At first he was alone in the all-encompassing green, and he preferred it that way. After everything that had happened -
white flash, near-intolerable crush of noise pressed into a single moment too small to contain it -
it was a relief to just drift, silent and serene, cradled by the Lifestream's warmth.
The next thing Sephiroth was aware of - albeit dimly - were the whispers. Voices stirred the calm around him, making it ebb and break, dragging over him with subtle talons of sound that made him flinch.
No rest, they murmured.
No rest, they insisted.
For you, our murderer, no rest at all, and their voices twisted and wove into an incoherent howl of pain and rage, and Sephiroth cried out in shock, his voice reverberating through the Lifestream itself even as the weight of his own memory hit him like a hammer.
And under its blow was the terrible realization that the speakers, his victims, had the right of it - he was Sephiroth, mass murderer, Planet-killer, poison made flesh, and for him there could be no rest. Sephiroth shuddered as the voices rose around him, a cacophony of fury. His first instinct, he found himself thinking, should have been to step back on his guard, but in the absence of a body to protect all of his hard-earned instinct and training developed over a lifetime as a weapon of war were rendered completely useless.
He floated in the Lifestream, and waited for them to tear him apart.
That single command halted the voices mid-babble, leaving the Lifestream echoing with silence. Sephiroth stirred, dared to expand his awareness to include the speaker. "Who...?" he whispered.
"Here, let me." The speaker was female, her voice light and kind. A cool light flooded Sephiroth, flexing his back, stinging his eyes -
Eyes. And a spine, and arms and legs... Sephiroth looked down at himself in wonder. Alabaster flesh and long silver hair, just as it had been before he'd died. "I'm... whole," he murmured.
"It's just a memory," the speaker demurred. "I thought you'd be more comfortable this way."
Sephiroth lifted his head - his illusory head, it seemed, though it felt real enough that he was willing to go along with it - and faced his rescuer.
"You," he said quietly. "You're-"
crushing voices, piercing screams, gibbering howls, his own personal hell collapsed into the irresistible pull of a white dwarf star-
"-Aeris." The young woman smiled. "You remember me."
"I-" Sephiroth made his stumbling way through his own memories. "I killed you, it seems."
"That's all right." Aeris made a dismissive gesture. "Don't worry about it."
"Don't..." Sephiroth shook his head, making his hair float and cling around him like spiderwebs. "I don't understand." He trailed off, clutched at his temples - and yes, having temples to clutch was a minor relief. "My memory is... jumbled at best," he managed at last, slow and halting, "but I recall slaying you with perfect clarity. With that act I nearly doomed Gaia herself, and to me it felt like a triumph." Sephiroth raised his eyes to her. "How can this not matter to you?"
"Dear," Aeris told him gently, "it wasn't you."
Sephiroth hid his eyes again. "I don't think," he said, voice low, "Mother's use of constructs at all absolves me. It was still my consciousness giving them life, my hands at the strings." His throat tightened. "Mine were the hands that killed you, Miss Aeris. No matter how I wish otherwise, no amount of playing goddess with technicalities will change that."
It may have been illusion then that made him feel Aeris slipping cool, pale arms around him, pressing the length of her body to his, but the Cetra's intent was sincere and unmistakable. "First," she said gently into his chest, "when I say it wasn't you, I mean it wasn't you. It was always Jenova's hands at your strings, and I should know." She smiled up at him. "I had to dig them out of your heart one by one. Second, Jenova is not your mother."
Aeris's voice was firm. "It is a virus, an organism whose only interest is to replicate and destroy. Maternal feeling of any sort is as foreign to it as breathing vacuum would be to you or I. You have a mother already, Sephiroth. A human woman who gave birth to you. I've met her, and she's very nice, and though she never got a chance to show it, she loves you." Aeris tilted her head up to gaze at him then, still warm as ever but unsmiling. "Don't make light of her, Sephiroth."
"I'm sorry." The words spilled from Sephiroth's mouth unbidden, and he was surprised to find he meant them. He was a monster, after all. Monsters didn't empathize.
"It's all right." Aeris lay her head on Sephiroth's chest again, perfectly trusting considering what Sephiroth had done to her. "Everything's all right now, Sephiroth, I promise. Jenova's gone, just as gone as I could make it. It'll never control you again. Your will is your own - Sephiroth, dear, you're free."
