a/n: Thank you to everyone who reviewed! It's very inspiring and forces me to get of my ass and write. Although technically, I'm writing this while sitting on my ass in the campus library. Yay. It's kinda hard with people talking around me, but oh well. Can't complain. Anyway, sorry for the long wait. Kinda busy with school -like the rest of you should be! Just kidding!


Five- The Hermit

Within the forest, Serenity felt such fear that she almost desired to be back within the castle and at the alter, prepared to marry the King. No sooner had she ran a few feet that she became succumb by darkness. She stumbled many times, caught her wedding dress on branches and left torn pieces of the while silk wherever she went.

It felt like night. The branches and dark green leaves of the trees created almost a shelter from the sky, allowing little to no sunlight to penetrate in. The result was an infestation of mould, bacteria and perhaps animals that would tear her to pieces within a second.

It came to a point when her legs could no longer move in a straight line and she stumbled more than she ran. Her increased breathing caused her throat to become raw and now it stung with every breath of the chilling air. It felt like night in all aspects, but she knew above her, the sun shone strongly.

Exhausted, she slowed in her pace and eventually leaned against the thick trunk of a tree. Her eyes scanned her surroundings and she realized with horror that she would have to endure this forest for perhaps days before she would find the Black Rose. She suppressed a sob at the thought of her brother's trials, all for nothing. Would she meet the same unfortunate end?

Suddenly determined to save the lives of both Mai and Joey, Serenity pushed herself off from the trunk and began to run again. She only stopped when seized by hunger, but was too weary to eat anything from the forest. It didn't matter, anyway. Everything appeared to be decaying, like the forest itself was dying.

When overcome by exhaustion, she sat down against the trunk of the least menacing looking tree and slept lightly. Before, she had been disgusted by the moss and dirt surrounding her but now, she readily pressed her fingers into the mud to help herself get up.

'I'm going around in circles...', she thought, glancing around. Everything seemed the same, no matter where she went. There was no source of illumination for her, nothing that could help her find her way. She continued blindly until she heard rustling and a figure moving toward her at a frightening speed.

Terrified that she would die within the dismal forest by a flesh-eating beast, she released a choked sob and began taking steps back. In an unfortunate discovery, the ground below her gave way and she fell into what could only have been a trap. The dirt hole was shallow enough for a beast to be captured within and for a human to escape out; however, Serenity's foot had landed in a haphazard position, resulting in a searing pain shooting up her leg. On impulse, she cried out but felt as if her voice was swallowed up by the wood.

"Why you would run into this forest is beyond my comprehension," a deep voice said, almost warming her despite her fear of the owner. Looking up, she could see the King peering down at her as he rested in a crouched position. In the darkness, she could see that his hair was ruffled as if teased by fingers from all directions. His previously handsome wedding attire was blackened and on his cheeks, he had smudges of dirt. She would have considered it unbearably cute had it not been for her current situation.

She said nothing, waiting for him to continue, perhaps even rant about her. He watched her for a moment, chin propped up on his fist, before finally speaking again.

"I wonder whether I should simply leave you in there." From the lack of a smile on his face, he was seriously contemplating his words. Stricken by fear, Serenity attempted to get up to protest but released a piercing cry when she exerted weight on her right foot.

"A girl should not be running into a forest alone."

"I understand, but please, it was something I had to do."

"Run from your marriage to me?"

Her mouth opened and then closed, words refusing to form or leave. Instead, everything she wished, yet feared, to tell him gathered in a large bundle within her chest and pushed until it hurt.

"No," she lied, her answer coming out in a broken stutter. "No."

"Then why are you here, within a place that frightens even the bravest people?"

"I came for someone I love," she answered and the King's expression became dark. He then tensed up and slowly drew away from the cavern, leaving her with only the faint outline of him in the darkness.

"Unfaithful wench," he breathed and Serenity could feel the claws of panic take hold of her by the throat.

"No!" she cried out, wishing she could look at him directly in the eye. "It's my brother! My brother is in grave danger!"

"Prince Yami?"

'That name again...' She nodded vigorously despite bearing ignorance regarding the name. "Yes."

"And what danger threatens our illegitimate Prince?" King Seto questioned in a soft tone. There was a flicker of astray sunlight across his face, illuminating the sharp blues of his eyes. The darkness seemed to compliment him perfectly, edging comfortably into the caverns of his eyes and into the grooves beneath his high cheekbones. And yet, she still found him lovely -perhaps the handsomest King that had blessed their Kingdom through rule. It was a pitty, however, that his personality could not reflect his outer beauty.

"Well?" he prompted when she didn't reply.

"Ah... yes...Well..." Did she dare feed him the story about the wizard? Panicked, she found no other option. "There is a wizard after him."

"Wizard?" The word was spoken with such loathing that Serenity found herself flinching. He continued in the same ominous tone, like he was pouring the core of his hatred into every word. "Magic is forbidden, Princess Mai. One would be a fool to become involved in a dispute with a wizard. Nonetheless a wizard exposing himself in order to kill a Prince -It's a ghastly and odious crime, one which no man would be stupid enough to tangle himself in."

