author's note: as usual, if you're wondering about timeline or continuity, check out shinra, ink., our ff7 universe.
[eleven pipers piping]
by Tenshi no Korin
The angel Gabriel from heaven came
His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame
Two years ago, had you proposed to Cloud Strife that he would be spending the winter holiday on a beach in Costa Del Sol and in the presence of people he thought long dead, he would have found it highly unlikely, at least. As it was, even with all evening to get used to it, he still found it a bit hard to swallow.
"What's the matter, Strife?" Zax flopped down on the chair across from him, two mugs in his hand. "Can't get into the holiday spirit with sand between your toes?" He frowned at Cloud's undrunk mug, and tsked. "C'mon. I brought you a refill and you haven't touched your first. I had Cid bring this stuff in clear from Mideel."
"It's just a little bizarre, that's all." Cloud said, and at Zax's querying look in his own mug, Cloud added, "Not the cider, Zax. The party."
Zax tossed a glance over his shoulder at the bar patio, at the far end of which the rest of Avalanche was playing a loud complicated game involving cards, dice, and the profound embarrassment of one's teammates. Had Cid not gotten Vincent out of his usual attire and into about four pints of cider, the former Turk wouldn't be seen dead at such activity, much less winning at it. "What's wrong with the party?"
As if on cue, the ruckus from the main table increased in volume, and Yuffie began protesting her innocence loudly, while Vincent blandly pulled four aces and six queens out of the front of her blouse.
"It sure beats Christmas in the barracks, that's what," Cloud grinned as Vincent carried a protesting Yuffie over to the edge of the patio, turned her upside down over the beach, and proceeded to shake her. Three or four cards fluttered to the ground, and Yuffie flailed her sandals without effect, while the well-cidered table roared with laughter. Vincent righted the ninja and good-naturedly let her punch him a few times before escorting her back to the game, where of course she was allowed to play again. If Cloud remembered the rules right, there was nothing illegal about cheating-- only about getting caught.
"Hell, at least the food's better-- not to mention the fact that the world's not ending anytime soon." Zax propped his feet on an adjacent chair, lacing his fingers across his flat stomach and leaning his head back into the night breeze off the ocean. The beach location had been good to him; in the light of his bar's patio torches his tanned skin was almost gold, his dark hair threaded with amber. There was still the streak of white to age him, but the limp seemed not as noticeable, the machine-gun scars a source of pride. "Besides," Zax continued. "Pretty good turnout. Reno's brothers, too. I invited the rest of 'em, but they got the big hoopla at Gold Saucer tonight."
"Bet Rude and Reno'd rather be here drinking up than smoozing at a black tie affair." Cloud lifted his mug and discovered it was empty, and most likely responsible for the slow mellow feeling creeping up his toes. "... Speaking of the ShinRa, where's Frost?"
Zax closed his eyes for a second. "He's down by the water. He likes the beach best at night, goes there when the bar gets too crowded for his liking."
Cloud looked toward the ocean, but couldn't see much beyond the flaming torches ringing the patio.
"Hey, looks like there's an opening." Angelo Montague, who had without doubt been removed by his brothers from a warm nook and a good book back in Nibelheim, found himself out of the game. He stood up, shaking his head at the protests, and looking more relieved than defeated. "Wanna join in?"
Cloud shook his head, watching the youngest of Reno's brothers as he stepped down off the porch and onto the beach. "I suck at Fizbin, Zax."
"C'mon." Zax was more than strong enough to haul Cloud bodily out of the chair. "Highwind and Valentine need taking down a few pegs by some pros. I'll partner you. We used to clean up back on leave days."
Cloud had no choice but didn't really mind, his companions cheering enthusiastically as he and Zax came over to the card table. Eventually, caught up in heated competition and with plenty of Kalm Dark on tap, he forgot to look back over the dark water, in search of moonlight-colored hair.
At least the weather was nice, Angelo thought, bending to cuff his pant legs, shoes abandoned on the deck steps. There'd been snow in Nibelheim since October, and Phoenix and Diego didn't have to wax tropically rhapsodic for too long to convince him to come along. Truth be told, though, it was less for the sake of the beach than for the chance to see his boss.
There'd been little enough cause for Frost to visit the Nibelheim lab in the past weeks, busy as he was with Reeve and the finishing touches on the Corel project. Angelo got messages often, requests for chemicals or materia from the Mount Nibel stockpile, to be sent to Corel or Costa Del Sol.
