Atonement Chapter 6

By Faye Locke

Vincent crouched in the bushes, observing the cottage in the clearing. He no longer felt the pulling that had been directing him. This cottage was his destination. And the reason he had been directed here had become all too clear.

He had arrived the night before, exhausted from his journey. The pulling had become more and more incessant, keeping him from true rest since he had arrived at the Northern continent. Sleep he had only managed to obtain in small snatches, and even that had been plagued alternatively by the feeling he was being left behind and the vision of a young, blonde woman. When he saw the cottage, the pulling had just stopped. Its sudden absence stunned him nearly to unconsciousness. He had almost gone to the door of the cottage to investigate the inhabitants, or perhaps request a place to stay overnight, but then he had noticed a light through one of the windows. He had gone around the cottage, staying in the woods to keep from being seen, in order to see who was dwelling in the cottage.

The dim lamplight filtering out into the night might not have been enough for an ordinary human to see by, but for Vincent's heightened senses, it had been more than enough. A well-muscled silver haired man. Vincent hadn't actually been able to see the face before the light had been extinguished, but he knew. The other person, a woman with blood-red curls and a haunted expression, he had not recognized. Her face he had seen clearly. The other - he had kept his back to the window.

Vincent now waited in the daylight, wanting to confirm his discovery under the light of the sun before returning to the mainland to alert the world… that Sephiroth had returned.

Cloud needed to be told first. That meant facing Tifa again, but Vincent felt he could endure that pain. After all, he had managed to deal with it during their last fight against Sephiroth, he could conceal it again. Vincent suspected Cloud wouldn't take the news well. While Cloud recovered from the news, Vincent planned to gather the rest of their group - Barret, Nanaki, Cid, and even Yuffie, for all her annoying characteristics-for they would need to be at full strength once more in order to defeat Sephiroth.

Which raised the question as to why Sephiroth existed at all. They had defeated him. Vincent had seen the deformed body disappear after that final battle. How could anyone return from that? How did Sephiroth get his original form back? How long had he been back? And what was he doing in a quaint cottage in the dream forest, sharing his bed with some unknown woman? Vincent shook his head, trying to clear his mind. He didn't want to think about all these questions - the possible answers they raised were far too disturbing for his weakened control to take. The last thing he needed to do was to go on another rampage and leave the world ignorant of its greatest danger.

The slight creak of hinges alerted Vincent's senses, bringing his attention to the door of the cottage. Someone was exiting the cottage. Vincent's hand slipped involuntarily to the butt of his gun, and he began to wonder if he couldn't just end the problem right then, with a single bullet.

Jyleth pulled the covers over her head, trying to keep the sun away. She absolutely hated getting up in the morning with the sun in her eyes. Which was why she had hung curtains over her window… she threw back the covers, suddenly remembering the events of the night before. She wasn't in her room. She was in Sephiroth's room, in his bed.

And she was alone. He had already risen and left her to wake up alone. Mumbling a curse under her breath, she got out of the bed and grabbed her clothes, only bothering the throw the shirt on before going back to her room. She had to get out of his room, away from things that were his. While coming to him the night before had been completely of her own will, she had come only because her fear of him touching her was greater than her fear of sleeping alone with the memories had returned to her. Once back in her room, she put on the rest of her clothes, bundling up against the chill of the morning she knew would strike her when she went outside for her usual morning practice.

The same breakfast awaited her in the kitchen that she'd had every morning - she quickly shoved it down without really tasting the food, knowing that she would need the energy to keep from fainting again. She noticed, however, that she didn't feel her normal morning fatigue. In fact, she felt better than she had felt... well, since she had come out of the ice.

I should have slept with him earlier if that was all it took to recover, she thought bitterly to herself. Unbidden tears of shame came to her eyes with the thought. So long ago, yet so vivid, the memory of the rape. She bit her lip, using the pain to bring her mind to the present. She had replaced the memory - or at least tried to - with something more in her … control. Even if the only thing that had been in her control had been going in the room. As before, Sephiroth had taken over, never truly allowing her to take the lead. Still, the shame faded away, lingering in her thoughts, but not so painfully.

