Something changed in Kaede's eyes when Strife spoke her name. The faintest hint of hope cracked the blank film over her eyes and then spread through her face. Her withdrawn, stiff expression softened into a look of disbelieving awe.

"Sano…is that really you?" Kaede asked tentatively. Her voice was how he had remembered it, sweet and well-measured. Hearing it jolted him out of his shock. Strife forced himself to stop trembling, and he jerkily nodded his head. He smiled weakly at her, all the while fervently wishing that she wasn't there.

How did Viper find out about us? She's been gone so long – everyone thought she was dead. I can't hurt her – I need to get her away from here, before Viper gets the Ineban to attack her. 

"I couldn't find you - I've been looking for so long…I thought I'd found you so many times – but…" Kaede murmured as she walked shakily towards him. Strife moved to meet her, and so when she stumbled, he was able to grab her arm and steady her. She stared up at him and placed cold, shaking fingers on his cheek, as if to make sure he truly existed. 

Strife's heart twisted painfully. He gently placed his hand over her brown one. "Yeah, it's me," he said hoarsely. He felt his throat tighten as he looked down into her hopeful, vulnerable brown eyes, and his next words came out strangled. "I'm-I'm here, Kaede." But you shouldn't be.

"Sano…" Kaede breathed, and tears trailed down her face to mix with the rain. She suddenly wrapped her arms around his back and pressed tightly against him. The hug was awkward because of their soaked clothes, but Strife instinctively put a protective arm around her.

"I'm here," he said again, softly. "Don't worry." 

When she tilted her head to look up at him, revealing her fervent eyes and blue-tinged lips, Strife had to blink back unexpected tears. She's so skinny, so cold…and the way she's looking at me…

Why should I mean so much to her? He knew deep down that he had not treated Kaede fairly, and had regretted it. Although Rush was the main reason why Kaede had left Hikanto, Strife had always wondered if he should've been kinder to her, and treated her with more patience and understanding instead of accusing her of cheating on him. He hated to admit any taking part in Kaede's disappearance, but he could not ignore the guilt that ate at his heart as he stared down into her adoring, desperate face. 

"Sano, I've missed you – I'm so sorry I ran away…I should've stayed with you, then – then-" Kaede's voice cracked and she buried her face in his chest.

"Shh, it's okay," Strife said soothingly as he attempted to rub her back. Her waterlogged tunic stuck to her skin. "Kaede…where've you been? I've looked for you too, but there just weren't any - why didn't you try coming back, or at least send a message?" he asked even as he warily looked around, making sure Viper hadn't already signaled her men.

"I was lost," Kaede choked. "Didn't you promise to protect me? Why weren't you there, Sano? I was lost and you weren't there to help, no one was there, except-" the rest of the words were lost when she suddenly started sobbing.

The hysteria in her voice frightened him. She'd always been calm, and although her compassion had sometimes clouded her judgment, he'd never seen her distraught to the point of incoherency.

"Kaede, what is it? What happened?" Strife asked, concerned. He rested his chin on her slick hair. "It's all right, you can tell me," he said reassuringly when she hesitated. He scanned his surroundings again, and Viper suddenly caught his eyes. Her hard blue gaze was colder than the rain that slid inside his coat and numbed his skin. 

Strife recognized the look. It was the same one that had frozen Viper's eyes when she ordered Jendayi to kill Isoke. Strife swallowed hard and tightened his hold on Kaede. I won't let anything happen to her. I just found her again.

Kaede repeatedly shook her head and kept crying, unable to answer his question. 

Strife peripherally saw the Ineban shifting restlessly. "Tell me," Strife said more firmly. He didn't mean to sound callous, but he was tired of people he cared about hiding things from him. Also, he had to help her, had to calm her so that he could find a way to get her out of there.

"She was raped," Viper suddenly said flatly.

Her simple words stabbed into him like the cold metal of a kunai. Strife flinched, and Kaede abruptly pulled away from him. Her eyes were large, dark holes that consumed her face. She staggered backwards, her mouth working silently. The tentative sanity was gone from her face, and she grabbed fistfuls of her soaked skirt, her hands clenching and unclenching spasmodically.