The messages, while excellent at making him feel like he was doing his job, weren't quite the same as working with Frost directly. There was a quality of being understood that Angelo had gotten used to, working with the ShinRa scientist. Phoenix and Diego were wary of Frost, and Reno had warned Angelo, in that vague I-know-better big brother way, not to get too close. Angelo had laughed that one off, saying that Frost rarely afforded the opportunity to get too close. But deep down he had to question both his brother's motives and Frost's origins. True, the man was a brilliant scientist and from what Angelo had seen, knew a lot about almost everything. Still, that didn't quite merit the care with which the ShinRa handled him, as if Frost was a very respected, very armed diplomat.
Angelo was so hung up in his thoughts that he didn't notice the object of them until he had practically tripped on him. He managed to squelch to a halt a few feet away, almost plunging headlong into the surf.
Frost stood with his back to Angelo, his face towards the sea. The folded hems of his pants were damp with the incoming tide, his unbuttoned shirt billowing open in the same breeze that ruffled his cropped silvery hair. Angelo's eyes accepted these details without question, but snagged on the sunglasses held loosely in Frost's hand, torchfire reflected in the dark lenses.
Angelo swallowed against some unnamed emotion. He had never seen Frost's eyes without the concealing shades, not in all the months of their work together. He had assumed that Frost was merely sensitive to light; or like Rude, he simply preferred his eyes to remain hidden, for intimidation, perhaps.
Angelo's hands ached, and the sound of his throat working was lost in the waves. Surely Frost must know he was there; the same wave that rushed up past Frost's ankles would touch Angelo's toes before running back out to sea. Angelo knew that Frost could stand motionless for hours on end, but he could only take it so long, shifting his weight in the sticky wet sand. He wasn't sure what to say to announce his presence, and it would be rude to tiptoe back without at least saying hello, so he settled at last on a curious "Sir?"
Frost tilted his head from the horizon, enough to let him know he'd been heard, but not for Angelo to see his face. "Peaceful Holiday, Angelo Montague. Did your brothers bring you?"
"Yes, sir." Angelo's nod was out of habit.
Frost turned back to the ocean. "I thought you would be spending the holiday with your family."
Angelo took a step forward, to better balance himself on the sand shifting under his feet. "We usually would, but Reno took the girls and Ma to Gold Saucer for the opening, as a present. Phoenix and Diego wouldn't let me stay home alone."
Frost made a soft noise, almost a laugh. "Aren't you old enough to stay home alone?"
Angelo found himself smiling fondly back towards the patio. "Not if it's the Holidays and you're a Montague, sir."
"I'm afraid only one of those criteria apply to me, Mr. Montague." Frost was silent a long moment before adding, "I have always spent this day alone, by design or chance. My life has not enabled me to experience it otherwise, until now."
Angelo was moving closer, unaware of the water dampening his pants, the seaweed tangling around his toes. "Have you no family of your own?"
Frost's glasses flashed moonlight for a moment, as if the hand holding them had tightened. "No."
Angelo stared at the water, uncomfortable. It was the most personal thing he'd ever asked Frost, and he wished distinctly that he hadn't done so. It kept him from asking what he had intended to ask on first approach, which was why Frost was out here instead of at the party with everyone else. Frost, as if sensing Angelo's discomfiture, answered for him.
"There is a meteorite shower, tonight. It isn't often it coincides with the holiday, but I'm sure you knew that, Mr. Montague."
Angelo felt his cheeks flush. "No, I didn't."
Frost, obviously surprised, turned almost enough for Angelo to see his face through the billow of pale hair. "Not strong in astronomy, Mr. Montague?"
Angelo let out his breath. "I tried, when I was younger." He spread his hands apologetically. "But it wasn't much use. I lived under the plate. I never saw the sky."
"Then you should not miss this. Here, come stand over here. Look at the horizon, away from the lights. It should be starting soon." Frost's smile was only barely visible. "Unless you'd rather go back to the party?"
"Gods, no. I'm terrible at organized recreation." Angelo stepped up beside Frost as he'd been told, close enough to feel the other man's warmth in the balmy tropical evening. There was a faint click, and he noticed with dismay that Frost was unfolding the earpieces on his sunglasses, preparing to replace them. It was with a certain astonishment that Angelo saw a hand go over Frost's to prevent the action, and more remarkable that it was his own. "Surely," Angelo began, staring at this stranger's hand that was doing what his would never dare, "Surely you can see the meteors better without them?"
Frost had gone very still. "Of course. It's very difficult to see with them on."
Angelo bit his tongue on the why, devoutly sure it was none of his business, and looked pointedly at the horizon. "You can leave them off, if you want? I won't look."
Frost did not answer.
