Atonement Chapter 8
By Faye Locke
Jyleth pulled away from Sephiroth's kiss, feeling out of breath, panic, and arousal in equal amounts. Sephiroth didn't reach for her again, allowing her the space she seemed to need. They had set up camp the first night a few hours ago, still in the fringes of the Dream Forest. There had been no sign of Vincent, yet they were still both wary, having been attacked several times during the day by a variety of monsters. A small pile of gil - glass-like scales left by monster remains that were used as money - showed for their efforts in defeating the monsters. However, the monsters hadn't really posed a threat - either of them alone could have easily vanquished the creatures; together, the task was almost easy to the point of boring. Once they had set camp, they had shared a quick meal, sitting side by side, then Sephiroth had reached for Jyleth's hand, and, the next thing Jyleth knew, they were kissing.
Sephiroth watched her now through half-lidded eyes, his expression unreadable. She wasn't ready for his attentions. Despite her earlier ease in his embrace, Jyleth could not help remembering the rape every time her touched her. It didn't help that he had to control every contact, preventing her from feeling like any of the interaction was by her choice. She felt hopelessly like a prisoner or slave, yet she couldn't explain the feelings to Sephiroth. She couldn't even explain them fully to herself.
"Jyleth," he said softly, turning his gaze from her to the forest beyond, "this isn't right, is it?"
"Huh?" Jyleth took a moment to register he had spoken. "What isn't right?"
"This. Us." Sephiroth sighed deeply, looking intently at his gloved hands. "Every time I touch you, I just want to " He trailed off, embarrassment and shame tingeing his face slightly red. "This can't be right. This isn't love. It's "
"Lust?" Jyleth supplied. "Need for control? Power?" There was resentment in her voice, brought by her own frustration, and she immediately regretted allowing it to show, seeing the pain it brought to Sephiroth's face.
"Yes," he admitted, undaunted by her words. "I can't control this need to take you."
Jyleth was silent. She wasn't sure what she should say. She wasn't sure what he wanted her to say. That is was all right? She couldn't say that. Because it wasn't all right. Normal people, she felt, didn't have these uncontrollable urges that he confessed to. At first, perhaps, but, eventually, love would factor in and a deeper relationship beyond the boundaries of sex would grow. Either that or the two people involved would separate. A relationship couldn't be built on lust alone.
"I'm little better than an animal," Sephiroth continued, taking her silence as disgust, "whose only thought is to-"
"Sephiroth," she cut in, not wanting to listen to his self-condemning train of thought. "There has to be another way to deal with this."
"You have an idea?" He glance at her, a quiet hope showing in his eyes for a moment before he silenced the emotion.
"Yes. No. Not yet," she replied with a faint smile, "but I'll think of something. Until then," her face grew serious, "no more touching." She swallowed hard, acknowledging Sephiroth's nod of agreement. It wasn't easy for her to place such a restriction. As much as she feared Sephiroth's touch, she desired it. The warring emotions inside her were about to drive her mad. A thought came to her, a sudden realization she wondered why she hadn't come upon it earlier - she did want to have Sephiroth near her, to hold and love, but she wanted him as an equal, not as her conqueror. There had to be a way for them to meet on equal ground. She just had to find it.
Vincent drummed his fingers on the table in an irritated pattern. The barkeep gave him a pained look, but didn't say anything. The golden claw and a stern reprimand little more than an hour ago had made it abundantly clear that Vincent was perfectly content to wait for his friends without a companion to pass the time and no he didn't want a drink while he waited. Still, Vincent couldn't blame the barkeep for wanting to strike a conversation, or trying to make a sell. Without Shin-ra distributing the news, information now had slowed to a crawl between settlements, and the man did have to earn a living, after all.
The door to the bar slammed open, revealing a hulking figure standing in the doorway. Vincent tensed, for a moment his mind sliding back to the form of Sephiroth, then he relaxed when he recognized the figure.
"Vincent," Barret boomed in his usual loud, obnoxious voice when he spotted the ex-Turk. "What's all this about comin' in and leaving an urgent message with Marlene that you gots to see me!? Why you scaring Marlene like that?" Vincent stood slowly, his attention on the barkeep, who was studiously wiping a perfectly clean glass down as he listened to the conversation.