Strife's could only stare at her for a few moments as his rain-numbed brain struggled to comprehend Viper's words. Raped. Kaede – raped. Why? Why her? She trusted…everyone… He watched her back away from him, and once again noted the lines in her face and how she was almost buried in her loose clothing. He swallowed as he imagined someone else's hands on her frail body. A nauseating disgust wrenched his stomach.

"Kaede," Strife breathed, taking a step towards her. Guilt constricted around his heart and clogged his throat, making it impossible for him to even apologize. I was supposed to be there for her. I promised to protect her.

"Stay away – stay away," she whispered, her voice almost lost in the soft rush of the rain. She frantically backed away from him and stumbled right into Viper. Viper snatched Kaede's arm and bent it at a cruel angle.

Kaede's shrill cry cut through the dazed fog in Strife's head. He immediately unsheathed his sword, and the rain created a metallic melody as it plinked against his sword.     

"Let go of her," Strife snarled, too angry to even realize that the Ineban hadn't moved to restrain him.

"How many times do I have to remind you, Strife? You don't give orders to me," Viper drawled as she casually reached for the knife in her boot and then swiftly raised it to Kaede's throat. Kaede's eyes widened even more and she made a startled, high-pitched squeal, like a cornered animal.

"Stop - you wouldn't want me to hurt your precious Kaede would you?" Viper sneered.

Strife heard the unusual amount of malice in her voice and stopped in his tracks. He ground his teeth as Kaede continued to make the unbearable whimpering noises.

"Hasn't enough happened to her already? Let her go, dammit!" Strife shouted, the words exploding from his mouth. He ached to take two long steps and tear Kaede away from Viper. Kaede trembled uncontrollably, her long black hair sticking to her face like tendrils of shadow.

"Let her go? But who was she running from, Strife?" Viper taunted, and her voice was the rough hiss of a snake's scales against rock.

Strife's sword shook in his hands. "Shut up. Just let her go, or else I'll-"

"Little baby, I would've thought that you understood by now, especially after seeing what happened to Jendayi. What's the point of threatening me? Kaede is going to die, and you're going to kill her."

Kaede gasped and stared at Strife. The fear in her eyes tore at his heart. "You promised," she wailed. "You promised, Sano!"

"No – I won't hurt you – you can trust me-" Strife began desperately. He couldn't help but take a step towards her. 

"D-don't let him near me – no – don't touch me, don't touch me," Kaede screeched, struggling against Viper.

Viper dug her knife deeper into Kaede's throat. A thin blood of line appeared on her dark skin and slid swiftly down her throat, diluted by the rain. Kaede stopped moving, and choked back sobs as fresh tears poured down her cheeks.

"Well, looks like she wouldn't want to go back with you even if she could," Viper said coolly. The Ineban laughed, reminding Strife of their presence. He glanced behind him and cursed when he realized how close they were. Several pairs of merciless eyes bored into him, frightening in their complete lack of compassion. Dammit, when did they get so close?

He tightened his grip on his sword and tried to ignore how the rain made the hilt slippery. He whipped his head back around to glare at Viper.

"I'm not going to kill her," he said fiercely.

Viper scoffed. "And why not? She's pathetic – just look at her," Viper said, letting go of Kaede's hand to grab a fistful of her hair and wrench her head back roughly. Kaede cried out in pain.

"Stop it!"

"She's weak," Viper jeered, ignoring him. "Used and broken. Killing her would be more merciful than letting her live in her little delusional world where you've saved her and lived happily ever after." The bitterness in her usually cold eyes surprised him.    

"What do you have against her? She never did anything wrong – she was raped, Viper! Look at what that did to her! Don't you have any sympathy?" Strife raged.

"Yes. That's why she's going to die," Viper said calmly. Before Strife could react, she drew away her knife and shoved Kaede to the side, into the arms of the waiting Ineban.

Kaede's scream snapped through the air like lightning. All the bandits who surrounded her were men, and although they were doing nothing but restraining her, she was still terrified.

