My Little Princess

A/N: Finally, after more than two years, this story comes to its end (heh, could've been faster if I were not so much of a procrastinator and slacker). To tell the truth, I racked my brains out trying to find that one single ending that I felt like fit the story as a whole. I had to rethink, "what has this story become anyway?" That's when I realized, it ended up like some sort of a fairytale--futuristic in setting (not to mention, a futuristic house), somewhat incoherent events, appearance-disappearance of characters, and the like. However, like all fairy tales, it has to end--not in the same fairy tale world, but somewhere outside of it. That is something I hope to convey in this last chapter.

I had about 3-4 versions of possible endings for this story, and yes, I know I talked about two endings before, I won't be doing that anymore since I really felt good about the ending I chose. The eliminated versions were either too sad, too happy, or too cliche the way I saw them. So after a week of thinking (which gave me half-a-day of headache and depression), and days of playing Ragnarok Online to relieve the stress, I chose this ending.

Reading back, there were things I wish I didn't write about (e.g. Marge's death and her appearance in the story altogether, and Kaoru's unending hope to be her Ken-nii's princess, little or no development at all for other characters, amongst others). Then again, I can't be too cruel, I can change it sooner or later, but I don't think I will. Perhaps just a little editing will do, but no changing as a whole. I consider these regrets as lessons (or perhaps I should call it an excuse for mistakes).

Also, for this chapter, there is a certain song, "241", that seemed to perfectly match the mood and flow, so I put that in too. It's a beautifully lonely song. I hope you like the lyrics. If you want to sample it, check my profile page or send me an email.

Thank you so much to all those who read, reviewed, and stayed patient throughout. A fanfiction is a fanfiction because of you all. bows I hope to see you all in my other stuff soon! Arigatou gozaimasu!

Warnings: Some parts are a bit sketchy and you might need to refresh your memory with some of the first few chapters.

Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin is NOT mine. Standard disclaimer applies; "241" is composed and performed by "Rivermaya". I do not own this band too, I am merely their fan.


Chapter 26. Tomorrow's Unknown Memories

I want to live forever
Inside your nights and days

The past days seemed to have disappeared like a muted whisper. Well, maybe it was because they have been very busy with work--business meet-ups here, client lunches and dinners there, and venture promotions some more there. All those things seemed to move in a tireless cycle during their stay in Berlin, then south to Bern, and now they were in Tuscany. It was just like what Aoshi said--it is going to be work, not some vacation. Kaoru understood that, and maybe, this was better than if she stayed back in Japan doing routine stuff at the office and...at home. No, she did not want to go home just yet.

"You know, I'm just glad that last meeting was cancelled," Aoshi suddenly said from nowhere. "I was afraid I wouldn't be able to go around Florence like this again."

The two were crossing Ponte Vecchio, one of the half dozen residential-commercial bridges that have befriended the Arno river for many years now. Within the bridge itself are apartments, little stores, or peddlers selling trinkets, handicrafts, flowers, paintings, and caf├ęs. From far away, Ponte Vecchio looks like an upside down cutout of a toy-crown with its three graceful arches kissing the water. In the middle of the structure are three narrower window-arches where people could enjoy the everyday sights of the river. The other ends of the bridge have windows and doors on them, with the Florentine flag and the so-called, "Peace flag" (consists of coloured vertical lines) happily hung on random open windows. One must wonder how it is to live in a place with unending tourists, visitors, and the usual Florentines as everyday neigbours.

Kaoru looked on her side as they begin to pass one of the narrow arches that served as a "watch window". The sight is marred by heads and bodies of people leaning onto the arches' barricades. Just the same, Kaoru thought the sunset looked magnificent--the surroundings having a reddish glow because of the river reflecting the light.

Footsteps, laughter, curious awe, and various languages and dialects register in Kaoru's ear, amplified by the stone walls--did she just hear someone speak Japanese? Right, that was Aoshi. Her mind was just drifting.

She hurriedly nodded back at him, "R-right. I'd feel bad if we couldn't at least go sight seeing or something."

