Credits: Shadow Skill was created by Megumu Okada. It is owned/licensed by Bandai Visual, Kadokawa Shouten, Marubeni, Sotou Agency, ADV.

Disclaimer: Shadow Skill characters borrowed for the love and joy of the writing, and not for purposes of acquiring profit. The Fort Lyvalle inhabitants are mine. As with all fics, while the goal is to stay as in character as possible, the author cries "mea maxima culpa" to any discrepancies that the discerning reader may is a fanwork made by fans for fans.

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Shavra froze in her tracks at the sound of Dias' quiet voice. She could feel her heart thumping like a Kuruda festival drum, and she stared fixedly into the distance, forcing herself to concentrate on irrelevant details -- the sun slanting through the trees in shining bars, the heady sweet smell of fruit ripening, the soft breeze wafting Dias' sandalwood scent towards her.

"My lady," came Dias' voice again, quiet and calm as always. "When a man chooses to be a valle...he must deny himself many things. His not free."

Shavra shut her eyes at the pain of his words, sharp as any blade. In the time that Dias Ragu had spent in Kuruda, she had learned to care for him as only a woman could care for the man she could call her heart's other half. With that realization had come the bitter knowledge that her love must remain hidden and unrequited -- for was she not the daughter of a noble house, schooled in the ways of duty, honor, and the pride of the Kuruda mercenary?

However, over the days, it had become apparent to all who knew them that Dias was not immune to the quiet grace and enchanting beauty of Shavra, who had been named Lyonlight by Crimson Kai Sink on the day she bested the 56th sevalle in fair combat. It showed in the possessive glint of his eyes as they followed Shavra down the street each day, his grave and gentle courtesy, the chill tones with which he greeted any man who carelessly accosted her.

Remembering this, and the whispers she had overheard referring to her as "Black Wing's woman", Shavra stiffened her back and answered with sweet dignity, "Speak not to me about the cost of being a sevalle, Black Wing Dias Ragu. Have I not been the ward of His Majesty these ten years past? Who better should know what it is to be a sevalle?"

A seemingly endless pause followed her words. Then Dias spoke again, and Shavra's head lifted, for there was the faintest of sighs in his words. "I know it well, Shavra. Even in far-off Soulfan, people know of the bravery of Shavra Lyvalle, the Lioness of Kuruda."

"Wherefore comes this talk, Black Wing?" Shavra turned to face Dias' back, her sapphire eyes cool in spite of the heat filling her cheeks and turning them a bright pink. His next words shocked her.

"I have heard...that you have promised your heart to a valle."

"And what of it?"

Shavra felt her heart rise to her throat then, as Dias slowly turned to face her, his green eyes locking with her purple ones, glowing with a fire held in check by his iron will. In that one look, each acknowledged what had grown from their polite and cautious friendship -- a love that transcended convention but held in check by duty -- and Dias marveled at the way Shavra stood bravely before him, facing certain rejection of the gift she had bestowed on him.

"A valle must follow his duty, my lady. The price of duty is sometimes measured in the tears and mourning of those him. I would not have you pay that price."

"Your words come too late, Black Wing." Shavra's voice was softly musical in the summer air, and a sudden hush fell over the orchard. "Hear me now -- not as the Lioness of Kuruda, ward of King Iba Stola -- but as Shavra Lyvalle, once your liege lady and now your sometime friend.

"Every person has a destiny. A fate that cannot be avoided. I know my destiny -- have come to terms with it, embraced it. Long have I known the price that must be paid, and when that time comes..." Shavra choked at the idea, but then went on bravely, "Then I will pay it, and conduct myself as will be expected of a Daughter of Light.

"Accept me or reject me as you will, Black Wing Dias Ragu. But I have given my heart to you, come what may, and I can no sooner stop loving you than you could surrender the pride of a Kuruda mercenary!"

She was magnificent in her spirited reply, and it was that spirit which reached out to Dias' own, breaking the chains of convention and duty holding him back from expressing the strength of his feelings. She stood, slender and proud in her blue robes, eyes flashing, silver hair fanning out in the sudden breeze, every inch the Lioness of Kuruda, whose fame had reached every corner of the Four Countries and the Holy Land of Ashlianna itself.

