Ukiyoe Painting

BY : MystIc19
Category: Final Fantasy VII > Yaoi - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 1053
Disclaimer: I do not own FF7 or any of the FF7 characters. I do not make any profit in writing these fanfictions.

"Hungry Tama?" Natsumi asked while filling the cat's dish with her morning meal. She trotted into the kitchen, circling Natsumi's leg as the woman laughed lightly and set down the dish before her. She had just begun to clear the table from the breakfast her and Saito had earlier before he left for work when she turned her focus towards the front door at the sound of loud voices talking. It was still fairly early, and while the castle did become lively during the day as people went about their business it usually didn't get so loud down in the living quarters.

Dismissing it she went back to clearing the table, carrying dishes into the kitchen and placing them into the sink.

A knock sounded a moment later and she lifted a brow in curiosity. Drying her hands on the dishcloth she made her way towards the door, pulling it open gently.

"Good morning miss," A tall dark haired man in Samurai attire greeted before giving the woman a bow.

"Good morning," she spoke unsurely while shifting her gaze from the Samurai to a few others that were a ways down the hall. What were Samurai doing in this corridor? And so early at that. None of them resided there that much she knew so why...

Suddenly she felt like she had the wind knocked out of her and she clutched the doorframe, her face draining of all it's color as she started to piece things together. There could be only one reason why a Samurai would appear at her door so suddenly like this wasn't there? And that had to be to deliver news of some kind. Which meant...

" son," she started shakily while lifting watery blue eyes back to the man. "Is he...?"

"Miss?" The Samurai asked with a look of concern while reaching forward and grabbing hold of the woman who seemed as if she were about to faint at any given second. "I'm sorry you misunderstand," he quickly explained. "I've been appointed to stay here with you."

"Stay with me?" Natsumi asked with confusion.

"There's been a tragedy," he explained quietly before lowering his head. "The Shogun...was found dead this morning."

The Shogun? What?

"The...what do you-" she started.

"He's been murdered," he continued on. "And until the person responsible is caught all the members of the council and their families are to be guarded at all times. We can't take any chances."

The Shogun...murdered? Although she was hearing the words she couldn't seem to wrap her mind around it. How could this happen? And what did it mean? Were they under attack? What was going to happen, and what...

"My husband, where is he!?" She exclaimed while trying to step out of the doorway only to be blocked by the larger man.

"He's with the rest of the council, don't worry they're safe. They're getting to the bottom of all of this. But I'm sorry you have to stay here."

Choking back a sob she gave a broken nod as he gently led her back into the home and closed the door behind them. She kept a tight grip on him, fearing if she were to step away that she would collapse instantly. She had so much on her mind, so many thoughts that had crashed upon her in the short time since she had opened the door. And she was definitely worrying about Saito now. If something happened to would be too much. She had already lost her son, she couldn't lose her husband too. But that...Cloud ...that was the most devastating blow of all. She knew she should've been mourning the loss of the Shogun as she was sure the rest of the castle and eventually all of Edo would be doing. But now...she was mourning her son. Something she had refused to do all of this time, because she was holding so desperately onto the idea that they would find him and bring him home safely. But now...that couldn't happen. It wouldn't. Because surely nobody would look for him anymore. All of the resources and people would be solely focused on the Shogun's death and the one responsible for it. A missing child of a council member didn't stand a chance against that. And she knew it. To them he was just one in a thousand things that they had to do. And in all of the chaos they would forget about Cloud, her precious son. She would never, ever have closure. Unless he made his way back to her somehow on his own but really...after all this time, she knew that wasn't possible. And she couldn't lie to herself forever.

"It'll be just fine miss, please don't worry," the Samurai continued, seeing the woman's grief on her face and trying his best to console her. But he didn't know that he hadn't just reported the Shogun's death to her...but the death of her only child also.

"You're Excellency," the red head spoke with a bow as the Shogun gave him a nod of acknowledgment.

"I'm glad that you weren't away at this time," Hojo started with a bit of a smirk . "I need you to do something and you're the only one who I trust to do so."

"I'm glad to be of service if I can," Reno replied with a tilt of his head.

"I need you to follow Hewley," Hojo simply said while sitting back further in his seat.

"Angeal?" Reno asked as his eyes widened slightly. Following people and gathering information wasn't something that was new to him at all. And he did it with precision, but never had he been asked to follow a General.

"He's going out to find Zack and Cloud seeing as how the last group of Samurai who were dispatched for them met their end by Zack's blade."