Wish upon a silver cloud
Crawling across the moonbeams

"Where are we going?" Kaoru asked as she caught small glimpses of the things around her. They passed people of different origins, ages, and kinds who went on with their own bidding, looking equally overwhelmed as she is with the beauty that is Florence.

"To the Piazza Signoria, just near the Palazzo Vecchio," Aoshi returned with a quick smile. "We're going by the Uffizi--it's a very nice place."

Kaoru looked at his features which seemed to blend with the sunset's atmosphere, blue eyes mixing with crimson's colour. The white polo shirt he wore so easily betrayed that, and seemed to stand out from all the other things surrounding and passing them.

"You," Kaoru called him softly. "You seem to know this place very well, huh?"

Aoshi chuckled and closed his eyes for a few moments before looking back at her.

"Did I forget to mention I came here before?" Aoshi shook his head once when Kaoru gave him a blank look. So he did forget.

"I was with my parents back then," he stopped walking to look at some of the paintings displayed on a rack by the walkway. Kaoru followed, standing a few steps behind him. A busy painter nodded and greeted them once before continuing with his newest work. Perhaps he was so used to tourists, and did not mind the usual onlookers.

"But that was long time ago," Aoshi gestured for Kaoru to look at one of the paintings. It was a simple rendition of Ponte Vecchio being clothed in sunset--just like what they are in now. It was beautiful, it was not that detailed, but it was still beautiful--maybe that was because it did not need to be detailed at all. They say that the mind is able to compensate for lost details in the objects that we see, read, smell, touch, and all others.

"Actually, now that I think about it, that was the last time I traveled with my parents. After that, they were always away," Aoshi shoved his hands inside his jeans' pockets.

Kaoru eyed him for a moment and gave a sad smile, "I see." She shifted her gaze back onto the painting.

He looks tired, Kaoru thought. Is this place giving him memories he'd rather not have? Aoshi...

Kaoru's musings were abruptly cut-off as she saw something peculiar on the painting. On the lower-right portion of the painting was apparently the artist's initials, but then the date read, 7,17, 1999.

That's odd...Kaoru thought with a brow raised. She wanted to look at the other paintings' to see if this was the only with such credits.

"C'mon, let's get going," Aoshi slipped his hand and gently took one of Kaoru's own before she could look at them.

"Ah, un," Kaoru started on her steps, still a little confused.

Aoshi looked down on her with a questioning face.

"No, it's nothing," Kaoru assured him with a smile, tightening her hold as she did so.

A summer night in heaven
Between the stars and waves

I guess there was something special in that painting that's why it was never sold, Kaoru thought inwardly. Somehow, she could not get her mind off the matter. The more she thought about it, the more she came to wonder how Florence seems to never age. From the way the painting looked and how Florence looks now--almost a decade later, she could not really tell the difference, if any existed.

Maybe that's it. It's a perfect time capsule, Kaoru answered her own question. She let Aoshi guide the way as they turned right on one of the blocks along the riverbank.

They continue to walk in companionable silence as they meet more people on the walkways. They pass some more shops--a deli, a cheddar cheese stall, a news stand, a wine bar--with people queuing up, going in, going out, dealing a bargain, and sampling the goods.

Aoshi watched Kaoru from the corner of his eyes, checking their path every once in a while to make sure they do not bump into someone. She looked as if she was thinking very deeply, about what he was not so sure. She did not even realize that her head was leaning onto him, he did not mind at all though. In fact, he rather liked it, walking like this with her, and in Florence of all places.

He smiled as they approached the grand architecture of the Uffizi museum. The size of the numerous pillars were intimidating but the statues that were beautifully set in a column every after two pillars gave a reassuring prayer that this place will never crumble. There was a small and dispersed crowd of people strolling inside the museum's open balcony, enclosed by the building's flat-U shape, while a flock of crows idly came down from the sky, landing on the concrete floors to join other crows, very sure they were welcome any time.

Street artists and street painters were also present. Artists were mostly youths with their guitars, tambourines, violins, and you could also see a pair of men juggling what looks like bowling pins along the sides of the balcony. Some street painters were starting to pack their belongings while others still had their works on display. You could not see anyone having their caricatures drawn now though, probably because it was already dusk. The remaining drawings were usually in black and white, of out of proportion faces, caricatures, and some coloured still-life paintings of fruits and the scenes of Florence.

