A/N: Yeah, the lynching party is out in full force.  Sorry, guys.  I really didn't mean for this to take so long, but that's life for you.  I did keep my promise to get ITFH finished before the end of the year, so that's something.  I'll try to keep my future stories more timely in the future.  But you know how it is… it's just so hard to end these things!  And on that note… This is it!  Are we ready?  I know I am… and not.  I'm glad I finally got this thing out of my system, but I admit that I'm going to miss playing in this universe.  As for now, though, I don't plan on doing any sort of sequels.  So… don't ask for one ::laughs:: cause I'll just ignore you and work on my other RK story.  That, by the way, will be coming out sometime shortly after the New Year.  Just as soon as I reread the book and iron out all the kinks that go along with a book adaptation.  I forsee some serious work ahead of me. 

That's a long author's note.  Right, on with the story.  Enjoy the last chapter of ITFH.  Be prepared for a group hug at the end ^_^

Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin.  So can I really be held responsible for what I'm doing in this fic?  I suppose I can.  And I'm sure you guys will if I don't pull something acceptably awesome out of the air for this last chapter ^_^ Don't hurt me, please.

In These Final Hours: A Prophecy

            Kaoru considered the frayed hems of her brother's cast-off slacks as she swirled her feet in the stream running off the side of the clearing.  Her bokken rested beside her amidst the leaf leader and her hand curled absently around the hilt end.  She remembered that rip and blood stain, the one a finger's length above her right ankle.  And she remembered the thorn that had caused it.  How long ago was it that she'd thought about asking Sano to cut back the bramble bushes on the trail?

            The sleepy week at home had made the whole experience seem like something that had happened a life time ago.  She certainly didn't feel like the Kaoru who had run impulsively to the palace.  She didn't even feel like the broken girl who'd slunk home to hide away in her room about a week ago.

            "A week ago… today," she mused out loud.  A week that had almost been as life-changing as her last week at her prince's side.  True, she hadn't done anything more physically taxing than her morning workout.  But emotionally, she'd been through more than she cared to think about at the moment. 

            When her parents had asked about her adventures, she'd given them a child's tale, carefully swept free of grit.  The suspicion on their faces had made her stomach churn, but they hadn't asked for more. 

            Misao had shown up at her training clearing the morning after she arrived but had done nothing more than stare at her with soulful eyes and offered to spar with her.  Kaoru had almost lost what small control she'd gained over her emotions right then, seeing the knowledge in her friend's eyes.  But she'd diverted that fear, shame, and anguish into the blade-edge of her bokken.  By the end, they'd both been too winded to do more than embrace and part ways. 

            Aoshi and Yahiko had shown up at her back door that evening.  The older man had placed a heavy hand on her shoulder while the boy had muttered something about her not being completely ugly, coupled with a flustered pat on her arm.  Both gestures had been a great comfort, but she'd held off thinking about the mess that had spurred them.

            In fact, she'd done such a good job of suppressing her thoughts and feelings that when she'd woken up the third morning after her return, she hadn't been prepared.  She'd stared at the blood spotting her sheets for a good minute before the significance of it dawned on her.  She hadn't been able to stave off the sobs that wracked her body as she'd stumbled to the bathroom.  She'd known from the beginning that there wouldn't be a child.  But that didn't stem the desperate grief for what might have been.   

            Her mother had found her some time later, after the maids had begun to worry, curled up in a bath gone cold, arms wrapped tightly around her stomach.  She hadn't asked any of the questions Kaoru had seen swirling in her eyes.  She'd simply helped her dress and led her back to her room to sleep.  The maids had already changed the sheets, much to Kaoru's relief. 

            She locked the days after that morning away in the shadows of her mind.  She'd kept a sunny face for her concerned parents, but spent more time in her room than was healthy.  Habit and the need to scream at nothing had driven her to the clearing with her bokken every morning, but as soon as the adrenaline had been purged from her system, she'd crawled back to her room and her bed.

            But this morning…

            She'd fled her room sometime after midnight and skulked out onto one of the low roofs of the house.  The rest of the night had crawled past her in comforting silence as she'd thought.  With dawn had come a tiny smile that quirked the corner of her mouth.  Then the symbolism of the moment had made her scowl and she'd scrambled back indoors and stomped down to the kitchens to weasel a fresh pastry out of the cook. 

            Her swings had been effortless this morning.  She'd found the inner stillness that aided her concentration with an ease that was rare even before she'd first left her home.  She felt brave again.  For the first time since she'd thrown herself in Megumi's arms in Nishimoto.  And she felt… oddly peaceful. 

            Her time on the roof hadn't been wasted.  She'd decided to take a year off from the world.  To take some time to let herself walk the winding path and settle into a definition of Kaoru that could face the world unencumbered.  Once she found that inner peace, then she could worry about her future.  Until then, she would fit herself back together and accustom herself to the new shape.

           "If I can convince my mother to hold off on the suitors for that long, at least."  She smirked at her wavering reflection.  Her initial plan of finding a husband as soon as possible had been left resting in the tear-musty confines of her room.  As she'd watched the night fade around her she'd realized she was in no position to be making any life-altering decisions.  Maybe when she felt more like a solid person she could bury herself in a bustling family, but she needed to decide who she'd become in the last few weeks before she chose someone to complement that.  And maybe she wouldn't find love, but hopefully she'd find a good friend.  

            A glance at the sun elicited a sigh.  Late for lunch again.  She'd have to put off asking her mother for the impossible to a day when she wouldn't feel like disowning her.

            With a grumbled curse she'd picked up from the Guard, she pulled her feet from the stream and shoved them back into her sturdy boots.  These she'd swiped from the palace so they didn't fit awkwardly like some of her brother's. 

            She tied her bokken to her back and took one last glance at her reflection in the stream before hiking back toward the clearing and the trail that led to the road home.  As she crunched along through the underbrush, she played out different approaches to telling her parents what had happened.  When she'd decided to take a year to herself, she'd reluctantly decided that her parents would have to hear the full recount of her stay at the palace.  She didn't think she could convince her mother to hold back otherwise.  Her brow furrowed in consternation as she stepped free of the woods and planted herself into the road.

            And right into an old woman.

            Kaoru bit back another curse as she scrambled to her feet and moved forward to help the older woman to her feet, an apology already on her lips.  Then she froze.

            "You!" she yelped.  And then, with more venom, "You…"

            The old seer glared at her as she gathered herself up and brushed off her odd assortment of cloaks and scarves.  She gave a dignified sniff and drew herself up to her impressively diminutive height.

            "I'm surprised you recognized me," she groused and then speared her with a glower.  "You have a habit of ignoring what's right under your nose."

            Kaoru's face paled and pinked so fast that the rush left her reeling.  "You have no right," she breathed. 

            "I have every right," the seer spat, "Or did you think I came out of this any better than you did?"  She glared for another moment before checking her pockets and bag for any items that might have fallen loose in the tumble.