The chill of the night began to overcome her and she cuddled into a ball on the ground in an attempt to keep warm. No longer was she able to continue her conversation with the King -if he chose to leave her there, so be it. "My ankle is broken, My King. Help me if you desire so but if not, please leave."

"Princess," the King said after a pregnant pause. The wind wailed and screamed as it blew past him, ruffling his already ruined hair. Leaves careened past him and bits of dirt rose from their slumber to accompany the wind. "Take my hand."

Without expressing her discomfort and pain, she reached up while leaned on her good leg. Their fingertips brushed against one another, touched, then linked. Exerting a low grunt, King Seto leaned out further and seized her by the arm with his other hand. Using both hands, he pulled her up and then grasped her around the waist when she was high enough. Roughly, he plunked her down on the ground and then surveyed his bride.

Never had he witnessed a woman in worse condition than she was at this moment. Her previously immaculate white wedding gown was destroyed, painted with dirt and ripped apart in cruelty. The hem had become mere shreds. Her hair was tousled and wild, like she had never used a brush before in her lifetime, and any sign that her skin was white was gone.

Currently, she was cradling her ankle, squeezing her eyes tightly in pain and gritting her teeth. She made slight sounds, the beginning of cries, and paid him no heed. He, however, would not let go of her story so readily.

"You never responded to my last statement, Princess," he voiced calmly. "I await your answer."

"If I must..." she managed, pausing in between for breaths. "The wizard wills to kill Prince Yami because he... he desires the throne."

"Really..."

"Yes, really. It's a complicated matter that I do not wish to discuss at the moment. We 'are' in the middle of a forest and if you haven't noticed, I am in excruciating pain right now."

"We ought to take you to a healer," the King muttered and without a warning, he scooped her up into his arms and began to walk.

"Where are we going?" Serenity demanded, looking around almost wildly.

The King emitted an irritated noise through the back of his throat and let go of her for a brief moment. Serenity had enough time to scream before he caught her right before she hit the ground. When her frightened eyes searched his for a reason for his action, she met with nothing but a blank stare. "I do not like to repeat myself."

"I am not going to the healer!" she cried out but then screamed again, this time in pain, when the King squeezed her ruined ankle.

"I think you are going."

"You're a sadist!"

"And you, a moron."

"Then why do you will to marry me?"

"It was arranged."

"You could refute it."

"I wish not."

"Why?"

When she felt his hold loosening on her again, she tightened her told around his neck for dear life. Deciding it would not be wise to continue with her questioning, Serenity remained silent while she allowed herself to be carried by the King.

They walked for quite a while before the King stopped and looked around.

"You're lost, aren't you?"

"I am not!" he insisted stubbornly. He turned left and continued to walk. His previously powerful hold on her began to diminish gradually and he would toss her up slightly to gain a more adventurous position. However, it would only last before so long before he began to shift her again.

"I can't do this," he muttered after some time. Kneeling down while still holding her, he asked her if she could climb onto his back. She attempted, but her wedding gown was so puffy that it was impossible for her to wrap her legs around him. Fed up, the King grabbed the white fabric near her knee and ripped it, exposing her legs up to her thighs.

"You pervert!" Serenity cried out, automatically raising her hand and smacking the King across the face. The smack left almost a twisted resonating sound throughout the forest and they stayed in their awkward positioning (Serenity with her hand in mid-air and King Seto with his face to the side) before the King gingerly touched his raw and reddened cheek. When he winced, Serenity found herself doing the same.

"I...I didn't mean it!" Serenity found herself crying out when a pair of angered eyes met hers.

"You slapped me," the King growled in response. Serenity knew he would be more furious if he discovered her true identity. A princess slapping a King was one thing -a peasant slapping a King was a completely different story. She could imagine the scene when the truth about her emerged.

'You? A peasant! And you SLAPPED me! OFF WITH HER HEAD!'

Of course, she knew beheadings were quite primeval but he would most likely make an exception for her. Unconsciously, her hands drifted to her neck and she winced yet again.

The King, meanwhile, was attempting to understand his current situation. His bride had run off, notably on their wedding day, and had just slapped him across the cheek. Him. The King. The blue blooded powerful monarch who could have her executed if he chose.

"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!" she cried out, reaching out as if to touch him but then quickly drawing away. Tears began to well in her sweet little muddy brown eyes and her typically pink cheeks turned to crimson. King Seto found himself rightfully disgusted by her toothache-inducing cuteness and turned away from her.

"Mark my word, you will pay for this," he hissed. "Maybe I should just leave you here in the forest..."

"No!" Serenity found herself protesting, despite wanting to get away from the King desperately. What was wrong with her? Leaving her here would be exactly what she needed. Alone, she would be able to pursue the Black Rose without any questions. Or in the King's case, being dragged off to be married.

"Then get on my back quickly. Perhaps if we reach the Kingdom by morning, we can continue with the matrimony."

Serenity blanched and found herself crawling away from him backwards like a crab. When he cast a Machiavellian glance over his shoulder, she instantly stopped and offered him a weary smile. "O-okay..."

