Atonement Chapter 4

By Faye Locke

Jyleth awoke only at the insistence of the sun. She really did not want to wake up, but the glare from the sun in her eyes was far too annoying for her to sleep. As she threw back the bedspread and rose out of the bed, the sudden chill of the room almost convinced her to forget the sun and dive back under the sheets and go back to sleep. Instead, she moved slowly, encumbered by a still-weakened body, to the small bureau that accounted for the only other piece of furniture in her room. Sephiroth had placed the clothes she had not put on the night before there. She put them on quickly to ward off the chill that threatened to invade her body. The long tunic, which fell just below her knees, was split for walking. She belted it tightly to her waist. Casting another glance outside, she thought a brisk walk would warm her up. Boots, gloves, and a scarf completed what she thought she would need.

A small tray covered by a napkin lay before her door. She picked it up and removed the napkin. Sephiroth had left her a simple breakfast of fruit honey cakes and a flask of milk. Laughing softly at his newly-acquired domestic skills, she carried the tray to the main room, where the fire had been fed with several logs recently so that it burned brightly now. She didn't see Sephiroth anywhere. Removing her gloves, she quickly ate the cakes, finding she was starved. She washed the cakes down with milk, then took the dishes back to the kitchen, quickly washing them and her hands of the sticky honey residue. After drying her hands, she picked up her gloves and left the house.

The cottage was built in a small clearing. Tall trees surrounded the clearing, obscuring the view of the mountains that were beyond. Jyleth had planned on perhaps going for a walk in the woods, but Sephiroth was practicing in the clearing when she stepped out of the house, practicing. The Masamune glinted in the bright sunlight as he moved through a kata, slashing and stabbing his imaginary opponents. Jyleth had seen this kata before, many times, but always from Sephiroth point of view. To see it - and him - from the outside was like watching a dancer perform. She felt a smile tugging at her lips, wondering what Sephiroth would think of being compared to a dancer.

He was dressed sparingly despite the cold morning. Black leather pants with a white sash at the waist and a sleeveless black leather vest was the sum of his protection against the cold. However, he was probably warmed by his exercise, as she could see the sheen of sweat lining his skin. She wondered at his color choice - as far as she could remember, Sephiroth had not worn black since he had put to rest the clothes Aeris had returned him with. She would have to ask him. But not now. She didn't want to interrupt his practicing; she was enjoying the view far too much. His had tied his hair back at the nape of his neck in his usual fashion, but usual thick locks had escaped and now framed his face nicely. Jyleth was just about ready to sit down and spend her morning basking in the sun and watching him when he suddenly stopped, ending his last movement so that he was facing her.

"I thought you might sleep the day away," he said, not seeming one bit out of breath. He brought the Masamune to rest, point first, on the ground, resting his arms on the pommel. Jyleth sighed, a little upset he had stopped, and closed the distance between them so she wouldn't have to raise her voice.

"I might have, but the sun was rather…insistent that I was being lazy," she said. "It's probably better that I got up anyway."

"You need rest now," Sephiroth said, shaking his head.

"I don't feel like resting," she retorted, meeting his eyes stubbornly.

Sephiroth laughed, turning away from her and pulling the Masamune to ready position in one smooth movement. He began another kata without arguing with her. Jyleth sighed, walking to another part of the clearing away from Sephiroth. A walk suddenly seemed like too much. But she still wanted to do something to get her body going. She felt that she had to get moving or be forever trapped by her weakness. Keeping her back to Sephiroth, she set herself in a position to start a stretching kata she had seen him do so many times when he woke in the morning. Having watched through his eyes did not teach her body the movements, she soon found as her limbs just wouldn't cooperate. She stumbled through the first few steps, graceless as a newly-hatched chocobo. Frustrated, she stopped and set herself in the first position again, this time moving slower and paying careful attention to every detail. The end effect was better through the first through steps, but she felt she must of looked very awkward, moving in an almost mechanical way. She stopped at again, turning to re-set herself, and found Sephiroth watching her from just a few feet away. She jumped back a few steps, nearly tripping over her own feet.

"Will you stop that," she said irritably, trying to conceal her clumsiness.

"Stop what?" Sephiroth's voice was teasingly innocent.

"Sneaking up on me like that," she retorted, feeling unexplainable annoyed at him.

"As you wish," he said, shrugging, not sure what she was upset about. He stepped closer, then put arranged his body in the first position of the kata she had been fumbling through. "You had your feet set wrong," he said, moving through the next few steps perfectly. "Once you get the footwork, the rest of it will flow." Jyleth watched him for a moment skeptically. He finished the same steps she had been trying, then relaxed to a standing position.

