STANDARD DISCLAIMERS APPLY: I would be a millionaire. I would be off in Tahiti working on my tan while sipping daiquiris and tequila sunrises. I wouldn't be so worried about the future – minus Al Gore's global warming thing. If I owned RK, my life would truly be different, huh?
Quick little message from author: I handed in my thesis and my graduation ceremony is in March: I can't wait to throw that cap into the sky and be one hundred percent sure it's all over! You may find yourselves wondering what that has to do with anything and the only thing I can come up with to justify my rambling is that Senior Year was the main reason as to why my updates have gotten fewer and farther in between. I wish every single one of you tons of luck in coping with the scary yet equally thrilling prospect of a new year. Thank you for sticking by me for so long and I hope you all enjoy this chapter that I actually view as the ending of a three-part story. Thing are about to get much more interesting after this. Working on the installment while handing in stories at the newspaper and writing my thesis was challenging, but I'm rather happy with the results. I hope you will be too.
Soundtrack: Part I: "Sing, sing, sing" – Benny Goodman / Part II: "Porque te vas" – Pato Fu / Part III: "Where have all the flowers gone?" – Marlene Dietrich / Part IV: "La Cumparsita" – Ernesto Franco y su orquesta; "Happy together" – The Turtles / Part V: "And darling" – Tegan and Sara / Part VI: "Can you see the lights?" – Butterfly Boucher; "It ain't me babe" – Bob Dylan; "Cupid's chokehold" – Gym Class Heroes / Part VII: "Paper bag" – Fiona Apple; "Fidelity" – Regina Spektor.
Chapter 30: Like a game of cat and mouse
Once upon a time, a young maid of fair countenance and a dashing young man with reserve in his glance stood side-by-side 'fore a four-wheeled vehicle. Within the confines of said automobile, an exotic warm-blooded vertebrate of tropical origin hitherto batted its wings, causing the pair much affliction.
Having freed itself from its cage, yet still entrapped in a place far removed from its natural habitat, the scarlet creature reacted as only one who has been domesticated without having altogether severed its ties with inner wildness could. Disoriented, it took rather unkindly to the two humans outside the metal box, instinct prompting the animal to attack on the few occasions whence the door was opened, all attempts to calm it rendered futile.
Hence, much speculating took place between man and woman, both unsure as to what the appropriate course of action ought to be in order to resolve such a crisis:
"How about we smoke it out?"
"We want to lure it back inside its cage Kaoru, not burn down my jeep."
The girl referred to as Kaoru frowned and remained silent for a while before perking up anew. "What if we scare it deaf with really loud music?"
The man at her side was hard pressed not to roll his eyes. "It's a parrot, not a dog," said he, rendering her suggestion useless by disassociating bird from mammal, a thought whose phrasing had not been quite necessary. "Besides, unless you happen to have a boom box with you, it won't do; the radio, as you very well know, is inside my car."
"I'm guessing pepper spray is out of the question, then?" she dryly ascertained.
"Blinding it sounds like a start, but that would only make it lash out every time we grow near."
"In other words," she began, drawing away from the window that the scarlet macaw was busily pecking at, "we're the enemy and the only way that stupid bird is going to cooperate is if we gain its trust?"
Kenshin's upstairs department at once became illuminated in such a way that savants would have been more than slightly jealous. Ideas began taking shape and, had he not been so fixed upon observing the parrot inside his car and a sucker for propriety, he would have rewarded Kaoru's serendipitous brilliance with a kiss: her zany brainstorming session had lead to the possible discovery of a viable solution at long last!
"I hadn't really thought about it that way," the violet-eyed man commented, "but if it's bird psychology that is going to get us out of this, then I think I've come up with the perfect solution."
Kaoru blinked owlishly, in a seemingly unladylike fashion. "Which is...?"
The young man offered her something of a mischievous smirk. "In the movies, Polly always wants a cracker, right?"
Slowly comprehension dawned on the maiden and she could not help but smile in affected a manner at the irony of the situation that was currently theirs. The reason for their present troubles bore the name of one Sagara Sanosuke and, was it not odd that, were he to have been around, he would have probably come up with the very idea in her companion's mind faster than they themselves had contrived?
"The way to a parrot's heart is through its stomach, that it?" she inquired rhetorically. "I guess that when it comes to braving the wild, being Sano's friend or a Nirvana fan beats joining the boy scouts…"
Thus, an elaborate plan was devised, involving courage, a cereal bar and a can of maze.
"What?" Kaoru asked, confused by her partner's surprise on account of the latter's retrieval from her backpack. "My dad's into the whole 'unagi' deal," she admitted with a careless shrug.
Bravely taking their positions on either side of the jeep, the twosome set out to fulfill the toilsome task of coaxing the frightened creature into its cage once more. 'Twas no easy feat – Herculean in character, some would say – but, twe'en the food dangling from Kaoru's fingers, the temporarily blinding substance firmly gripped by her other hand and Kenshin's quick reflexes, the bird was unable to put up much of a fight.
A few scratches later, an irritated maiden found herself plucking feathers from her hair and ready to voice her lamentations. However, she never quite got the chance to express her distress for, as she opened her mouth, something of a battle cry sounded out behind her and she was soon unceremoniously pushed into the jeep's passenger seat.
"We've been spotted," claimed Kenshin, hurriedly climbing into the driver's seat and setting the vehicle in motion.
"By whom?" cried Kaoru, fastening her seatbelt whilst attempting to catch a glimpse of the band of men running in their direction through the rearview mirror. "Those guys each look a kilt away from being extras in Braveheart. I presume they're the ones we were hiding from?"
Kenshin winced as, swiftly backing out of the parking space, the Grand Vitara's tires screeched. "Yes, well, they have every right to be angry. Their mascot was stolen."
"Their mascot is a parrot? Who do they take themselves for, pirates?"
"Actually, the football team is called–"
Kaoru rolled her eyes. "Spare me. I just can't wait for the day that football players will rule the world!"
"It won't stop cursing!"
"I can see that."
Kaoru pouted, chancing yet another glance at the backseat. "Why am I not surprised that the only thing it knows how to do is curse?"
"Was that a rhetorical question?"
Currently engaged in a high-speed car chase, our tale's hero and heroine found themselves in a bit of a predicament. Unfortunately, their winged travel companion was behaving in a manner far from proper and polite, and albeit Kaoru had latterly taken to thinking of strangling it, her conjectures were not intently carried out.
"It should come with a mute button!" she cried. "Shut up, bird!"
The maiden grinned triumphantly. "It doesn't work on a girl!" she informed their beaked tormentor, sticking out her tongue, a puerile mood swing striking her fancy.
