Hall of the Mountain King
Nibelheim, the telegram said, on a fall day in Wutai, the torn envelope like snow on his lover's indigo patchwork quilt as she slept. Nibelheim. Hell's Mountain, the back of bloody beyond. Code Alpha duty, extremely confidential.
"Who the hell'd you piss off, Valentine?" LaVine had asked, lighting a cigarette outside the Turtle. "Shipping you to the middle of nowhere. You tell your girl, yet?"
No, Vincent had said, in the red and gold and blue that was Wutai, even at the end of the year. No I haven't told her yet.
There was no such color in the northern mountains. Nibelheim was as elegant and welcoming as a plucked string out of tune, high and thin and jangled. Snow had fallen already, caught in eaves and crevasses, and it was not soft, not holiday cheer. Vincent wasn't sure if it was the sort of place you loved or hated, and decided that the high icy spike of Mount Nibel chose whether to love or hate you, and you just had to abide by its decision.
He'd been to a concert in Midgar once, outside, hand-me-down tickets gained by being a Shinra employee. The park was cold and damp and a storm had blown up in the middle, but the orchestra had played on, as if oblivious to the rain and wind. Vincent, among the few patrons to stay, was invited up into the pit under the shelter with what was left of the audience, and the Conductor changed the music for the wind. Ties were loosened, seats kicked out of formation, and they'd played something Vincent had never heard in a civilized performance, the sort of classical music most high-class people pretended never existed. The storm had howled, cold and wet and angry and the violins screamed back like banshees, skirling notes to the sky. Wild and fierce, frightening in its purity, and Vincent closed his eyes and let sound roll over him, until his very blood was drawn along the swelling notes and the thunder and rain. He was wet to the skin under his borrowed tuxedo, and more alive than he had ever felt in Midgar. When the music crashed violently to a halt, he thought his heartbeat would end with it.
Nibelheim was like that.
Or maybe it was Lucretia that made him feel as though he could never catch his breath, that once out of her presence his heart would cease to beat. It was not that she was beautiful-- not just that she was beautiful. Even in Nibelheim she was crimson and gold and blue like Wutai, bright and alive, her hair like a bloodstain against the ponderous pewter mountains, blue eyes like the skies of elsewhere.
"Do you dance, Mr. Valentine?"
She had been laughing at something all her own, her hands shoved deep into the pockets of her lab coat, cold wind blowing the collar straight up, like white ghost-hands around her stung red cheeks. "Surely you do. Oh don't frown at me like that. I bet you'd be good at it, come on, here, no give me your hands, one two three one two three--" And she danced with him, there in the abandoned market center of Nibelheim, her coat blowing out behind her as she swung at the ends of his fingers, snowflakes melting in her hair.
"Do you dance, Vincent? Do you like music, Vincent? Bitch of a cold place here, isn't it, Vincent?"
Questions. Lucretia was always asking questions. But she would whirl away, leaving his unanswered, half formed on his lips. There was only one man whose questions she answered. And then she danced only with herself.
"I've got a name: Sephiroth. Do you like it? Isn't it pretty? It sounds like a poem, doesn't it? Do you like poetry, Vincent? I know one that goes--"
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold
When the nightmare came he dreamed of her, threaded together things she said into beaded chains to bind him. He watched her shatter like glass or bleed herself into snow; he listened to her laugh, out of reach.
Give me your hands, one two three one two three
She wore her lab coat over her ball gown, and danced with her body blossoming like a terrible flower, into a ball of fire she held in her hands, out to him. He's my son, Vincent, my son, watch him fly watch him soar watch him land like an angel. She stopped, put her head to the side. Oh don't scowl at me so. Isn't he pretty? Isn't he like a poem? I know one that goes--
This is the way the world ends
Vincent, are you listening? You look so far away. Oh, are you daydreaming? What are you daydreaming about? Do you want to go home? Do you miss Wutai? I bet you have a girl there. What was her name? What was she like? Are you dreaming, Vincent? Are you dreaming? Are you dreaming?
"Are you dreaming?"
Air rushed into his lungs, stale and thin. He choked on it, his hand came to his mouth and it felt alien, cold and sharp like needletips on his cheek. Dark hair tumbled into his eyes and he brushed it back in confusion, wondering where it had come from.
"You were dreaming. Was it a pretty dream?"
Vincent blinked. An apparition was there in the dim light of his catacomb, shining like a falling star. He held a moldering skull in one hand, idly brushing off the dust as if it was a favored knick-knack. "I had a dream," the phantom said. Old bone creaked under his gloved fingers. "I dreamed I was human." The skull crumbled in his hand and he shook the fragments away.
"Who are you?" Vincent brushed at wires and monitoring equipment as if they were cobwebs, trying not to look at his own hand, cruel and curved as it snickered over his bare chest like some glittering spider. "What are you doing here?"
"That's impolite, you know." He turned. The shooting star was really his hair, pale silver and flowing heavily like mercury.
It will drive you mad, Hojo had said, over a glass vial of quicksilver. It will drive you mad, Valentine-san.
Vincent shook his head, trying to clear away the dream. Or was he dreaming still? "Impolite?"
"I asked you a question first." He opened the thick tome he held under his arm, squinted at the text. "But the answer should be here, if you won't tell me."
Vincent stared. There was something familiar in that mode of query reversed, the almost singsong tone.
"Here you are." Green eyes flicked up. They were slit, alien. "Valentine. Vincent Valentine. Rolls rather nicely off the tongue, doesn't it?"
Vincent shrugged. "I've never found it troublesome."
