The other day, while cleaning out one of my bookcases, I ran across some of my role playing books. As anyone that's role played will probably tell you, there's always the 'how would my favorite characters from another setting fit into this world?' thought that comes to mind at times like that. Well, this is what I came up with. The RPG was The Legend of the Five Rings (tabletop, not card version), an adventure set in a mystical ancient Japan, and the characters were from Final Fantasy VII. Hopefully I caught enough of the flavor of both of them to make this work.

Black Jade

by TamLin

Something bearing my father's face and weeping my mother's tears comes clawing up from the depths, screaming for me to join them. I feel its talons against my armor, snapping leather and metal as if they were origami. I reach for my tetsubo as I hear its hideous laugh, and I know that one blow is all it will allow before it tears the entrails from my bones.

And you sit in your palace and lecture me on courage.

~ The Way of the Crab: Legend of the Five Rings.

****

Cloud rode out of the Shadowlands after two weeks. Exhausted, spent, scarred, and filthy. He returned feeling cleansed.

What did it say about him… that he returned from the taint of the Shadowlands where Fu Leng's creatures ran wild and felt himself cleansed? His protective jade was corrupted and bled black in thin, drying streaks down the plates of his armor, one of his side blades would require cleansing by fire and purification magic… again, and one of the new wounds across the back of his shoulder blades itched maddeningly and indicated that it too would require the painful process of purification even if it wasn't Tainted. Yet he felt cleansed and at peace with himself again.

Envy was an ugly emotion. Envy toward your best friend was even uglier.

Three months ago his best friend had married a woman from the Crane clan. How Zack, son of a minor Unicorn clan lord, had ended up with the elegant prize of their country's most cultivated and refined clan still mystified. It was a well-known fact that the Crane considered the Unicorn clan, on the whole, to be child-like, uncouth, barbaric and sometimes even gaijin. Somehow, rough and ready, cheerful, rolling Zack had ended up with a Crane bride however. And more… he seemed to have committed the cultural indiscretion of having fallen in love with her. Cloud had been there to help support his friend during the wedding and during the first two months after. He'd watched his friend slip under the spell of lilting Crane laughter and delicate Crane fingers performing ikebana and the scent of subtle, alluring Crane fragrances. The sway of a Crane woman's mincing steps and the gentle ride of silk against the hints of exposed skin when she sat nearby and looked at you through thick lowered lashes with startling eyes the color of new leaves in peaceful lands and said nothing at all as if she expected words from you that you didn't know –

His eyes narrowed and he shook his head. Under him, Fenrir jostled and Cloud lowered his hand automatically to stroke the great stallion's neck. He was one of the few members from his clan that actually rode. Zack had taught him how. The Unicorn clan was the only clan that possessed battle steeds and knew anything at all about staying on a four legged creature beyond the usual Rokugan response of hanging on for dear life and praying for some passing kami to take pity on you and make the damn thing stop. The thought made Cloud smile and he stroked Fenrir's throat again, earning a rumbling sound in response. He had learned to ride with the Unicorn clan and everyone in his thought that Fenrir was a gift from that clan.

He knew better than to tell them otherwise. Despite his misgivings, Fenrir had proved himself many times over against the darkness beyond the walls. The horse bore jade and any Shadowland taint that shugenja picked up with their magic was excused as nothing more than the result of the amount of time his warrior spent taking him out into the evil beyond to battle it.

Whatever Fenrir was, he was no Unicorn horse. Sometimes… Cloud wondered if he was a horse at all…

Fenrir made another low, grumbling sound and Cloud tugged his mane with affectionate roughness.

"Soon." It was the first word he'd spoken in over a week and his voice came out throaty with misuse.

Even among his own clan, he spent a great deal of time disappearing into the Shadowlands to hunt the evil that lived there. Some of his comrades thought him nobly dedicated. He knew better.

His mother had been a Kuni. One of his clan's magic imbued families. Who his father had been, no one would tell him, not even his mother before her death seven years ago. Whatever hopes he'd had of inheriting power from her blood and becoming one of the heroic Witch Hunters despite his pathetic name had died when he couldn't even find a shugenja willing to teach him the basics, each one claiming there was no magic in him. Whoever his father had been, he had robbed his son of the chance to become a hero before his child had even opened its eyes for the first time. His father's blood, whatever it was, had been stronger.

