She drifted somewhere between waking and unending sleep. Darkness slid over her, encasing her in a velvety cocoon of numbness. She welcomed it gladly. The darkness sheltered her, offering her refuge from all fear, grief and regret. It promised her peace beyond all memory; it whispered to her of home.
Home. She had been searching for it for so long. She thought she'd found it, but she was wrong, and even the home she believed was hers was lost to her now. So much had been lost. So much…
She was tired. So tired. Now the darkness had come for her, and she would follow.
I promised him…
The darkness changed. It was a subtle shift, like the sound of a heartbeat in the dead of the night. She grew aware of it, and instantly resisted. She didn't want to be aware. She didn't want to know, didn't want to feel. And she didn't, she didn't, she didn't want to remember.
But remember she did. Memories hounded her like beggar children, sidling into her consciousness one by one, then more and more until a tangled montage of scenes and emotions crowded around her, devoid of sense, order or mercy. Scenes from her childhood, full of bittersweetness and poignancy; the faces of her mother, her father, her beloved friends and family—they blurred before her, demanding her attention. She tried to burrow deeper into the darkness but the memories tugged at her insistently. And somewhere beyond the memories, it seemed to her that a voice spoke to her, calling her back. But she didn't want to go back.
I promised him…
It was raining a lot. No, there was a storm, a series of storms. And people were angry. The streets where she and her mother used to walk were draped with red. Shigure looked so worried. Momiji too. And Haru was lost. He'd left on some errand and never came home.
She whimpered. The voice was still there, coaxing her. She tried to fight off the onslaught of recollection, but her limbs felt oddly weighted down, so she wept instead.
There was…a journey. Uo-chan was there, and five men. Men in armor, kind and brave. An empty town boiling with grotesque life. Nightmarish figures pursuing her through shadows. A poisoned desert. Faces gazing beyond her with such terrible peace that it hurt her to see. Blue-white fire, bringing with it unbearable pain. A forest full of malice. And in that forest, a little cave rising in a patch of white flowers. A home. A friend. A brother.
Fur brushed against her hand, and joy pierced her like a shaft of pure sunlight. She turned to it with an eager little cry. A warm, furry body pressed against her cheek, making her smile. Through the clamoring multitude of ghostly images, a pair of violet eyes smiled back.
Then the eyes turned gray and cold and cruel. And behind them, another pair of eyes watched her. Inhuman eyes, the eyes of a monster. She writhed in terror, trying to get away, and pain exploded in the region of her chest. The voice returned, speaking urgently, and the pain receded until she lay still, exhausted.
Darkness returned like an old friend. She listened to the distant sound of a heartbeat, letting the darkness wash over her in soothing waves, drawing her in deeper, lulling her to sleep. To sleep and finally, finally, to forget.
Then the other voice—the voice that stayed with her in the silence, holding her back from the beckoning darkness—the voice spoke again, and she knew deep in her soul that it was hers.
No, I promised him. I won't ever forget…Yuki-kun...
The darkness lightened to a murky gray fog, and for some reason her back began to ache. As the sea of unconsciousness gradually released her, she thought she felt the loving brush of her mother's fingers upon her brow.
Tohru opened her eyes. A warm, wet, softly snuffling snout met her gaze.
She jerked sideways until she was pressed almost vertical against the wall, barely noticing the uneven and slightly coarse feel of cloth spread over straw underneath her. Her assailant, on the other hand, shot straight up into the air and rolled head over heels until he hit the opposite wall. After a moment that consisted mostly of Tohru getting her breath back and a muffled grunt from the twitching brown heap across her, several previously overlooked details drew her attention, foremost of which was the fact that her would-be attacker was a bit too small for a vicious demon out for her blood. And that—and this was quickly rising up in the ranks of importance—her back, or at least those parts of it that weren't throbbing dully with pain, seemed a bit drafty.
"Oh dear," said a voice that was trying not to laugh.
A girl was bent half-in and half-out of the cave's entrance, holding a sack in one hand and a bow in the other. She shuffled in, bending beneath the low ceiling of the cave, and knelt beside Tohru. "Keero, you bad boar," she scolded over her shoulder. "You're supposed to be guarding her, not scaring her half to death. Tohru-kun, are you all right? He didn't hurt you, didn't he?"