Her girlish sensibilities immediately got the better of her and she turned to her copilot for assistance. "Did you just..?" Shock prevented her from further elaboration. "Kenshin, do something!"
Gritting his teeth, her human companion turned the steering wheel fully to the left. "I'm kind of busy right now, Kaoru," he stated, a trifle edgily.
She gaped. "It just insulted me!"
"And I promise that as soon as we don't have an entire football team on our tail, I'll look into it," Kenshin vowed, turning another sharp corner.
"Fine! I'll defend my honor myself!" Miffed, the lovely Kaoru ignored the most troubling aspect of their car ride, instead intent on putting the evil animal in its place. "Listen here, you stupid parrot–"
"Fuck off, bitch! Brwaack!"
Stunned, the blue-eyed damsel forsook all thoughts of ruffled feathers.
Literally at the end of his rope, Kenshin slammed the brakes.
"I am not part of the football team" he began listing off, eerily calm, "I don't go to games, I do not cheer at the stands and, last time I checked, I did not join Greenpeace." Through the rearview mirror, the eyes of a teed off man met those of a devil in disguise. "Please stop being rude to Kaoru, or I will hand you over to people dumb enough to want to steal a very annoying, high-maintenance bird and suggest that you be de-feathered, all in good fun." Placing his foot back atop the gas pedal, he smirked, his heart brimming with cruel intentions. "Or, better yet, I'll drop you off at the local taxidermist's myself."
Stunned, the blue-eyed damsel squirmed in her seat and, in accordance with what little she knew of Trappistine nuns, opted to discover the joys of silence for the time being.
Significantly assuaged and satisfied, Kenshin took off again at the speed of gods.
Not a peep was heard out of the macaw that had been trained by its uncouth owners to be offensive – it had finally met its match.
"Stephen King wrote Cujo," Kaoru spoke at length. "Do you think being in a car with our 'friend' would have inspired him to go with a bird as his protagonist as opposed to a rabid dog?"
The young architect-to-be smiled. "I don't know, but I'm sure it's in a shot of Hitchcock's Birds."
The jeep's human occupants laughed. The jeep's human occupants allowed themselves to relax. Then, the drumming of her hands on the dashboard swiftly became the act of bracing herself for impact as he swerved and the smell of burning rubber reached their nostrils. She should have been scared but, woman-like, her faith in him denied her thoughts of a car accident. As expected, the parrot, though, went berserk.
"Are you okay?" Kenshin inquired, worry in his voice.
"Better than the hell spawn."
"Hold on tight, okay? I promise we'll loose them as soon as we reach the main road and join other frustrated drivers. Six o'clock traffic is a killer."
"I trust you," the young maid spoke softly. His heart lurched and she grew flustered. "With your assessment of traffic, I mean," she amended.
"Of course," he agreed, humoring her for both their sakes.
With the windows down and soft music wafting from the radio, their silence was an easy one. After deflecting their enemies, the pair on a quest of deliverance – "I can't wait to be free of that evil bird!" quoth the maiden – found themselves in a most peaceful frame of mind.
"…gone, long time passing? Where have…"
Thus, resting her right arm on the windowsill and breathing in the familiar scents of her hometown, Kaoru of the House of Kamiya allowed herself to be soothed into drowsiness by Marlene Dietrich crooning one of her standards.
"…flowers gone? Young girls picked them…"
Although sleep was not on the list of things Kenshin of the House of Himura gave thought to while driving that night, he soaked in the atmosphere, appeased. By the soft light of the moon, all things became illuminated in ways that dispersed dark shadows and made cobwebs both visible and beautiful.
"…time passing? Where have all the young…"
She yawned. The jeep's tires hummed against the pavement, quietly. The parrot made an odd noise in its cage, but otherwise remained still and slumbering. He smiled.
"…to young men, every one! When will they…"
Eyes closed and motionless, she called to him with a soft murmur.
It was the first time she used the abbreviated version of the redhead's name sans an iota of mockery in her tone.
Stolid, his lavender eyes remained on the road as he patiently awaited furtherance from the young girl snug in the passenger seat. He wasn't long kept in suspense.
"Pull up at the next gas station, okay?"
"Is everything alright?" he inquired.
"We're almost there, Kaoru," he informed. "Can't whatever it is wait until after we deliver the bird?"
"Okay," she breathed out.
"…gone? Gone to soldier every one! When…"
Seconds passed and, by her silence, it seemed that the damsel had finally dozed off. Scorching balls of light punched holes in the black canvas of night as Kenshin continued to drive them closer to their final destination, Vincent van Gogh's starry imaginings coming to life, as they were forevermore wont to do.
"I thought you were asleep."
"…the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyards…"
Eyes still closed, she shifted in her seat.
"I have to pee."
Eyes still on the road, tenderness saturated sight, in a manner of speaking.
"I'll pull up at the next gas station."
She smiled sleepily. "Mhmm."
He smiled too. Warmly. "You're welcome."
"…ever learn? When will they ever…"
"Are you sure this is the right place?"
She could not contain her disappointment. Driving around aimlessly for well over and hour had lead our heroine to expect something completely different from the view glimpsed through the windshield.
"A Walmart? Are you kidding me?" Disbelief won over poise time and again. "After all the action movie stunts we pulled, this is the rendezvous point? Whatever happened to an abandoned warehouse?" she inquired.
Kenshin shrugged. "Our contact works here, part-time. I'm supposed to hand over the cage and then it's his problem."
Kaoru snorted. "One of Sano's jock buddies works here? Why am I not surprised?"
"Don't be like that," he admonished.
Taken aback, the damsel's blue eyes widened. As if stricken, she brought a hand to her cheek, the skin beneath her tremulous palm hot. Shame and indignation painted her face red.
"Excuse me?" asked Kaoru proudly.
He sighed, knowing he'd displeased her. "It doesn't suit you," explained Kenshin.
"Oh, but it does suit you to blow people off because your ex-girlfriend is back in town," she argued. "After all, that's real polite."
Upturned lips revealed a sardonic half-grin. This was his reward for waiting like a good little boy for the other shoe to drop. Patience was a virtue that required the consumption of Pepto-Bismol and whose known side-effects included paranoia that was, ultimately, not unfounded.
"I was wondering when you were going to bring that up," he stated, sheepishly scratching the back of his head.
Crossing her arms over her chest, a self-satisfied grin snuck its way onto her own lips. "All I'm saying is that we all have our faults."
Once more, he heaved another long-suffering sigh. "I'm sorry I stood you up that day, but something came up and I had to go take care of it."