            Kaoru's anger sputtered out as she noticed the tight bandages around the woman's hand and the glimpse of a splint she caught as the sleeve of her right arm rode up.  Half-healed, precise slices scored the woman's weathered cheeks, and one ear was completely muffled by bandages and a gaudy scarf.  Aoshi's report came screaming back to the front of her mind and she dropped her head to take a deep breath.  She'd forgotten that the seer had been tortured.  And, since she'd already figured out that Enishi finding out about the prophecy had been a part of the prophecy… that meant the old bat had gone in knowing what she'd have to go through.

            Suddenly, losing her virginity didn't seem like such an ordeal.

            "I'm sorry.  You're right."  Kaoru sighed. 

            The seer paused in her rummaging and favored her with a hooded stare.  She nodded absent acknowledgement of the apology. 

            "It could not be helped, girl.  Though I wish I could have been more help to you.  I was tempting the fates just by sending you those dreams and that flower, you know."  She tucked her arms into her sleeves and for a moment Kaoru was struck with the impression that she was talking to a very ugly quilt with beady eyes.

            She shook her head.  "Why couldn't you tell me more?"

            A finger appeared to wag at her.  "Because if you know too much about your own fate, you can end up making a mess of it!  You might have altered things so the disaster would have happened at a time and place where you couldn't have prevented it."

            Kaoru processed this and scowled.  "Then why did you tell me about the prophecy in the first place?!  If I hadn't been so paranoid, I wouldn't have mistaken that arrow for the big 'disaster'!"

            The seer snorted.  "Anything less than a prophecy of disaster and you wouldn't have gone to the palace in the first place.  Besides, I can't choose whether to tell you or not.  I'm a seer.  If I meet someone that I have a message for, I'm bound by my powers to tell them."   

            "You knew about your fate before you went in," Kaoru pointed out.

            Another scoff.  "I'm a seer.  I have more faith in the fates than you normal fools.  I have patience.  I don't go looking too hard for trouble." 

            Kaoru inwardly winced at the direct blow. 

            "But that's not why I'm here."  The old woman straightened again and seemed to gain a few inches.  Kaoru's eyes narrowed.  She still couldn't tell if it was a trick of her eyes or a trick of magic that did that.

            "Then why are you here?" she sighed.  And then froze.  "It's not another prophecy, is it?!"  She shook her head emphatically.  "No.  Find another girl.  I won't have any more part in any disasters.  I'm taking a year off, and I intend to enjoy it."

            The seer rolled her eyes.  "Stupid girl.  Wait until I tell you what I've seen before you start gibbering nonsense." 

            That didn't reassure her in the least.  She braced her feet apart in a defensive stance and took a few calming breaths.  "Okay… tell me."

            "Don't act like I'm handing you a death sentence, you impudent twit!"  She reached out and bopped her smartly over the head.  Kaoru winced and ducked back in surprise.  Now she knew the seer's arms weren't that long.

            "Honestly, I don't know why I even bother with your generation.  A bunch of lazy, ungrateful ruffians who wouldn't know the meaning of the phrase 'filial piety' if it bit you on the nose!"  The fabric around her shoulders fluffed up like an indignant cat.

            Kaoru folded her arms imperviously.  "Filial piety – the act of honoring and obeying one's parents," she recited and then stuck her tongue out at the old hag.  "You're not my mom, so I don't have to listen to you."  So much for the personal growth she'd felt she'd achieved during the last few weeks. 

            "Well, then I guess I don't have to tell you about the divinely sublime vision I had," the hag countered smoothly.

            Kaoru put off pointing out the redundancy of that phrase in favor of engaging the seer in a short glaring war.  She wavered after a moment, though.  Redundancy meant the phrase stuck out in her mind and her curiosity was tickled by the implications. 

            Her breath snorted from her nose and she turned her head haughtily to the side.  "Well I guess you can tell me if you want."  How did this woman worm out her most childish sentiments?  She peeked at the seer and squirmed under the scorching glare she was still getting.

            She huffed a breath and forced a contrite expression.  "I'm sorry I was rude.  I should respect my elders more, I know."  She couldn't help adding, "I've had a rough month, you know."   

            Silence scuttled between them along with a stray leaf caught in the wind.  Kaoru felt a small bead of seat form on her brow and clenched her jaw as she waited.  Did the old hag want her to grovel?  She'd already apologized.  Wasn't that enough?  Her breath was hissing through her teeth in short, enraged pants before the seer relaxed and began fluffing the scarves tied to her walking staff. 

            "You're annoying and stubborn, but I guess I can't choose who I have to deal with," she conceded. 

            "R-right."  Kaoru fought to keep her tone civil and forcibly uncurled her hands at her sides.  She could kill the old bat after she heard what she'd come to say.

            The old woman gathered herself up and pointed a stern finger toward her.  Her voice picked up a sing-song cadence as she recited her vision.

            "I saw you in What Might Be.  The years had treated you kindly in more ways than one.  A handsome family, comfort, and grace."  She paused and her face crinkled into a smile.  "And you were happy, child."

            Kaoru gripped the sides of her pants and took a few shallow breaths before she opened her mouth.  "Happy?"  She coughed to get the crack out of her voice.  "You mean all of this will be worth something someday?" She jerked her head behind her to indicate everything that had occurred since their last meeting.

            The seer nodded and politely held her silence while Kaoru composed herself again. 

           "Yes, you will find happiness," she repeated, and then wagged a warning finger, "But!  That doesn't mean it's certain.  A large part depends on your own choice.  Opportunity will be handed to you only once, and it will be up to you whether you accept it or not.  Don't let yourself be blinded by your own grief.  Don't miss that chance."

            Kaoru's eyes widened and she nodded thoughtfully.  She was happy to know that she had a chance, but wasn't so thrilled with it depending on her own observation.  She didn't have the most pristine record when it came to recognizing moments of fate.

            She brooded for a moment over the possibilities behind the cryptic message of hope before a sharp cough brought her attention back to the old woman.  She frowned her confusion.

            "Well?"  The seer flung her hand out impatiently.

            Kaoru blinked.  "'Well', what?"

            "Aren't you going to thank me?" she demanded.  "I just gave you the best news you've had in weeks!  You should be weeping your gratitude at my feet."  She narrowed her beady eyes and thumped the ground before her with her staff. 

            "I don't believe it," Kaoru muttered and then scowled.  "No… I do.  Yes, I am very grateful to you for telling me about this."  She swept a mocking curtsey.  "Trust me when I say that I'm crying on the inside.  I don't exactly have many tears left after these past couple of weeks."

            The old woman grunted.  "You'll never be happy if you don't learn a little bit of common courtesy."  She waved her free hand in the air and turned back up the road.  "Fine, fine.  I suppose that's the best I'll ever get out of an ungrateful twerp like you.  Have a great life.  I pray I won't see you in my visions anymore."

            "I'll pray as well," Kaoru hollered at the figure shuffling away down the road.  A pang of guilt made her add, "But before that, do you want to come to the house for lunch?"

            The seer stopped and peered at her over her shoulder.  Her brow arched in appreciation.  "So you do have some manners."  Then she shrugged.  "No, I'm quite comfortable in a room in the village.  I'll get a nice bowl of stew there."  She waved again and turned away.

