Atonement Chapter 7

By Faye Locke

Jyleth did not join him that night in bed. When Sephiroth woke the next morning, she was sitting on the divan, polishing her swords methodically. The fire she had allowed to die, only dim coals were left, scattered among the ashes. He suspected that she had been awake all night, caring for her returned weapons. In the dim pre-morning light, he could see that the braids she had started the day before were now finished, binding all of her hair tightly. In addition, she had gathered the braids from around her face and tied them back with a strip of leather. She looked up at Sephiroth as he walked in, lack of sleep showing only a little in her face. Sighing heavily, she set down the sword and stretching her arms and back. Sephiroth picked up one of the sheathes, noticing the scuffs on the leather had been buffed away, leaving the leather soft and supple.

"You were up all night?" Sephiroth asked quietly, setting the sheathe back down.

"Yeah," she said, nodding, "I just thought I would try to… I don't know… I needed to think." Sephiroth nodded, knowing how polishing occupied the body when the mind needed to think. He walked to the hearth, using the poker to scatter the coals. He didn't add any more logs. The packs he had prepared the night before were settled against the wall by the door, along with the Masamune. Jyleth had placed her staff there as well.

Sephiroth said, "It's time to go." Jyleth jerked her head up at his voice, her mind obviously having returned to its previous wandering.

"Huh? Oh yeah, of course," she stumbled out, quickly standing. She moved to the door, gathering her weapons as she did. The swords she strapped across her back, the daggers disappeared into various spots on her person. She left two visible, the longest two, sheathed at her belt. The pack she swung over her shoulders as she took the staff. Sephiroth blinked a few times. Her appearance was almost exactly a match to the way she had been when she was his guide all those years ago. In part, it was his choice of clothing for her - he had chosen the same style he had first seen her in. The braids, in his mind, only added to her allure, giving her a wild mien.

"What are you smiling about?" She demanded when she turned back to glance at him.

"You looked very much like…" Sephiroth shrugged. "Like you did a very long time ago." He added, "I like the braids." He retrieved his back and slung the Masamune around his waist. "Are you tired?" He realized he hadn't given any thought to her lack of sleep delaying their departure. He had just assumed that her display of vigor from the day before meant that she had fully recovered.

"Just a little," she answered, shrugging, "I think I can walk it off. I don't like the idea of staying here another day while Vincent is looking for headhunters to join him." Sephiroth smiled at her words, and at the sarcasm in her voice.

"You are not really worried about him," he stated. She shrugged, involuntarily looking out one of the windows in the direction that Vincent had departed.

"I don't think he meant what he said. There seemed to be something else bothering him. I mean, he was not happy to see you, but…"

"Yes," Sephiroth said, finishing her thought, "all that anger wasn't exactly directed at me. I sensed that, too." Jyleth just nodded, letting the subject drop.

"I noticed that you also have returned to an older look," she said, motioning to his own regalia. He wore all black once more, an outfit nearly identical to his old Shin-ra SOLDIER uniform. He had made only a few changes when he had commissioned the making of the clothing - a little less armoring, especially around the shoulders.

"Like you said, they have to know me to … forgive me." Jyleth smiled faintly at him, the turned to the door and left the cottage. Sephiroth followed her. When they reached the edge of the clearing, Sephiroth stopped her. She followed his gaze back to the cottage. For a moment he concentrated, whispering words of a materia spell under his breath. A moment later, a high pitched whistling sound came. Sephiroth looked up, then took Jyleth's arm and pulled her back to the relative cover of the trees..

"Sephiroth, what-" Jyleth protested as he pulled her down in a small, leaf-filled ditch. Her question was cut off by a loud explosion, followed by a wave of heat. The cottage was in flames.

"I've never seen that materia before," she said, brushing herself off as she stood. "A little drastic, perhaps?"

"I didn't want…I don't think Cloud would have left it standing." Sephiroth also stood, unable to stop himself from brushing away clinging leaves. After one last look at the burning cottage, he turned away and started picking a path through the forest.

"Where are we going?" Jyleth asked, catching up with him.

"South," he answered, shrugging, "somewhere. I don't have any one destination in mind."

"What about the chocobo?" Jyleth realized she hadn't seen the animal stabled anywhere while she had been recovering.

"I keep him a few miles from here," Sephiroth answered, still walking. "He is in a bottleneck canyon. There is quite enough food for him to last a long while."

"Why don't we go get him?" Jyleth asked.

Sephiroth did stop then, turning back to face her. "I plan on taking a ship to either of the other major continents. Bringing the chocobo would attract attention."