If her face managed to look any more astonished, Tohru had no doubt she'd be feeling around for her eyeballs by now. Sunlight streaming in from the cave's entrance fell fully upon the girl, illuminating shoulder-length hair as dark as her own, wide ash-brown eyes full of concern, and a creamy, oval face that still bore traces of the soft roundness of childhood. The girl was surprisingly pretty, but far more surprising was the fact that the girl seemed to know who she was, despite being, at least as far as Tohru was concerned, a complete stranger.
"Oh!" Tohru gasped, suddenly realizing that she'd been staring quite openly at the girl. "Ah, no, he didn't—did you say 'boar'?" She peered around at her would-be attacker, who was now sitting on his haunches with his back to them, the very picture of injured innocence.
The girl sighed as she followed her gaze. "Yes, Keero's a wild boar. When I found him, he still had those stripes that baby boars have. Mm, he doesn't seem to be growing much, does he? I'm starting to think he might be the runt of his family." Upright ears flicking in annoyance, the little brown piglet turned and gave his mistress an amazingly expressive look. The girl giggled, and even Tohru smiled.
"He's adorable," she admitted. "I'm sorry I scared you, Keero. I was surprised, that's all."
The girl laughed again. "Don't worry about it, Tohru-kun. Keero's tougher than that. Oh I'm so glad you've woken up. I was starting to worry. Well…" She tilted her head to the side and looked Tohru up and down. "You seem fine, but how are you really feeling?"
"Eh?" She didn't know where she was or how she got here. She was talking to a girl she'd never seen before who knew her by name. Her back and chest hurt, and her mind felt as sharp as a sack of wet cotton. And the back of her dress—she'd done some surreptitious feeling around behind her—appears to have been torn from collar to waist. She bit her lip as she considered her situation, then decided to go for broke. "I do feel better, all in all. At least I—I remember feeling a whole lot worse. Um, thank you for taking care of me, ah…"
The girl gave a start. "Oh, what a dummy. I've been calling you 'Tohru-kun' for a long time now, I've forgotten that you don't know me. My name is Kagura, and, well, you've met Keero, ne?"
Something stirred in the back of Tohru's mind, but it was muffled by the layers of sludge her thoughts seemed to be mired in. Well, whatever it was, she supposed it could wait. "Thank you, Kagura-san. But…anoo…"
Kagura shook her head. "It's all right, Tohru-kun. You're still tired. Why don't you lie down and rest a bit? I've got enough tubers and wild cabbage for a soup—oh, on your stomach, please. You've got a nasty cut on your back, see. I'm sorry about your dress, but I had to keep the cloth out of the way when I stitched you up." She moved about as she spoke, setting the sack beside a firepit that had been artfully ringed with colorful pebbles and a few stones, and then proceeded to, well, disarm herself. Tohru watched in amazement as Kagura leaned her hunting bow and her quiver of arrows against the wall, then removed her dark gray cloak and folded it neatly in a corner, then undid the strap of the dagger from her thigh. Underneath the cloak, she wore a simple yellow tunic that was belted at her waist with a leather cord, skin-tight black leggings and a pair of boots. When Kagura noticed Tohru's gaze upon the pouch hanging from her belt, she untied it to show her the contents. "Exploding balls," she explained. "Like fireworks, only much messier."
Tohru blinked at the collection of multicolored, sequin-encrusted spheres. "They're so pretty."
"Yes, that's Aya-chan's style," Kagura said with a sigh. "He's the only one I know who'd take a broadsword and put lace edging around it. You'll know what I mean when you meet him."
Kagura waved a hand. "Oh, he calls himself by this great, long name, but I just call him either Aya-chan or 'the mage.' He's the one who told me about y—oh no, I'm getting ahead of myself, am I?" She slapped a hand against her forehead and gave Tohru an apologetic look. "I'm sorry. In any case, there'll be time enough for questions and explanations when you're feeling better, ne?"
"Bwee," snorted Keero, who seemed to have forgiven Tohru enough to lie down beside her.