            Kaoru watched her until she disappeared behind a dip in the road.  A tiny smile itched her face before she pulled it into a firm scowl.  Good riddance, she thought to herself.  She was more grateful to the old seer than she'd ever admit out loud, but that didn't make up for all the trouble her words and presence stirred up.

            With a sigh, she faced the opposite direction and jogged back to the house.  Perhaps her mother would be waiting for her in the door again, steam pouring out of her ears. 

            Her mother wasn't there, however.  She bit back a sigh of relief and settled for a silly grin.  Maybe she could sneak upstairs and have a bath before the matriarch tried to shove more food down her depressed daughter's throat.  With a wince, Kaoru realized just how relieved her mother would be to see that she was on her way out of her depression.  She hadn't considered it before, but the sickly woman was probably driving herself into the ground with worry.  Better wait to tell her exactly why she was upset until a little later, as well.

            "Hey, missy!" A familiar, obnoxious voice brought her head around to the stables.   

            "Sanosuke?"  She blinked at the lanky figure striding toward her and gave a wobbly smile.  "I didn't think you'd be back from the palace so quickly.  How have you been?"  She skirted around asking about how things were going on at the palace in general.  She didn't think she could handle hearing about the prince just yet.

            "No time to talk, sis."  He winked and dashed past her toward the kitchen door.  "Gotta talk to the old man about some important business!"

            Her brows drew together as she watched him disappear into the house.  No mildly abusive greeting?  No bone-crushing hug or affectionate headlock?  There was something wrong with this situation.  A bad feeling blossomed in the pit of her stomach.  Like someone was about to ask her to do something horribly impossible. 

            "Sano!" she bellowed and pelted after him.  "What are you up to, you stupid rooster?!"


            Kenshin watched from the shadows of the barrack's door as Kaoru cast a final, troubled glance at the palace before retreating into the carriage that would take her away from him.  A tiny smile twitched his lips and he stepped into the sunlight. 

            She hadn't said goodbye to him.  Hadn't even tried to seek him out after she fled from the carriage upon their arrival earlier in the morning.  It hurt.  But he couldn't and didn't blame her.  The past few days he had watched the slow crumbling of her self control.  By last evening her discomfort had become almost palpable.  It was best that she took some time to herself.  He shook his head as the carriage disappeared behind a stone guard point and turned toward the palace.  If she had stayed any longer, she would have broken down.  She would have told him everything, every last longing and sorrow he knew swirled behind those dark, expressive eyes.

            He nodded politely to the few servants in the halls as he twisted his way toward the guest wing, but the gesture was absent.  He was engrossed by his more immediate problem.  The fast-approaching moment when he would have to reveal to his fiancé that he was in love with another woman.  Though he had originally planned to take the afternoon to compose himself and consider the most delicate way to phrase his indiscretion, he knew he couldn't wait. 

            Kaoru had kept her promise to explain the Nishimoto incident personally, and promptly.  He chuckled sourly as the memory of her bolting from his side replayed in his mind.  His hand had come so close to grasping the back of her arm to draw her back. 

            That was when he'd realized he couldn't put this off any longer.  Kaoru wasn't the only one having difficulty hiding her feelings and Tomoe deserved to hear about it from him personally before the buzz of the servants' lips reached her ears.  Sanosuke had enough influence in the Guard to keep gossip down, but no one short of Tae could keep the staff from talking.  And he could already see the dangerously sweet face she would give him if he tried to approach her about it.  She had firm opinions about men who gave women the runaround.

            No, he needed to find Tomoe.  Now.

            Except… he had no idea what to say to her. 

            He slowed as he turned the corner that led to the hall with her room.  A distracted, but appropriately polite, question had directed him to her whereabouts.  She hadn't left her rooms since Ms. Kaoru had left her earlier.  Words hummed behind his eye sockets as he approached the door and raised a wary hand.  The last thing he wanted to do was hurt Tomoe and that meant he had to handle this with all the precise care that he handled his training.  One injudicious move and the blade could slip in too deep to heal. 

            "Come in."  Her low, serene voice pulled him from his worries.  He hadn't realized he'd knocked. 

            "Tomoe?"  He eased open the door and hesitated, his hands sliding into his sleeves.

            She rose from a low couch and turned a solemn face to him. 

            He opened his mouth and paused.  There was something in her expression that silenced any explanation he might have begun.  He studied her silently, content to wait for the signal that would cue him to launch the confession. 

            Then she smiled.  There was sorrow in the curve of her lips, but with a sweet humor that softened the edges.  His breath hitched and for a moment he froze, stunned by fear.  But all she did was watch him with that bittersweet smile.

            "You know."  The realization rolled off his tongue before it formed coherently within his head.

            She inclined her head slightly and stepped around the couch so they faced each other squarely.

            Pain clenched his chest.  "Tomoe, please forgive this unworthy one.  I have never-"  She held up a hand and waited until she knew he wouldn't speak again.

            "Kenshin, I'm afraid I'm going to have to break our engagement," she said.

            "Oro."  She might have been commenting on the weather, he thought bemusedly. 

            She nodded.  "I think this is the best for all three of us.  No one would be happy if things continued as they are."

            Kenshin stared at her.  He couldn't do anything else for a long moment.  He had expected to come in and slowly, painfully reveal to his fiancé that he was in love with another woman.  Then she would react and he would try desperately to keep a fragile friendship intact.  They would discuss the situation for as long as it took to soothe the wounds and decide what the best actions to be taken were.  But instead, it seemed as though Tomoe had skipped over the whole process without him.  He was feeling a bit dazed at the moment.

            "Tomoe… are you sure?" he let his hands drop to his sides.  "I made a promise to you.  I have no intention of breaking it unless you wish for me to."

            She shook her head slightly.  "Kenshin if I made you keep that promise I would be no better than all the woman Kaoru has been protecting you from." 

            "Please do not think that I do not love you."  He stepped forward and folded one of her hands between his own.  "I love you Tomoe, just as I did when I asked for your hand."

            "Yes." She placed her other hand over his.  "And I love you.  But…" she caught and held his gaze, "Not like you two love each other.  We would have been happy together if you had never known her, but you do.  And I think we would still be happy together, even now, but not like you two could be.  And what we have would always be tainted by that.  You loving another just a little bit more, and I knowing that you do."

            "Tomoe…"  He untangled their hands and reached up to brush the tears pearling down her face.           

            She smiled for him.  "Thank you, Kenshin."

            His eyes widened.  "For what?"

            "For showing me that it isn't wrong to love again.  I think this was just a step.  You have helped heal me after Akira.  Now I think I am ready to find someone to love just as much as she loves you.  After seeing her talk about you, I realized that there was a difference between love… and love."

            He closed his eyes and bowed his head.  She was too much for him.  They both were.  What had he done in his life to deserve meeting and loving these two women? 

            "I'm sorry for all of this, Tomoe," he murmured.  And he was.  He'd never imagined his life would turn into such a mess.  Though, he thought with a small smile, they probably hadn't, either.

            "Don't be.  It was out of all of our hands."  She cupped his scarred cheek in a cool hand.  "I told you that this would heal when you found your answer, but it is still as angry as the day I cut you.  Maybe she is the one who can heal you."