Cloud had joined the ranks of warriors instead, even if they too looked down on him for having the wrong family name. At least the warriors never turned down a willing sword, even if it was held in the hands of a scrawny youth with the wrong color hair and a propensity for vomiting after every battle.

He'd gotten over the vomiting. The hair… there was no help for that.

Zack, in the typical Unicorn fashion, hadn't cared about family names or role distinctions. Somehow he'd managed to worm his way into the taciturn youth's friendship and, once given, the loyalty on both sides was eternal. They'd gone into battle together, fought the creatures of the Shadowlands together, and, on occasion, gotten into trouble together. People still confused which of them had done what when telling stories of their exploits. Zack had been Cloud's first true friend.

No.

The second.

Cloud's long fingers, encased in leather, moved almost gently through a strand of Fenrir's mane. Zack had been his second true friend… Though he wasn't sure if his first real friend had even realized that was what she was.

If only he had been born into one of the families of the Lion clan…

She would not remember him, but he remembered her. He had always remembered her…

He'd once, a child and a fool, dreamed of becoming a hero and marrying her.

His lips twisted bitterly and he nudged Fenrir to move a little faster. Not because he wanted to be 'home'. He had no home, just a place to lay his head and eat his food. But the speed helped him, always helped him, and Fenrir responded almost before the nudge of his knees, and broke into a looping gait no horse should have.

He'd have to quit showing off before they got within sight of the Wall.

The thought of his little lost Ikoma girl eased his mind because it hurt his heart. It was an old, familiar hurt though, one he accepted. It took her place and, because it stood in for her presence, it would always be welcome to him. Now that his head was clear, he could place childish hands, dirty from playing forbidden by the river bank, against pale, ethereal Crane hands that held no heat when they accidentally brushed against the back of yours and find a deeper peace in the child's intentional touch as she dragged him off to 'come see' simply because he was present and she must, must, show someone.

Even after all these years… he found it brought a smile to his lips.

Fenrir slowed again and Cloud raised his face in the darkness of the night to see the Great Wall rising ahead of him and blacking out what little there was to be seen of the sky. And he did smile again, just the littlest bit. Because he was cleansed. And – he'd remembered. Remembered why he was alone. Remembered that marriage and family were not for him.

He had become too dark, too frightening. Creatures like him were best left alone.

He wished his friend peace with his new wife and as for himself…

As for himself, he was back to doing what a Crab warrior was supposed to do. Defending what was precious, be they other little girls in the Ikoma family of the Lion clan or making sure the land of Rokugan stayed untainted so crazy Unicorns could hold their wild celebrations so out of touch with the rest of society's calendars and social standards. His heart was full of all of that and that was what gave him his strength when he went up against the nightmares of the Shadowlands.

He reached one of the minor side gates in the Wall and flashed the sign that had been the password two weeks ago. It would have changed by now but he was hardly the only Crab warrior that went out into the Shadowlands and the guards at the gate were used to it. They still called the nearby shugenja to inspect him for both Shadowland Taint or, more insidious still, possession or disguise that would make him not himself but rather a creature wearing his form. Death was not a gentle thing in the Shadowlands and for as many nightmares as he killed, many of them wore crumbling armor decades or even centuries out of date and anguished eyes even as they tried to tear him down and make him one of them. What rode out of the Shadowlands wasn't always what had ridden in and even if it was, sometimes other things rode, hidden, back with it.

He was none of those though – this time - and so the gate was unbarred and he rode Fenrir through, the horse's hooves suddenly dragging as if the beast were as tired as its rider suddenly felt.

"Anything to report?" the shugenja asked and Cloud nodded.

"Hai, but not immediately."