As if climbing onto the back of a slimy eel, Serenity winced, made faces and little whimpers escaped her mouth. One thing the King had done right was ripping the skirt of her gown in the middle; now she was able to wrap her legs around his waist, which he held with his hands. Hoisting her up, he began to walk in a direction neither of them knew.

lxl

"And so, I said to him, 'I would rather have that apple' and he replied, 'Okay'. After I ate the apple, I went back to my corner, the one over there covered with cobwebs, and fell asleep. So, that's what I did on Saturday," Ryou explained, nodding to himself. Tea rubbed her eyes in yet another attempt to prevent herself from falling asleep and offered him a lazy smile.

"Oh... that's so...uhm..."

"Boring?"

"I'm afraid so..."

lxl

Malik trudged through the forest, yet again, swatting away branches and rodents with his staff and cursing all the while to himself. After spending days looking for that oaf, Joseph Wheeler, he had finally managed to fool him (quite easily, too) into eating the enchanted chocolate muffin after feeding him some ridiculous story about a misanthropist grandmother. The ordeal was quite amusing, especially when the idiot began to hack and eventually passed out on the ground, never to be awoken again. It send fuzzy warm feelings coursing through him.

However, his happiness was hastily shortened the moment he returned to the patron who had hired him.

Echoing footsteps resounded through a deserted and clammy hall as a figure hurried by, despite the bile forming in his throat and the piercing throbbing in his temples, all a result of fear. When the guards monitoring the chamber doors saw him, they stepped out of the way, their own bodies beginning to excrete sweat at a rapid pace.

Another figure sat on a throne in the room, arms crossed in irritation and legs crossed, the overbearing leg bouncing to an invisible beat. When the man entered the room, the figure raised his maroon eyes and the man nearly started. His heart began to beat fiercely from the expression of hope he had witnessed and he had to fight his instincts to run off.

"Well?" the figure asked, his young voice almost soothing. He uncrossed the tangle of his arms and leg, then leaned forward in anticipation.

"She's not... " He took in a deep breath. "She's not dead."

Silence.

'Damn nature...' he thought, stopping for a moment to glare at a squirrel that had innocently crossed his path. He attempted to zap it with his Dark Majik but missed horribly and ended up blasting a tree to smithereens.

lxl

A loud sound, like something had blown up, awoke Serenity and she looked around groggily before remember where she was and who she was on.

"Do you want to rest?" she asked and stubbornly, the King refused.

"What I want is to get out of here as quickly as possible."

The scenery still looked the same as it had for... how long ago was it? She certainly couldn't tell. What she did know was that she was starving. With the thought, her stomach grumbled loudly and the King looked questionably over his shoulder.

"I'm so-"

"Stop apologizing," he said irritably. "I'm actually quite hungry as well..." He stopped, scanning his surroundings before taking in a sharp breath. Adjusting his hold on her, King Seto began walking at a faster pace.

"Did you find something, my lord?" Serenity asked softly, praying that he wouldn't snap at her. After all, he had just told her to stop apologizing, so if she did something wrong, she was done for.

"Smoke," he emitted and Serenity lifted her head from his shoulders to see a thin trail of light smoke snaking roughly a mile from where they were.

King Seto's pace never slowed and in fact, it hastened when they neared the smoke. Soon, they entered a clearing where the sun finally shone. Serenity leaned her head back, basking in the sunlight, and even a smile came onto the King's typically tight lips.

In the middle of the clearing lay a small house built entirely by stone. Apprehensively, the King approached it. Everything seemed fairly normal -clothes were drying on a log near a fire, where the smoke was coming from, and there was even a small goat bouncing around and braying.

"It's so cute!" Serenity cried out at the sight of it. When she reached out to touch it, although it was obviously impossible with her height on King Seto's shoulders, the King smacked her hand away.

"We need to find out who's living here, not play with goats!" he scolded. "Gods, you remind me of a peasant at times..."

At the mentioning of her true identity, Serenity gulped and decided it would be safe if she shut her mouth.

The King, oblivious to Serenity's nervous countenance, approached the door of the house and knocked lightly with his knuckles. The door opened upon contact and he stepped inside.

"Hello?" he called out, his voice barely penetrating the thick, herbal smoke inside. "Where is the owner of this dwelling?"

There was some scuffling, a rattling of some sorts, and then a rather tall, elegant looking man emerged. Both the King and Serenity were taken back by the sight of him, having been expecting a dwarf, elf or even an old woman -certainly not a young, even handsome looking man. His hair was entirely silver and let loose, not tied back appropriately. He had a distinguished elongated face, stood higher than the King with his lean frame and wore peculiar clothing -a salmon colored jacket with matching pants, completed by a ruffled shirt and a small, thin bow tie. But what was most strange about him were his eyes. One bore a golden iris, appearing almost feline; however, his left eye was covered entirely by his long hair. It may have been a bizarre fashion statement, but it certainly provoked curiosity within the young girl and even the King.

"Ooh, I have guests!" the man squealed, clapping his hands together in exuberance. His tone was high for a man, almost like the constant pitch of a giggle. His eye glittered and made saccadic movements from Serenity to the King and then back again. "Exciting wedding night?"