            He sighed and chuckled wryly.  "You have thought about this a lot more than I have.  I cannot think of anything comforting to say to you."

            She chuckled, too.  "I have had more time to think.  But I will take a small gift if you will allow me."

            He caught her wrist and rubbed his thumb over her pulse.  "Of course.  Anything."  He would bring down the very walls around him for her if she asked for it at this moment. 

            She smiled and dipped her head forward to lay a chaste, lingering kiss on his lips.  Kenshin smiled against the familiar sweetness and returned it with his own.

            "Goodbye, Kenshin," she murmured as she pulled away.

            "Goodbye, Tomoe." 


            Kaoru huffed as she threw herself up the stairs and toward her father's study.  Sanosuke's longer legs and gift for running had given him a good head start, but hopefully she could catch up before anything too catastrophic occurred. 

            She burst into the room and caught herself on the doorframe.  Her face drained of color and her jaw hung limply as the damning words hung in the air and echoed in her ears.

            "…And Kaoru's in love with the prince."

            The world grew dim for a moment before she remembered her long-time vow to never faint like a wilting princess.  The color rushed back to her face with blinding heat and she grit her teeth against the harsh, guttural noises bubbling in her throat. 

            How dare he.

            "How dare you."  The words choked out of her in a hiss. 

            Her mother raised an elegant eyebrow from where she stood next to her father, still seated at his desk.  Sanosuke lounged in a chair opposite his parents, a drawling smile curling his lips.  He looked oh-so smug.  Her mother had a similar expression, but with a hint of glee mixed in.  Her father just looked confused and a little angry.

            "What are you babbling about, you useless lump?" he demanded.  Sanosuke winced at the playful nickname, but it didn't dampen his enthusiasm.

            "Just what I said.  In the middle of all the craziness of Kaoru being Prince Kenshin's escort, she fell in love with him."

            "You little fink!" Kaoru launched herself at him.  There was no use denying what he'd said.  Her reaction at the door had sealed her fate.  So, since she couldn't pretend he was lying, she would settle for pounding him into a spiky-headed pulp. 

           They tussled for a moment, and Kaoru got him into a painful headlock, before her father barked for them to separate.  She gave him one last vicious twist of his ear before crawling off of him and retreating to the back of the room. 

            "What does this have to do with your behavior this last week, Kaoru?"

            She stiffened at the certainty in her mother's voice.  It wasn't really a question.  Damn her perceptiveness.

            "I was upset."  Hide the truths in half-truths.  Hadn't her mother taught her that from day one?  "I found out he's engaged to be married."  It seemed like she would spend the rest of her life hiding what she really felt from the people around her.

            "Is that why you came home so suddenly?"  Her mother was relentless, her voice cracking along her back.  "Did you abandon your duty because the prince rejected you?"

            "Mom, stop." 

            All three looked in surprise at Sanosuke.  His face was unusually dark as he stared his mother down. 

            "Well, then will you tell me exactly what happened?" she asked in gentler tones.

            "I thought you said you came home because the prophecy was over.  You said you kept a foreign princess from slipping something into his drink."  Her father's voice had command in it.  Now that part of her story had been called into question, they felt free to voice their initial doubts about the whole fabrication.

            Kaoru braced herself and turned back to her parents.  She had to tell them her next lies to their faces or they wouldn't believe her.  She couldn't bring herself to tell them exactly what had happened, but she would at least weave a story a little closer to the truth.  And they needed to believe her.  Staring at her papa's face, she couldn't bare to shatter the illusion that his little girl was pure and innocent.  And could her mother look on her without pity after hearing what had happened?  She wasn't sure.  And she didn't have the strength right now to find out. 

            Maybe someday.  When she didn't feel so fragile.

            "There was a battle with a man named Enishi Yukishiro," she began quietly, "During the battle, I blocked an arrow from hitting the prince and thought I had fulfilled the prophecy."  Her mother gasped, but she ignored the paleness of her features.  "The arrow wasn't fatal, but I was weak for a few days."  She didn't know how strongly her parents felt about magic, so she would iron that incident out as well. 

           "The prince took care of me while I was injured.  He felt like I was his responsibility since I was trying to protect him.  I… I thought I just had a crush, but in that time I realized that I was… I was in love with him."  She stared at a point between their bodies.  "Sanosuke told me afterward that he was engaged.  So I promised to keep my feelings secret.  Then, a few days later when we went to Nishimoto, we discovered another plot by Enishi Yukishiro to try to harm the prince.  He was trying to trap him into a marriage with the country's First princess.  I realized what was happening before she could do anything, though.  And that was the prophecy."

            She wandered back to the front of the room and slumped into a chair.  "So I came home.  I knew if I stayed longer the prince would eventually figure out how I felt and I didn't want to risk my identity any longer.  He might have thought I was trying to do the same thing the princess had.  I didn't want him to hate me, and I didn't want our family to get in trouble."  A neat, pretty half-truth.  More grit, but still blissfully free of mud.

            Silence hung over the room while her parents processed the more complete story.  Eventually, her mother moved from behind the desk to wrap her in a soft hug.  Sanosuke remained conspicuously silent, content with studying the toe of his shoe.  Her father looked dazed, but compassionate.

            "I'm sorry, sweety," her mother murmured, "I didn't mean to accuse you of anything.  I wish you would have told us this earlier, though.  I should have realized you were heart-sore."  She leaned back and brushed a few loose strands of hair from her face.  "You did the right thing, dear.  You had no business there once the prophecy was taken care of.  That would have been lying for selfish reasons."

            Kaoru nodded absently and fiddled with the sleeves of her tunic.  She really didn't want pity right now, but this was the perfect opportunity to ask her mother for her year off from suitors.  She opened her mouth to ask when Sanosuke decided to pipe up.

            "You know, I told the prince and the king about the prophecy," he said casually.

            How did he know how to piss her off so well?

            "You did what?!" she growled, fists clenching in her lap.  Lady Kamiya straightened and pinned her son with a stern glare.

            "Really, Sano.  You could let her have a moment before you muck things up again."

            He held up his hands.  "Hey, I had to say something.  Captain Saitou was suspicious, and I figured someone would figure out that she was my sister eventually.  Better to tell them now, when they're still grateful for what she did, than later when it would look like we had more to hide than a prophecy."

            Kaoru stared at him flatly.  There was more logic in that reasoning than she was willing to give him credit for.  He must have rehearsed with someone before he came home.  And if she found out he'd taken a detour to the village before turning back to the house, a certain smiling boy was going to get a large dent in his head.

            "I suppose that makes sense," their mother allowed.  "Now what is the point you're coming to?"  Sharp as a katana, their mother.

            Sano scratched at his head a little nervously.  "Well, the king wants her to be formally presented at court-"


            "- not to mention Lady Yukishiro wants to see you again before she goes home.  She said you promised."  He looked far too pleased with himself. 

            Kaoru seethed for a moment, knowing she was caught.

            "I think that's an excellent idea!" her mother purred.  "It's high time you formally visited the court and claimed your heritage."

