(Styx) (The Promise)

Grandma – who was not actually Tifa's grandmother, or anyone's grandmother, as far as she knew, but a wise woman, a Völva (every rural town has one, an elder that keeps the old ways. Gongaga has one. Cosmo Canyon has a whole tribe of them) – explained to her the nature of grief when she was child. Her mother had died a year before and you didn't need to be a wise woman to read on her father's face that grief was sucking away his life. She had sat at her feet and asked her why her Papa sighed so, why it felt like he was drifting away from her in his sorrow.

"Women outlive men," Grandma said. "The All-Father made it thus." Nibelheim's gods are the gods of ice and snow, cruel gods for cruel lands. (There are nine worlds, and the lowest world is the land of Niflheim, the land of mist (of clouds). When Loki engendered Hel Odin cast her into Niflheim, and gave to her power over nine worlds, to apportion all abodes among those that were sent to her: that is, men dead of sickness or of old age...

Fuck, no wonder Nibelheimers are morbid, with that sort of legend behind their home.

Gongaga was laid-back about deities, but we swore more often by Shiva and Ifrit – and very entertaining curses they were too – and sometimes by Titan. You never heard us swear by the fires of Muspelheim or the blood on Odin's spear that ice would cover your open grave until Ragnarok. Brrr.)

She smiled, her heavily seamed face transformed momentarily by the type of understanding age and wisdom alone can bring. "Men like your father can't outlive their women. He'll just start wandering, all the familiar things will be without meaning. He'll give up and he'll fade and sooner or later," she made the gesture to avert the evil eye, "the Lord of the Dead will come for him. Mayhap he'll swim out of his grief long enough to see you to adulthood, but your Papa is one of those men who cannot survive the loss of his wife."


"Don't be sad. It's just the way of things, dear." She shrugged her thin shoulders beneath her heavy shawl.

Just the way of things, dear. (You'll never meet a harsher, more unsympathetic people as those that live in Nibel's shadow.)

Tifa hated her at the time, but she's beginning to understand it now.

(And what do you know, Grandma was right. He didn't live long. Of course, he was helped along his way by a sharp sword, but then, the natural order of things doesn't take much notice of the particulars. And who's to say it wasn't a grief-propelled act of assisted suicide? Just how often do you think the Mayor of any town goes to a Mako Reactor, even when it doesn't contain a nutcase with a six-foot sword?)

This is what she meant – only the weak sicken and die, feasting on grief. Tifa is not weak. Nor is Cloud, however much he tries to convince himself.

This is the way of things: life is for living, not the dead. Leave the dead under the ground or as ashes in the wind, whichever appeals most to you. Remember them if you want, forget them if you must, but live, live, live – don't go looking for them in shadow and shards of memory.

Cloud's mother used to say that. (Ya unappreciative brat, Cloudy, you should listen to your mama; she knew what she was talking about.

—Mother knows best, hmm? Sephiroth laughs delightedly, uninhibitedly.

Is there anyone as familiar with the sensation of dread coiling in the pit of the stomach as me? —That's not- I didn't mean- I try say.

-you try arguing with him.

Shit. Shit. Shit!

Aerith hugs me carefully, like I'll shatter. It's a cure-all, I tell you.

Sephiroth sends a glare our way, a resentful, almost bitter look. It's a child's look, a child's glare saying, I want what you have.

I have never missed my friend more than I do in this moment.)

When I died – when I found myself here instead of – wherever. When I realised I was bound to Cloud for the rest of his life, when I realised what he'd done, what I'd done, I felt—

I chose it. Never for a second doubt that I chose this. But I - you can't lost all you were and not feel –

Grief. Yes, that's the word. Just like Grandma talked about. I felt grief tear the breath from me; I felt grief close its teeth about me like a black dog's jaws closing about my throat. I was dead. Me, the prodigy, the SOLDIER, the immortal. I screamed, I wept, I raged.

(I should have lived! Me, me, me, ME! How dare you take that from me!)

I'd seen so many people die – enemies, friends, allies – and that was the first time I truly knew grief. I watch Cloud all the time and I see it in his every movement, and I feel it with his every breath and I wish I could choke on my hypocrisy as I ask him if he's ever heard of letting go.