Free. The word shone in his head, singing promises that were nothing like the promises Jenova made. The late Jenova, now. Jenova was gone. Her voice would never curl through his brain again, direct him like a sword against the heart of any other human. She would never scream her hate and hunger through his head until he was screaming too, inside, even as his puppet-body laughed over a slowly-cooling corpse.
She'd been his world.
Sephiroth bowed his head over Aeris's, placed a hand gently over her back. "I... don't know what to say," he admitted. "Or do. Why am I still - here? With Jenova gone, surely there is no reason for me to exist."
"Don't ask me that," Aeris grinned. "The Lifestream tells me many things, but it can't tell me what's in your heart. Why are you still here?"
"I thought it was because the Lifestream wouldn't accept me," Sephiroth said faintly. "Or Jenova wouldn't let me go. But..."
The white-noise flash came again, but this time Sephiroth was ready for it, fought through it until a new self-knowledge came to him, his mind slowly beginning to knit itself whole.
"I don't want to," Sephiroth whispered, wondering at himself. "I have no right, I know that, but - I don't want this to be the end of my tale." He lifted his eyes to Aeris, hardly able to bear the kindness in her gaze but forcing himself anyway. "But - I'm dead. Is there any hope for me? Any redemption?"
Aeris didn't smile. "That, Sephiroth, is up to you. Are you willing to try?"
"For redemption?" Sephiroth didn't - wouldn't - ask how it was possible. Aeris wouldn't have posed the question if it wasn't; the how was irrelevant. "Yes."
"It won't be easy," Aeris warned. "I won't be able to help you. You'll suffer and feel sorrow just like everyone else. It's not a restful or comfortable thing, life."
"I'm used to hardship." Sephiroth's chin firmed. "I would face anything for redemption, Miss Aeris. For everyone whose lives I took, I can do nothing else."
That earned a smile from her, and Sephiroth felt something loosen in his chest. "It's just Aeris," the last Cetra told him, and floated up to plant a kiss on his forehead.
The Lifestream, all of it at once, crashed through him.
The lean gray wolf was waiting for him when he emerged over the cliff face. Sephiroth halted, watching the animal warily, wishing he had his sword. Masamune had been waiting for him when he'd emerged from the Lifestream, but it was a twisted ruin, and though his heart ached to hold it again Sephiroth had left it where it was.
The wolf hadn't moved, and a distant chill was starting to bite his exposed skin. Sephiroth heaved a sigh and stalked past it, distantly unsurprised when it fell into step at his heels.
The sting of the cold grew deeper the more he ascended, and Sephiroth hesitated when he caught sight of the cavern's entrance, the gleam of snow and the knife's edge of cold warning him back. He glanced back at the wolf, who only lifted a querying brow at him and switched his tail.
"Ah, well," he sighed. "I probably won't die from it."
Whrff, agreed the wolf, and gave him a friendly sort of tail-whisk. Sephiroth took it as an order and resumed marching again.
The cold hit him like a thousand swords as he stepped out of the cavern, and Sephiroth found himself flinching even as he forced himself out into the too-bright light of day. It was a calm day in high summer at the Crater, more fortunate he, for he darkly suspected that he would have little chance of surviving more than a few hours otherwise. "One step, two," he murmured to himself, suiting actions to words. "Third step takes all." That third step brought him to the edge of the rock face: there was nowhere to go but up.
The wolf yipped encouragement. Sephiroth nodded to him, worked his hands until feeling returned to them, and began to climb.
It won't be easy, Aeris had said; Sephiroth kept the warning in mind as he climbed steadily upward. The cold bit at his skin, wormed its way into him until he couldn't remember what it was like to be warm. The rock was rough against his palms, cracked by millenia of snowstorms, but strong; he could rest his full weight on it, pause to gather his strength, then reach up for the next handhold. And the next. And the next.
The pain of extreme cold didn't bother him. It was when it stopped hurting that you had to worry.
