Even in the darkest night—

I know that you will find me.

Kaoru Kamiya stared wide-eyed at the man with flames for hair standing a mere breath away. Her breath hitched within the confines of her throat, which suddenly seemed far too tight for air to pass through. For a second, she considered the option of breaking down into unbecoming screams—a foolhardy bellow that never did do much for solving anything, except perhaps, make the culprit of the noise feel a tad better. Swallowing the air that was pressing uncomfortably against her throat, Kaoru Kamiya stared up defiantly at the man who was adorning a look of perfect amusement; his smug silence speaking louder than any taunting boasts thrown at her in the past. Kaoru did the only thing she could think of to do.

She whacked him. A good hard smack that landed in a satisfying "poof" against the fine embroidered layers of the Marquis' elegant outfit.

"WHAT are you doing here?" She demanded, looking every bit as impetuous as the nobleman standing before her. As if she hadn't made a bet with him. As if he hadn't won that bet because he was standing right before her.

Kenshin looked mildly startled, a fleeting expression that was quickly replaced by a dubious raise of his brows. The effect of it, devastating in the waning dusk as his smoldering eyes trapped the retreating rays of sun—magnifying the molten gold.

"I beg your pardon?"

"You heard me," Kaoru snapped, planting her hands on her hips in her most threatening fashion. "What are you doing here?"

Kenshin had the audacity to look amused.

"Well my Lady Kaoru," He began reasonably, tilting his head to one side as if he was in the midst of heavy contemplation, beautiful eyes surveying the glinting crystals. "I seem to recall something of a bet?" Those gems returned to study her face.

Kaoru scowled, willing black thunderclouds to roll over and darken the sky above—just for dramatic emphasis. After several seconds of futile summoning, when she was quite sure that the weather would simply not comply with her wishes, Kaoru settled for a snooty 'humph,' and a definite—

"It's off."

Kenshin blinked at her, managing an innocently bewildered expression. One that was tainted suspiciously by the knowing look he left lurking about the flints of his eyes.

"What's off?"

"It."

"It what?"

"It."

"The bet?"

"Yes—the bet."

"What? You cannot simply call it off—especially, after I have won it."

"Of course I can!" Kaoru declared, waving a hand as if to dismiss his protest.

Kenshin smirked. "That's very unreasonable of you, Lady Kaoru."

"Nonsense, I am perfectly entitled to nullify this bet."

Kenshin looked dubious. "And why is that?"

"Because," Kaoru explained patiently, "You cheated."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Cheated." Kaoru accused. "C-H-E-A-T-E-D. Cheated." She repeated, just in case he wasn't clear about it the first time around, or was incapable of spelling the word. "It is quite obvious."

Kenshin tilted his head. "Is it?"

"It is." Kaoru announced resolutely, crossing her arms over her chest to show her disapproval at the man's underhanded methods.

Kenshin felt the beginnings of a smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth, but manfully refrained from indulging in his amusement at the woman's ridiculous logic.

"I see." He finally said, careful to drive away any hints of expression. Prowling forward with deliberate care, he was pleased to see Kaoru flinch, her expressive eyes wary at his advance. Watching her, the Marquis didn't fail to notice the way Lady Kaoru Kamiya tensed her shoulders, straightening them in defiance. The angles of her face turned up against the light, intent on bullying him into submission. For a moment, he hesitated, the feeling of familiarity tugging incessantly at the recesses of his mind—willing him to remember.

If he hadn't known better he could have sworn he had seen those eyes, that stance, somewhere else before.

Leaning forward rakishly, he purred, soft and husky. "I assure you my lady, I did not cheat."

Kaoru irritably swallowed the lump that had lodged itself uncooperatively in her throat, impairing her ability to take in air, much less ramble indecent curses at the man invading her personal space. There was something remarkably unsettling about the way this Marquis of Drakgon carried himself. His natural confidence and assured sensuality was far too smooth for her taste. Kaoru scowled unhappily, deciding that it was definitely unfair for the man to also possess such good looks. It would have been better for the fairer sex if he had been a tad plumper and far less devastating.