"This is the Piazzale degli Uffizi, Kaoru," Aoshi presented in an almost smooth pronunciation of the foreign words. "Sorry, I don't think we can go inside," Aoshi added. "Ticket reservation was crazy, tried hard, but no luck."

"No harm done Aoshi, it's already very beautiful as it is," Kaoru said in a low voice. Pursing her lips, she slowly detached herself from Aoshi and took as much details of the Uffizi as she could--it was overwhelming. The whole structure was probably four to five stories in height with stunning sculpture and art on its edifice. Gentle curves met with confident straight lines in a seamless and lovingly-crafted poetry. Not far from the open end of the balcony, the Palazzo Vecchio's tower majestically overlooks its inhabitants.

Race across the old bonfire
Trample on my heartbeat

Aoshi could not help but be amused at how Kaoru seemed not to notice that she has been totally engulfed by the sights around her. She has been standing on one spot for a few minutes now, just looking up at the Palazzo Vecchio's tower. Just suddenly, he saw her flinch and momentarily brought her hand to grasp her temples.

"Are you alright?" Aoshi asked with a hint of worry as he quickly walked to her side, putting his arm behind Kaoru's back to support her.

Kaoru did not understand why her vision suddenly became wavy and liquid. In her chest, she could feel her heart beating stronger and faster than normal.

"I'm," Kaoru heaved a slow sigh to calm her senses. Thankfully, her vision seemed to follow although her heart's pace remained somewhat irregular. At least she could stand up straight and probably walk.

"I'm alright, don't worry," she said in a watery smile as she tested her legs--good, they were cooperating.

The lights softly came in one-by-one, replacing the dying sun and illuminated the Uffizi and its surrounding areas. The sky was defeated by layers and layers of clouds, so there were no stars nor a peeking moon. At a distance, a newly-lit bulb sent glares onto Kaoru's eyes.

Aoshi draped his arm around Kaoru's shoulders and smiled as they started to walk again, "I think Florence is getting too much into you."

"Eh," Kaoru returned trying to regain control over her eyesight, "...it probably is."

"Well," Aoshi patted her shoulder twice, "at least be prepared to see massive statues of naked men."

"Naa--!" Kaoru craned her head upwards and gave him a look that combined apprehension and astonishment.

Aoshi chuckled, "Fine then, I'll cover your eyes for you."

Kaoru put on a smug face and hung her head low before looking at him again, "You laughed," she said in a happy but silent tone.

I wanted to turn you on
My favorite song

Aoshi smiled back at her, "So I did...it must be this place."

They just passed the intersection that connected the Ufizzi on the south, Piazza Signoria on the west, and the Palazzo Vecchio on the east.

"Kaoru, w-what do you think of Florence?" Aoshi asked without any prompts. Palazzo Vecchio was just in front of them. A group of tourists and their tour leader came from behind and walked passed almost instantaneously, caught in their own biddings.

"Here..." Kaoru played with the collar of her shirt. She momentarily gazed at the light which glared her a while ago then down to the ground.

"I like it here, of course...very much," Kaoru looked back at Aoshi, sincerity etched on her eyes. "If there's one way to describe it...it's like a dream."

Their eyes locked for a moment but Kaoru broke it with a small sigh. "You know? It's one of those dreams you wish would never end because things seem to be easier, and that you can just forget about all the things outside of that dream."

Kaoru looked away, "I'm sorry if that didn't make any sense."

Aoshi open-closed his mouth as he tried to figure out if there was something more behind what she said.

Maybe...but, did he really want to ask and probably confirm his thoughts too?

"But between the dream and the things outside of that dream," Aoshi started as his hold on her shoulder loosened so he could face her, "what would you choose?"

Kaoru queered her eyes, "Why are you turning so very serious for all of a sudden?" She asked, although she knew she was just now trying to break the tension she herself started. Her heartbeat began to race again. Again, she could not understand why she was feeling like this.

"No, please, just answer me--the one you'd choose," Aoshi's question was more of a determined statement than a question.