"Zack and Cloud?" Reno asked quietly while dropping green eyes briefly. So they had been spotted? Not that it was surprising...Reno expected it. He knew that Zack had been lying to him before when he said he didn't know Cloud's whereabouts but he didn't intend to push it then. He figured he had his reasons for it.

"I recall you once telling me that the trail ran cold with Fair when I had you observe him some time ago," Hojo explained while narrowing his eyes. Elena who was standing beside him gave Reno a once over before turning back to the Shogun.

"That he did," she said with a sneer. "Are you sure he's as good as you say he is?"

Glaring at the woman Reno turned his focus back to the Shogun.

"It did run cold with him here," Reno started, "he never once lead me to Cloud or gave me any inclination that he may have known where he was. By the time I was taken off the job nothing had changed, if it did later I wouldn't know."

"I believe you," Hojo replied with a smile. "And I know this time you won't disappoint me."

"I don't understand...if Angeal is already set to retrieve them why would I need to go also?" Reno asked while crossing his arms across his chest.

"Because I do not believe that Angeal will do that," Hojo explained.

"Zackary Fair is Angeal's favorite pupil," Elena spoke casually. "They're also very close, he says he would do whatever needs to be done to assure that Cloud is brought back safely. But honestly, who does he think he was fooling?"

Reno had no response to that. Of course it was true. If Angeal had to hurt Zack to get Cloud back he knew he couldn't do it, and apparently they knew that as well.

"I need you to follow him so that he can lead you to them," Hojo continued, breaking into the assassin's thoughts. "And once you find them, kill Zack and return Cloud back here."

Kill Zack...

"Is Zack's death really necessary?" Reno found himself asking before he could stop himself. "I thought Cloud just needed to be returned home."

"That was the case before Fair slaughtered good Samurai," Hojo quickly countered. "I'll see him pay for his actions. He tore Cloud away from his family and home. Not to mention he's disgraced me and the name of Samurai. There's no forgiving what he's done."

"Can you do it?" Elena quickly asked while looking him over once more. "From what I hear you're one of the best at what you do. I know you're acquainted with Zack but will that hinder you from doing your job?"

'Can you do it?'

Shutting his eyes briefly he let out a sigh. It wasn't really like he could deny an order, it was what he was sworn to do. But...a friend? How was he supposed to choose when it came to his loyalty towards the Shogunate and the loyalty of a friend?

"Cloud's family deserves to have their son back, don't you think? No more tears from his mother," Hojo said gently causing Reno to look back towards him.

What was the reason? Reno had saw for himself Natsumi's despair. Why would Zack put Cloud's family through the pain? That he didn't understand. And he hadn't actually heard from Cloud himself about the whole ordeal. Did he really even want to be away?

"When does Angeal leave?" Reno asked.

"First thing in the morning," Elena answered while glancing down at some notes in her notebook.

"Alright," Reno replied before giving the Shogun another bow before departing. "I can do that."

Leaning against the wall Reno rubbed at his neck as he watched a few kids run down the street, screaming and laughing as they chased a ball and didn't seem to mind that it was freezing out and were just bundled up in their thickest layers of clothes and having a grand time. He on the other hand was scowling. He had been following Angeal for what felt like forever and all the man had seemed to do was eat at nice teahouses and sleep inside comfy inns. He was beginning to wonder if he was ever going to get to Zack and Cloud at this rate. Did Angeal even know their whereabouts or was he just winging it?Hehad also considered the fact that Angeal was aware that he was being followed and was simply doing this to throw him off his trail. But Reno was good at what he did, and General or not he was pretty sure that Angeal hadn't ever actually spotted him. Was he possibly paranoid though? Yeah sure, that was a possibility. Then again maybe he really was on the trail to Zack and Cloud and they had just gone that far away.

Seeing the Samurai exit out of the current teahouse he was at Reno quietly pushed himself from off the wall of the building on the opposite side of the street. He easily blended in with the crowds and followed at a safe distance. It seemed as if Angeal was finally through with this town and he retrieved his horseHopping up onto the horse he cast a quick glance back over his shoulder, his eyes scanning the streets. Reno tilted his head downwards, his sugegasa covering most of his face. Angeal had just started to ride off when Reno mounted his own horse that was tide up further down the road.

"Come on girl," Reno coaxed the horse gently while patting her mane, "time to head out again."

Pulling at the wilted leaves gently Cloud let out a sigh while adjusting the scarf around his neck. Dead. Again. He brushed some of the snow off the other plants and looked at the wilted, browning tops. So much for his garden.

The sound of the back door sliding open caught his attention and he glanced back to see Zack approaching.