"No! Don't touch me!" she screamed, clawing at her captors. More of the Ineban latched onto her, making her struggle even more wildly.

"Get the fuck away from her," Strife roared, charging towards them. 

Someone once again jumped him from behind, but this time he was prepared. He flipped his sword around and plunged it into the man's gut. The bandit gave a gurgled scream as Strife yanked his sword out. He whirled around even as the man slumped over, blood pooling around his body and then washing down the hill in a gruesome river.

"If you assholes want to end up like him, go ahead – attack me!" Strife challenged, glaring furiously at the crowd. He heard another scream from Kaede, and rage contorted his face as he snarled, "You're not gonna stop me this time."

The other Ineban who had surrounded him paused for a moment as their fallen comrade wheezed his last breath. Uncertainty glimmered underneath the shocked anger in their faces. Strife wasted no time. He whirled around and sprinted towards the clump of Ineban who held Kaede captive. 

"What are you doing? Get him!" Viper screamed.

Strife heard the splattering sound of many people moving through the rain behind him. He increased his pace and reached the bandits in just a few moments. He barely caught a glimpse of the distraught Kaede kneeling in the middle of a puddle, forced there by the rough hands of the Ineban men. The muddy water soaked her skirt up to her waist, and her dark eyes were desperate and wild. A red mark stained her cheek. Someone hurt her.   

"Please don't…please…" she sobbed.

The blood roared in Strife's ears, drowning out Kaede's next words. Strife grabbed the nearest bandit by his drenched collar and forcefully tossed him into another man. Both gave a surprised blurt and then collapsed into a wet pile of fur coats.

By then the other bandits had noticed his presence, and had their weapons drawn. One of the men leapt at him with a serrated knife. Strife ducked under the blow and smashed the back of his arm across the man's face. As the man reeled, Strife whirled around and slashed at another bandit who had attempted to jump him from behind. A spray of blood joined the falling rain. The bandit's body had not even hit the ground when Strife pivoted and slammed his leg into another man's side. He felled the man with a well-placed stab, jerked his sword out of the twitching body, and lunged for the bandits holding Kaede. He dodged and blocked blows on every side, only taking time to attack when it was absolutely necessary. Kaede's strained, tear-stained face consumed his vision, and everything else – the pained screams, the contorted faces, the gushing blood – faded into the background.

In what only seemed like a few moments, he found himself slicing off the hand of one of the men who was holding Kaede down. The bandit gave an agonized scream and held up the gushing stump, blood erupting from his severed flesh. Kaede shrieked as a few steaming drops spattered onto her shoulders and face. The other men restraining her blanched, and their grips slackened as their crippled comrade continued to fill the air with his screams.

Strife snatched Kaede's arm and pulled her to her feet. "C'mon," he growled, brandishing his bloodstained sword to keep the other bandits at bay. The man who'd lost his hand groaned and writhed on the ground. Kaede blinked at Strife for a few moments, and fear slowly stretched her eyes wide. Rain slid down her face and washed away the blood on her face, but she still trembled. Kaede slowly shook her head.

Strife ground his teeth, struggling to control his impatience. He was about to say more when he caught a flash of movement from the corner of his eye. He bent over, grabbed a fistful of mud, whirled around, and threw it into the charging bandit's face. Even as the bandit scrubbed furiously at his eyes, Strife sliced him across the chest. Before the man could even finish screaming, Strife grabbed Kaede by the arm and dragged her away from the group. They stumbled through the rain and mud, slowed by their soaked clothing. Strife noticed peripherally that none of the Ineban followed, and was too relieved to be suspicious. We'll get out of here. Kaede's gonna be alright.  

When Kaede lagged behind, Strife jerked her forward. She made a soft cry of pain. "Sano – you're hurting me," Kaede she said plaintively. Her voice trembled. "Let go…"

Strife stopped in his tracks, the fear in Kaede's voice banishing his rage. The cold drops of rain drained the heat from his face. For a brief moment, all thoughts of the Ineban, Viper, and his Initiation were replaced by an intense guilt. He lowered his sword and turned to the woman he had once loved so desperately.

