Natasha walked absently down the long balcony overlooking the beautiful gardens. Her soft leather boots treaded silently on the tile floor as she dragged her hand over the gilded railing. At twenty-five she could have been wearing silken gowns and face paints but she had chosen a different life. That of a warrior. Instead she wore a simple cream tunic and tan trousers. She stopped walking and leaned her forearms on the rail. She watched two birds bath in a fountain below her with out seeing either the fountain or the birds. Somewhere in the distance a griffin called out to its mate.

In any other place she would not have been armed with only the two small knives hidden in her sleeves during times of war such as these but here at the peace negotiations she felt safe for the first time in years. Neither side wished for this war to continue, both wanted to turn their attention to the threat that lay outside these borders but unfortunately agreements on key issues could not be made so the battles raged on. A slight breeze raised bumps on her forearms and ruffled her short brown hair. It was late in the season and winters first chills were creeping into the wind.

Natasha's mind wandered back to when she was younger. Before the war, as she trained among the elite youth warriors with her friends for a threat that seemed so far off then.

The sound of soft foot steps brought her back to the present. Her hand instinctively went to her waist where a sword normally would have hung. She turned and saw a young man walking towards her. His attention was on the garden but the blue tunic he wore suggested he was one of the rebels so Natasha stayed on her guard. He stopped abruptly about ten feet before he reached her, having spotted her out of the corner of his eye. As he turned to face her, Natasha's breath caught in her throat and memories came flooding to her mind as if a dam had been broken.

Dakarai seemed to recognize her in the same instant. His light brown hair was cropped slightly shorter than Natasha's and his dark eyes seemed to take in everything around him. They stared at each other in silence, neither of them knowing what to do until finally Natasha spoke.

"Why?"

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Dakarai didn't have to ask what she meant. Why had he stolen away in the night, without a goodbye, to join the rebels after they had fought and laughed with each other for years. Why had he betrayed their cause when they were so high in the ranks and the two youngest commanders in the force. Why had he chosen to fight against her after they had saved each others lives repeatedly.

"You wouldn't have understood." He said simply. He saw various emotions cross his old friends face. Surprise, hurt and lastly anger.

"Well I don't exactly understand now." she fired back. "After everything I just woke up one day to find my closest friend gone. Do you know how worried I was at first? I had thought enemies had captured you during the night. The senate had to tell me you were now fighting with the opposition after I had suggested a rescue attempt! Can you ever understand how much it hurt to find my closest friends had forsaken me?"

Dakarai winced inwardly keeping his face calm. He knew Natasha had a temper and she had been sitting on this one for two years now. He took an unconscious step back as she padded toward him.

"Not even a note." She said quietly. The look in her hazel eyes said she was far from calm but at least she had stopped ranting.

"All I seek, all these people seek, is freedom from the oppression you enforce." He said calmly. He knew this is how this would be. No catching up, no reminiscing, just arguing.

"We don't enforce anything. You volunteered for your service with the army and you can not deny you enjoyed your times with us!" She was right and she knew it. Worse, he knew it.

"That was before I realized that our policy was that of a velvet lined iron fist! Those outside the system suffer and die, while those inside prosper and flourish." He realized that he was getting close to shouting and toned it down. Although they were at peace within these grounds drawing attention to themselves talking alone like this would not end well for either of them.

"That only proves the system works and once everyone accepts that there would be no suffering!" The cold fired in her eyes had died down but Dakarai knew she wouldn't be able to be swayed. Still, he had to try.

"It's a maniacal system of death and loss." The anger in his voice surprised even him.

"You could have been among the best." Her voice was quiet and now she refused to meet his eyes. "Instead you threw it all away to fight a change that must occur if humanity is to survive."

"Total assimilation is impossible; there will always be others like me, others who will resist to the last man." He thought back to when this war had first begun three years ago. They had been forced to give up their regular praying to the goddess, for extra training. That had been the first clue at the turn the empire was taking. Why was Natasha so blind to this?

"We don't ask for assimilation only cooperation." She looked up the few inches between her face and his. "Return to us before I have to bring you back. You know the fate that awaits deserters." If Dakarai hadn't known Natasha better he might have thought it was a plea.

"In your army it takes more courage to retreat than to advance. Perhaps if we came to an agreement, certain conditions must be met, but I, we, are willing to cooperate"

The sound of heavy boots resonated softly through the glass panes of the large windows in the main corridor of the large villa.

Natasha and Dakarai jumped apart several feet and both leaned nonchalantly against the rail, focusing on points in the garden below. Dakarai smiled at how they had both reacted. They always had thought alike. To anyone peering out the window it would look like they had both just stepped out for air. Which, in a way, was true. The sounds receded and had faded for moments before they faced each other again. Closing the space between them quickly they started up where they had left off. After that close encounter both talked quieter.

"What would those conditions be? You know even I have limited power."

"Firstly, all prisoners be released and restored to their former military positions. Secondly, we be granted an estate of 700 acres and lastly, all statues of the former tyrant King be removed and restored with statuettes of Mara."

"You know those things cannot be." Dakarai did know. He knew the empire would not bend but neither would the resistance. "You only want your friends released so you can rise up against me and my superiors with more strength." That one hurt. How could Natasha even think that of him after the years they had spent together?