"I mean," Angelo continued, with rising desperation, "It's entirely your right to keep your eyes covered, I won't argue that. I wouldn't dream of interfering with your privacy or keeping you from seeing the sky, you were out here first after all and I could go to the other end of the beach, it's certainly big enough to... to…" He realized suddenly that he was talking to Frost's chest, and the small green sphere of materia he wore around his neck. There was a pale scar zig zagging across the tanned skin, from collarbone to navel, violent and somehow intensely private. Angelo, had he anywhere else to look, would have averted his eyes.
Scientists didn't usually get marks like that because their Bunsen burner flared up on them.
"Um," Angelo said, knowing Reno or Diego could tell him just what kind of weapon had made that scar, and probably the shoe size of the person using it, but he was at a loss. His voice, wiser than the rest of him, vanished on the spot.
"I'm sure you are aware, Mr. Montague," Frost said, and Angelo shivered to hear that voice so close, close enough to watch the intake of breath before the words, "that to scientific curiosity, as to all curiosity, there are hazards?"
Angelo tried to swallow, knowing Frost was expecting an answer. For a moment he floundered, wondering wildly what kind of materia Frost was wearing, before he could speak. "I would think," he tried to wet his lips, failed. "Would think that the knowledge gained would be worth such a hazard."
"Then you are naive," Frost answered, without reproach, as a simple observation. It stung nevertheless, and Angelo found himself blinking hard.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Frost's hands folded over his shoulders, strong, miraculous, warm. The ocean washing nearly to Angelo's knees might as well have vanished entirely. "That does not necessarily mean you are wrong. You know at least that knowledge requires risk, and in that case you are better than many who have come before you. But you speak as as one who has never had to confirm that fact for himself. There are risks you have not taken."
"I took a risk with the vaccine," Angelo protested, aborting a toss of his head before it made him look Frost in the face.
"Yes, you did." Frost's words came easily, as if this was not the most he had ever spoken to Angelo at one go. "But a risk of lives, not a risk of knowing. They are not the same. I will tell you this, Angelo. Something I have learned in this life. The hardest thing in this world is to know, to be aware. Knowledge, while the quickest path to enlightenment, is also the swiftest descent to madness. You should know the chance you take before you take it. Every time you ask, think first of the danger of the answers."
Angelo had been afraid before in his life. He'd been afraid when meteor appeared in the sky, he'd been afraid when weapon attacked Midgar, afraid when they had to evacuate to Kalm. He'd never known a fear quite as unique as this, shivering in the sudden chill as Frost's hands left his shoulders.
"Now, then." The materia necklace swayed; Frost was taking a step away. "Knowing the risk, I ask you. Do you think knowledge is worth it?"
Silence then, on the beach. The holiday party seemed very far away, and Angelo didn't know if it was the surf or his blood roaring in his ears. The necklace, he noted, had a braided cord, leading up around Frost's collarbone. "I would rather--" he said, to the tendons of Frost's throat, "take the chance--" his lips were full, even in their unyielding line, "than live my life--" straight nose, aristocratic, never broken, "in ignorance."
Green. Not green like Angelo's own, but green like materia, like mako, like lifestream. Green like the end of the world. His irises were lush with some alien texture, velvet-smooth, not fractured with color like every other pair of eyes Angelo had ever seen. And lancing through them were Frost's pupils, cat-slit, narrow, dagger sharp. Inhuman.
Only one man in the world had such eyes. Reno had spoken of them when his younger brothers had asked did you see him? Did he talk to you? What's he like? Is he real? And Angelo had scoffed, even then, sure Reno was making it up. Proud of knowing more biology than his brothers, he had gone on at length about how no human could have eyes like that. Reno swore it was solemn truth; he had stood right beside him at the reception for the president, even exchanged words with him.
Eyes like a cat. They'd glow in the dark, I'd bet gil on it. And he's tall, taller than Rude, even. Beautiful, too. Press photos don't come close.
Behind Frost's head the sky began to fall, meteorites streaking in a silent silver rain towards the sea. Angelo's heart was thundering, every pulse a syllable.
Sephiroth. Sephiroth. Sephiroth.
"So," Said the man whose name was not Frost, "Here is your moment, Angelo. Do you see with your own eyes and judge for yourself? Or do you let others do it for you?" He tilted his head, and the party lights reflected feral in his eyes, like an animal caught in vehicle beams. "Is knowing worth the price?"
Sephiroth. Words flashed across Angelo's mind, newspaper headlines and things whispered on the streets. Sephiroth. The greatest general ever to have lived, the brilliant tactician, the unstoppable warrior. The destroyer of Wutai. The Killer Angel. The summoner of Meteor. He who would destroy the world, the bringer of apocalypse, the one-winged angel, the-- He brought me coffee.