"You being dressed like that is going to attract attention," she pointed out. "No one will notice the chocobo - they will all be too busy staring at - or running from - you." Sephiroth smiled at her interjection.

"I hope they don't run," he said, "then they won't be able to see how nice I am." He shrugged, his attempt at humor not working in quite the manner he meant it to. "In any case," he continued, turning away and resuming his walk, "we aren't in any hurry. Besides, monsters don't attack when one travels via chocobo. I have several materia I have yet to master, and do that, I need to fight. And you could use the experience as well. Katas are well and good, but," he cast a glance back at her to see if she was paying attention. She motioned for him to go on. "They are no substitute for the real thing."

"I know that," she said, sighing. "But it still would be nice to have a chocobo." Sephiroth made a noise that sounded like a cough, but otherwise, he did not make any furthur comments.

Vincent entered Nibleheim, closing his eyes as if to close off the part of his mind that remembered Nibleheim … so many years ago. But the memories still haunted him; the vision of a lovely woman with long, mahogany waves of hair held back loosely at the nape of her neck on a haphazard ponytail. Vincent shuddered, willing the memory to leave him. There were more pressing matters at hand. He couldn't allow himself to be caught by the past.

It was late afternoon when he arrived. The sun shone down hotly on the town. Children and young adults ran through the streets, the legacy of the town's new source of income: the Academy.

The Academy had become the best source for warrior training on the planet since the dissolution of the Shin-ra's SOLDIER corp. Perhaps part of the prosperity of the Academy had to do with the notoriety of it's founders: Cloud and Tifa Strife. People had practically flocked to have their children train under the legendary warriors. Adults had come too, to learn to protect themselves, or to hone the abilities they already had. For although the worst threat had been eliminated, monsters still roamed the planet, perhaps with increasing frequency and power. The town had grown and adapted accordingly to its new boost in economy, serving the needs of the trainees and their families.

Vincent strode into the town, ignoring odd and curious glances he received from the townspeople and trainees alike. He walked directly to the Strife's house, not needing to stop and ask directions. Who would need directions, after all? The house, with its attached training area and barracks, was the single largest building in the town. It stood where the old mansion had once been. The mansion had been razed, at Cloud's directions, as if by destroying it he could erase the old Shin-ra influence on his life and the town. To Vincent, the taint still hung about the town, not perceptively, but in a shadow here, or a certain angle of a building…he suspected Shin-ra would never truly be erased.

He knocked on the door, solidly, three times. And waited. Footsteps echoed from the other side, accompanied by a hurried "Just a minute!" Vincent couldn't help but smile, wondering what he had interrupted her from.

Then the door opened, and Tifa was suddenly there, standing before him. She blinked a few times in surprised, pushing an errant lock of hair back from her face. She was still as beautiful as he saw her in his mind. And then the words of their last conversation came back to him. And he finally remembered what it was that had sent him over the edge.

"I love him so much," Tifa had confided to Vincent on a night long ago. Vincent had stopped by to see the newly-wed pair, only to find Tifa sobbing and Cloud not in the house. "He's out drinking," she said between sniffles.

Vincent had said nothing, not knowing what he could say.

"Every night, he goes out…and comes back drunk. He talks about her in his sleep. Oh Vincent, I can't compete with her! Don't you understand? I can't compete with a dead girl! He won't let her go and I love him so much and…if I try to talk to about it, he gets…angry with me. Vincent, what I am going to do? I love him… love him…so much…"

"Has he…hurt you?" Vincent controlled his voice, making it so soft that Tifa could not hear the anger behind it.

"No," Tifa answered immediately. But her hand went to her cheek, as if remembering a past blow. She was unmarked, however, which gave Vincent some relief. If there had been a mark, he would…

"Tifa…" he started, not sure what she wanted him to say. "I'm sure that he loves you too, he just can't show it…"

"Vincent, do you really think so?" She wiped away the tears, sniffling again loudly. "Am I just being an idiot? What if I am the one making him go away?" She started crying again, dropping her head to her arms.

"Tifa, it's not you," he insisted.

"What am I going to do?" The words were muffled by her arms and the sobs.

Vincent still felt the anger seething through his body. And the hunger…

"Vincent," Tifa asked from the doorway, confused by his silence. Her voice brought him back to the present. He nodded sharply to her in acknowledgment. Her face didn't show any signs of angst or sorrow. She must have reconciled her differences with Cloud in the time that he was gone.

"I must see Cloud," he said. She stepped aside so that he might enter. He did so immediately, pausing a moment in the entryway while Tifa shut the door to accustom his eyes to the darkened house. She wore looser-fitting clothing now, married life having allowed her body to mature in womanly curves. Loose pants and a tight t-shirt with a leather vest was her garb now.

