Disclaimer: I don't own Kingdom Hearts (unless you count the game) or any of its characters.
AN: Ha! I bet you thought I'd died—me too! First vacation, then school starting (though not for me), then overload at work, then a nasty sinus infection. But I never forgot about this story and hopefully you didn't either.
I've decided to post the alt-POV of last chapter after Gray is done. Some of you have told me the intrigue of Gray is not knowing Sephiroth's thoughts and I'd have to agree. So there you go!
Also, I'd like to thank Gaston Leroux for the first (non-flashback) line, paraphrased, and my son for thinking I'm a great writer. And thank you to those who have left reviews. I can't tell you how far a review can go in reminding me of why I keep coming back to this.
"What are these?" she asked, surprised.
"Roses," Cloud answered. "A dozen of them. Red—your favorite."
Tifa smiled, but said nothing. She didn't have the heart to tell him she'd always preferred white.
He kissed her...and she did not die.
However, the state she was left in in the wake of that kiss was worse than death. Alive, yet torn in two ragged, breathing halves, Tifa lay in the sand until dawn, eyes upturned to the sky and the stars dimming in it, waiting for either answers or him. And when neither came, she let the confusion in her chest lead her from an arena to a maze, to hedge walls taller than any man's hair, where possibly he wouldn't find her, where possibly he would, where possibly she would find herself touching her lips over and over and thinking, Not dead, no, but dying.
This is what happens when you're no longer hollow, the hedges whispered.
Theirdark and waxy laughter followed her as Tifa wandered through their winding, mathematical passages for what seemed like an eternity. The sun was high above her head, but all she could see was green, all she could hear was rustling. Everywhere she turned, she was met with more walls and more mocking laughter. Her mouth felt on fire, as if it had been branded. Cruel! Betrayer! How could you? they taunted, spinning their words in her head as they spun her around in their aisles, until at last she could take no more. Tired and desolate and heavy with guilt, Tifa sank down to the grass and tried to curl into herself until there was nothing left, not even her smile.
He kissed me and I did not die...but I am. The thought was an echo between her ears as blades of grass prickled her skin and the smell of damp earth slowly seeped into her nostrils and clothes. Like a tight knot, she lay between green, living walls waiting for death. He kissed me and I did not die...but I am. Her heart had been racing before, but now she could hear the treacherous thing slowing. Thud-thud. Thud-thud. Slowing, slowing, and it would keep on slowing until it became stopped and broken, of no use for anything or anyone. Then she would die. Then she would gloat: Try to find me now!
But she did not die. Something caught her eye first.
A flash of white but already gone, disappeared around the hedge corner like a rabbit's tail. Surprised, Tifa leapt to her feet and dashed after it, but when she rounded the corner she caught sight of it vanishing around another edge. Impulsively, she followed, but no matter how many corners or how lengthy the corridor, it was always just out of sight. How is this possible? a part of her mind wondered, but at least it had kept her from dying.
On and on the chase went until the walls finally broke open to reveal an exit. Tifa came to an abrupt halt before it, then stood with one hand at her mouth, awed at what lay beyond. It looked like an orchard of white fruit, only it wasn't an orchard at all but a garden of roses. There must've been a thousand of them, all a perfect shade of white, all hanging on lolly-shaped trees from fragile, angry stems.
The labyrinth was quickly abandoned in favor of this sublime, new wonderland. As Tifa threaded her way through the rose-filled trees, she could feel happiness spreading across her face like a sunburn. When was the last time she had felt this light, this giddy? She wanted to laugh at the marvelous feeling of being free of sadness, free of guilt, free of death. She wanted to stay in this place, inhaling its sweet, rain-like perfume forever. She wanted to run and twirl and dance. She wanted to fall in love.
Then she saw him, a few trees over.
How he had escaped her notice was beyond Tifa, because he was a most curious sight. He was a playing card, like the kind her father taught her to play rummy with but as tall as herself and with a man's head somehow perched at the top edge of it and arms and legs somehow attached to the sides and bottom. The arrangement of body parts and paper looked like a precarious one to Tifa, but the expression on the card's face looked neither doubtful nor frightened. Indeed, it was even humming a little tune, jovial and jaunty enough to send the paint bucket and brush in its hands bouncing.
Despite the card's bizarre appearance, Tifa found herself grinning at it. How full of life it looked! When it turned its attention to the nearest rose, however, and dipped its brush in the bucket of paint, Tifa's smile wavered. She told herself she was being silly, that everyone knew roses couldn't be painted, but in the next instance, the card took its brush and, in one cruel swipe, turned a white rose red.
But the card was deaf to Tifa's cry. It dipped and waved and another rose became red, and another, and another, until the ground beneath the tree was dotted with great globs of paint. As the gleeful, humming card danced to the next tree, Tifa looked around the garden, wild-eyed. No! Impossible! The thought of all these lovely white roses being covered with red made her sick with horror—but what could she do? She neither owned nor belonged in this place. Helplessly, she watched as another tree was painted until it dripped with red. When the card skipped over to the tree next to her, Tifa turned away, unable to stomach any more.