"They're ruined," he said in defeat while beginning to pluck the dead vegetables out of the ground.

"It's too cold," Zack spoke matter of factly, "they can't survive in this.You 'll have to try when it warms up a bit."

"I'm beginning to hate this snow," Cloud mumbled as Zack gave a chuckle, reaching down and ruffling blond spikes. He had never had a garden of his own, aside from once in a while helping Aerith with her flowers. But he had enjoyed helping Kenzo and Cissnei with their garden while they were there and he had mentally been taking notes all the while and planning to try it on his own wanted to get this right. If he had his own garden and the vegetables didn't die that would be one less expense. They had been fine so far but he knew they were depleting what they had saved. And any bit they could save was good.

"Don't worry it won't last forever," Zack said reassuringly.

Rising up from off his knees Cloud brushed the remnants of snow off of him. "I know, I just thought it wouldn't be so difficult."

"It'll get easier," Zack continued with a smile. He knew Cloud was trying his hardest with the garden, but it wasn't his fault that the weather was against him. "Are you up for a trip into town? Probably better to go now since the snow's stopped for the moment."

"Yeah sure," Cloud replied with a nod. Zack couldn't have suggested it at a better time, they definitely needed to get some more food in the house and the sad little garden wasn't going to provide anything edible. They left the home shortly thereafter and made their way into town relatively quickly. And although it was cold out that didn't seem to take away from the liveliness of the town. As soon as they entered the sound of chatter flooded their ears along with different aroma's of food wafting throughout the air. By this point Cloud had already figured out his favorite places to go and he didn't waste any time making his way over towards the market. Zack stayed close behind him, pretty use to this routine. He let Cloud pick out the things that they needed only really putting his input in when Cloud asked him anything specific that he wanted. But honestly Cloud knew all the foods that Zack liked to eat so he didn't really have to ask many questions.

Glancing across the road at another shop Zack looked back to Cloud who was busy sorting through fruit, squeezing different ones to see if they were ripe or not.

"Hey will you be alright here for just a bit? I'm just going to that shop right across the way," Zack asked while placing a hand on Cloud's shoulder.

"What?" Cloud asked while glancing up at the other before looking across the way to the shop he was speaking about. "I can go with you if you want to wait for just a while."

"No it's fine, you finish here I'll be right back," Zack explained, "I can see you from there don't worry."

"Okay," Cloud replied with a nod, seeming to be comforted by that last part there. It wasn't even that he was really paranoid that much at all anymore about being seen by someone. After all it had been a long time now since they made it to their new home. But he guessed he had just become so used to being under Zack's watch that it felt a bit weird to not be.

He wasn't sure how long Zack was over there at the shop seeing as he was so focused on getting everything that he needed. With other patrons he had to keep an eye out on getting the good things before they got swooped up. But he had gone shopping with his mom many times to the market, and well, he had gotten pretty good at it. He had just gotten his items bagged up when Zack returned by his side, a bag of his own secured in one arm.

Cloud payed the merchant before taking the two bags into his arms and Zack reached forward to tighten the scarf around him.

"Let's get home," he said, noting Cloud's pink nose and cheeks. It looked as if he had enough of the cold for the day. Nodding he let Zack take one of the bags into his arms, opting for Cloud to just carry the one. By the time they made it back home Cloud was sniffling along with the ocassional sneeze. He was unpacking their items in the kitchen when Zack entered and grabbed him by the shoulders.

"Don't worry about that right now let's get you warmed up." Leading Cloud into the main room he had already gotten a fire going and gestured for Cloud to have a seat. He was going to protest but once he took a seat in front of the fire he couldn't deny that he was enjoying the warmth. A moment later Zack was draping a thick blanket across his shoulders before making his way into the kitchen. He finished unpacking the items that Cloud had started and put on a pot of tea before making his way back into the main room and sitting in front of the fire beside Cloud.

"Thank you," Cloud said softly while extending his hands by the heat.

Reaching out a hand Zack rubbed Cloud's back in response.

"What did you get at the other store anyways?" Cloud asked while gazing up at the other, his blue eyes seeming to shine with the soft light of the fire.

"Oh," Zack started while getting up from his seat for a moment to retrieve the bag that he had set down upon entering the room. Making his way back over to Cloud he took a seat beside him again before pulling out the item. "I just saw it a few times when we were in town and I thought you might like to have it. You know, whenever you might feel like using it."