"It seems so easy when you do it," she said. It was so easy to get distracted watching him. She hadn't noticed what his feet were doing.

"Try it," he suggested. "It is never easy the first time. Or, for that matter, the first twenty times. Repetition is how you learn."

"I realized that," she said, turning from him and placing herself in the first position. She started to move to the second step, but Sephiroth stopped her by placing his hand on her arm.

"Start again," he said. She sighed, then stepped back. "Now, move your right foot a little out…" He stopped, reaching down and taking her foot and moving it where it needed to be. "There." Jyleth laughed a little, adjusting her balance. She found that she was actually more comfortable.

"Move to the next step," he instructed her. She did so, and he re-arranged her feet again, this time also adjusting her arms. The rest of the morning they spent working on the kata, stopping just short of noon when Sephiroth announced it was time for her to eat and rest. After helping him prepare a quick lunch, Jyleth found that she was very tired, so she decided to take Sephiroth's advice and get some rest.

The next several days involved re-training her body how to move. She managed to dig out a staff from Sephiroth's stash of weapons and started to practice with it. Sephiroth didn't know any katas that involved the use of the staff, so she used the old practices she had taught herself with before. He watched her occasionally when she practiced. She asked him once what was so interesting about the staffwork. After a brief blush that he had tried to hide, Sephiroth had murmured something about watching her to make sure that she didn't exert herself.

Jyleth ended her practice, trouncing her imaginary opponent. She held the last position for a moment, forcing her muscles to maintain their positions. Years ago, she could have held such a position without thinking for minutes on end. Now, after just thirty seconds, her muscles began to tremble. At a minute, the strain was unbearable. She stepped out of the stance, breathing heavily with exertion. She rested the staff on the ground, trying to catch her breath before starting again.

This is absurd, she thought to herself in annoyance. Why is this taking so long? Of course, she knew the answer - that there had been more damage done by the time spent in the ice than they had thought. When Sephiroth had taken her from Corel to the Northern Continent, she had been in peak condition - which was why she had been able to cross swords with him and not die in the first minute. Now, however, she was as inept as any … well, she wasn't sure what she could compare herself to. Her weakness was simply too annoying for words. This led to irritation, which she had been venting mostly on Sephiroth, who had accepted her often harsh words without comment. Jyleth knew she was being very petty and childish, but she couldn't stand being so weak.

She fought of a wave of dizziness - they came sometimes while she was practicing - and set herself to begin the kata again. The dizziness seemed determined to stay with her. She stood a moment in the first stance, waiting for the vertigo to recede. Ignoring it was unwise, she realized somewhere in the back of her mind, but paying attention to it would be admitting another weakness. She finally gave up on regaining total balance and just started into the next move, assuming that it would go away if she ignored it.

She finished the practice, ignoring the growing dizziness, once again stopping on the final move. Determined to hold the last position longer, she gritted her teeth against the vertigo and fatigue of aching limbs. Suddenly, the ground seemed to heave underneath her, and she found herself lying on the grass, the staff having fallen from her numbed grip beside her. She started to rise, furious she had fainted, but found her strength had completely fled her. She had pushed herself too hard, she knew, and now she would have to deal with Sephiroth scolding her. Lying back on the grass, she waited to hear his inevitable tirade.

"Jyleth." His voice was very near. She opened her eyes, finding him standing beside her. He dropped to his knees, bringing one hand to her forehead and the other to her wrist. "I knew you were pushing yourself too hard," he said, his voice flat. Anger lingered in his words, and he was trying hard to conceal it. "Perhaps it is best you learned this way."

"I'm fine," she said, struggling to get up. He moved his hands to her shoulders, effectively pinning her down.

"Of course you are," he said sarcastically, "which is why you fainted in the manner all healthy people do during a simple exercise."

"I'm just tired," she said, feeling anger growing at his tone of voice. She wasn't a child! She swatted at his arms, trying to get up. His eyes met hers briefly, then he shrugged and moved away from her, rising to his feet. Grabbing the staff, she pulled herself quickly to her feet, as if to prove her point. But vertigo charged over her senses a moment later, and she came back to her senses to find herself being cradled in Sephiroth's arms as he carried her back to the cottage.

"Enough for one day," he said when she opened her eyes and struggled ineffectively against him. "Stop that," he chided her. Jyleth sighed, but did as she was told. She hated being weak, but, for a moment, being held in his arms so made her forget her annoyance at him and herself.