Serenity squeaked when the King squeezed her in ire and before she could even attempt to prevent him from saying something offensive, he exploded.

"WHAT THE HELL IS YOUR PROBLEM! DOES IT LOOK LIKE WE'RE THE TYPE WHO WOULD ENJOY DOING... DOING THAT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE WOODS!"

The man shrugged, disconcerted. "Some people can surprise you..." Turning his back to them, he began to walk away.

"HEY! WE NEE-"

To Serenity's astonishment, she found herself slapping a hand over the King's. "Please, Sir. I've injured my leg and would-"

"No worries!" He instantly turned around, smiling broadly once more and they could have sworn he had pink sparkles floating about his head. "I would do anything for a pretty girl!"

Serenity could feel a deep rumbling and realized that King Seto was growling. "Come, let me have a look!" When he stepped up and held his arms out, the King took a weary step back.

"Do you even know who I am?" he demanded, blue eyes blazing in fury. The man shrugged again with the same unaffected look.

"Some peasant. Now, hand the girl to me-"

King Seto swung her out of the man's reach. "Are you an imbecile? I am the King of this Land!"

The man blinked. "The King? Why Sir, you may be the King in another land, but in this one, there is no ruler."

"The entirety of the Emerald Forest is under my rule!" King Seto insisted, almost dropping Serenity in his fury.

"Sit down, boy. You're going to drop her in the state you're in-"

"No one tells me what to do!"

"Ouch, temper, temper..." The man shook one of his hands as his shaking water from it. Scrupulously, he gestured to the wine colored couch. The King hesitated for a moment but then unceremoniously dropped Serenity onto it as if ridding himself of excess baggage. The man instantly moved to her and knelt down beside her laying form while she attempted to recovered from her plunge.

"Now, where is it that you are injured-"

"Listen, you queer, I want to know exactly why you fail to acknowledge me as your King," the King interrupted. Serenity sighed, having a feeling that she wouldn't be attended to unless this man explained his previous words.

The man closed his eyes. "I would prefer is you call me Pegasus," he addressed the King. He then turned to Serenity and took her hand. "You, my dear, may call me Maximillion-"

"That is the future Queen you're toying with," the King informed, irate at Pegasus's flirtatious nature. Pegasus blinked again, appearing more confused than before.

"Queen?" he said, looking from King Seto and Serenity. "Why, I sense no blue blood from her."

Following those words, Serenity felt like her heart had stopped. She stared at one place, believing that if she looked anywhere else, her eyes would confirm his words.

King Seto, however, was furious. "How dare you! The moment I get back to the palace I will make sure that you're placed in the dungeon for your insolence..." His angered tone seemed to drift off until it seemed like he was more contemplating his words than expressing them.

"The palace?" Pegasus laughed. "You really believe that you're a King and she a Princess?"

"What else!

Pegasus stood up and walked to the King until they were face to face. Staring into his eyes, there was a brief moment of silence before he spoke, "There is blue blood in neither of you."

The King clenched his teeth and fists, attempting to control his rage. Serenity supposed that besides her attitude, he had never been so insulted in his life. He certainly wasn't handling it well, but considering that in the span of a day he had his pride trampled on numerous times, she didn't blame him.

"Mai, we're leaving," King Seto said, stomping to her and proceeding to take her into his arms. She found herself fighting against him, pushing and hitting him while he bit back swears.

"I don't want to! I think he can help me!"

"I think he's insane, now do as you're told! You're in enough trouble already, you insolent little-"

"Stop this immediately!" It was the first time Pegasus raised his voice, causing King Seto and Serenity to pause mid-fight and stare at him in astonishment. The King's body was tense and she knew at any moment he would become volatile once more, but what Pegasus did next froze him into place.

Slowly, he swept back the hair covering his left eye and when he opened it, revealed a pitch black sclera with a blood red iris. Although King Seto willed to tear his gaze away from the ghastly site, he couldn't stop staring at it. It became gradually larger until he was swallowed within it and found himself screaming.

"He cannot breathe!" a woman shrieked, placing a dire emphasis on the last word. "Help him!"

Water everywhere and a burning sensation. There was more screaming and him -helpless.

When he opened his eyes, he was lying on the floor with Serenity draped over his abdomen. He feared she would be crying but when he attempted to sit up, he realized she was sleeping. Attempting to look around, he found no sign of Pegasus.

The position he was in was currently very uncomfortable, especially considering he was a King and unused to having contact with the floor with body parts other than the soles of his feet. Not to mention the Princess was draped over him and he couldn't feel his legs any longer. Sighing, he propped himself up on his arms and once sitting, took Serenity into his arms. She stirred a bit but didn't awake. He didn't blame her -after all, she had been sleeping in the forest for days.

He blinked then and realized something strange. Serenity was clean. Not a single mark of dirt marred her porcelain features and even her wedding gown had returned to its previously immaculate state. Glancing down at himself in a panic, he realized it was the same for him.

Frowning, he suddenly remembered what had happened before he had passed out. He shuddered from remembrance of the warped and grotesque eye, its colors twisted into what could only be a result of Dark Majik. They had to get out of there. It all suddenly began to make sense to him. The man who was found in the forest had to have been a victim of Pegasus.