Sitting quietly for the moment Cloud reached out and took the dark blue book out of Zack's hand. Flipping through it he let his fingers trail over the blank sturdy pages. A sketchbook. It felt a bit weird to hold it in his hands, he hadn't held one in so long. He felt his heart skip a beat when he thought back to that time so long ago when Zack had given him the other when his first one had been ruined and the Shogun tried to replace it with an expensive one. He had cherished the one that Zack had given him so much, but he hadn't taken it with him when they left Edo.

Looking back up at Zack he was met with a smile and he gently shook his head.

"I'm sorry I left the other one behind," he explained gently while shutting the book. "I haven't drawn anything in so long though."

"Doesn't mean that you won't," Zack quickly replied. "It doesn't have to be now but whenever you want to at least you'll have something to do it."

A smile spread across Cloud's face and he gave a short nod. He had told Zack before that he didn't know if he still had the passion for art anymore and only time would tell. But he knew that Zack didn't believe that at all and was just waiting for the moment when he would start again. And the fact that Zack believed in that so much, believed in him...well, it made him really happy.

"Thank you," Cloud said softly before leaning in and placing a kiss against Zack's lips.

"You're welcome," Zack replied while brushing a few stray strands of blond hair away from the others eyes. He stood up once more to head into the kitchen to get the hot tea that had finished brewing. Returning back into the room he set the tray down before Cloud was reaching for the pot and pouring himself a cup of the steaming liquid. That first sip warmed him from head to toe and he kept the small warm cup held between his hands instead of placing it back onto the table.

"And also," Zack continued on while pouring a cup for himself, "it'll be nice for you to have something to do when I'm away at work."

"Yeah," Cloud replied while taking another sip. "Luckily that won't be for awhile though."

Pausing for a moment Zack set his cup on the table before looking up at the other. "Actually it'll be sooner."

Furrowing his eyebrows Cloud shook his head a bit in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," Zack started with a bit of a sigh and looking away at nothing in particular. "That I'll be starting work in town. Tomorrow."

Squeezing the cup in his hands more tightly Cloud's eyes widened. Starting work tomorrow? What was he talking about?

"Are you serious?" Cloud asked hesitantly.

Giving a nod Zack explained. "The last few times we went into town one of the shopkeepers said he may know of something opening up soon. And when we were in town just now he said that if I still needed work that I could start tomorrow."

"You don't need to start tomorrow," Cloud started while finally setting down his teacup. "We still have alot saved there's no reason for you to rush into working right away."

"I don't want to wait until after we've completely run out of savings," Zack replied with a shake of his head. "It's better to find something now if I can."

Twining his fingers together Cloud bit his bottom lip as he digested those words. He supposed when it was put that way it was the better option. It would be bad to have to try to scramble to find work when they had absolutely nothing left.

"So did you buy me that to try to lessen the blow?" Cloud asked while tilting his head in the direction of the sketchbook. "That was really sneaky."

"Sneaky?" Zack asked with a look of confusion. "This wasn't sneaky at all, Cloud we discussed this way before we even left Edo. You knew I was going to have to find work."

"I know," Cloud started lowly while glancing at the floor before Zack was continuing on.

"And yes...I did get you the sketchbook because I hoped it would help occupy you while I was gone and take your mind off of any worrying. But it wasn't meant as any kind of a bribe."

Of course it wasn't meant that way. And Cloud knew he was being unfair. Zack was right, they had talked about this before hand and he would be an idiot if he didn't understand that Zack would eventually have to take up some sort of new profession. But it seemed so far off at the time and now that it was actually happening it was a bit nerve wracking. And honestly Cloud felt a little guilty about it. Ever since they had left Cloud had gone without nothing. They always had food, ate at the best places and always had a nice place to rest. And even when they had arrived here everything that Cloud had suggested that they needed they had gotten. He even had gotten new, warmer clothes and their blankets were warm and plush, all of the finest material and fabric.

He had always lived a certain type of way and Zack hadn't taken that away from him, not even for a moment. He gave Cloud everything that he was accustomed to and he wasn't about to stop now. He meant what he said when he told Cloud that he would provide for them.

"I know," Cloud said again after taking everything in. Reaching forward he let his hand trail lightly down the others chest before gripping onto his clothing. "But then I should do something too! I can find work too can't I? I mean I should help out."

"No,or at least not now. Maybe once spring comes," Zack explained while taking Cloud's hand into his.

"Spring?" Cloud asked while looking up into blue eyes, "why Spring?"

"This weather is rough right now," Zack started with a look of concern. "I can't have you going back and forth into town in this. Look how you get from barely being out in it."