"Barret, a walk," he said firmly, walking to the door and literally bulling the larger man out. As they had reached what Vincent gauged to be a safe distance from the settlement, a suburb of the newly industrious Corel. Barret kept glancing first at Vincent, then around them, as if to perceive the danger that accounted for Vincent's strange behavior.
"How come you neva got your arm fixed?" Barret asked, rubbing subconsciously at his own prosthetic while casting a glance at Vincent's golden claw. "I mean, Reeve offered to fix it for free. He fixed Yuffie's leg and my arm real good." Barret held up his hands to prove his point. If Vincent hadn't already known which hand had been lost, he wouldn't have know which was the prosthetic. Reeve had indeed lived up to his promises.
"I've grown used to it," Vincent said, flexing his claw.
"Yeah, but still-"
"I didn't come here to discuss such matters," Vincent cut Barret off tersely.
"Then what did you come here for?"
"What?!" Barret's expected exclamation was deafening to Vincent's sensitive ears.
"Please," Vincent said quietly, holding his hand up to stem furthur outburst from the big miner. "Don't start a panic."
"Well they need to panic!" Barret said, his voice still loud, but noticeably subdued. "That power-mad freak is on da loose, an' he's probably gunning for us, being we ruined his little game last time! I gotta protect Marlene!"
"The best way is quietly, and quickly. I am gathering as many of the original group as I can. We can then-"
"Wait, wait," Barret interrupted, waving his hand, "What's Cloud's take on all this? I mean, I bet he's pretty freaked out about it, being what happened last time."
"Cloud won't be joining us," Vincent said softly, "not Tifa either."
"What!?" Barret shouted, forgetting Vincent's request for quiet. He sighed a little sheepishly when Vincent flinched out his outburst. "Sorry," he muttered, lowering his tone. "What I mean is that we gots to have 'em. How we gonna defeat them otherwise?"
"We will think of something," Vincent said, but the conviction was lacking from his voice. "There are others."
"You mean them new guys? Like the ones Cloud's been training. The ones who fancy themselves heroes 'cause they can kill a few monsters?"
Vincent nodded. "We need to gather them, quickly. We will kill him this time." There was a quiet fury in Vincent's voice, enough that Barret backed a few steps away from him.
"I forgot you do all those changes and stuff when you get mad," Barret said slowly, as if his calm words would relax the fury he sensed in Vincent. "You ain't fixin' to change on me, are ya Vince?"
Vincent smiled thinly. "No," he said.
"Good. Why don't you come to my house tonight? Marlene's gotten real good at cooking. And Elmyra well, she's always good at cooking." Barret's eyes glazed a little as his thoughts turned to his wife.
"I would like that, thank you," Vincent said with a nod. "I have sent messages to the others to join us here."
"Is that Bone Village," Jyleth asked, indicating to the settlement spread out below them. They had reached the settlement after two weeks of traveling along the edge of the forest.
"Yes," Sephiroth nodded, casting a glance at her, "Though it has changed much. It used to be a remote station for archeologists. Now well you saw it last time I was here. Treasure hunters."
"It's hard to remember things I saw when I was confined in you," she said. "This is a good as place to start as any."
"Re-introducing you to the world," Jyleth answered.
"Jyleth, I don't think it is wise to start so soon," he protested, looking at the village. "Not here, I mean."
"I don't know," he said, sounding flustered. He ran a hand through his hair, pushing back an errant strand. It fell back in his face immediately, but he seemed not to notice.
"Come on," she said, "even if they run, at least they will see that you aren't chasing after them in a murderous rage." She smiled at Sephiroth, but he didn't return the gesture, giving her a hard stare instead. Jyleth shrugged and started down the slope, trusting him to follow.
The inhabitants of the village, all male, noticed Jyleth first, not bothering to hide their leering stares. Then they saw Sephiroth. The stares became sudden fear, then they mobilized, and, almost as one unit, turned tail and disappeared into the various ramshackle buildings that made up the town. Jyleth stopped, watching them run.
