!
It was more than his overtaxed strength could withstand; despite the dragon's incandescent rage, Cloud slipped away into the silent respite of the dark.