Glancing down at himself and the blanket bundled around him he touched his cold fingertips to his nose. He guessed Zack was right, he could do their trips into town once a week but if he had to do any more than that in this cold he surely would come down sick in no time.

Laughing at the look on the others face Zack leaned in more closely. "I can't have you getting sick. So to ease my worries let's wait until Spring? I promise I'm not trying to keep you locked up in here."

Letting out a laugh of his own Cloud nodded. That sounded fair, and while Zack was away at work he would do what he could to help out. From home anyways. It would have to be enough for now.

They finished up their drinks and stayed in front of the fire for awhile longer before Cloud went into the kitchen to make dinner. Shortly after they ate and had gone into their bedroom. They had a fire in there too and Cloud was now laying down in bed reading a book that he had started reading a little over a week ago. That was one of the things he really loved since they had gotten here. There was shelves and shelves of books. Some he had read and was familiar with, but there was tons more that he hadn't and he liked having them at his disposal.

But despite the fact that he was really enjoying this book so far he just couldn't seem to concentrate on it at the moment. Placing a marker in it he closed it before setting it aside on the end table. He turned onto his side, pulling the blankets up higher before letting his gaze travel towards the door. Zack had left out a bit ago to go to the washroom and take a bath and Cloud just wanted him to hurry and come back to bed with him. He wanted to hold him in his arms before going to sleep, before the day came and he had to leave him. He didn't know if he was particularly worried about being alone while Zack was away at work, but he was definitely feeling anxious. It was another change. His life had been full of them lately, and it was just another that he was going to have to get used to.

With all of those thoughts going through his mind he climbed out of the bed and made his way out of the room and down the hall to the washroom. He didn't want to wait for Zack anymore and decided just to go to him. Sliding open the door he stepped into the steam filled room. It looked as if Zack had fallen asleep, sitting there in the circular tub with his eyes closed and his head resting back on the edge. But he quickly opened his eyes at the sound of the door opening and sat up a bit straighter.

"Did you call me?" He asked curiously, thinking that must've been the reason why Cloud had came in.

"No," Cloud replied while closing the door softly behind him. "Just checking on you."

Tilting his head Zack gave a smile, "I'm fine, just relaxing."

"Well good," Cloud replied while moving further into the room and stopping near the tub. He paused for a moment before speaking up again. "Can I join you?"

Not hesitating for a second Zack nodded, "Yeah come on."

A small smile appeared on Cloud's face and he easily stripped off his nemaki,placing his hand on the edge of the tub and climbing in. Zack took his other hand in his to help steady him and then Cloud was situating himself, sinking down carefully into the hot water and letting out a sigh of approval.

"Comfortable?" Zack asked with a chuckle as Cloud leaned back against him before giving a short nod. Wrapping his arms around the blond's smaller frame Zack held him tightly before placing a kiss against his temple. Cloud shifted a bit to his side at that so that he could wrap his arms around him also and felt fingers run through feathery blond hair as they stayed wrapped up together. Zack knew Cloud was probably worried about what the next day had in store for them. And the days after that for that matter. And honestly he wondered how it would be himself. Not that he was worried exactly, he felt that they were safe here. He wouldn't have agreed to working at that time if he didn't believe that Cloud's safety was secure. But he would feel a little strange with being away from him for a period of time. It had been a long time since that had happened and it would take some time getting used to.

"Are you worried?" He finally asked softly. He knew the answer he was sure, but he didn't want Cloud to keep it in either.

"A little," Cloud answered without hesitation and Zack's hand began to move comfortingly up and down his back.

"You're safe here, you know that right?"

Ever since they had left Edo Cloud hadn't really felt safe anywhere. When they were out on the road traveling he was always checking their surroundings and wary of any passerbys. Even when they were at inns he never truly felt safe because of the shelter...but because of Zack's presence. Wherever they were he didn't feel safe of the surroundings but Zack always calmed him. However since they had arrived here he actually And yes because of Zack but also because for the first time he didn't feel or sense any threat. And he hadn't felt that way in a long long time. So...

"Yes," Cloud replied softly before pulling away just slightly to look up into Zack's eyes. "But you out it-"

"We're safe I should say," Zack cut in before taking Cloud's face into his hands. "Here and in town. You don't have to worry anymore. Not anymore. About anything."

'Not anymore.'

Nodding he ran a hand across his chest absentmindedly. "I think I'm more's going to be weird being apart. We haven't been in a long time. Even if it's just for a while."

Zack's eyes widened briefly at that before a smile settled back on his face. It seemed as if Cloud was feeling the exact same way as he was.