He carried her to the divan, setting her there carefully before preparing a quick meal. The dizziness disappeared with the meal, and she announced she was going to take a bath after they had carried the plates to the kitchen. Hot baths were nearly the highlight of her day, second only to covertly watching Sephiroth performing his katas. Soaking in the hot soapy water always took away the day's soreness and, for a short time, made her forget the weakness plaguing her.

After the bath, she dressed in the lightweight tunic and trousers she used for sleeping the returned to the main room. Sephiroth had added several logs to the fire, as he always did as the evening approached. He was sitting in a chair close the fire when she walked in, staring at his gloved hands as if to receive some sort of divine inspiration from them. She guessed he was thinking about the stone imbedded in his skin, wondering why the color had not changed from the original black. The only reason she knew that the color had not changed was because she had seen the stone one night as they were washing the dishes. He always kept his hand covered, but he had to remove his gloves for a short time for the washing. Neither had said anything about the stone, but she knew it was weighing heavily on his thoughts. She sat on the divan, watching him, and watching the fire, trying to decide if she should say anything. She held the comb in one hand, preparing to comb out her hair, when she got an idea.

"Sephiroth," she said, "stop moping."

"I'm not moping," he said, after giving her a curious and somewhat startled look. He turned back to the fire.

"Yes, you are." Jyleth sighed, then continued. "I'm still pretty tired," she lied, "would you comb my hair for me?" Sephiroth turned fully in the chair to look at her, his expression shadowed by the light of the fire. She couldn't imagine what he was thinking. She wasn't even sure what she was thinking. After a long moment, he rose and walked to her, taking the comb from her fingers. He sat on the divan, holding the comb limply as if her wasn't sure how to use it. Jyleth laughed softly, then turned her back to him, flipping a few stray locks over her shoulder. She felt Sephiroth gingerly take up a small portion on her hair, then gingerly worked the comb through it. Gradually, he grew more confident, but was still very careful not to pull to roughly on the locks. Jyleth closed her eyes, enjoying the grooming. His fingers often brushed the skin on her neck, and she realized that he had taken off his gloves.

Sephiroth finished freeing her hair from tangles, but he didn't stop moving the comb through her hair. Jyleth didn't object, having been lulled to a drowsy state. She found herself almost leaning back into his touch, longing for something more - what exactly she wasn't sure. Sephiroth's hand reached up from her hair, brushing her neck. Jyleth stiffened a little as his fingers moved along the line of her chin, but then forced herself to relax. Tiny bugs seemed to have suddenly spawned in her stomach, flitting around aimlessly. She ignored the feeling, paying attention instead to Sephiroth. He moved closed to her, slipping one arm around her waist as he continued to stroke her neck with his fingers. He leaned closer to her, his breath caress her skin. Lips brushed her neck, tasting her skin. Jyleth reached back to touch him, but his hand grabbed her wrist, pulling it down sharply. He moved his arm so that he had both her arms pinned to her side, while moving his lips up her neck until he reached her mouth. Fear fought with desire for control of her thoughts as he kissed her, gently at first, then growing harder. He turned her to face him, still kissing her, and pushed her down on the divan. Again, she tried to raise her hand to him, but he fiercely pushed her arms down.

"Sephiroth," she whispered when his mouth slid away, slowing moving down her neck. She felt a desperate need to somehow slow things down - slow him down - to at least have some control over what was happening. Her heart was thumping madly, making her dizzy. She could feel her blood thrumming through the arteries of her neck, knowing that Sephiroth could feel the mad racing of her heart there with his lips. She tried to control her breathing, to slow her heart, to calm herself, but she couldn't. She became acutely aware that his hands had moved under her shirt and were rapidly moving upward. The whole situation was giving her with a feeling of déjà vu - a feeling that caused an unexplainable fear to rise in her. Fear that quickly gave way to panic.

"Sephiroth," she gasped, panic coloring her voice. He paused for a moment, then raised his head so that she could see his eyes. For a moment, she thought she saw a hunger burning there, but it disappeared. Something unreadable passed across his face as pulled his hands from under her shirt and moved off of her. He sat back against the divan, seeming very tired. Jyleth sat up also, trying to calm the fierce pounding of her heart.

"Jyleth, I'm-" she cut him off with a wave of her hand, taking his hand in hers as her breathing began to return to normal and pulling him back to her.