Kaoru thought for a minute and they stood like that, in one of the corners where the Palazzo Vechhio and Piazza Signoria face each other in a stalemate dance.

"A dream is just a dream. One has to wake up sooner or later, ne?"

Wanted to be near you
But somebody owns you now.

A dream is just a dream. One has to wake up sooner or later, ne?

Kaoru said those words without taint and reserve Aoshi could not help but cup her cheek with his palm. He looked intently at her with eyes he was sure Kaoru has never seen before.

He smiled a sad smile as he placed his other hand on her other cheek and slowly joined their foreheads together.

"Is that what you want?" he asked with his eyes closed.

Kaoru also closed her eyes and slowly nodded, careful not to have their foreheads bump against each other. "Un...reality is where we are supposed to be," she raised her arms and encircled them around Aoshi's neck.

At those mere moments, Aoshi realized everything. He completely understood what it was about her--Kamiya Kaoru, this woman he was holding right now. He had to tell her everything now.

They held each other like that with just the voices of other people and of a street performer's violin, and the night breeze's hush.

"Then, would you forgive me for keeping you here?"

Kaoru recoiled a little but Aoshi pulled her closer, "I'm sorry."

"W-what are you--" Kaoru could almost hear her heart pounding against her chest.

"I, the first time I saw you, I thought, I thought I just wanted someone to be here."

"Then, then I thought of taking you away from--"

Kaoru's forehead crumpled as her eyesight started to flail again and missed a word in Aoshi's sentence. Her body was starting to feel a little numb but Aoshi refused to let her go.

I love with you a fire
Blazing 'till time's end

"It wasn't right to begin with, now I know that everything about this isn't right at all, but..." his voice was turning husky as he held her closer.

Tears--oh how she loathed them--started to well around her eyes. As to why, she did not know. Somewhere inside of her, something was wishing to ward off all the worry and questions that started to pool heavily at around her.

"...I love you," those three words almost came close to a shuddering whisper. Before Kaoru could even think or move an inch, Aoshi's lips swiftly but caringly covered her own as if just saying is not entirely enough.

Aoshi broke the kiss and was met by a surprised-looking Kaoru.

He heard her gulp, "A-Aoshi...I--"

But what good is a heart
When it shudders to speak

"No," he softly cut her off in an low voice, "You don't need to answer to me, Kaoru."

Not wasting any second, he almost crushed her body towards him for another embrace. Kaoru's eyes became more blurry than before and her senses were starting to drift away in a pace she could no longer control.

Aoshi...

"It's time to go back," Aoshi whispered in her ear. She felt the faint puff of air seep into her skin before she went completely limp in his arms. She could not see anything clearly now, but her ears heard it vividly--

"I'll be watching over you, just like what your father and mother and he always had..."

And just like that, without being allowed to see his face for the final time, everything was basked in an eternity of blackness--to be forever tucked away in tomorrow's unknown memories.

Aoshi!

I guess it's too late now

Kaoru's eyes jolted open as she gasped for a heap of air. She found herself lying on a futon, the white covers just below her chest. She was obviously inside her room.

When did we--! Kaoru's mind demanded as she stared at the ceiling above her. She could not remember the return trip to Japan, nor remember if there was actually a return trip at all.

She moved her head to her side, but felt a sudden pang of pain crawl in her right right arm. A small whimper escapes her and it was then that she noticed that her left arm was set in a cast. She herself was in a loose sleeping dress.

"You're finally awake," a very familiar voice caught her attention.

A palm went to Kaoru's forehead and stayed there for a while, "Good, your fever is completely gone."

"Ken...shin?"

Her voice was coarse.

A small smile carves itself onto Kenshin's mouth, "Would you want some water now? I'll help you get-up if you think your body can manage."

"Eh," Kaoru returned as Kenshin gingerly helped her up. She bit her lower lip as her arm resisted a little, but she managed to get-up, sitting.

Kenshin handed her a glass of water. Looking at a corner through the brim of the glass, she saw water bottles, towels, and other things neatly arranged. She ignored that for a moment, letting the water soothe her dry throat.

"Better?" Kenshin asked as he took the glass back from Kaoru.