It came with the rest of the words, inappropriate, unbidden, and it trod firmly over the voice of panic in Angelo's brain. That's right, he brought me coffee, when we were still working in the basement lab. And he remembered that I liked it with cream and one sugar, and he apologized if it was too strong, he said it had been a long time since he'd made coffee. But he made it for me.
He's a murderer, his brain tried again, reasonably. Nibelheim, Midgar, Weapon unleashed, meteor falling. He's a murderer, a scientific accident, he's a psychopath. Psychopaths. Do. Not. Make. Coffee.
Well, Angelo's brain said smugly. There you go.
He tried to kill everyone, the panic-voice said, more matter-of-fact, presenting data for analysis. He wanted to destroy the whole world, he killed a hundred innocent people on the top three floors of the Shinra build--
There was the centrifuge, Angelo found himself, not just his brain, countering. The centrifuge. I wanted one for the lab, but there was nowhere to get one, I even asked Cid. But Frost rode all the way out to Junon, on a borrowed chocobo, in the rain, to get me one. He brought it back, under his arm. The metal was warm. I didn't know one still existed in the world, but he found me one. He taught me how to ride a Chocobo. He never laughed at me, he answered all my questions, he listened to my ideas, he believed in me, he respected me, he treated me like an equal.
He's not even human.
The stars were still falling, but Frost was not looking at them. His eyes were on Angelo's face, and the mako glow was not so strange. Reno's had a touch of that to them, Cloud's burned with it, and Zax's. They cast a faint light over his face. When he turned from the torchlight his vertical pupils widened like a black moth opening wings, and Angelo thought of equations and parabolas and poetry.
You're both crazy, said the practical-voice. I'm leaving. And it did so.
"So what is your conclusion, Mr. Montague?" Frost arched an eyebrow, and Angelo knew the look, recognized it even without the shades. "Do you wish you hadn't looked?"
Angelo's hands were uncommonly disobedient today, but Frost did not flinch as tentative fingers crept over his cheekbone, touched the dark-lashed corner of those deadly eyes.
"You could kill me now," Angelo found himself saying, "And I wouldn't be sorry."
He had never seen him smile, not like that. So much of it was in his eyes, not his mouth. "Do you think I will?"
"I know who you are." He took a breath, but it was mostly air that escaped his lips, the sound almost lost. "Sephiroth." Angelo thought, for a moment, that knowing might earn him his death, that that was what Frost had been talking about. "But I don't think you will."
"Oh really?" He folded his arms, bemused like a dragon not quite ravenous. "And what is your reasoning behind that hypothesis?"
"The others must know." Angelo found it was easier if he didn't stop to think about it. Having a conversation with Sephiroth on a small resort beach was absurd, but he knew lots of famous people. After all, he'd shared a bathroom with Rufus ShinRa, and Cloud Strife regularly crashed at his house. "Zax. Rufus. Cloud. If you were going to go about killing people I don't think they'd let you wander about freely, and let you carry materia." He gestured to the necklace.
"This?" Frost dangled the cord between his fingers. "Tracking materia, Mr. Montague. You know how it works, I believe. Zax has the mate to it. They are not so quick to let me wander."
Angelo stared at the necklace. Criminals in transit to detention facilities would be fitted with similar transmitting devices leading to a central database. The actual materia, rarer and more expensive, provided a stronger bond between two wearers, an almost constant telepathy. Not so quick to let him wander, indeed. Frost couldn't take a breath that Zax didn't know about.
"Still." Angelo frowned. "You could break it, if you wanted. I know you could. It's basic magic reroute theory. A stronger input could short it. And you could always take it off."
"Astute, as always, Mr. Montague."
Angelo, discovering his fingers still on Frost's face, stuffed his hands violently into his pockets. "Well."
"A pity," Frost said, narrowing his eyes at the last shivering meteorites. "I enjoyed working with you."
Angelo's heart, previously content to fling itself against his ribcage, now took a sudden plummet. "Am... am I not going to be anymore?"
Frost shrugged. "I certainly can see how you would be uncomfortable in such a situation." He unfolded his glasses and slipped them on, and this time there was nothing Angelo could do to stop him as he walked past. "I'll inform Rufus of the change. You can maintain operations in Nibelheim."
"Wait!" And it was either courage or the maddest thing he'd ever done, to grab Sephiroth himself by the elbow and pull him back. Angelo was shocked that it worked, and that his arm remained attached to his shoulder.
But then again, he thought, looking at the familiar face, at his own image in the sunglasses, maybe he wasn't too surprised after all.
"You have an objection, Mr. Montague?"