"You're not Clark Kent," she began, glaring at him for all she was worth, "whatever happened that needed your immediate attention didn't have anything to do with you saving the world." Turning her gaze towards the window, she ventured on. "You could have spared a few minutes to call and tell me to drop by some other time."
"I planned on making it up to you," he defended.
Rolling her eyes, the maiden mouthed an incredulous 'Oh-my-God!' to no one in particular before turning the tables on him.
"Newsflash Himura: I don't need you to!" she viciously informed him, ungluing her nose from the window and sticking it in his face.
"Well maybe I need to," Kenshin declared, unflinching.
"Feeling guilty?" she inquired, sarcasm dripping like venom from every word.
Looking off to the side, the young man braced himself for impact. "As a matter of fact, yes."
He had basically just put himself on his knees in front of Kaoru and rendered her speechless. None of the witty retorts overloading her mind applied because he wasn't fighting back. Determined to obtain the young maid's forgiveness, the orphaned gentleman had resorted to doing a most dangerous thing: telling the truth.
"You weren't supposed to admit to it so easily..." she groused.
"Why bother putting up a front?"
A bitter laugh bubbled up her throat and out her mouth. "Because you're a guy and that's what guys do?" she reasoned.
Kenshin shook his head and gave her a small smile. "I'm a man, Kaoru, not a teenage boy."
The way he said it made the possibility that he was anything else but a grown man sound utterly preposterous. And the arrogance that accompanied the statement set her heart aflutter.
The maiden settled on paying no heed to sudden shortness of breath, his smugness igniting another wave of angry fire at the pit of her stomach – lust was the second option she dared not consider.
"So?" she inquired in a defiant tone, chin held high.
Arm around seat? Leaning forward? Up close and personal? Practically nose to nose?
"So… I'm starting to get tired of constantly arguing with you."
Kenshin devoured her with his eyes, wordlessly pleading that they bury the hatchet, that they throw caution to the wind and let whatever had been building up ever since they'd met stand a chance, despite… everything, themselves included.
"Is that a good thing?"
Kaoru had to wet her lips a few times – wet behind the ears as she was – and force herself to keep breathing.
"I don't know," he replied sincerely. "I hope so."
A shiver ran down her spine: partially because she harbored the same hope, partially because it was frightening to know that Kenshin thought along the same lines as she. What a pickle they were in!
She raised an eyebrow. "Do you, now?"
Kenshin understood her reservations. Kenshin understood her hesitation. Kenshin understood the lengths she went to in order to keep her heart from breaking, if indeed what was between them could derive in something meaningful. And it was for that very reason that the redheaded hero refused to succumb to her desires and resume the game. For the sliver of an opportunity, he would speak his mind.
"I'm being honest," he persisted.
"Without really making sense," she reproached him.
He genuinely did not know what to say, so the twosome went still. Sighing, she broke the silence.
"What do you want from me, Kenshin?"
Couldn't she tell? Did he even know for himself?
"You find me at the museum and drag me into this college life adventure involving rival football teams and the kidnapping of a team mascot and, yeah, we have a few laughs, but…" She bit down on her bottom lip. More than meaning what she said, she wanted to be able to say what she meant. She wanted to get it right. "I honestly don't understand. You could have just as easily gone off on your own. You didn't really need take me along for the ride, did you?"
It was now her turn to plead with her eyes, though, unlike the story's hero, she did not seek to take unnecessary risks. She bruised far too easily and all she could ask for was a little compassion.
"You're right," he agreed, "but it wouldn't have been half as fun without you."
"Don't you mean stressful?" she supplied, effortlessly skirting round the issue.
A hand cleverly placed beneath her chin forced her to look up – how she hated it when boys did that, thinking they could take control of a situation by grabbing a hold of a reluctant girl's locked jaw!
"Don't you have fun with me?" he asked softly, his eyes boring into hers.
"I fight with you," she… well she wasn't quite sure what she was doing or saying, torn as she was between the urge to laugh at him for feeding her corny lines and melting into a puddle of touched girly-goop that would permanently stain the jeep's leather interior – he would never be able to wash her out.
"And do you enjoy it?"
"Not when it counts as something other than us having nothing better to do than pick on each other."
He searched her face for something that eluded her while she struggled to keep herself whole.
"Someday," he whispered.
"What happens 'someday'?" she asked because she needed to know.
"I'll be as honest as you." He chuckled emptily. "You might not like me much then."
"Who says I like you now?"
His hand slithered from her chin to her cheek. "Who indeed?"
Leaning into his touch, she felt her lips being pulled at the corners, as did his. At last, they were sharing a moment that was candid, unrehearsed and theirs. It was nice. It was perfect in its effortlessness. It was being interrupted by at-first-faint-but-growing-louder-by-the-second tapping on Kenshin's window.
"Hurry up, man! My break's almost over and we can't afford to get caught."
It was hard to see in the dimly lit parking lot, so Sano's teammate placed a hand above his eyes and pressed his face against the glass. Upon noticing a woman sitting in the passenger seat, he surmised that his haste and obliviousness had been cause for some form of intrusion.
"Alright, Himura!" he complimented, making Kenshin groan embarrassedly. "Who's the chick?"
Kaoru found herself touched by the redhead's slight mortification. "Funny," she whispered, "for some reason, I thought he would have said 'wench'."
Tracing his thumb over her cheek, he was reluctant to leave things momentarily unresolved, but duty most unfortunately called and he had no choice except to heed if he ever intended to carry out a conversation with Kaoru minus interludes. Shooting her one last fond look, the college student left nothing save warm tingling on the newly exposed patch of skin as he rolled down the car window and gave the man wearing the store's trademark blue vest his full attention.
Sticking his head through the opening, the blond gave Himura's escort a good look. "She's hot," he concluded.
"Let's just get this over with, Roger," said Kenshin, opening the door and stepping out of the four-wheeler. He wanted the guy's head as far away from Kaoru as possible.
"Fair enough," Roger agreed. "Is she in on it, though?" he asked, pointing at... Was Kaoru actually feeding the psychotic parrot??? Kenshin stuffed his hands in his pockets and rolled his eyes. "She's with me," he clarified.
"Yeah," she perked up, flashing them a smile, "I'm the booty."
Kenshin deadpanned. "Did you just call yourself 'booty'?"
"What?" she muttered, certifying that the macaw didn't hack off her fingers as it ferociously nibbled on a cookie. "It's got a nicer ring to it than 'loot'."
Roger threw an arm over the shorter man's shoulders and laughed. "Himura, I think you've found yourself a winner."