Kaoru nodded, careful not to strain her arm, "Thanks."

Then it hit her--

"Did anyone re-arrange my room while I was gone?" She asked, a bit appalled, remembering it was a bed and not a futon when she left. She scanned her room, and everything seemed to be very different.

"Oro?" Kenshin blinked at her.

"How did..." Kaoru's mouth was half-open in wonder. Everything, everything felt and looked different. On a wall, she easily spotted a few switches she normally did not see around the house anymore.

"But you were sleeping for almost three days, I don't remember seeing you go anywhere," Kenshin returned lightly, thinking whether Kaoru is suffering from short-term amnesia after her accident.

I wanted to turn you on
My favorite song

"W-what!" Kaoru's eyes turned wide in response. "What happened? W-what is this place? W-where am..."

Dr. Gensai warned me of this, Kenshin told himself. It's best to keep her at rest, and careful not to flood her memory with too many details.

"Kaoru, please calm down," Kenshin said as he put a hand on her shoulder.

"A few days ago we went hiking with Uncle Hiko. It rained very hard when were making our way back down. Unfortunately, you lost your footing and, "Kenshin sighed not wanting to remember how it all happened. No, he wished it never happened at all.

"Let's just say we are all very lucky to bring you back here," ...alive, he added inwardly.

"When, when was this?" Kaoru asked. At least that answered how she ended up with a cast. If that was a few days ago, then when did she and Aoshi came back?

"August 14, 2003," Kenshin answered although a bit hesitant to mention the date. He could not come to remind himself how he kept talking to an unconscious Kaoru, bloody and cold, desperately asking her to hold on while the ambulance rushed on the rainy roads.

Two thousand...and...three? Kaoru felt like she was being tricked by some schadenfreudic being.

She looked at Kenshin, hoping that perhaps her next question might set things right, "You, you did study in the US, right?"

Kenshin looked back at her. This time, he was a little sure that Kaoru might be experiencing a short-term episode of amnesia.

"No, Kaoru. I graduated from Tokyo 'U'--you probably would know that more than anyone," Kenshin replied in a melancholic tone trying to help her sift through misplaced memories.

Kaoru's eyes dropped to watch the palm of her good hand, "Everything seemed so real..."

But between the dream and the things outside of that dream, what would you choose?

Wanted to be near you
But of course somebody owns you now

"Ne, Kenshin, before we went hiking, did we go anywhere else or do anything else?" Kaoru asked.

"Well, if it at all helps, it was Tanabata on the 7th, and then we also went to visit your parents' graves on the 12th--"

"--their death anniversary," Kaoru finished the sentence as things slowly re-surfaced.

I'll be watching over you, just like what your father and mother and he always had...

Kenshin looked a little relieved as he gazed at her. She had a few bruises and scrapes here and there, but nothing that would not heal in due time. And perhaps, time was what he needed. He might say he ended up like he was waiting for his little princess, but did he really need an accident and her almost losing her memories before he realized that--

"--need your help, I, I have to go see someone," Kaoru woke Kenshin up from his little stupor.

"Can't we wait until you're all healed up?" Kenshin asked, a mix of surprise and reluctance in his voice.

Kaoru shook her head, "No, please, if possible, right now. Please, just this once," she had her head low. Things pierced at her insides, it was like knowing where to go but also not knowing where to.

It seemed impossible.

Kenshin reached for Kaoru's chin and slowly lifted it up with his fingers, smiling at her as he did so, "Let's go then, Kaoru."

Kaoru looked at him for a few moments--she could not clearly remember yet when did Kenshin start dropping "my little princess" as his term of endearment. Although somehow, hearing him say just "Kaoru", made her feel closer and more dear to him.

Then I thought of taking you away from...him.

Wanted to be near you
But of course, somebody owns you now.

"It should be here somewhere," Kaoru cheered herself up as she walked limply with her right arm on Kenshin's back and Kenshin's own on hers for support with bouquet of flowers on the other .

"Who's marker are we looking for exactly?" Kenshin asked as they passed stone markers, tablets, and graves. The memorial park was very quiet, save the sound of the leaves dancing after being partnered by the wind, and of the birds chirping in the background. The sun kept shining, but the air was cool.