Then came a rasping, almost musical noise, like the sound of paper being cut from behind by an impossibly long sword. Tifa turned in time to see the bucket of paint crash to the ground, bleeding its contents into a thick red puddle. She looked up at the card's face and the expression on it was almost comical. Its eyes were opened as wide as they could go and its mouth was frozen as if in a silent, surprised Oh! It blinked once, twice, and just before it could blink a third time, gravity brought the top half of the card skimming down like a guillotine. Then both halves fell at a pair of black boots as a corpse of paper and improbable body parts.
Dumbfounded, Tifa forced her eyes from it, from the puddle of paint it lay in, and asked the man standing above it, "Why?"
Sephiroth's sword was a harsh, elegant sound as he hid it away at his side. "It's what you wanted," he told her.
Tifa shook her head. "No, that isn't what I wanted. Not like that, not like death."
"No?" He stepped on the card's remains as if they were nothing more than a convenience from the puddle and approached her. "Then what did you want? Tell me."
His voice was mellow and seductive. "I don't know," Tifa protested, backing away. "I used to be, but I'm not certain of anything any more."
"The root of your problems," Sephiroth answered.
He reached out and caught her arm. She put a hand out to stop him from drawing her closer, but it was futile. He was already too near. If only she didn't notice a bruise on his cheek that hadn't been there before. If only his mouth wasn't so shamefully familiar. If only she could go back to a time when all she wanted to read in his face was contempt.
"You're the root of my problems," she said sullenly. "You come around me pretending to be nice, but really you're all sword and talk. You only exist to wound. It'll never be anything else with you."
Sephiroth's nostrils flared. He looked down at her, his expression full of thorns, and said, "Next time... Next time, foolish girl, I will remind myself to stand aside and do nothing and let your whole beloved world turn red." Then he shoved her away and stalked off.
Tifa watched him leave with mixed emotions. Absently, she rubbed her arm; it had been so long since he last wounded her, she'd almost forgotten he could. But what of him? He seemed almost... Had she hurt him too? Don't be ridiculous, a voice told her. Hurt Sephiroth with words? It made her laugh a little. Ridiculous, indeed. Almost as ridiculous as a walking, dancing, painting playing card.
Tifa glanced down at the puddle of paint, where the two card halves were, and sighed. I never meant for this to happen. I'm so sorry. She leaned down to close the card's eyelids, but something made her gasp and pull her hand back as if burned. What she had thought was a man's head was nothing more than a paper facsimile; the hands, too, were flat. The bucket and paintbrush were the only real items lying in the grass, and a white rose, which lay half-buried under a corner of the card. Tifa picked it up, taking care to avoid the thorns, and examined it. It had been severed from its tree by a clean, angled cut—possibly by a sword? But if not a sword, then by what? She was now more confused than ever.
This is what happens when you're no longer hollow.
She could still see him, a fair distance away but not so far she couldn't catch him if she wanted to. Answers, she told herself, running after him. That's all. But she had underestimated either the distance or his mood. No matter how fast she ran, his long, angry strides always kept him ahead. He led her over trimmed lawns and through low, clipped hedges until he reached the edge of a forest and plunged into it. She had no choice but to follow. Once inside, she could make out a faint path running through it, but beyond its boundaries lay an impenetrable blackness. Not even trees could be seen in it.
Tifa stumbled along the trail until the sway of white hair ahead of her vanished. Panic threatened to overtake her. "Sephiroth!" she called, but there was no answer. "Sephiroth? Sephiroth!" She rubbed her arms, waiting, but still nothing.
"Perhaps you could try another name?" said a voice from somewhere in the darkness. "The one you want seems to be gone."
Tifa tensed. At her hips, her hands formed into fists. "Who are you? Show yourself!"
A softly glowing shape appeared in the darkness. Since it was well off the path and high above Tifa's head, she assumed it was sitting in a tree, and as it started taking on solidity she could see why. It was a cat, but it was covered from head to tail in the most remarkable purple stripes.
"Who are you?" Tifa asked it.
"Isn't it obvious? A cat," it said. "Who are you?"
"I'm—" She stopped. He hadn't said her name this time.
"Not sure?" the cat said. "'And all the king's horses and all the king's men...'" it chanted, "Who will put you back together again?"
"I don't know!" Tifa told the cat. "That's all I say any more: 'I don't know, I don't know' and I'm getting"—she clenched her fists again—"Ouch!" She'd forgotten about the rose in her hand.
"Thorns," the cat said in a knowing voice. It licked at a paw. "Are you bleeding?"
Tifa opened her hand. All she could make out was the white petals, now gray in the dim forest lighting. "I don't know. I can't see anything."
"Then open your eyes," said the cat.
She looked up at it. "But they are—" open, she was going to say, but her mouth just hung there, slack-jawed like a kid at a cotton candy drum at the impossible sight of the cat fading out—stripe-by-stripe, part-by-part—until the only thing left was the hanging half-moon of its grin.
"Then close them," the teeth said. Then they too disappeared and Tifa was left alone in the dark, silent forest, more lost than ever. But far from dead.
AN: No doubt, some of you from my now-defunct LJ might remember this chapter as being, um, different originally. That's because it is. Evil laugh!
Comments are appreciated!