"Did you find the General?" one of the guards asked after he had finished sealing the gate shut again and the shugenja left them to recast his magic wards on it. Cloud shook his head. Sephiroth. Once the emporer's own Emerald Champion, he had sold his soul to Fu Leng in return for immortality and dark power. The day he had been revealed and driven over the Wall was the day that Cloud had lost the last of his innocent hopes as well as his mother and his Ikoma girl in fire and blood. Cloud touched a spot in the middle of his chest and shook his head. His vendetta with the General was personal. Most of the warriors he fought next to, like this one, knew it and knew he never went out into the Shadowlands but with his eyes watching for his enemy.

"He was hiding. Or away. I only found his footprints."

"Next time," the Crab guard assured and the edge of Cloud's lips twitched upward.

"Next time," he agreed.

He slipped off of Fenrir's back then, taking the dark horse's reins even though Fenrir followed him with or without them. It was for show and they both knew it. He gave a nod to his fellow Crab that were on watch nearby and began the slow process of winding his way to the nearest tower. There he would stable Fenrir, report to whichever Kaiu family member was unlucky enough to draw duty at this hour, cleanse himself and his wounds, and then, perhaps, there would be food and a place to sleep, for a little while at least, for him.

It had been a long time since he'd really slept. Tonight… he thought he just might manage.

His head came up and his nostrils flared at the same time Fenrir's muzzle jerked up. Even though he'd never been trained, there were some skills he'd learned that were just as acute as any taught Witch Hunter's. There was Shadowlands' taint nearby - on this side of the wall.

The night was almost moonless but the Crab wall was lit with torches. Moving silently, Fenrir's steps making no more noise than his, Cloud circled away and into the darkness. After weeks in the madness beyond the Wall he didn't need to worry about any stray piece of metal to catch the light or loose straps to jostle and give them away with sound. He slipped down the mask on his helmet to shield his eyes from reflecting the fire's light and continued his slow search of the area.

Crab guards still moved on the walls. Whatever had slipped past was small. If he raised the alarm not only would it distract the watchers on the walls who were supposed to be looking outward, not inward, there was also a good possibility that whatever evil was loose would hide itself in the din before he could find it. He slipped Fenrir's reins through the specially designed loop in the horse's golden throat plate and freed both of his hands. The beast continued to pace him, a solid wall protecting his back as he searched for what must have awoken both of their senses.

The night stretched long and brittle.

He found it finally in a whisper of blood in the darkness, a familiar scent and a fresh one just outside the loose door that led, by the side, into one of the great towers. His eyes narrowed and, with a gesture, he left Fenrir behind and slipped through the door. The hall below was empty and he followed the stairs upward, breathing through his lips for silence in the dark.

The tease of blood in the air stayed faint and fickle.

The second floor was a crowd of rooms and open halls but he passed on, following the nudge in his core and the blood scent further up. Crab pennants and mons were replaced leading up this flight of stairs and he knew that meant a visiting clan. Had they brought the darkness with them… or let it in?

The torches also died at that point but his eyes didn't need their light to see clearly. Whatever his father had been, he had given his son eyes that were as normal as the creature that called itself a horse and waited downstairs.

There were two guards at the head of the stairway, slumped at their post. Cloud didn't have to remove their helmets to know they were dead. There was no blood, no mark of violence, but the sick feeling of maho magic hung thick over them like oil and he could feel it from where he was as he moved passed. He should take their heads to make sure they didn't rise as puppets of whatever darkness had slain them but it would alert their killer. He would take the chance and leave them untouched for the moment.

Footsteps still silent despite the weight of his armor, he moved down the hall. Guards lay at intervals, dead and reeking of maho, their forms indistinct and shadowed in the darkness.

Who slept in these rooms? What visiting family from which clan? And what would their death cost the Crab if it happened during their watch, under their very noses?

Without his conscious decision, his feet stopped before the sliding door of one of the rooms. Years in the shadow of the Wall, he trusted his instincts and tipped his head to listen. Concentrating, he heard the soft sound of breathing, slow and rhythmic, the slide of silk as skin shifted. Whoever slept in the room was alive and untroubled. Yet – why had he paused? He wasn't hunting sleepers. He was hunting a maho caster.

His feet refused to go on.