Yet, at the same time, she was thoroughly annoyed to have woken up alone. It was terribly rude of him to have left before she had gotten up. She had come him the night before to replace the horrible memories his confession had brought back. Snuggling against him afterwards had been of equal importance to her as making love to him. Falling asleep in his arms…had been wonderful. And waking up in his arms would have also been nice, had he decided to stay until she woke. But no, he had to get up and leave. Jyleth shook her head in frustration at the dual feelings of irritation and shame as she picked up her staff and headed out to practice.

Sephiroth was already well into his katas, a slight sheen of sweat bearing witness to the amount of work he was putting in. The Masamune was a silver blur, forming an invincible shield between around him. Jyleth sighed wistfully, remembering her own swords, Kusamé, irrevocably lost. She looked down at the staff, sighing again, wondering if she would ever be able to find something to replace her swords. The staff, while useful, was not her weapon of choice. Moving away from Sephiroth to a spot in the clearing that she considered "her" practice area, Jyleth set her mind to the first kata she had developed.

Concentration didn't seem necessary as she flew through the moves. As she had begun to expect, her infirmity had disappeared, and she was back to full strength. She finished the kata, stopping precisely in the form she visualized in her mind, holding the position effortlessly.

"Your strength seems to have returned," Sephiroth noted, not sounding surprised. Jyleth clenched her teeth to stop herself from jumping at his voice, suddenly so close. Yet, something in his tone irritated Jyleth, and reminded her that she was still upset with him for getting up and leaving her to awake alone. She cast him a sour look, then started the kata again, completely ignoring him. This time, however, as she came into the last step, she found herself caught from behind in Sephiroth's embrace.

"Stop moping," he chided, sounding amused. He brushed her neck with his lips. "I haven't forgotten." Jyleth tried to stop herself from tensing under his touch, but failed. Sephiroth released her the moment he felt her tighten up.

"Jyleth?" His voice was questioning, caring some concern. Jyleth sighed, determined not to show him that she still feared his touch, then tossed the staff aside and turned to face him. She raised her face to his, wrapping her arms around his waist.

"I'm not moping," she replied sternly, "It's just-" she stopped in the middle of her sentence, suddenly growing tense. Her hand strayed to his belt, where she found the dagger she knew would be there. She ripped the dagger from the sheathe and pivoted on her heel, throwing the dagger at the forest.

"Jyleth, what-" Sephiroth started, but the words stopped when a figure jumped from behind a tree that sported the quivering dagger in its trunk. The figure moved forward, pulling a gun from his belt as he did. Jyleth recognized something vaguely familiar about the man approaching them, something from the time she spent in Sephiroth's mind, but she couldn't quite place it.

"Vincent," Sephiroth said, his voice completely neutral. Vincent nodded stiffly, his face barely visible behind the raised collar and runaway bangs.

"You die," Vincent said, his voice rough and emotionless. He raised his gun and aimed at Sephiroth. Jyleth gasped and started to move forward, but Sephiroth reached for her, pulling her back behind him as he activated a materia spell. Jyleth stood still as a lime-green shield formed around them, watching Vincent. He fired the gun, and Jyleth flinched, but Sephiroth didn't. The barrier absorbed the bullet. Vincent continued to fire as he advanced, but the shield absorbed each bullet. Finally, he stopped, lowering his arm and staring directly at Sephiroth's eyes.

"I will tell them," Vincent said, his voice still level, but his fierce anger betrayed in his eyes, "I will tell everyone, and they will come after you, and you will die. You will not have the chance to kill again."

"But he's not-" Jyleth was silenced by Sephiroth's hand on her arm.

"You, I do not know," Vincent continued, turning his gaze to her, "but you are with him, so you will probably have to die as well." Vincent turned away, his cloak swirling dramatically around him. Jyleth heard Sephiroth mumble something under his breath, and she realized he was casting another spell. An offensive spell.

"No!" she gasped, hitting his arm with her fist to break his concentration. Sephiroth broke off the spell and looked at her questionably.

"He's right, Jyleth," he said quietly, returning his gaze to the retreating form. "He will tell the world I am back, and there are many who will not rest until I am dead. If I stop him now-"

"Then you are no better than you were before," she finished for him. "This is something you - we are going to have to deal with. You knew that from the start. Why did you wash the dye from your hair? Because it was time for you to return - for the world to know you are alive. Because they have to know you to forgive you. This was bound to happen - it just happened sooner than expected." Sephiroth took a deep breath, then sighed heavily.

"You are right," he said, turning away from Vincent, who was now completely swallowed by the forest. "I just didn't want this to end." He walked back toward the cottage, not yet deactivating the protective shield, which made Jyleth had to stay close to him.