"I'm sorry – I didn't mean to, Kaede…I'm not going to hurt you - don't be scared. I'm only trying to protect you," he said as tenderly as he could, leaning over her to hook a few long, straggly strands of her black hair behind her ear. "I promised, remember? I'll protect you."

She looked up at him, and a warm adoration replaced the glazed fear in her dark eyes. A small smile touched her lips. For an instant, surrounded by angry enemies and in the shadow of Zetsumei's Arrow, they were both safe. 

Strife heard footsteps sloshing through the mud. He instantly pivoted, standing protectively in front of Kaede with his sword raised.

Viper looked calmly up at him. Rain slid off of her unsheathed tachi. She held her weapon loosely at her side. The Ineban behind her were in exactly the same position as before; they hadn't crept up like when they were cornering Jendayi. Strife glanced nervously at the bandits waiting both in front of and behind him. What are they waiting for?

"You should listen to yourself sometime, little boy," Viper said contemptuously. "You promise to protect her, but you told us a week ago that you'd do anything I said. All I said was for you to kill her, and you end up butchering my loyal men instead. You'd be stupider than I thought if you don't think you deserve some punishment for your behavior."

"Just get out of my way, Viper," Strife said through clenched teeth. "I'm leaving, and I'm taking Kaede with me."

"Oh really?" Viper replied mildly. She cocked her head. "Funny. I thought you wanted to join us."

"Not if I have to hurt her," Strife snapped, jerking his head back to indicate Kaede. "You and your damn men can go to hell." He heard a few annoyed mutters from the Ineban following his comment, but didn't care. He didn't want to get in their good graces if it meant having to sacrifice Kaede.

"So you want to run off with your old girlfriend. How romantic. Too bad you have nowhere to go," Viper replied, sounding almost bored.

"Anywhere's better than here," Strife retorted, stepping past her and tugging Kaede along with him.

Viper didn't move. "So you're choosing her over your precious Siren – repaying betrayal with betrayal. I guess I should've expected it from you, little boy."

Strife stopped and turned around slowly. "I'm not betraying Siren," he said tightly, wishing desperately that he could somehow plunge his sword in Viper's back and get away with it.

Kaede glanced at him, confusion clearly written in her face. "Siren? Strife, what does she mean? Siren's-"  

"His newest lover," Viper interrupted. Kaede gasped and gripped Strife's hand tighter, as if she needed to assert her claim over him. Strife couldn't look at her.

Viper glanced over her shoulder at them, her blue eyes cold and calculating. "That is, as of about a week ago. I believe Strife has been acting rather – immaturely – since he found out about Siren's relationship with Rush."

Kaede flinched. "Rush…" she whispered, and her eyes stretched so wide that the whites seemed to swallow her pupils. "Hyugen. He – I-" She trailed off, and her face collapsed. Strife looked sharply at her, reminded of the stinging jealousy of those days.

"You did?" Viper asked coldly, her voice dripping with innuendo. "Well now, Strife, it seems like this Rush kid has had his way with both of your women."

Strife controlled his temper with great effort. He clamped his tongue between his teeth and stalked away with Kaede following closely at his heels.

"Sano – she's wrong, Hyugen and I never…I just wanted to help him," Kaede said desperately, clutching at his arm. "Please Sano, we didn't do anything. I only love you – you're everything to me, I'd never betray you!"

"Then why'd you run away?" Strife snarled despite of himself. Her fawning disturbed him almost as much as her withdrawn state.

Kaede cringed and looked away. Strife immediately regretted his harsh words. Dammit, don't talk to her like that. She's already gone through enough.  

"I know why you're here, Strife," Viper called, interrupting his thoughts. "You never fooled me. If you leave now, you won't be able to help Siren. I'll have the Ineban destroy Hikanto."