"Yes," Angelo gasped, as if he'd run a marathon in two steps. "Yes, I have an objection." Angelo lifted his head, ignored his slipping ponytail. "I'm not done. I'm not done learning from you." He lifted his hands, in exasperation. "You-- you're him, dammit, and I haven't even gotten to ask you anything." He rubbed at the bridge of his nose, pushing back his glasses. "No, no, that doesn't make any sense. But you can't leave, what... who will I have to talk to?"
"Angelo." Frost took him by the shoulders, firmly. "Even those who were my friends regard me with some suspicion. I wouldn't ask--"
"I don't care!" Angelo's voice rang out over the water, eyes flashing. "Dammit, Frost, you're my lab partner! That's all I care about!" he choked, shaking his head. "I believe you. Anything you say, I believe you. I don't care if you did it or didn't do it. You told me to judge for myself, fine. I never met Sephiroth. I don't know him. But I do know Frost. I'd like to think that he's my friend."
Frost arched an eyebrow. "Could you write an academic paper on your proof and findings in that regard?"
Angelo's gaze was steely. "Give me twenty-four hours."
Frost sighed and lowered his head, his smile rueful. "I have never been defeated, Angelo Montague. Not when I was myself. But you, I think, have disarmed me. Very well. Things will remain as they were."
Angelo felt his knees wobble. "Really?"
"I give you my word." Frost cleared his throat. "Would you let me go, please?"
Angelo sheepishly pried his fingers from the front of Frost's shirt. "Right. Sorry, Sir."
"OI!" Diego's voice came from the deck steps, blown by the sea wind, breaking the awkward silence. "Angelo! Get your ass up here! It's almost midnight!"
Angelo rolled his eyes. "Ugh. I was hoping they'd forget that, this year."
Angelo was already trudging towards the bar, Frost following. "Montague family tradition. I thought without Reno here they'd forget, should have known." He sighed. "Next time I'm gonna hide the stockings."
Frost looked puzzled. "I was under the impression that receiving items in such a fashion was favorable."
Angelo looked pained. "Yeah, well, with Ma around, it's not so bad. But with just the twins, Gods only know what they're going to put in mine. Last year it was a--" He caught Frost's intrigued look, and reconsidered. "Nevermind."
"No, you've piqued my scientific curiosity, now." Frost folded his arms and looked resolute.
It was Angelo's turn to be smug. "What did you just tell me about the danger of knowledge?"
Frost opened his mouth, but this time Phoenix and Diego had decided a hostile takeover was in order, and swarmed down the steps to bodily remove their sibling from the beach.
"Pardon, Sir," Diego said to Frost, politely, as his twin escorted Angelo onto the patio. "We've just got to humiliate our brother. Tradition, you know."
"Wouldn't dream of interfering," Frost demurred.
"What were you talking about down there?" Phoenix pestered Angelo. "You're going to tell us all about it later, right? No, don't even give me that look. You aren't getting out of it. But for now, I have to ask, do you like strawberry flavored things?"
"That vibrate?" Diego continued, catching up and trying not to giggle too hard.
Angelo squirmed, looking for escape. "You two wouldn't-- !"
"No time for arguments, Angelo, my boy! Let's go see how good you've been this year--"
Frost watched them go, still outside the circle of firelight. He looked over his shoulder, but the stars that were going to fall had fallen already.
Familiar always, that jagged corona of dark hair, not so the faint green shimmer of materia under his shirt.
"Is the party a success?"
"Yeah." Zax held out his hand, with a mug in it. "Saved you some?"
Frost took three steps of the six separating bar from beach, and looked at the man standing there. "Never touch the stuff."
"Right." Zax contemplated the mug, and sipped it. "Too bad." He rested his elbows on the railing, looked up at the invisible sky. "So I was thinking, you know, what to give you."
Frost's silence spoke volumes. "You can't be serious."
"No, really." Zax set the mug down on the railing, and took three steps down, to meet his former commander. "'Tis the season, and all that. So I figured--" He reached into his collar and pulled out a sparkling green orb, watching as it pulsed in time to its mate around Frost's neck. "I figured I got enough of you inside my blood not to need this." In one smooth motion, he pulled the pendant free of his hair, whirled it twice, and threw it hard towards the ocean. His arm was as good as his eye, and the materia flashed once before vanishing into the darkness.
The light inside Frost's tracking materia pulsed, and faded. Frost stared at the stone. "Zax--"
"C'mon." Zax jerked his head towards the bar, torchlit gold and inviting. "Cloud's got a seat saved for us."
And Frost followed him up.
twelve days of christmas
b i s h o n e n i n k