"Wait," she said as the came to the door, remembering something that had bothered her earlier. "When you saw that I could complete the kata - that I had my strength back - why do I get the feeling that you weren't surprised?"

Sephiroth turned to her, giving her a long, steady gaze. Then he pulled off his right glove, showing her his hand. The stone. It now sparkled red in the sunlight.

Vincent knocked a few branches out of his way, irritation fighting its way to the forefront of his emotions. Why had he waited so long to shoot? He had had more than an opportunity to pick Sephiroth off, but instead, he had crouched and watched…watching his former enemy demonstrate the SOLDIER training he had received was still firmly intact…watching the woman that was Sephiroth's lover demonstrate she had comparable ability.

How had she known he was there? Not even Sephiroth had detected his presence, but the red-haired fighter had known his location and had been able to throw a dagger within inches of his face. Vincent realized that she could have killed him, if she had wished so. It took as much skill to keep the dagger from hitting him as it took to know he was there in the first place.

Attacking Sephiroth at that point had been futile, but he had been so angry… and anger quickly led to hate, which he had not been able to control. Not able to control so soon after he had recovered from his most recent bout of madness. In a few more weeks, he would not be so easily controlled by his emotions, after he had … fed … then he would be able to face the others. Until then, he was going to take his time returning, trying to avoid contact with humanity. He would go to Nibleheim first, he repeated to himself, to see Cloud.

"When…when did that happen," Jyleth sputtered as they walked into the front room of the cottage, momentarily forgetting her apprehension of his presence. Sephiroth dropped the protective barrier, walking to the fireplace to warm his hands. He tossed another log on the fire.

"Sephiroth," Jyleth said, approaching him slowly. "Answer me." He looked at her a long moment before returning his gaze to the fire.

"It was red this morning," he said quietly, poking at the coals with an iron rod. The flames sparkled dramatically, then settled. He set the rod aside.

"And it was black the night before?" she asked.

"The last time I remember looking it, it was," he replied, still keeping his gaze to the fire. Jyleth realized he was somewhat uncomfortable discussing what he happened the previous night, despite his earlier claim.

"I guess… then… that was the unredeemable deed," she said, stating the obvious, but wanting to hear what Sephiroth would say.

"Yes," was all he said. Jyleth finally gave up conversation, walking to the divan and picking up the comb she had left there. She tugged the braid out of her hair, then began working the comb through.

"We have to leave," she said, separating a small section of her hair and braiding it. She had finished the braid and begun another when Sephiroth answered her.

"I know," he stood, walking toward the hallway. He glanced at her as he walked by, then stopped, giving her a curious look.

"What are you doing," he asked, indicating the braids she made with rapidly appear in her hair.

"Just a thought I had," she said, shrugging, "seems like it would be easier to manage this way." Sephiroth watched her a moment more, then disappeared down the hallway. He returned a few minutes later, holding a cloth wrapped bundle in his arms. Setting the bundle on table in front of the divan, he stood back and waited for her to acknowledge him.

"What is that?" she asked almost immediately, finishing off another braid. She had about half of her hair now bound in long, narrow braids.

"Something I think you might want," he said, motioning her to open it. She reached for the bundle, pulling the cloth aside to reveal two sheathed blades.

"Kusamé!" Jyleth exclaimed, pulling the swords from the bundle. She held them reverently, her eyes shining with quiet tears. "I thought they were gone… after I dropped them… how did you get them?"

"I went back," Sephiroth said, smiling thinly, "Mother didn't approve, but I told her that I was going to get the weapons to prevent others from finding them and using them against me. I retrieved them from their hiding place while I was wandering."

"You kept this from me, too?" Jyleth asked, looking up at him. "How…?" She shook her head, returning her gaze to her swords, running her hands over the sheaths lovingly. She said, "it doesn't matter," before he could think of a response. Sephiroth pulled away another fold, revealing numerous daggers of different sizes and makes.

"I took these from your shop," he said, "I think most of them are yours." Jyleth set the swords aside, reaching from the daggers.

"They are all mine," she said, pulling a long dagger out. "I only sold potions."

"Then I am glad I took them all," he said. "I have some preparations the make - I want to leave in the morning." Jyleth nodded, setting the dagger down and returning to braiding her hair. Her gaze remained on the twin blades.


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