"If that is how you see it then it shall be war to the knife. Prepare yourself old friend." His tone was harder than diamond and he knew it but he didn't care. He turned to walked away but Natasha reached out and grasped his forearm. He broke her grasp and took a step back. He glared at her but she met his gaze with a glare of her own.

"I've managed to keep you out of serious harm until now! But even my influence only goes so far. Please! Come back before I am forced to hurt you!" The look in Natasha's eyes startled him. He would have expected anger or even sadness but not the pleading he saw.

"I am not the one pulling the strings of the resistance." He sighed and looked away. "No, there is one greater than I, and I shall only answer to them alone. I will never return lest be their desire and from the looks of these peace talks, his conditions will not be met." He didn't want this. He didn't want more death, more fighting. But if some changes were not made many more people would suffer for the pain this war caused could not possibly equal that of another decade of this empires rule.

"I can't keep protecting you for long dear friend." She had filled the words with enough venom to peel paint. He had noticed the assassins coming for him and his commanders were not as skilled as they should have been and never seemed to have all the facts they should have but he never had really put any thought into it. "You can't deny you were happy with us. We could bring that happiness to the world! Why do you and your superiors fight this?" Her voice was little more than an urgent whisper. He met her eyes again knowing he was right and that the resistance was for the better of the people.

"Because the ones who protect us are gone! We are alone and the enemy destroys us. You and your grand legions do nothing for those of us on the edge of the empire." He sighed. "You are right about one thing though, I do long so very much to return to the courts and have great epic tales sung of me by bards once more. But I must fight. I fight for a hope that I will never see in my life time but it is a hope that will be consecrated in my children's life" He paused before adding almost to himself, "Or their children's..."

"Then why?" A new light had entered Natasha's eye, "The hope WE offer can be brought now! If we stopped fighting each other and concentrate on the enemy this could all be over! You know the weapons and technology we have could be invaluable to you! All we ask is you cooperation with our system!" Many spies from the resistance had been sent into the depths of the empires fortresses searching for the secrets of the hardness and sharpness of their weapons and the powerful spells their mages used. None had come back.

"And then what?" Dakarai challenged, "What if the enemy is defeated? All those that fought will be tossed aside, left poor and cold in our nation's fierce winters. This war is a poor mans fight. Even if we were to join the system you uphold will do nothing for the survivors."

Natasha turned away from him and took a step away, rubbing the back of her neck. He knew she was starting to see where he was coming from but he doubted she would be so easily convinced to switch sides. The moons shone brightly above them and the only sounds were that of the wind and birds in the fountain. For long moments neither of them spoke. Dakarai waited patiently for Natasha to collect her thoughts. She turned to the rail and squeezed it until her knuckles went white, her body tense.

"You know what will happen to you, as a deserter, if you are taken alive. You know the fates not even I could save you from at that point. You would be praying for death long before it is over. Are you willing to suffer this fate for a lost cause?" Dakarai knew Natasha knew what his answer would be. He could tell from the deep sadness reflected in her face.

"I fear not death or mortal mans hold on my life. I fear what lies beyond our realm of existence. If we stay on the course we are this will lead to all of our ends. There is nothing left here to discuss."

"So be it." Was the simple reply.

"Our armies will hold for the winter to respect the ancient traditions and to bury our dead. I would hope you would do the same." He knew it was dangerous to be sharing this information with a high ranking official of their enemies but Dakarai didn't want to think of his childhood friend in such terms.

"I will do what I can to stall for you but I can't make any promises. The ancient ways are being forgotten."

"I can't thank you enough, for everything, but I must do this" Natasha pried her eyes off the rail and stared up at the starry night instead.

"If that's how it must be…"

"It is." Those words sounded so final. Dakarai thought he should feel sadness or even anger but all there was, was numbness.

"Well know this: if we meet on the field you won't walk away." Dakarai knew that would be Natasha's duty and that knew if he had the chance he would have to try to kill her as well.

"I realized that the day we first sparred. I had hoped to never meet you under any other flag but as fates would have it, our mettle must be tested."

"If only it could be otherwise." Dakarai was thinking the exact same thing.

"Yes." A long silence stretched between them. A glittering in the moon light caught Dakarai's eye. He turned to the garden to see a large silver dragon had landed on the far wall. The two of them watched the magnificent beast as it searched the area with its slender neck, looking for prey. One of the mages on sentry duty noticed it and sent out a small bolt of blue light. He clearly didn't want to hurt it, just insure it left the animals and people in the garden alone for the dragons only response was to blow a puff of smoke at the watch tower and take off again into the night. Dakarai glanced over at Natasha. She was still watching the dragon as it disappeared.

"I will take my leave of you now." She looked over to him and for a moment he wished he could he could go back to fighting alongside her but knew he could never fight against these rebels again. "Gods with us all."

She looked him in the eye and Dakarai thought he saw unshed tears in her eyes. It must have been the moonlight or the chill in the air; Natasha never cried.

"In the name of the days we fought together, good luck."

Dakarai nodded rather formally to her before turning and walking back towards his rooms. He hoped she would stop him, tell him that maybe it didn't have to be that way, but he knew she wouldn't.

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As Natasha watched Dakarai walk away her mind reeled. She prayed to the Goddess that the day they met in battle never came. That, that nightmare would never become a reality. She stood there and watched him disappear until he turned back into the building. "Good bye then dear friend." She whispered to the night.

She turned away and walked back to her rooms, her thoughts more chaotic than when she had initially come out side to clear them.