Kaoru Kamiya jabbed a finger into his chest-- pleased to see the briefest look of startlement flicker upon the Marquis face.

Kenshin looked down at the milk white digit poking furiously into his chest, not remembering if there had ever been a time that he was poked or prodded without his consent. And not remembering that he had ever given that consent. Grabbing that hand easily within one of his own, Kenshin pulled Kaoru towards him, effectively ending her assault as her feminine frame crashed into his masculine one.

Kaoru Kamiya let out a small yelp of surprise, as she blinked into the folds of Kenshin's shirt. Suddenly aware of how intimidating he was, and how very much secluded they were within the confines of a very elusive garden. Jerking away from him, Kaoru glared fiercely at the man standing before her.

"Of course you cheated." Kaoru scowled cattily, flushed and intent upon staying on topic. "How else did you find me? You could not have possibly discovered the center in such a short amount of time."

Kenshin grinned unrepentantly. "Perhaps, I just have an amazing sense of directions."

Kaoru snorted, unconvinced. "I don't know how you cheated, but you did. You can't be here, its not possible. You're not here."

"Of course I'm here."

"But you shouldn't be."

"But the fact remains, I am standing here."

"Well it doesn't count." Kaoru announced.

Kenshin tilted his head. "Because I cheated?"

"That's right."

"Suppose I tell you how I got to the center? Would you honor the bet then?"

Kaoru looked at the man before her testily. "Certainly."

Tapping her foot impatiently, she shot him a vaguely annoyed look. "Well?"

The Marquis rubbed the bridge of his nose thoughtfully, turning to look at the hedges with a wry expression. Kaoru had a sneaking suspicion that he was laughing—which most definitely did not amuse her.

"You see those hedges there?" Kenshin began, waving his hand expansively. Kaoru followed his line of vision testily.

"Yes—rather hard to miss mi'lord. It does, after all, make up the entire structure of the maze gardens."

Kenshin raised his brow at her, a clear indication that he didn't very much appreciate her sarcasm. "Does it? I hardly noticed— rather difficult to notice the scenery when you're leaping over it."

Molten gold slid craftily towards the girl who was blinking with something akin to startlement. "Don't you agree Lady Kaoru?"

Kaoru narrowed her eyes. "Are you trying to tell me—sir—that you LEAPT over the hedges?"

"Yes." Kenshin grinned bemusedly. "It was quite simple actually, to follow your trail. You smell distinctly of jasmine my dear, and --" He tapped a long and graceful finger to the tip of his nose, giving her a sidelong look. "I have an amazing sense of smell."

Kaoru was nothing short of flabbergasted-- a small sentiment she was not willing to share with the nobleman standing so smugly before her. It occurred to her to call him a liar or at the very least a bloodhound, but it seemed rather a moot point. After all, he was standing right before her, and he must have gotten there somehow. Besides, his leaping over the entire maze made slightly more sense than use of sorcery.

But only slightly more.

Had Kaoru not seen, with her very own eyes, the Marquis of Drakgon's gravity defying leaps when he towered victoriously over the ridiculous Earl, she might have been inclined to chase the man around with a broomstick until he gave a much more believable answer. As it was she could only tilt her head, tapping her chin lightly with her forefinger.

"I see."

Kenshin blinked at the young woman. That was it? 'I see?' No rant? No awe inspired outcry?

"That's it?"

The young woman looked at him sweetly, surely a bad sign -- if the Earl's misfortune with the chair was any indication of future events to come.

"Yes that's it. You win—I'm a very reasonable person my lord I assure you."

Kenshin narrowed his eyes suspiciously at the young woman. If that was all the fight the youngest daughter of the Thousand Cranes intended to offer, then he had surely overestimated her legendary abilities. Golden eyes surveyed the serene look of contentment upon her face.

