Mune no Monogatari

by Mirune Keishiko

Epilogue

Part Six: Heart's Ease

"Make me no promises."

Strong he was, no doubt; power pulsed, finely checked, in the lean muscled arms that encircled her, the broad shoulders that curved protectively toward her, the long legs that bore her weight as emotion overcame her and she slumped against him, crying without sound. Strong enough he was that he used to terrify her simply with his nearness, in years long past and carefully stored away in both their memories; strong and silent as always, he held her now, let her weep as he could not, partook gratefully of her warmth and solid presence in his embrace as he knew he would not in time to come—and perhaps never again.

Strong he was, but he had to steel himself against the searching gaze she raised to him. He forced himself to hold still, to not look away, and let her see in his own eyes the weakness he knew he should not hide from her.

"Do not even wear it—yet," he continued, insistently.

He did not like promises. Not ones he felt might well not be kept. He feared he might seize upon them too tightly, bury too much of himself in their delicious, desirable, slippery words; he did not want to be tempted by shadows, no matter how beautifully or lovingly made, and thus become a shadow himself. He was strong, certainly, but not invincible, not immortal, merely human, as he had come to know all too well—and a good fighter knew his limitations.

And even if such promises were kept—ah, but at what cost, perhaps? What were two months compared to three years, after all? Emotions were funny contradictory things, and both of them knew that. So powerful and yet so fleeting; so easy to ignore, but so difficult to entirely forget. Aoshi knew the choice he had already made: He felt sure he would desire life with no other woman but her. But he needed her to be free before she made the same choice for herself. If, as Misao had instructed him, she agreed.

He allowed himself to meet her gaze, stare for stare. After a moment, she looked away, snapped the little black box shut in her hand with a quick, angry movement.

And then—just like that—he knew she understood. A shiver ran down along his spine—relief or gladness or gratitude or sudden, desperate desire, he could hardly tell which.

How much had he been afraid that she would spurn him? That she would seize at this rare moment of weakness with scorn rather than acceptance? He only knew now that something had laid hold of him in all these long moments up to her comprehension, strangling the breath out of him, constraining his heart for much longer than he had thought—and that, now that she burrowed against him in complete albeit agonized agreement, he suddenly felt oddly, sorrowfully free.

"All right," she whispered, clutching at him as though she were drowning and he the only hope for her survival. "I won't."

She thrust the box deep into an inner pocket, next to her heart. "I won't."

She felt him press a kiss to the top of her head and rubbed her tear-wet cheek against his chest, trying to suppress the sobs. "I won't."

---

In the shadows of the moonlit training hall where no one was likely to find her, Misao, too, was crying. She sat curled up in a corner, her knees to her chin, burying her agonized, keening moans in her shirt; because she loved him so very much, she only wanted him to be happy; she was trying her very best, but it was so hard to let go.

---

Megumi did wear the ring that night. Deep into the wee hours of the morning that she was to set sail, as Aoshi slept beside her, worn out at last, his arms curved around her naked waist and her long hair spilling like ink across his broad chest, she awoke from a light sleep. Gently she disentangled her hand from the clasp of his fingers. Lighting the lamp by her bed, she gazed in mute wonder at the sparkle of ruby and sapphire against her pale fingers for many long minutes. Fire and ice. Despite herself, a tear splashed down onto her arm.

"You women can never resist jewelry, can you?" he slurred teasingly from the bed, opening eyes that gleamed in the light as no gem ever could.

"No better than you silly men can resist us women," smiled Megumi, blowing out the lamp and quickly crawling back into the futon. Warm, questing hands found chilled skin soon enough, but they slid unerringly down until the small, cold edges of gold and stone bit into his fingertips. Their fingers intertwined beneath the blanket, nestled in the soft downy hollow of her stomach.

"When we meet again," he breathed into her ear, half hidden in black silk, "wear it—or not, as you choose."

She nodded without a word, not trusting herself to speak; he bent his head over hers and kissed the telltale track of tears down her face. She turned then to meet mouth with mouth, almost startling even him with her intensity.

And the sun rose that day with a brisk wind that cheerily rang the chimes hanging from the dojo's eaves, set the flowers by the riverbank bobbing gaily, and fattened the sails of the Alianora where she sat placidly at port, destined for England.