"It's been so long," she said, stepping around him and leading him to a small kitchen. "Nearly four years."

Four years.

"Has it really been that long," he said in an emotionless voice, struggling with the knowledge of how long the madness had infected him. Why hadn't he thought to check the date with anyone before he came here? "It seems like it's only been…well, a short time." Tifa laughed softly, pouring him something to drink and indicating that he should take one of the four seats at the round dining table in the corner. He took the glass as he sat down, making a show of drinking from it, but he did not allow any of the liquid into his mouth. From the smell, he could tell it was tea.

"Cloud is in the training yard," said Tifa, "I'll go get him." She paused for a moment in the doorway, looking back at him. "May I asked why you have come here?"

"No," he said. "Yes, you can ask, but I will tell you both. I'd rather not have to say it twice." She nodded curtly. Vincent watched her retreating back before staring back at the cup of tea. He stood up and walked to the sink. There he dumped about half the contents of his cup down the drain, rinsing it with some water from the faucet to rinse away any traces of the brown liquid. He was sitting once more with Tifa walked back in with a sweat-and dust-covered Cloud.

Cloud looked very much the same since the last time Vincent had seen him. His blonde hair was still spiky and wild, although Vincent could see Cloud was trying to grow his hair out, evident by the short ponytail confining perhaps half of Cloud's hair. His clothing was of the same make, baggy pants and tight sleeveless shirt. The mako-blue eyes still held a haunted look, something Vincent suspected would never completely disappear. A young boy trailed Cloud in, clinging to the ex-SOLDIER's pants with the tenacity of a three-year old not yet confident on just two feet. The toddler had Cloud's piercing blue eyes and hazel brown hair that hung in straight lines over his ears and in his eyes.

"His name is Aaron," Cloud said, following Vincent's gaze. "Our first." Cloud's voice was guarded. It was obvious he desperately wanted to know the reason for Vincent's visit, but wasn't willing to stoop to ask.

"A beautiful child," Vincent said with a nod, giving the boy an easy smile. Vincent suspected that the child might have been the turning point in what had been a failing marriage. Vincent didn't bother to point out who the little boys namesake must have been, not wanting to upset Tifa by mention the Ancient girl. The little boy smiled back at him shyly, hugging a little tighter to Cloud's leg. Cloud scooped him up, taking a seat at the table and setting the boy on his lap. "I'm sorry to disturb you," Vincent said, deciding to get straight to the point, "but I have to tell you something."

Cloud nodded, swiping Vincent's cup and downing the rest of the liquid in one gulp. "I trust your judgement," Cloud said. "You wouldn't pester me on a whim like some of the others." Vincent didn't bother to ask who the "others" were. He knew from rumors he had heard during his journey to Nibleheim that Reeve and some ex-Shin-ra types had been begging Cloud to help them restore Midgar by moving the Academy there. He also knew that Cloud was adamantly refusing, wanting Midgar to remain the refuse heap it had become.

"Sephiroth is back," Vincent said, not seeing the need for a lengthy preamble.

Cloud went utterly still. Aaron tensed as well, sensing something was wrong. His father's eyes were glazed over, the expression unreadable. Tension filled the room with stiff silence.

"Damn you, Vincent," Tifa gasped hoarsely. "How could you do this?" In another portion of the house, a baby began to cry. Tifa glared at Vincent, then stalked out the room in the direction of the cry.

"Zi'ah," Aaron said, looking up at his dad.

"Yes," Cloud said numbly, "Zakira."

"I'm sorry Cloud," Vincent said, genuinely upset at how much the news had troubled Cloud. Cloud still hadn't moved. His face was still blank, the eyes holding the same haunted look he used to get when Sephiroth had called to him during the Reunion. Tifa came back into the room, holding a swathed infant of whom Vincent could only see a tiny pink face and a lock of shiny gold hair. She took one look at her still-shocked husband and visibly upset son and pursed her lips.

"I think you should leave, Vincent," she said coldly, sitting next to Cloud. She placed her hand on Cloud's tightened fist, but he did not acknowledge her presence. Vincent remained, unsure of what he should do.

"Now, Vincent," Tifa said through clenched teeth, giving him a fierce look. Vincent rose swiftly from the table, preparing to say his farewell, but Tifa waved him off. "Don't say anything. Just leave. Don't come back. Ever." She met his eyes for a moment, making sure he understood the fullness of her words. Ever. Vincent nodded stiffly once, then left the house, closing the door quietly behind him.


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