"Oh don't look so guarded my lord—I assure you, I'll let you court my dear sister. In fact," Kaoru smiled, a slight tilt of her lips that curved in an amazingly fascinating manner. "I shall even set up the occasion for you."

Kaoru cleared her throat, as if she were to announce something exceedingly important. "How does tomorrow night abode for you my lord?"

Kenshin regarded the young woman thoughtfully, deciding that--although he was quite unsure what game the chit was playing—he certainly wasn't going to lose. Flashing her, his most devastating—melt-into-a-puddle-for-me- grin he replied—

"Tomorrow night is terrible."

Kenshin hid his smug smile as he saw the amiable patience of the fire spitting sprite waver.

"I see-- " She frowned. "No, actually I don't. Why pray tell is tomorrow night terrible?"

Er—Kenshin racked his brain for a suitable reply—what did make tomorrow so terrible indeed? Apparently his reply wasn't terribly well thought out—no pun intended of course.

"Tomorrow I'm to develop a serious hacking cough that I will not be rid of until the following morning."

Kaoru stifled something that sounded strangely like a strangled cat. Straightening her face with decidedly admirable speed she replied.

"I see. That sounds serious."

"It is most serious." Kenshin agreed readily.

"Very well—I will whip up a miracle cure for you this very night." Kaoru nodded. "I'm a bit of an expert on medicine."

Kenshin snorted. "Of that I have no doubt."

Kaoru shrugged. "And if I'm not, I shall have plenty of practice on you, every aspiring expert must start somewhere they always say."

"Who always says?"

"Er—they." Kaoru nodded, walking backwards.

"They who?"

"They who would want you cured of your future hacking cough mi'lord."

Kenshin raised his brow. "How very thoughtful of them."

Kaoru nodded. "So tomorrow night it is then! I shall inform my sister- she will be so pleased."

With that impertinent sentiment, Kaoru turned and dashed off towards the exit of the maze, a crafty smirk hidden in the shadows playing upon her face.

Tomorrow night indeed…


"You incompetent wench! Give me that!"

"I'm so sorry! Please forgive me my Lady Takani!"

The young girl winced as the silver embroidered comb was sharply snatched from her fingers. Leaving her startled glance to bear the full weight of livid emeralds.

A slap resounded through the chamber.

"A lowly maid such as yourself shall never look me in the eye! Your eyes are meant only to see the ground and my feet! Is that understood?" Megumi Takani's irate tone echoed in the dead silence of the room.

"Of course my lady," the girl sniffled a reply, in great attempts to hold the flood of tears that were sure to come the instant she was out of sight.

Disdain lined Megumi's face as she watched the new maid attempt to curb the sounds of her sniffling. She had all but a handful of competent maids running her entire estate.

The Vulpinyre Estate.

Home of Lord and Lady Takani, that is— until the untimely death of them both. A dark scowl crossed her features. They had left her, their only child, to manage the Vulpinyre Estate at the tender age of twelve.

"Leave me."

Needing no further incentive, the young maid gathered up her grey-skirt and fled from the chamber.

Startling green eyes glanced lovingly at the simple yet elegant silver comb lying benignly within her hands. Her mother's comb which held enough sentiments with her that she hadn't – it didn't matter anyway. She had decided to keep it, and that was that.

One pale finger ran along the intricate design until it met with the source of the maid's error, one long dark strand of forest-black hair. Plucking it from the delicate prongs, she took a seat upon the plush chair facing her vanity table. Running the spines of the comb gently through her raven hair, she was interrupted by the gentle rapping upon her door.

"If it is nothing important Marie, leave me."

The only response however was the dull clicking sound as the door opened to reveal a woman well pass her prime.

"I believe my little fox is irate."