He had just about made up his mind to start worrying when a pink tongue swiped itself across his fingers, startling him with its warmth. "When did you-?" he said, startled, as the wolf wagged his tail and grinned at him, standing proudly at the apex of Gaea's Cliff. "No," Sephiroth sighed, "never mind. It's a foolish question." He hauled himself up and over, gritting his teeth against the encroaching weakness in his limbs. The cold was stronger than he remembered, possibly stronger than he was, and he really should have known better - "Oh," he gasped out, the reflexive breath freezing into a cloud on the wind, as he stumbled to his knees at the top of the cliff. The jagged lands of the North stretched out before him, beautiful in its harshness, but Sephiroth had no eyes for it.
The last thing he remembered before losing consciousness was warm fur, rough against his bare skin as the wolf pushed itself firmly under Sephiroth's arm.
Freezing to death was a surprisingly warm way to die. Warm and slightly scratchy, and it smelled like chocobo.
Sephiroth cracked an eye open, expecting the glowing green of the Lifestream again. Green there was, but it was softer and darker as it pressed against his face...
"Oh," Sephiroth muttered, and rolled away from the chocobo so he could breathe. He wasn't dead, clearly, but every inch of him ached, and he didn't know where he was. The snow, and the mountains, and the wolf were nowhere in evidence, replaced by a warmly-lit stable, a scratchy wool blanket wrapped around him, and a massive green chocobo ruffling its feathers contentedly and warbling under its breath. "I've woken up in worse places," he told his new roommate, who chuckled in reply.
Standing - and wincing; the stable's ceiling was lower than he'd judged, and now he had a decent knot on the back of his head to welcome him back to the living world - Sephiroth took stock of his surroundings. It didn't take long. The stable, only really big enough for the one chocobo, was easily a third of the size of the rest of the room, which seemed to serve as combination bedroom, storage room, and kitchen for whoever lived here. Though small, the room was bright and warm, lit mostly by a large furnace set against a wall. A small doorway was set in the opposite wall from the stable, the door ajar; the washroom, Sephiroth conjectured.
A flushing noise confirmed his theory. Sephiroth quickly sat down again, nearly bumping the chocobo's beak. His height tended to intimidate - along with everything else, anyway - and the last thing he wanted was to make his apparent rescuer feel unsafe in his own home.
He'd half-expected the wolf to come trotting out; but it was an old man, his movements stiff and slow and hindered by layer upon layer of faded garments. The elderly tend to feel the cold, more so than a younger person would, Sephiroth found himself remembering, though he couldn't pin down where he'd picked up that particular bit of information. Why is this one living in a frozen wasteland?
Though it was entirely possible they were in Costa del Sol, for all he knew. Sephiroth glanced around, located a small window, and - no, nothing but white against the glass. "Excuse me," he tried.
The old man startled, looked around - his eyes sliding over Sephiroth several times - then focused on him. "Oh. Hello. How did you get there?"
"I was hoping you could tell me," Sephiroth answered respectfully. "I don't remember how I got here."
His elderly host's brow furrowed. "Hmm. That's strange. How did you..." He trailed off, rheumy eyes losing focus. Sephiroth sat back, waiting to be told what exactly was going on.
No answer was forthcoming. "Excuse me?" Sephiroth tried again.
The old man jolted. "Oh! I remember now!" He turned an apologetic smile on his guest. "I heard something at the door. When I opened it, there you were - completely unconscious and suffering from the cold."
"You brought me in, then?" Sephiroth said doubtfully, eyeing the old man's frail hands. And how in the world had he gotten to the man's doorstep? Unless he was living at the edge of the Crater itself - no, that was impossible. Had the wolf brought him? Equally impossible. Sephiroth sensed Aeris's hand in all this, somehow.
"Well, technically, it was my Gleipnir," the old man answered. At the sound of his name, the green chocobo fluffed his feathers proudly. "A help in my old age, he is."
"Thank you, then," Sephiroth murmured, "both of you. Gleipnir and - how shall I address you?"
The old man frowned again. "Now, what was it they called me?" Sephiroth stifled a sigh as his host fell into another reverie. As if in commiseration, Gleipnir bent his head and tugged on Sephiroth's bangs. Beyond narrowing his eyes, Sephiroth didn't protest.