Strife felt a jolt of surprise, even though he and Raven had already discussed the possibility of Viper knowing his true intentions. He definitely hadn't expected Viper to publicly expose him. What is she planning? He slowed to a stop. Kaede hugged his arm tightly and bowed her head, apparently still chagrined. He patted her cold, wet hand reassuringly and muttered a few soothing words even as he framed a reply to Viper in his head.

"If you know why I'm here, then what good would it do if I stayed?" Strife asked carefully, not turning around. "Why would you even want me here?"

"Little boy, I wouldn't have been so patient if I didn't have a good reason. No matter how annoying or risky it is having you around, I still have use for you."

Strife bit his lip as he weighed her words. He then looked at the wall of Ineban blocking his way. All of the bandits had their weapons drawn, and their faces were grim. He peripherally saw another group of Ineban gathering behind him. Although he might've freed Kaede for the time being, he knew that there was little chance he'd be able to plow through everyone in front of him and simultaneously keep her safe. He shook away the hopelessness that threatened to overwhelm him. Think, Strife. You have to get her out of here.

"Then why don't we both stop pretending?" he said finally, turning to face Viper. "Forget about the Initiation. It's just a kind of exchange, right? Well, I'll do whatever the hell it is you need me to do, and in exchange, you'll just have to risk having your plans ruined before I can carry them out. I need to be a member, and you need me to be a member, so let's just forget about the damn Initiation – it doesn't mean anything." 

Viper raised rain-beaded eyebrows. "That's the smartest thing I've ever heard you say," she replied, amused. Her voice hardened as she spoke her next words, "Too bad it doesn't work that way. You see, everyone else here had to go through some sort of Initiation, and it wouldn't be fair to them if you became a member without one. I wouldn't want to show any favoritism to a spoiled brat like you."

"Bullshit," Strife snapped. "You've been showing me favoritism ever since I got here!"

"And now I'm fixing my mistake," Viper said flatly. She then made a gesture to the Ineban. "Take the girl, and keep him away from her this time."

The Ineban began to close on him from all sides. Strife cursed furiously and raised his sword. Kaede pressed tightly against him, and he could feel her trembling. 

"Sano – Sano – they're getting closer…keep them away," she babbled, her voice high-pitched and small like a child's.

"Viper – just let Kaede go!" Strife shouted desperately as the bandits drew closer. Their eyes burned with contempt and anger, a startling contrast to their usual deadened hunger. There were too many of the Ineban to fight off at once. Panic gnawed at his innards, and Kaede clutched his left arm so tightly that he she cut off his circulation. "I'll do whatever you want – I won't tell Siren anything about you," Strife continued, hating the wheedling tone he heard in his voice. "Please - just don't hurt Kaede."

"Stop!" Viper ordered the Ineban, and the single word snapped through the crowd and rooted the bandits to the ground. Strife didn't trust the temporary truce, and stayed in a guarded stance.

"Keep them away…please Sano," Kaede repeated, still hiding behind his back. 

"Shh, it's okay, I will," he murmured distractedly.

The Ineban in front of him suddenly parted so that Viper could pass. The stout woman stopped in front of Strife and gave him a patronizing smile. "Aw, poor baby…you sound so upset," she cooed. "Does Kaede really mean that much to you?"

"What do you think?" Strife shot back. He was circled on all sides by hostile bandits, and could barely take three steps without being spitted by one of their rusty weapons. He shifted uneasily, wishing that Viper could just get to the point.

"I think it's time for you to make a choice," Viper replied, her voice slow and deliberate.

"Spare me the theatrics, Viper," Strife snapped. "What is it?"

Viper smirked. "Red, bring her over here," she called over her shoulder.

Strife furrowed his brow. Who the hell is she talking about? He could still feel Kaede trembling against him, and it unnerved him. Who else has Viper found to break me?   

Viper stepped aside as a man with bright red hair dragged a mud-splattered Iris into view. The teenage girl cursed furiously at Red and didn't stop when Viper shot her a warning glare. Strife could only stare at Iris for a few moments, refusing to believe that Viper had involved her in his Initiation.

"Leggo of me! I was – I was just doin' what you told, Viper – whaddya want from me?" Iris protested loudly, but her blue-grey eyes were stretched wide with fear.