With a cry like a hawk who has found its true mate, Dias moved, and in a trice, Shavra was locked in his arms, her soft body crushed against the iron muscles of her valle. His mouth crashed down on hers, stifling a soft gasp, hard and demanding -- a man just barely in control. Dias gentled his kiss as he felt Shavra's arms slide around his neck, running his hand down her spine to rest in the small of her back. He moaned in his throat as he felt her melt against him, as total a surrender as any man could want and still remain standing, let alone decent.

When at last he lifted his mouth from hers, it was to find Shavra smiling softly into his face.

"What is it?"

"I thought you would never let me breathe," she answered sweetly, cupping his cheek in her palm. "I have known many women say they would kill to be in your arms - and I, given this chance, nearly faint within them. Oh, Dias!"

The sound of his name on her lips, uttered with barely concealed passion, melted the last of the stone walls that Dias built to shut Shavra out of his heart. Shavra saw the glow of laughter appear in the magnificent emerald eyes -- and a love that defied the sevalle code of duty.

"My Shavra!" whispered Dias, lightly kissing his beloved's mouth. "You're a far braver woman than I am a valle, my darling."

"How so?"

"To accept your destiny with such composure, knowing that I can promise you so little time..."

"Hush, Dias. Do not forget that before now, I had fully resigned myself to having my love kept secret and unreturned for all eternity." Shavra's eyes misted over at the remembered pain of that realization, thus missing the anguish in her liegeman's green eyes as she continued, "What must be, will be. There is no need to borrow tomorrow's trouble."

"My wise lioness..." Dias voice faded at a thought, and Shavra, picking up on his mood, leaned back in his arms, studying his face.

"Black Wing and Lyonlight sharing a crest," she murmured absently, her eyes speculative with mischief. "Our little ones would no doubt be nicknamed the Winged Lions."

A chuckle escaped Dias as he played along. "I can just see it now. A girl with hair like the first flush of dawn in the sky over Kuruda, and eyes like amethysts."

"A red-headed boy with emerald green eyes and Elle's personality."

Dias groaned at the idea. "The gods preserve Kuruda from such a fate! Don't you think Elle by herself is quite enough already?"

"With our luck, Dias, *all* our little ones will take after Elle and wear me out to a shred with their antics. But until then..." Shavra dimpled up so enchantingly at Dias that he felt moved to kiss her again. As the honey that was her mouth flowed over his lips, he knew in his heart that she was right. There was no need to borrow tomorrow's trouble. Black Wing had found his heart's other half in the Lioness of Kuruda -- and in her arms, he had found his home at last.

A sudden chill in the wind as they separated made the new lovers realize that the sun was setting. With a soft sigh, Dias reluctantly released Shavra and twitched at her gown to settle its folds into place, smiling as he tucked a few stray locks of hair behind her ears. In silence he turned her back to him, and gently settled his cloak about her slender shoulders, closing his eyes above her head as she leaned into his arms.

"Come," he said evenly, taking her hand in his. "The others will be wondering what happened to us. I'm surprised Elle hasn't come charging through the trees to find us."

Shavra's giggle warmed Dias heart, the sound wrapping itself around his soul.

"Elle will have Feorina's best wine uncorked to celebrate this match," she said, glancing up into Dias' face and smiling at the shock she saw there. "Oh, I have no doubt she spoke to you about your feelings for me. It is her right as your sister, and only blood relation. She knew how I felt about you long before I admitted it to myself - though I had to bind her to strictest secrecy once she made me tell her."

"That explains many things." Dias smiled down at Shavra, receiving a sudden vision of her confrontation with Elle; his sister's instant remorse and her solemn pledge to defend Shavra's secret. "I suppose she'll be insufferably pleased with herself for at least a month."

"Indeed." Shavra tip-toed to brush her soft lips against Dias' jaw, and heard his soft chuckle. As they moved within sight of the inn's windows, the pair was spotted by Folli, who allowed herself a broad grin at the sight of their linked hands. Kyou stopped sweeping to lean on the broom with a romantic sigh, and even Gau could appreciate the aura of contentment that surrounded the pair.