---

Three Years Later

16th year of Meiji (Spring, 1883)

Some time later, when he had finally quite finished meting out her so-called punishment and left her exhausted, exhilarated, and almost, but not quite, remorseful, she thought back to that sun-dappled afternoon.

All right, so it might have been a little too wicked to hold him in suspense as she had. He had likely been tormenting himself with all kinds of woeful possibilities on arriving at the party and failing to see the ring on her hand, as they had agreed. So maybe she had disobeyed the rules of their agreement—fiddled with them a bit—bent them just a little, only in fun, of course.

And anyway, she had wanted—needed—to see how he reacted first to seeing her again after so long. She had needed to be sure. She didn't want to be tempted by shadows, no matter how beautiful, especially if she feared she might have made them herself.

But then the look in his eyes—no longer quite so smooth and mirrorlike—as he gazed in shock first at the glittering gems on their golden chain, then at her, told her everything she needed to know.

"Shall we have a talk?" she said quietly, stoic in the face of the joy that rose in her, stubborn in wanting to hear it directly from his lips first.

She almost forgot to breathe under the intensity of his gaze on her.

"If you wish," he said at last, rising to his feet, his brilliant blue eyes catching the sunlight—or was that a spark of amusement? Megumi suppressed a shudder, imagining the thoughts running through his mind—I'll get you for that later. Both vengeance and mirth. "Though I myself have no questions." He held out his hand to her.

She accepted it and stood up as well. She couldn't tell whose fingers were the first to tighten around whose.

"Leaving so soon, Aoshi?" asked Kenshin calmly, yet as his bright glance settled on Megumi, she found herself flushing.

Aoshi opened his mouth to speak, but Misao beat him to it. "Try not to make too much noise, okay, kids?" Nonchalantly she popped a piece of sushi in her mouth—and promptly spat it out as Kaoru whapped her over the head, blushing furiously.

"Misao-chan!" Kaoru hissed, to everyone else's laughter.

"It's very rude to just pick up people like that and carry them around like logs without their permission, you know," sniffed Megumi as Aoshi set her gently down in a copse of sakura, far from the rest of the Kenshingumi who were only now discovering their sudden absence.

"Then next time I shall make sure to secure your approval first." Blithely ignoring the look of annoyance that crossed her face, he undid the clasp of the chain around her neck and slid off the ring. "You wanted to talk?"

Her irritation evaporated in a moment. Megumi unconsciously held her breath as he paused first—inquiringly—then, at her mute nod, slipped the ring on her finger. Tears blurred her vision.

"What's a few more hours?" She smiled. Threading her fingers through his hair, she pulled him down for a kiss worth three long years of waiting.

Spring, Meiji 16th.

And very peaceful days.

owari


A/N. My apologies to the great Yumi Komagata-sama who wrote the lovely award-winning fanfic with the same title as this chapter. I didn't mean to copy it, honest. Just seemed a suitable title for the last chapter of a tale of the heart. "Heart's Rest" just doesn't have that ring to it. (sweatdrop)

I am more thankful than I can ever possibly express to all those who have read this humble story and written me about it. The experience of writing for people and then finding out how they've been touched somehow by what I've written is probably unique to us amateur fanfic writers. Thank you for sharing yourselves with me in much the same way I've tried to share myself with you. (Even the "please update soon" folks. Hehe. You gave me that much-needed kick in the butt.)

Special thanks to sueb262, whose sharing of her own particular thoughts and feelings about this story and others is deeply appreciated. To eriesalia, Trupana, Shimizu Hitomi, mij, chiisailammy wherever you may be, Cherie Dee, Amberle, Conspirator, larissahyuga, leila winters, and all the other ladies and gents who have stood heroically for good fanfic writing and/or the Fire and Ice fandom—three cheers for all! For yvonne, Ak0, ladie shinomori, invictus0628, kunthea, Lidens and all the rest, I hope to see your contributions to the RK fandom soon.Ü

I don't want to go on about the credits much more, first because it must already sound boring and melodramatic, and second because it would sound like I'm leaving this fandom for good, and while there's a chance of that happening (blame Real Life ;p), I prefer to think I've still got some stuff up my sleeves. See you around, minna-dono!

shiko-chan