The only other person that she allowed to call her fox aside from the rooster-head, well, then again, Sano never really had her permission, but that was a moot point. Marie, the wonderful aging woman, had taken her under her caring wing when her mother had passed away. She was possibly the world's best housekeeper.

An exasperated sigh escaped from Megumi as she waved her arm dramatically across her forehead, "The Vulpinyre Estate is on a rapid decline."

"Did someone tear your lovely hair again?"

Megumi scowled at Marie, as if that single strand of hair that had been previously stuck in her comb had been the source of all her anger, all her distress.

"What's the matter my little fox? Did some blindingly handsome gentleman suddenly become struck with mental derangement and refuse to dance with you at the debut?"

Megumi arched a refined eyebrow, "Marie, no blindingly handsome gentleman has ever refused to dance with me, mental derangement or not."

Marie had the audacity to laugh as she took the comb from her hand. "Of course not my little fox. Who could resist your persistent charms?"

"No one."

A contented purr escaped from her lips as she felt Marie's sure and gentle strokes fall into slow rhythm. As the spines slid through her silken hair in a soft caress, she let her mind drift to the events of that night at the debut.

She was practically glaring holes into the back of the woman who had so begged for pardon and "inconspicuously" cut in as the soft sounds of the next dance began to drift across the ballroom. As she was whisked away by another gentleman she was hoping that the girl's dress would suddenly catch fire.

A chuckle broke her through her reverie, "I'm hurt Fox. Certainly I am more pleasing to the eye than that Marquis."

"I think I may go blind."

"I never knew that the shine factor of my charm was so potent."

Sano tipped his head back and let out a throaty laugh as she had all but fairly growled at him. Her forest-green gems narrowing dangerously upon his person as she spoke in clipped tones, "What do you want Sano?"

"Why I think I may be insulted my 'lady', I was only seeking the pleasure of your company–OUCH!"

Sano grimaced as he fought the overwhelming urge to grab his affronted foot that she had non-too-gently deemed the largest bug she had ever seen and proceeded to stomp on with her amazingly sharp heel.

"The pleasure is all mine my Lord," she responded smoothly as she glided away from him.

Leaving the wounded man to tend to his damaged foot in the middle of the dance floor, she let her gaze peruse over the crowd for a certain red-headed Marquis as she took a small sip from her lemonade. A certain red-headed Marquis who was also conveniently very wealthy, and devastatingly handsome.

She frowned as the only red apparent on the dance floor were the twirling silks of a few debutantes.

Where in the devil was that man?

Her gaze darkened upon the surface of her vanity table, the last she saw of the Marquis of Drakgon was when that simpering debutante had cut in, and cut her short of her dance with the handsome lord. The event had finished with the distasteful rumor that the Marquis was seen with 'a vision of beauty.'

Vision of beauty indeed. If said 'vision of beauty' wasn't her, then the woman certainly wasn't a vision, and unquestionably wasn't a beauty.

"I shall leave you to your musings," Marie said as she patted Megumi's shoulder softly.

"Thank you Marie."

The old woman only smiled gently and left the room.

Her gaze returned to the vanity table, upon which, sat a cream-colored envelope. Long, elegant fingers slipped a dull blade beneath the wax seal of the Thousand Cranes, opening the envelope to pull forth a simple, yet beautiful card.

It was an invitation to the Kamiya Spring Ball, a ball to rival that of the famous London event that featured the season's debutantes.

A crafty smile danced across painted lips; it was also where the diamond of the first water was usually acknowledged among the men. Meaning, there will also be a hideously large amount of aristocratic gentleman present. Most of whom possessed titles. Most of whom were still very attainable and wealthy bachelors. But more importantly, the Marquis of Drakgon would undoubtedly show face—and he was certainly one fish she intended to spear for herself.

And perhaps, she might even meet the woman that had the debutantes fanning themselves silly with distress, and men charmed beyond redemption.

She turned over the vanilla card— yes, she was certainly eager to meet this Tomoe Kamiya.