Trusting the feeling, he carefully moved to the side and slid the light fusuma of wood and paper aside. A scent, clean and warm, distinctly feminine, slipped out past him and for just a moment, like cherry blossoms in sudden bloom, it filled him. It settled into his lungs and he shifted to peer into the room.

The maid, just a child, slept on a mat near the door, a tangle of youthful limbs and short hair, looking restless even in her sleep. A travel chest, a small lap desk, a koto lay in the corner… and the lady slept on her mat in the center of the room, hair like a river that flowed out from where she lay to stain the polished floor like dark blood.

Cloud told himself to move on – and didn't.

She slept like a fallen bird, all tilted, pale throat and outstretched white arm like a broken wing. And in her half open hand, unconsciously reaching and palm up on the floor next to her sleeping mat… he knew her.

His lost Lion…

He went to a knee in his dark armor and his fingers splayed on the floor.

Not now.

Not now….

She couldn't be here.

Not with halls full of death maho and himself so stained and tainted by the darkness of the Shadowlands that his own kin wouldn't look too long into his eyes anymore. Her father had destroyed the world that had room for both of them to belong in together when they were still children and the world Cloud moved in now was dark – far too dark – for her presence.

And – despite social expectations…

How did her husband bear to sleep anywhere that wasn't next to her and that slender, reaching arm that sought him even in her dreams?

The maho user stepped out of the shadow on the far side of the room as if it were a door, slipping from one room to the next without leaving a ripple of their passage. Their eyes, though the empty holes of a freshly removed victim's face, rose and spotted him. But it was already too late by then. Far too late. Because he'd been moving from the second their blood smell tainted the room and long before their body had finished shifting out of the shadow they'd used as their doorway he was there.

They went down with a scream, the sound raw and inhuman, and the blood they gave their oni lord so freely in exchange for its power was given in even greater measure to him. The blade of his heavy sword split the body almost in half and shattered the amulet the maho user had been wearing. Something vile and liquid burst from its broken sphere, spattering across his helmet and he ripped the head protection quickly free, tossing the heavy metal aside before it could contaminate him. The body fell but where the blood from it pooled, dark creatures rose, eyeless and noseless. They had mouths though and wails issued from those toothed orifices like the bite of a chill winter wind. Behind him, the women were awake and it was a testament to their clan that there was no screaming. He spared them one quick glance and ordered:

"Out!"

He was rewarded with the sound of running bare feet and then the enemy was upon him and he was lost in the concentrated dance of battle.

Created of liquid, his enemies broke apart easily when struck. But there were many of them, so many of them. He divided his sword into two parts and fought dual handed, a spinning constant of motion as he dodged elongated claws and snapping teeth. Their gore splashed against him, adding to the layers of old blood, dirt and sweat that his armor and form already wore. Against sanity… he smiled quietly.

Suddenly there was a clap of thunder and he smelled the burning of ozone. Pale light, tinged green, bathed the room, stealing the darkness away. And there was, unexpected and unlooked for, a form by his side.

His lioness and her fists, empty of weapons, glowed the pale green of jade. Like her ancestor, the original Ikoma, she went into battle with flesh instead of steel and as she slipped past him, her blows decimated their attackers. He followed suit and she dodged and wove around his attacks as if they'd been fighting together all their lives.

Clever Ikoma trick. How little time had it taken her watching him before she'd learned the way he moved?

Between the two of them, they destroyed the monsters of maho and blood and, at the end, stood back to back and checked to be sure.

It felt… strange having her there at his back. Strange not for the fact he was so used to fighting alone but strange at how natural it felt. And that bothered him. Because it would hurt more the next time he fought, to realize she wasn't there anymore.

He drew away from her. It had been too many years and too much darkness had grown in him since they were children. He moved past her without a word, headed for the shattered frame that marked the door.

Her feather light hand on his arm stilled him.

"Cloud-kun…"

His head lowered but he refused to turn it and look at her. Now was not the time… but it never had been, not for them. Knowing that, he still couldn't make himself take that single step that would wrench his arm away from her.

The sound of steps outside had him tensing and shielding her behind his own form but when the light filled the ruined room and the samurai stopped in the doorway he saw the Lion mon on their clothing and felt no taint of maho. He also, after a second, recognized her father.