"Hey, I can too be patient," Kagura countered indignantly, giving her pet a mock-glare. "I was patient with you when you broke into that vegetable shop and ate all the onions, wasn't I? I was patient with Aya-chan when he paraded through town in a ball gown, wasn't I? In fact, I've been nothing but patient all these years! Years and years of being patient with him and loving him and taking care of him like a proper bride should! I waited and waited for him to marry me like he promised, and what does that macho, unappreciative idiot do? He runs off on some stupid quest and disappears!"
Tohru stared in open-mouthed shock. The sweet, cheery Kagura of a few minutes ago had vanished, and in her place was an amazon warrior in ascendant fury, face flushed and eyes blazing with a wild light, both fists gripping two colored stones until her knuckles shone white. The air around her was practically rippling. Nearby, Keero made a noise midway between a sigh and a whimper and immediately tried to burrow into the straw underneath the sheet. Tohru noticed his movements and wondered nervously if she shouldn't be doing the same thing.
"He just goes and disappears off the face of the earth!" the avenging angel that had once been Kagura ranted. "And now it's up to me to find him and bring him back! Why? Because I'm his bride and no matter what he says, that's what a proper bride does! I should have chained him to my bed when I had the chance! That idiot! Idiot! Kyo-kun, YOU IDIOT!"
With a final wrathful howl, Kagura raised her fists and the stones crumbled in her hands. That and the soft, distressed sound from Tohru seemed to bring Kagura back to her senses. She blinked at the pebbled remains trickling through her fingers, went "ah" very faintly, and sank down to the ground in mortification. "I'm sorry," she said weakly. "Sometimes I get carried away by my feelings. It was bad enough before Kyo-kun left, but now he's gone and I—sometimes it's all I can do to keep from—oh." She sniffled and pressed a finger against her lip to stop its trembling. "I'm sorry. It doesn't happen a lot. Only when I think about…about…"
A wet snout nuzzled her thigh. Kagura sniffed again and frowned down at her pet, but Keero was paying absolutely no heed to her. She looked up and gasped.
Tohru was sitting up with both arms wrapped around herself, shivering uncontrollably. Her face, which was still pale from her ordeal, had turned so white that it looked as if it had been painted on. She was staring fixedly at nothing, and the heartbroken sorrow Kagura saw in the wide, sea-blue eyes sent a chill through her.
"I—I left them behind," Tohru whispered distantly, sinking into the pit of memories that had opened up beneath her mental fog. "I had to..."
Even if it's that damned Yuki you really want. I won't let you be alone in this place.
"I promised to come back. I promised to save them. I promised him."
"Tohru-kun?" Kagura called worriedly.
I remembered you, Honda-san. I always will.
"They wanted to protect me." Tohru's breath caught, then emerged in a short, thin scream. To Kagura's profound shock, she covered her face with her hands and shrank against the wall of the cave, curling herself up into a trembling ball. "They'll kill me," she moaned piteously. "Monsters...they're monsters!"
Slim, strong arms closed around her, pulling her from the shifting quicksand of memories. She resisted for a moment, then shuddered and went slack. The protective mental fog cleared, leaving her feeling exposed and completely helpless, and with a sigh Tohru gave in to her tears.
Reality gradually returned. She found herself half-sitting across Kagura's lap with her head on her shoulder, while Kagura rocked her gently, humming a tuneless little song. A warm, furry weight against her own legs turned out to be Keero trying his own way to comfort her. For a moment, she could almost pretend that she was back in her mother's arms, and the thought made her smile. How strange, she thought, moving her head so that her gaze fell upon the healing crescent-shaped cuts on her arms. After all that's happened, how can I still smile like this?
The important thing is to choose to live.
I'm sorry. She closed her eyes, tasting the salty-bitter tang of her tears. I'm so sorry.
Don't be, said another voice inside her, filling her with a sweet warmth. Don't ever be sorry about what you feel.
She smiled again, thinking of pale skin and silvery hair and moonlight shining through amethysts.
Don't cry, Honda-san. Nothing here is worth your tears.
Maybe not, Yuki-kun, she answered silently. But worth my will to live, I think.