"Last time, they didn't recognize me and paid me know mind," Sephiroth murmured, referring to his time traveling in disguise. Jyleth shrugged, unsure of what to do next. She located the inn, deciding to see if she could find more stalwart persons there.
A man stood behind the counter, his hands gripping the lip of the wood with white-knuckled fingers. His face was impressively stoic, considering who had just walked into his establishment.
"May I help you?" The voice of the innkeeper was audible, if weak.
"A room, I think," Jyleth said, "and perhaps a meal? Travel rations get old fast." She flashed a smile at the innkeeper, trying to look genuinely friendly. Either the smile or the prospect of a sell calmed him, for he began to relax visibly.
"200 gil for the room," he said, eyeing them speculatively, the prospect of business giving him courage, "and 20 gil for dinner. Breakfast is extra." Jyleth nodded, paying the amount out without bothering to haggle the exorbitant prices. They had more than enough gil to spare.
After paying, they seated themselves at a table in the corner of the common room and awaited their meal. The innkeeper himself brought them two plates of steaming meat along with a loaf of bread and two cups of fruit juice. He stood by their table a moment longer, nervously rubbing his hands down his apron while trying to ascertain if they needed any other service from him.
"That will be all," Sephiroth said, surmising the reason for the man's continued presence. The innkeeper jumped at Sephiroth's voice, apparently surprised that the ex-Soldier had spoken at all.
"Hmm?" Jyleth looked up, having been paying full attention to her meal, trying to discern what it was. "What isn't going to work?"
"They are always going to be afraid of me. They will never accept me."
"That has yet to be determined," she answered, seeming a little annoyed. "This is just the first town, one full of hoodlums at that. They are liable to run for anyone who can challenge them. Look," she continued when Sephiroth's face remained skeptical, "we're eating, aren't we? And we have a room for the night. That's one less person we have to convince that you aren't out to take over the world."
"I wouldn't say he's convinced of that."
"Well, he didn't run!" Jyleth sighed heavily, tired of his pessimism. Sephiroth didn't make any furthur comments during the remainder of the meal.
The innkeeper returned, taking up their plates quietly. He returned, re-filling their glasses, then waited by their table once more, fidgeting.
"That will be all for now, thank you," Sephiroth said, repeating his earlier dismissal. There was only an edge of irritation in his voice, but it was enough to cause the innkeeper to become noticeably more nervous.
"Yes-ah-sir," the man stuttered. "Ah-sir if I might-if I might as a question?" Jyleth raised an eyebrow, but nodded for him to continue. "Well, we've had this problem with this creature that's been hunting around the shore for a little over a week now. And, well, it keeps attacking people who go to meet the boats that come to port. And sinking the ships that come into the harbor. We're getting awfully short on supplies, and if you could, you know, well-"
"We'd be happy to help," Jyleth interrupted, sensing at what the man was getting at. "We'll dispatch the monster, and, in return, we'll be given free passage on the next outgoing southbound ship."
The man licked his lips, considering the prospect. "I get to keep the gil left by the creature?"
"Half," Jyleth said, after a moment of consideration. If the monster was as large as the man implied, half the gil from its death would probably buy an entire ship going south. But Jyleth wasn't truly concerned about gil. They could always obtain more by defeating the usual local monsters. Building trust in the people was more important. She glanced at Sephiroth, meeting his eyes to see if he approved of her accepting the job. He didn't seem happy, but he didn't seem unhappy. His face was the usual impassive expression. She shrugged slightly at him, turning her attention back to the innkeeper.
"Done!" The man couldn't help but slap his hands together enthusiastically. He then remembered who Jyleth was sitting with and quickly regained his composure. "Lady, my name is Allic. Might I know ?"
"Jyleth," she said, supplying her name. "And you think you know my companion." Allic nodded, licking his lips nervously once more.
"Sir," he said, addressing Sephiroth, "are you really he? I mean, they said you were dead. Not once, but twice."
"I am Sephiroth," he answered, "the rumors of my death are well true. I did die. Someone brought me back."