(—Stop it, I whispered one night so long ago, —Just let go. We won't blame you.

Even as I said it I wished I weren't, I wished I was far away, on the other side of the goddamned world instead of standing over Cloud, frowning faintly in his far away dreams with Tifa curled up beside him.

Without Cloud, how will we stay? Without Cloud, what would we become and where would we go? Without Cloud we have no meaning, no purpose, and without us, what would he be, how could we be sure he was safe? Secretly, we like it, his need for us. Secretly we want to keep being the sun and moon and stars of his life. Or not so secretly, in Sephiroth's case, who would prefer Cloud to never think of anything except him.)

I was wrong, I lied back at the Candle, I can't let go any more than Seph can. But one day I will be able to, and one day Cloud will too, and I comfort myself with that thought.

You see, nothing really ends. It just goes round and round, and for some that's the comfort, and for some that's the tragedy.

For us, it just is. You learn to accept, you learn to let go, you learn to let time pass, to let it fill you instead of you trying to fill it. And one day, you open your eyes and you can think of death (yours or theirs it doesn't matter) without pain. That's the moment I'm waiting for. That's the moment when I'll finally get it, and if I can get it, Cloud can too.

You see? Even in my selfishness I can be selfless.

"Come away now," Tifa says. "Come home with us."

When do you stop trusting the instinct to run? When you do you accept you'll never feel at home, no matter where you go? When do you just make yourself stay?

(Here. Now.)

He's half-awake, half-dreaming; the world is a dizzying combination of things he knows to be real, and things he knows to be even more real than that.

Slowly, slowly we will get there.

He lifts his eyes from the flame, nods his head and follows her meekly, docilely. Our whispers are fading from his ears and he'll stay.

(This presence isn't forever, the wolf in his ear says.)

The night after the Anniversary we slip into his dreams. It's not to say goodbye. That word doesn't exist here. There's 'until we meet again', there's 'see you later', there's anything and everything but goodbye, because this is not the end, it never has been.

—It won't always be this way, I murmur to him. —You'll learn to be normal eventually, or learn to pretend to be, and maybe in time you won't be so painful to watch. One day this won't be such a big thing. It'll just be something that happened, a long time ago, and there'll be no pain, just acceptance. In time we'll settle this. Okay?

Be patient and endure, some day this pain will be useful to you. Slowly, slowly, we will get there.

I don't think Cloud will remember it, but he turns automatically to Seph, like a child seeking approval from a parent. The man himself tilts his head back, and Cloud almost flinches at the disappointment in his eyes (it really wasn't so long ago that Seph was still his idol; it still stings a little, touches the deadened nerves of hero-worship).

—You're stronger than this, he says, disapproval creeping into his voice, and it's the same voice he used to speak to the new SOLDIERs with, stern and forbidding, and if it didn't make you want to be worthy of his approval, to be the best goddamn SOLDIER you could be, you were in the wrong army.

—You can do better. His voice is silk and steel, acid on snow, eating away at shields Cloud has crafted from pieces of me, going straight to the little boy who'd wanted to be a hero and mocking, encouraging, persuading, demanding he get up and prove himself. And of course, Cloud will. It's almost sickening that Sephiroth should still be able to coax these engrained responses out of him.

I can almost see the invisible threads of non-verbal communication running between them as they exchange stares. Why couldn't I have normal friends? Normal friends who don't become mortal enemies and feel the need to skewer each other periodically? Or know the inside of each other's heads so well they don't even need to speak to argue?

Pft. But then they wouldn't be half so fun.

—When I see you next, Seph says aloud for us poor mortals who aren't part of a bizarre relationship with one half repeatedly mind-fucking the other, and thus have no idea how to share thoughts, —You had better be stronger. I don't waste my time on failures.

When Sephiroth was my boss and not completely bugfuck insane, he almost sounded like this. Except he never got the hang of going for the emotional jugular, being completely unconcerned with other people's pesky human feelings; he never understood why mere words could reduce some of his best SOLDIERs to incoherent rages or tears. He strikes the throat now without so much as a blink. The verbal barb cuts deep. It does more than that. It tears a lode wall down.