"Dear little girl," Viper said with mock gentleness as she reached over and roughly gripped Iris's chin, forcing her to look directly in her eyes. "I warned you. You wanted to work with him, and so now you're going to suffer with him." The blood drained from Iris's bony face, and she stopped struggling.

"Viper – no…she never tried anything – leave her out of this," Strife said in a strangled voice. Iris had been strangely nice to him, and he knew that Viper suspected the girl of betrayal. But Iris had never approached him about starting a rebellion or anything of that nature, and he was not going to let Viper use him as an excuse for her to be cruel to Iris. He adjusted his grip on his rain-slick sword hilt and calculated the odds of freeing Iris without her or Kaede being hurt in the process. Kaede continued to whisper apologies and ramble to herself, and Strife had to tune out the broken, pained words to maintain whatever composure he had left. Focus…think…you can save both of them…

"Maybe she didn't 'try anything,' but she certainly would've if given the time…and I don't tolerate mutiny," Viper said coldly.

"I-I never would've-" Iris cut off abruptly when Viper slapped her hard across the face. Iris cried out and her head hung limply, her wet, dirty blonde hair obscuring her face.

"You bitch!" Strife exploded. The only thing that kept him from leaping to Iris's defense was the feeling of Kaede pressed against him. He clenched his fist so tightly he could feel blood trickling down his palm and mixing with the rain. "You have no right to treat her like that! She's done nothing!"

Viper turned away from the subdued Iris and fixed Strife with her icy blue eyes. "Then choose her," she said flatly. "Let her live. Her or Kaede - only one of them will leave this clearing alive. Try to save both and they'll both die." 

Strife's mouth went dry, and he shook so violently that his sword trembled. Kaede continued to mumble, oblivious to the world around her. Strife was just as detached as she was. The soft rush of the rain sounded like a roar in his ears and all the Ineban around him faded into mist. Choose one – her or Kaede – only one…

He had done Zetsumei's work. He was a killer. His sword dripped with the blood of many Ineban, and he'd not thought twice about killing then when he did it to protect himself or Kaede. But to be solely responsible for the death of someone he cared for, someone who wouldn't have been hurt at all if not for their connection to him – it was too much. His head hurt from the tension.

What if those bandits you killed were as innocent as you think Iris is? his conscience whispered.  

This isn't the same as killing the Ineban! I can't let Kaede get hurt, but Iris can't die because of me either…she's only helped me, in whatever way she could – even if it meant restraining me so that I wouldn't get hurt.

But you can't abandon Kaede…you were supposed to protect her. You already failed her once. She's your responsibility, and…you loved her.

I can't make this choice. His chest tightened, and his breath came in unnatural gasps.  Can't…

Suddenly, Strife heard annoyed shouts as someone shouldered their way through the crowd. The noise snapped him out of his trance, and his eyes refocused just in time to see Silvereye suddenly burst into the small clearing. His grey eye burned with a fury that Strife had never seen before. Silvereye took one glance at his stunned sister and then lunged at Viper.

Viper's curved tachi flew through the air and collided with Silvereye's dagger. An ugly metallic clash resounded in the air, and water spattered from their weapons. Strife hoped that Viper was sufficiently distracted and moved to help Iris, but the nearby Ineban immediately tightened the circle around him.

"Sano!" Kaede shrieked. Strife cursed and whipped around, shoving Kaede behind him. As he turned, a spearhead that would've originally plunged into her grazed his side instead. Strife ignored the stinging pain and smashed his sword into the shaft, splintering the sword in two. Instead of finishing off the bandit, Strife let him stumble back into the crowd. The other Ineban hesitated, and so Strife risked a glance back at Silvereye and Viper.

Their weapons were locked, and Silvereye strained against Viper's curved tachi with his much shorter weapon. Iris had begun to struggle anew, but Red was a large man and restrained her easily.

"Inejiro!" Iris shouted at her brother. "Get outta 'ere, or Viper'll 'ave you killed too, idiot! You 'ave to-" Red clamped a beefy hand over her mouth, silencing her.