And in her mind, a pair of violet eyes smiled back, a smile reflected in a red-haired boy's rare, crooked grin, and a kitchen-boy's shy giggle. I remember you all, she thought, feeling her spirit rouse deep within her, giving her strength. I will never forget, and I will never give up.
Suddenly realizing that she was still draped half-naked over Kagura's front, blubbering more or less continuously into the other girl's tunic, Tohru "eeped" and tried to straighten up, but succeeded only in outbalancing all three of them. When they finally managed to disentangle themselves from the ensuing jumble of arms, legs and hooves, Tohru sat back and bowed low, face aflame with embarrassment. "I'm sorry, Kagura-san. You've taken such good care of me, and here I go crying all over you like this. And I'm sorry for knocking Keero over, too. Again."
Kagura stared, then burst out laughing. "Tohru-kun," she burbled, "are you apologizing to me for that tiny, little outburst?"
Tohru looked up, caught the self-deprecating light in Kagura's ash-brown eyes, and started to laugh as well. The loud rumbling of Tohru's stomach, echoed surprisingly by Kagura's, made them laugh even harder, to the aching dismay of Tohru's still-bruised ribs. Keero sat back, brown eyes darting back and forth between his barely-sane mistress and her equally batty companion, then turned his back on them with a huff of disgust.
"Oh my," Kagura gasped, wiping at her eyes. "Well, I guess I should start on on that soup while there's still daylight left. You must be starving. It's been three days after all."
"Eh? I've been out that long?"
Kagura nodded. "You were very badly hurt, Tohru-kun. For some time in fact I thought you weren't going to make it. It was almost as if…you didn't want to wake up. But then you started fighting back and now you're awake and even laughing." She gave the other girl an impressed and undeniably curious look. "Of course, I suppose I shouldn't expect anything less from the only person who's ever escaped from the cursed forest.'"
"Haaa," was all Tohru could say. She stared down at the cuts on her arms again. I could have died, she thought, feeling chilled. I could have died so many times: in Mizaka, in that town, the Deadlands, the cursed forest. Akito could have killed me. K-kyo-kun could have—
"Ne, Tohru-kun, what did happen in the cursed forest?"
Kyo-kun would have—no, no, I won't accept it, I won't—
Tohru found herself looking down the length of Keero's snout and into anxious brown eyes. The piglet nuzzled her leg and grunted softly again, surprising a laugh out of her. She sighed inwardly, berating herself for wallowing in such grim reminiscences. She had to keep her footing, had to keep believing somehow. If she gave in to the fear, then Akito would have surely won.
She just wished she wasn't so alone.
Kagura watched the emotions chase one another across Tohru's face, and felt immediately remorseful. The girl's just woken up, for Kami's sake! a voice in her mind scolded her. It sounded gallingly like Kyo, and Keero's vaguely accusing glances weren't helping either. "I'm sorry," she mumbled. "That was so rude of me. Um, maybe I should just get on with that soup, ne?"
"Hmm?" Kagura uncovered a small cooking pot full of water and inspected it carefully.
Tohru took a deep breath. "Kagura-san, you said you were…looking for Kyo-kun, weren't you?"
Kagura felt her heart almost literally stop beating. No! she told herself fiercely, fighting back the intense emotion, the dreaded compulsion to release all control and let the darker persona within her take what it wanted. No, I said! It might be nothing, just like all those so-called 'leads' before. Nevertheless, she carefully put the lid of the pot down and, feeling the weight of Keero's watchful stare upon her, picked up the last colored stone beside the firepit and grasped it tightly. "Yes. Kyo-kun is my fiancé, you see," she explained evenly. "He went off on a quest months ago and disappeared. Some say he and his companions have been killed, some say he'd been kidnapped by Mizakan authorities. I've been traveling for nearly as long trying to learn the truth. I intend to find him, Tohru-kun, and I intend to bring…him…back."
"Bwee," Keero grunted warningly, and she immediately loosened her grip upon the stone, bowing in reflexive shame. Kami, please don't let me lose it now, she prayed.