Failure. It isn't right that one word should have so many meanings. …I could strangle him right now, except I'm never sure one second from the next whether or not he's in the mood to indulge me or decapitate me. Does he have any idea what damage he's doing?

Of course he does, and he watches the steeling of Cloud's features with amused pride.

—Why won't you leave me alone? Cloud asks, and its wry amusement now, as if they are old friends meeting here, instead of villain/hero master/puppet god/former disciple. (Okay, the 'former' part of that designation comes into doubt sometimes; don't question it and you won't get an answer you dislike, understand?

You know what? Watching him smile that way I can see why nobody tries to define their special brand of fucked-up. You just can't, it's an impossibility, like Palmer without lard in his tea, or Vincent inviting a clown to his pity party, or Hojo turning his back on science and greasy hair. It simply can't be done.

Sometimes I think Cloud's as crazy as Seph is half the time. Scratch that. I know he is.)

—Do you want me to? Sephiroth counters, smiling gently in that knowing way that used to irritate the hell out of everyone in the boardroom.

—Do I… he pauses, tries to find the words to what he wants to say. When he tries to speak, the words are tentative and weak – he's never been very good with speaking facing Seph; their disputes have always been physical, are meant to be physical, a matter of the strength of their sword arms, their skill with a blade, the speed and grace they can force out of worn-out bodies – that's the way they like to fight, it's simpler.

—Do I get that choice?

Sephiroth grins, pushes him away, back to the living world he's abandoned to speak with us here (he'll wake up, but he won't scream). —I don't think so, he answers matter-of-factly, watching him fade away (TV reception is just terrible in this place). —But we'll see eventually, won't we?

Yes. We will.

Slowly, slowly, we will get there, he said. Yes, it is hard. Yes, it is painful. But what cannot be removed becomes lighter with time. We are not lost.

In the church there's a new card a day old that nobody will ever see. It hides in the centre of the flowerbed, where no one will walk for fear of disturbing the holy ground. It's been carefully scribed; the message and handwriting practised to perfection to avoid marring in any way the emotion it contains, though time and rain will eventually fade and smudge the ink. It says, 'I thought you said you were coming back?'

It ended like this: There is a boy. A pale, washed out thing, with eyes sharp as broken glass but he's the one standing. Under the relentless hammer of the god he has been beaten and broken and remade and toughened until he killed the god. Now he is empty, a shell to pour dreams into, but that's okay, because this is the end, and who needs heroes after the curtain has fallen?

Or maybe it will end like this: There is a man. He's dying, slowly but terribly surely, from an illness that has no cure, or at least, not one the Planet is willing to give. He is twenty-two, twenty-three, and he has already performed the greatest event of his life. He wilts and he curls into himself and he fades away like all old heroes and when the Planet screams one day there is no one to answer.

There is a brief struggle over with in seconds, and this is how the world ends, not with a scream, not even with a whimper but with a sigh.

(—Oh. Aerith whispers. —Oh no.

Sephiroth casts a negligent smile our way. —You like to say things with flowers, he says. The glitter in his eyes is the glow of mako, not sanity. —Catch, he says, and throws a bouquet over his shoulder to Aerith as he walks away. White roses and bindweed, mourning and dead hope. If he could have set the fields on fire, he would have.

Basic mathematics. Jenova + Sephiroth remnant equals...?)

I lied. There is a way out.

(—Promise me you'll do this, Sephiroth said, as he sat at the well in the centre of Nibelheim, drank deep of the fountain of despair, the waters of ice and poison. —Promise me you won't give in. Promise me you'll never let this happen again. Promise me you'll kill me.

Promise me this.)

Like a fool, Cloud promised.

A/N: 1. This whole mess is apparently what happens when I listen to Enya on repeat. -eyes it weirdly-

2. This is what Sephiroth actually did for the majority of this fic:

Sephiroth: -stares at Cloud- (is quite possibly planning to kill him; may just be simply irritated that such a worthless individual killed him)

Cloud: -angsts, mopes, and other such various synonyms for being a total killjoy-

Sephiroth: -stares-

Cloud: -starts to worry-

Sephiroth: -staaaare-

Cloud: -starts trying to hide underneath the bed… does he have a bed? Possibly.-

Sephiroth: -throws rocks, pens, swords and one-liners at him-