The book snapped shut with a poof of dust and he laughed, a ringing, warm laugh that bounced off the dank walls of the small stone crypt, laughing as if he'd never heard such a good joke in his life. He put a hand up, as if to stall any more jests. "You've never found it troublesome! I'll have to remember that, really I will." His laughter died as if someone had turned a switch, the open smile vanishing from his face. "But you are in trouble now, aren't you, Vincent Valentine." His green eyes glowed dimly, the not-sane curve of his lips slightly higher on one side. His bangs trailed in his face, their color indeterminate in the dim light. Familiar.
It will drive you mad.
"Sephiroth." Vincent was not dreaming. For the first time he wished he were. "You are Sephiroth."
Lucretia's son smiled down at him, the book falling open onto the floor, its spine snapping like bones of a small animal as Sephiroth trod on it to reach the edge of Vincent's coffin.
"I am," he murmured. "And I too, have been rudely awkened." Gloved hands caught Vincent's face, and to his horror the former Turk found he could not push them away, his body refusing to obey his will. "And you are one of that man's pitiful experiements." He ran his fingers over the wires Vincent had not pulled free, and wound them in his hand. Vincent felt the bright plastic-coated cables go tight around his throat. He blinked twice, his muscles straining involuntarily for air, even as his mind begged mercy, flung arms out wide in welcome of oblivion, to sleep without dreaming.
"You want me to kill you," Sephiroth said, green eyes glittering. Vincent watched those slit pupils widening and then narrowing, like breath, even as he fought to breathe with them. "I can hear it in your mind. We share blood, you and I. I know what it's like, to have your mind scream for death. In truth, I don't know if it is you or me that I'm hearing." He smiled, and his glove creaked as he let go of the strangling cords, just a fraction. "But it is these bodies that betray us, Vincent Valentine. Even in sleep, surely you learned how little power you have over this body you cannot call your own." He dropped the wires and Vincent gasped, cool metal fingers touching his throat in relief even as he mourned the missed opportunity.
Sephiroth watched, unmoved. "Hojo was ever a pitiful excuse for a scentist but he showed remarkable talent as an amateur photographer. They're quite moving, the pictures in your research file. Would you like to see? Your sweet shining claws, your beautiful black wings? Would you like to see?"
"No." Vincent did not need to see. He remembered little, and that was too much. His lungs still burned for oxygen, and the fire inside his mind was reflected in Sephiroth's eyes. "I did not choose this."
The edge of the coffin creaked as Sephiroth put his knee on it. "Nothing chooses birth, Vincent Valentine. But once born, all we know is the deisire to not go back into that sweet emptiness, clinging to solidity and refusing to dissolve. You, transformed and buried naked here in the cold earth, now that you are awake, can you go back? Do you want to? This body will not let you. It yearns for life, Vincent." He drew in close, and his pale hair was cold as it spilled over Vincent's skin, his eyes hypnotizing. "I am the will of Jenova," he said. "And you will heed my call."
Vincent shuddered at the name. Something within him stirred to life at the sound, moving without care for the protests of his mind. Gloved hands held his body down, immovable as steel, and the small dusty room rang with laughter.
"Show me your wings," Sephiroth whispered. "Let me see them burst from your shoulders, crumpled black and wet."
Vincent wanted to scream. It hurt, it hurt until the pain was all that there was in the world, his beginning and end, and there was no mercy, no freedom from it. His body strained and he felt himself shifting inside himself, struggling to change, but unable to break the thin prison of his skin. Agony turned his world white and he screamed, neither man nor monster, but something inbetween, unfinished.
Vincent's very cells knew Sephiroth's voice, and they obeyed it. The pain ceased, the struggle was over, and Vincent was left shivering, broken, but unchanged beneath his captor.
"You are too weak," he said. "I should have known him incapable of anything but a botched job. You share my blood, but not enough of it. I will mend that."
"No," Vincent said, but his mind was full of music, that wild dark music of a storm in Midgar, and Sephiroth was on him. Vincent's mouth knew the taste of pale salty skin and what a simple thing it was to break, to draw heat into heat into heat until their heartbeat was the same and he was borne down, stretched to bursting, completed. Vincent's body knew the body that was forced into it, and the blood hot on his tongue, and the strength there, the madness in it, and what it would do to him. He welcomed it even as his mind was lost, unable to fight back, like a bird trying to inflict its will on the bars of its cage. He was carried along through the wild rain and the violence of the orchestra, from the screaming violins to the slowly swirling calm, the silence after the storm.
And there, under the skin was a voice, a voice like what his own must sound like, small and sane and lost inside itself.
It will make you a monster, Vincent. But Jenova can only be destroyed by herself. Set me free, Vincent. Set us free.
The music ended.
"And now you need to sleep." Sephiroth was the one who dressed and armored him, garbed for war in spikes and gold plate, gun in his good hand. He had fitted a fingerless black glove on that hand, and Vincent looked at the way the gun lay against the padded leather palm, and remembered a life that had belonged to someone else. He watched, detached, like a corpse cognizant of its own embalming, as small buckles were fastened, buttons flashing closed under Sephiroth's fingers. "Red is a beautiful color, don't you think? I have always thought so. Pity it was one I could only wear in blood. It never suited me in fabric." He smoothed Vincent's hair, ran a fingertip along his lips. "Now. Sleep and let the cells bloom in you, seeds germinating in your breast. Your dream begins again, and I will soon be dreaming with you. And then we will wake, and the world will end."
Green. His inhuman eyes turned blue as Vincent watched, the slit pupils opening into circles, irises flooding blue. Lucretia sat smiling at him, her hair tumbling like fire over her white coat, and asked him what he was dreaming. Vincent closed his eyes.
Sephiroth leaned over the coffin, kissed the sleeping figure inside it, and smiled, just a little. "This is the way the world ends, Father. This is the way the world ends."