            And snap goes the trap.  Her father would bend when her mother used that tone of voice, even when it meant he would have to brave the Court to present her. 

            "Wait, Yukishiro?  Wasn't he the man trying to harm the prince?" her father asked, and with all the rage of an avenging patriarch.  Enishi had hurt his little girl, after all.

            Kaoru caught her head in her hands and groaned.  "Yes.  He's Lady Yukishiro Tomoe's sister.  He doesn't approve of her engagement to the prince."

            "There's an understatement," Sanosuke muttered and then brightened.  "So, we should get going if we want to get to the palace before the ball starts."

            "Ball?" she asked weakly.  This just kept getting better.

            "Yeah, and I'm sure everyone would appreciate you being there," he went on cheerfully, "The new escort Saitou found is great at her job, but is about as warm as a block of ice.  The Guard misses their Sunny Kaoru."  He grinned.  Kaoru wanted to punch his face in.

            "Oh!  Should I go pack your new dress for the trip?" her mother asked.

            "New… dress?"  They were determined to make her drown in shock.

            "Well, yes.  I thought that since you've been spending so much time at the palace you might feel more charitable toward a new dress or seven."

            "Seven, dear?"  Her father coughed.

            She smiled at him.  "Yes, seven.  Only one is ready right now.  Why, do you have a problem with me outfitting your only daughter like a proper Lady?"  There was a lot of danger in that deceptively sweet tone.  Kaoru knew both from experience and because she'd used it herself in the past few weeks.  She raised an eyebrow at her father.  He wisely expressed his delight at his wife's forethought. 

            "Wonderful!" she crowed.  "I'll have one of the girls pack up your toilettes and the dress and have one of the boys hitch up a carriage."

            "It would be nice to split a bottle with the king.  I have a fine, local vintage in the cellar that I don't think he's tried yet," her father mused to himself.

            "Can't get out of it, missy," her brother grinned in a perfect imitation of Saitou.  She cut a glower at him before shrugging.

            "There's no point in trying.  The king has asked for me, right?  And even if he hadn't, I promised Tomoe that I would visit.  I can't break that."  Besides, there were more hints here than even she could miss.  This smelled like the "opportunity" that the old bat had told her about.  It seemed unlikely that going to the ball would lead her to happiness, but who knew?  Maybe the second man of her dreams would be there waiting for her.

            She suddenly became aware that her family was staring at her like she had grown another head.

            "What?" she snapped defensively. 

            Her mother turned to her father and reached for his hand, tears in her eyes.  He grasped it warmly, looking a bit flustered himself.  Sanosuke chuckled and reached over to give her a light punch on the arm.

            "I think they're excited because you've decided to act more like a blue blood."

            She scowled.  "I haven't done anything like that!  I'm just keeping a promise to a friend and trying to avoid the wrath of the most scary man alive."

            "Of course, dear."  Her mother enveloped her in a crushing hug.  "And we're very proud of you for it."

            "I think I really am Soujiro's sister," she muttered around the silk of her mother's dress.  "I can't be related to you people."


            "You should have seen the look on Kenshin's face when we told him you were really a noble."  Sanosuke grinned and folded his hands behind his head as he walked on her right side.  Her father led her on his right arm.

            "We?" she echoed.

            "Oh yeah, the king knew who you were from the start.  'How could you not recognize a woman of noble breed when you see one, you stupid boy.'  Sharp guy.  He remembered Dad talking about you and said that he hadn't called you out because he figured if Dad let you run off to the palace, there must have been a good reason."

            Kaoru rolled her eyes, practically seeing the arrogant sneer of the king's lips as he waved his son's confusion away.

            "I'm sure he just wanted to see me so he could gloat that 'he knew who I was the whole time'."  She sighed and winced as the tight bodice of her dress constricted the movement.  Tae had set aside her mother's dress and whisked out a new creation the moment they had arrived.  She had said that since Kaoru didn't need to have room to fight anymore, she could stuff her into a more girly contraption.  Kaoru hadn't agreed, but she had still ended up in the dress.

            Everyone had been delighted to see her when she'd arrived.  Tsubame had happily shoved her in a tub the moment she'd arrived and had later fussed over her makeup while Tae put up her hair.  What she didn't understand were the knowing glances they had kept shooting each other over her head.  The whole staff seemed to be in on a great secret that she wasn't privy to.

            There wasn't time to worry about that now, though.  She was fast approaching the huge, double arched entrance to the ballroom.  No more slipping in through the back early.  Now she was entering the room as a noble Lady.  And how many women would recognize her from before and create a fuss about a noble being the escort?  She still didn't see the logic in the king's decision.

            Her father tugged her forward when she started to lag.  The closer the murmur of the crowd grew, the more tightly her stomach twisted.  She was about to see Kenshin again and she wasn't sure she was ready for that just yet.

            "Here we go!"  Sanosuke announced.  He was dressed in the sharply tailored, silky attire of a nobleman and wore it with an ease Kaoru hadn't known he possessed.

            She shot him a dirty look before they swept into the room and she was forced to plaster on a smile.  Her father didn't want to waste any time in presenting her to the king, and the throne was fast approaching.  Luckily, her frantic glances didn't find a red head anywhere near where she could see the king brooding over his guests.

            "My Lord Sovereign, King Seijirou Hiko," her father greeted formally as they approached.  Her brother and father bowed while she curtsied deeply, her face frozen into a polite mask so she wouldn't blush in embarrassment.

            "Lord Kamiya."  The king swirled the wine in his goblet as he drawled out his acknowledgement.  "Decided to grace the Court with your presence, I see."

            Her father rose and returned the smirk.  "I brought an apology gift for my absence."  He took the bottle of wine from under his arm and offered it to the king.  Hiko accepted it gracefully and raked it with a critical eye.

            "You are forgiven," he pronounced.  "Now, what else have you brought me?"

            Kaoru found herself shoved forward a few steps.  She forced the tilt of her chin into an arrogant slant and met the king's gaze defiantly.

            "May I present my daughter, Lady Kamiya Kaoru."

            "Kamiya, is it?" the king mused.  "Interesting.  That wasn't the name you went by while you were posing as my idiot son's escort."  The quirk of his mouth was infuriating.

            "Forgive me, my king," she forced the words out, anger drowning her nervousness.  He'd already told her brother that he hadn't cared she was noble.  He was just trying to make her squirm.  "I felt the deception was necessary in the face of the larger threat against your only son-and-heir's life."  She bit out the last part with venom-laced sweetness.  Her mother's voice. 

            The king snorted.  "And I thank you for that, Lady Kaoru," he said with a note of seriousness, "That idiot son of mine is useless when it comes to women.  It must come from his mother's side."  He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

            "Of course, sire."  She resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

            He waved a dismissing hand at her.  "Enough.  Go find the idiot.  I'm sure he's around here somewhere.  I order you to greet him."  He said the last with an arrogant smirk.

            Kaoru allowed herself a tiny glare at him, but nodded and turned away quickly.  Well that did it.  Her plan to sneak in and sneak out without having to see the prince was ruined.  If the king ordered her, she had to obey.  Even though she wanted to hide. 

            "You heard the king, missy," Sanosuke drawled.  "Let's go find the prince."