"Oh come on, you don't have to lie to me," Zack started and Cloud gave him a bit of a confused look. "I know you'd like to get rid of me for a while. You must be sick of me by now."

A sharp gasp came from Cloud and Zack let out a laugh before Cloud was pulling at his hair.

"Zackary!" He started with a bit of a laugh of his own although he was trying to remain serious. "Don't say things like that it's not true. Are you tired of me?"

"Not possible," Zack replied with a frown.

Cloud's smile grew wider and he leaned in to place a kiss against his lovers lips. "Then promise me work and then right back home to me?"

"Promise," Zack said softly while returning the smile before Cloud was leaning into him again. After that they didn't seem to separate for a moment and made love right there in the bath. When they tumbled into bed that night neither of them was sure. Cloud was practically out as soon as he hit the bed, the days activities seeming to catch up with him all at once. But he shot awake sometime later to see Zack already out of bed and changing. He shifted his eyes towards the window and could see just the faintest hint of soft morning light peeking through the curtains.

"Zack?" He called sleepily while flipping over onto his back and letting out a small yawn. Turning towards the quiet voice Zack gave him a smile before making his way back over towards the bed and taking a seat on the edge.

"You should go back to sleep it's still early," he suggested gently.

"You're heading out now?" Cloud asked, in to which he received a nod in response.

"I'll be back soon," he explained before leaning down and placing a gentle kiss on Cloud's lips.

Cloud didn't want to say goodbye...he didn't know why really but he just didn't. So instead he just gave a nod in response and told Zack he loved him and that he'd see him shortly. He was given another kiss to his forehead and then Zack was leaving. He listened closely to hear the front door closing shut and then he was pulling the blankets closer to him, closing his eyes and falling back into a deep sleep. When he awoke again the light that was coming in through the curtains appeared to be brighter than before and he lazily dragged himself out of bed. He started about his usual daily routine although he did feel a bit off without Zack being there. But he brushed it off and pushed through. The day had actually gone by rather quickly than he was expecting, and he kept himself busy. Only once before he started dinner did he pick up his sketchbook, giving it a thoughtful look before setting it aside. The sun had started to go down when Cloud was in the kitchen and that was when he kept his eyes flicking towards the window and the front door. Zack would be back before it got dark...he said he would be. He tried not to let his nerves get the best of him as he continued on with the cooking. A few minutes later he heard the sound of a click at the front door and shortly after it was slid open and Zack stepped inside, shrugging off bits of snow that had clung to him on his way up. He glanced up towards the kitchen and caught Cloud's watchful gaze before his face lit up with a smile.

"Welcome back," Cloud said with an inward sigh of relief. And after that, that first day of uncertainty and slight worry, things became better. Cloud didn't worry anymore when Zack went to work after that, and Zack was able to relax knowing that Cloud wasn't on edge about it anymore. They easily fell into the new routine as days went by and it surprised the both of them at how natural it all felt. Almost as if their lives before in Edo were just a distant memory. This was their life now, and it was how it was supposed to be.

"Here you are," Cloud said while setting down a pail of fresh water for their horse. He emptied it into the trough before she leaned forward and began drinking steadily. Giving her a pat on her mane he laughed lightly when she shook her head a little, probably from drinking too quickly. Zack hadn't taken her into town this time when he went to work, he often didn't. Town wasn't far away from them at all and most of the time he just walked. Especially if he thought the snow was too deep for her. They hadn't gotten any new snow fall recently but there was still a thick blanket of it on the ground and it wouldn't be melting away anytime soon.

Checking to make sure she had enough food he exited out of the small stable and began making his way back around to the front of the house carrying the now empty pail with him. Once he made it passed the side he slowly stopped his steps when his eyes fell onto a person at the other end of the trail. Squinting slightly he tilted his head. He never saw people near this trail at all. Their home was pretty well tucked away, so for anyone to be so close was a bit odd he thought. However town was just on the opposite end so he supposed it could've just been someone passing through. But they hadn't moved and just appeared to be looking around. They were standing beside a horse, holding onto it's reigns but not doing much else. Were they lost?

Then the person started to take a few steps forward and Cloud instantly moved a few steps to the right, getting closer to the side of his house. He didn't know if his moving had caught the attention of the others or if they had seen him before but he knew he was spotted when the figure lifted a hand to wave.

Pulling his scarf closer around him Cloud didn't return the gesture. He didn't know who this person was and he wasn't sure if he should be too friendly. They were wearing a sugegasa so he couldn't really make out their features either. The figure started to move closer again and Cloud lifted his hand behind his back patting at his obi and feeling the small dagger secured there.