For a very long moment, their eyes locked and there was nothing soft or forgiving in either of them.

The Lion had brought a maho user into the Crab fortress. A fortress that bordered the Shadowlands themselves where the user's vile master probably waited. If things had gone differently tonight…

Who knew? But the horror could have gone far, far beyond the loss of a few Lion guards at their posts. Ikoma would suffer a loss of face, but it would echo and so would the rest of the Lion clan. Unwittingly or not, the damage would have been the same and the shame attached to fools the same way it attached to traitors.

Something like this would come before the emperor himself. It would not easily be swept away or forgotten. Tonight's damage would be… vast.

There was no love lost between the Ikoma lord and the Crab warrior. Their feud too, was personal and had to do with a night of fire and blood seven years ago. A night Cloud had failed to protect a lord's daughter and almost lost her to a mad General's sword. Cloud's jaw worked and his eyes narrowed.

This would destroy the man. The way he'd tried to destroy Cloud with his rumors all those years ago.

In one swift move, before he could stop himself, Cloud went to a knee before the other man. Just one. He couldn't bring himself to kneel properly. It would have to be enough.

"Ikoma-san," his voice was low but he made sure it carried to everyone watching. "I have wronged you. In a fit of madness, fresh back from the Shadowlands, I attempted to force myself upon your daughter. Your guards died by my sword, defending her from my approach." He bowed his head. "May my life be forfeit for this offense if you and my daimyo so command."

The 'offense' was a lie. An obvious lie anyone with eyes would see through with a single glance around. The maho user's body was still sprawled across the floor behind him, the dead guards had neither drawn their swords or died by one, the floor was littered with blood monsters. That wasn't the point.

The point was that truth in Rokugan was based on what was presented, not what was truly there.

The point was Cloud's dark life was a small price to exchange for the honor of an entire Clan.

The point was… while it would look otherwise to the other Clans and appear to be a minor offense, the truth was the Lion would now owe the Crab a great debt for hiding their shame and all it cost was the life of a single, well-placed warrior.

His merchant cousins the Yasuki would have called it a very good bargain indeed.

The elder Ikoma looked down at him. It must be a bitter revenge to finally have his life… and to know that it wasn't earned.

"This is a grave offense," the Lion continued the act that would play out to the end with what must be over what was. "My only daughter is the heart of our family. Nothing less than your death will appease this Crab insult."

Cloud refused to look up, knowing his eyes would give him away. He hated to lose to this man. That wasn't what was important though. All he could hope was that his lord would give him an honorable death by allowing him to commit seppuku as a samurai, instead of a traitor's death by executioner's blade.

"Let the results of my rash actions be upon my own head and let my family as well as my Clan – " and soft arms fell over his shoulders and clasped in front of him. He smelled warmth and softness, felt the press of a feminine body against his back. One folded leg, left bare by the disheveled silk of her night kimono, pressed against the outside of his thigh. Dark hair fell, a waterfall and a cloak around him. He had to shut his eyes but the whisper escaped him despite his best attempt at control.

"Tifa-chan…"

"It was my fault, chichi-ue," her voice was not as strong and steady as his had been but it still carried to the suddenly attentive ears of those listening. "I was frightened of my upcoming marriage to Shinra-sama and I wished – " she stumbled over the lie that painted her so poorly and her hands tightened on the front of his dark armor. He reached up without thought to lay his own hand over them but his mind was a blank.

Not married yet? Marrying Shinra?

That pompous, bombastic meat-eating son of an eta!

"I wished to spend my nights with Kuni-san." She'd found her strength again and she stated it firmly, even if it was in a rush. "I asked him to come to me. I gave the guards something to make them sleep but they were too well trained and diligent. It is my dishonor that they are dead. I was a foolish little girl who has shamed her father."

And, in changing the story, she changed the consequences of it entirely too.