Unmindful of the football player's remark, the dame went about befriending the enemy. Though repeatedly vexed at the insufferable parrot's expense, she supposed that it couldn't be entirely evil and letting it starve to death was, thus, out of the question. After relinquishing it to a group of Sanosukes, who knew when it would see food or water again?
"Kaoru, it's time to say goodbye to the bird," Kenshin gently prodded, eyes fixed on her sooty eyelashes.
"I know," she said, "and I still hate the little creep, but…"
Her hesitation confused the heck out of him. "Kaoru?"
Unexpectedly, she locked gazes with Roger. "Promise to not forget to feed it, even if it gives you hell," she requested.
A quick nod was the symbol of his assent and the opening of the car door a sign that moving on was in their best interests.
"I'll take it from here now, if you don't mind," he said, hoisting the cage out of the backseat. "Hey, buddy! Ever been in a storage room?"
"Fuck off, bitch! Brwaack!"
As expected, Polly struck back. The maiden giggled, as maidens are wont to do, and her companion gave the new temporary owner of the foulmouthed tropical menace a sympathetic pat on the back. Their job was done and now it was someone else's turn to deal with the wrath of a kidnapped mascot who was quite skilled at making great escapes, the likes of one Harry Houdini. It was time to go home. Together.
Her cellphone beeped, but she forced herself to pretend that the sound had gone unheard. It was the fifth time she ignored it. Her conscience, hands on its waist, looked down upon her with such superiority that she was beginning to hate it for all she was worth, its petulance refusing to make her feel anything but innocent.
"Did you call your parents to let them know where we're going?" he asked.
"As soon as we get there," she replied.
Her mom couldn't send text messages because she was technologically challenged on principle alone. Her father couldn't send her text messages because he didn't own a cellphone, a Blackberry or any other such device. Misao wouldn't text her because… something was iffy and their friendship seemed to be on the rocks. Terry wasn't all that into SMSing because she considered it a dehumanized form of communication and couldn't deal with voiceless messages – she wasn't much of an e-mail person either. Kaz couldn't send text messages because someone at school had stolen his MotoQ – what did he even need one of those super fancy "smartphones" for, anyhow? As for Danielle, she hardly even touched her own cellphone.
"Did you even notice your backpack beeping?" he asked.
"Unless it rings, it's not that important," she replied.
But the truth was that she didn't want it to ring; heck she would be thrilled if the occasional little beeps it emitted hadn't happened at all. Also, though not urgent, the messages she had received were, despite unread, to a certain extent, important in their own right. She just knew it.
"Cheater!" her conscience said.
"Misconstruer!" she fired back.
"That's not even a word," remarked her conscience.
"Look it up on the Internet!" she exclaimed.
"Any word that isn't a word is a word when you google it!"
"Aha! I've made you loose your focus!" cheered Kaoru.
"No, you haven't," her conscience disagreed.
"Yes, I have."
"No, no, no.
"Oh, yes, yes, yes!"
"Kaoru is everything alright?" asked Kenshin.
"Huh?" replied Kaoru, unintelligence being one of the side effects to dropping off the face of reality for too long a time.
Guilt was eating away at her but she wasn't doing anything wrong, not technically. Then again, those who rely on technicalities to justify their actions are usually only kidding themselves. Was it that our story's heroine was making a fool of herself? And, if so, would it dash away all hope for a happy ending? Or could it be that Soujiro's heart was to wind up broken?
If that were indeed to be the case, could there, thence, be a happy ending in sight at all? For, all things considered, Kaoru Kamiya might have been confused and in the habit of making wrong decisions for the right reasons, but she by no means wished to cause a kindred spirit any form of pain. The mere thought of it was enough to bring about the breaking of her own heart.
"…like it when…and it we…wrong with that?"
"…handcuffed to a bedpost… not compare to…. handcuffed to you…day!"
"…you know my…it lasts longer…romantic enough…"
"TAKE THEM OFF! I DON'T WANT TO BE HANDCUFFED TO YOU ANYMORE!"
"THEY'RE STAYING ON, SO DEAL WITH IT!"
The 'conversation' coming from the other side of the door seemed to be of a very explicit content, parental advisory in the suggestiveness of its nature.
"They've lost the key again, have they?" asked Kaoru, deciding to keep it cool. The last thing she needed was another reason for Kenshin to think of her as a child. The blush staining her cheeks, however, was beyond her control.
"Honestly," he answered, sticking his key in the lock, "I haven't a clue and I'd very much like for things to stay that way."
"Great," she said, wiping the sweat off her brow, "it's a relief to know I'm not the only one."
Once they placed foot inside the apartment, they became caught in the eye of the storm. It was blatantly apparent that, were it up to the pair, they would have backtracked within a second's notice, leaving the arguing couple to their own devices.
"Kenshin!" bellowed Sanosuke, his long strides swiftly shortening the distance between him and his roommate, Megumi hot on his heels. "You wouldn't mind being handcuffed to me for the day, would you?"
"Of course he would, you big oaf!" Megumi yelled, slapping the quarterback's shoulder with the hand that wasn't attached to his own by a shiny pair of handcuffs. "Tell him, Kenny!"
"Jesus, woman! Stop trying to get him to side with you!"
"Listen, you illiterate jerk! No one on the face of God's green Earth would find it remotely romantic to be attached to you against their will for a grand total of twenty-four hours!"
"What is it about grand gestures that you don't get, Meg?"
She scoffed at him, flipping her hair over her shoulder. "A trip to Paris is a grand gesture, Sanosuke. This, on the other hand, is torture."
"This is pure romance, baby!" he insisted, pointing at their joined hands. "This right here is a symbol of us staying together no matter what."
The brunet looked so proud of himself that Kaoru decided to take pity on the fool and not ask him what he planned on doing when either of them had to go to the bathroom. So she asked Megumi instead.
"What exactly are you going to do when you can't hold it in, Megumi?"
The sophisticated woman smoothed down the invisible wrinkles on her mauve polo shirt, pretending the teenager hadn't spoken at all. Her boyfriend, however, blanched. It had suddenly come to his attention that he hadn't quite thought things through. Making a u-turn, he marched towards the spiral staircase, his incensed counterpart trailing behind, her 3.5" heels rhythmically clicking against the wooden floor.
"I've never seen anyone get rid of them quite so fast," uttered Kenshin, awe coloring his voice.
Kaoru shrugged. "I'm in high school. Dealing with dimwits on a daily basis occasionally comes in handy."