"You should listen to your sister," Viper said mildly. She did not sound as if she were straining at all as she began to push back Silvereye's dagger. "She's giving you good advice." 

Muscles bulged in his neck as Silvereye struggled against her. "Yoo shoul'nt 'ave messed with 'er Viper – didjoo really think I'd let yoo 'urt 'er when I'm 'round?" Silvereye growled.

Viper laughed. "And do you really think that anyone believes this 'brotherly love' act of yours? You're only protecting her because your little plans for rebellion are ruined. You have nothing to lose."

"If yoo wanna 'urt a traitor, then 'urt me - but let Iris go."                             

"Such noble sentiments. Sorry though, the decision's not up to me or you…it's Strife's choice," Viper replied as she suddenly twisted her tachi and pulled it away from Silvereye's dagger. Silvereye staggered briefly from the lack of resistance, but quickly steadied himself. Strife felt his stomach twist in dread as the one-eyed man slowly turned to face him. The malice in his watery grey eye was more potent than any of Viper's glares.

Strife stood protectively in front of Kaede, and felt the hairs on the back of his neck prick in the eerie stillness. All he heard was the fall of the rain, and were it not for the wisps of breath curling into the air, he would've thought that the Ineban were statues. A strange, lopsided smile spread across Silvereye's face.

"Well, li'le prince, what's your choice?" he asked almost conversationally.

Strife somehow felt the soft pressure of Kaede's hand through the soaked furs that stuck to his skin.

"Sano…" she whispered, even as Iris caught his eyes. The desperation in her blue-grey gaze struck him almost as much as Kaede's soft voice.

"Neither of them are gonna die," Strife replied hoarsely, tearing his eyes away from Iris.

Silvereye cocked his head, and the unnatural smile didn't leave his face. "So yoo can't make a choice, huh? Well I guess I'll just 'ave to make it easier for yoo." He suddenly flipped his dagger and threw it at Strife.          

Surprised, Strife just barely managed to knock it aside. By the time the dagger bounced harmlessly off of his sword, Silvereye had already reached him. Another dagger was glinting in his hand. Strife raised his sword to block the blow, but Silvereye turned aside at the last moment, aiming for Kaede. Strife tried pivoting at the last moment to stop him, but he'd been caught off guard. Kaede screamed and tried backing away, only to be stopped by the wall of bandits behind her.

"Sano!" she screamed as Silvereye lunged for her.

"No - Kaede!" The words tore from his throat even as Silvereye's dagger ripped through Kaede's cloth and flesh, impaling itself deep into her chest. Strife reached Silvereye a moment later and spitted him from behind. Silvereye cried out and his body jerked around Strife's sword. Strife left his weapon imbedded in Silvereye as the bandit sank to his knees. Iris called her brother's name over and over again, her voice rising in hysteria. But Viper would not let her go to him. Strife stepped around the dying Silvereye and moved numbly towards Kaede, a hollow feeling in his chest. She has to be okay…she has to be…I protected her…

Kaede swayed on her feet, her warm blood mixing with the rain trickling down her wet tunic. Her head was bowed, and her small, dark hands were wrapped around the hilt of the dagger. She slowly raised her head as Strife approached, and he drew in his breath sharply when he saw the blood trickling from her mouth. Her dark eyes were already glazed. A violent cough wracked her slight frame, and more blood speckled her lips. She toppled even as Strife reached her. Strife caught her before she could hit the ground, and knelt on the cold ground with her cradled in his arms. He shuddered as he saw the dark red blot on her chest slowly expand.  Gods…please help her. Spare her, Zetsumei – she's done nothing…

"Sano…I…" Kaede whispered, clutching at his coat. Her face was tight and drawn from pain.

"Shh - don't talk, you'll be alright," Strife babbled, wiping the blood from her mouth with the back of his sleeve. "It's okay, Kaede, I'm here to take care of you. You're gonna – you're gonna be okay."