Tohru, however, showed no sign of wariness or disgust at Kagura's near-explosion. She nodded, sea-blue eyes full of gentle understanding. "You love him," she murmured almost to herself.
Kagura met her gaze. "No one else can ever love Kyo-kun as much as I can, Tohru-kun. No one."
Tohru smiled at that, then bit her lip as another thought occurred to her. "A-anoo, Kagura-san, were you really waiting for me outside the cursed forest?"
Kagura nodded. "Aya-chan told me to do it. For a time he and I traveled together, and he told me this long and involved story about a long-lost prince named—"
"Yuki-kun," Tohru whispered.
Kagura gave her a lopsided smile. "I call him 'Yun-chan' myself. Aya-chan talked so much about him whenever we were alone, so now I feel as if I knew him personally." She peered at the unfocused expression on Tohru's face, and sighed. "Ne, Tohru-kun, wouldn't you like to eat something before we talk?"
Tohru shook her head. "Thank you, but I think there's something I have to tell you first."
"What's that?" Kagura found herself gripping her stone again.
"I met Kyo-kun—"
There was a thud and a clatter as Keero, displaying almost superporcine agility, threw himself at Kagura's middle, knocking her backward. Nevertheless, Kagura managed to keep herself mostly upright, her fingers gouging deep crevasses into the stony earth. She raised her head slowly toward Tohru, ash-brown eyes sparking like miniature thunderstorms. "You. Met. Kyo-kun!"
"Y-yes!" Tohru squeaked, forcing herself to keep from scaling the wall with her shoulderblades.
The stone underwent accelerated entropy in Kagura's fist. "Tell me," she growled through a swirling aura of concentrated ardor. "Tell me where he is—"
"I am calm, dammit!" Kagura bellowed, then shuddered and buried her head in her hands. There was a long, drawn-out sound that could have been a sigh or a very quiet wail, and when Kagura looked up again, Tohru was stunned to find the girl looking fairly normal, except for the tears streaming down her face. "Please?" she said hoarsely. "Please, Tohru-kun. Tell me."
Without a thought, Tohru crawled toward the stricken girl and put her arms around her, just as Kagura did for her minutes before. "He's alive, Kagura-san," she said softly. "He's been imprisoned in the cursed forest by a dark sorcerer."
"Oh Kami, that sounds like Aya-chan's story," Kagura groaned.
Tohru smiled brightly. "Ah, then maybe the reason Aya-chan told you to wait for me is so I can tell you my part of the story, ne?"
She told Kagura about the capture of Kyo and the slaughter of his companions, about the lake and the tower and the dungeon, about Akito and the nightly battles for Kyo's freedom. She told her about his curse and how a small, fire-colored cat could live in a forest full of monsters—
"A cat!" Kagura squealed, clapping her hands together. "He turns into a little orange cat? Oh, he must be so cute!"
"Yes, he is," Tohru agreed laughingly, remembering her own reactions toward Yuki, although she doubted that Kyo would have tolerated Kagura's affections as well as Yuki did hers. "He acts like Kyo-kun, too, even though he can't talk in his cat-form."
She spoke about Yuki and his curse, about the deadly rivalry between the two and Akito's manipulations of them, including Ritsu the kitchen-boy. She recounted, with a fond smile, the nights she spent with Kyo, how he made her an enchanted tea to get rid of her fever, how he tried to teach her how to do magic—
"Magic?" Kagura interrupted again. "But Kyo-kun doesn't—oh, the healing prayers! Nana Asako taught him some rituals. She taught both of us, actually, but Kyo-kun's always been better at it than me."
Tohru winced, remembering Kyo's insistence upon the subject. "Etooo, yes. That's what I meant. I'm sorry."
The light outside faded from turquoise to reddish-gold to depthless indigo. Kagura lit the fire in the firepit and set the soup to boiling, then rolled a couple of extra tubers over to the squealing Keero. Tohru sipped at her soup and stared into the fire, wrestling with herself.
Hands gripping her crude, wooden bowl tightly, willing herself to face her memories head-on, Tohru told Kagura about her last night in the cursed forest. When it was over, Kagura was silent. Tohru looked at her, puzzled by the haunted yet oddly unsurprised expression on her face.