'Just in case.'

There was no point to run inside just yet, after all he had been spotted so what good would that do?

"Hello?" The voice asked a bit unsure as they got closer.

"Hi," Cloud started while gripping onto the empty pail handle more tightly.

"It is you," the figure asked while letting go of the horses reigns and stepping forward again. "Cloud."

Cloud's blood ran cold when he heard his name uttered. This person knew him? How? this person was from Edo? It couldn't be, not now, not after all this time...

The man lifted a hand and pulled off his sugegasa. Letting his long crimson ponytail spill free.

A shocked gasp escaped from the blond and he took a small step forward.

"Reno?" He asked quietly.

A wide smile spread across Reno's face before he was closing the distance between them and wrapping Cloud in a tight hug.

"It's really you! You're okay?" He asked while pulling away and looking down into wide confused eyes.

"I'm fine," Cloud started, still in a state of shock. "What are you...doing all the way out here?"

"I could ask you the same," Reno replied with a laugh. "I've been looking for you. Your family...your mom. Don't you know they're worried sick about you?"

Cloud looked away a bit guiltily at that. Of course he knew that his mom was worried about him...and he was sure that Angeal hadn't yet given her the letter he left for her. His father however...was he worried? It was something Cloud tried not to think about for long because the answer would probably hurt him too much.

"You're with Zack right?" Reno asked while looking past Cloud and to the home that was a short distance behind them.

Glancing back up to Reno Cloud sucked in a breath. What would he do if he knew? But surely he already did know. Reno was his friend...or rather both he and Zack's but...could he be trusted? Cloud was aware to some degree of what Reno's profession was so it was a bit unnerving really for him to be out here now.

When he didn't receive a response Reno gave Cloud a questioning gaze.

"You shouldn't be here Reno," he started with a shake of his head, "you shouldn't have looked for me."

Reno was a bit taken aback by that comment, but only slightly. He partly expected it really.

"Is this where you've been staying?" Reno asked, ignoring Cloud's last words.

"I guess you could say that," Cloud explained softly. There was something that was making him hold back. He didn't really want to open up to Reno, because friend or not Reno was still connected to Edo and the Shogun...something that Cloud and Zack no longer were. And by that and that alone he should be their enemy.

"You should be at home," Reno started gently while placing a hand on Cloud's shoulder. "Back with your family and friends. You just suddenly disappear and-"

"I am at home," Cloud broke in.

Reno paused at those words. He could hear the conviction behind them and he sighed quietly.

"What does Zack make of this? He doesn't want you to go back?"

Dropping blue eyes briefly Cloud spoke up. "don't want to."

Reno narrowed his eyes a bit and Cloud felt his heart beat increase. He wasn't sure if he was angering Reno with his stubborness, after all Reno was here on a job. And even if they were friends he was sure that the other didn't appreciate him giving him a hard time.

"I'd like to see what he has to say," Reno continued while crossing his arms across his chest. "Where is he?"

Zack was still in town but Cloud didn't want Reno to know that he was there alone. If he knew...would Reno try to take him back? He could only imagine if Zack came back to the house to discover it was empty. And by then who knew how far they could be. Cloud wasn't about to risk that.

"He's inside," Cloud replied with a shake of his head. "But Reno...I don't think him seeing you would be a good idea."

"Why not?" Reno asked with a tilt of his head. "I'm sure he'd like to see an old friend."

There was no warmth in those words and Cloud felt a lump rise in his throat. It was with those words that he realized that things weren't the same. Reno obviously didn't understand...didn't understand why Zack had deserted. And in his eyes he probably viewed him as a traitor.

"Reno," Cloud started gently. "Please...if you're really my friend please just forget that you ever saw me here. Please."

Green eyes bore into blue and for a moment, just for a moment it seemed as if Reno might grant him his request. But then he was shaking his head. "I'm not leaving here without you Cloud."

Was he really not giving him an option? What could he say to sway him? Reno was like an older brother to him, so he knew that he was doing this out of concern and care for his sake but...he just didn't understand.

Shaking his head he felt his eyes start to sting with tears. He wasn't going back there, he wasn't! He would rather die before being sent back to that hell. To a father who could care less about him and a sick old man who would use and abuse him until he had his fill.

He was just about to open his mouth to protest when a voice calling out to him stopped him. Turning towards the voice he saw Zack quickly coming up the path, his eyes locked on both he and Reno. When he had gotten close enough Cloud quickly bolted over towards him, sticking close to his side as Zack's arm instantly wrapped around him.