"They are pretty hopeless," the redhead pointed out. Placing a hand on her lower back, he led her to the large leather couch somewhat near the center of the room. "Still, I feel as if taking pointers from you couldn't hurt."
The teen removed her backpack and set it down on the floor. "I couldn't agree more," she muttered, taking a seat. "It can't be easy to hear them complain about things like bondage all the time."
"Honestly, as long as they never approach me with talk of wanting to spice up their sex life, I can handle it." At her questioning look, he amended, with an "I own an iPod" remark that reminded her just how precious headphones truly are.
"Aren't you going to sit down?" she asked as he walked off in the direction of the kitchen area.
"Actually, I plan on rolling up my sleeves and making pasta. Are you hungry?"
"Are ice caps melting at an alarming rate?"
Kenshin chuckled. "I'll take that as a yes."
The damsel was on the verge of getting up and joining him when the bickering duo made their comeback – sans handcuffs – and plopped down on either side of her, turning her into a human buffer.
"Just for the record, I'm not a couple's therapist," she clarified.
"Personally, I don't think a therapist could melt her heart," Sanosuke said, in reference to his girlfriend's icy attitude.
"Personally, I don't think he has ever used his brain. Then again, who can blame him for it if he doesn't actually have one," said Megumi huffily, crossing her legs at the ankles.
"At least I have feelings!"
"Please stop behaving like a girl, Sanosuke."
"Show some emotion, Cruella!"
"Owning a fur coat does not make me heartless!"
"Tell that to the animal who sacrificed its life so you wouldn't be cold ever again!"
"So long as you have a word with the cow you had for lunch first!"
Kaoru slid off the couch. "Okaaaay," she drawled out, "I'm going to go call my parents now."
Flouncing over to the phone, the maiden surmised that speaking to her parents with Sano and Megumi's racket sounding out in the background would be counterproductive. With that in mind, she quietly slipped off to Kenshin's bedroom and stuck to the facts, praying that her mom would be in a benevolent mood. She couldn't afford to use dinner at the Makimachi's as an excuse because… She wasn't exactly sure, but she wasn't about to fib using anything remotely Misao-centric as a cover-up. The last thing she needed was lying about a boy and having it blow up in her face – her father would never let her see daylight again!
Cordless in hand, she dialed the number, beamed like a lunatic when her mother answered the phone and did her best to come off as mature and unenthused while stating her whereabouts, mentioning that another woman was present, omitting that said woman was dating one of the boys who split the rent, and requesting a speck of female solidarity.
All in all, 'twas a most satisfying outcome that ushered her back to the loft's living area in high spirits. At the sight of the threesome huddled around the stove, her grin grew wider. Their words, however, made her falter and, before she knew it, she was rooted to the spot, trembling and wondering how she could have possibly been so daft.
"Are you going to go to her every time she calls, like a good little puppy?" asked Megumi.
"Babe, stop harassing the man, alright? He's got enough on his plate as is, wouldn't you say? Besides, it's not our problem."
"Are you?" she asked again, ignoring the taller man's opinion, her eyes drilling holes in the back of Kenshin's head.
"It's not that simple," he said, without facing either of his friends.
"She left you, Kenny."
"I know that," he hissed, hands gripping a washcloth tightly.
"See, Meg? He knows." Sanosuke fidgeted a little, uncomfortable in his own skin. "Now bug off."
The lioness looked at Kaoru's gazelle-like shape out the corner of her eye and decided she had no choice. The schoolgirl realized she had been spotted but, for the life of her, could not budge. Megumi closed her eyes and considered backing down, all the while aware that cowardice would be unfruitful. Her hands were tied.
"I'm sorry, Kenny."
Reopening determined cinnamon depths, the beautiful woman bit her lip, then spoke, her voice clear as crystal, her words heavy stones falling from the sky.
"Do you plan on going with her to any more prenatal checkups, then?"
As if though the rug had been pulled from under her feet, Kaoru of the House of Kamiya experienced shortness of breath and fear of falling.
She didn't want to… She couldn't stop herself from… She needed to… She never ever again was going to… All she had wanted was to… She no longer could… And she…she…she…she…she…
"I have to go," she whispered forlornly.
Three heads whipped around and three sets of eyes landed upon her, like so:
Gaze # 1: With compassion, guilt, silent apologies and helplessness.
Gaze # 2: With unwavering calm, understanding and, begrudgingly, remorse.
Gaze # 3: With desperation, foreboding loss and layers of hurt and regret.
"I have to go," she spoke anew, with more vigor and less sorrow. "Mom wants me to come home."
"I'll drop you off," suggested Kenshin, switching to autopilot in a flash.
"That's okay." She adjusted the straps of her backpack. "I don't live that far."
"I'll take you," Sano blurted out.
Kaoru giggled without really meaning to. "No offense, but you drive like a maniac."
"Let me take you home, Kaoru," Kenshin insisted, his shaky hand blindly searching for the keys on the kitchen counter.
She shook her head. "Not this time," she murmured softly.
"My driving isn't that reckless!" Sano intervened, trying to lighten the mood.
Kaoru, with a spring in her step, waltzed over to the door. "Like I said, I'd rather not take any chances."
"Kaoru, wait. What you heard…" the redhead paused, trying to explain the unexplainable, to no avail. "Listen, it's not…" He rammed one of his hands in his hair and pondered how to continue that sentence without doing himself in.
"…Any of my business? I know." Her cheerfulness was scary. "Goodnight, guys!" she exclaimed, waving and purposefully barging out the door.
Stunned, the trio watched her go. Gathering his bearings, Kenshin fought off shock's strong clutches and ran after her. He cursed as he slammed the door shut.
Sano's fist was abruptly introduced to the refrigerator. "We shouldn't have been talking about that shit with her around," he commented. "Now she's really got the wrong idea."
Megumi looked down at her perfectly manicured nails and shrugged. "Maybe now they'll learn their lesson and sort themselves out."
"Those two were born confused. I doubt another misunderstanding is going to fix anything."
"You would be surprised…"
The quarterback scowled. "I'm not liking the evil gleam in your eye. What did you do?"
She sighed in exasperation. "Were you not here right now?"
"Yeah, and we were all caught red handed. I swear! She's so mousy no one would ever have heard…"
The man's brown eyes widened, very nearly abandoning the comfort and humidity of their sockets.
"Exactly," she affirmed, swaying her way to the couch. He rushed after her.
"You did that?" he asked accusingly.
"No," she denied, picking up a magazine that was laying on the coffee table, "my imaginary friend did."
"That was cold!"
"It was necessary," she corrected.
"It was wrong on too many levels to count!"