But then there was the issue of motivation. What had Pegasus done and for what reason? The man was deeply asleep and unable to be awakened...

Seto suddenly froze and stared at the girl in his arms. Without hesitation, he began to slap her lightly on the cheek and shake her shoulder, urging her to wake up in a harsh whisper. When she stirred again and moaned, he felt himself breathe out in relief.

"Mai, we must leave this place," he said, quickly looking over his shoulder in trepidation.

"Why?"

By this point, he had gently pushed her off of him and was smoothly standing up while being discreet and alert. His eyes moved around the room, lit by only the fire dancing within the stone fireplace. Serenity began to stand up as well but paused midway, suddenly remembering her injured ankle. Running her hand down her leg, she lifted the folds of her dress and pressed down on the oddly unmarked area. Nothing. Not a single flash of pain. Carefully, she crawled up and exerted pressure on her foot. Once again, there was nothing.

"Your Majesty, my ankle has been healed..." she said softly, raising her eyes to see his response. His lips remained in their tight line and he shook his head as if disagreeing with the truth.

"It may be a result of the Dark Arts," he said in a harsh whisper, grabbing Serenity by the arm. Startled, she released a soft cry but was instantly silenced by his other hand clamping on her mouth. "Stop being so foolish and listen to what I tell you!"

She willed to protest further but found it fruitless. After nodding her head, the King's cold palm was removed from her mouth and she unknowingly wiped her lips on the ripped sleeve of her gown. He, however, noticed her display and narrowed his eyes in disapproval but said nothing.

Taking her by the hand, he began to lead her out of the cottage but froze when the high-pitched voice of Pegasus reached their ears.

"Be careful out there," he voiced and both were too afraid to look back. "And make sure to bring me something when you return."

In shock of the prediction -no, statement- King Seto darted out of the door with Serenity stumbling behind him. He didn't stop running until they were well within the dank depths of the forest. Serenity wondered whether it was better within the cottage with the peculiar stranger than with the King inside of the forest.

"Who the hell was that man...?" the King seemed to be asking himself, breathing heavily and resting with his hands on his bent knees. Serenity didn't respond, unwilling to challenge the King's belief. Although she found him frightening in a sense, there was also a calm aura around him. She knew he could never inflict harm and that he had healed her leg in an act of altruism. The King, however, could not be moved in his stance. She barely knew him, true, but she knew enough to understand the way his mind worked. He felt that everyone was against him and if someone did something to humiliate him or put him at unease, he would have his revenge.

She had a feeling by the way he was looking at her right now that she his current target for revenge.

"You can stand up perfectly, now?" he demanded, incredulous. Serenity took a step back, clutching onto the folds of her gown.

"I told you, he must have healed my ankle!"

The King paled. "There must be some sort of Dark Art within you. Perhaps you are cursed!" His expression suddenly turned mercifulness. "Now what the hell are we going to do? I'm not bringing you back to the castle in that state!"

"But there's nothing wrong with me!" she pleaded.

"What an ignorant and naive way of thinking! This is all your fault!" In a fury, he turned his back to her and began to walk further into the forest. Serenity could feel her own sense of calmness disappearing in the 'light' of this selfish and arrogant King. Didn't he ever care about anyone other than himself? If it weren't for him, she may have been still in that ditch, but happier than she'd ever been having met him.

"I hate you!" she cried out, expelling all of her frustrations through her vocal chords. It was the first time that the forest didn't swallow up her words and instead, it almost seemed to echo. The King paused, frozen like time had stopped, but then slowly turned around to see Serenity. He was astonished at her confession of hatred but wouldn't allow it to show. His face hardened in response and he walked straight up to her, hoping that his towering over her was enough to intimidate her. She cowered slightly and he could see her trembling as she attempted to keep her stance.

"Well, that's too bad, isn't it?" he snarled, almost wishing to grab her by her long hair and drag her back to the palace. Instead, he stared at her for a while longer before muttering to himself about the stupidity of women and walking away.

"I'm not following you," Serenity announced. He didn't bother to turn around. That spineless little twit was too stupid to make it on her own; after all, he had found her lying helpless in a dirt hole. No, she wouldn't have the guts to leave him and -

A sudden silence broke his thoughts and he turned around.

She was gone.

lxl

"Idiot King, idiot ankle, idiot rose," she was chanting to herself while finding her way through the forest. Really, she found the phrase so despicable 'finding her way'. She certainly wasn't doing that -it was more like she was losing her way through the forest. What she really wanted was to return to Pegasus's cottage but when she had attempted, she had found nothing but a large clearing illuminated by the sun. The scene sent shivers up her spine and quickly she made her distance from it.

It didn't matter now. Pegasus, and the King, were both behind her and she prayed she wouldn't have to encounter those men again. She was grateful, of course, that they both had saved her in their own way, but instead of feeling content, she felt letdown and miserable.