"Oh well.. that makes sense." Allic's voice indicated, however, that it clearly did not sense. Sephiroth did not choose to enlighten the man anymore.
"We'll deal with the monster in the morning," Jyleth said after an uncomfortable silence. "If that will be ok?"
"Why, yes, that would be fine. In the morning," Allic, nodded, he gestured toward the stairs at the other side of the room. "If you two are ready, I will show you to your room?" Jyleth rose, taking one last sip from her drink as she did so. Sephiroth chose not to drink any more of the juice.
"I need to practice," he said, heading toward the door. He left his pack beside the table for Jyleth take to the room. She scowled, shouldering her own pack before reaching to get his. Allic watched Sephiroth leave, then turned back to Jyleth.
"What he said - is it true?"
"I'm not real sure," she replied evasively, "but I am fairly sure that if it was your business to know, he would have told you." Allic's face flushed bright red at her rebuke, but he didn't ask any more questions as he led her up the room.
The room was simple, very much like the ruined cottage they had left behind. The only furnishings were bare necessities; decorations were absent. There were two beds, much to Jyleth's relief, indicating that the innkeeper had not made any presumptions about her association with Sephiroth. She set her pack on the bed furthest from the door, tossing Sephiroth's pack a little roughly toward to the other bed, as if by doing violence to the pack that she could somehow get even at Sephiroth for leaving her to carry his pack. She laughed a moment later, wondering why she was being so peevish over such a silly matter.
A practice would do me good, she thought. They hadn't stopped to practice on their way from the cottage, anxious to get off the continent before angry members of Avalanche decided to show up. They had also been too distracted with their own problems to consider anything other than moving south and fighting petty battles. An easy pace had pretty much guaranteed they would arrive at Bone Village a week or so after Vincent, saving them the trouble of having to deal with him again. They didn't want to force him into attacking them. However, since they were staying the night, and it was only mid-evening, she decided a practice was in order. To get rid of this foul mood if nothing else.
The staff she left in the room, as she realized she had yet to practice with her blades. She only used them once against the monsters in the forest, since Sephiroth had dispatched most before she could attack.
Sephiroth was practicing in a small courtyard adjacent to the inn. Jyleth watched for a few moments as he moved slowly through his warming-up katas. He hadn't drawn the Masamune yet, as he rarely did until he began the more challenging, faster moving steps. Jyleth chose an area in the courtyard that she felt would be out of his way, while still allowing her enough room to practice herself. Also starting with slower moving katas to stretch her body, she devoted her attention to the movements, only paying enough attention to Sephiroth, and later, other observers, with the peripheral of her mind to keep her distance from them.
She soon became lost in the kata, something she had developed during her time between jobs when she had been a guide. At the time, she had not thought of it as a kata, but rather a dance. A dance where she imagined the monsters, imagined what how they would attack, and then arranged her own movements to kill the creatures. The dance was never the same, as her mind became increasingly creative, and her skill improved. The monsters sometimes attacked at near-impossible vectors, sometimes avoiding her attacks with speed that they weren't capable of. It didn't matter that the attacks were unrealistic. Only that she got better each time.
She stopped suddenly, realizing that her swords had come in contact with something solid. Every muscle in her body froze, as she struggled to pull in blow she was in the middle of performing. She looked to see what she had struck, worried that an observer had moved too close and wondering why she hadn't notice the approach.
The Masamune held her two blades along its edge. Jyleth followed the massive blade to its holder, to find Sephiroth standing quietly before her. Her heart leapt momentarily, déjà vu bringing a sudden electrifying fear shooting through her body. The first and last time she had seen Sephiroth across her swords, he had been trying to kill her, on the cliffs of North Corel. However, the smile that graced his face now was not the insane leer he had given her then, but rather, an impish, mischievous grin that dared her to spar with him.