"It was right enough," she insisted, flipping page after page of the publication with disinterest. "They needed a little drama in their lives."
"Drama???" Sanosuke was about ready to rip his hair out. "Have you met my roommate? I bought the guy Mary J. Blige's No more drama last Christmas hoping he'd take the hint and lighten up! I didn't even know any of the songs, but the title was too damn fitting!"
"Fine, you win. She needed a little shaking up."
"She has a crush on Mr. Complicated, for crying out loud! Are you trying to make her suicidal?"
"If she's crushing on Mr. Complicated, then she can handle a little misguidance on my part." Scanning the gossip column for something juicy, she gave up when all that was revealed to her was another chapter of Lindsey Lohan's series of unfortunate events. "If you ask me, she's too quick to judge."
"You would be too if you heard the word 'prenatal' get thrown in the mix."
"Stop defending her. I'm your girlfriend, not some schoolgirl innocent to the ways of the world." Megumi clucked her tongue. "Poor Kenny has no taste."
Grunting, the broad shouldered male plunked down beside his girlfriend and quickly got lost in thought. Propping his elbows against his thighs, he brought his hands together and laid his chin over their threaded fingers.
"You're not wearing your reading glasses," he commented offhandedly.
"They're in my other Gucci handbag."
"Why don't you leave a pair here?"
"That's actually not a bad idea."
Sanosuke abandoned his seat, yawned, stretched, scratched his belly and sauntered off, presumably to find something to eat. Five seconds later, however, he returned empty-handed, crouched down before Megumi and gently peeled her fingers off the glossy magazine in her grasp.
"I don't think you're a bad person," he stated, looking her square in the eye.
"That's comforting." She folded her hands in her lap. "There's something on your mind?"
He nodded, cupping her hands between his tanned larger ones. They were about to engage in a conversation that left no room for pleasantries and, while dealing with her anger did not intimidate him, making her feel hurt was not what he desired. All he required from her was the truth and a chance to understand her actions.
"Meg, you always play the part of the evil Mexican soap bitch that ends up in a wheelchair or driving her car off a cliff. Why?"
She smiled humorlessly. "Because the instigator serves a purpose, doesn't she?"
"You tell me," he replied. "Make me understand. I know you have your reasons, but… I'm slow okay?"
"Don't say that." She relinquished one of her hands from his hold, placing it over his mouth. "Parroting isn't a good thing, especially if a witch like me is the blueprint." She leaned forward and brushed her lips against the heel of her hand. "Especially since, no matter what I say, you're a smart and wonderful person."
Removing her hand from his face, a lazy smirk was revealed. But, all too quickly, it morphed into a frown.
"You made things worse, babe," he persisted, eager to get to the bottom of a mystery rivaled only by that of the Mona Lisa's smile.
Megumi took a deep breath, tucking a strand of her long hair behind her ear. "Do you think Kenshin has ever had to fight for someone's affections before?" she asked, mindful of her boyfriend's non-verbal response. "I think he doesn't really know how hard it is to gain someone's trust."
"Does the name Tomoe ring any bells?"
"Yes, and that's the problem." Sano's befuddlement was her cue to continue. "They met on the day she was burying her high school sweetheart, her father took to hating him on the spot and yet, a few days later, they were slurping a milkshake together with one straw."
"Somehow, I don't think it was all that rosy or fifties-like."
With a careless wave of her hand, she dismissed his remark. "The man doesn't know comfort and familiarity from love and he has way too much emotional baggage to catch himself falling victim to such misconstructions. I mean, don't get me started on the end of that particular relationship!" Megumi wrinkled her nose. "It was a complete fiasco! She said 'I'm leaving' and he said 'okay'. He grieved like a widower but it never crossed his mind to fight for what he wanted. The worst part is that he still has the audacity to claim that love was in the air when he wouldn't put his money where his mouth is and win Tomoe back."
"He did love her, but it ended! That sort of thing happens all the time," he said, at a loss on how the woman's logic explained her attitude towards Kaoru. "Besides, what does any of this have to do with what you just did?"
"What I did," she explained, "was ensure that your best friend realizes there is no substitute for Tomoe."
The football player grew white as a sheet. "You want to get those two back together???" he squeaked out.
"What I want is for him to see that there is life beyond Tomoe, Sano," she spelled out, "and, that unlike that particular relationship, not all love stories are Shakespearian."
Megumi rolled her eyes. "By omitting things and creating intrigue all he's doing is sabotaging his future with…that girl. He will be his own Hamlet unless he grows a spine, opens up to someone and cuts the past loose."
Seeing the clouds in Sano's eyes, she heaved a sigh and decided to be blunter.
"I dropped the 'prenatal' bomb so that he would be forced to be honest and realize how keeping things to himself can hurt someone else. If he really likes her he'll feel guilty and as though he owes her an explanation which, technically, he doesn't, because they're not even dating, but since I happen to think that he does like her, I'm sure that he'll feel awful about her wrong assumptions, he'll set her straight, she'll be angry all the same and, hopefully, it will dawn on him that if he had only been upfront about something that didn't mean all that much in the first place, the outcome of a day like today could have been completely different."
"Oh." Sano furrowed his brow, and then shrugged. "Wanna go have sex?"
The elevator dinged. Its doors slid open. From cloud nine to the seventh circle of hell, the ride down had been awfully short.
"Please stop following me," she beseeched him.
"Not until you let me explain," he countered.
Making her way through the building's entrance hall, Kaoru restrained herself from bashing his head, her head and anyone else's into the nearest wall. Every step they took distanced them further from their very own fairytale ending.
"I'm going to go out into the street now," the maiden illustrated, standing before the exit to any teenage girl's worst nightmare, "and you aren't coming with me."
"Yes I am," he disagreed holding the door open for her.
Nose in the air, she swung past him. Tail between his legs, he trailed behind. From dreams to disenchantment, reality was swift to set in and set right tenacious minds dumbed down by fleeting fancies.
After walking around for a while in perfect silence, a colorful shop window across the street caught Kaoru's eye. She let her feet carry her in its direction, the sound of Kenshin's footfalls making her gnash her teeth.
Up close, the objects on display revealed themselves to be hats of all shapes and sizes modeled on mannequin heads, several of them eccentric enough for Ascot's standards. She gazed intently at wool fedoras and felt cloches alike, but her traitorous eyes strayed from the items beyond the glass to the reflection on the glass itself, to the semi-transparent figure of a man keeping his distance yet standing far too close for comfort, his hands buried deep within his pockets. Letting out a groan, the schoolgirl gathered that, ever the persistent stalker, he was not about to fold to her former demands, which was a shame really, because he left her no other choice, did he?