"Don't," she said, "It's not that, it's just…" She shrugged, unable to explain away the dread the déjà vu had brought. Instead, she raised her hand to his face, daring to brush his cheek with her fingers. She wanted to have him holding her again so badly it ached, yet…she didn't want…she couldn't quite place her need, or what she was afraid of. He flinched a little at her touch, looking surprised. Leaning closer, she kissed him lightly on the lips, then pulled away. Sephiroth met her eyes for a moment, then he returned her kiss. He was gentle, but seemed to be filled with more need. His arms wrapped around her, pulling her close to him. This time, he allowed her hands to touch him, moving across his shoulders along the tense line of his back.

"It just all seemed… so familiar…" she said after a moment, breaking off the kiss. She wanted to explain her earlier panic. She closed her eyes, searching her mind for the memory that might have caused the feeling. "Like… like I had been… like we had been…" She couldn't explain the sensation of fear. A sudden movement by her side distracted her thoughts. Sephiroth had risen to his feet, standing very stiffly.

"What is it?" she asked, assuming by his tense body posture that there must have been some danger. She looked around the room, glancing out the windows, but could see nothing that would have made him react so.

Sephiroth sighed, relaxing a little, then sat on the table across from the divan, careful not to touch her. His hands, only inches from hers, ached to feel her skin once more, so gentle and yielding to him. But it had not been so before, and he knew he must tell her of that night, many lost years ago; the night of his shame.

"Jyleth," he started, hoping to find some strength and comfort in the sounding of her name. "Do you remember, years ago, when I had hired you as my guide, and you took the poisoned munkie arrow?" She nodded, her face dim at the memory of the pain and poison. Still, there was the unspoken question about her, wondering why he would resurrect the past at this time. "And you remember we took shelter in a cave?" Again, she nodded. Sephiroth drew a deep breath, seeking strength to help him through.

"The second night, I cast a sleep spell on you-"

"I remember that," she interrupted, "and I remember that I was quite thoroughly annoyed at you…" She trailed off when he shook his head and indicated for her to be silent.

"Yes, but you do not remember the rest of the night."

"I slept - what was there to remember?"

"No, you did not sleep the entire night," Sephiroth said, shaking his head. "You woke perhaps halfway through the night, when the mind grows restless and unthinking." Jyleth gasped sharply then, memories returning with sudden sharpness at his words. Sephiroth continued speaking, but the works went mostly unheard by her, so caught was she by the returning memories.

…waking to find his hands tangled in her hair, his face dangerously close to hers . . . reaching for her dagger, only to find the weapon was missing . . . his body covering hers, his mouth ungently pressing against her lips . . . struggling away from his grasp, only to be caught in another of his spells, which slowed her limbs to compliance . . . hands tangling in her hair, her body tingling involuntarily under his touch . . . remembering the smooth white perfection of his body in the dim light, the feeling of him moving against her, in her . . . and hands, tangling in her hair. . .

Jyleth shook herself out of the memories and looked at him in fear and shame, the horror of what he had done very fresh in her mind. Sephiroth's eyes burned with remorse and sadness, yet still she sensed he had relived the memories even as she had, and his recollection had not involved pain. Perhaps that brought the most shame to him; the burning desire stirred by the recollection. She started to rise, feeling weak and somewhat nauseous, wanting to be away from him. She had to sort out her feelings, try to come to an understanding of what he had done to her all those years ago, and realize that now he was not the same person. He caught her hands, pulling her back down to the divan.

"I have not finished," he explained, his voice edging to a whisper. "I could not take the memories from you, but I did hide them away. Jenova showed me how, even though I did not recognize her at the time. And later, the next day, she showed me the consequence of my indiscretion - that you were carrying what would become my child." Jyleth's eyes widened at this, but she said nothing.

"I could not allow you to know what had happened - obviously, it would cause a certain strain on our arrangement at the time." Sephiroth's voice was cold now, emotionless and practical. A reflection of himself at that time. "So I did what I knew best to do - I killed the barely formed life, with a carefully directed death spell." Jyleth let out a small cry, and tried to pull her hands free, but he held her tightly. "I nearly killed you - it was a delicate matter - and I had to do it slowly, to keep you from knowing. When you came up with an excuse for your sickness, I thought my plan was perfect. But, Jyleth, what I didn't know at the time was that the spell worked too much, and that - that the barrenness you have is by no poison's fault but my own." He bowed his head in silent grief and pain, knowing what he had told her would probably end forever what might have been a growing bond between them. She ripped her hands from his nerveless fingers and fled from the room, unable to speak a single word to him. He heard a strangled sob from her before the door to her room slammed shut, cutting him off from her with a note of finality.


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