Lions and Tigers
By Lena ban Obsidian
"We do not play well with each other."
"No." The sharp ring of steel. Thunder. Rain turned the sand into contemptible thick dark mud. "No, we don't."
"I shall kill you."
Pain in the form of sound: expletive. Someone fell into the mud and growled. "...you can try."
It was night, late as the latest of dreams and dark as the empty sky will be at the end of all ends. Clouds roared and rumbled, thunder crashing and lightning tearing the very earth asunder, burning and ripping in selected places-- the highest tower and the lightning rod made of iron. Two shadows moved within the static swish and blur of the raindrops, falling at a forty-five degree angle down the windy path to the ground.
Two shadows and two glowing blades.
"If you had not presumed--" Stabbing downward, but only mud awaited her sharp sting and the only answer the mud made was a pitiful gasping squelch. Anger flashed in the tiger's eyes. "If you had not dared to touch what was mine--!!"
The lion snarled back, on his feet again and glaring through the mud on his face, between his eyes. "He offered what I took freely. If he is anyone's he's mine now and you can't--" A gleaming blue arc of fire and shimmer and anger and blade met blade again, shrieking like a banshee. "--have him back!"
Murder in crisp eyes answered murder in sharp ones. They could have killed each other instantly, but they held their ground, glaring, snarling, circling and circling again, fangs out and hackles raised. One would have to back down, or be taken by the other. There was no other end to this.
"Did he get friendly with you?" it was a hiss, barely audible over the rain. They moved closer, their noses almost touching, the blades crossed and shaking with the pressure of their strength pushing against each other. "I think not. You must have taken him unwary. He was alone, he couldn't have known that you intended--"
"Why don't you ask him what happened?" Fierce, proud growl. "Ask him about me, find out for yourself what I am. At least then you'd know I am not a dishonorable coward!"
They flew away from each other, the echo of blades kissing farewell lost in the dreary downpour. They began to circle each other again, both panting softly. "Aren't you?" The tiger demanded, raising his head, narrowing his eyes in disdain.
"Not like you. I don't rape, and I don't steal innocence. When you took his will from him he was nothing but a child."
Silence stood between them, though the storm raged on. The tiger bristled, seeming to prepare to attack, while the lion held his ground, head bowed and eyes as fierce as his namesake.
"You accuse me of rape?" His voice was deceptively soft. "Is that what you think of me?"
They began moving again, both creeping towards the empty, echoing halls under the great arced roof of the Coliseum. There the mud was not so thick and their boots ceased sinking into the ground when they stood still too long. Soaked through, they both looked almost pitiful, in the way that any predator about to go in for a kill after being prodded into it looks pitiful.
"I know you have. I know who. I know that you took from him what he gave to me. I know you, or the you that you showed him when you had your way. I'm not the monster here."
They dripped, hair plastered down in tangles and swirls along their faces, their backs and shoulders. The tiger's gaze grew as hot as coals and his lips pursed into a thin, dangerous line.
They met again, ringing sounds of battle following their muddied footsteps in mocking waltz, every shuffle echoed by a blow, here an offbeat and two quick parries before the lion stole forward, pushing his opponent back.
It went on without ceasing as the storm grew heavier, winter chill already in the air. The rain became a deafening roar of hail.
Both panting, they came to a standstill, the lion's blade wavering before his enemy's face while the tiger's claw hovered at his throat.
"...we seem...to be equally matched," one of them finally admitted. Neither was willing to admit it had been his choice to speak.
They stared at each other for another long silence and the lion's gaze hardened. "...you think you've won," he growled, accusing. He knew of tigers far too well; true, no tiger had intruded on his territory for years, but it would have been difficult to forget his past history fighting them.
Not one to disappoint, the tiger only smiled, hard and cold, the barest flash of teeth. "I think nothing of the sort. But I have not lost, either."
The hail began to pile up in a mocking semblance of snow. If they had been made small enough to see the molecules of snow, one might almost have imagined that was what they looked upon. In great puddles of the already-fallen rain, where mud lay thick and dark at the bottom, white spheres floated along the top, piling up as the hail continued to fall.
High winds swept through the hall where they stood, unmoving save the shaky intake and exhale of their breathing. The tiger shivered ever so slightly, his opponent blue at the lips.
They stared a moment longer. "...what do we do now?"
The lion frowned, unsure how to answer. Admitting to a partial defeat, even if it included a partial victory, felt uncomfortable to him, uneasy, unusual. Difficult to settle in his stomach. But he had no choice-- killing the tiger would mean killing himself.
In a display of his pride and his trust in honor, he lowered his blade a fraction of an inch, two, and answered. "We go inside and get cleaned up. ...then we settle this."
Accepting his offer, the tiger nodded, lowering his own blade. They set about cleaning and sheathing their weapons, and began to limp in the direction of the great kitchen. It would be empty this time of night, but a fire was always kept burning. Though they refused to look at each other, they walked together.
"...he believes that I raped him?" Befuddlement echoed in the tiger's voice.
"That's what he calls it." Silence a moment, and then the soft concession, "He isn't exactly the most reliable person when it comes to matters of memory."