Rokugan society looked very differently upon a tryst between two lovers that was disturbed when compared to a rape and defense. And if it had been at the lady's request… he was almost entirely absolved. A samurai was supposed to be in control of himself – but giving in to a beautiful woman's desire for his time… it was the kind of thing that earned an official rebuke and time away from the Court and 'polite' society but it was hardly a death sentence. Even killing other samurai in the process was acceptable if both sides had been doing what they saw as their duty, the guards in defending their lady's honor, him in doing his utmost to fulfill the lady's request. It painted him as rash and unwise in accepting her request – but what else were the Crab clan known for if not for charging in headlong if they thought the goal at the end was worthy?

Considering his lack of time spent in 'polite' society anyway, there was hardly any consequence to him at all.

The Crab 'slight' would appear much smaller to the rest of the Rokugan families and the Lion would still owe the Crab for covering over the maho user in their midst.

His little lion however… the cost to her would be her life. It was unlikely that her father or the Lion head would demand her seppuku. They would however take her out of society all together. For good. She would be considered a shame to her clan and her family. There would be no marriage – and he couldn't say he thought that was a bad thing – but there would be no more marriage offers either. She would be expected to give up her worldly life and retire to pursue solitude and spirituality somewhere far from her family and her social peers. She would live in isolation for the rest of her days.

For what? A man that hadn't been able to save her and that she hadn't seen since that burning night of betrayal and death?

Before he was aware of it, he had raised one of her bruised hands to his lips in a sign of unforgivable physical affection. He felt her body go soft against his at it. For just a moment, he let himself imagine what it would have felt like to have that soft body on his sleeping mat next to him, to have these arms always about him…

Void take it, he wouldn't have given a damn about social norms if he were her husband –

"Ikoma-san," his voice was softer but just as level as before. "Your daughter has a great heart but what happened here is not as she said."

"Nor is it as Kuni-san says," she inserted, voice unwavering this time. "My story is the right one, chichi-ue."

Her father didn't look pleased. Cloud didn't blame him. Suddenly, he didn't even hate the man the way he had all these years. He was too tired for that. Too tired of all the nonsense that made up their day-to-day lives. He rubbed his gloved fingers over the inside of her wrist and felt the brush of her exhales as she waited against him for her father's decision. In the end it would be an agreed arrangement between the Kuni family and the Ikoma family but it would be the Ikoma's final decision.

His clan was the one paying the highest price.

"It is a sad day when a young woman is not safe in her own room," Ikoma began and his katana left its sheath. Against his back, Cloud felt Tifa stiffen and, instinctively, his hand closed over her wrists, pinning them against his chest and effectively keeping her from moving. He refused to look away. If the old man killed him, so be it. He had hoped for a warrior's death. This would do. Ikoma's voice, emotionless, continued.

"The guards died, not by blade, but by a coward's poison. This attack on my daughter has been very carefully planned to shame both the Lion and her Crab hosts."

Cloud's blue eyes did narrow then and the muscles in his shoulders knotted. That was not the story he'd offered his life for at all. It painted him ronin, with no honor or loyalty for his clan or his daimyo. His ancestors, whoever they were, had given him their name to borrow. He was to return it to them untarnished. He balanced his weight on his foot that still rested on the floor and was surprised to find Tifa's arms relaxing. A subtle lack of interference when he disputed her father's decision.

Ikoma's eyes did not leave them and Cloud thought… her father had seen it too.

"You, Crab warrior," her father addressed him, "fresh from the Shadowlands. I owe you my family's thanks. You heard my daughter's call and came to her defense."

The sword flashed down, the solid beam of a slant of moonlight. Cloud braced but didn't try to dodge or roll. Despite that, his free arm still shifted down to guard the woman behind him.

The blade wasn't aimed for him.

Instead it glinted in the flickering light of the torches the Lion samurai had brought with them and sank deep into the stomach of a man who had been standing silently near the Ikoma lord. Behind him, Cloud heard the almost silent sound of surprise but it just drew his brows down over his own eyes as the shock moved over the victim's face and he pitched forward. Ikoma flicked his sword free and the blood scattered. Cloud didn't relax his protective arm holding the slender form against his back. Ikoma looked at him.