"The thing is, Kenshin, there's always going to be something with you, isn't there?"
With her back to him, he couldn't make out her expression, and since window shops aren't exactly mirrors, the surprise her nifty conversational skills caused him wasn't really something she was able to glimpse clearly, though she most definitely could fathom that after giving him the silent treatment, talkativeness on her part would be met with slight astonishment.
"What do you mean?" he asked, feeling a bit touchy because that's pretty much the usual reaction to the truth being voiced aloud.
The rhinestone brooch attached to the scarlet ribbon on one of the hats sparkled like the diamond jewelry piece it was meant to imitate, but Kaoru could not be fooled. She knew what the most valuable of precious stones ought to look like and that center stone was certainly not it. She smiled a pained smile, one that he missed because she still refused to face him.
"It doesn't really matter," she said, wishing she could run away, "because I have to respect the way you lead your life." She sighed. "Listening and accepting constant excuses, though, sounds like a pretty bad habit in the making."
"I didn't plan on standing you up and, in any case, I left Sano in charge. I just…" Kenshin stopped himself before he made a bigger mess of things. Also, he was getting tired of talking to the back of her neck, so, setting both hands on her shoulders, he spun her around. "Was what I did so terrible?"
Swallowing thickly, she slowly shook her head, feeling defeated. "Everything is just too complicated for me." Her eyes met his, bitterness and fondness laced in her penetrating stare. "I'm only a schoolgirl, remember? Maybe you've been right all along."
"About what?" he inquired, one hundred percent confident in the fact that he had never felt so utterly clueless in his entire life.
"I know the way you see me," she blurted out miserably, determination and embarrassment waging a war inside her. "I know that, to you, I'm just a stupid kid!"
"Kaoru," he said, frantically waving his hands in denial, "that's not it at all!"
She pursed her lips together, curbing the urge to call him a big fat liar and, also, to cling onto a pesky strand of hope swinging in front of her nose and believe in his words. Taking a leap of faith didn't sound very prudent, which, come to think of it, meant very little to someone of such an emotionally impulsive nature. This was precisely why she needed to sit tight and – for the love of God! – have some dignity. Restraint was in order.
"Look, it's okay," she soothingly declared. "I hate to admit it, but what if you have a point? What if your life is too much for me to handle? I mean, there has to be a reason as to why you are so guarded."
As she voiced his worst fears, horror was something he began struggling with. In all honesty, the last thing Kenshin of the House of Himura could possibly desire was for the maid standing in front of him to give up and let him be right.
It wasn't that he viewed her as an impertinent child, but he did assume that, like the rest of the world, once she was in the know, she would not be able to handle the truth – he wouldn't blame her if she ran for the hills and never looked back. However, time and again, he had shoved her aside and she had pushed back.
Loath to admit it, as he was, that kind of interaction had allowed him to hope – a verb and noun he wasn't well acquainted with. His interest in her had increased when he found himself, at the oddest of times, considering that perhaps, despite everything, she would stay and make him feel as though he wasn't such a horrible person. On those rare instances her age and her lack of experience were surprisingly far from his mind. Unless he got around to telling her that, though, it was most likely that she would continue to mistake her wrong assumptions for his actual thoughts on the matter and walk away.
"Kaoru, I –"
"Your ex-girlfriend's pregnant," she interrupted.
"And I'm not the father!" He wasn't the type to be easily angered, but her attitude was putting his patience to the test. "I thought I had already made that more than clear back in the elevator."
"What difference does it make? Kenshin, you're going to prenatal checkups with her, for crying out loud! That has to mean something."
"We're friends," he snapped.
Kaoru chuckled humorlessly. "That's sweet, and I'm sure that tons of other girls are confident enough to handle that gracefully." She shrugged. "I'm just not one of them."
The detached manner in which he said it, as if the only way for him to comprehend that she wasn't comfortable with the situation – she never would be – was if the words rolled off his own tongue, made her wince. For a second, she thought she caught a hint of regret in his lavender eyes, but she quickly dismissed the very thought. He didn't feel sorry and he didn't have to either. Oddly enough, though, she felt a tad remorseful herself, as if by brining her anxieties to light she was destroying everything.
"Maybe if the circumstances were different," she pleadingly explained.
"She doesn't have anyone," he insisted.
Kaoru rolled her eyes. "She has her family," she countered, amazed at how tightly Tomoe had him wrapped around her finger.
"I…" He grasped at straws and, for the teen, they were the very same ones that broke the camel's back. "They aren't all that supportive."
"I'm sorry to hear that," she confessed. "It's a good thing she has you then, isn't it?"
"… I guess."
Pivoting on her heel, she went back to staring at the objects beyond the shop window, wishing they had the capability of making it all better. Sadly, she had hung her hat on aspirations that were not to be and all the caps and bonnets in the world would never be able to change that.
Nonetheless, as her eyes roved everywhere except behind her, she waited. For him to say anything at all. Anything would do, would give her hope. But he remained silent and she got angry. Then the stillness translated his pity to her and she desperately tried to warm up to it before realizing it was insane to keep on doing that. To keep on dreaming, like some sort of fool.
"I'll be on my way now," she announced, head hung low.
Kenshin knew what she was doing – she had done the ultimatum thing once before. "Let me drive you home," he persisted.
She shook her head. "You've done enough driving for the day." She took a deep breath and turned her back on the shopfront, a soft smile on her lips. Her hair shone blue, inky strands awash in the yellow light emitted by the store standing tall behind them. "Besides, it's nice out tonight." She giggled. "The streets beckon my wandering feet."
"Then let me walk with you," he requested.
"I would rather be on my own."
Standing there in her jeans and teal shirt, she looked small and beautiful. Kaoru looked as vulnerable as he wanted to allow himself to be. Mirroring the sky above their heads, her dark eyes sparkled with the sheen of stars and determination that, at any other time, he would have admired. If only she weren't giving up on him, when minutes ago she had been gazing at him as if he were someone he wasn't, someone better.
"It doesn't have to be complicated," he bargained, a whisper on the wind that was far from being an 'I'm sorry'.
Silence hung thick in the air between them.
Silence hung thick in the space between them.
In the small pause betwixt every heartbeat, silence reigned.
I loved you first, I loved you second, I loved you third.
I wouldn't know love from picnics and a handbasket.
Everything's gone to hell in a handbasket.
Silence isn't a lack of apologies.
But it isn't flat out saying you're sorry either.
I don't know how, I don't want to, there's no reason to.
But it's the only way to save a sinking ship.