"Child of sorrow." Kagura covered her eyes with one shaking hand. "It's come to that, has it?"
"You saw, Tohru-kun?"
Tohru knew what she meant. She wrapped her arms around herself, fighting down the image of glowing reptilian eyes gazing at her with such murderous hunger, with nothing but the desire not just to end her life, but to cause her pain again and again before he did. "Yes," she whispered.
"He knew." Kagura's voice had thickened, as though she were struggling to speak through a lifetime of sobbing. "Akito knew. But how could he know? How could he trigger it so easily?"
Tohru watched her mutely. No horror, she noted with wonder and deepening admiration. No disgust, no denial. She knows what he is, and she accepts it. She's afraid for him. A love like hers…oh, Kagura-san…
"You don't know what it means, do you?"
She shook her head.
Kagura lowered her hand, and Tohru thought she suddenly looked much older. "Kyo-kun is cursed, Tohru-kun. But you knew that, ne?" she said with a little laugh devoid of humor. "Among our people, to call one a 'child of sorrow' is to curse him. A child of sorrow is someone whose father or mother rejected him so completely that they chose to end their lives rather than be with him. If the mere fact that you exist drove your parents to their deaths, then you're cursed to be a child of sorrow. It's worse when it's your mother who dies. To the Ashari, motherhood is sacred, you see. Kami is as a Mother to us all. At least, that's what the old folks used to say."
Tell her about your curse, child of sorrow. Tell her what you really are. Akito's words returned, full of cunning menace and dark mockery. "And Kyo-kun?" Tohru asked faintly.
"Kyo-kun's mother died when he was seven," Kagura answered. "She…wasn't well, I think. His father left years before, and she was never the same again. She said she loved him. She said she was proud of him. So much that one rainy day Kyo-kun came home and found her hanging from the rafters."
Tohru turned toward the fire, but the images Kagura painted so starkly wouldn't leave her mind. Of the child Kyo-kun had been, of his mother dead by her own hand, of the knowledge that was seared into his mind, of the shame, the anger, the betrayal. Pain flashed through her heart for the fiery-spirited boy she'd met in a forest. Oh, Kyo-kun.
Kagura shifted as well, her ash-brown eyes looking almost dreamy if not for the dull sheen of sorrow. "Tradition says an orphaned child may choose his new family from the rest of the tribe. But no one would have him. I was nine years old then, and I'd have gone on my knees before everyone if I thought it would work. Of course, Kyo-kun would never have forgiven me. I would have asked him to marry me—" she laughed ruefully again, "—but we were too young. If Nana Asako had been there, she could have taken him in, but she'd gone on a journey and didn't come home in time. The elders would have banished him from the tribe, but Kazuma-cho, our chieftain, chose to adopt him instead. He almost lost his position as shuucho because of that, but Kazuma-cho stood his ground. We owe him so much, Kyo-kun and I," she finished quietly.
The fire crackled as Kagura fed it another stick. "Kagura-san, how does the curse work?" Tohru finally asked.
Kagura shrugged. "I don't know. I've never seen his cursed form. The elders just kept hinting at it, making remarks and all, but they always make remarks. I think part of me didn't want to believe in the curse, but from what you've told me, the curse is real."
Tell her how it feels to murder the person you should have revered more than life itself.
"And Akito knew. He—he understood," Tohru muttered. Kagura merely frowned at the fire.
They cleaned up the remains of the soup and stoked the fire, then Kagura made Tohru lie down again so she could rub a poultice on her back. "I did my best, but my prayers of imbuing aren't as potent as Kyo-kun's," Kagura said while Keero dozed off beside Tohru. "I can do prayers of protection, though. Mm, but maybe not very well, either."
"It feels wonderful, Kagura-san," Tohru reassured her. "Thank you so much."
Kagura finished her ministrations and sat back. "Ne, Tohru-kun," she said after a while. "Do you think you can get back inside the cursed forest again?"
"I'm not sure," Tohru replied honestly.
"Even with the Sun Stone?"
Her head snapped toward Kagura. "H-how did you know—?"