Really, why was it that the damsel was always in distress? She puffed out her cheeks in indignation, hating that she had to be saved by a man, nonetheless the King. It may have been a dream to any other girl, but it was a nightmare to her, solely because she was trying to exert her independence. If she didn't find the Black Rose on her own, what would that make her? Sometimes she felt that if was unfair to Joey that she had been born a female. She was limited in what she could and could not do and thought that Joey spent more time worrying about her than associating with her as a sibling.

"A needle in a hay stack..." she muttered regarding the rose. It truthfully could be anywhere on any surface -what did she expect, a cleared area with holy light streaming through the trees, illuminating the single dark rose breaking through the soil?

It was like a fairy tale.

Shaking her head to rid herself of negative thoughts, Serenity returned to climbing over overgrown roots and untangling her hair from stray branches. She supposed her mind was too focused on avoiding potential limb-breakers because her foot suddenly slid into the ground and when she tried to pull it back up, she fell flat onto her face.

This time, there was no King to save her, but then again, did she really need him? Gritting her teeth in sudden determination, she propped herself up on her hands and began to pull herself forward, hoping the force would free her leg. There was a sucking sound and she glanced back to see her leg covered in black mud.

Moving her body to the side, she curled up and grabbed at the captured leg. Then, she began to pull. When her freedom seemed little achieved, she forced herself to reach out further and clawed the mud away from her foot. The process was grueling, but she refused to give up. However, it was not in vain. Another sound of suction reached her ears and this time, the mud gave way and she scrambled away from the bog, huffing.

If she was having this much trouble being a peasant in a forest, she wondered how the King must have been doing. It was meant to be a vague and fleeting thought, but it remained in her mind when she heard a sudden scurrying behind her. Body frigid, she glanced around wearily, but the noise had stopped.

It could have been anything, she realized, despite feeling relieved. The forest was home to an assortment of beast, harmless and harmful... although she may have been saved thus far from being consumed by a monster, she couldn't say the same for the King. In fact, she needed to know where he was, how he was -hopefully alive.

Suddenly worried, Serenity turned on her heels and attempted to trace her steps to where she had been with the King before they had parted. Unfortunately, the forest had no distinguishing features and she felt that after a while, she was walking in no particular direction.

It would have been easy for her to simply continue on her way and forget about him, but she couldn't. She knew he didn't care about her, but she could never match his heartlessness. He was a solitary man lost in the forest, and as a King, she had a feeling that putting him in the depths of nature was like tossing a bird into the ocean. It simply didn't work.

She walked cautiously in the direction she believed she had come from. When nothing seemed familiar, she began to walk faster. Her step transgressed into a light job and finally evolved into a run. Unfortunately, her mind was so confused with her surroundings that she miscalculated the jump needed to avoid an overgrown tree-root and fell flat onto her face.

Dusting herself off, Serenity realized that what she really needed was rest and a bath. There was, however, a slight problem considering that she was within a dark and unpleasant forest. Any river running through it would probably be as dirty and molding as the forest itself, and it made her gag with the thought. She could imagine placing a foot within the putrid waters and feeling something slimy nestle itself between her toes...

Shuddering, she shook herself slightly to rid of the thought. Maybe being dusty wasn't such a bad thing, after all. However, that conclusion didn't seem quite accepted within her subconscious. Thus, she unknowingly grumbled and continued on a path with no destination.

She was taking a break after wandering aimlessly for a while when she heard it. Water, streaming from an unknown destination. Excited, she traced the sound a few feet further and saw a small river, no wider than 4 meters. The water appeared like it was pitch black and she was almost afraid to touch it.

Kneeling down, she was examining the water, occasionally putting her finger into the cold depths of it, when a loud creaking sound caused her to turn around instinctively. She understood what had happened even before the sound of branches and leaves rustling and being snapped apart reached her ears and without realizing it, she fell backward and into the river.

lxl

The King swatted away another branch and cursed when his tunic was once again snagged on a twig. Jerking his shoulder away, there was a small ripping sound and he growled after examining the tear. By now, he probably looked as degrading as Mai when he had found her. He had a slight amount of sympathy for her, but only slight. After all, she had been the fool to get him into this mess and there was a miniscule part of him that that wondered whether he would be able to get out.

Really, that girl was so naive, believing she could survive in this forest on her own. She probably looked mighty tasty to the monsters of the forest -he just hoped he didn't come across her carcass.

After days and nights of attempting to find his way out and contemplating, King Seto had decided he wanted nothing to do with Mai. She was far too much trouble to bother with and because of her, his clothes were ruined. Then again, could he really risk going back to the palace wifeless? Even if he passed Mai off as dead, there was always the slight possibility she could come back alive. The humiliation would be insurmountable. He couldn't risk it -he had no choice but to find the rambunctious, idealistic, mad woman.

In his twenty years, he had never heard of a woman who would suffer through so much to save the life of someone she loved. He could only wonder what had happened to this significant other of hers and, partly, the identity of this person. What could be hidden in a forest that could save one's life? He could only bring to mind the Black Rose, but honestly, could Mai be fool enough to believe she could find it, nonetheless bring it back alive?