"If we are going to agree on what was seen tonight, it is best to remove Shinra's borrowed eyes." He made a slight noise as he wiped his blade clean, face holding a vaguely distasteful expression. "I was growing tired of those eyes."

Cloud looked and, now that the man was on his face, he could see the distinctive mon on the back of his robe. The man that would have married the woman he held pressed against his back had sent a guardian for her. Or, knowing that clan's reputation, a spy. Narrow blue eyes moved back to the Ikoma and the understanding was there. The older man would have done the same to Cloud if it had served him better… and he might yet if it was profitable to his family.

Or… he could try. Cloud was silently resolved to never turn his back on the old Lion. The elderly Ikoma pressed his sword hilt between his palms and bowed, though only lightly, to where Cloud was still knelt.

"He would have dishonored my daughter. You did what my guards were not able to, noble Crab warrior. While Shinra-san will now owe us greatly for the insult his man did to my daughter – surely without his knowledge because the insult his knowledge would imply would be… difficult for him to keep face over - I feel marriage to his clan would no longer be wise."

They both pretended not to hear the soft, female voice that whispered against Cloud's back when it said:

"As if it ever was…"

"I will ask your daimyo," Ikoma continued mildly but Cloud couldn't shake the feeling the man was inwardly smug. "But if he decides it is time for you, I will submit my daughter as a proper candidate for marriage to you. You have already proved your ability to protect her once."

Cloud forgot to blink.

Ikoma looked at him through calm eyes.

"I think you would be a dangerous enemy to have, Kuni. If you are going to be strife in my household, I would have you Strife, in my household. And – " here his lips turned upward slightly though, Cloud thought, it was more in cunning than humor. "A debt owed a family member is always smaller than a debt owed a stranger."

With that the Ikoma turned to his soldiers.

"Send a runner to our Crab host. He is, no doubt, already aware that something is going on here and on his way. We have much to discuss he and I." With distaste he looked down at the body at his feet. "Find someone to deal with this waste." His voice lost its hard edge. "And see to our fallen comrades. They were Lions and they died defending their honor."

Against his back, Cloud felt a soft stir and a voice spoke into the curve at the back of his ear. He had to tamp down hard on the surprising need to shudder at that whisper touch and even then his eyes half lidded.

"Don't let him fool you. He owes you for his release from Shinra as well now. The blackmail you have given him to use is greater than the one that was being used against him."

"You were the price," he kept his voice just as low and turned his head. She did not pull back and it left them sharing exhales and inhales. It made the air feel thick in his lungs. Her eyes filled the world this close to him. It… it suddenly made the world a place he didn't mind living in.

"Among other concessions. My father will not forgive it easily."

He realized he still had his arm twisted back to hold her close. She had yet to try to leave him.

"And you?" he asked it with quiet urgency, because – now – immediately – it was important to him. A need he hadn't known was there but it filled him suddenly. So near, he watched the curve of her lips.

"I will let my father hold the grudges." Her Lion pride asserted itself then and her voice hardened. "But I will not forget that Shinra snuck in under the shadows instead of honorably asking for me the way a warrior should." She made a soft sound, amusement and anger. "Though, if he had, I would have made sure my family's answer was 'no'."

"And what about me?" He asked it before his mind could tell him to shut up. Before he could lose his nerve and hide from her answer. Her face tipped, just a little to the side, in his vision and she laid her cheek against the back of his shoulder. Something in his heart seemed to settle even as she did. Her eyes lifted to his.

"I think, if you had been given the opportunity to ask, I would have made sure my family's answer was 'yes'."

"You don't know me."

He felt her smile and she shut her eyes, content. Her slim arms stayed around him and he found he had still not let go of her. He thought it might be a very long time before he was willing to let go of her.

"I know more than you think. Your name runs ahead of you. But more… we bear similar scars, you and I. For all I do not know though, I am ready to learn." She paused and her eyes opened. With the straight-forwardness that the Lion women possessed, she asked: "Will you do the same for me?"

For the first time in months, he smiled and there was no bitterness or self-depreciation to it.

"I will spend the rest of my life at it."

Petals floating by,
Drift through my woman's hand,
As she remembers me-