I don't have it in me, it's not enough.
I am sorry, though.
The maiden scuffed one of her red high top All Stars against the pavement. "I don't think I came into your life at the best of times."
The young man fiddled with his fingers. "Is there such a thing as perfect timing?"
"Who knows?" She relaxed her shoulders and sidestepped him. "Maybe there is, maybe I'm wrong. I'll see you around, okay?"
As she tucked a strand of her long hair behind her ear, he knew theirs was borrowed time. He should have probably taken advantage of the lapse between that small gesture and her parting to say something to stop her in her tracks and…
They liked each other, that much was obvious. The rest wasn't supposed to matter. The rest was giving them hell. And he could have been brave and he could have been the bigger person and he could have dashed it all away by grabbing hold of her wrist and he could have tried explaining why he was emotionally stunted and he should have...
She walked away and his eyes inevitably trailed after her.
One may be sure that Kaoru of the House of Kamiya and Kenshin of the House of Himura did not live together in peace and happiness to the end of their days.
Not after saying goodbye without actually saying the words aloud.
To Vic'chonn: Yeah, at first the last installment was going to be a regular new chapter, but working on my thesis – I feel your pain! – made me damn near lose my marbles completely and the intermezzo came instead, anger, angst, confusion, resignation and all. I wasn't particularly going for "funny" when I wrote it but… sometimes I'm too sarcastic for my own good and cynicism carries a dose of comedic genius in its blasé-like packaging that simply can't be denied. As for trying out new writing techniques, I think I did my fair share of that in this chapter. In this case, I knew it was going to be lengthy and slightly melodramatic and I know for a fact that several people have expressed their displeasure regarding the plot's snail-like advancement, so I decided to say "screw it", have fun writing and to hell with the consequences. I hope it paid off – from a personal standpoint, it did, but I'm the writer not the reader and I wouldn't post any of this stuff if I didn't think your opinion counts. So, please review, share some thoughts and keep me updated on all things Vic-related, deal? By the way, thank you for mentioning the typo – I constantly revise the story because I want to make it into an original work of fiction, but I keep missing tiny things here and there so keep an eye out for me, please. Cuídate mucho, vale? Besitos y hasta pronto – seguro que nos comunicamos por e-mail antes del próximo capítulo.
To toxiclollipop: Actually, last installment was a preview of the turning point that is this whole chapter – at the very least, the final part of it. I'm glad you liked it because, to be perfectly honest, I didn't think it would take. Thanks for reviewing!
To Animekitty07: First off, I have to say that I am really pleased by your comment on the song selection; I work my butt off picking the soundtrack for every scene and no one ever pays attention to it! Thank you so much! If you liked the music, check out Regina Spektor's work – some of her stuff is kind of funky, but she redeems herself with songs like "Samson". As for the previous installment, I was afraid that it would prove to be boring or confusing, so let me tell you that I felt incredibly relieved after receiving your stamp of approval. I hope this chappie was also to your liking, despite its length. Catch you next time!
To MikaylaMae: I really did give it a whole lot of thought, now that you mention it. I don't know how well that translates when coupled this chapter, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Tell me what you think, okay? Thanks for dropping a line!
To en route: I don't know how it's possible that you never ever seem to abandon me, but I always feel so happy when I see your penname on the reviewers' block. And I make you wait so long for updates too! The dubbed "long-awaited-serious-discussion-between-Kaoru-and-Kenshin" came and went… Was it what you expected it to be? In my defense, I tried, but I honestly can't see them talking straight and/or pouring their hearts out to one another – not yet, anyway. And yes, last installment was actually a short piece of foreshadowing. I knew this chapter was going to be long, without adding to that their conversation and the jumbled mess of thoughts and emotions mixed between words that always come short, so I decided to sort of draw a line between heart, mind and action. Did I do okay? I appreciate your criticism and thank you wholeheartedly for all the compliments. It feels amazing to hear that my writing manages to move you. The reactions it evokes in you are the very reasons I write to begin with. Until next time.
To Venus Smurf: YOU'RE BACK! YOU'RE BACK! YOU'RE BACK! YOU'RE BACK! YOU'RE BACK! YOU'RE BACK! YOU'RE BACK! YOU'RE BACK! Can you tell you've been missed? Your review was short and I'm only calling you on it because of your past track record. I'm so happy to hear from you, know that you're alive and – seemingly – well and reading my stuff again. Glad to have you back on board, V!
To angel-tears-16: Thank you so much for calling the last installment of this story a piece of art: it was very kind of you to do so. True to my word, the Ken-Kao-Polly fun was finally unveiled. Will those crazy kids ever learn?
To Rampaging Sorrow: ...On a shirt? Sure, why not – as long as credit is given where credit is due. My friends and I want to have "born a freak" t-shirts made, so I can relate. Thank you for considering my work different and fresh. I hope you've kept on reading and have reached this far – perhaps I've bored you to death and lead you to give up on this particular reading? Take care.
To Safe Matches: Carrie, darling, I couldn't update sooner even if I wanted to, and that I did. Too much going on to risk it, but patience is a virtue – I have to keep reminding myself of that, seeing as I work in an office full of men – and at last a new chapter had been upload. Thank you for your constant reviews. May this installment have also been to your liking.
To Mala Valvah: Sorry, but I'm slow on the whole update front. The good news is that I don't plan on quitting on this story anytime soon and I already have a vague idea on how I want to handle the next chapter. Don't forget to review!
To lauralizzie07: Don't worry, sometimes I feel as if I've forgotten the entire story too, and I'm the author! It's good to hear from you again – I had begun to wonder where you had run off to, you know. As far as shameless flattery goes, I was actually in dire need of it and, just between us girls, I'll have you know that your review was one of the reasons this chapter even exists: it wasn't easy to write, it was time consuming, I was feeling slightly discouraged… and then along came you. Your kind words changed everything. Thank you for that. I "hear" you've turned a new leaf: I wish you nothing but the best. Happy New Year, artist-formerly-known-as-Rhapsody07!
To Ri-nee-chan: Alright, so you didn't review last chapter. But, we do have a pretty awesome relationship both as friends and in the author/critic scheme of things. Besides, when you do review, you make my day and are incredibly detailed which does nothing but help my writing. So, I plead the fifth and respond to a review that doesn't exist because you're excused – you were busy adjusting to life in freaking Japan, I mean, come on! – and also because I owe you far too much to not leave you a little note at the bottom of every single chapter of this story, whether you review or not. Thank you for being so uniquely you!!!
Congratulations to the winners of the RKRC 2005 awards and thank you for both nominating and voting for me.