"Oh! The Chocobo Sage!" The old man turned to him, delighted. "They called me the Chocobo Sage. People came to me for all over the world for advice..." He shook his gray head, the momentary light in his eyes dimming. "Forgive me. You're just recovering from nearly freezing to death and here I am talking your ear off."
"I'm fine," Sephiroth assured him, and it was true - he'd suffered no ill effects from his adventure in the cold, it seemed, and the most he was suffering from was mild hunger. "I don't mind," he added awkwardly.
"No," the Chocobo Sage said, "no. I won't subject you to an old man's ramblings anymore. Here, I'll make you some tea." He turned away, shuffled to the stove. "I'm sure you prefer coffee, but tea's much better this far north."
"I actually prefer tea," Sephiroth offered awkwardly, and thought, He must be lonely. His chest panged curiously at the thought. "Sir," he said, standing and letting himself out of the stable (much to Gleipnir's sorrow), "I would like to hear more about chocobos, if you don't mind."
The Chocobo Sage jerked back and blinked at him, pale-milky eyes straining to focus; for a moment Sephiroth feared the old man saw him as he was. "Well," the old man said, "I'd be happy to share what I remember. What would you like to know?..."
The tea warmed him long after the cup was empty, and if the Sage was still prone to trailing off into silence, at least it was restful. Sephiroth fell asleep by the fire, listening to the sound of the Chocobo Sage's breathing.
With his resurrection, Sephiroth had regained his tendency to wake up just before sunrise. The snowstorm had abated during the night, but though the sky was clear, it was still bitter cold. Wrapped in a quilted cloak borrowed from the back of a chair and with a shovel found nearby, Sephiroth forced the door open against the snow that had piled up during the night and proceeded to clear it away. The sky was rosy by the time he finished, illuminating a pile of corded wood with an axe stuck in the top; bowing to the inevitable, Sephiroth dug his way to the pile and applied himself to chopping.
He'd never shoveled snow before in his life, or chopped wood; but he'd read books that seemed to imply that this was how things were supposed to go when someone did you a kindness.
The Chocobo Sage hadn't moved when Sephiroth returned, his arms full of inexpertly-chopped wood - not that the fire would care about the shape they were in - and Gleipnir was stretching his neck out from his stall and warbling pleadingly. "I'll feed you in a moment," Sephiroth promised, and trod quietly across the floor to set his firewood in the bin. The Chocobo Sage didn't even twitch.
A foreboding chill traveled up Sephiroth's spine. Straightening, he went over and knelt by the Sage's chair, placing a hand gently on his arm so as not to wake him. The Chocobo Sage was still and too cold for the warm room, his body stiff from rigor mortis. During the night, the old man had passed on.
Sephiroth pulled away, sank to the floor. "I am no stranger to death," he said aloud, as if to remind himself of the one thing that had never left him - but the kind old man was no soldier slain in a war, nor a victim of his service to Jenova. He had simply stopped living, and there was no one but a lapsed murderer to mourn him. It didn't seem fair.
Falling back against the fireplace wall, Sephiroth covered his mouth with his hand, letting his eyes burn with unshed tears.
His strength ebbed with grief and returned with the zenith of the sun; Sephiroth used the brief warm period of midday to build a cairn of stones up around the Chocobo Sage's body in his front walk. Gleipnir looked on as his master's remains disappeared, crooning sadly low in his throat; as an afterthought Sephiroth took some shed green feathers from the bird's stable, wove them with a few strands of his own hair, and tucked them in between the stones. If anyone ever stumbled across this site, they would have more tangible proof that the Chocobo Sage was mourned.
"Farewell, sir," he murmured over the stones as Gleipnir pressed against his side. "Thank you for talking with me."
A cursory search turned up enough food in the Sage's house that both Sephiroth and Gleipnir could have lived there comfortably for some time, but both he and the big mountain chocobo seemed to agree: it was time to move on. There was a map of the northern continent pinned up on the kitchen wall, and while it was old enough to exclude the excavation site at the southern coast, it would do for getting them through the mountains. Sephiroth packed Gleipnir's saddlebags with several days' worth of provisions, bundled them both up comfortably against the cold - he wouldn't need to rely on the wolf this time - and, with the map's aid, set out for the only place he could think to go: the Forgotten City.