She gave him a weak smile, and then began coughing again, worse than before. Strife felt a jolt of fear.  "Shit – someone get Iris over here," he said. "C'mon – she needs help!" he shouted hoarsely, glancing back at where Red stood, still restraining Iris. "Let her go – she has to help Kaede!"

"And why should I?" Iris suddenly screamed, her voice thick with tears. "Why should I 'elp you, murderer?" She began struggling anew, fighting viciously against Red. Strife stared at her blankly for a moment, before his eyes fell on Silvereye. Shit. Her brother…I didn't even think about it… "I'll kill you for what you did to Inejiro!"

"Enough," Viper interrupted coldly. Her stony expression had not changed; it almost seemed as if she'd expected the Initiation to go so badly. "If you can't stay still, I'll have Red break your legs."

Iris paused for just a moment, and her brother took the opportunity to laugh breathily. He was still clinging to life, even though his breath came in long, shuddering gasps and his blood pooled around him. "Yoo can't 'urt 'er now, Viper," he croaked. "She's safe…Kaede's gonna die, so Strife doesn't 'ave a choice to make…Iris 'as to live…"  

Strife's comprehension of the situation was so swift and sickening that it made his vision blur. When his eyes refocused, he found himself staring down at the pale Kaede. Her body seemed shrunken and diminished as she struggled to draw breath. 

Because I didn't choose her quick enough, Silvereye chose for me…this is my fault…she's going to die because of me…

He felt hot tears warm his cheeks. "Kaede," he choked, hugging her closer.  "I'm so sorry…I-I should've protected you, I should've never let you leave, I'm sorry…"

"Sano…" Kaede breathed. Her voice was so faint that he had to put his ear close to her mouth to hear her. "I never – slept with…Rush…"            

"Shh, shh, I know," Strife said hurriedly. He brushed the stray strands of her dark, wet hair away from her clammy skin. "It's okay Kaede, just wait, someone will be helping you soon – just hold on – please…" 

Kaede's breathing began to slow, and her limbs went limp. Strife panicked, and began to shake her. Her head lolled disturbingly, and he immediately stopped. He pulled her close and pressed his cheek against hers, wishing that he could give her his warmth. "Kaede – no…you have to stay awake," he said desperately. He couldn't see clearly because of the tears that blurred his vision. "You're gonna be alright, you'll be fine…gods – Kaede…" 

Kaede drew a shallow, shuddering breath. "I-I…" Kaede whispered. She paused for a long moment, and as Strife waited anxiously, he knew that each rise and fall of her bloodied chest brought her closer to her last. "I – missed you…Sano…" she said haltingly. She then gave what sounded like a quiet sigh, and stopped breathing.

Strife shakily pulled away and stared down into her dull, unseeing eyes. He remembered how her dark eyes used to light up when she saw him, how she would smile gently up at him and lay a soft hand on his arm when she was happy, how young and innocent her haggard, broken face used to be.

I couldn't protect her. Even in the end, I couldn't protect her. His tears fell like raindrops onto her bloodstained tunic. His chest felt unbearably tight, but he could think of nothing that would relieve the pain. She didn't deserve this.

Iris's agonized scream suddenly knifed through the rain and fog. Zetsumei had just taken her brother.

Hearing Iris's grief brought Strife's own crashing down on him in an overwhelming wave. The sobs that he had been forcing back finally burst free and wracked his body. He screamed as Iris had, hoping to shout away the knot of guilt and grief in his chest. His hoarse voice rang emptily against Zetsumei's Arrow, and his pain remained just as intense. He hugged Kaede close and cried into her cold, wet tunic.

"I'm sorry…I'm so sorry…"

Author's Note: On that note, a thousand apologies to all of you for leaving that rather *cough* misleading note about posting this in two weeks. I'm sorry that it took so ridiculously long to get this up, but it's obviously a crucial chapter, and college has a way of draining time away without me even realizing it. I also apologize to all of the authors' stories that I have fallen behind in reading, I promise I'll get to them eventually! Thank you so much for your patience. By the way…I really hate writing death scenes, and I'm never satisfied with them. What did you think of it?