"Aya-chan," she said, as if that explained everything. "So…um, what will you do now?"
Tohru bit her lip as she thought about it. "I have to go to Ryuukama. There's a little girl who's waiting for me there. And—and I think I can find out more about the cursed forest in Ryuukama."
"Ryuukama," Kagura murmured. "That sounds right. Aya-chan mentioned going to Ryuukama before." As long as it's not Mizaka, she thought to herself. Then again, I'd march straight to hell if it'd help me get Kyo-kun back.
The two girls gazed at the fire for a long moment, both of them sunk in their own thoughts. Finally, Tohru spoke again. "I'm going back for him."
"I'm going to save him," Kagura announced at the same time.
They looked at each other in surprise, then they both laughed. "Did you mean Kyo-kun, Kagura-san?" Tohru asked innocently.
"Of course!" The other girl clasped her hands together and heaved a sigh. "As Kyo-kun's future wife, I should be the one to rescue him from the clutches of this dark sorcerer. My love for him will—"
Keero cracked one eye open and glared at his mistress. "Bwee."
"All right, all right!" Kagura stuck her tongue out at her pet. "What about you, Tohru-kun? Who did you mean?"
Tohru gazed into the fire, listening to a warm, gentle voice in her mind.
I remembered you, Honda-san. I always will.
"Kyo-kun," she answered slowly. "Rit-chan. And…Yuki-kun."
"Yun-chan?" Kagura raised an eyebrow. There had been something in the way that Tohru had spoken his name.
"He's waiting for me…Yuki-kun…" And in the next moment, Tohru was fast asleep.
Kagura stared down at the sleeping girl, watching the slight rise and fall of her shoulders as she breathed. I wondered about you, she thought. Ever since Aya-chan told me about you. I wondered what kind of person you would be. You survived the cursed forest, demons, a dark sorcerer. You found my Kyo-kun for me. I expected strength, power, cunning, and yes, even insane amounts of luck. But I didn't expect faith
She added another stick to the fire, then curled up on the ground with her head on her folded-up cloak. Outside, the wind had picked up, blowing up from the Deadlands and carrying with it traces of foulness. But for the first time, Kagura could almost swear she could detect the faint, salt-tinged scent of the distant sea beneath the odor of corruption.
A faith so strong it could change the world.
She was a step closer to her goal. She knew Kyo was alive, that he could be saved. Still, tomorrow would bring what tomorrow would bring, and Kagura had learned to count each tomorrow only as they became today. But the funny thing was, as much as the knowledge of Kyo's whereabouts meant to her, it still wasn't what mattered most.
Tohru suddenly raised her head again. "Eh? Does that mean Kagura-san is older than I am?"
She glanced over at her in surprise. "Er, yes."
But Tohru had already gone back to sleep.
Kagura blinked, then smiled. "Not alone, Tohru-kun," she whispered.
Not alone anymore.
Then she closed her eyes and let the velvet darkness claim her at last.
Aaaugh! Gomen, that was so loooOOOooong, wasn't it? A lot of the chapters of Book 3 are going to be a bit long, as there's so much to explain. But thank you, thank you, thank you for still reading it.
Oh, and, um, I did mess with the chapters somewhat. I took out the author's note, so chapter 34 became...er, still chapter 34. I guess in hindsight I shouldn't have done that. Sorry about that.
And thank you and lots of love to all of you who still read and reviewed. (I can't believe how patient you guys are.) Raberba girl, RJunkie (love you too ), Milkflavoured, animefreak (who's been prodding me with the literary version of a sharp gardening utensil--thanks, I needed that!), 3xThreat, Body by Gen, shardingtoby and all the rest of you, thank you so much!
Oh, and to RJunkie: I have to admit, the stone guardians mentioned in the last chapter do seem a bit irrelevant, but have faith. All will be explained in time. (Cue dramatic thunder) Anyway, it's my fault because with my rate of updating a lot of you have already forgotten the story and it's such a bother going back to reread the chapters. But the stones are all part of it, don't worry, ne? And I won't tell you when Yuki'll come in again because that's a surprise. (Cue maniacal laugther)
Once again, thank you so much, minna!