The Rose relied on a process of equivalent trade, which was how it managed to be reborn after being plucked once. Surely, everyone knew that once torn from the ground, the Black Rose would cause the person to-

His thoughts came to a halt when the sound of rushing water entered his ears. His body naturally jerked to the direction of the sound and he hesitated for a moment before running toward it.

There, several feet from where he had been journeying, lay a gratuitous and sparking wall fall, pouring into a large rounded pool of water. As he approached it, he couldn't help but to marvel at its beauty, the water twinkling in the moonlight to he had grown unaccustomed. He found himself shielding his eyes from the glowing moon above as he tilted his head back to observe the sky. Stars dazzled the blackness and when he glanced down at the water, the moonlight cast a silvery touch to its seeming black hue.

Having never encountered any bodies of water outside of the palace, he knelt down and dipped his hand into the liquid. The coldness caused him to snap his back but when he glanced at his wet palm, he almost anticipated the residue to be black. Instead, it was completely translucent. Inwardly, he chastised himself for believed for a moment that the water was enchanted. Had it been, it was no reason to become intrigued and even, for a slight moment, excited.

He rubbed his fingers together and noting that his previously peach skin was uncovered from the dirt, he decided he would have no choice but to bathe within the water. Remaining filthy was certainly not a favorable option and he supposed that if he followed the small river that ran from the pool of water, he would come across civilization and soon would return home.

Shedding his clothing, he stepped onto the bank and attempted not to grimace when his feet, now calloused and bruised, sunk into the mud. However, unable to take standing exposed and venerable, he slowly descended into the water, ignoring the chill that coursed through his body.

Dipping his head into the water, he ran his fingers through his hair and wondered why the water was so unpolluted. He couldn't even see any signs of insects or fish -not that he particularly wanted to. Having been raised as a Prince, he liked his fish dead and insects non-existent.

After deciding he was cleansed, he was prepared to leave when what appeared like a small log descended from the waterfall and crashed into the water below. He would have ignored it had it not been for the hand that broke out of the water second later and shocked, Seto found himself backing up, to his chagrin.

With the first hand came a head and then the log, animal, mermaid (?) simply lay there. From what he could see, whiteness flowed from the creature like mythical wings but when he noticed a splash of redness spreading out like fire, he realized that it was human. Before he could fully comprehend what had happened to this person, the body began to sink, crumbling from the middle and descending into the darkness below.

Unable to stand around idly, the King leapt forward and plunged deeper into the water. He struggled slightly to prevent himself from sinking but soon remembrance of years-old tactics returned to him and he naturally tread the water.

There were still bubbles surfacing from the area the person had sunk beneath and when reaching it, he plunged down further, his palms together and streaming forward. In the blackness, he couldn't see anything and panicked when his breath became short. However, he refused to allow himself to give up. If people gave up, then perhaps he wouldn't be alive right now.

The opal hint of flesh caught his attention and forcing himself, he reached out and tried to grasp the limb. There were several failures at his attempt but he finally managed to grasp the wrist of the individual.

Easily, he swam up and somewhat selfishly, took a deep gulp of air before attending to the person he was clasping around the waist.

Instantly, he started, almost dropping her in the process.

"You idiot," he muttered, lightly grasping her chin between his thumb and forefinger and attempting to summon a sign of life within her. Her skin was deathly pale, completely drained of blood and containing hints of light blue around the lips and near her temples.

Quickly, King Seto swam to land and placed her on the ground. He could feel himself shaking as he placed a hand to her chest to feel the beat of her heart and when there was nothing, he grasped her by the shoulders.

"Mai! Mai!" he cried out, as if his voice could return her soul from the dead. Her head simply lolled back like a doll's. Suddenly, the horrid dream that had infected his mind by Pegasus returned to him. Consumed by fear, the King lifted her up by the waist and then draped her over his shoulder, planning to seek Pegasus's cottage (if any help for that matter) with her on his back. If that man knew Majik, then he certainly would have the capability to bring the Princess back to life. He would make sure of it.

He was heading to the direction where his clothes lay (he did have a sense of decency, which unfortunately did take precedence over Mai's well-being) when there was an undetected coughing.

Serenity had awoken, the water driven from her lungs from her vertical, upside-down positioning. Through some more violent coughs, more water was expelled and she wondered where she was. Opening her eyes fully, she was greeted with the rear-end of an individual, which promptly caused her to start screaming.

King Seto, realizing the horrific scene that was unfolding, dropped Serenity on her head and dashed toward his clothing and then into the forest. Luckily for both of them, Serenity hadn't seen anything else, having been nursing the head she had been dropped on. A few moments later, the King emerged, dressed up to his waist and carrying his tunic.

"How the hell did you end up where you were?" he demanded, tossing the tunic to her. It fell onto her lap and her hands unconsciously clutched it. "I feared you had perished."

"...You saved me...?" Serenity breathlessly asked, staring at him with a dazed bewilderment.

"Who else?"

Instantly, she flushed crimson, remembering what she had seen when her eyes had opened. Unable to stand the truth, she buried her face into the tunic, uncertain when she could have the courage to lift her head again. The King merely snorted at her actions, folding his arms and casting her a look of disdain.

"How long are you going to sit there?" he demanded. "Put on the tunic and then let us be going."