"I'm not even sure if it's here," she shot Kenshin an apologetic look to which he just shrugged off, "uhm, perhaps near Tou-san and Kaa-saan's?"

Kenshin nodded and they went on, walk-limping for a little more, their footsteps rasping against the cobblestones. Arriving in front of Kaoru's parents' markers, Kenshin and Kaoru bowed and gave their respects.

It's time to go back.

Kaoru started to scan the area they were in, not really very sure what to look for--or if anything was there at all.

Aoshi, please, let me see you one more time, Kaoru whispered to him as if he could actually hear. Just right after that, Kaoru noticed something she has not noticed previously. A few metres away from where her parents' markers were, Kaoru saw a patch of concrete almost entirely covered by a vine that grew, crawling from a neighbour's small garden.

Taking the chance, they went to its direction, and upon clearing away the robe of leaves and thin stems that hid the marble marker, they found him there, with only engraved words and numbers as the proof to his existence: Shinomori Aoshi, Born January 3, 1980; Died August 14, 2002.

Shinomori Aoshi.

Only son of one of Japan's shipping industry families.

A son of a mother who died from depression because of too many miscarriages.

A son of a father who ran away and disappeared after their company went bankrupt.

A son who died at the young age of 22, trying to save their company.

A son who died a quiet death with no known relatives thereafter.

"Aoshi, for you," Kaoru said as she lay the flowers on his grave. "I'm here now," Kaoru's eyes began to get teary, and although she managed to smile it away, her wavering voice betrayed everything.

"Don't, don't you think it's funny--us meeting this way? Ne? Ne?"

Kenshin could feel Kaoru shudder against him. Though he may not want to see her like this, right now, he could only hold her--a reminder that he was with her right now. It is a a silent prayer he hopes to keep until the end of an endless time.

Kaoru allowed her tears to freely escape her eyes--probably the tears she was not able to shed when she and Aoshi parted. These were real tears, she could feel them in every sadness she cried away. Perhaps now, she understood it better--that in those dreams, no matter how she cried for Kenshin, the sadness would not disappear because it was not there to begin with.

"Kenshin, he's gone," Kaoru whispered as she bowed her head, resting on the crook of Kenshin's neck.

Kenshin did not answer. He simply placed his hands around her, never letting go.

And so, she knew.

A dream is just a dream.

It wasn't right to begin with, now I know that everything about this isn't right at all, but, I love you.

Kaoru.

And I'll try to live somehow
Somebody owns you now
Somebody owns you now.

End


A/N: Yeap, so there you go everyone, My Little Princess is finally over. Many, many, thanks! It is my every hope that you enjoyed this chapter. As to what happened, well, there can be a lot of explanations, something I will lightly touch on. First, Kaoru's seeming dizziness right before she passes out. It's called "Stendhal Syndrome", it happens when you are exposed to so much art and such (yes, it really happens, it can also happen when you shop too much).

Second that a lot may question, "So, everything was a dream?" Well, no, not really. The first few chapters show us the real life of young Kaoru and Kenshin, but as soon as you move into chapter 3, that's when things get warped. Remember that a young Kaoru and Kenshin went to Tanabata (chapter 3) and somehow, Kaoru sees a young Aoshi? That reflects when a much older Kaoru (Kaoru in this chapter) and Kenshin went for Tanabata too. Everything that happens in the other chapters are a combination of some of Kaoru's childhood memories somehow modified by Aoshi while Kaoru is dreaming.

Third, "Aoshi seems to be the evil one here then. Making Kaoru dream of untrue things." Again, I'd say no. Like what he said, he just wanted company or someone to care for him. He probably never expected he'd fall in love with someone alive while he's dead. I assume he had seen Kaoru when she visits her parents' graves or something. Now, not everyone of you may believe in ghosts and whatnot (that includes me), but hey, this is all fiction, so hehe, it's just for the fun of it.

Aside from these, it's pretty much up to all of you. If you want to sample "241", please see the link in my profile page or send me an email. Again, thank you very much!

Extra: You'd probably notice that there was a lot of details during the first parts and started to wane near the end.