To spar with Sephiroth. Possibly the best swordsman on the planet. It was an opportunity that she could not resist. She laughed and launched at attack against him, not holding back, trusting in both their abilities to keep the maneuver from becoming fatal. They sparred for an endless moment, until the sunlight grew so dim that they both realized, very nearly at the same time, that they were parrying by instinct rather than sight. They broke off together, ending the spar. They were both panting from the exertion, but their eyes were alight from the pleasure of combat with an equal. Or near-equal. It had been difficult for Jyleth to tell if Sephiroth was holding back, or if she was truly pressing him as hard as he pressed her.
"Why," Jyleth said, struggling to regain her breath, "haven't we done this before?"
"Well," Sephiroth, also striving to bring his breathing back to a more normal rate, "you didn't have your swords. I didn't want to ruin the staff. And you weren't yet strong enough until after " he trailed off, not really wanting to bring up to memory of what had preceded her regaining her strength. Since they had agreed to decease contact until they learned a better way to handle their relationship, talking about what had happened that night had been difficult. Jyleth nodded her understanding, sheathing her swords.
"We seem to have acquired an audience," he said, smoothly changing the subject. He absently wiped some sweat off his brow, pushing back stray locks of hair in the same motion. Jyleth smiled at his subconscious preening. When she had been trapped in his mind, she had teased him endlessly about his tedious care of his appearance. However, she decided to forgo her teasing, as they did have an audience. Sephiroth didn't seem the sort that would take well to public humiliation.
"Yes," she agreed, "you would think they had never seen a spar before." Then, in a louder tone, "I could really use a hot shower. I don't suppose there's such facilities at the inn." Her gaze swept over the small crowd that had gathered around the courtyard to watch their practice, finding Allic. He shook his head in response to her question. She sighed, resigned to having to smell sweaty until they reached a town - or a stream, with facilities to wash.
"Ma'am," a man stepped forward, a little hesitantly. By his manner and clothes, Jyleth guessed that he was a shopkeeper. "I have a shower, and I would be happy to lend it to you - and him-" the man included Sephiroth quickly, worried that he might offend the Masamune-wielder, "-if that be to your liking. The water is hot, for most of the time anyway."
"Thank you," Jyleth said, smiling at the man, "that is very generous of you. I will take you up on that." She glanced at Sephiroth, to see if he was going to accept the hospitality as well. After a moment, Sephiroth gave a curt nod to indicate he would accept.
"Well, it's the least we can do, with you going to fight the monster and all," the man said briskly, showing newfound confidence. Clearly, Allic had informed the whole town that they had agreed to take on the harbor monster. It explained why they had gathered to watch the practice rather than continuing to hide. "If you will follow me." He turned and headed toward his shop, with Jyleth and Sephiroth following swiftly after. Jyleth couldn't help but notice the slight swagger in the man's walk, as well as the lift of his chin.
"See," she whispered to Sephiroth, "even though they fear you, they still revere you. That man will probably brag about how the might Sephiroth used his shower for the rest of his life."
"Awe does not equal forgiveness," Sephiroth said quietly.
"Well, it's a start," she said.
Sephiroth gave her a skeptical frown, but did not argue. "We should worry less about what these people think of me and more about this creature we face in the morning."
"You are worried about that?" Jyleth asked, surprised that he even brought up that they might have trouble defeating the monster.
"I am concerned that no others have come to defeat it. I saw many people during my travels that showed note-worthy skills. They were able to fight monsters efficiently, if not as well as me." He smiled slightly as his own conceit.
"Allic did mention that the monster had been sinking ships that enter the harbor," she said, "maybe no one knows about it." Something flashed across Sephiroth's face, and she read what his thinking almost immediately. "It would be nice if Vincent had been on one of those ships that had sunk, wouldn't it?"
"I doubt that we could be that lucky," he said, acknowledging that she had guessed his thought accurately. "The members of Avalanche are very resilient. It would take more than a dunking to kill one of them off." He shrugged, looking back at the crowd that was only now dispersing. "I still wonder why none of these have been able to defeat it."
"You are thinking to hard," Jyleth said finally, not wanting to pursue the subject any longer. Her muscles were beginning to cramp, and she was starting to feel the welts she had not felt Sephiroth deliver with the flat of the Masamune during their spar. "We'll deal with it tomorrow, one way or the other."
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