"Well, it's about time you two saw sense!" crowed Elle, breaking the spell cast by the lovers, and releasing a spirit of laughter into the group. "I didn't know how much longer I could have kept this secret, Shavra."

"Ahhh, admit that the discipline was good for you, Shadow Skill Elle Ragu," retorted Shavra, returning Dias' cape to him as they entered the inn. Elle sniffed as she pulled Shavra into a warm bear hug, her eyes misting as she looked at her brother.

"Mrmph - you, at least, had the good sense to deal with your heart and not let yourself become a weeping willow for love, unlike the moon-eyed girls at Court. Or pretend that love and duty could never go together, like a certain valle I could name."

"Elle..." growled Dias quietly, but his green eyes as they met his sister's were full of humor. "Hold your peace."

"Oh, I will, brother mine - since I am sure our Shavra will have it all out of you more sweetly than ever I could relate it to the general public." Elle's laughter suddenly dissolved into a happy sob as she launched herself into Dias' embrace, burrowing into his shoulder as she had not done since she was a child. "Be happy, Dias - you have given so much, and deserve it in full measure."

Shavra's eyes filled as the room felt the enduring bond of love and fidelity between the siblings - a love, Gau realized, that he had only tasted in all the years Elle had taken him under her wing. Then suddenly, the spell was broken as Feorina entered the room with a bottle of wine and several cups.

"For once," she piped, "I agree with Elle's suggestion that an occasion such as this deserves nothing but the best wine. Come! Enough tears - let us seal this match with joy!"

Shavra cast a triumphant glance at Dias at the mention of the wine, seeing her prediction come to pass, and he returned it with a nod and a smile. The wine was perfectly aged, blood-red, made from the huge purple grapes of the Ashlianna royal vineyards. Shavra and Kyou gasped as the fine liquid went down their throats; even Gau turned pink as the heat warmed his belly and surged through his face. Only Dias, Elle and Folli were unaffected, and watched the others' reactions with amusement.

"Marvelous," mumbled Kyou, blinking her eyes. "But if it's all the same, I'd rather we had dinner first before any more of this."

"I agree," nodded Shavra. "Love is a fine thing, but improves with the satisfaction of hunger."

"There are other hungers besides that of food," said Dias in his quiet way, half-teasing, and the look he gave Shavra had Folli shaking her head in mock dismay.

"Black Wing Dias Ragu, shame on you," she clucked, with a wink at a fiercely blushing Shavra. "With children present in the room, too! Incorrigible."

"He's Elle's brother, Folli," grinned Gau, unrepentant even in the face of two green stares directed his way, for there was affection in the two sets of emerald eyes. "Older, and thus more disciplined, perhaps - but it's something Elle herself would say."

"Is that so?" growled Elle in mock anger, grabbing him in a neck hold that drew cries of alarm from Kyou and Feorina. Over the ensuing commotion, Shavra's eyes met with Dias' in swift and humorous understanding, before they too waded into the fray, Dias pulling Elle away from a swiftly choking Gau and Shavra guiding him into a chair as he stumbled backwards.

"Merciful heavens, and this the lad who conquered a thousand in Blorfan!" chuckled the Lady Holder, as Gau regained his breath. "Looks like you have to work on your defence a little more, if Elle can pounce on you like that."

"Come, sister," smiled Dias, enjoying the sound of Elle's laughter blending with that of Shavra's. "Let's leave our adopted brother in the care of these capable women for the time being. The hour grows late, and I would escort my beloved home."

Elle agreed with a meekness that raised eyebrows but drew no comment. In companionable silence they walked down to the little pier where the royal skiff bobbed gently at its moorings. Shavra stood aside to allow Elle the chance to give her older brother a fierce hug. When it was her turn, she reciprocated the embrace, as Elle whispered hoarsely, "I'm so glad he told you, Shavra. Whatever happens, you will always have that knowledge...and the memory of the words."

"I know, Elle, I know," nodded the Lady Holder, placing a gentle hand on the other girl's cheek before allowing Dias to help her into the skiff. Just as Dias made ready to cast off, Elle said softly, "Hey, aniki...I wonder if someone will ever call me 'beloved' the way you say it for Shavra."

Shavra looked up at the starry night, and then replied softly, "The answer to your question may be closer than you know, Elle..."