Inside the kitchen the storming could be ignored as a distant rumble; here, nothing was misplaced or overturned. Rows of benches sat in content emptiness, the shadows they cast wavering with the light of the fire. Dry, warm air wafted like incense, scented with cedar and the faint scents of dinner hours past.
They sat at the bench closest to the fire and shucked off their coats before basking in the heat, the tiger trying to repress a faint shiver here and there while the lion stoically gazed into the embers and waited.
"It isn't your real name, is it?"
That startled him, made him look up with a questioning brow lifted. They traded the look before he got an answer.
"Leon. Lion. The similarity is simple enough. It can't be your real name."
He snorted softly and looked away again, shaking his head, and said dismissively, "You think too hard." They sat in silence, the tiger reaching up to try smoothing out the long silver mess of his hair, annoyed by the indirect answer but refusing to say as much.
Leon gazed at his hands, at his black gloves, and sighed. "...it isn't my real name, no."
Sensing that this was, indeed, as far an answer as he was going to get, the tiger settled for that and went about trying to clean his hair again, ignoring the bruises and cuts that he'd been given during their earlier battle. He had given as good as he'd got.
The fire danced and snapped, her embers shifted, the wood splitting and popping under the stress of her heat. Leon watched it as if mesmerized, brooding quietly.
He asked apropos of nothing, "He means something to you, then?"
The tiger hesitated, and began removing his own gloves fastidiously, keeping his eyes on his hands, lips pursed as he sought the evenness of tone that he wished to use when he answered.
"...he means...very much to me, indeed," he managed to say, and folded his gloves, putting them next to his no-doubt ruined jacket. Leather was not a material meant to be drowned in dirt and rainwater. His gaze flickered to the jacket and various accessories Leon wore and he decided himself at the very least not alone in his troubles with ruined clothing.
He still didn't like this man. Interloper. Stranger.
"What does he mean to you, I wonder?" he asked, voice low and dark and scuttling like a dangerous insect through the air. Leon's eyes met his own and went as hard as the silver blade he wore at his hip.
It wasn't that he'd been expecting a particularly verbose answer, but he was a little disappointed when he received almost none at all. "...whatever," he growled softly. "...whatever you want to think. I don't care."
Therein lay the path to truth; the tiger smiled. "...ahh, but. I think you do, Leon. I think you do. Or you would be able to tell me, and you would never have fought me. I am not an easy man to fight, even for someone like you, someone who's been through all the hells of trying to be a hero." He let his lips pull into a sneer of a smile at that, for he'd known the burden of the hero and it had fallen away into madness when the pressure strained him too hard.
He didn't doubt he was being jealous and seeking a way to be vengeful, but this man struck him as a borderline case. This one might have gone either way when push came to shove, and no one else knew, anymore.
Leon wasn't the sort to tell.
"Then I do," Leon agreed blandly, and looked away, into the fire again, hunching forward to rest his elbows on his knees, his face pressed into the palms of his hands.
He looked strangely tired.
"...I do. I understand him...his grief, his pain. I know him as intimately as I know myself." Leon's eyes grew heavy with sorrow and he shut them to hide it, but the tiger had seen already. "...your world was so barely different from mine. They ran so many parallels I can't count them all. But when we met, he..." Leon choked himself into silence, a scowl crossing his face in denial of his emotions. The scar that licked between his eyes, years-old and as much a mystery as the rest of him, puckered with the frown, and it was suddenly difficult to imagine him when he did not look like this. This expression suited him too well.
How peculiar. "When you met? ...will you tell me, Leon, or must I wonder as so many others do?"
Tenseness gripped the lion at the question, and his teeth grit together as he answered. "...he found me...when he was alone. The only survivor of his world." Each word seemed to cause him pain as he spoke it, and the tiger's face grew curious and concerned. "...and...I share that."
The tiger politely set about fixing his hair again, wringing it out onto the floor in disgust as what felt like buckets of water poured free. Leon watched in silence, his gaze following the motions but his mind distant behind his eyes. As softly as if in a dream, he spoke. "...I don't think we should keep fighting."
The tiger paused, confusion preceding a lurid grin. "Why not? It should prove interesting when we find out who the true winner is."
Shaking his head, Leon stood, grabbing up his jacket and running his free hand through his thick wet hair. "...I fought you for his honor. I didn't win, but I didn't lose. If I fight you again, that's...the only reason why." He shook his head, turning on his heel to leave. "...I've already had my rival and lost him, Sephiroth. I don't want another."
The match ended stalemate, the tiger allowing his enemy to leave, watching every slightly stumbling step he took.
"...this isn't over," he growled, almost petulant, as the lion reached the door. Leon glanced back over his shoulder knowingly and left.
The great kitchen echoed with the snap and pop of the ever-burning fire. Shadows danced along the walls with the flicker of firelight. Sephiroth sat on the bench nearest the fire as still as death, and watched her dance, a troubled frown on his face. He thought of the lion and of the one he'd lost to the lion's touch. He thought of a Mother he didn't know anymore and of the colds he'd felt in comparison to the light wet chill he felt now.
He thought of madness in a basement where a coffin lay unopened, and of Nibelheim, burning and broken under his own hand.
Perhaps he had lost after all.
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