"There you are," Reno said with a bit of a smirk.

Zack didn't say anything for a moment and kept his eyes narrowed at the red head. "Why?"

That was the only thing he asked and Cloud looked up at him questioningly. He saw anger in his eyes...but confusion and also a deep sadness that shook Cloud to his core. He didn't know what to do, he didn't know why those emotions were there and what they could mean.

"What can I say? I've got a job to do-"

"You gave me your word," Zack started while shutting his eyes briefly.

Cloud didn't understand what was transpiring between the two and it made him feel a bit uneasy. Reaching out he grasped Zack's hand, not sure of what else to do.

"I didn't know you intended on taking Cloud away from his family completely," Reno started with a frown. "And I didn't think that you'd slaughter all those Samurai. Samurai who you called friends not too long ago may I remind you."

"I didn't want to," Zack quickly replied. "I told them to turn back, they pursued us I had no choice."

"You had a choice," Reno started while looking beside him to the small blond. "You could've just given them back Cloud."

"That wasn't an option," Zack said quietly.

"It wasn't your decision to make," Reno replied sharply.

No. He didn't want this. Zack and Reno fighting because of...him? They were all friends, they shouldn't have been fighting this way, especially not because Cloud had left Edo. Zack shouldn't have been getting the blame for it. He didn't take him away without his consent, Cloud wanted to leave! Zack was only protecting him, only caring for him...just looking out for him like he had always done.

"I didn't want to go back!" Cloud jumped in causing both men to look at him in brief surprise. "Reno...I can only imagine what it is you're thinking and what you may have been told but it's not like that. Zack hasn't done anything that I didn't ask him to do."

"Maybe not," Reno started with a sigh. "But this is bigger than any of that now. Perhaps if it was handled differently."

"There was no other way," Zack explained while stepping in front of Cloud. "If there was I would've done it. You shouldn't speak about something that you know nothing about."

"I know enough," Reno began while placing his hand on the hilt of his katana before Zack was reaching back to place his hand on the hilt of his sword. Both moves were so quick and subtle that it took a moment for Cloud to really understand the statement of those moves.

"Don't!" He shrieked. "Nothing will be solved like this! Reno please just leave!"

"Sorry Cloud," Reno started while giving a somewhat sad smile to the blond, "this is something you just couldn't understand."

Zack deeply wished that Reno would just listen to Cloud's anguished plea, but he knew that he wouldn't. And unlike Cloud Zack understood Reno's words. Cloud couldn't understand this...wouldn't understand this. Because this was something that even years of friendship couldn't change. Reno was sworn to protect the Shogunate at all cost. To end anyone he deemed a threat or an enemy, and to do so without question or delay. And that oath was not one to be broken. As a Samurai Zack was supposed to be held to something similar, and the fact that he had betrayed that he knew Reno found detestable. Friend or not he was an assassin for the Shogunate, and Zack felt a bit foolish to think that he had ever trusted his word.

He knew he had no choice...he had clearly been marked. He didn't want to draw his sword to his childhood friend but that was the only thing he could do. If he didn't Reno would kill him and take Cloud right back to Edo and...he promised Cloud that he would do whatever he had to to keep him safe.

With a heavy heart he pulled his sword from it's sheath just as Reno did the same.

'Please forgive me.' He said the words in his mind but it seemed as if Reno had sensed them before he was giving the former Samurai a sad sort of smile.

It was as if everything was in slow motion after that. Zack sprinted forward along with Reno as Cloud's voice screamed at them to stop. They weren't very far from each other at all but those few steps to reach each other seemed as if they took an eternity. There was a blur of crimson, black and then blond. Then everything stopped.

Zack was now directly in front of Reno and Cloud had somehow wedged in between them.

The soft white snow beneath their feet began to stain with drops of blood and the only sound that filled the eerie silence was the soft howl of the wind.

"What have I done?"

A/N: Here's chap 25! This took way longer for me to get up but with holidays and everything it just kept getting pushed back. But alas here it is. So the of course big question to this cliffhanger here, who got stabbed and is going to die!? Dun dun dun! And of course Reno has been out on the road traveling all this time so he doesn't know about the Shogun's death. So he's carrying out a task that honestly holds no real merit anymore. If only the Shogun had died before he left huh? But that's what puts such a heartbreaking twist to it all I guess. Thanks so much for your reviews guys and for sticking with this story, the final chap will be done soon! Yay, I know it's been a long time coming! Until next time!

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