            It was a conspiracy.  They were all determined to make her face the last man she wanted to see right now.  Did they want her to loose what little composure she'd gained with all of her soul searching?  Because she wasn't sure how long she could keep herself together when she saw him.  Not when it was still so fresh. 

            She felt hairline cracks snake up her body with each heavy step she took across the ballroom.

            "I see him!"  Sano tugged her in a new direction and she let herself be led.  Her father trailed after them, but she wasn't paying attention to him anymore.  The people around her blurred together as she caught site of a head of red hair.  His back was to her, and he was talking to a severe looking young woman facing him.  She could tell he didn't like her from the tense line of his shoulders. 

            "Don't turn around," she pleaded in a whisper.  The words were swallowed up in the roar of the ballroom and the hammer-beating of her heart.  Tiny beads of cold sweat collected along the back of her neck and in her palms.  The room was suffocating her in perfume and the scent of wine.  How could she withstand seeing him now?  She'd only just formed a shaky shield around her emotions.  One look from him would shatter that, she was sure.

            "Hey, Prince Kenshin!"  Sano helpfully announced their presence.  She desperately tried to pull her face into a cool mask before he could turn those enigmatic violet eyes on her. 

            "Sano, please, I can't do this."  She hissed at him, clutching his arm as he yanked her along.  Kenshin had spotted them by now and his gentle smile for her was mesmerizing.

            "Sure you can."  He pushed her forward and she stumbled.  Kenshin helpfully caught her. 

            She was slammed into a whirlwind of sensations as his arms closed around her.  The warm, spicy scent of him, the firmness of his chest, the strong thumping of his heart beneath her hands, his breath brushing against the top of her head, the flush of her own cheeks, the desire to melt into his embrace, and a stirring of heat within her body at the closeness of him. 

            Kaoru pushed away hastily and stepped back until she ran into her brother's chest.  Her eyes were wild, she knew, as she stared at the prince.  He met her gaze with something fierce lurking within his own expression.  Then the woman he was with stepped between them and glared stonily at Kaoru.

            "I suggest you stay away from the prince.  I could have the Guard remove you if you try a stunt like that again.  He doesn't need desperate women throwing themselves at him."  Her voice was a slap of ice across her face. 

            Kaoru paled and flushed again.  So this was the new escort.  She disliked her instantly, but mostly because she knew Kenshin didn't like the stony woman.  But she couldn't help feeling a little bit grateful, too.  Anger was a shield.

           She drew herself up haughtily and sniffed.  "You're efficient, I'll allow you that, but far too blunt to safely use in court.  Saying that to a foreign dignitary could result in a war between our countries."  She smiled viciously.  "Besides, there are more polite ways to insult a woman to her face.  Would you care for a lesson?"

            "Ouch, missy."  Sano muttered and placed a restraining hand on her shoulder.  She shrugged it off and turned her attention to the prince.  Better to get this over with while she was still cocooned in her anger.

            "Your Highness."  She curtsied.  "Please forgive my previous deceptions."

            He brushed past the escort, still frozen with shocked fury, and grasped one of her hands. 

            "Kaoru, do not worry about that."  His face split in a brilliant smile.  "I'm glad you came.  I've missed you."

            And he had.  She could see it in the radiant glow of his eyes, feel it in the warmth of his hand as it slid up her arm to cup beneath her elbow.  Any second now he was going to ask her to dance, and then she would be lost.  His absent affection would kill her.

            "Will you dance with me?"  There was something terrifying about the flickering emotions in his eyes.  Something she wanted, but didn't have the courage to accept.  "I have to tell to you something."

            Everything would change if she went with him.  But for better or worse, she couldn't tell.  She felt herself crumbling as she looked into his face.  Her body trembled with fear and longing.  If she didn't throw herself in his arms or run away she would break apart at the seams.    

            Her lips parted in mute apology before she turned and fled.    


            She wandered around the garden and admired the variety of night blooming flowers.  The chair she'd wallowed in after her injury still sat in the middle of its marble patio, though free of pillows and blankets.  She plunked into its rigid embrace and brooded.  The lights in her former room had already been turned out for the night, and, because the garden was private, there were no lanterns or sconces lit to chase the darkness away. 

            Her heart calmed its frenzied pace as she concentrated on breathing around the tight laces of her bodice.  She'd have ripped it open if she wasn't worried about being found.  It wouldn't take them long to find her.  All they had to do was follow the trail of servants who'd seen her stumbling through the halls.  But hopefully the prince wouldn't be with them.  And maybe they wouldn't think to look for her so close to his room.

            "I am such a fool."  Her breath puffed from her mouth in a dejected sigh.  The one moment when she'd needed to be strong and she'd shattered under the pressure.  Though she couldn't find too much fault with herself.  What had they been thinking? 

            She shook her head.  Sano and the king hadn't been with her since she'd left for home.  They hadn't seen the ebony depths of her depression.  And they were men.  They didn't understand, couldn't understand, that she wasn't ready to see the prince. 

            She would wait here for her brother and father to find her.  Then she'd either make them take her home or bully the fare for a carriage out of them.  And she'd find a maid to take a message to Tomoe saying she was sorry she'd broken her promise.  She just couldn't take their pity or indifference.  Her emotions were scrambled and the next time she might do something more embarrassing than just run away.

            "You leave yourself very open to attack, do you realize that?"  The voice sent a trickle of ice down her back.

            Kaoru leapt from the chair and whirled to face the direction of the voice.  How had he gotten into the palace?  Where were the Guards?  And, she'd never thought she'd be saying this, where was Saitou?

            "Why are you here?" she snapped, edging closer to the palace while trying to find him in the shadows.

            The strike of flint on stone rang through the garden and a moment later a lantern bloomed into life at the edge of the trees.  She sucked in a breath and searched the ground for something to fight him with.  It was the first time in years that she'd gone anywhere without a bokken.  Her first night as a true Lady would be her death.  The irony was not lost on her.

            "This is the first time I've seen you in a confining dress.  A pity for you since it will make it harder to fight back."  And apparently not on him, either.

            She turned to make a dash for her rooms.  Two steps and he was already in front of her, smirking.  Sweat broke out along her forehead as adrenaline pumped through her veins.  He was almost as fast as Kenshin. 

            Maybe she should scream. 

            Then he caught her gaze.  She stared at him, transfixed, as he lazily closed the distance between them. 

            "It's not enough magic to trip the wards they have around here, but enough to keep you quiet.  It's a shame they're so paranoid about spellcasters.  I can't risk drawing anyone's attention with magic, so I'll have to kill you with a more barbaric, and painful, device."  He circled her and set the lantern down in the seat of her chair.  She stayed frozen, staring at the windows of her old room.  Her feet were rooted to the ground and her arms lay lifeless at her sides. 

            "Why are you going to kill me?" she whispered.  At least she could still talk, even if she couldn't scream.

            He snarled and she felt him prowl forward until his hot breath tickled the back of her neck. 

            "Because that lying murderer has betrayed her again."