How easily he forgets our dispute...Serenity thought, standing up slowly. When she looked at the King, she noticed his eyes move down her body and then his cheeks turned red before he scoffed and turned his head the other way. Wondering what had caused his discomfort, Serenity glanced down and realized her gown had been completely soaked through and the fabric had become transparent. She released a strangled gasp and in a similar fashion to the King, dashed into the forest.

As much as she hated it, she rid of her gown and slipped into the tunic, which was only slightly too large for her. The hem luckily reached down a few inches above her knees and when she tightened the chord around her waist, she had a scantily dress that would cause anyone to blush.

Stepping out, she hid partially behind a tree, feeling tears of embarrassment grace her eyes. How could she possibly go on like this? No one had seen her legs, especially to this extent! She pulled at the bottom of the tunic, only resulting in the neckline moving further down. It didn't help that the King was bare to the waist -she had never seen a man's uncovered chest before and knew that their current states were wrong and examples of indecency.

"I cannot do this!" she cried out, sitting on the ground and using the bottom of the tunic to cover her drawn-up legs. There was rustling and crunching of branches as the King made his way to her and she cried out when he grabbed her wrist and forced her to her feet. Startled, she fell against him and then struggled to free herself from his grasp. Strange flashes of heat and jolts ran through her body when her hands fell against his bare chest and she squeezed her eyes tightly, wondering what was wrong with her.

"Stop this at once, Mai," he demanded in a stony tone. "There is no one here to snatch your pride from you."

"But you-"

"I hardly care."

He remained true to his words. While they walked, he didn't look at her, although she kept stealing glances at him (her eyes notably remaining on his face). His expression was continually stagnant and she wondered what he thought about and whether his cerulean eyes ever became vibrant. Smiling, she concluded that if he ever smiled, it would be beautiful. He was a fine featured man, blessed with a beautiful mother's looks, and she had a feeling that although he tried to put up an act of being a hostile monarch, he was actually a very kind hearted man.

"What is it?" he suddenly asked, finally looking at her.

Caught off guard, Serenity missed the tree in front of her and would have smacked into it had it not been for the King stretching out his arm and stopping her by the neck.

"You're clumsy," he stated, his mouth never bearing a trace of emotion. Serenity blushed, yet found herself smiling and she gave a nervous laugh.

"Not like a Princess, right?"

Seto contemplated for a moment before shrugging lightly. "If you believe that is what a Princess shouldn't be."

"What do you believe a Princess should be?" she asked, slightly wearily; however, her curiosity burned within her and suddenly, she forgot about everything they had been through and would encounter. This man fascinated her -he represented the life she should have never known, and yet... he seemed less simulated and more... real.

Real. Of course, what had he been before? Someone she could look at, talk to, but never touch. But when their flesh met, he was warm and she wished he would encase her within his arms.

She stopped walking suddenly with the thought and it was then that the King answered her question.

"A Princess should be human," he stated, turning around and not surprised to see Serenity stagnant. "Not trained by nurses and tutors to speak like a book, but with her own thoughts and ungoverned by anyone else."

"Of course..." Serenity found herself saying, trying to fight the feelings of hope and something else that had bubbled within her. It caused her heart to pound and face to flush, and suddenly, she couldn't think straight.

King Seto had to be a brother figure for her, she told herself, staring at the King's vacant countenance. He saved her, he looked out for her; therefore, he was nothing more. The reason she felt so strange was because they weren't blood related, not to mention that she was duping him.

"Are you ill?" he asked and she shook her head. Before she realized what she was saying, her thoughts escaped through her mouth, "Do you love me?"

There was no hesitation on the King's part. "No."

His answer should have placed relief within her, but instead she fell into further distress. She couldn't continue this charade any longer. This man didn't love her, and yet he was forcing himself to suffer on her part because he believed she was Princess Mai. She simply couldn't do this to him.

"There is something I must... I must tell you..." Serenity said, her voice breaking as her eyes filled with tears. The back of her throat was suddenly constricted with fear and she couldn't stop trembling. The King looked down at her, hardly moved by her emotional distress.

"Yes?"

She caught his gaze with her own, his eyes seeming darker than usual. "I'm not who you think I am."

His eyes narrowed; now they had become black pits. He stood silent, waiting for her to continue.

After taking in a few deep breaths, she clasped her hands together and prayed silently to God to let her live long enough to save her brother and Mai. She would die soon after, anyway.

"I'm not... I'm not..."

She was, however, cut off by the King's eyes widening and he hurried to her. Placing his hand over her mouth, King Seto wrapped his arm tightly around her waist and drew her close to his body.

"Shut up," he hissed. "There's someone here."


a/n: Damn, my eyes hurt. This chapter was certainly longer than the rest, mainly because I'm finally getting into the main premise of the plot. So, how badly do you guys want the next chapter...? Am I actually going anywhere with this? Should I rather spend my time studying/sleeping/socializing/gaming? The call is yours. Just click that rectangular button down there. Btw, two extra notes: thank Gackt for this chapter. His godly appearance inspired me to finish it -and check out my profile. If you haven't heard, we're hosting a certain contest...

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