            She slowed her breathing down and tried to think of some way, any way, to keep him distracted.  They would come looking for her, would find her in a matter of minutes.  If she could keep him talking for that long…

            "How?"  She didn't want to hear, but it was the only way.  He would try to turn her heart against Kenshin again.  Would try to spin his words around her mind until she couldn't remember the difference between love and hate.  Sanity and insanity.

            "First he murdered her love and tricked her into becoming his fiancé.  He's trapped her, Lady.  And now he doesn't even have the decency to honor the cage he's built."  He brushed her hair back over her shoulders in an almost affectionate gesture.

            "What are you talking about?"  He was making even less sense than he had the last time. 

            "He did love her, he had at least that much integrity.  But now…" he circled her again until she was forced to meet his eyes.  "He doesn't love her.  He loves you.  He has trapped her and now he insults her further by loving another.  He is mocking her."  He stared at her coldly.

            She shook her head and was surprised to find that she could.  "No.  He doesn't love me.  He loves her.  You should know that!  You were the one who set up that trap."  She pleaded with him, searched his face for even a shred of understanding. 

            "I saw the way he held you that morning.  I thought it would be enough to tarnish him.  Even if he didn't marry that Nishimoto swine, she would surely try to leave him when she saw how unfaithful he was.  And I would have helped her break free of his lies.  She would have smiled again"

            He lifted one of her hands and turned it palm up.  He stroked the veins beneath her pale skin from the crook of her elbow down to her pulse with gentle fingertips.  She shuddered, but couldn't pull away. 

            "But you changed that.  You made him fall in love with you.  I don't blame you, really.  You can't help how you feel." 

            Her mind was reeling with the irony of his words.  "But she loves him, too," she interrupted.  "Why don't you understand?  If you hurt him, you will hurt her, too.  She's with him by choice.  She has forgiven him for-"

            He grabbed her chin with his free hand and squeezed.  "Shut up," he crooned.  "Don't lie.  How could anyone forgive him for the heinous things he has done?  For all the innocent blood he has spilled?"

            Her jaw creaked under his hand and angry tears of pain trickled from the corners of her eyes.  "Just because you can't doesn't mean she hasn't.  They love each other.  Accept it.  You're only pushing her away."

            "Shut up."

            Her voice screeched free.  "She won't smile for you!"

            "She will!!!"  He roared, the sound bouncing off the stone walls of the palace.  His breath whistled through his teeth.  "And though it pains me to take your life, you will have to suffer for him.  If he can insult my sister by loving another, I will simply have to remove that luxury from his life.  And I will watch him writhe in pain-" he pulled a short knife from his belt and caressed the edge of it along the length of her arm "- as his happiness is ripped away from him.  He will finally know what he did to my dear sister."

            Kaoru trembled with the effort to pull away.  She shook her head furiously at him, begging with him silently not to put just the fraction of extra pressure on the blade that would turn its caress into a deep, chilling slice. 

            "Please, Enishi.  This won't get her back.  This won't make her smile.  You're crazy.  You don't know what you're doing."  She squashed her hysteria and pitched her voice in a soothing murmur.  Just a few more minutes and surely someone would find them.  They would stop him from slicing her open.  They had to.

            "And won't it be even more painful when I cut your wrists open just so?" he asked, the croon back to his voice.  He wasn't listening to her anymore.  "It will look like you took your own life over him.  There will be nothing to trace it back to me, because I'm not even here tonight.  I have alibis set up in Nobu already.  And your weak mages won't be able to feel this breath of a spell I've put on you."

            Her chest heaved with the effort not to burst into frightened tears.  She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing her break down into a sobbing mess.  There was begging and there was begging.

            "But he will know.  He will know it was me."  He smiled at her with a lover's gentleness and slid the tip of the knife beneath her skin.

            "Enishi, stop." 

            He froze for a moment and then his eyes lit with boyish joy.  "Sister?"

            Kaoru let out a breathy sob of relief as the knife stilled and slowly withdrew from her skin.  He turned away from her toward the palace and she felt the spell around her break with his concentration.  She skittered away from him, pressing her hand to the shallow wound in her arm.

            Tomoe stood in the doorway of Kaoru's old room, her face sad and stern.  Enishi strode toward her, his arms outstretched for an embrace. 

            "No."  Her voice, though low and calm, was like a slap in the silence of the garden.  And across his face.

            "Sister?" he looked genuinely confused and a strange sort of pity twisted Kaoru's heart.  He didn't understand. 

            "You're hurting me, Enishi."  She sounded like a mother scolding a five year old.  And maybe that was what she was to him.  What he was to himself.

            "But sister, I'm freeing you.  I'm giving you back your happiness so you can smile again."  He sounded so sure of himself, his face lightened with uncertain hope. 

            "Kenshin is very dear to me," she snapped, the first harsh words Kaoru had heard from her.  "If you hurt him, I will not forgive you, Enishi.  I will not smile for you anymore."

            Kaoru watched with stunned fascination as the proud sorcerer was reduced to an insecure, gangly boy seeking his mother's approval. 

            "I was just trying to make you happy."

            "By hurting the people I care about?"  She shook her head and stepped forward to place a small hand on his face.  "Enishi, what has happened to you in these last years?  I shouldn't have left you behind, then.  Maybe if I had taken you with me you wouldn't have…"

            Her hand dropped at his silence and she stepped back.  "I didn't realize how far this had come.  I'm going to find someone to help you."

            "Does that mean you are leaving him?"  His voice was fierce with demand and joy.  She pinned him with a flat stare.

            "Enishi, you were trying to hurt Kaoru just a moment ago."

            He hesitated before nodding.

            "She is my friend.  I came to find her to talk to her and I found you hurting her.  That is unacceptable."

            "But the Battousai is in love with her, he has betrayed you again-"

            "Enishi, I will say this simply.  If you ever hurt Kenshin, Kaoru, or anyone else I hold dear again, I will not acknowledge you anymore.  I will no longer have a brother."

            The force of her words knocked him back a few steps.  They stared at each other for a long time before he finally bowed his head and nodded his understanding.

            "Good."  Tomoe sighed and turned to Kaoru.  "It is time I do something about him.  Before he hurts anyone else.  I thought for a long time that he would understand.  I truly didn't know he was like this.  Maybe I didn't want to know."  Her chuckle was bitter, but resigned.  Kaoru edged over to her until she could see her eyes in the half-gloom of the garden.

            Enishi stared between the two of them suspiciously and Kaoru winced.  He probably knew they were talking about him, even though they were speaking low enough that he couldn't hear.

            "But Tomoe, what about Kenshin?  Aren't you two going to get married soon?"  The only thing Tomoe could do for him was find a hospital for the unbalanced.  And Enishi would need years of therapy if he was ever going to be human again.  Would Tomoe stay with him all that time?  And if so… what about her poor prince?

            The older woman blinked at her and then smiled.  "No, Kaoru.  We're not getting married soon."  She moved forward and took a firm grasp on her brother's hand.  He gripped it back like a lifeline, looking a little confused by the sudden turn of events, but peaceful.

            "But you've already been engaged for over two years!"  She narrowed her eyes in bewilderment.  "The king shouldn't keep hiding you two.  It's not fair to you."

            Tomoe shook her head.  "Kaoru, I broke the engagement.  I realized that I didn't measure up to you when it came to how much I loved him.  We will be happier this way."  She shrugged an elegant shoulder and began leading her brother back inside the palace.  "I will visit as soon as I can since I couldn't speak with you properly tonight.  Be well, Kaoru."

            "Yes," she replied faintly.  It was either the shock of hearing that Kenshin was no longer engaged, what Tomoe had implied within that announcement, or the blood loss, but… she was seriously considering giving up her vow and fainting.

            Voices filled her hearing, then.  Light flooded the rooms as a rush of people came in with candles.  She stared at them in a daze before shaking out of her momentary stupor and scowling.  Ah, her saviors had arrived at last.

            With a disgruntled sigh, she shook of her annoyance and strode back to her room to find someone to bandage her arm.  She had good pressure on the wound, but there was still blood leaking from beneath her fingers and staining her dress.    

            The babble in her room was centered on Tomoe and Enishi as the Lady led him through the crowd of angry questions and accusations.  Among the Guards, maids, and footmen, she could hear her father and brother, but their figures were lost in the press of people.  No one seemed to notice her listing in the garden doorway.

            Then, amidst the frenzy, she saw a familiar red head moving steadily from the front of the room toward her.  She didn't wonder that out of everyone, he would be the first to spot her.  Her brain began working slowly and suspiciously toward a stunning realization. 

            She smiled weakly at him and tried to make her bleeding arm less conspicuous.  His eyes were narrowed dangerously as he raked them over her body, looking for other wounds.  Another maid got in his way and he paused to let her by.  Then a Guard member almost trampled him. 

            His temper snapped.

            "Silence."  He wasn't very loud, but his voice cut through the din.  Everyone stilled and he began handing out orders with brisk efficiency.

            "We have found the intruder Captain Saitou sensed, so everyone can return to their posts.  I want a regiment to escort Lady Yukishiro and her brother safely back to Nobu.  Her carriage is already prepared to leave.  Ms. Tsubame, draw a bath for Lady Kaoru and have someone help you find guest rooms for both Lord Kamiyas.  Ms. Megumi, please see to Lady Kaoru's wound.  The rest of you, leave."

            The room stared at their normally docile prince in shock for a moment before breaking into another flurry of motion.  Kaoru grinned at the exasperated expression on his face as he once again tried to fight his way through to reach her.  The buzz of fear at his presence was set aside momentarily as she continued working over the puzzle Tomoe had handed her.  He wasn't engaged.  She felt they would all be happier because of it.  Technically, that meant Kenshin, too. 

            There was something here she should understand, but her mind skittered away from it, still too bruised and fragile. 

            Megumi reached her first and tsked over the shallow knife cut.  A tiny, subtle flare of magic healed it until it scabbed over.  Then she hustled her around the dispersing crowd and to where Tsubame hovered with a soft robe and nightdress, waiting to escort her to the baths.

            "I think Kenshin wanted to talk to me," she pointed out as the prince was left stranded in the fray, and looking quite annoyed at having her whisked away.

            "He can wait until you aren't covered in blood.  Besides, I think you need a few minutes to recover from your ordeal."  Megumi gave her arm a sisterly pat before she split from them to attend to some other duties.  She let Tsubame throw her into a bath for the second time in the same evening and spent the time mulling over the bubble of hope and elation slowly growing within her. 

            When she finally returned to her room, the earlier mess of people had long retreated and her bed was already turned down and waiting for her.  She grinned at the cozy display.  The ball wouldn't wind down for several hours, but they were ready to tuck her in for the night.

            "Are you alright?"  His soft voice didn't startle her.  She turned and found him standing in the doorway between their rooms, dressed down from his earlier finery into a simple pair of pants and a tunic. 

            "It was a lot scarier than that arrow," she admitted with a sigh.  It had to be true, she thought as she watched him approach her.  This wasn't a crazy leap of her intuition. 

            The way he was looking at her, told her.  The old woman's words… Tomoe's confession… and even Enishi's crazed babbling.  That was all too much to be just a coincidence.  Right?

            "I'm sorry I wasn't there to protect you."  He rubbed his hands up and down her arms before pulling her into a tight embrace.  She could feel a fine tremor in his hand as it worked its way through her loose hair to cradle the back of her head. 

            "You didn't know.  And if I hadn't run off like a fool, he wouldn't have been able to corner me."  She leaned into his arms and the security they provided.  No, she couldn't be wrong.  After everything, fate owed her this much.  It was staring her right in the face, and had been for awhile.  Her first suspicions that she had confided to Sano had been right.  Then she'd been blinded by her guilt over Tomoe.

            But she had let him go.  For her. 

            "If he had hurt you again…"  He buried his face in her neck and pressed a desperate kiss to the flesh there. 

            Her eyes widened and then closed as a blissful smile curved her mouth.  Perhaps one of the first true smiles she'd felt in a long time.  Because, even though he no longer had a fiancé, maybe he would want another. 

            "Kenshin…" she clutched the soft fabric of his shirt in nervous fists as she tried to work up the courage to ask.  The past week of agony had made her wary.  But now she might not have to look so hard for a husband to build a family with.  To bury herself in.  She might not even have to take off a whole year to find herself.  The black edges of depression were curling away from her mind, restoring her strength in precious drops of hope. 

            "Mmm?"  He hadn't moved, content with his position nuzzling the skin of her neck. 

            "What did you want to tell me in the ballroom?  I ran away before you could say anything."  She danced nervous fingertips over his back.

            He lifted his head and smiled before nosing forward to find her lips in a soul-shaking kiss.  When he pulled back, she didn't need to know the answer.  He'd already told her.



A/N: Before anyone asks, no, she did not have a miscarriage.  People who skipped over the part about her knowing she was past her fertile days of the month in the last chapter might have misconstrued that paragraph.  She just started her period, that's all.  Another thing: Don't hate me for the K/T moment.  I mean, they've been together for a couple of years now.  I thought it would have been awkward for them to part ways without something like that.

And yeah, reeeeally playing up the Crazy Enishi card.  But since I couldn't play the Dead Sister card to tip him over the edge, I just messed with the lurking insanity present in the series and teased it into something more dramatic.            

::massive group hug:: Woot!  It's finished!  Over!  Complete!  Sucking ending?... Well, I'm not entirely happy with it, but I don't think I'd ever truly be.  I don't do endings very well.  I think that was part of my phobia with finishing this.  But I hope you are all happy.  I thought it would be too cheesy to have big professions of love at the end since they've told everybody and their mother about it… except each other.  And that's kind of how it was in the series, too.  No "I love you," just… a mutual understanding that that's what was there.  And voila, we have romance. 

Huuuuuge thanks to everyone who's been reading this.  Again, there are almost too many reviews for the previous chapter for me to respond to everyone individually.  But, dang, you guys rock my world.  Thanks to everyone who voted for me in Elimination and who supported me through the lifespan of this story.  And thanks for never being jerkish about asking me to update.  I know I took a long time with these last two chapters, so thanks for being so understanding.  I love you all, and see you in my next fic!